Lost and Safe

“You’re just a canny lad who finds life really hard, aren’t you?” was the Geordie assessment of my character on Monday. Hardly the conclusion I expected from an hour with a therapist, but I’ll take it all the same. He’s not wrong, I hope.

Still, this internal life of writing where I dwell for the moment, if only to build back my inner resources, my tolerance for myself… It’s not really the life I want, just the one I have.

I remember having a conversation with my ex towards the end of our relationship, although we didn’t know just how close the end really was. She found my incessant writing habit annoying, for sure. She’d often express her frustrations with my pensiveness and the constant sound of fingers clacking at a keyboard. One day I jokingly told her to lay off — I was content (or trying to be).

“I’ve got quite a vibrant inner life, you know!”

“Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I am looking for in a partner — a vibrant inner life.”

We howled with laughter together then, and again and again. Then the truth of it all set in.

The heat in London was overwhelming. I have painfully declimatised since living there. But even for those more used to it, it seems exceptionally oppressive.

It was a fleeting visit — lunch with Tariq and a wander around some bookshops, perhaps — but one so hot that the only tolerable activity, after Tariq and I parted ways, was hydrating under the shady awning of a nearby pub.

So far, so English — my main preoccupation being the weather — but it had a peculiar psychosomatic effect. I was sweating profusely, emotions leaking out of my pores — that familiar note of cortisol coming to dominate my scent. On my own again, my anxiety bubbles over. I am tired too, after another long night of fighting off a manic impulsivity, and the fear returns as I think about the behaviours I have fought to keep at bay. Again, nothing so drastic as a few weeks previously. What I’m seeking out is a high frequency of reckless fun. Although the fun is ephemeral, really. Only chased. All I’m really doing is insisting on giving myself regrets. Self-harm is exchanged for self-sabotage.

Fear and fearlessness are at combustive loggerheads. I just want to feel stable. But as I go into the bathroom to splash my face with cold water — both to cool down and to shock myself out of my current mood; a cold water shock being a recommended coping strategy from medical professionals — I am met by a figure who looks disturbingly how I feel. My hair a humid helmet, my eyes sunken and bloodshot, my skin clammy. Heat-fried head mirrors heat-fucked mind.

I pick up Alice Hattrick’s Ill Feelings from Daunt Books. It is too hot to concentrate on reading it for long but I enjoy the first few observations offered up on illness, via her mother’s clinical chronicling of her own medical history and the apparent paradox of writing a literature for such a topic. She quotes Virginia Woolf, who describes illness as “the great confessional”, but also the ways that language often dries up when one tries to explain one’s own feelings to a doctor or peer.

It may seem I am rapturously confessional at the moment, with the dam on language burst, but in truth I feel distinctly less articulate than I might usually be.

Just a few months ago, in talking to a new friend about life’s various misfortunes and the perpetual difficulty, in sickness and in health, of negotiating trauma, I was complimented on my emotional intelligence and maturity. Now unwell, I feel I have lost this, as feelings flare up irrationally like a child’s. Any attempt to narrate this process feels like a desperate exercise of my collapsing faculties, each stream of daily words taking on a role not dissimilar to a word game played by a dementia patient, strengthening the weakened pathways of an ailing mind.

Tariq pointed out my reliance on the word “unwell”, spoken with the same emphasis and cadence by others my age as well, he noticed. There is certainly a more conscious use of the word that I’ve heard enter our lexicon, perhaps as a way of bridging the word’s arguably closer association with physical health and conjoining it with the mental. It feels like a way of normalising mental ill-health, whilst avoiding the stigma of specific diagnoses, making it a strangely direct sort of euphemism.

On my way home, I picked up Summer by Edith Wharton from the WHSmith’s at King’s Cross station — a somewhat rare example of a female adoptee fleeing an abusive patriarch, then patriarchy altogether. Literature of lines of flight. I start reading but still cannot concentrate. I start people watching, start to feel inhuman, spectral; start to look for places I can go in the next half-hour to have reckless fun. I catch myself plotting routes to Camden, gambling on the idea I could miss my train back to Newcastle, spending more of my money and dignity than I can afford.

I ring the crisis team. They tell me to watch some videos on breathing exercises on YouTube. A friend calls and talks me round. I feel my vocal chords stumble in stark vibrato, my tongue twisted, as every impulse is captured in my throat.

My old therapist noticed this in our very first session: I trap my feelings in my throat, keeping body and mind apart over a gulf. I imagine my vocal chords like a web of strings, like a dreamcatcher, seizing upon every emotion as it is verbalised, so as not to pass violently into thought or body, held in a liminal space of language in between.

There is a little child in my head running riot off the leash. I feel like a first-time parent, struggling to calm a tantrum; overtired, fraying at the edges, willing to give into any impulse, no matter how stupid, if it will just stop the crying. A nightmare in a supermarket aisle of the mind.

Sod the breathing exercises; I decided to listen to The Books to calm down. “A Little Longing Goes Away”, the opening track on their 2005 album Lost and Safe, feels like the perfect salve as soon as it begins. A favourite album of mine ever since it first came out, only now do the lyrics take on a profound resonance.

Yes and no are just distinguished by
Distinction, so we choose the in-between.
Give up your books and put an end
To your worries. Enjoy Central Park in spring.
Our minds are empty, like we’re too young
To know to smile.
We know to fear what others fear
Is nonsense, right?

The books suggest we set our hearts
On doing nothing,
And then nothing’s left undone.
Everybody’s busy waiting for the go-ahead,
But by then their heads are gone.
Our minds are empty, grave as well as
Strange. (Take this.)
We know to seek success is utter nonsense,
The best is to be blank.

Even the album title, so familiar, feels like a brand-new mantra.

Lost and safe is all I hope to be. When I first got here, to Newcastle, I felt newly found. Was I really? I’m not sure. But it is something I need to stop aspiring to. The idea of being found is a powerful thing, but unhelpful. If it doesn’t work out, I am devastated beyond reason. To become lost again is unbearable. But being lost, affirmed as a state of being, is something so many people wish for, and for good reason. Lost and safe. Flight without panic.

On the train home, I see lonely deer standing in fields as we cut our way direct up Britain’s sternum. My favourite sight. Something like that.

Leave a Reply