365 days watching me decay

A year ago, you got on a train to Guildford and sat on the steps outside a pub, with a ginger girl you’d matched with two weeks earlier on Tinder. You didn’t know then that I was mad. Would you take it back now? Go north to London after work that night instead of south to me?

I broke the rules of dating-in-2017 and spoke to you first. IMG-2688We’d matched somewhere before; hardly anybody seems new on apps these days. We talked about High Fidelity and Springsteen and The Graduate, and two weeks later we were sat on the ground, finalising our top 10 songs of all time. That first time I heard your Sheffield accent, it was broader than it is now. I suppose that must be a trick of memory, or maybe I’ve just become more accustomed to it since your vowels have corrupted mine. You kissed me on the way to get dinner, we drank whisky until the pub closed, and that was it, the last first date.

I liked dating, generally. I can do first dates. I’m the tiniest bit too loud, too fast, too drunk, too manic, too eager to appear fun, compensating for everything inside, but I can survive them without too much anxiety. I was that way with you, unrestrained and unapologetic. I don’t remember when or how I first told you I was unwell. There were allusions in those early days, passing comments where I was breezy and made out it was no big deal. We never had A Talk because I didn’t want to give it weight. I love those first days of not being this girl, pretending I can keep living that life. I don’t know when you first realised what you had taken on.

Maybe it was 2nd June. I know the date of the first meltdown. Why is it this the anniversary I’ve committed to memory? I had to look up the day we matched, check a calendar for our first date, plot the days and weeks for the dates that followed and the first night I abandoned my car in a multistory in Surrey to stay with you in London. 2nd June, instant recall. I don’t know what triggered the panic attacks but sat in a Camden pub on a Friday night, I was too quiet. You hadn’t learnt yet how many meanings could be translated from quiet. You would become fluent in time. Now you know that quiet means peace, that quiet means contentment, but that quiet is the eye of a storm, that in quiet I’m waiting to implode and disappear into myself.

That night on the northern line, I crumbled away in front of you somewhere near Warren Street. It was the first time I ran from you, back up to the surface and you followed at a distance as I stalked around unfamiliar streets unsure what to do next, unable to breathe. I knew that night you would leave me. Of course you would. Not even two months in and you were witnessing the full extent of my irrational panic for the first time. A terrified girl you barely knew, running through the city in the dark. It took us three different tubes down one stretch of track to make it back to south London. The following morning I asked resignedly if that was it, if we were done. You laughed and said of course not, that these things happen. Oh god, these things would happen.

Six weeks later, I decided I loved you in a cinema in Wandsworth. You were about to walk across the Lake District and I’d dutifully accompanied you to buy supplies. A friend phoned to advise you on walking shoes and you said “I’m just with Alix. My girlfriend. You haven’t met her yet.” It was the first time I’d heard you say to someone else that I was your girlfriend, and while we watched Planet of the Apes (your pick, I presume), I watched you. I’d never seen somebody able to lounge and twist so much in a cinema seat, like a monkey yourself, and the whole way through, you didn’t let go of me. You never broke contact. How could I not love you? A girl so terrified of being left, with a boy who couldn’t seem to let go.

There have been so many days where I’ve cried and told you to go, desperately wanting you to stay. I always want you to stay; it’s just easier to think this will end on my terms. Only love can break your heart, as Neil Young sings. Sometimes I need the space to breathe, sometimes I need you to hold me tighter to you, and so you make your guess. We don’t have a failsafe answer and even you for my love, I don’t have enough words to explain what is happening to me and what you should do. Some days I fear it’s an impossible test that neither of us can pass and I despise myself for setting it.

We settled into a routine over summer, and life could have become easy, so I left my job. I came back to law and to working in London, things I’d swore I would never do again. I got worn down by the commute and moved here. I knew I was coming back. Not from the moment we met, but from far earlier than was practical. On the day that I moved, I closed the front door behind me and within 30 minutes the phone rang. Ripley was gone. I immediately got darker. That night was the opposite of my first-date-self with everything you don’t want me to be at its most heightened state. In the weeks after her funeral, I would lie awake until the early hours, sobbing until I was exhausted and telling you I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. How could there be any point in a world where cancer will rob a two-year-old of the years ahead. You offered to come to the funeral, or to therapy with me if I needed; was that a thing we could do you asked?

My mental health diagnosis shifted, both our careers got tougher, we struggled on. We kept working towards arbitrary dates, time after time when things would notionally be better. Every time we arrived, a new set of challenges meant the world fell away from under me. It’s always me that falters. In the toughest moments, I repeatedly told you to go. You’ve had long dark conversations with a girl who is not quite me, a shadow version of myself, and I’ve watched her try to tear us apart like an out of body experience. The next morning you’ve had the rational version of the same conversations with me. You’ve repeatedly told me you’re staying.

A whistlestop tour of how my broken brain has affected us reads as a calamity, but there have been far more days where you’ve been in a relationship with me than days where the relationship is with my illness. We’ve gone on road trips and sung Thunder Road. We’ve taken ridiculous photos with alpacas. I’ve twirled around on the Southbank under the lights and scrambled down onto the shore in the dark with you. You took me to Bristol in the snow and walked for miles in a city where everything had stopped. We’ve stayed up until the early hours with one earphone each, challenging each other to the next line of Dylan lyrics; Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts the impossible challenge. We’ve watched the sunset over the Lidl, which you assure me is the finest view in all of south London. You have made me laugh and laugh and laugh until I’m in pain. I have a hundred other moments I could recount where I have been amazed at the depth of my love for you. But there are dark parts of my mind that are an unwanted third party and a shadow, an ex, a mistress, a threat.

You will never understand; my practical, enduring, wonderful Yorkshireman. You worry about things later, always later. To your complete astoundment, I will worry about wild hypotheticals based on hypotheticals. I would claim you’re unemotional but really that’s hugely unfair to you, I’m just effusive and that gap in our styles is frustratingly marked. Every occasion, every card, is an opportunity for me. A declaration. A reminder. A reparation. A compensation, that in giving you so many words on how I feel, it can somehow make up for all the times I have no words and can’t explain at all.

I tried to tell you about kintsugi once, on an early date in the British Museum. How they fixed the cracks with gold lacquer so the repairs became part of the history and the strange beauty of broken things. I wanted you to love a broken thing and now you do. I don’t know where we go next. (Lisbon, soon, is the literal answer). We can’t weather my storm forever. I need to get better but can never “get better”. You have been a wonder, and I love you with all the madness in my soul. One of the Boss’s more romantic lyrics, not like that travesty in Thunder Road. Happy anniversary darling.

What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth, and by this measure I was having one of the best dates of my life.

High Fidelity (the screenplay, not the book although I have since given you the book and you said you enjoyed it)

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Comfort Food: Sputnik Sweetheart

And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing. – Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart

And I am done with my graceless heart, so tonight I’m going to cut it out and then restart

9 months on and I still can’t walk past your office. I tried today. I went to an interview in the City that I think went well. Spring looked like it might finally be arriving in London and so I walked back to the station. It’s been a while since I enjoyed that walk.

And the second I stepped on to the Millennium Bridge and crossed towards the south bank, I felt sick. It was too close to lunch. The risk of crossing paths with you was too great. I should have got the tube. The entire length of the bank, my eyes darted over every passing stranger, absolutely terrified that eventually I was going to lock eyes with you.

When your office came into sight, I started to run. In 3 inch heels. In my smartest interview dress. Sprinting, the sort of effort I can only keep up for a few hundred metres. Damage limitation, the faster I’m past, the less chance of seeing you. Ridiculous really, you might not even work there now.

I’m done with it. This fear, this misery, it ends here. Today.

Are you satisfied with an average life?

I’m having a quarter-life crisis. Again. We shouldn’t worry, I’ve been having a quarter-life crisis approximately every 6 months for the past 5 years. This is not a symptom of anxiety, this is exacerbated by anxiety. Important distinction there – the way I feel is legitimate, the extremes I feel it to is not.

These crises are triggered by any milestones in life, personal or annual. At the moment, I’m not long into a new job, Valentine’s Day has just passed, and I’m about to turn 27. Triple whammy. All these things make me evaluate where I am with my life. I don’t think I’m where I want to be but at the same time, I’m not sure where it is that I want to be so I can’t plan how to get there.

I’m a Senior Business Development Executive at a law firm. This broadly means that I support lawyers in winning new business as well as advising them on how to maintain and strengthen their client relationships. I can’t pretend this is what I’ve dreamt of doing all my life. I’m good at it and I’ve progressed quickly but is this the dream? Shouldn’t there be something…more? Possibly not. I’m not a special snowflake and probably need to find happiness in mediocrity. It’s not that I had particularly grand aspirations. It’s that I’m 26 years old and I still have no ideas about what to be when I grow up.

I had vague aspirations to write. I suppose this counts to some extent. If you want to be a writer, write. My job involves writing (although arguably I did not mean that I wanted to write about why the firm I work for should be selected to give property law advice) and I like that. I’m not quite ignoring that dream, I’m just not realising it either.

Friends are settling into careers rather than jobs. Getting married. Having babies. I have a job I’m not entirely certain about and the rest of my life is equally fluid. I could jack it all in tomorrow and run away to Mexico if the whim struck me. There are days when I love that freedom and days when I despise the lack of things anchoring me while everyone else builds a life. It is of course foolish to compare yourself to others, the lives we portray are to an extent always curated. My ex used to complain that other couples didn’t have our problems. I used to point out that to other people, we didn’t have our problems. So yes, there are the days of desperately envying your gorgeous newborn children and wonderful relationships. But I also appreciate you’re up at 3am for a middle of the night feed while I’m either out dancing or fast asleep and in that instance, I’m happy with my lot.

It’s not wanting what other people have now, not really, it’s the crushing fear of not knowing what’s coming next. I’ve always had this impatient rampant perfectionism, a truly crushing need to be perfect and brilliant at everything and for that to be immediate. The better I naturally am at something, the greater the meltdown when I eventually (and inevitably) hit a challenge. I thought that running would temper the perfectionism. Old friends will confirm that I’m not a natural athlete, school was spent dodging PE lessons and I probably couldn’t run a mile until I was 25. An activity I would be forced to work at (and hard!) to improve was supposed to help me finally realise that not being brilliant immediately was fine, still worth it. I now don’t think too much of running 10 miles on a Sunday as part of my final efforts for Bath Half in March. Still, it all needs to be better and it needs to be now and that is unrealistic. Every bad run is, to me, a punishing failure.

There will always be bad days and they are frustrating and disheartening to everyone. Their effect on me is just too extreme. Today I ran 10 miles. I’ve barely run in 2 weeks (I think I racked up a grand total of about 6km in 14 days – my month in review post should be brief next week!) following a lingering bout of lurgy. Fitness is slightly down. Confidence is dented. I am still recovering. The conditions weren’t great with high winds on the coast so huge portions felt like a battle. I should be overwhelmingly pleased that I managed that distance. It was slow, a little painful but it’s more than I was really expecting to achieve given recent circumstances. But still, I came home and cried because it’s never enough and the more I achieve with my running, the harder it’s becoming for me to accept my current limitations. I need to be faster, to be running further, every bit of training needs to bring with it improvement.

That’s the worry. That nothing is ever enough for me. That I will never be satisfied because there’s always more out there. Most runners experience it to a degree, that need to take a few seconds more off each PB. To take your long run a mile further than ever before. I just don’t find much happiness from achieving those goals because there’s the immediate replacement with harder/better/faster/stronger. Then apply that to every single aspect of my life. If I could only learn to rein this way of thinking in, even the tiniest bit, it would probably flip and become one of my better qualities. There’s a lot of drive and a reasonable amount of ambition firing all this panic and it’s got me a lot of places in life.

It’s okay to feel a bit lost at 26, I know that. So what that I have a job that isn’t what I dreamt of and I now have a couple of very serious but catastrophically failed relationships behind me? So does almost everybody else. This isn’t full-blown panic, but it’s constant gnawing unease that is grating away and consuming a lot of my thoughts. There isn’t much to be done for it. Write more. Run more. Stop leaving jobs and purposefully destroying relationships because I’m worried they’re not quite right. Treat my friends better. Got to stop worrying about everything to the letter.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

All these things that I’ve done

[Written as part of Time to Talk Day, part of the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness]

Post #2 that I wish I didn’t have to write. Everything written so far has been leading up to it. This illness is ugly. It has led me to say terrible things that I never meant and do things that I’ve regretted every day since. I have left jobs, lost friends and destroyed people I love. My anxiety is not an excuse but it is part of an explanation. One of my best friends asked why I was doing this to myself, dragging up the past and putting myself through it all over again. Whilst every fibre of me hates writing this post, it’s important that people recognise the extent of the effect this illness has had on me, just how far I’ve fallen and how much I have lost (almost) entirely at my own hands.

And so, my absolute lowest moments, in chronological order. On a personal level, there were probably worse days than these but these were the destructive days where I broke hearts and lives. To all the players in these tales, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

ONE

It’s summer 2007 and I’m in the middle of my A Levels. The night before a Classics exam, I get too drunk. I know I’m underprepared for the exam and so I’m creating an alternative excuse for everything going wrong. I come home and then leave again in the middle of the night determined to walk a friend home in the pouring rain.

My parents, realising that I’ve left, drive after me and pick me up soaked to the skin, seething at how drunk I am and how stupid I’m being, an exam that will shape my future only hours away. They have never been so angry. There is shouting and swearing and I, in a drunken panicked state become increasingly hysterical and scared about what I have done. In my hysteria, I convince myself that I cannot possibly stay at home. I phone a friend and beg him to pick me up at a ridiculous hour to drive the 20 miles to sixth form.

I wake at 5am, still drunk and sneak downstairs, packed bags in hand. She is leaving home, as The Beatles sang. My mother hears and follows; cue more fighting, more tears and desperate shrieks. I run out of the house and along the road as fast as I can go before darting down a cul-de-sac, sure she is following. She is, I see our car drive past minutes later. I hide in an alcove in a hedge and call my getaway driver.

I phone another friend once I arrive at sixth form, still panicking, but when she passes me over to her mother, I immediately hang up. Adults are the enemy. I receive a barrage of texts from my parents all day, threatening and pleading, desperate for me to take the exam and come home. It is my mother’s 50th birthday. It will be 3 days yet before I go home. This is my first serious episode.

I fail that exam. I don’t completely flunk my A Levels but I don’t do as well as originally expected. I miss my grades for university spectacularly; they let me in anyway. A new chapter of my life starts but it’s not adulthood, it’s vague awareness that something is wrong.

TWO

By summer 2012 I somehow have a law degree, a job as a paralegal, a long term boyfriend and we share a pretty little flat near the sea. We are almost 3 years into this relationship and on paper, our lives are everything we could ask for at 23. Paper and reality differ.

It’s late May and we are fighting. I don’t remember what first started it now. I doubt I remembered by the time we reached this point in the fight. I am hysterical and irrational, struggling for breath, running from room to room in our tiny flat. My boyfriend can’t calm or reason with me. This is by now beyond the realms of an argument. I am a hurricane, a girl possessed and there is nothing to be done but let me rage and wail until I’m so exhausted that I can’t continue. We’ve been here before. We’ve been here too many times before and I am losing him. Usually, I wear myself out and fall into a deep dreamless sleep until the following morning. Today is different though; the rage and confusion and terror are all stronger than they have ever been and I’m showing no signs of burning out.

Eventually, hours in, I collapse in the dark of our hallway, a desolate little figure huddled among coats and shoes. I have stormed out of the flat half a dozen times, returning within minutes, afraid of everything, desperate for my boyfriend to find a way to make this stop. He can’t, he doesn’t even know where to begin. He’s a 23 year old man, living alone with a seriously ill 23 year old girl who can’t provide a single reason as to why she’s in this awful state. How do you begin to fix her? We are both too young for how much pressure I am placing on us.

I sit on the floor of the hallway, still crying, still unable to breathe. I’m slouched against our front door, sapped of energy, knees drawn up to my chest, rocking and muttering like a madwoman. He stands in the doorway to the living room, equally exhausted, and asks what I’m doing. I learn in that moment that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Through the tears, I mumble in sheer desperation that I’m praying and resume muttering a plea to make it all stop. I am not religious but in that moment I truly believe that the only way I can be delivered out of the darkness is by way of a higher power. All other hope is gone.

He can’t make it stop and as expected, there’s no spiritual intervention that saves me. I don’t get better. We don’t know where to start in stopping any of this. We struggle through another unhappy year together. We break up in terrible acrimonious circumstances that end with us despising each other. We both behave badly. The man who was my best friend, who called me his little bear, who bought me what remains my favourite piece of jewellery, who wrote about Christmas in our first home together believing there was a future, is gone.

THREE

I move back home. I quit my job. I slowly start to improve. I move to London. I meet a boy. I have learnt from past experience and on our third date with the man who would become my boyfriend, I tell him absolutely everything. He tells me all his deepest darkest secrets that nobody else knows. A month in, I tell him not to get any more involved with me because I’m too much of a mess and I will end up breaking his heart. He tells me that I’m a beautiful mess and we’ll get through it together. I start falling in love with him in that moment; how can I not? Time passes. It is spring 2015 and we have been together for eight months.

I am better than I was three years ago. I recognise that there’s a problem. I know roughly what is needed to control it. I have a lot of happy days and I’m in love. I have been on an NHS waiting list for therapy for four months and I am two months away from being eligible for private medical insurance at work. I have contacted over 30 therapists in south London and the City, trying to find someone I can afford and with availability but it turns out that all of London needs therapy and my options are limited. We both prefer me off medication and I’m not convinced it helps but I keep experimenting, hoping to find something that will calm me for long enough that I can fix things. I need therapy and I can’t get it and I am despairing. My boyfriend is despairing of me.

We wake up in my flat one Sunday morning, both hungover. We have been at an engagement party the night before for his friend where he had spent the night ignoring me, I had felt alone and once again decided that gin is a coping mechanism. Hungover and sad, I ask him to leave then immediately know this isn’t what I mean to say. We fight, he storms out, I cry, ask him to stay, repeat repeat repeat. He says and does a lot in the space of an hour in that flat that means we are doomed and I can never forgive him. It wouldn’t matter if I could because his cards are then marked and certain of my friends are baying for blood. They still are.

I hate him and don’t want to see him but still I beg him to stay, I cannot be alone. If I’m left alone, I know I will die that afternoon. My brain is not controlling my actions anymore, my little demons of Pain and Panic are acting as puppet masters and I’m watching this all unfold as an out-of-body experience. Bad things are going to happen and I’m going to be helpless to stop them. I ask him to take me to hospital, this has all become too much and now I am afraid of everything and everyone. As soon as I say this, I’m immediately too scared to go to hospital and beg him not to make me go. He hates how indecisive I am when I get like this but he reluctantly stays with me until I calm down and give in to the exhaustion.

We keep trying to make it work and we manage a few more great months together which include some of the best days of my life but are interspersed with more bad moments, although never to the same extent. That awful day in the spring remains in his mind and he can’t quite forgive me for it (although I try my hardest to forgive him for his part in it all); it lingers over everything. We break up and manage two days without speaking to each other before being tearfully reunited. He clings to me that whole night, so glad to have me back and we promise each other we’ll be okay and find a way through this.

A week later, I have one final awful slow-burning panic attack and in having it, I break his heart. We break up. It breaks me. Another week later, I finally start that desperately wanted therapy but it’s too late to help us. I’m that beautiful mess and I get through it completely alone. We muddle through trying to find a way to some sort of friendship for a few months. It’s too hard for either of us and he cuts all contact. It takes that before he manages to break my heart. In the months following, he behaves abysmally on a sporadic basis and I desperately try to cling on to the new-found semblance of stability I have found because I can’t risk being dragged back under.

Fin. A decade of pain and regret. I’m not unique in that, we’ve all made regrettable decisions that have shaped our lives. It’s just that all of mine have the same root cause and I’ve felt powerless throughout. These don’t feel like choices or decisions I made, they feel like tsunamis. I’m too harsh on myself, after years of ruminating on the same disasters. Please know that the other players in these stories are not heroes and I am not the villain – although I’ve perhaps written them that way. I’m my biggest critic but nothing is black and white, we’re all terrible and murky. They did and said terrible, awful, hateful things themselves.

#1 is the story of youthful indiscretion and an only child who always felt too much pressure on her.

#2 is the tale of an incredibly insecure and confused girl who wanted love to be enough to save her. That boyfriend was, at one point, the best man I knew and I believe my mental health in the latter half of our relationship forced him to become a man I didn’t recognise. I hope the years apart from me have restored him. There was so much pain that I can’t remember loving him, yet I think he has a permanent piece of my medium-sized heart. It all remains steeped in hurt and regret. I fear it always will.

#3 isn’t a story about me. It’s about a man with issues of his own, partly projecting them on to me and how the combination of the two of us together amplified my problems to levels they shouldn’t have reached. I will always love him but ultimately he wasn’t happy enough in himself to be loved. Regardless of my mental state, there would have always been another problem he kept in reserve, ready to force on me and unfortunately, I don’t have the resilience to withstand that. I wish I did. I am sad that it happened but I don’t regret my actions in the way I do those first two anecdotes.

None of them the fault of mental illness alone, it has acted as a catalyst on all of them and without it, I suspect there was a very different path to be taken at the end of each these little tales of woe. My life has been subject to anxiety’s choices and I have hated writing this more than I can ever explain.