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I’m not entirely sure when my anxiety started. Does it even matter? One day I was fine, myself, whatever that means, the next I wasn’t. I realise at this moment that I’m simplifying things, but that is what it felt like, as if a switch on a fuse box had tripped inside me. Outside, I was still the same forty-five-year-old man. I’d look in the bathroom mirror and say to myself, there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re fine. My bald head, my trimmed beard, my out-of-control curly eyebrows all seemed the same. But inside, the threads of electricity cable controlling my nervous system had frayed. I was jumpy. Everything was heightened, tight. A tinnitus piercing rang in my ears. An acrid smell of burning filled my nostrils. My heart fluttered uncontrollably. My circuit was corrupted. I was lost.
It wasn’t like things were bad, on the outside that is. What did I have to be anxious about? In September 2019 I’d left a job on my own accord that I’d been in for ten years, with a lump of cash in my back pocket. I’d no longer scoff at the posters in the lift lobby that advertised mental health support. I’d no longer get that knotted pain on the side of my forehead and breathlessness when I’d speak to certain colleagues. I’d no longer sneak in and out of the building using the fire exit through the post room by the loading bay at odd times of the day to avoid being seen. I’d no longer sink into the banquette with the furry material next to the detergent smelling cleaner’s cupboard, hidden down a corridor with flickering overhead lights, away from the crowd, to read, to write or just to play on my phone.
No, things were fine.
I’d recently finished a writing degree and was in the final stages of completing my first book. I am in a beautiful marriage and have two daughters who make me laugh and cry. Our house is an oasis of calm. Natural light floods the open-plan spaces through skylights. Our bare feet are warmed by the wooden floors heated by the sun or the underfloor heating. Tropical plants grow in abundance in the green house atmosphere inside, and fill the courtyard garden outside with lush colour.
We eat well. We drink well. Sometimes, we sleep well.
Was it November, or October last year? I tell myself that it doesn’t matter when this all started. It’s pointless celebrating an anniversary of something that no one else really knows about. But, for the purposes of this piece it does. I need to know that it’s been a year since I thought of suicide. Maybe I want to celebrate; with myself that is. Is that allowed?
And when I say frayed, I was worn out, like a threadbare towel. Outside, my eyelids flickered, my muscles did that thing when they shudder for no reason, my legs were restless. Inside, words spun hysterically in my mind; purpose, help, breath, accident, heart, why, useless, end, fine, suicide, death, final. I never got the chance to welcome these words in. It was as if they had just been there, waiting to scuttle freely around my nervous system, to curdle my mind.
It kicked in.
Let’s call my anxiety it. For the purposes of this. It seems apt.
And like the meaning of the word anxiety, it was strangling me.
So much so that it coursed through my body, making my heart the focus of my attention in a way I’d never thought imaginable. A constant stiff pain sat like a heavy weight behind my ribs. The weight was black, sometimes making it difficult to breathe. I’d lie in bed, I’d sit on the sofa, I’d walk our daughter to school and feel my heart pound like it was trying to escape my body, as a loop-the-loop of the words I didn’t want to hear rattled in my mind. Was everything ending?
Around the same age I am now, my father picked up what he liked to call a ‘dodgy ticker’, as if giving it a name somehow removed his responsibility for it. It became a piece of muscle, an element of his failing, tattered system. Over the years that I grew up with him, his ‘dodgy ticker’ became all of our ‘dodgy tickers’; my mother’s, my sister’s, mine. We lived with his ticker, echoing around us like a distant clock. We lived with his cardiologists; Horgan, Maguire. Tick, tick. We lived with his pills; Zocar, Aspirin, Warfarin. Tick, tick, tick. We lived with his rushed admissions to the hospital; Beaumont, St James, Blackrock, Ballsbridge. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Until once or twice his dodgy ticker sparked, and not in a good way, but he always came home, like a machine given life with a fresh set of batteries.
I also wanted to come back from somewhere with a new set of batteries. Did I need to go some place else? Would escaping help, maybe abroad? I wasn’t sure, and anyway I couldn’t go anywhere. I had commitments. But often when my wife was at work and our daughters at school, I’d lie on the floor of our study, wanting the grain of the wooden floorboards to wrap their fibres around my body, pull at me and sew me into the ground.
What was wrong with me? The more I thought about what I needed, the less I could put my finger on it. The only place my fingers went was on my pulse, gently resting the forefinger and second finger of my left hand, held together on the vein closest to the curved part of my right wrist, just like my father had shown me.
Venice, December 2003. My late twenties. Driving icy rain. Noise bursting from condensation filled bars. Street lights shining the saturated cobbled pavements. Smog. Upstairs in a restaurant, my father and I sat on wooden benches eating Chicchetti, Venetian antipasti and drinking spritz, a smell of fried fish in the air. My father had recently recovered from his latest heart operation; the installation of stents, minuscule scaffolding holding up the arteries to his ‘dodgy ticker’, easing the flow of blood. He told the story of the op with an almost cheery glee, a wide smile across his bristly cheeks, his eyes stretched open searching for attention. I listened, intently, the alcohol of the cocktail fizzing my head. “You’re pale,” he said suddenly. Beat. I looked away. “Look at me,” he said. Beat. “I’ve had this…eh… tachy…eh…cardia,” I hesitated. Beat. He took my cold hand as if congratulating me for joining a club, and then moved his fingers to my wrist, mouthed some numbers while looking at his watch and nodded, before offering me 10mg of Valium as a straightener. Beat. “What are you taking?” he asked. Beat. “Beta-blockers.” Beat. “Good. Keep an eye on it,” he said. As if I could. I had no idea where this rapid heartbeat had come from, a beat so fast that I could barely feel the distant murmur on my wrist. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Like it, it just appeared.
The tachycardia didn’t last long, a few weeks. But I’ve often thought about it, as if it must have left an indelible but invisible scar on my most important muscle. I hadn’t felt it since, until now that is.
November 2019 was cold, grey, still. I’d started swimming outside at the local Lido, hoping the chill would regulate my ticker. After the initial shock of jumping in, the silkiness of the chlorine-infused water would numb my body. Hardly an efficient swimmer, my legs and arms would propel me through scattered leaves, lost goggles and the odd abandoned plaster, cutting through the water. For a while everything seemed clear. Often, I’d stay submerged until I could no longer feel my toes, wondering how long I could last, lost amidst the mist.
What was I anxious about, I repeatedly asked as I swam? I wasn’t, I’d say. I WAS NOT. There’s nothing wrong with you. I’m fine. Look, I can swim in the cold. There was no way I would be one of those people who goes through things like this. That’s for other people, over there somewhere, not here, not me. I’m strong. Look, I left my job. Strong. Look, I have money in the bank. Strong.
Sometimes I thought that I would go under and stay there, amidst the moss and plasters and leaves, and my dodgy ticker would spark like my father’s, but I’d electrocute to death and the lifeguard would have to dive in and drag my sodden body to the bank of the pool. Maybe they’d try to use the defibrillator. Maybe a crowd would watch. Maybe I wanted to lose myself in the mist.
No, there was nothing wrong with me.
I. Was. Fine.
I’d never really thought of the word suicide before. I have a friend whose brother committed suicide, and I had teenage friends who’d tried it. But I’d never come face to face with it, until now. Suicide, from the Latin sui – of oneself, from the term fela-de-se or one who is guiltily concerning oneself. Was I guiltily concerning myself? Was I even worried that all I could think of was myself? Nothing and nobody else registered for that short time. The words, the thoughts, the cajoles, the sweet-talks, end it, end it, end it, just kept pouring into me, a sticky oily slick.
December 12th 2019. The evening of the General Election. I’d emerged from the basement of Housmans Bookshop from my writing group into the dense haze of the Cally Road. There was the usual discussion about where to grab a drink. One or two were keen to head off to post-election wakes. I wanted to get home or get blasted. I wasn’t sure. I stayed for a pint in the crowded Cally Arms, trying to make conversation among the yelps of blokes watching a Europa League match. I emptied the dregs into the back of my throat just as the exit polls lit up Broadcasting House telling us of our impending Tory doom. My phone pulsed with text messages. I ignored them and sauntered to the bus stop, listening to Fontaines DC singing ‘is it too real for ye?’
Things were real, desperately real.
Earlier that day. It was a Thursday. I went as usual to The Refugee Council where I volunteer to help refugees find work. There I’d sit in an office cubicle, no natural light, and run mock interviews and help write application forms. I was doing something purposeful; I’d say to myself. Look. At. Me. And it was fulfilling. Every now and again, I’d hear that my efforts had been helpful, and someone had got a job or a place at university. I’d smile, momentarily, but was often left with a metallic taste of dissatisfaction, as if I was more concerned with myself. What about my job prospects? What was I doing? Why wasn’t someone helping me?
That day I’d interviewed a refugee from Syria, who didn’t really know what he wanted. His skills and experience in finance were strong, but he’d decided that he wanted to work in law. “Why?” I remember asking. “Why not,” he said, as if my question was perverse. “What about that job?” he’d ask as we scrolled through a job’s website. “Oh, yeh, I could do that,” he’d say. As he spoke flecks of saliva flew from his mouth like tiny comets and landed on my keyboard. A mist of sweat seeped through the pores of my forehead, pam pa. My heart began to pound, pam pa, pam pa. And could he not stop spitting, pam pa, pam pa, pam pa, and take my advice and concentrate on a job in finance?
After an hour he left. So did I, my headphones on, gripping my ears, my boots squelching on the sodden leaves that littered the pedestrianised street leading to Stratford train station.
The station was heaving. I stood on platform three waiting for the five past two to Wanstead Park, where I’d walk to Forest Gate, catch a connecting train to Crouch Hill and walk home. Unable to find somewhere to stand away from the crowd, I walked to the end of the platform where the front of the train usually stops. After waiting for a few minutes, my breath shallow, I realised that I hadn’t touched a falafel I’d bought in the market outside the station for lunch. The silver foil heated the palm of my hand, but I was enjoying the pain. I felt the breath of people on me, their warmth rushing past, their footsteps clogging my ears, pam pa, pam pa, pam pa… conversations on phones splitting my forehead like cacophenic bells.
And as I stood gripping my falafel, the word suicide was now tattooed on my mind. I was that person. One of the twelve men who commit suicide every day. One of the men who guiltily concern themselves so much that they want it to end. Images of the artwork by the artist Mark Jenkins of 84 sculptures of men, their anonymous faces wrapped in scarves, manikins teetering in the wind, standing on the edges of rooftops filled my mind. I felt light as I floated above the sculptures in that silent space that lingers before something happens, a hanging air, time torn, and could see myself, now one of them, toes curled, poised at the edge, faceless to those around me.
My body would do anything now. It wasn’t that I felt helpless, and writing this now I feel relieved that I can even write it down, but at the time I felt that nothing would have helped me. After all, I was helping others. Wasn’t that enough? No one was helping me and even if they wanted to, they were too late.
Like the train, which was late.
I began to fret that I wouldn’t get home in time to collect our daughter from her primary school. But as the thought of calling the school came to mind, I saw the five past two approach, pushing through the air. Everything slowed. The train’s bullet-like shaped front gradually neared the end of the platform, as if it also wanted to come to a rest. Rest. That was what I wanted at that moment. It didn’t last long. I can’t tell how long, a beat? And for that beat, I didn’t feel frightened. This was me. The bullet looked so inviting, so comfortable, so restful, and if I was able, somehow, to launch myself across the track without electrocuting myself and jump onto it, the bullet would mould into my body, I would curl into it, accept it, as it would accept me, and because it would all happen so slowly, there’d be no blood, and I wouldn’t fall on the tracks, but instead I’d be carried away with the train, the bullet me, the bullet me, the shudders in my heart no more.
A shiver flashed through me as I watched the train come to a stop. Someone barged my shoulder. I glared at them. They didn’t look around. The train did that thing when it stopped, rocked forward a bit, and then jolted back, as if it knew, like my body, that I’d gone too far and had to readjust; that feeling of hovering in mid-air, like a bird trying to fly but unable to, one claw still chained to its perch.
I realise now that I probably should have said something to someone, called my wife Miriam, or asked a guard to bring me a cup of sugary tea. Maybe they would have helped. But I didn’t, and the warmth of the carriage rushed onto me as the doors of the train whooshed open. I stood aside to let the passengers alight, entered, gripped a handrail and let the hot sauce from my falafel trickle down my trembling wrist.
Later that evening, without looking up from her phone, sitting on an arm chair, Miriam asked if I minded if she went to a friend’s house to watch the grimness of the election fallout. She’d only be a couple of hours. In bed by midnight. At first I didn’t look up from my mobile, as I thumbed through text after text. But I wasn’t paying any attention to the election or the words around me. I was sitting on our sofa, now staring outside at the darkness that was pulling me into it, the bare plants in the garden rising like skeletons into the night, and yet in front of me was the woman I love, and I could barely look her in the eye, as if I knew that if I raised my head she’d see something she didn’t want to see, a hollow, vacant me.
“No,” I said, almost aggressively, “I need to…” “What?” she asked, still looking at her phone. “Can you put the phone down?” I asked. She did. I followed its trajectory to the coffee table as I started up, “I think. I think… I think I need… help.” “Oh,” she shuffled in her chair. Truth was, I wasn’t sure what I needed, anything. Just the thought of wrapping my arms around her warm back would have been enough.
I talked a bit.
The following morning I was in the GP surgery. I was told that I was suffering from acute anxiety and should take something; propranolol. I agreed and collected the prescription. We also discussed trying an antidepressant, but only after my dodgy ticker was assessed. It was paining me pretty much all the time now, leading me to believe that I would collapse or die at any moment, and Miriam would find me dead at home or I’d die in bed. At first, I didn’t take the pills.
I’d previously taken propranolol when I’d suffered tachycardia. They played with my body, like a joystick with a mind of its own. There was something about taking the tiny pink pills that gripped me with fear. I’d be different. I’d be a sufferer. I’d no longer be who I was or had been. I’d join that club, that club my father had been a member of for half his life. A club I never wanted to be a part of. The pills stayed in their box and this nauseous feeling of despair continued to sweep through me as the 2019 New Year approached and we travelled to Thailand with my family for some winter sun.
It was there, after an argument with my mother on New Year’s Eve, that I started taking the pills and realised I maybe needed more than just the pills. We hadn’t fought in some time, but the critical sniping became grating and I snapped; “can you leave me alone!” While she stormed from the restaurant, the fans spinning overhead batting mosquitos from their flightpath, I sat patiently and continued to pick the bones from my baked sea-bream that was lathered in sticky chilli sauce and coriander, oblivious to the now muffled demands that I should “follow her” and “apologise”, “don’t talk to your mother that way.” Sometime later my mother and I stared at each other without saying much, goose-pimples rising on my arms in the air-conditioned lobby of the hotel. “It’s not you,” I said, “it’s me,” but really, I don’t think she understood.
The new year was humid, like a wet rag on my face. The argument had dampened the evening. There were tears, and parents now glumly nursed cocktails while the children were left alone to light their Chinese lanterns. Khao Lak beach was packed. The sky twinkled with a myriad of lanterns that flew like shards of paper into the sky, some aflame, some already charred, their metal corpses plummeting into the sea, ready to choke the fish. After everyone went to sleep, I sat on the beach and lit a cigarette, my heart sprinkling a few welcome to 2020 palpitations through my body, a reminder that my dodgy ticker was still there, and still dodgy. The smoke of the cigarette filled my lungs and loosened me, leaving me yearning to fill my body with something, anything. The sea looked oily black and inviting, and for a brief moment I considered walking in, fully clothed, the cig sticking to my bottom lip and letting the waves swell my body with salt and water, blending with the cigarette smoke, evaporating my insides like steam, a corpse left floating with the now strangled fish… I didn’t. Beat. I buried the embers of the cigarette stub into the sand with my big toe, took one last look at the lanterns in the sky, filling the darkness with rivulets of red, yellow, blue, walked back to the hotel, wished those by the pool a happy new year, crept into our room so I wouldn’t wake the children, pulled the starched sheet over my head next to Miriam and started to cry.
One year later.
I still take the pills and others that regulate my ticker.
It’s not dodgy.
I’m still working on it.
But I’m celebrating.