This is something I started for Nano in 2011.Unedited and unfinished, cos I didn't plan!
|I didn't try to kill myself on New Year's Eve to make some sort of dramatic statement. I hadn't planned on the timing, this just happened to be the night that my rather fragile grasp on sanity gave way like an ancient attic floorboard overloaded with unwanted memories and crap.
Christmas hadn't been very merry for me. Instead of enjoying the holidays I counted down the minutes of freedom I had left until I had to face reality and return to my office. Word of advice: don't work for the government if you have any sense of morality or any belief in the notion that there is more life than meetings and money. Anyway Christmas was the longest break I got all year, nearly two whole weeks where I could just hide from the world and live inside my head, where I could be anyone, anything or anywhere I wanted. This would have been acceptable if I were six, but at twenty-four it was just plain odd. Perhaps I was and am still an oddball. The girl who was bullied at school for being more interested in comics and Batman and make-believe than boys and make-up. Everyone's favourite walking warning about how you would end up if you dared to be yourself.
I had gone out on New Year's Eve. Well, if sitting in your friends same living room that you sit in every weekend counts as going out. I didn't know a lot of people. That's what happens when you're QUIET. Being QUIET is like a disease. People don't know quite what to do with you. With the air empty of meaningless noise to distract them from their chattering brains and needling insecurities, people get very uncomfortable. They wonder what you're thinking and are convinced you're plotting something. Being QUIET is acceptable, with the right people. But being SHY is not. I am both QUIET and SHY. Being QUIET means that you don't feel the need to talk much and are happy to listen and just watch the world go by, thinking your own thoughts without the need to express every idea that flickers in your brain. SHYNESS is hating yourself and being unable to accept your own QUIETNESS.
So I didn't have many friends. No one could be bothered with the amount of effort it took to get me to talk, and I had spent my high-school years building a nice protective bubble around myself so that the prospective friends I wanted so dearly couldn't get anywhere near me. Which is how I ended up with Mike and Neil. They certainly weren't a reward for good behaviour. Is that a harsh way to talk about friends? Maybe. But I don't know if they were really friends. I had no one else, and neither did they. It was quite a while after I realised this that I finally decided I didn't want them either.
So, New Year's Eve. Mike and Neil were my only options, unless I wanted to a) stay in the house by myself and drink alone on the couch or b) go to my aunt's house with my parents and drink with them on the couch. I gave serious thought to the idea of sitting in on my own, watching a film and getting hammered. But the pressure of New Year's got to me: you have to go out, Cherry. You can't sit in on your own tonight, Cherry. This is a magical, mystical night, Cherry. Cherry, it isn't socially acceptable for someone your age to sit on the couch alone on New Year's Eve. Drink, Cherry, drink! You could go out and meet the love of your life tonight, anything could happen!
I went, in the hope that for the first time since I've known them Mike and Neil would want to go out in to the big, wide world where the real people are instead of sitting in and staring at a screen and finding new ways to make me feel bad about myself. We stayed in.
Neil talked, as Neil always did, about himself. In between I, Me, and My he squeezed in the usual insults.
“I'm tired,” I said. “Sat up late last night.”
“Fapping yourself?” Mike and Neil brayed like donkeys.
“No. Watching a film.”
“Some random made-for-TV nonsense that was on Channel 5.”
“Channel 5? You were watching porn, weren't you? Christ, you know you can get the real thing on the internet, right?” Neil rubbed his huge gut like a Buddha. “I know you haven't got laid in a long, long time but surely soft-core isn't enough to get you going?”
I sighed. Serious conversations were out the window. Sometimes, there are only so many AIDs jokes and backhanded comments that one girl can take from two grown men.
I sat and thought about another life. A life where I was confident and had better opportunities. A life where I hadn't been a punching bag at school and had been able to be myself without the whole world telling me it was wrong. A life where I had friends who wanted to go out and do things with their lives. Instead, I hated every word that came out of my mouth, I didn't like the only friends I had, and their only goal was to stay out of work for as long as possible so that they could play video games all day long. Again, this was only another brick in the wall that came crumbling down and broke my will to live.
Unable to open my mouth without being shot down, I shut up and drank. I took my coat, bag and drink and I went outside for a smoke and stared up at the stars in the blue-black sky; not a single cloud graced the sky and it was icily cold. My exhales of smoke turned to foggy breath. Sometimes I would look at the stars and think of infinity, of the magnitude of the world and how beautiful it all was. Tonight they looked dead, as if they had been dully painted on a ceiling that was keeping me trapped here. It was the stars that did it for me. Mike and Neil's braying laughter, the sound of an artificial crowd cheering on whatever game they had started to play, all intensified until I couldn't take it anymore. This was my life. The only one I would ever have. It was the start of a New Year, a year in which I would become a quarter of a century old, and all I could think of was how much of a waste twenty-five years was.
The stars bore down on me. Even with their dead dullness they seemed to be screaming at me, because they were infinite and I would never see them as they really were and wasn't my life just sad? Wasn't it exhausting always second-guessing and living in fantasy, only to face the inevitable disappointment of reality? They were right, I knew. I downed another drink. A great sadness sat on my chest like an anchor. It was something that had been growing steadily for years, like a tumour sucking me dry of all my hope and joy. The alcohol only added to my moroseness instead of bringing a pleasant buzz. Under the stars, under the clear night air with only a little while to go until the start of a New Year, I whispered: “I've had enough.”
And so I grabbed my belongings and went out through the back fence, and walked home. Just like that.
My chest grew tighter and tighter as I walked. If I didn't get the chance to scream and cry and purge the sadness and pain from me I surely would have exploded right in the middle of the street. It wasn't until I stepped inside my dark house that I realised my cheeks were frozen and my nose was running down over my lips. I slammed the front door behind me and fell against it. I heaved for breath and felt as if some demon was inside of me squeezing my lungs with scaly, clawed hands. My cat, Luna, came running towards me with a distorted squeak and pressed her body against mine. The contact burned; I couldn't handle comfort, especially from a creature who was only taking what it wanted from me. She shouted again, expecting me to go and fill her food bowl. I couldn't. As I heaved and sobbed the only thing I could do was push myself from the floor and up the stairs.
The light in my room was dim and tinted pink because of the shade. It had always seemed so important to me to keep my room nice, as I spent most of my life in there, sitting on the bed with a book or watching TV. It was my only space, the place I had the most freedom to just sit there, staring into space and imagining myself in a different life. I closed the door behind me and fought to free myself from the constraints of my coat before falling backwards on the bed. I screamed into my pillow. It's hard to describe mental pain. It's like being stabbed, though I've never been stabbed. It's physical but not at the same time. It feels like fire running up the centre of your belly into a lasso around your chest. Your fingertips tingle and your head swims.
I cried for a long time, until I could breathe again. I poured another drink. And another, and smoked until I felt more ill than satisfied. And then I calmly went round the bathrooms, and through my handbag, and found every packet of pills I could. I focused on painkillers, and ignored the stomach medications and anti-histamines. I sat myself cross-legged on the bed and thought long and hard about what song I wanted to listen to. It seemed terribly important to pick the right song to die to. Or in my mind, the right song to hear as you fall asleep. I wasn't thinking in terms of life or death. I was thinking of an end to pain. Respite. A good long snooze when you're not feeling very well. My memory isn't complete of all the small details, but I do remember imagining some sort of light switch I could use to shut my brain down for a while so I could rest and then come back, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and able to think clearly for the first time.
You could say that I wasn't in my right mind. I would definitely say that. I was also drunk, and being drunk during a nervous breakdown doesn't help anyone.
I don't remember what song I chose to listen to, in the end. I don't remember anything other than sitting and staring at the stereo trying to choose. I must have picked something, in the end, because my mother said that a song was playing on repeat over and over again when she came home and found me in a puddle of my own puke. She still won't tell me what song I had chosen. I'm not sure if I want to hear it again, anyway.
When I died I had an amazing dream. Well, actually I would find out later that I wasn't dead but only really out of but I like to think that I skimmed the other side. I was lying on an operating table naked as the day I was born. I couldn't see much around me. It was quiet and when I looked down I saw something moving just below my chest. Not quite in my abdomen, not the appearance of birth but more of something unnatural moving in the cavity of my chest. I started to scream, unable to move because of restraints on my arms. As I screamed a figure appeared beside the bed and I realised it was me. Only my eyes were visible through the surgical mask. Surgeon me flicked up a scalpel that glinted under the light above, and gave me a nod. The me on the bed screamed louder and louder as the knife was lowered right on top of the moving lump. Its OK the surgeon whispered. You don't need this any more. The knife slipped into my skin with a satisfyingly tight pop and stopped screaming because there was no pain. I looked down and saw the gush of blackness flow out from the wound. I looked myself in the eye and the surgeon whispered "doesn't that feel better now that all the poison is gone?" I nodded and closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes I was on a plain and the sky was red. Dry dusty wind whipped around my face but I felt immune to the sting. I wondered if I'd died and gone to Saturn and any minute a great big black and white sand-worm was going to burst forth and devour me whole as punishment for leaving the house I should have been haunting.
I walked for a long time, though maybe it wasn't. Something shimmered in front other me, seeming miles away but it took only few steps to reach it. It was me, faded and dusty.
“You're me.” I said.
“Yes.” she said quietly as stared at the ground and tucked her hair behind her ear. The wind whipped it straight back out again.
“Then who am I?”
“The me I wished I was.”
She faded away. I don't remember anything else that happened in that dream. I remember waking up for a few seconds, then disappearing again, over and over until I woke up and stayed awake. My throat hurt, and so did my stomach. My head felt as if it was stuffed with damp cotton wool and I had trouble remembering my name or who or what I was. I am human, I thought. What does that mean again? Oh yes, I know now. This is the world, and this is my body, and this is a bed. And that is light. And that is pain.
I turned my head, and saw my parents sitting beside my bed. They looked happy and tired and their eyes were red. They reached out and touched my arm and started talking, but to me they sounded like the school-teacher from Charlie Brown. I guessed at where I was and remembered how I had got there. My parents were smiling through tears but man, as soon as I felt better they were going to be pissed.
My first non-familial, non-doctor/nurse encounter was with the hospital psychiatrist. He was a dreadfully normal and predictable as any public sector mental health professional I have ever encountered, and up until this point I had encountered a few. This was not my first dance with the big black dog called depression, but it was certainly my most eventful so far. My first experiences involved a lot of crying, a lot of medication and a razor blade to my lower arms; only cutting just enough to hurt and make the pain go away.
“Cherith. How are you feeling?”
My voice still didn't want to come out, only this time it was physical as well as mental. Mum had mentioned the words 'stomach pump' at one point but I was too zoned out to pay much attention. “I don't know how I'm feeling.”
“Do you feel happy? Sad? Are you upset or relieved that you are still here?”
“Neither. Both. I had a nice rest. I didn't have to think for a while. I think that was all I wanted.”
“So this was just a cry for help? You didn't intend to kill yourself? Your dosage suggests otherwise.”
I shrugged and it hurt. “I was very drunk and in a lot of pain. I wasn't capable of having intentions.”
He crossed his legs and looked over the top of his glasses, condescension radiating like a halo around his grey head. “Now, it had to be one or the other, Cherith.”
“It wasn't. I hurt. I didn't want to think. My priority was shutting my brain up, I wasn't thinking about what came next.”
He sighed and scribbled something in his notebook. The scratching of his pen on paper made my skin crawl. It sounded like nails on a coffin.
“On a scale of one to five, with five being most likely, how likely are you to attempt suicide again?”
“Not for a while,” I thought, and the notion struck me as funny. The doctor apparently didn't see it that way as his face turned grim. I stared at the floor. “I don't know. Unlikely, I guess. Unless I turn thirty and I'm still in the same rut.”
“So it's a plan?”
“Not plan A. It's a backup. Look, I was stressed out and freaked out and couldn't think straight. Washing painkillers down with vodka just seemed like, I don't know, a good idea at the time? I wasn't thinking ahead, I just wanted a little peace and quiet for a while.”
He made another note. “And what is so bad in your life that you think you want to end it?”
“I didn't want to end it, this time,” I said, growing irritated. I was very, very tired. “But what's the point in living if you don't enjoy life? Why not check out when you've had enough?”
“Because there are people who love you and care about you. Don't you worry about hurting them?”
“Wouldn't they be happier knowing that I wasn't hurting any more?” I stared at the floor. I could get so damned emotional when I was tired and tears were burning in my eyes. I've lost count of the number of times I've cried in public. Every job I've had includes one instance of me fighting against tears.
“What is it that hurts?”
I sniffed. “I have no friends. Not real ones. I can't speak half the time because I seize up. I can't sleep because I'm worrying about stupid things like what to wear tomorrow or what to have for dinner. I second-guess everything I do. I can't go for a walk without hours of deliberation. I hate myself. I hate my job. Isn't that enough of a reason?”
He leaned back in his chair. “No, I don't believe that it is. You're a young woman in good physical health with a decent family and a job. You have more than most, and you should be grateful for it.”
“Believe me, I know how lucky I am compared to most.” I dug my nails into my arm. “And it's just another thing to feel bad about, because it's not enough for me.”
Thirty minutes later I was back in the hospital bed. The interrogation had taken what little energy I had left and I flopped onto the bed, which only made my body ache more. My parents called in when they could, but there were no other visitors. I doubt they would be calling my aunts and uncles and telling them the real reason I was in there. I couldn't quite look at them, I just stared at the ceiling and tried to smile when they said something happy or funny. They kept the conversation light, at least. There were no big questions and no requests for explanations but I could feel it buzzing under their skin. Their faces were like rubber when they smiled and I guessed at the anger and hurt and guilt and confusion that was hiding there. Oh boy, I thought after they had left again, the next few days are going to be absolutely rotten. Then I rolled over and fell asleep, thinking about just how badly I had fucked up this time.
I was home again by the evening of the 2nd of January. The hospital needed the bed for someone who didn't want to die, and the cold attitudes of the nurses and the bluntness of the doctors did nothing to ease my guilt. And physically, I would be fine. A bit rough, tired and groggy for a while but no lasting damage. I found out that my parents came home just as I started puking while half-unconscious, so I was at the hospital before too much damage could be done. I couldn't even get suicide right, it seemed.
“You can lie on the couch.” Mum said as we entered the house. “I'll get your blanket.”
“I could just go to bed.” I said. I had dreamed of my own bed the whole way home; the thick, firm mattress and just-right pillows, and the soft light of the fairy lights instead of sixty watt bulb. Mum just shook her head and began rifling through the overnight bag she had brought to hospital for me, pulling out pyjamas and bundling them up for the wash.
“I'd rather you be somewhere I can keep an eye on you.”
Anger gurgled in my throat but I swallowed it down. It was a fair enough point. I didn't have the energy to attempt anything at that point, but I guess she was a little on edge. I did what I was told and lay on the couch, and was nearly asleep when mum brought my duvet and pillow. I closed my eyes and faded away into darkness.
In my dream I was standing in the dock of an ancient courtroom. Everything was made of wood and smelt of damp. A faceless crowd jeered and mocked me. My hands were bound by heavy manacles and chains, the weight of which made my back bend forward to compensate for the stress on my muscles. The steel was icy cold, but the rest of the room seemed to have no temperature. The judge sat beside and above me, and under his powdered white wig his face shifted ever so slightly, warping just enough for me to notice as if there were cockroaches under his skin. The noise of the mob became louder and louder and I wanted to cover my ears but I couldn't raise my arms because of the weight of the chains. My parent's were standing, in puritan dress, in front of the crowd. Prosecution? They looked sad and red-eyed. They stared. The crowd grew louder and my body shook with the bass of their voices, which had undertones of growls and distortion. Traitor, they shouted. Ungrateful child! The judge turned his moving face towards me, and with a demon's voice shouted 'Guilty!'.
I woke with a jump at the sound of the gavel banging like a door slammed in anger and the dream started to disappear like fog in a strong wind. My brain is broken, I thought to myself as I shook off the dream. That may have been the most literal dream I had ever had. I guess my brain was too tired to hide behind subtext and double-meanings. My dad brought me a cup of tea. I said thank you.
I got into my own bed that night and of course was unable to sleep. I looked at my phone. Mike had texted me after I'd left asking where I was. That was the only message. Two days later, I never replied and that was it. It's one way to end a rotten friendship. I was glad. I wasn't a very good friend, either. I'm sure there were many occasions where I made them feel as bad as they made me feel, either by my misery when around them or my refusing to laugh at Mike's jokes because ignoring him felt like starving him of oxygen. I stared into the darkness for a while, mulling a million things over in my head. I gave up on sleep and switched on the light, and picked up my notebook and tried to put some sort of order to my chaotic thoughts. I wrote until my hand felt sore. I felt better, but still no more clear on what I was supposed to do next.
The talk I was dreading came in the form of an ambush. I sat in the living-room with my parents eating dinner. Then dad made us all tea and served apple tart. I was expecting the atmosphere to turn sour once the sympathy and shock had worn off. I had been having the conversation in my head where my mother was angry and my dad just looked quietly hurt and disappointed, but instead I got tea and cake.
Dad and I sat together on the couch, and Mum joined us on the other side of me. It's a trap, I thought. The old pincer manoeuvre, blocking me from all sides. Luna jumped up onto my knee as if she was part of the whole thing, preventing me from jumping up and running for the door. Dad put his hand on my leg – I remember being so young and free and Dad's hand used to be able to wrap itself around my ankles and he could flip me upside down and I would giggle – and asked, “What do we need to do to make things better?”
I froze for a moment with a mouthful of hot tea. My voice box was frozen, as if an ice-cube had grown around it. I stared straight ahead, thinking of what the answer was. What could they do to make things better? Nothing really. None of it was their fault and it was all out of their control.
“Nothing,” I said eventually. “There's nothing you can do. It's me. I'm the one that needs to do something.” My voice was a croaked whisper.
“But we can help, somehow. What is it that you want?” asked Mum. She did not often do deep and emotional. Her voice was even, but her hand lay on my back.
“I just want... I mean, you can't have thought that I was happy, did you? Living like this, on my own? Not going out and partying like most people my age, no boyfriend since I was – god – fifteen? Friends who wanted to sit in playing video games all the time? And it's not like this is the first breakdown I've ever had.” I stroked Luna a little too quickly in my nervousness but she purred contentedly anyway.
“Yes, but as long as you were happy we weren't going to suggest you make any changes. What do you want, really? If any thing in the world could make you happier, what would it be?”
I huffed and sighed and thought for a long time again. Tears were in my eyes and I tried to breath them away with sharp exhales. “I don't want to be me any more. But I can't seem to change no matter what I do.”
“What?” Mum exclaimed. “What's wrong with being you?”
I wanted to yell that there were plenty of things, and that people had been acting like there was something very wrong with being me since I was ten years old.
The words came out slowly as I chose each one from the web of my mind. “I just can't seem to get things... right.”
Nothing seemed to be a good enough explanation for my parents. But I guess I didn't really expect them to understand. After all, if someone creates you and nourishes you and loves you, how do you feel when that person decides to throw the life you gave them back in your face?
They did their best with the usual “It's ok, we love you” and “There's nothing wrong with you, and people must be crazy to think otherwise”. Sweet words, and I knew there were some people in the world who would never hear such loving words from their parents. I was grateful, but it wasn't new information that really helped me in any way. And any comfort that was given quickly drained away as if I'd been shot in the gut when Mum said:
“You'll feel better when you get back to work next week. It'll take your mind off things.”
“Next week?” I gaped like a fish.
Mum nodded. “It'll be the best thing for you. These things always happen when you don't have enough to do. You just sit around and drive yourself mad. If you want to make any sort of changes to your life, you can't do it if you don't have a good job to back it up.”
I huffed. I felt like I was six again, being told I couldn't go out and play. I fought tears again. “I don't have a good job. I have a horrible, meaningless job. I have paperwork that I could do in my sleep and co-workers who make me want to go on a killing spree. My job is half the reason I'm unhappy, because it's a constant reminder that it's the best I'm ever going to do with my life.”
“You're just expecting too much, pet.” said Dad in his soft voice. “This is real life. It's not like in the movies.” There was a sadness to his voice that chimed with me. Dad and I loved comics and sci-fi. To what few friends I had ever had, he was the coolest dad around. I wondered if at some point in his youth he had felt the disappointment of discovering just how meaningless and monotonous life could really be. But he had given in and worked a steady job to support his wife and child, content to spend the disposable income on films and gadgets and games that he could disappear into. I wasn't ready to give up the fight just yet.
“Your dad and I have had the same jobs for more than twenty years. It's just real life, Cherith. You work to live. You save up enough money and get a mortgage and work to pay that. And then when you're older, you can have holidays and cars if you've worked harder. That's just what life is.”
I realised that my entire body was tensed as if I were in rigour. Luna dug her nails into my knee and purred as if in sympathy.
This wasn't the life I wanted. This wasn't the life I was created for. I wanted to rebel against my own nature. My quietness said that I should just keep to myself, take no risks and just exist until I die. But the real me wanted to scream and shout. The real Cherry Finch wanted to stay out light and be the life of the party, or sit in a darkened room with interesting people talking about awesome music and films. I didn't want to be sitting alone in my room obsessing over television shows because it was as close to experiencing life as I could get. I didn't want to be the girl who choked on her words and stared at her shoes even when it came to something as simple as saying 'hello'.
If this was real life, I didn't want it.
I didn't say anything else. I kept quiet and nodded my head because it was what my parents wanted. It was a familiar game. It made them feel better, and I didn't have to explain myself. I was glad when enough time passed for it to be acceptable enough for me to excuse myself and go to bed to watch a film. The clock was already ticking; my freedom was disappearing second by second and in a few days I would be back in the prison that was my office. I stared at the screen, taking no notice of whatever was watching, and thought about what I could do to free myself from my misery. Long after my parents had gone to bed, I decided that if I had no choice but to go to work, I was going to do it my way. I couldn't be blamed if I got fired, could I?
Before I could face work, I had to face counselling. I was impressed at how quickly it had been arranged. During my previous depressions I had waited months to be allocated a few weeks with some miserable counsellor who spouted miserable clichés and advised that I joined a church group so that I could meet people my own age. It was probably because this wasn't involved with the NHS and therefore there was much less chance of it being horribly useless and slow. I worked in the civil service and was entitled to some free counselling, something my employers had kept secret.
The waiting room was nice, I thought. The smiley receptionist told me how to use the hot beverage machine, and I made a cup of tea because I felt as if it would be rude not to. She made small talk as I sat on a comfortable chair, but I was pleased to find that she wasn't overly friendly or imposing. It wasn't often that I felt comfortable when anyone was talking to me, nevermind when they were happy and cheerful and good at conversation. Still, I was glad when the phone rang and there was an excuse not to talk any longer. I tapped my foot with nerves and chewed on the drawstring of my hoody. I felt frumpy and ugly. My intentions to get all dolled up and make more of an effort always disappeared when I stood in front of a mirror, and I always ended up back in the same clothes no matter what. It didn't help how I felt about myself, obviously. Everything I owned felt wrong. And the new, brave things I occasionally bought just felt like I was trying to be something I wasn't. I wasn't a big believer in the idea that women had to look a certain way in order to be accepted, but there was something in the notion that you had to look good to feel good. I just wanted to feel pretty.
As I dreamed of 50's style dresses and high-heels, a young blonde woman poked her head around the door behind reception. She called my name and I jumped to awkward attention. I followed her down a corridor. She led me into a cosy looking room. She stuck out her hand and introduced herself as Emma. I stuck out my hand, feeling as if it was made of wood and I was holding it on a long stick. She instructed me to sit on the lush looking leather couch, as she sat on a similar chair facing me. The walls were painted violet and the carpet was deep purple. It was all designed to create a sense of ease and safety, thought talking to a complete stranger made me feel more unsafe than ever. My hackles were raised and ready for fight or flight.
Emma smiled at me as she explained the process. I was entitled to six free sessions and if I needed more after that she could discuss it with her management. She would not acknowledge me if she passed me in the street, not just because it would be uncomfortable for me to explain to anyone I was with who Emma was, but also because Emma was so terrible with faces, and wasn't that funny. She handed me a survey to complete at the end of our six weeks, and then a confidentiality agreement to be signed. I didn't read it, assuming that all confidentiality agreements were the same and she would only break it if I was a danger to myself or others. Blah blah blah. I was more worried about the in-depth probing that was about to take place.
When the induction was over, Emma asked, “So how are you feeling, Cherith?”
I wanted to tell her to call me Cherry. I always wanted to be called that but could never quite bring myself to ask. I always ended up being called Chezza, which made me want to rip my shirt off and go on a rage, like the Incredible Hulk. “Um. I don't really know how I'm feeling at the minute.” I muttered as I stared at the carpet.
“Have you been put on medication?”
“No, not yet. I'm going to the doctor tomorrow. I think there's just too much going on in my head.”
“Tell me about New Year's Eve.”
I sighed. I could feel tears building up already. My body rebelled as I tried to break my self-made wall of silence. “I needed some sleep.”
“Was that what you wanted from the overdose?”
I nodded. “I keep telling people that it wasn't about life or death but they just don't get it. I know now that it could have killed me, but that wasn't what I was thinking about at the time.”
“Would you call it a cry for help?” Emma sat forward intently. I felt as though she was really listening to me.
“No. I wasn't thinking about being found or getting help. I mean, I'm not good at telling people when I'm feeling bad. I've written letters to my parents before when I couldn't talk to them. But I was only thinking of myself that night. There was so much pain and noise in my head that I just wanted a little bit of peace so I could think clearly.”
“Tell me more about that night.”
“I don't know what to say.” I took a thick lock of hair and twisted it manically around my finger. “It was New Year's Eve and I had nothing better to do than spend it with people I didn't like and who barely liked me. I was drunk. I was dreading the thought of going back to work; still am actually. Everything just seemed so pointless. It was like something was crushing me, like the gravity had multiplied and the air was trying to choke me. I felt trapped. I still do. I don't know how to get out of this.”
“What do you feel you need to escape from?”
“Just my life. Me. I'm not the person I want to be. It's like the real me is trapped inside this shell and I'm screaming to get out of it but I don't have enough strength. I try to change all the time. I try to think positive thoughts and relax and try to talk and nothing is ever enough.” I stared at the carpet, thinking of all my failures. “I can't change, but I can't stop wanting to change. Maybe if I could just accept what a loser I am I would start to enjoy the life I have, or at least not have to feel so much pain.”
“Tell me what you've tried.” Emma said, making a scribble in her notebook.
I sighed. “Self-help books. Hypnotherapy CDs while I sleep. Writing nice things about myself and trying to meditate. Nothing ever sinks in. It's like there's this impenetrable brick wall around the damaged part of my brain and nothing good can get through.”
“What's your learning style?”
I furrowed my brow, put off by the question. “In work or in school, how did you learn how to do something new?”
“Usually just by doing it. It's always easier than just reading about it.” Oh. I see where this is going. I know what she's going to say, and I wanted to yell at her that it was easier said than done and just forgetting the fear and doing it anyway was a huge pile of bullshit.
“Have you tried acting in real life? Being someone else.”
“Yes, I have. And it's impossible to convince myself that it isn't real. Underneath it all I'm still scared and I know someone will see right through it.”
“You mentioned work. I know you live at home with your parents. Do you pay rent?”
“No,” I said, feeling ever more like the spoiled little white girl whining about her first world problems. “I mean, I contribute and buy my own toiletries and luxury stuff. But they paid off the mortgage a few years ago and can manage.” I was trying to justify it to myself as well as her. After all, who pays rent when they don't need to, when your landlords don't need it?
“So why haven't you quit yet?”
I blinked and looked up. Emma was just looking as if she'd asked me my name, the most normal question in the world. It didn't make sense to me.
“Because my parents would kill me. Because you're not supposed to quit decent jobs, it's insane.”
“Surely your parents would be happy if they knew you were happy?”
“They're the ones pushing me to go back there next week. They think I need something to do with my time. I think they just want me somewhere I can't be alone for too long so I don't do anything stupid.”
“I think they'll be more forgiving than you think.”
I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms, feeling like a six year old in a huff. “You don't know them. They're very obsessed with jobs and not sitting about all day. Not that I would, of course I would like another job.”
“Cherith, I think right now you need to do what's best for yourself. If your parents get mad, it won't be forever. And you need to be focused on making yourself happy right now. I want you to have a think about it. Don't imagine the worst, imagine the reality.”
I nodded. I think I would still be in for a yelling match if I didn't go to work. I wasn't interested in how much better things would feel when my Mum had calmed down, whenever that might be.
“OK, I have some homework for you. How do you feel about writing?”
I chewed my lip. “I like writing. I wish I could write more, but I get too worked up about whether or not it's going to be any good, so I never seem to get anything started.”
“And what about a diary?”
“Yeah I have one. I don't use it regularly though, only when I'm feeling really down or angry.”
“That's a good start,” said Emma with a smile. “I want you to try and make it regular. Even if you think you have nothing to say, just keep your pen moving and you might be surprised at what comes out. It's a good way of unloading your thoughts even when you feel like you have no one to talk to. And eventually it will help you make some sense of the chaos in your head.”
I nodded and muttered meekly that I would try.
“Now, before you have to go back to work, I want you to have a good think about what you really, really want.” she said as she folded her notebook over and uncrossed her legs. “Forget everyone else in the world, and just think about what is best for you. Maybe by next week you could come up with a few things that you want to accomplish over the next year or so, and from there we can build a plan to help you get on the right path.”
I had used up all my words for the day. My toes flexed and curled in my shoes. Emma took the hint and rose. I did the same and brushed my hair behind my ears, able to only manage a milisecond of eye contact while saying goodbye.
I took my time walking home in the frosty afternoon air. There was almost too much to think about now. I pushed my earphones in, but didn't switch on my mp3 player. I couldn't handle the extra baggage of music, but I wanted the protection from the outside world that the earphones provided. An acceptable way of ignoring everyone around you.
I walked through the park. Everywhere in town was walking distance, if you weren't too lazy or unfit. I was both but I also appreciated the Zen power of a good walk, even if I didn't do it often enough. The park wasn't much of a park; just a lot of grass with some nicely tarmacced paths running through it and a few trees. There were wood carvings of Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter: some talented local had carved them from tree stumps. I took a seat on the bench facing Alice. The Cheshire Cat smarmed around her feet. Her face was doll-like and blank, and her dress stuck out at the ends like a tutu as she stood perfectly poised with her hands folded neatly behind her back.
I rolled a cigarette with cold, dry hands and crossed my legs Indian style on the bench. I could feel the icy bite of the metal through my jeans. The park was clear, for once. The kids were all back to school and it was after lunch. Anyone playing truant was hiding somewhere by now. The birds chirped in the fir tree behind me and the air smelt of ice that bit the inside of my nostrils.
So, Alice. I thought to myself. You fell down a rabbit hole and had a great big adventure. Well, I haven't found my rabbit hole yet. Just dead ends. It was your curiosity that got you into so much trouble and it's my fear that keeps me back. Alice, I need some adventure in my life too.
I stared at her for a little while longer as if waiting for an answer but none came. With the cold air stinging my ears, I continued on my journey home.
When I got home my cheeks were burning and red from the cool air. Dad was in the middle of packing up the Christmas tree, a little later than most but I guess that was my fault. I slipped by him and went up the stairs. I had all my thoughts lined up in order – still noisy and messy but I knew what needed to come out, and speaking out loud would only make me lose my concentration and it would all be forgotten. I sat on my bed with my notebook, rolled a cigarette and started to write.
It was the weekend. I was due to go back to work on Monday. Mum had told them I had a bad dose of tonsillitis and apparently they had been fine with that excuse. It didn't make the thought of going back any easier, because I would then have to deal with endless questions and polite fake sympathy. When I was there, I just wanted to be left alone. I spent most of the weekend sitting with my notebook. Dad had taken me to the shopping centre as a treat to get me out of the house, and I had bought a new book. I've always had a bit of a stationery fetish and mulled over the selection in the newsagents for ages while Dad went to the chemist. In the end I chose a thick, shiny, purple covered notebook and a set of smooth rollerball pens that would be able to keep up with the pace of my thoughts.
I bought some bright red hair dye too. Mum had rolled her eyes, and told me not to ruin the bathroom. But otherwise she said nothing until I had it done and dried, and told me it was very nice and that it suited me. I smiled. It was something new and shocking and I never would have done it before. The simple change was enough to kick start my imagination.
As I sat on Sunday afternoon, drinking copius amounts of tea with my notebook on my knee, I tried to really focus on what I wanted and after some deliberation I came up with this list:
1. Friends. Nice ones who really care about me. Interesting people who like to have fun.
2. A house of my own. Or a flat, whatever. I'm very ready to be in control of my space!
3. Night-life. Just somewhere to go.
4. A nice guy. Someone I can fall in love with.
5. To be able to write, without getting tied up in knots.
6. To not hate myself any more.
7. To be free.
It didn't seem like so much to ask when it was written like that. I wasn't asking for millions of pounds, or to wake up with superpowers. I just wanted to be happy with myself so that I could be happy with others. I realised that I hadn't written anything about work. I thought about it. The horrible truth was I was more than likely going to have to settle for work in an office or in a shop. There wasn't anything else around here. And the chances of getting a paid writing job were very slim, because a) I couldn't write and b) they didn't seem to exist.
I didn't have to have a career, just a job I could stand that would give me the freedom to do whatever I wanted in my spare time. I currently had a job I hated, that put me in a foul mood and made me think bad thoughts about people and made me doubt that I could ever do anything good with my life. Well, I thought, it's just going to have to go, isn't it? If I can sort that, I'll be one step closer to putting things right.
The walk to work on Monday was too short. The entire weekend seemed to have been set on fast-forward, with hours feeling like minutes. My earlier bravado of thinking that I could just quit my job had slowly faded like a dream and gave way to worry that ate at the back of my brain. When I went to sleep at night I imagined myself storming in there, all straight-backed and tough-talking. But as I walked into town my stomach was doing flips at the thought of spending another day in there. It was like choosing to walk into a cage and be manacled to a desk, while orangutans jumped around you creating chaos. I wasn't as brave as the real me, the me buried far underneath all the damaged exterior, wanted me to be. I was scared. And on that icy morning, just two weeks after I had swallowed a lot of painkillers and swallowed them down with vodka, I found myself standing outside my office just staring at it.
I thought of all the well-meaning but generally fake inquiries about my health I would have to deal with, telling the same lie to everyone in the office. Or those who noticed I hadn't been there, anyway. I thought of Ian the accountant, with his Woody Woodpecker laugh and inability to talk about anything but his own numbers and oh god, he made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with pure annoyance. He was like a beeping car alarm when all you wanted was silence. And I thought about Paul, my boss, who reminded me of a fuzzy, balding jellyfish; all sickly pale and wobbly, and ineffectual at everything he did and unable to even reply to an email within three days.
I stood there, and stared. The shortness of life was hacking at my brain, a ticking clock forever in the background of my thoughts as if I was walking around with an alarm clock held to my ear. The sun was shining and the sky was cloudless, and even with the cold January nip in the air the day seemed perfect and I couldn't face walking into the darkness.
So I started walking again. My mind buzzed with shock and awe and confusion. The me that was, the good old Cherith Finch who never spoke up and never disagreed and just stared at the floor and squeaked out words, was panicking. That Cherith was a creature of habit who went into a tailspin at the sudden change of routine. But the person I wanted to be would never spend another day in that office, and I let her take charge as my legs, shaky and unsure, carried me with no direction from my spinning brain.
I ended up at the train station, and caught the next train to Belfast. I needed to get out of this town and find something worth living for.
First thing on my mind when I arrived in the city was food, despite my stomach full of fluttering butterflies. I picked a cafe, ordered some tea and a toasted sandwich and settled in a booth in the corner. The city workers were already tucked away in their offices, and apart from pensioners and the unemployed and the few with days off, the city was calm after the rush hour and the cafe was quiet. I nibbled half-heartedly at the toastie when it arrived and sipped my tea. My head was swimming with the upheaval of change. My boss by now would have realised that I wasn't in work. He hadn't called my mobile and I was imagining him calling the house. Mum and Dad would both be at work by now, thankfully. They were going to be pissed, but at least that could wait until later. Going home was going to be frightening and I thought about not telling them that I hadn't gone to work, like when I used to ditch school by coming back to the house after my parents had left. Of course, I had spent those days jumping into the wardrobe every time I heard a noise downstairs, thinking that the jig was up and thinking of all the different reasons my parents would have to come home early.