Wednesday, August 20, 2008

You Only Live Twice Again

It is not the physical death of the body, nor mortal fear inspired by religious myth, nor the agony of physical failure that worries me. The death that I fear so much is that which we experience in disappointment, the death of hope.

I did experience hopelessness once or twice as a child, but not as a young adult. Throughout my 20s and halfway through my 30s I remained strong, shrugged off defeats, persisted, came back and enjoyed victories. When things went wrong, I turned up a collar of determined optimism. When the collar didn't work anymore, I changed it to dogged fatalism. My psyche rose intact several times from ashes, smacked into shape by the iron hammer of events, forged in heat, and remained recognisably, cheerfully, pugnaciously mine. Everything would work out, eventually. Until one day, I woke up and everything in my life was in pieces, and what wasn't broken had gone, and with it, my hope.

Despite extreme mental trauma and occasional psychosis, I retained sufficient sanity during this long period of clinical depression to recognise that, since I am not by nature suicidal, I would have to continue life, with or without hope, until my body expired. I had no feelings about this one way or the other. I presumed hope may return, but even this presumption was a message from a past now unavailable for further comment, an abstract, vague, unrelated memory from a version of me that was now dead. I had not yet got around to clearing away the body, there were parts of it rotting everywhere. I could recognise them by the fact that they resembled me as I had been.

Emotionally, I was flatlining, dragging myself from bed to kitchen to bathroom to bed. I kept the TV on, even as I slept, awakening to stare blankly at the screen again without changing channel. I didn't care what I watched, as long as it wasn't music, which disturbed me - it just had to take the final remnant of concentration. When my eyes hurt, then I employed a radio. Talk radio was best, or sport, or world news. I didn't leave the house. I was agoraphobic. I had enough food for a week, ten days, mostly canned, dried. Nothing fresh. I was thinking anxiously about that ten-minute trip to the shop to re-stock for five days, if I was thinking anything at all.

I had a prescription for a low-level SRI from my doctor, but I was scared to take it.

Two months before the crash. It was the Edinburgh Festival, cultural showcase for the world, and I was producing interactive content in a rock club, with art-music acts like The Divine Comedy, and suffering the indignities of a cocaine-addled promoter's bipolar behaviour.

It was a hot August, 1997. My girlfriend was appearing in a cool Edinburgh show, one half of a physical performance duo, which was doing well, eyecatching posters up all around town, decent to good reviews, newspaper coverage, and as I had spent as much time building her career as mine, I was pleased. There was no recognition of this, though, from her work partner, an uptight controlling character who resented my influence, and who created conflict. I felt I had to always avoid the "choose between" syndrome - between work and relationship, between work partner and love partner, between training and sex, between domestic life and touring. Anyhow, for once, we were able to attend the same festival on different gigs, and I had looked forward to it.

About a week into the month-long festival, one night the promoter asked me to go to the front of the stage and video; as soon as I did, I was grabbed left and right by two huge security men, lifted bodily, and carried through the amused crowd to front of house.

Apoplectic, I insisted that I was acting on request of the promoter, and demanded that they find him to verify. He was nowhere to be seen. Turns out he had wanted the material, but had a deal with the band management that nobody would video them, and he was sending me into the pit to see how true it was. The venue manager looked apologetically at me, seeing my disgust, and sensing the truth of my story, as he said in his gentle Scots accent, "Sorry mate I am going to have to ask you to leave." I left, thinking of of throwing bricks through windows, of torching cars, boiling and raging.

I walked home down Princes Street, to the nice flat at the other end of town where we were staying, cursing the puffed-up conceited pimp who had humiliated me on a whim. The kind journalist who was putting me up took me out and poured beer down my neck, consoled me, advised me to let it drop. The next day, I took legal advice. Yes I could sue them. No it probably wasn't worth it. My hope began to leave me, then, although I didn't know it until sometime later.

Having no further work to do, but with more than half a month's tenure remaining in a pleasant flat in a capital city full of beauty and culture, I determined to enjoy myself, but it was not easy. I was harbouring a morbid fear which had come from a dream at the beginning of the month, before we left and came north. I had woken up with a voice in my head, my own voice, but as if spoken to me, not by me. It said, "You haven't got very much longer to live."

I struggled fully awake, shocked at the experience. I had been dreaming, but the dream had disappeared. All I had was the final line, certain and indisputable. "You haven't got very much longer to live." Fuck. I remember jumping out of bed and trying to rationalise, but it was impossible. I had just been told that my number was up. It was a dream, it was only a dream, I told myself. As I waited for the morning kettle to boil, I shivered, as if a ghost had walked over my grave. Later I recounted the tale to several friends, and did my best to laugh it off, but I had never, and still to this day have never experienced anything like it. It was so direct a warning, and however irrationally, I knew that I was kidding myself that it was not meant for me, and I tried hard to suppress the memory.

After the video debacle, as the empty days moved on towards September, although I could not yet see my depression, I realised that physically I was in trouble. I had chronic fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, occasional palpitations. I had finished working for the company I had set up three years previously. I was in a waiting room. I was waiting to see what happened next. I had no idea what it would be. This was a new thing. I felt directionless. I may have drifted for periods in the past, but even that was conscious drifting. In this I had no option.

In Edinburgh, a kind female red-haired GP saw me and told me I had ME, that I needed to relax, stop working immediately, and go see my GP as soon as I got back to London. I looked at her blankly as she talked chirpily about relaxation tapes, sensing her worries about my mental health, thinking, you are very nice, and you are right, but you have no idea how to deal with me, no idea what I am experiencing, none at all. I knew I needed to relax, but it was deeper than that. I needed to let go of the years of holding it together, for myself and those around me.

I went back to the flat and thought about how isolated I was, and the lack of intimacy in my love relationship. Although we were both locked into our work and had been under strain, I thought everything would be fine. I thought our love was strong enough to last. I thought I would get the support I had given. I got nothing except a terse request not to rock the boat.

Thus I found myself alone in a foreign city with no work and no companionship, and I spent time walking around, just anywhere. I found myself up on the castle rock, looking across Edinburgh. I found myself watching an obscure play in a tiny, dirty theatre, surrounded by Spanish students. I found myself at the bus station, looking at destinations. I had some money at least, so I went shopping. I bought, over a period of three weeks, black shoes, black trousers, a white shirt and a black jacket. Funeral attire, I realised later.

The final week dragged to a close, and we were joined by old friends who somewhat distracted me with their family energy and good heartedness. I was feeling tired more than anything now, as my emotions closed up, shut down, and more and more the expectation grew in me that my dream was right. I was witnessing each day as if it was my last, I had abandoned all thoughts of anything future, baffling attempts to draw me into conversation so that I could just wait to see which second on that ticking clock would be my last. We survived the last night, the fireworks, the bonhomie, the drink.

It was Sunday, August 31st, 1997. A bright, sunny morning in Edinburgh. We packed the van, ready to leave. "Diana is dead!" announced S, just back from the shops. Cue general disbelief and mild consternation all round. My head started to spin. "How? When?" I marched to the shops and bought a copy of every newspaper - the first editions with partially-clothed paparazzi pictures of Diana and Dodi on the beach, full of claims that the relationship was destoying the royal family, the second editions, respectful R.I.P. headlines, with all scandal removed. I walked back to the van, slowly, thinking, "You haven't got very much longer to live." It wasn't me. I wasn't meant for me. It was Diana, it was about Diana's death. I felt a wave of euphoria, and I smiled for the first time in three weeks. "You know the best thing about this?" I asked a Scots passer-by, showing him the paper. "It's not me." I caught a bemused grimace back, and decided it was too complicated to explain.

It is amazing how long one can labour under particular illusions, the accuracy of one's perceptions and analysis being chief among them, illusions revealing their clever mechanisms at the moment of downfall, suddenly unmissable mountains appearing as the mists vanish.

As the great tide of grief swept the nation over the following week, it had a soothing effect on me. I felt that somehow I had caught an advance glimpse of this very public death, and interpreted it as my own, and so while all of Britain wept for this stolen icon, I experienced relief, and a resurgence of hope. But, I was still wrong. My lovely partner went to Venezuela, and although she sent me postcards and faxes proclaiming love and loyalty, she left me within a week of her return. And then, die I did, although not physically, or permanently. Just for a while.



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