After a year in London we were stressed, tired, poor and glum
Only after moving did I realise our stress was exacerbated by where we had lived
“I lie awake and listen to the sound of nothingness”
Humans are inherently conservative animals. We are resistant to changes – both significant and small – even when low-risk changes might improve a situation in which we are unhappy. So often, we will choose what is familiar to us (even if we are aware that it makes us miserable), because we can’t tolerate the risk inherent to change. We’re bad at looking with objectivity at our lives because we get tangled in the minutiae, or perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that we just get immersed in everydayness, forfeiting the necessary distance to assess aspects of our lives as distinct from the general feel of the whole.
Even after six house moves in five years (two of them international moves), I don’t think I’m much better at change. Those facts alone might imply that I like moving; that I’m one of those spontaneous people who responds with anything other than pouty recalcitrance when someone frenziedly shouts “Let’s go to the zoo this afternoon!”, or thinks that unplanned trips to Tipperary or Cumberland or Las Vegas (or anywhere, frankly) are a great idea. I couldn’t be less spontaneous. Even little deviations from the idea I’ve formed of my day, afternoon, life, dinner and so on will put a spook on me. Every change from whatever the plan was (no matter how unimportant or boring the plan may be) feels like a slightly too-hot bath. I have to mince over it and ease myself down, centimetre by centimetre, into the sting of the water, exhaling dramatically through my teeth as though there’s a decent chance I’ll be boiled alive.
After living in the centre of London for a year, I was poor (not necessarily poorer than Dublin rents made me), tired, and glum. Our neighbourhood wasn’t safe. Rival gangs of teen boys had a bad habit of trying to murder one another at random points of the day and night. After a 17-year-old boy died of stab wounds seconds from our building’s front door, we decided to leave. The tension and despair filtered through the neighbourhood. A shrine to him erected on the street where he died highlighted the utter pointlessness of his death and the unacceptable brevity of his young life.
I feel guilty when I lie in bed at night, listening to the sound of nothingness, wrapping myself in it, but it was the right move for us; a healthy change
Afterwards, the wait for reprisal left people in the neighbourhood jumpy and snappish. It wasn’t safe to walk home from the Tube station at night. The evening before we left for good, two men tried to mug my partner J on his way home. They weren’t successful, but it was confirmation enough that it just wasn’t safe to stay. I felt guilty for moving, or for being able to move, as though putting the horrific social problems in that area away from view might allow me to pretend they didn’t exist. Yet staying when you don’t have to might be a form of patronising middle-class pity tourism.
Only after moving (again) did I realise that the stress on our relationship, our wellbeing, on our sleep, was all exacerbated by where we had lived. The deprivation of the area seeped under my skin. Lying in bed after midnight and hearing the voices of young, unaccompanied children shouting at each other in the street below. Passing police cordons every couple of weeks as I walked to work. Because it was such a central area, there were always sirens through the night. Never, ever was there quiet. I hadn’t realised that I had been diagnosing my generalised discontent as indomitable existential problems – Am I with the wrong partner? Am I just a glum person? Am I actually able to feel really content? I became churlish and overly analytical, incapable of realising that the source of my discontent was coming from outside me (usually, to be fair, that isn’t the case).
A simple change of geography (not easy for anyone and impossible for some, of course) changed the lens through which we viewed our lives. The quiet suburb where we now live is one where older people feel safe to walk their dogs, and where neighbours know one another’s names. I feel guilty when I lie in bed at night, listening to the sound of nothingness, wrapping myself in it, but it was the right move for us; a healthy change.