After my breakdown, Dublin was safe. I wasn’t ready for London
‘I feel edgy when we get out of the taxi and all the security make my heart speed’
‘Being in London during the critical terror alert, I took a step back in my recovery. Maybe I wasn’t ready for it.’ Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Five months ago I nervously broke down, which meant that I couldn’t leave my house or eat and do other things necessary to live. The journey back to myself, to living, has involved therapy (effective), yoga (less effective), and forcing myself to go outside (fine). I am settling into my new role of being fine, appearing fine, acting fine, and everybody being surprised that I’m so fine having seen me a matter of months ago, rail thin and constantly shaking.
I found myself in a place of such remoteness in my disconnection that even now a lot of the time I feel like I’m floating and trying to sink. I can hear about events I was present for like they’re completely new stories, or begin watching a film and only realise halfway through that I’ve already and recently seen it. I read the same paragraph of a book five or six times before I can actually register its meaning, and I apparently make weird faces when I’m listening to somebody talk because I’m concentrating so hard on staying in the room.
There is a sense that my mind has caused irreparable damage to itself. There’s guilt that comes with it too, that I managed to damage my own brain to an amazing extent – obliterating myself with cyclical, destructive thoughts, with precision.
Dublin is a small safe place to recover. I booked a trip to London that I wasn’t sure that I was ready for as a sort of a test. I had begun to resent my anxiety for making me static, and this was a moment of combat that seemed to help, seemed to make me stronger.
Control my breath
I take three tubes in rush hour on the third day, managing to control my breath. But there is still that sense, in being crowded, of being erased. A claustrophobic remoteness, everything feeling close and far away simultaneously, inscrutable, uncontactable, standing back to back with itself. There are too many people and when I’m around too many people it makes me see my own death very clearly, the way that looking up at the stars does.
If I can compare it to recovery from a brain injury without trivialising the trauma of that, I will. It is the ultimate uncertainty of self
On the fourth day a friend is DJing after a gig at a venue in Hackney so my friend Lola and I take the overground towards Dalston Kingsland and we’re late. A man sits across from us, skinny-handsome and smelling of alcohol. He keeps standing abruptly, pacing the length of the carriage before coming back to sit again opposite, fidgeting. I don’t know what I think he’s going to do. His random violent movements push me out of orbit and my heart speeds up. The doors open at the next station and people crowd onto the carriage. I have to get out.
On the platform, Lola presses her hand onto my chest over my breastbone, over my heart and tells me to breathe, until I stop shaking and reassuring her that I’m alright, until I actually am alright. I can’t get back on the overground so we go to find somewhere to have a drink before getting an Uber to Hackney. As we walk, my friend talks about her grandfather. He died of a disease that made his organs start shutting down, like somebody moving from room to room in a house and turning all the lights off one by one. We pass a massive blocks of flats. There are crows wheeling between the buildings. There is nobody around.
I still feel edgy when we get out of the taxi at the venue and all the security there make my heart speed again. After Manchester, no bags are allowed inside, everything gets turned out onto a table and examined closely before my backpack goes to the cloakroom. I wonder how they got through everyone, it takes so much time. The woman at the door feels me up dead eyed with latex gloves. Then we go down and I see that the place (warehouse, bunker, airplane hangar) isn’t crowded, and there are almost as many security guards as people dancing.
There was a minute of silence for the victims of Manchester at midnight but we just missed it. I ask the band afterwards how it was. They say, eerie. Because it’s the same setting, the same situation, they say. So you can feel it. A minute of silence in a church wouldn’t have been as effective. The singer scratches the back of his neck and stares at the ceiling. A minute of silence on stage is a long time, he says. He didn’t know what to do with his hands.
My boyfriend doesn’t understand people who say they will never take psychedelic drugs. He says, what do they think they will lose that’s so precious? I think I know
Up at the door when we were being searched and I was tucking £20 notes into my bra to pay for drinks, my friend asked why we can’t take bags in. The security guard snapped at her.
“Don’t you know what’s happening here?” He said. He got close to her.
“Last week a man came in here spraying acid in people’s faces.” He mimed a spray bottle.
“That’s you done, that’s how easy.”
He turned around and did the same to me.
“And that’s you.”
“Your own mother wouldn’t recognise you.”
He didn’t mention the Manchester attack. I suppose he didn’t need to.
A nervous breakdown has precision. It doesn’t feel good, but you are aware of what is happening. What comes after is harder and impalpable. The realness of what I am now after the awareness of nothing. If I can compare it to recovery from a brain injury without trivialising the trauma of that, I will. It is the ultimate uncertainty of self. It is a good place to start from. It is not a brain injury.
In the Louis Theroux documentary about people recovering from brain trauma, he asks a man if his wife is the same person that she was before her accident. She answers yes, he, no. I am both the wife and the husband. Both the lost and the loser. And certain of nothing, of both.
My boyfriend doesn’t understand people who say they will never take psychedelic drugs. He says, what do they think they will lose that’s so precious? I think I know. I met him after the breakdown, when I was still nothing. Now, becoming again something, I wonder if he will still like me. I wonder if the void that he saw in me was what was interesting, and as I manifest and become tangible, he will walk away. I will lose my edge as I gain it. These are things that I think about.
The uncertainty is huge. I am impaled by it.
The Saturday after I came back to Dublin, I watched people react to the London Bridge attack on Twitter. Police responded within eight minutes. During their eight minutes of pre-neutralisation, three men killed eight people on London Bridge and in Borough Market.
It is unsettling that an act of violence this disorganised and chaotic can take eight whole lives that quickly. The Manchester bombing took 22 in almost an instant (there is too much deep, deep sadness in the loss of children). Knowing that possibility has its way of shaking the core of you. We knew the pleasure of existing in relative safety for so long that we were no longer aware of the pleasure of it. We are being brought up to speed, gradually, unfortunately, with much of the world.
Anxiety is often, at the very heart of it, a fear of death
The impact of acts like these isn’t the number of people lost in them, but the way they have of changing the texture of a place. How a new sense of resolve is required to walk down a familiar street or commute to work. In London (pre-London Bridge, post-Manchester) that sense of tension was tempered with resilience.
Around 29,376 people were killed by terrorism in 2015, around 800,000 die every year by suicide. By contrast, terrorism is almost meaningless. It would be more logical to fear ourselves. But people don’t think in contrasts like that. Both of those counts pale in comparison to cancer and obesity, but we aren’t scared of those things in crowded airports, feel their potential when we are vulnerable or we are alone.
Anxiety is often, at the very heart of it, a fear of death. When it gets bad enough it presents that object of fear as a logical way out of itself. It’s a strange distortion. Being in London during the critical terror alert, I took a step back in my recovery. Maybe I wasn’t ready for it. But I did feel connected to the dichotomy of palpable baseline fear and the fierce desire to exist as before.