Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
21. Life is unbearable, thanks for asking
July (part three)
This is chapter twenty-one. Experts agree you should start with chapter one.
In my undream, Dr Hoffman said he’d perfected the experience machine. That he’d created a device to help you experience all emotions equally. A machine designed to anchor you in reality. Then, in reality, the actual Dr Hoffmann sent me a cheap LCD wristwatch. It has the one feature the Acid Watch doesn’t: It tells the time. It also has a stopwatch function, but I’m getting off track. Perhaps he has perfected it. Perhaps it was staring him in the face all along. Perhaps the true experience machine is time. All it takes is a simple wristwatch, one that shows the seconds and minutes and hours, rising and falling, resetting and starting anew. A series of moments. Each of them ephemeral. Each an eternity. Not then, or soon, but now. A fleeting and forever present. Perhaps that is the device he hadn’t thought to invent. Perhaps because someone else already had. A true reality anchor.
When I was a kid, I loved browsing the physical catalogues my mum had in the house. Before the internet, telephone shopping was all the rage. Twice a year you’d get sent these great big glossy bibles with a thousand pages of clothes, toys, tools, white goods, make-up, sporting equipment, camping gear, and all manner of gadgets, gizmos and doodads. If you wanted to order something you’d call up, give them the item reference code and your credit card number, and they’d ship it to you. This used to take anywhere from fourteen days to three months. I’d spend entire afternoons deep in these catalogues. I’d dog-ear the pages I wanted something from. And I’d grab a pen and paper and write lists. Two columns. The item I wanted and the price. This wasn’t for anything. We didn’t have the money to buy one of these things, let alone all of them. But there was no harm in looking. In browsing. In coveting things I had no earthly use for. I picked out the best binoculars, the best six-man tent, the best barbeque. I picked out equipment for sports I didn’t play and accessories for cars I didn’t own. This went on for hours. And once I was done with my list, that was it. Urge fulfilled. Occasionally one of these lists would produce a Christmas or birthday present, but it wasn’t guaranteed. I just loved making the lists. I still do, with some adjustments. What I do now is I bookmark web pages of things I want to buy, and categorise the pages into folders, marked things like power tools, or jackets. I read all the reviews and watch YouTube comparisons. Then I start a spreadsheet where I list the best item from the ones I found, next to its price and the link. Sometimes this is for things I need, like things for the flat. Furniture and fittings. But mostly it’s for things I don’t need. As I have a little money these days, I decide to try something. What would little you do? I open my spreadsheet and scroll down the list until I find something I’ve wanted for ages and may never use. And I buy it for him.
In want of an idea, I text the one person I know who has mastered joy. My niece, Lily. She’s basically a black belt in it. I ask her what I should do next. Well, not another old film, she says. That was SO boring. I am already regretting this idea. Ooh, I know! You should watch a new movie! At the cinemas. It’s really cool. You can get pick’n’mix. Dad won’t let me get any when he takes me but I got some at Dahlia’s birthday party and you can get whatever you want. It’s so fun. Children’s brains work in such wonderful ways. It’s like playing word association games with a golden retriever. Just don’t watch something boring, she says. I promise I won’t. Then I ask what counts as boring. Cars are boring, she says. And like explosions and stuff. And films where the guns goes pew pew pew. I say thank you and she sends me fifteen different emojis and a selection of animated stickers because kids don’t know how to end a conversation. Still, if she doesn’t take a job as a film critic, I’m considering employing her as my Chief Delight Officer.
The delivery arrives at lunch. Next day shipping always takes an extra day in Seagate. I open the box and admire it a while, feeling very pleased with myself. What I bought is a gumball machine. I’ve wanted one since I was eight-years-old. It sits proudly on a half-finished bookshelf, filled with dozens of colourful gumballs. I have zero desire to chew a gumball, but I turn the knob until one drops down the chute and into the tray. I lift the little door and take it out, rolling it idly between my thumb and index finger. Then I pop it right back in the top. It is an almost entirely useless, almost entirely perfect object. Younger me would be thrilled. I’ll have to tell him all about.
When you have depression for a long time it becomes your daily practice. It’s the mode you operate in, and the lens with which you frame everything. You know how you’ll respond to enquiries about your day in advance. Everything sucks, so your attitude is carefully cultivated to suck. You feel bad, and you want the person to feel bad for asking. Listen fucko, my brand is depression, so my life is unbearable, thanks for asking. You don’t think about it, don’t consider how you might actually feel, because life is suffering and sentience is a curse and you don’t want to be here. You can kill a conversation with a glance – stop a good morning in its tracks at forty paces. Unless other people stop it for you. When you’re depressed for long enough, people start to expect it from you. They police your responses, your expressions, your mood. Wear a bright colour and they balk. Say good morning back and they question your sanity. So you play to the crowd. You wear the stock expression, give the stock answer. And eventually, the crowd stops asking. When you’re depressed long enough, everyone forgets it’s the disease talking, it’s the disease your mask belongs to. Everyone forgets you’re in there somewhere, looking for the light switch in a darkness without walls. When you’re depressed for long enough, you forget this, too.
The cinema used to be my favourite place. As a kid it was pure imagination fuel. In my teens and twenties it was a place to escape. But we haven’t gotten along lately. Blame the pre-show ads, or the bland corporate multiplexes, the streaming platforms or the pandemic. Whatever it is, I don’t escape here much any more. The film I’m here to see is a big budget adaptation of a cartoon that was popular when I was a kid. The Tomorrow Knights were four anthropomorphised dogs from a future civilisation that had collapsed into ruin, who travelled back in time to present day London to help prevent global warming. There were a number of similar shows on TV in this era, featuring mutant turtles, sharks, and mice. But the Tomorrow Knights were my favourite. The film is very bad. And yet through some combination of sugar, nostalgia, and a problematic level of attraction to the female Knight voiced by Emily Blunt, I enjoy every second of it. It makes me cry three times. If you see it, make sure you stay right to the end for the post-credit sequence, which sets up the Tomorrow Knight cinematic universe quite well.
It’s after midnight when I get home. I open my phone to a text from Saffron. She wants to know if I’m awake, which, thanks to an ill advised cup of joe at the cinema, I am. Excellent, she says. Then you can call me and say very dirty things to me while I make myself come. Since she moved to Cambodia, we have had an occasional bout of phone sex, usually prompted by the fact that it’s very humid there and sleeping naked tends to leave her a bit hot and bothered. I was going to stick a film on, I say. But I could be persuaded. She sends a picture of what she’s sleeping in, which is more persuasion than I needed and a good reminder that sometimes, if you’re open to it, joy finds you.
A package from mum is waiting in the hallway. When I open it, the rollerblades are relatively pristine, a few scuffs here and there, but no worse for twenty years in the garage. They smell like an actual arsehole, but they fit fine. As the sun rises over Seagate, the runners and the swimmers all stop and stare at the nearly forty-year-old man gliding like a gull over the paved footpath that runs along the top of the cliffs, grinning like a schoolboy.
A whim finds me standing in line in the bakery. When I reach the front, I buy myself a raspberry slice. It’s a cake-bar filled with jam and covered in pink icing. The kind of thing little me would have ordered. I stand outside in the sun and finish it in two bites. As with everything I’ve tried this month, the joy will wane, eventually. It’ll need topping up tomorrow. What I’ve learned about joy is that it is fleeting. It needs to be coaxed and encouraged. A process of constant rediscovery. A daily practice like any other. What I’ve learned about joy is that little joys are best. Nothing too overwhelming. A pick-me-up, not a dopamine binge. One nap, one cigarette, one orgasm. What I have learned about joy is that there are opportunities for it everywhere. A quick dance in the kitchen. A baked treat. I head back into the bakery and buy two more raspberry slices. On the way home I text Fern, tell her to put the kettle on. I’m bringing treats, I say. What I have learned about joy is that it is even better when shared.
My flat is thrillingly empty. I’ve cleaned up my tools, for the moment at least. The work isn’t done yet, it might never be done, but it’s coming along. And I’m learning to love it more every day. If I wake up early enough, before the scaffolders, when it’s just me and the sun yawning across the rooftops and a cup of black coffee, you could mistake it for bliss. If I wake up early enough it feels like I’m the only one here. A whole town to myself. Alone but not lonely. Solitude is different than loneliness. Loneliness is an accident, the result of confusing isolation with safety. It is a self-inflicted torture, with endless days spent enduring your own inescapable company. Solitude is a reset. It’s a choice. A state to return to when your energy is spent. A time carved out by boundaries and dedicated to recharging, to rest. To the active pursuit of nothing. Perhaps when I say depression robs you of your ability to feel, what I mean is it robs you of the ability to recognise what you’re feeling. To acknowledge it and validate it. To give it a name and say it aloud. I have been practising joy all along. I just wasn’t practising it alone. When I have found joy it has often been in the company of other people. Living room discos with Fern. Silly walks with Lily. Wrangling wheels of cheese with my brother and Brandon. Sharing memes with V. Cigarettes and single malt with Saffron. Occasional benders with infamous novelists. I have been practising joy all along, I just haven’t been able to articulate it. Maybe knowing the name of the thing you feel, learning the words, understanding them, and saying them aloud is all it takes to loosen the grip of depression. I might never slip its grasp entirely. And that’s okay. But I can learn to appreciate the respite I do find. I can learn to say I feel happy in this moment. I can learn to say in this moment, I feel joy.
I’ve been up all night thinking about something Fern said when I finally filled her in on the accident, the acid trip, the attempt to access long dormant feelings. Begs the question though, doesn’t it, she said over tea. If this were a simulation, why is this the year you chose to repeat? And how many times have you repeated it?
I’m going on a summer break! I won’t be sending chapters at the usual dates for the next few weeks. The usual schedule will resume from September.
Thank you for your support. Please leave a comment with a line you liked this chapter.