Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Low Point

The other night in a break between the end of a rehearsal and the start of a lighting session of Turandot at the Coliseum I wandered across Covent Garden to a pub which is not normally full of young people enjoying themselves and which normally has football on telly. I bought a pint and sat down to watch Chelsea against some Cypriot (I think) no hopers in the Champions League. After a few minutes a memory of some events that occurred 40 years ago started to replay in my head, why a single pint of bitter, a bag of peanuts and an early Chelsea goal should have triggered this memory I have no idea. I have never forgotten these events but on the other hand I have not given them a moment’s thought for years, they have remained sandwiched somewhere between childhood holidays and first marriage on the shelves in the stockroom of my consciousness.

So this is a piece about depression and before you click the exit box I should reassure you that it has a happy ending, of sorts, and there are a couple of jokes on the way. If you have never suffered from depression you are lucky, a high percentage of the population will suffer from it at some point in their lives, if you have suffered from depression and come out the other side I salute you and if you are depressed now I don’t suppose that reading this will make the slightest difference and I am sorry for that.

I started to be depressed during my last year at school and continued to be affected with varying degrees of intensity for about two years. I have no idea what caused it, no that’s not quite true, but adolescent depression is common enough, hormonal imbalance may have been the cause and I will leave it at that for now. It is not just feeling gloomy, it is not just feeling ‘a bit blue’; at its worst depression is an almost physical anguish that can leave you literally doubled up on the floor. It can also be a secretive illness that will allow you to function normally, to be a jolly bloke in a pub, to go to lectures and tutorials and no one can tell, no one will notice and you won’t tell them partly because you don’t know what to tell them and partly because you are ashamed. Coupled with depression comes suicide and self harming, though forty years ago ‘self harming’ hadn’t been invented. I think that every would-be suicide has a favoured method of ending it all, my own was wrist slashing with a cut-throat razor, I never thought of suicide by any other means. The idea of waiting in the undergrowth on a railway embankment and stepping out in front of a train, as people do on a regular basis between Wimbledon and Waterloo, was unthinkable. The humiliation of a failed overdose with stomach pumps and so on would be unbearable and jumping off something high never appealed as I have no head for heights.

My lowest point came in my second term at university, in a decisively deranged moment I decided to run away from it all and head off to Istanbul then the first step on the way to the East, Katmandu and all that mystic hippy stuff, which I heartily despised, but I had enjoyed Turkey in my gap year (also not invented then, we just had a year in which to mess about). I cleared my bank account, packed virtually nothing apart from my trusty cut-throat razor and caught the train south to London and from Victoria I took the boat-train to Dover and Ostend. It was February, a stormy night and the night ferry then was even less appealing than it is now. I don’t remember much about the four hour crossing other than that it was very rough and that a lot of people were seasick. I have a hazy memory of something happening in the bar as we neared Ostend, that tipped me off my own personal cliff of despair and I went to the toilets, which were swimming in vomit, and locked myself in a cubicle. My obsession with wrist slashing had led me to some basic research and I knew that to succeed one needed to lie in a warm bath otherwise the blood clots and you don’t die but a medical student had told me that rather than go for the superficial veins the thing to do was to go for the artery below the tendons which operate one’s thumb and forefinger. Cut that artery and bingo! oblivion is almost guaranteed. So I set to work with my cut throat razor but while I quickly made a deep wound between the tendons which started to bleed profusely, I discovered that arteries are both slippery and tough customers and that the only way to get at this particular one would be by sawing my way through the obstructing tendons first, something that wasn’t in my plan. You may well say ‘Oh come on, what’s a tendon or two in the broad scheme of things when death is one’s destination’ but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Luckily I was saved from any further agonising by an announcement on the public address system telling all foot passengers to go to C deck for disembarkation. I hastily bound up the wound in my left wrist with a handkerchief, not easy to do with one hand and one’s teeth, and found my way to the queue for the gangway to the dockside. Luckily I was at the back of the queue, otherwise anyone behind me would have noticed that I was leaving a significant trail of blood. The customs man made his chalk mark on my bag but as I left the customs shed he noticed the blood dripping from my hand and shouted, not aggressively but in concern ‘Monsieur! Monsieur!’. I ran out through the dock gates and into the streets of Ostend. I wandered about for a while not sure whether to go back to the dock and the railway station but was worried that the customs man might have told the police to watch out for me. I had to do something, I was wearing only a jacket and shirt and it was a bitter night, at 4.00am the streets were deserted and everything was shut, I was in danger of freezing to death. I walked along the front, where there is a row of rather elegant Edwardian hotels, all were closed up and dark except one where the lights in the foyer were on. I walked in to utter silence but after a moment a door under the stairs opened and a tiny man and a Jack Russell terrier emerged. The man was no more than 4’ 6” tall and wore a livery of some sort and I assumed he was the night porter. I couldn’t think of anything more intelligent to say than ‘Petit dejeuner?’. I must have looked a sight, long haired, wild eyed, blood stained, but after a pause he pushed open a door, turned on some lights and ushered me into a vast dining room illuminated by three large crystal chandeliers. There were dozens of tables, all set for breakfast with battalions of immaculately folded napkins. He pulled out a chair at the table nearest to the door and indicated that I should sit, he vanished but the Jack Russell sat on the floor next to me, presumably ensuring that I didn’t steal the silver. The little man returned with a pot of coffee, fresh bread and croissants that had perhaps only just been delivered from a local bakery, he brought cheese, sausage, butter and jam. It’s hard to describe just how delicious that breakfast was but you must remember that forty years ago French bread and croissants had not made the trip across the Channel, Hovis was about as good as it got in England. He left me alone to eat, but all the while the dog sat at my feet so close that I could feel his warmth through my trouser leg. When I had finished I got up to pay but the little man briskly waved away my money and gently shooed me out of the front door. It would be nice to say that this act of kindness turned my life around but of course it didn’t, but it did enable me to pull myself together and get back on a ferry to England and from that moment my life has only got better. It took many months for me to sort myself out and find a life that I was prepared to live but that night was both the low point and the turning point in my life. As souvenirs of that February night I have a ragged scar on my left wrist and a tendency to approach most things in life with almost insane optimism.

Finally I will share with you a great line from the Psychiatrist’s Manual. At some point someone noticed that all was not well with me and I was packed off to the Tavistock Clinic, a fashionable outfit specialising in the treatment of disturbed adolescents. At the first three sessions I said nothing, literally nothing, I sat hunched in an armchair resentful, paranoid and traumatised. My psychiatrist probably looked forward to my weekly visit as an opportunity to catch up with some paperwork but on my fourth visit I started to talk and talk at some length. When I finished he came out with a line that, in retrospect, I know was probably one that he used on a regular basis and perhaps psychiatrists are taught this line in psychiatrist school, but he said “Bloody Hell! I’m not surprised that you’re depressed”. Thank you Dr Miller wherever you are, and 40 years on you are probably in that great Consulting-Room-in-the-Sky, it was one of the nicest things that anyone has ever said to me.

1 comment:

MariAntoinette said...

Yes, thank you Dr Miller and all those other people who change a life in a single sentence. Mine was when Dr Jacobs invited me to sit down on my own sofa when doing a home visit some twenty five years ago. For the very first time in my life I knew how I felt, angry. Normally stuff just fell namelessly in the black hole and consumed me. Life changed for me from that moment on.

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