All my life I have been afflicted by severe anxiety and depression. Anxiety is a trait that my mother has always exhibited and I guess that I learnt it from her. For instance, every letter that comes through my door, every call on the phone, every email in my inbox- they are all greeted with a frisson of panic until they are safely neutralised. (Particularly stressful are manila envelopes with a return address labelled as Belfast. These are from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) but, even then, the vast majority are far from threatening.) Often I find myself avoiding checking my answerphone or emails altogether because I don’t feel robust enough to face the music.
Powering up complex machines can also be troublesome. Turning on the washing machine, the microwave, the telly, the DVD player, and yes, the computer (again!) all require a mental ‘oomph’ which I often lack. Even something as trivial as turning on a hot tap can prove to be very stressful. Sometimes it’s a couple of minutes before the hot water actually turns up and those couple of minutes are not enjoyable. When things go wrong- such as the printer clogging up or the boiler breaking down- it’s a major issue for me. Even though I am well aware that it shouldn’t be.
And don’t even ask me about travelling by bus or by train…
‘No man is an island’ and I need friends as much as anyone else. However, given that I can’t even manage a relationship with a hot tap successfully, how on earth can I expect to make and keep friends?
When I returned to Norwich in order to work at the institute of Food Research (IFR) in 1989, I had a nasty alcohol problem of over ten tears’ standing. It had first developed whilst I was still at school. There, it was quite common for me to skip afternoon games and lock myself in a cubicle in the toilets under the dryers’ Lodge teaching block. Glugging back Harvey’s Bristol Cream would help me to keep the horrors at bay and I was able to control my addiction sufficiently that I was never rumbles, more and more frequently. I continued to drink very heavily until 1992, when my long-suffering cricket teammates told me that, though I was a nice guy when sober, I was a complete shit when drunk (which was most of the time). I was given the choice of giving up alcohol of finding a new cricket club.
I had tried several times to cut down on my drinking without much success, but having to give up alcohol together turned out to be remarkably trouble-free, although my cricketing friends did not make things easy for me by continuing to do all their socialising in pubs.
But, if giving up alcohol meant that I lived happily ever after, there wouldn’t be much of interest to report. Unfortunately, giving up the booze altogether had a disastrous effect on my life.
I have paranoid schizophrenia and there’s a very nasty voice in my head that says most unhelpful things. A moderate (and I stress ‘moderate’) intake of alcohol could suppress the voice but I could rarely stop at ‘moderate’, usually charging straight to ‘heavy’. However, when I was completely sober, I was absolutely defenceless.
At work the voice told me that my colleagues were trying to kill me and, every day, I would spend two or three hours in tears locked in the lavatory. It also told me that I was completely useless as a scientists and would be sacked within days. The voice also came home with me, leading to evenings of unrelieved despair.
I became paranoid that there were thousands of people outside my house trying very hard to look inside and watch me. In order to keep them at bay I never opened the curtains, but I still ‘knew’ that they were out there. Sometimes I found that turning off the lights and hiding under the duvet was sufficient to evade the watchers, but I was often so scared that I had to leave the house. Strangely, when I was outside, I no longer felt threatened as the thousands somehow disappeared.
My last few months of paid employment were hell. A great weight was lifted off my shoulders as I handed in my notice and checking in to Hellesdon Psychiatric Hospital in Norwich for a few weeks of glorious respite. As usual I had to be chucked out after about six weeks, going back into the outside world most unwillingly. And, also as usual, I suffered from the post-Hellesdon blues. But if I expected that, on recovery from those, I could look forward to a relatively happy future, un-blackened by work- related issues, I was very much mistaken. If anything my new life is an ex-worker turned out to be more stressful than my old one as a wage slave. Whilst worrying about my attention from bigger problems.
I suffered a complete collapse of confidence on all fronts. Instead of just being an incompetent person. The overwhelming conviction that I was absolutely hopeless at everything chased me even further out of my mind than I had ever been before.
One of the routes that I like to follow whilst rambling around Caistor St Edmund consists simply of walking along the entire length of Chandler Road.
It’s a narrow road, less than one and a half cars in width and has no pavements at all. I have to walk at the very edge of the road. When I first started to follow this route I noticed that’s cars passing me would slow down and hug the other side of the road in order to ensure that they didn’t clobber me. Not wishing to put the car drivers to any bother, I now react to their approach by climbing onto the verge (either grassy or muddy), stopping and keeping a careful eye on them. If no verge is available I squeeze myself into the side of the road as far as I am able.
It soon became clear to me that many drivers appreciate my gestures and respond with an acknowledgement. This might take several forms. One or more fingers raised from a hand on the steering wheel. A whole hand lifted from the steering wheel altogether. A smile. A nod. Sometimes the acknowledgement contains more than one component. I will always respond by raising my hand to acknowledge the acknowledgement. Hopefully in time for the drivers to see. Soon I came to enjoy these rituals. I consider them to be genuine interactions with other human beings, albeit extremely ephemeral ones. These are frequently bad days when the prospect of other, more significant, interactions appears to be slight. On such days I might catch the bus to Chandler Road with the sole intention being to trade acknowledgements. It might seem unlikely, but this can actually help to lift my mood, changing ‘bad’ to ‘so-so’.