May 07, 2005

Spinning the bottle

It was five years ago today, I think. It might have been five years ago tomorrow. I may have known, at the time, but I have never known since. After it happens, your memory is shattered for a while, under the influence of all the images that fill your head during the days you are unconscious, summoned by artificial sleep and the morphine they pump into you. You live, for a while, in the world the morphine makes, a world of intense nightmares, made more intense by the morphine, made more real by your inability to wake. They stay with you after you wake, and only as they wear off, in the days and weeks that follow, do your memories seep back and tell you who you were before it happened.

They never return entirely. You never return entirely. Once you have crossed that line, a part of you remains behind even after your return. You lose the last few hours of your memory. You lose a small part of yourself. It might have been lost to you already - disintegrating in those lost last hours, worn away in the weeks and months beforehand. Indeed, it cannot happen unless you are worn down already. Eroded, unable to function any more. The machine stops. There are no decisions, no choices involved. Those faculties are gone, gone with the will to think, to fight, to struggle on. Gone with the will to observe, with the will to remember. It is something that happens to you – it is not something that you do. You cannot do anything any more. You cannot do anything but help the machine to stop.

I never understood this. I couldn’t have. So long as I possessed the faculty of understanding, I could not have understood it. I had thought about it. Thought about it for too long, thought too long about that and nothing else, thought about the circumstances and the timing and the reasons and the place. But in the end I could not have chosen any of them. It could not have happened until enough of me was worn away, and the capacity to understand among the losses. Once that was done, once I was rendered helpless, then it happened.

I had expected it to happen. I had expected it for such a long time, fought it off for just as long. It had expected it to happen maybe with a bang, with drums and bursting passion, ending like it was the first act of Tosca, ending with anger, ending like it mattered. Or I had expected it to happen with acceptance, far away, on the cliffside of a Scottish island with a sunset and a bottle and the tablets, slowly slipping into sleep. But these were the most impossible of fantasies. With passion? Where there is passion, there is fight, and where there is fight you do not give up fighting. With a flight? While I had the capability of flight, I never could have fled.

That is the thing, I realised much, much later. It happens when it has to happen. It happens when you are ready for it. And it happens when there is nothing you can do to prevent it any longer. For that reason, it happens where you are. Within the four walls of your room and within the confines of your head. Outside that, there is no world left any more. Outside that, there is no you.

The machine shudders, and stops. It breaks down. It has been breaking down. Noisily and slowly and painfully, it has been breaking down, and struggling against breaking down, until the noise and struggle come to and end, and everything is dimmed, and dulled. The last few hours are sleepwalking.

I can remember before then, clearly, all the eighteen months of crying fits, of screaming matches. All the countdowns, all the giving oneself another month, another week, another week before the previous one expired. I can remember the pills, the changing of the pills from one type to another, the desperation to get them in the first place, the desperation when they ceased to work, the doubling and trebling of the dose. I remember the hallucinatory agoraphobia they induced towards the end of those eighteen months, when I could hardly go out of the house without closing my eyes and hugging myself against the encroaching sky.

I can remember at the end of those eighteen months, the ward, the waiting, the waiting to be seen, the feeling that I was waiting there to die. And clearly, clearly, I can remember the consultant telling me to leave, telling me I was not depressed but merely angry, telling me that what I knew was false was true, telling me that he was taking away the last chance that I had. I remember that, all right. Oh, I remember that.

But after that, the memory is dimmer. Because, I think, after that, the screaming and the crying largely stopped. The line was crossed. One crosses it without knowing, first of all: one's own actions only confirm the fact. That's why it seems so easy, and so reasonable - you are already there. And having crossed the lines, the memory must dim. There is no will to remember, because there is no reason to remember.

Slowly, the machine stops. The functions close down, bit by bit and one by one. The memory no longer functions properly. I know I wrote a note, because I have since read it. But I cannot remember writing it. I have some memory of a football match on television. I have a dimmer recollection of loading some chess games onto my computer. After that I can remember nothing. Nothing but the walls around me. Not even the time, not even the day for sure. Not even whether it happened late in the evening or in the small hours of the morning. Not quite what happened, or the way it happened. I do not know whether afterwards, I slept easily and straight away, or whether I had time and cause to think. If I could think any more. I do not suppose I could. And after that, there is not silence, but two lost weeks that were filled with nightmares. And then, the waking, and the gradual rediscovery of memory, and the long struggle against falling that followed from that, and that still goes on.

I still go on. I still go on. I have left a little of myself behind me. You cannot cross the line and come back entire. But I still go on.

And I have not taken anybody else away. There is a sense in which you live partly outside yourself, in which part of you consists of the memories, the thoughts, that other people have of you. In which you are made real, even if only in image or in shadow, every time other people think of you. If that’s so, then when you die, just as you take your thoughts and memories with you when you die, then the people you have known die, in small part, too. You leave a little of yourself behind, but you destroy a little part of them. But I have destroyed nothing. I have not taken anybody else away.

But, still, I nearly did. And for a while, I did not know why. There was, as I said, no decision. There could have been no decision. So some weeks, some time after it had happened, I thought about what had occurred. After I had regained most of my memories and still not lost my balance, when I knew that it had happened but had not, yet, been overcome with gloom at knowing it, I thought about what had happened and came to an understanding about why. I hadn't wanted it to happen. Sometimes I had wanted it to happen, but that time had always passed. As long as I could hold my head in my hands for hours, as long as I could lie on my bed and shut my eyes, it had always passed. I hadn't wanted it to happen. I hadn't wanted it not to happen, that is true, but I hadn't wanted it to happen either. I knew that. I had always known that.

(Not very long afterwards, I shared a house in Newcastle with a girl who I heard, one night, crying in her room. When I asked her to talk to me, she told me that every time she walked over Armstrong Bridge she felt like throwing herself off. You do, I said, and yet you do not want to. Or else you would have done it. And, I could have added, if you wanted to, by now the crying would have stopped. You cry because you do not want to. And she didn't want to. And she still goes on.)

I didn't want it to happen. I didn't want it not to happen. And I was exhausted, exhausted, exhausted most of all by having to contemplate the choice between the two and make it all the time. I couldn't do that any more. I couldn't do anything any more. I could live, but I couldn't do anything any more, and least of all could I be made to suffer that impossibility, the obligation to decide. I could not do it. I abdicated. I wanted some other power, some power of chance (since even in extremis I was never tempted by the thought of God) to make that decision for me. To be is to decide, and I could not decide.

So, like I had done as a child, sitting with other children in a circle - and, come to that, like I hadn't done since I were a child - I spun the bottle. I spun the bottle, and let the power of chance decide which way it would be pointing when it stopped. I didn't know that I was doing that. I didn't really know at all, not at the time, what I was doing. But now I know. I have known for five years, less the few weeks it took me to remember, less the short time it took me to understand. I spun the bottle, and when it had finished spinning - it took so long, it took the best part of a fortnight to finish spinning - it was pointing the way that it was pointing. And when it had finished spinning, I was able to go on.

After it happened, and after that fortnight, but before I had really thought about it (let alone thought it through, and understood) I was taken outside the hospital for the first time in a month. I had not experienced fresh air or natural light in all that time, not since losing contact with the world beyond the contents of my room, and then beyond the confines of my head. The light was bright, though not harsh, and the breeze was gentle enough, but being the first breeze I had felt in weeks - the first in months without agoraphobia - I closed my eyes against the light and let the breeze brush over me, gently, as though the wind were leaves. And all I thought - for I could not, then, be burdened by too much thought - was that this is how it had turned out. This is what had happened, and this was where I was.

I sat there, on a bench in the grounds, with my eyes closed and my face feeling the wind, feeling what real life and light was like. Yet, at the same time, weak, without proper lungs (one of them had been damaged when they cleaned me out) and not yet able to walk entirely properly, and with the remains of a tracheostomy in my throat. I was damaged, badly damaged, perhaps, maybe even permanently damaged, but I was there. Nevertheless, I was there.

That, as I later realised, was where the bottle had finished when its spin was ended. That was the decision of the bottle. I was damaged - but I was there. And five years later, for everything that has happened since, I am here. Damaged, no doubt. Quite likely, permanently damaged. But I still go on. Ah, God, I still go on, and still want to go on. Alive but permanently damaged. Permanently damaged, but alive. I still go on. Five years today, five years tomorrow. The bottle spun. The machine does not stop. I still go on.


At May 10, 2005 10:02 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd hate to post something like that and get no comments, so here's a comment. J

At May 10, 2005 3:17 pm, Blogger Fist said...

To be slightly cruelly honest, I can't quite work out from your post the facts of what happened to you all that time back...

At May 10, 2005 8:14 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK here's a more serious comment - I'm not sure about your metaphors, not from a writing point of view but from a living point of view. People aren't machines, they're living organisms, and living organisms can recover from damage. They might always bear the signs of what happened, but nevertheless flourish and grow. You can pollard an oak tree and it'll grow back. A rose bush always remembers what a rose bush is meant to do, and does it even when it's been pruned hard. It's not the same as it would have been, but it's not damaged, just different. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives frame our experiences and shape what we see as possible, and you can tell the same story in a thousand different ways. The way the story starts can dictate the ending you live for it. You can do more than just "go on". J

At May 11, 2005 12:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is certainly a roller coaster ride reading your articles....what is it like living them?
My first response was to remember some lines that made my Dad laugh for ages and I couldn't understand why....
"Out of the Gloom a voice said to me "Smile and be happy, things could be worse."
So I smiled and was happy and things did get worse".

At May 12, 2005 5:40 pm, Anonymous Dan said...

I've read this a couple of times since yesterday. It's very moving and I wish I could think of something worthwhile to say. But I can't.

I also couldn't think of what to say to someone who is a vague friend when his wife jumped from a car park last year.

Oh, to be English in the spring.

At July 01, 2007 9:35 pm, Blogger Alan said...

Like someone else said, I can't work out what happened to you but I agree completely with your sentiments. I was in hospital for 3 months, the first one unconcious, the second one awake and in pain with morphine prescribed and both of these in Intensive Care Unit with people dying around me every day.Third was in a 'normal' ward then I was discharged.

Six years later I still cross a bridge sometimes and want to jump off - not all the time but sometimes. However immediately after the above 3 months I felt like the girl above and you're right that it is upsetting because you do and don'rt want to do it.

Memories have disappeared too, both from before and during that period and that is frustrating.


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