THE WRITER’S LIFE
“We can only apologise to the past, and the most difficult person to say sorry to, is you…”
Yesterday was one of the occasional ones out with two young friends (they’re 14 and 12 now, so they’re not my kids, they’re young people), and we were back to the familiar stomping ground of Milton Keynes. As ever, it was a very pleasant day, spent in good company, with intelligent conversation. But something played on my mind throughout, and now I feel deflated because it’s too late to go back and change it. Like much of my life then, full of regrets over things I’ve done and live with the guilt.
This was something I hadn’t done, but which I’d said I would. No promises were made and no undue pressure was applied, but there was something I should have done and didn’t, and although no-one’s told me so, I feel I let people down. Paranoia has always lived comfortably with its depression and anxiety siblings in my head.
Apologies don’t always come from the natural apologetic. There’s regret and there’s sorrow, and there’s two types of that: saying sorry; and bearing true remorse, meaning it when you say it. When paranoia has a habit of knocking you around, it’s difficult to accept having an apology accepted, because the guilt lives on, feeding on your guts. I can’t accept forgiveness when I can’t forgive myself. It’s just the way my mind works.
This latest episode revolves around my brother in-law, Si(mon); actually my ex, because he’s divorced from my sister, with whom I’ve been estranged for several years since my alcoholic breakdown, and we only recently made up (thanks to intervention from the mothership, who pointed out that you’ll never see someone’s a different person if you avoid them). I hadn’t made a promise to my sister, but I’d said via our mutual mum that as I was in London yesterday, I’d try to pop in and see Si.
Si’s not well, in a high dependency unit at St. Thomas’s Hospital with malfunctioning kidneys. He’s unconscious but can hear people talking to him. When I was asked to leave the family home six years ago, Si was there to give me a hand. When I sobered up and called my sister after two years of not talking, I was glad Si answered. Lovely bloke, likes his custard, doesn’t judge. I was going to visit him, to talk to him, to thank him. The worth of my words is subjective, but I’m good at talking to people in tough spots. My dad (who has Parkinson’s) says likes talking to me, probably because I speak to people as I always have, paying little regard to any ailment inflicting my audience.
The plan was to spend the day with my young co-conspirators, then visit by brother by another mother when I got back to London. On the way up to town, my mum phoned me and said my sister would very much appreciate the gesture on my part, to visit with Si. As we’ve only recently patched things up between us, I was quite moved that my sister placed a value in me, hopefully now able to see the good in her brother which I lost through drinking and verbal abuse towards others. I couldn’t not visit Si.
I had a pleasant lunch with my young friends, while we made future plans. The eldest is interested in poker (the analytical mathematical odds aspect which makes up 70% of the game, not the 30% which is luck), so I’ve promised him a trip to the poker room I used to frequent when I was a semi-pro, at The Empire Casino in Leicester Square, for his 18th birthday. The younger one wants to go to a West End show, and there’s no-one I’d rather make my next trip to the theatre with. They’re promises I intend to keep, unlike the one which slipped away as I travelled home.
I slept on the train back to London from Milton Keynes, as usual. I don’t tend to sleep the night before I meet the young ones, a conspiracy between my anxiety and circadian clock. I woke at Euston and went straight to the Victoria Line, as is my usual underground habit. I’d forgotten I was meant to go to Waterloo (to the hospital), not to Victoria (for a train home). I needed to get back on the tube, onto the Northern Line, which was part-suspended. The Bakerloo Line then. Then I realised at the ticket barrier that I didn’t have a Travelcard, just a return from home to Milton Keynes, which allowed me one cross-London journey. Then I got stressed. I wasn’t panicked, but I was anxious (it’s like being followed, but before your mugger attacks). I couldn’t leave with a guilty conscience but I couldn’t cure it by staying there. So I gave up on myself, and that’s when I let everyone down, when I decided to just get on a train and go home.
I was tired (no excuse), I was broke (ditto, could have walked), and I was starting to have panicky thoughts (not unusual). Funny thing is, I’d have walked miles for shelter when I was homeless and skint, but the streets are where most of my PTSD originates. Nevertheless, I broke a promise I’d made to my sister after so many years of estrangement, and I’d left a very sick man alone, when a simple act of human contact might have helped him. I got on the train feeling selfish and alone, full of guilt, revolving around myself instead of a hospital bed. I was a coward. I was afraid to see my friend looking frail, and I should remember that when I’m on my own death bed with no visitors.
I haven’t phoned my sister or our mum, and they might even be surprised I’m beating myself up so much, when I hadn’t promised anything. But I’d made a promise by proxy, to a fellow man and kindred spirit, and I feel as let down myself as anyone has any right to be disappointed. My biggest fear is being seen to revert to type, when once all I’d wanted to do was get home and drink. I wanted to get home, to escape the situation and to sleep.
I fretted for the rest of the night, over telling my mum and sister about this. I chose to write it down, in the hope anyone reading might understand. I went to bed at my usual 5am, ending a 39-hour shift unbroken by sleep apart from that nap on the train.
Today I feel just as bad, truly selfish, like self-absorbed. That guilt joins all the others which trouble the mind of an alcoholic, all day and every day after they’ve sobered up. It’s a life sentence I live with like the alcoholic label, while I refuse to get drunk to numb and lighten my mood. I think I’m meant to find some strength and reassurance in that, and I suppose it’s better than not waking up like I used to and not knowing what happened the day before. I feel like I did yesterday, but not the day before that. But I feel like I did when I didn’t visit my dad in hospital. I couldn’t afford the travel and I remembered my dad the last time I’d seen him, when he said my words were helpful. I feel the same very time I have to leave my two young friends. I feel cruel.
It feels like I’m losing parts of my past, much of which I wouldn’t mourn, but that which I treasure is being taken. After I patched up so many differences, I’m pushing away further chances to get better. I don’t blame anyone for not phoning me, when I find talking to myself so difficult and confusing. My mental illness means I’m always sharing space with a kind of anti-me (I’m very anti me at times).
I’ve paused writing on my family history book, Silent Gardens. The original purpose of the book was to help dad remember things, but I feared not finishing it before he forgot, even though reminders of the past would engage his mind. I felt I might be tempting fate, my anti-Midas touch turning everything to shit, when so much of my past has eroded.
I have few people to talk to (and I make it that way), so I’m glad I can write. I’m miserable alone, perhaps karma for the way I’ve left other people. Even if it doesn’t all make sense, it makes sense for me to get it out. It’s like someone else hitting me, to save me time beating myself up.
All I had to do is say sorry, but that still doesn’t solve the paradox, when saying it doesn’t take the feeling away. I’m not looking for anything, least of all sympathy and understanding, when only I know how I feel. “How you doing?” Read my blog.
How can I lift the guilt? How can I stop feeling sorry for myself? By apologising to myself? We can only apologise to the past, and the most difficult person to say sorry to is you, when you are unwilling to forgive yourself.
I wish we could go back to the old days, when we had so much time to talk but we rarely did because we didn’t need to. The cruelty of life, inflicted on those trying to live it; the human condition.
“You’ll get over your apologetic apoplexy,” is something I’m only likely to say to myself. Although I’ll have an unexpected upswing in mood at some arbitrary point, when something random and beyond my control happens, I don’t know when that will be. It’s the paradox of living alone in your head with depression and daily confusion. If you apologise for what’s to still to come, you’re probably a sociopath if you’re talking to someone else. I can only apologise to myself for whatever the future may hold.
All I need to do is keep talking to myself. Despite being a sci-fi writer, I find looking forward difficult. Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Sorry about that.