On Christmas Eve, we went out in the evening and came home late for the first time since she died. Arriving home, we were compelled to peer through the glass part of the front door as we put the key into the lock, seeking the warm sight of her on her bed in the middle of the room. Taking off our shoes and winter-damp coats, we were afloat in too much space and silence, without the tapping of her paws and the small wet nose pushing into our hands.
There is a gap between what we know and what we feel. In the morning, we know she won't be eagerly under our feet as we boil the kettle, but we still look for her when we come downstairs. We know that when we carry our tea and coffee back to bed, we won't need to stop to lift her up so she can scrabble in the sheets with freshly muddy paws. We know that she won't eat the biscuits we've left in her bowl, or drink the water we can't help topping up, but to put them away feels too final. After seven months, the ways we moved around each other, and lived together, and got in each other's way, are under our skin.
Two days before she left us, I lay with her on the sofa. She felt small and quiet, some parts of her already slipping away. We had music playing and the window showed me the steely sky and the birds dancing around December's bare branches, and I cried as she rested her head on my arm. It is bittersweet now to sit in the same seat, look at the same sky and let the sadness lie in my chest. We knew her and were known by her. We loved and were loved. We know she is gone, but we still feel her here.
13/02/2005 - 12/12/2021
In this city, near the hospitals and sirens and the sickly glow of streetlights, I walked down a path I’d never been down before, at dusk, the dog tapping quietly along beside me. Everything was in shades of blue – the clouds smeared, inky, across a paler sky, and the birds silhouetted in winter’s naked trees. The planks of the boardwalk shone in the first hesitant moonlight, an imaginary river leading to the woods. The traffic roar was muted in that dark blue hollow, and the bird song clutched at my throat and eyes with a painful squeeze of hope. In the thick, oily water gathered around the reeds, the moon hung small and determined, and the trees seemed to lean in to add their reflection.
The air had the smell of approaching spring, intensifying with the darkness as it gathered around me - telling me, gently, to go home. I turned, heading back along the boardwalk with its gathering dew, chased by the reassuring sound of the dog huffing in the cold, biting air. The fuzzy orange of the street got closer, light seeping down and touching the edges of the valley, and I slowed my steps. In front of me, a fox darted into my path, then stopped, appraising me, before walking calmly on. The dog stood beside me, interested, then followed me back to the street.
I wrote this piece three years ago. I scribbled it in a notebook while hiding from everyone at an event I should have loved. I felt guilty; I was in a new, happy relationship; I was in Indonesia, surrounded by like-minded people and incredible wildlife; when I went home, it would be to a loving family and kind, supportive friends. That's the thing with mental health, though - it defies reason, and it can expose its fractures when you least expect it.
I've never shared the below in public before. Now, for Mental Health Awareness Week, I'm posting it in the hope that it might make even one other person feel less alone.
Anxiety is the companion nobody wants. It is feeling self-conscious in your own company, or looking at photos full of laughter and having the strange sense that it is someone else you're seeing. It is the feeling that everything you have ever known - from simple truths to facts painstakingly learnt - is lost, buried underneath a layer of grey. It is the feeling of panic and the lump in your throat when everyone around you suddenly seems to be speaking a language you can never hope to understand. It is the disgust you feel when your voice seems to come from someone else - someone you've never met - and your eyes in the mirror are hollow and blank.
Anxiety is being bullied relentlessly by people inside you that you don't know how to reason with, and their voices are always louder than yours. You never know when they will decide that today is a good day to cut you down to size.
Anxiety is looking at something beautiful and seeing only your own failure to feel anything. It is having everything you want and hating yourself anyway. It is the creeping doubt that you are worthy of the people around you, and the thought that if you loosen your grip, even for a second, you will find yourself alone. It is trying to gauge how you affect them until you feel small enough to disappear, and the vivid imagining of their disapproval and derision before they have a chance to think of it themselves. It is safer to be prepared, after all.
Anxiety is picturing the funerals of the ones you love every week - sometimes every day - because in your mind they are not just busy or preoccupied or late, and the fear of the worst is a sickening lump in your throat. The relief when they are still okay is powerful enough to reduce you to tears, but still there is the dread of the next time they are busy; the next time your fears can take hold.
Anxiety, at its worst, is not wanting to be here, there or anywhere. It is being so imprisoned in your own consciousness that every word and movement is a superhuman effort. It is the fear that one day, this shroud of feeling will be too heavy to lift off; that you will have to wear it forever.
On a day of undecided weather, the wind and sun competed to disturb the water, ruffling and reflecting as clouds cast ever-changing shadows. In the sandy, crunching earth, I tiptoed loudly, plants nodding heavy heads as I skirted them, brushing against their leaves. Near the water's edge, I became a heron, and the frogs leapt away from reach, breaking the surface with a satisfying pebble splash. They became visible, then, in the dark water, pale green legs awkward in shape, but graceful in speed. A few stayed, bravely, in the mud, watching me with black and yellow spheres as we all listened to the trees shimmering with birdsong and the seaside rush of the wind in the grass. In a moment of sunlight, a turtle pushed through the water, a comical curmudgeon blinking sudden brightness away. Everything seemed still, then; resting in the warmth and the chaos of bird, frog, insect noise. Crouching, I breathed it in as my legs began to ache, then slowly stood, and walked, and crunched the sandy earth as I moved away.