Nautilus

Entirely by accident he found himself in his early 30s, a fully grown man with responsibilities and a crap beard.

He was older now than his parents had been when he was born, dragged kicking and screaming into a bleak world of Thatcher and synthpop. He still felt like a child in many respects, and he supposed that his parents must have felt the same way back then. He had always assumed that there was a hard divide between childhood and the realm of grown-ups, a point of crossing the rubicon where innocent thoughts were left behind and you were issued with a mortgage and a poorly-paid job by a man in a grey suit. It had never really happened that way though. His experience, and he expected the experience of a great many others too, was one of perpetual childhood around which he had formed a concrete shell to protect him from the hammer blows that the past few years had dealt him. Behind the emotional wall he was a little boy, weak and fragile. He was glass.

His childhood memories were bizarrely selective, his mind having disposed of or suppressed huge tranches of what he assumed must have been banal normality. The bits that he did remember, however, were rendered in vivid technicolour. Each of these memories was linked to extreme emotion, moments of heightened joy, sadness and despair that had remained with him as if experienced only yesterday. A painful fall, a moment of embarrassment, a cruel insult or a death, each given equal emotional weight and importance by his odd mind. He could only assume that his brain knew what it was doing, as he had very little control over it. The abiding memory of his childhood was one of failure to live up to expectations, and being crushed beneath the weight of them. He was held up as the golden boy, only for the lustre to fade to grey. His mother had only lived long enough to see him disappoint, and sometimes that still troubled him.

His late teens and early twenties had been a shambles, characterised by confusion, loneliness and a pathetic absence of focus. He didn’t know who he was, or indeed who he wanted to be, and he drifted around the fringes of academia, overweight and angst ridden. He was arrogant enough to know that he was more intelligent than most, but what intellectual capacity he had was wasted within a shell that lacked emotional maturity and social skills. He could mask these flaws to some extent with alcohol, but when sober he was at best tedious, and at worst, plain bad company. Still childlike at this time, but without the self awareness to start building the shell.

His mid to late twenties were a brighter period, and a time when he experienced some of the emotional development that should have happened years before. His life was changed by two things: a girl who taught him to see himself from the outside, and a job that gave him the sense of purpose that he’d always lacked. His confidence and self belief grew exponentially during this time, aided by great friends and new experiences. This buoyant period would be shattered in time by tragedy, but the progress he made would stay with him always.

His mother’s unexpected death would change him profoundly. Perversely, through the sadness and confusion the defining feeling would be one of acceptance and defiance, firing his desire to move on, to set aside the last vestige of childishness and to look forward rather than inward. More difficult times would come in the following years, including a formal diagnosis of the depression that had lain dormant for years, and the slow decline and eventual death of his father. It would be logical to assume that the hardships of the past decade might have broken him, and he wouldn’t deny that there were times that it came close, but entering his 34th year he found himself more confident and cheerful than ever. Certainly more comfortable in his own skin, and more optimistic than at any time he could recall. He had realised recently how primitive he was, how his spirits could be lifted instantly by a ray of sunlight bursting through the clouds, and this primal kinship with nature gave him great comfort.

He was me. He still is.

Time

I had my semi-regular check up this week to see how mental I am. The answer was, reassuringly, not very mental, although two days later I had a bit of a wobble that could have gone either way. It got me thinking.

Firstly I should explain how I perceive time. It sounds daft, I know, but recently I’ve learned that we all experience time slightly differently. Some see a calendar year as a linear thing, beginning in January and following a straight line until the end of December. Others see time as a loop, or clock face, months ticking by and years beginning afresh. Personally I visualise each year as a parabola, with January to April a shallow incline to be conquered, May through August almost a plateau, and September onwards a sharp, uncontrollable fall. Don’t ask me how I perceive longer time periods, I don’t even know how to explain it myself. Suffice to say that there are right angles…

I don’t think I’ve always experienced time as a curve. Certainly as a child I belonged to the ‘straight line’ crowd, with acute peaks during times of excitement like summer holidays and Christmas. The warping and curving has only really happened in the past decade or so, which broadly correlates with the period I’ve spent tussling with the world and my place in it. Ergo, time passes differently when you’re mad. I’m not very mad, but just enough to see beyond the magician’s curtain (and occasionally the wizard’s sleeve).

The slopes of the parabola are the times that I find difficult. Like many who suffer with relatively benign depression, the black dog comes with the dark. Summertime is generally fine, with the long sunny days keeping the silos of good chemicals in my strange brain topped up. Vitamin D, serotonin, dopamine, all present and correct. Autumn is when things start to change, happy chemicals starting to deplete as the nights draw in. I can generally feel myself weakening, as the sun-fuelled forcefield melts slowly away. By the time November comes I’m quite fragile, and during the bad years this is when the real tussle starts. It’s a tussle with myself, so you’d think I’d know the rules and how to win, but apparently not. It’s frustrating, because autumn and early winter are two of my favourite times of the year. I’ve said it before, but I prefer Bonfire Night to Christmas. It’s the smell of woodsmoke and candy floss that does it.

I’m going to gloss over the winter part because I want to write about it as much as you want to read about it (i.e. not at all). Suffice to say once you’ve tried to push through three months of feeling broken and worthless, you won’t want to do it again. It’s a handy learning curve if nothing else. Finally you get through to the other side and spring is on the horizon. The nights get longer and the lazy sun starts to make an effort once again. It’s an upward struggle to drag myself to April, but that’s usually the time where my old friends the good chemicals generally kick back in.

Back to the parabola again. It was only this week that I finally worked out why I see time that way, or at least I’ve come up with an explanation that my brain finds convincing. I think I want to see time as a loop, probably an oval, but my broken brain can’t connect the two loose ends of the curve. December should grade into January and begin the annual cycle afresh, but for some reason I can’t handle that. I fall into a void between the two ends of the thread, and it is often a real fight to end one year and find my way to the start of another. January and February are when I’m at my least motivated, and I sometimes obsess over the fear of getting back on the treadmill and living through another year. It doesn’t last long, but it’s always there.

I’m lucky in many ways that my job is also my passion, namely nature and wildlife. Nature can, however, be a real bugger for those with a tendency to dwell on the passage of time. Nature gives the open-minded depressive any number of allegories to cling to, some helpful but most less so. The birds are the worst offenders, the spring chorus of the migrant breeders raising our spirits and gladdening our hearts before they abandon us to our solitude once more. The swifts are the ones that get me, one moment wheeling through the sky en masse and screaming with the pure joy of being alive and free, then August arrives and they depart suddenly on the changing winds. They’re oblivious of course, but the swifts taking their leave is a sure sign that I need to batten down the hatches for the gathering storm.

It’s mid August as I write this, and I’m fine. I’ve been on my second spell of antidepressants for over a year now and they seem to keep all my chemicals balanced without making me an emotionless robot. The swifts are preparing their exit strategy and the leaves will soon start to turn, but I’m fairly optimistic about the coming months. I think Bonfire Night should be a good one this year.

Remembering Dad

He dozed lightly, head resting against the textured plastic wall of the aircraft. He’d fallen asleep before take-off, his large body secure in the snug embrace of lap belt and armrest. His dislike of flying had grown with age, in inverse proportion to his tolerance of crowds and confined spaces. Fitful sleep was his only escape, and he had learned to let the vibration of the engines lull him into an uneasy stupor.

Reverberation of thin metal in turbulent air jarred him awake, his head lolling sideways before the eventual onset of sentience. He’d been dreaming about Dad again.

He rubbed the focus back into his eyes and gazed wearily through the square glass portal. Through a thin sheen of woodsmoke cirrus he could make out a familiar patchwork below, vast tracks of forest dotting a mosaic of pastoral and arable, all haphazard boundaries and awkward lines. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to the landscape at home, but on a much grander scale. The vastness of the woodlands was no less impressive with repeat viewings, and the green carpeted foothills of the Carpathian mountains always filled him with awe.

It was almost a year to the day since Dad had gone, a sudden and shocking end after a protracted illness. He’d been thinking of him a lot recently.

His ability to read the landscape was something he’d learned from years of study, both academic and professional. He’d eagerly pored over books written by men with white beards, telling of glaciation, tectonics and fluvial process. Each of these was a carpenter’s tool, shaving and chiselling the world over geological epochs. Man’s influence was particularly telling, stripping the land of much of it’s high forest to make way for the farmland required to sustain a growing population. Some considered humanity to be the most destructive of all the great viruses of the Holocene, but if that were true Central Europe remained a sanctuary. Here the green man made his last stand.

Dad hadn’t been himself for years. Without Mum he was frail and nervous, a pale imitation of his former self. His last two years were marred by psychiatric problems that meant he wasn’t really Dad anymore. In some ways that made the inevitable easier to endure.

Sunlight glinted off the surface of a small river that snaked sinuously through the land below. He noted the contrast between the river, meandering through the landscape according to the path of least resistance, and the nexus of roads that man had carved through whatever stood in their way. The roads were generally straight lines, designed with set-square and draughtsman’s pencil. Straight lines reduced cost, and it was easier to cut the trees down than to curve around them. He contemplated how the rivers themselves had been engineered to suit man’s needs, evidenced by the long straight sections adapted to drain the wheat fields. Nothing under the sun was truly untouched by man, not any more.

He’d been thinking about Dad more often than he’d like to admit. When he was awake he remembered the strong, silent, kind man of his youth, however dreams only ever showed him the fading shell of not-dad that he’d become. It was almost funny how his final act had come to define a lifetime.

As they flew over slate grey mountains a thick mattress of cloud formed an opaque barrier, and his study of the landscape was thwarted. He was frustrated. Staring out of the window occupied his mind and kept the realisation of how much he missed dad at bay. He already knew, of course, but he’d refused to let himself dwell on it. He’d never really grieved for either of them, not properly. He’d cried on the day that Dad went, but a period of acceptance and closure had never come. It wasn’t a misguided attempt at machismo, he just didn’t know how to open himself to the process. Words were his only outlet. He’d probably end up working his feelings into one of those tortuous verses he’d started to write. Something tedious about landscape, no doubt.

A break in the cloud gave him something to focus on, a small round lake perched high amid the granite. They called these ‘tarns’ back home, derived from Old Norse. He was grateful for the distraction.

Chiaroscuro

It wasn’t sadness. She found it hard to explain, words seemed too crass to describe how she felt, but she wasn’t sad. A famous man had once likened it to a black dog, but she didn’t feel that way. She saw it as an ocean, infinitely dark and endlessly deep. Immersed in the cold water, entangled in strands of black gossamer that kept her from surfacing.

The rising sun cast tendrils of light into the room, ushering out the night. She was always awake at this hour, her mind falling into a troubled synchronicity with the natural rhythm of time. She knew the routine by heart, the liquorice sky fading to hues of amethyst and magenta as shafts of light gave life to motes of dust in the air above her.

She watched the dust, particles of pollen and human sand rising and falling as if on invisible strings. The display only existed for the briefest of periods, when the sunrise gave body to that which was otherwise unseen. She felt like that too, and found comfort in the unlikely kinship. Not sadness, she thought, but slightness. A feeling that she was fading, slowly becoming translucent. She’d never vanished before, but the fear was never far away.

The effort of existing often eluded her. Some days the bedroom was her only view, her body aching and burning but refusing to cooperate. She had a sole focus, that of fuelling her rampant thoughts. Her body remained still, but her mind relentlessly whirred, snarled and kicked. Her untamed thoughts travelled eons into the future and past, a thousand miles deep within herself. Her ability to comprehend the minuscule and the vast thrilled and sickened her.

Every day followed the same pattern. After the dust came the birdsong. The blackbird was always first, his rich aria playing counterpoint to the harsh chant of the magpie. She thought that this was a fitting allegory for her own torn psyche, and it gave her comfort. Nature was her anchor, an unbreakable link to the real world when hopelessness tried to consume her.

She could see the tops of the trees from her bed, and knew the sounds of the wood by heart. She’d learned a new sound recently, the familiar ‘chack-chack’ of the jackdaw followed by the harsh rasp of beak on terracotta. The uneven roof tiles of her cottage were brimming with insect life and the clever bastards knew it. She had to stop listening, empathy with the soft-bodied creatures tore at her. The extreme empathy that came with the darkness was impossible to ignore, and was the thing that kept her awake the most.

She knew it was temporary, knew that the darkness was artifice of her own creation. She’d been here twice before and each time the veil had slowly lifted, her body regaining motion as her mind dulled and her more extravagant synapses lay dormant. She didn’t know why it happened, but had made peace with the fact that it was part of her. ‘Chiaroscuro’, she liked that word. The dark ocean would always lap at her shores, but she wasn’t sad.