Day 1 / October 1: The noble pursuit of balance (Sorting my shit out)

Today, I am alone.
    It’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that; it’s been a while since it’s been true. Since I have been alone: it’s been too long. And I’ve been longing for it and dreading it in almost equal measure. Needing it and fearing it. Knowing it will come as both a shock and a relief; freedom and emptiness; loneliness and solitude; peace and quiet and guilt. And perhaps that schizophrenic seesaw of emotion is the closest I’ve come to balance – the pursuit of balance – in the almost three months since I have been alone. Perhaps I should give it credit for that, appreciate it for what it is – a mechanism always trying to level up, to find a stillness that is always being denied, to equalise two opposing forces of different sizes, different weights – but the truth is, a seesaw is a nauseating thing. It’s not designed for comfort, especially when you’re sitting on both sides. For all of its good intentions, a seesaw isn’t a thing of balance, but almost the opposite of that, its ups-and-downs a constant battle for dominance, for definition: which is the lighter load, which is the heavier, and is it better to be the former, suspended, legs dangling in mid-air, or the latter, feet planted, anchored to the ground? A seesaw creates more questions than it can answer. And despite its noble seeking of that ever-elusive horizontal, it will only ever truly come to rest on one side. Even when it’s empty, it’ll always settle on one side over the other. That is the nature of the seesaw, that is its destiny, if you want to be symbolic about it, which I do: to show us our purpose as it is constantly denied its own. Balance. Equilibrium. And it is not about perching in the middle – there is certainly more stillness there, as the laws of physics dictate, but no one can hold that position for too long. Nor is it about assigning equal weight to all the stuff – people, things, situations, desires and fears and emotions – that tip your seesaw this way and that. You cannot force balance; you can only settle into it by acknowledging the different weights of things, accepting them, so you can push off the ground when you’re stuck, or lean back and enjoy the pause your weight can give you; so you can recognise lightness as the absence of heaviness, not weight, and dangle happily for a while, or get off the seesaw altogether if heights aren’t your thing. But if you take a spirit level to your life, you’ll always find yourself askew; that’s not the way to go about it.

I’m mixing my metaphors here, but that is what I do: I mix everything up, and then I feel nauseous. In my pursuit of clarity, I create confusion; in my pursuit of peace, contention. I place myself on both ends of the seesaw and I don’t know if I’m up or if I’m down. But I think, perhaps, that is the nature of the beast: life on this planet, as conscious, autonomous beings and inextricable parts of the universe, both, subject to the same laws as the dust that makes up our cells and the trees and the oceans and the stars. I think, perhaps, it isn’t balance in itself but its pursuit that we are programmed for. Always striving for that ever-elusive horizontal, for the middle ground where the pull of the forces is gentler, yet none of us really want to spend too long in those positions. Try it: perch in the middle of the seesaw and see how long it takes before you’re itching for the ups and downs. And neutral may seem easy, it may sound restful, but think about it: neutral is not a quality in itself, but merely the result of two opposing forces cancelling each other out. Think about how much effort it takes to maintain such a state: that’s not the way to go about it, either.

At rest, at peace, in balance, in the context of our conscious human lives: this is where physics takes a step back and, with a smirk, lets us sort our own shit out. We may be subject to its laws on a molecular level, but some things matter more than matter, when we are basically ruled by emotions and desires. We have created the seesaw and the spirit level, just like we’ve created all of our problems and all of the solutions they demand, all of the standards we measure ourselves against to find that we are askew or lacking or incomplete. How do we go about righting ourselves? How do we go about claiming the wholeness that has always been ours? How do we find balance in a world that’s constantly tipping us this way and that? Ha – that was a trick question, that last one. Because the world isn’t doing anything to any of us. The world doesn’t give a fuck, nor do physics or the oceans or the universe or the twinkly stars above. Or any other force you care to name. They just go about their business, as should we. Striving for equilibrium, but learning to find comfort and stillness and peace and balance in the only place that matters, in the only place where it can be found: within.

Today, I am alone. As in: I alone can sort my shit out. For all my noble pursuits, that is my purpose, if I want to be a whole part of the whole. And I don’t know exactly how to go about it yet, but I think I’ll start by jumping off the seesaw and smashing the spirit level to bits. And learn to recognise my own weight, and find peace on whichever side I come to rest.

This is the first instalment of a tentative new project, provisionally titled 100 days of sorting my shit out. Which will probably take a lot longer than 100 days, but fuck it – it’s a start.

But not today

I got up at the crack of dawn. In fact, no: that’s just an idiom, and a lie. Dawn hadn’t cracked yet; it’s me, I suspect, who’s cracking up. Anyway, the reason for this early rising (an excellent way, please note, to make the endless days of lockdown even longer; highly recommended) is that it became very important, at not-quite-six-thirty in the morning, to worry about the amount I’d paid at the supermarket yesterday.
     ‘Bit much, wasn’t it?’ Brain said. ‘Perhaps it’s a mistake.’
     ‘Shut up,’ I muttered.
     ‘We have the receipt. LET’S CHECK!’ Brain insisted.
     ‘Can we check in an hour?’ I proposed, reasonably.
     ‘No! NOW! NOW is THE ONLY POSSIBLE time for this!’
The cats meowed and scratched at my bedroom door; they can sense consciousness. I turned around, pulled the duvet over my head. Squeezed my eyes shut.
     ‘Oh THE STRESS of NOT KNOWING!’ Brain screamed.
     Fuck it. Fuck you. Fuck everything. Up I got. The cats, at least, were happy. As in, hungry. As in, yeah alright, good morning, WE’RE STARVING, WE’RE GOING TO SUE! They both pawed at my knees as I sat on the toilet. I peed, fed the demons, dutifully swallowed my happy pill, and pressed the magic button that makes coffee pour out of a sprout; the machine came to life with a blink. Brain, in the meantime, having gotten me out of bed, had forgotten all about the supermarket question, and had moved on to a long list of other random things to feel anxious about.

Coffee brewed and cigarette rolled and lit, I sat on the sofa and brought out the receipt. And no: it was no mistake. I really did spend 46 euro on a bagful of shit. How wonderful. How fun, that I’ll soon resort to eating only eggs and rocket leaves (the two things that I currently, self-sufficiently, produce) and smoking dried oregano. Happy thoughts and fucking unicorns. Maybe I’ll ride one and fly out of this mess, into clouds of candy floss pink.

I could eat candy floss right now; I could eat anything, everything. Mostly I do. In the unending stream-of-consciousness narrative of this lockdown life, eating is punctuation, and I like punctuation. I’ve always been a fan. Punctuation is important. Marbles, on the other hand, are overrated. Sanity? Meh. Where did it ever get us? As for structure: look how easily it collapses. The solid things are much fewer than we thought. It’s getting hard to know where to stand and what to lean on. I’m not sure what, if anything, could take my weight right now, augmented as it is by the ever-growing list of assorted worries and all the punctuation I consume.

I’m tired. I’m so tired of it all. Not depressed: the happy pills keep my serotonin levels sufficiently high, so I don’t sink too deep into the pit. And I don’t think depression is an appropriate response to the current situation, anyway. Not per se. It’s more of a restlessness, a spiritual unease, that can either drive you on, to seek other routes where the usual ones are closed, or immobilise you when you keep hitting one dead end after another. Welded to the sofa, playing solitaire; letting time swirl away like smoke.

I want to get off the sofa, literally and figuratively, but I’m tired. I’m so tired in my body, like there’s something feeding on my energy from the inside. And I’m pretty sure it’s corona, though I have no access to a test to confirm or disprove that theory. But my body has its own intelligence, and it’s telling me, in no uncertain terms, that there’s something here that isn’t ours. A foreign presence, an invader, though it’s been very polite in the symptoms it’s given me. It’s a gentle enemy, but still, I can feel it lingering, nudging at my defences for a way in. Hence my self-imposed quarantine; hence I’ve only left the house twice in almost as many weeks, both times wearing a mask, in order to over-spend my ever-dwindling supply of cash on essential supplies. Which, apparently, include the ingredients to make brownies. Hey ho, the fun we had, pouring cake batter into the cracks of our lives.

I’ll make those brownies today. And a loaf of olive bread: this suggested itself, as a sparkling solution to all my troubles, yesterday evening. How had I never thought of it before? How did my life even make sense without olive bread? Which reminds me: I can add olives to the rocket leaves and eggs of not-so-distant future sustenance. I have a cupboard full of them, and another five or six jars in the fridge. I’ll be alright; olives are very nutritious. And maybe one day, when all this is over, in the literal sense, we will reflect upon our coping mechanisms and the reasons why humanity, in this time of crisis, turned en masse to baking and the hoarding of yeast. Essays will be written on the great baking obsession of 2020, one day – but not today. Today we just need to get by.

The end of the world

Lockdown, Day 3. Yesterday evening, I broke quarantine. My friend called me, wheezing, barely able to get the words out.
    ‘I’m not well,’ he managed.
    ‘I’m on my way,’ I said, and I ran. Going out to help others in need is a legitimate reason to request an exit pass, code 4 in our lockdown text messaging system. I didn’t bother; I just ran.
    I burst into his house and found him on the sofa, in the darkness, clutching himself and trembling. I sat down in a chair opposite, put my hand on his knee.
    ‘What’s the matter?’ I said.
    ‘I have it,’ he said. ‘I have this thing. My chest hurts. I can’t breathe. I have a fever.’
    His hands were cold and clammy; his forehead cool. I made him surrender the glass thermometer he was almost crushing underneath his armpit: 36.5 C.
    ‘You don’t have a fever,’ I said.
    ‘Then what? What’s happening to me? I can’t breathe.’
    The look he gave me, so deeply helpless, so frightened, my strong, brave friend, one of the proudest arseholes I’ve ever met, broken and pleading: it broke me. It broke my heart. And I broke everything and hugged him. Practically climbed on top of him and held him as tight as I could, stroked his hair, pushed my face into the crook of his neck. My strong, brave friend, who doesn’t generally invite, or accept, such tactile expressions of comfort. Trembling in my arms.
    ‘You’re OK,’ I said. ‘I’m here. You’re OK.’
    ‘I have this thing, and now I’ve given it to you,’ he muttered, his whole body shuddering and sending ripples through mine.
    ‘You don’t have corona,’ I said. ‘You’re having a panic attack.’ Which is just as bad, arguably. It’s the fear that’s killing us, the ostensibly healthy, while, ironically, our pretence at bravery, that insane survival instinct of denial, kills the vulnerable. And feeds the fear some more. How do we break this? We might survive the virus, but who will we be on the other side?

I’ve been very vocal about this from the start; I’ve been on a non-stop rant since it all began. I suppose it is, in part, my own survival instinct that’s driving me to corona-activism, positive action – because the alternative is giving in to the helplessness and the fear, and I know which way that goes. I’m already on antidepressants, and I started taking them at a time when we could still say, with certainty, that it’s not the end of the world. And now, in a sense, it is. So I’ve been obnoxious to the point of openly aggressive when measures are being broken to keep our habits intact, broken out of carelessness or, worse, a completely misjudged, criminal sense of rebellion and an utter lack of understanding that, for once, we truly are all in this together. In the best and the worst possible way. Because, mate, if you end up killing someone’s grandpa because you thought social distancing was optional and quarantine an inconvenience, that’s not just on you: it’s on all of us. If you end up killing your own grandma because facebook told you this was all media hype, you’ve not savvy, you’re doomed. We’re all doomed. So if you bound up to me, as if this were just another, ordinary day, making jokes about the exit pass that you have failed to acquire, and try to give me a kiss in greeting, I will be loudly and unapologetically rude, and tell you to stay the fuck away. And that’s before I report you to whomever can slap a fine on your irresponsible ass. And I don’t give a fuck if you’re offended. I don’t give a fuck why you think you’re an exception. I don’t give a fuck about your human rights and your personal freedoms, or the particular reasons you claim to be uniquely inconvenienced by the measures that are struggling, oh so shakily, to save all of our lives. This is not just another, ordinary day: this is day three of lockdown, and the whole world is in quarantine. If there is any scenario that’s more inconvenient, more drastic than this, I honestly don’t want to know.
    Does this make me a hypocrite? That I broke down and broke the rules and put my arms around a friend who was breaking? There are several issues at play here: ethical and philosophical, practical, and socio-fucking-political, and I just don’t have the brainpower, today, to process them. On another, ordinary day, perhaps – but not today. And then there’s humanity, which might just be our saving grace and, equally, our downfall; and there is love that breaks through the fear and breaks everything down to that moment when you have to decide who you’ll be on the other side, and put your arms around a friend who’s breaking, as the world comes to an end. And if you can’t do that, if we can’t do that: we’re doomed. And there will never be another ordinary day again.

#StayTheFuckHome #ItsNotAboutYou

The day hitchhiking died

It was one of the first victims of the coronavirus on the island; one, I still hope, of few. I mourned it a little today, in the early evening of the 16th of March, as I walked home through deserted streets. Eerie, as dusk spread across an already cloud-laden sky, strange light filtering down in the would-be total quiet, if it weren’t for the howling wind. Would-be total stillness.
    I have seen these images before; they are not uncommon on winter Sifnos. Around Christmastime, and from late January to early March, before the new season kicks in, when the islanders depart en masse to grab their holidays while they can. It is quiet then, still, in a peaceful way; it is simply the absence of people. But today, it is different. Today, it is not absence that’s causing the streets to be deserted: there is a sense, a tangible sense of people staying away. We are not absent: we are in hiding. The streets are teeming with the gaps of where people should be. But we shouldn’t, not in this new corona-reality. And I am proud of us for staying away; I am proud of my little island for standing together by keeping apart. Even while we have not yet lost anything more serious than comforts, habits, certainty, and the ease of hitching a ride on the street. Even while we have yet to mourn anything that we cannot replace, or recover, or live without. I am proud, and I am hopeful, but I am also frightened, because there is a post-apocalyptic feel to everything around me, and the apocalypse hasn’t even hit us yet.

I went into town to get a couple of things from the pharmacy. On the door, the notice said only two people would be admitted at a time. I pushed it open and peaked inside, but there was no one else, so I walked in. On the floor in front of the counter, two strips of red-and-white danger tape indicated where to stand, and how far apart. I approached, unconsciously stepping over the line. The chemist appeared from the back, face obscured by his mask; I saw the smile in his eyes, but he lingered away from the counter. I followed his gaze to my feet, took a step back.
    ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘The line.’ And then I stepped over it again, less than two minutes later, when he had collected all my pills in a neat pile by the card machine.
    ‘Please,’ he said, ‘the line.’ And I apologised again, and danced away theatrically, performing a part I am untrained for, to give him space to ring in my purchases and place himself at a safe distance, before approaching the counter to punch in my PIN. I am not used to it yet, this new dance of stepping forward and stepping back to give each other space; these new lines, visible or implicit. Not when I’m usually in the habit of draping myself all over that counter and chatting away to whomever’s serving me. And I didn’t even think I was that sociable, before. Before the counter became a boundary, and danger lines appeared everywhere, that we must not cross. Before we became deadly to each other by proximity.

Hitchhiking has been dying for days, I guess. It didn’t happen tonight. Ever since the term “social distancing” came into our lives, and we’ve all been trying to work out how far apart a metre actually is. Ever since we figured out there’s not enough space for safety inside a passenger car, and sharing is no longer caring. It used to stand for kindness, the easy solidarity of island life, that you could set off on foot along any road, and be almost certain that if a car should pass, it would stop. That the driver would nod at the passenger seat, and in you’d get, with thanks. Grateful, but habitually so. That was the life, before. That was the norm. Now, kindness is not stopping to offer a ride; solidarity is refusing it, if offered. Even if you’re tired, and it’s dark, and you’ve a long way to go.
    I didn’t have a long way to go, but two cars slowed down as they passed me. And then, both times, the moment when the new norm sprang up and knocked the old down, and hitchhiking died on the side of the road, and the nod, both times, was more of a shake, a negative, a regret – another move in the new choreography of “stay away”. This is kindness, in the time of the coronavirus. I don’t know about love; I’m not ready to tackle that one yet. When we’re not even allowed to touch our own faces, how will we replace putting our hands on someone else, and pressing our heads together? Where will we find our safety, now that proximity is deadly? How will we draw comfort across the distances?

I walked home through deserted streets, and I mourned it all: hitchhiking, and habitual kindness, and all the simple acts of unthinkingly touching another person, bringing your hands up to cup their face, running your fingers through their hair, brushing a speck of something off their forehead, a kiss on the cheek or on the mouth, arms wrapped around each other, tightly, faces pressed hard against each other to create a small, private pocket of safety, and all those door knobs we used to turn without either guilt or fear, before. I mourned it, all that, and so much more that we have yet to lose, and it left me empty inside, deserted like our streets, and I stared at my hands for a long time after I got home, after I’d scrubbed them clean and disinfected all the items I’d purchased. I sat on the sofa and stared at my clean hands, my useless disinfected hands, those hands that were made for touching and grasping and grabbing and holding and stroking, those hands that are now obsolete, and I let the tears run down my cheeks and onto my knees without making a move to wipe them, and I vowed, when after comes, to touch and grab and grasp and stroke and hold on with all my might, and drape myself all over everything, and not let love be lost in the distances, in the time of the coronavirus.

We are the fireworks

It’s all symbols and metaphors, performances and rituals and spells and invocations. Like weddings and funerals; like wiping the day off your face before bed each night, and taking your antidepressant pills – religiously – first thing each morning. Like going to church on Sundays, kissing the glass-fronted icon of a saint, lighting a candle and sealing your prayers with the sign of the cross; like smudging your house with sage to clear the energy, holding a crystal up to the full moon, or branding your skin with an image of Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles, lest you find any in your path that you can’t remove yourself. Like saying good morning before anything else; like saying I love you, after. Like pandering to an arbitrary calendar event that declares the end of one thing and the beginning of another, sending fireworks up into the sky to mark a change in numerals.

Which brings us to New Year’s Eve, at precisely one minute to midnight. Am I pandering? I had no intention of staying up for the changing of the year; I’m often in bed by nine, and asleep by ten or eleven, depending on how interesting the book I’m reading is. The sun sets at five thirty, and night comes thick and determined, here; there are few electric lights to challenge its dominion over the hours of darkness. I get up at dawn. Sunrise and sunset, the spectrum of daylight, rain, sleet and muddy fields, and winds that knock you off your feet, the seasons: those aren’t arbitrary; they can be named, but never tamed. Clocks and calendars and omnipotent gods, those are the things that we’ve invented, the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves. We are both their creators and their subjects, and we pander to them compulsively, religiously, with our rituals, adhering to invented timelines to establish a measure of control over our lives, while we put our faith in invented deities, so that it’s all ultimately someone else’s responsibility. And when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, we must wear our best clothes and send light and noise up to the sky, and kiss whoever’s standing next to us when the countdown ends, and wrap the year up neatly, tightly, so that none of it spills into the next, and start anew – in this brand new year, unblemished except for the judgements we carry on our backs, and the resolutions – remedial measures – that we send forward to greet us.

I didn’t intend to stay up, nor did I intent to not stay up, exactly – though a part of me wanted to make a point. I was getting ready for bed, just gone ten thirty, when my friend Ela rang from Sheffield, so we chatted for a while. Until she said, ‘I’d better let you go, I’m sure the fireworks are about to start,’ and I laughed and said ‘Yeah, all four of them,’ and wished her a happy Greek new year. Midnight found me in my pyjamas, in the company of my cats, who were largely unaffected by the celebrations except they didn’t like the fireworks (all four of them) and it took me ten minutes to coax them out from behind the washing machine so I could give them New Year kisses. Then I went to bed, and ate some crisps, and read for a while. I woke up at dawn, to a message from another friend wishing me a happy new year. ‘Peaceful,’ he added, and it was exactly what I wanted, what I wish for him and for myself. As the arbitrary numbers of age add up, I find more and more that this is what I crave: peace. The kittens purred outside my bedroom door.

Nothing has changed, you know. You know it; we all do. But we need our rituals and our symbols, we need the semblance of control and the lack of it. We need to believe in things bigger than ourselves, because to realise we’re the biggest thing there is, to realise our power, might send us all cowering behind the washing machine. Power is both a blessing and a curse, and that wise, ancient part in all of us, the part that knows, invented the gods to assign it to, to place it outside of ourselves, and the rituals to invoke it and draw it back in. We cannot tame the darkness, but we can call it “night” and get through, so we can rise again each morning and take our pills. That’s how we survive, with our metaphors and our symbols and our performances, while the ancient (divine) part looks on with a knowing smile, pandering to our humanity. And if New Year’s Eve is the spell by which we invoke the imperative to begin anew, so be it. I only hope, I only wish for all of us to remember, sometimes, that we are the fireworks and come out from behind the washing machine, and not to wrap ourselves too tight, too neat, too small, in judgements and resolutions, but to allow our essence, our power, to spill messily out of the timelines and the boundaries and into everything we cannot control, and, there, find the peace that each of us craves.

A happy new year to all of us. Peaceful.

A peaceful new year from 100 days of solitude

The drugs don’t work

Zoloft for depression

Three decades ago, in the mid-90s, my friend and I managed to get our hands on a prescription for Prozac. A single box, I don’t remember how. We were giddy with excitement, sweaty-palmed and flushed-faced, and trying to arrange our features in a suitably sombre/casual expression as we handed the script over to the pharmacist; we had a whole elaborate backstory ready to deliver if challenged – but nobody paid us any attention. The reason being – apart from a slightly liberal attitude to the dispensing of drugs – that a single box of Prozac, even in the hands of impressionable and rebellious teenagers, could do no harm. No harm and equally no good. It was the stuff of legends, pain-ridden songs and cult movies and cutting-edge literature; it was the wonderdrug that defined our generation – Generation X, generation Prozac Nation – but it wasn’t a drug in the sense that we imagined, and a single box of Prozac, especially split two ways, could have absolutely no discernible effect on our psyche. We split it, regardless, and swallowed a couple of pills.
    Perhaps we thought we were depressed, perhaps we aspired to be: depressed was synonymous to interesting, in those days, and a happy disposition clearly meant you hadn’t understood how heavy a burden this life truly was. We idolised the troubled souls of the grunge and indie rock music scene, and our own souls were reared on complicated emotions that we weren’t yet ready to understand, but we knew all the lyrics by heart, anyway, and the pain we felt was real enough as we sang them, as we swayed clumsily in damp, sticky nightclubs. When Kurt Cobain killed himself, we mourned him as a hero; nevermind the example he set, nevermind the wife and daughter he left behind: that devastated, heroin-chic look was made for Courtney Love. She was a style icon to many of us, nevermind that she was actually a junkie. There was glamour in that, the dark lure of really terrible lifestyle choices, scary-attractive, because the world was fucked up anyway and, as Cobain put it in his suicide note: “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”. Also: Trainspotting. Also: Pulp Fiction. I mean, come on.
    While all this was taking place in LA and Seattle and the mean streets of Manchester, in middle class Athens we had to make do with warm vodka and orange, cans of Heineken, and rumours of ecstasy tabs with the original smiley face stamped on. We gathered in parks and smoked Marlboro Reds and bad weed that made us throw up in the bushes. While teenagers in the enlightened land of America had therapy to deal with their existential angst, we had curfews. While they bravely bared their souls and got prescribed antidepressants, we got a slap around the face and told it was our hormones. Nobody understood and it was all so unfair. So to get our hands on an actual box of Prozac was really something. It would have been better, of course, to be prescribed the thing, to have a professional acknowledge our pain, legitimise it with his signature, but failing that, fuck it, we would self-medicate. So we took a couple of pills each, and told each other we felt changed. And, being slightly nerdy rebels, we had studied the enclosed leaflet of side effects, and reported a few of those, too. Our serotonin levels, I am certain, remained blissfully unaware.
    The point is, as The Verve sang over and over again and nobody listened, the drugs don’t work. Not the way we imagine. Not the way popping an ecstasy tab works, or even drinking a cup of coffee. They do work, but in their own, slow time, and there is nothing you can do to rush them. What I found out, three decades after swallowing 40 mg of fluoxetine and expecting it to change my life, is that when you’re prescribed antidepressants, you are also prescribed patience. And if you’ve ever been depressed, you know that patience is one of those virtues you don’t have a lot of. When you come to a psychiatrist begging to be saved, when you submit to taking a pill to make you feel like yourself again, even though that sounds inherently, fundamentally wrong, you do not want to wait. It’s a fucker. But then again, no one – except teenagers in the 90s – said depression would be fun.
    My teenage self would be delighted: she’s finally had her wish. Three decades on, I have been prescribed antidepressants; I have been found, legitimately, in need of medication. Funny that I don’t share her joy. Not funny, no: I can’t find joy in anything, hence the drugs. But I’ll admit, there was an echo of her when the doctor told me I’d be taking Zoloft, and I felt a tinge of disappointment that it wasn’t Prozac. I allowed myself a small, ironic smile at the thought, before it fluttered away to be replaced by the thump of gravity: this is serious. But I am grateful, really – or I would be, if I could access that function (time; patience). I am grateful that it isn’t more serious, and that Prozac – shimmering magical wonderdrug – isn’t called for, because Prozac is a much stronger medication, whereas Zoloft, I am assured, is just like taking painkillers for a headache.
    If the headache were a black, swirling void that kept growing until it swallowed you whole. And the painkillers took two weeks to work.
    I have been prescribed patience, and 50 mg of sertraline daily. This is day seven, and it’s clearly a case of things getting worse before they get better. I didn’t read the side effects this time. Being depression’s plaything is hard enough; I have no interest in adding hypochondria to the mix. My survival instincts may be dulled, but they are still capable of sidestepping a trap as giant as that one. But experience quickly makes up for lack of knowledge, and it seems depression is just as eager to survive, if not more. It’s come under attack, and it is fucking angry. It would amuse me, if that function were available to me, to imagine the battle taking place inside my brain, depression growing darker and thicker and more monstrous and roaring with rage as the noble (if unsung) Zoloft builds its army of sertraline soldiers, one 50 mg dose at a time. It would amuse me, if it weren’t for the devastation it causes. But the landscape of depression is actually very mundane, and I won’t bother describing it. Suffice to say, yesterday I congratulated myself for putting on clothes.
    The drugs don’t work – until they do. And it is slow, it is relentlessly slow, when you’re desperate to be saved, when you’ve just about accepted, so reluctantly, that you need to be. But I have to hope – though hope is another thing depression doesn’t hold with – that they will. That by day twelve, thirteen, fourteen, my sertraline army will be strong enough to make its presence felt, and the black, swirling void will subside, and I’ll be able to see my way to getting better. And that I’ll know, once again, that smudged mascara might look good on some people, but there is nothing heroic about choosing to die, and that, actually, Kurt Cobain’s iconic last words make no sense, because both options are just as bad and living is the only possible choice; once I know that for a fact, only then will I begin to contemplate the implications. Of balancing my brain’s chemistry from the outside, of needing a pill to bring me back to who I am. The fundamental wrongness of it, and why, at times, it may be right.
    I have to hope.

P.S. For the sake of clarity, and so my parents don’t get blamed, retroactively, for neglect: my teenage self was not depressed. She was a teenager. And she grew up to be an adult of a (mostly) happy disposition, despite being aware of the heavy burden of this life.

I’m scared. But not of your dog. (A fear-shaped Britain)

Are you scared? Would you readily admit you’re scared? Openly? Or hesitatingly, in a quiet voice, half-hoping no one heard? Would you confide in someone, eyes down and face turned away, your mouth forming the words – I’m scared?
    I don’t. I don’t say it. I don’t let the words take shape, because once they do they come alive. I muzzle them, I muffle them, I drown them out with other words like faith, because faith smoothes the edges of fear enough so it doesn’t take that shape that keeps me up at night. But I’m awake at night anyway, because I’m scared.
    The fear is Britain-shaped. It’s a fear-shaped Britain. It traces the borders of an island kingdom that was once my home. Borders that were, then, nothing but lines on a map, the broken lines of a gentle guide, with spaces in between so you could come and go; borders that are now lines drawn against me, telling me that my place is not within. Wherever my place is, elsewhere, it’s not within. The broken lines that now mean “cut here”.
    A cut, that’s what is feels like. Being cut away, cut off, cut loose.

My friends in London, on the inside, when they ask, they say When are you coming home? I’ve been away because the guidelines said I could, the gentle borders told me I could come and go. But now there’s hardness and what scares me is I don’t know what I will find when I return. What boundary lines, what barbed wires, what broken things. Like Odysseus returning to Ithaca: that island doesn’t know me. Like Odysseus washing up finally on the shores of home, without a trace of triumph, no fanfare, no confetti, no loving wife to make the shape of welcome with her open arms. Only a loyal dog to wag his tired tail in recognition. But what dog will greet me upon my return? If it’s the British bulldog, that’s a guard dog, not a pet. It’s not the bouncy puppy that you adopted as your own, the one you fed treats all these years and trusted not to bear its teeth, the one that grew to know you. It’s a snarling beast grown fat on hatred and fear, whipped into a frenzy and straining against the boundaries that it was reared to protect, and it’s been groomed to go for the heart. It will rip your throat out but first it will break your heart.
    Home is where the heart is, but where is the heart in all of this? Broken, like the lines we’ve crossed. The lines that once connected the dots; the lines that now divide. Cut here.

And me and you are all of us who are scared, we’re just dots. Cast adrift, unable to connect and make a shape. What shape would we make if we connected? Would it look like Britain, or would it form another picture entirely? How hard would its edges be, how flexible its boundaries? Would it be a shape that soothes or feeds the fear? Would it contain us? Would it define us? Would it set us free?

That island doesn’t know me, but I thought I knew. I thought I knew my place and that puppy that I trusted not to hurt me when I held my hand out for its paw. What good is faith when it turns against you, snarling, and rips your home to shreds? But no, fuck you: you might turn me out, but you won’t turn me faithless. I’m scared, but not of your dog. I won’t drift away, unconnected, to elsewhere, to anywhere but within, just because of the lines you’ve crossed. I know I can find my island again. I can find my way back. And I need no fanfare, no confetti, no recognition, no brass band to welcome me home; I just need you not to break it while I’m away, and the space to come and go.

Draw your lines where they matter. Give that dog another bone to chew on. And fucking say it, that you’re scared, let your mouth form the words, let them come to life and dance – I’m scared – but don’t let the fear shape you. Don’t let that be the shape that defines us all. Connect the fucking dots.

This is the last of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part one, part two, part three, and part four here.

And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.

Let it not be lost. (The United Kingdom that we love.)

From Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant

The longest day of the year has been and gone. So has the worst. This is what I declare today, on the 27th of June, midway through the year: enough. Let this be the worst of it. Let the second half of 2016 be an opportunity for figuring our shit out, and healing.

I say healing – not licking our wounds. We are not wounded, even though we are in pain. We are not wounded unless we choose to take these wounds on, to let them break our skin and our spirit. Unless we take on the mentality of the wounded, the injured, the put-upon. And then what? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression? Retaliation? Self pity?

We are in pain, but we are not wounded. We are grieving. Some of us are grieving; some of us are rejoicing, celebrating an outcome that we think is for the best; some of us are confused; some of us riddled with regret. But I say us, did you notice? All of us are us. The Leavers, the Remainers, the in-betweeners, even those who only thought of googling the EU after they’d voted, even the ones who decided, on the day, it wasn’t all that important to turn up, even people like me, who weren’t given the choice at all: they are all us.

It’s not easy to say this. I feel no connection to core of the Leave voters. I feel no connection to those motivated by racism, xenophobia or nationalism. I feel no connection to the ignorant, because ignorance can be cured or, at least, ameliorated (perhaps by doing a google search on the EU before voting to leave it) and it is not – as demonstrated by all of those declaring themselves devastated by the outcome of their actions – any kind of bliss. I feel no connection to those who hold on to a past, a time before, that can never be recreated, who voted for the ghost of Great Britain instead of the living, breathing people that make up this country today.

It’s not easy to say this, because some of these people want me out. To some of them, I’m not the collateral damage of a decision driven by loss of faith in European politics; to some, I am the problem. They didn’t vote for themselves, they voted against me. It’s not easy, in the face of people rejoicing in the fact that they’ve voted me out, to not feel wounded. But I have to try because to give into this is to perpetuate the division that I’m fighting against, in my heart and with these words. To give in is to legitimise it. And that’s when they’ll have truly won.

Trying to take in the world, today, makes me feel a little nauseous. It reminds me of dystopian fiction, a reality that looks vaguely familiar, but not, and makes your stomach turn. The Leavers and the Remainers have already become terminology; they have taken root, they have taken hold. They are used as if they’d always been around, as if we’d always been using them. Already, in the space of a few days, we cannot imagine there was ever a time when that split didn’t exist.
     Dystopia: the Divided Kingdom. Where Leaver and Remainer are the only available choices; where there are no more classes, and no more opportunities, only two factions at war. Where you have to wear the government-issue yellow or blue armband at all times, so that you may be instantly recognised as one or the other, and no one has to waste time talking to you to ascertain where you stand. Endless queues at specially-converted clinics, blue or yellow, where they brand your identity – Leaver or Remainer – onto your skin, and secret, back-street places popping up, where you can have the mark burnt off, for those, unthinkably, who want to switch allegiance. And later, branding babies at birth. And later, coding it into your DNA. And somewhere, out of sight yet too much in-your-face to be tolerated, the unmentionables, the identity-less: the EU citizens. Cast adrift, segregated in special ghetto housing, and knocking on unmarked doors for black-market papers, so that they, too, may be branded, and belong.

Does it sound far-fetched? This is what happens when you perpetuate division. When you legitimise it. This is what happens when you split people down moral lines, with rhetoric and fear. You don’t have to go too far back to fetch an example: do you remember a man called Hitler? Do you remember Apartheid? Have we already forgotten that world, just three days ago, when these were things with which we did not agree?

We are all of us grieving. We are grieving for the United Kingdom we once knew, the United Kingdom we still believed in just three days ago. A country built upon imperialism and colonialism and nationalism and racism, but that evolved. That grew to include us, that chipped away at the divisions to make sure all of us were us. That forgave itself for the –isms of the past, and gave itself the opportunity to grow. We are grieving, all of us, for the country that we loved.

But the nationalists and the racists and the colonialists and the ignorant have always been around. This referendum did not create them, it only gave them voice. It allowed them to identify as Leavers, as opposed to Remainers, and it gave them a leg to stand on when, for so many years, they had none. When their legs would have been kicked from under them, just three days ago, the very moment they gave voice to hate. It placed them in the moral majority, alongside people who genuinely did vote for what they hope will be a better world (regardless of whether you or I agree), and they are piggybacking on these people to gain credibility. But, on their way to a better world, outside of Europe or within it, I doubt many of the Leavers want racists riding on their backs. Let them walk alone, and then be counted. Let them see that they don’t count for much.

Because the United Kingdom that we love may not be lost, not irrevocably, not yet. Not unless we give in, not unless we perpetuate division and legitimise hate. Not unless we allow ourselves to be wounded and lash out. Retaliation? No. Self-pity? No. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression? No. We may be grieving, but we are not trapped. We don’t have to follow the same old patterns, blindly, that invariably lead to the same results. We can grow to include them, these others, to accept them for what they are and still be us. It isn’t easy to say this, in the face of so much hatred, rejoicing in a victory that it calls moral, tainting those around it with its brand. Daring to show its face, all of a sudden – but these people have always been around. They may be in our faces, now, but we don’t have to give in, and we don’t have to carry them on our backs. They haven’t won, not yet. We can show them that they will not be tolerated. The world may be changing, but these are still things with which we do not agree. We can neutralise them, not legitimise them, by being us. In the name of the United Kingdom that we love, we can still be us.

This is what I mean by healing. Skin unbroken; spirit intact. Not like it never happened, but like it happened and we learned.

So let the 23rd of June be the worst of it. Let it be the worst day of the year. Let us not be wounded; let our pain help us heal. Let our grief bring us acceptance. Let us figure out our shit, instead of flinging it at each other. Let us learn; let us grow. Let us forgive ourselves and the United Kingdom that we love; let us still believe in that place that included us; let it not be lost.

This is the fourth of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part one, part two, part three, and part five here.

And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.

Image credit: BBC News From the People’s Vote march in central London, March 23rd 2019

This is the voice of the voiceless (Divided Kingdom)

From Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant
Migrants walk to cross the border into Croatia, near the town of Sid in Serbia

I’m not political. I know enough to know I know too little. And besides, politics is often about winning arguments and proving your point, and I have neither skill nor interest in those two things. But there is something stirring inside me, a voice low but firm. It is unsettled and it’s unsettling. It wants to be heard. It is the voice of the EU exile, the resident-turned-immigrant overnight. It is the voice of those who found out yesterday how quickly a right can be overturned; that a right can be taken for granted but it can equally be taken away. It is the voice of all of us who learned yesterday what politics actually means. And it is turning us political.

We are privileged, and we cannot conceive of a world where our right to live the lives we’ve built, where we’ve built them, could be challenged or taken away. But that is the world we live in, and it happens every day. Those refugees washing up on our borders and terrifying us: what do we think happened to them? They had lives, too, that they took for granted, in places they called home. They had rights that were snatched away. And here they are now, at our borders: unwanted, and wanting nothing but to be where they feel that they belong. These things happen, all over this world we live in, but not here. Not to us.

I don’t want this happening to me, either, and I’m not advocating for cynicism or what goes around comes around, though it does. I’m not saying that it serves us right or that we deserved it, this blow to our naïve arrogance, or that it’s a lesson we needed to learn, though perhaps it is. I don’t believe in carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders just so we know how heavy it is. I don’t believe in cross-generational karma or history dictating the present, or inheriting the sins of the past. I’ve done nothing wrong and whatever’s coming around I did not bring onto myself. I am only guilty of taking for granted a right that was granted to me, at one time. I don’t want this happening to me, or you, or anyone, here or in any place. But times change and rights are revoked, and it’s happening: here, now, to us. We are exiled in the land of limbo, with the lives we’ve built in bundles on our backs, travelling in a direction entirely uncharted and we don’t know, when we reach the borders, what we will find.

It doesn’t serve us right and it isn’t fair and we don’t deserve it, but it’s humbling and, perhaps, a little humility is something we need. Along with the shock and the hurt and the indignation that we’re feeling, justifiably, and the strength we’ll need to muster to see us through. Along with the hope that we’ll need to summon if we don’t want to remain voiceless, because it’s only hopeful voices, now, that have a chance of breaking through boundaries, of crossing the borders and being heard. That is our task, now; that is our responsibility: to find that hopeful voice, and let it be heard. Dignified but humble; understanding, at last, that we are not immune. That we are not too privileged to find ourselves outside; to be turned from us to them.

It isn’t fair, because we have been voiceless. Because the citizens of the UK were granted a voice but we were not. Those of us who’ve built our lives upon a right granted in this country, but when that right was challenged, we had no voice. All those who spent the day in a daze yesterday, with heads lowered and heavy hearts. Silent, or only muttering the same stock phrases; who, in many cases, could manage nothing more eloquent than what the fuck.
    It’s isn’t fair, because our British counterparts, the citizens of the UK who’ve built their lives in our countries, were given a voice. They had the chance to protect those lives. They had the right, but we did not. It isn’t fair but it is politics, and that it just the way it works. And this is not against those who rightfully voted, our British counterparts and the citizens of the UK. I want to thank you, the 48% who voted for unity, for yourselves and for all of us, and even those who, infuriatingly, voted to Leave and then changed your minds. I want to thank you for lending us your voice when we were voiceless, and for speaking up for us when we were rendered mute with shock. You have done more for breaking the boundaries between us and them than you imagine, and you must not be ashamed for the choices of the other 52%. Don’t carry that weight on your shoulders; it’s too heavy, and it isn’t yours to bear.

There is something stirring, a voice that had been muted, and it is turning us political. But this is bigger than politics and numbers and the laws that grant and revoke our rights. This is about people, and the voices we use to talk to each other, so that we can be understood. Anger, hurt, indignation are all justified, but we’ve heard those voices before and they never take us very far. This is history in the making; this is when we choose what we bring on to ourselves. If those tightening borders can serve to bring us closer rather than driving us apart, together, we have a voice. Bigger than any number a referendum can throw up. The voice of people, regardless of where they were born or what rights they were granted by the paperwork they carry. Low but firm, dignified but humble, and hopeful: that is the voice that needs to be heard. Positive. Not political, but human. This is what needs to be understood: we don’t want to prove a point or win an argument. We just want to live our lives in the place where we built them, and not carry them in bundles on our backs, camping out at the borders, unwanted, and wanting nothing but to be in the place that we call home.

This is the third of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part one, part two, part four, and part five here.

And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.

Photo credit: Refugees walk to cross the border into Croatia, October 2015 © Antonio Bronic / Reuters

Divided Kingdom (The day after)

From Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant


Brexit gave me a very romantic moment this morning. The birds chirped and the bees buzzed and the sun shone upon me as I picked up my phone and proposed to M by text message. ‘You might have to marry me’, I said. He’s not a sentimental man, but I’m sure there were tears in his eyes when he read it. This is a joke I’m making, on this day when there is nothing to laugh about. Ha ha.

I’m crying as I write this.

All my life, I’ve stood on the funny side of things and found something to laugh about. And I have laughed today, but bitterly. There is a bitter taste in my mouth. Bile. Hatred. Division. I’ve laughed, because you don’t just break the habit of a lifetime from one day to the next, but things are being broken all over the place. And today, I don’t know where I stand.

It’s not about the breaking up of a union that, despite the best intentions that I’m sure were present, somewhere, at its inception, was arguably ill-conceived in the first place. What’s broken is this human race, that looks around and sees only difference, that looks around and fails to recognise itself in the humanity of others, that sees otherness wherever it looks. Humanity: the great equaliser, but it’s the lowest common denominator that’s at play today, and it is fear. In all of our equations, X equals humanity divided by fear. We’re broken, and our edges are jagged; we don’t remember how we fit together. We don’t remember that we ever did. From one day to the next, we forget.

It’s too soon to write this. I don’t know how I feel. Something has happened and I want to talk about it, but there really isn’t much to say. Something has happened, yet nothing has happened yet everything has changed yet everything looks the same. The birds are chirping and the bees are buzzing and the sun is shining upon us all, and I cannot connect this feeling inside, the cold dread, the fight-or-flight tingle in my limbs, the bile rising up and turning my jokes bitter, to what I see when look around. I see myself as other, as others now see me; I recognise nothing at all.

I’m crying as I write this, but you don’t break the habit of a lifetime from one day to the next, and I’ve made jokes today. Like, I’ll be a new Anne Frank and hide in an attic and write my memoirs, ha ha. But it’s a bitter laugh, and powerless: it doesn’t connect. How could it, when connection is to recognise ourselves in others, and we have failed to even recognise ourselves? When the immigrants of yesterday are the xenophobes of today and they see neither irony nor danger in this, and memory only serves as ammunition, to justify the bitterness and the jagged edges we’re pointing at each other, something is broken. It shouldn’t surprise me, that I feel disconnected, but I was surprised by the news this morning, and I no longer know where I stand.

Divided Kingdom, you are broken, and you have broken my heart. And I know how little this matters. I know it matters almost not at all. But today, to me and to another 3 million residents of a land that’s shifting beneath our feet, of a kingdom divided, it matters. From one day to the next you have turned us into other and, no matter where each of us stands, there is no funny side to this. Just sides and jagged edges and that dreadful, chilling tingle in our limbs.

Fear is the great equaliser. That’s what the X seventeen million people drew onto their ballot papers and divided a nation equals; that’s what they chose. But what we fail to see is that we are all afraid. And if we recognised ourselves in the fear of others, perhaps we’d remember how little there is to be afraid of, after all. Perhaps we’d remember that we all fit together, and that division has never conquered anything for long. Perhaps we’d see that there has only ever been one side, and it’s the one where we can laugh at ourselves. And not allow the bile to turn us bitter. Despite the Xs that divide us, we still have that choice.

This is the second of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part one, part three, part four, and part five here.

And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.