It was one April, striding through Manhattan’s buzzing SoHo streets when I noticed it for the first time: the perfect ice-clear separation from people and the vibrant activity of life as I had known it but hours before.
I was with the editor of a luxury life-style magazine, a PR magnate and a super model. We were being led on an adventure in to the unknown by an ex-Vietnam veteran called Batman, on and in to the streets of New York to discover ourselves and what being homeless really felt like. To bear witness to the experience.
We were to live as hobos, sleeping rough for a week. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs and our wandering, fearful, minds to sustain us as we set out in to the complete unknown amongst unfamiliar damp streets.
The glass wall between us and the rest of life came down suddenly and imperceptibly. Reality had shifted with the merest of silent flickers.
Now on the outside looking in. Like CGI characters overlaid on a film, unseen to the human actors who were clinking glasses in bars and chattering; busy and alive with their own evenings.
We walked, unnoticed, with our heads often down looking for treasures of half-smoked fags and silvery change dropped on the sidewalks, in a cloak of invisibility, quite alone and distant from the cinematic projection of the world going on around us.
So it is with my depression.
One moment I am with the throng of life, feeling alive, wonderful and blessed. Then a stumble…
To others, this may look as though this is caused by a trip on one of life’s many obstacles: an unpaid bill, an argument, perhaps the loss of a job or worse.
The imperfect truth is that I cannot say what triggers my own fall from reality. It is a whispered thought within me, whose words I do not catch fully. In an instant I feel as I did back then in New York: separate and unseen.
These times, however, I am alone.
There is no laughter, no thin bravado of companions and shared treasures of dimes and butt-ends within this place.
It is a total separation from the rest of life. I get up, sometimes can get dressed, and occasionally eat. I see life go on all around me but it does not touch me. I cannot touch it. I am caged without bars but drawn to drink, to find solace in something tangible that will match my contradicting feelings of wanting to numb myself and yet feel alive.
Perhaps this is why depressed people can turn to alcohol, drugs, eating and self-harm disorders: to find some way of both numbing and feeling at the same time. Anything that helps escape the open prison of thoughts and feelings.
I count myself lucky that the worse I do in such periods is to make a large gin at possibly an inappropriate time and a tendency towards my favourite pyjamas. I also put clean sheets on my bed and exile myself within them. So I rest, resist the gin (at least until after the sun is past the yard arm), take a bath and wait for life to flicker back again.
More recently, I’ve started recognising these dark episodes as a part of me and embracing them with real love, as a parent would embrace a child who had run away from home and returns fearful and shaken.
Accepting myself more wholly, with kindness equally for my twin brothers of light and dark that drive me, has brought me greater peace and happiness. This easier friendship of my different feelings also means less tangled arguments inside my head over which gets to play with the Action Man tank of life next.
Now these periods of self-imprisonment are far less and at most last a couple of days. I have learned that taking simple care of myself and letting my feelings (or often lack of feelings) flow their course, helps.
But the stumble in to this last period of depression seemed to deepen, no matter my kindness to myself through it. This fall from grace felt far more serious.
After a full five days, I found myself still falling, freely and with arms outstretched. My stumble has been far worse this time. I had not slipped off that proverbial sidewalk to the gutter, but off a cliff and into a bottomless chasm.
Despite, or rather because of, my fear of heights I have of course taken a free-fall parachute jump. Doing this, I learned that the jolt in the stomach, the feeling of falling that binds us to that fear, lasts but seconds. After that one feels free and as though one is flying, not hurtling downwards.
So too this period: the falling feeling stopped and I felt static, silently free within; I felt neither happy nor sad; everything seemed utterly perfect and yet nothing was real. A dangerous place if one has no rip-cord to pull.
There was only the dull thud of me hitting a bottom lower than I had been before. Only a few things remained tangible from my life left so far above.
In particular was my obsession with not letting food go to waste: so some rather special Chorizo sausages (semi-cured from pedigree Welsh pigs) that needed to be cooked were made into a pasta sauce that I didn’t have the appetite to eat.
I also had an overwhelming desire to conquer my mountain of laundry, having used the last set of clean sheets a few days before.
It was then my brother rang, urging me to stay with him, after he read my cry for help in an email I forgotten I had written. He even promised to pay for the fuel to get there. It was not the petrol which made me go, though it helped. Rather, I had to do something, anything, to change what was happening to me and where I was.
Or perhaps it was my pile of laundry and knowing he had a washing machine that got me packing and moving from my bed. I am not really sure.
So in the early evening darkness I packed an odd combination of one clean shirt but three types of shoes, my steam iron, a cocktail shaker, some pear liqueur and a sausage roll.
My special sausage sauce was left behind in my sole courageous aim to get myself to where help lay (with my ironing) or at least away from where things were not getting any better.
Tired to the core and my body aching painfully during the drive, I was not sure whether to check myself in to A&E or the nearest mental ward. I dismissed the latter, if only that I thought they would not quite appreciate the greater importance of my special iron as I did.
Back on those New York streets we took great joy in the smallest of things: a whole unsmoked cigarette, a dollar bill, a bunch of grapes or a toothbrush given to me by someone who had even less than me.
I remember then a simple kindness I gave a huge and frightening chap who was in great pain and anger: a half-smoked cigarette. It was unexpectedly repaid a few days later in a food line with a smile and a nod of thanks to me. We then chatted a little, a hug was exchanged and tears flowed from both our faces. In the first time in over a year he had human touch, my heart was blessed in return by a simple connection. In that small moment both our lives were improved. Mine forever.
So at my brother’s house I unknowingly hoped some small detail of life would act likewise, as a touchstone: perhaps a tear; perhaps a moment of laughter; perhaps just a walk with his dog.
Reality is a delicate perception. Like a dew-kissed spider’s web it can be beautiful, strong and flexible through the worst of life’s winds and storms.
Yet, if a supporting strand is broken the whole web collapses in on itself.
We marvel at the spider’s resolve to rebuild its web, seemingly so perfect and so essential to its survival. It will make the web over and over in the same place. The spider knows instinctively which gap between two walls is just the right size, the right position. It has the patience to wait.
I like to think that eventually the spider will move on from a place where the web is broken daily by human activity, such as a door way or window opening. Or does it stay, with no awareness of its futile actions, until it starves to its own destruction?
As much as we admire the spider’s work, most do not like to see its form: dark, silent, moving too quickly to corners and hidden places for us to love it.
This is how I felt about myself now. In truth, it’s also often my first instinctive reaction to those I have seen go through their own agonising periods of depression.
We shy away from what we do not like to acknowledge within ourselves. It’s a natural feeling. As much as we wish to free the spider in the bath, we do not wish to touch it.
I am not sure what spiders think or feel, but for us, who are both blessed and cursed by consciousness and self, there is always love, always hope.
However, these were two treasures I’d buried and forgotten where they lay; I now scrambled half-blind trying to uncover them.
I could see my friends fervently exhorting where I should look, but I only saw silent words from my bubble below.
They had not seen me slip and sink to where I now lay, but they immediately reached out desperately to help me. I saw their friendship and their care: the deep passionate love they had for me.
But I could not feel it. Their life rafts of help floated uselessly above.
As much as most serious accidents are caused by a moment of inattention and a little bad luck, my rescue came from the good luck of noticing something at just the right time.
It happened at the kitchen table with my niece and her friend next door. Lunch was a selection of Bath cheeses and expensive farm-shop accessories bought by my brother to cheer me up.
I had brought a lonely sausage roll as well as my laundry from home; so my meagre meat ration was added to the fare.
We tucked in and I offered some of the ‘Shropshire Blue’ sausage roll to both girls. They suspiciously agreed to try a bit.
Now, I am not sure how many sausage rolls girls eat before they reach their fourth birthday, so cannot reliably ascertain the accuracy of their critique. However, to see unrestrained joy in young eyes as mouths both munched in unison, “This is the best sausage roll in the whole wide world!” did something magical.
It was a simple, innocent, beautiful moment and I smiled. It was just enough to make me feel again.
There were other moments that came after that. Each giving me help I was now able to receive, pulling me up word by kind word, or just their quiet love that I could now sense.
I am blessed by truly exceptional friends. Everyone, but everyone has reached out to me. We are never alone, as much as we might feel like it or, in my case, wish it.
It is a struggle and I am still some way from the surface, but I am heading upwards to somewhere brighter. Sometimes one really does need to move towards the light.
So through all this, I have borne witness to a week on desolate streets within myself: damp, often dark, cold and self-isolated as I experienced then, in that New York April.
I’ve had to see my reality collapse. I feel I’ve survived only by letting go of my own web, beautiful as it has been, of what I had built before.
I have had to go to a place where nothing is possible, to learn that anything is possible.
I moved to Hay-on-Wye earlier this summer, driven with no plan and no idea what was in store, but a trust that it was absolutely what I must do. My unthinking actions still feel the right choice. This is my home and others see the joy living here has brought me.
What I must trust now is my friends and my heart. To catch the silvery threads of love that float around us but we are too busy to see. It is time to build another beautiful web, this time in a window with a new light shining through it.
This will not be easy. It feels it could be the biggest challenge yet.
For me now, it is not about giving up; it is about giving in. Surrendering to life.
To mirror what a dear friend often says to me: “I’m all in.”