Books

Please keep me occupied
I’m, out on my own
Please keep me occupied
I’ve thrown it all away
And I can’t tell you it’s not true
I had someone that would do
More than I could ask for
-- The Bush, The Tree and Me
“More than I could ask for”

I met Elizabeth in Manchester in a music shop of all places. She looked up at me with these lost eyes and I just felt like I needed to take her with me. I’d heard about her, from friends, and they liked her for various obscure reasons and as I held her in my hand I too fell under her spell and wanted to know all about her.

Before then I’d been in the company of a group of science fiction writers. The relationship, while exciting and original had eventually become strained. Like all friendships and relationships all of the unexpected moments that had seemed golden to begin with were finally beginning to irritate me until the end when I didn’t know if I was enjoying the experience or just felt like should be there in case I missed anything important. The inconsistencies were too large and I needed a change, I needed to discover new things, ideas and experiences in the real world.

So I sat in the cinema with Elizabeth and she began to explain about her childhood, about how her parents had split up when she was very young, how her father had largely not been there for her and how her mother had compensated by being enough for the two of them. She described how her mum was more of a best friend than anything else and how for years it had been lovely. There had always been a niggling feeling that something was missing, the little things began to mount up and she found she couldn’t cope with who she was and what was happening to her. She was so full of promise.

The film began and although I wanted to know more, things were going wrong in Chicago. Even though that was my main reason for being there, I found myself resenting the film for interrupting us. So although I’d planned to stay in the cinema for the whole day I instead rushed for the train so that I could know more. By now Elizabeth was talking about how her issues really manifesting themselves at the age of eleven when she started cutting herself and I knew that her story wasn’t going to be an easy one. I missed the times at University and beyond when people would tell me their problems so that we could look for solutions together and although everything she was telling was in the past I just needed to know.

And so our relationship continued in an ad-hoc way. We’d meet on buses, in lunch hours and sometimes at work and her confessional would continue apace but as time went on I wondered whose catharsis this actually was. I’d had a fairly simple life in comparison. At college I hadn’t dabbled in drugs (or alcohol really), or gone at it with her wild sexual abandon, and in some ways it felt as though she was explaining all of this to point up how much more of a complex character she was in comparison to me and the rest of us. As though you hadn’t lived if your problems weren’t as massive or magnified as hers.

On the day of the election when she joined me in the polling booth. As the pensioners drifted through to put their cross in the box (or get cross with the box) Elizabeth was describing a disastrous trip to Europe and London in particular, and being in a bookshop, everything getting on top her and falling apart. I stepped away. I stopped listening. It was too much. I mean really, why was she telling me this?!? I resolved not to continue, to let her be, for her to wallow in her own problems.

Ten minutes later I already knew the reaction of the guy she had been with and how they proceeded to travel around the rest of England, even Ipswich, but hadn’t enjoyed any of it, because of the company and her horrendously deteriorated mental being. She hadn’t wanted to be there. She hadn’t wanted to be any place. By now I felt myself just wrapped up her words, as though her problems had become my problems to the extent that by the end of the day I had forgotten to vote, even though I was working inches away from the ballot box.

She was depressed and couldn’t deal with anything, not even her mother’s sickness. I lay in bed that night needing to know if she had worked it out. “In a strange way, I had fallen in love with my depression.” She said, “I loved it because it was all I had. I thought the depression was the part of my character which had made me worthwhile.” I realized that in a strange way I had fallen in love with Elizabeth and her story. It was one way traffic of course, room only on the edges and between her words for my problems of vague loneliness and slight pangs of failure. And I had a grim determination to see it through to end, try and understand her suicide attempt within the context of her need to try everything she could and hope that she would let the Prozac do it’s work in making her feel better, more positive.

Then she brightened up. The depression lifted. Elizabeth used words she hadn’t used before like ‘contentedness’. Everything was OK. I could let her go. Her story ended that night and I could get on with my life, the work and the weblogging.

I’m consumed by the chill of solitary.
-- Alanis Morissette
“All I really want”

The following morning something was missing. Her story had ended in 1994, during my second year at University. What had happened since then, where had she been, who had she been with up until the time I found her on that rainy day? So I sought her out again, and she began anew, and within moments all of the optimism had gone. Her depression had faded to be replaced by something else.

”I crush up my pills and snort them like dust. They are my sugar. They are the sweetness in the days that have none. They drip through me like tupelo honey. Then they are gone. Then I need more. I always need more.” She was addicted to Ritalin a drug she had been prescribed because of a trouble focusing which had graduated from being a mostly harmless additive in pill form to something a bit more dangerous. She described how she had wanted the feeling to hit more ferociously and how she began to snort. And then when she ran out of that and couldn’t work out how to get any more from her psychologist she decided that she might as well use cocaine anyway. It’s an example of how for some of us nothing is completely ended, things always continue, that if anyone says that all their problems are solved by religion of whatever that the underlying cause endures.

It was the context within which this was happening that drew me in this time because it seemed to be talking to me. She had moved to Florida to work on her new book about strong women and all but shut herself off from the world. She was existing for the single purpose of turning out pages. She says she wasn’t lonely, that she wanted to be left alone, and I found it difficult to believe her, if only because it felt so similar to my own situation of working for five days and finding that I had nothing at the weekend. That after years of having friends and going places and doing things everything had been stripped away. That finally I was a lonely person and that I was finding it distinctly difficult get myself out of a pattern. I would meet people, get their telephone numbers, but when it came to actually planning to call them, a wall would go up with titanium bars six inches thick. More than that I’d wonder why I was the one would have to do the inviting; wasn’t I special enough for people to actually decide that they would want to see me? Her drug abuse was spinning out of control; she was missing important appointments and losing the respect of her colleagues. We both needed help, the difference was she could get help.

She checked into rehab, I didn’t have that luxury, no place to go and say “Hello my name is … and I’m predominantly a lonely person right now …” I wallowed in my own problems, the routine of the day and for once she was just an adjunct, fitting in between my margins. She would sit on my desk as I worked looking at me, sit on the bus seat next to me as I drifted through solitary day trips not giving me the company I needed, unable to say the things I wanted her to say. That she was there provided some comfort, because no matter how difficult my problems seemed, hers would always be ten times worse.

Elizabeth condensed the time she spent in Silver Hill, the four months, into four of my days. She carefully portrayed or caricatured her group mates and I got to know them through her eyes. She was getting involved with yet another man, and it wasn’t going to turn out well, and she’d known that deep down it would happen the same way all over again. I realized that part of my problem was that I had been disappointed too many times before, either with myself or my friends. Whenever I had been me, the behaviour, ideas, opinions and stories had been at right angles to theirs. Or something they did would caused the judgmental chip in my brain to crack. I expected so much of people and far too often I’d been disappointed. Like the times as a teenager when I’d rationalized that I really didn’t have a chance with which ever girl I had a crush on that week, now I’d decided that it wasn’t worth making an effort to get make friends close at hand because at some point I’d say or do something or they might and it would go sour and I’d obsess over what had happened. The times when I thought I was good company, when I thought I was making people feel good about themselves and me, the jury was saying no.

I desperately wanted Elizabeth to become the perfect substitute, for her to be teaching me something, but as she drifted through her story of rehab, all I thought about was wanting to go back in time to a place early enough that I could save her. I’d done it before; I arrogantly remembered the time at university when a couple I’d liked had been having difficulties and somehow, something I said one night in a launderette to the girl had kept them together. I wanted to be able to turn around to the younger Elizabeth, give her a hug and tell her it would be alright. Then again, if her real friends hadn’t been able to break through her exterior, how could a time traveling stranger hope to? For a brief moment I was nostalgic for my science fiction companions and wondered if make believe really was a less painful way to go. I kept all this to myself as she finished rehab and it looked like she would be OK.

It wasn’t OK. The night Elizabeth left the house she met an old friend and was back on drugs. In hindsight she knows now that it was supposed to be a way for her to convince herself of her own invincibility, that cocaine didn’t rule her life, that she could get up the following morning and the need would be gone and a clean life would ensue. Deep down I knew that wouldn’t be the case and sure enough over the next few days I found out that post-rehab her drug abuse was even more acute and embarrassing because she had been through the programme, was telling people that she was cleanwhen she hadn’t been. Her tone was vaguely apologetic and I knew I should be disappointed. Our time together now was rapidly getting shorter though and I’d become so attached that I couldn’t. She was here to tell the tale, and I’d be there to the end.

Even as she described the pregnancy and abortion which would be the trigger for her redemption. When I was at school we’d been given a graph, the verticle axis marked with zenith at the top, nadir at the bottom and asked to plot the life of a Shakespearean tragic hero over the period of a play. I imagined that maths paper in my head and noticed that peaks and troughs of this woman’s life looked somewhat like the beating of a heat hooked up to a medical monitoring machine, the blood of life gushing in and pumping out.

And so the other night, Elizabeth left again, and it felt like forever. It was as abrupt as the last time. She was back in recovery, but this time she devoted herself to it, like the book she had been so desperate to finish writing. She said things like “if you already know what your response will be before you’ve heard what it is the other person has said, you are not listening.” She understood what the drugs and depression had made her into, that without either she was a worthwhile person, able to contribute. For the first time in ages it felt right. I could let her go.

One day
It will happen
One day, one day
It will all make sense.
-- Bjork,
“One Day”

Here is how the story began. I met Elizabeth in Manchester. I fell in love with her and her life. I wanted to know it all. Realised when writing about it I had a problem. Realised that the only way to face it was head on. Let her wash over me, cleansing me. And when she’d gone I knew what had happened and what I needed to do.

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