Unhappiness is not being alone, but being trapped in being alone
Above the desk in Tara’s room, a poster hung on the wall. It was a picture taken from a magazine, a page-sized advert of a woman (although really she was not much more than a girl), her hand wrapped around the back of her slim, pale neck, and her head leaning forward so that her voluminous, illuminated eyes seemed to lean right out of the paper, and right into the room, and right at you. Her lips were the most violently full shade of red you could imagine, and the way they curved around the rigidly defined lines of her face made them seem as if they had actually been stickered onto her rather than grown over time from birth. Her spongey skin was frothy pale and her hair was a dyed-wax black. In fact, she was more the creation of a restless and unresourceful mind than of nature.
But the woman didn’t seem to mind. She leaned forward in this coercive, feminine way she had, and she whispered to you this scathing hot recommendation that you buy the things that had made her look this way. She locked eyes with you and seemed to watch you as she said this. To anyone who looked hard enough, the woman did not seem particularly human. To those with the eyes to see, she seemed to be possessed, perhaps demonic, a hollowed-out vessel of insecure madness. To the viewless, however, she was just a pretty girl lucky enough to find her way onto the pages of a magazine, and perhaps even luckier to have been chosen by such an impressionable young thing as Tara to adorn her bedroom wall at university.
When Tara broke up with her boyfriend, she came back to her room and studied this picture mystically. Something within that curved, clay face hinted at secrets she felt certain she had to find out. She stayed and studied it for forty-five minutes, flicking indeterminately between the poster and facebook on her phone, perhaps waiting to see if some combination of the two would tell her something about what she needed to know. Then her housemates came into her room, and she spoke over great distances about her break-up. She told them that she didn’t see it going anywhere, she said, she didn’t see it going anywhere. That was her message. The uses of the relationship had grown weary, flat and stale, and it was simply time to move on, she said.
Then her friends left the room, and she struggled to think about why she had really broken up with him.
She had stumbled into her six-month long relationship with Will like a calf taking its first steps in the dewy morning, and at first it seemed to be a wonderful thing. She had felt the rush of sexual attraction, and over time had developed an emotional dependency, and perhaps even romance, though she could not be sure exactly what that was. Will was a good person, everyone agreed with that. He was congenial and likeable and agreeable, and he was a Good Thing in her life as far as everyone else and therefore she was concerned. She felt like she loved the fact that he was a presence in her life, and a pot into which she could pour her ashamed yearnings and frustrations in the act of sex.
They never talked much about how they felt, though. Instead they preferred to enjoy each other’s presence by covering small talk intravenously. As their relationship went on each of them secretly hoped for more things to happen to them and for more embarrassing characters to mark themselves on their lives, so that they would have something to talk about. Conversation began to gently falter as they silently realised that they had repeated the same stories to each other three times.
Although Tara was just the sort of person to not be certain about anything, she felt fairly certain that she knew what she wanted from her relationship with Will. She never articulated it into actual words, but if she had, it would be something like this:
‘I want to fall in love, because I want to end my loneliness.’
She desperately wanted to feel that transcendent rush of falling in love that she had grown up believing would save her from herself. So much seemed to tell her that this was an answer to her separation, and yet so much seemed to tell her otherwise, like relationships that fail and marriages that end in divorce. But more than anything she wanted to merge with something; she wanted to feel as if she had become a part of something else. She wanted to be thrilled by romance, the ultimate ecstasy, and dance wildly to the tune of somebody else’s musical heart. Tara’s birth was her first separation, and everything she had done since then had been part of her search to reconnect with the world.
Of course, she didn’t actually know this. No one had ever told her that this was what she wanted, and she had no way of determining it herself. You see, Tara was one of these unfortunate people who had been born, and had begun to grow up, and had not known what to do about it.
Like a fading portrait, she began to slip gently away from the world.
‘Ellie,’ she said one day to her great friend Ellie, who sat as distant as a mountain on the far side of the coffee table they were sat at. ‘I… I…’
‘What is it, darling?’
She stared like an empty vase at her empty cup.
‘Dammit!’ something inside her exclaimed violently, though she couldn’t feel a thing.
She wanted to say something about breaking up with Will, but she actually felt like she didn’t want to say anything at all. Her stare waved colourlessly to the street outside the café, but remained on the pavement, and not the people.
‘You alright, Tara?’
‘Yeah,’ she said, as if irritated at the question. ‘I’m fine.’
She had experienced this throughout her entire life, and the more it happened the more frustrating it became. There was always something that she wanted to say to someone, things that were forever circling around her head as if in a hurricane. But every time she spoke to someone they would never, ever get out. The end of every conversation would leave her even more despondent than before, because she had hoped to express something, and instead had never managed to break the imprisonment of small talk.
‘Do you think you’ll ever get married?’
There. That was the first time she had managed to move towards something meaningful in a long time.
‘I don’t know,’ laughed Ellie. ‘Depends if I meet the right guy!’
Tara stumbled in search of something to say, then sank back inside her sultry head. She didn’t know how to pursue this conversation.
‘What about you?’
The table seemed to grow further away between the two of them.
How on earth do you find the right person to spend the rest of your life with?
A wave of anxiety rose in her fretted veins.
Tara had always led her life with the vague suspicion that the cure to loneliness was finding a loved one who could locate the ringing bell within her and silence it. She never doubted that. She just didn’t know how to find that person.
She was more and more aware of this rising body of panic and emptiness that was swelling somewhere around her consciousness, and every day her life became more of a battle to keep it away. She had to breathe deeply at all times, otherwise it would consume her.
If she stayed still she would sink, and she knew that if one passionate night she sank then there might not be daylight again. The next day she would wake up and the world would no longer seem like a worthwhile place in which to be.
Tara went home and sat in her room, trying to revise for her summer exams. She was a second-year history student, and very intelligent. She had got A*A*A in her A Levels.
The first few words of the book she was reading skirted uniformly around her mind before she was already wandering down another path of thought altogether. Her impatient mind refused to stay still, and when it wandered it never did anything useful.
In her head a fist slammed against a table. How did people get married!? Was there some kind of formula people used? How did married couples do it? And surely it wasn’t actually happiness that they found? If only someone would tell her!
She had decided that marriage couldn’t be the zenith that she had been made to think it was. What about all the thousands of marriages every year that end in divorce? Or all the ones that carry on and are miserable? Had they thought they’d found that perfect person, and then realised they were wrong?
Was she only even thinking about marriage just because she’d had some kind of flirtation with a relationship? Something was making her look for conclusions in everything she did.
What about those married people who got depressed?
Christ, everyone gets depressed, don’t they? Teachers, sportspeople, lawyers, builders, billionaires, politicians, artists, actors, writers, lovers, people with friends and people without, married or unmarried, rich or unrich. Oh Christ, how was she to escape it if it came?
Oh Christ, Oh Christ…
She looked at the window and didn’t feel anything. It was letting in a pastel-white light that didn’t touch her.
What to do, what to do?
Oh Christ, there is nothing to do!
‘Oh Christ,’ she whispered, but she couldn’t be sure that the voice was hers. ‘Oh Christ, oh Christ, oh Christ…’
The floor began to move like a dark whale beneath the sea.
‘We all die in the end’, she thought to herself as she watched. ‘The floor is moving…’
Who to talk to, who to talk to?
There was nothing to interact with!
The floor continued to remain still, while Tara retreated further and further backwards into something she could not feel.
When Tara was growing up, she never fully developed the ability to connect with other people. She had instead developed a deep and terrible mistrust with the world, because the world had not treated her very nicely. But she didn’t understand this, because, from the outside, it seemed as if the world had treated her very nicely indeed, and if there’s one thing English people are prone to do, it is to judge things on how they look rather than how they feel.
She had been born into a well-off family and had been privately educated from the age of eleven. Her parents had both been grammar school educated, and were aspiring members of the lower and middle-middle classes. She had never fully understood this about them though, and merely had a basic appreciation that they had not been born into as much money as she had. Her mother was a lawyer and her father was a financier. Coming from such a seemingly comfortable background it seemed absurd to think that she might be unhappy, and ungrateful to even suggest it.
It was school that had begun her long, slow descent into alienation. She was never a very sociable girl, or, at least, not in the usual way. She was much happier sitting by herself and drawing pictures while the rest of the class formed the first connections that would teach them intimacy for a lifetime. Certainly she had friends, but as she grew up they proved to be more distant than her parents realised. This was simply because of Tara’s natural insularity. A girl is never expected to be a thoughtful creature, so when one with a brain enters the world, the world doesn’t know how to react. No one ever understood that Tara was neither unfriendly nor arrogant, but that she was simply insecure. She was like a scared fawn who so wanted to love and be loved, but she didn’t know how, and although she had a heart the size of a diamond, she had no one to measure its immense value.
She remembered walking into a room full of people and feeling the sweat breaking the manifest defences of her best wishes and her skin skulking with fear. How do you approach people? How do you hold a conversation with someone?
She remembered so vividly the first moment she got to secondary school and someone had joked that her legs were too wide apart, and her eyes had shot like missiles across her body. Every interaction with another person, every glance in a corridor and every single conversation she was forced into was like a minefield of terror. The fear of judgement passed into her like an illness, and she had no way of leaving her mind, no way of seeing herself from another perspective, and no way of imagining that she was not at the centre of the universe, trapped, and suffering, like a prisoner.
At two o clock in the morning she sat in her room and raged like a cancer at her schooldays.
‘Why had no one told me it was going to be like this!?’ she thundered. ‘Why did no one ever try to help me?’
She thought back to all the lessons she had been made to sit through, and the classrooms full of horrible, spiteful teenagers who had utterly ruined her self-esteem. She thought of all the things she had learnt that were not useful – maths, science, English, history, – and raged and raged at the torture she had been put through to pass her exams. For what!? To what end did she sit exams?
She had been taught things that were irrelevant to a human being if that human being is not happy. She had learnt how to write an essay, and how to solve an equation. She had learnt how to sit and be academic. Why had she not been taught how to have a conversation? Why had she not been taught how to come to terms with death, or how to form a good relationship, or how to accept suffering? Why had she not been taught how to be at peace with herself? Why had she not been taught how to be happy?
As she sat at her desk, her eyes moved once again to the floor. It was like a boundless, black behemoth beneath her, and like a failing light she was moving ever closer to its endless darkness. There was nothing to stop her now, there was nothing to stop her…
‘Morning, Katie,’ she said to her housemate Katie as they got ready to go to lectures.
‘Morning, Tara – are you alright?’
But the trapped little girl had fallen like a baby into tears, because she didn’t recognise the sound of her own voice, and she didn’t understand why.
Being depressed is like standing in front of the most beautiful painting in the world and only being able to see the white canvas underneath.
And the fall into depression is like the days following the death of a loved one. The passing of time cannot save you, and nor can the beginning of days be fresh. It is as if every clock has stopped, and every emotion within you has stumbled. The very air around you seems to have been made breathless. And although you can see the world still moving around you, you cannot feel it. You can stand outside and know that the wind is blowing on your skin, and see the trees blustering equally because of it, and notice birds flying in the direction of the gale; but you cannot be sure that it is not you that has been carried away with the wind. You could be kissed by the person you love most in this world and not realise that you are meant to feel something. Every day becomes an evening, and every night becomes a morning, and with every passing day you wake up a little bit more selfish, and a little bit closer to an end. Every dawn is like the breaking of a wound that bleeds afresh.
Every morning Tara would wake up, and the simple cut of light bleeding through the curtains would mean a little bit less to her each time.
Every time she spoke to someone, it would be as if she was speaking from even further away. Her hands did not seem like her own; her voice seemed to stem from some distant cave.
She was terrified of people laughing at her, and fundamentally distrusted everyone.
The world was a horrible, hostile place to be.
She was terrified of death because it meant that there was no point to anything. Her body was dust.
Her friends could not help her because they were all riddled with their own insecurities. They were all too worried, and too selfish, to be able to do anything.
Once when Tara was walking down a street she passed an enormous billboard with a beautiful woman on it, and cried and cried all the way home.
The vast peaks and troughs of life had steadied themselves in Tara’s rapid and reluctant removal from the world. All the highs of drinking at night and taking drugs on the weekend, and all the lows of the darkness of the morning and the university work that needed doing had worn her body into dust, and something in her mind had decided to take her away.
At night she could not help but stare at the lights in other people’s houses because they retained their own distinct portion of human secrecy that she could not know.
She feared missing out on absolutely everything. There was never a good place for her to be.
Meaning cheated her. It skirted like a beam of light around the room, and every time she made to catch it, it would be gone, throwing its sunny fakeness on some other enchanted object. And she worried deeply that her count of enchanted objects would decrease into nothing. And she questioned, somewhere in that unlocatable heart of hers, whether objects should be the things that were enchanted to her at all.
She had tried to be like an advert, with a beautiful exterior, and an interior filled with nothing but panic and emptiness.
Every face she saw was another pang of terror in her heart.
There was no talking now; only silence and distance.
Her room began to roll slowly inwards.
She was spiralling, she knew that; but all there was to do now was to strap herself in and feel the wind through her hair as she fell like a bird through the floor.
‘Can I explain something to you?’
Tara’s mother looked melancholically at her little girl. She had struggled to come to terms with her daughter’s illness, because her entire life had been an immense effort to keep up appearances, and depression was something that showed there was no substance behind them.
‘Of course, darling.’
‘The very first thing I thought, when I started to get better, was about my shirt.’
‘I was just staring and staring at my shirt. It was a very bright day outside. The first day of summer. There was blossom everywhere. It was really… lovely. And I was thinking about my shirt when I heard a group of people walking past and talking about sweatshops. They were saying something about how almost all their clothes had been made in sweatshops. And I really, really hated that.
‘And I looked at my shirt more, and the longer I looked at it, the more I thought about those people in a sweatshop somewhere in the Far East. I thought about all the hours they had to put into it, and how much money they were bringing back to their family every day, and how many times they might have cried because they weren’t doing what they wanted to do. That made me feel awful.
‘And then I thought about just how many people had contributed to the making of my shirt. There was the stitcher in the sweatshop; then the people on the factory floor; then the person who drove the cotton to the factory; then the farmer who grew the cotton; then the person who fed the farmer; then the people who worked on the farm; the people who had built the farmer’s house; the farmer’s friends and relatives who kept them happy; their friends and relatives, and their friends and relatives. I thought about all the people the stitcher might have in her life, and all the people who had made her clothes; and all the people who had made their clothes, and then all the people who they loved and who loved them back.
‘It was a weird train of thought. I suppose I just sat there for about five minutes, just thinking about it. It just occurred to me that there are an infinite number of people behind something as simple as the shirt that I had on my body at that moment. And then I thought that the same went for everything else around me. All the things I could see had an almost uncountable number of people behind them, and all of them were just normal people. They were all born, they will all die, and they all want to be loved. And, I don’t know. It was strange. It made me cry.’
Tara looked towards the window.
‘It made me feel connected.’