Merry Christmas everyone! We are nearing the big day, counting down until we get some time off work, battling our way through crowded shops and snow laden streets and sickening ourselves of mince pies! This is my favourite time of year, because everyone is just that little bit more generous and thoughtful, and generally kinder. Whilst this is a season for joy and happiness, it can also be a struggle for some. I try to be open and honest about my mental health issues, having suffered from depression and anxiety for several years, and I know how stressful, and sometimes lonely this time of year can be as a result. There is an overwhelming pressure to be happy, and that forced merriment can sometimes have the opposite effect. If you are struggling with your own issues, I would encourage you to speak out and talk to someone…it genuinely helps. With that in mind, for tonight’s blog post, a collaborative short story and the next in my ‘Inspired’ series, I have written a story about my own experiences, inspired by a painting by the very talented artist Lyle Schultz.
Lyle is an artist based in Canada, and a man of many talents. As well as creating incredible mixed media works of art, which you can find here, he is also a writer, you can check out his writing here, and even a fashion designer, check out his clothing here! How to describe his work? I will use the artist’s own words, because he is infinitely more qualified than myself and also has a far more extensive vocabulary:
My paintings are a maelstrom of images and scratches, furious and open, the pictures a window into a mind that is furiously working, a plethora of cartoon madness and pop art motifs running rampant in vibrant colours and bold mark making. This is a life laid bare, the expression of an artist living to a rhythm of his own making, a riff that sucks in everything contemporary culture throws its way; film, comics, advertising, graffiti, and reinventing it, re-appropriating it, creating a new pictorial language that echoes the work of De Kooning, Basquiat and Grosz, all artists who railed against the status quo, took the outsider in, never moved an inch, fought for their space and demanded to be heard.
My paintings reflect a modern world in which visual saturation is at breaking point, my work is a distillation of the tsunami of images that hurtle through our screens, from the pages of magazines. Everything is here, everything is for sale, our lives imprisoned in a gonzoland of farce and materiality, it is a place that I frenetically describe over and over again, each mark a wake up call, a realisation, an indictment, an attempt to strip away the artifice and indulge in a little bit of magic.
I couldn’t have put it better myself (I genuinely couldn’t). I was immediately drawn to his vibrant and edgy pieces, and was honoured when he agreed to collaborate with me. I chose one of his many paintings, which trust me was not easy, and created the story below based on it. The image inspired me to look inwards at my own struggles and chaotic mind, and to write a story filled with issues and problems, but also hope. And on that note, I sincerely hope you like it!
Broken wings and wall clocks.
There are two wall clocks in this office, one directly facing me, and one behind my head. Time is inescapable here, and the ticking away of every passing second, is in surround sound. Sometimes, when I’m not in the mood to discuss my feelings, I stare hard at the little black hand, making it’s way around the clock’s face, willing it to go faster. It never does. In fact, time slows down within these walls, every second dragging and limping by.
Oh shit, she’s looking at me. Did she ask a question? I suddenly wish I could read minds.
“How does that sound to you?”
“It sounds, fine, yes. Fine.”
I have no idea if this is the correct response, but I figure I’ve got a fifty fifty shot of getting it right, so it’s worth a punt.
“Excellent. I’ll get those printed off for you then.”
Result! Just another one of Doctor Ferguson’s little exercises, designed to make me change my ‘thought patterns’. I fucking hate the exercises. How can a person change the very way they think? Our thoughts, are as much a part of us as our limbs. I think therefore I am.
The Doctor gets up off the threadbare seat, and leaves the office to locate the printer. I relish these little moments alone, with no questions or analysis. There is a faded poster hanging above the filing cabinet, a ginger cat, hanging from a branch and the words ‘Hang on in there.’ written in bright yellow lettering. I don’t find this particularly motivating, in fact, it pisses me off. If you see a cat in distress, dangling from a tree branch, you go and help it, not take a picture. Dumb fucking poster. The door opens again, before slamming shut of it’s own accord. It is designed to do this, to prevent the spread of fire, but it always gave the impression of being sentient, or perhaps controlled by an invisible presence.
“Here we go.”
Dr Ferguson always falls into her chair, rather than sitting in it. It’s a low piece of furniture, and she is a fairly heavy woman. She always dresses the same, wearing some hideous pastel coloured
cardigan, despite the broken radiators in here producing sauna like temperatures. There’s the same cameo brooch and pearls, as if she is dressed up as a therapist for halloween. The worst part is her lipstick, always the same garish pink, and always smeared on her teeth. Doesn’t she own a mirror?Maybe it’s some kind of test, to see if I’ll notice, to see if I’ll say something. I won’t. After shuffling the papers, she hands them to me, pointing at the boxes marked with the days of the week.
“Just fill in what you do each day under the appropriate heading. Try to include everything, but no need to go into minute detail. I don’t need to know your toilet habits for example.”
She laughs at this. She often laughs at her own jokes. I don’t laugh, mainly because they’re never particularly funny. Sometimes, as in now, I smirk in return, out of pity rather than actual amusement.
“Wait until you see just how much you get up to each day. I am willing to bet you accomplish far more than you give yourself credit for.”
“Even getting dressed and washed is an accomplishment in your circumstances, so think of it like one.”
She always called it that, my ‘circumstances.’ I suppose it sounds better than calling me mental, crazy, broken.
“Excellent, well that’s the end of the session today. Do you feel like you benefitted from it?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Excellent. Well, then I’ll see you same time next week.”
She walks me to the front doors and buzzes me out. You aren’t allowed to walk about this place unattended. I often wonder what happened to create the necessity for that rule. The building was beautiful once, all red brick and stone roses, but it has been painted and repainted so many times
over the years, that it gives the impression of having some kind of disease, the flakes of paint flaking off like scabs, exposing the red brick flesh beneath. It looks sicker than the patients within.
I start walking, pulling my jacket tighter in a feeble attempt to keep out the cold. The hospital was built long before the need for car parking spaces, and so I was forced to abandon my car a few streets away on a single yellow line. I’ve been over an hour now. I hope I don’t get a ticket. I wonder what the place looked like a century ago, and what those Doctors and nurses would think if they saw it now. I often let my mind wonder this way. It’s easier to think about pointless nonsense than think about the ever increasing anxiety at the thought of a parking ticket, or the many other possible scenarios which regularly clog up my mind. The Doctor says I focus so much on the ‘what ifs’ that I miss out on the here and now. No shit.
I pass two men wearing hard hats and high vis vests, sipping from steaming paper cups. They stop talking, watching me pass. Do they know? I can feel their eyes on the back of my head, boring holes deep and inescapable. I hate that feeling of judgment, the idea of people sizing you up and deciding you have come up short. Dr Ferguson told me, ‘No one is thinking that about you. They have their own battles to fight.’ I think that’s bullshit. Everyone judges everyone else, all the time. Hell, I’m guilty of it often enough. No, it’s easier to retreat and withdraw, than risk rejection.
It starts raining. The entire colour of the sky seems to change in an instant to a dark and foreboding grey, casting a dull filter over everything. Bloody Irish weather! There’s a large oak tree nearby, and I make a b-line for it, taking shelter under its thick canopy. I hate the feeling of water hitting my face; it makes me shudder. I won’t even let it land there in the shower, choosing instead to bend and twist at odd angles while washing in order to avoid it. I try to think of things like this as personality quirks or cute little foibles, but they aren’t. They are dumb and annoying, and they make everything harder. Sometimes I feel like my own mind is against me.
Huddled against the trunk, I hear a faint noise, a kind of chirping, nearby. I look around, and near the tree, under a bush, I find a small bird. It’s brown and mottled, with little flecks of green throughout. Is it a greenfinch? I’m no ornithologist. It’s looking right at me, still chirping, flapping just one wing in a panicked motion, causing it to bob and thrash but not actually go anywhere. It’s other wing stays against it’s little body, and it’s breathing heavily. It must have hurt it’s wing poor thing. I step towards it and it flinches, backing away.
“It’s ok sweety, I won’t hurt you. I just want to help.”
What am I doing? I’m talking to a bird, as if it can possibly understand what I say. All it knows is that it’s small, and I’m big, and I could kill it easily if I were so inclined. It’s a familiar feeling to me, that overwhelming helplessness. I’m not sure what to do. If I leave it here, it would inevitably be killed by a cat, but if I take it home what exactly can I do for it? I’m not a vet. I have no idea what to do with an injured bird. Shit…I’ll have to leave it.
Now I’m apologising to it. If Dr Ferguson could see me now, she would probably have me committed. The rain has become a slight drizzle now. I should make a dash for it before it picks up again. When I was little, I thought rain was God draining his bath water. Mental illness aside, I have always been a bit odd. I get three or four feet before I stop. I can just make out the little cheep cheep of the bird now, and the sound causes me physical pain; that familiar stabbing pang of guilt. I can’t leave it, I’m a vegetarian for God’s sake.
It’s further inside the bush now. I have to get down on my hands and knees to reach it. It takes me four attempts, but I manage to catch it with my leather jacket. I’m now mucky and dishevelled. I look like I’ve escaped from the hospital. This is quickly becoming one of those days.
I don’t know how to hold it. I need to hold it tight enough to keep it trapped within the fabric, but I’m afraid if I squeeze too hard, I’ll kill a bird and ruin my favourite jacket in one go. It’s getting colder. Without my jacket, goose pimples appear all over my outstretched arms, little droplets of rain clinging to the hairs like spider webs. I begin to do a half walk half run towards the car, but stop when I realise how ridiculous I must look.
When I finally reach my car, I realise my keys are inside my jacket pocket. Great! I just about fish them out, almost dropping the bird, and climb inside. I don’t have a bird cage or cardboard box handy, but I do have an extensive collection of rubbish lying about, including a brown paper bag from yesterdays sandwich. Better than nothing. I keep meaning to clean my car, but it inevitably gets put off; too much self pitying to do. There’s bird shit on my jacket and I know the little bugger did it deliberately. I’m beginning to think Hitchcock was right.
I start her up, and edge my way out of the space. Thank God it’s not too busy. Heavy traffic gives me anxiety. In fact, most things give me anxiety, that’s who I am now: Miss Anxiety. Some kind of
mental illness pageant winner. Heaters turned full blast, I flick through the radio channels until I find one playing music. I hate radio DJs; they talk so much shit and expect people to jump through hoops for the privilege of a mug and pen. No thanks. I like music, especially something I can sing along to. It offers temporary relief from my thoughts. Intrusive thoughts, that’s what Dr Ferguson calls them. Involuntary thoughts which are often unpleasant and are always difficult to eliminate. I call them Dick head thoughts, because thinking them makes me feel like a dick. If people could hear what was going on up there, what insignificant, meaningless thing I was panicking about today, they would try to avoid eye contact and walk very quickly in the opposite direction.
We are on the carriageway now. I keep looking over at the bag, I’m not sure why, it’s hardly going to fly off. But I need to know it’s still there, still safe. I do this with people sometimes too, reaching out to my boyfriend in the darkness, checking that he hasn’t left me. There is a small fear, ever present at the back of my mind, that everyone will some day realise what I already know about myself; that I’m worthless.
It takes longer to get home than usual. Despite Northern Ireland being perpetually damp, every driver seems terrified of a little rain water on the road, and slows down to the speed of molasses. I get road rage, yelling obscenities at people who can neither see nor hear me. It makes me feel better; regular, small releases of pressure are better than one sudden explosion. By the time I get home, it’s beginning to get dark.
I carry in the bag and carefully place it on the kitchen counter. What now? I didn’t think this far ahead. A quick google search brings up various unhelpful pages, plus the number for the USPCA. I don’t understand how people survived without google. I read once, that we are losing our ability to retain information, because it is so conveniently located at all times, in our pockets. I am guilty of this. I have a memory like a sieve and without my phone telling me where to go and when, how to get there and what groceries I need to get, I dread to think where I would be. Lost and hungry I assume.
“Hello USPCA, my name is Jack. How can I help you?”
“Um, hi, yes, I’ve found an injured bird and I was just wanting some advice on what to do.”
“What kind of bird?”
“What kind of bird is it?”
“I dunno, a small one.”
“Well, what does it look like?”
“It’s small with a kind of browny, greyey greeny coloured body and a little fat beak.”
“Hmm that doesn’t really narrow it down does it?”
He sort of scoffs at this, as if he is being incredibly witty. I’m losing my patience.
“Does it matter? I just want to know what to do. Surely the advice is the same whether I have a blue tit or a bald eagle?”
“Well bald eagles are native to America.”
Seriously? Could this man be anymore of a pleb? I don’t suffer fools gladly. I’m not overly fussed on people in general, but I am particularly averse to condescending jerks. I don’t want to say something I might regret, and I still need the information.
“It’s hurt it’s wing. I’ve managed to catch it, but I’m not sure what I should do now.”
“Oh dear, well more often than not, being caught by a person or animal actually kills the bird. Shock you see. You should have left it, and just observed it.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
“Well I didn’t provide remote observation, I caught it. What do I do now?”
“Place it somewhere outside, where it can leave if it wishes, but where it is also safe from cats. If it is fit, it will fly off of it’s own accord. If not, take it to your local vet. There isn’t much you can do with wild birds if their wing is damaged, so it would probably be euthanised.”
“Well that hardly seems fair, can’t they splint it or something?”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that for birds.”
He scoffs again and I immediately hang up. Smug bastard. I stand a moment, staring at the bag, still unsure what to do exactly. Could I have killed it with good intentions? I peer inside. It’s moving, but it looks scared. I feel like shit.
Without anything else to go on, I take the bag outside to the garden, along with a shoe box, in which I place a few pairs of socks in lieu of saw dust or straw, and a bottle top filled with water, and I place the bird inside it. I leave the lid off, so it can fly off if it wants to, if it can. Then, I sit down beside it, keeping guard. I can’t leave it. I’ve basically boxed up a packed lunch for one of the
neighbourhood cats. At least the rain has stopped.
We sit watching each other, sizing each other up. I wonder what it thinks I am? A predator? A friend? I don’t want it to be frightened. If it does die, I want it to die knowing some kind of kindness. I lean in and gently stroke it’s feathers, “Shhhh, it’s ok. You’re ok. It will be fine.” I speak softly, like a mother reassuring a crying child. I hear words coming out of my mouth that have been said to me so many times over the years; words I never believed. “It’s ok, you’ll be fine.” I suppose that’s just what you say to someone when they’re sick or upset, even if you don’t necessarily think it’s true. It’s kind.
It closes it’s eyes, and it’s breathing steadies. I watch it sleep. I know it’s just a bird, it’s not even my bird, but I genuinely feel upset at the thought of it dying. Sometimes, I imagine things which are unrelated, are signs or signals from the universe. Dr Ferguson calls it ‘magical thinking’, like those people who think if they don’t flick the light switch on and off fifteen times before they leave the house, their family will die. I think, everything is a sign that I’m a failure, that things will always be this way, and they’ll never get better. I want the bird to get better. I want to get better.
I hear my mobile phone ring inside the house. It will be fine for a minute. ‘Mum’ flashes on the screen. I take a deep breath.
“Did you go to the Doctor today?”
“Are you feeling better?”
I wish it was that easy. I’m the only person in our extended family who has suffered from mental health issues. My mum is used to applying plasters and administering medicine. She doesn’t understand how long this process could take to work, if it works at all.
“I feel the same, but it was only my third session. You have to give these things time.”
“Are you taking your tablets? You know what your memory is like.”
I’ve lived away from home for years, but she still treats me like a child, checking I have clean clothes and I’m eating right. I hate it and crave it at the same time; it’s comforting to know a safety net exists. As I listen to her unsolicited advice, I see movement from the box outside. A small flutter at first, before the bird manages to jump out of the box. I watch it try out it’s wings, moving them back and forth, hovering a foot into the air before coming back down, then two feet, then onto the glass table. I can’t hear my mum now. I hold my breathe, and stand as still as a statue, terrified I’ll spook it and ruin it’s recovery. After a minute or two, it simply flies away. I run outside, but it’s already gone, a black dot in the sky.
“…but you know that right?”
“What’s that mum?”
“You know you can get through this? You’re going to be alright.”
I smile, “Yeah, I’ll be alright.”