Pained smile pinned to my face, I gingerly eased my aching body into the back seat of the car and greeted my friends. They had convinced me to join them for a day at The Festival of Writing and Ideas and while it is precisely the kind of day I would choose to spend in good times, these times were bad. I feared my body would not cope with a day of walking and standing. That my mind would melt when tasked with listening and talking. I wanted only to hide but here I was and now I needed to do my best to act like a normal person for a few hours.
The chapel was already full when we entered, so we joined those starting to gather behind the pews. My legs tugged their weight from my thighs, my neck struggled to hold my head upright. My arms were tingling and my right eye twitching. I placed my bag at my tender feet and looked around. The four stained glass panels were vaguely illuminated, a predominant blue casting a sickly pall on the faces of those seated near the front. It was a charming building but I wished I was seated, or at the very least, standing next to the stone walls for support.
Three men walked out and stood side by side in front of the altar. I recognised the writer Emmett Kirwan in the centre but not the tall black man with the enviable afro who loomed to his left, nor the older, bearded man on his right. The tallest man began – no introduction, no hello and no title of the poem. His English accent reverberated round the small building; his voice confident.
‘They always said I was over the edge. And now I am. I really am over the edge…’
I was hooked. One of his hands held the black and gold hardback with his name on the front, the other rose to the vaulted ceiling as did his volume.
‘I am hanging on. I am hanging on. I am hanging on.’
I held onto the smooth back of a pew to ease some pressure from my lower back but my eyes did not move from his face. His eyes brightened and dimmed with his words until the grand finale when his face broke into the biggest, whitest smile.
‘I was growing wings all the time And I can fly.’
The applause was spontaneous. Had I been seated, I would now have stood for this man, for his words, his presence, his gift. For the first time I was introduced to the genius of Lemn Sissay and I felt some semblance of light stir within the darkness I carried.
A year later, I was sitting on a worn tan leather seat. I had asked for a cert to cover my absence from work the previous week, and that current one. My doctor was accustomed to this, to the days or weeks when fibromyalgia meant I simply could not move. This time, however, I braced myself to tell her a little more.
‘I’m not enjoying my kids as much as I should.’
That was the feeble sentence I mustered, to express my sincerest belief that the lives of my children would be greatly improved were I not in their world. But it was
enough. As tears ran down my face with relief and guilt and the fear of admission, Noleen leaned towards me, her sympathetic eyes narrowing slightly, behind her dark framed glasses.
‘Do you think you might need some medication to help?’
‘Oh yes, please.’
I didn’t need to tell her that this was my first time out of the house, since simply refusing to leave my bed the previous Monday morning. She, my peer in age and motherhood, heard the desperate plea in my inadequate words. She spoke in a voice that was gentle but firm.
‘You have done your job for this week, Jacinta. Just collect your prescription and next week your job is to ring one of these numbers.’
She handed me two business cards, one a beautiful sunset, the other plain white. I simply glanced down at them but held them tight. I grasped the lifeline Noleen had proffered – one job only, one job next week. Surely I could do just one thing?
Finally, someone had given me permission to just be. *
The problem with depression is that I lacked the ability to ring any number for any purpose, so I texted instead. A couple of hours passed before the phone rang and I glared at it in a panicked frustration, afraid to touch the device should it accidentally connect us. It was a long time before I dialled 171, to hear this woman’s voice for the first time. It was business-like. I neither liked nor disliked it. She requested that I call her back. I doubted her qualifications. Could she possibly offer me help if she actually expected me to pick up the phone and ring her in person? I decided then and there
that, should she ever give me the advice to go for a walk, I would follow it. By standing up and walking out.
But I was in a state of utter despair. Life was meaningless and hopeless and relentless. So, eventually, I did pick up the phone and arrange a meeting. I found myself at the navy door examining the various labelled doorbells, in the search for Mary’s name. I hoped she wouldn’t answer. I tensed at the noise of feet descending wooden stairs. I fixed the pained smile to my face and said hello to the blonde bob- haired woman on the other side of the door.
I followed her up the stairs rehearsing in my mind the first sentence to say to this stranger who was tasked with making my skin an easier place to live in. As I sat in the plush armchair, I felt fragile in my old, oversized jeans and jumper. I had had no interest in clothes for a couple of years and my always slight frame, had diminished more so. I knew I looked a shambles. I just didn’t care.
‘The past ten years or so have been tough.’
I briefly detailed my mother’s death, the resultant lawsuit, the fractured family, my premature baby, finding my biological parents, the guilt, guilt and more guilt that was ever-present in my thoughts. As I grasped tissues from a discreetly-placed box, I, for the first time, spelled out a litany of disappointments, traumas, pressures and more. And Mary listened. She interrupted with the odd question but largely she remained stoic. Before the session finished, she asked if I thought she might be the right therapist for me. I knew finding the right person was important but for her to ask? For the decision to be mine? I saw a glimmer of hope. I agreed to meet her again a few days later.
There were times I saw a break in her stoic composure. A flash of anger on my behalf. Complete disbelief at the actions of others in my life. A smile at a retort given, of which I was proud. Repeatedly, Mary congratulated me on my hard work but I never agreed. To me this talking part was easy. Tiring but liberating. To be listened to, a luxury. Asking for help in the first place was the hardest. Living my world internally was the hardest. Having kept going for so long was the hardest.
Our twice-weekly appointments became weekly. The weekly, fortnightly. Then monthly. One day, confidently-dressed in new clothes, my hair freshly-washed, Mary told me she wasn’t making another appointment for me. That she was always there for me if I needed her. All I ever needed to do was pick up the phone. But I was good. I was healing. And I would continue to heal. I doubted that in my heart – how could I possibly feel better than I did at that moment, now that I could be part of the world again? But after almost a year of talking with Mary, my head trusted her. If she said life would continue to improve, it would.
I have thanked both of these women for their role in my survival. They know that, without them, the likelihood of me sitting, on this humid and overcast day, on a blanket I crocheted, in a room my husband built for me, with a dog on either side as my children play, is improbable. And, while both women refuse such responsibility and turn it back on me, the reality is I know I could not have borne my pain of existence for much longer. They helped lift the burden of that pain. Helped ease the harshness of the world. Helped me understand why I felt so very deeply.
But Lemn Sissay’s words accompanied me on my journey to recovery. Speaking his truth, in his words, on his journey. His survival made mine possible. In
his pain, mine diminished. In his strength, my muscles flexed. As he proclaimed his determination to hang on, my own determination grew. His black and gold hardback falls open onto Mourning Breaks, where the pages reflect the frequency and urgency with which they were turned some years ago. It travelled in my handbag, car, camper van. I read his words aloud at weddings and parties, silently while waiting to collect the kids, or for an N.C.T. appointment. It balanced our Christmas tree and served as a coaster for hot cups of tea. A few months ago, I had to search my house for it, for a now rare and leisurely read of my favourite poem.
This year, walking through the grounds of Borris House for The Festival of Writing and Ideas, I spot a friendly face and he flashes his huge smile. His arms open wide in greeting and I gladly embrace him. I take my compulsory selfie and we chat for a little while – I, a novice writer with a story to tell; he, an award-winning, recognised poet whose story has been dissected and written and acclaimed. We have become friends of a sort – well, infrequent messengers. He has read my stories and encouraged me. I have praised his honesty.
And I credit his words with saving my life, just as much as the professionals from whom I sought help.
JACINTA HAYES is from Arklow. A primary school teacher and also a writer with an internal monologue she feels compelled to transfer to paper. She feels privileged to be given the opportunity to share her thoughts with others.
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