|Sunderland, October 2016|
The onslaught to my senses was nearly too much. I'd known it was going to be a hard day but I was determined. I would face it anyway and surely it wouldn't be too bad. If I had known in advance I would have stayed at home. I wouldn't have had the courage to face it. Or perhaps would have lacked the masochism necessary to willingly walk into such a turn of events. That morning I felt rough. The walls seemed to be closing in and everything felt just that bit too loud, too fast, too bright, too prickly. Sensory processing disorder is something I wouldn't wish on anyone. Not even a Nazi. I'm fortunate though. For me it waxes and wanes. For others it only waxes. I have days with hardly a sensory care in the world, days on which the wild mean city streets are no threat to my troubled brain. On some days I can cross the expanses even of central London, walk where I have never walked before, and I can smile all the way and enjoy everything I see.
Yesterday was not such a day. Had I been sensible, played the part of the wise woman, I would have adjusted my plans accordingly. Stayed in the quiet until I absolutely needed to enter the world. But couldn't do that could I? Because a plan is a plan and once it's set in the stone of my mind it's hard to change it. Everyone knows that change can cause anxiety. For me that problem is multiplied and, unfortunately, it's squared and cubed most on the days when sensory trauma is at its worst. I couldn't change. Couldn't stay home. Because ... well, I just couldn't. Perhaps there's no point trying to explain how to consider changing felt like my brain was being eaten by rats. Perhaps there's no point pointing out just how heavy was the rock and how diamond sharp was the hard place I was stuck between. At least by choosing to follow the plan there was a chance everything turn out okay.
So I left my home. As planned. Precisely as planned. Of course I did. At some point in the time frame between nine thirty-two and nine thirty-three in the morning. Of course I did. It was the plan. Stick to the plan. It's the only way. Even when it hurts. The metro journey was awful. I couldn't focus on a book, on my phone, on the view, on anything. Even with noise cancelling headphones the train carriage noise broke through all defences I tried to erect. A quiet conversation became a killing avalanche. The shuffling of feet became a herd of dinosaurs, fierce blood-covered teeth, hungry for my demise. The announcements though. They were a solace. I know many of them so well. "The next station is Regent Centre. Change here for local bus services." "The next station is Haymarket. Change here for city centre shopping and local bus services." "Ping! This is Heworth." Their regularity is an anchor.
At Gateshead things got much harder. A man got on and sat opposite me. A normal occurrence. But this guy stank. I'm sure others have smelled far worse but my olfactory responses were set beyond maximum and I'm sure the chief engineer of the USS Enterprise had switched off all safety protocols and had somehow been able to break the laws of physics yet again. It was dreadful. He smelled of mould. Strongly of mould as if he was a house full of dry rot, wet rot and half eaten by fungi. He smelled too of ammonia and it felt as though my nasal passageways were being eaten away by the acrid chemical influence. He also smelled of urine, of death, of food left out too long. And he smelled of things I couldn't even name. Every now and again he would eat a peppermint. Somehow that only made things worse.
I wonder what other passengers thought of him. Were they as affected as me? Were they having to fight back vomit and travel with their hands over their face to conceal at least part of the scent? No. I was the only one using the hand technique. An inefficient mask but it was all I felt I could get away with. I considered getting off the Metro. Catch a later one. But I couldn't. Because the plan. Got to stick to the plan. Can't deviate. Deviation is immoral! In the end I was able to compromise with myself. Get off one stop early. And walk. I nearly got off three stops early.
Sunderland felt very hard. Sometimes I've been there and it's felt easy. That day I discovered all the street art. That felt easy even though my plan for the day went completely wrong. That day I happened to meet a bunch of strangers on the Wearmouth bridge and walked to North Shields with them. That was a happy, easy day. The day I photographed all the Snowdogs and argued with a group of fundamentalist Christian preachers. That was an easy day too.
But yesterday? That grew more and more difficult as time progressed. Pretty much everything seemed to smell. Everything was too loud. I couldn't face the difficulties of navigating charity shops. Then there was a food and drink issue. I was meeting someone at one and was meant to have lunch by then. From eleven o'clock I was on a food and drink hunt. Trying to form some coherent plan and failing. A meal in a cafe? Or just a drink, and a pasty or some chips from somewhere? I couldn't decide at all and spent and hour wandering the streets not coping with the fact of having to think about food. I managed to focus enough and decide on three cafes. The first was too loud. The second was closed that day. The third had completely shut down. I went into a bit of a tailspin. Food anxiety took over and it took all my remaining mental resources to solve my problem.
I settled with buying an "ultimate" chip butty from somewhere within the vicinity of Park Lane Metro station. It was bloody awful! The worst I have ever experienced. The chips were just crunch. All the way through. Orange crunch. Hollow except for where they were filled with fat. The cheese was almost tasteless and the vendor's definition of "melted" did not seem to be the same as mine. The garlic sauce overpowered the entire universe. And the butty itself was dire too. The only possible sense in which the whole thing could be called an "ultimate" chip butty would have been the sense of finality. Eat this and you will never be able to face another for the rest of your life. I am now able to report back on three totally crap portions of chips I've bought within the vicinity of Park Lane Metro station. Sunderland has, so far, won in the crap chip awards.
I tried to eat it though. Sat myself down on one of the metal benches near the station and tried to eat. I was an automaton by this point, doing everything out of some distant habit. I felt like giving in and wished I had been able to allow myself to not got to Sunderland at all until I was meeting a friend. I was a wreck. But I knew I had to continue. For my friend. So we could have a good time together.
And then it happened and for a while my life fell apart.
|Sunderland, November 2016|
She messaged me. Saying she couldn't meet me after all. It wasn't her fault. Things happen. But what remained of my mental capabilities collapsed. The only thing that had been holding me together was the plan and the knowledge that something good was coming. With the plan destroyed with a megaton of TNT I had no way of clawing myself back into a new plan.
I knew I had to get home. I also knew that under the circumstances, I couldn't. I wouldn't be able to face the Metro. I tried to contemplate a bus but the images of a bus ride just increased my panic. Couldn't do it. I even considered walking home. From Sunderland. God knows if I would have made it. And then I couldn't get up at all. It took everything in my power not to just curl up under the bench for a bit of security.
I was not safe. I could not begin to look after myself. I was in danger. Real danger. From myself.
I was scared. Bloody frightened. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to cry. Didn't want the people of Sunderland to be staring at me more than they had been all morning. Yeah, they stared. Over and over again I would notice people staring at me. I get some looks in Newcastle still. In Sunderland I get stares. Many, many stares. Many stares come from men of middle eastern extraction. Don't think that's racist. I know that saying what I said will have people making such accusations. I'm just reporting the truth. A horribly high proportion of men of middle eastern extraction stare at me. At least, they do in Sunderland. But it's not just them. Old white men, white women, young white men. People of every variety stare at me. And, I hate to say this, they do it so much that I don't feel safe.
Get that into your heads Sunderland people, Wearside Mackems: There are times I don't feel safe in your city.
So there I was. Stuck. Totally stuck. I couldn't do a bloody thing about it. Not a thing. I just felt worse and worse and spiraled.
Fortunately the friend who couldn't meet me didn't desert me. Fortunately technology is what it is and two people can message each other without bringing down the telecommunications industry. She stayed with me. Talked in sentences while I fell to using broken words. I was terrified to realise I couldn't get myself home. And too paralysed even to accept an offer of getting someone else to come and collect me and drive me all the way back to Newcastle. That bench was cold. And without those messages I would have felt more alone than I have felt in my life.
Eventually we formed a plan. She told me of a cafe nearby that played no music. I agreed to try to get there. It took time. Time to get up. Time to start the walk. Time to face the streets again. But I made it to the cafe.
And I couldn't sit in it. The smell was too bad. Even on a day of not having to cope with my senses being crazy I wouldn't have wanted to sit and drink tea surrounded by such a scent. A little like if you boil cabbage and sprouts for six hours and then leave them in the kitchen in an open pan for a week. I left the cafe again.
We tried a second plan. Why not go and sit in the library? It's quiet. It has space. At a push I would be able to hire a study room. So why not? I'll tell you why not. Because the old city centre library has been closed. It's gone. At least, it's moved.
We tried a third plan. Since the new library is close by, why not sit in that one. It'll be quiet. Twenty minutes later I had reached the library. Two hundred yards away from the old one. I found the quietest chair there. It was noisy! The new library is in one room. Not a massive room. And the door opens onto a busy and noisy corridor. Everything is very cramped. It's awful. The people of Sunderland know it is. Sorry Sunderland Council but your cutbacks have given your city a library to be ashamed of. It's very nice I suppose that you found the money for a new big bridge over the river. Just think. You could have spent some of that on encouraging literacy. Or on maintaining support and refuges for women who have been raped. That would be good too.
In the end it was me who came up with a fourth plan. I would go to a cafe. I'd seen it before. Several times. I'd even gone in. Twice. And not stayed. I decided that it would be okay. Even though they play music, they choice would probably be better than the music I was hearing in the library. A child stood and played with a library supplied tablet on the wall. In the middle of the adult reference books. And she made it play the same song. Over and over again.
I reached the cafe. It was almost deserted. I ordered coke, needing both sugar and caffeine. And I sat down in a reasonably secluded spot. I spent ninety minutes there. Calming myself. Finding that place of safety in myself. On the way to the toilet I broke my bracelet. That didn't help me.
By four o'clock I was ready. I would face the Metro. I knew I could do it and - barring anything unforeseen such as the entire Metro system being suspended - I would be able to get home.
So. What can I say about the day? Was it a bad day? Yes. I can say that. Any day that I shut down on a bench and can't get myself to safety is a bad day. They happen sometimes. Today I saw the nurse for a blood test and we talked of yesterday and about other days too. I am now officially at a moderate risk of suicide. But don't worry. That's not going to happen, not when I have so much to live for and when there are so many bloody good things in my life. I want to write, perform, meet friends, sing, dance and generally have a wild time. I want more than that too. I want as much as my sometimes very limited capabilities will allow. But yesterday. That was a bad day.
|Sunderland, November 2016|
Strangely I can also say it's a good day.
How can it be a bad day when I wrote a blog post before going out? A slightly wacky short story. It'll get published tomorrow (or yesterday because this one will be posted the day after that). If you haven't read it, read it! I think it's pretty good. I also wrote in the cafe. Two poems. One, about being stared at, is basically good enough to perform as it is. The other is about the death of my bracelet.
How can it be a bad day when it included writing a short story and two decent poems and when this post came directly from my experiences?
How can it be a bad day when I write something that only increases my desire to be a performer? Watch this space: Clare Matthews solo show! How about a first half of short pieces? Followed by a second half mostly consisting of a single monologue I wrote a while ago? The idea is in my head. It turns out that I want it to happen one day. Why shouldn't it?
How can it be a bad day when a friend stayed with me through my hours of hell and got me to a safe space? How can it be a bad day when she later showed me hundreds of pages of writing tips she's gathered over the years? How can it be a bad day when we've agreed that we will, another day, go somewhere nicer than Sunderland?
How can it be a bad day when I have a home to return to, and family, and when there is food to eat?
And the bonuses of the morning:
How can it be a bad day when I bought liquorice and when I found a game I like in one of the few charity shops I managed?
How can it be a bad day when an email arrives telling me dates for more drama workshops - and I know I can get to them and when I realise too that I will be able to get to the next performance poetry workshop?
How can it be a bad day when I can relax for much of the evening with an old computer game that I don't have to think about?
How can it be a bad day when someone is buying a replacement bracelet for me much like the one I inadvertently killed? And not just one. A whole packet. In different colours.
Yeah, I shut down in Sunderland city centre. I did. And it was a horrible, horrible thing. Yeah, I'm still feeling the effects of it today.
But I will tell you this. It was a good day.