“Thank you for calling the Cambridge Mental Health Crisis Line*. Unfortunately, no one is here to take your call.”
I held the phone slightly away from my face, wincing somewhat at the artificially cheerful female voice on the other end.
“…As there is no one here to talk to you, we recommend you call the Samaritans.”
“I did.” I said to the automated voice. “They were lovely but suggested I call you.”
“…or call back to speak to a member of the crisis team during office hours. We are available from 8.30 am -“
I hung up. It had taken me an hour of staring into space to actually summon the courage to enter the NHS number into my phone and press dial. I had simply sat on my sofa, feeling a grand total of precisely nothing, until finally, almost for want of anything better to do, I had decided to take up the advice that the Samaritans had given me two hours before and call the crisis team. I’d felt bad calling the Samaritans. I wasn’t planning on offing myself that very evening; I wasn’t sitting with my legs dangling into oblivion or eyeing up a homemade mixture of ground up sominex and whisky. I was simply at the point where I needed to do something. I could have phoned a friend, but someone professional would have been preferable. My friends tended to have their own lives, and didn’t need mine to fragment around theirs.
The recorded message, now silenced, and dropped, along with my phone, to the living room floor, provoked two responses. The first was a perplexed, macabre amusement at the idea of a mental health crisis team that only worked weekdays. Presumably, it was unheard of to need to support of a mental health service at 8.38pm on a Friday evening. I tried to imagine a world where people left themselves Google Calendar reminders for “fucking terrifying mental health breakdown” (scheduled, perhaps, for 11.55 am so that if it ran over into lunch, it wouldn’t cause a fuss). Of course, on a logical level, the real reason the mental health team weren’t ready to swing by for a cup of tea and a slice of Battenburg and a chat about my total loss of control of life wasn’t because they were all sat in a booth in Ta Bouche, one arm round a bottle of Cava and the other around a floozy of their preferred gender, but more likely because mental health funding had be cut to ribbons, leaving it simply unviable to do more than the bare minimum. Not their fault at all.
The second response was: am I actually having a crisis? The phrase mental health crisis implies that something terrible is about to occur, that everything is on the brink of collapsing in on itself, or that a point of no return has been reached and something must be done to avoid an emotional trainwreck. Was this was I was experiencing? It did not feel like it, and I supposed I had a further question of why I felt myself calling it a crisis. Crisis. The word itself speaks of something of great seriousness. Sombre newsreaders giving us the latest on the “Eurozone crisis”. Sober Marxists, resplendent in their left ideologies, intoning in half empty community centres on the impending “crisis of capitalism.” There is a crisis of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. Within Chaos Theory, when the control parameter of a chaotic system is modified, the chaotic attractor touches an unstable periodic orbit inside the basin of attraction inducing a sudden expansion in the attractor, this is a crisis. There’s an old and thoroughly unfunny half-joke we all tell about our collective fathers having a mid-life crisis, buying a Harley Davidson and finding themselves balancing a pint on their gut during a death metal concert and asking if they still has it or not. All of these experiences, all of these connotations – these were not mine at the time I called that number. What was my experience, then?
Fear. That was what I felt. More than felt. I was living fear. Fear not in the sense of a mild unease, a cautious awareness and a desire to avoid, but real fear. The white hot nauseating fear that turned your bones to glass, so when you stood you crashed the ground like a pathetic Ozymandias; fear that turned your guts to acid, fear that was so bright that it both seared you and showed you, in every detail, just how bad it was. Fear that robbed you of the ability to console yourself, and replaced any sense of interior or exterior narrative with “oh god oh god oh god OH GOD.” It was not the sudden, animalistic fear of a panic attack, which appeared out of nowhere, mugged you of your good sense and left you sobbing in the gutter, but more a long drawn out realisation that I had no control. Control, the ability to manage, rationalise, explain, pre-empt, plan – something that is taken for granted most, if not all, of the time. I have prided myself on the fact that no matter how bad my mental health became (with one notably horrible exception during my first year of University), I still, on some level, could step out of myself and think logically and calmly and clearly about what I needed to do. Most of the time, those actions were never undertaken, but the fact that I had this perspective, this critical, analytical distance gave me some comfort. It meant, on some level that I was, for want of a better word, sane.
What frightened me was the comparative silence of that side of myself. The rational, analytical, practical Chris, who popped his head out the door when he heard the sound of impending disaster, and meandered about my mind, tutting and tapping his watch and saying things like “surely you can’t be serious,” – he had missed his usual entrance. The stage had been set, the cue had been uttered and now the remaining actors stood on stage, half frozen, wondering which of them would be the first to move, wondering if they should say the cue line again, just in case he hadn’t heard it. None of them wanted to be the first to slip backstage, and find in the wings a little note, scribbled on a empty packet of Rizla in the black eyeliner I had started to wear recently, a note which simply said “fuck this. I’m off.” Rational Chris was gone and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He’d moved out and left no forwarding address. And his absence frightened me.
The thing is…
The thing is, though, that this phone call, this explosion of fear and horror, this crisis, was three days ago. Nothing happened. I didn’t die. I didn’t end up in a psychiatric ward, as I had suspected might be the case when I’d dialled that number. I continued. So what was it? I suppose when we talk about mental health crisis we tend to imagine it almost akin to a physical accident – we trip, we fall, something breaks and we need paramedics. Perhaps a mental health crisis is a more drawn out process of loss of control with no definite end point. Perhaps that is why it is so hard to understand what I am feeling, and for those around me to understand what is happening, and thus instinctively, and understandably, shy away.
What this incident taught me, once again, is that asking for help is immeasurably hard. It is a movement of almost gargantuan strength to extend a hand and ask for aid; the whole thing seems rather worthless when that hand is effectively slapped away – when the GP doesn’t think you really need that “emergency appointment,” when the therapist has you on a two to three month waiting list, and politely requests you “don’t do anything stupid”, when the people you work with demand to know if you’re “better yet” while you try to desperately hide the fact that you’ve been crying in the gents. When even the people closest to you say “no, can’t deal with you now,” and run out the door into the middle of the night without so much as a goodbye, It’s hard, and the stinging of that slap makes you want to take your hand away and never reach out again. I urge you not to. Keep it out, and keep it steady. Someone will take it eventually.
*It’s probably worth saying that this is not the real name of the crisis line I called. For the purposes of this blog post, I substituted the actual name for something generic. My motivation for this is because I don’t want to put anyone off picking up the phone to a crisis line if they need to. Just because no one answered me, doesn’t mean the same will happen to you.