15. The Broken String
Seeking resonance when everything feels muted
In this edition: I’m basically trying to puzzle out an episode of dissociation, so if that’s a sensitive topic for you, you might want to skip this one. Be kind to yourselves!
“You mentioned yesterday that you noticed you’ve been in a dissociative episode lately,” says John, as we walk back through the evening towards the canal, and Neukölln. “Do you want to talk about how that’s been?”
I sigh. The street is full of small explosions and smoke. It’s hard to describe this.
In the words of the great McKinley Valentine, New Year’s Eve is a sham holiday.
“New Year's Eve: look just try not to have a horrible time if you can. Don't get me wrong, I've had a couple of lovely NYEs but I've also had some truly disastrous ones, and disastrous on a scale that you just don't get on any other Friday or Saturday night, reaching into the levels of your life that really matter, with claws out.”
Of all of the many pieces of sage advice and wisdom I’ve absorbed from McKinley over the years, her attitude towards New Years is the one that has sunk deepest into my psyche. I didn’t even know I felt that way about New Year’s Eve until she put it into words for me.
“Yeah, I guess it took me a while to figure out that that’s what’s been going on. You know, anxiety, depression, whatever, it all looks a bit similar, I stop eating enough, I stop looking after myself, my sleep patterns go out the window. But with dissociation it’s like…” This thing resists conceptualisation. Try harder. “Time stops making any sense, I’m not really in it. I can’t feel the connections I have to other people properly. So I guess it helps to know that that’s what’s happening, and not that I just, you know, don’t like my friends as much anymore for no apparent reason.”
I scrunch up my mouth at that. Hearing myself say the thing I’ve been feeling lands in my brain like treason. Catastrophe sets up shop in my head and starts rearranging merchandise on the shelves: three-metre-long corkscrews, scenic calendars of The Void, glossy coffee table books with titles like So You’ve Betrayed Everyone Including Yourself.
“Do you want to sit down for a bit?” John asks. I nod.
Normally there’d be plenty of places to sit along the canal banks, but they are all filled with people. There is a feral energy to Berlin on New Year’s Eve. Volatile, sharpness in the mouth of it, both taste and texture. Every time a sudden bang goes off near us, I flinch. We find a spot on the Kreuzberg side of the bridge, eventually, and I watch the skyline across the water. The fireworks don’t reflect in the canal’s rippled surface – the sky is lit up, the water remains darkened and shifting.
Usually words come easier than this. But now they, too, seem to fall away into the gap that has opened up along the shoreline of perception. I stand on the coast of myself and look out at the world, but mostly the waves don’t reach the sand anymore. It’s hard to look at, that space that shouldn’t be there. I can’t hold it in my mind. It doesn’t make sense. It feels a bit like the gap between one year and another – microscopic and yet unbridgeable, an irrefutable severing of one moment from the next, one thread from its neighbour.
I walk along the same stretch of canal, six days later, with Julia. It’s mid-afternoon.
“I found it so hard to describe it properly on the night,” I say, watching the ghostly outline of my past self stepping off the pavement just ahead of me and turning to check for traffic, jumping at the sound of a rocket going off. There’s the bench we sat on. “New Year’s is awful though.”
“It sounds kind of cathartic,” says Julia. “There’s something very appropriate about all the bangs and smoke and light going off while you’re experiencing all that inner turbulence.”
“I guess so.” I look at her, trying to remember what she’s saying, so I can think about it later. Write about it later. “I’m writing about it, actually.”
“About dissociation? Do you ever get to the stage with it where you’re just in that white space from the Matrix, before Morpheus has loaded a scene into the simulation?” she asks me.
“Not so far,” I say, contemplating. I look up apologetically. “What were you saying, before? When we were…” I turn to look back across the water. The bench is on the other side now. We’ve walked a long way. It has, somehow, been maybe twenty minutes, half an hour. “When we were over there, and I was telling you about New Year’s Eve, and you said something kind of nice about it?”
“I said it sounded cathartic, because of all the explosions and noise outside reflecting what you were feeling inside.”
“Right, yes, that was after the bit about the Matrix space, the white void room.” The pieces aren’t fitting together quite right. Time shudders, and telescopes up inside itself. We’d walked past a café at some point, talked about good cheesecake and how she would visit me in my new flat once I moved, and we’d eat it together. Something to look forward to.
“Yes, and you said you hadn’t felt that complete blankness yet.” At least one of us is keeping track. Julia doesn’t seem the least bit bothered. “I really like the scenic calendar of the Void bit. I don’t quite understand the corkscrews, but somehow it makes sense.”
Two memories with my mother swim around the soup of time in which my brain has submerged itself.
In the first, we are in the Westfield Shopping Centre in Pitt Street Mall, in the middle of Sydney. It’s just opened, a shiny new labyrinth of commercialism, a weird structure with too many reflective surfaces and levels that don’t make sense and very low ceilings that someone’s tried to mask with mirrors. It gives the impression that there are four or five times as many people in the space as there actually are, walking along upside-down thoroughfares and disappearing into inverted storefronts and riding Escher-like escalators that roll in on themselves. It takes us about five minutes to get very lost, and thirty seconds more for Mum to need, immediately, to get the hell out of there.
I don’t think I ever really liked crowds, I’ve always found restrictive spaces upsetting, but at some point something was sharpened by viewing them through the lens of my mother’s anxieties. This is not the point at which this sharpening happens – I am twenty-one and have been living away from home for three years – but it will become a touchstone, for both of us. She grips my arm. “Please, we have to get outside. I have no idea which way the door is.” Sharp – not her voice, not her grip, but the impulse that has hold of me now. Clear, focused, singular. Find the way out.
Back out in the pedestrian street, the sharpness fragments, and shatters. She sits on the pavement, breathing hard. “Should we move? Let’s get away from the entrance,” I say, and she shakes her head. “Mum. There’s too many people here. We should – do you want to, um,” I flick through a reel of possible salves. In Disneyland Paris she needed tea. At other times it was food, or soothing hands on her hair, or, or – I can’t think, there are too many people around, and I don’t know whether the heedless rush or the curious looks are worse. Nearby is a busker, a boy playing Hedwig’s Theme on the flute. I crouch in front of her, helpless. She is still inside a maze, but I don’t know the way out of this one.
As the tune ends, Mum finally looks up. “Can you pay him to keep playing that?”
“Sure. Yes.” I go over to the flute player, he’s maybe sixteen or so. I hand him a 20 dollar note and explain, gesturing over to where she’s still huddled by the glass wall. “Just a few more times, if that’s okay?” He agrees, easily.
Now we are three – Mum, whose breathing is starting to even out, me cross-legged on the pavement in front of her, and the boy, some distance away, but looking towards us as he plays. I sit there, listening to the music, watching people move around us. I don’t much care what they think anymore, what they’re doing, whether they wonder about this constellation of attention. By the time the flute player has started on the third repetition, we can move. I clasp my hands in front of my chest, mouth the words thank you. He nods and winks, and keeps playing.
The second memory is briefer, but stronger, though I can’t place it in time. We are in the car at night, driving through the distant industrial lights of the docks on Kooragang Island, on our way home. I am telling her some piece of news from someone else’s life – a friend’s achievement, or adventure, or something.
“You know, honey,” she says, glancing over at me with the half-frown that isn’t really a frown, but just means she’s about to says something very earnest, “I think one of your greatest strengths is your ability to be really, genuinely happy for other people.”
I am talking to someone. Maybe I’m talking to several people, at several points, on a variety of days.
“I’m trying to write about it actually, for Figs. I have a page written,” I say. “It’s been a strange time, I guess.”
They say something in response. It sounds reasonable. Are they in front of me, next to me, on the other end of my phone’s microphone?
“Yes, there’s been a lot going on,” I agree. “Perhaps it’s a defence mechanism, to put space between myself and the feelings of other people for a while.”
Maybe I’m talking to an empty room. I spent six days in isolation with Covid over Christmas, losing my mind a little, touching every wooden object in my kitchen, pouring my attention into tea mugs. Christmas happened, and also didn’t happen. Things will keep happening, whether you have the capacity for them or not.
“But now I can’t even really feel excited about going places, being around people.”
“I think that’s good though,” says John, still sitting next to me at the canal amidst the fireworks, “We don’t always have to feel like– It’s good to know when you don’t want to go to something, it’s a gift to be able to act on that.”
“But I don’t feel like me,” I say. “I like being around people, that’s who I am. I want to want those things. Otherwise it’s not really me.”
It’s the third of January. The sun is out. I negotiate with my sore lungs long enough to make it through a whole hour of pilates, because I know I always feel better after Shirah’s classes. I get lunch in the markets by the canal, Pad Thai from a stall I haven’t seen before but am glad to know is there, for future reference. I walk through the sunny Neukölln streets up to the post office on Hermannstraße, expecting to find the bank card Mum forwarded me a week or so prior. Instead, it’s a beautiful little parcel from Toni, filled with snacks, and tea bags with “love” written on them. I take the parcel and my new book to a café-bar I’ve only recently discovered, order a hot chocolate, and sit in a couch by the window to read for an hour or two.
As I close the book, ready to pack my things away and head home, the guy who’s been sitting on an adjacent couch looks up over his laptop, towards me. “Is it good, are you enjoying it?” he asks, gesturing at the book. “That’s the new one, right? I love NK Jemisin’s stuff, she’s fantastic.”
I’m touched that he waited until I was finished reading to ask me, not wanting to interrupt. “Yeah, it’s great. I bought the first one while I was in New York fourteen months ago, and I had so much I wanted to write about after I read it. I didn’t finish any of the writing, but I’m hoping reading this one will push me to get back to it.”
We chat for a little longer, as I finish packing up. We say goodbye, I return my cup to the counter, we smile and wave again as I pass on my way out the door. I stop on the street outside. Should I have talked more, instead of rushing off? Should I at least have introduced myself? It was a good interaction, I think, just go home, it’s been a good day, everything’s fine.
“I mean, I hate to say it but at some point, you’re going to have to actually accept that your feelings are in fact valid,” Carrington remarks. It’s the fifth of January, the day before Julia and I go for a walk.
“Well, there’s a consistent pattern over the years” – twelve of them now, a round dozen we’ve known each other – “where you’re like, oh someone else is having a feeling and so I have to put mine aside for their convenience. Which, I’m being overly simplistic, but it’s like you tell yourself you have to look after their feeling first, and that’s not sustainable.”
In exactly two weeks he’s going to text me,
What was that article
Which was like
the crippling fear of being known
and I’m going to write back There was something about goats because I know exactly what he means, and I’m going to think about this moment.
“How dare you, honestly,” I reproach him, and we both laugh. But great, now I have to wrestle with the question of whether I learned that to love means to put aside one’s own feelings in the (perceived? guessed? haphazardly projected?) interests of another, and god I’m going to have to get back into therapy again, aren’t I?
Because it’s not even about the nobility of sacrificing yourself in the interests of another or whatever, it’s the looming awareness that to express a feeling might mean asking someone else to deal with it, asking them for help. And there are probably ways of helping, but often they’re so specific and require us to express wants and needs that are difficult to express, either because we haven’t identified them yet, or because doing so would force us to confront the facts of our fussy soft whimpering animalness in ways we aren’t prepared for, and that we imagine others will find off-putting.
“Ah, fuck,” I say, glaring at the swans on the water in front of the hospital.
“I was going for some embodiment of a panic spiral, I think,” I say.
“All I could think about was how long the wine bottle would have to be,” Julia laughs. “And what the cork would look like.”
The swans have had 24 hours to forget me glaring at them, though I do get the sense that swans wouldn’t forgive if you gave them a hundred years to do so. Time is immaterial to swans, and also to me, today, because we’re back where we started and I am living too many days at once.
“If we keep walking here, we’re going to end up looping around the same bit again,” Julia says.
We’re one bridge down, but nonetheless I can see John and I standing up and crossing the canal six nights earlier, finally heading homewards, and me saying, “I think it’s that it always feels like people don’t really care about each other’s wellbeing much on New Year’s Eve, with all of this,” gesturing at the chaos around us. Which is true, and goes on being true despite the fact that both of us are currently occupied with caring very much about the wellbeing of other people, just like a million other people in this city.
Twelve days later we’re in a bar, after the concert. Julia is demonstrating her staring contest abilities. John makes a valiant effort to match her but gives up after a couple of minutes, it’s too hard not to blink.
I don’t even try not to blink – my contact lenses wouldn’t let me do that, anyway – I just hold eye contact, to see how it feels. Time passes, probably. Her eyes eventually start watering. But I’m the one who breaks off first.
“Wow, I haven’t been to that place in a while,” she says. “You know. Somewhere else. It’s… peaceful.”
“I guess going there isn’t a problem if we’re still able to come back,” I muse. “If it doesn’t feel like we’re causing problems in our lives by being far away.”
“True.” She lifts her drink. “Here’s to that.”
We clink our glasses together, and turn back to our friends.
Hello folks, how are you all doing out there in this brand new year?
Honestly I hesitated a few times over writing this edition but then several friends mentioned experiencing something similar and I was like, well, maybe if I put down enough weird words somewhere we’ll all feel like we aren’t alone in it. As ever, you can always write back directly to me by replying to this email (if you’re reading this as an email), or you can come chat in the comments:
In related news about Weird Feelings, I just put out my second single on all the platforms, it’s called Whiplash and it’s here:
I wrote in Figs for Breakfast about writing this song back in August 2021, which is kind of nuts. If you’d like to sign up to see this kind of character arc happen directly in your inbox, you can subscribe and it’s freeeee
If you’re looking for more delightful music to get you through the creaky start to the year, John’s not only a recurring characterin this newsletter but also a real person and in fact a musician himself! You can find his latest EP here:
But this song is my favourite of his:
This greyness, too, shall pass. Til it does, be as sweet as you can to yourselves and your dear ones.
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Having a fun time now thinking about how I’m a recurring character in my own newsletter and also a real person, that’ll keep me occupied til the next one I’m sure.