(Photo: Modern Affliction)
Over 40 years ago I was a young boy, the future still a thing of excitement and mystery. Who would I be? What would I do? Where would I go? Everything was still possible. But I squandered my potential and wasted my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the way my parents treated me scarred me deeply. They gave me all the toys a boy could want. But I have no memory of being hugged. I have no memory of them ever telling me something I did was good. I would show them a picture I drew and they would say “Not now.” They made me feel worthless, useless, unwanted. My mother would play sadistic games where she’d frighten me and then laugh when I cried out of fear. My father was brooding and unapproachable, quick to temper and irritated by my presence.
They divorced when I was 12. It was messy and violent. They told me I had to choose which parent I wanted to live with. My mother was moving away to live with another man, so I chose to stay at home as I didn’t want to leave my school. My father audibly sighed when I told him. Not that I had many friends at school. I was precocious but quiet, shy, awkward and occasionally bullied.
As soon as I turned 18 I left home to live in another town with people I’d met in a club. I gave my dad just two hours’ notice. After I put my belongings in my friend’s car I shook my dad’s hand and said “See you.” There was no emotion from either of us. I felt blank. I wanted to say a million things but at the same time I wanted to say nothing. As I was driven away I began to feel sad, not because I was going to miss my family, but because I knew a part of me had died in that house.
I partied a lot as a young man. I was over compensating for my low self esteem and turning myself into a mess. I lived for the weekend, drinking too much and getting high on E, acid, weed and speed. The ecstasy rush gave me access to a feeling I’d been denied all my life: love. The late 80s/early 90s rave scene was in full swing and I was enjoying the hell out of it. I won’t lie, I had some good times. But they came at a price.
The drink and drugs were obscuring an urgent truth about my life: it was going nowhere. My party friends were sobering up, moving on up, getting engaged, having children. I had the same low paid job, no car, no girlfriend, no thought for my future at all. Amidst the chemical haze and the comedowns and hangovers there was no room for introspection.
One day I crashed down to Earth when I had something akin to a breakdown after seeing my wage slip and realising I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent or the money I already owed to my landlord. I walked out in my lunch break, got a train to a friend’s house 50 miles away and never went back. All my belongings, my colleagues, the friends I’d made in that town, I left them all behind and never saw any of them again.
Over the years I had various low paid jobs doing menial work in factories, warehouses and call centres. I had such low self esteem that I never tried for promotion or even considered that I could be the guy at the top. Until one day in my mid 30s when my boss told me there was an opportunity upstairs in the office – higher pay, a promotion – and that I should apply, as my potential was being wasted driving a forklift. I got the job. For the first time in years I had the feeling that I was worth something, that maybe I actually had a future.
Except I didn’t. One lunchtime during my first week in my new job I suddenly became ill, like the quick onset of a flu virus. I went home to bed, thinking I’d be back to work in a week or so. But instead of getting better, it got worse. Extreme exhaustion, weakness, anxiety, strange bodily sensations, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, nightmares, sensitivity to sound and light, weight loss. I was scared and confused. All the tests I had came back normal. Eventually after several months I was diagnosed with M.E. (myalgic encephalomyelitis, sometimes called chronic fatigue syndrome). It was essentially the point at which my life ended.
That was over 10 years ago. I now know the answers to those questions I had as a boy: *Who would I be? What would I do? Where would I go?* The answers are nothing and nowhere. I became nothing, I do nothing, I go nowhere. I exist in a state of chronic incurable illness, every waking moment a torrent of unrelenting symptoms that make it almost impossible to find joy in anything. I have a hobby but I rarely get to spend time on it, I just can’t cope with it anymore.
A few years ago I had a phone call from my stepmother. She was at the hospital with my father, who was seriously ill. I told her to pass the phone to him. We hadn’t spoken in a long time. He sounded old and scared. In that moment I had so much I wanted to say, so much to ask. But in the end I just said: “I love you.” With those words I let all the hate go. Later that evening the phone rang again. She told me he had died shortly after we spoke. My final words to him were like a healing for me – not much, but enough to make a difference.
The few friends and acquaintances I had left drifted away after I became ill. The visits and phone calls dried up. I tried to keep the connections, but I learned that out of sight really is out of mind. Now I am nothing more than one of hundreds of avatars on their Facebook friends list. I have 21 friends on mine. Except they’re not really friends – they’re people I used to know.
Occasionally I’ll look up some of the people I walked away from (‘Dan’ is now a company director, ‘Rebecca’ is now a talent agent for household names, ‘Emma’ is married with 4 kids and shares a lovely house in the country with her husband), but I can’t reach out, because the shame and failure of my life is too painful to tell. I would rather they forget me, than know what became of me.
So now I exist as a ghost, tortured not only by my symptoms, but also by the pain of nostalgia for childhood innocence, the pain of regret for a lifetime of bad choices, the pain of longing for a life that could have been, and by the loss of hope for my future. I will never walk on a beach again and smell the sea air, or own a little cottage in the country, or hike through the hills of the Yorkshire Dales, or be loved.
If you have got this far, thank you. This has been the story of my life. It’s not the story I would ever have wanted to tell, but it is mine. I hope that whoever you are, wherever you are, you find some measure of love and contentment in your life. For me, it just wasn’t meant to be.