I was in the Crime and Mystery section of the bookshop, looking for Inspector Wallander books, by Swedish author Henning Mankell. I had recently been engrossed by a Swedish TV adaptation of what turned out to be the fifth book in the series, SIDETRACKED, featuring the tremendous actor Rolf Lassgård in the title role. I must read the book, I decided. The character was gloomy, broken, had a messed-up private life, did not take good care of himself, but was pretty good at his job. I had not previously encountered what we now know as Nordic or Scandinavian Noir, but it felt like my kind of thing, detective fiction for broken people. Stories about broken people who can still function, still work despite their troubles. That means a lot to me. One thing about carrying my kind of illness, about adjusting to its presence in your life, is the thought that you can’t do things, that you’re broken. Inspector Wallander was a hero to me.
It was a big store, the biggest bookstore in Perth at the time. Michelle and I went there as often as we could. There were chairs, and a cafe. You could sit and read. It was extremely pleasant, when not stupidly busy. I’ve never done well with crowds, and in a store like that I tried to focus on what I was after. I’m good at focussing, at concentrating.
My back was hurting from being bent over, peering at the author names on the spines of books on the lower shelves. Author Mankell had not yet become a huge literary star. He was a midlister, there on the shelves with some of his catalogue but no special eye-catching promotion. At last I found it. Book 5, SIDETRACKED. The one where Wallander is called to a rape seed farm because a strange immigrant girl is standing out in the middle of the dazzling yellow crop, and she has a jerry can of petrol. And when Wallander approaches to talk to her, the girl panics at the sight of a policeman and sets herself on fire.
Book located, feeling satisfied, pleased to note that the store had several other Mankell titles in the series, all helpfully numbered, I stood up, clutching at my aching back–
And spotted a group of friends in the middle distance, near the café, chatting.
Oh God, no, was my first, panicked, thought. My guts clenched, I stopped breathing, and immediately ducked into a crouch and crabbed my way sideways, along the row of black-spined detective novels, to an aisle, where I could scarper to a distant part of the store, where nobody could find me.
Nothing, in that moment of panic, was more important. There was no conscious thought involved. I’ve often reflected on this moment in the years since. This was my fight/flight response, the same circuit that takes over when these days I hear certain sounds. But this was several years ago.
It made no sense. The people I spotted were and remain dear friends. I love each of them madly. But on that day, at that time, seeing a group of four or five of them like that, I panicked. To the extent that I thought at all in the moment, in the rush, my brain shifting my lumpen body out of there as if I was the president and it was my Secret Service detail and they’d spotted someone with a gun–I thought, “oh, they won’t want to see me rocking up”.
Because why would they? In my brain, deep inside, signals running along circuits laid down when I was just a kid, the message was clear. Nobody likes Bedford. He smells, he’s poor, he can’t kick a football, he’s weak and useless, and ugh.
All that, in my head, going around and around as my heart beat hard and fast, as my breath rushed in and out, as the emergency unfolded, adrenaline fizzing through my body. It was all I could do to stay in the store.
This is why I see a psychologist. This is why I take medication. This stuff is hardwired in. It’s built in to the fundamental structure of my brain, regardless of whether it’s true (which of course it’s not). It does not respond to reason, to argument. The Russ Harris book, THE HAPPINESS TRAP, is one of the few mental health books I’ve encountered which can even touch this sort of problem, and it does so by acknowledging that these disabling beliefs and messages can’t be removed or changed. They are welded into the fundamental structure of the brain, so instead you have to have a strategy for accepting them, living with them, and, most importantly, for paying them much less attention.
When 9/11 happened, when it was still just a harrowing Tuesday in September, when buildings collapsed and thousands of people died in terrifying ways and vast billowing clouds of dust that layer turned out to be composed of a tiny percentage of human tissue, when that happened, I sat in front of the TV, flipping channels, for three days and nights. I barely slept. I had to watch. I had to be there for the next thing. I thought for sure there would be another attack, and I had to be there. The news people, and they were on every channel, all believed there would be more, but they weren’t sure, information was coming in from all over the place, but it was always sketchy, always a bit vague, and often quite wrong. It was live, in some ways it was even more than live. It got inside your head and filled it up. I barely remembered to eat, because I had to watch coverage.
This is also the sort of attention I used to give to the messages from these parts of my brain, with their cheery reminders about what sort of horrible monstrous non-person I was. The messages so loud, so constant, so debilitating I wound up in hospital–twice!–and have now been seeing a psychologist on a regular basis. She recommended the Harris book. I recommend it, too. It’s a credible approach. It doesn’t make promises of any sort of cure. It says you are stuck with those voices and those messages, but you can change your attitude towards them.
You can instead, maybe, sit in a laundromat late at night, or in the waiting room at your GP’s office, where there’s a TV on the wall somewhere, you can’t quite hear it or see it, but you know it’s there, you can ignore it. You can try to regard the voices in your head, the appalling hurtful things they tell you, the way they want you to run away from your own life, and from your own dear friends, as just background chatter of no consequence, just a TV on somewhere nobody, least of all you, is paying any attention to. That is the goal. It’s achievable. Wish me luck.