The Beach Diaries 2015 — #6 in an Occasional Series
I caught my full-length reflection in the maps they’ve installed along the riverbank, and realised I look completely different from this time last year. Different physique, different attire; clean shaven for the first summer since I was 18. It made me think about what other changes had shuffled past, one step at a time, with me not giving it any thought until I spotted them off in the distance — “Hey! How did you get all the way over there?!”
I’ve spoken about my Lost Years before — the decade I spent as my grandfather’s carer — but I won’t link to it, because my writing was clunky back then, although I’m sure you can find it on here if you really want. During that period, despite it being my favourite place, and the sanctuary I’d take myself to during rough patches, ironically, I’d only gotten to go to the beach once, in a snatched half-hour there-and-back in someone’s car. Unless it was a place I could get to and back from within ten minutes, I couldn’t go anywhere. I had no freedom. And then, I did.
“Oh, bloody hell,” you’re thinking; your cursor swerving towards the X in the top right, “what does this have to do with the beach? Where are the cottaging stake-outs, and bits about seeing an old man fart on his wife?” Hold your horses, because I’m going somewhere with this, I swear.
When my granddad got into a really great care home, relieving me of my duties, suddenly, I was dropped back into the world. ‘Dropped’ is quite apt, because I felt more like I’d been hurled out of a plane rather than marching confidently to take back all the years I’d lost, by really living. Suddenly given the time and freedom to be places and do things, black-hole finances withstanding, the first thing I decided was that I’d go to the beach. Tomorrow, I said, I’m going to the beach! It’s insane to think back to what a big deal that was, even though I told myself it was all perfectly normal, and so was I. I still remember how anxious I felt, and how oddly exhilarated, like I’d announced, spur-of-the-moment to a room full of people, that I was going to sell all my possessions and backpack around the world.
Over those carer years, I’d acquired a pretty bad set of anxiety issues, and the countdown to rare family gatherings like birthdays would lead to a week of sleeplessness and leg-jiggling panic. Any kind of social event, even on a tiny level, was a straight-up nightmare, and I just endured those occasions, never enjoyed, because I was trapped in a cage of bubbling panic, and trying to survive to the end. So then, even taking that decision myself, a simple walk to the beach took on immense proportions, warped through the fun-house mirror of nervousness and total inexperience. That night was a typically broken sleep. I made sandwiches before I went to bed, wrapping them in foil and putting them in the fridge, ready for the morning, like a little boy going on a school trip. Maybe I’d done it so that I’d be less inclined to back out when tomorrow became today. “You did make sandwiches…”
When the morning came, I took forever to get ready, and by the time I finally made it outside, it was clear that the years trapped indoors, mixing with only a handful of members of my immediate family, had pushed me into borderline agoraphobia. It’s something I never would have admitted, because I didn’t even realise. You get locked into an idea of normal, and that’s just how things were for me then. I was barely out of the front gate before I was soaked with anxiety-sweats, with my mind racing with non-specific fears I couldn’t have put my finger on if you’d asked. I don’t even know what you’re afraid of in those situations? Panic that you will panic, in some self-perpetuating hamster wheel of irrational fear? That you’ll have a panic attack, or something will happen, and people will see, and it will be humiliating; the kind of humiliation that haunts you if you live to be a thousand?
On a practical level, which route would I even take? It had been years since I’d had the time to stroll through town by myself. I took the most back-street, people-avoiding path, like I’d continue to do for a couple of years, feeling the hot flush of dread whenever I passed another human being, or crossing the street so’s I wouldn’t have to. About five minutes out from my home, I very nearly got run over by a massive lorry. There’s a half-remembered bit from a film or TV show that comes to mind, where some gonk-eyed, country-ingénue takes their first, innocent step into the big city and gets blown off their feet by the wind of a honking truck, zooming past half an inch from the end of their nose. It was kinda like that. My mind was too busy and too jittery, and I guess I wasn’t paying attention, and had forgotten the basics of Dave Prowse’s road safety video. I was flustered and embarrassed as I jogged back to the kerb I’d just stepped off, to avoid being flattened. It felt like a sign to turn back; to trust in my physiological reactions and just go home, where nobody could see me. “Five minutes and you almost got killed. You’re not fit to be outside.”
But I kept going, with the skin-burn of fresh embarrassment — Did anyone see? The driver must have thought I was a complete idiot! — keeping me toasty and sickly-feeling for the next hour. The whole excursion was similarly testing, feeling like Bill Murray in What About Bob? when he’s riding the bus for the first time, but instead of a security blanket goldfish hanging round my neck in a jam jar, I had a notebook and biro in my pocket. If the worst came, I could hide myself inside it. I couldn’t have been gone more than ninety minutes, but it was like ninety hours, feeling the casual, passing gaze of people’s eyes like the red-dot of an unseen sniper; my legs heavy and strange; my feet like two drunken friends walking back from the pub, wayward and aching, and clumsily bumping together.
The relief of arriving back home only hit me when I got in, virtually dropping to kiss the carpet like the Pope. Recently, I went to a 4th birthday party and didn’t realise, until I wandered into an empty room and suddenly felt as though I’d gone deaf, how loud it all was. That’s what it was like, for a long, long time. The relief of closing that door behind you; shutting the rest of the world back out. The anxiety leaving your body like it had been sucked out of an airlock. I couldn’t humiliate myself if I was alone. I couldn’t panic. I was safe.
Eventually, without realising, it slowly got better. That summer, I literally forced myself to go out, day after day; to go further than the day before, far enough from home that I couldn’t get back quickly even if I felt I had to, baby-stepping my way halfway to a sort of normality or humanity.
But it didn’t happen overnight. Panic was a constant presence, threateningly prowling nearby, often just lurking, but on occasion, pouncing to suffocate me, before eventually, receding out of sight altogether. The writer of the 2011 Beach Diaries, though better than he had been, often still ended the day’s note-taking with that intense feeling of relief and safety once he’d gotten through the front door, and still wasn’t great around people. At that point, if a 24-hours-older version of myself had crashed through the living room in a DeLorean to tell me that a stranger was going to ask me for the time, I’d have thrown my sandwiches in the bin and taken my shoes off.
Now, though the changes almost completely passed me by, I’m pretty much fine — fine as most incredibly awkward weirdo loners are — in a way that’s unthinkable when I look back on that first walk to the beach, all sweaty and crazed. Admittedly, I’m still kind of a human mess when compared to your average person. I’ve got a lot of holes in my game, socially, having spent my twenties, a crucial point of social development, isolated from my peer group, but I’m way better. Social events aren’t an issue now; I’m able to relax, rather than endure; to enjoy rather than survive. I don’t make excuses to get out of things because of anxiety, I socialise out of choice and not purely through unavoidable obligation, and I’ve no qualms meeting strangers or being around people. I might not be great at it, but I can truly say that I’ve been worse. Way worse.
Today, I feel weirdly… normal about it all, at least compared to how I was, which I’d kinda forgotten until I thought about it. Looking back, the me of then and the me of now are night and day. Hopefully, if I looked forwards, I’d see someone who’s even more bomb-ass, who thinks the me of 2015 is a broken little freak, with a lot more growth ahead.
I’ve totally lost the casual readers by this point, huh? I feel bad, so, today at the beach, on a sunny day in the middle of August, I saw someone wearing a Christmas jumper. Happy now? Alright, almost done…
None of this stuff has been particularly fun to talk about publicly, as everyone wants to present an image of themselves to the world that’s basically a cross between the Fonz and Iron Man, and a story about me being all fraidy to go on a walk hardly paints me as Daddy Cool, but that whole period is a big part of who I am. Besides, maybe someone reading this is going through the same thing, turning this post into one of those “it gets better” deals. Sure, that’s how I’ll paint this. It’s not self-obsessive, me-me-me blogging, it’s helpful.
I think we have a tendency, as humans, to lose sight of incremental changes, like how weight-loss is hard to see over extended periods of time, when you’re gripping at your gut in front of the bathroom mirror. That short-sightedness stops us from seeing how far we’ve come. And in turn, how far we can go.
The Beach Diaries have been running since 2011, spawning the two Kindle books you see above. Both are available on Amazon, for the price of a pint, and I highly recommend you buy them, because I like money.