Exactly two years ago I was sitting up in this very same bed, restless, listening to the unique silence of the night before Christmas around me. I was intensely frustrated at being unable to sleep, for no one really wants to dwell alone in the dark pre-Christmas dawn. I knew that my younger sister would be awake in less than three hours: she’d promised.
There was no way sleep would find me that night. It’s always managed to evade me at the best of times, an abstraction with very physical implications dancing around my head, teasing me. With a hubris akin to Peter Pan, sleep forces me to attend to it, to address my thoughts not with the satisfying fog that precedes slumber, but with increasing attention to detail, until my messy mind lights up with astonishing clarity, and I am wide awake.
Two years ago, I was preparing to leap across an enormous chasm of my own creation. I had reluctantly returned to my family home for Christmas, and in less than a fortnight I would be leaving my life as I knew it to live and study in California for six months.
The situation that I’d engineered for myself was both a lesson in the power of self-belief and a quixotic misjudgement. Ultimately I saw my wounded soul as the very thing that would bring about my day of reckoning: I just never envisaged that the insufferable pain I was experiencing could redouble its efforts to bring me down. I never believed that the person I clung to for salvation could be the one who could never forgive me.
On that Christmas Eve 2012, I felt profoundly disconnected from my surroundings, as though I were at constant odds with ordinary life. I hadn’t lived ordinarily for so long. My younger siblings having grown, I had (understandably) moved down the hierarchy and been placed in a different, much smaller bedroom to the one I’d grown up in, with my rucksack of belongings hunched forlornly in a corner. I found that the intensity of my need could be placated only by indulging it: my nourishment was raw emotion. I found I was unable to fully locate my oblique feelings, although their origin was evident. I felt all the vigour of knowing I was in pain, but the complexity of the circumstances negated direct treatment of the symptoms.
I was utterly lost, and it was in this state that I wrote my very first blog post.
And now I find myself in this same bed, at the same time, exactly two Christmases on. This year, I have returned to my family home again with all the ecstatic enthusiasm of a child. I crave the familiarity of a web of care around me, but draw great pleasure – as I always have done – from showing care towards another creature. In this case, my sister’s guinea pigs have become the signifiers of a more simple love I feel equipped to give. They receive my love with irreverence, but the banal predictability of their behaviour, and their unapologetic reliance upon me, holds its own compelling charm. I pick them dandelions; they eat obediently. I cuddle them, they resist, but their gentle nuzzles let me know that they’ve got no ideas about leaving.
In many ways the tangle of feelings is even tighter this time. Much of the original intensity is unrecognisable, and has instead channelled into my inner grief, taking on the uninspiring and unhelpfully oxymoronic form of lethargic restlessness. My contemplations about life lack life; the uncertainty of my future – our future – renders me unable to take seriously the ferocious thrills I strive for, not knowing whether I will be facing them alone.
Perhaps it is a more primal well of loneliness which I have tapped into this time.
My father suffered a complex double break in his leg three months ago, and has hauled himself forward with a grim determination hiding bitter disappointment. His tentative plans have been scuppered and his confidence scalded, but walking with him today, you wouldn’t even know he had a problem. The only giveaway is the limp.
Still, there’s something absolute and crushing about seeing your once able-bodied father walk with a stick. It has reached to my core and unsettled a deeply paternal – and privileged – security established long ago, one with all its clichéd implications of unconditional safety. It’s upsetting to see human weakness; to witness the decline of a strong person, someone you subconsciously thought indestructible in both will and body. I can feel that my thought processes have shifted as a result; a new mortality, a new tenderness, but also a new strength of bond is growing.