A short piece about mental health, self-discovery, and reaching out for help through counselling. Guest writer Alex Jones shares his story in this profound piece of autofiction.
“And stay, my dear
forever, as my quiet song,
in my lilac dawn.”Sanober Khan, A Thousand Flamingos
Lilac by Alex Jones
Every Thursday at 7.30pm, I would climb the stairs of the Cowley Children’s Centre, following my counsellor up to a beige room. I would always very visibly keep my eyes focused down on the way up, I did not want to appear to my counsellor that I had been staring at her bum. That week was the first time I noticed the sign ‘Lilac Room’, a laminated, lilac lettered sign stuck to the wooden door.
I have been working to rebuild myself for four years now. Mindfulness, counselling and hobbies all in the pursuit of re-finding the identity I had lost under the collapse of my ex-girlfriend’s mental health. Six brutal years of caring had taken their toll and I found myself an insecure shell, shattered and delicately dancing on the edge of a dark depression.
In the ‘Lilac room’ I found myself sat upright, switching from gently stroking to tugging my arm hair depending on the levels of discomfort I experienced journeying into the folds of my personality. In all the personal delving that was done, I found myself reminiscing on someone who, for a short while when at my lowest ebb, sat at the centre of my world.
I remember the excitement of sleeping on a dirty brown sofa on a bitterly cold night in November. It was exciting because she was there, and I lay next to her with my face at her waist height. As I needily tried to hug her, probably unsuccessfully, my mind became caught up in the excitement of how I adored this woman. My nostrils seemed to fill with a distracting sweet and heady scent of flowers. The drone of fear my mind was usually preoccupied by had halted for that moment.
Being around her reminded me I was still an interesting person, with passions and an identity that wasn’t just a ‘carer’. It was inevitable that I would have fallen for her; I adored her beautiful dark brown hair and her love of film. I had tried to kiss her a few times, failing miserably. We played a game of pretending it never happened. By Christmas, I decided I had to remain the only possible ‘saviour’ for my much in need Girlfriend. I had chosen to remain alone in a battle for someone else’s survival, at the expense of my own. I concluded that I would purge this wonderful new woman from my company and thoughts.
My approach to that was simple, I hunted out every flaw in her behaviour and amplified them with my general contempt for human behaviour. I remember clearly late on Christmas Eve, sitting up in bed, writing in my little green ring-binded notebook. ‘Not very intelligent – not Oxbridge enough for you,’ ‘she is only friends with you because she is lonely’, ‘she has no friends’. I didn’t believe a word I wrote.
The words I wrote were bloody useless. The part of me that lay wounded from the previous years craved to be seen and affirmed by her, and come January, I again found myself with her out on a drunken night. This one was to end with a lot of pain and ultimately the unravelling of any closeness we had.
On that night we found ourselves floating from bar to bar swigging bottles of red wine we had managed to buy barely before the bell of last orders rang. The world spun, I fell off Nelson’s column at one point and eventually we found ourselves in a tourist trap bar on St Martin’s Lane, near Leicester Square. I barely took my eyes off her or my thoughts away from how to impress her. I didn’t want to go home that night or her to leave. She didn’t seem to either, but perhaps that was for very different reasons.
Things went downhill from the point when I had returned from the bar to find her passed out. Panic set in, and I took up the mammoth challenge of booking a cab on my phone with drunken eyes and fingers. I dragged her into a cab and ventured through the orange flashing lights of south London to Brixton. But we didn’t get there before I decided to vomit the contents of my drunken guts into my own favourite leather postal bag. On arrival, the passed out woman miraculously rose from the dead and ran into her house, I just wanted to clean the mess I had made in the bathroom upstairs.
I was struck by sinking feeling in my gut when the misery of scooping cold sick into the sink suddenly turned to fear that water was no longer going down the plug hole. Time exponentially expanded as I tried to scoop the already scooped sick from the sink to the toilet. It was chaos. The things covered in sick, including my favourite copy of Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, workbooks and headphones, were bagged up. For the life of me I am not sure why I didn’t bin them, but instead I put them on the side in her bedroom.
The other housemates approached me just as I was about to finally let this painful night end. They didn’t know who I was, and their housemate was passed out on her bed. The kind smaller Welsh guy tried to counter the aggressive taller guy by explaining why I should consider just sleeping on the lounge sofa. But my drunken impulsive brain only felt only irrational self-pity and accusation, so I stumbled out of the house into a taxi home. I ended the night seventy quid down, hung over and full of existential dread.
The month that followed that night was painful. The initial thankfulness for getting her home morphed into annoyance about the sink and then finally developed into a confusing anger directed at me. We left it with her messaging me about what to do with my sick covered items left in her room, before she started to act clearly angry at me. I retaliated with my old passive aggressive tactic of ignoring her to her face. The truth was I just felt deeply sad, it was painfully confusing as to why I was being punished. I just wanted to be close to her again. I missed the beautiful dark hair, the exploration of film and art, but most of all I missed feeling affirmed and alive.
The month came to ahead when we ended up, despite actively avoiding each other, sat next to each other at work drinks. We sat back to back to each other, and did not speak until we realised we had decided to get up and leave at the same time. As we walked to London Bridge tube station, our mutual anger grew in to a shouty argument. I can’t remember everything that was said that night, but I remember her back against the entrance wall, looking into my eyes and saying something very odd and out of place. “I guess I am just too stupid to get that, Alex!”. The argument travelled down the Dantean layers of the station, it would develop into a point and then she would run away to the next layer and shout something like “This isn’t a movie, Alex”. By the time we reached the platform, where we would part for the tube home, I begged her to tell me what I had done wrong. Her tone changed and her frustration changed to something more vulnerable…”
“You don’t get it, do you?”.
“I don’t get what?”
“You don’t get it…”.
“Then just tell me…”
“I read it Alex, I read your notebook….”
I cringed as the words I had written that Christmas Eve shot back into my mind, along with the memory of putting the notebook safely in my brown postal bag. Fuck.
The truth is I have never told this story to my therapist. It never really felt relevant to things I was working on in sessions. This is not to say that this person was not part of the 26 weeks of exploration and healing, of course they were. But this has always been a story better to tell new friends in the pub; you get to enjoy the notebook shaped penny drop in their eyes, whilst letting the humour misdirect them from asking how I really felt about this awful time.
The reason this story really matters to me is not because of the drunken antics, the story’s notebook punchline or even because it was a night out with the woman I desperately wanted to be with. But because of the path that this ruinous time in my life put me on. At the same time the drama of this story was taking place, by some coincidence, I was really into Jeff Buckely’s album Grace and listening to it on repeat. Track 4 was Lilac Wine, a beautiful song about being intoxicated with the memories of a lost love after drinking a heady lilac wine. The meaning of this song became more and more pertinent as I also became intoxicated by the memories of a lost love that I wanted back.
One afternoon, I went with the dark haired woman to explore an exhibition at the National Gallery. I felt completely engrossed by the unusual feeling of excitement and fun I was experiencing from joking and playing around the paintings with her. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly, we were joined on the staircase of the gallery by someone I felt I knew. He was attractive, fun, very curious and passionate. I found him entirely likeable, and not just because it was determined by the neediness of those around him. He was stirring to be around, and yet just like me he was surrounded by unending destruction. It occurred to me that perhaps I used to love him.
She and I eventually stopped hanging out, but he stayed around. His presence turned into intoxicating nostalgia, and acknowledgement of my painful present. Being with him was powerful, and I allowed him to be with me more often, to care for me, and to guide me. First he encouraged me to start learning mindfulness and to enter into a short therapy course with the NHS. These built the foundations that led me to a longer term therapy, where four years on he was still there holding my hand in the ‘Lilac room’ as I struggled through. I had regained my lost love, he was I, and in remembering and not letting him go I started to care about myself once again.
Therapy recently came to an end, and I no longer have to worry about averting my eyes on that staircase every Thursday. When I left the Cowley Children’s centre, walking to the bus stop for the final time, I reflected on everything I was taking away with me; an education on self-care; a brighter world to inhabit and a story of progress worth sharing. I boarded the number 5 bus, climbed the stairs, sat down and as I continued to reflect on therapy I reached into my bag and found a small bunch of lilac flowers. I proudly pinned them on to my lapel, decorating myself like a Victorian widow intent on being reminded of a love lost. In that moment I decided I would wear lilac every day, for never again shall I forget that I am someone worth loving.
I really love this piece by Alex. I think capturing experiences that mean something to you and managing to pin down past emotions on paper is a really powerful therapeutic tool. One of the things that makes this piece so evocative is Alex’s sheer honesty: his admittance of the mistakes he made and his ability to evaluate the situation – after time – to have a more objective view. ‘Lilac’ really does explore the positive impact that counselling, therapy, and being brave enough to reach out for help can have. Throughout the narrative, it’s clear that the once hesitant, second-guessing voice of Alex develops into someone who knows themselves. Who trusts their own voice. And, as Alex says, someone who is ‘worth loving’.