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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: August 07, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 07, 2018



After a long time, I came up from the water. That’s what it felt like anyway. It had become harder and harder for me to tell the difference between being underwater and being above it; the more I thought about it, the more I realised how similar both situations were. A toxic blend of reality and the surreal, surrounded by all kinds of lives but focused mainly on my own. Unhappy, then happy, then unhappy again. The main difference – so obvious I don’t know why I’m pointing it out –  was that after a time underwater I would die. At times this felt like the more appealing option, and at other times it felt terrifying. I wished I could settle on an alternative;the rapidness with which my brain entertained one state then the other caused me distress. 

How could I want to die one minute, and be terrified of dying the next?

 I’m fickle. I can’t even decide how I feel about my own life. Because almost all of my energy went on managing a giant pendulum that swung from life to death, I had decided I was a narcissist. This was difficult for me to accept, because – as a narcissist – I genuinely thought I cared more than most people about the things that really mattered. At university I had been involved in Oxfam, Amnesty International, and the Student Council. I’d also joined Labour Youth but left after meeting its leader - a good-looking boy called Adam who was younger than me, and who did almost nothing to conceal his disdain for left-wing politics. When he told me that he thought Tony Benn had been worse for Britain than Margaret Thatcher, I was so shocked I was ready to believe it was a joke, and I gave him multiple opportunities to turn it into one. After I renounced my membership the following day, he asked me out for a coffee to ‘talk about differences of opinion within the party and how to reconcile them.’ I went, but only because I wanted to sleep with him – which I did. Further proof of my narcissism.

To live or to die. I wish there was an easy way out. Choice is a form of torture.

The truth is, back then I wasn’t a narcissist because nothing had happened to make me one. Indeed, I believe that evil consists of people who are self-absorbed even though nothing bad has happened to them. They are the ones you have to watch because their self-obsession is egotism, and its devoid of empathy: it’s innateness makes it cruel.

Before everything changed, I knew that objectively my life was good. This knowledge acted as a buffer between myself and desolation. I trained my brain to feel lucky, and much of the time I did. I was capable of love, and I was loved, and I skirted my way round bends and over bumps with the solidity of this foundation. What I lost after that was this core that I had never really realised I had.

I kept having these dreams about people I knew. They were always about people I knew and the ways in which they might betray me. Often, I would wake up in the dream to find people all around me, all betraying me in small or big ways. Talking about me, cheating on me. The worst I ever felt in the dreams was irrelevant. The second worse was close to death.

Afterwards, I knew that my life had become objectively worse than many of the people around me, so I lost my buffer. That’s when I started swimming and dreaming, and that’s when the confusion began.


The water tickles me and I giggle absurdly. I feel drunk and stupid, but I don’t care. It’s a relief to feel this way. An eel slithers past me so I go underwater to find it. I try to grab it but every time I get close it laughs at me and wiggles away. It only comes to find me when it thinks I’m not looking for it. So clever! I surface and find lots of people are playing volleyball: they’re in my way. Annoying. A man is bobbing up and down and he’s holding a grey baby, the eel seems to have gone.


When I was 18 I worried about things that didn’t matter. I worried I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, popular enough.  Mostly, I worried that worrying about these things would distract me from worrying about the big things; I wanted existential angst of the purest form. My greatest fear was mundanity – oh I longed to read Sarte and not have my mind wander. I wanted to feel so confident that nothing trivial could touch me, to give my mind its great opportunity. I’m smart and complicated; I’ve always been smart and complicated. Do you know what a label that is to live up to? I smashed things, lost my temper, I self-harmed sometimes. I felt if I lost one component I’d lose the other and so I welcomed turmoil into my makeup. At college, my grades flailed and I became consumed by boys – I needed to know that I could be loved and desired - as if those two things were the same. When I had a one night stand with a Lothario from the year above, only for him to ignore me thereafter, I realised the difference. I’d later learn that being the object of desire could not only be humiliating, it might also kill you. I floated through, my grades picked up and I did as well as expected in my A levels. That relief felt better than being lusted after, I reasoned. Sex seemed to me to be toxic.

After it happened to me I learned to cook. I decided that, at 27, I should know how to cook. It was pretty much the first thing I thought about and I cooked – almost aggressively – for two months. I didn’t become particularly good, and I lost interest as quickly as I had gained it, but it helped to remind me that my senses were still my own. I dreamt of a bathtub, full of cold water and red chillies, and when I stepped in the water scalded me. I tried to explain what happened to my family but nobody believed me, and I couldn’t explain it well enough. In my conscious life, I had become sick of saying ‘what happened’ as a substitute for what actually happened. First, you had to tell people what happened, but thereafter you just used the noun - It deflected from the event and it made the whole thing more abstract: lack of detail was crucial when referencing.  

I began to swim. I swum obsessively. The more that I swum, the more that I dreamt. I didn’t understand the correlation, but it was there. My dreams became excruciatingly vivid, and I started to confuse them with reality.

‘Did you tell me my hair looked bad yesterday?” I asked my brother.


 ‘Yes you did!’



My thighs are absorbing into the liquid, the sun is drifting. One, two, breathe. One, two, breathe. A man in the water tells me I’m a good swimmer. One, two, breathe. He’s got nice eyes– why isn’t he wearing goggles? One, two, breathe. He’s looking at me – why? My chest begins to close. One, two, breathe. The sun is getting hotter: the water isn’t cool enough. I adjust my goggles, stare ahead. Everything looks so flat! Flat, blue, strange, beautiful. The man is still smiling. I close my eyes and sink myself, and when I come up the man is gone.


Death. Dying. Life. Living? I still couldn’t decide what was better.

 We went on holiday to Italy the summer after the event. It was so hot and everybody was tiny and tanned, and I felt the sort of peace you expect when you go somewhere beautiful without many cars. Every day we ate breakfast by the pool where we had a morning dip, then we went to the beach with sandwiches and rose. It was all very pleasant, and everybody was happy and relaxed.

One day, on the beach’s café, I tried to describe how it had felt to my mother:

‘Somebody…invading you. When you don’t want them to. It’s like they’re claiming part of your soul. You can’t imagine that they ever won’t have a piece.’

‘I don’t believe in souls,’ my mother said.

I rotated the teaspoon in the brown water, watched it move in the shape of a spiral, became transfixed. What could I do? I couldn’t explain it, language was beyond me, and the insufficiency of words struck me - they were useless tools. If you can’t explain it, then that’s on you -  then it’s your fault. It was my fault, I remembered, all my fault.

My mother was staring at me. “Are you alright?’

I nodded emphatically. ‘Come on’ I said, ‘let’s go swim.’

The sea was perfect; cool and clear, and I felt better instantly. ‘Let’s see who can float the longest!’ My sister yelled, both hands up like a starfish.

’Slightly dull game.”  

‘No, let’s play,’ I said.


Plane crashes. I was dreaming about plane crashes. I wasn’t in them, but I witnessed them. It was always the same: I watched the plane take off, then, at a certain height it would plummet head first, and always dangerously close to where I was standing. Sometimes I was watching alone, sometimes I was watching with others. They were crazily real, and they were as traumatic as you’d expect. There’s something vaguely comical about Post Traumatic Stress when it fulfils its name and expectations: ‘a person experiencing PTSD may experience nightmares and traumatic dreams.’ Well, I certainly was, thanks Wikipedia! You really hit that nail on the head.  Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t dread going to sleep. After all, it wasn’t like my unconscious world was a whole lot worse than my conscious one, and at least I had the relief of waking up.

It was around the time that these dreams started that realised I hadn’t decided not to die- I just wasn’t going to of my own accord. I concluded that my indecision about life had been a false state, a distraction that comforted me because it came with the illusion of control. Telling myself that I wanted to live was more terrifying - and had more at stake - than pretending I wanted to die. My heart: stitched into other people’s cushions - I couldn’t escape that, I didn’t want to escape that. I don’t mean to sound heroic here - I don’t mean to pretend that the pain my death would inflict on others stopped me from suicide. But there was something inescapable about the interconnectedness of it all: it meant that, somehow, I was more than just me, and because of that there was hope.

It’s terrifying to think how much we are altered by other people. That, after all, was what I was grappling with. A barborous act, violent in the most intimate way, that had forever changed my being and shifted the emphasis of who I was and what my life entailed. It occurred to me that most of us don’t realise that we are not ourselves. Most of us don’t realise that we are tiny fragments of everybody we know, and if the light were to fall on us, we’d be exposed as shifting pieces of dust. The idea of being solid, or grounded, seemed to me as fantastical an idea as being forever happy.

The future, in all its fluidity, was presenting itself to me and, finally, I stopped saying

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