A lot of anxiety surrounded my move to Plymouth. The new city was so busy. It had this rat-race, metropolis way about it that made me feel chronically stressed. During reading week before the Christmas holidays, I returned to the familiarity of Cornwall’s hedgerows and winding country roads. To me, it was another world away. Cornwall was simple, but gentle, like a mother’s hug to a bawling child. After a few days at home, I travelled in my dad’s van to help set up a birthday party in the woods for my little sister. We decided Constantine would be a good spot, with a little persuasion from Syd (our dog) who was itching to get out and gallop around. The Spar shop nearby also provided a good pitstop for our barbecue food and most importantly: the marshmallows! We loaded up our backpacks with bunting and food and set off down an obscure footpath booby-trapped with nettles and brambles. I’d been there dozens of times, but this time it felt different. I was so incredibly elated to be at home doing something as simple as walking in the woods with my dad. My angst was gobbled up whole by this intoxicatingly tranquil place. Everything about these woods made me feel completely grounded and at ease, mindfully aware of nature and free of any manmade distractions.
The odour of old, damp wood as we crunched through the undergrowth made it feel like we were entering the artery into Autumn’s beating heart. We were voyaging under nature’s skin, closer to the fizzling of its busy organs, in awe of the sounds all around us. The gushing of the jet-black stream filled my ears as I tied the bunting up to several trees for the makeshift marquee we’d use for the BBQ. I continually took huge breaths in of the clean, cold air, savouring the absence of any city smog and cigarette smoke. Being here was the ultimate detox for the mind, body and soul. There was a lot of rustling in the bushes, followed by a loud crunch. Syd’s hairy, mangled face poked out from an expanse of bright green ferns. He’d probably been harassing some poor dogwalkers, but his tail was wagging furiously, which meant something else. This was his way of saying, “Everyone else is coming! Quick, look over here! Look!” Me and dad laughed, petting Syd’s head as he panted with his tongue lolloping about. As we awaited the birthday girl’s arrival, I recalled it had been almost two months since I’d seen Rona.
I saw her far away, in between the triangular shafts of space created by the arching trees, in the midst of a multitude of colourful raincoats and wellies. When she spotted the bunting decorating the crisscross of mossy tree trunks, her face lit up. A flock of her friends followed, and the peace of the valley was temporarily interrupted by the excited screams of several seven-year-old girls all running at me and dad. Rona charged towards me, and Syd did circles around every person twice, begging us what all the fuss was about. She eventually reached my arms to give me a huge hug. It was pandemonium now they were all here—but I loved it. Life was all around us in this beautiful natural setting, and I was spending time with the people I loved the most. It was without doubt, the break from the busy and uncertain life of being a uni student that I was longing for. I just couldn’t stop smiling at how happy I was in this moment. But as with all moments, they eventually pass. The inherently transient nature of time eventually claws you away from that happy, safe place you want to stay glued to for eternity.
When I returned to university, I fell victim to those incessant feelings of loneliness again. Seeing Rona grow up without her big brother felt like life was flashing me by. Each time I returned home, I was so incredibly grateful for my family—but when I had to part with them again, that deep-rooted insecurity resurfaced like a corpse bobbing upwards from a shipwreck. Belonging and companionship are integral parts of being human. But when I left for university after being reminded what I was missing out on, I felt neither here nor there for my family. It was like being given a delicious cake with frosting and intricate decorations, but you could only eat it in tiny slices. You were itching to bury your face into its sugary icing and soft sponge, but you couldn’t. I saw my family in slices, and small sporadic bursts. There was nothing I longed for more than to be a part of their life again.
After a few uni lectures and my usual gym workout to stave off those feelings of sadness, I trudged back home—aware that something was wrong. Instead of feeling energised with an endorphin high, I felt heavy and in deep despair. This wavering sense of hopelessness had been building for some time without me even realising. This was deeply worrying to me, because I compulsively feared things I had no control over. Depression can be quite fleeting, and is a difficult beast to pinpoint. It is camouflaged like an expertly elusive predator stalking the reeds, and it invades the mind like an infestation of maniac ivy. With each step I took back to my house, I gradually put myself into states of jeopardy. All the while I wasn’t even noticing how out of kilter my actions were. I recall looking out onto the black tarmac with the backdrop of the Drake Circus lights and watching two cars approach the green traffic lights. I wasn’t thinking about the consequences, the risk, the fatality. I stepped out. Seconds before one of the cars hit me, the driver slammed the brakes, screeching hard. I felt a flush of shame while I staggered away, pumped full of adrenaline, with the car horn blaring at me. Angry voices boomed from inside the car as it sped past the traffic lights. I wanted this arduous journey to end—a nightmare where I was not me anymore, where every moment brought me closer to the promise of death.
When I arrived at home, it was one of my housemate’s birthdays. She’d invited a few people into our kitchen for pre-drinks. I grimaced internally, with an expressionless armour on the outside. I made sure I wiped my eyes clean of any tears before I entered. I swung the door open to the faces of several strangers, then retreated to the far corners of the kitchen to make my dinner. I couldn’t bear to sit at the table with them all. I prepared my salmon and rice, eating it from the kitchen worktop, isolated from the group. Each time I brought myself closer to these venomous thoughts, I felt warm tears form around my eyes. I had to compose myself. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my dad, right or wrong, it’s not to cry in front of strangers. I buttoned my mind together with bundles of straw that would eventually break, but at least it’d give me time to get away from these people.
Once my bedroom door slammed shut, I sat on my bed and rang a helpline for suicide prevention. My heart was palpitating from anxiety and the teardrops were finally free from their bondage. When I answered the phone, I didn’t want to sound weak to the person answering. My inner-logic intervened. But this is a suicide prevention hotline Tom? They get people on the brink of ending it all, why should you hold back? This was a crippling case of me desperately needing to purge my emotions, but being trapped by societal taboo, that I’m betraying my masculinity. My sense of gendered self was already in a crisis by not having sex yet, like everyone else had. Even in my darkest moment, I had to clutch at those fragments of manhood.
Before I dialled, these thoughts of sexuality triggered a memory of a former flame from my teenage years during secondary school. After two years of concocting elaborate plans to sweep her off her feet, my feelings were ultimately unreciprocated, and she’d linked up with another guy instead. I winded my memory backwards to that moment on the bus.
I sat idly while the world passed my hazy eyes. A blur of humans spun through my vision. I politely laughed at my friend’s joke, grinning as I turned to him. As I swivelled back into the chair, milliseconds morphed into seconds. Time crawled. It was him, and her. I watched in desolate horror as the pair crossed my glazed glare. Her beautiful pearly smile, golden mane of hair and elegant strides exasperated my sorrowed soul. All too reminiscent of the crudely anxious teenager who was trapped with his own emotions. The schoolboy inside me would often scream with a pitiful cry, cursing my inferior confidence.
The couple looked distant, disjointed almost. Perhaps it was just my perception. I noticed her eyes. She was scanning outwards into town, as if she was lost or trying to find someone. There was no way of telling, but as the bus windows sped past the cobblestone paving, our eyes, somewhere, met, for just a single moment in time. I held this thin pocket of time dearly. Just moments later, she was gone in a flash, shrouded by the sea of masses. I sighed, swept by loneliness.
After the call with the helpline, I came away feeling renewed but vulnerable. How could I protect myself from this menace that plants the seeds of suicide in one’s head? I spent a couple hours crying in the cold loneliness of my room, gazing at family photos like they were my lifeline. Reminding myself that I deeply and intimately matter to others is what saved me during that long night. I smiled at photos of young me with mum, with glazed eyes of happiness. It was at this point when my emotions were truly being cleansed, like a fire extinguisher fighting the stinging flames.
After I reluctantly drew back the curtains the following morning, I was met by a sight like no other. The temperature had plummeted overnight, and the whole of the grey, concrete Plymouth landscape had transformed into a wintery spectacle. Snowflakes fluttered earthwards like peacefully pirouetting ballerinas in white. The street was eerily still, painted with Jack Frost’s hue. Ruben, my housemate yelled from downstairs,
“It’s been snowing! Tom! Tom! Let’s go out!”
My face lit up with a smile that I hadn’t had in a long time. It was a childlike smile of utter euphoria. Without thought or hesitation, I grabbed my gloves, hat and coat, sprinting as I went. I opened the door. The warm glow from the porch light dispersed into the transcendence of the sparkling snow. I stood on that familiar street, aghast at how it had changed. Ruben and I snowball-fought our way down the wintery street, gleeful like children in their prime. We raced to the backstreet garage entrances where most of the snow had fallen to roll balls of snow for our inevitable snowman.
“Let’s call him Syd, Syd the snowman!” I cried.
“Haha yes! I still can’t believe how much there is!” Ruben exclaimed as he pushed a bulbous mound of snow around.
After Syd was brought into the world, we trotted to the Plymouth Hoe with Ruben’s friend, Toby who joined us at Drake Circus. This was the exact location where I took I all those risks the previous night—and here we were, laughing at the absurdity of the weather. I smiled so deeply, so truly, so ecstatically. Many Brits smile to be kind and proper to others, even when we’re not really happy. But today, all that social pretence flew out of the window. Around the streets, children stamped their feet around, strangers threw snowballs, and shared some of the most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen. These people were truly happy within this moment, this special pocket of time. Often, metaphorically and literally, we have our hands buried in our pockets, trying to keep out of other’s business. This British shame dissipated on that glorious day, when we all held hands like children, and played in the snow.
Better days are always coming. Depression and sadness have horrid ways of blinkering our forward thinking to a narrow stricture of hopelessness. Moments come and go like the seasons. They are ever changing and intrinsically unpredictable. Against all the odds, I’d never have imagined the sheer level of joy I felt as I did on that day when it snowed. Remember who loves you, remember your origins, and most of all, remember to smile like a child again.