There’s a confusion in the evening October air. It’s neither mild nor bitter, the harshness of the winter has not yet fully taken hold. It’s like the weather can’t settle on a direction and is being pulled both ways. It mirrors the turmoil going on inside my head.
I’m wandering the dark sloping streets off the Stranmillis Road in Belfast, like a lost man. There’s some comfort in the anonymity of walking in the shadows.
I pass a house where there is loud music playing. Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison. I see there is a group of young people having a party in the front room. Students, I assume. It pricks something deep inside me, a memory of a time before the burden of responsibility weighed me down. I keep on walking.
I spend some time like this. But time never stands still and soon I know that I have to choose a direction. I move towards the grand, imposing building that is the Lyric Theatre. As I get closer I think my steps have slowed until it feels like my feet are shuffling forward unwillingly.
I reach the point at the bottom of the steps which leads into the theatre. I peer inside. I see the crowds and the bright lights, hear the throbbing of animated laughter and the excited buzz of conversations.
I turn and flee.
I move back onto one of the dark streets, near where I have parked my car and try to control my breathing which is much too fast. I take a box of cigarettes from my pocket. I’m not really a smoker but in times of anxiety and distress my nicotine habit often returns.
I notice a slight trembling in my hands as I put the cigarette between my lips and hold the lighter up.
I’m filled with a certainty that I need to get back to my safe space. I have to go home.
The process which bought me to this place began a few weeks back.
Unexpectedly, I received an invitation to a book launch. The event was to mark the publication of Burned, a new book from the News Letter’s Political Editor Sam McBride which tells the inside story of the catastrophic failure of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which led to the collapse of the Stormont executive and assembly. The ‘cash for ash’ scandal.
I remember staring at the invitation. In truth I was astonished to receive it. It has been several years since I’ve worked in news journalism, I know how fast that world moves, and I wondered if a mistake had been made. Was I asked along because they thought I still operated in that media world?
But I was also deeply moved. I knew and briefly worked with the author at the start of his career. We haven’t kept in touch but I’ve always admired his journalism and, occasionally, he would make a kind comment about something he read on my blog.
I determined that I should attend the event.
But as the days passed doubts and insecurities moved across my brain like locusts. It had been several years since I had attended any sort of media gathering or been in the company of journalists or any professional people.
All of my social engagements for a long time have revolved around care of my son. Visits to the park, school discos, play dates. I wasn’t sure that I even remembered the man that I once had been. I didn’t know if I’d be able to blow the dust off.
I was aware of the potential stress of attending such an event, the risk that it could be deleterious to my fragile mental health.
As the days passed the thought of attending the launch stretched high and daunting in front of me, just like the Lyric Theatre on this October evening.
But there was another reason why I tortured myself about going. It took some time for the thought to crystallise in my brain so I could properly understand it. But then I did.
I was ashamed.
Ashamed to step into an environment designed specifically to celebrate the best of journalism. I knew that I had failed wretchedly in the same profession, that mental health problems had destroyed my career. I was embarrassed to go and look former colleagues in the eye and confront this failure.
I made no decision on whether to attend until the day itself, in fact it was only when I discovered just two hours before it began that a close friend would be attending that I finally convinced myself to go.
But now, here, smoking a cigarette with an unsteady hand I know that I’ve made a terrible mistake. My car keys weigh heavily in my pocket and I’m having a conversation with myself. It’s quite pathetic. What is mundane and routine to normal people becomes like Everest in my scarred mind.
‘You can do it….you can do it…..you can do it….don’t be afraid.’
I throw the cigarette butt onto the damp tar of the road. I take a last look at the car and I move back towards the theatre. This time I don’t stop to think, to allow the fears to disable me, I go straight inside.
And, at once, I’m overcome. All of my protection has been ripped away. My brain is moving too fast for me to understand thoughts or to distinguish faces or sounds and coherency has left me.
I head straight towards the toilets and lock myself in a cubicle. I collapse onto the toilet but my capacious arse immediately sets off the automatic flushing mechanism, soaking the rear of my trousers.
I jump up and try to escape but can’t open the door. I frantically push at it for several seconds in growing panic before I realise the door opens inwards. It would all be quite comical if it weren’t so serious.
I go back upstairs. The book launch is taking place in the bar area of the Lyric and there is a huge throng of people. All of the seats are occupied so my plans to find a quiet corner in which to hide are dashed.
I don’t know quite what to do so I just stand there. Some of the people I don’t know, but I see a number of recognisable journalists, politicians and lawyers.
I make eye contact with a couple of people I’ve met over the years and smile at them. They hurriedly look away. Someone I once knew walks past and stops to shake hands. He tells me that I’m ‘looking well’ but I can see the pained pity in his eyes and he quickly moves on.
Of course, this may not be how it actually happened. It’s merely the way my mind chooses to process the information. I’m constantly fighting against the warped messages of the critical brain, telling myself that in this room full of people they are not all passing judgement on my failings.
I go to buy a copy of the book. It gives me something to do with my hands, a cover. I flick through it pretending that I’m already engrossed in the contents and hoping that nobody can see that the tremble of my fingers has now progressed to a definite shaking in the hands.
I retreat to a pillar and rest my back against it. Then, just as the event is beginning, a friend of mine arrives and stands beside me. It’s not the same friend who messaged me earlier but I’m so glad to see him. I’ve known this man for two decades and he has always treated me the same. To his eyes I’m just Jonny.
We chat and share some jokes and soon I begin to feel better. We laugh together as the host, Tim McGarry, delivers a riotous opening speech. I find myself getting drawn into the event, forgetting myself, listening intently to every word from every speaker.
There’s a contagious energy in the room which seems to be flowing through my body now, replacing the marrow inside my bones.
At the end I join the queue to get my book signed by the author. There’s a prominent politician in front of me and an environmental activist behind me and I chat to both. She talks to me about the danger of industrial scale pig farming and he talks to me of his hope that we haven’t accidentally strayed into the queue for the bar.
When I get to the front I’m expecting the author to merely sign my book and move onto the next person. There’s a long queue for him to get through.
Instead he invites me to sit beside him and talks to me, thanking me for coming along.
Then he tells me a story. Of how when he was a young, nervous journalist starting in the trade he had worked alongside me. He remembers the first ever story he wrote and how I had commissioned it, as if it were some sort of faltering origin for his later accomplishments.
He signs my book ‘To Jonny, you commissioned my first very poor piece of journalism! Sam McBride’.
I’m deeply humbled and, for a moment, fear that I may lose my composure. He knows that I’m also working on a book and tells me how much he is looking forward to reading it. We shake hands and I step away.
I move through the crowd and meet my other friend, the one who had messaged me earlier in the day. She hugs me warmly and starts to introduce me to people. Soon I’m chatting to people I’ve never met before. I’ve no real idea what I’m saying but I’m doing my best and I’m almost enjoying it.
I meet a couple of people who ask me if I’m in the market for some work. Details are exchanged.
And then I drive home. I’m definitely in a different place now although it’s nothing as corny as a complete reversal of my earlier feelings of dread. My head is still spinning and my limbs feel alien, but my overwhelming feeling is one of a pleasurable relief that I got through it.
When I get home my wife and son are already asleep but I’m much too animated to consider rest. I get into bed and begin to study Sam’s book.
Then a question pops into my mind. What was the last book I read?
To my own shame I find that I cannot remember. I pull my old Kindle out from under the bed to remind me. The red cover has been turned white with dust. I try to turn it on but there is no power, the charge has long since deserted it, a sure sign of neglect. I consider how I used to be an avid reader in my youth.
And then I begin to read Burned. The first chapter dealing with former DETI minister Jonathan Bell’s encounter with Stephen Nolan is as gripping as any thriller. It quickly becomes clear that the tome is a monumental work of reportage, combining the authority and attention to detail of an academic with the elegance and lightness of touch of a bestselling fiction writer.
I devour 150 pages before my body eventually succumbs to sleep. Unusually, I sleep through the night without waking.
In the morning I tell my wife all about the book launch, the tough parts and how I got through it. I can tell she was a bit concerned about me going but supportive of any effort which helps to integrate me back into professional society.
She asks ‘Are you glad you went along?’
‘Yes,’ I respond. ‘I really am.’