Back and forth: being with tragedy and despair – Mike Moss

The following has been written and rewritten again and again. It contains a lot of things that I’m currently working with. It’s also complicated, messy and a reflection of where I find myself. What’s worth mentioning is that I write about recent tragedies in Manchester and my own mental health crises, which some folks may not wish to read about.

Stood by the police tape as everything began to develop in Manchester that evening, I had heard it was a small accident, a busted speaker and panic, and I thought I could help; offer someone the use of my phone, be with someone in shock, just do something to help fix the situation. But then the sirens grew to a scream, and the helicopter became two, and huge screens appeared, and then I didn’t have to read a news update to know what was going on. At that point, “showing up” meant having to walk away and to accept that this can’t be fixed, at least by me. I text my Dad who works nights at a factory nearby to reassure him that I’m safe and headed for a long journey home.
The following day, I made the same journey back into the city centre to attend the vigil. I couldn’t shift the sense that no one really had clue as to why they were there other than a gentle compulsion, a feeling that it was a good thing to do and that they needed to do it, for whatever reason. I stood, listening to the chatter of others, the international journalists being shushed by middle-aged women, folks being really happy with the free can of coke a Sikh charity were giving out, couples pointing out famous people they can see, and it all appeared rather, at least for me, Mancunian. A lack of pretentiousness, full of sadness and swagger, and a feeling that someone’s mum is going to kick off with the Russia Today reporter who was being too loud. And when it was time to be silent, we all shared in it together. At that point, it appeared that “showing up” literally meant being there, as you are and no more.

Not one person should have been at that vigil, that vigil should have never happened for there should have been no reason for it. Though, it had to happen and it happened as much as it needed to.

The collective “showing up” created this symphony, a testament to the capacity for thousands to be within moments so complex and intangible, so sad and so very, well, f**cked up. A situation that was repeating itself all over the world and all I could do was stand with aching legs, sipping a can of coke, and shut up. Though it was the most appropriate thing I could do. It all still hurts and it would be a strange moment if it ever stopped hurting.

I have to look back only a year previously to point to a time when I stood with legs aching, sipping a can of coke, all alone. No one had died and yet my whole conscience was screaming that I had to. I walked back inside away from the smoke filled fresh air, through the automatic doors and drifted back to my seat in the waiting room. There’s no decent time to show up at A&E.

Somehow, though unsurprisingly, I had found myself having fallen into another severe depression. All too familiar because that’s just what manic depression is, a rollercoaster ride that continues in earnest.

I sat for over twelve hours in A&E (try that on for practice). My mind racing with images like Bosch and Goya so wondrously created. I couldn’t escape. Neither physically, since I’d have the police sent after me, nor mentally, since I’d only chase after myself. Like at every point living with a mental illness I couldn’t escape it then and I can’t escape it now. Showing up at A&E wasn’t just showing up for medical care, I was showing up to every tragedy, every relationship destroyed, every scar I’d left on my skin, each time I was dancing in the heavens and then been thrown down to despair. Nor was I showing up to judgement, self-criticism, or a desire to simply fix something. I showed up to a pestering sense of trust that transcended desires to get off the rollercoaster. Maybe I’m always going to be riding it. Though I really don’t have to be so obsessed with making it stop because if this is my life as it is, where else can I go other than death? I’m going to have to die eventually so maybe, just maybe, I can see what happens before I get there. That’s what I was turning up to on that evening at A&E, though I admit I wasn’t aware of it at first.

Stood at the vigil, I realised that those who were murdered would never have this choice. Many would not have the opportunity to fall in love, have sex, argue, get drunk in the park, break a bone and have friends draw on the cast, or attend their parents’ funeral. Beyond all the more self-indulgent feelings of guilt that arise when I remember how I wished death upon myself and acted upon such wishes, there’s gratitude that I am alive and have been able to share my life with others and hopefully for many years to come. I can experience this gratitude whilst riding the rollercoaster, I can experience a lot whilst on it, which is rather exciting. Maybe I could even enjoy the totality of the ride? I suppose I’ll just have to see. This could be one way to pay my respects to all those who die so tragically.

“I have good reason to be content,
for thank God I can read and
perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths.” – John Keats