love lay down beside me and we wept

By Helen Murray Taylor

A rare and lyrical memoir about the author's time in a psychiatric ward and her road to recovery

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

The beginning (and almost the end)

Confessions of a writer number 253. It is always terrifying to share work. It is even more terrifying when you can't hide behind characters you have made up and blame them for their bad behaviour, poor manners and foul language (and mine seem to be exceptional in this regard). It is especially terrifying when it is a piece of work that is as emotionally exposing as a memoir about mental illness. But I knew what I was letting myself in for when I wrote this book. It might not be the easiest story to tell but there are reasons for putting it out there that override my own fears.

Today I want to share with you an extract from the opening of love lay down beside me and we wept. Please be aware that it makes references to suicide.

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love lay down beside me and we wept

chapter 1

When I was 28, I bought myself a violet linen mini dress from the sales in Jigsaw Covent Garden. Ten years later it was the dress I was wearing when I killed myself.

The dress was plain in shape, cut on the bias, with capped sleeves and a wide neckline that almost hung off my shoulders. The linen cloth was criss-crossed with diamonds of fine stripes in dark purple. In its simplicity, it was little short of a classic. You could say, a little short full stop. By then, we’d been living down south for two years but I had not adapted. The humid summers in central London still managed to get their sticky fingers into me. The city aggravated an already precarious state of affairs, a steady anxiety-sweating that threatened to burst into a torrent under the most minimal of provocation and that even industrial strength antiperspirant was incapable of damming. I wore my new dress once in the height of summer and then, mortified by the deluge which appeared under my arm pits and at the base of my spine and turned the violet black, I never wore it again.

That was, at least, until many years later when I discovered the lithium I was taking miraculously stopped my anxiety-sweating. The drug dried my mouth and made my tongue stick to my teeth when I spoke. It set off tremors in my hands and in my legs, and it made my head shake of its own accord. It made me unable to walk in a straight line and it turned my writing to a microscopic scrawl that could only be read with a magnifying glass. 

But it opened up a plethora of wardrobe opportunities.

For ten years the Jigsaw dress lay screwed up at the bottom of the wardrobe until I decided, for no particular reason, to resurrect it that morning. Given my decision-making capacity at that time, that in itself was an act of unusual resolve. Despite being bombarded daily with well-meaning advice along the lines of small steps to be taken one after another, the reality was that I was barely capable of choosing which foot to put forward first, never mind which shoes to wear while doing it. It is odd that I should have chosen that particular day to select an untried, untested, almost entirely new (give or take a decade or so) outfit. But that is what I did.

The smell at the back of our wardrobe reminds me of my Gran’s house, a nostalgic smell that had persuaded me to persuade Mark that our first flat was definitely worth buying (I feel at home here), a smell I associated with oak floor boards, threadbare rugs from distant lands and antique furniture, but which I later came to realise was actually woodworm, damp and stale fags. And so, on that morning, clutching my find, I resurfaced from the wardrobe depths and assessed the crinkled linen. As expected it had a vague whiff of raw oak and neglect but the smell was not unpleasant. When I held the dress up by its drooping shoulders it looked several sizes too big for me, but that didn’t worry me either. After the weight I had lost it would show off my collar bones to their razor-sharp best. I tried it on. Peering over the knobbles of my shoulders, I admired first one side and then the other in the wardrobe mirror. My hair hung limply down my back. My legs dangled below the hem like pieces of loose thread. I smiled at myself, pleasantly impressed by what was reflected, blinded no doubt by the excitement of the big day. During the wilderness years, I was delighted to remark, the dress had not gone out of fashion. Mainly, of course, because it had never been in.

Impressed though I was, I couldn’t stay all day admiring myself. There were things to be getting on with. 

In London, the dress had been a summer dress to be worn (the once) with bare legs and sandals but this was Glasgow and it was already September. Summer was drawing its last asthmatic breaths. I pulled on black leggings and shoved my feet into a pair of double-tongued Converse low rise jimmies. 

A few hours later, wearing that very dress and the rest, I was to be found in the resus room of A&E at the Western Infirmary, half-comatose and fading fast, while some poor house officer tried and failed to get a line in me.

Of course, it is facile to blame the dress. But the facts are irrefutable. Whichever way you look at it, it definitely would not have been possible for me to pass the afternoon in my garden swallowing pills and swigging back gin on September 2nd in the 38th year of my life wearing that particular Jigsaw dress if ten years earlier I had left the shop empty handed.

So, fuck it. I’m blaming the dress.

 

You don’t have to be Sherlock to work out that I didn’t actually die. But the deceit here is not that I survived. The deceit is that I write flippantly, as if it is something to laugh about. It isn’t funny. Nothing about suicide is funny. Not for the person who completes or doesn’t. Not for those entangled in it or those forsaken by it. And not for those left asking if they did enough.

 

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Thank you for reading,

Helen x

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Comments

Jean Forbes
 Jean Forbes says:

Thank you Helen.
You are brave and you write so well.
Knowing somethings about which you speak I am going into my day with a quieter mind. Jean

posted 16th November 2022

Helle Patterson
 Helle Patterson says:

I do understand the laughter and the flippancy. They help us hold at bay the full recollection of what drove us to destroy ourselves. We survived, but the wounds were deep and the scars might yet be torn apart. I still cry when I let my memories flood back, but it’s peaceful. I had a lovely Irish psychiatrist who made me face reality and I survived. I am so very glad you did, too, Helen. Looking forward very, very much to reading your story and crying with you, as I know I will.

posted 16th November 2022

Helen Taylor
 Helen Taylor says:

Hello and Jean,
Thank you both for your lovely comments. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate hearing from you.
Helen x

posted 18th November 2022

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