Daniel Pope remembers a time when human brains never tasted so good
Around the corner from my home in the UK was a centre run by the Samaritans, an organisation that offers support to the suicidal. It was a pleasant building, with a modern, house-brick facade and sections of pale green paintwork.
What I liked most about it – what appealed to my sense of irony – was that it was the only building in the street with a balcony. This railed structure wasn’t particularly high up. We’re not talking Beachy Head elevations here. But it would provide enough of a drop to end a tormented life.
I imagined some desperate visitor being told by a councillor, “I’m sorry. You appear to be depressed beyond our help. We can do nothing for you. Feel free to step out onto the balcony.”
Metaphorically, I had once looked down from that balcony myself. It had been while trying to break an addiction to lorazepam, a potent sedative used to treat anxiety. I first took the drug after a distressing flight home from Indonesia to the UK when queuing to board the plane during transit in Hong Kong, I was disturbed by a passenger in a wheelchair arguing loudly with a member of the cabin crew. I was surprised by how strongly it affected me. But I had been feeling tense and delicate after sleeping off the effects of a farewell drinking session back in Jakarta.
I felt claustrophobic when I took my seat on the plane. The clamour of people shoving bags into overhead lockers was alarming. I broke into a cold sweat, removing my cardigan. I resisted an urge to unbuckle my seat belt and flee my confinement while I still could. The thought of being stranded in Hong Kong, a city I knew nothing of, kept me in my seat.
So unsettling was the flight, particularly my pulling the ripcord on an emergency belief in God, that when I returned to Indonesia several weeks later it was under the calming influence of two milligrams of lorazepam, which I had obtained from the black market.
Lorazepam can create a profound sense of relaxation that makes you as slow-witted and lethargic as a zombie. I might as well have shuffled around looking for human brains to eat for all the use I was in this state. Crucially, it never occurred to me that stopping may be impossible once I’d been taking it every day for months. I never once imagined wanting to stop. But when I returned to the UK again I realised just how dependent I’d become on the drug and that it really was time to quit.
On my first days without lorazepam, with the zombie inside me denied release, I crept around in a state of paranoid unease. I didn’t eat, brains or otherwise. Food had the appeal of polystyrene. Nights were sleepless. I was jumpy and hyper-vigilant. Every noise past midnight was a murderer breaking in or a house fire igniting downstairs.
During one of these nights, it occurred to me that being alive was like standing on thin ice over a frozen lake. It crackled under my weight, and a simple stamp of my foot was all it would take to send me swiftly to the icy depths. It would be so easy. Nothing to it. And what would it matter? The next day I removed all packets of medicines from easy reach in my bedroom.
Finding any consolation in my situation wasn’t easy. The best I could argue was that, because suicide is the number one killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, suicidal thoughts at my age must be a sign of enduring youthfulness, like still having a full head of hair or not needing to take Viagra. “Look at me! I’m young at heart!” I cry as I leap off the edge of a tall building.
While I never ended up on the Samaritans’ balcony, I took my doctor’s advice to join a group therapy session run by a mental health charity. It felt like a typical community meeting, held in a church hall, with custard cream biscuits and milky tea laid on. The participants sat in a semi-circle of clinking metal framed chairs with a councillor in the middle.
However, the focus of the meeting turned out to be on coping with panic attacks, those intense build-ups of anxiety liable to culminate in an explosion of tears, not the slow-burning, entrenched, drag-you-into-the-grave anxiety that afflicted me. Some other participants seemed out of place as well.
There was one young man, wearing a green anorak and thick spectacles, who said he was suffering from an inferiority complex. When he felt ignored by everyone, he’d look sharply around and complain, “Oh, right, well there’s no need to listen to me, is there.” Or if he answered one of the councillor’s inquiries incorrectly, “Well, just shows how much I know. Shall I shut up? I think I’d better.” When I spoke to him near the end of the session, he said, “It’s like The Day of the Dead in here, isn’t it? Do you think it’s me?”
“It’s more likely all of us,” I said. With my head lowered, and my eyes burning bright orange (this was how I interpreted the sensitivity to light that can come with anxiety) I looked around at my fifteen fellow victims. I imagined us letting out moans through mouths which dripped yellow slime, as we lumbered to our feet on stiff, unbending legs, and flailed living dead-like across the room, making the counsellor shriek and flee. We’d spill out of the windows and doors into the car park, our moans now articulating the word “brains” as we headed home to gorge on our neighbours and create deadly havoc.
It took me many months to fully recover from my addiction and to feel robust again. I took other flights. And I’m not sure how I coped with them. But one thing’s for certain: I won’t be turning myself into a zombie on any aeroplane. I’d rather be suffering normal, honest-to-goodness fear, even terror, rather like a zombie’s victim.