Ten Sheets to the Wind by David Christopher Johnston

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

content warning: suicide

This is not a cry for help.

If it were, I’d be standing on the eastern edge of this multi-storey car park – directly above the busy bars and nightclubs – so all the Saturday-evening drinkers could witness my final fall. I’d linger on the ledge long enough to cause a scare and soak up the sympathy before deciding to give life another chance. As a tired paramedic draped a foil blanket around my time-wasting frame, drunken applause and theatrical gasps of relief would rise from the crowd below, mingled with the vicious taunts of idiots daring me to jump. And I’d store those taunts deep inside: their mocking voices, their cynical eyes. I’d save the bitterness for the next time I desired attention – if this were only a cry for help.

So here I stand. Peering past my toes, I look over the western edge of my concrete castle to a dark, abandoned delivery road six floors below. A faulty street light flickers erratically, spitting beams of white across the pavement like a cheap wedding disco. A lone pigeon searches for scraps by an overflowing skip. It isn’t the perfect setting for my last hoorah, but at least it’s quiet.

Someone will find my body eventually – a road cleaner in the early hours of tomorrow, perhaps – but, for a little while, I will be left alone in peace.

Tomorrow, the local press will write about my personal tragedy, describing me as a great guy, dedicated family man, and reliable friend. Friends and family will clamber over one another to show their compassion, their grief, their loss.

(It’s a little fucking late for that).

The truth isn’t so admirable, the adjectives less noble, but obituaries portraying the victim as selfish, cowardly, and damaged are unappealing. And I guess a little fiction won’t hurt – it’s not like I’ll read it, anyway.

My rucksack sits on the ledge beside me, containing my driver’s licence, car keys, an apologetic letter to my parents, and my last will and testament. I’ve also cleaned out the garage at home (which was long overdue), packed my clothes into a suitcase, and left a list on my bedside table of usernames and passwords for my online accounts. That will hopefully make things easier for my girlfriend Natasha to resolve.

My phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s Natasha, again: the tenth time she’s called in the last twenty minutes. I guess she found the note. I want to answer and tell her this is for the best, that it will all be OK, but I know if I do she will talk me out of it. Instead, I drop the phone over the edge, counting the seconds to the bottom.

One.

Two…

After nine seconds, I hear a faint thud as my phone smashes into pieces on the pavement. Looking down into the darkness, the ground seems further away than before. It’s a good job I’m not afraid of heights.

Crazy. Weirdo. Mental. Loopy. Insane. Cuckoo. Psycho. Head-case. Freak. Nutter. Crackpot.

Just some of the delightful names I’ve been given by strangers, colleagues, friends and family over the years. Punishment for having a mental illness, I guess. Two years ago, at a family gathering, my uncle brazenly referred to me as being ‘ten sheets to the wind’. Despite the fact that the phrase means someone who is very drunk, not mentally ill, my brother and his friends found this hilarious and have referred to me as Ten Sheets Tom ever since. I laugh along so they don’t see me cry.

The medical term for my condition is Generalised Anxiety Disorder, but the only person who uses that is my doctor. To me, it’s just another label to stick onto my soul, a nametag to throw in the bowl along with all the others. If I’m honest, I’d rather people just called me Tom. Is that too much to ask?

(Boo hoo, poor you).

‘Crazy, psycho, loopy, wackjob!’ I shout across the rooftops of the city, laughing and smiling in feigned defiance of my tormentors. The night sky hides the tears streaming down my cheeks.

(Stop feeling sorry for yourself).

It took years of secrecy, shame, and denial to admit I needed help, but, when I finally went to the doctor, he just gave me some pills and ushered me out of his office. Since then my medicine cupboard has become a who’s who of antidepressants and sedatives: citalopram, fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline, venlafaxine, amitriptyline, chlordiazepoxide and diazepam. A variety of ways to delay the problem, rather than fix it. Side effects like Restless Leg Syndrome, fevers, diaphoresis, insomnia and suicidal thoughts only exacerbate the problem – and this is the stuff that’s meant to help me.

Counselling was a waste of time. The whole process only succeeded in making me more anxious and depressed. Each time I waited several months for an initial consultation, then another three months before being offered an appointment. After explaining I had a job and needed an appointment outside of normal working hours, I would usually receive a discharge letter in the post for refusing to attend an appointment.

With no therapy in sight, I became dependant on medication. After years of getting nowhere, I became tired of trying to fix things and just accepted I was damaged beyond aid. And when the drugs lost their effectiveness, the fear and panic exploded out of me like an atomic bomb.

(Tick, tick, tick).

A large crow flutters past my face and lands on the ledge beside me. We stare at each other in silence. I sit down and stretch out my hand, offering the remains of a chocolate bar from my pocket. The crow moves closer, cautiously pecking at the food in my palm.

‘So, what do you think?’ I ask my winged companion. ‘If I jump will I spread my wings and fly away, like you?’ My voice is croaky because I haven’t spoken to anyone in hours.

My new best friend tilts his head, gives me a long stare with one shiny, black eye, then spreads his wings and flies away into the night.

‘I guess that’s a no, then,’ I mumble to the void.

(You are such a loser).

My “friends” have known for several years that I have a severe anxiety disorder, but they still assume this just means I struggle to go to busy places and continue to advise me to cheer up, or just get over it.

If they asked me about it, they would know this disorder affects every single thought in my brain, determines the way I process those thoughts, and creates obsessions that cloud my judgment. It affects my sleep, immune system, and bowels. It ruins my relationships, confidence, drive, and compassion. But they never ask – having a friend with a mental illness makes them uncomfortable, so they pretend it isn’t happening.

(Billy no mates. BILLY NO MATES!).

Raindrops splash upon my forehead. The heavens open, showering me in warm water, sizzling the scorched ground. The rain tastes like summer on my tongue. Running my hands through my coarse hair, I close my eyes and enjoy the last rain shower of my short life. I’ve always loved the rain. 

Drunken singing erupts from the city below, shattering the tranquillity. ‘For crying out loud, be quiet!’ I shout, staring up at the sky with clenched teeth. I try to ignore them and take deep breaths. This is one thing in my cursed life that I am going to get right.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

My heart rate slows again to a steady drum. I’m almost ready.

(You’ll fuck this up, like everything else).

Anxiety and depression are mentally and physically exhausting: like running a marathon every day. A day in the life of Ten Sheets Tom isn’t pleasant reading.

Getting up

06:30               Alarm goes off. I hit the snooze button.

(Work sucks).

07:00               Snooze.

(Why bother?).

07:15               Snooze.

(Call in sick).

07:30               Shit, I’m going to be late!

(Again…)

07:45               Finally out the door; agitated and wound tight.

Commuting

Driving to work I lose my temper for the smallest infraction, shouting at strangers like a lunatic. Then in the blink of an eye anger turns to panic: what if the driver I just swore at decides to follow me?

(He is following you).

I look in my mirror and know I am being followed. I take an alternate, longer route to ensure I am not being pursued.

And all this by nine in the morning.

Work

Gossiping seems to be the only “work” undertaken in my open-plan office. During the morning, I’m convinced my colleagues are gossiping about me. I want to get out, go home, be alone.

I eat lunch in my car. Doors locked. Keeping the world out.

The afternoon is worse than the morning. My manager, Paul, calls me into a meeting around two-thirty.

(What does this idiot want now?).

‘Tom, the team have raised concerns about your temper,’ Paul says in his usual monotone. ‘I hear you yelled at a client today.’

‘Yep,’ I reply. ‘Sorry about that.’

He forces a compassionate smile. ‘Look Thomas, we can’t keep going through this. If there is something bothering you, you can tell me. I’m here to support you.’

(Bullshit. You don’t care about me).

‘There’s nothing bothering me, I’m fine,’ I reply.

‘Well, frankly,’ Paul snaps. ‘I’m concerned you have anger issues.’

His comment touches a nerve and I internally combust. Staring manically into his eyes, I contemplate smashing my chair over his head.

(How’s that for anger issues, Paul?) .

After ten seconds of tension, I can taste Paul’s discomfort. It’s sweet. The best part of my day.

‘Look Tom,’ he stutters. ‘I’m just trying–’

‘I’m fine, Paul. I’ve just had a bad day.’ I stand up and walk out, body shaking with anger, eyes filling with tears.

The rest of the afternoon is a blur. I jolt violently between anger, bitterness, sadness and self-loathing. My colleagues avoid me (like they always do).

(Because they hate you).

Home

Once home, I lock the door and close the blinds (so people outside can’t see me). I read a book but can’t concentrate; I pace around the house, heart rate increasing, head pounding.

Natasha gets home and I yell at her over nothing. She is the only person who has stuck by me through the tough times, the dark days, the lonely nights. Always with a smile (however pained). Always with love. And this is how I repay her. She deserves better.

Sleep

I barely sleep, lying awake until the early hours. I stare into the darkness, my brain racing with a million negative thoughts. When sleep finally comes it is broken by horrific nightmares (a side effect of the medication). Then it’s morning again and the cycle starts over.

Imagine going through that every day for ten years. Now tell me I’m irrational, selfish, and cowardly.

(Stop whining and just do it already).

The brief summer shower is over and the air feels fresh; my clothes are soaked and cling to my skin. The city of Nottingham flickers with the soft glow of ten thousand lights. A carpet of colour ripples across the sky, like heat rising on a hot summer’s day. It is beautiful.

The town clock chimes midnight: that’s my cue. I remove my shoes and place them next to my bag, tuck my polo shirt into my jeans, tighten my belt and close my eyes. I take one last deep breath.

(DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT!).

Closing my eyes, I lean forward and feel gravity take control. I spread my arms like wings. Cool air rushes past my face, contorting my mouth into a numb grin. I let go of it all and embrace this final moment.

One.

Two…

…Nine.

This is not a cry for help.

About The Author

David Christopher Johnston is a fiction author from England. He writes mostly satire but dabbles in other genres. His work focuses on themes of mental health, class prejudice and the modern workplace. He devotes much of his time to fundraising for mental health charities in the UK, raising awareness about the importance of mental health and wellbeing and reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness. Several of his short stories are available on the Bandit Fiction website, further stories are also available on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter for information about his upcoming novel and short story collection.

Bandit Fiction is an entirely not-for-profit organisation ran by passionate volunteers. We do our best to keep costs low, but we rely on the support of our readers and followers to be able to do what we do. The best way to support us is by purchasing one of our back issues. All issues are ‘pay what you want’, and all money goes directly towards paying operational costs.

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