Existential Terror, or, How Do I Keep Going When I Feel Like I Can't Keep Going

PLEASE NOTE: This post is my attempt to work through a very bad patch with a bit of black humour. It contains references to SELF-HARM & DEPRESSION . This is my truth, but it may trigger, offend or depress others. If you choose to read it anyway, and that happens, I am truly sorry for your pain. But I did warn you.

Last October, I shared a Facebook post about Roger Hallam, one of the founders and presiding mastermind of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Roger was giving a talk here in Cambridge, with the title Extinction and What to do About It. Unfortunately, the talk clashed with a screening of a short film I'd made, and in the battle of ego versus duty, ego won out. I went to the screening, and then rushed straight over to the David Attenborough building, hoping to catch the end of the talk. But even as I panted my way up the stairs, the doors opened, and the audience came streaming out. And there at the front was a colleague from my other life, as a comedy improvisor, along with her partner and another friend of hers. A jolly colleague, and a young one. A person I'm used to being silly with. Playing games with. Forgetting my worries with. Of course, she knew I was into this climate change stuff, but I don't think we'd ever had a serious discussion about it. I was surprised to see her there.

I had a pretty good idea what the Roger Hallam talk was going to be about. I mean, the title kind of said it all. And since I became involved in my own little form of climate activism, in 2015, I've read every book and article I could get my hands on and attended or watched every lecture (if you're a part of the movement you probably know what I mean here – once you pop, you really can't stop).

I know that the scientists have been getting increasingly anxious. I know, from Gwynne Dyer's excellent book Climate Wars, that the military arms of most nations on earth have been actively preparing for climate disruption for decades. And I know that most of the predictions the scientists have been making have played out accurately – or faster than they believed possible. I had come across the chilling phrase, near term civilizational collapse. I knew that some serious thinkers believed that humanity had put the earth's biosystems under such extreme pressure that they were near breaking point, and that if they do break, a cascade of losses, scarcity, and conflict could destroy the natural and human created systems which allow us to live our comfortable, "civilized" lifestyles. End of.

Try putting that into your comedy improv.

So I winced when I saw my friend's little white face. She and her friends looked shell-shocked. She said something about it being horrible, horrible, and that she would never come to a talk like that again. Since I've already taken a lot of flak from members of my family, about how "depressing" my posts and tweets tend to be, I felt bad. I felt especially bad because she and I had had a recent casual chat about whether she and her partner might be thinking about a baby in the not too distant future.  That she now knew might not exist. The future I mean.

 Fast forward to April. Look, I don't want to bring anyone else down, but so far 2019 has been the worst year of my life. Well, the worst since I was a spotty, self-harming 13-year-old who thought she would never be loved. It's been bad for a lot of important, geo-political reasons, but what’s come on top of that and impacted me more than anything else in real terms has been poor health. It's true what they say to people who are having hard times – "At least you've got your health!!" – because without it literally everything else ceases to be enjoyable. I mean, I always used to say that as long as I had good food (and traditionally for me that's almost any food), books to read, and a functioning vibrator, I could be happy. But five weeks of nausea, fatigue and headaches have made two of those almost impossible to enjoy. And one, it turns out, really isn't enough.

I'm sure it is possible to be sick and happy. I've seen many inspirational stories of people way worse off than me who manage it. But this particular bout has come at a really bad time. For one thing, my dog is sick too. For a few weeks we thought it was cancer, but it turns out he just needs to have his hip replaced. This will be horrible for him (8 weeks of crated rest), and it has meant that for now and for months to come I've lost my incentive to get out and do the bit of spirit-lifting exercise that walking him made me do. Plus, I just feel bad for him. He's such a jolly, happy-go-lucky chap, and his near future is now going to be bafflingly uncomfortable and dull. I won't be able to explain to him that it's temporary, that by the end of July he can kiss that crate good-bye forever…I will just have to face his sad eyes every day as I keep him from everything he loves.


Being stuck at home without the energy to read or eat has also left me far too much time to stew about the state of my adopted country, the UK. I loved it here. I loved the history, of influence beyond physical size, of stubborn wrongheadedness that still, often, arrived at the right decision eventually, of four distinct countries uneasily joined into one nation. I loved the culture, which created people, I thought, with just the right mix of outward polite mistrustfulness and cynicism and inward loyalty, tolerance, and courage. And I loved the countryside. The trees, the light, the flowers, the thatched cottages. The whole shebang.

As far as I can see though, that's all yesterday's news. In divorcing Europe, in favour of our old flames the US and other former colonies (who, frankly, are so over us), we have lost the respect of the entire world. This is one wrongheaded decision that we seem determined not to overcome, and it's led to a breakdown of tolerance and civility on both sides of the divide. It seems reasonably likely to lead to the breakup of the UK. And meanwhile, as the news and the time and attention of the public and the politicians is sucked endlessly into the Brexit vacuum, our precious countryside is being sacrificed, hedge by hedge, verge by verge, wood by wood, meadow by meadow, to an ethics that puts economic "growth" ahead of every other consideration. Fun times.

Stuck at home. Of course, unlike invalids of yore, I have some windows on the world. Specifically, social media, YouTube, and the web. But due, I guess, to the clever algorithms by which these tools force feed my face, those windows have grown increasingly dark, vile, and terrifying. How I wish I could erase my on-line identity, pretend I'd never heard of Trump, climate change, or insectageddon, and subscribe exclusively to feeds about Seinfeld, West End Musicals and baking. Who knows where those might lead me? A Julia Louis-Dreyfus style guide? Sing-along-a-La Cage aux Folles? Grow your own brownies? What do other folks get fed?

Because until recently, as my experience with my improv friend revealed, other people – shall we call them normal people? – weren't seeing the shit I've been seeing. And another, big part of my recent woe is due to the – little white face – worry that normal people are getting smacked by reality a bit too quickly recently. The Extinction Rebellion and Youth Strike 4 Climate movements seem to be succeeding beyond my wildest dreams in getting the reality of climate change in the news and on the political agenda. And I know, from personal experience, that once you start discovering the probable future that awaits us and our children and, good lord, our poor grandchildren, not to mention the bears, the bats, the badgers, and every other living creature on the planet, the foundations of your world will totter. As Naomi Klein so eloquently put it, This Changes Everything, and the point at which you find yourself seeing an advert for Easyjet or the Moroccan Grand Prix or frigging McDonald's and feeling physically sick is the point of no return. Life as you knew it is over. Change is coming, one way or another, and it will be soon and it probably won't be pretty.

Fatigue. Lethargy. They really suck the motivation right out of you. And the more you sit, stewing in your hole, the more paranoid and hateful and angry you feel. Paranoid, hateful, angry…and ashamed. Because now that everything has changed, I’m having to question every value I lived by. Strive for learning and advanced thought? Why? It’s the so-called “uneducated” indigenous peoples of the world who knew how to take care of it. Have a useful career? What for? I’d have been better off composting and learning how to bottle tomatoes. Better myself? What’s the good of that, in the face of what’s coming for all of us, and the ugly fact that through sheer luck I was born in the place and with the parents that mean I got to live a life where bettering myself was possible, and may continue to be for a time, while others are pitchforked into starvation and homelessness. Help others? I don’t know how to build compost toilets or grow large crops of organic veg or develop community energy schemes, and I’m in indifferent health. How? Bloody how?

It’s ugly. And you know what really sucks? Now, looking out through my grimy windows, almost all I can see are scared, shamed and ugly faces like mine.

But heck. Maybe I'm more like Fred, my dog, than I think. Maybe, like him, I can at least continue to be a loving heart. I can be there for those around me, glad to be alive for as long as I am alive, living simply, doing my best to do what I’m told and be…good. It’s possible that my time in the crate is almost up, the door's about to open, and there are beautiful days to come. I might think of something useful I can do. You never know, right?

And there's always the bloody vibrator.