Snapshots of a Broken Mind is loosely based on my own experiences and follows three characters - Austin, his brother John and girlfriend Emily - through Austin's battle with borderline personality disorder, as he tries to piece his life back together after a messy divorce and job loss.
I've posted these two chapters before, but I've completely rewritten them to reflect the English mental health system better and to generally be more interesting. I'd really appreciate any feedback, good or bad. Here are the originals, if you feel like comparing them!
Edit: I've also edited these two again to include everyone's suggestions. Thank you all for the feedback!
Trigger warning for suicide, self-harm and mental health issues
My alarm went off at 2:30pm, but it was a while before I came to. I remember registering the time and that I’d fallen asleep in my clothes, before the memory of my plans for the day flooded back. My legs were weak when I stumbled out of bed. I hadn’t eaten for a while.
I didn’t feel any remorse, sadness or even anxiety about what I was planning to do. I was apathetic, detached; relieved, if anything.
I did hesitate, for a second, until I caught sight of myself in the mirror. My bones were protruding everywhere; the dark circles around my green eyes were like bruises and my dark hair was a tangled mess. My arms and legs were covered in ugly scars from self-harm. Not to mention that I smelt like shit. I scowled. Disgusting, pathetic. I hated myself. If I’d needed an extra push, that was it.
I packed a few things into my rucksack and stumbled out of my flat. The world went on as I walked through the grubby suburb to the tube station; drivers shouting, horns honking, some busker singing. London doesn’t pause for anyone.
I got the tube to Victoria and then the train out to Eastbourne. People were staring at me. Some of them looked concerned, but most of them were whispering or laughing. Fuck the lot of them.
While I was on the train I clung onto a squashed photo of my kids, willing them to forgive me one day. Then I stupidly sent a text to my older brother John, asking him to forgive me too.
I used to take my kids to Newquay every year, but I’d never been out this way before. Twilight was falling as my train arrived; the sky was tinted with red, the station’s clock tower a sinister silhouette. As I left the station, I began to feel lost and frightened. It wouldn’t be long now, I told myself.
I’d looked up which bus I needed to get – the 13X – but in a panic and desperate for people to stop staring, I stumbled into a taxi. The driver glanced sharply at me when I told him my destination, but he didn’t say anything.
The quaint town dissolved into a coastal road as the taxi rolled away. I was anxious now. My heart was pounding and my shaking hands were sweating. I could hardly count out the change when I paid the driver, praying he wouldn’t say anything.
He didn’t. He thanked me and drove away, parking further up the road by a little café. I watched him disappear inside, then I stumbled blindly past the bus stop and over the grass until I was faced with the sea; the steep white cliffs stretching out to my left and right, until they disappeared into the darkening sky. A man was walking his dog in the distance. It was beautiful but there was an eerie horror about it that made me feel sick.
I fumbled to pull the photo of my kids back out of my pocket. My son, Elliott, the oldest, and my two twin girls, Whitney and Alicia. They’d be better off this way. I was doing them a favour.
I was worried I’d hesitate or be too scared when I got here, but it felt darkly welcoming. My wife had left me and taken my kids. I’d lost my job and my band had broken up. I had nothing left.
A cold wind blew off the sea, creeping through my clothes and seeping into my bones. Get it over with, Austin.
I stood back, my heart pounding. Then I ran. I ran until I reached the edge of the cliffs and all I could see was the vast ocean.
Then I jumped.
Austin is my little brother.
Yes, Austin Webb, the attractive, witty, successful sound technician who’s always the life of the party. I was fat, ugly and boring. Still am. People think I must be his half-brother, but no. He’s my brother, and my brother has gone missing.
He stopped texting me a couple of days ago, an abrupt end to the stream of self-pity I was receiving before. I’d been visiting him twice a week – and believe me, he hadn’t gone further than the newsagent’s downstairs in weeks – but when I went to his flat in Shepherd’s Bush he’d either gone or wouldn’t answer the door. Neither boded well, I thought.
I gave his GP a ring, but they weren’t bothered. I wasn’t sure what else to do. I’d been assured that this whole mess was just a bit of post-divorce and job loss depression, but I knew my little brother and I knew something was up. He’d always been a bit, well, unstable, for lack of a better word – hell, he threw a bloody plate at me last time I suggested seeing the doctor again – but this was getting odd.
It was getting on for thirty-six hours of no contact when I got the cryptic text. John, please forgive me. I’m sorry but I have to do this. It’s for the best. You’ll understand.
My heart was in my mouth. He’d topped himself, or he was going to. I rushed out to my van and drove to his flat.
The door was wide open and he wasn’t there. The flat was filthy as ever; pizza boxes, beer bottles and dirty clothes scattered everywhere, covered by a layer of dust. I found his poor Labrador, Bentley, all on his own in the bedroom. I filled up the dog bowl for him and then I found Austin’s laptop, so I switched it on. I didn’t like going through his things, but this was getting desperate.
In a few clicks I’d found a history of suicide pages. Most of them were about jumping, and then I found an image search full of beautiful white cliffs. Oh, bloody hell. My little brother.
I was panicking when I got home, trying to control a frightened Bentley; but Bea, my wife, had enough sense to call the police and the coastguard, then she suggested that we go to look for him ourselves.
We’re driving there now.
John, please forgive me. I’m sorry but I have to do this. It’s for the best. You’ll understand...
Please, Austin. Hang in there.
The motorways are crawling with traffic, hundreds of little ants speeding up and down the crowded lanes. Bea shouts directions from Google Maps, but every wrong turn is another minute closer to Austin jumping. If he hasn’t already...
We speed past petrol stations, through suburbs, another motorway; but I’m not paying attention to any of it. My tired Royal Mail van is beginning to struggle. It’s not used to being rushed out of London.
The A2270 is the last stretch, a painfully slow process at 30mph until we’re finally on a coastal road, two lanes winding through the endless green hills.
We need to get closer to the edge, so I park in the first space I see. Bea gets a ticket while I look around, but my heart sinks. This is hopeless. The area is huge, an endless grassy plain either leading back to the land or ending in a steep white drop into the English Channel.
Where do we start? There are people walking their dogs but no sign of Austin. I hear voices and for a second my hopes rise; but it’s just some tourists.
We agree to split up, me heading east and Bea west. Suddenly it seems ominously silent. I can’t see or hear anyone; there’s just the distant lighthouse with its red stripe, the twilit sky and the vast sea. Waiting to swallow my little brother.
I wander along feeling hopeless, until I spot a clump of little figures on the horizon, close to the edge. Is it him? I’ve no idea. I’m so unfit but I try to run. I have stitches in both legs by the time I get closer; but then I hear the voices. A London accent.
He’s dishevelled, unshaven, wearing a dirty Green Day t-shirt over pyjama bottoms. A copper, two coastguards and a bloke who seems to be a taxi driver are reasoning with him. Feeling a little better – they’re watching him, thank God – I stop running for a second to catch my breath. Then out the corner of my eye I see Austin clobber the policeman. He turns and jumps. My heart stops.
For one second it’s as if he’s frozen in mid-air, like a Looney Tunes character; then in another split second he’s gone.
One of the coastguards leaps forward. The other one grabs him from behind before he falls too. I rush forward with the policeman and taxi driver. The coastguard is clinging onto him by the collar; then he manages to grasp his right arm.
“Let me go!”
I feel sick as I look down and see my little brother, legs swinging and desperately struggling to break free, with the hard ground and expectant sea beneath five hundred feet beneath him; and a few men between him and death.
I explain to the others that I’m his older brother and the coastguard tells him. He looks up at me, and somehow the distraught look in his manic eyes is more terrifying than the drop below.
I cautiously kneel at the edge of the cliff, offering my hand. A furious gust of wind blows up at me and oh, God, I’m bloody terrified. The copper grabs me just in case. I try to speak calmly, but I can hear my voice trembling.
“C’mon, mate. You don’t want to end up down there.”
“Yes I do.”
“Your brother’s come all the way from London, Austin.” the coastguard says, teeth gritted with concentration. “Look how much he cares about you.”
“Bentley’s waiting at home.” I say, trying to smile through my fear. “He’ll be so glad to see you get back safe.”
It doesn’t make any difference. He says I have to understand and I’ll be better off this way; then he becomes hysterical and fights harder to get away. I desperately cling onto his other arm, covered in sweat.
“Please, Austin.” I beg. “The kids need you. Mum and Dad will miss you. I’ll miss you and so will Bea.”
He shakes his head, still struggling; and the coastguard glances at me, worried.
“We’re going to have to pull him back up.”
I nod, hardly able to breathe. What if I drop him? What if I drop my little brother? What if I go over too?
“I’ve got a firm hold on you.” the copper says. “Don’t panic.”
The coastguard asks if I’m ready and then he counts us in. “One, two, three-”
For one horrible, stomach-churning second I fall forwards and the copper is hanging onto me by my belt. God, we’ve just made it worse...
“You’ll take your brother over with you!” the coastguard yells. “Surely you don’t want to kill John?”
Finally that seems to get through to him. He looks up, still for a moment.
The coastguard counts me in again and this time he doesn’t struggle so much. I feel like my arms are being ripped apart as we slowly, painfully, haul my little brother back onto the firm ground. My heart is in my mouth. He looks up at me, green eyes despondent.
“I don’t want to kill you.”
Then he collapses into a trembling bundle on the damp grass. The policeman gently coaxes him up with the help of the cabbie and they carry him to his expectant car. The coastguard puts an arm around me.
“You alright? Do you want to go with him?”
I nod, shaking. He and the cabbie wish us the best of luck as I clamber into the car next to him. As the engine revs up and we leave the white cliffs behind, it feels as if I just woke from a nightmare. I type a messy text to Bea, asking her to wait in my van.
Austin is silent. He won’t look at me.
They took me to Eastbourne District General Hospital, sirens blaring. John was shaking, trying not to cry and I felt suffocated by guilt. Humiliated. Everything was wrong.
I feel like it all started that night. Of course, it had actually been going on for God knows how long, probably since I was a kid. I’d already lost my job and my wife had walked out. My band had broken up. But I’d been hiding, leaning on crutch after crutch – my marriage, parenthood, my job, my band – and then suddenly all of it was gone and I had no crutch anymore. I had to face myself; and my reaction was to jump off a cliff.
I was sick. Sitting on a hard chair in an alien A&E, wearing pyjama bottoms with a policeman watching me like a hawk; I realised that. I needed help.
They told me the psychiatric people were on their way, but I don’t know how long I sat there in that quiet waiting room, staring at the notice board in front of me. An organ donation poster stared back; next to it was a stop smoking ad and a faded number for Samaritans. The chairs were black, carefully arranged into three long rows. Nurses and paramedics rushed in and out of the toilet to my left. I felt distant, like I was watching it all through a dirty window.
The window smashed when two burly blokes eventually trooped into the waiting room. They looked like soldiers, not NHS staff. Hopefully they weren’t looking for me...
Oh, God, they were. John and the policeman stood up, but one of the guys shook his head.
“We need to speak to Austin on his own.”
I glanced back at John, feeling suddenly frightened as they led me off to another little room. He mouthed “good luck” before they shut the door.
“I’m Jean.” the taller one said as he offered me a seat. “And this is Chris.”
“Nice to meet you, Austin.” Chris said. “We’re just going to ask you a few questions.”
I felt like a kid lost in a bad part of town. If they had looked at my notes, they pretended not to and made me explain everything myself. They wanted to know about my marriage, my childhood, my depression and anxiety... none of which I wanted to talk about. I folded my arms and refused to talk, until Jean asked if I realised that I’d be leaving my kids without a father if I killed myself. At first I got angry, saying it was none of their business and I’d never see them again anyway; then eventually I broke down and cried, like a stupid oversized baby.
“I’m unemployed. My wife left me and took everything I worked for. Now I’m a wreck in a filthy flat who had to be pulled back up a cliff – twice. I’ll never see my kids again. What reason do I have to live?”
“Course you can see your kids again.” Chris said. “We can get in touch with Social Services. You’ll get another job. Would you accept us referring you to a team at a mental health unit back in London, so maybe you can feel better and get your life back on track? Be with your kids again?”
Part of me wanted to say yes, but another part screamed at me that I deserved to feel this way and that my kids were better off without me. When I didn’t respond, they looked at each other worriedly and said they were going to talk to John. I felt so alone in that little white room, staring at the sink and a box of latex gloves. I pulled out the crumpled photo of my kids again. They did look happy. What if it was possible to see them again? What if they did miss me?
I let them refer me to the Assessment Team in Hammersmith. They were going to lock me up if I said no, but I’d decided before then. I wanted to get help. I didn’t want to be this pathetic guy, jumping off cliffs and putting my brother through hell. I wanted to be a good father to my kids again. I wanted to fix things up with my band and get a new job.
Jean promised he’d marked my case urgent and that I’d be assessed soon. He gave me the number for my local Crisis Team in case I needed help in the meantime.
I left Eastbourne determined that I would beat this.
I toss and turn until my alarm finally rings at five in the morning. The shrill sound is almost welcome after the long silence of the sleepless night. I’ll go to work, sort my mail, deliver it, come home. I can do that on autopilot. It’s the inevitable “how was your weekend?” that I’m dreading more than my 5:30 start and the day ahead. I contemplate pulling a sickie; but what will I do at home? Torture myself with images of Austin with the sea below him? God, no. I get ready, kiss Bea goodbye and head out to my van.
I arrive at the Mail Centre with a few minutes to spare, taking a moment to calm down before I walk in. There. I don’t want to seem too flustered.
“Alright, mate?” Bill, my colleague and old mate asks as I pull the door open. I smile and manage a “yeah, thanks, you?” and pretend to be listening to the radio. Maybe my autopilot isn’t so brilliant. I soon find myself consumed by my thoughts again, wishing that my family could be normal; Bill glances sharply at me as I drop a fragile package.
“John, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t shit me, mate.”
He knows me too well. He looks at me impatiently as I try to form the words.
“...Austin tried to jump off a cliff. Nearly did.”
“The crazy sod!” he shouts. The new bloke stares at us bewilderedly and Bill lowers his voice, tutting. “Why?”
“Divorce, kids... you know the story.”
“He needs to be bloody locked up.”
I frown. “He is my brother, Bill.”
“Well, we’ve all got problems but not everyone has someone like you to run round after them. He needs to pull himself together.”
“He is trying. He’s getting help.”
“But how many times has he told you that?”
“He hasn’t. This is the first.”
Bill shakes his head and I wonder if I am making excuses. He did say he was getting help for his anxiety and depression... although how much of that blame lies with doctors ignoring the problem? They just threw pills at him and hoped he’d go away.
There’s something up with him that hasn’t been diagnosed. I rarely take my break after sorting the Special Deliveries, but today I find myself looking at Mind’s website on my phone, trying to find something that matches Austin’s symptoms. The closest thing is bipolar disorder but I don’t think it really fits him. God knows.
I go to see him when I’ve finished my round. He’s cleaned his flat – and himself, thank God – and poor old Bentley is looking much happier now. I don’t mention the previous day and neither does he; but although he’s better, he’s distant and still a little subdued. Bill’s words echo in my head. He needs to be bloody locked up. I’d never forgive myself, but is he safe on his own? Conversation becomes strained and I get sick of listening to the same depressing Green Day album on repeat... but should I be leaving him?
He promises he’ll call the Crisis Team if he gets low again and insists that album is helping him. I give him a hug and reluctantly leave. I can’t stay there all day. Bea is leaving for her next job soon, in Gibraltar – she’s a translator – and I do want to spend some time with her. I’d call Mum and Dad and ask if one of them could keep an eye on him, but then I’d have to explain and I can’t face that yet.
I’d be lost without Bea. She somehow manages to reassure me and calm me down when I get home. I don’t know how she does it or how I ended up marrying such a wonderful woman. Everyone fancied Austin when we were younger, except her; and it’s our marriage that lasted. She’s the greatest woman you’ll ever meet, my wife is.
I’m making dinner – I’m a bit of a house-husband, whereas Bea is the one who makes a real living for us – when she asks if Austin knows that the band he’s obsessed with are playing down the road from him in a few days.
“What, Green Day?”
“Yes, I thought that might cheer him up – or rather that you might stop worrying for a while if he went to that.”
I Google it after dinner, but I’m disappointed to find that it sold out immediately. Why do people so desperately want to see them? They’re depressing noise, as far as I’m concerned.
I know another mate who likes them – God knows why – so I give him a ring on the off chance he might have a spare ticket. He was going to drag his wife along but she didn’t want to go, so this is perfect. Success! I agree to give him a tenner over face value and he says he’ll meet Austin at the box office.
He claims that band helps him, for whatever reason, so hopefully this will be the perfect thing to fill the void while he’s waiting for his assessment.
I didn’t believe John when he showed up, saying he was taking me to a Green Day gig. How out of touch was I if I didn’t know my favourite band were playing down the road? I’m a sound tech and I had my own band for years. I remember looking at his big grin nestled in his bushy beard and shouting at him for taking the piss.
“That’s not funny, John. I’ve wanted to see them since ‘94.”
“I know you have, mate. That’s why I tried so hard to get you a ticket when I heard they were playing at the Empire. Come on – we need to meet my mate at the box office.”
It slowly began to sink in that maybe I really was that out of touch. John was serious. I ran to have a shower, change my clothes and comb my hair. That took a while. It was almost down to my shoulders and still all tangled from being neglected for weeks.
John offered to drive me to the venue, but I knew what parking would be like and it wasn’t far, so we just walked. For the first time in months I was excited. This was surreal and I wondered if I might remember what happiness felt like.
Well, I’ll tell you, it was an amazing gig. I do struggle a bit to remember it now, though, because I met Emily that night. I fell in love with her the first time I set eyes on her. Everyone blames that on my mental health but that’s one thing I know it wasn’t responsible for. I was leaving the venue when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around. I had no idea what she wanted, but she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, with red in her wild hair and matching lipstick; her brown eyes sparkled, and she was grasping a big camera in her little hands.
“…Can I help you?”
“Would you mind if I took your portrait?”
Looking slightly nervous, she gestured to the camera. My brain had pulled the plug on logic and I’d probably have said yes to anything she asked.
She set up a tripod in the middle of the street, telling me to pretend she wasn’t there and tutting at the people who barged in; fiddling with buttons on the camera that I’d never understand. Eventually she sighed and asked if I didn’t mind moving to somewhere less crowded. I said it was fine. I was thirsty and needed a drink, anyway.
Shepherd’s Bush is a strange place at night. Some guy ran up to us, holding his car keys and promising that everything he had was ours if we’d just let him use one of our phones. Emily’s eyes lit up and she handed over her phone in exchange for taking his portrait. He gave it back afterwards, but I don’t think she’d have cared if he hadn’t. I couldn’t understand why she’d want his portrait – or mine, to be honest – but I was shocked when she showed me her shots of him. She’d turned some random weirdo into an emotional image that captured all of his turmoil, whatever it was about. I looked at his crazed expression and immediately realised why she wanted to photograph me. I didn’t know whether to be worried about it or not.
“So you’re a photographer?” I asked as we carried on walking. “Your shots are great.”
“Yeah, I’m working on a project about the people of London, at the moment. What do you do?”
“That’s cool. I’m a sound technician.”
I decided not to tell her that I wasn’t really a sound tech at the moment, since I’d lost my job. We talked about the gig and she told me how excited she was to shoot her favourite band, even though music photography wasn’t usually her field. Eventually she stopped walking and almost pinned me against a wall. She was just overexcited about finding a good background for the photos, but I assumed it was a sexual gesture… so I kissed her.
I don’t know whether it was a mistake or not. She awkwardly kissed me back for a moment, then stepped away, looking confused.
“Um… you mind if I still photograph you? You’re a great subject.”
She probably meant that photographically, too, but I hoped she meant that I was attractive. I smiled and said it was fine. She snapped some shots of me against the wall, waving her arms about in excitement when she got a good one. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
We went into a nearby shop in the end and bought some drinks. I kept hearing her camera click. Everyone probably thought she was crazy, but I just thought she was beautiful. She was just a bit shorter than me, and not fat or thin.
When she eventually checked the time, she realised that she’d long missed the last tube and had no idea where to catch the bus. If my brain had pulled the plug on logic before, the socket probably blew up now.
“Stay over at mine. I live just down the road.”
I don’t know whether it was hopeful lust or desperation not to say goodbye, but she didn’t seem bothered either way. She just asked if I was sure and said that’d be great, so we walked back. It was months since I’d seen my wife and years since I’d brought a girl home. I only remembered the state of my flat when I opened the door.
Emily didn’t seem to notice or care, though. She just settled onto the floor and asked if I had a computer.
“Sure.” I shrugged, pulling my laptop down from a shelf. “It’s a limited edition Shite 100, though, I’m afraid.”
She laughed and said I was hilarious. Although she didn’t seem to care about the living room, she did look a bit ashen after using the bathroom. I’d left a smelly housecoat and some boxers lying around in there. Oops.
She sat with my laptop for hours, her pretty face lit up by the dim light of the screen; occasionally sipping her can of Fanta. I watched her in silence, the clock ticking away in the background. I began to feel like it was a bomb ticking, and that I was going to blow up. I hadn’t had sex for God knows how long and I wanted her.
“Wow, it’s so late.”
The sudden break in the silence startled me. She yawned and rubbed her eyes.
“You know, I’ve got to send these photos straight off in the morning. I really ought to go.”
Why did she suddenly want to leave? I felt like she’d stabbed me.
“I… I don’t mind if you stay. You’re welcome to.”
“It’s alright, you’ve done me enough favours today! I don’t want to keep imposing on you.”
I wanted to protest again, forgetting all about sex and just desperate for her – someone – to stay, but she’d already packed her memory stick and camera. Soon she’d put her jacket on and hurried over to the door.
“Honestly, I can’t thank you enough for the photoshoot and letting me use your laptop. It’s so nice to know there’s still good people out there.”
It’s a good thing it was dark, because I was probably gaping at her in a mixture of fury and disbelief. She handed me something and I could vaguely see her smiling.
“Here’s my business card. Drop me an email and I’ll let you know when the photos are done!”
“See you! Thank you so much.”
Maybe she shook my hand, or even gave me a kiss on the cheek. I wouldn’t remember. The door snapped shut and I was so furious that I snatched her Fanta can off the floor and hurled it at the wall. It was half-full and split all over some photos of my kids. I didn’t care. I stormed into the kitchen and began to smash all my dirty pots against the counter, until my hands were so bloodied that I noticed the pain.
I looked down at them, wincing when I bent my fingers, and the anger turned to despair. I slumped down on the floor and cried, like a stupid oversized baby. I don’t know if I even knew what the problem was anymore; but I felt more alone and rejected than ever.
At least she never saw any of that… or maybe it would have been better if she had.