There were just a few of us in the room, gathered round a table. I had been invited to speak. Outside, frail December sunshine, ragged trees, the last of the students on campus making their way off it as though they had just remembered it was Christmas. I waited what felt like a week before words started squirming in my mouth, forced a smile, and began. Quite quickly I realised I was not going to be able to speak for very long. I stumbled. I took a deep breath, my eyes beginning to fill. I forced another smile, even a laugh. I began again. To this day, I have no idea what I said.
‘The thing is,’ somebody said, ‘what you see with Anthony is that he is quite chipper. You don’t see how bad things are.’
‘Chipper,’ I repeated. ‘That’s it, exactly. I am tired of being chipper.’
And that is all I remember. Chipper. At last someone had said it, made it more or less official. I was chipper.
I was suffering from chipper.
The thing with my version of chipper is that I had seen it coming, but had reacted very slowly to the things it was doing to me. I persuaded myself that all of the things the chipper was doing to me and making me feel were ‘normal’. The tearing up. The loss of concentration. The lack of sleep. What I did not know, but now do, is that one of the things chipper does to you is persuade you of the truth of things that are in fact lies. One of which is the lie that talking about it will not help you get better.
So I walked around looking normal, carrying my chipper, being chipper, for quite a long time, before I realised that I needed help. Chipper is exhausting, you see. In a way I am grateful to the exhaustion, because without it I might still be walking around trying to carry my chipper.
Some weeks later I met someone whom I would go and see every week or so, just to talk about being chipper. They asked me some very direct questions, and I gave them some very direct answers, some of which scared me but made me feel free at the same time. We talked a lot about the signs of chipper, and what to do about them, how to get better at seeing them coming rather than waiting to be bulldozed by them before asking for help. They never judged me. I remember thinking how much I valued that. Inch by inch the chipper began to lose its grip on me.
I still have days when I am chipper. It has not left me completely. But I do have a toolkit which I use all the time to help me, when I need it and even on days when I don’t. I won’t say it is easy, but I will say it is a lot easier than being chipper.
Forcing myself to talk about it reminded me of my previous experiences of chipper, for which I have to thank my remission from cancer when I was 42. The thing about having cancer was that it was pretty obvious what was going on. I had been feeling fairly lousy, and had been in pain, for a good while leading up to my official diagnosis. I had even been in hospital, a sure sign that I wasn’t making it up. From fellow parents at the school gate, to the colleagues who reminded me I looked terrible, to the queue at the greengrocer’s, there wasn’t a soul who wasn’t in on the secret.
But chipper was different. My colleagues knew, the ones who saw me each day. And my close family. But apart from that, nobody. Compared with chipper, talking about cancer was a breeze. ‘You might not have heard,’ I would hear myself say. ‘I’ve got cancer.’ Once my treatment started I let my looks do the talking for me. ‘Haven’t you got a lovely shaped head?’ people would say, stroking me.
With chipper the outward signs are not so obvious. They weren’t even obvious to me. Partly this is because when you have chipper it has a tendency to play around with what you might normally call your common sense. Even if you are in tremendous pain and know that you do not normally walk around hoping nobody has seen you tearing up as you come into work, you persuade yourself (or, rather, your mind does) that this is in fact quite normal and is probably just a phase. Or the weather. Or autumn (even if it isn’t…) And so you go on being chipper. Hoping it will pass. Hoping it might just be something that is explainable and quickly solved, like not eating enough bananas. But hoping most of all that you won’t have to talk about it.
Which is ironic really, because that is the one thing which in my case made all the difference. With chipper I had to talk about it first to learn that I was unwell. I went to see someone, who said I should see my GP, now. That first person, she did me a big favour. We talked about chipper but, critically, she did not shy away from using the word depression. I remember sitting in my friend’s car afterwards feeling both relieved and oddly elated. Now it was official, out. And, amazingly, the world had conspired not to end because we had spoken. It was going to be OK. I was going to be OK.
With cancer, on the other hand, I talked about nothing else for ten months, and realised only when I was ‘better’ that I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of what I’d been through. ‘I think you need to talk to someone,’ my consultant said to me, at our last meeting. She handed me a yellow photocopied flyer with the words ‘Free Counselling’ in bold letters. ‘But I am not depressed,’ I thought. Reading my mind she said: ‘Everyone thinks that. But do go and see her, even if it’s once. You’ll be glad you did.’ Ten months later, I was still talking and still glad, amazed to discover I had so much to say.
The odd thing is, mostly we did not talk about cancer. I told her my particular story, of course: the unusual way I presented; my misdiagnosis of relapse; my prolonged treatment ‘just to make sure.’ But that wasn’t what we talked about. We talked about my family, about language, about what she called ‘spiralling’, that sudden swirl of thoughts, like a gust of wind round the corner of a building, that can knock you off your feet from nowhere. Mostly we talked about that. And about relapse prevention. Not cancer relapse (there is no safety net there), but spiral-relapse.
Which, years later, is what I am still learning now. Or re-learning, with some new words and ideas thrown in. It’s good. I like learning languages, the names for things. I’m not good at them, but I have always liked the process. This is a chair. I sit in the chair. This is the door. I come through the door. I am happy to sit in the chair. I sit in the chair and we talk. We talk.
A draft of ‘On Being Chipper’ was performed at Exeter Central Library, at the launch of The Living Library, funded by the Wellcome Centre for the Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter, on 2 February 2018.
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