Abscesses, insomnia and migraines - Orwell Prize winner Darren McGarvey writes candidly about his mental and emotional struggle with success.
It’s 1.38 on Monday morning and, in an abandoned hotel foyer at the Holiday Inn Express in Stratford, I am about to start writing my column. I’m so tired I could cry. In the morning, we’re taking my son to Thomas The Tank Engine Land and we decided to drive down on Sunday evening to avoid the traffic.
I don’t want to have to work on what should be the first day of a family holiday, which means pulling an all-nighter, so I can file without missing quality time with my children.
This time last week, I was in another hotel in London. The week before that, Edinburgh. Or was it Salford? Or Dundee? It’s hard to say, if I’m honest.
The workload has fried my brain to the point I often cannot recall the prior day’s events when asked what I’ve been up to. I feel like I am losing my mind.
Every day bleeds into the next, with no respite in sight. But complaining about the fact I feel like I am on the cliff-edge of a mental health crisis seems utterly futile because, from the outside, it appears I am enjoying wonderful, unprecedented success. Success for which I ought to be grateful.
Of course, I am grateful. If anything, I am in a state of permanent disbelief about what is going on. The truth is I haven’t had a minute to reflect on or even savour anything that has happened since November last year when the publication of my book began a chain of events that culminated, last Monday, in being awarded the coveted Orwell Prize.
More people than ever seem to want to speak to me, for different reasons. Some just want to say, “well done” and others want to share their stories. Some want to me to come and visit their projects and others want to buy the film and TV rights to my life story.
I did some business in London last week that will make your eyes bulge out of their sockets when its announced, yet somehow, in this haze of physical and emotional exasperation, nothing feels real. I don’t even feel real.
People love a good rags-to-riches story. Hell, I know I do. But imagine how surreal it feels when you become the centre of one. You are suddenly inundated with requests, calls, offers and correspondence, without any frame of reference for what is going on. It’s incredibly disorientating and sometimes frightening, if I’m honest. But there is rarely an opportunity to express that truth, because you are always being prompted to describe how it feels to become “successful”.
People want to hear a specific story. The story about a diamond in the rough, escaping poverty, surviving neglect and abuse to become an award-winning author. People are less interested in what it took to get into this position.
The fact I am struggling mentally and emotionally is even less interesting. The details about my cluster migraines, abscesses and insomnia are met with looks of confusion, as people instinctively attempt to direct me away from what I want to say and back to the “narrative”: my capitalist hero-journey.
They don’t want to hear about the thousands I’ve spent on hotels, trains and flights, travelling this island by myself, with a heavy bag over my shoulder and a box of books under my arm, literally selling hand-to-hand. The hundreds of books I’ve purchased with my own money, to sign and post all over the world to plug gaping holes in my finances. They don’t want to hear about the anxiety attacks I often experience as notifications flood my devices or the fear I suffer every time I give an interview to a newspaper or broadcaster.
Nobody cares that I live in constant dread that I will misspeak on a sensitive issue and become a target for people online. Nobody is interested in me describing what it feels like to come home after weeks of being on the road, to find my two-year old sitting with his back to me – his way of letting me know he isn’t pleased with my absence.
I haven’t made a penny off my book yet. I am living off advances. But any time I try to express that these overwhelming mundanities – and not the successes – are what currently consume every moment of my waking life, I feel the weight of other people’s expectations bearing down on me.
To the extent that I am learning it’s best to simply conceal the reality of my life, or risk appearing ungrateful or worse, spoiling the vicarious thrill others might experience when they enquire, “how does it feel?”
I don’t know how it feels. I haven’t had a minute to take anything in. I run around like a mad-man, I fall asleep somewhere, and I wake up and do it all again. Every. Single. Day.
No matter who I speak to, my constant refrain – that I am in urgent need of rest and fear I may be heading for a fall – never seems to be heard. The only thing I haven’t been offered in the last seven days is a good night’s sleep. I feel obligated to so many people, for different reasons, that my own needs fall to the bottom of the hierarchy of concern.
My problems are marked as low-priority and so must remain hidden, revealed only in late-night social media outbursts when I feel trapped on Scotland’s decrepit public transportation network.
All I need is a few days where I am not expected to do anything. Where I am not obligated to speak to anybody. Where I can gather my thoughts and rejuvenate after two years of non-stop, high-pressure work, couched in constant financial insecurity and stress.
Anybody getting any ideas that I’m too far removed from the working class to write about it, ought to refer to my seven-day-a-week schedule for proof that I am more working class now than I ever was – with no holiday entitlement.
It’s 3.10am. The kids will be up in four hours. Oh well, at least I got my column done.