"It feels like there’s a rubber band around your chest. Every day it gets a little bit tighter, and tighter, until you feel like you can’t breathe at all."
A year and a half ago, Susanna Bowen stopped writing. Affected by feelings of
inadequacy and self doubt, her words were the first casualty in a battle with anxiety. In her piece Susanna shares her story Walnut Way and tells us how small steps got her back on track.
Susanna Bowen is an aspiring writer from London. In the spirit of making
positive change, she has decided that 2018 is going to be her year, and
has named it the year of her first novel.
I started to take my writing seriously in 2012. After a few short courses, an MA and the discovery of an amazingly talented group of friends with the same ambition, all of whom are dedicated to the creation of their own work and the support of each other’s, I finally found the confidence to do so. Ever since then, the words came. And then, just over a year and a half ago, they stopped.
People who suffer from anxiety suffer from it in different ways. When it hit me, my first reaction was one of control. I compartmentalised my life, throwing all my energy into one area and isolating myself from others. The first symptom of this was that I stopped writing. The second, growing unhappiness and daunting feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness.
But mainly, anxiety feels like there’s a rubber band around your chest. Every day it gets a little bit tighter, and tighter, until you feel like you can’t breathe at all.
“It’s not for me”. I’d say. “I can’t do it.” and the rhetoric grew. I stopped contributing to writing groups, put the novel I was writing down and I slipped away.
And then, a few months ago, I gave myself a firm talking to. “Stop this. It doesn’t have to be this way”. I had to snap the band. And one word came into my head: Determination.
So I started to write.
I started slowly, rewriting old description exercises and revisiting old short stories. I went back to a writing group, and was welcomed by friends with open arms. Soon, as the words started to flow again, everything else started to lift again.
And so I share Walnut Way with you today. It’s the first piece I rewrote. It’s not the most polished, but it’ll be always golden to me as each word is lined with another: determination.
I hope you like it.
Three chimes and I’m back in the sitting room on that old faded armchair. It’s the only piece of furniture that’s not covered up in dust sheets and so I sit here, listening to the clock on the wall. All other sound is greedily muffled by the sheets, sucked somewhere else. I listen for anything else - a faint sound of laughter or birdsong, the sharp trilling which used to flood in through the window when my brother Tom and I were children. But there’s nothing, just the slow ticks from the clock, and I’m stuck here alone.
And then it happens, the cuckoo clock echoes out across the vacuum. Its chipped beak pushes through, launching a full blown invasion. I jump up and decide to walk around the house one the last time.
Along the corridor, light magnolia patches scar the walls, mourning the generations of faces previously resident there. My favourite was always the portrait of James, my mother’s brother, smiling and leaning against the church wall at Hedsor. Like her, James lived here in his childhood. Tom, my brother, and I hadn’t known James, as he had died on the beaches of Dunkirk a few years before we were born, but an intimacy grew between us born through our hero worship interpretation of what he would have been like, enriched by the image she had painted through stories. Apple-bobbing at Halloween, a stolen victory in the village cross country race, the time she’d locked him in the cellar with the frogs - it all wove into the personality I chose for him. My James was larger than life, leading our childhood adventures. But even as a child I wasn’t naïve, I knew she only lent him to us occasionally. With my mother now gone, and my younger brother also unfairly taken a few years before, James has finally left too and I feel like I can’t breathe.
I walk into the day room and throw back the curtains. A glint by the mantelpiece catches my eye. There’s a picture frame peeking out under a sheet. I pick it up and wipe the dust away, revealing my mother with each streak of my finger. She sits before me laughing, and she’s so young, her hair done up in rolls. Her laughter rings through the house, and I can hear her, her words lifting me up as she sings it’s the tops, darling! Just you wait and see and then, just as quickly the silence comes back and she’s lost again.
My heart bursts and I run towards the music room. I’ve ignored it for two years, but now, right now, I have to be with her piano. I push open the door and rush to open the window to the garden. I close my eyes to wait for the dust to settle. As I open them slowly to let my eyes adjust, the room comes into focus and the shock hits. It’s worse than I feared. Nothing here’s been touched. All of her photographs, her posters, my brother’s first press releases from the classical tours at Cambridge, it’s all still up on the walls. My cousins were meant to have taken it all down two years ago, packing it away until I could face it. I slump down onto the worn red leather piano stool. My fingers run over the ivory keys. I’ve no intention of playing but my hands act of their own accord. First come the scales and the arpeggios drummed into me from the age of four. Next, the exam pieces I learnt diligently by heart. Grades fall away and my mother’s back beside me, as delighted as she had been 40 years before, clapping in time. That’s a demi-not-a-semi-quaver darling, do keep up! My fingers stumble over various passages as the tears fall into the dust on the baby grand’s black enamel.
The removal men are coming for the piano in a few hours. I know that by letting it go the legacy of my mother will continue, her love of music passing onto another family. Keeping it is too painful because of Tom, because it’s just me and the piano left when my younger brother ought to be here. By getting rid of it, I’ll be able to put both their ghosts to rest.
I replace the cover over the piano keys and turn to the memorabilia on the walls. It takes ages to remove each image and piece of print she painstakingly placed there. Strangers invading this space and seeing her private and personal things is unthinkable, so I bundle them all up in my handbag knowing that I will put them in a drawer as soon as I get home and probably never look at them again.
I pick up the forgotten photograph, look at my mother’s image and cradle it close to my heart. Instantly, I know this is the one thing I won’t take with me, this photograph I never knew existed. She belongs here so I place the frame on top of the piano and leave. I shut the front door and post my mother’s keys through the letter box.
At the end of her front path, I remember the open window in the music room and my feet slow. Should I go back? The door’s not far away, but I don’t have keys and I’d have to call someone to help. I turn back away from the house. After all, it doesn’t really matter - the removal men are due soon and we’re in the back end of Bucks. As I walk down Walnut Way, and past the fence that backs onto my mother’s garden, Chopin floats into the summer breeze. A load lifts off my shoulders. It’s only at the end of the road, just when I’m about to leave Walnut Way for the last time, that I realise something’s wrong. My handbag’s empty.