I think it’s high time I wrote about this, so here it is.
I went to London in February this year. Before I left, all sorts of people told me all sorts of things. They told me I would gather new experiences, make new friends and discover myself, whatever that was supposed to mean.
I did end up making new friends, great ones, called anxiety and almost-crippling isolation. Sounds melodramatic? Let me explain.
I ended up in London for a 2.5 month internship. I was eager to leave Doha, with its dusty buildings and ever-present sandy winds, excited to trade that in for a place I’d never been to, but read much about. London! Trafalgar Square and Oxford Street and Kings Cross! Wanted to see Monopoly in real life, I don’t know?
My room was perfect. It was a studio apartment and huge, according to London standards. I had a kitchenette, my own bathroom, a full length mirror, a writing desk and a large springy double bed. Plus, it was right next to the building’s entrance so getting in and out took no time at all. The nearest Underground station, Tufnell Park, was a mere 7 minute walk away, which meant I was ideally situated. The commute to my workplace wasn’t bad at all: 30 minutes and no changing trains. I’d get off at London Bridge and walk another 7 minutes to get there at 9 am sharp, every morning. So far so good.
The first week was wonderful, I won’t lie. I loved my morning routine. I’d get up at 7, shower, change and head out by 8.10. Once at London Bridge, I’d grab a cup of oatmeal or an egg sandwich from the deli nearby and head up to work, where I’d settle in, say hi and hello, and get to it. I loved the fresh air and the ease with which I could get around the city. In 3 days, I’d memorised the transport system; I could have led you around blindfolded. It was thrilling, there were so many possibilities! The theatre, the cinema, parks, monuments, castles and pubs.
And don’t get me wrong. I genuinely enjoy my own company. I have no trouble wandering by myself and in fact, I prefer it sometimes.
So I started to roam around the city. After work I’d get the train to Victoria and walk in St. James Park, try to make friends with the geese and ducks. I visited the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and the British Museum. I did all the touristy things I could think of and then I started to notice it.
I’d been visiting Oxford Street more and more frequently. I’d come home laden with shopping bags. I’d started to think of shopping as a compulsive need, almost like something I couldn’t control. As more time went by, I convinced myself of more things I needed to buy: white eyeliner, leather tights, boots lined with fur, fingerless gloves. The list was endless and I still didn’t stop.
If shopping was one problem, my phone was another. I realised that it had become a literal lifeline. I would open to check for messages every 2 minutes. My phone, the crutch, was what kept me going. When I ate alone in pubs across the city, I held on to it, hoping someone would call so I wouldn’t feel as isolated as I did. I’m still getting used to being away from my phone for prolonged periods of time. I still fear, as I did there, its loss, and consequently, the loss of everyone I know and love.
I was alone alone alone. The 8.18 am train to London Bridge was always packed. I’d squeeze myself into a corner and stand, one among thousands, all rushing to the same place. I was me, a whole world within myself, among people I didn’t know, people who didn’t look or smile or talk.
Points of actual human contact:
- co-workers who I couldn’t hang out with after work (they drank, I didn’t)
- the nice woman at the deli who gave me breakfast every morning
- the occasional friendly train-goer
- one old friend
- assorted passersby and shopkeepers
Sad. I went from being constantly cheery to a nervous lonely human who’d dread eating alone. I started talking to myself. Incessantly. I think I was my only friend. I kept counting the weeks left till I could go back, till I could stop walking down crowded streets alone.
And then, London played its last card: I came down with my first ever stomach virus. It started as nothing but a high fever. I collapsed while standing and couldn’t get out of bed for 3 days straight. My throat kept constricting, I couldn’t eat, and I threw up record amounts of pasty grey phlegm. There I was, utterly alone in my springy double bed, sedated with heavy painkillers, drifting in and out of miserable sleep at odd hours of the day. Life went on outside. I heard students walking in and out, people doing their laundry, cooking, etc. I felt wretched.
On the night of the third day, I felt like vomiting, and went over to the sink to do it. It wasn’t until I had dry heaved till eternity that I noticed I was throwing up something bright red and lacy. Spiderwebby thin ribbons of phlegm and blood snaked their way down the white drain. I’d never felt as frightened as I did then.
I called my parents, 3000 miles away and unable to help. I thought I would collapse and no one would find me.
But someone did.
…to be continued.