On October 20th 2011 my fiancé took it upon himself to burn down our home. I was inside at the time, along with our three dogs. The day after, The Chester Chronicle reported the incident:
Two years later, I find it utterly bizarre to read this, to recall that night, and what it felt like running back in through the smoke, after I’d already got out with Dexter, to get Scruffy and Stout, the two dogs that remained inside, trapped upstairs and terrified. I read the words, and I know I was one of the people put in the back of an ambulance, oxygen mask forced over my mouth, and told over and over again ‘just breath normally’.
How do you breath normally when your life is going up in flames?
What is the normal method of breathing through such an event?
I remember very little of the immediate aftermath. I know I stayed with my brother for a few days. I recall I had bright pink hair at the time, because my mum sent me to the hairdressers two weeks later to have it dyed a ‘normal’ colour; my Nanny had passed away, and I couldn’t go to her funeral with pink hair.
I had them dye it black.
I recall her funeral with perfect clarity, watching her coffin drop into the ground, and thinking she would smile at the irony, for the gerbera I dropped in on top of her were the exact shade of pink my hair had been, not two days previously.
Shortly after that I broke up with my fiancé. This was, in hindsight, something I had been wanting to do for a very long time but felt utterly incapable of managing. For the most part this was due to the fact I felt unable to cope alone. I was terrified of being by myself, something I now know was due to the extended periods of acute depression I was suffering at the time. From a practical perspective, I couldn’t afford to leave, I had nowhere to go and no means of funding a new flat, having given my own up when I moved in with him. This again, was in large part due to my bipolar and the horrendous spending sprees I had been on while manic. From a purely emotional standpoint, I was prevented from leaving long before the fire forced me to go, when he was diagnosed with cancer. By that point I had already realised it was an extremely unhealthy relationship, that he couldn’t be trusted in anything, and that the only thing I wanted to do was leave. Unfortunately, I was penned in. I had no money, I had nowehere to go, I wasn’t well enough to be on my own and, now, I felt it would make me an unbelievably terrible person if I left. He had cancer. How do you leave a person who has cancer? It doesn’t matter how badly they treat you, they have cancer, and everything seems to come back to that.
The situation became so bad I tried (once again) to kill myself and, that time, I very nearly succeeded.
I was afraid of doing the one thing that would actually have allowed me to extricate myself from that situation: moving back in with my mother.
The fire forced that decision upon me. I quite literally had no choice, as my brother was unable to house me permanently. Once I was there, the thought of ever going back to him was simply absurd. Months later, I would come to terms with the reasons I had ended up with him in the first place, but in the immediate aftermath of the fire, I was too numb to think.
That was the worst time of my life. I was fortunate it was winter and everyone expected me to wear long sleeves, for my arms were covered in burns, a nasty habit I have when thoughts and emotions over-run my head. You can still see the scars. Most of them are a livid white, others are now fading.
By Christmas I was on strong medication for the first time, and adjusting to that was an ordeal in itself. For the most part, the MEDs made me sleep. That is, I think, all I remember about the first half of 2012, the persistent need to sleep. Even when I was awake, I was barely with it. I did nothing but watch DVD box sets, since I couldn’t abide silence, and I couldn’t muster the impetuous or energy to do anything else.
Thanks to the cyclic nature of my condition there was the odd week or two when I flipped the other way. These times were no better. In many ways, they were worse. I went on outrageous spending sprees with money I didn’t have. I worked endlessly on my novel without sleeping or eating for days, sometimes weeks at a time, a total contrast to my previous state.
It has been a long, incredibly slow, unbelievably hard road from there to here, and still I have days when I feel nothing is going right in my life. Still I have the knowledge that I’m in terrible debt, unable to move out, struggling to manage my bipolar, but these things are no longer as impossible to deal with as they once were. Thanks to a debt management plan I am slowly sorting my financial situation out. Now that I am actually employed I am beginning to see the potential to move out some time in the relatively near future. And while my bipolar is by no means ‘better’, I do have a much better handle on it than I did two years ago.
I’ve not had to cover burns for a long time now.
This is an irony that hasn’t escaped me, the fact my chosen form of self harm has—since I was a teenager—been burning. It’s a slightly odd one, different to the majority who tend to cut. I never actually considered why I chose burning over cutting, I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a conscious decision I ever made. Yet here I am, fifteen years later, burn scars on my arms and abdomen and the majority of those possessions remaining to me ruined by fire.
I used to think of the fire was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It had left me homeless, ruined everything I owned, forced me to do what was perhaps the one thing I feared most in life—moving back in with my mother—and it had left me feeling even more alone than ever.
With my life quite literally in ashes and no choice but to place myself in my mother’s care, I ended up doing the one thing that actually enabled me to overcome the most difficult obstacles I faced at that point in my life. I left my fiancé and by so doing a relationship that was more unhealthy for me than anything else I have been through, and that’s saying a lot. It saddens me to think that, were it not for my bipolar, there is no way I would ever have ended up with that man, no way I would ever have stayed with that man as long as I did, no way I would ever have allowed that man to treat me the way that he did. it terrifies me to think that, due to my bipolar and his cancer, I would in all likelihood still be with him now, stuck there, unable to move forwards with my life, unable to get any better. The alternative, is that I would finally have succeeded in killing myself.
After the fire I was living with someone responsible, able to monitor me and ensure I was reasonably okay. I began regular counselling and therapy, got on to proper MEDs and, eventually, plucked up the courage to tell my CPN that the psychiatrist I was seeing was not right for me at all. I asked to see someone new, who suggested a whole different course of treatment and, since then, my recovery has been coming on in leaps and bounds, and while that may be interspersed with periods of inactivity and depression, there has been nothing as extreme as that which I was experiencing in 2008 to 2011. My thesis is now edging closer to completion, and my novel has an agent and has been re-drafted into something of which I am truly, very proud. Add to this my other ventures and you begin to see that none of these things would have been possible were it not for one, single, defining moment in my life, when everything was scorched clean and there was nothing left but the potential for new growth.
I used to think the fire ruined my life.
Now I think it saved it.