2020 — My year of breakups, breakdowns, pandemics, and (almost) ersatz midwifery.
‘As if 2020 could get any worse’. A strapline in Arial plastered across 90% of all low-res memes from the last year. Trying to keep things light-hearted during a global crisis has become an almost vital part of anyone’s social skillset. I’ve been extremely fortunate that the virus hasn’t immediately affected my little world. I live in an area of the South West of the UK that has so far, seen a relatively low-rate of infection. I know next to no one in my immediate social circle that has tested positive and I certainly haven’t experienced losing anyone like others tragically have. That’s not to say I’m unaffected by the total devastation that the pandemic has caused — I’m just extremely fortunate by comparison living out in the countryside as I do.
In truth though, before the pandemic had even made its way to the UK, I was already experiencing the single worst year of my life. As a friend of mine put it recently, ‘It’s like you’re in an episode of EastEnders’ and she is right. For almost twelve months now I have lived out a storyline that could have easily turned the old-school Sunday omnibus edition into the script of a bleak Ken Loach movie.
It starts in January (like most years do) when I find out that my girlfriend of almost three years has met someone else. Our relationship has been up and down like a sad-faced space hopper for a good few months, so the fact that we are going to break up doesn’t really come as a surprise. As these things often go, the timing is lousy. We are due to move into a new place and I have already earmarked an antique engagement ring and started to save my spare change. Perhaps a huge part of me is considering trying to mend our breakdown in communication by making a grand gesture but despite all our disagreements, we love and care for each other, and at the time I feel like she is the person I want to spend my life with.
Unfortunately for me, she’s recently made friends with a singer in a metal band who looks like a cross between Henry Rollins and Don Draper and still thinks that Straight Edge is an acceptable way to describe yourself without anyone smirking. I say ‘friends’ but I very quickly discover that it’s more than that and they’ve been discussing in detail the prospect of taking things further. So, any plans of marital wound-repairing are pretty much out of the fucking window right now.
As someone who has been taking medication for an anxiety disorder for the last fifteen years, I am pretty well versed in understanding what is happening when my brain begins that downward spiral. I was once told by a doctor that anxiety and depression exist on opposite ends of a spectrum and most of us will sit somewhere along that line, sometimes oscillating along the scale as life and all its challenges tick by. It’s probably the most sensical analogy anyone has ever given me on the subject of mental health and it’s always helped me understand the way I’m feeling at any given moment in time.
For years, my life had been quite firmly on the anxiety end of the spectrum, managing panic attacks, emetophobia, and (at the very worst points) agoraphobia, whilst irrational thoughts of crippling self-doubt poked at my brain every single day. But now — in this situation — with a sudden newfound sense of rejection, betrayal, and utter desperation after so suddenly losing the person I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, I was well and truly zip lining all the way down towards Depression City.
My sessions in the local pub — once the quaint scene of groups of us doing the Sunday Crossword together — turn into me doing lines of coke off a strangers coffee table at 4 am (a drug I refused to like when I last did it 10 years ago), before deciding at 7 am that it’d be a really good idea if I drove to my ex’s flat to ask her why she suddenly wanted to go out with a man who had hair like a 1950’s gypsy street fighter.
Amazingly throughout this period, I have managed to hold onto a full-time job as an Art Director at a design agency. I say ‘amazingly’ because my habit of turning up ten minutes late for work quite rapidly turns into me turning up two hours late or not showing up at all. My saint-like boss eventually starts to send passive-aggressive emails to the effect of ‘please get to work on time’. I decide to acknowledge each of his efforts with a simple stance of ‘not doing anything at all’ and don’t even grace him with a reply, let alone change my habits.
When I am eventually called into an unscheduled one-to-one, I consider that I’m probably about to get the sack and chalk the experience down to another win for the self-sabotaging dick splash that lives on my shoulder. It turns out I’m not being given the sack, not technically anyway. The company is going under and every single member of staff is being made redundant in exactly thirty days’ time. The details of this come as a bit of a shock. How am I going to pay the rent? More importantly, how am I going to clear my bar tab?
I need to look for a new job but decide that getting drunk and asking teenagers in the kebab shop if they will sell me their drugs is a much better use of my time. Sometime around this period my car dies. My car is solely used for driving to a job that is about to end and smoking weed in, so it doesn’t bother me too much, but I consider the inconvenience as yet another steaming turd being delivered upon my head by the gods.
I think about my options for a while and concede that whilst everything seems to be going wrong, these things often come in threes. My partner, job, and car are all long gone, so surely, I must now be due some good fortune. On the plus side, I should be grateful — there’s a deadly virus sweeping through China at the moment, sending the whole country into lockdown. At least that’s one clusterfuck that I don’t have to deal with.
By the time Covid-19 officially hits the UK, I have become a shell of a person. I have been seeing out my notice period at my job by driving directly from work to the pub, where I stay until closing. I do this every single night of the week. After the breakup, I now live alone and I’ve become extremely wary of being left by myself with only my own head to listen to. By this point, my Google search history has become solely populated with sites that provide information on methods of suicide. I spend weeks trying to find what would be the least painful way to kill myself, before concluding that every possible scenario comes with its own set of risks of extreme pain if performed incorrectly. Ultimately, I try and spend as little time as I possibly can at home to avoid getting myself in a situation where I’m drunkenly working out the finer details of how I might do the deed.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I perform the typical wounded man routine of contacting any woman in my local vicinity that I had previously had any type of sexual encounter with, to see if they ‘fancied a drink’. Some accept my offer and we end up in bed together. Others only reply to give me a rundown of why they would never date me again in a million years. My self-sabotage and own special brand of pain-numbing is not really working.
Eventually, by a series of circumstances, I end up on an impromptu date in a Bristol coffee shop with someone I have never met but share a few mutual acquaintances with. She’s lovely, beautiful, and extremely smart. She’s currently unable to drink as she’s on antibiotics for an illness she’s just gotten over. This is my first ever completely sober first date and apparently, it’s hers too. We both remark on how it’s nice to know that any chemistry between us can be considered legit in this situation and not clouded in a haze of alcohol.
After I get home, my date and I exchange a few messages confirming that we both had a great time and really want to see each other again. She’s a dental nurse and due to the crisis has been transferred to the BRI hospital to work as a porter, suddenly making her a front-line worker and pretty busy.
I probably should have mentioned before that prior to all of this, I used to write songs. At one point in my life, it was actually the way I made a living (though ‘living’ might be stretching it quite a bit). But that was all in the past now. In my seemingly-content state that I’d found myself in during my previous relationship, I had written next to nothing and I certainly hadn’t been in a mindset to write anything down over the last few months since the relationship had ended.
Right now though, I decide to get out an old notebook and turn to the next free page, wincing as I notice that the previous page contained lyrics I’d written well over two years ago. I write down this:
“I was sober when I met you. Helpless from the start.
Maybe you can fix the gap in my teeth and in my heart.
I hope we don’t die as we’ve only just met.”
It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written and the ‘teeth’ part is pure nonsense to anyone that isn’t privy to the fact I’d just been on a date with a dental nurse, but it’s a start. I consider how my evening of meeting her had allowed me to feel differently about my current situation, providing a bit of respite from the pain by realising that it is totally possible I could fall for someone else who isn’t my ex. At this point, I have no idea when I’ll get to see her again and there’s talk of the UK entering a lockdown situation very soon. I consider how hard it would be to forge any kind of new relationship during what feels very much like the apocalypse.
On the eve of the first UK Coronavirus lockdown, a short while after my friends and I have made one last panicked trip to Lidl to ensure our respective households are well stocked in Perlenbacher, I receive a message from the dental nurse asking if I’d like to partake in a few ‘virtual dates’ during lockdown. It’s an alien concept but we take it in our stride and enjoy getting to know each other better over FaceTime (this time whilst both drinking). We veto any conversation of the pandemic and instead discuss everything else over the next four hours, including a lengthy proposal on her part as to why The Stereophonics are the best band in the world. I am already falling very hard for this person but I am not so blinded by lust as to accept that she is anything but considerably wrong on this matter. Still, no one’s perfect.
My first day of lockdown is a scary one. The idea of spending months entirely by myself at home is considerably nerve-racking, given my previous suicidal thoughts and heightened anxiety when I wasn’t surrounding myself with people. I decide to break up the monotony of the day and get exercise by walking to the local Co-op. I arrive to find a queue of people outside; some in quite a panic. A young shop worker has been delegated to stand on the door and let customers into the shop in a one-in-one-out fashion. A group of people leaves and I go to enter at what I think is my turn.
“I’ll tell you when to enter”, the guy on the door barks at me angrily.
I’m slightly embarrassed by my gaff and when he eventually lets me in, I make an effort to say ‘Cheers mate’ as I pass him. I want to let him know I think he’s doing a fantastic job and although the tone of his outburst was a bit over the top, it was completely understandable given the situation. Men do things like this all the time. In my experience, any potentially hostile situation can be immediately extinguished by calling someone ‘mate’. A colloquial white flag.
I spend around ten minutes in the shop. Quite a while as I’m trying to decide whether I should be stocking up whilst I have the opportunity, or whether I should just get a few things and allow myself another walk later in the week, just for something to do. When I approach the till the man on the door spots me and rushes over. He is sweaty and it’s at this point I notice his face is pointed quite a bit, like a rat.
“Did you cough at me when you entered the store?”
“God…no!”, I reply.
“I know you were annoyed that you had to wait to come in but purposefully coughing at someone during this crisis is completely unacceptable”, he shouts.
“Mate...” I make another attempt to wave my white flag, “I would never do that. I did say cheers to you as I walked past. Perhaps you misheard?”
“It was a cough. I’d like you to leave the store and not come back”
I start to wonder if I had coughed. I’m a smoker and it’s quite possible that I had cleared my throat after the ‘cheers mate’ or at any other point during my visit. I certainly hadn’t been holding back from coughing when I legitimately needed to. I mean, if someone asks you ‘have you coughed in the last ten minutes?’ what are you going to say? Perhaps. I don’t know.
“It’s possible I may have coughed, I’m not totally sure but I can assure you I didn’t cough at you. I am a smoker — sometimes I cough”
He immediately straightens his back and points his finger, whilst moving much closer to me (someone he is supposed to be keeping two metres of social distance from).
“If you have a cough then you should be self-isolating”, he yells.
I try and explain that the government guidance he’s referring to strictly concerns a new consistent dry cough. It doesn’t mean all coughing is outlawed carte blanche. Besides, his original concern was that I had joke-coughed at him, which I agree is totally unacceptable and something I would never do.
None of this seems to matter to Roland Rat who is now asking me directly to leave the shop and never come back. By this time the man on the checkout has scanned all my items and bagged them for me, leaving him standing there patiently waiting for the exchange to finish so I can tap my debit card and leave. I tell Roland that I’ll just pay for my things and be on my way regardless.
“You can’t”, he says, pushing the card machine out of my reach.
“You’re banned for life now, so we can’t serve you”.
Leaving the shop empty-handed, I’m completely flustered. Part of me had found the whole situation pretty hilarious — these things seemingly only happen to me — but I also felt quite sad that the only face to face conversation I’d had in the last forty-eight hours was with someone who mistakenly thought I was being abusive to key workers. I recount the tale to the dental nurse that night. She laughs and tells me she’s never met someone who has received a lifetime ban from a Co-op before. Quite the rebel.
By this point, things are progressing well with my blossoming relationship. There follows a solid two months of constant text contact, nightly phone calls that often last for six hours, perfectly synced via webcam Netflix movies, occasionally awkward Facetime-sex, and virtual introductions to all of my closest friends over Zoom. After a while, as lockdown rules let up slightly and we are allowed to, we finally get to spend some time together in person and I drive an hour each way to pick her up and bring her back to mine so we can see each other. She gets drunk one night and tells me she loves me; I tell her I feel the same. It’s all very warm and fuzzy feeling, and for six weeks or so, life isn’t quite so terrible.
On her last visit, I make the mistake of trying to pick up a few bits from the Co-op that I had been erroneously banned from six weeks prior. Surely the dust has settled now and I doubt if the guy is even working today, he will recognise me. We manage to spend five minutes in the shop before Rat Man (who has by now treated himself to an expensive facemask that makes him look like one of the Road Warriors from Mad Max) comes running from the back of the shop and ushers us out. ‘Banned for life!’ he repeats.
We both laugh about this at the time but it will later be an encounter that she recalls in her breakup letter to me (among many other reasons why she can’t see me anymore), using the word ‘mortifying’ to describe the tale. I realise at this point that if she thinks I could be the sort of person that would cough in someone’s face during covid-times then she really doesn’t know me at all. Besides, we’re in a pandemic. It’s ‘mortifying’ that people are dying, love. I’m sorry that we had to drive to one of the three other Co-ops in town to buy your fucking bagels.
Halfway through the first lockdown, I learn that my ex-girlfriend is pregnant. I don’t find this out first hand, instead, I get a series of concerned text messages one evening from friends and family who have learned the news from a post my ex has made on Facebook (we had removed each other as friends sometime after the breakup). Apparently, things hadn’t worked out with Henry Draper/Don Rollins and the father was someone else she had been seeing, who had, upon hearing the news, declined to have anything to do with her or the baby. ‘Sounds like a great guy’, I scoff inside my own head.
I suddenly find myself in an emotionally conflicted state. On the one hand, I want to distance myself from the drama and heartache that watching my ex have a baby without me is surely going to result in. On the other, she is alone and pregnant. We had often talked about children and it was something we both wanted but I had repeatedly claimed that the timing wasn’t right to try. She had previously been told by a doctor that, due to some medical conditions, she may find it hard to conceive a child, so it wasn’t surprising to me at all that she had decided to go through with the pregnancy despite the circumstances being far from ideal.
Surprisingly, my head decides to take the high road and I make contact with her to offer my congratulations on the news. A little while later, we reconnect in person, eventually becoming close again and even briefly discussing the possibility of getting back together. But too much has happened and the only important thing at that moment is that the baby is born healthy and into a loving environment.
At this point, I find out the old notebook again and begin to write some more things down:
“There’s a hole down in my stomach, where I think you’ll always be.
While a baby grows in yours, that has nothing to do with me.”
It is now a week into the second UK lockdown, my ex is approaching her due date and we have been in sporadic contact throughout the pregnancy. I have been helping her by picking up items for the new-born that she has bought from MarketPlace. I get to use the new car that I have purchased as a replacement for the broken weed mobile that died at the start of the year. Something isn’t quite right with it though, and the display is a constant disco of flashing warning lights. ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine’, I think to myself.
Early one morning at 4 am, I receive a call. It’s my ex and she has gone into labour. Her chosen birthing partner — her sister — is over an hour’s drive away. My ex has also somewhat distanced herself from many of our friendship group, presumably because many of them have spent a lot of time with me during my self-destructive period of constantly being present in the pub and this has been considered as them taking my side. There is no one else that drives that can help her make the thirty-minute journey to the hospital, and whilst she says she’s happy to phone an ambulance, she felt like she should call me to let me know things had started. I know her too well to realise there is no way she would phone if she didn’t legitimately need my help. So, I get out of bed, jump into clothes, and get into my car to make the journey over to her house.
As I make the ten-minute drive across town, I notice that my car isn’t behaving quite as it should. Hills seem to now be a problem and I happen to live in one of those quaint English market towns that require you to go up a hill to get absolutely anywhere, and then weirdly up yet another hill to make your way back (this has always seemed like a strange scientific phenomenon to me). About five minutes from my ex’s house it is entirely apparent that the service light that has been flashing for the last few weeks is anything but an empty threat. The power starts to leave the engine and I crawl up the final hill in first gear at a speed that it could be argued isn’t actually any faster than walking. Amazingly, just as I approach her road, my car makes a loud ‘pop!’ and then immediately after a ‘hissss!’. There is no way the car is going to make the fifteen miles to the hospital.
I run upstairs to find my ex writhing around on the bed. Her cat Mr. B is at her feet curled up in a ball, completely oblivious to the scene from The Exorcist that is being played out in front of him.
“Umm…Bad news”, I say. “The car has just exploded but it’s ok because I’m going to call an ambulance now”.
Amazingly, my ex looks at me calmly with an expression that says ‘I’m trusting everything you say because you are in charge of this situation, whether you like it or not. There are three of us in this room and you’re the only one who doesn’t have a person exiting their body or is not a cat’.
I dial 999, whilst tightly holding my ex’s hand. At some point, I consider that I’m probably holding it way too tight and am crushing it, but she makes no complaint and I decide that her pain receptors are probably focused elsewhere on her body right now. After asking for an ambulance, an operator who introduces herself as Jill enquires as to what the emergency is. Jill asks how far apart the contractions are and my ex puffs out a brief ‘about three minutes’.
“Ok”, says Jill, in a calming voice that reminds me of someone reading a children’s book. “I’m going to need you to make sure she is comfortable, before going to gather a few items for me. Is that ok?”
I force another pillow under the soon to be mother’s head and make my way downstairs to try and find what Jill is after. Jill asks me to find two clean and dry towels. ‘That’s cool’, I think. ‘I guess it’s a good idea to keep her warm whilst we wait for the ambulance’.
“Can you find a safety pin?”, asks Jill.
I rummage around in the kitchen drawers for a while but can’t find any safety pins.
“Not to worry”, says Jill. “A lot of people can’t find one in this situation and it’s not totally important. We are going to need a piece of string or a shoelace though”.
I start to untie one of my boots. “What’s this for exactly?”, I ask.
“It’s something that we can use to tie around the umbilical cord. The last thing you’ll need is a blanket to wrap the baby in”.
I put my hand on a blanket that lives on the sofa before pausing for a second. What did she just say?.
In all my years of panic attacks, I am pretty used to the ‘fight or flight’ mode that your brain enters in an extremely anxious situation. But learning that my scavenger hunt was actually intended to get me ready for the eventuality that I may be about to deliver a baby put my brain into what could only be described as ‘fight or fuck-right-off’ mode.
I consider telling the operator all that’s happened over the past year — how I’m not the father, I’m merely a well-meaning scorned ex-boyfriend who wanted to make sure that his ex got to the hospital safely. As if this information will cause her to say ‘Oh of course. Let’s just leave it then. She’ll be fine, I’m sure’. Naturally, this doesn’t happen but Jill does explain that collecting these items is merely a precautionary measure. The ambulance is on its way but resources are tight due to the pandemic and we need to be prepared that it could take longer than usual. Realistically, there is a possibility that I will need to deliver the baby with her guidance.
I make my way back upstairs, wondering how I’m going to explain the fact that I’ve taken the shoelace out of one of my boots without mentioning the words ‘umbilical cord’ and causing an almighty panic. Fortunately, it goes unnoticed. Jill then gives me one last final direction, ‘she should remove all clothing below the waist’. I will never forget the look on my ex’s face when I relay this piece of advice to her. I have to admit, that in all the fantasies I had dreamt where my ex would remove her clothes in front of me again, none of them included another man’s baby traveling down her birth canal whilst I chat on the phone to a lady named Jill.
We wait patiently for an ambulance. Her pants remain on.
The embellishing storyteller in me wants to tell you this all ends with me, blood up my George at Asda jumper, holding a screaming new-born up to the sunlight like the elderly monkey in the Lion King. But I can’t lie. Fortunately, the baby stays where it is long enough for the ambulance to arrive after about forty-five minutes and I let the professionals take over while I stand awkwardly downstairs, telling every passing paramedic that I’m not the father — as if that’s a vital piece of information that they will need to be informed of before they can properly deal with the situation. My stint as a midwife is over before it even started. And thank fuck. I never did find out what the safety pin was for.
My ex is whisked off to the hospital, whilst I stand in her living room for a moment wondering what happens now. I find some cat biscuits to fill up Mr. B’s bowl (who still hasn’t moved an inch), ensure the house is locked, and then start the forty-five minute walk back to my home at around 5 am. I cry pretty much all the way.
Sometime after I get home, I get a call from my ex’s sister who has made her way to the hospital. The baby had been born extremely quickly after they arrived, meaning that if we had made the journey in the car ourselves (presumably breaking down on the side of the road in the process) I almost certainly would have had to deliver the baby in the back of my 2013 Vauxhall Corsa. Which, although surprisingly roomy for a hatchback, is somewhat ill-equipped as a maternity unit.
And that brings us to now. A lovely, healthy baby has been born and he really is beautiful (despite his absent father looking a bit like Bart Simpson in a k-hole). For me, a year that started off as all my worst nightmares being played out against the backdrop of a global pandemic has now ended with me learning some truly important lessons in life.
Not least, is the idea that it will always be more rewarding to give unconditional support and care towards the people you love than it is to sit around and wonder when someone will do the same for you. Friends of mine that previously seemed to be winning at life, have discovered themselves left with newfound mental health issues throughout this extraordinary year. Having the relevant experience to listen and help them where I can, has been nothing but cathartic and rewarding for me.
We’re currently in a state of flux and life will never be the same again, but for now, I’m just happy that I’ve been forced to overpower the self-sabotaging dick splash that lives on my shoulder once and for all.