By Helen DeWitt
In the winter of 2004-5 I sublet a flat in Berlin a mere five minutes’ walk from a 24-hour gym. I went to the gym every day, smoked occasionally and rarely drank. I was writing a book; Jesus loved me. I spoke no German, but I was in no state to talk to people so it didn’t matter.
There was a telephone in the flat. I gave its number to a director, who said: ‘Your health is the only thing that matters, Helen; as a friend and a fan, I’ll do anything to help.’ I was in no state to decipher this; it did not end well.
By the end of 2007 visits to the gym (a 20-minute walk away) ranged from occasional to rare, I was smoking two packs a day and drinking to keep the cigarettes company. The book was undone. I still spoke no German, which was probably why the only Germans I knew spoke English.
2008 was going to change all that.
In the interests of science I decided to chart my progress, colouring a block red for every day that was A-free, C-free and G-visited.
It’s easier to establish a habit of commission than one of omission. The year starts well for gym-going: I sign up for a German class that meets 5 days a week, 9-12, get up at 6:30 to be at the gym by 7, and the days rack up an almost unbroken string of red squares. C and A, meanwhile, show a few good days, with long stretches of white. Feb, March, G becomes steadily less unbroken while C and A show no signs of improvement. There’s a false spring in April: I start doing daily charts to mark off hourly progress — pathetic, but it actually works, briefly, especially when backed up with MicroCharts, a plug-in for Excel that produces win-loss sparklines:
The things that drive us crazy don’t do so once a month, or once a week, or even once a day: we have to fight them minute by minute, hour by hour.
The year brings 15 bloodyminded bureaucracies (3 courier services, 3 language schools; 2 health insurance companies; 1 postal service, phone company, credit card, moving firm, building supplies store, building management, broadband provider). It brings an abundance of friends and fans like my old f&f the director. There’s the friendly stalker, long story. The friendly reader who sees my website as a sandbox, long story. The friendly interviewer who has never read my work, knows nothing about me, prefers the phone but has no phone, long story. (Make that 2 pt type.) The friendly agent who ‘does not use the word genius lightly’ and also, it seems, does not share news of his frequent vacations lightly, preferring to announce them from a position of uncontactable safety through Autoreply. The friendly publisher doesn’t need to get the book to publish it, has much to say on Hopi metaphysics, offers no money and is outraged when –
Just talking about it makes me want to crack a pack of Dunhills. Go down to the Raucherkneipe (Berlin couldn’t hold out on its smoking ban, either), smoke, have a beer, chill. However many wonderful people you deal with (and there were many, many, many, many more), you can always numb the brain to the point where you actually don’t care. Sometimes the only thing you have to show for the day is the five savage e-mails that you put in the Drafts folder.
What changed? At the end of September, I gave up. Gave up on doing it by willpower, with or without an Excel plug-in. Booked a week at a spa in England for a whopping £600. Checked in. Checked out. Sublet an apartment a mere 10 minutes’ walk from my gym.
Which worked. Sort of.
The spa had a single public computer with Internet access. The new sublet has no Internet access. So I was cut off from the addiction that fed all the others. Sort of.
September, that long white month, had brought a tenant for my old apartment who fell in love with it and pre-emptively took it before anyone else could look at it. He then changed his mind a week later when his girlfriend saw the unfinished bathroom. Too late to get someone new before I left. Got back in October, spent two weeks in a C-free A-free bubble preparing the flat for the more demanding sort of tenant, hauling books to the new place. So no G. My mother came for a visit; we swam in seas of Chardonnay. November, never you mind. December, you don’t want to know.
But some 3000 unsmoked Cs nearly cover the cost of the spa:
Which is to say, when things go wrong, we too often try to fix the wrong things.
If you go to Niagara Falls to jump off and are caught, you will be forced to admit yourself to a psychiatric ward, for which you will be made to pay $1600 for a single night.
If you smoke two packs a day, on the other hand, you will not be locked up. Smoking more won’t change that. Drinking won’t change that. C & A don’t have the glamour of heroin or crack cocaine, they’re boring, grubby, legal, lethal little habits, the things that get you through whatever you have to get through. And if you look back over a year, you see that there was always something to get through, you spent the year getting through what you had to get through. Maybe that’s the boring, grubby little life that makes jumping off a cliff look a good idea in the first place. But that’s your problem. The reason suicide attempts look exciting, the reason they justify locking people up, is that the worthlessness of a life is inadmissible as a reason to stop trying to get through it. Your friends and fans won’t see you dying by inches, and they won’t see themselves killing you by inches either.
You won’t be stopped by police and forced to admit yourself to a luxury spa for a week, with saunas, thalassotherapy, pool, in-house gym, endless disposable towels, facials, massages, body wraps, lavish breakfast and lunch buffets and three-course dinners. You will also not be hauled off for a month in a silent one-bedroom flat with pale wooden floors, high ceilings, a view over a railroad track through snowy woods, 10 minutes from an all-hours gym. Maybe you have to see yourself dying to start over again.