One broiling Tuesday this August, I walked into the London Oratory, parked my various cases, took off my suit coat (it really was very hot) and began to pray. Or rather, I began trying to pray. I tried the Ave Maria, but that didn’t do it. I recited the Pater Noster, falling back on that prayer learnt in earliest childhood. No dice. Rather worried now, I resorted to the Credo; fervently, almost zealously offered. Still nothing. This was the first ever time in my relationship with the Catholic Church – and that church in particular – that I had gone to pray yet been unable to find the inner peace necessary.
The strange thing about staring into the abyss is not, as one would expect of cavernous depths, the overwhelming noise, but the eerie silence. Nothing so much as a slight echo to reassure one that, yes, there is a way out.
For almost six years I had lived in London, for most of which I had drunk deep of the city’s offerings. This was literally so when I became a diary reporter on the Times. It will come as no crashing revelation to those who knew me in earlier years that I have always enjoyed alcohol. Really though, I mean wine. Since the first time I tasted wine, heavily watered, at my grandfather’s table (I must have been seven or so, judging by the clothes worn in my mind’s eye) I had enjoyed it. After a brief, disastrous dalliance with bourbon at 16, the result of my then absolute conviction that my destiny was as a rock guitarist, I stuck to wine. That’s not to say I drank nothing else: who could deny himself the jolting pleasure of a dry martini or the heavy, reassuring warmth of aged single malt? Day to day, though, party to party, wine was my drink.
And all this was fine. I was a twenty-something in the world’s greatest city. Moreover, I was a twenty-something reporter for the Times who, every night he wanted it, could go to marvellous parties and drink for free in the company of fellow young hacks, as well as the odd famous person. Nothing unusual in my behaviour; nothing to suggest to me or to any of us in that pack that we ought to have a night off now and then. This was what young journalists were supposed to do, were encouraged to do by our editors and by practically every depiction of the writer’s life in art, literature and cinema.
Of course there were warning signs. And, being essentially a stubborn sort, I ignored them. When trousers became rather tight and shirts rather throttling, I put it down to age and found an alterations tailor. When I called in sick to work with food poisoning rather more often than was creditable in the age of the Health & Safety Executive, I reasoned to myself that it was OK because I still got the work done when I was there (though this itself was a stretch). When one mentor, who has guided me since I moved to London, took me aside and gave me a (thoroughly deserved) handbagging, telling me I’d gained a reputation for unreliability, even laziness, and that I’d let myself go like a retired barrister, I dismissed his heartfelt concern as bitchiness.
And then it came to a head. The depression and anxiety I’d lived with for most of my life now crashed upon me, wave after wave, day after day, turning me into an horrendous knot of negativity and despair. My relationships with friends and family were in crisis, not even a hair’s breadth from utter destruction. That fact was made pellucid by one particularly shattering conversation, which left no doubt I was on notice from those I treasure most.
That was four months ago. Five days after I walked into the Oratory and found nothing but silence, I walked out of St James’s, Spanish Place, having made my first Confession in a very long time. I was filled with heat, as though having swallowed a radiator, and my legs shook as I made my way through Marylebone.
The next morning, I took Holy Communion at the Oratory and felt such a sense of peace I wept. I began praying daily, especially the rosary, and found in my increased devotion the discipline I needed to dry myself out. I also found again the joy I had forgotten I knew: the joy of prayer offered not as plea but as thanks.
Things are better now; so much better that I sometimes find it hard to accept. A course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has helped me to manage my depression and negative thoughts. The unwavering support of my family has brought us closer together than we’ve been since, well, ever. I have a job I not only tolerate but actively enjoy. Most marvellous of all, relationships I feared were irreparable are now stronger than before.
I thank God often for having given me so much when I stood on the verge of losing all. I have not the slightest doubt that, without the faith I had taken for granted since my being received into the Church, I should not have been able to begin the long process of rebuilding myself.
Because that’s what has to be done, you see. When you’ve allowed yourself to fall so far, the solution is not to clamber back up the same broken framework, but to begin anew. It is with the help of God, and of the Church, I feel able to do that after so many years of thinking it impossible.
David Oldroyd-Bolt is a writer, pianist and communications consultant