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Gotta Count for Something

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One of the more frustrating aspects of waking up in the hole is that yesterday hadn’t been anywhere near a bad day. Yesterday had been lovely.

Dan had been fine yesterday; he had been happy.

He’d woken up with Phil’s hand trailing from his hair, down his back, into his pants. He’d come in Phil’s mouth and Phil had then came on his chest. They’d hurried into the shower to salvage the sheets and spent the rest of the morning eating a lengthy breakfast while on a Skype meeting with Martyn.

He’d taken a walk down to the shops, which counted as exercise but without the bother of actual exercise. Listened to good music on the way. He’d had a twenty minute call with his grandma and a ten minute call with his mum, and both calls were perfectly nice. He and Phil had uploaded a gaming video.

They’d thrown together a stir fry for dinner, spent an hour on Netflix and the couch, gotten distracted with the million little things that make up a day. Then later he’d fallen asleep with his legs twisted with Phil’s, his heartbeat still a little quick from when he’d fallen apart gasping under Phil earlier, his face buried in the crook of Phil’s neck so he could drift off to sleep tasting the hint of salt still on his skin.

An absolutely lovely day, yesterday.

Then he woke up today and there was nothing— nothing but grey desaturation and fog.

He’d untangled himself from Phil in the night; he’s alone on his side of the bed now with most of the blankets pushed off of him. Phil’s still turned toward him, but he’s fast asleep despite the morning light doing what it can to fill the room through the gap in the curtains. Dan looks at him and tries to pry any semblance of a normal day out of the universe, even as he knows it’s a lost cause. Even if Dan feels detached from everything on these days, Phil’s still Phil— Phil’s always Phil.

That’s gotta count for something.

And it does, of course, but it doesn’t actually change anything. Dan’s still numb even as he looks at Phil’s hair drooping into his closed eyes like a shoddy imitation of his nearly dead and gone fringe. Nearly dead and gone— he still straightens it into the emo fringe for videos and out in public, but here at home he’s gotten in the habit of pushing it all off his forehead.

Dan wishes he could reach over and push it off Phil’s forehead now.

And he could, really. Nothing’s stopping him.

But his limbs feel as heavy as sandbags, and the effort to move them seems monumental. Besides, it’s all a bit needless isn’t it? A bit silly. A bit futile. Hairstyles and affectionate gestures and moving at all.

Where’d that thought come from, he wonders? Needless and silly and futile: is that the kind of negative self-talk he’s supposed to be combating, or is that the kind of thing he’s supposed to let himself feel but not let himself be consumed by? Or is it neither; is it as needless and silly and futile as the thought itself to bother categorizing it?

God, he’s exhausted… through and through, down into every cell.

Before he can let the fog seep in too deeply, now while it’s just sitting at the edges of his peripheral vision, Dan closes his eyes and tries to fall asleep again. Tries to sleep this day away, tries to sleep this sinking in his bones off until it’s passed through him. But it doesn’t work; he doesn’t actually sleep. He just lies there waiting for moss to grow between his ribs until eventually Phil stirs beside him.

He can’t tell right away. Dan knows that isn’t his fault. Knows that the world still looks exactly the same for Phil today as it did yesterday, as it will tomorrow, as it will always. Knows that no matter how much he tries to find the right metaphor to explain grey days to Phil, the best he’ll ever manage is to empathise, not really to understand.

And that’s fine, it really is. Dan doesn’t actually wish these bad days on anyone who’s fortunate enough not to experience them, and certainly not on Phil.

But he hates the moment Phil recognises what sort of day it is. Hates the moment Phil starts adjusting their plans to accommodate Dan and his broken goddamn brain. So he tries to put it off as long as he can, lies there with his eyes closed and hopes Phil will believe he’s asleep.

Somewhere in the echoing part of his mind that is still attempting damage control, he’s grateful that he showered yesterday. That’ll be good enough to skip out on one today. The idea of showering, of standing and washing and feeling water on his back, is impossible. Moreover, the idea of Phil urging him to shower or looking hurt when Dan can’t manage it is even worse. And today he won’t have to deal with that.

It’s the smallest hint of relief on his mind, because he knows he’ll still have to eat and drink water and piss and be vertical, even though those sound like the worst things in the world right now— he’ll either have to find some way to do them or he’ll have to disappoint Phil. Again. Like he’s always done. Like he always will.

Fuck, there’s negative self-talk. Easy enough to recognise.

Now he has to combat it.

Umm… it only disappoints Phil at all because Phil loves him. Phil loves him. It isn’t the same sort of disappointment as he thinks it is, really.

Good enough. It’ll do.

Doesn’t change anything. These are all things he knows, all things that are true at the same time: Phil does love him, and he does disappoint Phil when he can’t manage basic self-maintenance. But he’s derailed his train of thought before it became a true spiral. That’s one thing in his toolbox he didn’t have in years past.

Again, that’s gotta count for something.

He’s got a toolbox now.

A metaphorical one; Daniel Howell may never really reach a point in his life where he acquires a literal toolbox and that’s just fucking fine.

A toolbox meant for days like today, with things like how to manage self-maintenance when his usual routine of basic self-care is a little too taxing. Things that he picked up in therapy, things that he picked up from trial and error. Things that make bad days of right now so vastly different from bad days he’s had before, from his worst days, from the days he’s determined never to revisit.

Rest is a big thing in the toolbox. And really, that’s what he’s doing now. He’s resting. He’s resting because of his fucking sandbag limbs, but sure, it qualifies as resting.

His eyes are closed and he’s counting Phil’s breaths— only up to five and back again because he can’t be arsed to actually count them— because it’s rhythmic, and time passes. Enough time that Phil stirs beside him.

Phil reaches out, seems to have realised there’s distance between them on the bed. Dan can hear his hand gripping blindly before it finds him. He doesn’t want to move, doesn’t think he can move, but he also can’t collect enough energy to resist when Phil pulls him closer.

That’s Phil’s first tip off, though, that Dan’s having an bad day. The fact that his body is just dead weight, that he’s neither insisting on staying put or shuffling closer to Phil as well. Because even if Dan were asleep, his body would still shuffle closer to Phil when called. There’s just something that’s been settled in their skin for years that has them always reaching to be closer. And today, Dan isn’t responding to it.

“Morning,” Phil says, his voice still sleep-heavy and croaky, but Dan recognises the tension in it. Phil’s testing the waters already. Years of practice and all.

Dan grunts out something that has the same syllables as “Morning,” but isn’t actual speech. He’s laying as still as possible. If he doesn’t move, who’s to say he exists? And if he doesn’t exist, he doesn’t have to feel this way.

Dan hears Phil reach over for his glasses. He feels Phil thread his fingers through his hair. He feels Phil pull the blankets back over his shoulders. He feels a kiss on his forehead before Phil leaves the bed without a word. They’re in a routine, Dan supposes, after so many years of his brain and its bullshit.

Phil returns with a glass of water. Dan hears him set it on the bedside table.

“C’mon,” he says. “Come brush your teeth. You’ll feel better.”

He says it so assuredly— he’s so convinced Dan will feel better. And Dan knows he won’t. Not today. Maybe not for a while. The fog rolls in unexpectedly and then it lingers. Brushing his teeth isn’t enough to banish it.

“I feel fine,” he lies. His voice is croakier than Phil’s. His voice is hollow and sounds foreign to his own ears.

Phil isn’t having any of it. “You won’t feel worse, then.” Dan’s drained of any emotion strong enough to argue, but in this moment he finds himself almost grateful for Phil’s insistence. It would’ve annoyed him in the past; it would’ve chaffed him, angered him. But Phil never used to push— Phil used to be just as afraid of these days as Dan was. Now he knows when to nudge. When to insist for Dan’s own good. “C’mon,” he says again, and when Dan opens his eyes, he sees that Phil has picked up the glass of water again to hold out to him.

He drinks as much as he can; he finds he can drink more than he thought. Phil doesn’t insist he finish it, so he must’ve drank enough.

And after brushing his teeth he does feel better, in the most infinitesimal of ways. But hell, it’s something. He feels less grimy. He feels more human.

God, he’s so human. He’s so broken and flawed and human. It’s a comfort, it’s meant to be a comfort. He can’t actually be as rotten or nothing as he feels, because he’s human. He’s not sure in this moment if it actually is a comfort, but he’s working with what he’s got in his toolbox.

He stumbles back into the bedroom after wiping the toothpaste off the corners of his mouth. He lands on the bed with a thud.

Phil has followed him, bent over the side of the bed. He squeezes Dan’s shoulder, to let him know he’s there. As though Dan could forget he’s there. As though he isn’t always aware of Phil’s presence, of how long it would take to be wrapped up in Phil if he needed to be, of how long it would take to have a shoulder to cry on if he found that he could manage to cry.

“Do you want to be alone?” Phil asks him. He knows that sometimes Dan just needs to be alone.

But Dan knows what alone looks like on days like this. Dan knows the depths into which he can spiral. And he’s aching for it, in some upsettingly tempting way. He can feel the corners of his brain that have never gotten enough serotonin begging him to sit in his dark bedroom alone so all the shadows can further cloud his vision.

When is isolation self-care and when is it a symptom of depression?

“Alone with you,” he says, making up his mind based on nothing at all really. Just instinct. He doesn’t think he says it loud enough for Phil to hear, but Phil does. Phil squeezes Dan’s shoulder once more and stands up straighter, and waits patiently for Dan to attempt the same.

When Dan does stand, Phil wraps his arms around his waist, pulls him into a hug that warms Dan’s middle even if he was convinced half a moment ago he couldn’t feel warmth at all. It’ll go away when Phil let’s go, but for now he’s cataloging it. Cataloging what it feels like to be wrapped up in Phil. Cataloguing that he feels it, even if only viscerally.

He can’t convince himself to lift his own arms around Phil, but he does bend his forehead down onto Phil’s shoulder and it seems to be enough for both of them.

They make their way, somehow, to the lounge.

Once Dan folds himself compact and lays down, he closes his eyes. His eyes are closed because it’s an effort to keep them open. It’s almost laughable, if he could even imagine laughing right now, but it’s too much effort to keep two fucking eyelids folded up.

Besides, it’s bright in the lounge, even if he is turned curled up towards the back of the couch. So he closes his eyes and hopes Phil will assume he’s fallen asleep.

He hasn’t, of course. He’s tired, bone tired, dead tired— but he isn’t asleep. He’s aware of everything happening in the room around him, painfully so. His body is buzzing with the energy of anxiety that is only tempered by the great grey fog in his brain. So he lays: eyes closed, mind awake, Phil beside him all the while.

Phil’s playing Zelda. Dan can hear the soundtrack drifting through the haze like it’s being shouted underwater, but he recognises it nonetheless. If he could gather the energy to turn around, to keep his eyes open, he could watch Phil traverse familiar forest paths.

Maybe he will later. Maybe when he’s not so tired.

He shouldn’t be tired, he figures, almost scolding himself. He slept all night, he’s had a steady but not quite overwhelming workload, yesterday had been relaxing enough. Sex with Phil didn’t actually wear him out any more than, well, usual. He hasn’t fucking done anything to earn being tired. There’s no reason for his muscles to ache like this.

Of course, he knows that’s not how this works. That’s never how any of this works.

He’s tired because his brain is working an increased pace to counteract itself. He’s tired because he’s existing, and because existence can be exhausting in its own right.

That’s the trouble with bad days— the difference between knowing something and feeling something.

On bad days he knows that his brain is lying to him when it says he isn’t worth anything, he knows that he will want to eat again someday, he knows that Phil loves him. But he can’t feel any of it. He can’t feel that he has value despite what his brain is telling him, he can’t feel hungry or that he’ll ever be hungry again, he can’t feel the love he and Phil share despite knowing— unequivocally knowing— that it’s real and whole and there. He can’t feel anything at all. Not even the cold, as he lays curled up facing the back of the sofa in a hoodie and pants, the hair on his legs standing up on goosebumps that he simply can’t feel though he’s begging for it.

He knows this won’t last, this fog. But he can’t feel it. Right now, this fog is clouding his vision and muffling his ears and diluting everything.

The months since he’s stopped taking the antidepressants have felt like re-learning what these days feel like all over again.

The biggest surprise when he started taking them in the first place was the shift in his visceral responses as his body adjusted— his anxiety moved from the palms of his hands to the meat of his limbs. To his biceps and his thighs. Now that he’s off them, his anxiety has moved to the dip of his spine, where the planes of his back meet and where, when he lays on his side like this, he can almost convince himself he’s addressing it.

But he isn’t.

The anxiety is still radiating through him; he can practically feel the current of his blood. He’s so painfully aware of every cell in his body, and everything surrounding him is so painfully desaturated.

The anxiety is a different texture to the depression, even if both things are at once a part of him and distinctly separate from him. They’re a part of his life, inescapably, but they aren’t him. Wherever he begins and ends, it’s outside the perimeter of his mental illness. But still, they linger. And days like today are unavoidable.

He’s more anxious now than he used to be, and he’s not sure if it has to do with aging or with the stress of his specific career or with the anxiety that railroaded him that week in March and which never really left in regards to his medication. He was anxious he’d miss a dose again, he was anxious about weaning himself off them even when done intentionally. Now he’s anxious about these bad days, about what they mean now that he’s no longer taking a prescription to help combat them.

The antidepressants had kept him stable, sure, but bad days still happened even on them. It’s just that the bad days, like everything else while taking his daily pill, were dulled. If dullness can even be dulled. But it had been. The bad days hadn’t been like they were before. They were dulled.

And yet they aren’t quite the same now, afterwards… it’s all messy. It’s hard to pinpoint.

Nothing now is as bad as it used to be. He recognises this even in the depth of his fog.

The anger is gone; if not gone it’s at least shifted. Dispersed. The anger and the fear and the confusion that just consumed him for so many years.

Thing is, putting a name to what was wrong, accepting that he suffers from depression, accepting the help he needed when he came to terms with the fact that he cannot handle the chemical flaws in his brain on his own— they didn’t fix things.

He isn’t healed, he isn’t cured.

That’s not how any of this works.

And at the same time, understanding why some days were like this, understanding how it is a part of him yet still entirely separate from him, knowing it has a name… well, it made all the difference in the world. It took out that anger and fear and confusion. It redirected them away from him. Without them, he just has to worry about depression and the side order of anxiety that came along with it.

Easy-peasy, some might call it, comparatively. Even if it isn’t, really.

He thinks again, that’s gotta count for something.

He hears Phil pause the game. “Think you could eat?”

Dan shrugs.

Phil stands anyways and heads to the kitchen. Dan hears him pouring a bowl of cereal. “This is for me, no pressure,” he says when he comes back. “But please have some, if you can.”

Dan opens his eyes. “That’s my cereal,” he says.

“You weren’t gonna eat it.” Phil looks like he might smile, would be smiling already but he isn’t sure how Dan in today’s state will react to the teasing.

One of the more frustrating aspects of waking up in the hole may be its unpredictability, the fact that yesterday had been lovely with no hint of what today was going to feel like. But one of the more comforting things, he realises whenever grey days roll in, is that he may have a toolbox now, but Phil does too.

Phil’s been dealing with these days for years, been piecing Dan back together as well as he can for as long as Dan’s been crumbling.

Sometimes Phil’s toolbox contains something Dan wouldn’t have thought to try. Like teasing Dan on a day where keeping his eyelids open feels impossible, let alone laughing. Dan can’t believe it, but it works. Technically. He isn’t really laughing, but there’s a tiny blip where the fog burnt off in the slightest bit, a gap in the grey where the blue of Phil’s eyes shine through.

The corner of Dan’s mouth quirks in the smallest hint of a smile.

He’s sure Phil will recognise it.

He pulls himself up until he’s sitting, no longer fully horizontal. He has three bites of cereal before he can’t choke down anymore, but Phil looks pleased that he tried as opposed to disappointed that he couldn’t eat more.

Phil starts up the game again and Dan watches him play. A few hours later, he steps into the other room to take a call with Marianne. It is about a potential venue for their massive project next year, and it’s a call that they were both supposed to be on for, but through which Dan manages a fitful nap.

Phil rubs his back once the call is done, rubs his back until he wakes up feeling… not quite better. But more bloody human. Closer to feeling like himself. Even amidst the great grey haze.

And he figures, that’s gotta count for something.