The Understudy

In some of my more reflective moments over the last few weeks, especially when thinking of my re-entry into the world of work and ‘normal’, the poetic words of a friend, Peter Neary Chaplin, have spoken powerfully and challengingly to me.  The poem, ‘The Understudy’ is a story where the ‘main actor’ gets sick and the understudy stands to take his place with poignant results. Here is the poem:

Every now and again
when the worship of the heaving crowd
and their violent adoration becomes too loud,
as if to carry him off
overhead down the dusty street
and out of sight
to his own breast-beating funeral rite,
his foundation starts to crumble,
the eye liner starts to sting,
his costume pinches
and the brilliantly drawn character
lit up by ego and long scotches
in, frankly, dim and inadequate dressing rooms,
the strain of constant excellence begins to tell,
the pain of leadership stoops
his broad Shakespearean frame,
his ears begin to ring,
his pulse booms,
some dark thing looms
that even whisky cannot quell.
Ladies and gentlemen,
the actor is unwell.

And so steps up a quieter man
to stand before the baying stalls.
Looks the same,
if a little smaller, less made up,
less vain.
Plays the role a little more sober,
more contained, less pained.
Disappointing, doesn’t have the balls,
the critics say.
And so the people stay away.

Yet some are drawn
by less clamour and less scorn.
They hear a subtler tone
perhaps more like their own.
And at the curtain
they don’t set sail for local wine bars
noising their knowledgeable distaste,
protesting, short-changed,
but remain seated a while
then gather in a loose, shy knot
at the stage door,
staying to thank the understudy
who wove a story they’d never heard before.

I have had to admit to myself, even more so, in recent weeks that the way I was trying to hold things together, hold down a job, whilst being aware of a pack of childhood issues coming to the fore, wasn’t sustainable.  I got to the point where I could not cover up the internal agony inside any longer.  And so, I left the stage.  Like the 12 Steps of Alcoholics anonymous, I had to admit that ‘my life had become unmanageable.’  I was drowning in the midst of a raging sea of pain and hurt unattended to like a festering wound.

Counselling has been, and is, bringing up all the lies I have come to believe about myself.  Stopping the frantic paddle has allowed the stories to surface, and the opportunity to tackle them head on.

I’m now coming out of what has become one of the longest major depressive episodes of my life thus far, the strains refusing to be silenced this time.  In the next few weeks, it is hopefully the opportunity of the humble understudy, perhaps a more authentic me, to approach the stage again.  Time will tell what follows.

I’m thankful to so many people who have helped and supported me and my family during this time.  It is worth more than you’ll ever know.


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