CC0 Public Domain

Of all the ridiculously low points in my twenty-four years on this earth, crying hysterically in front of two NHS doctors while wearing a flimsy hospital gown is definitely creeping to the top of the list. The gown makes my already ashen skin look even more pale, and the clinical aesthetic of the room does not let me forget for one second where I am or why I am there.

I am all wired up, blood pressure sleeve wrapped around my upper left arm and a drip in my wrist. I have been sitting on this hospital bed, in a room by myself, with instructions not to eat or drink and nobody to talk to.

And my phone is dead. When I experienced my “episode” earlier in the morning at All Saints DLR station, I had not prepared for a hospital visit by bringing a charger. I am always very proud of the fact that I have managed to avoid becoming one of those twenty-something individuals who will ask someone if they can borrow a charger before even saying “hello”. Yet now, cut off from the world in a sense, I wonder if they were the savvy ones.

A nurse comes in to take some blood.

“I know this isn’t your job,” I say rapidly, “but is there a phone charger running around? My phone’s dead and no one knows I’m here.”

“I think there might be a Samsung one milling about,” she replies, brow furrowed as she pricks my finger.

“That’s no good,” I say quietly, embarrassed by the millennial nature of my dilemma.

“Give us the phone number and we’ll call them from the nurses’ station,” she offers warmly.

“I’m such an idiot. I don’t have people’s numbers written down, they’re all just saved in my phone.”

“Ah, you youngsters,” she says, not unkindly. “How would you survive without your smartphones?”

Not very well, clearly.

My anaemia has been with me for most, if not all, of my life. For some, anaemia is a temporary state and an increase in iron intake will banish it. Not so for me. My mother and grandmother both suffered immensely from low blood pressure and so neither were surprised when I was showing similar signs at a young age.

I have vivid and horrendous memories of passing out in Hot Yoga classes, with a room full of Vegans, gym fanatics and New Age Spiritualists looking down at me in bemusement.

“Poor thing probably eats bread,” I felt them murmuring. “Or drinks too much coffee.”

I didn’t mind it as a child. I liked being fussed over. It meant the occasional few days off from school. Although I loved academia and learning, I also liked the odd day off on the living room sofa with soup and jelly.

I also spent a lot of Saturdays at the General Western in Edinburgh being asked to perform basic tasks while specialists observed me. Whatever their findings were, I was never told.

However, my adult life did not agree with anaemia in the way my junior years did.

“You’re not a typical student,” the doctor says as he reappears in my hospital room. He’s been gone for a few hours but without any enrichment to keep me occupied, it’s felt like days. “Your liver is one of the best I’ve seen.”

“Not a big drinker.”


He goes on to ask a multitude of questions. I’m a puzzle he’s trying to piece together, rather than a human being and I’m not saying that to be dismissive or facetious. He is fastidious in his efforts to understand what caused my body to shut down that morning.

But sometimes, I think, people just need to be asked if they feel all right.

“Sexually active?”


“Are you pregnant?”

My mind goes to the test that’s lying in the waste paper basket back in my bathroom. Thankfully negative. “No.”

“Any chance you might be?”


He raises an eyebrow at the certainty in my voice but doesn’t interrogate me any further.

“I’ll try and track down a charger for you,” he says, just as he’s about to leave, “but I doubt I’ll have much luck. There are some speakers there though, if you’re bored.”

A somewhat dilapidated set of speakers. My phone is too big for them but my little pink iPod fits snugly.

Music makes my solitary confinement bearable. And distracts me from the utterly odd sensation of fluid being pumped into me via a drip. Every so often, the machine decides it wants to take my blood pressure.

It’s a little sinister, but potentially funny. If there were someone to laugh with, of course.

Sitting in that little hospital room by myself drives home some painful truths. Most of the people who love me are in the Southern Hemisphere, oblivious to what is happening.

There’s a Boubil and Schonberg lyric that says, more or less, “Without me, the world will go on turning”.

That’s how it feels.

The thing about London is that everyone is always busy. Myself included, it’s the nature of the capital. You can’t really survive in London by being constantly still. It’s continually moving and it requires its subjects to do the same.

Yet, in those occasional moments of stillness, you’re hopeful that someone else will be still with you.

But timing is never quite right.

I pinch myself on the thigh aggressively, telling myself not to get mopey. Self-pity is never attractive or helpful. It’s boring. I stare up at the ceiling, taking in the discolouration of it all, the little patches of brown splashed against the canvas of impersonal white. I can hear heels clicking on the floor outside the room and, somewhere, people are laughing. I will myself to be sensible and stay stoic.

All of this is just for now just for now just for now just for now just for now.

“Picture in a Frame” by Tom Waits comes on and suddenly I’m bawling my fucking eyes out.

Which is the exact moment two new doctors decide to enter the room. They’re comically flabbergasted by the sight of a crying woman but take it in their stride, being so compassionate and friendly it only makes the crying worse.

An inexplicable reaction, crying at a display of kindness.

One doctor gently feels different areas of my torso while the other adjusts my drip. They ask more questions.

“Usually we’d advise a patient to stop smoking or lower their alcohol intake,” the doctor prodding me says, “but you’re a little monk.”

I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and never will. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a big drinker.

“It could be mentality,” he goes on. “The mind and body are far more connected than people realise. Maybe you’re a little heartsick.”

Not unlikely. Impossible to survive in London without being heartsick. I’m almost convinced at this point that the city is made up of two types of people: the broken ones and their victims. And the victims can only get spat out so many times before they become broken too and the cycle continues.

The first doctor tells me that I’m like a computer that’s been overloaded and overworked so it’s just triggered itself into shutting down. I nod obediently, wanting this drip out of my arm so badly.

“Take a break,” the first doctor says, serious all of a sudden. “Share the load and take a break.”

Words bubble up from inside me, the kind that the stoniness in me likes to stoically choke down but I can’t seem to stop it now.

“Everyone’s so far away.”

They exchange bemused glances, confusion alive in their silence.

“Everyone’s so far away,” I repeat, tearfully. “My family. My best friends. Everyone I grew up with back home. Why did I move to this city? I didn’t know a single person here, sometimes feel like I still don’t.”

My chest is tight again and my breathing is laboured, words short and hard to push out.

“I don’t know my neighbours. And I live by myself. If I died in my flat, no one would know until the mailbox downstairs got too full and the smell crept into the landing. And even then, they probably wouldn’t do anything. Nobody in my building cares about anything, except people parking in spaces that aren’t theirs. If you don that, they’ll call a meeting and have you evicted.”

The second doctor smiles slightly, bent over the clipboard he has picked up by the end of the bed.

“I don’t want to feel sorry for myself,” I protest, despite the wetness on my pallid face. “I hate that. It’s pointless, it really is. And I’ve seen what happens to people who cling on to their self-pity and treat it like a pet. I don’t want to be like that.” I try to breathe deeply but the tightness in my lungs won’t allow it. “But it’s really hard sometimes. It’s…really…hard.”

The shakes take over once again. I feel as if my normal, sarcastic, confident and somewhat standoffish self is standing in the corner of the room looking on in horror. Crying in front of complete strangers, indeed. The shame of it. The embarrassment.

“I think,” the first doctor’s gentle voice brings me back into the moment, “that most people feel like that. If not all people.”

“I know,” I acknowledge, accepting the tissue that the other doctor offers, “but nobody talks about it.”

A comforting squeeze on the shoulder grounds me. I blow my nose. It’s an absurd sound that makes them both laugh.

A few hours later, I’m ready to be discharged. As I change back into my normal clothes, my nurse sneaks back into the room. She has managed to smuggle in two egg sandwiches and some juice. The gesture is enough to set me off again but I manage to repress it. I’m so aware of how ridiculous I’m being, how hysterical these poor NHS staff members must find me.

She hugs me. I can barely stand it.

As I arrive back at my home, it’s so quiet and unchanged. The echo of my keys as they hit their little ceramic dish is deafening. Resisting the urge to climb into bed and disappear, I jam my phone into its charger. I sit and stare at the thing until it comes back to life.

A few emails from work and a text from my mother asking if I’ve read a particular article in The Guardian.

Nothing else.

I phone my closest friend in the city. She answers on the seventh ring.

It’s all on the edge of my tongue. All of it. The sorrow, the self-doubt, the pain, the isolation, the humiliation.

And yet it just sits there. Refusing to jump off the ledge.

“Max is driving me,” she exhales loudly, “out of my mind. Like, a part of me thinks it’s on purpose and then another part of me thinks he just, like, doesn’t care. Like, I can see he’s read my messages and is online, so why not reply? Does it take three hours to be like, ‘hey, got your message, talk soon’? No, it does not.”


“Send an emoji, you know? If I’m too busy to talk, I say so. Or I send an emoji. Is it difficult? Literally not difficult, literally the easiest thing in the world to do. Especially if you’re glued to your Goddamned phone, which he always is. I mean, what kind of person reads a text and doesn’t reply? A psychopath!”

“Babe.” I’m aware that my eyelashes hurt as I speak. “If they’re acting like they don’t care…it’s not acting.”


I wipe my eyes fiercely with my wrist but keep talking, using all that I have to keep my voice steady and matter-of-fact. “When someone cares about a person, they don’t push them aside or ignore them or tell them that they’re too busy. They find the time. Or they make the time. Or they over-explain. They send screenshots of their work rota to assure you that they’re stretched too thin. They stay up late or get up early to call or check in. They spend the last tenner they have on data so they can never miss a message from you when they’re out. They make an effort, they communicate.”

I know, because I’ve done all this.

“They ask if everything’s all right. They check on you. They ask how you are.”

Ask me how I am. Please.

“I don’t know,” she sighs on the other end of the line. “I think he’s just really bad at texting back, honestly.”

The lies we tell ourselves.

When the phone call ends, I don’t question why the truth stayed stubbornly locked up inside me. Instead, I write my gratitude list.

Grateful for my family, grateful for a roof over my head, grateful for my long legs, grateful for food in the fridge, grateful for an education.

Grateful for a squeeze on the shoulder and a hug from two complete strangers who know nothing about me besides my medical history. Grateful for the complete strangers at the DLR station for phoning an ambulance and not just walking on by.

The phone suddenly rings. My landline. The old-fashioned mystery, the lack of caller-ID, is too irresistible. I answer on the third ring.


“Oh, thank Christ you’re still up.” It’s my editor. “I need someone to rewrite the Mellen copy. I’d ask Cassandra but she’s still at the ballet. Could you do it? You’d be better anyway.”

I’m actually really tired. I collapsed on the street today, it was incredibly frightening and degrading. I just want to be still and talk softly with someone for a few hours.

“Yeah, I’ll do it.”

“Gah! Thank you. By tomorrow, please.”

The line clicks and she’s gone.

The permanent tremor in my hands is more pronounced than usual as I type up the copy. It reaches a point of such irritation that I hurl my notebook at the wall. All my lists of gratitude smack against the white wallpaper and slide down to the carpet. The room seems momentarily colourless, the soft carpet a dull grey colour beneath my feet.

I sit without any movement for a moment. I wonder how many people on the globe right now are sitting alone in their rooms. How many are getting up each morning, barely pulled together.

Potentially all of us.

People like to joke about how small city flats are. They will tease Londoners about how much rent they pay their corrupt landlords for a tiny little shoebox in zone four. But in this moment, I’m overwhelmingly aware of how small I feel and how large the room has suddenly become. The ceiling is too high, the room too vast.

I collect the notebook from its naughty corner. I rewrite my list. Again. And again.

This too shall pass. Tomorrow will be better. This too shall pass.


Elle McNicoll

Elle McNicoll

Born and raised in Scotland, Elle likes to use her life experience as a Caledonian within her work and is a lover of Burns, Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens. She was hired to write for the EHS New Yorker when she was just seventeen. She moved to Manhattan and became a weekly columnist, covering the social scene for people under the age of 21. Last summer, she was brought on staff at The Pantheon to be their blogger and covered stories on Bill Cunningham, Lee Miller and was invited to Buckingham Palace to see the queen’s wardrobe throughout her reign, which she then wrote a piece about. She is currently completing her novel “Barcode”.