Andy came to Berkhamsted to end his life; “My intention was to step in front of a train,” he says very matter-of-factly. A few years previously he had taken a day trip by train to Berkhamsted and saw how the fast trains flew through the station. At the time he thought it would be an easy way to end his life. So in 2016, with this thought still lodged in the back of his mind, he arrived at the station.
In the context of a long history of mental health issues, life had been spiralling out of control for Andy, and he ended up having a breakdown in 2014. He had enough savings to survive a couple of years without working, due to savings from his career as an engineer. He tried to recuperate over these two years, but when the money ran out he knew that was the end, so he boarded a train to Berkhamsted. Arriving at the station he felt he couldn’t face ending his life right away, so he went off to find somewhere rough to sleep for the night. “I thought I would just lie down on the ground and I would do it tomorrow.”
His fear of death was now stronger than his fear of homelessness.
He had realised the platform at Berkhamsted wasn’t the best place to jump from. There was too much light and he didn’t want to be visible. He found an area further along the track that was more suitable. Twice he stood on the track in front of a train, but he couldn’t go through with his attempt and moved out of the way. He sat by the side of the track contemplating why he couldn’t end his life. “Is it going to be painful? Well you’re not going to survive much longer if a train hits you. Is it the fear of the unknown? But I’m curious to know what happens when we die, so I just came to the conclusion that it’s death itself, the actual act of death we are programmed to fear.”
Having been homeless and sleeping rough for a week, his fear of death was now stronger than his fear of homelessness. He had previously thought homelessness would be so traumatic that it would push him over the edge, but it was the opposite. For him, his homeless situation was “like walking out of one of the James Bond films, where Bond walks out of the rubble and then walks off in to the sunset, leaving this rubble of life behind”.
“I am not trying to be anything at all…I just am.”
His new, relatively nomadic lifestyle is much more compatible with his nature. “(Previously) I was trying to fit in with society and I was playing my role in society and it was contrary to my nature.” He comes back to this point again when reflecting on his past mental health issues and especially his anxiety. He sees a lot of his anxiety was to do with his sense of self, “About who I was or who I was trying to be. Whereas now I am not trying to be anything at all…I just am. This is why I find my current lifestyle very comfortable: I don’t have to be anything.” The paradox of his situation is that he used to get anxiety when there was no rational reason for it. Then he had a good career, money coming in and a roof over his head –and that is when he suffered from anxiety. Now, homeless, he has genuine reasons to be anxious about his situation, “Where is my next meal? Where shall I sleep tonight? Will someone attack me? And I have no anxiety at all. That is a bizarre thing.”
He says everyone he meets has been very supportive and in his nearly two years of homelessness he hasn’t once had a bad experience. Not long after he became homeless, he was sitting in Gadebridge Park on a bench and a man with a shaven head, tattoos and a pit bull terrier approached him and asked if he was homeless. Andy, who is quite well spoken, replied he was fine, but the man insisted. “I thought, ‘Oh no, he’s going to get me dealing drugs!’ but this bloke reaches in to his pocket and says, ‘Go on, have a fiver. I’ve been homeless, I know what its like.’” Andy says he felt so guilty, thinking the worse of this stranger. He is genuinely touched by the kindness that people have shown to him.
“I had accidentally fallen in to a kind of Buddhist lifestyle.”
Andy doesn’t see himself as a religious or spiritual person, but he has been drawn to Buddhism. When he first discovered the Amravati Buddhist Monastery outside the nearby village of Great Gaddesden and heard the Eight Precepts (the original teachings of Buddha), he felt a real connection, a parallel with his own life. For example, in Buddhism there is a rule against using ‘high, luxurious beds’ and as he put it, “I was sleeping on flagstones!” Buddhist’s also only eat between dawn and noon, so before noon they consume a main meal. Andy had been attending the day centre that is run by local charity DENS, which gives out food to the homeless from 11.30am, so he was also eating before noon. “I realised I had accidentally fallen in to a kind of Buddhist lifestyle, a lifestyle which was a very positive experience.” Buddhist’s also believe that nature will provide for you. “I don’t beg or ask for anything. I wait for things to happen and somehow they have. It’s extraordinary. For a not very spiritual person, that’s quite a weird feeling.” People have given him coats when he needed them for the winter, others have given blankets and one person gave him a bivouac bag to sleep in, so he has never been uncomfortably cold.
Andy spends his weekend at the monastery, where he gets a shower, a bed and can wash his clothes, in exchange for volunteering in the library. During the week, he spends his days in Hemel, visiting the local library and going to the day centre to receive food. The local library has been very supportive and staff are happy for him to sit and read all day. He chews through books and reads The Guardian every day. At night he walks back to Berkhamsted to find somewhere to sleep.
It is like he feels he has been given a second chance at life.
When I ask about what the future holds this doesn’t concern him. Again, he finds the Buddhist philosophy helpful. The Buddhist lifestyle is about living in the present moment and letting life unfold in front of you. “I feel there are these forces taking care of me. I am quite willing to say, ‘Let’s see what happens.’” He deliberately doesn’t have a plan and is fascinated to see what each day brings, who talks to him and who provides him with the things he needs, at the time he needs them. I worry about his glasses he wears, as reading is such a big part of his life. What will happen if his glasses break, or as his prescription changes. “It’s all for nature to sort out,” he laughs.
Andy is very matter-of-fact about everything – about his mental health issues and his previous desire to end his life. I think this is because he is so settled and content with his new life. He sees himself in a new chapter, free from the anxieties and depression that had plagued him since he was 15. It is like he feels he has been given a second chance at life.
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