Aidas Zvirblis introduces his play about personal struggling and mental health, Lungbarrow’s Insomnia, for the 2020 Durham Drama Festival.
‘When problems overwhelm us and sadness smothers us, where do we find the will and the courage to continue? Well, the answer may come in the caring voice of a friend, a chance encounter with a book, or from a personal faith. For Janet help came from her faith, but it also came from a squirrel.’
– Mort Crim (from ‘Little Acorns’ by The White Stripes)
About twenty-one minutes and thirty seconds into a 2018 YouTube interview promoting the then new series, Chris Chibnall, current Doctor Who showrunner, is asked whether Lungbarrow or looming will ever become canon. ‘Wow, that’s deep level, isn’t it? I just about know what you’re talking about,’ Chibnall responds, fumbling through the question. ‘I think you’re referring to a novel I’ve never read.’ Already four hours into a YouTube hole, I spent the next hour googling Lungbarrow, a cult novel from 1997 about the Doctor’s homestead. Struck by the impenetrability of Who lore I found myself wading through terms and references I’m still not sure I could fully explain: looming, The Other, Chris Cwej, President Romana, the Cartmel Masterplan (which might be part of the Timeless Child arc for season 12 according to Reddit so get ready). Soon overwhelmed by the Tolstoyan length of some of those Wiki entries, I went back to watching WatchMojo Top 10s about Zelda Dungeons or Oscar Snubs or whatever it was, left with little except the realisation that the word Lungbarrow is incredibly fun to say. It’s sort of a perfect word when you think about it; it sounds simultaneously like a Bond villain, a disease from a Bronte novel and an eldritch Lovecraftian nightmare. Lungbarrow. Lungbarrow. Lungbarrow.
Around the time I watched the interview I was having trouble sleeping. Some nights I’d benignly swirl through meaningless trains of thoughts like the one above, and sometimes I’d find myself succumbing to bouts of despondency, wallowing in acute self-hate and crying about things and stuff I didn’t care to name or make clear. Just sort of floating. I would roll around in bed up to around 4am where I would flitter in and out of waking only to waddle around fatigued and fuzzy the next day. ‘Something’s wrong,’ I thought. ‘But is it, though?’ I retorted. ‘You’re fine, you’re doing fine,’ I said. ‘You’re staring directly into the sunset and closing your eyes to see what colour the afterimage is,’ I replied. ‘And your laptop’s been open for an hour and you’ve written three words’ I added. ‘Shut up!’
On a particularly frustrating night of telling myself that I was disappointing my loved ones and wasn’t deserving of anything good, I started to write. It was an angry writing, unplanned, a flowing rant where I challenged myself to make those things and stuff coherent, to force myself into a conversation. It was helpful. Sort of. I realised quickly that I wasn’t enjoying writing an insular conversation with myself and for the first time in a long while I left my own head. I saw in my friends signs of what I was going through, hidden behind jokes and eked out in quiet conversation, sometimes sober but more often drunk. I considered the flimsy mechanisms we use to cope, the small pockets of transient meh-ness we indulge in when it gets too much, but which never get to the root of the problem. We drink, we binge, we procrastinate, we book flights, we watch Doctor Who interviews, we browse Twitter till 3am, we spend hours making Spotify playlists, we think about better times, we get incredibly horny. We find comfort in small things, and sometimes even in cool sounding words, however meaningless and fleeting. Our little bubbles of Lungbarrow.
A few nights after the first splurge, I had planned what would become Lungbarrow’s Insomnia. Carrie Clyde, who had started off as my frustration screamed onto a blank Word document became a composite of the people I knew and loved. In her I wanted to explore the poisonous cycle of self-examination, how we spiral into darkness and ignore doing anything about it, and in the cracks in-between discover small glimpses of joy and escape and Lungbarrow. Cycles that repeat ad infinitum. We see her talking to the constructs in her own mind, relive her memories, exercise her fantasies, confront her demons and attempt to bury them deep, all to varying degrees of success. And we see the lies she tells herself when she exalts others and villainises herself because, perhaps, it frees her of a responsibility she’s too scared to accept. In that late 2018 period I spent a lot of time in memories that made people from my past out to be worse than they actually were because it shifted the blame, validated my own failures and, in a skewed sort of way, made me feel good. It made my problems binary rather than murky, caricatured rather than nuanced, easier to contemplate. It’s a way of thinking that everyone dips into but allowing it to get out of control as Carrie does justifies a dangerous fatalism. My past broke me. And now I’m scum. This is how it is and this is how it will be. It’s a slow, encroaching masochism where you tell yourself that you need to suffer quietly, and any happiness is undeserved. In so thinking Carrie becomes an unreliable narrator in her own mind. For her, happiness and sadness have to coexist, the latter fetishized until it becomes necessary, perversely enjoyed. Very little of what happens in the play should be trusted face on, but instead viewed through the prism of a person who, perhaps, deep down, doesn’t want to be happy. In the end Lungbarrow is just a cool sounding word. It won’t help her sleep.
I was a teenager when I first heard Little Acorns by The White Stripes, which begins with a spoken word self-help affirmation from Mort Crim, an American broadcast journalist. He tells the story of Janet, who in the depths of misery emerged victorious after seeing a squirrel carry nuts for the winter: Once I broke my problems into small pieces, I was able to carry them, just like those acorns, one at a time. It was well after starting the script that I heard that song again and as a twenty-year old I had the same reaction as I did when I was fifteen: That’s not how people work. Emancipatory squirrel revelations, in my experience, are far and few between. Problems persist, mould, fade away and circle back round. People tend to just sort of float, doing their best, waking up and cracking on with work. The strength of mucking through and avoiding confrontation. For though Carrie has a troubled mind, she does what we all do. She gets up, and gets on with it, with the hope that perhaps it might get better. At least that’s what I think most people do. Maybe I haven’t seen enough squirrels.
Lungbarrow’s Insomnia is in General Programme 3 of the Durham Drama Festival 2020, playing at the Mark Hillery Arts Centre, Collingwood College, on 5th, 7th and 8th February.
Image: Alice Aucott