There's a white room.
You are sitting on the only chair and there is a table. The only other things in the room are a jug filled with diluted bleach, a plastic cup, a laptop with a wi-fi connection and a syringe marked "antidote".
Every three hours, you must sip your way through a cup of the bleach solution. If you choose, you can down it and wait for the next cup. You soon learn that's the best way. There is absolutely no way of avoiding the bleach. If you were to try, you'd be dead within a few days.
Every sip rips through your oesophagus to rest just above your solar plexus in a ball of unspeakable pain. It slices and gnaws and burns like a little part of hell itself.
You come to dread that cup and the jug and even the chair. The only thing you have to distract you is the infinitely captivating world wide web. You can absorb yourself in dramas or documentaries, music or poetry. You can research great conundrums or chat with friends. You can read novels, or play quizzes, you can learn a new language or anesthetise yourself 24 hours straight with cute kittens. But distraction is all you have. The only opiate you can rely on.
You only get one antidote per week. Once you've used it, you must bear the next 6 days no matter what. Constantly you ask yourself, "Is it now? Do I give up now? Can I take any more, even just a few minutes?" Whatever happens, you are the one who has to choose. No-one can do it for you, you're totally alone in the room.
Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly, the thing sustaining you is the thing causing your suffering. The only other option is death, so no matter how hard it gets, how desperate you feel, you have no choice but to keep sipping that bleach. Often you wonder if the mere act of it keeping you alive is enough. Is life really so important that you will go to any lengths to cling to it? Many days you struggle to remember why this life is so much better than the alternative.
But you always remember in the end, always. Every single breath you take whispers "I'm a Mum, I'm a wife, a daughter, a friend." There is simply no "quit" button.
So you sip and you burn in an endless loop.
And it's those final hours just before the week gasps away that are the hardest. Something about imminent relief somehow makes the here-and-now pain harder to bear. You find this odd. Surely it should be the other way around? But like a long car journey, it's always those last few miles from home that seem to take the longest.
You count out every minute. You try everything not to, but clearly time has stopped. Every time you glance at the clock it seems not to have changed. You begin to believe the very laws of physics have altered, just for you.
Soon, you are gritting your teeth through the sheer force of self-denial. You sweat, silent tears falling onto your cheeks. Gutteral, bestial noises escape from you like pressure cooker steam, involuntary and strange, as though they are coming from someone else. They surprise you.
Distraction is in fragments, almost shattered completely. You read the same paragraph over and over and over again, watch the same movie scene. You re-wind and re-peat and re-watch but just cannot snatch a single one of those elusive, whirling, distractions.
At long last, like rain after a long drought, the antidote is yours. You grab it, you're shaking. It's almost too hard to administer it at all. You remind yourself you have to focus for just a few moments more. Finally, you start to feel it, seeping and warm, spreading to every last cell.
The relief is overwhelming - so overwhelming that you start to cry all over again from sheer cathartic release. That relief is like bread to a starving man, like a breath of life itself.
How is it that those clocks sped up? That time now passes in cotton-wool chunks, blurred and casually ignored once again? How is it that relief hours are so much more fleeting than suffering hours? The pain is gone, but only on the surface. Somehow, it's taken you with it, replaced your soul, your very spirit. You're left feeling depressed and anxious but you couldn't say why. You can't explain that sudden lack, that chasm so recently filled with pain, now echoing empty and rootless.
Yet all too soon it is wearing off, seeping away as quietly as it came. You try to hold those anti-dote minutes and hours in every last cell, but it's beyond your control. Everything is beyond your control. Except the table, the cup, the jug........
There is often a terrible paradox in long term illness. The very thing causing your suffering is the one thing you have to do to survive. I have bowel disease but food is not optional, basic sustenance is compulsory. All food is bleach to me. Those with failing lungs still have to breathe, air is their bleach. Those with failing minds still have to think.
Clearly only the most committed masochists would ever survive it.