Depression is medical condition that we have a much better understanding of these days. We understand that for some people, this state is not necessarily caused by external factors, but by a chemical imbalance, it’s just the way their minds process the world, like a faulty switch going off or on when it shouldn’t. But I think sometimes it’s hard to remember that while this imbalance can affect some people all of the time, any of us can, and likely will, at points, become depressed. This can be directly influenced and caused by external factors, but how we process those factors, the pre-determined way in which our minds are programmed to work, will dictate whether you will get past those particular difficult times with the normal ebb and flow (usually along the lines of the anger-sadness-emotional release-perspective-acceptance arc) or whether the issues will become more deeply ingrained and start to affect you long term. For me personally, this has manifested in serious issues with self-esteem, irrational mood swings, physical symptoms that seem on the surface entirely unrelated and feelings of hopelessness, and those are just the side effects I’m willing to discuss. I'm aware that these issues, if left to develop further, can lead to far more detrimental outcomes, because people who are feeling hopeless don’t make the best life choices. Of course, we all demonstrate aspects of these issues at points, but when you’ve been carrying something for a long time, and you’re somewhat in denial about it, well, that’s how you start to recognise, through these flashes of abnormal behaviours, that something really isn’t right.
I’ve had lots of people I love and respect tell me how proud they are of me and how I should be proud of myself, but I’ll be honest, those compliments pass over me like water off a duck’s back. Because all I’ve been doing is surviving. I deserve no kudos for just existing. And yeah, I’ll work my ass off and take the wins and I’m vaguely aware that my life has, at the very least, been pretty adventurous for the last year and a half, but I feel like the proverbial swan, y’know, pedalling away to give the impression I’m all good and that I believe I’m all good but underneath it all I’m really not all good. I think this is something a lot of us can relate to at certain points, which is why I’m doing the brain dump thing on you right now, because I think you’ll get it. Actually, I know that you will.
I remember the first time a link was made between how I was feeling and the concept of depression. I was going through a break up, with someone I had been living with, mid-way through my final year at Uni. During that time I started to experience sharp pains in my hands. I was in a very bad way emotionally, but I wanted to get the pains checked out because they seemed to me to be in no way related. A good friend of mine, who did an amazing job of supporting me through that time, advised me that if I went to the doctor’s in the state I was in, they would immediately want to put me on anti-depressants. I went anyway, because, hello, shooting pains in my hands? That had nothing to do with my emotional state, dur. But, of course it did. The doctor explained to me that because I was so upset, I was hyperventilating slightly most of the time, therefore oxygen wasn’t reaching my joints, therefore pain. I was floored by the idea that something emotional could be so directly physical. She did offer me anti-depressants, which I didn’t take, at the time.
Fast forward to a few months later, the end of Uni. The end of the world it seemed like. Not only did my course end, but so did my job, and I moved, and suddenly, there I was, an adult, with no money, no job, no partner and no idea what the hell I was going to do with my life. I remember spending the last of the money I did have on Papa John’s, like the financial fuckwit I was, sitting a rolled up carpet thinking, this is it, I literally don’t know what happens next. I did end up going on anti-depressants for a time (which, by the way, I completely understand how these help, but I eventually decided they weren’t for me). It was hard. I grieved the relationship I didn’t let myself grieve before, and I found a part time retail job that wasn’t enough to pay the bills. I felt hopeless for a long time. But gradually, things changed. What changed wasn’t the situation, it was me. Because having no safety net, changes your priorities. Having independence, albeit a poor one, made me grow up a lot faster than I ever thought I could. But mainly, what I remember from around then, was spending time with my friends. I remember things getting better not because life got any easier, but because I found people to connect with, who made feel like I wasn’t alone in the darkness. My epiphany on that occasion was that I needed a family, so I built one.
I’ve now reached another point in my life where my brain is catching up with everything that’s come before, the stuff I was too busy surviving to process. This is not only the short term stuff, but the long term stuff that I was not willing or able to look at previously. I have been surviving for a long time. I didn’t think that was what I was doing, but that’s where brains are tricksy, they are very good at keeping you safe. That’s what my brain has been doing with my faulty behaviour patterns, using out dated self-preservation methods to keep me safe. This is linked to things from years in the past. I understand that I’m reaching another crossroads now because the way I view things, people and situations, is changing. Rapidly. Not always for the worse, and not always for the better. There is stuff I wasn’t sure of that I am now sure of, and stuff I was sure of that I now seriously question. Change is inevitable, but it’s not easy, and that internal conflict causes hurt, fear and isolation. It causes how I feel right now.
For the longest time of being me, I so desperately wanted to believe in the good of everyone and take responsibility for other people’s actions because to do so meant that all of the stuff that happened to me had some meaning, that the universe wasn't just random, chaotic and hurtful. That there was some kind of narrative, some good that has to come out of the darkness, the idea that I could control, well, anything. I see now that I've been running from darkness my whole life, not because I was afraid of the unknown, but because darkness was all kinds of known to me. I’ve always felt it there, looming over my shoulder, threatening to swallow me up with hopelessness at the slightest wrong move.
But you can't hide forever.
It found me. Everything I feared, everything I thought I couldn't face again, found me. Because unless we've dealt with the programming that was put there by what happened before then we are always susceptible to being caught in the same trap again. And do you know what? It's really hard to see yourself. Like, really, bloody hard. I thought I knew myself for years, and I guess I have, but I've been more in touch with the what and the who than the why of it. Your why becomes clear in the weirdest moments, and it usually takes the perspectives of people around you to help you to work it out, because they can see you abstractly in a way you can’t. The why of you takes stepping outside of yourself to see that you’re just another person, rather than just feeling the feelings that your brain throws up, and reacting to them.
I didn't realise how much I needed some semblance of control over my life. I achieved this in the most passive and least confrontational manner I could conceive of, mainly, anticipating other people's needs, finding out how I could make them like me, and modifying my behaviour accordingly. All on a subconscious level I might add, because, y’know, damage. But life is random, and subject to infinite variables, and we stumble through trying to find lessons and meaning and truth that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other, making plans, making connections, making futures. The need we have to keep ourselves working toward something, without which it becomes hard to remain sane. Or hard to propagate the human race at least. The crushing reality that has hit me over the face recently is this: Sometimes there is no lesson. Sometimes there is no meaning. And sometimes there is no one truth. One of the hardest aspects of growing up I've found is that not only is there often no one truth out there, there is rarely one truth within yourself. Acceptance of this conflict is hard, because is don't ring true with what you feel is a construct of an honest person, the person you want to be in your head movie. It feels like you’re carrying falseness, but you're not, you're just carrying your complexity.
Have I told you recently that you're awesome? Well, you are. It just never occurred to me that I had the potential to be awesome too. That was my damage.
There is an episode of Community, in Season 6, to me that really drove this idea home for me. In Intro to Recycled Cinema, Abed is forced by the group to make a film in a shoddy, rushed, haphazard manner. It felt very much like a metaphor for what Dan Harmon must have experienced before his leaving Community during Season 4. To lose that tight creative control, to lose control, was, I would imagine, quite terrifying. When Jeff confesses to Abed his fears that everyone will move on and leave him, Abed observes that life is random, chaotic, and beyond control, but because of that chaos, things happen that you cannot predict. Wonderful things. Here’s the bit (edited for spoilers because I’m nice, but you really should watch it if you haven’t already!)
Jeff: ‘Finally I know in my heart that I will literally be the last one here. And I know they gave digital muscles to Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. I watched Parks and Rec, I watched it, there’s no scientific explanation…’
Abed: ‘Jeff *sigh* You helped me learn something today about film making that I think we all need to apply to life. It’s okay to plan some stuff and it’s okay to figure out what we did wrong but our plans are randomly gonna fall apart and our lessons are randomly going to be wrong and if we just keep the cameras rolling and shoot a lot of crap, eventually Annie is going to reach down her shirt and pull out a laser bomb. I didn’t write that, we didn’t plan that, God made that happen. God made this movie. And it’s dumb, and we’re dumb for being in it. Life is a big, dumb, pointless move with no story and an abrupt ending where the hero gets shot by Dracula in the middle of the lunch order during an outtake. But somewhere in there, every once in a while…’
Jeff: ‘Annie reaches down her shirt’
Abed: ‘So we keep the cameras rolling, and we edit out the parts we don’t like, and we stop thinking about Chris Pratt so much because it’s not healthy.’
The character is religious so it makes sense that he’d refer to God in that context, but don’t think it affects the meaning at all to remove the deity aspect and replace it with ‘fate’ or ‘big empty nothing’, the end result is the same, the end result it the world we live in. But that’s the magic of our world, isn’t it? We never really know what is around the corner, even if you can take a good guess at it. To reinforce this, I’ll give you an example of my own laser bomb story.
Now, I thought twice about sharing this with you, mainly because I have a partner and I didn’t want it to sound dodgy, but I felt I needed to make the point with the juxtaposition and trust that you’ll get the joke, so here y’go:
One recent morning, feeling low, as I have been a lot, I was sitting and waiting for a bus. I just felt like crap, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I didn’t want to do that day. I was hating every aspect of myself, the way I looked, my personality in the broadest sense, you name it, I was down on it. I’m always more clumsy at these points too, like my ability to function without incident is somehow linked to my self-esteem on any given day, so I had already tripped twice and fallen once. I don’t doubt that I had a face like a smacked arse, because that’s exactly how I felt.
Then, out of the dreary morning rain, marches someone I vaguely know. One of those annoyingly beautiful people that not only do I rarely see but often try to avoid contact with where possible, their existence on this plane a sheer affront to normal people (read: me) I really must have been scowling, as those were the exact thoughts going through my head. Jog on, you pretty bastard, I don’t need a reminder of what an evolutionary cul-de-sac I am thank you, not today. But he walked straight up to me, began a conversation, and during that conversation randomly complimented the way I looked. On that morning when I felt like I could crawl under a rock and stay there, on that morning when I genuinely thought that nothing could put a smile on my face.
Because sometimes, Annie will reach down her shirt, and pull out a laser bomb.
But life also does that other thing where your world can be shot to pieces by the next phone call you receive or the next corner you turn, we are just as susceptible to the negative whims of fate as we are to the positive ones. Then all life planning comes to nothing anyway. But in response to that, and in regard to all the stuff that is happening in my life now that is balancing on the next phone call, and news that is quite simply out of my hands, I come back to this quote from good ole’ Josh Whedon:
‘Bottom line is, even if you see them coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what are we, helpless? Puppets? Nah. The big moments are gonna come, you can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.’
-Whistler, S.2 E21, Becoming part 1.
We can only ever play the hands we’re dealt after all. But historically, I didn’t even have the confidence to do that much. And I don’t have a good poker face.
Recently, I was asked to write a list of things I was grateful for. I’m ashamed to say that because of my negative thought processes, my initial (internal) response went something like this: ‘Erm, whatever, grateful for what? Every scrap of my current existence has been hard earned and paid for in my hair, blood, emotional and physical well-being and has stretched me to the edge of my sanity…
What do I have to be grateful for?’
I know, what a DICK, right?
Because I am grateful.
I’m grateful that I came from a country where the language I speak gives me the power of employment across the world.
I’m grateful that, even though it’s been hard and I’ve not been carried or spoilt, I do have parents who will help me practically or financially and when I’ve been kicked in the arse either by my own failings or random chance.
I’m grateful to every single person who sees me for who I am and still loves me in despite of that. Or maybe even because of that, which is even awesomer.
I’m grateful to the people at the Uni where I work for taking a chance on me, and the people at the last Uni I worked at for doing the same.
I grateful to the students I had, of all ages, who never failed to either inspire me or humble me on a continual basis.
I’m grateful for every single beautiful thing I’ve seen and experienced since I left the UK last March. I’m also grateful for the existence of social media that has allowed me to share those experiences with you as much as possible. Oh, and for every single beautiful thing I ever experienced or witnessed before I left the UK too.
I’m grateful to my body and my brain for getting me this far and I’m grateful to the people around me for helping me where they can with both of those.
I’m grateful for the people I love. The very fact that you’re there, and I get spend time with you, talk to you, and have a connection with you, that’s truly awesome, it makes me giddy every day.
I’m grateful for every single silly moment of my silly little existence, now I come to think of it.
Yeah it’s been a dark ride at points. I’ve been hurt, on every level. I’ve been scared, and alone, and hopeless and lost… But I’ve been all the other things too; looked after, helped, given company and solace, and found my way again. So even if I’m not in a great place right now, I know I likely will be again. I hope to get a few more turns around this wheel.
If you’re reading this, odds are you know me pretty well, so you’ll understand why the catharsis of dealing with my depression and the flicking on of the light in the distance could only really come for me by writing it down, and by my writing it as a letter to you. That’s one of the things I do like about myself actually, I will put myself out there. Of course I have secrets and complexities and whatever elses, like any normal human, but I am as emotionally honest as I can be without (hopefully) causing offense. Not because I think how I feel is important particularly, to anyone except me, but because I want to share myself with you. Writing gives me that. There is also the fact that when you feel low, you might feel like you’re the only one feeling like that and if you’re thinking that way, that’s shitty. So know this, you’re loved. If you’re my friend, I love you, and if you’re a random stranger (overreaching in my readership expectation maybe there) then know you’re loved too. I may not love you but I’m sure you’ve got some awesome up in there, so it’s okay that you feel down, it’s okay that all things seem to turn to shit - it will change, it will get better. Or maybe tomorrow the earth will get turned off and that’s that. But chances are that we’re both going to go around the wheel a few more times yet, and when it seems like nothing will ever improve, remember, we can find the story again.
So, in acknowledging that life never follows a narrative, my ultimate point is this: we, as humans, have to. That’s our super power. Our well being and sanity through the chaos and pain and randomness, depends on our ability to build narratives to carry us through. We remove the bits we don't like and keep moving forwards. We can't control what will happen to us, or the world around us, but we can control us. That's actually the only thing we can control. Building self-awareness is a process through which we might have a chance of gaining that control over our actions. That’s my plan at the moment anyway.
My perception is that we always believe it’s the change external to us that will cause change within us. But things change around us all the time, and who we are tends to remain pretty constant. It’s the change within us that we most fear. That’s the most difficult thing we face when we come to a paradigm shift, the confluence of rapid experience and altering priorities and perspective. We think it's hard for other people when we change, and while, yes, of course it is, it's way harder for you. To look in the mirror and feel differently about the person staring back at you. To look around you and see your world through a different lens. The guilt and anxiety that comes with change is ultimately a big motivator in my sadness at the moment. But I can’t hold onto the old me as the new one keeps pushing forth, taking the reins, speaking for me, not letting me hide anymore.
It's like that poem, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost. This poem is often interpreted as meaning that taking the less well trod path through life, the riskier one, the less conventional one, somehow makes all the difference to who we end up becoming. But I interpret it as just an observation on how we find meaning in the journey we've taken. While, in many ways, the journey is important, it's only important on the way. I think the two roads were maybe always leading to the same outcome, the same you, it’s just that the path you chose alters slightly how you get there and how long it takes. And it means you have different stories to tell. But you were always going in the same direction eventually.
I’m going to leave you with this observation. I find it hard to tackle the big stuff head on, that’s why metaphor and reading and poetry have always been important to me, because they help me to think abstractly about bigger issues. It’s been the same with living abroad. I could look at all the things that have happened, people I’ve met, places I’ve been, and consider the impact that has had but that’s too huge and I just can’t get my head around it. My segue into thinking about it is always on a micro level. It’s only when I see something small, some tiny detail, that I think about the odds against that moment ever happening. Like when I was sitting on one of the many buses in Saigon at night and I’d focus on a worn out old screw in a window pane and think, I should never have been here to see that little screw, our paths should never have crossed, yet they have. Same with when I see a little insect or something in NZ, I can’t help but think, I never should have met you, and yet I have. My point here is, you don’t know where you’ll end up going unless you make an active move toward it, because it’s only through moving forward, that wonderful things can happen. I mean, terrible things can happen too, but they are likely to happen anyway. Whatever ends up happening, all roads will lead back to you, who you are and what you want. To put it in pure pop culture terms from the lips of The Goldblum himself, ‘Life, uh… finds a way.’
I feel that overall I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered with this post, but given my low starting point, that can only be a good thing. Now I’m going to link you to the wonderful OK GO who basically say the same thing as I have done above only briefly and with an awesome tune and video. As per usual.