Note to self, aged 15

The JCARN prompt this month is to write a letter to your 15-year-old self. Well.

It gets better.

This will be the mantra of your coming years. This will be what guides you, what gets you up in the morning and gets you to sleep, eventually, late at night. This will be the phrase you cut out of newspaper letters and paste on your walls in seven different places you call home. This will be the only thing you believe without empirical evidence, not because it is pleasant but because you have already seen the alternative, where it was worse, and that is no longer an option.

It gets better.

You will crawl out of the hell of the depression you live in now. You will eventually discover other ways to contain the fire inside you that has you tearing at yourself. You will learn to name your emotions, and you will learn that they cannot, must not, be excised. You will learn to budget, to cook, to clean. You will find yourself laughing from time to time. Between the drama, somehow, you will pass exams.

It gets better.

You will leave the shattered remnants of your teenage years and flee to a new city, where you will fall in love, and out of love, and in love again more permanently. You will discover talents, and interests, and the Cow Tower on the river bend. You will learn to think in systems as well as stories. You will not sleep, until eventually the nightmares recede. You will learn to eat. You will learn to work. You will learn that you are valuable and worthy of respect. You will sometimes believe it.

It gets better.

You will move. You will grow. You will find London and, within it, friends. You will make things – games, poems, stories. You will smile almost every day. You will no longer need to make lists of what is good in the world. You will know it in your bones. You will work well in a job that makes you happy. You will play well in a world that makes you happy. You will create muscles where once was skin and bone. You will still have bad days, but they will be rare and nowhere near as bad as they once were. You will fly half way around the world and a lorikeet will crash into your window.

But first, before it gets better, it gets worse.

You will decide there is no purpose, no future, nothing of worth to you, and you will try to destroy yourself. You will not succeed. You will see out the millennium with a glass of fake champagne in an NHS medium-security ward, a nurse at arm’s length. There will not be fireworks. You will get birthday cards from the other patients. You will punch walls until your fists bleed. You will lie on the carpet and not make your bed and only emerge from your room for coffee. You will not take your hat off for five months. But slowly, you will take your first steps toward believing what I now know to be true.

It gets better.

What the water feels like to the fishes

Goldfish Depression sneaks up on me around this time of year. Most years I spend these late months down, though some more so than others. There’s something about the slow dying of the light that brings out the noonday demon, bleaching colour from the day and bringing sharp edges to the night.

Though that’s too poetic, really, for the drab reality. Sleepless nights followed by nights of too much sleep, leaving me drained and exhausted regardless. Headaches that don’t leave, restlessness without cause, and sadness that turns up unexpectedly mid-sentence and refuses to dissipate. Most of all, a thin veil that descends between me and the world, dulling joy and blunting emotions, making it hard to participate through the feeling of awful apart-ness, as though I’m watching life on a screen and not participating. In the summer I take on dozens of projects, safe in the boundless energy the light brings. In winter, I count spoons and mete out activity in careful, measured portions, for fear of failing to cope. Without Grant, I would struggle to eat well or sleep at all.

For some people – I’m one of them – depression is just a fact of life. I don’t remember a time before depression. I guess I was 11 when I had my first full-blown episode; I know I was 12 when I was first diagnosed. I know what it’s like to be happy, but I don’t know what it’s like not to have to hoard it, guard it, trace its contours for as long as I possess it. To not know with certainty that it is fleeting, and must pass.

That is one of the cruellest things about this illness. It perpetuates itself in the knowledge of itself. Depression is itself depressing. And terribly boring, too. So many depressives – myself included – develop other problems in part to cope with the bleakness of the dark mornings, but also because they are at least something that can be controlled, and that brings an upside, a dramatic, vivid illustration of the pain we’re in, and something else to focus on. Perhaps it’s taboo to suggest that anorexia, alcoholism, self-injury and so forth have benefits, but it’s true; otherwise, they wouldn’t be so seductive. I recall vividly a psychiatrist telling me that if they could bottle and prescribe the psychological effects of self-harm without the messy reality, it would be the most effective antidepressant ever – and one of the most addictive.

So in the down times I cope not only with the depression itself but also with the desperate animal-in-trap desire to hurt myself, something counterproductive, self-destructive but also self-preservative, something that – if I could control it and mitigate its down sides – would be the best possible way of dealing with the depression. That, I think, makes it harder – to know, intimately, that there is an easy option, and still not to take it.

But then, this too shall pass. The most powerful knowledge I have is that this will pass. It must pass. The blackness is not permanent; the sun will rise again. What I fear most is forgetting that such sadness is temporary. That way lies madness.

This post was imported from my Tumblr as part of a big reorganisation of my online self in January 2012.