I’m feeling rattled today. Upset in the literal sense of feeling like my cart has overturned and scattered my possessions, or at least my self-possession which I’m trying to gather up, calmly, without panicking.
Just before the beginning of the year a journalist on the Daily Mail asked me if I would be willing to throw my hat into the ring for their Sex Q&A column. I had reservations. I’ve been there, done that, and not only did it do me no favours, but I did not, and never have, felt equipped to answer questions of that nature, since my own life in that area is more of an old patched sheet that doesn’t really keep you warm. I’m no expert. And as for advice, I don’t believe in it. Nobody should give it, or take it. Wise counsel is another thing, but surely to offer such a thing you have to have a relationship of sorts with the person to whom you are offering it. Mostly, the greatest gift you can give anyone is to listen, to allow the other person to be what they are, and offer some empathy.
But that isn’t easy.
Not for me anyway. For the things I’ve been through, puny and inconsequential though they are in the greater scheme of things, there are some tender areas that make empathy difficult. Not because I don’t feel it, because I do, but rather because I overfeel it, I make it all about me, and not the other person, and feel almost contaminated by the closeness to their problems when they mirror mine. It’s like having had some severe viral illness that goes into remission, but which you fear can be triggered by the smallest of things – a cold, overtiredness, stress. You wrap a little bit of yourself in cotton wool, to protect the dark feelings, to bury them, and sometimes when you meet another who is despairing, their distress burrows through the layers, the tendrils of their pain, reaching out to mate with yours, dragging it back to the surface.
So yesterday, the person who got the job that I didn’t, walked into the sea and didn’t come back. She was a sufferer of severe depression who wrote about her illness with enormous clarity that as I clicked on the link to her first piece, and read, just stirred up those awful memories that I’ve tried so hard to forget. I stood on the edge, peering into my previous self, remembering the way the depression just engulfed me, coming one moment, seemingly from nowhere, the agony of it, the sitting on the sofa in my house that I no longer cared about and could have set a match to without a second’s thought, looking into the empty void of my life which had no worth to me, thinking of ways I could kill myself. Weighing them up, and not doing it because there was still the smallest vestige of fear of actually doing it that held me back. One tiny bit of responsibility towards my family who, even as I knew they would be better off without me and my endless self-pity and unfathomable pain, that made me think I could spare them this one thing – the legacy of an abandoning suicidal parent. I felt I needed to survive for them, to help them know that this could be survived, to protect them from the burden of seeing a pain that couldn’t be borne, even as I knew bearing me as I was, was a big enough ask. Who knows what would have been easier for them.
I was lucky. That time. And the time before, and the time before, and the time since, that I managed to struggle through, that pills helped, that there were still more pills to take, that I had a dear and stolid man who stood behind me and both let me be, and held me up. I got happy, I got boring. I got content. I got placid. I got fat. I got lazy. I lost a bit of myself and found someone else, who I didn’t altogether approve of, or particularly want to be, but who nevertheless let me live again, and so was to be welcomed rather than shunned. I used to think I was bright and lively and extrovert and loud and funny and full of energy, fun and insight just crackling to get out of me. I was a person unfulfilled, with untapped potential, an undeveloped photograph waiting for the time, the chance, to become the full picture of who I could be – clever and talented and able and good. But it turned out differently. I am still a person unfulfilled with untapped potential, but I no longer have the drive to discover it. I decided to be (in my own eyes) mediocre, an underachiever, a nonentity because it was easier, it was attainable, it was, in fact, me. I’m no longer sparkly. I don’t drink and that has taken a lot of the fizz out of my previous self-image of me as vivacious and outgoing. I’m actually a bit of a shut-in. I avoid social situations. I’ve become a recluse at home with my man and my cats. I sew. I make mosaics. I make cards I don’t send, and fiddle about in the garden that nobody except me sees or sits in. I failed with the last two books I wrote, or at least failed to find an agent – that took a bite out of my ego too and, probably to save myself any more disappointment and rejection – I let go of that dream and accepted failure. I still write, but without any feelings of future achievement or real pride because it was so devastating to be turned down, rather brutally at times, by agents to whom I was a faceless ant. Or to be honest, more usually, their assistants. I gave up. I surrendered to what I could comfortably be rather than who I wanted to be. I swallowed the knowledge that I am not special and accepted the tender scar that never heals but is fine as long as you don't poke it
So I am a quitter in a way. And yes, I feel a sense of sorrow about it. But on the other hand, I get out of bed in the morning and I function. I more than function. I am sometimes so happy that I feel it could burst out of me in the same way the fat does out of my jeans. I get these washes of deep contentment and pleasure just because there is no pain, and there is a beautiful flower in the garden, or my basil seeds have sprouted, or there’s a new BBC drama, or Game of Thrones is back, or I’ve made scones and they smell divine, or I’m in bed by myself because my man is visiting his kids, and I can spread out across the cool sheets. Small things. Not achievements. Not winning any prizes. Not being good at anything. Just the absence of anxiety, and the pleasure in the now.
There’s a downside. I am afraid of stress. I don’t have dinner parties because the effort exhausts me. I make plans that I always want to cancel before I go because ‘I can’t be bothered’. I feel awkward around people. I chat all the time and annoy the listeners with my self-obsessed, self-referential gabble, but still don’t really know what to say. I have, in a way, resigned from certain aspects of life and become an avoider. It’s not brave. It’s not strength. It’s weakness and cowardice and knowing my limits and being unwilling to push past them.
I am defeated by life, even as I think I’m surviving it.
I don’t have friends any more. I have people I like. At work, mostly. But I don’t pursue friendships much, and people don’t pursue me. They never have, actually. I’ve never had a gift for people. I am not the sort of person that others flock to, or want to see, or miss, or need. I still care about that, and wish I had the likeability factor, but oh god, I’m too tired to be the perseverer, the asker, the pusher, the pleaser, the ‘like me, like me, like me’ person in relationships. I'm crippled by my inability to like myself, so why would others. I could die tomorrow, fade out of life and nobody much would miss me. My kids of course. My devoted man too, but he’s a survivor and rather cool in his affections with everyone, despite being incredibly loyal. He’d miss me, but get on with his life and be happy - he has the right temperament for that. And me. My ex husband is happier than he ever was with me, with a new partner, and a new baby - who I should say is a joy to me as well. My sister and brother would both care but I’m not in their life on a daily basis. My workmates would be shocked and care, but that sort of thing heals over fast. It’s like having another job – you’re just not at your desk.
I’m no more plugged into the world by affection or need than I ever was, but I have tried to find meaning for myself in things that give me pleasure – being domestic, making a mosaic, sewing up little scraps of material, setting a fire, growing a tomato, painting a chest of drawers, having animals.
It’s a small life. I like it. I do my best.
But when you read about someone else in the depression club, with so much insight, and so many friends, and so many years of survival behind them, who offered so much help and succor and inspiration to others but who – in the end – just can’t keep going, it does make you wonder if you will be able to. If the next time is just round the corner. If you can get through it again. If there is, actually, no hope. Nobody can save you, but what happens when you can no longer save yourself?
There’s a quote in the paper today from someone I know who was a sort of friend, or as much of a friend that she could be in this superficial, London, media, networking, success orientated life whose fringes I used to cling on to, saying that she’d seen the woman at a party once, so bright, so brilliant, so wonderful. and been unable to believe that she could feel so empty.
I’d be the suburban terraced house to this woman’s big detached place in Chelsea, in the personality and talent stakes, but in me too there used to be the same dichotomy of apparent, outward, vibrancy and inward chasm of meaninglessness. Maybe that’s why we are as we are. We are truly unbalanced.
To cope with depression, I sort of lobotomized myself to get a modicum of balance. But today I’m wobbling.