cn: depression, disassociation, the past, identity
I have these photos on my bedroom wall from my first year of uni, and now, four years later, I often look up at my 18/19 year old self and wonder, who the fuck is she?
She’s beaming, always, in the centre of a big group of friends, usually holding a drink. She isn’t pretending, not in those moments – she’s confident and herself and so exultantly happy.
Sometimes I look up and scoff at her naïve certainty, glad that I’ve grown up and no longer feel the need to pout in every photo. But other times I look up and I miss her a lot.
I spend so much of my time reliving moments from the past – the best and the worst ones, tiny ones that pierced me especially vividly. But for some reason, I can’t close my eyes and imagine the feeling of being that particular version of myself. There’s a disconcerting disjuncture between being able to remember the scenes and being able to remember the feelings. I don’t know if I’m describing this well; if you know the thought experiment ‘What Mary Didn’t Know’, then I think I mean the difference between knowing every fact about the colour red but only seeing in black and white, and knowing what it actually feels like to see the colour red. Except in my case, ‘red’ is a metaphor for a far more elusive phenomenon: being 18 and euphoric and sure that it will last forever.
I think that by 15 or 16, I’d tried on a few different personas (in my head at least), and had at last settled on a model to grow myself into. I saw these girls who were smart and kind and had hobbies and cared about the world, and I wanted to be them so desperately that it hurt. With my goal always at the back of my mind, I worked on imitating friends who made being confidently kind seem so simple, gaining some self-awareness, and leaning on encouragement from people around me, so that miraculously, by the time I’d pulled through puberty, I’d actually made some progress. By 18 and a half, I was almost there, so much so that the day before I left for university, I rounded off my summer diary by declaring – and for some reason this gives me a little bit of heartache – that I felt ‘more like who I want to be than ever.’
New beginnings usually set me back a little – I find it hard to settle in and be myself and feel like I belong. But the first year of university was like some kind of magical parallel universe where things were different. Sure, I was awkward on the first day, but I found a group of friends impossibly quickly and not only did I tag along with them, but they actually noticed me and laughed at my jokes.
One time when we were studying together, I smiled at a newfound friend and he said, ‘You’re so positive. You’re a good person to have around.’ And it made me unbelievably happy to hear, to feel like I was wanted in a group of people who didn’t know me that well. Another time we were playing Cards Against Humanity, and everyone agreed that ‘sunshine and rainbows’ was such a me card. But the pinnacle of my journey to my ideal self came when someone described me as ‘bubbly’.
‘Bubbly’ was the girl with a smile like sunshine, who brightened the room just by being herself. The girl who won people over by being kind, possessing the rare skill of making jokes that didn’t have to come at anyone else’s expense. In other words – the complete opposite of everything I hated about myself. I was awkward, boring, stroppy, and so insecure that it made me mean. But apparently, not any more – not to other people at least. And if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me, and so that was it: I was sold. It sounds insane that one word from someone who’d known me a month could have such a dramatic effect on me, but it was as if it was the final tiny nudge I needed to press my play-doh personality into the last little corner of the mould I’d dreamed up when I was 16.
‘Bubbly’ was the girl with a smile like sunshine, who brightened the room just by being herself.
It’s so strange to want something so badly, for that thing not to be a thing but your self, and then to finally get it and feel it. It was thrilling, like a constant bubbling and sparkling just under my skin, and I was not about to let that slip away. I never admitted a negative thing about anything or anyone out loud, because I didn’t want to become a negative thing for myself or anyone else. So life was perfect, because I refused to see it any other way.
But the thing about all this magic and perfection is that it wasn’t all real. I got depressed, slowly at first and then really, really fast. (Unsurprisingly, according to every therapist I spoke to, this was in no small part down to my obsessive self-definitions and redefinitions, and refusal to acknowledge anything that threatened to dent my shiny smiley exterior. But that’s a slightly different story).
If first year was sunshine and rainbows, then second year was clouds and thunderstorms. I couldn’t see the point of anything and couldn’t get out of bed. Focusing on anything was impossible because my head felt like fluff, so uni work was out of the question. I grew silent in my classes and then with my friends. The bubbles under my skin went flat, replaced by numb wool.
I wrote a note to myself at the time, saying that the only two things I was good at were studying and being positive, and now I couldn’t do either. Depression and anxiety had taken them away from me and it was so, so unfair. It felt like there was nothing worthwhile left, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. And it was scarier to feel this time than the soul-searching days of being a teenager. Then, even though it hurt, who I wanted to be was all about potential and becoming something more. Now I was on the other side of progress – I had become something more, and then lost it.
It felt like there was nothing worthwhile left, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. And it was scarier to feel this time than the soul-searching days of being a teenager.
Sunshine and rainbows just wasn’t achievable anymore, so I grappled for something new to centre my identity on. Being so ill at the time meant I didn’t feel I could be anything else, and I had to be something, so now I recast myself in my mind as Depressed and Anxious.
This made recovery more complicated – every time I learned to see a positive again, a timid niggle at the back of my mind suggested that familiar feeling of losing myself again, giving up those clear-cut lines that I defined myself with, and not knowing who I was. That meant not knowing how I’d feel or act, or how others would respond to me. At times, that fear made me consciously resist getting better, in some twisted version of my dad’s mantra to ‘be myself’, even though that ‘self’ was a very unhappy one.
I look back and laugh at my teenage musings on identity and how I was so certain that I’d figured it all out. No doubt in hindsight, my 23 year old epiphanies will seem just as laughable, but at the moment, I think it’s like this. I know from therapy that having strict, absolute rules for who you are and how you live is not healthy, because human beings are neither strict nor absolute, so the rules will inevitably be broken. You have to build some flexibility into the attributes that you describe yourself with. So I can be sunshine and rainbows, but I can also be mean and disappointed and a bit (or a lot!) of a downer. And that’s ok.
I don’t know if I am my feelings or experiences or beliefs or actions, but at the moment my approach is just to do what I feel like doing, without analysing what kind of person I am and whether it’s the kind of thing a person like that should do. It’s hard not to pigeonhole myself into a type, and it makes making decisions and understanding myself harder, but I also feel a lot less self-induced pressure to be a certain way, which is nice.
When I reflect on how I’ve changed from first year me, sitting tightly in her positivity pigeonhole, it’s very much in a third-person sense. First year really felt like a fairy-tale, and now I almost can’t remember those times as my own memories; it’s like looking at someone else’s photos or watching a film reel of someone else’s life. And it’s funny because I don’t think my friends will think that I have changed that drastically, but I feel so different from the person I was then. It’s not that I wish I could go back in time; I don’t want to be her anymore, because ignoring all your negative feelings just isn’t sustainable or healthy, but this feeling of disconnection from her still hurts.
First year really felt like a fairy-tale, and now I almost can’t remember those times as my own memories; it’s like looking at someone else’s photos or watching a film reel of someone else’s life.
It makes me feel queasy in my stomach and lightheaded and confused. It’s unsettling because usually I see the past with a lot of relief, because it’s over so I don’t have to worry about what will happen or going through it again. But with this particular period of time, I’m so unsure about it all and how I was then, and that’s so inconsistent and contradictory in my head and I can’t make sense of it, but it feels kind of sad, for some reason.
I don’t understand this feeling of being unable to relate to who I was just a few years ago. But I’m hoping (more than a little desperately) that other people can empathise with this weird, weird temporal existential disassociation (and I’m pretty sure that at least some people will – they usually do – you’re rarely the only person ever to have felt a certain way).
I think I’m pretty happy with how I am at the moment, even if unsure of who I am, if such a thing actually exists. Maybe that’s all you can ask for.
Does this make any sense to you? Have you felt like this? Let me know in a comment or a message, and if we can’t relate to our past selves, then at least we can understand each other 🙂