For context – I’m writing this – after weeks of feeling more depressed than I’ve felt in a long time. Summer is coming to an end and I’m looking ahead to autumn. I have The Proclaimers singing into my headphones, I’ve just finished listening to another episode of “My Dad Wrote A Porno” and I’ve dance-tidied my room to Blowzabella trying to make myself feel more “happy.” I don’t know why I feel this way, and if I did I’m sure I’d try my best to stop it. Depression to me is not being able to physically get out of bed, until the cats miaow loudly in your ear for breakfast, and even then it’s like climbing Mount Everest. You feel lost. You’re physically and emotionally exhausted. You want to talk to friends. You desperately want that interaction, yet you don’t know how to start the conversation you so desperately need. It’s not being able to adequately put into words the thoughts in your head, and for someone whose most recent degree is literally in words, that is a pretty scary prospect. Even since mental health became my job, I should know this stuff, but somehow, when it comes to my own mental health, I don’t. Or at least what I preach to others seems harder, if not impossible.
I’m always rushing about, most of us do, trying to achieve the next big thing, yo-yoing around the country certain I won’t break, looking for another project, planning the next place to visit and searching for an adventure. Two months ago the Mental Health Mates group almost staged an intervention because they saw I was doing too much, so gave me the “burn out” lecture – which to be fair – I needed at the time. Do we really give ourselves adequate time to just think? To not get caught up in life or the expectations of ourselves and others? Do we ever actually have a conversation with our brain? More often than not we don’t have the time to just be. Or if we do, it’s unwanted time and we wish we were doing something else. We’ve all been there. I know we have.
If we harp back 11/12 years, to when I was 18. I felt similarly lost as I do today. Before my 18th birthday, I was terrified of becoming an adult and the expectations this would bring. Most A Level results days bring joy, but mine just brought fear and anger that I should have done better. Why did you spend all of Year 13 so miserable Alice? I didn’t have the answer to that question then, and I don’t have much of an answer now. But I do know that expectations can be damaging, and the hype of becoming an adult and going to university (I wasn’t even moving away) wasn’t anything to fear, but at the time it was everything. When I was at my lowest, I extensively used a text service for young people, where I could text my worries to a youth worker who would listen and respond. This interaction became a lifeline and made A Levels more bearable. I was able to talk to someone, who wasn’t my parents, or a teacher, who seemed to just “get it.” I kept a detailed diary documenting the time, charting the feelings of a teenager who was convinced she would fail her A Levels and was absolutely terrified about going to university. I was 18, but didn’t want to be, I remember texting one morning “I don’t feel like an adult. I haven’t achieved anything I should by now” And it was on that morning when it was suggested that I should speak to a doctor. The doctor, who then told me that I was too young to be depressed.
“Is the youth worker who told you to come here medically qualified?” She demanded.
A rhetorical question she already knew the answer to. I was stunned into silence, and left the doctors surgery with little, other than an already shaky confidence shattered.
Those words have stuck with me to this day. The days following that doctors visit I felt broken, lost and like I was too much of a burden for just trying to ask for help. I still had the text service though, and sometimes all you need is someone to listen, qualified or not.
What did I think I hadn’t achieved by that age? What did I think I should have done? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m in a similar predicament now. I’m turning 30 in a few months, and as with eighteen year old me, I’m convinced I haven’t done things I should have achieved. This written down sounds utterly ridiculous, because I know, more than I did eleven years ago, that comparisons with others mean little, we’re all on our own path and life certainly isn’t a race or something to win.
As young children, we’re taught to be competitive. The school sports days, that were just ritual humiliation for me, the endless exams or tests and relationships. If you haven’t got a massive circle of friends – certainly more so when you’re younger – I couldn’t give a toss now, you are seen as some kind of failure. When most of your friends are in relationships you constantly feel like you’re third wheeling. And the time exam marks are read out in science, making you feel ridiculed because physics is somehow beyond your brains capabilities. Whether you want these things to be a competition or not. They are.
There is also the opposite to this that, I’ve read referred to as “imposter syndrome,” when you believe things you’ve achieved should never have happened or that you are some kind of fraud. I know when good things have happened to me, because I’ve felt so low in the past, I’ve believed that they happened to the wrong person or that I’m not deserving of good things too. I remember being offered a job, and saying down the phone to the person who had just offered me the job, “are you sure?” as if there had been some kind of terrible mistake and that they meant to ring someone else. There had never been a mistake – I just didn’t believe it could be true – when I was so used to rejections. I once got a 1st for an essay, and was on the brink of asking my tutor to have it remarked, because I was convinced there had been an error and I didn’t want to deprive someone else of their good mark. Eventually I didn’t ask for it to be remarked, and accepted that I had done well and should be bloody proud.
In my early 20’s I looked up to someone, who was ten years older than me, and was unwittingly bad for my mental health. She was everything I thought I needed to be, both professionally and as a person. We’ll call her Belinda. “Why can’t I be more like Belinda?” I’d wonder, after another 2am phone conversation, where she disclosed more about her life than she should have, and I thought I was in some kind of exclusive club. I modelled my life on hers, when in reality I was nothing like her. She’d send me messages, and I would feel excited whenever I saw her name pop up on my phone. I didn’t just want to be like her, I basically wanted to be her. I soon realised that she didn’t really want to talk to me, we were never anything that real friends resemble and she was only keeping me around because she felt she had to and so I could essentially be used. It was a lesson. A lesson that taught me how sticky comparison can be and how detrimental to your mental health it can become. I was at one of my lowest points when she was in my life and vowed to keep people around who were only good for my brain in future. So far I seem to have stuck to that. If you’re in it, you’re probably one of them.
Concluding context: I’m now listening to Mamma Mia, I’ve moved from my desk to my bed to write the rest of this, my cat is asleep on the top of my wardrobe, I might start being able to chat to friends again and I’m feeling on the whole a bit happier. I’ve also had time to think and reflect, and have that chat with my brain, that many of us don’t have the time for. Expectations are everywhere. They are less obvious as an adult but they are still there. Social media is the worst enabler of this, making us believe who we should or shouldn’t be, but it is also the best enabler of helping us feel closer to our friends. The latter is definitely important when you’re going through a depressive episode.
Although, I’m still terrified about turning 30, but that’s totally normal right?! If anyone has any advice on the whole “turning 30” thing, I’d happily listen.
Make sure you look after you. And give yourself some time to just be when you don’t feel as “you” as you’d like. There really is a lot to be said for self-care, alongside using others as a sounding board to help you feel better. I’m also certain dips in mood are sometimes in sync amongst close friends, as with women and periods, or maybe that’s just me? Either way, it’s reassuring to know others feel as you do.
Lots to relate to here as usual. I had my own “Belinda” in my late teens and early twenties as I think you know (you certainly will if you’ve read the excerpt from my book that I shared…). In my case it was less her feeling she had to stay in touch with me, more her assuming that if I was busy and there were insufficient grounds to stay in touch, I’d just get bored and jog on. But my brain was not made for “just jogging on…”
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🙂 Yes – you’ve mentioned that before. I’m sure having “Belinda” like figures is more common for young women than most of us realise, although I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone else who’s had a vaguely similar experience. I’d imagine it’s common for those from certain minorities or backgrounds to get into these situations too. And yep, read your book excerpt too!