To Define or Not To Define

Every few days, I’ll be scrolling through one social media or another and I’ll see a post baldly stating, ‘Don’t let your mental illness define you!’ or ‘You are more than your mental illness!’ These have always irritated me but I didn’t really stop to investigate why. But I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently, both in the personal sense and the abstract, and I think I’m starting to make sense of it.

As a person, I can be a bit perverse. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I instantly feel compelled to prove them wrong. And so, when these posts tell me that I am not defined by my mental illness, a part of me starts yelling, “But I am defined by my mental illness!” Childish, I know, but true. The thing is that I don’t necessarily think that that is a bad thing. Of course I’m defined by my mental health problems: they take up significant time and effort and emotion. Why wouldn’t I feel defined by something like that? It has defined me, it has shaped me in the same way that any big part of my life has, like my love for songwriting has, like my love and loyalty to my friends and family has. Anything that has caused significant emotion in me, whether it be good or bad, has become a part of me and sometimes those parts are big parts.

But an important thing to remember, I think, is that our identities are constantly shifting and changing. What defines us now won’t necessarily define us in the future. With everything that happens to us, our lives get bigger and grow around the old parts, the same way the roots of trees grow around any obstacle they find in their path. Right now, my mental health overwhelms pretty much everything but that may not always be the case. The medication might start to work, helping me to manage the symptoms, or something bigger might happen in my life. The point is things change.

On the other hand, I could choose it, choose to make mental health a ‘defining’ part of my life. I could choose to turn it into something, to use my experience. And I think that that is something I need to do. I don’t think I can ignore what is such a significant part of my life or view it as something to just get past. That feels disrespectful to the amount of time and effort and emotion that I – and the people in my life – have had to put into this. If life is about the journey rather than the destination, then this is an important part of the journey and, like every significant moment, I will be adding this to my backpack to carry with me.

Stepping Back in Time

Sometimes I wonder about what it would be like if I could go back to secondary school and to sixth form but with everything I know now. Obviously it would help with the lessons and exams but what I’ve learned about myself would’ve completely changed my experience of school. I’m such a different person at twenty-three than I was at sixteen or eighteen (as I would hope we all are). Throw in the ups and downs of my mental health and I’d say I’ve learned a lot in those years. I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a while now so I thought I’d write down some of these thoughts and compile them here:

On Choosing Subjects To Study – I am fascinated by what my life would look like if I’d known I was Autistic, if I’d known about my mental health challenges, and this is a good example of that. Because of the identity issues that often come with BPD, choosing the subjects to study at sixth form was distressing. How was I supposed to know what I wanted to study when I didn’t know who I wanted to be, who I was even? I want to write about identity a lot more but it’s such a big subject that I haven’t managed to tackle it yet. I promise I will. In this case, I knew I liked Psychology and I knew I liked Maths but I wasn’t sure what to pick for the final two options so I did what I always do when faced with a question about myself that I don’t know how to answer: I filled the empty space with real people and fictional characters that I liked and admired, people that embodied the things I wanted to be. That was how I ended up choosing History and Physics. I don’t regret those choices but now that I know that that happens, I approach things differently.

On Standing Up For Myself – I was fortunate not to go through any extended periods of bullying during my school years. There were a couple of incidents but they never went on for very long; they either got bored of me ignoring them or I pushed back which made them stop. But I had several teachers who didn’t behave particularly well: shouting at the class, humiliating us, telling us we were stupid, etc. Back then, I just kept my head down; I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. I was terrified of getting in trouble and standing up to an authority figure was something I just didn’t know how to do. I was just trying to get through it; I didn’t know that I didn’t deserve to be treated like that, that I could push back against it. Were I in that situation now, I wouldn’t let someone treat me that way, let alone anyone else. If it wasn’t abusive, it was a downright unacceptable way to treat the children they were responsible for.

On Trying To Fit In – When I was younger, especially in my early teenage years, I would look at the girls in my classes and in my year group and wish that I could be one of them. They were all so pretty and seemed to have everything and had been friends all their lives. I’d missed a lot of school due to illness and there was some hard stuff going on at home and my one good friend had just moved to the US. I felt very alone. I wanted to belong somewhere. I went on to find some amazing friends – many of whom I’m still friends with now – but the feeling of belonging is a hard one and one that I guess I’m still learning how to handle. But if I was going to secondary school all over again, that isn’t something I’d worry about. I think that the need to belong isn’t so urgent when you feel like you belong to yourself. I’m not all the way there yet, but further down that road than I was at sixteen.

On Blending In – It wasn’t until I looked back that I realised I was trying to be invisible. I didn’t put my hand up when I knew the answer, I hated any activity that required me to be at the front of the class, and I did everything I could to avoid drawing attention to myself. Even the way I sat – hunched over, trying to make myself smaller – reflected that. And yet I was desperate not to be forgotten. Apparently teenage me was an oxymoron. But no, I get it: I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t want people to know me, or remember me, as something I wasn’t. And worse case scenario, I embarrass myself and that be what people associate with me forever. But as I started to know myself, this behaviour started to change. Finding something that I loved and something that made me feel like I was where I was supposed to be, i.e. songwriting, really helped with that too. In a way, finding that gave me permission to exist, to take up space, and that gave me confidence. These days, I can look at myself and feel so unsure about everything but all I have to do is look back to know how far I’ve come.

The last couple of weeks have been hard, mental health and medication wise, but I’m hopeful that that will start to ease and then I can spend more time and energy on here. Thank you, as always, for reading.

When I Said I Wanted Superpowers, This Isn’t What I Meant

I’ve seen a lot of people make sense of their mental health issues or their Autism or their whatever by saying that it’s given them a superpower: sensitivity to emotions, intense focus, and so on. Despite my love for all things superhero, this has always irritated me and I never really understood why until I talked to my Mum about it. The words just came out and it clicked into place.

For me, it’s too simplistic a concept. At this point in time, I only feel disadvantaged – deprived – by my Autism especially. I’m told I won’t feel like this forever – I know that lots of people feel like it does add something to their lives – but right now, it takes away from my life more than it adds. So it really doesn’t feel like a superpower. If anything, it feels like I’ve suddenly got a superpower that I can’t control. If you want an excellent example of this, watch Agents of Shield: one character develops the ability to control the vibrations around her but because she can’t control it, she essentially causes earthquakes whenever she gets upset or angry or scared. Sometimes I feel kind of like that, like the intensity of my emotions causes irreparable damage to me and everything around me. I’m not causing natural disasters or shattering windows but maybe the effect is just slower.

An example that fits better with Autism might be having enhanced hearing – connected to the sensory sensitivities – but because I can’t control it, I can’t use it. I can’t isolate a single sound and tune out everything else; it’s just a tidal wave of noise, the world with the volume up to maximum. It feels like the best I can do is to manage it, to keep it at a level that doesn’t kill me. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to control it, even a little bit. What if it’s something that you just can’t control, like time or the weather? I worry that it’s one of those things, that it’ll be like this forever. Is it still a superpower if you can’t do anything with it, if you can’t do anything good with it?

I’ve done my fair share of those personality tests that supposedly tell you something about yourself, what animal you’d be or which Hogwarts house you’re most suited to. I think this is something that many people who struggle with identity do: you feel like you don’t know who you are so you’ll take any answers you can get. I’ve definitely fallen into that rabbit hole before. I’ve never found a good one for superpowers though. Mine would probably be something to do with emotions, like being able to manipulate someone’s emotions or transmit my emotions to somebody else. Maybe that’s the problem: maybe the strength of my emotions just falls short of a superpower, maybe one percent more and I’d be able to control them. That fits right into my fear that I’d be something special if I just tried harder, that I’m never trying hard enough. Okay, I’m rambling now.

Anyway. My point is… I’m not even sure what my point is. I guess I’m just thinking out loud. Reading it back it’s a bit of a mess but I needed to put all of this somewhere. Mostly I think I’m scared I’m not enough, not enough of anything. I’d love to know if you’ve thought about any of this, whether you like the superpower metaphor, even what you think your superpower would be… So if you’d like to, please leave a comment below.

Version 2

(Photo by Richard Sanderson. He called this my ‘superhero pose.’)

The Big White Room

Since taking the Venlafaxine, I’ve felt different. I’ve felt a little bit lighter, mentally and emotionally. In some ways this is better but in some ways it’s not. Depression is such a heavy feeling but now I feel a bit like I’m floating away. I feel kind of lost, or like I’ve lost something really important. In a weird way, I miss feeling depressed. No, that’s not right. I don’t miss it, but I feel kind of lost without it. And feeling like that makes me very anxious.

Objectively I understand why I feel this way: I’ve spent a lot of time feeling depressed. It’s familiar. It’s certain. It’s a world where everything is in focus with clear and sharp edges. Now the edges are fuzzy. I feel like I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing. And emotionally, I’m finding that really hard to get my head around.

I know who I am when I’m depressed. Those emotions overwhelm me, they define me. Depression takes over my personality, or becomes the biggest part of it. It affects everything. It’s like depression takes up all that space. But now, there’s suddenly all this space that wasn’t there before. It feels a bit like when you stand in the middle of a really massive empty room. It’s quiet. It’s cold. It makes you feel so small and lonely. And if I look at myself in that big white room, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know if I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I don’t know if I’m a good person or a bad person. I don’t know if I’m loud or quiet. I know some little things but not the big things.

I do recognise the opportunity here, the opportunity for things to be different: to fill the room with new things. That thought is both thrilling and terrifying. But I’m not sure I’m there yet: I’m still pretty overwhelmed by how big this room is, how empty it is. I don’t know where to start.

I’ve thought a lot about identity, both mine and in general. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time and something I want to write more about. But I think your identity is made up of the things about you that don’t change, the fundamental aspects of your personality. I don’t know much about myself but I do know that I’m very sensitive. I’ve always been sensitive and I can’t see it ever changing. So I guess that’s a part of my identity.

I’m not sure my depression is gone but I’m not drowning in it anymore. And that’s scary. I’m so used to it that I’m not sure who I am without it. When I’m depressed, that big white room is so dark that I don’t know that all that space is there, so I don’t even know the room is that big. But now I know it’s there and it’s very compelling. I keep turning it over in my mind. As I said, I know who I am when I’m depressed. I want to know who I am when I’m not. So I guess that starts now. It’s a brave new world.

IMG_0143