Writing this post feels a little more intimate than any other so far. It’s easy enough to talk abstractly about how I sometimes feel, or give you a retrospective account of the ugly bits. Writing it down – instead of saying it out loud – feels like one big safe step removed from total honesty, and doing so after the fact feels like two. But I didn’t start this blog just to cop out when the subject matter – my life, the light and dark – gets uncomfortable to talk about. I wanted to say things that were difficult to say, so, today, WE’RE LIVE from my parents’ dining room, where I’m feeling like a kite in a storm.
The thing is, I haven’t written a word of my novel in nearly two weeks. I haven’t told anybody that.
If you read my inaugural post last month, you may remember these are circumstances I am very not cool with. In fact, I don’t think I can exaggerate how much failing to write fucks with my head. I’m a pragmatic person and when I’m feeling like me, my self-esteem is pretty healthy. But at times like this, all that I am disintegrates, until my self-worth comes downs to one thing – one thing I’m failing at.
I try to tell myself kind things, whether or not I listen. But as days pass and word counts stay fixed, a sort of amnesia sets in. I know the positives are there, I’m sure there was something I was meant to be clinging to, something other than my novel, but it’s lost in the fog. The only thoughts I can still see clearly are mean and shitty.
So now I’m up nights, ridden with anxiety. I won’t go into the wild, paradoxical clusterfuck that is depression and anxiety being such tight buddies, at least not today. Suffice to say they are the most unlikely of friends, and I am not wholly convinced they even like each other. They would be much better off parting ways, and finding friends with whom they have more in common, like, for example, lethargy and mania respectively. But I digress.
My anxious thoughts start with ‘why can’t I write?’ and quickly progress through my joblessness, my lack of exercise, my fibre intake, the laundry I haven’t done, right down to the email I didn’t send and the call to the doctors I didn’t make. I can’t quite remember how this patch of dry skin on my face became so fucking important; all I know is I can’t stop thinking about it. Most of these things probably sound like problems I could solve to you. Yep. They sound that way to me too.
Now I haven’t even opened the word document in days. I’m afraid to. Afraid of freezing again when I reach for the keys. Afraid of such a disconnect with my own work that I don’t feel like the next sentence is mine to write. Afraid of realising I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, and that I’m not actually a writer at all.
This is my depression. It’s tangled up in a sort of ‘achievement’ compulsion I don’t know how to control. Other peoples’ may be tangled in something far denser, more unknowable, and perhaps so widespread, so pandemic, that it touches every part of their life and every thought in their mind. I used to feel like that – like I was swallowed up – but I don’t anymore, which is why I believe this too will pass; that I’ll be okay.
This is only a snapshot. It’s not the whole picture, which is far too complex for me to unravel in a blog post. Besides, I can’t see it all myself. I can recognise my patterns and my triggers, the negative thoughts that help put me where I am now, and I can try and make sense of it. But the truth is, I don’t know why I have depression when other people don’t, and that fact is painful in ways I can’t describe.
It just so happens it is Depression Awareness Week, so consider this post my contribution to the cause. If there’s one thing I hope you take away from it, it’s this: depression doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t care how good or bad things are. It doesn’t care that you’ve written half of your novel and you should be so frickin’ proud of yourself. It’s the product of a broken mind, one which can receive all the correct data – a perfect Sunday, a feel-good film, your words of encouragement – but will process it through whichever faulty channel it chooses that day. You cannot reason somebody out of their depression, but you can try to understand, and that will make all the difference.
It is often said that a sound predictor of unhappiness is having expectations life fails to fulfil. And sure, that makes sense. It holds a lot of wisdom about gratitude and finding fulfilment in what you have, and warns against the dangers of modelling your life after anything from a Disney movie or Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The truth is, I put a lot of the self-doubt and despondency that feeds my depression down to the fact I’m scrambling after difficult to obtain things. But something about the idea doesn’t sit right with me and I’ve been thinking about why.
I haven’t quite worked it out yet. Expectation is an abstruse and unattractive fella. He is hope’s even more optimistic brother. His head’s not fastened on. He can be unreasonable. He’s no good at contingency plans. He never stops to count his blessings. At least these are the things I imagine when I hear the word ‘expectation’. But both brothers are after something they don’t have. Both are prone to disappointment.
I definitely have hopes. I hope to be successful as a writer. I hope to be critically well-received. I hope to touch people. I expect that these things are possibilities, not eventualities, and this is where lines blur and your dreams risk becoming nightmares.
The thing is, I don’t believe happiness and wanting more are mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I’m in the conflicting camp of clichés which tell us goals give us something to live for. But they’re not everything. You have a real life, and real blessings, and happiness isn’t something the things you think you want will give you.
I’m at risk of paraphrasing Miley Cyrus here but fuck it, this post is basically ‘The Climb’ minus the throaty southern twang. Enjoy the journey, is what I’m trying to say. When you reach the top, the only way is down, and I think maybe this is how people with too many expectations find themselves unfulfilled. They forget to take in the scenery (somebody please stop me).
If you asked me whether I would trade my big dreams and pesky ambition for the contentment of already being where I want to be, I would say no. My problem isn’t my ambition, it’s something else; something I’m still looking for, and hell if I know how it sits snug against my big dreams like happy little yin and yang buddies, but I really, truly believe that it does.
So I say go ahead, aim higher, as long as you remember it ain’t about how fast you get there, or whatever.
You are now entering year twenty-seven. Please check all expectations, agendas and five year plans at the gate.
I don’t mind aging. I choose to believe there are many more great things ahead of me than behind, because duh. Being a kid sucks. Being a teenager sucks. I spent nearly two decades wishing I was someone else, somewhere else, and I would trade the lack of responsibility, and the capacity for 100 revolutions on a playground roundabout without vomming, for independence and a pub quiz any day. There’s no appreciating all the perks of childhood and adolescence until they’re over, which is basically the same as saying there are none.
And though I’ve got wise to enjoying my transient privileges before they’re gone – like the ability to go braless, or to see away a bottle of Cab Sav and still get up before noon the next day – your twenties come with their own whole heap of shit. I think we grow up slower than we used to and these historically more adult years have become just a [marginally] less messy extension of our teens. I’m not comfortable in myself. I’m not thinking about where I want to be for the rest of my life. I’m not settling. And I don’t mean the way you do with someone, somewhere. I mean the way water settles, or earth after a landslide.
I do know that I never envisioned this for my mid-twenties. Monday is my twenty-sixth birthday, and the prospect of clocking up another year has me reminiscing about where I thought I’d be by now. Here’s a brief run-down:
Age 11 – Myself, Orlando Bloom, and a squillion babies
Age 13 – Anywhere but Norwich
Age 15 – Winning triple gold at the Oscars for writing, producing and directing the biggest critical and commercial hit of the century
Age 20 – Married, maybe thinking about a family
Age 23 – Writing the sequel to my runaway success of a debut
But here’s the unfortunate truth: the most accurate I’ve ever been about what life would look like going into my twenty-seventh year was at my very lowest point, when I was eighteen, hopeless, and nearly bedridden with depression.
‘Unfortunate’ may seem like a mild description. I’ll confess, it wasn’t my first reaction – picture Edvard Munch’s The Scream – but I chose the word carefully. Firstly, because I was the most accurate, but nowhere near on the money. The real twenty-six-year-old me has ambition, curiosity, faith in the love of my friends and family, and a rich, imaginative internal life that compels me to write. Even if I’m living back at home; even if I don’t have a job, and suffer heart palpitations just trying to imagine one I could handle; and even if I spend a day here and there staring at the wall and wondering where my mind has flown to, these things are everything. They’re the difference.
And secondly; because what eighteen-year-old me imagined for herself doesn’t mean jack shit. What I’ve learned from the nauseating pace of my ups and downs is that life turns on a dime, and that’s what’s wonderful about it. Most of the best things that have ever happened to me came out of nowhere, and most of the worst too. I can try and steer, but there’s no accounting for getting blown about a bit.
So, it’s unfortunate, but only because I’m sorry eighteen-year-old Hannah ever felt that way. I wish I could have told her how much would have changed between then and now. Having grown and learned more about myself, I know that the real me is an optimist – as contradictory as that may sound given the description of this blog. Of course I think about the future, but these days it’s out of focus; just shapes with fuzzy edges and moving timelines and big holes for all the surprises. All I can do is work hard to point myself in the right direction, hope for good things, and be ready and waiting in case Orlando Bloom drops by.
You’ve played Candy Crush, right? You’ve probably completed a few hundred levels, and worn that number like a badge of honour (read: shame) in front of your less accomplished friends. It’s probably got more competitive than you ever imagined rearranging confectionary could. Unlocking those next ten levels has been like the frickin holy grail. You’ve strategized; you’ve thought as many as six or seven moves ahead to try and get that five in a row. You’ve experienced the anxiety of waiting to see if your set piece plays out like you hope it will, when you have one move left on a level you’ve failed sixty-three times already. You’ve lusted for the old days, the simpler times of level twenty-eight, when you still knew that joyous satisfaction of watching glossy little candies pop and rain down. Because the truth is, it stopped being fun two hundred odd levels ago. Now you just have to get higher up that map.
Well, Candy Crush is everything mindfulness is not. Delete it, and send all records of your progress to the data graveyard.
Because when you’re constantly thinking about your next ten moves and looking ahead to those higher levels, you’re missing this moment, and you can’t enjoy what you’re not present for. Mindfulness is about matching to goings on in your mind with the goings on around you. It’s about bringing yourself into the present. It’s about sitting down and just eating the candy, because dammit, that’s what it’s there for.
Meditation is like deleting the Candy Crush in your brain – the unending stream of ‘what’s next’; the backlog of spent emotions over what’s already in the past – so that all you have left is the candy. Pretty sweet (I’ll see myself out).
Or, that’s the idea. If you read my March 29 post, you will know it was around this time last year that my depression came back. I was on the home stretch of editing my novel, and my self-imposed deadlines were chipping away at me as they flew by. Stress, anxiety and an unshakeable sense of failure had me feeling like I was falling apart. As well as prescribing medication, my doctor signed me off work with explicit instructions to frickin take it easy.
I had to learn how to stop. Stop doing everything I enforced upon myself to feel like I was achieving something, and be okay with it. I had to learn to be in the moment. So I started meditating.
We are told a lot how mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation are good ways to manage stress and improve our overall mood, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been used to help sufferers of recurring depression understand and manage the ways their own thoughts and other stimuli impact their state of mind. Can’t hurt, right? I figured I’d give it a go. With the help of this no bullshit guide from life coach Leo Gura, I started meditating for twenty minutes every day (okay, I’ve missed somewhere between five and eight practices), and here are the findings of my brief, poorly executed, and not the least bit scientific dalliance with meditation.
I’m an assistant deputy in my own brain
I’d like to think the one place I’m in charge is inside my own head. Practically, I know that’s not true, or I wouldn’t have spent three hours playing geography quizzes on Sporcle before I got to writing this post. Nor would I still be mad about the tea bag left in the sink four days ago. But it’s not until I sit down to meditate, and ask nicely if I can take the wheel for twenty minutes, that I realise how little clout I hold up there. Sometimes my mind has been wandering for minutes before I even notice I’ve lost concentration. A lifetime of bad habits is ridiculously hard to break, and it makes me wonder how much more productive, engaged and centred I would be if I could shut off all that noise.
I could use my time more effectively
This revelation probably has little to do with the meditation itself, but is invaluable all the same. If I can find twenty minutes a day to do nothing but stare at the inside of my eyelids, what else could I find time for? Learning French? Running daily? When I think about how little of my day I put to any use whatsoever it makes me cringe. I’ve never missed those twenty minutes. I probably wouldn’t miss another dozen such chunks of time. Have I used them? LOL OF COURSE I HAVEN’T (see previous point).
It’s its own reward
MRI scans have shown changes in brain function after as little as eleven hours of meditation. Well, by this point I’m up to one hundred and twentyish hours, and I don’t feel any different. Or maybe I do. If I was better at being mindful I could tell you for sure.
Either way, I can’t complain about an activity the only objective of which is – essentially – to quit worrying. When I shake out my limbs after a good practice I feel contented and calm, even if it only lasts the five minutes before I get back to work.
I guess I think we should maybe all be doing it?
After twenty-five years of not practising meditation, a year isn’t much to go by. I can’t say I’m underwhelmed by the effects, because I had no expectations. But if I’ve not yet seen the myriad benefits advocates like Gura rave about, at least I’ve learned I have a definite need for what it’s trying to accomplish, and you probably do too. I like it, and I will keep doing it. So, yes, I suppose, to meditation.
Imagine it’s Monday morning. You slept horribly, your room’s cold, and it’s raining and miserable outside. You have a lot to do at work today, again, because that’s the way it’s been for weeks now, and you’ve had enough. So you think ‘fuck it’, and you turn your alarm off and roll over. You’ll catch up on all that work tomorrow.
But around 9.30, your boss calls. She’s wondering where you’ve got to. You’re straight with her: you’re noping out today and that’s that. Obviously, she’s a little taken aback because, I mean, it’s your job. She’s paying you for it. There are people relying on you. She says you’ve got an hour to get to the office or they’ll be repercussions. But there’s an easy fix: you turn your phone off for the rest of the day, and her four more calls go straight to voicemail.
When you check your phone on Tuesday morning, there are also a couple of messages from your friend Jeff. He wants you to go see a movie with him. You tell him you can’t, you have to go to work because you’re in deep shit as it is. But Jeff says you work too hard, that it’s okay to be easier on yourself sometimes, and you think ‘Jeff knows’, so you blow off work again and go to the movie. Maybe you get some dinner too. By the time you get home that evening, your boss is losing her shit. There’s a formal email in your inbox, summoning you to a disciplinary hearing the next day. If you fail to attend, the email states, you will be automatically suspended without pay for two weeks. Well, fine. Sounds cushty.
You have a swell two weeks. All your work friends – the ones picking up your slack – are on you round the clock, trying to find out what the fuck’s going on with you, but no matter. Your boss eventually schedules another meeting with you at the end of your suspension to talk about the next steps. You, like, really need to go to this meeting. The buck has well and truly stopped, and your career hangs in the balance.
But you don’t. So they fire you.
Now, imagine it again, except at around 9.30 on Monday, when your boss calls you up, she doesn’t. When you and Jeff go to the cinema on Tuesday, she’s cool with it. You check your inbox when you get home, and there’s some spam from thetrainline.com and ASOS, and that’s it. You decide to take two weeks off anyway, because why not? Jeff’s right, you do work yourself too hard. Your boss signs off on this too. You don’t get fired, you don’t piss anybody off, and the slowly building mountain of work – the stuff you need to do to get where you’re trying to go – will wait for you.
If scenario B sounds familiar, you’re probably writing a novel.
It’s not easy to get shit done when no one’s paying you, no one’s counting on you, and no one’s riding you to put the hours in other than you. Unlike me, the chances are you’re working a real, paying job too, or raising a family, or juggling some other first priority that makes it that much harder to listen to your boss (that’s you in this metaphor) when she tells you to show up, or there’ll be consequences. If you’ve ever wondered why so few people ever write the novel we supposedly all have in us, then this is why.
Self-motivation is an elusive thing at the best of times – but this is my second novel. The first was whittled at slowly over five years, in between shifts and studying and other priorities. I started it for the love of writing, but somewhere along the way I got giddy over the idea of seeing it in print, of having strangers read it and even – dare I dream? – enjoy it. It hasn’t worked out that way (yet; I hope to release it as an eBook sometime this year). Somewhere in the region of twenty agents turned it down. So, I started again. I had another idea for a story, and I’m about halfway through a first draft.
You tell yourself a lot of clichés when you’re grappling to succeed. One that I love and hate equally is this: ‘believe you can and you’re halfway there’. I love it because it’s true: halfway might sound like a long way for something as simple as your state of mind to carry you, and it is. No one’s trying to tell you the second half of the journey isn’t a frickin long way, but that second half starts way up in the mountains. Think the Fellowship digging through snow on the Redhorn Pass. You’ve got to elevate your mind.
And I hate it, also because it’s true: however soul-destroying it is to have to question whether you can even string a sentence together; however many agents turn you down; and however insurmountable the task of starting right back at the beginning may seem, if you don’t believe in yourself (yack. I should probably mention I’m sponsored by Disney) then there’s no point ever picking up a pen. It’s the catch-22 of this whole ‘ambition’ debacle: you have to set yourself up for the fall.
It could be worse. I could be surrounded with people who don’t take me seriously. Because there is no way in heck I’d have written that first line if my family and friends scoffed and laughed and told me to do something worthwhile and profitable instead. But, for the most part, they’re the closest thing I have to colleagues. They ask about my progress; they listen to me moan about my work day; and they offer [often hilarious] narrative solutions when I start into the nitty-gritty of whatever problem I can’t solve. Sure, every once in a while I have to put my foot down and tell them ‘no, actually, I can’t come to the pub because I’m working’, or ‘I know you mean well, but I’m not calling it a day just because it’s taking so long’. If you’re reading this and you’re one of those people, then believe me when I say that, when it’s done, this novel will have your infinite support to thank for its existence.
So I have two nuggets of advice. The first is to surround yourself with people who get it. You need colleagues. They’re no substitute for a real taskmaster, but even the most self-confidant of us can get a vital boost from a loved one telling us to soldier on.
And the second is this: toe the line. Listen to your boss. You’re her favourite, after all, and she wants to see you go far. Those deadlines she sets, the whip-cracking and the missed movie trips – they’re for your own good. Because when you took the job, you told her you wanted to hold your published novel in your hands. You told her you needed that giant dose of the feeling you only get when somebody’s reading something born in your imagination. And you never know, work hard enough and she might give you a raise*.
*lol, she won’t