When you’re lying on your death bed, your regrets aren’t going to be the things you’ve done, but the things you haven’t – supposedly. Because you get one life and you’ve got to live it, not just survive it. You’ve got to treat each day like it’s your last. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today, because all you have is now.
The adages are too numerous to count, but they’re all bullying us with the same anxious message: Do things. See things. Go places. Start today. Don’t delay. Don’t stagnate. Don’t waste your precious time. Live live live.
Like, no shit, but could you stop reminding me? It’s getting a little aggressive. It’s making me tetchy.
Because I live at home. I don’t leave very often. I don’t meet many people or make new friends. I’m not doing a lot of things I want to be doing, in favour of one that I do. It’s a ‘lifestyle’ – if you can call it that – that closes doors all by itself. The harder I focus on writing, the more other opportunities fall away.
Which opportunities, you ask? Well, I don’t know exactly, but conventional wisdom tells me they’re out there, barely within reach, lurking, taunting me. The fact is there’s nothing in particular I’m lusting after. I’m just restless, and I blame being pressured to remember, at every waking moment, that I’m dying. Considering it’s the only thing any of us can be sure of, I’d really like if we could call this one a given and stop talking about it.
It’s not that I’m in denial; quite the opposite. Active choices led me to where I am now, and they’re choices I would make again. Choices centred on spending my time how I want to, and making my numbered days count. But between the me who’s living her best life and the me of right now – who probably won’t change out of her pyjamas today – is a lot of filler I wouldn’t exactly call optimal living. If I were really living this day like it was my last, I wouldn’t be trying to force out another five hundred words of my novel. Of the things I could feasibly make happen, I’d probably be eating two dozen custard doughnuts and skipping around the countryside with my dog. Maybe naked. Definitely with a bottle of Moet Chandon in either hand.
I love to write. I love it for its own sake. But to sit in front of your laptop at the dining room table all day, to work from home, and to have whittled away a year this way for the sake of questionable progress, feels an awful lot like stagnation, and sometimes I start questioning it all. Should I be doing something else with my twenties? Will I ultimately be happier not going after what I want, with all it’s compromises and downsides, at least until some later stage?
Because I bet as you get older, people stop telling you so insistently that life is short; after all, reminding your nan that YOLO is just plain cruel. But how many of us are being propelled through our twenties by a nagging sense that there’s life to be lived, seizing to be done, days to be spent with pain-staking, exhausting economy? Perhaps I would be happier trying to satiate that anxiety in conventional ways – travelling, life-building, exercising my still-new adult independence – rather than slowly moulding into the shape of this chair. Perhaps writing can wait until enough days have passed that people feel uncomfortable telling me to seize them.
I could pack it all in, and up and leave for Peru. But I see myself, looking across the mountains from Machu Picchu, anxious because I can’t help thinking I could be doing better; could be living harder; could be even more acutely aware of my own mortality. Before I know it, my life will have passed me by in a flurry of fear that my life is passing me by.
I need to finish my novel before I visit Machu Picchu. I need to finish being here, now, and I’d like to do so with some sense of contentment; with at least moderate confidence that I’m not going to regret it. Because if we have to talk about how to live before we die, then the most important thing is to foster a happiness that follows us from our childhood bedroom to the depths of South America, or from our childhood bedroom to the dining room downstairs, if that’s where we choose to be.
It’s been nearly a year since I worked a paying job. I never meant for it to be this long, but this is exactly what happens when you don’t have a plan B kids. Let this be a cautionary tale.
In the best case scenario, I had an agent and a publisher by now; maybe even a proof copy of my novel. The worst case scenario was probably me back at my old job, right where I was a year ago – and a year before that – but things aren’t that bad yet … yay?
It’s all good (translation: mostly okay). Unemployment is potentially crippling and life-ruining, but I had a place to fall back on, and parents who wanted to help. Plus I’m a handy little saver. But that’s not to say the silver linings don’t come attached to some pretty gloomy clouds. Here are my pros and cons of being unemployed.
Pro: It’s kind of great
All my time is mine to spend how I choose. My commitments are practically non-existent. I get up when I like, I write when I like, I make a cup of tea every twenty minutes and no one minds. Yes, I try to maintain a routine and cultivate discipline, but really, not having a job makes this easier. I don’t come home after a long day, mentally exhausted, and find I can’t even imagine sitting down to write. I don’t get more or less done at the weekends. I have the freedom to work when I’m most inspired, whether that’s at two in the afternoon or two in the morning.
Miniature con: friends have stopped laughing politely at my ‘let me check my diary’ joke.
Con: It’s kind of awful
All my time is mine to try and fill. My commitments are practically non-existent. Last month, I went an appalling nine days without leaving the house other than to walk my dog or to run; no socialising, no errands. I would go mad! I hear you cry. Bless. I was once a fully-functioning adult with complex psychological needs not unlike your own. You too are only a couple of skipped showers, half a dozen bowls of Shreddies and an emotional investment in House of Cards away from total recluse status. It’s easier than you could ever believe.
Pro: I’m learning what matters
I no longer have the luxury of hating every item of clothing I own after a handful of wears, so I don’t. For the best part, I make do, and it may sound nightmarish to any retail addict, but it’s actually kind of liberating.
Boots claims most of my retail expenditure on those luxuries such as shaving and conditioning my hair, but the rest of my spending is reserved for experiences. And by experiences I mainly mean beer. And by beer I mainly mean lime and soda. I don’t want to compromise too heavily on social spending – as low as that spending may already be – because that’s the kind of spending that actually helps us be happy. As for shopping, to know that I can spend so little on myself and not pine and covet is a relief.
Con: I’m learning what matters, and it’s money
Fuck you Boots. I’ve stripped make-up and toiletries just about as bare as I’m willing to, and you’re still bleeding me dry. My only saving grace is that being clean and looking pretty aren’t nearly as important as they used to be (see above).
I really want to be chill about not having an income – what do I really need money for right now anyway? – but I’ve been hardwired by the world we live in to freak out about it on a semi-regular basis. I’ve applied for a handful of part-time jobs throughout the year, because whether I like it or not, I’m going to need one eventually. I just hope I can pull something out of the bag while I still have the luxury of being a little choosy.
Pro: I’m doing what I really want to be doing
Despite the hurdles, the petty sacrifices, and the year thus far of very limited success, I’m happy with my decision to make what I want most a priority. As misguided as it might have been, I went into this without a plan B on purpose. It felt like bad karma to do otherwise.
Con: Doubts. So many doubts
Karma, Hannah? Really? Or was it that thinking of all the uncertainties ahead simply got so overwhelming that you shut them out? I would probably never have gone through with this if I hadn’t, and isn’t that our problem? Taking the first step, not seeing the whole staircase; all that malarkey.
Honestly, I thought this would feel empowering. It really, really doesn’t. I can’t separate my drive from my fear any more, and I don’t know if that’s an acceptable thing or a critically bad one. I’ve worked myself into a mental corner over finding work, one in which anything that distracts from my writing is the devil, and needing a job I don’t want is absolute failure. I don’t know how I fix this, and I can only hope the few tools in my arsenal can manage the job: time, persistence, positive thinking, and crossing my fingers.
But how far ahead can any of us really plan? How much of your life so far has worked out how you thought it would? I didn’t know my ex and I would break up. I didn’t know I’d be living safely back at home when I was offered redundancy. Either everything went to shit, or a gigantic door opened itself, and the only decider is how I feel about it.
I’ll get back to you.
As if Kristen Bell and I didn’t already have so much in common, she has recently opened up about dealing with depression and anxiety. In an interview on Off Camera with Sam Jones, Bell talks about how both her mother and her grandmother before her struggled with mental illness, and how she compensates for her anxiety and depression with bubbliness and cheer.
Not only does this level of candidness from someone in the public eye have an invaluable impact on our perception of mental illness, it’s also incredibly courageous. The fear when opening up about your mental health is that it will change the way somebody sees you, and Bell is facing that possibility three-billion-fold – in other words, the number of people worldwide with internet access – for the sake of letting us know that she is not ashamed.
Up until the last year, most of my closest friends had no idea I had dealt with depression. Neither did my employer. I was in my final semester of university before I brought it up with my housemate and close friend of nearly three years, and perhaps most oddly, I had never even discussed it openly with my brother, sister or father.
Because I was ashamed – and though I try hard not to be, I think in some ways I still am. Sometimes I wonder if depression is just weakness. Sometimes I worry that a person will think I’m faking because they can’t tell, or will be wary of me because they can. And sometimes I just plain can’t handle anyone’s well-meaning concern.
It’s all because of a double standard when it comes to mental illness versus physical illness; a double standard Bell addresses in a comparison I hear from other sufferers all the time: the diabetes and insulin analogy. Whilst depression is arguably more complex, and our understanding of it less complete, than diabetes, the reason this comparison is effective is down to how cut-and-dry diabetes is. People get diabetes. They know it needs treating and there’s no argument to be had about it. You can live with it, you can manage it, but you have to take it seriously.
Kristen Bell has a successful career, is a mother, a wife and – let’s not forget – a Disney princess. When someone living as publicly as her can be frank about her struggles, it works to demystify depression. It teaches us not to make assumptions about what our co-workers may or may not be capable of; not to judge the legitimacy of our friends’ illness based on how weepy they appear; and not to be afraid that our children’s personalities will be irrevocably altered by the treatment that could save their life.
In conclusion, I love Kristen Bell and she makes me want to be braver. I love her pragmatism and her lack of bullshit. I love that she’s not afraid to take care of herself and not afraid to talk about it. Oh and I also love sloths.
This morning I made a list of things I like about myself.
If that sounds as ridiculous to you as it did to me at first, then consider why. Having the people who love you compile such a list, and then reading it, would be a boost like no other. But my first reaction when the idea appeared in my mind out of nowhere – as if the self-confidence fairies had planted it there – was that it was a totally pointless exercise. As if it didn’t even matter what I thought.
My second reaction, as shocking as it is, was that it’s somehow kind of icky or classless to feed my own ego like that. Crazy, right? Why do I feel like I’m meant to put myself down? Is it just my own insecurity? Is it something about being a woman? Is it that we’re all trying to straddle an impossible line when it comes to what we appear to think of ourselves? We’re supposed to know how to take a compliment, but be suitably flattered, and somehow appear both confident and humble at the same time. It all means that ego gets a bad rep. It’s become synonymous with how you are branded if you fall too far over the line. But that’s bullshit. As long as you don’t let your ego impact the way you judge or treat others, and as long as it doesn’t make you blind to your privileges and your flaws, then I say feed it up.
Because if Beyoncé has taught me anything (and you know she has) it’s that the one person who should be championing me is me. My opinion of myself is what matters most, and yet I give it so little thought. Worse, even: I actually shy away from scrutinising it. I’m not sure if I’ve just been trained into snobbery about the idea, or if I’m also scared of what I’ll learn. As it stands, the latter could be true. I’m still suffering something like acute writer’s block, and my harshest critic is not being very kind about it (that’s me by the way). It’s got me wondering if I’m ever fair on myself, or if I even know how to be.
I said in a previous post that when I’m feeling like me, my self-esteem is pretty healthy, but I want to revoke my position. Because I think maybe we’re not always the best judges of our own self-esteem. Unfortunately, there are a lot of exterior forces that thrive on bringing yours down – the beauty industry; Instagram; anything within thirty feet of a Vogue magazine; every clickbait article entitled ‘10 habits of [the type of person you’re not]’; other victims of their own insecurities – so many in fact that we let this milieu of judgement and arbitrary ideals dictate to us our own value, without even really noticing that it happens. Whether or not you think you’re beautiful shouldn’t depend on how you compare to Gigi Hadid, but it probably does. Whether or not you think you’re interesting shouldn’t be influenced by that stupid thing you said three months ago and can’t stop thinking about, but it might. Which is why it’s important to stop and recognise how little it all means, and why the only thing that matters – the only thing that can actually make you happy – is that you like yourself.
And do you? Do you even know? When I tried to answer this question for myself, I kind of came up short. I mean, I think I have a pretty good grasp of my strengths and shortcomings, but that’s not an answer. I know what makes me proud of myself, but I’m not sure that’s an answer either. And I don’t get the impression I’m hard to be around, but that one’s totally beside the point, because I’m not interested in seeing myself the way others see me. I just want my own opinion, unadulterated by anyone else’s. So, I wrote a list.
I came up with six things. I don’t really know what to make of that number – is it very many? Not enough? – but the process was uncomfortably illuminating. I couldn’t help editing myself; I omitted various traits and qualities for being unattractive, or unimportant, or only sometimes true. I found myself pillaging my memory for evidence of my good qualities, mainly in the form of praise. I really struggled to separate my honest evaluation from how I think others perceive me, and it’s kind of blown my mind. I’ve always thought of myself as introspective, and I’m pretty chill about whether people like me, so why can’t I judge myself without them? Can anyone? How easy it must be to get lost in making others like us so we can like ourselves. It’s made me realise how much harder I have to work to be happy with myself; to notice the unkind thoughts and the unfair standards, and to steel myself against influences that make me want to change for the wrong reasons.
So I think you should write your own list. A real, physical, ink and paper list, so you can see for yourself what you really think – or catch a glimpse of it at least. It might not be pretty. Maybe you’ve never really questioned what your self-esteem is doing to you, and this exercise will be a head-trip. Maybe you agonise over what others thinks, but will find you can rattle off fifty things you like about yourself. And maybe you’ll start recognising some things you don’t like – but I think that’s okay. You are flawed and incomplete, and if you can take the good with the bad without tearing yourself down, you’re probably better equipped to deal with everyone else’s opinions too.
I don’t know what to do with my list now I have it. My first instinct is always to turn everything into a competition with myself – how many more things can I add? What can I work on that I don’t like? – but that’s not what this was about. All I want right now is to find the guts to own the things I don’t want to change about myself, regardless of what anyone else thinks. I want to like myself even when I can’t change, when I can’t write, and not in spite of all my flaws, but because of them.
As a final note on the subject, if you can’t seem to boost your own opinion of yourself, then at least breathe easier about everyone else’s, with one of my all-time favourite quotes, from David Foster Wallace:
“– you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”