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.”
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
This week is a sobering anniversary for me: as of March 27, two days ago, I have been back on antidepressants for one whole year. That’s a new personal best/worst.
You may not know what an antidepressant actually is or what it does, but you can Google that. Here’s what it feels like to take them. Imagine some of the things that put you in a bad place: illness, lack of sleep, a fight with a loved one, a bit of bad news – whatever makes for a shit day. It makes you feel off kilter, like you’re not yourself, so you probably do a few things to correct it. You take a Lemsip, get an early night, talk it out with someone, or just give yourself time to chill out. If you’re depressed, your bad day happens all by itself, and your medication is what helps put you back on an even keel.
You still have peaks, troughs, good days, bad days, and really bad days. You feel and think all the same things. There’s no roadblock before your depressive thoughts, no feeling of artificial calm. You don’t feel drunk or drugged or drowsy. You feel the same, except that you level out at an emotional altitude that feels more comfortable. You feel more like yourself.
Antidepressants are not a cure. They’re not numbing, nor do they give you a high, and they absolutely, categorically, do not change you.
And I’ve been taking them now for a year, which comes with some complicated feelings, and has got me thinking about everything it means and doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean I’m the most unwell I’ve ever been.
The first time I relented to a prescription for antidepressants, I had been severely depressed for nearly two years, and to medicate myself felt like a defeat. It wasn’t until that medication helped me make some drastic changes that I realised I was outrageously, dangerously wrong. Doing something to help yourself is never a defeat. It’s empowering, and simply knowing you made a good decision is sometimes enough to start making a difference. The only reason I’m now at twelve months and counting is because I was vigilant this time around. I recognised the signs early on and I acted on them, and that makes me want to embrace this anniversary. For one whole year, I’ve been taking care of myself.
It doesn’t mean I’ve been sad for a year.
Within the last year, I have been happy, and I have felt like myself, but never for long enough to consider phasing out the antidepressants. I can’t tell you how tempting it is sometimes, when the sun is out or I’m feeling great about myself, to pronounce myself well and set about putting this episode behind me. I’m so ready for that day, but then I take a turn and I’m reminded what the consequence might be if I jump the gun. It’s a major reason I can’t let this one-year thing scare me – there’s no reason to rush.
It doesn’t mean I’ll never come off them.
For a long time, I thought my tousle with depression was in my past; a blip on what was otherwise sure to be a happy and healthy life. Even when I relapsed in my final year of university, when I was writing my dissertation and putting myself under intense pressure, I told myself anyone would be depressed under the circumstances – this one doesn’t count. Only recently have I come to realise that it may be a part of who I am, always.
I’d love to tell you I’m okay with this; that I’m learning to accept it. But I can only hope that will someday be true. As it stands, I still get really fucking angry about it sometimes. I can’t consolidate the person I think I am and the woman with depression, and I don’t want to. I guess that’s the way with all chronic illness, mental or physical. There’s a lot more to be said along this vein, so look out for a future post on the subject.
One thing I do know is that I can, and will, be depression-free and off the meds, even if another episode is just one faulty step ahead.
It does mean something’s got to give.
My circumstances are difficult right now. Excessive amounts of uncertainty have always been a big factor in my low periods, and right now I don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone the rest of 2016. It feels like I’m in a transitional period with no forward momentum – I’m stuck in gridlock, and my depression is just loving it. It’s a difficult cycle to break, but as long as I can stay afloat, protect my house of cards, and stay open to change, then change will come. It’s a hopefulness I never imagined I could have my first time round the track, and one I know I couldn’t maintain right now without medication. So I’m not going to stress over my first full year on antidepressants. I’m going to let this anniversary pass, and try to be okay with it.
And readers! If you think you could benefit from medication, please don’t be afraid. There’s a lot of stigma around antidepressants that has no business being there. I can’t tell you if you’re a good candidate, only a doctor can, but if you have any questions, visit the contact me page and I will try and answer them.
My social life and I have a complex relationship. This is only in part down to the ebbs and flows of my mental health. The rest is thanks to my dread of sitting down at the pub next to someone I haven’t seen in a while, or have never spoken to at length before, and hearing these four little words: ‘What do you do?’
Other variations include ‘what are you up to these days?’ and ‘are you still at [that job you took to earn some money during your gap year, six years ago]?’. I feel my heart sink, and it shows on my face. I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of everything my life and career is and isn’t right now, and it’s not the fear of silent judgement that makes me clam up. It’s the opposite – it’s expectation. It’s who the person thinks I am versus what I have to show for it.
I find myself forcing a positive spin. Yes, my landlord is my mum, and she gives me hugely forgiving mates rates. Yes, I’m probably looking like less of a hot prospect to employers with every passing month. And yes, the novel I’ve been telling you about sits on my bedroom floor under a heap of plot notes, statements from student finance, and a Buffy boxset, because twenty-odd agents turned it down. But I’m not worried, I’ll tell you (even though sometimes I really, really am). I’ll start on about the new novel, the one I’m feeling even better about, and bulk it out with titbits of work opportunities on the horizon (mainly hypothetical).
In short, I find myself turning the conversation to how I do define myself, because my employment status is not it. And I may be an extreme example, but I can’t be the only twenty-something – or even thirty-something – who feels a chill when they hear the words ‘what do you do?’. We are, after all, the infamous millennials. Job security and full-time employment are foreign concepts to legions of us, a degree no longer guarantees a better career or higher income, and there is a high chance that when we compare ourselves to our parents at our age – with their family and their mortgage and a couple of promotions under their belts – we feel like embryos. Embryos with debt, and slowing metabolisms.
One of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of this juncture in life is that we are all finding success and carving out our places in the world at drastically different rates. I have friends who are forging careers in accounting and publishing and civil service, and I have friends on – *shivers* – zero-hour contracts, for whom ‘what do you do’ can only be answered with a host of disclaimers and footnotes. Either they’re tripping over each other to work for free in thankless, hyper-competitive fields like the media industries; they lack the funds for training or to set themselves up in business; or, perhaps worst of all, they plain don’t know where they’re headed.
And hey, it’s all good. If you fall into the latter camp, I hope you’re not agonising over where you’re at every minute of the day. Because you don’t need to. You can’t compare yourself to others, because you are incomparable, and as Mary Schmich and Baz Luhrmann say, don’t feel bad if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. But if you’re anything like me, when you’re confronted with those words, that niggling desire to sell yourself as interesting and interested, aspirational and headed somewhere, is a big fat bummer.
But, I have a solution.
‘What do you do?’ is not the conversation opener for our generation. Its day is done. Let’s do away with it now and let those who love to talk about their careers – and power to you! I’m all ears – be the ones to bring it up. The rest of us can quietly feel better about ourselves. To aid in this process, below are some suggested alternatives:
‘Tell me, in your own words, how you define yourself.’
‘What’s been the highlight of your week so far?’
‘What’s the fattest thing you’ve ever done? Okay, I’ll go first.’ (proceed to tell them about the time you ate an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food in one sitting, on a casual Tuesday afternoon, while your mother looked on, appalled)
‘There’s a high chance our interaction is headed this way anyway, so I’m going to go right ahead and start playing you my favourite wiener dog videos.’
Feel free to add your own.