January is for living (despite myself)

My problem stems from not knowing how to live long-term. I’ve spent most of my life holding myself together a year, a month, a day at a time, telling myself that if I can just make it to next week, things will get better. I’m hardly alone in that phenomenon, but unfortunately for me I also combine it with the unshakeable but contradictory belief that I’m going to die soon.

My earliest memory of that self-morbidity was from when I was around seven years old. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable day, I was just crossing the road from the car to my house. We lived on a bad bend back then and you had to cross quickly because sometimes people drove around the corner too fast to stop. I was wearing one half of silver best-friends forever necklace my older sister gave me before moving to Australian earlier that year.

The memory is just that: clutching the pendant of that necklace tight in my fist, convinced in that moment that I was about to be hit by a car and killed. Accepting this, I at least wanted them to find my body holding that pendant. In that moment, I truly believed that with the same certainty that I knew my own name. This was just an early example of a diverse genre of mildly delusion convictions that would be a feature of my whole life, going unspoken until adulthood and long-term psychiatric treatment forced me to voice them.

Even hidden, that sense that I was running out of time has defined huge amounts of my life, for better or for worse. It pushed me to do things younger than my peers, sometimes this was harmless or precocious, and other times it was likely harmful. I put myself in situations I was not mature enough to process. Relationships, hobbies, political activism, school, drinking, all of it took on a frantic edge with that constant refrain of ‘it’s now or never’.

This meant going through various cycles of ambition or impulsivity before crashing and burning out, only to start all over again. My self-morbidity meant that for the majority of that time, as I lied about my age, joined political parties, got jobs, ran events, ducked in and out of school, drank too much, got into messy relationships with anyone within arm’s reach, I only ever thought it was my depressive episodes that were strange. It sounds ridiculous now to explain that at seventeen I was functionally living a double-life, had a pain management problem, and would periodically get so overwhelmed I would pass out, and it was the days when I didn’t want to get out of bed to force my myriad of self-inflicted responsibilities that seemed terrible to me. Facing my diagnosis of bipolar disorder meant facing up to all the ways I’d hurt myself in the name of living my best life.

The funny thing is that in many ways I’m still really proud of a lot of that part of my life. I just turned twenty-nine this week and in the two decades since that day crossing the road, I’ve travelled and loved and hated and done so much. I’ve met people from every corner of the world and listened to their stories. Despite the pain, the experiences were ultimately valuable. I’ve tried telling myself it was or it wasn’t worth it depending on the day but in reality it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing to be changed about the past so all I can do is embrace what it gives me gratefully without necessarily condoning everything that went with it.

Because I’ve seen the reverse now. For five years I’ve shrunk further in on myself, expecting less and desperately encouraging others to expect less of me too. My fits of wildness and ambition were boxed in until it all spilled out the edges in familiar self-loathing. So when the ticking of that lifelong count-down clock got loud it seemed less like the footsteps of a predator in pursuit and more like the overdue arrival of a very tardy guest who was expected but too late to be excited about. I think I owe it to that manic seventeen year old, trying to be all things, to all people to be better than this.

My ambivalent feelings towards New Year’s Eve and similar milestones are well-documented here and elsewhere on the internet at this stage. Yet here I am again and again, using what little meaning I can squeeze from the darkest time of year to wait for renewal or rebirth. I wrote once in a poem about my tendency towards burning my life down and starting over, that beginning was the oldest thing I knew how to do. Perhaps it’s a sense that I never got it right the first time that pushes me to try it again and again and again. But this is not a beginning, I know that much at least, it’s not even the turning over of a new page. How I seek to grow now can only be understood in the context of where I’ve been. Each step builds on the last and, sure, maybe you can think about each step as a beginning unto itself but that sounds like an exhausting way to walk.

I’ve said before too, that people are not story-shaped. We are not starting over. We are where we are. Things are what they are and we have to face the accumulations of the banal street-sweepings of ever day endlessly, until it ends. And the ending and beginning won’t line up neatly and won’t tie off all the loose threads because being a person in a society is 90% loose threads. Our resolutions will not always resolve anything, but that is no excuse to ask for less.

Ask. Just ask. Sometimes there are answers.

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