Getting used to yourself

Isolation is something the whole world has had to get used to this past week (for the first time my tendency to exaggerate holds a degree of truth). For those of us lucky enough to admit it, spending days in the comfort of my own home has actually meant nothing much has changed for me, both living alone and having worked from home for a year or so.

To stave off mid-morning boredom, I spent this morning looking through photographs from the past few years and was quite surprised to be reminded of a lot of good memories. While photos obviously don’t represent the whole picture, it was a nice reminder that things hadn’t been all bad these past few years, despite 2019 being the year where my well-repressed anxiety rolled itself out into a bout of depression and stopped everything in its tracks (putting me on an individual-level lockdown, unable to do anything at all for a good few months… sound familiar?)

When my now-ex and I moved to a new country to live out the rest of our lives in perfect happiness, our relationship took an inevitable turn to the co-dependant. Anyone who’s been in such an intensely comforting union will know about the pros and cons you constantly wrestle with: All you need is love… but we need other friends too! I love him so much… but I really wish he would just fuck off for a second! And, perhaps most painfully, and I’m going to be serious now for a sec: I need him… but I can’t remember what else I need. When you throw untreated clinical depression (him) and a light smattering of PTSD (me) into the mix, the importance of that relationship working so perfectly feels absolutely crucial. So when it begins to break down, so does everything else.

In a typically, narcissistically, on-brand way, I didn’t understand the extent of how dangerous co-dependency could be until the night before I broke up with him. Unable to pray, much too late to call anyone, but desperate to find an answer in the middle of the night, I turned to Google Podcasts to seek pre-recorded advice for this deeply painful romantic confusion I found myself in. I listened to 20 minutes of an extremely annoying American woman dish out absolutely terrible relationship advice to the heartbroken, before turning to, oh my god, how embarrassing to even write it, my own sex and relationships podcast I recorded with my best friend two years before on the topic of codependency. Hearing my assertive voice speak so confidently on the subject made me realise that our relationship had once been good, but now it was not.

Two weeks before my own voice showed me the light, the cracks were seriously beginning to show. After months of avoidance, my ex got to a point of no return where he finally went back to London to get the real help he deserved. By that point, I was so exhausted, I had no energy left inside me to keep going. Once I’d stepped back from that role of care, I looked at myself differently. Who was that person? What did she need? How did she let herself get so lost? How great – or not so great – must that love have been to let all of this happen? I had no idea.

The next day I got up after another bad night’s sleep with a vacant hollowness where my brain used to be. It’s hard to explain, but it was as if something in my head had snapped, something I didn’t even know was there before. I couldn’t tell you what food I liked or decide what to wear each morning. I chose staying in on sunny days over going out and seeing friends because I couldn’t tell what would be better for me. I became really confused at the most ordinary things. Now I can tell you that I’ve spent the past six months trying to remember what it was that I lost, but then, the misplaced feeling of self-knowledge was new, unfamiliar and quite terrifying to me.

This time it wouldn’t be solved with a bit of a cry and cuddle with my boyfriend, this was different. I did get him to phone the doctor though and somehow summoned up the courage to go in the next day. After you’ve sat in the doctors’ waiting room for the third time in as many weeks, you realise, Oh, this is what will help. Our love won’t help. It’s too big and unknowable and deep, as our problems were. I wish we’d left it separate, our love from our problems. The thing to trust in, to aspire towards, to return to, rather than relying on it as a lifeline that would solve our issues.

My experience of codependency (which often felt like the most real and intense love) very, very gradually took everything out of me. The stress of suppressing and denying my own needs and emotions for too long began to crush me, and my body reacted to it in the way that bodies do: fight, or flight? I had no fight left within me (read above: utterly exhausted), so there was only one thing left to do.

What followed was a blur of weeks. I moved out, stopped all my freelance work, took a break from studying, got some therapy and slowly learned how to get through the days. I leaned into melancholy, rather than resisting it. This, from the brilliant School of Life’s anthology, An Emotional Education: “Melancholy is not rage or bitterness; it is a noble species of sadness that arises when we are properly open to the idea that suffering and disappointment are at the heart of human experience. It is not a disorder that needs to be cured, it is a tender-hearted, calm, dispassionate acknowledgement of how much agony we will inevitably have to travel through.” So, I went for walks in the rain and listened to the Smiths. I swapped self-help books for novels, workout plans for long autumnal walks, inspirational podcasts for Beatles records, work for rest.

The loss of creativity and artistic feeling I wrote about in my last blog post, several months ago now, wasn’t really down to the fact that I had too much work on. To write anything even remotely worth reading would have meant to admit truths to myself that I was putting all of my energy into avoiding. So, I think it’s a good sign that I feel able to post this now.

For me, reaching rock bottom was a dejected acceptance that there was no alternative but to begin figuring out how I could improve things. But this time, that didn’t mean a more meticulously-planned gym schedule or more regular meditation or more self-care (more projects, more goals, more reading, more positivity…)

From The School of Life again: “A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it is a very real – albeit very inarticulate – bid for health and self-knowledge. It is an attempt by one part of our mind to force the other into process of growth, self-understanding and self-development which it has hitherto refused to undertake. It is an attempt to jump-start a process of getting well, properly well, through a stage of falling very ill.”

After accepting you must do something, you have no idea what to do, and that’s where psychotherapy can been invaluable. (I know it is not accessible to everyone – it took me moving to a different country with a much more competent healthcare system to get it – but check out this great list of affordable resources if you think you could benefit from it.) All I could do was take a break from everything. I let myself rest. Slowly, with many different approaches and a heck of a lot of hard work, I began to heal. And in hindsight, that moment where I realised I had lost all sense of myself was the very first (tiny) step in getting back to that forgotten journey of self-knowledge again.

Look after yourselves, much love. xx

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