For a number of reasons, this week has seen my hasty and unexpected return to the ‘Shire for a couple of days. As anyone who has ever spent more than ten minutes in my conversational company will know, there’s not a lot to do here. I’ve looked at Dad’s new lettuce patch, watched a high volume of crappy chick-flicks and had a weirdly spooky moment with my mum while the dog ate a tea towel. And that’s about as much as I could hope for, activity-wise.
So, in a move that was guaranteed to end well, I decided to dig out all the boxes of sentimental teenage stuff that I had accumulated over the years. Diaries, knick-knacks, letters, an astonishing number of decorative fans (why), and quite a lot of crap with meaning I can no longer recall. That sort of thing.
And it made me really, really sad (quelle surprise), because for the first time in my adult life I sat down and read – through my many diaries – a blow-by-blow account of the mental health issues I struggled with when I was younger; a bleak narrative that has been packed away for over ten years. It made for a depressing evening, and there wasn’t even any wine in the house.
The descent from sunny, upbeat and girlish diary entries in swirly handwriting to scrawled accounts of mood, medication and mental (in)stability is marked. From Mean Girls to Girl, Interrupted over the course of mere months. Eventually, I stopped writing anything of note and simply filled in the days with single, nonsensical words such as ‘another’, ‘still’ and ‘can’t’.
My residency at the bottom of the hole is foggy in my mind, such was the volume of chemicals I was prescribed, and such is, likely, my desire to repress it all. It was a very, very unhappy period, and one that has had a pronounced effect on my life since.
While there is always a hangover from any period of mental distress – like a skidmark on the clean white pants of your future – one thing I’ve taken from the whole sorry affair is resilience. A dear friend of mine is currently going through cognitive behavioural therapy for her own issues, and she maintains that she’ll be a more well-adjusted person for it – even more so than she was before her problems took hold.
And I agree. In this life, the only person you can ever rely on is yourself, and if you can get yourself through a period of genuine, personal hell – when you can’t even trust your own damn brain to help you out – then you’ve seen life stripped-back to its disturbingly bleak core and have been given the wonderful gift of perspective.
Which is something I need right now, since I’m not having a very good year at all. In moments when I feel overwhelmed by the number of crappy cards I’ve been dealt it’s easy for me to lose sight of how different I am now to the girl in these diaries. Life is tough now, but at least it’s a life, which is something Diary Girl was barely hanging on to.
During those dark days I saw countless therapists and mental health professionals. Some were great. Some made me feel much worse. But one woman – whose name I regrettably can’t remember – encouraged me to express my feelings through drawing. I have all the artistic ability of a goat wielding a pencil so it wasn’t something that came easily to me, but I do remember it helped a considerable amount. Last night I found a pile of those drawings and felt quite shaken by them, such was the force of the memories they evoked. But I found them underneath a pile of love letters, travel tickets and photographs that illustrate my life since that time.
And I felt an overwhelming sense of perspective.