At the risk of sounding like a complete Moaning Mildred (look, if you’re a regular reader of my blog you know it goes that way sometimes), I got no joy from the build-up to the opening ceremony of Rio 2016 Olympics.
I tend to do lots of thinking. Well, what else is there to do when you live in your head all the time? If you’re sitting in a pool all day you may as well swim a lap or two every now and again. Most of the thoughts are fine and banal. Some are friendly, some are out of my control, some have sent me shooting out of sleep like a cannon in absolute terror, taking me five solid minutes to remember where I am, and another five to believe my mind was telling me the truth. Thankfully the latter isn’t as common as it used to be. I wouldn’t wish that kind of thing on my worst enemy. If you can’t trust your own brain, then hope is a very faraway thing.
But anyway, I digress. It’s been a fucking rollercoaster of fresh hell and insane adventures in mental health the last twenty-five months, not to mind the last five years. To put it mildly, this last half-decade makes Girl, Interrupted look like High School Musical. I spoke about my own experience with depression before in Me And My Shadow (click here to read) almost five years ago (yikes), and I’ve felt for a while that it was worth a revisit, if only for myself.
The reason for posting it publicly is to show that there is never an easy wrapped-up Hollywood ending to these things. I’d like to tell you that I found inner peace, loved the shit out of myself and had amazing life-fulfilling relationships that made me glad to be alive, and came off all meds, and lived blissfully ever after, happy as a laughing baby on YouTube. I’d like to tell you that, but I’d be lying SO FUCKING HARD.
I got worse. A whole lot worse. In every way. I still did the everyday stuff like finishing college and all that, but my soul did everything under massive protest. Most nights I stayed in, relieved to be at home where I could collapse into my dark, sad, yet comfortingly familiar little corner of my world. The thoughts of having to get it together mentally & physically to go out into the night and deal with crowds and bright lights and shoving stupid people stepping on my toes and elbowing me in the head (being short in the club is a fucking curse) was just too much to cope with.
I spent most of my alone time listening to sad music and faffing about online. I could be the life and soul of the Facebook party from the comfort of a Onesie while wearing a hair turban with sections of my face smothered in Sudocrem. It’s a good front for those of us who are mentally terrorised by the outside world. It has its drawbacks too, in that if you’re good enough with words and you REALLY don’t want anyone to see how bad you are, nobody will be any wiser. Remember: your fingers don’t get sad; you can still type happy words while crying your eyes out.
So on went this life of mine, with the usual ups and downs while I more or less navigated my way through various crises and hurdles that are microscopic looking back, but at the time seemed like I was at the foot of Everest. That was all fine, and doable, and that too did pass..but then in 2013 my mom died, and my heart and brain broke one after the other, never to be fully healed again.
It’s a strange old thing, grief. I spent the first year without Mam simply on auto-pilot on the outside, working in schools, trying to get some sort of new life together and find a place to live in town and being ‘grand’, all the while holding on to the soothing effects of various meds for dear life for fear I would collapse into a pile of tiny shards of glass if I didn’t have them. There were times I couldn’t allow myself to even take a deep breath in the classroom, in case I would break into sobs because the pain in my chest was too much. But life marched on yet again, and I eventually found some semblance of stability, which is precisely the point at which my brain joined in the fun of completely fucking me over for another twelve months.
I won’t dwell on the many adventures that me and my mind went on together, lest this piece become some sort of self-indulgent Depression Porn, which is not the purpose of this piece (you can wait for The Book for that!). Suffice it to say that when your own brain is your enemy, the world is a very frightening, lonely place. I repeated a lot of bad habits I thought I had left behind years ago. I was back self-harming, both physically and in being careless and not looking after myself, and various other bits and bobs that didn’t help. All this led to an intervention of sorts by some very caring friends who I hadn’t managed to fool, and they scooped me up and got me first into A&E, then into a day psychiatric unit. The rest is a better, albeit staggered, slightly more stable mental history.
I’ve left volumes out, because I will be writing about it in more detail in another long-term project; but also because the nitty-gritty isn’t pertinent to the piece. I guess by looking back at the original piece from 2010 compared to now, I’m showing the world that things aren’t always linear. Particularly when it comes to mental health issues. There’s no such thing as an “I lived happily ever after!” finely tuned ending when it comes to the battle for your sanity. But you know what? That’s totally okay. It is what it is. That ‘One Day At A Time’ stuff works for depression and anxiety as well as addictions. They’re all pits that can pull you back in with the slightest little knock-back. I went eight years without cutting myself, then fell off the wagon during a particularly dangerous black time last year. Afterwards, I was so angry at having broken the promise I made all those years ago, but all I could do was reset the numbers and start again. One day at a time? One minute at a time if you have to. Fuck it, whatever it takes to keep you on this earth a bit longer to give yourself a chance.
It’s when things stop going okay after you think you’ve gotten it all under control that can cause a lot of despair in people. They feel like they’ve failed. But look, shit happens. Whether maintaining good mental health, or recovering from mental health issues, these things are a constantly evolving (and devolving) process. People love loose ends to be tied up all clearly explained and resolved in 30 minutes with commercial breaks, but that’s just fiction. The only thing that marches on consistently, not giving a fuck about where you’re at in life, is time. So let that do the straight-line thing, cos nothing else in life or the state of your mental health is going to behave that way.
So take comfort. If you’re falling down just when you think you’re doing okay, you’re actually still doing okay. It’s just a bump. I swear on all the Gods that people believe in, and on all the laws of nature. You know how I know? Because I’m still here, and so are you, reading this and getting a headache, for which I apologise. Time has passed since you felt a hell of a lot worse, so you’ve got an advantage straight away. That’s how I judge my progress with this Shadow of mine. If I compared how I am now to how I was when I wrote the original post, there’s actually very little progress made. But fill in the space between with all that happened in my life (none of which is unique to me, we all grieve), then I realise how lucky I am that I’m still above ground. So onwards I march. I really hope you do too. But don’t do it alone. I had a treasure-trove of people around me, and that’s the only reason I’m able to sit and type this in any coherent form. Pretend you’re a friend asking you for help – would you be annoyed and tell them to feck off? Speaking from experience, it is incredibly profound and liberating to actually say the words “I’m not okay.” The dynamic that they set off can be, quite literally, life-saving. Get it done.
Oh, and one more thing: FUCK HOLLYWOOD HAPPY ENDINGS.
In the six months that have passed since my mom left this world, I’ve experienced some of the most drastic changes in my own life that I’ve ever witnessed, not least because I lived with her for six years beforehand. Once the rug is pulled from under you in every way, you realise you’re on your own. Your one true anchor in this world has cast off, and your only options are to sink or swim and find ways to cope and survive. You pick yourself up and try to move forward with this great big gaping hole in your chest that threatens to suffocate you and make you feel like you’ll never know happiness in any form ever again. But you have no choice, you’re still here. Wherever she is, she’s okay now. I’m left here without her, trying to make sense of this whole new dimension where part of me is forever absent, and a blank page entitled ‘Jen’s Life’ that I’m expected to fill in without her helping me or nagging me to get going.
So onwards I go, head up, marching on, saying yes to new things and really starting to enjoy the future I appear to be carving out for myself. Most nights while I’m sleeping, she pops in for a visit. She’s standing there, exactly as I knew her; she’s smiling, giving out to me and nagging me the way she used to, demanding ice-cream because I had eaten some that day and thought ‘Mam would have LOVED some of this.’ She can hear me, her deafness is gone, and we have great chats about what in the name of God I’m up to THIS week. At one point I was getting married (only in the dream, I can assure you) and I was standing there on the morning of it dressed in my gown and all that jazz. She stood there in front of the mirror with me and said “It’s not you, though, is it?” and I said “No, you’re right. I don’t want this at all.” Her reply was vintage Mammy Ronan. “Well, you know what to do then. Go make the calls.” Which I did. Metaphorically and physically. Life kicked off in many weird and wonderful ways after that. I had made a promise to her the night before we buried her, (well, one of many promises, but they’re between me and her) and it was that I would do my best to live an awesome happy life, and embrace any chances that came along which would make me happy. The act of making that promise alone kicked off something in the cosmos which I can’t explain – all I know is I haven’t had a minute’s peace in the last six months because I’ve been doing so many things and seeing so many people. I’m truly grateful. I don’t know where Mam is in general, but I know where she is most of the time where I’m concerned. Looking over my shoulder, making sure I keep my promise.
I found this poem by Maya Angelou, hence the title of this blog post. It’s about the significant loss the death of a parent leaves behind, and it hits home more than any words that I use ever could.
I love you Mom.
When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
“They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”