Given the amount of time I spent lying in bed feeling sick and/or miserable this year, my general feeling about 2014 is that it was a bit of a write-off and not much happened… but actually, stuff DID happen. Lots of stuff. Significant stuff. Here are ten things.
1. I GOT ENGAGED.
I was in my pyjamas and he used a hair-tie instead of a ring. Talk about spontaneous.
2. I GOT DEPORTED.
No regrets. I had a great three-month break in Cape Town, and the fact that I was (rather unfairly) evicted from the UK is going to be a good fireside tale for the rest of my life.
3. I GOT MARRIED IN COFFEE SHOP.
The wedding hasn’t happened yet, but the paperwork was done two months after the engagement. I wore a dress.
4. I TEMPED FULL-TIME AT A LITERARY AGENCY FOR FOUR MONTHS.
Learned a lot, confronted my fear of answering phones and even got to meet some authors.
5. I TRAVELLED.
A long weekend away in Brighton, a week away in north Wales, two trips to Guernsey and a day-trip to Sark. I also discovered many great things in London, which still feels very new to me.
6. I GOT A JOB WITH A LITERARY CONSULTANCY.
So it’s not full time and it’s not lucrative, but it’s something and it’s a challenge and I’m good at it. I got some other freelance work, too.
7. I DID SOME NEW/FUN/HEALTHY/INTERESTING THINGS.
Attended some life-drawing classes, went to David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks book launch, saw Wicked and 1984 at the theatre, enjoyed a feminist meetup in a pub, ran three times a week (until I got sick/sad), spent time with various friends and family members on their trips to London, etc.
8. I TOOK MY MENTAL HEALTH SERIOUSLY.
Well, at first I didn’t, but then I did, and now things are getting better! 🙂
9. I RECONNECTED WITH PEOPLE.
Not as much as I should’ve/could’ve, but I feel like I’m more connected now than I was a few months back, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who has reciprocated.
10. I STARTED PLANNING MY WEDDING.
This has been tricky, especially in the circumstances, but things are falling into place and I’m starting to look forward to this sentimental life event. It’s going to be wonderful to have so many special people together in one place.
2014 was not an easy year. I didn’t achieve all (or even most) of what I wanted to achieve, but I did learn a lot and I feel like I’ve set myself up for a pretty interesting year in 2015, with a stronger foundation of self-awareness and a better focus on health and happiness. Thanks to everyone for their positive contributions to this year. No matter how small or distant those contributions may seem — a Skype call here, a comment there — they are very much appreciated and they make a big difference.
Here are some things that have been happening in the regular life of Laurie. (Hi, mom and dad!)
1. As you might have noticed, I’ve been fuelling the blog with mini reviews of books I recently read, but I’ll have to start writing reviews for my not-so-recent reads if I’m going to keep this up. (Spoiler alert: I’m not going to keep this up. Five reviews a week is far beyond my blogging capabilities. I’m trying to write a novel, you know.)
2. I’m trying to write a novel, you know. Yep, still that same one. I’ve moved on from draft 1.5 (never completed) to draft 2, which I plan to finish, even if it’s shit, which it will be, before moving on to draft 3. I keep making big, conceptual changes and then scrapping huge swathes of text. It’s painful. I still have a long (loooooong) way to go, but at least I’m feeling fairly confident that the major changes are good ones and I’m better off having made them.
3. I recently finished 3+ months of a temp job at a literary agency, during which time I interacted with several very impressive authors and agents. I learned a lot about how agencies work, and my “career”, my writing and my writerly plans for the future have all been shaped by these experiences. I am now freelancing, which involves far less money, far more need for rigorous self-control and far greater potential for emotional slumpage, but I am determined to keep my chin up. Having developed a troubling case of constant hip pain (x-rays were “not abnormal”, but I’m being referred to a physiotherapist), it’s been convenient not having to sit on an office chair all day, because that’s when it hurts the most. At home, I’m able to get up and move around every few minutes, which helps. Freelancing also provides a great opportunity for novel-writing and wedding-planning, which leads me to my next point…
4. I’m having a wedding! Never mind the fact that I’ve actually been married since March… *ahem* Circumstances at the time didn’t allow for much in the way of celebrations, but we’ll be making up for it in March next year, and then I’ll finally change my Facebook relationship status from “engaged” to “married”. Planning has begun. It’s not going to be traditional or super formal, but I’m really looking forward to it. Having so many friends and family members in one place at one time is guaranteed to cause an explosion of expatriate sentimentality.
5. More good news: I got my residence card! Deportation is now a distant memory for this legal resident. Water under the bridge.
6. Having received my residence card and my passport back from the Home Office, Luc and I were able to travel on a plane together for the first time… and it was a plane with propellors! We went to Guernsey, where we stayed with my uncle and got to see my grandfather, who was visiting him for a few weeks. It was a fantastic long weekend that kind of needs its own post rather than a numbered point in a silly list. Maybe I’ll write one. No promises.
7. I attended a David Mitchell reader event, which included a signed copy of his latest book, ‘The Bone Clocks’, and the privilege of listening to the man himself talk about his work. It was incredibly inspiring. I sat on the tube home feeling both utterly inadequate as a writer and completely in awe of this person whose books I love so much. He was funny and charming and brilliant and yet totally normal and humble and self-effacing at the same time. The book, so far, is wonderful. Mini review to come. 😉
8. I am unfairly privileged enough to have gained two significant material items that have been pretty life-changing. The first is this little Macbook Air that I’m currently typing on. It has allowed me to take my work out of the house, thereby boosting my productivity and combatting cabin fever and potential depression. I’ve never been a rabid fan of Apple products, but the battery life and the build quality are very impressive indeed. I made sure to get the one with the most limited hard-drive space and not enough power for gaming so that distractions are kept to a minimum by necessity. I’ve set it up with my writing software and my novel lives on here now. I love this gadget.
9. The second item, which is really two items, is a pair of quality running shoes. It’s ridiculous that I have these, considering I’m barely a runner, but I’ve decided that they’re not just for running. I’m wearing them right now, even though I’m in the library. They are a lurid shade of pink with garish green accents and they are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. I didn’t even know that my feet could feel this way. Not only have they been motivating me to get off my sad, lazy ass and run a little bit, they have also become my go-to footwear choice for any situation in which I can get away with lurid pink shoes with garish green accents… and, given my lack of opportunity or desire for “dressing up”, this is most of the time.
10. I have been going to weekly cognitive behavioural group therapy. Yeah… I wasn’t sure if I’d include this because it’s a bit awkward, but it shouldn’t be, as they keep telling us! I know that mental health taboo is bullshit, but it’s so difficult not to feel weird about admitting to these things. Anyway. I’m fine at the moment, but I was feeling quite shitty when I got myself signed up for the programme. I figured I’d see it through even though I feel ok now, because last year was bad and I don’t want to go there again. I’m hoping this will give me the tools I need to get through future crappy patches. I’m just under halfway through the course, and so far, so good. It’s not some big soppy tell-all situation like in the movies; it’s basically a class, with a whiteboard and terminology and hand-outs and homework that you don’t get rated on because nobody else ever sees it. It’s helpful to have stuff rationalised and normalised so that it’s easier to dismantle and beat into submission. Big thanks to the NHS for providing me with this service, free of charge.
11. The main cause of my “crappy patches” is, unsurprisingly, being far away from family and friends. I’m not good at making new friends and I have almost no social life to speak of in London. It gets me down sometimes, especially when compared to the relative liveliness of my family and social life in Cape Town. That said, the brilliant thing about living in a city that everyone wants to see is that the people you miss are quite likely to wind up here on a holiday one day! Two friends recently came to London and it was so nice to see familiar friendly faces I haven’t seen in months.
And that’s my life update list! Of course there are other things, but I’m tired now. All the images are from my instagram, which you should check out, particularly if you enjoy looking at pictures of books and food and attractive trees. Yep. Back to the reviews.
My ticket is booked and I’ll be on a long-haul flight out of London at the end of the week. It’s so sudden. I haven’t quite managed to process it.
I’ve spent nine months feelings homesick and dreaming of my trip back to Cape Town, but now that I’m being forced to go home prematurely and in undesirable circumstances, part of me wants to stay right where I am. Typical. I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends, but I’m going to miss London and our cosy little home here so very much while I’m away. It’s not clear how long it’s going to take me to get back and the uncertainty is making me anxious. I already feel like I’m torn between two countries. All these feelings that I’ve never had before…. they’re intriguing, but also rather exhausting.
February is going to be a pretty intense month. I should start thinking about packing…
Hey, blog! Stuff has been happening in my life! I’ve barely left the house since my last update, but still… stuff!
Yep. My secret dream of rocking the boat by spawning a few illegitimate children one day has been crushed by a marriage proposal, which I obviously accepted because it came from this guy:
The event happened quite spontaneously and without too much pomp and/or ceremony (I was in my pyjamas and he used a hair-tie instead of a ring) as a result of the second point of stuff, which I shall detail below. I am extremely happy. As I was saying to a friend, nothing has changed, but everything has changed. It’s a weird feeling.
My application for a UK residence permit was denied because the home office feels that there is insufficient evidence that my relationship with an EU citizen is a durable relationship. We provided plenty of evidence, short of giving them access to our Facebook profiles and our mutual friends’ phone numbers, but these people are unbelievably full of shit and have rigged the system to make it as complicated, unfriendly and unfair as possible, so that’s that. It doesn’t matter that I have extended family who are British or that most of my ancestors are British. It doesn’t matter that my parents emigrated here with me in the 1980s and then moved back due to unforeseen circumstances. It doesn’t matter that I’m a hard-working, educated person who is enthusiastic about making a positive contribution to the country. I’ve grown up immersed in their culture and literature. I love London; it’s a world city with a rich history; it’s a fascinating, diverse, cosmopolitan homebase and a launchpad to everywhere. I want to be here. But none of that is of any consequence. I have been told that I have to leave the UK and they’ll only return my passport to me at the airport upon my departure.
We could appeal the decision, but we didn’t do anything wrong in the initial application, so we don’t see how an appeal would help, and we can’t afford the lawyers who could have the decision overturned. (We spoke to some lawyers and they agreed that it’s unfair and were confident that they could undo it, but the price of their services is just terrifying.) The appeal process can take such a long time that we might as well go for option two, which is us going back to Cape Town, getting married (because even getting married in the UK is not without bureaucratic difficulties) and then Luc heading back while I start the whole business over again: getting another family permit to get back to London and then applying for the residence card again as a married woman. More than six years together, four years of cohabitation, multiple joint tenancy agreements and utility bills (etc etc) weren’t enough to prove the durability of our relationship, but hopefully marriage will be.
We will overcome this problem, because Luc has a good job here and I’m not going to let him quit that job on my behalf. I will live here with him, legally. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. I will succeed. But this doesn’t do away with the bitter taste in my mouth. If it wasn’t for Luc’s job and the fact that I’ve met some really wonderful people here, I’d actually quite like to give the UK the finger and go live in Canada instead. They’ve chucked a massive stumbling block right into the middle of an important part of my life and currently non-existent career, and I’m not happy about it.
Life goes on, though. I’m just one of the countless masses who have experienced crap treatment by lowly bureaucrats, but in comparison to many (if not, most) others, I have managed to get off quite lightly. I haven’t been persecuted or treated as sub-human (only sub-British), so I’m still lucky. Plus, it was this situation that made Luc rush home from work and pop The Question, so the 8th of January was redeemed.
I’ve been doing some online editing from home for a company that filters a huge tidal wave of assorted articles, and that’s been keeping me busy and somewhat sane. Since my internship ended, I’ve been terrified about descending into a depressed state again and there have already been moments when it felt like that was happening, but I’m fighting it off with work and with a part of my brain that I’ve geared up specifically to resist such a descent. Everyone knows that stress and depression are unhealthy, and I get charming physical reminders of that fact. Aside from the common back tension and digestive complaints, my skin also goes completely, horrifically haywire and my jaw problems become very intense when things aren’t running smoothly, and it’s just not worth it. I’m trying to keep my health at the top of my list of priorities. Every time I feel like I’m sinking mentally, I just remind myself how much worse I’ll feel physically if I let it happen. I seem to respond better to physical consequences rather than mental ones. Knowing that I’m in danger of losing the will to live doesn’t light a fire-cracker under my backside, but the prospect of getting even more spots than I already have does, for some reason. Focussing on physical well-being seems to be working so far. I also painted my nails, bought some strawberries, put up a string of fairy lights along the wall… little things, little things.
I’ve had a few good social engagements this year, one of which was a wonderful Sunday roast with some people I met through my internship. I ate delicious things I’ve never eaten before and introduced them all the wonders of the South African Peppermint Crisp tart, made with ingredients from one of the South African stores in Wimbledon. It was a very good day and one of the memories I’m filing under Reasons Why Living in London is Lovely which is still a bigger list than Reasons Why Living in London is Not Lovely, despite the valiant efforts of the home office to tip the balance. On my most recent meetup with my dear travel-blogger friend Kasha (during which we sampled some bread pudding with tea at a tea room in our local park), I saw my first ever totally frozen puddles. I found this very exciting. That said… where is my damn snow?
We’re waiting to hear back from the home office to find out when they’ll be receiving my passport from their secure location (what the hell?) so that we can reschedule our flights to Cape Town, far away from any frozen puddles. Even though this whole affair has put another dent in my career prospects (something I’m trying very hard not to think about too much at the moment) I am so looking forward to seeing my family and friends on the other side of the world. I’ve been in touch with many people recently, especially since the whole engagement thing happened, and I can’t wait to see some faces, share some drinks and make some new happy memories to chase the admin blues (or greys) away.
On Sunday, Luc, Kate (a friend from SA) and I went to Highgate Cemetery. I’d been desperate to go there since reading about some of the graves (and the people buried in them) in Ann Treneman’s ‘Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die’ and it also seemed like an appropriate outing for the post-Halloween weekend. I love graveyards. In my excitement, I failed to do proper research and arrived at the gates not realising that it would cost money to get inside. (D’oh.) We justified the expense with the fact that we almost never do anything that has an entrance fee and because Kate was with us and we had come all that way up the Northern Line … and it was definitely worth it. The ticket included a guided tour of the west side of the cemetery (only accessible in this way) as well as access to the east side, where a number of famous people are buried, such as Karl Marx and Douglas Adams, to name just two. The east side can also be visited without the guided tour of the west side, for a smaller fee. This is a very good thing, because I need to go back to the east side; we ran out of time before the tour and I want to inspect more of the beautiful graves in there.
What is it about cemeteries and graveyards*? It doesn’t matter who’s buried there, really, it’s more about the atmosphere of the place, and the sense of history as a tangible thing. Highgate Cemetery has a particularly rich history and is a great exemplification of ‘the Victorian way of death’, as our tour guide put it. The graves are loaded with symbolism, particularly in the west side (which is the older part of the cemetery). Many of them are intricate and beautiful and all of them have with a story… though I’m sure many of those stories have been lost to the living, under the moss and tangled vines of time.
One of the most fascinating things was the idea of a burial site as a posthumous statement of social standing; something that seems utterly ridiculous to me… And yet, this was very much a part of the Victorian way of death. People saved their money while they were alive to afford the grave of their dreams, so to speak. The vaults and catacombs and expensive, elaborate structures are enthralling in their strangeness. Time has certainly changed the way that people in general think about and deal with death, and it’s so fascinating to wander between the mossy monuments and reflect on these sorts of things. The passing of time, the inevitability of it all… it makes me throw my mind both backwards into the past and forward into the future. And it makes me want to write. I launched into a bit of graveyard-inspired writing that evening when I got home, making up some hopefully credible crap about the handling of corpses in my imagined world:
Cremation is no longer practiced in the post-Chaos world, not due to the resurgence of any cultural sensitivities but because the burning of bodies is recognised as wasteful and polluting. Burials, the now dominant method of body disposal, are always raw, as dressed burials (in which the body is clothed and/or contained in a non-bio vessel) are prohibited by the Code in the interest of environment preservation. For the same reasons, grave markings are uncommon. Where grave markings do exist, they are normally subtle or natural changes to the environment, such as the planting of a tree or the shifting of a nearby stone. In most localities, there are recommended areas for burial. These shift depending on the changing state of the environment…
Speculative nonsense, but possibly the way of the future. If you’re reading this blog post a century from now, do hop into your time-machine and find me here so that I can know if it panned out like this in the end. I’m curious.
I should be doing NaNo. I’m disgustingly behind and this is a shameful procrastination. But Google Highgate Cemetery and read stuff. That’s my suggestion. And watch this video, featured on the Highgate Cemetery website, if you’re interested; it captures some of the peaceful, sombre beauty of the place. The pictures we took don’t capture the atmosphere quite as well, but I’ve stuck a few of them behind the cut anyway.
*I don’t have the Oxford English Dictionary on hand, but according to Wikipedia (shutup), ‘The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cemetery as a “burial-ground generally; now esp. a large public park or ground laid out expressly for the interment of the dead, and not being the ‘yard’ of any church”’ although the words ‘cemetery’ and ‘graveyard’ are ‘generally used interchangeably’ today. There you have it.
As of Monday this week, I have been in London for six months. It has gone astoundingly fast and astonishingly slowly at the same time. This is how change works. If I found myself in my family’s living room this evening, sitting on the couch, watching TV, eating bobotie and drinking red wine, with my mom, dad, brother, grandfather and fluffy old cat somewhere in the scene, I don’t think it would be hard to imagine that this entire London episode has been nothing but a strange dream. And yet… I heard that Sun Valley mall got knocked down a few months back. I know my mom swapped the contents of two rooms in the house after I left. People must have longer hair by now, or new haircuts. How much can a person age in six months? I still picture everything as it was, but how many things (little things and big things, insignificant things and important things) have changed? Would I be able to assemble all the old friends in the old places and have everything be as it was before I left? I doubt it. Am I the same as I was? I think I am, mostly, but with additions. And subtractions.
When I am asked anything about my life in South Africa by Londoners, I find myself feeling as though I’m speaking about something I’ve made up. It’s already abstract. If I want to, I can imagine myself walking up and down the aisles in the old local shopping centres; I can mentally go through the contents of the bottom drawer that used to stand beside my bed, or following the route from Fish Hoek, over the mountain, all the way to UCT and then walk around the Arts Block where I spent most of my days as a student; I remember the feel and function of each door handle in my old house… But when I think of my life in South Africa as a whole, it dissipates; it’s like trying to nail down a ghost. And it terrifies me to realise that this is only going to get worse. Or better? I acknowledge that in many ways, forgetting is healthy. This is a lesson I’ve learned well. I don’t keep old emails, chat logs or text messages from other people, because reading people’s words from the past bring them right back into the present, and that’s not always a good thing. I only make an exception for some special sentimental correspondence that is unambiguously positive. I generally prefer impressions to persist alone, open to remoulding and natural evolution without the influence of the unchanging pieces that originally created them. But does this lesson even apply here? I don’t know.
Do I miss South Africa?
It’s not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. I miss my family. The fact that I haven’t seen them since April has been very difficult. I have a close-knit family, and sometimes, realising how far away they are seems to take all the air out of the room and make me feel quite dizzy and sick. I miss my friends and the easy, casual comfort of a social circle I worked myself into over many years. I’m not good at making friends and I’m terrified I’ll never have a circle like that again. I miss being a local; having my accent blend in and knowing all the details that locals know about the place where they’ve grown up. I miss the cultures and the languages and the geography and the climate and all of those things too, but they’re less pressing. And there are lots of things I don’t miss at all. I can live without South Africa because I feel like I’m lugging chunks of it around with me all the time anyway. I don’t yet know if I can live without some of the people I’ve left behind. Time will tell. Life goes on in my absence; events are going to happen that I want to be a part of, but I can’t. And my parents are going to get old. And people I know and love are going to get sick, and die, and I might not be there. It makes me feel cold. Nobody said it would be easy, and I can confirm that it fucking isn’t.
What is the best thing about being in London?
It’s London! It’s amazing. So much to do and see, so much history, so many beautiful buildings and parks, so much happening. In practical terms, the public transport is right up at the top of the list of awesome things about London. The feeling of freedom (at least within zones 1 to 3 covered by my Oyster card) is fantastic and I love not having to drive. The obligation to drive was an enormous source of stress and fear for me in Cape Town and it’s wonderful having that out of my life. Also, there’s something exciting about the tubes… When I’m not in auto-commuter mode and I actually flick my brain on and think about it, I feel incredibly inspired and proud and amazed by the whole business. I’m in London, under the ground, hurtling down a tunnel in a metal tube with hundreds of other people, people from everywhere, going places… There is history in these filthy tunnels, and you can see it and feel it (and smell it). Humanity in transit, humanity on the move, humanity at its most interesting. I won’t go into my occasional experiences of tube rage, because it would totally spoil the tone of this paragraph. *ahem*
What aspect of the immigration has been the most difficult?
My first instinct is to say ‘homesickness’, but in all honesty I think ‘unemployment’ has been just as difficult. The internship has eased the feelings of uselessness, idleness and frustration at a lack of personal enrichment, but having no income is a massive pain in the bum. If I had an income, I could plan regular trips to visit my family, which would ease the homesickness considerably, but I can’t. Luc’s income is paying off emigration debts, feeding us, clothing us, putting the roof over our heads and even allowing for some luxuries (including a nice pair of boots to get me through the winter), so of course it could be far, far worse, but without me earning, we can rarely experience anything in London that comes with a fee, at least not without a healthy side-portion of guilt and stress; and we can’t leave London at all. I’m eager to explore the rest of England (and the UK, Europe, and the world, for that matter), but it will all just have to wait. My impatience gets me down from time to time, but I just need to keep reminding myself about how lucky I am to be here at all. These are all experiences worth having, even if they’re not exactly the ones I planned to have.
Am I happy?
Yes, overall. I’m not always happy, but who can honestly say they are? I have bad days and sad days and days where I wake up thinking up I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life and I want to go home immediately, but most of the time I’m happy and excited for the future. My relationship with Luc is as good as it ever was. He deserves a trophy for his patience with me, and his willingness to put up with my emotional volatility when he’s going through the same adjustments as I am, but with such calm and control. I tell him everything and we’re the best of friends and I would never have been able to do this without him (emotionally or practically).
What’s the plan?
Apply for more publishing (or literary agency) internships. Get more publishing (or literary agency) internships. Get a good CV and develop my skills. Become extremely employable. Get a job (in publishing or at a literary agency). Win at life. (?) That’s it, basically. I’ve chosen an extremely competitive job within an extremely competitive industry in an extremely competitive city. I don’t know what the timeline is here. Sometimes I fear it’s too long and I won’t be able to hold myself together (financially or mentally) until I manage to find work. I know that many other people looking for the jobs I’m after have done multiple internships and have much more experience than I do (and also usually happen to be a few years younger than me because they didn’t spend two years doing an MA in creative writing and another year copywriting and another chunk of a year sitting at home, jobless and internshipless, bawling their eyes out) so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. It stresses me out and gets me down sometimes, but all I can really do is keep plodding on and hoping that someone, somewhere will give me a chance to prove myself. I’m trying to stay calm. It doesn’t always work, but I’m trying. That’s the career plan. As for the everything-else plan? Well, most of it hinges on the career plan working out. Watch this space.
Then there’s writing. I went to another creative writing workshop on Monday (the first since starting my internship in September) and it was good! I feel inspired and I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo. I’ve been struggling to find the energy to write as much as I’d like to lately, and this has made me incredibly frustrated with myself. I don’t have an excuse. I just need to get my shit together and make it happen. I’m hoping that NaNoWriMo will be the motivation I need to end the writing slump. I’ve been reading so many amazing books lately, and the desire to write something that I’m at least half proud of has become incredibly intense. I have so many ideas for my WIP, I just need to get them into my laptop and mangle them until they make sense!
I thought I had a grand and poetic point to make in this post, but it turns out I don’t, so I’ll just leave it there and add ‘blog more’ to my ever-growing list of things I should do.
Yesterday I went to Wimbledon Common for the second time, this time with Luc, and he took his camera along (a Canon 650D). The auto function doesn’t do the landscape any justice at all, making everything appear flat and and washed out; nothing more than a confusing muddle of greens. After a while, Luc started fiddling with the settings and the pictures he was taking began to capture what we were seeing around us. It’s all about the shadows. The forest is so dense, that even in daylight it has a moody gloom that makes my skin tingle.
Neither of us have bothered installing any photo editing software, so the pictures I post are always raw. On rare occasions I crop them, and I’ve started resizing them to make them upload faster, but nothing else. I’m keen to fiddle with photo editing though, because I’m sure these pics have the potential to be even more striking than they are already. Here are three of my favourites. All credit to Luc.
When Kasha introduced me to this place a few weeks ago, I knew it wouldn’t belong before I’d go back. London has so many of these amazing green spaces and I can’t get enough of them in general, but this forest has something special. It’s the sort of place that makes the existence of magic seem entirely plausible. My novel (the writing of which has ground to a depressing halt since I started my publishing internship) is set in a forest, and standing between those trees yesterday made me want to work on it more than anything. It’s infuriating how the intensity of the urge to be creative disappears as soon as I sit down at my computer and open up Scrivener. I wish I could catch inspiration in a bottle and release it when I’m able to make use of it. I’m going to make an effort today, even though it’s lovely outside and the parks are trying to lure me out again…
Most of this I wrote more than a week ago, but haven’t had the guts to post it until now. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable about posting it, but I think I should, so I will.
Getting the internship was huge for me. When I received the email saying I’d got it, I had to read it three times before I could believe it and then I cried a lot. And it’s not even a permanent job, or a paying one. I left my job in Cape Town at the end of March, arrived in London at the end of April and was then unemployed until this month. I didn’t expect the move to work out like this. With a bunch of academic achievements and a year of work experience on my CV, I was naive enough to think I’d snap up a reasonably good job shortly after arriving, like Luc (my boyfriend) did. After the first month or two, when I started realising that this wasn’t going to happen and how utterly stupid I had been to expect it, I started to descend into something that, I think, could be described as depression.
I’ve never considered myself to be someone who suffers from depression, meaning that it hasn’t been a prominent issue in my life so far. I’ve never had to take meds, I’ve never self-harmed… nothing like that. I’m lucky. I’ve gone through patches of seemingly overwhelming sadness, but I don’t consider this to be out of the ordinary. Conflict with people, relationship blues, the deaths of loved ones; these are things that affect everyone and my reactions to them are, I think, standard reactions; nothing that qualifies me to say that I “suffer from depression”. But the unemployment thing gave me a taste of what I imagine it must be like.
I’ve come out of it now, since getting that wonderful email, and I have a bit of perspective on the whole thing, so I feel like I can, and maybe should, write about it.
It was terrifying, realising that I was losing control of myself in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. I’d wake up some mornings feeling dead. I knew I should be looking for jobs online and trying to fix the main thing that was making me stressed and unhappy, but it got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read an entire job description, let alone write a coherent cover letter. I was stammering more than I ever have in my life. I was crying All. The. Time. Literally every day. Usually more than once a day. I’d try to get out when I could find the energy and when I did I’d feel a vague sense of achievement at having “done something”, but I wasn’t really enjoying any of it properly. I’d take photos thinking “one day I’ll look back at the pictures and be glad that I saw all these amazing things” but most of the time I can’t say I was too glad in the moment I was actually seeing them. I felt detached, walking beside myself, floating above myself, looking at my life as though it was someone else’s.
It got progressively worse and worse and I started getting a bit panicky, especially when the random crying became so bad that the skin under my eyes felt permanently raw and I’d find myself almost throwing up with the intensity of it. So I went on the internet and read a bunch of “How to Deal with Depression” guides and most of them recommended seeing a health professional at some point. I decided to do that, seeing as it would be free anyway. (Yay, NHS!) I made an appointment, citing my dysmenorrhoea as the reason for it and thinking I’d just mention the depression thing “by the way” at some point in the exchange. I almost didn’t. There were two doctors present during my appointment; the main one and a trainee. After getting a prescription for expensive painkillers that I had no intention of buying, and showing them a rash on my hand to buy time, the session seemed to be wrapping up…
Doctor: (perhaps sensing that I was holding something back) Is there anything else we can help you with?
Me:Well, maybe. Yes. I’m not sure. I don’t really know how to say it. Um. I’ve been feeling a bit depressed.
And then I started crying. Obviously. There was this horrible silence that seemed to last forever between the moment that the tears and snot started pouring out of my face and the trainee doctor getting up to fetch me an inadequate piece of tissue. While I was trying to mop up my face leakage, I started laughing and said something like “You see? This keeps happening. I don’t know what to do about it.” I was trying to keep the mood light and not make it more awkward for them than it had to be. I was already feeling terrible about the sky-high levels of awkwardness in there. It didn’t feel much like I was in control of the situation though; I was just watching it unfold like a cringe-worthy B-movie.
The doctor then went on to ask me a bunch of questions that I can’t remember. I told him about the immigration and feeling homesick and not being able to find a job and not knowing how worried I should be about my mental health. And then he asked me if I’d thought about suicide and I told him that I hadn’t, but it’s not really that simple, is it? I would never kill myself. There’s a lot I want to do with my life. I’m not scared of death (there’s nothing scary about non-existence… I didn’t exist before I was born and that was perfectly OK, so I’m not too phased about not existing after I die), but I am scared of dying, as in the actual process of becoming a corpse. I don’t like the idea of being gripped by pain or nervousness or fear in the last moments of my existence and I’m pretty sure that most suicides usually involve all of those things. Moreover, I would never kill myself because I couldn’t do that to my boyfriend, my family or my friends. I reckon I would rather trudge on, hating every second of my life and pretending to be ok for their benefit rather than hurting them by hurting myself… but, as I said to the doctors, I’m scared that if things keep getting worse, these might not seem like such big obstacles anymore. I said something to the effect of “I’m not suicidal, but on some mornings I don’t really feel like existing and I’m scared that one day I’ll wake up and I won’t care about my family and my friends anymore, and I won’t be scared of dying, and I won’t feel like putting up with this shit any longer, and then I don’t know what will happen. I came to speak to a professional because the internet said that that’s what I should do.”
And I was glad I did. We had a good chat, the two doctors and I, once the awkwardness had passed and my face wasn’t leaking so much anymore. They told me that acknowledging that things aren’t all right is a big part of the battle won, and a crucial step towards getting better. They gave me a form for blood tests (to rule out some physical causes of depression, I guess) and told me to schedule another appointment a week after getting them done. I never went for the blood tests and I never scheduled the appointment because I received word about the internship on the next working day and it was like lifting my head out of a vice. Within hours, I was “OK” again, and ever since, I’ve been thinking about this experience and picking it apart (as I tend to do with everything). I have a few thoughts about it.
Firstly: WHAT THE FUCK? Whatever I was going through was obviously not physical, because as soon as the problem I’d been fixating on was in some way eliminated, I got significantly better almost immediately. I’m still sad sometimes, I’m still incredibly homesick, I still cry some days, but I feel alive! Life is not a big black hole of pointlessness and despair anymore. I don’t hate myself. It’s great! The internship is not a permanent solution, and it hasn’t done anything to help with our financial predicament and the stress associated with that, but the change it triggered in my state of mind was profound.
This leads me to understand my previous state of mind as a sort of shroud of misery that I had pulled over myself. Surely if I had pulled it over myself I should’ve been able to throw it off just as easily? But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I required a change of circumstances in order to feel like myself again. I had pinned normality onto something specific and I couldn’t have normality again until that something had been earned. WHY? I’ve been giving that a lot of thought too.
It’s pretty fucked up how my self-worth had become so entangled in “what I do” as opposed to “who I am” that a four-month blip in my career path (if I can call it that) basically caused me to lose my grip. In retrospect, I’m ashamed of that, although there wasn’t much I could do about it at the time. One of the key things that kept triggering the bad spells was shame. I was ashamed. Having been successful academically, I felt like I had something to live up to. I wasn’t responding to pressure from other people to live up to their high expectations; I was having a problem living up to the expectations I’d set for myself. I think that a lot of people are susceptible to this sort of thing. We’re constantly being defined by our work and valued according to how successful we are in our careers. It’s bullshit. Ambition is good, but not when it starts to grind you down. Things aren’t always going to work out when and how you want them to. Learning to deal with that is important.
Feeling the way I did, I withdrew a bit from everything. I tried to keep up appearances online, but mostly I was just posting things into the cybervoid rather than interacting with people one-on-one. I fell out of touch. Not completely though. There were my parents and a few other people who I spoke to, online and offline, who really kept me going and got me through to the other side, even if the exchanges were infrequent, and even if they didn’t know all of this crap I’ve just typed here. The writing marathon in August was also a massive help, as it got my mind off of the job hunt and allowed me to feel like I had a purpose. And now I have an internship. I’m working hard, learning lots, getting out of the house every day and I feel GREAT. Exhausted, but great. Of course part of that greatness could be attributed to the fact that I can now say “I have an awesome editorial internship at an awesome publishing house in an awesome city” (which is pathetic, but sadly, due to the human condition, it’s also true) buuut I also feel great because I’m occupied and awake and I have perspective on things.
So, TLDR, THE POINT: I am now OK, but I wasn’t OK. I let a small amount of failure bring me really low, and it was a waste of time and energy and I kinda sorta partly blame society for helping me to get my self-worth tangled up in things that I can’t always control and don’t really define me at all. I might (in fact I probably will) find myself in a similar situation again, but I’m hoping that I can use the lessons I’ve learned to prevent the emotional apocalypse from manifesting itself in such a destructive way next time. If anyone reads this and can relate to anything in it and wants to talk to me about their experiences, please contact me. I’d love to chat and to help in any way I can.
Disclaimer: Obviously not all depression is like this. Everyone has different experiences and different needs and different methods of dealing with whatever they’re going through. I don’t think that my experiences are universal, nor do I think they are unique. I’m not an authority on anything.
Today I caught a District Line train. I didn’t have anywhere to go, I just needed to activate my monthly Oyster card bundle and get out of the house, so I packed my Kindle and went on a pointless tube ride. Something weird happened on that tube. It might not have seemed weird to anyone else there, but it was weird to me. There’s that prerecorded woman’s voice that informs you of upcoming stations and tells you to mind the gap. That voice came on and said “There are beggars and buskers operating on this train. Please do not encourage their presence by supporting them.” Calm, even, sanitised, as always. A neutral voice. It then proceeded to repeat the message over and over, like a stuck record. The same message also scrolled repeatedly across the LED tickers and after a while, the speaker crackled on and the train driver chimed in, warning all passengers not to part with their money.
I was taken aback. Imagine being a beggar on a moving train and having that happen while you’re in the process of asking strangers for small change. You’re already vulnerable and desperate, you can’t get off and slink away, you can’t do anything. The beggars and/or buskers weren’t on my carriage, so I couldn’t see their reactions or how they had been begging. You do get chancers, obviously – entitled kids wanting free cigarettes – but I wasn’t imagining those sorts of beggars and I couldn’t help feeling incredibly uncomfortable. It was dehumanising. Announcing it once would be awkward enough, but repeatedly forcing the message using all possible channels made it seem like there was a war going on; the commuters against the beggars.
Begging on Cape Town’s trains is common. I caught those trains to and from University for years and experienced begging in a number of forms. If you want to give, you give. If you don’t want to, or you can’t, you don’t. Most of the time, the beggars aren’t aggressive. They’re just people in need. I’ve experienced begging on the London underground only once before. The woman wasn’t disruptive or rude. She put small paper notes and packs of scented tissues on the armrests as she made her way down the carriage. The notes explained her situation and asked anyone who was willing to help her to buy the tissues. Then she walked back up the carriage, collecting the things and trading some of the tissues for small change as she went. I was imagining her when that announcement started looping.
Of course there’s another side to this story, and of course these things can get out of hand and become a problem, and of course I understand all of that, but the experience left me feeling a bit cold nonetheless, and the iconic phrase “MIND THE GAP” took on a new meaning.