This is a combination of two unplanned essays. The first was a series of texts I sent to a friend; the second started as a response to an Instagram post questioning the before-after narrative that a lot of us who’ve struggled with mental health or suffered a trauma are familiar with – does it put undue pressure on us to be doing well, now, all the time, now that there’s been a successful intervention? The Instagram post was specific to the transgender experience, but it resonated with me, as I’m sure it did with many others (check out ind0ctrination on Instagram – she’s a medical student, artist, and activist who happens also to write beautiful, compelling, complex pieces on her experiences). The texts came together so beautifully and naturally that I felt they deserved to be shared (and remembered something Rega Jha said about how some of her best writing was hidden away in conversations with friends and late night texts). The Instagram comment felt like an organic follow-up. As a whole, this feels rather like a letter to myself.
Avoid thinking in absolutes and binaries like this: you either have your mind or you don’t; you’re either fine or you’re not; before, when you were normal, and now when you’re not – and so on.
I completely empathize with why you do so. For a long time my narrative about my life was that it was cleaved cleanly in two – before everything changed (I lost myself) and after. It’s tempting to cling to a version of yourself that you think was stronger and healthier and more capable of handling life.
But if there’s a clear before, there’s a clear after, and you have a destination to get to – something you can sense even when you can’t see it very clearly, because you know from experience that things can be different.
I had to let go to move forward. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it, because you can never go back. The truth is that it’s easy to romanticize a past in which you weren’t struggling, especially as time goes on. But usually we struggle for a reason, and it’s not to go back to a previous equilibrium.
As long as I was stuck in the past, I wasn’t free to live my life. I had to understand that, and it took a long time. Because the more that time passed, the more I wanted to cling to this time in my life that was vanishing. It was a foolish thing to do, because I was coding “normal” as the life I’d experienced when I was 12, 13, and adult reality and adult happiness are different things. I imagine that this would be true at any age though. We’re never the same as we were.
That said… don’t throw away everything. It’s always good to remember better times, to remember that you’re capable of feeling good and sharp and so on. Perhaps what you should do is avoid being wedded to that version of yourself as being the reason for those emotions or that goodness. Instead of – I was happy because I was that way – I can be happy, and I will be again. I have proof that it is possible for me. In the future, there will be a stronger, healthier foundation to my happiness, and I will be stabler and more resilient than I was before.
I would never snatch that comfort from anyone. I always thought one of the things that got me through was that I knew what it meant to be perfectly happy, even if I couldn’t always recall it in the moment. I mean you have to know that there’s better in store. Otherwise, why try?
The past was good…for the past. We can still be grateful for it. It’s what we were ready for then. Now the turmoil we are handed, even when it least seems like it, is turmoil that on some level we were open to exploring because who we were was no longer enough. We take on these challenges because we want very deeply to be better versions of ourselves. And we know that there are things we must resolve before we get there.
There are many before and afters in my life: before anything was wrong, and after, when almost everything was. Before I went to college and after, when things finally started to change for the better. Before medication and after. Before counselling and after. I’m certainly not the same person I was two years ago, and I’m immensely grateful for it. I’m healthier and happier and moving everyday towards the best version of myself. And yet, and yet, there are days when I still think that I might sink endlessly, never to surface again.
Acknowledging the magnitude of the struggle and the shockwaves that continue to impact our lives even as we think that the worst of it is behind us – this is important (but be careful to remember that you are far more than your struggle). It’s equally, if not more important to celebrate and celebrate and celebrate who we’ve become and how far we’ve come; how incredible it is that even back then, we kept pushing forward so we could get to this day, even though we didn’t know what it would look like on the other side. There can never be enough celebration, I think, because we ought to keep reminding ourselves that we’ve managed the impossible (I’ve far exceeded the expectations of my past self). We will never face a more daunting enemy than ourselves, and that we stand here, victorious, is a testament to our strength, resilience, and courage, in moving resolutely towards joy and hope…