inews: The most fun thing about having a wild early twenties is telling stories from my wild early twenties, with a bit of time and distance and safe in the knowledge that I’m not that person anymore. People enjoy hearing about it, especially people who have never experienced spending the majority of any given week drunk, high in someone else’s hot-tub, and using sex as an ice-breaker. They enjoy vicariously living your lifestyle through an insulating layer of nostalgia and gallows humour.
In reality, I was having fun at most about 30 per cent of the time. I was diagnosed manically depressed at 22. Or rather, a combination of bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and a generalised anxiety disorder that provided an explanation my doctors seemed to agree with. They could contort almost all my symptoms around those labels, for the sake of having any diagnosis at all.
A problem with my brain
It’s hard to identify the exact cause, or when the symptoms started. The course of my diagnosis didn’t involve questions about my relationships, my insecure housing, my career, or any environmental factors. Whatever the problem was, its origin was apparently my brain. Things were definitely exacerbated by the sudden pressure of having a three-book contract to complete alongside a degree. I reacted with what probably looked like a great deal of ungratefulness for the opportunity by promptly having a nervous breakdown and dropping out of university.
Treatments I went though included talking therapy, two types of medication that made me physically ill, a short course of CBT that focused entirely on how irrational I was, and psychotherapy. At one of my several lowest points, a consultant gave me the option of sectioning myself. I refused, as I was more wary of becoming trapped within an institution than the familiar trap of my own brain. That none of these treatments had appeared to work didn’t cast any doubt upon my diagnoses. The problem, apparently, was still me.
Another exacerbating factor was my habit of approaching romantic relationships with the discernment and compulsion of a chain smoker, barely pausing for breath between the sadness of an end to the excitement of another beginning. At some point along the way, I’d uncritically absorbed the logic that, by all accounts, only in the context of a relationship could I find the self-worth I was unable to find alone.
It was convenient for others to use my mental health against me
Looking back, it was certainly convenient for everyone I dated between the ages of 20 and 26 that I had come to think of myself as a person naturally predisposed to being unhappy. It made malicious, abusive, and exploitative actions very hard to identify. Many were only too happy to encourage me to look at everything through the lens of my mental illness, which I naively explained to them with a series of educational websites and the idea that a partner would provide love and support. One of the phrases I remember best is, “You’re not really angry with me, you just think you are.”
My self-esteem was so low and my perspective so skewed that I left a relationship with someone who sexually assaulted me convinced that I had been the one to do him wrong, because – even for years afterwards – rape was made to seem like the logical reaction to being in a relationship with someone who was too depressed and anxious to actually want sex. I didn’t start referring to it as rape until my mid-twenties, which was how old I was when I realised that saying no in a relationship was something you could do.
I finally stopped dating at 26
I’ve heard it said that if you don’t learn the lesson, the lesson gets harder. I finally stopped dating at 26, after a relationship with someone who also had a freewheeling attitude towards consent, and yelled at me, dead-eyed, in the street for having an anxiety attack. It was then that I began to ask myself, for the first time in six years, whether crying every single day in a relationship was normal. I have only been able to make a judgement on what caused my mental-health problems because I know for sure when they all ended, and it was when I made the decision to stop.
I was made to believe I was crazy
Using the last of my money, I moved to a city where I didn’t know anybody to write my fourth book, exiling myself into a routine of work, frugality, and exercise that boarded on a religious retreat. There were challenges – financial anxiety, furious outbursts from exes – but my usual reactions to them, my symptoms, simply ceased to be. For years I had become a woman made to believe she was crazy. But since I’ve been decisively single, there has been no mania, no depression, no suicidal thoughts, no anxiety, no paranoia; none of the symptoms I was lead to believe I’d be managing my whole life. More than that, I’ve been happy, in control of my own mind and, finally, able to listen to and trust my own feelings.
That is the power in being alone for an extended period of time. Being alone also gave me the space to develop real boundaries and standards. I now know what treatment I find acceptable from romantic partners, because it has to equal or exceed the good treatment I expect from myself and my friends. This isn’t to say I’ll never date again, or that I don’t remain open to the idea of another relationship, but I haven’t met a man who meets the standards I hold myself to yet.
Source: Published by inews