I always had extremes of emotions as a child. What I felt, I felt with my entire being, deep in my gut, chest, mind. I was a strong-willed, stubborn, fearless girl with an acute sense of justice that I advocated for with the same passion I had for stories and art. I could feel what others were feeling; if they were hurting, I hurt too. So I did whatever I could to ease their pain or make things right. When I was seven, a classmate told me that her mother had hit her over the weekend and I took her by the hand and strode into the staff room and demanded a word with our teacher. When I was eight or nine, two girls who used to bully me had a falling out and one of them mobilised the rest of the class against the other, chasing her around the school yard and throwing pebbles at her from the climbing frame. I sat with her as she cried behind the school building, with my arm around her shoulders and told her things would be alright. By lunchtime the two girls had made up again, and I was the one being pelted with pebbles. I don’t remember minding it all that much.
I had many friends growing up, more than I wanted. I remember feeling hounded when other kids came knocking on my door or called the house phone, or insisted we ask my parents at the end of the school day if we could arrange to play after school. And it wasn’t just because it takes a lot out of me to connect with people, because I always give a person my all while I’m with them and take on all of their emotions on top of my own, which can be exhausting. It was because most of the time I preferred to be alone, because my inner life was usually richer than the outside world, especially when I felt forced to engage with my peers for too long. I usually found that they weren’t as imaginative as I was, and their minds didn’t seem to run as fast, so to be on the same page, we usually had to focus on physical play, like games and sports, or climbing rocks and trees, or building treehouses, or swimming, all of which I enjoyed, but not as much as my favourite game, which was to make up stories or travel in my mind. That’s literally all I did, whenever I was left alone. Whether I was in my room, or in the backyard of our house, all I did was walk around in a circle and escape into mind.
It never occurred to me that we didn’t show or talk about feelings in my family. I was very emotional growing up, without my parents modelling the behaviour, but I never needed to talk about my feelings, they were just there. Then my grandmother died, and everything changed. I was experiencing emotions and thoughts I’d never encountered before, trying to wrap my eight-year-old mind around the concept of existence and non-existence, whilst subconsciously taking in my parents’ reactions to their own grief, which was to hide and repress. And slowly but steadily, a new emotion started growing inside me — shame — and it felt heavy and sticky, smothering all the others and weighing me down.
By the time I was twelve, my once impenetrable self-esteem bordering on grandiosity was demolished, my tears had dried up, my chest and gut gone into lockdown. The existential thoughts and questions were still prominent in my mind, stirring up all sorts of emotions in me, but shame shot them down before they could reach me and replaced them with anger and self-harm urges. I was diagnosed with depression and sent to a child psychologist, but I didn’t trust him or anyone else with my thoughts and feelings. I started building a wall around myself, so that no-one could get too close. If they managed to get inside, I left. I dissociated.
My teens and early- to mid-twenties were tumultuous, I had recurring depressions with suicidal ideation that sometimes escalated to suicidal behaviour and attempts, interspersed with undiagnosed hypomanic episodes that gave me bursts of passion and creativity that were like echoes of my childhood self’s inner voice unchained and confident, that kept pushing me to stay alive and stay creative, ambitious, stubborn.
The storms in my mind got really bad sometimes, and there were several times when I nearly didn’t make it. But I always got back on track. I always dusted myself off and re-focused on my path. Over the years, before and after I finally got my diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder at the age of twenty-five, I developed several coping strategies and most of them were very unhealthy, some even destructive.
I was twenty-eight when I fully realised all of this on a conscious level and twenty-nine when I started working on changing this. I was thirty when I thought I had it all figured out and thirty-one when I realised I’d been outwitted by my own brain and had simply replaced the obvious outrageously self-destructive strategies with more subtle ones. I was frustrated, to say the least.
In the Doctor Who episode “The Rebel Flesh,” as Miranda Cleaves is radioing for help, she figured the clones (called the Gangers) might be listening in and takes the precaution of giving the mainland a code word for future transmissions, so they’ll know it’s really her and not her Ganger trying to make contact. She says, “I’m typing it, in case they’re listening in.”
Her Ganger, who is indeed listening in to the transmission, comments: “Oof. See how smart I am. That’s why I’m paid the big bucks…” and later on, when she and the other Gangers are trying to change the orders and she is asked about the code word, she instinctively knows what it is, because her brain is an exact replica of her human counterpart. Cleaves thought of the code word, so she can think of the code word. This is what it’s like battling an enemy set on destroying you, when that enemy lives inside your head.
It was a long and arduous process to unlock my emotions after having spent over a decade repressing them and it’s been an even longer process to learn how to have those emotions without shame and to regulate and manage them without resorting to my old, self-destructive strategies. At thirty-five years old I’m still figuring out how to do this half the time, but with the help of my slowly but steadily growing support network and a couple of years of therapy with a councillor who would call me on my shit, I have all but replaced all of my unhealthy coping strategies with healthy ones.
Things were really bad for a really long time, and I had about five close calls. It genuinely feels like I’ve fought my way through Hell and come out on the other side battered and bruised but ultimately reborn as the person I was meant to be, the person I started out as before the war in my mind started. It’s been almost two years since I thought about killing myself and today I finally got my semi-colon tattoo.