It might be too dramatic to say that I feel grief for the time I’ve lost. Then again, it might not. You see, I have such fond memories of my childhood, yet I have unpleasant ones too. The night waking, which was always followed by a period of lying and listening, unable to sleep until I heard my dad cough or my mum roll over in their room, the reassurance I needed that they were still breathing. Then, as I got older, I remember the anxiety – not that I called it that then; I didn’t know there was a name for the heaviness that lived in my chest – the counting of steps, and the checking. The constant, constant checking. It – anxiety -was there, even when things were great.
You see, my teens and twenties are full of the happiest of memories: family picnics, heading to London with my sister when she turned 21, viewing the first flat my husband and I lived in, travelling, working, and being busy and surrounded by friends. When looked at like that, when admired through the tons of Facebook albums now locked away, my youth was a charmed one. And it was, in many ways, it really was.
But photos only ever tell half a story. Listing achievements only gives part of a picture. Because throughout those years, throughout all my years, there was an almost constant thread: anxiety. Pure, undiluted anxiety. Whether I describe it as a weight around my neck, as shackles around my ankles, or as poison in my blood, nothing quite captures the effect it has had on my life so far.
And this is where it becomes complex. I’ve had a happy life. I am very happy with my life today. To say that I have big problems in today’s world feels wrong and illegitimate. Yet I do feel grief for the time I’ve lost. The time that I’ve wasted. And I feel this sorrow, because during many a moment in time, whatever was happening – good, bad, excellent – was marred by a shadow of deep sadness and fear.
You see, I spent 7 months living in France. France. I made good friends, learned the language, and gained a dress size from the cheese and the bread and the pastry. Yet the whole time I was counting down until the next time I could visit home. I was scared and lonely. I was worried about locking up my “flat” (it was, honestly, a converted garage on perhaps the safest street, in the safest town in northern France) all the time. I was worried about whether or not there would be a strike, and I’d be trapped in the small town with my thoughts. For two weeks before a trip home, I would obsessively check the whether forecast – even though I took the train, not the ferry – to see if there were likely to be any travel issues. I was worried that my boyfriend would break up with me. I was worried that I will missing out. That one, perhaps, hurts the most. Missing out on what? I had money, all be it not a lot, I had a quirky living situation that I would look back on with absolute amusement in the future, I was becoming fluent in a foreign language, I spent my weekends in Lille, going to movies and bars and restaurants, and I was 20. I wasn’t missing out on life, I was living it.
The same goes for university. I did stuff, but not much. Now, when I would love to volunteer more, take a sports class, or learn a new skill, I have the desire but not the time. Back then, I had the desire but not the guts. I went to parties I didn’t want to go to, always leaving the house in another panic about the oven being on or my straighteners. Bloody things. They might have been the best invention for a frizzy-haired walking mop head like myself, but when I think of the hours I’ve spent worrying they were off, I’d probably have been happier in the long run if I just shaved my head.
These behaviours lasted long into my twenties. From my first flat to my first job, everything I did was done fuelled by nervous energy. Every day, it was exhausting just to leave the house. Every decision was taken under the influence of intense worry: what will people think? What if I get it wrong? What if? What if?
Written here in black and white, it all seems a little woe is me. Poor girl had a good youth but was unhappy living the life of many people’s dreams. Education, friends, steady relationship, job. Boy, she’s had it tough. But feeling guilty about struggling with mental health is just another symptom of a problem. No one chooses these paths and can just snap out of it (despite the obnoxious cups/tea towels/lunch boxes you can buy covered in a chirpy font that says I choose to be happy). So I’ll step away from guilt and return to this idea of grief. Sometimes I feel an overwhelming sorrow that so many good things have happened to me, and I experienced them, not in full colour, but in black and white. In just the past year, I’ve been at my most happiest and my saddest, struggling to cope with life as a new mother whilst being overwhelmed by the joy it has brought to my world. I regret how some of those precious first months were lived in a blur of depression, feel anger at the time lost, and wish I could change how it unfolded.
In all these situations, I regret, not the things I did, but the way I felt them.
Sometimes I joke that I am overdue my teenage rebellion. Nervousness, awkwardness, and shyness kept me back from doing many things I wanted. While I wouldn’t rebel in a getting a tattoo and announcing hatred for my parents kind of way, I do wish I’d rebelled more against my own fears. However, now, now that all the evidence suggests I am a bonafide adult, I have to accept that I can’t change the past. But man do I feel loss for some of the time gone by. Maybe I can still rebel, though, even if it is just against my own thoughts, so that from here on in life isn’t looked at through a lens of grey, but in proportion, with everything happening in its correct colour.