A few weeks ago, I was talking with a good friend who is also a trauma survivor and has grown to hate the ubiquity that is trigger warnings. My own feelings on such disclaimers are very ambivalent at the moment, but I guess all I’m trying to say is: this piece is going to go to some very dark places, but I promise we’ll come out the other end ok. Consider yourself warned.
Yesterday, I celebrated my 27th birthday, or rather, my last day of being 26, by walking along the Fife Coastal Path between St Andrews and Kingsbarns. The Coastal Path is a 117-mile stretch of trail that runs along the edge of Fife, roughly between Edinburgh and Dundee. It is my favorite thing about living here. I took my sister and brother-in-law there last July, and I remember my sister saying, “anywhere you live after this is going to be incredibly disappointing in comparison.” She is not wrong. I would run along the path in spring and summer, and I used to do eight to ten mile walks along it with a group of friends from my graduate program. We’d take the bus to our starting point and make our way along the coast to the next town. I’d bring scones, and we’d stop often to lay in the sun or watch dolphins and seals in the sea. After one trip, I badly Photoshopped some dolphins (and myself) into a group picture. Hilariously, some people on Facebook thought it was real.
That group of friends has scattered across the globe, but two of them moved back to Edinburgh last week and agreed to walk some Coastal Path with me for my birthday. The day was perfection. Cloudless, windy, and just on the edge of warm, the path was dry enough that I didn’t even wear hiking boots and only fell once (this is an accomplishment for me).
There were flowers everywhere, including a stretch of trees in white bloom, forming a tunnel over the path. I could have stayed there in that moment forever, in an endless time loop where I was able to observe every insect that floated by, and study every petal as it drifted to the ground like gentle snow. I want to bottle the smell of the blossoms mixing with the salt of the sea and take it with me everywhere. I cannot imagine a better way to celebrate 27.
I’m generally not someone who’s much bothered by birthdays, one way or the other, but I’ve also never been so relieved to call myself older. Twenty-six was, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst year of my life. It didn’t begin badly—I rang in 26 watching Adventures in Babysitting with friends and drinking champagne floats. The next couple months were also good. After nearly a year in Scotland, I finally felt settled into a solid group of friends. There were many dinner parties. I spent a lot of time tossing a football around on the beach. I loved school, and I got accepted into a PhD program. Things weren’t perfect, but they seemed pretty damn close.
Then July came, and everything fell apart. Not all at once, and not in a way that I even recognized at first. For a while, I was able to maintain at least the outward appearance of normalcy, and very few people—not even my family—knew the truth. But eventually the cracks in my façade grew larger and larger until I could no longer hide the reality from myself or from others. It felt like freefalling into an abyss. For the first month or so, I was convinced I had a parachute hidden somewhere, that it would just turn up eventually and everything would be fine. I never found that parachute.
I suffer from PTSD. I experienced several instances of sexual trauma in my early 20s, and I never dealt with them until last summer, when things got so bad that I couldn’t ignore them anymore. I’m not going to talk about those things today. Someday, perhaps soon, but not today. For now, all you need to know is that my struggle with PTSD was the first domino in a chain of events that caused my health to spiral out of control. I have always suffered from migraines, but they became unbearable. I had a migraine for 22 days straight in August. Even worse, I was deeply conflicted about my trauma, and I felt like a failure for having it affect me so much. I was in constant physical and emotional pain. I have no idea how I finished my master’s dissertation. Sheer force of will, I guess. Meanwhile, I was sinking further and further into a crippling depression.
If you haven’t read Allie Brosh’s pieces on depression, go do that right now before you read any further, because it’s pretty much the best and most accurate description of depression ever written. My fish were super dead, and there was no bringing them back to life. This has been my desktop background since September:
School was no longer an option that was available to me. I watched as my dreams slipped through my fingers, first with heartbreak and then with numbness. I stopped experiencing even physiological sensations, like hunger or pain. There were occasional breaks in the void—blips of emotion, even happiness. Watching Drumline with my flatmate. Going to an S Club 7 (minus 5) show. Hearing a chillingly beautiful rendition of “Loch Lomond” performed at graduation. But those moments of feeling made the numbness seem worse when it inevitably returned, all too soon and with alarming speed, as if all the colors were quickly being drained from the room. Worse than that—it was like there was no more oxygen. I was living in a vacuum. On the one hand, nothing could touch me there. On the other, I couldn’t touch anything, either. I ceased to interact with my surroundings.
Everything that I used to love no longer mattered—music, art, cooking, writing. I stopped doing pretty much everything but existing. Then the numbness was so consuming that I didn’t even want to do that anymore. The worst day was somewhere in September, when I arrived at two horrifying realizations. First, that I desperately wanted to be dead. Second, that killing myself would be wayyyyyy too much effort, so much so that I would never do it. If I couldn’t even be bothered to fix myself a sandwich, suicide was definitely out of the question. This realization should have been comforting, but it only made me feel more powerless and detached from reality. The only option that seemed feasible without some exertion and planning was slitting my wrists, and I quickly decided against that because it would leave a truly grisly scene for my flatmate to come home to, and I didn’t think that was very fair to her. I think it’s for the best that I wasn’t on any medication at this point, because it would have provided a relatively easy solution to just swallow all of it at once.
Eventually, I did go on medication. When I stepped on a scale and realized I’d lost 14 pounds—a full stone—in a matter of three or four weeks, I made a large kale salad for breakfast, with poached eggs and peppers. I forced it down, and it came right back up. I also hadn’t slept in days, maybe weeks. I called the doctor that morning and got prescribed an anti-depressant with a side effect profile that included drowsiness and hunger. Check, check.
Anti-depressants suck. They suck slightly less than being horribly depressed, but only slightly. Although objectively, the numbness was much, much worse, it didn’t feel like it when my emotions started to return, fragmented and defective. I missed the safety of the void. Once I started to experience an emotion, it felt dangerous. extreme. uncontrollable. unstoppable. Even happiness was bad because it was so unsettling and unwieldy, and I know longer knew how to cope. If I cried, I was pretty sure I was never going to stop crying. I went from being afraid of nothing to being afraid of everything.
On December 12, I spent a perfectly pleasant afternoon with a guy I was vaguely seeing at the time. Somehow, he knew almost nothing, but the cracks were beginning to show. “Are you ok?” he asked. “You’re not you’re usual buoyant self.” Hah. Buoyant. I made some sort of comment about the weather and then walked home alone, in the rain. When I got there, I realized it was the sixth anniversary of my most traumatic assault, the one that really fucked me up and made all the other times infinitely worse. The one that, if any single event could be held responsible for the state of my life last December, was definitely it. I collapsed into a jumbled pile of flesh and bone on the carpet and wept until I no longer knew why I was crying.
After about an hour, I got off the floor and tried to accomplish simple tasks. I was leaving for America in a few hours and hadn’t started packing. I stripped my bed, crying. I loaded the washing machine, crying. I rearranged clothes drying by the fire, crying. I stood at the ironing board, crying. I felt like Toni Collette’s character in About a Boy, crying while trying to prepare a bowl of cereal.
Nobody wants to be Toni Collette’s character in About a Boy.
I called my dad. For neither the first nor last time, he read me Oscar Wilde over the phone. I lay on the floor while Lady Bracknell interrogated Jack for almost three hours, until my flatmate came home. Then I stayed up all night packing and cleaning and took my taxi to the airport at 5 in the morning.
I remember almost nothing from approximately August to December. Events that I’ve already mentioned are some of the few that I can string together, and only then in piecemeal glimpses, like a really pathetic training montage from a very bad teen movie. The closest thing I can compare it to is memories from a very young age; they are fuzzy and without sequence. Without the presence of adult memories and information, it would be very hard to pick out details and make sense of the disorder. I know that night was December 12 because I know that I was attacked on the way home from a particular friend’s birthday party, and also because if I look at my calendar, I can see that I had a flight on the morning of December 13. Apart from context like that, I have to really struggle to remember specific details beyond feeling, really, really shitty.
At some point, or maybe lots of different points, I was able to feign normalcy in parts of my life again. I worked and was somewhat surprised to find that I was still very good at my job, even liked it. I forced myself to do things I used to enjoy. I started cooking, though I avoided kale. I took up painting again. I kept a journal of my depression. Someday, maybe those writings will help me piece together the events of last fall into cohesive memories, but I’m not ready to look at them yet.
One foothold at a time, I slowly, carefully climbed back out of that abyss. I’m still climbing. I’m not sure how one knows when to stop climbing, but I guess I’ll leave that to Future Alix to figure out.
I got free counseling through Fife Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, and I am not exaggerating when I say that FRASAC saved my life. (If I ever have lots of money, I’m going to give piles of it to them because they are wonderful, and they only have 3 counselors for all of Fife. ALL OF FIFE! Fife has a population of 365,000 people! Furthermore, I had to wait a hella long time to get regular counseling, because they don’t limit the number of sessions you get. This is great once you’re in the system, because it doesn’t force an arbitrary deadline on Dealing With Your Shit, but it sucks while you’re waiting. Anyway, tl;dr: FRASAC is great, and I want them to be very well funded for a very long time. End parenthetical.)
I’m not sure you can truly appreciate a good counseling experience unless you’ve also had a particularly bad one, but I have. Before being referred to FRASAC, I had some seriously lackluster experiences with my university counseling services. The worst was when I sat in a counselor’s office and told her that not only was I depressed, but also that I was no longer able to perform basic activities that I should be doing, like eating. She replied by telling me that she didn’t like students using the word “should” in her office. I was telling her that I hadn’t been able to keep food down for two weeks, and she was sitting across from me, calmly having an argument about semantics. I never went back, and she never followed up. In the meantime, I got on the waitlist for FRASAC, and even while I was waiting for regular counseling services to open up, I was able to attend some incredibly helpful emergency sessions. Counseling was still awful and exhausting, but it at least felt productively awful.
One of the other things that saved me, oddly enough, is the ukulele. When every second of every day that passed felt interminable, I could still sit there and play the ukulele. It requires just enough concentration that I can escape my own head for exactly as long as I hold it in my hands, but not enough that the barrier to entry is too high, as with my cello, which I’ve played since the age of 10 and with which I am much more capable. On days when I had counseling, which were almost always the worst days, it was not unusual for me to come home and sit on the couch with my ukulele for the next six hours.
I bought myself a new ukulele for my birthday. It’s beautiful and perfect and tiny, so I never have to travel without that safety net again. It’s sitting in the chair next to me as I write this, reminding me that I’m a year older now and Things Are Different.
More than anything else, my saving grace was my family and friends. I spent hours on the phone every day, just to help pass the time. The ones who helped most were the ones who had struggled with depression themselves. They never tried to tell me that maybe tomorrow would be better, “fresh with no mistakes in it,” as it were. They knew that tomorrow would be exactly as shitty as today, but that if it was a really, implausibly good, lucky day, I’d be able to get out of bed and eat a piece of toast. I had friends who would call me on their lunch hour, or on their way home from work, or while they fixed breakfast in the morning. Friends who looked up counseling services for me and forwarded the information, so I wouldn’t have to do it myself. Friends who would hear me recount horrible doctor stories and be able to tell me that, yes, that doctor was exactly as awful as I thought he was. Friends who listened when I wanted to talk and babbled at me when I didn’t. Friends who distracted me but didn’t let me hide from my problems. Friends who take the train just to walk a few miles with me on my birthday.
Days like yesterday, I remember not just why I live here, but why I love it here. On beautiful days, I love the way my hair catches the sunlight as it blows in my face, this reddish-gold halo fluttering around the edge my vision. I love running barefoot on the beach, as the sand and salt from the cold North Sea speckles the back of my legs. I love the sound of bagpipes on the wind, and never knowing if they’re real or in my head. I love the inevitable chaos that is strip the willow, and that time my friend ceilidhed straight into a pole. I love the musical “hiiiyaaa!” as you enter a shop, and the endless cups of tea everyone drinks. I love the colors, from the million different shades of green to the purple of the heather. I love that it feels like home now.
All my memories of Scotland are tangled up in extremes—I’ve been the most miserable, but at other times, the happiest. It’s like the seasons here. This past winter brought some of the darkest hours in my life, both literally and figuratively. But come summer, there is so much light that it’s overwhelming; the euphoria is almost equally unendurable. Love is complicated and confusing and all at once monstrous and beautiful and terrifying. It’s definitely not numbness, and everything is better than numbness.
I am in love with Scotland.
As I say goodbye to 26, I am so unbelievably thankful to still be here. Twenty-six was always going to be a shit year—it was or is for almost all of my friends, too. You’re not so young that you don’t feel a great deal of distance from your early 20s, but you’re not old enough that anyone takes you seriously yet, either. It’s a transitional stage into your next phase of adulthood, and like most transitions, it sucks. My transition was especially rough, and because of that, Scotland will always be heavily laden with baggage for me.
I’m finally at a place where I’m strong enough to start over somewhere new. I could move anywhere, distance myself from the isolation and emotional scars of this place. I probably should. But someone told me once that we shouldn’t use the word should.
Days like this, I wonder, how can I leave?