or, a retrospective on my twenties
I’ve been mentally writing and rewriting this in my head for a long time, but it only just occurred to me to actually write this as a real post (well, a week ago, but it’s taken me much longer than usual to review and publish it). I’m about to turn 30, and I’m incredibly relieved.
It’s about time.
To be frank, my twenties have been less than ideal, and certainly nothing like I expected they would be. They’ve largely been dominated by health battles – fighting first a mental prison, and then a physical one.
In the year before I turned 20, I attempted suicide twice and was diagnosed with major suicidal depression with psychotic features (based on one traumatic psychotic episode), anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia, and had a borderline eating disorder. When my 20th birthday rolled around, simply being alive was an achievement. I was being treated by a whole team of health professionals, I was on a sickness benefit, and living back at home with my parents.
It was hell. A hell that existed within my own mind, tormenting me and cutting me off from everyone who loved me in a thousand ways, as I’m sure anyone who has suffered from depression could attest to.
Eventually, I got better, and with hard work and a lot of support from family, friends, and those health professionals (particularly my psychologist), I began to resume a somewhat normal life. I ventured briefly back to university (prematurely, unfortunately, as the stress was too much for me and I dropped out – again), then went to a natural health college instead and earned an aromatherapy diploma (which I’ve never used, but I did manage to finish the course), moved out of home (technically, into a separate flat below my parent’s house. I did pay them rent though), fell in love, worked in a couple of different jobs, stressed out like everyone does about what I was doing with my life, made some mistakes, drank too much occasionally (but only occasionally), broke someone’s heart, and moved countries. ‘Normal’ stuff, I suppose.
That all happened by the time I was 23. I was finally healthy, happy, had moved to a country and city I loved (and still do – I’m still living here), I was back together with my first love (who I’d met when I was 16 and an exchange student in Europe), I had a ‘real’ job, and I was living with my boyfriend and a few housemates in a charming old house in the inner suburbs. Over the next few years we travelled a little bit, got progressively better jobs, I made new friends, took up new hobbies, we bought our first house, and got the most adorable dog. For a couple of years things were good. Really, really good.
And then, three days before my 26th birthday, I woke up with a bone-crushing exhaustion like nothing I’d ever felt before. I didn’t know it was possible for a person to be that exhausted. I was wrong – not only was it possible to be that exhausted, it was possible for things to get much, much worse.
For the first couple of months, I tried to push through it. I took a couple of days of work, went back, then a couple of weeks off, went back, gradually showing up less and less reliably until eventually they told me to go away and get better. So I took a couple of months off, and then over the course of a month tried to go back again, failed miserably, and didn’t return. Eventually, a few months ago, after I hadn’t been to work at all in over three years, we officially parted ways.
I didn’t take that long to work out what was wrong with me, and when I was officially diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) it wasn’t a surprise. One of my sisters had it for the better part of ten years and I’d seen her struggle. Of course, I never thought it would happen to me – no-one ever does, do they? By the time I got sick she & I were living in different countries, and she was dealing with her own life issues, so she wasn’t a constant support. There were a couple of things I had learnt from seeing her struggle though – one, that it was possible to get better, and two, that it was possible to spend an awful lot of time, energy, and money on ‘cures’ that ultimately didn’t help much, if at all. From watching her, I was pretty sure only two things would help me get better – not giving up, and time. (Additionally, I was, and still am, under the care of various health professionals who have been an enormous help and support. A good doctor is invaluable.)
Easier said than done though. If I hadn’t had those earlier experiences of attempting suicide, CFS certainly would have driven me to it. I don’t know what correlation there is between CFS and suicide, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was high. Over the next four years, I battled extreme exhaustion, insomnia (yes, it is possible to be bone-crushingly fatigued and simultaneously unable to sleep), dizziness, nausea, vertigo, headaches, muscle pain, depression, anxiety, a visual issue that I’ve forgotten the name of (basically, I couldn’t look at anything moving to fast, from objects moving past car windows, to certain tv shows), among other things I’ve blessedly temporarily forgotten.
I had days, and weeks, and months, where I could barely walk from one room to another. I had to hold on to walls, and was sometime lucky to make it from one spot of the house to another without falling down. I had a headache (a singular, constant headache) that lasted for over a year, and still get them every week, although not every day any more. I stopped being able to drive and could barely leave the house. I had to ask for help for everything, from getting to appointments to getting to bed. It put a huge strain on my relationship. I stopped seeing almost any of my friends. Phone calls to my family were increasingly infrequent, as both talking and listening to anyone was too exhausting. I couldn’t stand up for long enough to have a shower – I had to sit on a stool. Washing my hair was a marathon (not cutting it short was one small way I refused to let CFS win). I had to remind myself to keep breathing, and force myself to expend the energy required to eat. Before CFS, I took things like the ability to lift a fork, chew, and swallow for granted. The basics of life became mountains that often seemed insurmountable. On the few occasions we did manage to make it to important social events like weddings, I had a sleeping bag in the back of the car so I could sneak out and lie down when I needed to. When we showed up to things at all we were always the first to leave. Attempting to hold conversations felt like torture. The inevitable questions from both friends and strangers – what do you do (nothing, sick etc, blank stares), why aren’t you drinking (a cultural oddity these days. I had one sip of champagne at a wedding a couple of years ago. Other than that, I haven’t been able to drink alcohol or anything with caffeine for four years), the seemingly innocuous but greatly dreaded ‘How Are You?’ that almost every conversation seems to open with, the stories about ‘so-and-so who I used to know who had that…but they got better in six months/two months/one year’, the useless and unasked for advice that managed to be simultaneously condescending, hurtful, ignorant and sometimes harmful had I actually followed it…I dreaded it. (In the unwanted advice scenario, I generally attempted to smile, say thank you, and redirect the conversation or walk away).
Leaving the house felt like venturing into an alien planet, where people looked like me but were living lives so different to my own as to be incomprehensible.
My world shrank to the size of my couch, and my confidence plummeted. I couldn’t relate to anyone, and just continuing to exist felt like the greatest trial I’d ever faced. I was in constant pain, constantly exhausted, and lacked the means to truly describe my experience to anyone. It was isolating, debilitating, depressing. The tools I’d learnt for coping with depression were no use when faced with CFS. When the only energy you have is just enough to keep you breathing, nothing else really matters. I stopped caring.
But somehow, I managed to keep going. B’s support was invaluable, even if sometimes it felt like additional torture when he insisted I had to get up, eat or walk. Without his encouragement I wouldn’t have made it through the worst years. I kept getting out of bed every day. Eventually, I started being able to do dishes and cook again. The first time we were at B’s parents house and I was able to help dry the dishes instead of collapsing onto the couch straight after dinner felt like a miracle. About two years ago I started driving again, just to the train station and back to start with. Now, I can occasionally drive for a couple of hours if I have to. I started going to restorative yoga. Eventually, I could drive myself there. Last Easter I stopped going to restorative yoga classes and started going to regular yoga classes. I started cooking again, and now I can cook proper meals most days (although I still have more ‘bad days’ than I’d like where we end up getting takeaways because I’m too tired to cook). I started going for walks again – at first just to the local park, and now I can walk for a few kilometres if I need to (not every day, but on a regular enough basis). I can clean my own house again (important, as we’re currently trying to sell it). We can plan ahead with some degree of confidence that we might actually be able to predict what I might be capable of doing on a given day. After years of barely leaving the house, last year we went on our first overseas holiday in four years (and got engaged, finally – see previous statement on being able to plan ahead! A wedding would have been an unthinkable trial a few years ago). At the end of this week I’m going overseas on a yoga retreat by myself – something I wouldn’t have considered as a possibility even a few months ago. Life is finally starting to look up.
I’m not truly better yet (I still need to have frequent rest days, and short rests every day, and have some days where I can’t leave the house if I’ve pushed myself too much), but I’m getting there. Getting better has come with new challenges, but it is a great relief to be seeing (and feeling) continued progress towards ‘normality’. Towards a level of health that so many people take for granted – I know I certainly used to. My twenties have been less than ideal, and it’s been difficult not to resent that sometimes.
All that said, it is a great relief to be exiting my twenties and entering my thirties. Finally. I’m ready to get on with my life and leave this decade behind me. It hasn’t all been as bleak as this post may have seemed – there have been bright moments even in the darkest years, and I am certainly aware other people have lives much worse than mine. I also know there will continue to be challenges (that’s life after all) but turning 30 feels like turning a welcome corner.
On that note, it’s also time for a fresh start here on my blog. This post and all previous posts will soon be moved to a new location (beachlogarchive.wordpress.com) and will shortly be removed from this site. I’ll also be doing the first theme upgrade I’ve done here on the blog – it’s been the same since I started it about seven years ago and it’s time for a change. I haven’t yet decided if there will be significant changes to content, but I hope you’ll stay with me as I figure it out.
Finally, to everyone who has been reading my blog over the years, thank you for your support – even if it’s silent. You mean a lot to me.
Note: if you are suffering from any kind of illness, ask for help. From your family, your friends, or resources like beyondblue.org.au. Go to the doctor. Take medication if you need it. Most importantly, just keep going.