The Unwanted Christmas Guest

December’s got off to a weird start this year. It’s usually my favourite month of the year – not just because it starts with my birthday and ends with Christmas, but also because of that feeling of carefree finality that comes with the end of the year. Because it’s a time to recharge, take stock, and, however briefly and shamelessly, be merry for merriment’s sake.

But for some reason, I’m just not feeling that this time. Traditionally for me, December starts with a sudden lurch into festivity. The tinsel comes down from the loft and is draped over every surface, the kitchen gets snowed under with stollen and biscotti, every cup of tea is festooned with cinnamon sticks. Love Actually and a festive Scotch is a staple of the first night of the month. But whilst none of that has been forgotten this year, I’m feeling a bit like it’s all being done on autopilot, like I’m feeling Christmassy because I should rather than because I actually am.

Part of me isn’t really that surprised, given the year we’ve had. I mean, personally 2016 has been a terrific year, full of momentum and huge forward gains, but externally all that just looks like a silver lining to an increasingly bleak bigger picture. The foul aftermath of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the resurgence of the far right across the world: coming into December has really brought home that New Year’s Eve is not the big reset button we like to pretend it is, and the thought of all that continuing on the other side of the calendar does rather push Christmas spirit down the list of priorities.

And of course another part of me is concerned that all this is actually much more internal than an anxious reaction to the state of the world. In the past, this kind of lethargy and disinterest has usually been the herald of a period of depression, so naturally I can’t help worrying if this isn’t just a common funk but a warning I should take note of.

Still, these days I am nothing if not positive; and the fact that I am actually able to hear the warning now is proof that I am far more able than I was twelve months ago to deal with whatever comes next. And in a way, there’s actually some relief to be had from seeing the Big D again. However great my progress has been over the last year, I’ve always accepted that someday I would inevitably have to face down another “episode”. That’s unfortunately just the nature of mental illness – you can move to a dry country, but you’re still going to have to dodge the rain from time to time. But now that time is here, I can focus on how to deal with it rather than keep looking over my shoulder for it to come.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I’ve read things right and the Big D is planning on a Christmas visit, that’s OK. It’s not the end of the world anymore. Because as much as I’d rather it stay the fuck away, I know better now than to ignore it. The lows are just an inevitable part of life, and just as depression isn’t simply an illness that makes you sad all the time, overcoming it doesn’t mean you have to always be happy. The trick for me has always been in practicing control rather than abstinence; in learning how to go down without going under, and being able to watch the sun set knowing it will rise again.

The Next Step

Adventures can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re quick journeys to somewhere new; sometimes, they can take us back to places we’ve already been or thought we’d left behind, and often by the most circuitous routes. And sometimes, like they did yesterday, they can begin in the bleary predawn murk, with a return to Bristol Parkway and a timetable for the University of the West of England open day.In many ways, visiting UWE yesterday was something both familiar and strange: familiar, because it’s hardly my first time on a university campus; and yet strange because, although it’s been a long time coming, I’m still struggling a little to believe I’ve actually come this far.

It’s now coming up for three years since I decided to cut short my time at Plymouth University, leaving at the end of my first year under a barrage of mental health problems I was in no way close to understanding. It was one of those decisions that was incredibly difficult to make, and yet at the same time made easy by the simple logic that I was too ill at the time to do anything else. But although I had no idea then of the scale of the battle I was about to enter, I did promise myself that when I was well enough I would one day return and finish my degree.

The plan was to make good on that promise this September gone. After going back to college to pick up an A level in English Literature and Language, it just seemed the natural way to go – from college straight back into uni, normal service resumed. And so this time last year, I did the rounds at open days, I worked away at the perfect application, I even had a calendar made to count down to my triumphant return to back-on-trackness.

But when the January application deadline came, I let it go by without me: not only did I not submit my application, but I didn’t even finish it. When my friends, family and college tutors asked me why, I told them simply and vaguely that, after thinking about it, I just wasn’t sure university was for me after all.

So how did I come to be at UWE yesterday? Well, I’m sorry if any of those friends, family and tutors are reading this, because the truth is I lied to you all.

In my defence, I wasn’t lying through any malicious intent, it was simply easier than admitting the truth – that despite spending two years working towards this goal, I still hadn’t recovered enough to take such a massive step. Although this was after I had started seeking help with my depression, mental health problems aren’t something that can be sorted out in just a few months. I knew then, even if I didn’t know how to explain it to others, that if I went back to university before I was ready, it would only end up undoing all the progress I’d made so far.

But one year on, more or less, I finally feel confident and honest in saying that I am ready to do this. In light of all the progress I’ve made since last summer, returning to university not only feels like a real possibility, it feels like the next step forward in my path to recovery. That’s not to say it’s not still a really bloody scary idea, but nor does that mean it can’t be done. The thing with having depression and anxiety disorder is that literally everything looks like a really bloody scary idea until you do it, and having been forced twice before to put university aside for my mental health, I’m not going to let it happen again. I can do this, and I bloody will do this, and if Depression has anything to say to the contrary, well…tumblr_mdjxtxhzru1r9wybv