I have a tiny painting of a pink octopus above my desk, big eyes watching me as I write. I stuck it there as a bright reminder to use my limp-along quirks to make something uniquely gorgeous every time I sit down to work. The scary part of who I am (throw in words like crazy, irrational, over-sensitive, emotional, manic, depressed) is the same part of me that is ridiculously lovely.
The reason I chose an octopus is because of a book I recently read which is so closely related to who I am. It’s called First, we make the beast beautiful – a new story about anxiety – by Sarah Wilson. This is a memoir that packs quite a punch because of the depth of research it holds, as well as a personal understanding of the psychology of someone who lives with anxiety and depression. So the entire time I was reading, I kept thinking to myself…me too, me too, me too. There is someone else in the world like me – and look at her – she is stunning and successful. That means I can be OK too.
The depth of my reaction to the last chapter, which I will share in a moment, will be easier to explain with a bit of background.
If I am completely alone in a house and I hear a noise, I am a particular kind of terrified. If, however, I hear that same noise but my cat is lying next to me, I’m a less intense kind of scared. When my sister and I were still kids and home alone, if I heard footsteps in the garden I would bravely go outside with my torch to see what “skelm” was out there. Not because my sister was formidable backup. She was a fragile 20 kilogram frame hiding under the bed. Nor is my cat any great threat against a burglar. But for some reason, the mere fact that I am not alone makes me braver to face whatever I need to face. It’s not that they can help me, it’s that they are there.
I felt a similar sense of being not-alone while reading Sarah’s book. Even although she isn’t living my life, on the other side of the planet she is living a similar life. That makes me feel like I can face the monsters in my mind, because she is facing them too.
I found a particular, selfish affinity to the fact that here she is, a beautiful, successful woman, in her forties, and still single and childless. It made me feel like less of a complete failure, living alone without the white picket fence and school runs. It made it all OK. It almost seemed…beautiful.
Then, in the last chapter (spoiler alert ahead) she begins to tell the story of how she met an incredible man who wants to spend his entire life with her. And then, like in an Eat Pray Love happy fairytale ending, she falls pregnant. I thought FUCK. So in the end, she has a happily ever after? She, the other girl just like me, isn’t like me at all. It was a lie. I felt alone all over again. That primal and self-centred (but natural) response: She has someone to scare monsters away with. I don’t (insert Linkin Park poor me music). I can no longer relate so closely to this story…until…I feel like an absolute shit as I read further…Sarah doesn’t get it all AT ALL. She gets so damn close and then loses everything. She loses the man. She loses the baby. She’s alone, alone, alone. She’s like me again.
My honesty makes me squirm. Admitting that knowing someone else is battling the same monsters makes fighting mine easier. It’s almost like saying, I am relieved that another person is suffering, because that makes my own suffering feel OK. But maybe, I am not saying that at all. Maybe, at the very core of who I am, I feel like that little girl having to go out in the garden and fend off a burglar. Having someone inside who is scared too, somehow makes me braver, just because she is there.
Living with mental illness, and what that can potentially do to relationships, is a very frightening day-to-day. Living with any sort of “unfair” is difficult to get through on your own…losing a child, living with a terminal illness, surviving a violent trauma. The presence of someone else who is experiencing the exact same thing is comforting. We don’t wish it on anyone, but we are grateful to not be alone.
Last night I watched a movie called The Shape of Water. In broad strokes it’s about a mute woman who falls in love with a strange creature not of this world. For the first time in her life she is adored for who she is, quirks and all. She sees right through his gills and fins and connects to that space of “we are both weird and alone and that is what makes this work so fucking well.”
Her muteness and his other-worldliness brings two very alone beings into a place of me too, me too, me too. The movie would kind of be ruined if there was a fairytale ending like… oh my god I found my voice, or… now that you kissed me I turned into a prince. They remain fucked up and coloured in all forms of beast, but that is exactly what makes each of them so uniquely beautiful.
The point, after all this rambling, is simple. Find the answers to these three questions: What is your greatest struggle? Which specific gifts have come because of that difficulty? How can you make it beautiful?
Because the moment that you do that, you draw other people into your world that feel less alone because you’re in it, just as you are.
My beast is bipolar disorder and it has come with octopus-like tentacles of creativity. I can crawl into wounds with my words and I can stick to the sides of walls with little painted feet and make art.
I don’t live inside a cookie-cutter happily ever after shape of a life. I hope that makes someone, somewhere, feel so much less alone, and a whole lot braver in the dark.