I like people who have survived or are surviving. I like people who are open with their vulnerabilities, “failures”, and desperation. I like those that despite the protective layers of armour they have built up around them, their heart still bursts free of their chest like a child that has yet to be hurt. Because when you have been forced to survive against all odds, you truly understand the value of even the smallest expressions of love. It’s not that you will always be able to offer it. In fact, in times of survival, when your tap is completely run dry, sometimes all you can do is take from others. The times I’ve been in survival mode have been some of the most selfish and needy of my life. But that is when you learn the value of a kind face, or a helpful gesture. When you feel completely alone in the world it means everything for someone to see you and not overt their eyes, despite how ugly survival may make you. And I’ve been real ugly.
I call us, ‘the invisible people’. We are the people society either shuns intentionally or simply forgets. The elderly; tucked quietly away in homes. The epitome of “out of sight, out of mind.”. The homeless; who are almost the polar opposite. They are in your face at the station where you get off for work, they interrupt your night out asking for money so that they might eat, or god forbid, spend it on drugs to feel good for a few minutes. These people are not hidden, but they are not seen. I’m not sure which is worse. I get along with criminals and people who live on the fringe of society. It’s so easy to demonise something we don’t understand but if you have really had to survive. I mean, fight for your own life, or that of your families’, not just for a day, but day in, day out, year after year; it’s much easier to have compassion for those that ‘break the rules’ in order to survive. People with chronic or long-term illnesses are similar to the elderly. Friends will come and offer support at first, but as they start to realise that you are not getting better, and this is a life-long adjustment, it becomes boring. It’s human nature to shy away from situations that make us feel helpless, and being with a chronically sick person usually highlights that helplessness in us. But it means that many of us with chronic illness become more and more isolated, depressed and of course, invisible.
The final semester of my degree (2016) was probably the worst time of my life. I almost didn’t return, and in hindsight it was probably too soon to be back. The short version is this; my relationship of 7-years had ended hideously, against my choosing. I’d watched my best friend deteriorate rapidly from brain cancer and subsequently pass away. And my father had died unexpectedly in the Middle East, from circumstances I still find suspicious. This was all in the space of about 5 months. I think that would be enough to make anyone snap but add to that my crippling co-dependency, co-morbid mental and physical illnesses, and the fact that I was now living alone for the first time in my entire life; I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I cried so much I didn’t even know where the tears were coming from anymore. The breaking of my heart was a physical searing in my chest, and convulsive gripping in my gut, that I was convinced would kill me. I truly believed I would die of a broken heart, and I am now sure that is possible. Every second I was awake I either had a drink in my hand, a line up my nose, or a pill down my throat. On a “good” day, all three. But I didn’t want to be awake. I wanted to sleep through the grief and wake up when it was done…or just never wake up. Either way, I honestly didn’t care. I was not coping, but despite myself I was going to survive.
And survive I did… by any means. The means of which I chose was drugs and alcohol. Never one to do anything by halves, I did not hold back. Due to an extensive spinal surgery I had in my early 20’s, I had a fairly regular supply of grade-A opiates on hand at any one time. It was a small problem, but manageable, right up until life wasn’t. And therein lies the Cliff’s Notes version of many a drug addict before me. Recreational drug use + ugly bump in life (maybe throw in a mental health issue as well, just for that extra oomph), = full blown addiction in rapid speed. RDU+UB=A². Look dad, I mathed!
Within three months I went from almost completely weening myself off the opiate pain killers, to getting withdrawal sweats if I didn’t shove something into my nose, mouth or eyeballs in the space of half an hour. Okay, I wasn’t quite at eyeball level. See, there is always further to fall kids! Of course I don’t endorse this as a survival method, but it cannot be denied that without drugs, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. Yes, they fucked up my life and health in many ways that will never return to their previous state, but in terms of short-term survival, many days they were the only reason I woke up. Wake up, rack up, snort line, survive (not a bad song lyric actually. Although if you ask 90’s Eminem it probably already is one). This little process would repeat until the day was done or I mercifully passed out. Passing out was the preferred option because then I would get a break from crying, aching, and life-ing.
God, I was just so sad. I can’t describe the grief. There aren’t enough sad words in the English language to explain that kind of heartache. Broken. Shattered. Empty. Anguished. Despaired. Tortured. Grief-stricken. Lonely. So fucking lonely. Lost. Agonised. Tormented. Alone. Desperate. Pained. Suicidal.
Put them all together and we are inching closer. I’ve never felt like that before. It was depression, but this was no ordinary depression. This was, end-it-all depression, and it lasted a long time at that intensity. Two and a half years long. So as ugly as I was, and as ugly as the drugs made me, I am grateful for them. They are just one tiny part of my recovery puzzle, but they aided in saving my life.
One of the reasons I resonate so strongly with vagrants, loonies, junkies, and criminals (all said with multitudes of love and affection), is because the only difference I see between myself and them is that I had a supportive family who had the funds, will, and patience to aid in my healing. That is not to be underestimated. There was a moment when my brother dropped everything and drove me to the mental hospital (or as I like to call it; the loonie bin). My insurance didn’t cover my stay there and I had to decide if I wanted to pay the $2500 for a short one week stay, or go spend that same amount of money on street drugs. Two things happened here; 1. If I had been alone I would’ve left, given up on myself and bought the drugs, but I had my brother there to encourage me to better myself. 2. I had the savings in my bank account to pay for the stay. That is a luxury not afforded to many. I may have been a fucking heartbroken, suicidal, junkie, but in that moment, there was no denying I was lucky.
It’s accepted knowledge that people with mental illness are far more likely to develop drug abuse issues, end up involved in crime, in prisons, or living on the streets. Well, I’ve almost got as many mental illnesses as I do fingers, and I was quickly becoming a full blown addict. I was also full of rage, and I was suicidal; meaning I didn’t give a toss about the consequences of my actions. That’s a dangerous combination that could’ve easily lead me to make a seriously misguided decision and ruin the rest of my life.
The grief in me was surfacing as rage. I didn’t know I could be so angry. It was like there was a flame alight inside of me, charring and scolding me from the inside out. I didn’t understand how everyone was walking around so contently while I was on fire in front of them. How could they leave me to burn alive like this! Couldn’t they see I needed their help? I hated them for not seeing it. For not seeing me. My mind was full of violence toward myself and others. But, even though I had given up on everyone, there were still enough people and structures in place that hadn’t yet given up on me.
My psychologist talked me out of ruining my own life on a weekly basis, I had a psychiatrist monitoring my medication, a GP I trusted, and a warm, comforting home to go back to with a loving, if exhausted, family. My mum and brother are my heroes, and I will never forget the last correspondence I ever received from my father. I’d emailed him in the Middle East to let him know I was in the psycho ward (a place I actually remember fondly; a story for another day perhaps). I was unsure how he would respond but he simply replied, “If you had a broken ankle you would be in hospital to mend that too. You are doing the right thing.”. My dad wasn’t always the best with words growing up, but those are some pretty great ones to go out on. Thanks dad.
I was one of the lucky ones. A lot of the people I met who were living on the street could not say the same.
I could no longer relate to anyone at my university. These chipper, healthy, studious, young woman who had goals and dreams to be successful health practitioners (nutritionists) and practiced what they preached. I wore a white coat in the clinic that mocked me as I smoked cigarettes around the back by the bins, and downed my 10th cup of coffee of the day. I was a fucking fraud. My only goal was to get to the end of each day so I could go to the train station liquor store, drink cask wine on the ride home, pass out, and start again in the morning. I related to the men and woman sleeping rough outside the station. We’d smoke together, talk shit and share my lunch. After my dad died I even started filling the pockets of his old jackets with snacks or sanitary products, and handing them out to people in need on cold mornings. I guess I hoped that if I showed someone a small token of love, that maybe it would come back to me. I knew how much I needed it and I didn’t want anyone else to feel as invisible and worthless as I did.
There was a selfish element to it, of course. I saw them, they saw me. It was nice. They saw good in me at a time in my life where everyone else thought I was misguided, pathetic and dark. These connections were incredibly important to me. These people who I saw for a quick cigarette in the morning before rushing off to class, were my friends. They were the people I connected to and I looked forward to seeing each day. They didn’t worry about me like the rest of the world. They had their own shit to worry about. But we appreciated each other in the moment and that was enough. That time in my life was horribly depressing and I’m so relieved to say I have finally turned a corner on it. However, it really helped me learn to be less judgmental, and that every single person has something worthwhile to offer if you are willing to be open to receiving.
… Even that one schizophrenic dude who I was having a perfectly pleasant chat with, until he started earnestly describing how he had just tried to steal a gun from a policeman because the invisible aliens were coming to capture him. I mean they could’ve been, what do I know? They were invisible after all! Ah, what a rare treat he was.*
I’m by no means perfectly healed. I didn’t “see the light” and transform myself into a content, clean-living, angelic specimen. LOL! The grief is at a manageable level most of the time now, but of course I still get debilitating waves where I feel my heart crushing in my chest. I still live with chronic mental and physical illness, which naturally brings me down (or up if I’m on a manic swing!). I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m not special by any means. Which is great news, because it means that anyone can survive. There was no grit or determination involved. I had nothing left to “fight” with. It was pure endurance. I endured life for as long as it took to survive, and from this place of survival I am now able to work on building a life where I can thrive. I wish I had more advice, as I had desperately wished someone had had for me, but all I can do is leave you with one more quote from my late father, “Just put one foot in front of the other.”. What he meant by this was that as long as we keep moving, no matter how slowly, we will end up somewhere else. Somewhere in the direction of where we want our lives to go. With that I’m learning to enjoy the process over the end goal, and I’ve walked myself out of hell on earth. I am not special. I just survived.
*No policeman were harmed in the making of this blog.