Why looking back can help you look to the future.
One year ago I sat in a Lithuanian hotel room, a bottle of wine in one hand and a knife in the other. In the preceding months, I had sunk into a deep despairing depression and had developed an outraged obsession with the futility of existence. Crying every day had become a norm. Each day I went to bed early so I didn’t have to experience consciousness, I isolated myself from friends, cancelled plans, ran entirely on anxious energy, felt trapped and helpless.
I had ended up in Lithuania trying to run away from myself. In a desperate bid to escape reality I had gone online and looked up the cheapest flight to anywhere. I imagined I would feel differently if only I could get away somewhere else. Instead, I ended up alone and afraid of what I was compelled to do. Finally, I accepted that I needed to get help.
Fast forward to today and I can’t remember the last time I cried. I went for a run this morning and became overwhelmed with happiness and an appreciation of life. It was snowing and the sea was frozen because of the bitter cold. The sun was just coming up and the sky glowed a soft and glorious pink. All I could see was beauty. And all I experienced was gratitude that I was here to see it.
A lot can happen in a year. I didn’t suddenly transform from suicidal to overjoyed overnight. The recovery was a steady, arduous process and it happened in tiny steps. The steps I took felt inconsequential at the time, but here I am – all those steps added up and I feel the achievement of having persevered towards a better place.
After Lithuania I spent weeks lying on the sofa, unable to do anything. I was at the stage of struggling to brush my teeth or take a shower. The steps began with setting a goal of taking a shower each day. This alone would wear me out and often I would cry after I’d done it because it felt so hard. But I would also feel the sense of satisfaction that I had managed to do it and this spurred me on.
I used an insanely expensive shower gel as an incentive. It cost 30 euros from the Blue Lagoon spa but smelt divine. I’d bought it months previously and had been saving it for special occasions. But in a world where I no longer experienced joy from food or company or exercise or any of the little things I used to love, somehow smell still had an impact on me. The smell of the shower gel relaxed me. It reached a place inside that still remembered the potential for pleasure.
And remarkably, this is how I progressed. What turned into an incentive to take a shower at all became an incentive to go outside. I decided that I could only use the shower gel if I’d gone out and taken a walk. And then I could only use it if I’d gone for a run. And by then I had progressed so much I didn’t need the shower gel at all. Just the knowledge that I was able to go outside at all became a pleasure.
I began taking selfies during this dark phase. As part of my recovery, I was taking medication which had some dramatic side effects. I took a selfie a day to document how the meds were making me feel. This turned into a habit which I’ve continued for the last 12 months. I took photos when I was happy, bored, sad, suicidal. It just became a habit to document my emotions. And today I was able to look back over a year of selfies and see the progress. Something as small as being able to compare the sincere joy of my run today against the tormented individual lying in bed a year ago speaks volumes about my progress. It gives me hope. It reinforces that each difficult step I took on the way here was worth it.
I find it hard to look at the old pictures now. Just glancing at them makes me feel sick inside. The memory of those awful emotions rises up a little and stirs something terrible deep inside. I find the person in the photos difficult to identify with, like it was never actually me. I feel as though i’m watching a bleak, true-life tale of someone else’s life. Like a disturbing horror movie of tortured imprisonment where you want to say:
“Please, can we turn this off? It’s going to give me nightmares”.
But that’s exactly why I do still look at them. Because it reinforces how far I’ve come. It reminds me of who I am now and how lucky I am to have made it out alive. It helps me appreciate who I am today just that little bit more. It helps me remember how strong I am, how every little step counts and that this time next year, I will look back on today’s selfie and embrace it with joy.