Pretendland

The Winter I Chose Happiness

The thing about happiness is that it feels abnormal.

I was out with a friend recently and before I even realised quite what I was saying, the words slipped out of me. I said, quite naturally, “I feel happ-” before I suddenly clapped a hand over my mouth.

Did I say 'happy'? I meant 'I'm feeling crappy'. (Source)

Did I say ‘happy’? I meant ‘I’m feeling crappy’. (Source)

I managed to recover my composure before my friend even realised what I’d said. It didn’t seem to resonate with them as being anything out of the ordinary. But it shocked me to the core. Happy? What is this ‘happy’ of which you speak? I haven’t felt happy since my brother died. And may never again. Certainly not until the grief fades and I recover my sanity. That could takes years yet. It must have been some mistake. I must have been in Pretendland too long and was just feeling a bit calm … or vague maybe?

But the very next day, I found myself blurting out, “To be honest, I actually feel happy.” My friend smiled, “That’s great!” I shook my head, “No. Not so much.”

I thought maybe the feeling was specific to that weekend. To being out with friends. To straying too long in fairyland with spritely, lively people who don’t share my problems. I figured that getting home, settling back into the drudgery, would return me to the comforting normality of grief and depression.

But I stayed happy. It bled into my week like indelible ink across paper. It soaked into my hands and for the life of me, I couldn’t wash it off. It wasn’t just me that saw it. I met up with a few friends and family members who, all independently of each other, commented that I looked happy. Or at least looked different. Even my psychologist remarked that he hadn’t seen me laughing and smiling so much in all the time he’s known me. Scary when even your psych notices. I thought I was going there to vent all the sads. Who laughs their way through their psych session? Crazy people like me, clearly.

b (Source)

Oh god get it off! Get it off! What gets happiness off? Turps? Methylated spirits? (Source)

It’s strange that I should have such an aversion to feeling happy. I mean, it’s just an emotion. Completely natural. But after more than a year and a half of being perpetually depressed, down to the depths of despair … happiness just doesn’t seem like a very natural feeling. It feels fake, forced and like a betrayal. Is it betraying my brother to feel happy? I’m really not into the whole “your brother wouldn’t want you to be sad” as I tend to respond with “yeah well, my brother wouldn’t want to be dead. But he doesn’t have a say in the matter. And he certainly isn’t here to tell me to feel otherwise.” But truly, is it even okay to feel happy now? Is it too soon?

I disagree with the concept that grief is a linear experience. As though you get through a stage of denial, then anger, then bargaining, then a long stint in depression, and then find yourself at the sweet endpoint of acceptance. In fact someone even said, in all seriousness, with no hint of irony, “So which stage of grief are you up to?” Seriously? Do you think that I just tick them off the list on my way back to sanity? Gosh that would be a hell of a lot easier than actually living with grief. At least you’d know where you were up to and how long you potentially had to go.

b (Source)

“Your ignorant question is taking me back to my anger stage!!!” (Source)

So I can’t just say that I’m finally up to the shiny acceptance stage just because I’ve been feeling a bit clearer. I mean, my head’s restored some clarity. I can think a little clearer. I still haven’t recovered the memories and the dreams are still as bad. In fact, the night terrors got so bad I woke up one night screaming and then the next night choking. But the tiny space I’ve managed to clear in my mind is wonderful. I can go and sit in the corner and look out upon the clutter with some hope that I can chip away at it over time. Make that tiny space bigger. Liveable. So I’m not hiding there, but actually living there. In an immaculate mind.

b (Source)

My mind is a mess! (Source)

But the thing is, I have no idea how long the happiness will last. It’s been fairly consistent lately. And not dependent on external factors. I have had some of the worst panic attacks since the event in the last few weeks. One of my most recent ones lasted for about 3 or 4 hours, after which I became virtually catatonic. And yet I sort of bounced back to a happy state once it was finally over. It seems that my base line has lifted just a little. I still get just as despairing and wretched. But maybe now I’m not entirely inconsolable. But who knows? This could be the eye of the storm. I’m trying really hard to believe that I’m healing. But like I said, it’s not linear. And it’s been really hard to tell anyone that I’m feeling a bit better because I don’t want people to just assume that I’m cured and not take any subsequent depression seriously.

b (Source)

“But I thought you said that you were cured. You can’t just keep playing the grief card to get attention, you know.” (Source)

It’s been really lovely being able to default to a kind of contentedness. But I think my doubts have been eating away at it a little. I’ve been resisting it, shrugging it off, playing it down. And I think if I kept this up, eventually I could whittle it down to nothing. And retreat to the safety of grief. I know grief. It knows me. We don’t like each other. We loathe each other. But we’ve tolerated each other for so long now that I don’t really know how to be anything else. It would be so easy to carry the grief around forever. Become one of those bitter people that others look at and whisper, “Why are they like that? What happened to them?”

And so I find that happiness is a choice. My base mood might have lifted, but it’s a daily choice to keep it there. Not to let it slip back down. I’m not going to be happy everyday. I probably won’t be happy most days. But the days that it seeps back in, I need to embrace it. It’s the last day of winter as I write this. And it will be the first day of spring when I post this. It may be completely arbitrary but it seems rather poetic that a change of seasons should represent a definitive change in self. Grief isn’t a linear journey. But maybe it’s seasonal. Maybe I can leave winter behind and move into spring. Growth. Rebirth. The frost melts from around my heart and I find it’s replaced with blossoms. Much like the honey-smelling white blossoms that used to adorn our old plum tree.

I’ve been listening to “The Winter I Chose Happiness” by Clare Bowditch as I write. The album ends with her singing, “are you ready yet / are you ready yet / to be happy?” And I can honestly say yes. Yes I am. I choose happiness.

[Featured Image Source]

Essential Me

I am not the same person that I used to be. And that’s something I’ve been struggling to accept. I might be the same on the outside, but ‘essential me’ has irrevocably changed.

My bff and I invented the term ‘essential me’ when trying to explain how invigorated we felt after spending time together talking very openly or when engaging in creative activities that made us feel connected to our artistic selves. So your ‘essential you’ is the purest part of you. If you got rid of all the baggage, the professional persona, the variations of you that you adopt for different social circumstances … if you boil yourself down to the most essential characteristics form your identity and psyche … that is ‘essential you’. The you that you see in the mirror. The you that you come home to at the end of the day.

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“Oh look, there I am! Probably should clean this mirror.” (Source)

My ‘essential me’ is the goddess, the writer, the napkin poet. I can sometimes feel disconnected from who I really am when I’m at work or around people to whom I have to present a slight variation of myself: the me that’s a bit more formal, conservative, rational or responsible. But when I’m doing the things I love: writing, reading, playing piano, singing, drinking tea, crafting … it’s then that I feel most in touch with ‘essential me’. Or when I’m spending time with friends who really let me be myself.

Essential me (source)

Essential me (Source)

But when my brother died, a part of me died too. A phone call. Two words. The avenue of ambulances. Devastation. Shock. How could I ever describe that moment to you? The moment I will relive for the rest of my life. The moment that split my whole life into two separate timelines: the time when he was alive and the time now he is dead. I can easily tell you in person all about how he died without being emotionally affected by it. But I’ll never be able to tell you about finding out and the first few hours afterwards. Watch ‘The Body’ episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ or click this five second moment in ‘Pay It Forward’. Or just look at this picture:

ambulance

“Looks like it’s just you and me now, panda.” (Source)

And while I mourn the loss of him, I find myself mourning the person that I used to be. It’s apparently a common thing with grief. One grief pamphlet tells me that a typical worry is “acting out of character and being different to the way we usually are”. Which is nice and all … but there’s a bit of an expectation that things will go back to normal eventually. And I just don’t think that’s the case. I can never go back to being normal because ‘normal’ was when my brother was alive. It is profoundly abnormal that he’s dead. And just as there are two timelines, there are now two me’s. The ‘before me’ that was happy. And the ‘now me’ that will never be happy in quite the same way again.

Maybe part of me hasn’t died, exactly. Maybe it’s just that my essential me has shifted. I feel like I’m mourning a loss of self, but maybe it’s just a change in self. I used to consider myself to be empathetic, caring, idealistic and sanguine at my core; now find that these qualities have limits. I am far more sceptical and pragmatic, and my empathy does not tolerate frivolity. I can empathise with those who have suffered, but not with those who are merely inconvenienced. I might be just as amiable and kindly as ever, but I am far less joyful. The colours of the world have faded slightly and I understand the inevitability and finality of death. I am disillusioned. The essential me that I once saw in the mirror is fractured and unfamiliar.

And it’s not just me. Some of my friends have noticed that I’ve changed. One or two have mentioned that it’s now difficult to be around me. One friend even called me up to tell me that she liked the person that I used to be and she doesn’t like how bitter and depressed I’ve become. And she would really like me to go back to being the friend that I once was to her because that person was much more enjoyable to be around. While I can understand that she misses me and wants me to recover, what she actually said sounded very selfish and much more about her. Perhaps asking me how I’m coping would have been a better strategy. She will never understand that the devastation and ruin of grief will be with me for the rest of my life. My life has changed forever. The death of my brother will never stop being sad, unfair and utterly senseless. How could anyone expect me to shrug this tragedy off and go back to being blithe and carefree? I know that I will recover, that things will get easier with time. But it is either ignorant or insensitive to expect me to be happy-go-lucky so soon after this tragedy.

I know that Pretendland me is much easier to be around. It is quite nice to go out into the world and have hot beverages with friends. To sit in the winter sunshine and feel it’s shy warmth. To wander down to the beach and stare absentmindedly at the deep horizon. To hear what’s going on in your life and enjoy my stay on your islands. I’m getting better and better at being in Pretendland. Only not everyone knows that that’s what’s happening. That they’re only seeing what I’m like when I’m in Pretendland and not what I’m like once I leave their company. It’s like in the novel, ‘The Silver Chair’…

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No, wait, that’s not it. (Source)

I mean the book by C. S. Lewis. Part of the Narnia series. Not the Australian band. Although, fun fact: they did name themselves after the book.

silver-chair

There we go. (Source)

In The Silver Chair, our heroes find themselves alone with a knight who is under an enchantment. He explains to them that every night there comes an hour when his mind is most horribly changed. He becomes furious and wild, and in his fit would destroy all that he could reach. Fortunately he is bound by hand and foot to a silver chair so that he can not harm anyone. And each night, after the fit passes, he awakes with no memory of it. He is a rather upbeat, irreverent character and our heroes are afraid of the dark, violent person he’ll change into under the enchantment.

After a nice meal together, our heroes stay late into the day with the Knight. And eventually our heroes experience his frenzy first hand. The enchantment takes hold and the Knight goes pale, sweats and writhes in his bonds. He groans, “The heavy, tangled, cold, clammy web of evil magic … how many years is it?… Have I lived ten years, or a thousand years, in the pit? … Quick! I am sane now. Every night I am sane. If only I could get out of this enchanted chair, it would last. I should be a man again. but every night they bind me, and so every night my chance is gone. … It is at this hour that I am in my right mind: it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.”

(Source)

“Oh, you have hearts of stone,” said the Knight. “Believe me, you look upon a wretch who has suffered almost more than any mortal heart can bear.” (Source)

There is so much that resonates with me here. I think I am that jovial, upbeat Knight that is quite pleasant to have a meal with. And I don’t think people truly understand how dark I get in the later hours unless they see it firsthand. The thing I love most about this scene is that the Knight spends his whole time trying to explain that he is perfectly normal, but he falls under an enchantment that turns him violent and insane. And yet once the enchantment takes hold, he is trying to convince them that all that niceness and happiness was the spell and only NOW is truly himself. It reminds me of old fantasy or sci fi stories where you have two clones standing side by side both saying, “I’m the REAL one!” … “No, I’M the real one!”

Pretendland is like that. I tell people that while I’m ok while we’re out in the world, later on the enchantment will take hold and I’ll be all crazy again. But it’s actually the other way around. Pretendland is the surreal, crazy place. And the time when I’m back home, tied to my own silver chair, that’s the real me. It is at this hour that I am in my right mind (albeit crying or catatonic): it is all the rest of the day that I am enchanted.

chair

I might need a crash course in knot-tying. (Source)

So many me’s. The now me. The before me. Essential me. Pretendland me. Silver Chair me. No wonder I feel fractured and unfamiliar. How am I to make sense of all this? I think I’ve been in denial for a long time that I’ve changed. There’s a misconception that it takes a long time to finally come to accept that someone’s died. That came very quickly for me. I heard the words, I saw the ambulances, we had the funeral. It’s a bit hard to argue with all that. Would be nice to think it’s all been some cruel, elaborate reality show. But even my subconscious knows. He turns up in my dreams quite often: in full 3D technicolor with surround sound. But even in my dreams I’m not relieved to see him. I know he’s dead. Neither of us have any explanation as to how he’s there. And each time I find myself having to sit him down and explain to him that he’s dead and that he needs to go. Fun times, right? No wonder I need to escape to Pretendland.

I accepted his death very quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to cope with the knowledge. And it’s certainly not easy to accept that I’ve changed. I really resent the consequences of his death. The effects it’s had on my family. The ensuing symptoms: practical, emotional, psychological, physical. And I resent that I’m a different person. I liked who I was. I would like to continue being that essential me. But I’m different. I’m not the blithe, serene green goddess in that picture at the start. But maybe I’m still just as green, and still just as much a goddess. Less Aphrodite/Athena, and more Hera perhaps? You can still be a goddess and have a dark side, right? We’ll just call it ‘wisdom’ or ‘solemnity’. I’ve just traded my levity for gravity. I think as long as I don’t end up being The Lady of the Green Kirtle (Narnia fans, you with me?) then I think I’ll be ok. Better than ok. And, at the end of the day, I’ll still be me. Essentially.

Lady_of_the_Green_Kirtle

You can totally trust a woman with a mandolin and magic incense. She won’t turn out to be evil. (Source)

The Grief Islands

Welcome to the beautiful Grief Islands where your stay is long and unpredictable!

I’ve been leaving the house more and doing social things with other humans. I believe this is a really healthy thing to do. The trouble with being social is that people assume I’ve made a successful journey back to the Mainland of Sanity. They tell me that I’m doing really well or that it’s good to see me happy. And it’s really hard to explain to them that I still live full time in the Grief Islands. Being social is just a quick trip to Pretendland and, as soon as they leave, I’ll be heading back over to the Republic of Reality.

Pretendland

Pretendland is the most desirable place to be. While here, you basically pretend that nothing bad has happened and you can socialise, drink tea and be merry. The light is brighter here, the colours saturated and everything seems to be similar to how it was before he died. You can even pretend that you are that person you used to be: happy, carefree, content.

Pretendland

All of the colours! (Source)

You can get a lot done while you’re in Pretendland. While here I like to knit socks, drink tea, play some piano, walk along the beach, sing along to music … basically do all the things that I would usually enjoy. It is possible to stay here for long periods of time. You just have to keep lining up the social activities. Much like those people that continually travel the globe season to season, living out an endless summer. I’ve actually attempted that: one most ambitious Saturday, I enjoyed breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper with six different friends (one at a time) in six different locations. That was supremely fabulous. And it’s just as fabulous with one person: recently I spent a whole day with a friend making pancakes, crafting, talking and listening to musicals. We sat in her living room while the sun poured through the windows, refracted through a hanging crystal and formed little rainbows throughout the room. And it was a really nice day. I could have stayed in that day for a whole week.

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Even my ‘English Toffee and Peppermint’ tea had a rainbow.

One of the positives of Pretendland is that you can talk openly about the grief without being affected by it. You can ask me absolutely anything about how he died, how it affects me and how I cope with it. I feel absolutely no emotional connection to it at all. The huge downside is that I feel no emotional connection to anything whatsoever. I don’t truly enjoy the fun activities. I don’t feel the heat of the warm sun. The colours are false. It’s not exactly that I’m faking it when I’m around people. It’s just that being this numb is the only way I can function. It would be easy to see me in Pretendland and think that I’m coping really well. But that’s only because you never see me on any of the other islands. Of all the islands, it’s the nice one to visit. But that’s kinda all it is: ‘nice’. It’s not happy. It’s not really any of the feels. It would be easier to just stay in Pretendland and never have to deal with what’s happened. But I can’t live an endless summer. I have to leave sooner or later. And if I try to stay for too long, I run the risk of slipping into Dissocia.

Dissocia Island

Dissocia is a close neighbour of Pretendland. It’s essentially the place you end up when you’ve been pretending for a little bit too long. On the outside you’re the happy, carefree, content Pretendland-person everyone likes spending time with. But on the inside you feel completely detached or dissociated from everyone around you. You smile and nod on the outside, but internally you just can’t relate to any of the humans you’re in conversation with. While here I spend much of my time trying to make my facial expressions and vocal tone match the emotion I think is appropriate to the conversation.

Dissocia

It’s so exhausting having to manually switch between all the faces. (Source)

I find that I slip seamlessly from being in Pretendland to being in Dissocia when people start talking about things that seem insignificant compared to the intensity of my grief. It’s not that they talk about trivial things, I actually find that trivial topics can be really safe things to talk about. But it’s when people trivialize death around me. When they say things like “if I had a tattoo like that I’d kill myself” or “what he said was so shocking, like a bullet to the brain” or “why doesn’t she just go slit her wrists”. I can’t deal with that. I get that we use hyperbole in common speech all the time. But some of these just seem so unnecessary when they’re said to me. So thoughtless. So callous. But I get that they slip out. I’m sure I’ve said similar things in my time.

First World Problems

What’s worse is when people start trying to compare my grief to things they’re experienced. Like they understand what I’m going through because their pet died a while ago. I get that people are just trying to find a point of reference. One of the ways we try to relate to one another is by thinking of similar things we’ve experienced ourselves. Grief of any kind is hard. Losing a pet is sad. A relationship breaking up is sad. A celebrity you’ve never met’s death is sad. But these things are not the same as what I’m going through. Not even a little bit close.

Dissocia 2

“Tell me again about how my grief is the same as when you dropped your iphone and cracked the screen. That’s totally the same amount of sads as my brother dying.” (Source)

I’m not saying that you can’t talk about your smart phone. I can even show you mine: it’s so bad that the glass has fallen off and you can see it’s inner-workings. Just don’t compare it to that time when my brother died. Comparisons are never good. Even with people who have been through massive grief and loss, it’s not a competition. Not one that anyone wins anyway. It’s very isolating to feel like you can’t relate to people anymore. I try not to stay here too long. But I find myself here unexpectedly. It’s not an island you set out to visit–but take a wrong turn and you’ll find yourself here again and again.

The Republic of Reality

This is the island of sad, stark reality where my brother is most definitely dead. And I most definitely have to deal with it. This is the place I come back to after I leave Pretendland. It’s the place I find myself in when I wake up in the mornings. It’s the island I sleep on when I go to bed at night. There’s a cold reality to how bad the depression gets. There’s a misconception that grief just boils down to a whole lot of sadness. Like if I could just remember the happy times with my brother rather than dwell on the loss that I’d feel a lot better. Or that grief is a state that I’ll come out of sometime soon and I’ll see the sunshine and things will be ok like they used to be.

Little Cloud

“Just having a bit of a sad, but I’ll be happy again in a minute.” (Source)

It’s not glamorous. It’s not a little cloud. It’s not just sadness. It’s misery, guilt, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, fear, panic. All of the things. It’s a complete loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities. It’s that black feeling. It’s that feeling that something is profoundly wrong and it will never be put right again.

I can’t explain this place to you. If you don’t know it, I don’t want to take you there. I’m happy for you to not understand. I wouldn’t want you to understand. You just have to trust me that it’s dark there and I spend a whole lot of my time there against my will. I don’t choose to be here. But the waters around this island are deep, muddy and treacherous. I’m wading my way out and holding onto all the lifebuoys I can reach (i.e. counselling, support, etc). But I’ll be here for a while yet. When I’m not slipping into Catatonia.

Catatonia Island

Reality is exhausting. Depression is exhausting. Eventually I get so tired of being so goddamn sad that I just zone out completely into something of a catatonic state. I spent the first 3 months after he died in shock on this island. And I still spend days at a time here. On this island you sleep at least 12 hours a night. Wake up after midday and move to the lounge, still in your pyjamas. You watch a whole season of a tv show on your laptop. You live on whatever food you can microwave. For those first 3 months it was just crackers and iced tea. I’m glad I can at least work the microwave again now. Between episodes you can take a break to stare at the wall for a while. Or watch the cat while she looks out the window at the birds. It’s just another version of the numbness. There’s an unsettling pleasantness to just not feeling anything.

Catatonia

“Maybe today I’ll count the ceiling tiles.” (Source)

It’s another bad place to stay. You start to not care about anything. You don’t eat properly. You stop showering. You never leave the house. You stay up so late watching tv that you become almost completely nocturnal. I stayed up so late one night I only just managed to slip into bed 10min before my partner’s alarm went off for work. I really don’t recommend a holiday here. But sometimes it’s the only reprieve from Reality. I just try to keep it to a short stay.

The Mainland of Sanity

I guess this is the place I’m trying to get to. I don’t really know what it looks like or how to get there. But I’m sure it exists for me.

Mainland of Sanity

Something like this? (Source)

The Grief Islands are pretty bleak, each in their own way. But I think the secret is not to try desperately to swim away from them, but to understand why they are so separated. Why am I unable to be sad when I’m out with people? What are the prompts that force me over to Dissocia? At what point do I slip from depression into Catatonia? I know that I can’t run away to Pretendland, but I think that part of sanity is spending more time there in a genuine, emotionally-aware state. And while the Republic of Reality is completely necessary (I shouldn’t just try to just forget that my brother died and live in denial), I need to find a way to deal with reality without staying in my depression. I think once you reunite the islands, you’ll find that the Mainland of Sanity is made up of those separated lands. It’s just that everything is so fractured that you can’t deal with all of the feels at the same time. And you need to be able to escape to the different islands to separate out the moments of denial (Pretendland), detachment (Dissocia), depression (Reality) and despair (Catatonia).

Hope you enjoyed your island tour. Here’s your complimentary kitty.