high school and happiness and dying

i was going to write about the sad death of the young woman with a rare sarcoma who wrote a book about her CAM treatment plan, but i think i might write that elsewhere if anyone is interested. but what i started thinking about on the way home from my exercise physiologist was school.

i’ve been thinking about it a lot, as it was a major formative part of my life, and i’ve been thinking about the friendships i formed there. it ties into identity as well, and my thoughts on that – how there is no essential self, and that elizabeth – high school elizabeth – doesn’t even vaguely resemble me now, only maybe in appearance, and in the fact that we have a shared memory. though my memories then are different to those now. and my memories of school have shifted dramatically since say, five years ago.

i was very, very ill in my last two years of school. as often is the case with people who have bipolar I, it manifests first in a severe depressive episode in their late teens, which is almost always passed over as depression. then, the treatment for depression begins, and the problems of putting a bipolar person on antidepressants (not all, but as a rule, it’s a bad idea, though it works wonders for some people). it hit for me mildly when i was 14, and then cripplingly bad when i was 16. it completely shifted my reality, my understanding of myself, and my understanding of the world. i have the diary i wrote that year and it still makes me sad to look at it. i started with an entry about how great this year would be – how i was looking forward to Year 11, starting my electives, working towards good marks to get into university, wondering what i would do. then, a few pages later, i start talking about how i feel strange. tired. lost. unhappy. really isolated. page after page, i write about that feeling growing, and growing, until the pages are just slashed pieces of paper, cut with a craft knife.

i started blogging that year – on an old platform called Open Diary. it helped in many ways, and in some ways, didn’t. i talked to other teenagers with depression, including one person who i am still facebook friends with, all these years on. she got better too. only, when she was diagnosed, her parents gave her flowers. mine threw the packet of antidepressants at me, and refused to acknowledge the fact i wore a heavy woollen jumper or a blazer to school in the middle of a brisbane summer, and only wore trenchcoats and long sleeves for two years to hide the marks my on my arm. my final two years of school are embedded in my skin by the lines of scar tissue on my upper thighs, and hidden below the tattoos on my left arm. they were never that deep and no one ever noticed them in my early 20s because they’d faded enough – i have dear friends stuck answering dumb questions about the obvious marks on their arms, years and years on. people can be deeply insensitive. pro-tip: if you ever see scars on someone’s arms, extensive ones – for the love of god, don’t ask them about it. it’s rude, and hurtful.

anyhow. i had some teachers that, to this day, i consider to have changed my life. i’ve been speaking to one of them on facebook recently, and it made me want to write about them.

my history teacher: Mrs Graham. she taught me how to write, how to think critically about history, and was deeply concerned and caring when i was at my most unwell. history was my best subject at school – i topped the grade a few times, or came close. my marks dropped when i was depressed, but i managed to keep them at a comfortable A, A- or so, despite my inability to stay awake in class, do homework, or think clearly. Mrs Graham supported me through this, both personally and academically, and i will forever be grateful.

my year 11-12 english teacher: Ms Crawford. she taught me, and a lot of us, about feminism. and gave me a wonderful poem at the end of year 12 about Sylvia Plath. She showed us wonderful writing, and once told me a short story i wrote was excellent, but i was marked down because the prose was purple. i’ve fought the urge for purple prose ever since, and that act massively strengthened my writing. she also taught us to ‘feel the trees’ in the wind, and was utterly no-nonsense. she was the first Ms i ever encountered.

my year 11-12 religion teacher: Mr Marriott. in terms of my intellectual development i probably credit him more than anyone else. our study of religion lessons were littered with philosophy and logic, and a broad rage of teachings about other religions too. he gave me high marks in a paper where i said i didn’t think i believed in christianity, in a school where blaspheming was worse than saying ‘shit’. he respected my questioning, and the things i didn’t know, and he supported me through the worst of my depression more than any other teacher. i mean it when i say i likely owe him my life. he never spoke down to me about it, or tried to diminish my misery, like the school paster did, who told me i would be happy when god introduced me to my soul mate, or the wise words of ‘i’ve been through crap too, elizabeth,’ spoken with impatience and intolerance. Rob took me seriously when i felt like no one else did.

my.. early high school art teacher, Mr Blundell: ok, most of my fondness for him comes entirely from the time he called me The Goth Queen when i was writing an essay about a The Cure film clip for year 10 advanced english. it made me, a little isolated black wearing, dog collar owning teen goth, more happy than i can say. i also remember him teaching computer classes, which i wish i’d paid more attention in.

my history and english teacher, Mr Kelly: he felt often like our cooler, older friend, but in a professional way, if that makes any sense at all. i liked him a lot – i think if he’d been my age, and at uni, we would have had long arguments about which Smiths song was the best, and eaten a lot of sushi at the sushi station between lectures. he once told me that Jesus was more complicated than ‘white’ – he was all about the shades of grey in life. this was a really great way of thinking about christianity. i also once said to him that i didn’t like poetry, and he said i hadn’t found the RIGHT poetry yet, which was incredibly true. he also taught us that The Cure and The Smiths had lyrics worthy of late 20th century poems. sometimes i wish i could ask him what he thinks about Mountain Goat lyrics, and Phillip Larkin.

i also have held onto, and formed better friendships with a lot of people i went to school with – often in unexpected ways. the people you think you will stay close to often disappear, and the people you never knew would one day be really important close friends are. a few years after i graduated, i became friends with my biggest high school crush. we always were friends throughout school, but never dated – he never really realised that i was massively infatuated with him, and we had a really funny conversation where i explained it to him, and he apologised, and i laughed and said he was always awesome, and a good friend all through my teen years. we still email each other – he lives in Canada now with his wife, and i love to hear how they are going. one of the ‘cool kids’ is now another person who i love keeping in contact with – we were friends, but not close, at school and now we talk online often. some close friends from school have remained so – one dear, dear friend who was there with me during the worst of my depression, and has been there through the worst of my cancer, sending me jam, making me a beautiful purse. another guy who i never was close to at school, who has the most fantastic facebook posts and wonderful photographs of his kid and his life overseas – i really feel lucky that social media means i’m now friends with the fantastic adult he grew to be, when i never really knew the person he was at school. my early high school best friend who emailed me as soon as i was diagnosed – she works in the medical field and offered me really sage, comforting advice. i need to email her again. to Josh, Brent, Susan, Peter, and Inger: thank you. thank you. thank you. And i can never forget Joseph, who was my comrade at arms throughout our teen depressions, who has the same weird sense of humour as me, who i still have lame dumb jokes with all these years on, that make us giggle like we are 17 again. we’ve been in and out of contact for years, and he is wonderful. all these people are.

sometimes, i think maybe i am lame to consider my highschool friends as being so important to me, like i should have moved on. but they are, and i have enough room inside of me for these friendships as well as the ones i have made in adulthood. i often feel bad, like i never made enough of an effort with other close school friends to keep in touch; but then i remember it is a two way street. and i have had these friendships grow over the years, or suddenly get stronger after my diagnosis. there’s been many other people who have contacted me from school – more numerous than i can say, and i appreciate them all so much – because it was years ago, but that doesn’t mean these friendships don’t matter. because, in many ways, we are all such different people now. but i feel so pleased and happy that i have these friendships, where i can talk about the stupid pranks Brent and i pulled in art classes, or that time Susan and i decided to sit under the table in media studies and we wrote a poem called ‘Under the Table’. or Inger and i, well, so many memories that make me grin ear to ear, thinking of how we sat on stair cases, and were exceptionally sarcastic about pretty much everything. of the time Josh shaved his head and had to apologise to the whole school, or when Joseph and i threw our hats a metre away from us while sitting outside a building one day and said to everyone who walked past ‘you are my god, i worship you’. (yeah, i have no idea why it was so funny, but really, trust me, it was).

it makes me think about what i was reading last night: that happiness is not something we should be striving for, as though some action will make us happy. a lot of time at school, i blamed it for my problems. school was NEVER the problem. my illness was, and i would have felt like that anywhere. yeah, there were some damn weird things about my high school. but there is in everyone’s school, i think. i was never bullied, never ostracised for being a weird goth kid in a devout christian school, and i always felt safe. i thought when i left school i would then be ‘happy’. and i was, at uni, where i felt less like an outsider, and yet, somehow, more like one for being daggy and uncool and boring and normal. i thought when i moved out of home i would be happy, when i had a really amazing partner i would be happy, when i had a dream job in a bookstore and a scholarship to do my masters i would be happy. and at each step, i had some idea that if i achieved another thing then i would feel good. then i would be smart and good enough, and when i was good enough, i would be happy. i had exceptionally high expectations of myself, and i thought i constantly failed, no matter what i did. i oscillated between extreme guilt for letting everyone down, and a near sociopathic* detachment from my feelings, where i didn’t feel guilt at all, about anything. ever. i was never good enough. i didn’t deserve the good things that happened, and i always thought i should do more. be better.

that sort of near killed me, and swung me into situational depression after situational depression tempered with my bipolar, my anxiety, and my immaturity that was often passed over because i used big words in my harsh country queensland accent where i muddle words together. like most smart kids who are told how smart they are, it took me a long time to realise exactly how much i didn’t know, and that i wasn’t nearly as clever as i thought i was. i think that was when i started to really be happy. i stopped feeling as though the next big achievement would make me happy. i ticked off a lot of successful boxes in the past, and i still never felt good enough when i passed university very well, or got a full scholarship for the first year of my masters, or when i got my dream job while i was still studying, or … any of those things. i still felt like nothing. and now, i’ve missed out on a promotion, lost the short-term chance to develop my skills in a niche field, and had to take 18 months out of the job i love. i have cancer. it’s probably going to kill me. some days i am so tired i can’t move. i exercise every day, not because i like to, but because it’s as important as chemo. i work damn hard at being stubborn. some days i just cry, thinking about making a video to all the people i love before i have surgery, in case i die. some days, i know no matter what we do, how much i push my body with treatment, i am still going to die of this cancer, more likely than not. in a lot of objective ways, i’ve failed a lot of the things i always thought i would do.

and yet, i am happy. some days i am upset, or depressed or manic, but i am happy. i am content with my lot, (though i sure as hell don’t like having cancer) and i can take so much more joy in every incredible day of my life, despite the blisters on my bum, and half living in hospitals, and the coming inevitable death from all of this. i don’t know how i unlocked it – a realisation that this is all i have, and happiness can exist in the middle of an illness. how i can say happiness exists when i am depressed is hard – very hard – to explain, but everyone’s depression is different, and the one i have which breaks through the medication is a slowing down, a sluggishness, and tears that come and go from nowhere. it is hopeless and empty, but i can, somehow, appreciate this as shifting and moving.

and none of this is to say i am a ‘good’ bipolar person, or a ‘good’ cancer patient. it is ok to never feel happy, it is ok to always feel happy, it is ok to think the whole notion of happiness is bunk. i know people who have hated chemo so much they will never do it again, and people who have found it so minor as to be barely a bother in their everyday life. feelings are what they are, and judging people for them is not something i think is ok.


About elizabeth

various things.
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4 Responses to high school and happiness and dying

  1. Yes! feelings are all enjoyable. even the unenjoyable ones. Great post, thank you.

  2. Glenny says:

    I know what you mean about happiness in depression – when I’m proper down, like weeks months in bed down, that’s when everyone seems beautiful to me. I can’t access it, but it sort of makes me smile, and happy, but depressed.

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