When life gives you lemons

Image credit: André Karwath

Sometimes it's so hard to see any good in yourself at all.

Little quakes to your self-esteem can trigger massive landslides of despondency, disrupting the very heart of all you value in yourself; all the love you have for the things you do; all the belief you have that you are, actually, doing okay.

And this is especially the case if you've suffered from poor self-esteem in the past. Or if you've moved away from home. Or if you're in an environment where everyone seems to be so, so much better than you. 

People tell you to love yourself; to be be chill, calm, and cool, as if self-esteem was a mere switch on the top of your skull that you can flick on and off at your choosing. In reality, of course, it isn’t. Self-esteem is an enigma, a slippery, perplexing catastrophe of an enigma, which is embedded so deeply into one's brain that it is hard to find it at all, let alone cling to it long enough to manipulate it.

My self-esteem has been a rollercoaster these past few months, amplified by the agony of a ceaselessly irrepressible cycle of work that constitutes a Cambridge degree. I love Cambridge. I know how lucky I am, and I still cannot believe I’m actually here, studying a subject I enjoy so very much – but still, sometimes, I find myself in bed staring at my laptop and wondering what it’s all really for. I don’t have to do this, I tell myself. I could just stop; gradually deteriorate, work-wise and health-wise, until I am sent home, and live through only the motions of life until I die. And, though I won’t do this, the thoughts come back, again and again. We’ve all had them.

And things get even worse when we think about our interactions with others. The harmless trivialities or throwaway comments that friends chuckle at you in passing may suddenly rear ugly heads of Underlying Truths or Signals of Displeasure. Then anxious thoughts begin to murmur in your mind. When friends are too busy to meet they suddenly are no longer friends – not because you despise them, but because they, you think, despise you. When you’re sitting alone in your room scrolling through Facebook and seeing picture-perfect friendships, the thoughts are never “I have that!” but rather “I don’t.” The suffocating paranoia that you are on some perverse version of The Truman Show, where everyone knows your name only because they all loathe you, can so easily be recalled.

Of course, they don’t hate you. And, rationally speaking, I know they don’t hate me, too. It’s too absurd to be believed; too ridiculous; too impossible.

But nonetheless, I worry.

I can’t tell you that there’s an easy way out of these feelings; there isn’t, not really. There are things that can be done to alleviate symptoms; there are resources and phone lines and a very good Self-Care Tips group on Facebook, all of which should be used if they help you – but there isn’t one answer. There isn’t a be-all-and-end-all solution. There isn’t a magic button to press that will pale all of these issues into insignificance so you can go on and live your life in peace.

Antidepressants could maybe help – but that’s a big maybe. Therapy, too, is potentially rewarding. But what do you do when you’ve done all that and still you feel so low? Or when you don’t want to do anything at all to help yourself because you feel so low?

It can be so hard to know what to do when you’re feeling down; and, strangely enough, the advice you dispense to others to encourage them to keep on keeping on never seems to quite cut it for your own problems. And then you worry that your advice wasn’t nearly enough; that you gave everything you had but it was too pathetic and senseless and inadequate. You feel good-for-nothing, and remember all the times you’ve felt like this in the past; all the times you thought things were getting better but, again, they didn’t. I know when I am down the memories of the bad times seem so much more vivid than the good. Even if I remind myself of all my successes, and glories and accomplishments, they are drowned by a cacophony of recollection: recollection of the children in my class in school who told me that I was unlovable and so should just kill myself; recollection of the people who told me that I might always be alone; recollection of all the things, large and small, that I have done wrong over the years.

Little moments, meaning nothing in the tsunami of time that has passed since their occurrence, and yet hiding, razor-sharp, under the waves.

All of this has led me to only one realisation: that you cannot escape sadness. Perhaps you are one of the people to whom feelings of despondency are crushable barriers, in which case you are extremely lucky – but I firmly believe a bout of despair manifests itself as an impasse in most people’s minds. Maybe not a permanent one; but nevertheless, an impasse – even if just for a second. In that brief sole, short second, everything seems permanently, painfully, impossibly pointless.

Yes, you’ll come through it in the end. Of course you will.

But in the meantime, just remember: we’ve all been there. 

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