Survival; Existence; Life: The Making of Normal – I think.

Death is Coming

A year ago, maybe more, I found myself sitting in a very dull office on the east side of Adelaide’s city centre. One wall was mostly windows, and the two rounded armchairs – the kind you see in every office that was last refurbished in the nineties – were doing that perpendicular half-facing thing, so you can look out the window while you talk to the person who is ostensibly across from you. A non-threatening interview formation. Perfect, in short, for a therapist’s office, which is where I was.

My psychologist, a neat older man with a slight UK accent I never attempted to place, was assigned to me by a government program of some kind that my GP had managed to wrangle me into after I turned up in his office, shaking and sobbing, convinced I was doomed but with no tangible evidence that it was true. It would be the second time I had resorted to therapy. The first time, years before, the psychiatrist asked if he could have his students come in to talk to me because “all things considered, you’re actually extraordinarily functional.” I had not yet learned that this is what therapists say when they don’t know what a survivor looks like. I took it to mean that I was cured. I was wrong.

In 2014 I was as doomed as ever. I sat in the same chair I always sat in, gingerly measuring the angle I’d been placed on; cynically assessing the psychological concepts behind furniture arrangement. I listened with half an ear as my ever-patient psychologist told me that I was in a period of stability.

I knew what he meant. I was in a stable, long-term relationship. I had housing, employment, uni was only normal levels of impossible. I had excellent friends who provided an almost physical safety net. I understood, logically, what he was trying to impart: that my life was actually okay, that there was no reason for me to be backed into a corner with my hackles up, shield up against the next wave. That there was no reason for my symptoms anymore. That maybe I didn’t need to be in his office, could consider going it alone.

I stared out the window, focusing on the grate of a stormwater drain, rusted in parts, wet from recent rain, and considered the concept of seasons. I nodded at him, mmhmm-ed non-committally. European culture defines four seasons. Some Indigenous Australian cultures have seven or more, I’ve read somewhere or other. Seasonality is explicitly local, the imposition of outside modalities of understanding –

He’d asked me a question, and I’d missed it. I pulled myself out of my own head, looked him in the face blankly. “Yes, I think so. I don’t know.” He was still looking at me. I was failing at therapy, which was supposed to be impossible to fail at. Actually, I was failing at everything, but at least other people do sometimes fail at work and university and holding their relationships together. It’s forgivable, somehow. If you fail at therapy, though, that has to be on you.

I told him, honestly, that everything was falling apart. He explained that it wasn’t, that it was all right there. I came up with more problems. Drama was always on the periphery of my world, like some kind of starving animal kept at bay by a pathetic campfire. I pointed out that others who were dependent on me weren’t stable, weren’t safe yet. That I was constantly physically ill. That in addition to my network of safety, I had people who acted as a constant drain on my emotional resources. He nodded. These were practical issues, real problems he could understand. They were all fixable.

None of them were why I was there. The truth is, I was there because I was doomed, and he had no way to help me not be.

There were words I couldn’t say yet. Ideas that existed in my bones, that had infected my marrow when I was barely out of infancy, which then lodged themselves in every blood cell spinning through every capillary. I was coated in them, infused with them, but they never made it to the place in my brain where I turn ideas into words.

On the most fundamental level, I knew I wasn’t meant to have survived this long. That meant that no matter how many problems he fixed, the next one would just pop up. I was on borrowed time. Stability wasn’t permanent, it was stasis. A frozen state of hibernation. If I hunkered down and used this time to lick my wounds, I’d hopefully be strong enough when the next war came to survive that too. But sooner or later, I’d be unlucky. This didn’t feel scary, or wrong, or anything. It was simple, immutable fact. I wasn’t depressed or anxious. I was doomed.

My certain death impacted every aspect of my life. I lived paycheck to paycheck, using money for immediate needs. I carelessly ran up student loans without looking at my statement, unable to comprehend the idea of a time where I might have to pay them back. I could make reckless, irresponsible decisions with the joy of absolute freedom. Every now and then I would try out the whole future thing: people would ask me what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, and I would play-act an answer, give a logical progression that made sense considering all the choices I’d made until that moment. I would laughingly say my dreams were unrealistic and I knew that, that I’d end up doing something simple and modest, and I was okay with that. In my bones: simple and modest is unrealistic. You’ll die, and you’re okay with that.

Let me be plain: All of the above is what happens when someone tries to kill you repeatedly. My doom was not the result of a diseased brain, but a canny one. There have been a lot of times where I was going to die, and my brain knows how to read the room.

When I was finally given a diagnosis, a real one, it was PTSD. It changed nothing.

Death is Late

Today, I am twenty-five years old. I’m twenty years over my expiration date, maybe more.

Recently, I blew up my whole life with frightening certainty. I am unemployed, sleeping on a friend’s couch. I let my relationship go – a heart-rending decision which was absolutely the right thing to do. I have no stability to offer my family when they need it. I have no money in the bank, and I looked at my student loan statement – it’s $40k. I have other, more pressing debts to pay off.

I am no longer hibernating. I am also not at war.

I am, for the first time, frustratingly normal. Around this incredibly privileged country, thousands of twenty-five year olds are sleeping on someone’s couch, navel-gazing moodily, wanting to do something with themselves but without the capacity to work out what that is. We all have student debt. A lot of us have other debt – car loans, credit cards, debt from our first failed business venture. We are all fighting for the same overpriced rentals in the same inner suburbs. We are all scared.

Among the things which is normal is my life expectancy. I’ve tentatively extended it to “Mum’s age”, a constantly shifting goal post which at the very least gives me another thirty years. It is, statistically, extremely unlikely anyone is going to try and kill me, which leaves only all the normal kinds of death, none of which I am more predisposed to than any other Australian.

Thirty years is an incomprehensible number for someone who has only lived twenty-five. I have no idea how to plan for thirty years, no idea how to assess what my needs will be, let alone what my wants will be.

So I’m starting with five.

This blog is my public commitment to making a five year plan. It’s unfathomable. I have no idea where to start, but if I’ve learned one thing in a lifetime of stubbornly living in the moment, it’s that starting somewhere is as good as anything else.

I’m useless at literally all Standard Adult Skills. I’m good at breaking out of places, good at dodging, ducking, weaving, and excellent at faking respectability. Yet I find banks terrifying, the tax office as culturally foreign as Martians, the idea of negotiating a salary laughable. The idea of a salary laughable. I have no concept of career progression, no understanding of skill assessment.

Most crucially, I have no idea how to want things, instead of stealing scraps and being grateful for them.

I know I’m not alone. Among my terrified cohort of Millennials there exist a significant minority, mainly women, who are also grappling with the idea that they’re not going to die. This journey is my love letter to all of you.

And for all of you who aren’t here yet, who still might die: Hold on. Grapple. Bite. Tear. Fight. You will get here, exhausted and bedraggled and completely disoriented. When you arrive, I’ll be here waiting.

Alone, we had to survive the impossible. Now, we’re going to learn what it is to survive The Real World, this spinning mess of capitalism, food trends, social norms, watering your plants and knowing when you’re ready to get a pet. Honestly, for me it’s a lot more daunting.

Wish me luck.



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