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And I’ve changed. In future, I might write more openly about the life I came from, the demons I’ve wrestled with over the years, and the moments of breakthrough that have set me free.April 2018: “Oh boy, where to begin“
This is that moment.
I’ve been agonising over this topic for years. There are so many places to begin, and so many bases to cover, I don’t even know if I can get through it all in one go. I do have to start somewhere though, and if nothing else, I’m finally tired enough of feeling this way. So much so that I’ve stopped caring about what the fallout might be.
Whoever thought apathy would be a useful tool in untangling the damage done by a lifetime of depression?
When I started freelancing last year, I set myself a few tangible goals. First was building a runway – enough money to cover me for a couple of months, and give me some breathing room. The next, to set a time and date to pause and reflect on where my life is going.
That time and date is right now. To prevent last-minute second-guessing, I planned this situation three months in advance, letting all my clients know I’d be offline in September. I booked accommodation and transit two months in advance, and when the day finally came to actually go on this holiday, my past self left my present self no way out.
And now I’m sitting in a guest house in a town I haven’t been to before, with nothing other to do than tackle the single largest monster in the bestiary: I’m 30, still single (against my will), and have a lifetime of damage to account for before I can begin to move forward with my life.
The objective truth: I’m bad at relationships. I haven’t had any that lasted more than a few weeks. I’ve turned down good people in favor of damaged people, I’ve constantly sabotaged my own happiness, I’ve hurt people I loved in the process, and I’m frankly amazed that anyone puts up with me at all.
I’ve spent long enough blaming other people for this (and honestly, a few of them deserve it), but I can’t keep running from this forever. I have to come clean to someone – even if it’s just this blog – and fully account for this breakdown in my life.
Over the years, I’ve built up the most complete picture of my life that I could – always operating in objective mode where possible, trying to see my life not only from my point of view, but also from the perspectives of others. What follows is the most complete, honest account I can make.
This is difficult to write. My better judgement and my emotional distress are at war right now, and every bad instinct in me is telling me to stop. Obviously, I’m crying throughout this whole thing, and I have to blink every few seconds so I can actually see what I’m doing.
That detail is important, and I include it deliberately. I’m not going to deal with a near-lifetime of suffering and keep my cool, and there isn’t anybody alive that could claim the same.
But I don’t need sympathy, or pity. If there’s one thing I’ve learned how to do over the last 15 years, it’s to deal with destructive emotions. It’s part of the problem really: Having learned so completely to rely entirely on myself.
No analysis would be complete without examining my origins, so I should start in the 1980s, with my parents and the circumstances under which they met.
My mother came from privilege. Her father was a relatively wealthy property owner, and from what I can tell, she was pretty much raised by her peers – picking up a lot of destructive behavior along the way. The most dangerous by far: A seductive, manipulative streak. She knew how to push people’s buttons (mine, too, decades later).
That property wealth didn’t go very far – my maternal grandfather burned through all of it on some sort of legal vendetta against the NG Church. I think that’s where my mother inherited her blind arrogance from – and not much else.
My father was the product of many generations of working-class families. This traces all the way back to the 1850s, when my paternal ancestor landed in Cape Town and found work as a farm hand. My grandfather worked the mines, and my father was one of three siblings.
The black sheep of the family, it turned out. He didn’t get along with his parents at all, the least favorite of three. He met my mother in high school, and you can pretty much see where this is going:
A rebellious young man eager to break with family tradition (“prove them wrong”), meeting a manipulative women of some means (that the parents don’t approve of), equally eager to live the rest of her life off the backs of other people. They married as soon as they were able.
Neither of my parents will admit this, I’ve never posed the question directly, and I’ll frankly be happy to have the truth of this go to the grave, but: I don’t think I was planned.
Or rather, I wasn’t planned mutually. In the years since, knowing a bit about my mother’s friends and the way she operates, I’m fairly convinced I was a surprise pregnancy, engineered on her part to entrap my father.
That’s the sort of thing gold-digging, manipulative narcissists do. It’s also the sort of thing the South African court system let her get away with in 2003 after she illegally took me out of the country, violating joint custody orders (far as I know, anyway), using forged signatures on the affidavit for my passport.
It should also come as no great surprise that, as soon as I aged out of the maintenance agreement, she couldn’t wait to get rid of me – going as far as threatening her new husband with divorce if he didn’t kick me out of the house he was paying for.
December 2007, what a month.
Those were the conditions under which I came into the world – none of which I was directly aware of for the first 11 years or so. I first knew something was wrong when my parents finally divorced (late 1998), and I was in the room when my mom pulled off her wedding ring and threw it at my dad.
It’s at this point I want to introduce Barney (not his real name), one of my early childhood friends.
In a lot of ways, our lives would have followed parallel tracks. We went to the same primary school in the same small town, bonded over computer games and fantasy roleplaying, and would probably have followed similar paths in our lives had things not gone so wrong.
I use Barney as my yardstick – a measuring device from the same control group, a person that shared some of my formative experiences. I don’t think I’ve told him this directly, but I occasionally measure my personal progress against his, and use his examples, experience and ideas to set better guidelines for myself.
Having a stable, “known good” reference to develop my life against has been a big help. I’d go so far as to call him a role model.
May 2001 was the last time I had any real friends. Despite the family drama, my life was mostly great up until that point. I had gone to the same primary school from grade R through 7, the single longest period of stability in my childhood.
Academically, I was doing really well. In grade 1, I scored highly enough on my tests that the school advanced me straight to grade 3 the following year. By grade 7, I was scoring high marks in class without having to do much homework.
Socially and creatively, I was doing relatively well too. If it weren’t for the five years that followed, I’m convinced I’d be a different person right now.
In mid-2001 my mother remarried a middle aged civil engineer. Another black sheep among several siblings who spent most of his life working, only marginally getting along with his large Afrikaans family. Another person she could manipulate.
By the end of 2001 I had changed schools, finishing my grade 7 year in a different town. Not only did the schools change, the culture changed too. Where I had formerly had a friend circle into “nerdy” things like computer games, this new school was far more athletically inclined. I didn’t fit in at all, and made no new friends there.
It got worse in 2002. My stepfather, being a career loner, followed the work wherever it led. He agreed to take up a project in Zambia. So we packed our bags and drove in his doublecab bakkie all the way from Bellville, through Johannesburg, Beitbridge, Harare, and into Zambia.
My mother’s grand plan at the time: Home schooling. She was excited about the idea of finally playing “mother” to these kids. That excitement came to an end a few weeks in, when it became apparent that it would require a lot more effort from her than she realized. A few weeks into 2002 I found myself on the way back to South Africa, to attend a boarding school in Bloemfontein.
In case you want to know how a narcissist thinks: Her decision to home-school me was justified on the basis of keeping the family together. Her decision to then send me away was justified on the basis of getting a well-rounded education. After my life imploded, she “apologised” to me and said she really shouldn’t have sent me away, as if that was enough to undo the damage.
This is really where the trauma begins. 2002 was the year that broke me. I’ve written about this a few times, but it’s gotten no easier since then, and I doubt it ever will.
The reason for Bloemfontein is that my mother had a sister there. She was also putting two kids through schools – cousins, 1-2 years older than me. She was a teacher herself, a committed marathon athlete, and unstable enough to exercise herself into an early grave. I don’t know what demons she was running from, but I’ve chosen not to find out.
Boarding school is hard at the best of times. It’s harder when most of the children in your group are rowdy, violent, aggressive farmers-children types. It’s harder when the school has a proud sporting tradition, and participation is mandatory. It’s harder still when bullying is tacitly encouraged (to “toughen kids up”).
It’s hardest when you don’t fit in. Starting a few weeks into the grade 8 school year meant I was always the outsider. Having my parents be two countries away, and my aunt dealing with her own troubles meant I had nobody to rely on.
Fun fact: It didn’t affect me directly, but in 2003 a scandal broke. The boarding school had an on-premise chapel, run by a man who produced and disseminated child pornography with the knowledge of the school faculty.
By the end of the first term, my academic scores had bottomed out. I couldn’t deal with the class work at all, between the intense isolation and constant bullying by my peers.
I still remember emailing my parents (mom and stepfather, in this context) every week, telling them that I hated being here. My stepfather kept those emails. In 2003 he produced them and chastised me for the language I used, which is of course the reasonable thing to do after putting a 12-year old child through hell.
Actually, another fun fact: my stepfather is a spineless dipshit. He took matters into his own hands during 2002: He called the school, threatening legal action (and/or going to the press) if something wasn’t done about my situation.
That sort of thing doesn’t go over well in an environment where the school management is knowingly abetting a pedophile, the school’s athletic reputation is on the line, and it’s toughened bullies all the way down the leadership structure. On top of everything else, I now had a target on my back, thanks to a cowardly blowhard trying to solve problems by shouting at the manager.
That asshole made my life worse in 2002, and not for the last time either. But I digress.
By the end of the second term, my parents finally relented. I could leave the boarding school and live with my aunt, but I had to finish the school year there.
At that point I was already going downhill. I skipped classes. I shoplifted. If I carried on long enough, I’m pretty sure alcohol and drugs would have been next in line for me, but mid-2002 put a stop to that.
My aunt (the athlete) had planned to attend an annual athletics meet in Bellville, so one of the first things I did after moving in with her was to accompany her, my two cousins, and my uncle down to the Bellville Velodrome.
I wasn’t an athlete – and had zero interest in the meet – so I was left to wander around the field by myself. I don’t know about today, but back in 2002 that was still a fairly safe thing to do, especially with lots of families around.
When I trace my life story back, it comes to this one particular day. The trauma had been building for months. I’d been uprooted twice, relentlessly bullied, and I was starting to go down a self-destructive path.
But there’s this moment that’s forever burned into my memory, and I genuinely think this was the thing that changed me.
I remember sitting on the grass embankment across from the stadium. There were families, kids scattered around. It was a warm day. From where I sat, I could see down the road, past a building I recognized on the other side of the road.
I knew the route by heart, and if I wanted to, I could have walked all the way from the Velodrome, down the highway, and up to the address where I had been living just six months prior.
In those six months, everything had been taken away. I was caught in a living hell, and all my pleas fell on deaf ears. I had no friends. The adults in my life didn’t seem to care, the pain had already started to numb me, and so without really thinking about it I picked up an empty coke can, twisted and bent it so that the metal split open, and used the sharp edge to carve a checkerboard pattern into my left arm.
The thing I remember most: Nobody cared.
For the rest of the day, that week, and two weeks thereafter, I walked around with visible scars on my arm. Nobody at the velodrome (none of those families) stopped me. My aunt didn’t check up on me, either. I so desperately wanted someone – anyone – to free me from the nightmare I was in, but nobody came.
I was thirteen. I was somebody else’s responsibility.
That’s why I’m doing this, by the way. That’s why I write these posts, and openly talk about my mental health. I know what it’s like to live in that hell, and pass a thousand blank faces who see you, but don’t acknowledge you.
I know what it’s like to have everthing fall apart inside you, and yet still have to look people in the eye and pretend that everything is okay, because showing weakness is not an option – it would just give the bullies another reason to pick on you.
I was the scared, lonely kid at a public sports event, blood running down self-inflicted wounds on his arm, unable to arouse any interest or sympathy for it. That was really the moment that killed me inside, and as I write this in 2019, I can’t honestly say I’ve recovered.
None of it got any better from there. A couple weeks after that, I was on my way back up to Zambia for the mid-year school holidays.
On a bus.
My mother saw fit to put her 13-year old son on a bus from Bloemfontein, via the Johannesburg terminal, through Beitbrige and Harare, through to Lusaka, and pick him up there.
Fun fact: You can be an unattended 13-year old at four different African border control posts and none of the guards, workers, fellow passengers or anyone else will question it. At least, they didn’t back then.
For years afterwards I was actually kind of proud of that. I was the tough kid who was able to travel two countries on his own, wandering around the border posts and major bus terminals completely consequence-free.
A few months later, my boarding school did interschool rugby against Pretoria, and we took a train through to the same Johannesburg station. I’ll never forget the scolding I got from the coach about wandering off on my own – it made no sense to me at the time, given that I had just had free reign of that terminal a few months before.
It was only a few years ago, when I told that story to someone else, that their horrified response indicated that maybe something was wrong. That’s been a major theme in my life as I’ve started to work through this stuff.
By the end of 2002 I had experienced an overwhelming amount of trauma, most of it a blur. In 2003, my parents returned from Zambia, and I was “reunited” into a home I didn’t recognize anymore. For every year since then, I felt like I was permanently disconnected from everything around me.
I made no new friends for the remainder of my school career. My odd behavior in 2003 prompted my mother to send me for counselling, and I was diagnosed with clinical depression. My treatment lasted exactly one month, until she decided she’d suddenly discovered Jesus on this, and we could simply pray away the bad feelings.
It’s obviously completely coincidental that her approach to fixing the problem was rooted in her denial at having caused it in the first place, but then that’s what narcissists are great at: dodging responsibility for their own fuck-ups.
My experiences in 2002 drilled several lessons into me, and being a formative year, they’ve stuck with me through to this day:
- Adapt, conform, lie if you have to, but don’t show weakness.
- Adults are not to be trusted – they don’t know what’s going on inside you, and they certainly don’t care.
- Don’t bother making friends, you’ll just end up losing them anyway.
- Generally, people don’t share your interests, and couldn’t ever understand you – so there’s no point in opening up.
- Always expect things to go from bad to worse.
It’s pretty obvious (from an objective viewpoint) how those ideas might make it difficult to form any sort of relationships – even friendships. For a long time, it wasn’t even obvious to me that anything was wrong with those beliefs. They reflected the world as I understood it, and led me to adapt myself for survival.
To this day, I don’t have any friends. What I mean by that is: Everything I know about the world tells me that friendship is a set of voluntary, enjoyable social obligations. You feel like you have friends, you share things with them, you understand each other to some extent, you’re happy to see them, and they’re happy to see you.
I don’t have that. Whatever part of me would normally derive joy from that is absent – burned out of me by years of trauma and neglect. Whenever someone’s being friendly to me, I immediately assume they want something from me. There could be no other reason for reaching out.
J: Hey man how are you?Discord, 7 September 2019
W: Hi. I’m on leave 🙂
J: Ah cool, enjoying it?
W: So far yeah. What’s up?
J: Awesome. Just wanted to find out how you are?
W: Haha. Usually there’s something up, is all.
That exchange is dated yesterday. “J” is a person I’ve known for years, we have a bunch of things in common, we get along really well, we’ve worked on some creative projects together, I’ve even checked in on him occasionally, but the moment he reciprocates out of basic human decency I figure he wants something.
This is what depression does to you. I didn’t even think twice in that exchange – I just assumed there was some way I could be valuable to him, that his reaching out had some other motive behind it.
My whole life has been this way, and this is the part where I finally get to the heart of this post: My inability to form relationships.
All of that background story was part warm-up to tackle this beast, part illustration to help you contextualize everything that comes next. Some of it probably wouldn’t make sense otherwise.
All told, in my life so far, there have been 6 encounters that I would broadly define as relationships. Given that I grew up in complete social isolation with only the internet for company, quite a few of those existed purely online – a strange world to the uninitiated.
I should sidebar here for a moment and mention that (a) I’m gay and (b) all six were men. Between my manipulative, narcissistic, liar of a mother, and an overbearing female bully in primary school (seriously though Sarah, fuck you, wherever you are), I’ve spent my whole life viewing women with mistrust. I might not even have turned out gay if it weren’t for the path my life took. I might yet find my way “back”. Quite a thought.
The most recent quasi-relationsip came to an abrupt end in February 2018, and it’s taken me this long to fully process it. It came as quite a shock to me, given that I’d been building towards it for years (solid friendship, mutual interests, lots of time spent together), doing everything right that I possibly could, and thinking it was going well. I only broke through that fog this last weekend, when I finally realized that the problem wasn’t with me.
That was quite a milestone: After 12 years of failed relationships, to finally have one end because the other person wanted something else. I would have resolved it a lot quicker if he had actually been honest about that, but then that’s another one of those problems I keep causing for myself: I select poorly.
When you’re depressed, there’s a special sort of void that opens up inside you. It seems boundless, omnipresent, and ultimately becomes part of your life. You never really get a grip on the edges of it, and despite how miserable it makes you, you can’t muster a meaningful defence.
Because you can’t describe it, it starts feeling like nobody understands you. There’s a well of sadness inside you that can’t be reasoned with. Every time you try dealing with it, you fail. You’re inhabiting the same mind that’s trying to destroy you. Your efforts are sabotaged from the start.
Other people will see the symptoms, sure. Maybe you’re withdrawn, erratically emotional, clingy, have problems with abandonment, seek comfort from destructive sources, work yourself to death, and so on. They’ll try to help, but every attempt ends in failure, and you start blaming them for not understanding your suffering.
It’s nobody’s fault, of course. You’ve been set up to fail by your own mind. You have no framework for evaluating success, no way to recognize progress as distinct from your constant nightmare. No matter what anybody else does, they’re not going to get through to you that way.
Over time, that leads to contempt. You start deliberately isolating yourself, closing off avenues that might otherwise help. You start pretending, because there is no other way to relate to people without them taking pity on you.
And so you learn to build masks. You invent a personality that appeals to other people. For a while, it seems to work, but it never lasts. You have a deep, unfilled well of desires you can’t communicate, you get frustrated, and you start taking it out on the people who love you.
Until, eventually, they stop.
Broadly speaking, that’s been the last 12 years of my life. Every friendship, relationship, or whatever other -ship between 2007 and 2018 has followed a variant of that pattern.
In a few cases, the problem was definitely my selection. I’d overlook all sorts of red flags and warning signs for the sake of just having somebody I could talk to. In other cases, I drove genuinely good and patient people away by a combination of my self-inflicted grief and paranoia.
I regret all of it, and it hurts to think about, but right now that’s a good sign. For years, I wouldn’t think about it at all, and was largely unable to actually process painful emotions. I’d usually game, eat, or masturbate them away whenever they came up. Substance abuse, in other words.
In the last few years, I’ve been increasingly fixated on the idea of “who I might have been”. What path would my life have taken, if it hadn’t gone so spectacularly off the rails in 1998?
This is where I reintroduce Barney. He hasn’t authorized me to tell this story (and that’s not his real name anyway), so I’ll keep the details brief.
At some point between 2001 (when I left South Africa) and ~2010-ish (when we met up again) he had apparently fallen in love with a girl. That came to an end when she cheated on him, and it left him devastated for a while.
In the last few years though, he met another girl – randomly, one night, at a bar. They hit it off, one thing led to another, and they’re in a stable relationship right now. If I were a betting man, I’d wager they’re on the road to getting married.
There are so many things in Barney’s backstory that I didn’t have: Parents who gave a shit, friends who stuck around, stability at home and in school. To the best of my knowledge life didn’t beat him up nearly the same way it did me, and when it did throw him a few punches, he had the necessary strength and support to recover.
I’ll never begrudge him that, though – it’s not his fault my parents were a wreck. If anything, it’s the one piece of my childhood I’m grateful for: The afternoons, nights and sleepovers with friends at his place, getting to see for myself how a more-functional-than-mine family actually looked like. I think those were the first seeds of doubt that eventually led me to question everything else.
But that’s not something I can ever have. As much as analysing my past has helped me to get a grip on my present, I can’t let it dictate my future. This is one of those truly rare instances where Twitter delivers solid gold.
I came across that a few days ago, and it’s been acting on my perspective ever since. Resolving my feelings towards my last failed relationship, the post I did about depression this morning, and this insanely long essay right now are all born out of the same desire: To document my life so far, so I can close it out and start putting it behind me.
In future, I want to be the person that squared up to all the bullshit life dealt him, worked to overcome it, and left something behind to help others do the same. If nothing else, I won’t let my depression be the thing that takes me in the end.
I feel relieved to have finally written all of this out. For the 2008-2018 period (my 10 employed years) I never considered publishing anything this personal online, believing that it would somehow undermine my career prospects if people knew how fucked up I was inside. At the very least, it would contradict the image I carried at work.
I’ve given some thought to “closing advice”, if there is such a thing to be found here: what to do if you think someone in your friend circle might be depressed.
Chronic depression is not an “illness” in the same way other illnesses work. There’s not so much a “treatment” to “fix” it, as there is a set of lifestyle changes that need to happen.
The first one (and honestly, the most impactful) is to simply understand the depressive’s point of view. I’ve done my best to lay out my own experiences, and they won’t apply to everyone, but it helps if you know the nature of the beast your friend is fighting: Themselves.
Depression is irrational. Everything will be totally fine (job, love life, future, family, church, whatever), and your friend will still be miserable. “Cheering them up” won’t go the way you think it will – that’ll just remind them that they’re unable to be happy like other people.
Doing “nice things” that put them on the spot won’t really help either. The fixes for neurotypical sadness backfire spectacularly when you’re trying to help someone who’s mind is set on destroying itself.
The only thing that’ll ultimately help, as far as I can tell: Rebuilding your mental software from the ground up. Challenging every depressive thought with a strong counterpoint. Deliberately and consciously carving out new mental reflexes. Training yourself to see things in a new way, based on everything you know to be the “normal” you want.
And as someone caring for a chronic depressive: Just being there is good enough. Give them a reason to refute the dark voices in their head (their own voices, for the most part). Whatever bad things they believe about themselves and other people, just be a reliable counter-example to that. It will take courage, effort, and time – maybe longer than you’d ever think – but the situation can improve.
Many years ago (must have been around 2011) I met a guy online, in the wake of another relationship imploding. He lives a full hemisphere away, and we’ve never met in person, but he’s been a constant presence in my life.
We’ve had major arguments, I’d block him for months at a time, but we’d always cool off and reconnect eventually. I think he knew, intuitively, the sort of demons I was wrestling with – and he had patience with me. That one connection, formed and maintained over the years, was all it took to ground me in a basic fact that most people take for granted: I’m worthy of friendship, even when I’m at my worst.
I still have a long way to go, but I know for sure it would have been a much more difficult journey without that, and I’ll be grateful to him for the rest of my life. If nothing else, try being that person for your depressed friend.
That’s all I have the energy to say on this subject. I hope tomorrow is better for all of us.