We each build up a private mythology about our own lives. We hang our memories on a frame of our own construction. As a historian working on increasingly contemporary history, starting to deal with people who are still alive and can actively stake some claim to how their story is told, this is something of which I’m acutely aware. And it’s something I cannot help being aware of in myself as well.
While I was growing up this mythology was built around my bisexuality – a sense of being everything and nothing at once, of only ever showing one side of myself in any particular company. But for a little more than half-a-decade now, the way I’ve understood my own story has been essentially as a fall from grace – not so much a narrative of decline as a hard slog with little hope of ever completely restoring former glories. It’s not a longing for happier days – I’m probably happier now than I’ve ever been. Instead it’s a sense that I’m a ghost of my former self, one who was more energetic and more impressive. I’d have to possess a special lack of self-awareness not to recognise the cliché of mourning a lost youth, even if it is born of my own specific circumstances.
Nearly three years after starting my PhD I was briefly unwell. It wasn’t terrible, but it did stop me in my tracks and that was a shock to the system. I’d built up so much momentum – writing drafts of my doctoral thesis as well as a number of academic articles, organising a string of workshops and conferences, taking on my first university teaching, joining scholarly societies and committees, and all the while working part-time as a political researcher. I’d thrown myself into the freedom afforded by a scholarship and the momentum had been steadily building for quite some time when all this activity came to an abrupt end.
Before too long I realised I wasn’t just struggling to get my physical health back on form, I was depressed. This proved much harder to get over. Even as I re-focused my studies and managed to finish my PhD, even as I got engaged, even as I finally ended a period of unemployment and uncertainty and left once again the family home to which I’d had to return and I set off to embrace new challenges, I was still in the shadow of that spell of depression.
Even after a few years I remember my cousin being horrified when I said that my brain had never worked as quickly since that time and that I had come to terms with the fact that it never would. For a long time I felt the speed of my thinking was perhaps a third slower than it used to be. Admitting this was important, not to feel sorry for myself, but because it stopped me beating myself up over not being as impressive as I expected myself to be in front of students or senior colleagues, and most of all in job interviews. He said I was writing myself off and doing myself a disservice. I felt I’d set myself free by accepting defeat.
There’s a Victorian painting called A Youth Relating Tales to Ladies (shown above). Art critics have been rather harsh about the young man depicted, describing him as “alarmingly lackadaisical”, suggesting the ladies look unimpressed. I feel a worrying affinity with him. His youthfulness and the fact he has everyone’s attention is how I imagine my (pre-depression) early twenties. When I look closer and see that lack of energy and that his intention of impressing may not be going to plan, it puts me more in mind of my (post-depression) late twenties.
But I’ve started to think of all this a little differently lately. I was updating a list of talks I’d given the other day when I realised something: I’ve never been more productive than I am right now. The amount of new research topics I’m covering, the papers I’m giving, the writing I’m doing for books and articles and websites. It was a necessity to be hyper-productive during my three years teaching in university History departments, but it was an accumulation of usually smaller tasks, few of which I had to put my name to publicly. Even if it’s not always clear to others, I have carried through that high level of activity into a research-only position over the past year. Of course, I’d still love to do more and do it better, and some of this is simply earlier work seeing the light of day, but it has forced me to see myself differently: I no longer see myself as an echo.
Perhaps it’s simply that enough time has passed for the memory to fade, so I can no longer usefully compare the energy and effect with which I work today with that from before my depression. But it’s also the case that the old narrative no longer serves the same function. For those years when I thought of myself as in recovery, I guess it was important to have an idea of what I wanted to recover. At some point recently, I stopped judging my performance in comparison to how I had been in the past and starting looking to what I might be in the future instead. My depression wasn’t as bad as it is for many people, but perhaps it’s worth acknowledging that I’ve only now managed to shake of the shackles that have limited the way I’ve been thinking about myself and what I’m capable of ever since. It took me nearly seven years to break free.
I’ve spent a decade fighting against a view of history based on some idea of bygone golden age – whether it’s of imperial glory or a safer time when people could leave their doors unlocked and before the welfare state killed off volunteering, when earlier generations of statesmen stood tall in contrast to today’s political pygmies. Yet throughout the time I could fairly describe myself as early career I’ve been imagining myself in contrast to my own personal golden age. If I’ve finally managed to shake that one off, maybe I can start looking ahead instead.