One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever been given is to look outside at the world. That the greatest, most fascinating minds are those which look outside of themselves, not inwards towards themselves. That inner turmoil, however tempting, “gets quite dull after a while, doesn’t it”.
I try to remind myself of this sentiment every time I feel tempted to beat myself up about something essentially unimportant (or even something that is important) and it really does hold true. No matter how much you wish to dwell on your perceived weaknesses, remember that the world outside yourself is endlessly more fascinating and full of surprises than your flaws are. In fact, I’d hazard that your flaws are not really that interesting to anyone except yourself. I’d hazard that self-pity is the ultimate form of self-obsession.
When I was a teenager, I probably used to think self-hatred was quite glamorous. That self-destruction was inextricably bound up with sex appeal, that passion was synonymous with a troubled mind, that being drug-addled or in therapy or under-eating or being excessively promiscuous or all of the above was the last word in cool. I read and re-read the Wikipedia page for ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ (which, naturally, I had diagnosed myself with) and looked towards the tragic heroes of film, television drama and pop culture to add fuel to my internal fire. The disturbed but sexy Angelina Jolie as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. The starving and drug-addled Edie Sedgwick voicing over Warhol’s Ciao! Manhattan tapes. “Cocaine Kate” and pallid Pete (it was circa 2004). Hell, even the pampered misery of Marissa Cooper in The OC seemed hot. For the record, I now realise that Summer was way cooler.
This was my personal pantheon of self-destruction, aged 13-16, but the glamorisation and fetishisation of self-harm (in its many forms) remain far-reaching and alarmingly frequent. Their contemporary counterparts might be Lana Del Rey, who alludes to suicide in her music videos and once admitted to The Guardian’s Tim Jonze that she sees early death as glamorous, adding “I wish I was dead already”. Left unamused by this was one Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of Kurt, who quickly responded on Twitter, saying, “I’ll never know my father because he died young, and it becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it’s ‘cool’. Well, it’s fucking not.”
Ms Cobain touches on a very important point. It should really go without saying, but the reality of self-destructive behaviour is anything but glamorous – for either the people displaying it, the people close to them, or in Frances’ case, the people left behind by them. On top of this, the romanticisation of mental illness is incredibly patronising and trivialising to those who do suffer it.
I don’t think I was necessarily conscious of glamorising any of these things in my early teens, but I do think I probably enjoyed wallowing in self-pity when I did begin developing self-destructive habits of my own. For a few torrid years, I experimented with various direct or indirect ways of hurting myself. It’s quite difficult to sift through it now and distinguish how much of that came from genuine distress, and how much was simply acting out what I thought a person in distress should be doing. I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Whilst I strongly disagree that the media alone can be held solely accountable for any mental health issue, I do suspect that for my naive teenage mind it probably sparked a few ideas, or egged me on a little harder.
Years later, having left home and gone to college in a different country, some of that behaviour would resurface sporadically. When it did, it felt different. First time round, at 13, it was manic and deep-reaching but also (in retrospect) had an air of play-acting. At 21, living with strangers, far away from the bosom of home and the watchful eye of concerned parents, there was something far more absolute and terrifying about it. Manic and erratic behaviour morphed into long stretches of permeating bleakness. If teenage angst is like kicking back against the walls that surround you, adult depression (for me) was feeling like those walls had disintegrated. It felt all-encompassing, debilitating and endless.
A number of things got me out of this. One was cognitive behavioural therapy, which I underwent at the recommendation of TCD’s student counselling service. It has had a genuine and long-lasting effect on my thought patterns – or at least allows me to recognise when they’re going off-kilter, even if I’m not always immediately able to “snap out of it”. I have had bouts of depression since then, but never with quite the same nihilistic pervasiveness as before I’d had it.
Another was the slow construction of a trusted network of close friends. Friends whose company warms your blood for days after you have been around it, whose antics make you laugh out loud while dressing for work on a Monday morning, as you cast your thoughts back over the weekend’s mischief. Aside from providing a solid support structure, these friends also made me realise what traits I most admired in other people: strength of character, inquisitiveness, ruthless honesty, brassy wit and a sharp eye to the world around them. They are dazzling and interesting, not least because they are the kind of people who, for most of the part, look outwards, rather than inwards.
Kintsugi is often translated into English as “beauty in brokenness”. But if you look towards the original usage of the term, relating to ceramics, it’s really more like “beauty in repair”. Brokenness in itself isn’t what’s appealing, but how brokenness can change or enhance an object. Kintsugi ceramics are admired because they are honest about their weak points and past failings, but they now stand recomposed, with dignity and a dash of gold.