For me, the taste of my rubber snorkel mouthpiece, the smell of seawater and the sight of pink coral with black fish darting around it, was the beginning. I was about four, snorkelling in the shallows on the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea. That defined me. Indelibly.
But mostly, what defines me only does so temporarily. Eventually those moments, decisions and experiences split open and peel away like dead eucalyptus bark to reveal fresh influences and redefinitions.
I remember the first time I felt desired. A look like lightning in the middle of a lake. And a sentence.
‘You are not like other girls. You are better.’
It shaped a part of me that felt proud to be different. We laughed at those ‘other girls’, whose sole ambition in life was wifedom and motherhood, women who threw themselves at him while we toyed with each other. My emotions stayed safely walled off from the chaos of love.
I was defined by my untouchable smugness.
Then one day I tumbled into love, when I wasn’t looking. I found myself in a washing machine of feelings I’d sworn I would never succumb to. I didn’t like it one bit. I ran away, to the other end of the country. But there was no outrunning the truth.
My husband’s marriage proposal was a defining moment. It was casual. It needed to be for someone as easily spooked by the M word as I was. It was more of a suggestion to keep me company while I continued running, to the other side of the world.
I unclenched my cramped fingers from my outdated ideas and said ‘Yes’ because a shift felt necessary to accommodate happiness.
But in the early years of marriage, twinges of discomfort at the idea of being a wife still shot through me intermittently.
So, I chased my precious career. I loved the solidity of having worked for it, of steering it. I gave myself over to it.
And the more I gave of myself, the more it wanted. It woke me at night. It pushed me to the point of feeling as though I was no longer good enough for it. And because it defined me completely, I felt I was no longer good enough for anything.
I realised that letting my career define me was as dangerous as letting my marital status define me. Once again, I loosened my grip on a definition of me I’d outgrown.
The idea of motherhood came gradually and out of nowhere. It solidified when I knew I’d regret not attempting it.
I always sensed motherhood wasn’t going to define me. And it hasn’t. By the time I became a mother, I knew who I was. It has stretched my outlook but has thankfully never threatened my identity.
My mental illness was born with my first child. For a long time, I vehemently insisted it didn’t define me. Ironically, it is the thing that has perhaps defined me most.
I no longer see myself on the ‘I live with mental illness, but I don’t let it define me.’ bandwagon.
Attempting to sever yourself from the experience of a chronic mental illness is like trying to sever an internal organ. It defines you whether you like it or not. But you do get some say over how it does.
My illness defines me because once you’ve felt horror, you can’t unfeel it.
It defines my friendship circle. I have gained precious people through it.
This illness has at different times defined my body size. It has stripped me lean during months of catatonic depression. And it adds weight when mania and antipsychotics give me an unnatural appetite for sugar.
This illness defines the way I travel. I am wary of crossing big time zones, a well-known trigger for Bipolar episodes. The threat of being stuck in another country or on a long-haul flight, psychotic, without access to my doctor, hospital, or enough medication is a powerful deterrent. Thankfully I saw a lot of the world before got sick.
It defines the way I pack. The night before I take a trip I have nightmares about forgetting my medication. I pack double in different bags and triple check it before I leave.
It has led me into mental health advocacy, and it defines much of my writing.
This illness has forced me to examine who I am when it has stripped me of my job, my family life, my ego, and my communication skills.
And in doing so, it has shown me that whatever happens, I am still me. Someone who has been defined by many things, and who has let go of most of them.
Someone who long ago imprinted on the smell of saltwater, and who still finds happiness in it.
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