polar bears and post boxes – days when i can’t leave the house

I have to post a letter.

That is the only thing I have to do today. It has to be done today because I have neglected it (and many other adult responsibilities) for several weeks and now I risk losing my student finance.

That would be fine if I wasn’t in the middle of a mild depressive episode.

Being in the middle of said mild depressive episode, I wake up that morning captivated by fear with what the day ahead held. I feel cloaked in the shame of responsibilities and normal day-to-day tasks that I had failed so miserably to complete. I feel overwhelmed with what was expected of me and convinced that I am hopeless. I feel fear.

There is, of course, a relatively easy solution to ease some of this anxiety. I just have to post the damn letter. The letter which had been signed, sealed, stamped and waiting on my desk for the last five days.

I’m an early riser, waking by seven most days, but after a few years of fluctuating mental health issues, I have mastered the art of forcing myself back into an unnecessary slumber, to avoid the day ahead and the pain I am feeling.  So I use my useless and self-destructive ‘superpower’ to do just that, and force myself to sleep through nine, ten, half ten, until ten fifty-six, which seems just the right time to make a move. I sit on the edge of my bed. I count to ten in my head, promising myself that on ten I will stand.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, fuck.

I’m still sat on the bed.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, nine and a half, ten, for fuck’s sake Izzy.

One more time.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight nine, ten, get up you hopeless loser.

I’m standing.

I’m standing but I don’t know what to do. I didn’t think this far ahead. I was so focused on getting into a vertical position, that now I’m there, I can’t think what to do next. I’m standing frozen and awkward, like a Sims character whose player has gone to make a cup of tea.

I slowly remember my mission, only to be met with more barriers in my brain.  Where do I post it? Where is my nearest post box?  I live in Central London, I must walk past ten post boxes a day, so why can’t I remember what a post box looks like? I turn to my reluctant friend, Google, for answers.

Google informs me there is a post box two hundred meters up the street. I groan. Two hundred meters on a day like today might as well be the trip to the Arctic circle with a sign around my neck inviting the polar bears to eat me as an appetiser (suggested serving size for two). It seems dangerous and impossible.

I’m suddenly so overwhelmed by the prospect of taking those few steps and being eaten by my metaphorical polar bears that I find myself back in bed, head under the pillow and crying until the panic passes. It’s irrational I know, but it’s real.

This sequence of sitting, standing, panicking and crashing will repeat itself a few more times throughout the day until I am exhausted. I am more and more deflated with each attempt.

It reaches four in the afternoon and now I am desperate. The last collection for the post is five. A sense of urgency strikes through the fog, my brain and body now too tired to have such a strong adverse reaction. It’s now or never.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

I continue the momentum from my step into vertical living and climb into the shower. It’s cold, but I don’t have the strength to wait for it to warm up. Showering for me is a coping strategy, I can not bear to leave the house without doing so. It is a last attempt to maintain some form of dignity and composure. Sure I’ve been trying to leave the house since ten fifty-six, but at least I managed to shower. Could a depressed person do that? The answer is sometimes yes.

Yesterday’s jeans are pulled on, and so is my pyjama top, with a jacket buttoned over the top to give the illusion that I am actually dressed. The slippers I force onto my feet give me away slightly, but putting on real shoes does not seem viable right now.

I check the location of the post box, examining the map on my computer screen in great detail, despite it being two hundred meters up the street I have lived on for the past eight months. I even put the address into City Mapper to double-check. The app tells me it will take me two minutes, which really means one because; a) City Mapper always overestimates the time it will take to walk, and b) I will be walking as if a deadly white mammal is following me with a fork in one paw and salt in the other (aka fast).

Letter stuffed in my pocket, satisfied with my research, I decide that I’m ready to go. On the count of one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, my bedroom door is opened and I walk until I reach the front door.  I peer through the peephole to check the surroundings. I do this after a count of ten, because looking through those are terrifying. What if something jumps up and scares the crap out of me? My hands are restlessly patting my pockets (and every part of my body that isn’t a pocket) to check that the letter has not evaporated since leaving my room. Feeling it is not enough though, so I have to pull it out and check the address, the stamp, the back, the edges and the corners, once, twice, three times before I am reassured.

I am giving myself a pep talk, telling myself that I am strong and I am capable. I run through the plan, muttering it to myself to memorise it; open the door, cross the road, turn right, walk, post the letter, turn around, come back. Two minutes is all it should take to be there and back.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, the door swings open and I step out into the afternoon light victorious. I stop short and a noise escapes me that is a mix of hysterical laughter and tears. Directly in front of my house, on the other side of the road, approximately twelve steps away… is the damn post box.

The distance from my door step to the post box (just the other side of the road).
The distance from my door step to the post box.

There has never been a clearer example of my anxiety building a nothing into something. A mountain out of a molehill, a polar bear out of a post box. The fear and the panic I felt was entirely real, the reason, not so much. This is because my brain, a mixture of out of date memes, the whereabouts of One Direction, anxiety and depression consistently raises warning flags and convinces me of danger that does not really exist. It’s excruciating and debilitating.  

I practically skip those twelve steps (I have short legs) and skip them back again because I did it. I managed to fight off the polar bears that day and overcome the barriers that my brain created. A minuscule victory, but an important one in the battle for ownership of my mind.

This does not happen every time I need to post a letter, nor is it exclusive to my posting activities. It happens before classes, it happens before meetings, it happens before going to Tesco, it happens before coffee with friends, it happens before my own birthday meal. There is no knowing when it will happen and there is no assurance that it can be overcome. Mental health is not predictable.

These days are now few and far between, but when they occur, they pull the rug out from beneath my smug feet and send me tumbling backwards. It takes every ounce of strength within me to rise to my feet and get on with my day. Sometimes, despite my best efforts and counts to ten, my best efforts will not be enough. It will not be enough because I am unwell.  

Depression alone (I say alone as to point out this shocking figure is not including the other number of mental illnesses) is the leading cause of disability worldwide. When I struggle with something, it is not because I won’t do it. It is because I can’t do it.

Some days the polar bears may not be defeated, but that does not mean I am.

There is always tomorrow and always another count of ten.

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