[Written by Rose Inglis (she/her)]
CW: Discussions of mental illness
“Life after coronavirus”. These three words have been repeated and reaffirmed so often in the past year, that they have become some kind of mantra, a desperate plea and prayer to welcome the end of the pandemic which has so suddenly altered our lives. The idea of ‘life after’ is most emphasized in such events, when the change could not have been anticipated or prepared for. There are also events so clearly marked in our lives, that ‘life after’ is something clearly envisioned and anticipated. The great milestones: life after starting school, your first relationship, your first job; life after graduation, marriage, kids. Countless others are likewise ingrained into our expectations. Yet, on the flip side of ‘life after’, is the often more painful concept of ‘life before’. With each ‘life after’ – whether anticipated and carefully constructed, or unexpected and unplanned – is the memory of what was. Perhaps this is a flaw in my own perception, but I have often found that when I reach an ever so highly anticipated milestone, there are always things I yearn for, from my life before.
For me, life after starting university is an example of this. My mistake was envisioning every aspect of my new life, my new university life, in detailed perfection. Admittedly, I often attempt to ignore difficulties presented by new tasks or challenges, preferring to maintain a fantasy of flawless natural ability, rather than embarrass myself in the process of trying something new. Such was the case with starting university. I had planned to arrive at my first lecture immaculately dressed, with a new notebook in hand; in contrast I ran, and was ten minutes late, with sopping wet hair and a severe case of freshers’ flu. This event still stands out in my mind as another imagined life that evaporated into ‘life before’. Regardless of how much change we go through, life itself rarely changes beyond recognition; there will always be risks, downfalls and mundane tasks that existed before. When I pictured life after starting uni, I envisaged only what I hoped it would be: out every night, then up, showered and hair done by 9am, working out and walking miles every day. However, as someone who struggles to wake up before 10am, and counts a walk to the shop as vigorous exercise this was overly optimistic.
The realisation that life after uni was not as perfect as I had imagined became even clearer when, in the Christmas of first year, my mental health began to deteriorate. I’d had trouble with my mental health in the past and have had a therapist since the age of thirteen, but this was different. I often found myself telling my boyfriend that this wasn’t how I used to be – we’d only been dating a short while. Life after becoming depressed was odd because the sudden change had not been anticipated. It wasn’t something I could really control. It started to feel like my mental health had taken control of my life. No matter how hard I pushed against it, I always ended up returning to the safety of my bed and hiding under the covers. More than a year on, I’m still struggling, and still hiding. I sorely miss the times where I didn’t feel this way, but those times were probably not as carefree as I portray them; I am not a very reliable narrator. My fond reminiscence is often the consequence of painting the past as some perfect place, a place where everything was better than it is now.
We all try our best to forget the things that hurt us or the times we were unhappy, and so, we pretend. If we aren’t busy idealizing the future, we do it to the past. We have to reassure ourselves that there will be a better time than now or that there was a better time than now. The downside of this is clear: we seldom take the time to appreciate the moment that we are in, however bleak it may seem.
This is made especially clear in another kind of ‘life after’, those that are so small they should seemingly be insignificant. One disheartening conversation, a party where you got too drunk, one day that just didn’t go as it should have. Oftentimes, these small occasions stand out more than the big moments. All ‘life after’ moments create a divide, but for me it is these small moments that create the most obvious divide. These moments create a split, a barrier where you end up viewing your previous life as you would view an old video, something distant and unreachable. Looking back at my life, it seems to be split up into many sections, many fragments. Past versions of myself seem like other people entirely, with whom I have little or no connection.
Perhaps all of this is simply the consequence of overthinking. In focusing so much on the intricacies of the life transitions, we forget that no matter how much you ruminate on life, it is not going to stop simply because we’ve realised we are in an ‘after’ or a ‘before’. It is better to keep going forward than obsess over what has been or what will be. Whatever changes are yet to come may have us missing what we have now because there will always be ‘life afters’ to plan for, those unexpected events that make us long for life before. The key, I think, is to not fight change, overly anticipate the future or try to rewrite the past. ‘Life after’ – and ‘life before’ – are not static states. We only have now.