Watching the rows of silver heads bobbing up and down in front of me as the little orange bus hurtles over speed bumps, I have to stifle snorts of laughter. It’s half two on a Thursday afternoon in suburban Berkshire and I’m travelling into town solo on local transport in an endeavour to force myself out of my comfort zone. And I’m the only person on the bus without a freedom pass.
The road to depression recovery is long, meandering and bedecked with obstacles but mostly it’s just incredibly weird. For me the last year has comprised a lengthy detour from the 9-5 London life I once knew, and today it finds me sitting next to a pensioner named Sheila animatedly debating the perils of cheap haircuts. And I kind of liked it.
After vast expanses of time spent deep inside your own head fighting imaginary demons, you’re more than a little unfamiliar with the outside world. It’s like being five years old again but painfully socialised and self conscious while finding yourself navigating the world afresh without a hand to hold. You’re also acutely aware that most people your age don’t consider getting on a bus by yourself and striking up conversation with a stranger ‘massively brave’, like you do.
I’m fast learning that confidence is an infinitely bizarre concept and it seems that once smashed into a squillion pieces by mental illness, it has to be rebuilt slowly and carefully from the floorboards up. This means exposing myself bit by bit, through tiny baby steps, to things that stress me out. When my end goal is being able to fly to New York by myself, the journey begins with a six-minute bus journey that takes me less than a mile from my door. It’s no moonwalk but it’s enough of a giant leap for me and my delicate nervous system.
Once the bus journey doesn’t reduce me to a quivering shell of nerves, I can relax right? The work is done? Wrong. The next step in my cunning plan to conquering public transport and thus world domination is to put myself on longer, scarier journeys on my own. Trains, trams, boats. Further from home. Further out of my comfort zone. It’s a torturous, exhausting process and I hate it already – but because I don’t want to be trapped in an anxiety prison for the rest of my life, it has to be done.
Full recovery is learning by doing. I have to keep forcibly placing myself in situations ‘normal life’ would never have afforded me the sheer oddity of experiencing.
I’m the girl who travels one stop on the London Underground, only to cross over the platform and hop on a tube right back to where I started.
I now know exactly which brand of weirdo I can expect to stroll through a coffee shop door on a Monday morning when everyone else is at work, after forcing myself to sit still, read a book and drink nine cups of tea for three hours last week.
To do something useful with my time and force myself into the outside world I volunteer at a local toddler’s group once a week. I now know the essentials in the psychology of two to four-year-olds, and frequently find leftover bits of glitter down my trousers and wedged inside my shoes for days afterwards.
I now know that random conversations with little old ladies at the bus stop make me smile.
My daily life has become unrecognisable from what it once was when I took my mental health for granted. Obviously I know I’ll have to go back to ‘normal life’, and work, eventually. I want to. But it’s good to know that I can force myself into unfamiliar situations even if I don’t feel like it, and that they will surprise me.
Going through illness and depression has forced me to take life detours I never would have chosen if my days were more straightforward.
Routine only becomes boring when it’s repetitive. Making it routine to do something outside of your comfort zone each day opens a very unique window on the world and it’s something I won’t be stopping even when I’m fighting fit again.