Now that I have a fairly large readership, I have decided to write a series of blog posts focusing on the more personal aspects of my writing. This post is introducing the story of how my blog came about, and what writing means to me. it will probably be very long, because I love writing and tonight is a beautiful night for it.
TL;DR: I wrote lots, I got depression, I stopped writing, I started getting better, I started writing again, I started this blog, Voila!
The name ‘Life for a Forest’ actually came about meaning something very different to how it most likely comes across.
I have felt throughout my whole life thus far through one manifestation or another, that my main purpose on Planet Earth involves two things: Forests and writing. I can’t tell you why, it just always seemed as obvious and as logical as any other fact of life. All I can say is that writing gives me a happiness and a peace that I generally struggle to find. And when I am standing in a forest, I have a feeling of completion and wholeness that no other situation has ever given me and I doubt ever will.
So when I chose the name ‘Life for a Forest’ what I meant was ‘I am dedicating my life to forests’ in other words ‘MY life for a forests’. I want my life to be all about forests, forever, I’d risk my life to live in and protect any forest, and that’s how the title came about.
It occurred to me days later that ‘Life For a Forest’ actually sounds a lot more like ‘This is what life is like in forests’ and I was relieved, as it made me sound a lot more sane, and a lot less obsessive about plants than I really am.
I started this blog at a bit of a strange crossroads in my life. I had just dropped out of an Ecology and Conservation degree at James Cook University in Australia (I will come to this later) and had moved back home to my parents in Hertfordshire, England. I had no idea what to do, I still had an unceasingly strong passion for nature that had done nothing but flourish amongst the beautiful and wild environment of Queensland, and I was scared, terrified even, but I wasn’t sure what of. I was in the midst of a very intense battle against depression, and it was a battle I very much felt I was losing.
I had been suffering from depression since I was 11, caused when one of the key rules a lot of lucky children, including myself, learn early on: ‘adults can be trusted’, was completely broken. I was embroiled in a court case as a witness. I wrote a lot at this time, and everything I had written I handed over to the police in complete faith, including the event I had documented first hand, being assured it would help the victim and I truly believed it would. In court, my writing was unceremoniously manipulated and deliberately misinterpreted, I was questioned with an unrelenting nastiness. I can still picture the defence lawyer’s face sneering at me. My writing was completely used against me, and managed to successfully convince a jury that I was lying; I was not. The consequences of this situation were absolutely devastating, and as an eleven year old I shouldered the blame and subsequent guilt completely, and silently. I stopped writing for myself at that point, no more stories no more diaries, nothing. Just school work, and barely that to be honest.
Because depression seeps into every aspect of your life, and into everything that you are as a person. My depression only worsened over the next year, as I moved schools after the event, from a mixed state school to an all-girls private school where I absolutely did not fit in. Making friends in my emotional state was pretty impossible and I barely uttered a word to anyone for 6 months. My very best friend in the world had gone and gotten a brain tumour, and I really thought that she might die (she didn’t, she’s alive and wonderful). I needed a friend more than anything at this time, but instead I was an alien in a new school, and my best friend was in no fit state to comprehend my situation, plus she needed me more.
I went from being a loud, friendly, talkative, hardworking and intelligent child to a super withdrawn, angry and rebellious person. I didn’t trust or respect adults one bit, barring my family (thank God for that), so as far as I was concerned teachers could go do one if they thought I was going to do any stupid work for THEM. I think this kind of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot rebellion is quite common in kids, the consequences for me of that decision have been pretty dire. I sailed through GCSE’s with excellent grades by cramming the night before and getting by on intelligence alone; A-levels and my first attempt at a degree did not fare so well at all. It is only now, in the last three years, that I have been able to actually work.
So I was miserable, I was resentful, I wasn’t writing. In order to prevent you from having to read about my entire life story (though it’s getting close), let’s skip ahead to 6th form. I moved from the private school to an excellent mixed state school 6th form and I loved it. It was totally different. I had loads of friends, I went to parties every weekend, and adventures were rife… Did I work? Nope. And not because I didn’t want to, but because I’d spent so many years deliberately not doing so that I simply didn’t know how to. I don’t think anyone could’ve shown me how either, my brain needed a complete overhaul and I was too busy experiencing this new form of happiness to figure that out.
I had an amazing group of friends at the time, they encouraged me a lot, even if they didn’t know it. They noticed my creativity and enjoyed it. A pivotal moment for me was when a few of us went on a camping trip to Wales when I was 17. Someone had brought along a notebook and we were writing about everything that was going on together. I basically commandeered said notebook and scribbled away the whole time, and my friends read it, they laughed at it, they loved it. So I started keeping a journal again, because this was a very different reaction to the last time my writing was shared.
A very proud moment for me was when my friends and I went on holiday to a villa in Spain a year or so later. I was up to my 4th journal. I still hadn’t been able to write just for myself though, I had a niggling fear, almost fully subconscious, that something awful would happen if I did. So everything I wrote, I wrote as a watered down ‘safe’ version of myself, assuming it would be read. Whilst on this holiday, we would all be sitting around the pool, and my friends would be passing around my journal like it was a novel, they’d be fully engrossed one after the other. That was a wonderful moment for me.
In reality it was a load of crappy writing, and they were almost certainly only reading it to see what I’d written about them, but they’d laugh and they’d say unprompted that they enjoyed it, and that meant a lot more than they could’ve known.
Despite having this new found happiness in 6th form, I was still totally and utterly depressed. Contradictory right? Actually no, there is this complete misconception with depression that all it is, is feeling sad. Having a bad day, crying a bit and the like.
No. No no no no no. I cannot emphasise enough the amount of no that kind of thinking requires. The most literal and apt description for it, the way I experienced it, is that I had this thick, black, dark river flowing nonstop inside of me, and all this happiness, this was just surface debris getting mixed up in it. It may sound a bit dramatic, but I’ve never thought of a simpler way to explain my depression to anyone.
After school I worked full time in Boots for a year. It was the single most boring decision I have ever made, but it was to save money to go to university in Australia.
Saving money didn’t work out. As my dad likes to point out, he can tell if I’m feeling down because suddenly a mountain of ASOS parcels will appear at the door. However, due to savings, and a recent inheritance (all now gone of course, thanks in part to depression) I was able to afford to go to university in Australia.
Why Australia? Actually the real question is why university, because I was in no position at all to be trying to study. I was still crippled by a depression that I just refused to acknowledge. One of the things that, upon hearing, I am almost guaranteed to lose my temper over these days, is somebody trying to dismiss depression as anything less than the serious and potentially fatal illness that it is. One of the reasons it took me 8 years to seek help was due to all the nonsense I heard from various people putting forward totally dangerous, let alone wrong, ideas about people with depression being weak, attention-seeking, pathetic. I was NOT going to be a pathetic attention seeker, I, Stephanie Martin, was tough.
I have since learnt that asking for help when you need it is not weak. Seeking treatment for an illness is not pathetic. Opening up to someone about a mental illness is one of the bravest and most difficult things a person can do, because I would say 30-40% of people will respond with scorn, and still do.
One of the reasons I am happy to write this blog post is because I spent so long ashamed, hiding what I was going through, or underplaying the effects it had on me. But over the last two years I decided that you know what? I am so proud of me. I am so incredibly proud of myself for getting through such a horrible and degrading illness, and I honestly couldn’t care less if anyone gave me crap about my openness. If by being open, just one person reads or hears me talking openly and candidly about depression, and decides they can seek help or chooses to stop feeling guilty for being sick, then I will gladly take any level of nastiness or inconvenience that could ever come my way.
Despite all the talk though, the honest truth is that even as I write this I am feeling anxious about posting it, to the point where I am not even sure that I will. What will my new friends think? Will it embarrass or upset anyone? What if current or future employers see this? But then I picture me, age 11, 12 , 13 and so on for years, crying my eyes out in a variety of toilet cubicles, scared to death and not understanding these horrible feelings and frightening thoughts, and suddenly I don’t give a damn how this comes across. I want everyone out there to know that it’s not shameful to be depressed, the same way it’s not shameful to have cancer, diabetes or any other illness, it just is what it is, and you can survive it.
For as long as I can remember I felt trapped in England. I’d look out the front window of my parents’ house and see road, and houses and pavement and know that it stretched unrelenting all over England except for little pockets of preserved, yet constantly threatened nature. I’d look out the back window at our lovely garden, and see the fences surrounding it, and the fences surrounding all the other lovely little gardens, and I hated it. I hated how nature was stomped all over, then tiny patches protected and manicured, when in my opinion nothing could be more beautiful than total unmanaged wilderness. I wanted to be running wild in nature, risking my life around snakes and scorpions, climbing trees, scratching up my legs and getting lost, like Gerald Durrell in ‘My Family and Other Animals’. So I spent years trying to think of ways in which I could go to one of these incredible things I’d seen on the TV called rainforests. I used to watch a TV show where a bunch of kids went to the Amazon and got to do survival skills there, and I’d feel so jealous I’d just cry (I did a lot of crying when I was younger), I was desperate to go.
So I decided that the only logical route would be education, but not something sensible like get a degree in England with the help of student loans, build a career, study abroad etc etc as my dad suggested. No, I decided there was no time at all for that, I might die tomorrow, I must go now! Screw the system! So I packed off by myself, having just turned 19, and turned up in Australia with a suitcase, not knowing anyone in the country… with the hefty baggage of depression.
I could write essay after essay on my time in Australia (and I’m sure you believe me if you’ve read this far!) But I will try to keep it to the basics. It was amazing. I hate the word amazing because it’s so underwhelming, so undescriptive, but unless you can spare several hours of your life reading detailed prose it will have to do.
No longer was I a person trapped in an outskirts-of-London county, I was free, FREE! And boy did I make the most of it. Forget about uni, I certainly did, I was far too busy hiking in rainforests, reading about the tropical plants, swimming in waterfalls, exploring mangroves and a million other things. I had no time to be sitting in a dark windowless lecture hall, listening to a person tell me things that I was supposed to memorise, however interesting I most likely would’ve found them if only I had listened.
Two things happened in Australia: 1) I accepted I had depression and started getting treatment, 2) I started keeping journals for myself.
I went to counselling sessions, they taught me extremely basic things through CBT. I would recommend Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to anyone as a starting point. I also went on medication, the pills enabled me, for the first time since I was a young child, to think clearly. To understand which of my thoughts were real and my own, and which were fake. To calm my emotions and feelings of fear and guilt enough to think straight and begin to sort myself out.
I also found that writing helped me in a way I could never have imagined. When I wrote I could think clearly. When I wrote in my journal, it was a huge brain dump that enabled me to sort the important thoughts from the pointless muddle, it was incredibly therapeutic.
Obviously, my non-attendance, non-working state at university would have consequences. Despite treatment, and despite my magical Australian best friend and her equally magical mother giving me oodles of totally undeserved support, I fell deeper in depression than I ever had been. I was homesick, Australian culture was a lot more different to English culture than I had expected. I had some very negative experiences and I missed my family like nothing else. I spent a pretty solid month lying on a mattress of my friend’s mother’s dining room floor, which must’ve been super annoying but they were so amazingly supportive, then I got on a plane and came back home to England.
I worked odd jobs, I don’t recall most of them, I do remember deciding at one point that acting was easy money and I should just be an actress then buy a rainforest and protect it. Unsurprisingly that didn’t work out for me. So instead, I decided to start this blog, not for money but because I needed a way to discover and express all the things that I am passionate about, now that I couldn’t go frolicking around rainforests anymore.
I continued to receive treatment, a key turning point was seeing a psychiatrist called Stuart at the Mind network. I have to name him because he was absolutely incredible, and I owe him so much. For the first time, age 21, 10 years after the fact, I sat down and talked about what had happened to me all those years ago, and how I truly felt now. He spent weeks helping me piece together how my experiences as a child affected my behaviour, and consequential mental state. He completely validated the way I’d felt for 10 years, he apologised on behalf of all the adults who had wronged me, and he was the perfect amount of sympathetic and pragmatic, he really cared, and didn’t make me feel daft at all.
And he encouraged me to keep writing. My family encouraged me to keep writing. My friends encouraged me to keep writing. The endorphins that get released every time I put pen to paper or finger to keyboard encouraged me to keep writing. So I keep writing and I will never stop again.
I’d like to leave my post there, but take this as an epilogue. Once I’d found my feet mentally, I went back to a new college and I retook my A levels.
I applied to study Natural Sciences at University (I even got an offer at Cambridge! I will never not be proud of that) and I ended up at the perfect university for me, Canterbury Christ Church in Kent. I am in my second year now, I got a First at the end of my first year and am working hard to make sure this trend continues. I have two jobs, one as an usher at a theatre and one as a snail care assistant. I love them both. I spent last summer doing a molecular biology internship with tarantulas, and this summer will hopefully be going to Madagascar to do a tropical botany dissertation (find out more here: http://lifeforaforest.com/2015/11/15/tropical-botany-and-ecology-dissertation/ ). I have fallen in love with the person of my dreams (I had literal lists of criteria a future partner must have and I was set that I would not date unless somebody met them, they were extensive, he surpassed them, I’m impressed), and we live together in the perfect little house. I write my blog, I’m writing a fiction novel, I’m setting up the new science magazine for my university and writing a thousand other things, which I will soon be collating onto a separate blog page.
I am aiming to go into tropical botany as a researcher, to one day live abroad in a rainforest permanently, to champion the conservation of forest environments and to work as a science journalist and fiction writer. Watch this space 😉