Hope is your inner child cheerleading you through life

This post was originally written in January 2023.

I’ve been struggling severely with the concept of recovery. I have been for years. I have a nasty habit of sabotaging any progress I make in reducing my depression and anxiety symptoms. It’s common amongst those with mental illness. There’s a number of reasons for this. I’m afraid of who I’ll be when I’m not drowning in cynicism and pessimism. I don’t know if I’ll make progress only to relapse again, thrice or ten times as hard as this most recent time.

I pursue treatment because I don’t want to die. I know this depression will kill me if I let it spiral out of control. It’s in these moments, when my therapist tells me I need to try harder and commit to recovery more, that I want to give up more than ever. Death sounds welcoming even in its uncertainty, the question of “What comes after?” no longer scares me. I scare me. I realize how easy it is to switch from having no suicidal intention to coming up with easily executable plans. That’s why I pursue treatment. I don’t want to die. I need safeguards against this kind of thinking.

Only a small part of me wants to recovery fully so I can live fully, feel content most of the time, where depression doesn’t drag me to the pits quite as often, quite as deep. Another part of me doesn’t even want to acknowledge that part. The part of me that still hopes and dreams and considers myself worthy of kindness and compassion and happiness is so soft, childlike, and naive. I deny her approximately 95% of the time. We cannot hope. Look at our past. Look at our present. Be realistic, kid.

She’s me…but not. Or perhaps I only wish she wasn’t.

Sitting in the shower today–I’ve been using a shower chair since Sunday, and it’s been a long time coming. My recent mystery illness and pulmonary embolisms have made showering a marathon if I’m left to stand–my inner child visited me. I’ve got a playlist going and it’s called something like “Recovery Motivation,” created by someone who gets it, and Favorited by a few thousand more. Lauren Daigle’s “You Say” is blaring from my waterproof Bluetooth speaker, and hot water pours down my back. I’m there to sit, soak, and scrub my face to wash away the day’s sadness and tears.

Today was rough.

That’s where the pseudo-shower comes in. It’s where I just let the water pour over my body, no soap or shampoo involved, unless I change my mind halfway through. I’m too tired to wash my hair or body even though I know I probably need to.

My eyes are buried in a washcloth I’m holding to my face. I want to press them hard enough I not only go blind but simply stop perceiving reality altogether (and perhaps die, as well). Instead, I opt for turning inward. I let my physical form soak, and let my soul collapse into itself like a black hole, where it’s much colder, my awareness being pulled toward the psychological pain until I hardly feel the sensation of water on my skin, until I barely even have a name, a self.

It’s the closest I can get to not perceiving. Not existing.

A photo of a girl wearing a blue long sleeved shirt and yellow skirt walking down a dirt road between trees and farm fields.
Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

Then she’s there. Little Kaylee, angellike features gazing stoically at my tired expression. She’s wearing the blue flower print dress I wore for kindergarten picture day—I guess it was the best my imagination could come up with on the fly—standing in front of me in my mind’s eye. Subconsciously, I’d conjured forth this vision out of desperation. Little Kaylee knows this, knows I need a reminder for why I’m still fighting the good fight. I pull the washcloth away from my face, resting my hands in my lap as I surface just enough to reconnect with myself, keeping my eyes shut.

In my imagination, Little Kaylee gently takes my hands in hers. The gesture is an oxymoron. I should be comforting you, I think. Not the other way around. And yet here you are. How much more pathetic could I be?

She stares up at me with young, bright blue eyes and light blonde hair. She doesn’t even have glasses yet; combined with the blue floral print dress I wore on picture day, I realize she is me at the beginning of kindergarten. It was right around the time I first felt out of place amongst peers and overwhelmed, anxious, and uncertain about the world, about every move I made. I remember feeling alone, confused, and so horribly different.

However, unlike that naive 5-year-old, this Little Kaylee knows what she’s in for. This isn’t the girl from my memory; this is the girl from my past who never left the present. She’s been here the whole time and watched as we suffered and struggled, tried to end our lives, wanted nothing more than to die a thousand deaths than go on another day. We tried to find solace in self-harm, substance use, video games, books, and parasocial and romantic relationships.

That said, Little Kaylee is also still a child—a version of my inner child, I believe. She has more hope within her than I have in my pinky toenail. She’s practically glowing with hope and determination. I know now that she’s the reason I’ve never managed to succeed in suicide or completely throw my life away.

It’s together or not at all.

Little Kaylee does not condone giving up. And since she’s only 5, she needs a grown-up to accompany her through the world, to drive the vehicle that will take us from the present until our last breaths. Together, this inner child of mine and myself are a package deal. It’s only if we cooperate and lift each other up will we find fulfillment and wellness. Previously, I wished to separate us, kill off that inner child because the cognitive dissonance between my desire to die and Little Kaylee’s desire to live has been creating so much pain.

I know now that separation isn’t possible: in the words of The Decemberists, we both go down together.

Wordlessly, she communicates with me. “I got you. I always have. We’re in this together. I won’t let you fall, and you’ve never let me down. We will not die as long as we’re together. I’ll never leave you.”

A small child in a beige jacket stands in the middle of a pile of gold, fallen leaves. They are holding out their hand in which they hold one a small leaf.
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels

And, shit. I’m overwhelmed with guilt and shame. I feel bad for denying this part of me so often, for cursing her when she denies me the release of suicide. She’s cute, sweet, ambitious, kind, gentle, bright, and smart. She’s such an angel. She doesn’t even smile, or speak, or do much of anything, and she doesn’t have to. I always know she’s there, a personification of the brightest parts of myself that I so often deny the light of day time and time again.

Most of the time, I feel terrible for dragging her along on this hellish hike across the “Land of Despair” that seems to go on for infinity in my head, where I rule as queen and my distorted thoughts are my royal advisors. At least, I used to believe those were the roles my inner child and I filled. As it happens, she has been dragging me. Inch by excruciating inch, she forces me through the darkness, insistent on the possibility of light existing on the other side.

This metaphor illustrates my belief that hope is actually quite painful. Hope forces you to keep fighting when you want nothing more than to give up entirely. Over time, that fight wears on a person. It gnaws at their soul for as long as their soul chooses to keep fighting.

Sometimes, hope is the worst enemy of someone with severe depression, who doesn’t want to hope anymore. They just want to surrender to the pain so the pain can end.

For a moment, I sort of feel like a bad mom–no, not a bad mom, a bad mentor. I feel as though I’m supposed to have all the answers because I’m 27, and she’s forever 5. And forever underestimated, I scoff inwardly. She’s far stronger than you ever give her credit for.

What this imaginatory visual taking place during my long and lazy shower tells me is that Little Kaylee is just as wise if not wiser than and just as strong if not stronger than I am. After all, she’s been present for all 27 years and counting. It’s not unreasonable to say she likely knows things I don’t, has hope and believes in that hope like it’s gospel when I view it as a four-letter word.

She certainly believes in me when I don’t, loves me when I don’t. That’s why I’m almost always so against listening to her; I usually try to silence her or take out my repressed aggression on her. I want to apologize, but Little Kaylee doesn’t even let me try. She knows I’m sorry, and she believes I shouldn’t be.

A photo of a wooden door with a brass knob, ajar, with a key inserted in the keyhole and a keychain with maroon tassels hanging off it.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

Perhaps she’s trying to gain my trust when all this time I thought I was trying to get her to trust me. She’s the purest part of me, a part that depression and anxiety can never truly taint as I feel it has tainted me and washed the colors out of my life (and most shades of gray, at that).

I want to die sometimes. Mostly, I just want all of this pain to disappear, and to feel like life is worth living again. But Little Kaylee is wiser; she knows the pain isn’t just going to disappear, the essence of ambition and hope won’t just return to my soul one night while I dream. Together, we have to force our way through the pain, let it bleed us dry, let it wound us and let those wounds struggle to heal shut, scar over.

We can’t keep avoiding the pain if we ever hope to get rid of it. So I have to keep fighting—for her. For me. I’m certain now that I have no choice if I want to survive depression in all its shadow and gloom. I have to give this my all for her, if not for myself. ♃

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