Learning to Live on a Sinking Ship
Words Jessica Graham
This is the story of being in fashion while battling serious depression.
Since as long as I can remember, people have been telling me how unfortunate it is that I don’t play a sport. How little I had to offer leading up to University applications, for I was a born perfectionist and wanted to attend Brown University, Ivy League, for Psychology. I would settle for nothing less. Although I played amateur sports long enough to know the real game to train for was the one you are constantly fighting with yourself.
That was a battle I lost at a young age, being diagnosed with clinical depression, borderline personality disorder and mental dysmorphia and having no hope of it ever leaving me. Though I wasn’t even sure what some of those diagnoses entailed, I was trapped by them. Someone once told me being trapped is a lot easier than being freed, and I felt that labeling this battle with myself turned it into something I could research and make it easier to understand. Who doesn’t love labels? Like: depression is the pet that I would walk and feed every day, only to hope that one day it would just run away.
Between dealing with psychiatrists and my own knowledge of cognitive behavioral theory, I was able to comprehend the order within these disorders. Freud was interesting to me because it helped me make sense of being paralyzed by my past. Not being able to focus on what is in front of me, who is in front of me, but being completely frozen by what had already happened to me, and who I was from it. What made me, who made me, and how I never asked to be made.
I am a person who is too embarrassed to see myself excited or happy. I consistently alienate myself out of fear of being judged. I feel unreliable, awkward and isolated, and it still peels away a new layer of insecurity every day. My biggest insecurity of all was asking for help. I cannot make decisions easily and find anxiety with every responsibility. This fills me with rage towards myself and my own place in the world. I keep trying to uncreate my own reality. My dreams were the only thing that could distract me from the contradictory mess in my mind. For without them, I will never find merit in my own reflection.
When I didn’t get into Brown I thought my life was over. I had thought Brown was my dream, mainly because the title itself was so mellifluous, and would breed eternal confidence or pride. I was 17 and wrote in my diary that I didn’t think I would make it to 18, for the battle I was having with my own head was closing in, and my defense was needing a stronger dosage. I thought of myself as a complete failure, and had no hope that I would end up becoming anything other than another wannabe mental case with an addiction to opioids.
“Fashion was the dream for me, it was looking in a mirror, and seeing a person you want to become.”
I couldn’t even think of a new distraction until I discovered fashion. Fashion was the dream for me, it was looking in a mirror, and seeing a person you want to become. It was seeing a reflection of who you want to be, not who you are. How can I become that reflection? I wondered that my whole life. For my head was an auditorium of critics with faces of people I knew and admired, and I was the one putting words in their mouths. That’s why I fell in love with fashion: it kept me closer to that person I wanted to see in the mirror. That’s why we uncreate our natural hair, lashes, nails or faces, or go on extreme diets. I think of it like survival.
I developed a strong passion for fashion and art, and reading about famous painters and designers gave me a reason to wake up in the morning. I started studying collections, shows and fashion campaigns, simply because it satisfied me. Fashion shaped me and made me realise that I wanted more than just a job with a salary. I wanted to be able to fully express myself, and relate to others through writing. I wanted to dig deeper and find meaning in the mainstream that felt so meaningless. That was the summer that I decided to follow that passion, I knew I had to leave the town of Aurora if I wanted to follow this dream of being that reflection in the mirror. So, I applied to the London College of Fashion to see if fate would bring us together.
When I applied to LCF I felt that for the first time in my entire life, someone saw my writings for something more than a rant or a cry for attention. After the interview, I was offered a place in the program (BA Fashion Journalism), right on the spot. So, I packed my bags and moved to London and didn’t look back. I was so fueled by the hope and faith of becoming a little closer to that dream, that I left my life in Aurora without any hesitation.
First day of class at the London College of Fashion: I was amazed. Not only at the price of my tuition, but at the sense of pride I had in class, looking at my peers who were competitive yet admirable each day. It felt like we had all known each other for years. Because there was the outside world, and none of us fucking fit in there. You could point one of us out of a crowd in seconds. The fashion students. It brought me a sense of inspiration and I found myself happily working for my assignments, and thinking outside the box to try and impress all my tutors.
I felt so in awe of the dreamy unrealities of the world that is fashion ‒ the titles, names, brands and events ‒ that in my first year of studies I truly thought that I was living my dream. I felt that I absolutely needed that ticket and I needed that invitation. None of it lifted me up, but it distracted me from that stillness. The stillness that meant having to face myself, and what, who made me.
“My dream of working in fashion isn’t much of a reality, I am in a bit of a sinking ship.”
Once that introduction into fashion faded, I learned that the hardest thing in life is when you realize your dreams are more frightening than your reality. When reality is not something you can handle, dreams are all you have. To have that much hope and faith in any one thing was destined for a disaster. For it was then my second year at fashion school, and I started feeling like I had been sold something that was outdated or expired; a degree in which would fossilize and inhibit nothing but a reputation. For I realized Fashion University was perhaps nothing but a business, or an expensive daycare.
I felt robbed. Fashion is an industry based on constant discourse and change, but it ironically cannot handle change. For the fashion system saw no value in startups or anything that wasn’t a part of the traditional system. I was trying to attain a degree in fashion journalism, and was heavily committed to doing so. However, it was obvious that the role of fashion journalists had completely shapeshifted, and our university hadn’t caught up. The texts we studied were outdated by over three years. That is decades in the digital age. It depressed me, and I didn’t think it was possible to be more depressed, because I realized that my beloved fashion industry was broken, and that universities didn’t even try and fix it.
I had always had hope that one day my career would be as grand as society paints it to be. This is the society that has cursed us with debts, and sold us our dreams with a degree that most of the time is nothing but an expensive accessory you can place in your Instagram bio. I attended a University event once where they tried convincing you to take a Fashion MA by ranking their alumnis’ Instagram followers. That was the moment I realized the role universities play in keeping the illusion of fashion alive. Just to sell you their product: a degree.
I grew bitter. I saw this as a monolithic system that meant nothing but uncertainty, growing debts, individualism and anxiety. I started to see that wherever you fucking go, there you are. I figured out the world before I figured out myself. I was ballistic but mute. And this made me start to hate fashion, for it was nothing but having friends in high places, and I hated myself for buying into a dream that systematically didn’t exist.
I felt as though everything was just destined to fall short of expectations. I felt the need to constantly cry for absolutely no reason at all. It was so hard to smile when other people seemed to find gold without digging. It was impossible to stay calm when I feel like I’m drowning, and forgot how to swim whenever I was alone with myself.
But I had to shapeshift my own reality. I couldn’t solve a broken system, but I could talk about it. Maybe someone would listen, and not just hear it all as a cry for attention. Like in the beginning when I bought into this dream and put myself into this mess.
“You’re allowed to be sinking, as long as you float on and on.”
I realized that although my dream that was the fashion world may not exist, it didn’t mean that there was no hope. For those who believe, or believe in not believing, strive for something. And I hear striving for something is good. I made peace with the idea of believing and dreaming always, for the good and for the bad. The devil and the angel. And may they not compromise or necessarily unite, but may they accept each other.
My dream of working in fashion isn’t much of a reality, I am in a bit of a sinking ship. But if life had taught me anything by the age of 20, it was that you’re allowed to be sinking, as long as you float on and on.
Photography Bram Van Beek