Olive was thirteen when she discovered that she experienced the world unpredictably. The waves and the moon. That’s how she saw other people live. But she couldn’t see a pattern in her own life. A correlation between the world outside and her internal one.

Her English teacher gave her class an assignment to write about their bedrooms as a reflection of their personalities. Olive found this interesting. More so than most things at school. It helped that she liked her English teacher. Mr Stone was actually English. An English teacher from England. What a novelty. He was unique among her teachers in her community high school in the Edinburgh suburbs, and he openly talked about his life outside of school. Of his wife, their holiday home in Crete, and the donkey they accidentally ‘adopted’. He also had a penchant for doing things to surprise the class, like jumping up onto the desk at the front, where he put the people he needed to keep the closest eye on. Or swearing. Or loudly inserting the word porn into a sentence. Which actually - in a real (southern) English accent - rhymes with pawn.

She was invited to be creative. And in her creativity, she was invited to share her truth. Willingly, she reflected on the room where she spent most of her time at home. Where she would smash mirrors into literal smithereens and take the smallest shards, which crack out willing and sharp, of the larger ones. She shared how she would use the aforementioned smallest shards, willing and sharp, to pierce the surface of her skin and draw blood. Deep red drops would bubble out of the lines she’d carve. Like the druplets of a raspberry, each containing a seed. Vitality. Dripping out of her supple skin by her own doing. It made her pain visible. But also made visible her existence as a living, bleeding human. This calmed her greatly. To know that she, like everyone else on this earth. Regardless of all else. Bleeds the same blood. From the blue of her veins. Escaping out of her and mingling with the oxygen we all breathe together, universally, until we don’t anymore.

‘I can’t even see the floor’, she wrote, quoting her mother. ‘She says this every month, at least. But nothing ever changes’. Olive wrote about how the mess in her room transferred to the mess in her mind. On the surface, in her thirteen-year-old mind, she felt as if it might look like she knew what she was doing and where she was going. But as soon as you entered her room, you’d realise that it was a mask. ‘I try to sort myself out. To clear my mind - and my room - often’, she wrote. ‘But it usually only lasts about a week, and then I’m back again. To square one.’

When Olive carved the small shards of mirrors that reflected her in ways she’d rather not see, she had an awareness of the future. Though tentatively, she recognises that there are no scars to remind us of the happy times. Suggesting that, perhaps, she would reach a far away future where her messy bedroom and messier mind would be a past version of herself that she could look back on with empathy. And the distance created by a life well lived.

Despite her struggles with depression, Olive did not just passively hope for a better future. She desperately spent her infrequent bursts of high energy, creativity and unbound enthusiasm as well as she could. Knowing they would not last long. Knowing that, in leaning into them, she would burn bright like a flame, dancing in the wind, blues, greens, reds, oranges and yellows. Before flickering and flashing into nothing but a pile of ashes, waiting for the next big breath to bring her back to life.

On reading her essay, Olive was reported to her guidance counsellor. Sent to a doctor. And then a psychiatrist at the children’s hospital. She had to miss geography - one of her subjects - every week - to get the bus into town and sit in a room, agonisingly fiddling with her beady bracelets that broke under the pressure she put on them. Previously, her only form of truthful self-expression had been in her writing. Under the stairs in candlelight. Or on school camping trips, sitting with her pen and her notepad, observing the others while they played like the children they were. What she wrote down no longer felt safe. Though she knew that Mr Stone was obligated to do what he did, she still felt betrayed. She had trusted him to read her essay in the way in which it was intended. Not a cry for help. But a way to let out more than the dark, bursting raspberry drupelets. ‘It’s the thought that counts’, though. She told herself. He meant well.


At the age of 25, Olive was suicidal. She had been before. Many times. For as long as she could remember, she had been unable to imagine a future with herself. And following the sudden death of her best friend two years prior, she battled with the thought of taking her own life. Knowing the impact that this sudden, unexpected death of another young person, someone who she loved dearly, had had on her friends and family. Imagining her mother, especially, dealing with the grief of the intentional end to her own daughter’s life, sent her into a frenzy of guilt. More guilt than dared to take on.

But, in short, she didn’t want to live through the time she was in. It wasn’t that she wanted never to be alive again. Just that there was no way she wanted to continue existing through the depression that consumed her. Like a vacuum, sucking her silently and endlessly into timeless darkness. Where the only distinction between day and night was the slight glint of the grey London sky from the corner of her window in the hospital and the sound of the seagulls who squawked only in daylight. She didn’t know how long she would have to keep waiting for the days and nights - the grey to black and to grey again, until the next ‘up’. Whether she would remain nothing but a pile of ashes and no big breath would bring her back. Her days of burning bright like a flame, a memory so distant she couldn’t feel the warmth.


Sitting at a round metal table, scuffed by years of use with chipped paint and stains from hot coffee, enjoyed a little too much. Olive updated her Facebook status on private mode. ‘Location: Lisbon’, it said. She selected the date she had arrived, added a few extra days, and from that moment, she started calling it her new home. The Septembers she had been used to did not involve sitting peacefully alone at round metal tables, warmed by the endless sunshine of long, bright summers and short, bright winters. She sipped her peach iced tea from a tall glass. She’d poured it herself, the liquid over four cylinders of ice with tubed gaps down the middle - letting the warm tea mingle with the freshly melted ice in this way that satisfied her sense of the intrigue that can come when extremes combine, momentarily distinct before they find a way to co-exist and sometimes, become something else completely.

The sun beat down on her skin as it had all week. Gradually tanning. Dormant freckles shining through - on her nose particularly. She looked well. Frighteningly so, if you compared her now with a few months ago. But there was still a lot of room for improvement.

Olive lived for moments. She’d never been able to look too far ahead. So she tried to concentrate on the now, especially when things felt good. When she felt good. And she felt better than she had felt for a long time. Not like a flame. Nothing so temporary. Was this what ‘calm’ felt like? Being alone but without feeling lonely. Watching the world around her while still feeling part of it. Connected and still. With a view over the Tejo River. Inky blue and shimmering as the ferries shuttled back and forth from Lisbon to Almada, the small sailing boats - like large toys that no one worried about vanishing on the other side of the bridge. And the sky. So far from the relentless grey which had blinkered her hope. Just open. Letting all the light in. Casting shadows for the contrast. She wasn’t in love. She wouldn’t even say she ‘loved’ the city. But she liked it. And that was enough to keep her there, a bit longer than the three or five or seven days she hadn’t really planned in any amount of detail.

[excerpt ends]