I'm going to do something I'm not used to doing online. I'm going to talk about mental health, mine specifically. The importance of talking about mental health cannot be under-estimated and I am writing this as a way of feeding into the larger movement toward more open unprejudiced discussion. Recently, I've noticed many people have a cautious eagerness to discuss mental health issues and I'm a big fan of starting the ball rolling so here's what happened.
Last January, I started a job as an assistant manager of a community centre. It was fantastic. The work was rewarding, the members of community centre were lovely and I got on well with the other staff. A month later, while still too new to know how to do what was asked of me, I did something wrong. My manager was not pleased with me. The atmosphere, which had been jovial and friendly, turned sour. The air in the office prickled with her anger.
It was then that I realised something was wrong my reaction to this turn of events. Her anger scared me, terrified me. I was 29 years old and I was scurrying out of the office to the toilet or to walk up and down the road taking deep quivering breaths to try and stop myself from crying. I was completely incapable of talking rationally with my manager when she blamed yet another thing on me. I became her go-to person if something was misplaced or a mistake was made or someone had been told the incorrect information. I was immobile with fear when she spoke to me. Unfortunately, when she saw that I was unable to assert myself, she exploited that weakness. Barely a morning went by that I would arrive without her pouncing immediately.
I waited for her to become the nice manager she had been at first but after months, I realised she was never going to change. What needed to change was my inability to cope with the situation - so I found a therapist.
To give this some background, my mother has bipolar. I've lived with the fear of ending up like her my whole life. I certainly won't claim to have had a traumatic childhood but sometimes things were tough. Sometimes she was so angry and so unpredictable and I was so ill-equipped to deal with it, that I found hiding was my best option. I hid under my desk, in my bedroom, behind a door, wherever was available, in order to stop the outstretched fingers of her anger dragging me in. I was scared. I was terrified.
So I'm in a situation where an older woman is displeased with me. She's relentless and she's got me in her sights. Because the last time I had to deal with this was with my mother, something in my 29 year old brain turns me back into a child, lacking the life experience or the vocabulary to react maturely. Hence, I'm crying in the loo at work.
When I think about it, it's understandable that this happened. I learned my coping mechanisms as a child. After leaving home at 18, did I really expect myself to unlearn all those now-ingrained reactions?
There I was, then, in my third decade of life, sobbing into my hands in a strange room in a strange house, with a stranger I had paid, trying desperately to learn a new way of being. It was so very difficult and most of the change came from simply becoming self-aware, a difficult process in itself. I faced the ugliest things about myself and realised that if I never accepted them, I would never get to the root of my fears. Through a rollercoaster of emotions, I laid myself on a plate for this woman. All the things I had never said to anyone, I said to her. There arrived a sort of calm, a knowledge that there was nothing left to be dug up. I experienced the liberation that comes from hearing your deepest fears spoken aloud. (Try saying yours out loud next time you are alone and you'll see what I mean.)
I had an urge to say them to other people, an opening of the floodgates. Everybody I told nodded their heads and said they had experienced the same thing or understood. I developed a compulsion to air my fears to people, over and over again. The more I spoke them out loud, the smaller they got, until they were no longer fears, just part of the make up of who I now am.
"I'm too much," I told people. "I'm one of those people who is too much, you know? I talk too much, I go overboard to help people. I'm too helpy, that's me. Too excitable. Too eager. Just.... too much."
"I'm scared of anger. I will run away from situations of anger my whole life and that is not a sustainable method of doing life but I don't know what else to do."
"I'm not that comfortable with my body. I don't identify with being a female. I'd rather just read books than deal with any of this."
These things kept coming out. I told others and every time, someone said, "I like that you're too helpy," or "I worry about that too." Many times people would say they had also seen a therapist. A friend even said to me, "All the sensible people have seen therapists."
Thankfully I no longer run away at top speed from situations of anger. Having recognised where the fear comes from, I can now deal with other people's anger and talk to them, instead of hiding. In the grand scheme of things that people struggle with, it's fairly minor but for me, it has been life changing.