Appearances can be deceptive

It was a real battle to post that previous message. It feels like I’ve committed now. I’ve actually written down in words one of the many things that haunts me and needs to be kept buried in order to maintain my carefully constructed outward appearance to the world. 

My ex and my current boyfriend have seen me at my worst. But that’s behind closed doors. My sister has an idea of some of the demons I face, and has been incredibly supportive, especially during the breakdown of my marriage. I leaned on her a lot, and though I hate myself for that, I really needed it. 

After the 14-year-old incident, the front has only faltered a couple of times. Once, I was so overwhelmed I went off sick and quit a job within a few weeks of starting. It was absolutely the right thing for me to do at the time, and led to getting some help, but I am bitterly ashamed at letting myself and everyone down. 

I’ve never been diagnosed with any mental health illness. I’ll talk about my struggles to get through to health professionals in a separate post. But I consider that whatever my brain is doing, whatever label I may or may not be able to have placed on me, no matter what illness I suffer from, or none at all, I’m a high functioning one of them. Somehow I’m that stubborn that even when being awake is a struggle I’ve kept going. I believe fear of shame is the only thing that keeps me in a relatively ‘normal’ state within society. It’s hard to admit shame is what keeps me going, but I’m afraid to let go of that shame lest I lose all my control and do whatever the hell I want. I know me well enough to know I certainly couldn’t hold down a job, a home or a relationship, and indeed if it wasn’t for my sister I would have found out what happens when I let go. 

Her golden rule: “never do anything you wouldn’t be able to tell me about”.

I’ve kept it about 95%. It’s enough.  You’re truly my hero. Thank you, I love you.

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A difficult period

I’m going to talk about some things that people might prefer not to read if they’re feeling vulnerable right now. 

I was 14 and on paper I had absolutely nothing to complain about. I was safe, loved and even had a really good friendship. I was doing fine academically, and my family had still managed to avoid divorce and death. It is with a heart-wrenching guilt that I make my confession. I became obsessed with the search for attention. Not just any attention though, only the most negative and self destructive kind. My naivety at the time and crippling shyness and low self-esteem made for a toxic mixture. 

We had a computer at home and the internet was really starting to take off (pre-broadband). I spent every minute I was allowed to, roaming chat rooms and message boards. I stumbled across ‘cyber sex’ and all sorts of weirdos. It was mostly the same old routine, but fascinating, and I found myself becoming more and more engrossed in finding strange people online and pushing the boundaries as hard as I could. I realised I could lie about myself online and soon it got wildly out of control. At its height I was watching a 33 year old grown man do all sorts on his webcam and sent him a naked photo of my flat chest, coming close to meeting up with him and heavily blurring the line between fiction and reality. I don’t know why I did these things. I liked the attention for sure. But I loved the danger too. The more wild, risky and crazy something seemed, the more I wanted it. 

In real life, things were becoming ever stranger. I was obsessed by the idea that I was a lesbian and had fallen in love with one of my friends. I wrote her a letter once telling her this, but also turning it into a sort of suicide note. Hearing that she had punched the wall when she read it didn’t stop me. It was this uncontrollable path I was taking, but it was without consciousness. I started skipping lessons, hanging out in the park and almost by accident started self-harming. I had just screamed at my parents (for probably no reason) and thrown my diary across the room. In the privacy of my bedroom I screamed and raged, rolling around on the floor. I wildly started scratching at my arms. The relief that swept over me as the pain soared through was beautiful. Of course after that I did it deliberately. I ran away from home once. I must have said something horrendous as my father threw his dinner across the kitchen and I watched in a bemused silence as the plate smashed and food skipped across the floor. Pathetically, I returned after a few hours, without any clear plan or thought. 

I tried to kill myself twice. I didn’t feel that I was doing it for attention as I hid it well. The only person I told was the friend I believed I was in love with. I wanted her attention desperately. But I think deep down I wanted to fail. It’s hard to say now, because that whole period felt like sleep walking. I just didn’t seem to be in control. I pretty much stopped eating except in social situations, but gorged myself on huge bars of chocolate washed down with paracetamol. I didn’t feel ill. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t leave the house unless I had to. I always did just enough to appear normal on the outside. 

I found out that some girls at school had made a website just to write nasty things about me and another friend. The friend I was obsessed with knew I was pretty fucked up though, and managed to shield me from the worst. 

Eventually, my mother saw the scars on my wrist. We had a trip to the doctors in which I was prescribed anti-depressants. I never took them. At the doctor’s advice, my mother took me to a youth counselling service. They asked me a few questions about how I was feeling and spoke to her privately. We just left. I never went there again. I didn’t think to ask why. It didn’t even occur to me. I know now I was suffering from a severe clinical depression so not much registered anyway. 

One day I sort of just got my consciousness back. I think it was because a lively, excitable lad took an interest in me. Whatever the reason, it just appeared to have passed. My mother said how this had been a bad period for me and to put it behind me. The guilt I felt at the burden I placed on her was immense. We didn’t talk about what happened, but at random family times or during conversation she would mention my ‘bad period’. I’d brought such pain and misery, but I was fixed now, only shame and guilt could be felt for such weakness. 

I’ve been depressed, I’ve been in the bottom of an empty pit at least two or three times since. But never ever again have I or will I self-harm or attempt suicide. The guilt, the shame, the need to repress, forget, be a perfect person… well, it all stemmed from there. My coping skills have changed, my experiences have made me less weak, and most of all, the front I present to the world has been perfected. 

Impulsivity

I would describe myself as impulsive. It wasn’t a word that occurred to me until more recently, but now I understand why I say things without thinking, why I do things like lying down in the middle of the kitchen floor, like buying something I don’t particularly like for no reason, for the more extreme choices I’ve made without consideration (or maybe awareness but not caring) about the consequences. 

Today my boyfriend and I ended up having a strange row because we were sitting and relaxing, having a day off, but my mood had been down all day and it was a carefully controlled balance to keep things ok. For whatever reason I suddenly got up and started hoovering the room. Of course it sounds ridiculous, but I was doing it in the dark, there were things everywhere and he was trying to sit quietly. I just wanted to hoover. It sounds pretty ridiculous and faintly hilarious when I write it down. I took everything he said as criticism. I didn’t care if it was going to be a poor job, I just wanted to hoover. 

He’s a good man. He’s patient with me when it erupts into chaos because I feel attacked and my impulse has been interrupted. Much tears, understanding and quietly sitting soon brought calm to the situation. 

Is it an obsessive type thing? I really don’t know. But at the end of whatever it is I normally feel satisfied, with a sense of (false) achievement. Overall I would suggest I’m fairly lucky that some sense of conscience and willingness to survive hasn’t got me in too many scrapes thus far. But like everyone, there’s things I’d rather forget. I can’t blame being impulsive, because in the end, it’s my choices. But I honestly feel compelled to follow whatever these things are to the bitter end (that message must be sent, that item must be bought). If interrupted it brings my mood into a chaotic spiral. 

Strange when you write things down. It all seems a bit clearer, even if it is as clear as mud.

When does it end?

When my ex-husband first left me, I fought with everything I had to survive. I read something in the beginning that said it takes half the length of your relationship to get over someone. I thought this was ridiculous and there was no way I was going to allow this to happen to me. 

It’s been almost 4 years now. We were together 11 years in total. I stopped loving, missing and needing him in those first few months. I stopped thinking about him in the first year. Since the divorce and my reversion to my maiden name, I’ve only had communication with him twice via email, on matters relating to mopping up the practical side of 11 years. But the ordeal is not over for me yet. 

I’ve been with my current boyfriend for over two years. So why is it even now I wake up and believe – truly believe – that the man laying next to me is my ex about to desert me? He couldn’t be more different, physically, emotionally and in the way he loves and cares about me, and has done so much to help me mentally. 

I see scary, contorted skulls. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings, it’s like when Galadriel tests herself and appears to be this terrifying skeletal darkness. First thing in the morning, or in the middle of the night, I’ll often see my boyfriend’s face as a twisted dark skull. Anyone who truly knows him, knows absolutely that he is the most kind, loving and caring man. He cares about me more than I realised anyone could care about another, outside of myself. He’s been so patient and supportive and is genuinely helping me to practically and emotionally fight my darkness. It’s the first time in my life I’ve felt truly worth it. He’s made me feel that way. He’s had to work so hard these past two years. I’ve made it so difficult for him. Before the fluoxetine I did and said some awful things. He could see I wasn’t well and stuck by me. 

So why is it I still see terrifying skulls, dark eye sockets and twisted features, existing only in my imagination but feeling as real as the air I breathe? Two of my previous counsellors said they believed I had been emotionally abused by my ex. I don’t know, but sometimes my brain creates false images that provoke the deepest feelings in me. Or perhaps my feelings provoke those images. The truth is, I live a daily struggle with deep fear of abandonment, loneliness and the anxiety of being found out for the fraud I am. 

If I had written this blog two or three years ago it would read differently, more erratically. That’s another story, but I’m the most stable I’ve been in nearly 4 years now, and I can see I’m starting to get better. There is no quick fix. You simply have to live every part of it. 

Animals everywhere

So the first time I questioned – I mean seriously questioned – if I wasn’t just ‘clinically depressed’ but actually something else was going on, I suddenly found myself sitting on a park bench about a mile from my house. To this day I have absolutely no recollection of leaving my house, or how I got there. The ‘why’ is an even bigger mystery. Drink? One can of beer about an hour earlier. Drugs? Nope. Not even legal ones. 

Looking around in a complete bewilderment, I wouldn’t have even described my state as panicked or anxious. I was just confused. A man with a dog walked past. Then a woman holding a cat. Looking further, there was a cat swinging gently in the breeze, from the top of a tree. Focusing again I saw a man with a briefcase, a woman with a shoulder bag and a plastic bag caught up in the tree. There were no animals. The emptiness and loneliness was crushing. I was afraid to trust my own eyes, my own thoughts and I felt utterly alone. The animals had been some comfort to me, not even companions as they were a way away, but somehow they felt so rooted in nature, in reality, in calm. When they ‘disappeared’ I was no longer at peace. 

Months later I recalled the time that I had taken steroids for a medical reason some years ago, and drank some wine whilst having a meal in a restaurant with my ex. I had been absolutely convinced that a ginger cat walked across the restaurant. And that was before my world was turned upside down. 

I can’t explain my penchant for seeing animals, but it does seem to happen under stress or the influence of substances, and it brings me peace in the moments before reality beckons. 

Christmas: we are all happy

It’s that time of year again. Even the most balanced, contented and cheery person may struggle with the social pressures and change in routine. 

I’m currently living half way across the country from all my family and friends, so this Christmas was a 4 hour drive to fit as many people as possible in, in 4 days. Arriving at midday on Christmas Eve, by the time it was the evening on Boxing Day I was exhausted. Emotionally and physically. For the first time since my parents split up 3 years ago, it was actually a fairly regular Christmas with no real hiccups. By bedtime on Boxing Day I was wired but shattered, desperate to be at home and see no one for days. The next day was 4 more people and the long drive back. Don’t get me wrong, I care very much about these people and see them a lot less than I’d like, but right now I don’t want to see any of them. Right now I’d like to be alone on a mountain top. Right now I’d like to not exist. 

I’ve believed for years I’m an extrovert. I’m fairly convinced these days that I’m an introvert who suffers from chronic loneliness and separation anxiety. The paradox of this is exhausting. I’m desperate for people to like me, for that real human connection. But there are so few people I genuinely have that connection with, the rest is acting. 

I’m the happiest person, I enjoy having a good old chit-chat, I never bring you my problems, my life looks pretty darn good. The only problem is, none of that’s real, inside I’m curled up in a little ball rocking back and forth, clutching my cuddly toys. But you’ll never see it.

And there lies the real question: take off the mask and lose ‘friends’ who believe you are that act, or keep these people believing you’re the fun, happy person who’s nice to be around?

I can’t answer this. I’ve never come close to removing the mask. 

Awake

Ah, 4am. I don’t often see this time anymore. I started taking fluoxetine (Prozac) about a year ago. One of the side effects that (overall) has been a real benefit to me is the sleep factor. A typical night for me now consists of nodding off at 10pm with a tiredness that can only be fought with a large dose of caffeine, and only waking when my alarm goes off at 7am. 

I’ve never slept this much in my adult life. I think it has a massive contribution to the success of this drug for me. For a person who deems 6 hours sleep a good night, to consistently have 8-9 hours sleep night after night is incredible. Fighting the irrational beast in my head is so much easier when I’m not sleep deprived. 

Since fluoxetine has been, in the main, quite a success for me, I’m at the point where I’ve been able to examine a lot of the reasons for the way I’ve been living. One of the biggest realisations is that a lot of my acute episodes are triggered by a physical issue first. My inability to read my body sends my thoughts into a place perfect for misery, panic and a complete departure from reality. 

First pointed out by my sister – ‘you’re getting more and more anxious and holding your stomach – didn’t you say ages ago you needed the toilet?’ and then my doctor – ‘you’ve got a couple of long term medical issues on record here, do you think they’ve had an impact on your mental state?’ Easy to dismiss and think the very notion that it’s having an effect on me is absurd, but on reflection, maybe they’re right. I should point out, the cause of my long term medical issues is unknown but it’s a physical issue related to my development whilst in the womb. I’m really unsure whether to disclose it here as it suddenly makes me a lot easier to identify. Probably not many will read this anyway. I’ll think about it. But it’s something I’ve lived with all my life and has not stopped me participating in a ‘normal’ life. Many people have no idea unless I tell them. But lately I’ve been realising it explains so much. I’ll come back to this, but for now I have one thing to take away: when reality is disappearing, do whatever it takes to stop where you are and ask the question, ‘is there something physical I need to address first?’ Of course, the ability to stop mid-panic is something I’m having to fight tooth and nail to achieve. The trouble with losing your rational thinking and all sense of what is real, you do rather forget all the things you know, deep down, to be true.