Glimmer

What do you want me to do for you?

Luke, 18 v 41

I don’t know. It’s a familiar defence. One that I go to often in TC, when I’m too terrified to think of what the honest answer is, what I really want from something or someone. Safer is to give the answer that I think is wanted; to say ‘I don’t know’ a slight improvement – but a refusal or fear to think about what I want.

I could begin to answer this question, though. I could say ‘healing’. I even have some sense of what that means. It does not mean that miraculously I want to wake up fully able-bodied, mental health problems-free. It means, rather, being able to find wholeness in Christ in spite of and through physical and mental disability.

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But what does that wholeness look like? That’s where I become terror-struck. Where I want to scream that I don’t know.

But, where sometimes I can see a glimmer of light – of Life beyond fear and trembling. But I’m terrified of what it might take to get there. To be able to let go of the bits of my career that are less than helpful, the collaborations that suck me dry. The work that is more emotionally burdensome  than it is rewarding. To think about what it would mean to be able to connect with others properly, at work and at home. And elsewhere. Even, to have a wife. To be unashamed of who I am. These things feel like a very long way away.

But that is what, Christ, I want you to do for me. Free me to be fulfilled in my career, to connect with others around me; and to be unashamedly me. Saying that feels terrifying.

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Through the looking glass

Each to each a looking glass, reflects the other that doth pass.

George Herbert Mead (1903)

B4C3B6D8-DF1B-4E7A-931A-78A77955EC62My sense of myself depends on how I think you see me.

When you stare in the street, it makes me feel ugly, unacceptable. I hate the staring. I notice the quick glances, too. The glances that yell, “you’re different”.

I care so much about what you think of me. I study your facial expressions, body language, to check for the minutest sign that I am annoying you, boring you, that you dislike me.

I expect you to dislike me. I feel rotten, bad as bad, to the very core. Hell, my entire personality – all that I think, feel and behave is fundamentally disordered. The psychiatric looking glass. I try to cover that up in a cloak of kindness. I want to please you. I want you to like me.

When meetings are cancelled, messages go unanswered, I worry that it is because you would rather not have anything to do with me.

I need you to like me, but I can never ask. When I asked as a teenager, there was a long list of things offered; reasons why I was disliked; being avoided; being excluded. I thought I was OK before then. Wanted. But I was very, very wrong. I can’t trust that I am acceptable anymore. I fear your rejection, most of all.

I am frightened that you will see how bad I am. How full of rubbish. I am frightened that if I show you who I really am, you won’t want to know me. I don’t feel able to trust you with who I really am. But I want to trust you completely.

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To be and to grow

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Credit to elenaflutterby on Instagram

This quote, beautifully illustrated on Instagram by a friend, is one I know to be true. And yet – I can’t feel it to be so.

Even though I haven’t been paid for the past few months for it, I have been hacking away at my research as normal. Hacking being an operative verb here: I’m not sure I’m doing it any favours by trying to keep going, but deadlines and requests from others, keep me plugging away. It’s more than that though: I really can’t – I daren’t let it go.

But why? There are some solid, evidence-based reasons. I am repeatedly told in interview feedback to write more, publish more. If I don’t do that now, more time will have elapsed when I next interview, and relatively fewer publications will be shown for it. Publish or perish.

I am frightened to let it go. Frightened that people say that they admire my work, my research. If I am collaborating with them, it is not for my sake, being me, but because they like my work. If the work stops, the collaboration stops, (one co-author has already threatened to remove me from authorship when I asked for a few hours’ extension) and with it, any hope of future collaborations. I am scared of letting people down. If I do not work, I am not part of academia.

I must work. I work to drown out the suicide ideation that threatens to overcome me. When I work I am in flow. Flow means that time passes and I don’t have to feel bad for wasting it. And the psychiatrists say this, too. When crisis hits; bereavement, housemate arrested, parents separate, when anyone else I know in the same situation has been signed off, given space to breathe, the psychiatrists refuse to let me. Work is protective. Just as, 25 years ago, in spite of my classmates’ assertions not to work, the whispering, the name-calling, the teachers said that whatever they did, I was not to stop working. I must work. 

Beyond work, it feels like nothing I do is of use. And people disagree with this, cite other qualities, and that feels weird, but lovely to hear. But it still feels as if I am useless beyond being able to work – being able to do for others. I need to learn how to be. Ho not to rely on work, but to rely on God. Grow in God.

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Voices around my head

The voice in my head is unkind. When it is not telling me I would be better dead; that I deserve to die; it is running a live commentary on how rubbish I am. I shake my head violently in response to it’s accusations. But still it persists.

When I’m working with children, it tells me how much they hate me. That, that child is playing up because I am dislikable and no good at what I am trying to do. It’s often my mother’s voice, telling me I don’t have the manner or presence to work with children. That I can’t possibly think that I could work with children.

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These voices drown out the Taizé chants that I try to put on autoplay. Crowd out the better memories and the evidence of positive feedback.

So, when the job interview feedback is that I appear not to have the interpersonal skills or sensitivity necessary to work with children, yet am arrogant in thinking that I do, it pierces me to my core. Stings. Because it plays into the voice that tells me, when I am working with children, that I am absolutely no good at it. And it plays into a mind that knows she is no good at adult relationships. I am afraid of being no good at all.

And I know that, in practice, this isn’t a binary thing. Some children are easier to be with than others; some days I am more able to be with them than others. I know that it is my inner child who is in pain and fears being ostracised, again. But it hurts that someone who has known me for less than an hour; who knows on paper how much time I have spent with children; thinks this after my interaction with her.

It hurts too much. I despair and fold and I want to harm myself because being able to work with children is so important. And because if she’s right, maybe none of my relationships are ‘right’. And it includes my relationship with God. Because that is a relationship, too. I don’t get relationships. I can’t understand them. Not even with children.

 

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Secret Life on the Academic Scrapheap

Teaching with intense anxiety is not fun. Co- teaching makes it worse. Especially when I know that I am on the academic scrap heap, that my teaching skills are not good enough in the first place.

I watch my co -teacher; his expert performance, conscious that I am doing nothing useful. Then, falteringly, I talk to my slides; catch the eye of a student who looks bored beyond words with what I am saying. Wish I could make this more interesting. Too late now. Should have worked harder at the slides. Watch the steady stream of questions heading in his direction. His slides must have given them more to engage with, think about. I don’t deserve to be teaching.

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Later in the week, the fact that I am not wanted becomes very apparent. I arrive to find a PhD student taking my class. Ring the office to work out where I should be. But the simple answer is nowhere. I haven’t made a mistake. And, the computer system algorithm can’t possibly make that error either. I wonder if it was a deliberate act on the secretary’s part. If I am that much hated. It’s possible. I try to explain to him, in words, why that was a difficult situation for me to be in. Why it has fazed me. But, he says, I dealt with it professionally. So why does it matter? Wrong again.

I fear how I am perceived by the students. And I fear how unwilling staff are to cooperate with me. I remember how ready they were to let me go; the switch from six months earlier, ‘we’d have to be really silly not to find a good excuse to keep you’. It feels like no one, student or staff member, wants me around.

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All in a name

My mother is married. Remarried. Divorced. Is she still divorced, now that she is married? I might as well ask how many wives Henry VIII actually had. It’s all semantics. But – semantics still feel like they matter. A rows is still a rose.

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My mother has married, and has changed her name. She has stopped using my surname; started using that of her husband. And I have blessed this change. I have told her that I am okay with it. My brother and I sent a wedding card and gifts in absentum. She has said that she had thought about not sharing my name. She has also said that she doesn’t want to hurt me. She needs me to be okay, she says. So I am not sure what I can say.

I don’t know how to respond because I hate my mother for running away and getting remarried, for not including me in her new life. I hate her for not walking away from her first marriage before I was ever born, since by her own admission, it had fallen apart by then. I hate that she refuses to remember any of the conversations we had about her marriage when I was a young teenager. She remembers that she was not well then – admits that she was not well – but to nothing else. I know that these conversations happened. If they did not, how could I know as much as I do?
It feels like an abdication of responsibility: I was ill. An excuse not to deal with the impact she had when I was growing up.

My mother cannot hear that I am unwell. She couldn’t when I was in my twenties – I always had to be OK, getting better. But even now, when she is not so unwell, I have to be OK. I cannot be anything but OK. I cannot tell her how much she is hurting me.

I feel rejected, as my name has been rejected. That this is something she wanted to do for a long time. I feel I am barred from her new life. Kept at arm’s length. They didn’t invite family to the wedding because the two sides of the family would not know each other. But on Sunday, as a plus-one for a housemate, I was at a wedding celebration where I knew precisely – nobody. Nobody in the room was familiar to me, other than my housemate. And I talked with people, and went punting with them, and danced and danced. Because that’s what weddings are like.

And now she has forwarded the photos I said I was okay to see, I am reluctant to speak to her because it will mean more lies and more pretending, and I am sick and tired of pretending. And I’m not sure why I care about the relationship not being right. But I can’t bring myself to end it either.

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