Sign and Promise

CW: #suicideideation

New years are times I find scary. As we, as a house, lit sky lanterns and let them go into the skies, to see in the new year, I was trembling. With cold, for sure, but also fear. Fear, because, as last year, and for several other years in my adult life, I am not convinced that I can face the challenges that I know lie ahead of me, and am even more afraid of the wilderness of unknowing lying in September and beyond. I have no idea where I will be this time next year.


This uncertainty is not unfamiliar. I’ve been here before. But each time, it feels renewed in vigour, and strength, and impossibility. The challenges seem less surmountable. This time, as I waited for the year to turn, my mind urged death. Told me that I could not face the year ahead. That I would not survive the challenges of the therapeutic community – and even if I did – life challenges would be too much – and I would be leaving TC with several death sentences (read: PD diagnoses) anyway. Every medical problem henceforth “imagined” on my part; deferred to poor mental health. Such is the stigma: I would be leaving labelled ‘untreatable’, ‘awkward’, ‘nuisance’. Why bother?


These days, I find it hard to sleep. I do get to sleep – eventually – and then have no will to get out of bed in the morning. So morning turns to afternoon, as my mood sinks below the sun. Sometimes, I cry. Mostly, I cannot. I am too rubbish to be useful to anyone. Anything else is an exhausting act.

What are you looking for? Jesus asked his disciples.

What do you hope for in 2018? I asked the congregants on Sunday.

Some kind of trust that I can do this, in God’s strength, if not my own. Trust that death is not a better choice than facing what lies ahead of me. Patience to see the therapy through to its conclusion. Hope that it will be worth the pain that I am in, that there is a life worth living beyond it. Trust that this is going to be OK in the end. God sends a rainbow over the playground. Maybe it will be OK, this year, as I am learning and growing, to be me.


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The Princess and the Pea

The first time I can remember ‘acting’ was at my sixth birthday party. A friend, knowing how much I loved reading, gave me a copy of the Ladybird title ‘The Princess and the Pea’. I already had a copy. But, rather than state that, I thanked her for it, expressed pleasure in it.  Afterwards, I was praised by my parents for this reaction. Acting, like this, is what we do, to maintain social bonds. Something we learn to do in childhood, to spare feelings, save ourselves and others from embarrassment. We couldn’t function in a social milieu where everyone was 100% honest at all times about their every need and desire, and judgement of another person. Could we?


As I am struggling in my professional life, to think of creative ways of dispelling the taboo around disability: ‘Mummy, why is that lady wearing that thing on her leg? Shhhh!’,  in my therapy-life I am struggling to know when to hide, and when to share, what I am feeling and thinking, or wanting. I have had a lifetime of hiding what I truly  feel or want, favouring others’ wants and opinions as more valid than my own. When I was six, I had friends; things were stable socially. I was confident and stated what I wanted; at least at school. By the time I hit nine years-old, that had changed. I was not wanted as a classmate – let alone a friend – and what I wanted mattered even less.  At the same time, my feelings weren’t allowed either. Any threat of their appearance was suppressed at school, and punished at home.

Now, I have very little touch with what I really want and feel. And it is often strange, vis-a-vis normality: I am recharged through being alone, rather than in company; would choose a simple meal over cordon-bleu cuisine; an early morning over a late night. People think me weird; tell me this can’t really be what I want. My emotions, too, feel wrong; morally, socially, intellectually.

So, I act. Even alone in the house, I will keep my hand by my side, ‘act normal’, because I have been told that is where my hand is supposed to be. It is not where my hand naturally  falls. At work, I take on the role of an academic; elsewhere I turn congregant, customer, daughter; conscious of the expectations of these roles; wary of saying anything that might upset the people with whom I’m interacting. Previously, there has only been trouble when I have done.

In the therapeutic community, I try to be more authentic.  One of the quintessential principles of such a community is the ‘freeing of communication’. I try to act less. I am still wary of moving around; keep an eye on my posture. But, I try to note when things have jarred with me, explain why that was the case. That is hard. I am scared of feeding back the wrong thing; ending up being hated. And there simply isn’t time to bring in everything. Someone in the TC queried if I am always acting. I feel as if I am always ‘on guard’. But I am not always acting. To the extent that there is space, I am as authentic as I can be. I am not always sure of my own mind.

I am trying to be honest about the lumps I feel beneath the mattress, when the night has not been a peaceful one. To express anxiety and disappointment and annoyance. I am scared of losing people, inside and outside the T.C. But I haven’t lost anyone yet.

Please, God, help me to trust my own mind, to express it, and to know that it is OK to take the space to be heard, in and out of the T.C. 

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Illusions of Perspective

I am clinging to academia by the case of a very jaded laptop battery. A laptop that moves from institution to institution, coffee shop to coffee shop, awaiting students and marking and upfront teaching, whilst trying to ignore the pile of research papers that lurk menacingly  on its desktop. I should have been written months ago.

 This clinging means that I have just marked a set of fairly abysmal essays on the topic of optical illusions. Illusions like the Ponzo illusion where two identically-sized objects appear different sizes, because we are so used to viewing the world in 3-D.

ponzo monsters

Identically sized Ponzo monsters in a tunnel

Reflecting this week, I realize that my relation to academia has shifted some in recent months. Before, I had an illusion of perspective. I knew, at some level, that taking 18 months away from research wasn’t going to end my career. That people are worth much more than the sum of their working life and professional identity. I would be the first person to tell someone else to take a break for the sake of their health, if they needed to do so.

But, at the same time, that  didn’t apply to me. I needed to stay linked in, to write papers in the background, to have contact with students; otherwise my career would fade away. That’s why other colleagues on breaks were staying in touch with their role. And, unlike them, I am utterly dislikable, so I really would be forgotten if I stopped being useful and cooperative.

The papers became true monsters. Publish or perish. Publish or perish. Publish or perish. So much of my interview feedback was about not having published my recent research findings. If I didn’t do so soon, I really would dissolve. The greater the stress I felt, the less I felt able to write. Colleagues were moving miles ahead of me; I was falling further and further behind. I was failing, and it was all my fault. I was being lazy, lazy, lazy.


Until, I let go. Until, I accepted that I was simply no longer able to apply myself academically with the same force as I did before, and that things would have to be slower, because therapy is hard, hard work. Until, I took another step back, and started to think about the things that I love about academia, and started to focus more on those things: the things that I wanted to be doing, rather than those that I was told I should be doing.

And, I started to feel more motivated again. Not just to do the things that I am contracted to do (for the sake of a sense of mastery, when faced with a pile of essays to mark) but the things that before were terrifying me, for the not doing them. And, as contracts have ended, I have not actively sought to replace them, but rather to focus on the bits of academia I can engage with, in the spaces in between therapy. I am writing a little, again.

And that feels  – OK. It feels OK not to be actively pursuing academic opportunities, but to muddle along with the ones that I have. And it feels OK to say to myself that this is precious time – time when I am working – just that I am working on other things:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
        a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

Ecclesiastes 3 (NIV)

This is time that is a gift from God. A time to allow others to work with me, to work with myself at a different level. A time for healing. And that feels OK.



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This week  marks the halfway point of my time in the Therapeutic Community. Over the first three months, I made tangible changes; moved house, reduced working hours, withdrew myself from my parents’ “let’s divorce each other as inhumanely as possible” drama triangle. I learnt how to talk openly.

Over the past six months, I am not sure what I have opened up. Multiple issues around rejection, and fear of abandonment, and sexuality, and friendships, that I did know about. But also others, around clarity of emotional expression, and identity, and loss, that were buried deeper still.

Image result for unravelling threads

It feels like I am unravelling, more and more, and with each unwound thread comes more pain and fear and desperation. More needs that are unmet, more behaviour that I am at a loss to explain beyond the simple psychological theory: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, perhaps: everyone has a need to feel that they belong. 

A child’s behaviour is not a problem. A child’s behaviour shows us that they are trying to solve a problem.

That’s the maxim we worked with, when I was LSAing in schools. With those children, with some thought or simple enquiry, it felt like the answers would become readily apparent. Lack of sleep; dealing with parent’s new partner; hiding that they can’t read. I can’t find my own answers so easily. I don’t know why I need reassurance that I am liked before I will dare share anything with you; why I bury anger with colleagues, or feel ashamed in churches. I can guess at these things.

And sometimes there are no straight answers. Nobody knows the answers. The threads of my life are all over the floor, and I am at a loss to know where to begin untangling them; to wind them up again in a more sensible order; return those that belong to other people’s lives, to them.

Nine months. God, please take this time, and use it. Help me to rewind and reorganise the threads of my muddled and messy life, as You see best. 

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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.


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


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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