Inside out

The first time I went away from home, I was eleven. Eleven years-old is far too old to go away overnight for the first time. I wasn’t just going away overnight. I was going away for four nights, over a hundred miles from home, on a PGL adventure.

I did not cope well. I struggled to look after myself; to shower without getting my towel or clothes wet; to get into a shower and changed again in time – because there weren’t enough showers and my classmates had gotten into them ahead of me. To carry all of my things. To get in and out of a sleeping bag, one-handed. To work out what clothes I needed for which activities and when. To keep up. Basic, everyday self-care was exhausting and I was hardly sleeping. On Wednesday, we went canoeing and I scraped my finger. I barely stopped crying for the rest of the week. I was struggling with being away, and I wanted desperately to go home, to be cared for.

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At PGL, aged eleven years

Memories of that holiday, and several experience since, leave me scared of strong emotion. Once I had started crying, for the most benign of reasons, I was overwhelmed with the pain of being away and missing home. When strong  emotion threatens now, I suppress it. Push it down. I am scared, with that strength of feeling, that if I started crying, I would not be able to stop. I distract and try to forget. Zip myself tight shut.

I did that extensively last week after something had upset me. Each time a fresh wave f emotion hit, I breathed and let it roil over me. Better that than give in to it. But it got stronger. And stronger. And then someone told me why I was hurting, and acknowledged the hurt and the pain and I broke. And cried with them for a long while. But they also helped me to ground and to gather myself in, and to breathe again.

They say that I am more resilient now than I was. I don’t feel different inside. The hurt still hurts as intensely as ever it did, and I still try to ignore it and the  voices that tell me I feel this way because I am no good, “rotten, rotten, rotten,” as much as possible. But when I can voice the pain, the tears don’t last for an eternity. I can calm down again. The distress is manifest (I am told) to a lesser extreme. The external is different. Maybe, it follows from that, that my internal world can change, too. It seems I am changing from the outside-in.

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The scars remain

pexels-photo-813269.jpeg“the trees are the same through all the sorrowful people who have passed under them, that the stars remain”

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home

[CONTENT WARNING: SELF HARM]

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t bite or scratch or pick at my skin; hangnails and the like. I’d peel the skin off, carefully, often leaving the area raw and bleeding. Sometimes, it wasn’t hangnails; I would scratch and scratch at my body, leaving fresh tears, opening up new wounds.

One day, at university, and alone in the flat, that wasn’t enough anymore. I took a knife from the kitchen to my arm. The self-harming was addictive. As compelling as picking at my skin had been, so cutting became. It went from a random act, to a weekly, then a daily thing. As a means to control the guilt and hurt that threatened to overwhelm me, it worked. The physical pain focused my mind, left me calm. Atoned.

Apart from, as coping mechanisms go, it wasn’t effective. It calmed my mind, for sure, but the mistakes and fall-outs and relationship breakdowns that left me feeling I wanted to harm, weren’t resolved by the cutting. Since entering the Therapeutic Community, I have battled and battled with urges towards self-harm; towards feeling rubbish and worthless. Not self-harming is a boundary around being a member of a Therapeutic Community.

The last time I cut was eleven months ago. The urges had waned. Another part of being in the community is letting go of harm. Last week, with the help of other members, I packed up my blades, and handed them in. I had those blades for twelve years. I look at my arms and see the scars, and strong emotion, hurt and pain, bays at my door. And I want to cut, and I want to cut, and I want to cut. The urge is stronger because I know that I cannot. I feel the loss of those blades: I want them back.

I am frightened to trust the community to hold the sheer strength of emotion that the blades contained for me. I need to cut. I am scared of trusting in the care and validation. It was safer to isolate myself, hurt only myself.

The care is real. I do not understand it. All I can do at the moment is, in spite of the scars, cling to the fact that people hear the negative emotion, the depth of the horrid, and they still want to care. God is care. God is community.

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Acknowledgement

Well, that’s annoying, isn’t it?

I understand that.

My brother, on the ‘phone to his partner this weekend. It was her who was running late; him unafraid to express how that made him feel; her validating that. Validation is something I’ve become acquainted with over the past couple of years. Simply put, and as I understand it, it is holding, and accepting as real, communication of another person’s thoughts and feelings, without judgement.

It’s something I’ve had to get to grips with, because it was not something I experienced as a child. The most frequent line I heard at home was, “you have no reason to be [insert feeling of choice]”. Whatever I was feeling was wrong and inaccurate, if not  impossible to feel, in light of the situation, be it cold, hungry, sad or anxious. Being angry was out of the question. As a young adult, the message changed slightly. It was not that my feelings were impossible, so much as unhelpful. Rather than “you can’t be feeling ….”, the line was, “don’t feel …., you should feel ….. instead”. That left me feeling even more wrong than before. I wasn’t feeling what I should be feeling. I was alien.

I have been working on the premise that my family can’t actually do validation, because my parents never learnt how to do it themselves. But this weekend was a stark indication that this is not true. There were multiple examples of validation. Of honest communication, “that’s embarrassing…. that’s frustrating….that music is too loud” and accepting responses. “I get that… I understand”.With one exception. Buoyed by recent work on assertiveness, I also made requests; stated how I felt. But in contrast to the validating responses of others, I was met with laughter and was told I was being silly. Or simply ignored completely. The childhood pattern repeats. It is my emotions that are wrong, wrong, wrong. That stung.

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In the therapeutic community, these last two weeks, I have not been OK. I have felt stressed and exhausted and hurt in various ways. Cut off from the tears, I have simply stated that I am not OK. But rather than being told that I look OK, don’t appear to be distressed, I am met with concern and heard. And remembered and returned to. And I feel broken anew by the care and connection in that.And I can cry and I am calm. I am seen. Acknowledgement is power and hope.

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Comfy Slippers

One of my housemates has a (shall we say) older pair of slippers with a hole in the toe. The lining is coming away in places. They look rather  battered and sorry for themselves. And yet, they are (or so I am told) comfortable. I don’t believe that an attempt to replace them would be welcome.

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I’m not really one for slippers. I feel more comfortable – more at home – when I am shoe-less. But I have been reflecting on old, comfy slippers because these are what my going to a Two:23 network meeting was compared with this week. Old, comfy places.

But a place where, this time, I was decidedly uncomfortable. I’ve written about being in that place before. Of how hard it is to fight the memories of my past there. But the comfy slippers familiarity is, I think, more about the psychological space. These network meetings are a place where I feel challenged to own who I am. Where I am acutely aware of my singlehood, and dishonesty, and failure. And of the voices that decry my sexuality. Remind me I am an abomination unto the Lord. Forecasting a future in Hell, for being who I am. This time, on top of memories of the distant past, these voices were given an (albeit, indirect) platform. They have been validated in a recent book, offering several, apparently valid, points of view. I struggle with those voices. Their validation feels unsafe.

So, the Therapeutic Community asks, why do I continue to go to a place where I am challenged like this?  Why not chuck away the slippers and stop going? And I don’t know, and I don’t know, and I don’t know. I know there is comfort and reassurance in the abject refutation: of the alternative theologies. That seeking that is calming, in spite of the turbulence of being faced with tacit, and open homophobia. I know that, sometimes, worshipping with same-sex couples feels empowering and hopeful.

Bottom line: I am not sure what I could replace this kind of support with. I am shaken and bruised by the slightest suggestion that I am wrong with God. I don’t feel sure enough of my own understanding, to lean upon it, without others’ support. And I know that, ultimately, this isn’t about leaning on my own understanding. It is about leaning on God’s understanding, and trusting myself to that Love. Trusting that only God can judge. The slippers serve a purpose: they support my feet, because I do not feel I can stand on them alone. For all the discomfort of their flaws, I don’t feel able to face the world barefoot.

 

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Rocking fragility

Each week in the Therapeutic Community, we have half an hour when we all fall silent. Not for personal reflection and prayer (although I struggle to resist a temptation to this) but to allow for creativity of some form. One of the very first pieces I did was words weaved around lines on a page, drawing a cockle shell. The words spoke of my terror of being open; of a rough, tough exterior, and of people (other TC members) not knowing, and not realising, what they were asking to engage with, in asking me to be more open with them around my emotional life. I was rotten to the core.

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Above, an image of one of the shells I picked up on the beach  at Rockcliffe (my Lyonnesse) on a recent trip to see a friend. It reminded me of that writing. Of how closed and scared and coiled up I was a year ago when I entered the Therapeutic Community. I have a gorgeous time away with human and canine company, enjoying the Scottish landscapes and seascapes. And it feels more precious because I am able to acknowledge my fragility, bruised self-confidence, taut fear of alternative Biblical voices on sexuality. I know that I can feel truly horrid inside. But that that does not mean that I am rotten at the core. I feel loved here.

Dating has shaken me more than I thought it could when I embarked on it. I am nervous again in the Therapeutic Community, and with friends; seek their reassurance more often. I am less sure of myself; that what I want is OK. That it is OK to voice it. I am fragile and I want to harm myself again. Atone for the shame and disapproval that I feel around pursuing what I want. For the anger that I feel at my parents. For being rotten, rotten, rotten, and trying to believe anything different.

The TC voices offer reassurance and encouragement, note the relative fragility.  Remind me that I am not rotten because I feel rotten. I am able to express myself creatively, authentically. The voices and the silence feel sacred, of God. I may be fragile. I may also be me.

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On beating my own drum

“Let each of you look not only to their own needs, but also to the needs of others”

Philippians 2 v 4 NIV

When I was an undergraduate, someone leading my Christian Union home group reported that, actually, in the original Greek of this verse, the word”only” isn’t a thing. We shouldn’t look to our own needs at all.

This assertion I say one of many from the CU that I have had to do a frustrating amount of work to comprehend. Because, as an undergraduate, and a freshly affirmed Christian at the time, I took that verse to heart. Doing anything to look out for my own needs was selfish, and ungodly and wrong. That fitted neatly with the moral upbringing of Girlguiding – “a Brownie Guide thinks of others before herself” in which I was steeped. I just needed to take it that step further. I couldn’t say no to any logistically possible request on my time, at home or at work.

The problem with this philosophy is that there was no end to the requests that were made, while my energy remained finite. And people got to know I wouldn’t say no. By the time I left a church in Cardiff, in despair, I was solely responsible for the student lunches, and the junior church. I was called upon to read, to pray, and then to take whole services. I was working part-time, whilst doing a full-time Masters, and researching for my PhD. I was active from 7am – 2am, ironically excepting Sundays. I was spent.

In the Therapeutic Community, I have learnt that I cannot pour from an empty (or leaky) cup. That, the clichés around oxygen masks are true. That I am unlikely to be helpful to anyone in the long-term, if my own needs are not met. That it is okay to say no to a request that would leave me depleted for tasks already in my diary. I am learning to set boundaries.

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I am learning to chase what I like and what I would like. The online dating is part of that. Saying no to someone who lied to me ad infinitum was part of that. It is strange, when choosing a film at the cinema, or a restaurant for a meal with a friend, to think about what I’d like, rather than simply drawing out what the other would like, and going along with that.

A lot of this is still a work in progress. Choosing new (and nominally new: still love a charity shop bargain) clothes for myself is a challenge. To be sure of what I like, instead of deferring to the person I am with, to replace things in my ailing (teenage-growth-spurt-acquired by my mother) wardrobe is hard. Self-care is even harder. I am on a behavioural contract to effect it: to look after cuts and scrapes, and infections, rather than letting them fester, or heal on their own. Because before, looking after them would have been being too selfish. It was time I could have spent doing something for someone else. And, by some twisted logic, I deserved the pain.

But being less sleep-deprived, and knowing how I want to be treated, and communicating that, has left me feeling better about me. It’s a weird feeling, not to want to treat myself badly. I am more able to think clearly about the tasks in hand; complete them more effectively. Because I have made a conscious decision that I want to be doing them, just as I decided what I wanted to wear today, and where I wanted to go. Self-care – meeting my own needs – has left me feeling less selfish and more available to meet others wherever they are.

 

 

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Being more unicorn

Online dating is cruel.

At one level, there are those who treat the whole affair like some kind of joke. Gosh, look at him. How stupid is he to think anyone would go out with that?  Cue messages ostensibly inviting him out on dates – laughing at the prospect of him dressing up to be stood up. In that – echoes of high school. The rumours of whom I fancied flying round the year group, laughed at at drunken, raucous parties – before being rehearsed back to me by someone whom I barely knew. Is it true that…?  The joke was on them. I never actually fancied any of those boys at all. I made up that I did, to fit in. Denying the rumours was truth. But the fact that they had become rumours hurt no less for that. I had “friends” I could not trust.

At another level, there is the meat market. The presentation of self as someone worth  going out with. The instagram filters. The snapchat filters. The carefully chosen profile pictures. The 140 or so characters that are intended to sum up the person you are, but in such a way that would appeal to someone else. Veiled truth. The not quite knowing when to respond to someone, so as not to appear too keen – but not wanting to appear distant either. The catch-22.

Many, many years ago, my ex-partner blasted out of the water any notion I held of my own repulsiveness, unattractiveness. The idea that no one would ever fancy me was defunct in him. In online dating, that continues. I receive compliments; I have responded to tens if not hundreds of personal messages. People are interested in me.  And I go on dates. The therapeutic community, closer friends, affirm and encourage me. Self-acceptance is a key to healing. I look myself in the mirror. I take selfies.

I go on a series of dates, and it feels good to be dating. To be asked to date. Until you realise that you are being lied to. Magnificently so. The person you are seeing, is not the person you are seeing. They are a pretence and a falsehood. Because when that happens, the understanding that you had of that relationship crashes down around you, and catapults you back to a place of shame and self-loathing. They did not want what they said they wanted. The thing that you highlight at the top of your dating profile as being what you are fundamentally like – is the think that they now say that they most dislike.

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The cup leaks. The confidence and assurance that I had built up quickly dissipates in a storm of disgust and deprecation. The unicorn fades as the tea cools. Any faith I had in myself evaporates with it. My faith in God similarly shaken. Dating was not an easy risk to take: I feel I was set up to fail. God knows I cannot play games. That I am straightforward and honest as the day is long. I will never be able to play the dating game. What was the point in trying to be more true to the person I am and the things that I want from life?  You’re laughing at me, too, aren’t you? I feel ridiculous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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