Little steps, strength in numbers, the tales we tell ourselves

Before I ramble, I’d like to say that I know there are comments awaiting replies. You see, right now, despite the fact my rational brain knows that most people care about me, the thought of looking at comments and facing the possibility that someone might have said something that my brain tells me I can’t cope with is panic-inspiring. (There’s a reason why the words ‘social anxiety’ have been adopted by various professionals working with me … which is kind of absurd, since I get paid to fucking talk to and at people, and have just finished a course that involves, in essence, facilitating people talking to each other, largely by means of talking. But that negative evaluation thing in relation to anything I do online? Man.) Since that panic means I don’t write at all, I’ve made a deal with myself. Right now, I get to write posts, and I get to work my way back to writing posts on a regular basis, and when I’m comfortable with that as a process I can start poking at the next terrifying thing (comments, commenting on other people’s posts). So, yes, I’m deeply sorry that I’m ignoring you, and you’d better believe I feel like shit about it, and I’m grateful for your love, concern, empathy, time, effort and thoughtfulness, but … well, online social interaction is more frightening for me than talking to strangers in a classroom or at a con. I’ve actually done really well to get back to a point where my phone is mostly on and I can mostly reply to text messages!

(I’d love for some academic to do a study about online social anxiety. Or, if such a thing has been done, please point me at it. Because this year I do so much better with face-to-face interactions, up to and including having more out-of-classroom social interactions than I’ve ever had in my life, but sitting at a keyboard has me running around and around the avoidance loop like a lab rat on a wheel, and, in the day of the information age, that’s actually a pretty disabling form of anxiety. Especially for a writer, who is pretty much expected not only to be sociable online, but also to be confident at it. Right now I’d rather stand up on stage and read my story aloud to a screaming horde than I would post a story online … and this is actually a really hard thing to communicate to a psychologist as it’s not the same thing as not getting or disliking social media/information technology. I love Tumblr. It just fucking terrifies me right now.)

The little steps have worked with my writing. I went from a stage of writing nothing at all to writing 100k on a not-quite-finished first draft of a novel, and now I’ve actually finished two Port Carmila stories and am working on the last two before I edit that, Great-Aunty Lizzie and start worrying about text design, proofing and publication. I might get that done, this year. I’d like to. But I’m now writing regularly again, without teeth-chattering fear or feeling as though every word I write is useless and worthless, and I’m getting back into editing, a little, which is so much more than what I was doing four months ago. So it’s something. I just hope you’ll be patient with me while I take my tiny steps.

I am, however, writing this because, over the last few months, I’ve come to know some amazing people.

My new psychologist (who I don’t like, and I need to get up the courage to talk to someone about this, because seeing her makes me feel at least three times as awful as what I felt before talking to her, and not in a release-of-badness catharsis but an I-don’t-feel-you-listen-to-me way) is attached to the local mental health organisation. The good thing about this is that they run lots of group therapy courses, which I’ve been finding a million times more useful than my new psychologist. As I’ve said, I’ve been part of an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) group, which is populated by the kindest, loveliest, bravest dudettes (and yours truly) south of Melbourne and facilitated by a pair of truly empathetic psychologists. As part of my participation in that group, I was offered the opportunity to do a peer support group facilitation course put on and funded by ARCvic (Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria), and while the reasons for my doing so have not been disclosed to me, over the last two days I have met another bunch of kind, lovely, brave dudes and dudettes (who are already peer support group facilitators or, like me, asked to train).

(By the by, I am linking ARCvic because they are a small, passionate not-for-profit who provide actual resources, information, support groups and helplines, and they have an incredible emphasis on sufferer experience, sufferer wisdom and sufferer empowerment. I’d never heard of them before now, but that’s something that’s got to change. Admittedly, I couldn’t have managed a support group four years ago, but I should’ve known they existed: every sufferer should have access to as much information as possible in order to make the best decisions about their own recovery.)

I’m not going to say that groups are for everyone. I know that there are people who are as afraid of being in a room with a stranger as I am of Tumblr, never mind a handful of strangers. I know that opening your mouth and spilling your truth to another set of ears is terrifying, and I also know that such things are easier for me because I spent three years as a student reading stories to classes, blabbing about my personal life, giving speeches to classrooms and bars, tutoring and now working at a game shop. Not easy, but easier, and since I’m trying to be a writer, and since I have written and spoken of my personal life, I’m only moderately afraid (as in: afraid, but not afraid enough that people realise I’m afraid, although why people think I’m confident about anything I’ve no idea) of revealing myself to strangers … at least if they’re facing me and I feel as though I’m in a safe environment. The reality is that peer support groups – well, any strange group of people – are bloody fucking scary, and that’s for people who don’t suffer anxiety disorders!

(It possibly helps that anywhere that isn’t my current living situation is safe by comparison, as my family’s house is becoming all the more toxic/emotionally unsafe. And, no, Mum, the fact that nobody hits me doesn’t mean this house is a safe place to be. It isn’t. And I’m tired of physical violence being the arbiter of unacceptable abuse.)

But for me, being able to connect with other people (in a way that only scares, not terrifies) me has been amazing.

How can I say this? I feel as though I’ve been watching all the pieces of the person I am float away, and now, now that I’m finding myself surrounded by people, on a regular basis, who are interested in what I have to say and think, one or two float back towards me. Sometimes they float away again, but when you’re lost at sea, even a broken piece of the boat you once had can save your life, and if you ever get enough to build a raft – well!

When I am depressed and anxious, when work and work alone is literally the only thing I can cope with … I don’t feel like a person. I feel like a scarecrow the world mistakes for a person, but I’m really just a broken, brittle and moldy pretense at human made from straw.  The things I did last year, like Platform, feel as though they happened to some other K. A., a dream or a delusion; they’re not quite real. But now I’m meeting other people, and I’m talking about myself and the things I’ve done, and people are interested in what I have to say: people admire me and the things I did (and better, the things I do – a wonderful lady, yesterday, gave me praise just for standing up before a room and rattling off about words on a poster, and I could have cried because I didn’t know I could still do things like that and do them well). When I’m around others, when these others are telling me that I’m something, that I’m still worth something, I get to see something that isn’t the story I’ve been living with for so long.

(And this is where I stop to grab a tissue because I can no longer see the screen.)

What I knew about groups is that they offer empathy and support, the safe connections forged between people who know what it is to try and climb out of a pit so deep you can’t see sky – they offer generosity, compassion and kindness for those people who just can’t find it in the larger world. What I knew about groups is that you are no longer alone, that you are validated in your experience, that you have a space to be where you are more than just crazy, brittle, useless or irredeemably broken. This might be a little idealistic, perhaps, although my experience says otherwise: a group frees us from the need to suffer in silence by giving us somewhere safe to suffer with words and tears and screams.

(By the by, the cruelest thing one can ever ask of another is to suffer in silence. It’s not brave to suffer silently. It’s not even kind, both on behalf of the sufferer and those about hir. If I suffer loudly, if I talk of my suicidal ideation, if I talk of the day I practiced my suicide, and if I talk of my depression-fueled despair, I’m creating a space where someone else feels safe enough to share their pain; I’m ensuring that someone else doesn’t kill themselves through the shame of silence. I’m tired of the idea that enduring pain without reaction is held up to be the epitome of courage. It’s not courageous to bow to social convention. It’s weak. Understandable, of course, but weak. But to admit one is hurting, to show what one feels in ways that aren’t always gracious or elegant, to express what one endures in ways that open one up to social disdain and ridicule? That’s courage.)

What I didn’t know about groups is how much it matters to be surrounded by people who can reflect the story you’ve forgotten back at you.

I know a lady (a strong, brave, funny, warm lady) who says she isn’t emotional, doesn’t express herself and can’t do certain things (the identity of the thing is less relevant than the concept of belief). Then, right after saying as much, she expresses her emotions and her thoughts and kicks arse at all the things she says she can’t do. Absurd? To me, walking in another set of clothes and skin, of course. Every time I look at her I see an expressive and capable woman, and I want to find the person who taught her different and shake them until their teeth fall from their head, because it’s not fair that she should have to labour under such an oppressive set of lies.

I stand outside her narrative: I don’t see the evidence of all the times she wasn’t expressive. I just see the ever-mounting evidence that she is.

There’s a concept we’ve been discussing in ACT: we, as human beings, tell ourselves stories about ourselves. Some of them are positive and empowering: yeah, I’m a good writer. (I’m resisting the urge to add qualifiers to that.) Some of them are negative: I’m failing at adulthood. Some of them are indifferent, some of them are crafted to avoid or gloss over certain truths, some of them are the lies, deliberate or subconscious, we tell ourselves to keep on surviving the lives we are living.

Some of us, usually the kind of people that end up in support groups, a la yours truly, get hooked into the stories that tell us bad things about ourselves: I’m failing at adulthood, I’ll never be organised, I’m unreliable, I’m inconsistent, I’m lazy, I’ll never be able to cope with anything.

(I’ve got friends who’d look at me askance right now. I know that.)

The thing is that those stories are and aren’t the truth. (ACT teaches us that our minds are judgemental and negative by their nature; anthropology and philosophy teaches us that truth is a subjective, individualistic, biased, relative concept.) There is evidence to back them up. I can point to every instance where I’ve failed to be an adult, organised, reliable or consistent at anything. How can I say those stories are lies when, last year, while my depression was so severe I struggled to get out of bed, I wasn’t checking mail or cleaning my house or chasing up payment for a job I did? How can I say they’re lies when I can’t forget, as much as I might wish to, my litany of failure?

(And all said in my mother’s and sister’s voices, too, because that’s the Monster World side of it – the shades of abuse and trauma and difficulty that make us more willing to glue ourselves to these negative stories. How do we love ourselves, which, in this case, is a willingness to take a step back from this story of self-hate and negativity, when love wasn’t shown to us? When someone told us, in the beginning, the hate-ridden stories we now tell ourselves? When my sister screams that I’m not an adult, I take up her narrative. I believe less of myself. When there’s nobody but me to counter those screams, when she screams long and loud so that I cry like the child she believes me, what do I do but believe?)

We tell ourselves narratives of our own failure, and we create our own destinies because of those hateful narratives. I have nothing to say worth saying, I tell myself, so I say nothing as a result of that belief, which means I truly do have nothing worth saying … and I say nothing. How am I supposed to write anything when my only narrative is an unforgiving song of my own inability to write?

What I can’t point to – and what people who are living outside our heads can see with unimpeded clarity, because they aren’t attached to this soul-destroying narrative – are the times in my history that disprove those stories. Because they exist, too. Those stories are lies when, two years ago, I was kicking arse at school, making sure I got paid for jobs and keeping the cleanest damn house in my building … and they’re even lies right now, when I have the cleanest damn bedroom in my parents’ house and have become notorious at work for always finding something to do. (I can’t stand not doing something. Even if it means five hours of changing categories on system entries until the shop lighting flares like I’m seeing auras.) They’re lies when I’ve written a hundred thousand words and am once again working on my languishing projects.

People who aren’t glued to the negative narratives can see the evidence for and against.

The kind of people you find in support groups or people undertaking training in becoming support group facilitators are more than happy to take up a chorus of the positive narratives they see.

And this is the thing I didn’t expect to find.

See, I’ve talked to enough people, read enough, listened enough, to know I’m not alone in the vast majority of my mental illness expressions and symptoms. (I might feel alone with the online social anxiety, but I know I’m not actually alone, in the same way I feel alone as a non-binary person in binary environments but know that there bloody well is people like me in my country, state and even city. I’ve just got to find them, but since I’m getting better at this support group thing, and since I’ve learnt how much easier it is to talk to like-minded people in a safe environment, it’s beginning to look like something I might manage … if I can get past the social media thing.) I’ve gotten past the need for that kind of validation, since I don’t have any friends who aren’t possessed of a mental illness history. I agreed to go to group in the first place because I knew nobody in my hometown who isn’t related to me; I thought it’d be a good way to build connections here, now that I have to live here, but I wasn’t seeking validation of my symptoms and feelings.

What I got was validation of my personhood.

I knew how much I’d let connections drop through severe depression/anxiety, and I can’t explain the immensity of the guilt I’ve felt and feel over it.

I didn’t know how much having connections mattered.

I didn’t know how much we need – not wish, like, want or enjoy, but need – people to mirror our best stories, the ones we’ve forgotten how to see, back onto ourselves.

I didn’t know we can’t be people, for all that we want to try, without that mirroring.

And the more people that mirroring of unseen-by-us narrative comes from, the better.

Today two ladies, mothers both, were talking about post-natal depression, and one of them spoke of the pressure she’d been under to breast feed. I said that I hadn’t been breast fed, but I’d turned out okay, so that kind of oppression is ridiculous. Which it is, but that’s a given. The part that made me want to cry thirty seconds after I spoke, though, was the casualness of what I said, something I couldn’t believe slipped from my own lips: I turned out okay.

I haven’t said anything positive about myself, like that, in nine months. The closest I’ve come is I might be okay or I’ll be okay on the rare good day, but nothing so simple and declarative: I turned out okay. The implication being, of course, that I’m okay here and now, even though I can point to a massive list of reasons for why I’m anything and everything but okay, here and now … but something, something in my heart and soul and mind, after a couple of months of ACT and this two day course, decided that I am.

So thank you, so many generous and kind and amazing people I can’t name or identify, for holding up mirrors enough that sometimes, here and there, I can see what’s going on. Thank you for your interest and your positivity and your encouragement and your brilliance.

I’ve got my regular group tomorrow and another group I mean to attend tomorrow afternoon, as it turns out I already know a good half of the people there. (When did that happen, that I can go to a new place already knowing people?) I don’t know why, yet, I was offered the course or if it’ll lead anywhere, but I know, if I have the opportunity, I’d like to do something to enable kind and generous people to hold up a horde of mirrors reflecting the wealth of positive stories we do possess but can’t see unaided.

They’re holding up shining, glorious mirrors for me.


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