Dating with Mental Health Issues

“Do you think you deliberately try to sabotage your own relationships?” my therapist asked me the other day.
I think about it. I tend to find a reason and leave pretty early on. The past few years I’ve only dated people for 2, maybe 3 months and then it ends.

When I’m in a particularly low mood I don’t even try to find someone, and tell myself I can’t possibly inflict myself on someone else because I’d just be a burden. I tell myself that I’ve got nothing to offer. I tell myself that no one would ever put up with me. My first boyfriend told me that, and I guess it stuck.

As my relationships have typically been so short-lived, I’ve been on and off dating sites over the years. I got this lovely message the other day which played on a long-held fear:

thanks

I asked myself for years why I couldn’t find someone. I didn’t date til I was 20. ‘There must be something wrong with me,’ I thought. I got into a relationship and eventually he came to hate me, told me that I was f*cked up and that no one else would ever put up with me. I remember him picking fights all the time and me just pathetically crying and begging him to stop being like this. I remember the first time we broke up, crying so hard I thought I’d stop breathing. I remember wishing I actually would. I remember being so pathetic, that no one could have loved me then. I remember thinking I probably deserved to feel like this.

My therapist asked whether I let myself actually get emotionally involved with the people I date. I realise that recently, I haven’t. And truthfully, for as long as I can remember there’s been a kind of disconnect because I just don’t trust people.

There’s nothing more terrifying than making a person your entire world, and then having them throw you away like you’re nothing. It makes you feel like all there’s left to do is die. I can’t feel like that again. I wouldn’t survive it. I just do what I need to do to survive. Does anyone even love as openly and fully as I once did? Surely no one with any sense.

I don’t know. I think that’s why I leave. I date people I’m not really into and I get bored quickly because I miss that very same intensity that I’m so terrified of. Because if I actually like them I’ll lose my inhibitions, lose my senses and get hurt. That’s how it goes.

The inner saboteur: the realisation that a part of you WANTS your own destruction

“You just called yourself a useless lump.”
I stopped mid-ramble as my therapist pointed this out to me.
“I did, didn’t I?” I laughed to myself.
“That sounds like that inner saboteur again,” he points out, gently. “Why is she talking?”
“Oh she does that a lot. I’m aware of when it’s her rather than me, though, I know that she’s talking crap.”
“And yet you still let yourself say it.”
“Well, because that part of me believes it, doesn’t it? It really thinks I’m useless. And ugly. And worthless. And that no one likes me. That I’m a useless lump.”

We spoke for a while longer about the inner saboteur. We’re calling it a ‘her’ now, I decided, since she’s a part of me. A little part. My therapist likes to imagine I carry her in my bag. That the rest of me is this kind, empathetic, wholesome person, and then she is this dark, twisted, bitter, malevolent part that spouts nothing but negativity and spite (almost exclusively directed inward, towards myself). We spoke again about how I set myself challenges to prove to myself that I’m useless, and that the inner saboteur pushes me to do this.

“You know me, I hate to fail,” I said, glancing out of the window. “So I hate the fact that I’m failing at work, that all I’ve ever had since I got there is ‘you’re not good enough’. I hate it. Consciously, it’s awful and I hate it.”
The therapist nods at me to continue.
“But this part, her… she’s positively jubilant. I can almost hear her crying ‘YES! Yes, you see?! You’re failing. You’re failing so hard. You’ve been to your doctor, you’ve got two therapists, you’re on these action plans and you STILL can’t do it. I bloody well KNEW you couldn’t. See? You’re useless. You fail at everything. You’re. Not. Good. Enough. She’s pretty mean, right?”
The therapist agrees. He pauses to think for a moment.

“What do you want to do with her?”
I must have given him a blank look, so he continued.
“Do you want to embrace or reject her? Be kind to her or cruel to her?”
I ponder this for a while. “Well, mean people normally need people to be nice, right? Being mean to mean people usually just makes them even worse.”
“I don’t know, she sounds like she actually enjoys misery and destruction. Maybe she’d hate it.”
“Well, in that case I have no idea. If that’s the case, surely she’ll just keep trying to cause me problems forever because that’s what she wants?”
“Have you ever talked to her?”
“Well now I’m going to sound crazy. But yes, sometimes. When I’m home by myself. The bigger, nicer part of me is sort of split further, into a quiet, submissive, shy side, and an assertive side that only comes out on rare occasions. That assertive one sometimes talks her into a corner. Challenges her, challenges her negativity and hatred.”

He doesn’t look at me like I’m crazy, but I still feel it. I wonder if I ought to try talking to her more. Figure out why she hates me so much. Figure out why she wants to suffer and fail. I wonder if I can even access her on demand like that, to get those kind of answers. I caught myself thinking that maybe she’s kept me in this job, and even in one of my particularly toxic relationships because she wants us to suffer. Because she thinks we deserve it.

What are you supposed to do when a part of you loves everything you hate, and wants nothing more than your own destruction?

Ill or ‘lazy’? Mental Health at Work

I read somewhere that thinking “everyone else feels like this – I must just be lazy and/or inept” is actually a common experience and a part of being depressed, which makes a lot of sense and momentarily made me feel a little less bad about myself. Honestly I try really hard, all day every day. Some days are more successful than others. But a lot of the time I can’t shake this idea that maybe I’m not even unwell, maybe I’m paying therapists for nothing, maybe I’m just useless at life and looking for an excuse.

That’s how I’m treated at work (side note: the fact I even have a job adds to my sense of ‘maybe I’m just being lazy’ because I know some depressed people can’t even get out of bed in the morning). I’ve been on performance-based action plans since I got there, basically. Action plans to do with being more confident, and getting involved when there’s a conflict situation rather than running away and having a panic attack, you know, all things I have a huge amount of control over
I’ve tried explaining things to them but no one listens or particularly cares. I wasn’t even referred to occupational health when I started having 2 hour long panic attacks with really severe physical symptoms. I’m obviously unwell but I’m on my own with it. My doctor just said ‘you’re stressed’ and wouldn’t do anything, either. Again, I think ‘maybe I’m really not that unwell? Maybe I’m just being pathetic.’

I mentioned my ‘inner saboteur’ in previous posts, a little part of me that really hates me and thinks I’m rubbish, and encourages me to do things. Not to prove that I can do them, but to prove that I can’t and am rubbish, useless, pathetic – that I’m none of the things I want to be. I’m shy, insecure, anxiety-ridden, depressed and have been bullied since I was young. I have had some terrible experiences with men. So what does the inner saboteur tell me to do?

What better way to provoke a full-on mental breakdown? WHY DON’T YOU GO AND WORK FOR THE POLICE? It’s perfect!  Not in an office, either. Front line. Gotta be front line.

Proof, if proof were needed, that I’ve lost what little remains of my sanity.

So anyway, I’m getting to a point where I’m probably going to have to leave soon, before I’m pushed out. Because my mental health just doesn’t allow me to perform at the level the job requires. My problem now is that I’ve somehow stuck it out for over a year and my confidence has been so crushed by perpetually failing at everything for 15 months that I legitimately think I can’t do anything well any more. I’m worried I’ll walk away and then I really will just be a lump in bed, wondering why I’m still bothering to be alive. I don’t want to end up there. I don’t know what to do.

CBT: a short-term fix?

I was speaking to one of my therapists about this, as he asked what kind of help and therapy I wanted and had suggested CBT as a possible option. I explained that I’ve had CBT before and that while I fully understand the models, the ideas etc, that I didn’t find it very helpful.

He asked me why I thought that was. I explained that a previous counsellor focused very heavily on the cognitive element – getting me to challenge my thoughts and such. The problem is that my beliefs are firmly held and not simply irrational manifestations of mental illness – they are supported by a whole host of very unfortunate things that have really happened to me over years, decades. They’re actually evidence based. I can’t just ‘un-think’ those things, or tell myself something is false when I really know it to be true. I feel like I’d be doing myself a gross intellectual injustice to even try.

And honestly, I can tell when I’m catastrophising, I can tell when I’m being irrational and when the ‘anxiety/depression is talking’… but a lot of the time I’m completely sound of mind when I’m having my destructive negative thoughts. I can’t simply convince myself of something that I don’t have it in me to believe. My thoughts don’t need challenging, because they’re not actually wrong, or invalid.

I added, somewhat bitterly, that CBT frustrated me as it didn’t deal with any of the issues that I actually wanted to address. It feels like the therapist is jovially suggesting “yes, okay, you have years of trauma and baggage but we’re going to IGNORE all of that and focus on how to make you act like you never went through it! How about that?”

It felt like papering over the cracks to make me more functional rather than actually ‘better’. Worse than that, it felt like that aim (of becoming more ‘functional’) wasn’t even for my benefit at all. It was so that I’d do better at work, be less of a burden to other people, be better able to survive/cope so no one else had to worry. “Fuck everyone else,” I grumbled, “I want to be okay for once. Why can’t that be the aim? Why am I supposed to settle for repressing my trauma so that I can function in spite of my obvious, continued discomfort? Why does it feel like no one even wants me to get better?”

He suggested that since I felt that the cognitive side was pretty useless for me, perhaps we could focus on behaviours I could change. I pointed out to him that that’s pretty hard to do if my beliefs won’t change. He agreed, but pointed out that I could try out behaviours that flew in the face of my beliefs and thoughts, just to see what happened.

“You want me to surprise myself, don’t you,” I mused, “to find evidence that opposes those beliefs.”
“Well, you said yourself – you can’t just unthink them. I’m just inviting you to sit with the feelings you’re having and not run away from the situation, see what happens.”
“I suppose experimenting to find real evidence to undermine them might be the only way to actually start to unpick them.” 
“Something like that. Action precedes confidence, did you ever hear that?”
“But how are you supposed to act in the first place, without confidence?”
“I don’t know, but it comes from somewhere, doesn’t it? You’ve done some things in your life that I’d never have the confidence to do. Even though you weren’t feeling very confident at all. In the moment, you became confident.”
“I guess so.”
“So why don’t we try to find a few ways that you can act, even when you’re not feeling confident. See what happens, and how it makes you feel.”

It still doesn’t deal with the root causes of my issues, but at least it feels more practical and useful to me than the cognitive aspect of CBT. Maybe it’ll grow on me after all.

My Experience: Pokémon Go & Mental Health

So I’d heard a few mutterings about this game being good for people who suffer from mental health conditions… I figured I’d weigh in with my 2 day experience of it. I had a few days off from work and had some time to kill. I’ve suffered from depression and an acute anxiety disorder basically for as long as I can remember; I’ve shown symptoms since childhood.

The game released in the UK yesterday – I was lying in bed, curled up in a ball and really not feeling like doing much of anything when my little brother bounded into my room and demanded I come on a walk to find Pokémon. I don’t do walks, and I am warm, comfy and quite safe where I am. However, I caved and dragged myself out of bed. Grudgingly.

I boot the game up, dress my character in a little red outfit and then we’re off. “I don’t have much data left,” I whine as we get far enough from the house to lose the WiFi signal. “It doesn’t use that much,” he reassures, leading me towards some gym somewhere (which apparently I can’t even go into because I’m level 1, and you have to be level 5). He’s been playing it for a week before the release so he’s had a head start.

We get to some field in the middle of nowhere, and he explains that there are Pokéstops which I can get items from. I don’t really get it but I pick them up anyway. And then all of a sudden – oh god, there are people. SO MANY PEOPLE. I’m convinced they’re going to judge me, a grown adult running around collecting Pokémon in a field. And then I realise that they’re giving me knowing smiles, because they’re doing exactly the same. There’s a funny camaraderie about it. This is quite odd, I decide, but also kind of nice. I catch some Pokémon, anyway, and I go up a few levels. Still not enough to go and fight at a gym (but honestly fighting doesn’t sound much fun to me anyway).

More importantly, I’d left the house, and been out in the daylight and fresh air for about 2 hours (a rarity for me – if I have time off I normally isolate myself and sit indoors).

Today I went out twice, with 2 different friends who wanted to go and get Pokémon! I wandered for hours and caught more Pokémon. I was stopped and spoken to by kids in school uniform, asking if I was playing and did I know there was a Squirtle by McDonald’s? And did I have any good ones yet? A greying chap stopped us and asked what all this Pokémon stuff was about, and what all these kids were looking for outside his office. I felt really functional and even social. This is literally the most social I’ve been in years, possibly ever. Normally I just avoid strangers as much as  possible, avoid their gaze, avoid conversation. Avoid everything. Stay home.

It’s been an interesting experiment. Watch this space, I suppose? It seems a good way of motivating people who would otherwise curl up and withdraw to actually leave the house, and gives you something in common with a lot of people that makes it less frightening to speak to them. For people who hate exercise and wouldn’t set foot in a gym even if you paid them, it’s worth noting that I’ve walked 17km in the past 2 days.

“An important question in psychiatry shouldn’t be what’s wrong with you but rather what’s happened to you.”

This will be a pretty short post, and is something of a note to self. It’s far to easy to look at symptoms, issues, problems, as ‘something being wrong with us’. I’m extremely guilty of this, and have literally said on several occasions that I wish someone could just tell me what exactly is wrong with me, so that I could find a way to ‘fix it’.

But every condition and symptom has the potential to teach us something, the experience of overcoming them helps us to learn and grow, and I firmly believe that my own issues with mental health will make me more compassionate, empathetic and helpful to others in the future. Maybe they’re not things that are wrong with me. Maybe they are just my unique challenges and struggles that help me to become the person I’m on my way to being. Perhaps they even brought me to places, experiences and people that I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.

The quote in the post title is from this TED talk, it’s really interesting! It’s by a lady called Eleanor Longden, who found positives to her experiences of hearing voices (viewing them more as a coping strategy than a terrible symptom to be suppressed/overcome).

“Sometimes when a child wants attention from its parents, it’ll act up.”

I went back after the bombshell about my trust issues and told the counsellor about issues I had in childhood where I’d deliberately make myself unwell. I’d have a fight with my parents then as they’d have to forcibly medicate me. I couldn’t tell her when it started or why. I wondered if maybe that was a part of the reason.

She suggested that it could have been a cry for attention. As often happens, I initially fervently denied her analysis of the situation –
“Oh no. I didn’t want attention, I never wanted that. I generally wanted to be left alone. I hated attention, hated being bothered by other people. I still do!”
“Just because you learned to avoid people doesn’t mean that you never wanted attention, though,” she notes, “it sounds like you learned to depend on yourself because you felt like you couldn’t trust anyone else.”
“Well of course I’m the person I can always depend on,” I agreed, “I’ve always been a solitary little thing, I’m quite happy in my own company. When I have days off, I don’t seek out other people. I’ll be really happy if I’m left at home on my own all day. I’ll just sing to myself for hours. That doesn’t sound like someone dying for attention, does it?”
“Perhaps not. But you mentioned that your mother suffered quite badly from depression when you were young. And as you probably know from your own experience, it’s hard to really express love and affection when just existing is taking all your energy. There’s just nothing left.”
“So you can’t reach out and bond so well?”
“Exactly. So if you felt like you weren’t getting enough from your mum-”
“And my dad worked long hours, 6 days a week. Mum was depressed, highly strung. Not very affectionate. I don’t think anyone in my family was overly affectionate, I wonder if that’s why I struggle. It wasn’t really modelled.”
“It could definitely be a factor, couldn’t it?”
“You know, they never really said things like ‘I love you’ or that they were proud of me. I tried hard and honestly… other kids did really simple things that I could’ve done easily. And got really highly praised for it. I didn’t get praised like that, no matter how well I did. No one seemed impressed by anything I did even if it was better than other peoples’ work.”

Looking back on it I’m amused by how childlike and stroppy that sounds. But I really felt it. It didn’t matter what I did, no one noticed or paid attention. I didn’t feel loved, I didn’t feel like anyone was proud of me. So maybe I really was subconsciously crying out for attention even if consciously I was convinced that I hated attention.

And maybe that’s why, in spite of my crippling anxiety, when I saw a singer on stage in front of thousands of people – performing and loving life – all I wanted was to do that. I wanted to BE her, I wanted to do what she was doing. That’s why I started singing. I told my counsellor about it, about the way I light up whenever someone comments on my videos, whenever someone tells me I’m amazing. Tells me they love me. Tells me they’re my fan, that they subscribed, that they’ll support me from now on. I feed on it, I live for that positive regard. But I don’t think I deserve it and don’t trust people to give me it so I just tried to convince myself I didn’t even want it in the first place.

My mind plays all kinds of games with me, I’m realising.

“How can you be so compassionate to everyone else, but not to yourself?”

“I don’t know,” I respond honestly, shrugging and slumping into my chair. The room we’re sat in is very, very green, I notice absent-mindedly. My counsellor presses on, points out how empathetic, caring, considerate, compassionate, generally lovely I am to everyone (I feel myself smiling shyly at all of the undeserved compliments). She pointed out that I’m even like this to people who you could objectively say were pretty awful. I work for the police and meet some of the most heinous individuals you could ever meet, people who’ve done really terrible things. Honestly, sometimes I do judge them, but a lot of the time I just wonder what they have experienced that has led them to their current path. What horrible things they’ve gone through, things that they don’t deserve. I vocalise this to her.
“But you think you do deserve the bad things that happen to you?”
“I think I must, because I just attract them,” I say as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “People meet me and want to be horrible to me, that’s my experience. It happened as a kid, as a teen, even as an adult. I must deserve it, otherwise why would all of those completely unlinked people be so awful? It has to be something about me.”
She thinks for a moment, and asks, “do you think you try to bring it on yourself, because you think you deserve it? I mean you’ve had awful experiences with men and with bullying, and you’ve deliberately taken a job in a male-dominated field that’s also renowned for being full of bullies. You have struggled with depression and anxiety, but you’ve gone for possibly the most stressful job imaginable. What made you do that?” She has a point (again).

My other therapist (boy do I feel crazy having more than one!) makes reference to my little ‘inner saboteur’. I quite like this analogy, and told him so the moment he said it. “Yes,” I enthused, “I definitely have one of those. It likes to wreck everything. It’s very good at it…. I suppose at least I’m good at something.” He smiled patiently at that, and waited for me to elaborate. “I sort of set myself challenges, like taking on this job. Not to prove to myself that I can do it, actually, but to prove to myself that I can’t. That I’m useless. That I’ll mess this up and look a fool in front of everyone. I do that a lot. Ironically some of my biggest achievements have come from that. I’ve surprised myself and actually done pretty well and gone oh, holy crap, this wasn’t meant to happen. It’s pretty cool.”

I mention this inner saboteur concept to the female therapist. I agree with her, that I seem to put myself in harm’s way. We talk about the Karpman drama triangle, discuss the fact that I spend a lot of time in the victim position and that (while awful) this is a very familiar position to me. I’m sort of comfortably uncomfortable there, and seem to look for ways to stay in that position. Indeed, the only time when I’m not is when I’m trying to help someone else. “That’s probably why I’m interested in psychology and moving into that field,” I commented, “because helping other people helps me to feel useful, and to figure my own self out.” She agrees with me and makes reference to Carl Jung’s idea of the ‘wounded healer’. Later as I sit and reflect on what we spoke about, I wonder whether finding more opportunities to take that position will help me to get out of my perpetual victim cycle. Who knows.

“You Have Trust Issues.”

I was mortally offended when my counsellor suggested this. She didn’t state it as bluntly as the title of my post (although that’s precisely how sharply I took it, I noticed). So I responded with indignation –

“But I’m incredibly open, honest, vulnerable… everyone tells me that! My manager told me that it’s one of my best qualities! How can someone like me have trust issues? I’ll tell anyone anything!”
“Being willing to tell people about yourself doesn’t mean you trust them.”

I sat and thought about this for a moment. I am willing to tell strangers near enough everything. I sat in a room with her in my first session and told her everything and it took no real effort. It wasn’t difficult or uncomfortable for me.

But on reflection, I think I tend to do this early on to build a (false?) sense of intimacy and trust. The other person thinks they know me, thinks I trust them, and it encourages them to respond in a similar manner. This falls down in romantic relationships because physical intimacy is much more difficult for me to imitate and is something I have always, always struggled with. Kissing is one of the most difficult things in the world for me to do. I’ve had entire relationships where I didn’t. At all. Ever. I know.

So I seem open and trusting, and had even managed to convince myself (until this recent awakening) that I was. But really I’m terrified of judgement and rejection and this has inhibited me for as long as I can remember. I only open up fully with people who I have no kind of a bad feeling about, people who I can’t imagine would ever hurt me, people who respond to my issues with nothing but love and compassion. Those people are rare, and so (naturally) are my real, close friendships. I can get on well and build a rapport with most people (unless my social anxiety is particularly bad that day) but I actually find it really hard to let people get *really* close.

I trust everyone up to a certain point, and then it’s like an impermeable wall. I’ve often been told that I’m too trusting, and up to that wall I probably am. In spite of my experiences I try to be open and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I let everyone get close enough to hurt me but not close enough to break me. I’ve broken too many times already. I guess she’s right again. Damn it.

Hello, Internet Stranger

Thank you for stopping by. I hope that you’re well, and that if you’re not… that you’re managing to be kind to yourself in the meantime. I’m here trying to be well, in whatever way I can. Whatever that means. I don’t really know.

I’ll just summarise my history very briefly, so that you know where I’m coming from. I have suffered from mental health issues for most of my life. I learned fear and avoidance at an early age and shut myself off from people. I’ve always been pretty highly functioning, so people would generally just assume I was just very shy, quirky, lazy, apathetic, whatever. I was bullied, I was depressed, I was disturbed, I had issues with intimacy and trust. I learned to depend on myself and not to reach out for others, which worked until I got really lonely (and subsequently much more depressed).

I reached adulthood and fell into a psychologically abusive relationship, I miscarried, I had a breakdown, I got raped (on my birthday, of all the days), I was suicidal. I picked up the pieces somewhat and am back to being pretty functional but still not really feeling okay, you know? And more recently, as I encountered more and more days where I felt extremely far from ‘okay’ and dangerously close to ‘falling over the edge of the cliff separating me from insanity’ I decided that perhaps I should seek help.

I’d started to think that perhaps ‘just about surviving’, that perhaps ‘just giving the illusion of coping’ wasn’t all I could achieve. That maybe I could actually reach a point where I feel like I’m… ‘normal’? My therapist dislikes that word and tells me that I use it too much. I’ve long been plagued by this idea that even though intellectually I know that ‘normal’ is nonsense and doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense, that I’m still not it. Whatever it is. That I will never be, and (in my lower moments) that this means I shouldn’t inflict myself on anyone who is.

I’m working on it.

Anyway. It’s nice to meet you. I’ll be venting thoughts and feelings, relaying important parts of therapy sessions, and just whatever else comes up I guess. Maybe some of it will be useful to you. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?