I sat in the car for a while waiting for my watch to catch up with the appointment time. To tell the truth, I was not expecting anything much. I would just sit down, have a little chat and fulfil my obligations to the occupational therapist. Oh, and I was not being charged for it. On the flip side, I would be if I didn’t attend.
Being mentally unbalanced can be a lonely life; it’s not like having something really wrong with you. So, you spend your time indoors beyond the eyes and ears of anyone or outdoors as far away from people as one could get. The image of my well-meaning neighbour and her stiff-upper-lip advice and added stoicism sprung to mind and I dismissed it with a shake of an inner crucifix.
Talking about it is difficult. It’s seen as being self-important, self-indulgent, and selfish. So, you keep stum. You avoid contact. Other people do not like to listen to the introspective ramblings of strugglers. It’s a struggle; all of it. And, even though we are vaguely aware of the struggles of others, we don’t talk about it. It continues inside us like a cancer taking root, a cancer whose pain grows in the night, a cancer that saps the energy of its host, runs the engine down to empty-breakdown.
My counsellor’s opening words, beyond the required legalities, asked me to talk about why I thought I was there. I wanted to say that I was a rather wobbly fruitcake. Instead, I painted the landscape of my recent life. I talked about the hell that was work and education. I talked about the people I worked with. I talked about the night I woke up to the living nightmare that was now known as my anxiety attack. I talked and talked and talked until I felt that I had said enough. I still felt as if I were on trial.
Charlotte, my counsellor, listened attentively. She was listening for the words of a genuine nut-job. I realised that I wasn’t completely gone, but the more I talked the more my hands started to shake. A smile rippled inside, acknowledging my dramatic accompaniment. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to over-egg my particular pudding so I tried to take a grip. My hands continued, indifferent to my intentions.
“Matthew, you seem to be a very successful person. If I met you outside of this office, I would see a confident, articulate man who had achieved success in his life.”
Now that was the type of complimentary bullshit that a depressed middle-aged man wanted to hear, but not now.
“It’s a front. I do this. I’ve always done this, but I can’t do it any longer.”
“Why do you do it?”
I thought for a little longer than a short while.
“I don’t know why I do it. I think I have always done it. When I was a child, people accused me of being arrogant. They said I was big-headed. Even my family called me Matt, The Big Head. I never knew why, but it stuck. Apparently, I exude confidence. When people meet me, they think that I have it sorted, all the answers. I must be good at it. I suppose that that sounds arrogant.”
“So, what is the problem with being like that?”
“The problem is that I end up fooling myself. I believe the mask and not the man, I push forward and do things because I think I can. I think that I need to do them. I think that I want to do them. It’s all a lie. Well, bits of it are.”
I was surprised at how it had all started. I was expecting a preamble followed by post-preamble; nothing. I was straight to it; part of it.
“You see, I don’t think that other people believe you to be one of them when you are like this; whatever this is. There’s something about being humble, showing humility, being ordinary, which people like. Not getting good was a phrase that came from my home town and that meant to be what you were supposed to be rather than trying to be something other. I suppose that I have never really liked what I am.”
This was a minor crack on the huge surface of self-revelation, but it was only a little more.
“Can you explain what you mean by that last thing you said?” My counsellor enquired with a hint of the ‘Ah, ah moment’ about her.
“What? Never really liking myself?”
She nodded encouragingly.
There is a shiver of panic that invades my life on certain occasions. It’s like the feeling that one may get when pulling off a jumper that is a little too small. First it grabs around the shoulders, sticks and refuses to go any further. This tends to happen when it has passed the point of no return. When that happens, you are stuck, defenceless, with a straight jacket pinning your arms too close for usefulness and your eyes completely covered by the wool or man-made substitute. That’s when the panic begins as a ripple of anxiety. Exposed and defenceless, one could spend eternity like this, suffocate, or fall headlong down a flight of stairs.
Being afraid of the shadows, the thing under the bed, someone hiding around the corner, or simply waiting for you in sleep, was something that plagued the young me. There were times when the world would close in around that former self. This was not meant metaphorically, to a boy of around five or six the walls would literally close in threateningly; and there were voices in those walls. Then the walls would be inside my head and my brain would pulse from the pressure. That ripple of anxiety had by then turned into a torrent, a mass of viciousness whose intent was purely to cause me harm. I remember experiencing this once in the bathroom of the council house that I was brought up in.
The door was locked when the voices came and the water was running from the tap. The ceiling above me was pounding with the heaviness of something trying to get through. The walls started to move inwards and the lock, the lock on the door refused to shift. I tried shouting for help, but nothing came from me. Tears dripped from my face, my pulse raced towards explosion and I collapsed in submission.
“No, I never really liked myself.”
Her head moved in the same way that a bird’s would upon glimpsing something. I had caught her attention and had not tried to do so.
“What is it that you don’t like about yourself?”
“I don’t like being a failure.”
I can hear the chorus of, “Get on with it,” coming from people now. Self-interested, egocentric-malingerer. Why is it that people like me feel that they have right to spend so much of their lives gazing at their belly buttons? Get on with it!
The thing is, I can’t get on with it because it has shunted me off the tracks. It has a name and that name is Anxiety Disorder. It could be called a lot of other things. It was ME.
“Why do you think you are a failure, Matthew?”
I liked this woman. She had a nice tone and seemed to want to connect. I wanted to trust her. Most people can’t be trusted.
“Not achieving anything worthwhile.”
“What do you mean by worthwhile?”
What does worthwhile mean? Well, it means that the time you have spent on something should be reflected in the outcome.
Take my writing for example…