An internal soap opera

My birthday week probably didn’t need to be so awful. I see that I drove myself mad this week, no one else did. It should have been a better week; it certainly got off to a nice start, when my colleagues brought me a birthday cake and sang “happy birthday” on Monday because they knew I’d be off on Tuesday. Unexpected surprises like that tend to be pleasant, even when it’s embarrassing to be the centre of attention. In those moments the people around me certainly seem to care about my existence. I am not an invisible non-entity to them. By Wednesday, when I could only think about the counselling interview and become hyper stressed as a result, my colleague A’s kind feelings towards me really showed through, as she kept asking me what was wrong. Though I kept telling her I was fine she knew I wasn’t myself that day. She appears to have psychic abilities. I suppose it’s good to have people like that around, reminding me I’m not entirely alone.

If thanks to the thoughtfulness of someone like A I’ve managed to return to some semblance of calm, on a day like Wednesday, that calm can so easily be hijacked again by panic, when the thoughtlessness of another comes into play.

I was trying to help someone on the phone get the details of where they could donate some furniture that they no longer needed; just as the call was finishing P came over and thrust the phone number of another charity in my face, indicating I should give it to the person on the line. I was in the process of saying goodbye to the caller then, having given them all the details I could find; it felt a bit late to jump in with another charity’s details. So I carried on saying goodbye and then I hung up, causing P to storm back to her desk, rolling her eyes. I instantly felt crushed, like I had done something wrong. It was just what I needed to happen that day. Feelings of worthlessness soon turned to anger and rage; how dare P roll her eyes at me like that? No, it wasn’t me in the wrong, it was all her.

This has happened to me at work many times over the years, and every time it plunges me into doubt about whether anyone really cares for me. When someone else is having an off moment and they carelessly take it out on me, I instantly begin to behave as if they can’t be trusted, so I shut down and stop being my normal self with them, which means I can’t speak to them properly during the hours or days when I’m feeling that way. What can be even more confusing is when later on the person will be nice to me again. By the end of the day on Wednesday P was talking to me like a trusted colleague again, as if nothing had happened. All the time I had spent frozen in mistrust and apathy was cast into confusion. Earlier on she hated me, now she seemed to like me. What’s going on?

I can only explain this unstable, confused way of relating to the world as something I got stuck with when I was three or four years old. When I am in my anxious state, judging people on the slightest gestures, I am not dealing with them as a thirty-four year old, at least I don’t think I am. The only thing that makes sense, looking back on these situations with hindsight, is to say that I was letting my childish self take over.

When I was three years old I was suddenly thrust into the outside world with no warning, when my mother decided to send me to nursery school after three years of keeping me at home. I’ve always known that I wasn’t much exposed to other people before the age of three, and I still have the vaguest memory of that first day at nursery, when I was left on my own and expected to interact with other children for the first time. That I can still remember it must suggest that it was a great trauma. For years I have been searching for the trauma that seems to play out every time I’m faced with a new social situation, and I think this may be it. When I was sent to nursery that first time, I didn’t have the self belief or inner resources to deal with it. All I’d ever known was the safety of being at home with my mother. I’ll never know for sure why she kept me with her for so long, but I think it was probably her anxiety about sending me out there. So of course I was cursed with a lifetime of anxiety about other people, because I learnt that when I was too young to know any better. I learned at home to see other people as threats, and then the shock of being abandoned in their midst (as I saw it) was so great I never got over it.

I always thought it was my later experiences at secondary school that did the damage – well it certainly didn’t help. It was at secondary school that I learned to pile shame about my sexuality on top of the fear of people. Equally, learning to feel abandoned by my father when I was a teenager certainly added to my feelings of worthlessness and codependency with men later on. But those things were only part of the story. Since I started learning about counselling I’ve realised that my mother’s actions in the first few years of my life played an equal if not bigger part. I am not just the product of one event – all of these experiences, in my early childhood and later in my teens, all of them add to the mixture, like a poisonous cake made with several toxic ingredients. But when I’m struggling at work because I don’t feel like anyone can be trusted, I am replaying that first day at nursery, when I thought I was abandoned and probably about to die.

I’ve never had this strong inner core that allows me to rise above the feelings of abandonment when someone else is a bit rude or off with me. Again, with hindsight I can easily see that it wasn’t what the other person did that caused the problem, it was my reaction to it. In the moment when it’s happening I still fall into the trap of being that three year old, hurt and lost and needing my mother to tell me it’s all right. On that key day in my history, when I was sent to nursery the first time, I imagine the other kids either ignored me or teased me a bit, like kids would, and I took it as a huge personal blow. For the rest of my life I think I’ve played out the same hurt, again and again, in new social and work situations.

I’m thinking so much about this because the counselling learning has brought it to the fore, and, not for the first time this month, I’m wondering if this is a breakthrough. I mean, I’ve always had an understanding of what happened to me, but I never saw it as a great life trauma as such. I’m sure Freud would be proud of me. The question is, will a new understanding of the past allow me to move on? Sobriety has given me many insights into my life, but until now none of them were enough to reach into my core and put that fundamental self belief so desperately needed in there. It’s hard to imagine what will be different this time. So I understand intellectually what’s going on in my head. I don’t feel very different to before. I know this will not be the last time I doubt myself or experience hurt and abandonment.

I’ve heard that everyone has insecurities and things in their past that haunt them. It’s still really difficult to believe that when I watch confident people who just seem to know what they’re doing in life. There’s an AA saying that you should never compare your insides to other people’s outsides, and I know I’m doing that, but it’s impossible not to. Maybe if I was truly authentic in my life, if I truly trusted and valued myself, I wouldn’t do it because I’d automatically trust that I’m ok as a person no matter what anyone else does. But I’m not there yet. Most of the time I don’t think I ever will be.

I’ve already said how easy it is to logically reassess a situation with the benefit of hindsight, and in assessing the perceived slight that I got from P this week, with hindsight it’s possible to say that I wasn’t as affected by it as I would have been a few years ago. It’s possible that I’ve made some progress with this self belief thing, since I can sit here and talk about it and not feel hurt just a few days after it happened. Today I can see exactly what my part in it was, and I can see that she probably didn’t intend to plunge me into the hell that I ended up in. I can easily say now that someone’s opinion about me doesn’t matter one way or the other, and I can take heart from the fact I stayed in the situation and kept my composure, instead of running away. Looking at it that way, something must have changed in me.

If only it were a process that took days instead of years. Next time something happens you’ll see me in crisis once again. It’s already been going on for years, so I think this has a few more years in it yet. The threads of what’s really going on remain so subtle in my life, I hardly ever notice the self doubt that controls everything I do. I don’t notice that I’m nearly always waiting for someone to reject me, always feeling under threat from the world, always hearing my own voice and thinking it’s too effeminate. These are such overwhelmingly strong beliefs I’m hesitant to question them, even now.

What I’ve started to understand is why I still have these beliefs. In those moments of crisis now I understand that I am regressing into my three year old self, and I’m no longer just my adult self. Understanding is always the first step to healing, but what is understanding for if there’s no healing? I want to change, more than anything. I don’t know if I necessarily want to be free from pain for the rest of my life, I just want to be able to feel normal around people. To relate to them as an equal and not be weighed down by my feelings in all interactions. To experience a day without fear! A day when I’m not engaging in a soap opera in my head, trying to weigh up who’s a threat and who’s nice, who I need to avoid and who might hate me.

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2 thoughts on “An internal soap opera

  1. I can identify with your share. Injury at the slightest seemingly apparent slight. But, as I read I kept reading the message syou play to yourself, such as:

    “I’ve never had this strong inner core that allows me to rise above the feelings of abandonment when someone else is a bit rude or off with me.”

    Now, I am not sure, but I think as long as you continue to define yourself by your past attitudes and beliefs, this will color how you continue to react in the future. There’s an old saying I remember–from where, who the hell knows–that you can change the tape playing in your head. As you think so you go, etc. etc. Easier said than done to do that. But I noticed a few times how you described yourself. Perhaps if you were mindful of how you define and/or label yourself, and then change the tape, maybe this will help in the future? I dunno, I do know that the alcoholic is fraught with doubts, suspicions, perceived threats. They are NEVER from the outside. Always from the demons within. I wish you strength and renewed happiness each day of your journey. I hope I wasn’t annoying in my observations. I could be completely off my rocker too. I watch my demons VERY carefully to hopefully avoid being too pushy with my perspective.

  2. You are right. At the same time as noticing my demons and where they come from, I have noticed that I have a tendency to beat myself up for having them, which of course perpetuates the cycle of self doubting. I’ve started trying just to accept myself – to be more accepting in all areas of my life – as I know this is the only route to freedom. But I also have a tendency to forget what’s good for me which is why it’s often so easy to slip back into the old patterns. It’s a journey.

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