*inserts usual note about self harm, eating disorder, etc*

A couple of weeks ago I read this post by Louise, attempting to explain the difference between depression and heartbreak. I would tend to agree with the rough distinction. Heartbreak is grief, and it has a focus. Depression – the way I experience it – is a kind of crushing, agonising numbness.

I got scared last week that the depression was coming back. I have been not quite okay, but certainly much better, since my surgery for endometriosis in August. Whether it was the relief from chronic exhaustion and inflammation, or the validation of having a concrete diagnosis for the symptoms that have been passed off as all in my head for as long as I can remember, I don’t know, but once I had recovered from the surgery I felt lighter, I had more energy, and I felt tentatively hopeful. Last Tuesday night I started feeling almost like the depression had suddenly returned with no warning, like a vortex had opened up in my stomach. And the next morning I woke up from the dream I wrote about in my last post in incredible emotional pain. Since then I’ve been relentlessly, as in literally every moment I’m conscious, bombarded with distressing memories, nausea, intense urges to hurt myself, and this sense of utter terror. I’ve been walking around like a zombie, unable to focus on anything beyond the sheer wall of noise in my head.

But I’m not depressed. I feel heartbroken.

I told my therapist as much earlier. I’ve been clinging to the fact of that session all week, hoping I could somehow make sense of what’s going on. Frustratingly I spent the first fifteen minutes unable to form a sentence, like back when my PTSD was really bad and I could not verbally communicate to anyone what had happened to me because as soon as I reached for a likely word, I would float away, off into the carpet or the wall or the ceiling. It worked a little better when I closed my eyes and hid my face behind my hands, like if I couldn’t see her, maybe I was speaking to an empty room. I started with the most insistent memories. Of Christmas when I was 17, when I was desperately unwell, having spent half the autumn in and out of hospital, starving, bingeing, abusing laxatives and being stitched at accident and emergency. My relationship with my parents was at an all-time low, with frequent stand offs between mum – screaming – and me – dissociating (get that stupid zombie look off your face and say something!). On Christmas day I sat huddled into the sofa, looking at the presents and trying to remember how I was supposed to act, what I was supposed to feel and say. It all seemed like such a fucking lie, because my parents had made their feelings about me clear and why were they trying to pretend everything was okay? I wasn’t okay. I planned to wait until after my youngest brother’s birthday in January and then kill myself. I just had to last three more weeks, but I felt like I was already dead.

I grew up in a three-bedroomed house with six other people, at least one dog, between three and seven cats depending on the year, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish. I shared a room with one and then both of my younger sisters. I was always alone. Not literally, because that wasn’t possible, but there was a disconnect between me and the rest of the world. I remember numerous times when I was scared or upset about something – the stuff all kids get upset about, falling out with friends or a ghost story that shook me up – and my first reaction was to dissociate, then to shake, then to feel sick. Finally, with a physical problem to report, I would sometimes tell mum, usually getting an eye roll and a mention of hypochondria. Several times a week when I was four or five I would lie awake feeling indefinably *wrong*, that I can now pinpoint as anxiety and dissociation. If I got scared enough I would go downstairs, where I’d sit on the third stair from the bottom trying to find enough courage to go into the living room. Counting. When I get to one hundred, I’ll go in. If I got as far as three hundred I’d usually give up and go back upstairs, but the times when I did go in all went the same way. What’s wrong Katie? I don’t feel well. What is it, do you feel sick? Sore throat? Headache? No/no/no. Go to bed, you’re fine.

I didn’t have the words. I was never given the words to define and describe my emotions. All I had was ‘sick’ and ‘wrong’. At 31 years old I woke up on a random December morning in some kind of horrendous pain and still didn’t know what it was. Is there something physical wrong? Am I having a breakdown? Is this a panic attack? Depression? What the fuck?

I told my therapist, I have always struggled to remember anything much from childhood, but all of a sudden I remember so much, all linked to sadness and loneliness and the desperation of knowing I had to cope with this unnameable horror by myself. I told her, I watched the film Inside Out recently, and I related so much to the process the little girl goes through – how she’s thrown into a situation without the emotional maturity she’d need to cope with it, and with her parents distracted, she slowly loses herself and starts to go numb. But at the end when she runs off the bus, back to her parents, she talks to them and they all cry together – I didn’t cry because it’s a lovely ending, I cried because that’s where my story diverges drastically. At eleven years old I didn’t have accidentally distracted but emotionally literate parents, I had parents as fucked up as I was becoming, who couldn’t help me. I stayed numb, and with more and more distress I couldn’t name, couldn’t talk about, and couldn’t cope with, I wanted to die. I soon learned to calm myself with starvation and razor blades, a system of emotion regulation created by a terrified child that I still can’t seem to override a full twenty years later.

My whole life stretches out behind me, coloured with so much pain I can’t take it in. And I know cutting myself won’t help, I know that this is grief, and what I need is to talk about it and comfort myself. But there’s this much younger part of me who is frantic, suicidal, desperate to hurt herself, devastated at being all alone in the world, and convinced that it’s all her fault. That she drives people away (I do) because she’s so difficult, and conversely, that she is pathetic and attention seeking and really should be able to cope with this, so who the hell does she think she is, making such a fuss? That part of me is so panicked I can’t calm her down, nothing is getting through. She feels unreachable, and I’m so scared.

It’s like that argument with my dad started an avalanche, and I’m being buried, and every memory is another freezing wall of slush threatening to suffocate me. After twenty years of being lost in this vast, white, emptiness I couldn’t make sense of, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by grief.

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[TW mention of self harm/eating disorder]

I’ve been largely absent from the internet (apart from twitter) for the last couple of months, because I’ve had a lot going on. In particular, I just finished the first term of an MSc yesterday, so much of my free time has been taken up by reading papers and writing assignments. But this is always the way – I blog much less frequently when I’m studying, partly because having routine, structure, and goals to occupy myself distracts me from all the crap in my head, and partly because I’ve never been any good at focusing on more than one thing at a time. When I’m studying, I study, and when I’m not studying, I’m lost, and so more likely to stumble back to corners of the internet where I might find parts of myself lurking.

I have other things I should be concentrating on this morning, too. I have four different modules with exams/assignments due in the first couple of weeks of January, and right now I’m supposed to be reading about theoretical accounts of memory. But I’ve decided I need to briefly prioritise something else.

The problem with monitoring your own mental health is that you’re basically using your brain to monitor how your brain is doing. I don’t mean that in an entirely biological sense, or in reference to psychosis, although I know from experience how bloody difficult it is to work out whether your perception of reality actually matches reality. During the times I was unsure what was real and what was not I always erred on the side of terror – anything that seemed possible, however unlikely others thought it, should be kept in mind so I couldn’t be taken by surprise again. Ten years ago I would lie in bed watching a stuffed toy my first boyfriend bought me, seeing its expression became malevolent, anticipating it flying across the room to suffocate me. Some distant part of me, screamed into submission, still whispered that the real danger in this situation was not the toy, but that I had become so detached from reality that this seemed not only likely, but probable – but in the moment I couldn’t stop watching, just in case. There are many other examples I could use, from my conviction aged 13 that my teachers had put electronic bugs on me and were listening in the staff room, laughing at everything I said, to the insect-variety of bugs I see when I’m very tired or stressed out these days – but fortunately, the latter are decidedly less convincing. The point is, I never told anyone what I was dealing with at the time, because I didn’t realise there was anything to tell.

There are experiences of other types that follow similar patterns in terms of my ability to recognise, in the moment, what is happening. My eating disorder is another. Unintentional undereating due to illness or stress or lack of appetite or general busyness, followed by selective inattention (not quite accidentally-on-purpose, more like malicious naivety, or stubbornly prideful avoidance of the truth that I really am still so vulnerable) to warning signs that all-is-not-quite-right, concluding with genuinely deliberate restriction, and in just a few days I have a relapse to deal with that will take weeks, if not months, to undo. I rarely notice before I get to steps 2 or 3, and by that point I can’t work out what to do about it, because by then it’s too late, it’s impossible to separate my will from the anorexia. The desire to keep going burns harder than hunger, and I can’t see through the heat haze. It usually takes somebody else throwing a bucket of water over me before I realise how close I was to self-immolation.

Last winter was similar. All throughout 2014 I didn’t notice, ignored, or tried to reason away red flags that all was not right, and it wasn’t until maybe the third or fourth time I’d cut myself after years of not doing so that it occurred to me I should probably ask for help. It seems obvious in hindsight.

This morning I’m wondering again how close to the edge I am, and how I can do this over and over again without noticing until the last minute. I had a fight with my dad over the weekend – a long story, but based on him treating my little sister like shit in the same way he treated me a lot as a teenager. While standing up for my sister, any attempt to tell him that that his behaviour wasn’t appropriate was met with insistence that I am too sensitive, my perception is warped, I’m remembering things incorrectly. It set off trains of thought in all sorts of directions, including but not limited to: beating myself up for convincing myself that dad was the safe parent, when actually he’s just as damaging as mum; wondering why I bother staying in touch with them at all when we have no emotional contact at all, it’s all so superficial, or otherwise dangerous; hating myself for being so sensitive and unable to be their version of acceptable; being angry with them for not being the parents I needed; being angry that I am angry with them when they are both completely fucked up and don’t understand that their behaviour is wrong; feeling lost and alone and rootless; hating how affected I am every single day by all of this and blaming myself for not just getting a fucking grip; internal accusations of melodrama and appropriation of experiences of people who had *really* been abused; and so on.

Red flags: all that confusion. The sense that I want to shrink into the back of the sofa. Being unable to express any of it due to circumstance – being at university yesterday and today, having deadlines I had to focus on. Feeling heavy and leaden. That nasty combination of mental pain, numbness, and agitation. Vivid dreams of being tortured and cutting myself to cope.

It wasn’t until I woke up from the last violent dream this morning that I realised I should probably pay attention, because when I dream about self harming it’s usually because I am not coping with trauma-related triggers, and am very vulnerable to actually acting on self destructive feelings. The same dreams happened when I was visiting my parents over the summer, but because I was in their house dealing with their shit every day it was easier to recognise how distressed I was and why. I struggle far more when I am triggered to all hell and then have to swallow my reaction for whatever reason (deadlines to work on, for example). Then the reaction is far more likely to pop up again a few days later in the form of nightmares, intense urges to harm myself, terror that I am getting depressed again (and I just can’t work out why…).

It’s like I woke up from a nightmare to find that I had sleepwalked to the edge of a cliff, where I am now debating with myself whether I am imagining and making an unnecessary fuss about just how high it is, or whether I should call for help.

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Conditional love

[TW for mention of self harm]

When I was a teenager, I was convinced that if I could just cry about everything that had happened to me, if I could properly grieve, I would feel a lot better and less self destructive. I found it really hard – virtually impossible – to cry, but did have regular panic attacks, which I suspected were all those scary pent up emotions forcing their way out in whatever way they could, seeing as the exit via the eyes was locked up so tightly. Part of the not-crying was down to feeling unsafe at home. The walls were thin, there was no privacy, and being caught crying was dangerous. It would lead to aggressive questioning by mum: what’s wrong with you? Why won’t you talk to me? If you’re trying to hurt me by shutting me out, it’s working! There’s nothing seriously wrong with you, you’re just after attention. Nothing really bad has ever happened to you, I don’t know why you can’t just pull yourself together. We spoiled you too much when you were little and now you expect everything to be easy. Why won’t you talk to me?

It was exceptionally rare that I cried, and even more so that I was caught.

Recently, crying has become more of a common phenomenon. It’s still difficult, but I have become better at noticing the physical and psychological sensations that accompany sadness. The specific heaviness in my chest and abdomen, the feeling of pulling behind my eyes and in my throat. I feel mentally heavy too, and like I need to curl up and hide. I find myself shrinking into the sofa in a sort of vertical foetal position. When I notice these things I usually report them to my wife, and we talk until we work out what it is that I’m sad about. Finding the exact right words generally makes me cry. It’s still a rather convoluted process, but it’s also infinitely preferable to the way things were even six months ago, when emotions seemed to be instantly transformed into urges to self harm, and I wouldn’t realise I was distressed at all until I found myself having to attend accident and emergency. This is definitely progress.

Sadness is difficult and scary, but tolerable as long as I recognise it and talk about it. However, other emotions seem to be giving me a lot more trouble. A couple of months ago, walking back from therapy, it hit me just how much shame I carry around with me. I’d always considered myself to have reasonable self esteem, despite the mental health problems. If asked, I can name good things about my personality/behaviour without guilt or hesitation, and I generally think I’m a decent person. Both of these things are a world away from how I felt as a teenager, so by comparison, I must have good self esteem, right? But what hadn’t occurred to me was that any sense of self esteem I had was entirely dependent on me not behaving, thinking, or feeling certain ways.

There’s a concept in humanistic counselling known as conditions of worth, which is related to unconditional versus conditional love. Loving someone unconditionally means loving them for who they are, regardless of what they do. Obviously this could be difficult taken to extremes, but in every day circumstances it looks like the parent who explains to their child why a behaviour was dangerous/hurtful without shaming the child (avoiding labels like “you’re so bad/stupid”), cuddling them and validating their distress when they are upset rather than telling them to pull themselves together, or supporting them if they’re struggling with school instead of getting cross and insisting they’re just not trying hard enough to make friends/pass tests. All those alternatives – labelling children, shaming them for expressing certain emotions, blaming them when they find situations difficult – and more, over time, send the message to a child that they are only lovable if they meet certain conditions.

This is very much how I was made to feel. Outwardly, my mum used to tell me it didn’t matter if I didn’t always get As at school, what sort of job I ended up with, how I chose to live my life as long as I was happy. Covertly, I received all sorts of messages about what was acceptable to her and what wasn’t. It wasn’t acceptable to be gay – it was unnatural and disgusting. It wasn’t acceptable to be physically unwell, because she was “a rubbish nurse”, and anyway, you could keep yourself going however bad you felt if you applied enough willpower. Similarly, it wasn’t acceptable to be sensitive, either physically (to temperature, certain materials, foods, crowds, noise) or emotionally (to criticism, bullying, etc). It wasn’t acceptable to be upset without a reason she deemed good enough. It wasn’t acceptable to take your problems outside of the family. It wasn’t acceptable to tell her if she said or did something hurtful. Emotions, in general, were not acceptable – you had to function however bad you felt inside. Vulnerability was not acceptable, because it was weakness, and weakness was dangerous, it allowed people to hurt you (your fault, not theirs). Having a different opinion to her on ethical, social, or religious issues was unacceptable, although my dad was much worse for that when it came to politics. I was lovable when I was being clever – this got me the most attention as a child – well behaved, and not making a fuss about anything. I was unlovable when I was anxious, upset, angry, overwhelmed, or showed any physical or emotional need she didn’t understand or deem ‘valid’.

I’ve carried that into adulthood, and every time I feel something that pushes those buttons, I feel immense shame. My rational side thinks I’m a pretty good person, who deserves to be treated with respect and kindness – the scared little child inside me is furious that I am pathetic and weak enough to ever require support, encouragement, information, rest, or love. This makes me hugely defensive if someone tries to explain something I think I should know (even if I don’t know it), turns me into a complete doormat if my opinion conflicts with someone else (so I agree to medical treatment I don’t want, or walk out of the hairdressers in tears because I hate what they’ve done, but couldn’t tell them), and makes me feel incredibly self destructive if I need something from someone that they can’t give, or if I’m angry with someone.

Anger is another emotion I struggle with. It is unacceptable to me, so it seeps into bitterness, self harm, and passive aggression. I feel huge amounts of shame about those responses too, especially any sort of passive aggressive response, because I associate that with mum. It’s probably no coincidence that the most outwardly stable I’ve ever appeared was when I was involved in campaigning and advocacy with an eating disorder organisation. This served the dual purpose of giving me an outlet for the anger I felt over past mistreatment (particularly poor quality NHS mental health treatment, but also the misunderstanding I got from mum over my eating disorder), while still being acceptable to my conditions of worth. I wasn’t blaming mum, I was blaming poor understanding of eating disorders. I wasn’t asking for support, I was campaigning for others to receive better support. I didn’t have to appear vulnerable, because the sense of community I found in the others involved with the organisation helped maintain my recovery. The position they took on eating disorders (“biologically-based brain disorders”) was non-threatening, because it didn’t require me to consider the abuse, but still took all blame off of me. This all came at a price, and gradually I became more and more uncomfortable with the focus on biology, more aware of how precipitous my recovery was, and of how I had been affected by my parents’ behaviour as I grew up. But for a while, it seemed to stabilise me, superficially.

I don’t know what to do with anger that threatens my sense of what makes me a lovable and worthwhile person. I don’t know what to do with all that shame, except to keep dragging it out of the shadows to show people, to watch their reactions carefully, to test whether I really am all that bad or whether maybe I can start expanding the definition of acceptable a bit. But it took me a long time to become aware of how sadness felt, and to get used to talking about it rather than suppressing it. Maybe noticing and thinking will eventually lead to feeling and processing these other, far more unacceptable emotions, as well.

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I haven’t posted in a while. I can think of a couple of reasons why. I was extra busy for a few weeks of July and the start of August, helping my wife out after she had a minor operation. Then, I was just starting to write an update here last week when I got a phone call from the local hospital asking me to come in much earlier than expected for another procedure, so we’ve had a right summer of it.

My operation was a laparoscopy for the purpose of diagnosing endometriosis. The surgeon didn’t seem confident that he would find anything (I always wonder how much doctors are influenced by my mental health history when assessing the likelihood that I am genuinely unwell), but he did, and he lasered the obvious bits out. I’m now over the worst of the pain, and waiting to see what my rather battered reproductive system throws at me next month. For the last few years I’ve spent at least half of every month dreading the start of my period, since it usually involves much more pain than most people seem to report, and sometimes – unpredictably – leaves me screaming in agony. I’ve collapsed in the toilets at college, in coffee shops, on holiday while staying with friends, in supermarkets, all sorts. I’ve looked for patterns, but all I’ve been able to work out is that if my IBS is really bad, the pain might be worse than usual (although given what the surgeon found it seems that cause and effect might be the other way around there – if the endo is being more inflammatory than usual, it will negatively affect my IBS), and if I drink any alcohol in the week before my period I *will* be in the worst sort of pain. I’m glad to have an answer, especially one that means I really was in more pain than most, not just being a delicate little flower. On the other hand, the results also have consequences for the way my wife and I plan to have children, for my future health, and I have to think through some treatment options as well, because it will come back.

I think I’ve also been quiet because I was so upset about the CMHT assessment I wrote about last time. I did write about it a bit last time, but my wife pointed out that I had been quite vague about what it was that had upset me. The way the psychiatrist treated me made me feel really ashamed. On the face of it what he actually said wasn’t surprising. He suggested I met partial criteria for various personality disorders (particularly borderline and avoidant), which is a fairly logical thing for a psychiatrist to say when faced with a self harming adult with a history of abuse, a morbid fear of social situations and depression that mainly presents as an overwhelming feeling of numbness. That in itself might have been hard for me to hear, because I’ve been taught throughout my whole time in contact with the mental health services that I must do everything I can to avoid being labelled with a PD, but I could have seen his point if what he said seemed a fair assessment of me and my current problems. However, he was determined to convince me, specifically, that I am emotionally unstable, based on the self harm, and I disagree with that. I’m not at all an impulsive person – if anything I could do with being more impulsive, I’m far too risk averse – and my experience of self harm is that the urge to do it builds slowly, over weeks, sometimes even months, usually tipping over into action in nasty ‘perfect storm’ situations when literally everything is going wrong and I finally crack. The problem isn’t my response to that last thing to go wrong though, because in other circumstances I can cope with isolated stressful events. The problem is the ongoing (annoyingly stable) low mood and high anxiety that steals all my resilience from me, and that’s what I wanted help with. The self harm was far more habitual when I was a teenager – now it’s just something that happens when things are at their absolute worst, and although I need to keep an eye on where I am in terms of urges to do it, on a daily basis it’s not really The Problem.

When I tried to explain this to the psychiatrist he shouted over me, came out with the comments I mentioned last time about being in denial/hiding behind my studies, and ended the appointment. Three weeks later I got a letter saying that the CMHT refused to offer any treatment other than this one, ten week DBT skills group, the contents of which I’ve covered five or six times before in my life in groups that utilise the exact same DBT modules. Worse than that, they had spoken to the primary care mental health services and other secondary care therapy services, getting them to agree they would not accept a referral for me from anyone else as this group was the only appropriate option. They’d even written to my GP, telling her that everyone was in agreement that this was what I should do, and that I should be encouraged to re-engage with the psychotherapy service for this group. Luckily, my GP didn’t agree (best GP ever, it’s so hard to find one that’s really good with mental health), and supported me in sending a letter of complaint. I pointed out that lack of skills wasn’t the problem, what I was looking for was help to work on the effects of the abuse, and that the other assessment I had at the psychotherapy service that I wrote about last time, in which I was terrified of the therapist, was hardly enough evidence to determine whether I had certain ‘stable, pervasive and inflexible’ personality traits. I felt hugely relieved that my GP backed me up in saying that none of this really added up for her, and that I was right to complain. I’m still waiting to hear back from the CMHT though, they’re clearly not in a hurry. I suppose there’s always PALS/ICAS but I don’t want a fight, I just wanted some support.

I’m not really sure how I feel about it all at the moment, I’ve been more focused on getting better from the laparoscopy. I’ve also been distracted by being a guinea pig for an LGBT therapy organisation, who needed people to test-study the modules of a new postgrad certificate they’re offering. That’s been really interesting, and has helped me feel a bit more confident about going back to university next month. My mood has been a bit better for the last month or so too, leading me to wonder what I’m doing contesting the CMHT’s decision, putting myself at risk of more crap from them. But then, what I wanted wasn’t just help to resolve the current period of low mood, I was also after help to properly deal with the effects of the abuse, so I could avert future crises. I’m probably on a train to nowhere with that one – mental health services are notorious for focusing overly on symptoms at the expense of causes. I also have the private therapist I’ve been seeing to help me with that. I could really do without having that additional financial pressure, but I was recently awarded some disability benefit that will cover her fees for now.

I was treated with such respect when I had my laparoscopy. I was terrified of the anaesthetic, and of being sick afterwards (I have a very long standing phobia of vomiting), but the staff were incredibly patient and did everything they could to make me comfortable, including using painkillers less associated with nausea and letting my wife stay with me throughout the whole day (their policy is to send family members away to wait for visiting times), apart from when I was actually in theatre. I was open about having mental health problems, and apart from the surgeon being slightly dismissive of my concerns around hormonal treatments, every other staff member treated me as if my anxiety was just as valid a problem as my endometriosis.

I’ve never felt that way about the mental health services. I don’t understand why they are so reluctant to treat people with dignity and empathy. It makes me want to cry to think of how ashamed and alone I’ve been made to feel by CAMHS/CMHT services at various points in the last decade and a half. It’s upsetting to realise how much mistreatment I’ve put up with, silently, convinced it was my fault and that if I would just try harder to get better the professionals would be nicer to me. It’s only with my wife’s support that I can recognise when treatment has fallen short, and decide to challenge it. I feel desperately sad for my friends who don’t have someone to back them up in situations like this.

There are lots of other things I could have posted about in the last few weeks when I’ve been either too busy or in too much pain post-op, hopefully it won’t be so long next time.

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Injustice multiplied

It’s been another difficult week. This is partly down to fall out from the holiday we just got back from. but a lot of other stuff has been going on as well. My wife also had a minor operation on Tuesday, and I’ve been busier than usual looking after her. Then I had to see a gynaecologist on Thursday, as my GP thinks I might have endometriosis, and finally I had a CMHT assessment on Friday.

The assessment was probably the most stressful part of the week. I was last assessed by the local CMHT in February, and they referred me to a psychoanalytic therapy service. I had my assessment with the therapy service in May, but decided against further treatment with them. I found the therapist there really intimidating: she wasn’t trying to be warm or engaging like any of the previous therapist I’ve seen, and it felt more like an interrogation than an assessment. She asked very blunt questions, like why I felt the people who raped me had chosen me (definite victim blaming implications there), and whether I thought it was a good idea for me to be in my current career. Their approach at the unit is to wait for you to speak, and I find that really hard – once I trust someone a bit it’s hard to shut me up, but just sitting there staring at me like a snake isn’t really going to facilitate that. And her whole manner – the coldness, the implied judgements, the air of not giving a shit about me – profoundly reminded me of being treated similarly by my mum and others in the past, which was really distressing. While I realise part of psychoanalytic therapy is about discussing the projections the client makes onto the therapist, this wasn’t just transference – that woman was just scary and triggering and not at all helpful. So I thought maybe the CMHT would have other ideas about things that could help me.

It’s been five years since I have had any ongoing support from NHS mental health services. I had mixed experiences with previous treatment in another county – my CPN there was helpful, but the main psychiatrist I saw was as cold and invalidating as they come. They could also be quite unpredictable. One example: at one appointment in early 2007 the doctor suggested I could be admitted to hospital to have my meds changed, as I had a history of reacting badly to withdrawing from and starting new medication. At the next, when I was really struggling with withdrawal and asked if hospital was still an option, I was told hospital couldn’t keep me safe and my desire to be admitted was a sign that I was becoming too dependent on the services. There were a lot of incidences like that regarding that particular doctor. I was also treated poorly by the eating disorder services. I was grabbed by a family therapist when I was having a panic attack and stood up to leave the room during a group session, and then chased down the corridor to the day room by her, shouting about how I would die if I didn’t engage with treatment. After discharge and a re-referral the following year, having individual sessions with that woman was made a condition of them helping me again. I eventually put in a formal complaint about that, and received an apology, but that was years later – at the time I was incredibly unwell and vulnerable, and their treatment put me at greater risk.

As a result, for five years I’ve kind of ‘sworn off’ NHS mental health services. However, last winter I was desperate, in another part of the country, and having left it five years I thought maybe things might have changed a bit. And the doctor I saw then was nice enough, although I was so shocked by seeing a nice doctor I forgot to ask what I was supposed to do for support while waiting for this therapy referral to come through. After that didn’t work out, and my self harm got really out of control in May, I was re-referred. I guess I was lulled into a false sense of security by how smoothly it went in February, because the (different) doctor I saw this time was totally different. He accused me of being in denial about the result of the therapy unit assessment (of course I disagree with it, I was so scared by that woman I said whatever I thought she wanted to hear until she let me leave), and of using my psychology studies to obstruct treatment. I asked about the specific symptoms I was supposed to be in denial about, and explained to him that my behaviour with that particular therapist was not representative of my behaviour with other professionals (those who are not lizard people), but he wasn’t having any of it. It’s impossible to disagree with a psychiatrist determined to turn every point you make into evidence of your defensiveness and denial. He started talking over me after ten minutes and at fifteen told me firmly that they didn’t ever offer ongoing support, it was all target driven, and that he would pass my details onto the psychology team with a view to helping me with the problems the therapist thought I had.

So that went well.

Things got a little farcical after that. I went to pick up a wheelchair we had hired for my wife while she’s recovering from this operation, and got so distracted I accidentally took it for a walk on the town moor, in full sun, through the cow poo and everything. How on earth I got that lost I don’t know. I was so hot and bothered by the time I got home I burst into tears and cried on/ranted to my wife for about an hour, before swearing off NHS mental health services for another five years. Probably.

I’ve said this on Facebook and Twitter over the last few days, but I’m really angry about how unjust all this feels. It seems pretty common to people seeking support for the effects of abuse, bullying, and other forms of trauma. So, you’re victimised and traumatised through no fault of your own (regardless of what that therapist thought). In my case this has included emotional abuse and neglect, bullying at school, and rape when I was 18. I had no safe person to talk to about any of these things, and every time I sought help I was invalidated and blamed. The teachers at my school accused me of just being too sensitive – the people bullying me were just being kids. My mum accused me of attention seeking and trying to hurt her when she found out about my eating disorder and self harm. The mental health services accused me of not taking enough responsibility for myself from day one, as a scared and traumatised sixteen year old who had never been taught what to do with difficult emotions. There’s the second injustice – first you are traumatised, secondly the resulting problems are your fault. And thirdly, if you are lucky(?) enough to receive some form of help, there is often a punitive element. In eating disorder treatment I was always being told off for not trying hard enough, even though I was trying so hard I was eating my meals in tears at the day unit. In another type of therapy I had, any form of self harm resulted in a 24 hour ban from speaking to a therapist, and they kicked me out because my weight was too low after a few months. My psychiatrist told me age 18 that I would always be the way I was, and that I’d just have to learn to live with it. The only time I ever cried in front of him (in desperation, because medication side effects had made me suicidal) he stared at me for five minutes, then said “I can’t do anything about this”.

And finally, it’s hard to even be angry about all of this because there is a cacophony of voices in my head, put there by my parents, doctors, teachers, and society in general, telling me that I’m playing the victim, I just need to get a grip, take some responsibility, and stop trying to get other people to clean up my messes. I want to apologise for my distress by listing all the things I’ve done in the name of recovery – eventually gaining to a healthy weight by myself, reading hundreds of self help books, teaching myself to live independently and to form stable relationships, graduating last year after dropping out of my education five times. I’ve always tried so, so hard to engage with the services in an ‘appropriate’ way, ask for what I need clearly, not resort to desperate gestures when they screw with me, and it makes no difference. And I feel pathetic, because I’m getting sucked into their game, in which no one deserves help or support unless they can prove they are ‘deserving’ enough.

Maybe if society didn’t look away nervously when the subject of abuse came up, slap bullies on the back and tell victims that it’s character building, and actively fucking condone rape, there wouldn’t be a mess in the first place.

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No going back

The much-considered holiday happened. It was half lovely, and half an absolute fucking disaster. The lovely part was time spent walking with A along the coast and through the heaths, meeting friends, and spotting butterflies (my number one favourite distraction from mentalism! It is pleasing on both the nerdiness and aesthetic fronts). Less lovely was the time spent around my family. The family as a unit seems to be totally unravelling, and there was an incredibly tense, claustrophobic atmosphere in the house. My siblings all seem grumpy, distracted, and anxious, as I would be too if I was still living there, trying to cope with the house being sold and the uncertainty over where I would be living in a few months. My dad was in a bad shape medically for a couple of different reasons, one fixable, one less so, so he was in pain and short tempered a lot of the time. And my mum appears to have no more fucks left to give. It was like having the mum I had as a teenager back. I keep typing and deleting sentences, trying to explain exactly what it was that she did to make me so upset, but it’s really difficult to pin down and it all sounds so trivial.

There was the issue of dinner. Every evening she would make it obvious that she had a plan, but then she wouldn’t do anything about it until late – not ask for help, not actually start making it, not tell us to sod off and get our own damn dinner. When we asked what we could do to help we were treated like we were nagging or told she was going to do it all herself, in a minute (or, rather, at 8.30pm when she’d run out of cider). There was dad’s birthday. He wanted to go to the pub with all of us for a drink, but there was only a half-hour window in which to do this as he had to pick up my youngest sister. Mum had spent the previous two hours looking at the newspaper, alternatively whinging about how much she had to do that afternoon (make birthday cake and dinner) while refusing any offers of help. Then A and I were told they were leaving right that minute to go to the pub, and complained at when we took five minutes to get ready. By the time we got there he’d already left, and mum launched into a tirade about how dysfunctional the family all were, how she was the only sane one and she should just give up and be dysfunctional too. She kept telling my wife she was part of the family now, as an excuse for being rude. She obviously couldn’t give a crap about spending time with us – she wasn’t working for the first three days I was there, but first she had to clean the study, then she went to have coffee with her friend because that’s what she did every Saturday, and on Sunday I can’t even remember what the excuse was, she just couldn’t be arsed. Without a trace of irony, she and dad had a long discussion about how awful child abuse was, with an extended monologue by her in the middle about how family was the most important thing and she would kill anyone who hurt one of us. When we were going to a town five minutes from her work and got ready early enough to not inconvenience her, she suddenly decided dad needed to give us a lift, even though dad wasn’t going to be ready for another hour and didn’t need to go to that town.

No one else was safe either. She shouted at my brother for smoking at midnight when we were sleeping. She called both my younger brothers assholes repeatedly, because they were both quiet and stressed out – one works incredibly long shifts at a hotel, the other keeps having unexplained seizures – and weren’t sociable or obedient enough when she wanted them to be. She called my sister’s friend a bicycle (a reference to the number of sexual partners she has) (not in the earshot of the friend at least: she once drunkenly told a boyfriend of mine she locked her bedroom door when he stayed over as he had bipolar disorder) and a dumb blonde, and then said she sleeps around because her mother spoilt her. She had moved into my youngest sister’s bedroom – my sister is moving away permanently soon, but hasn’t completely left yet. At twenty, I would’ve been terrified to have nowhere to call home if everything went wrong. My bedroom has been empty for five years this month, I don’t know why mum didn’t just take that one.

Some of this sounds ridiculous, I know. So mum didn’t want to make dinner – it’s 2015, she doesn’t have to make dinner if she doesn’t fucking want to, make someone else do it (we did, in fact, put this to her, but she wasn’t having it). It wasn’t that, though. I don’t expect to be waited on, or for there to be any sort of great fuss and fanfare about me being there. I’m happy to look after myself. But it was chaotic and unpredictable, and A and I whispered the whole time we were in the house so as not to upset anyone. Being there was like walking on eggshells, every so often breaking one and getting stabbed in the foot. No one in the family was doing anything for anyone else, and when we tried, we were shot down. They were all stressed and lashing out at the nearest living thing, when everything would have been much easier had they been supporting each other. There was no empathy and no understanding, and they were all out for themselves, with the exception of my sister closest to me in age, who tried to protect and cheer mum up so much it was painful to watch. She doesn’t get anything back, either – when she was stressed out over an interview-type situation mum and dad just insisted she would be fine and refused to hear anything she was saying.

I am finding this all really difficult to write about, for several reasons. First of all part of my head keeps telling me that I’m being ridiculous, these are all trivial things, I am a spoilt little bitch. Another tells me that I’m playing the victim, being so negative about my family, and that means I’m turning into mum, who is relentlessly negative about everyone. So I can’t be angry with her because that was always unsafe when I was younger, and because I don’t want to turn into her. I can barely remember half of what upset me while we were there either – I was so anxious to avoid a confrontation, and to smooth everything over, that I wasn’t paying attention to most of the poisonous comments floating about. I had to really resist slotting back into my role in the family: half scapegoat, half diplomat. I spent a couple of evenings in tears and dreamed about self harming at least twice.

We’re not going back. I’ve already told them we’re likely to be too busy studying to visit this Christmas. I said goodbye to the house, my old room, the dogs. We will visit people individually when they have moved out and are more settled, less stressed, but that is the last time I’m going to put myself or A through that.

I expected this trip to be hard, but not quite this hard. At least we had places to escape to when it got too much.

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Working backwards

This week has been quite difficult. We’re going on holiday for two weeks starting tomorrow, and about ten of those days will be spent at my parents’ house. My partner, my therapist, and I have all questioned whether this is a particularly sensible idea given what I’m trying to work through at the moment, but there are extenuating circumstances. My parents are trying to sell their house; once that happens they and most of my siblings will have to find other places to live, and it seems likely that most of them will end up in different houses to each other. My dad is even talking about moving to another country, on his own. The house they’re in now is the last home I had before moving away from them – I lived there from the age of 17-25. I want to see the house, the surrounding countryside, the dogs, and yes, I do want to see the people before they scatter. There won’t be an old home to visit next year, and I think it would hurt more not to go at this point.

I’ve been trying to mentally prepare myself for all of this at the same time as making practical arrangements. It was downright weird talking to mum on the phone yesterday after spending so much time talking about her in therapy recently. It’s so hard to hang on to the knowledge of how cruel and neglectful she was when I was younger when I’m faced with the older, softer version now. That’s not to say that she’s completely different – she was a nightmare last year during my graduation and wedding, the tendency to make everything about her and what is convenient for her kept popping back up. But now she has things in her life that make her happy (volunteer work in particular has made a huge difference over the last decade), she is easier to be around. This is good, because if she was still as angry and resentful with me now as she was then I don’t think we would be able to have any sort of relationship, but it also creates a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. Like I said, it’s hard to hold the two truths together in my head that yes, she was abusive but also no, she isn’t actively abusive now, and the latter does not negate the former. It can also be hard to hang on to the acceptance that she’s never going to be the mother I needed, and she’s never going to apologise. When she’s kind to me or shows some interest a little part of me perks up and starts hoping to feel loved and validated, and when her mood or behaviour changes again (five minutes later, an hour later, the next day – it always does), that part is devastated all over again.

Another thing that made this week difficult was starting to read a book about maternal narcissism. The book has been enlightening (i.e. my life! How did it get in this book?!) but upsetting. One of the main things I took away from reading the first couple of chapters was just how desperate for approval and love I am, and how that affects my behaviour. I had a really vivid and surreal dream the same day (well, that night) I started reading it as well. The specifics were just weird – aliens, popping a melting wall with a biro, as you do – but the main theme was that I was frantically trying to get to an appointment with an old therapist of mine who I was very attached to, and I kept being thwarted. I needed to see her because she was supposed to help me, and I woke up feeling devastated that I hadn’t managed to get to the appointment. The emotion rather than the detail was the important part – ever since then I’ve felt really vulnerable and little and clingy. It’s frightening and unsettling.

Tracing the feeling back a little further, there were some upsetting things going on last week as well. At a medical appointment, a doctor botched an examination in a really strange and obvious way, leaving me so disorientated I agreed to a procedure that isn’t really appropriate for my circumstances at the moment. Instead of complaining, asking to see someone else and arguing my point about the procedure, I went home confused, convinced I had imagined what had happened, and playing over and over again in my head how angry I thought they would be if I did complain. I ended up compromising: a few days later I phoned the clinic to explain that I got a bit flustered and needed another appointment to go through alternative options. Likewise, I was assessed by a psychological therapies team a couple of weeks ago, and agreed to a group I privately thought was totally unsuitable because I felt intimidated by the assessor, and then had to phone up and get my name taken off the waiting list later. I’m beginning to notice all of these examples of the extreme lengths I go to avoid any sort of confrontation, and it’s really distressing, because now I understand where that need came from. When it happens, my mind plays back all the times mum treated me like I was so mad and bad I was below contempt, and I feel so upset that this has left me unable to stand up for something as basic as competent medical treatment.

My wife and I have been reading a lot of books about abuse, neglect, attachment etc recently, and in another one a few months ago we came across the concept of emotional flashbacks: when a trigger sets off not intrusive memories or sensory phenomena, but a specific emotional state associated with the trigger. For example, when someone uses a tone of voice or a facial expression I associate with my mum in attack mode, I often start to feel this sense of incredible dread, hopelessness and desperation I remember feeling as a teenager when she was in the middle of one of her regular assassinations of my character. If I don’t work out what’s going on fairly quickly, I’ll start cringing into the surroundings (the sofa, the wall, hiding in a loo, just generally going into rabbit-in-the-headlights mode), dissociating, and being bombarded by intense urges to self harm – which is the exact way I used to react to her attacking me. And this isn’t limited to times when someone is angry with me for some reason, it can be a person walking past me on a street, or two other people arguing, if one is being particularly contemptuous or invalidating. This is different to the flashbacks I used to get of being raped: they usually involved vivid, intrusive memories of the rape itself, whereas my experience of emotional flashbacks has never had memories attached to it until very recently. Until recently, it was only the end result of acting on the urges to self harm that alerted me to the fact that anything was wrong. Then I started noticing a particular emotion that preceded the self harm. Then I started realising that there really were triggers for that emotion, it hadn’t just appeared out of nowhere. Then I made the connection that the triggers were all related to emotional abuse.

Having to work backwards is really confusing, but I think I am slowly beginning to notice earlier on in the chain. I haven’t had any thoughts of harming myself for a few weeks, after a particularly serious incident a bit less than a month ago. This week the thoughts came back. This was scary and frustrating, because I don’t WANT to be doing this for the rest of my life, and I get angry with myself for not being ‘better’. But instead of taking it for granted that I wanted to hurt myself because I wanted to hurt myself, I asked myself why the thoughts were there, and managed to find direct links to the book, the dream, and the fact that the last injury is healing now, which starts up a chorus of “well it wasn’t that serious then!” in my head. And all of that helped a little bit, because now I don’t feel so crazy, I feel like the thoughts are an understandable reaction to triggers that sent me into painful emotional states I experienced in the past.

I am an intelligent person who has spent half her life in and out of therapy, so insight was never a huge problem. It’s not as straightforward as having insight, though. Taking my feelings, experiences and memories seriously, and naming others’ treatment of me as unacceptable, is difficult when I’ve been programmed to take up invalidating myself where others left off. It’s also hard for me – even when I have noticed that I’m stuck in a flashback – to find the motivation to work through the feelings and not DO something quick and self destructive to dull the pain temporarily. That temptation to give in scares me. This is progress, at least: there have been times in my life when carrying on as I was felt far more terrifying than the alternative.

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Things that are dangerous to know

People have been telling me since I was 15 that one day I will write a book. This comment was first made after I handed in a piece of English GCSE coursework. This particular assignment was to write a short autobiography. Any higher in the education system and I would have failed in respect of that stipulation about length; I eventually ended up with 26 typed pages, single spaced. Luckily for me, flouting the word count didn’t become an offence until A levels, so my saga was returned with a perfect mark. I remember my head of year, Mr. Russell, walking into class a few minutes after these assignments had been returned to us, sitting down directly behind me at the table where our newly marked work had been piled, and starting to sift through. I liked Mr. Russell, he wasn’t someone to be afraid of, so I paid him no attention until he started to laugh. I looked over my shoulder and noticed a familiar sentence – he was laughing at my coursework, a chapter (of course I had chapters for an autobiography that was supposed to be four sides of A4. Precocious might be an appropriate word) I had entitled “10 Things I Learned From Our German Exchange Trip”, one bullet point of which was “Trust the colloquialism section of a phrase book at your own risk. Doing so could lead to awkward silences over spaghetti bolognese as you try frantically to work out exactly how you have just insulted your host family’s uncle”. Mr. Russell caught my eye, leaned forward and whispered “When you write your first book, I want a signed copy”.

Another notable feature of the autobiography was that it included my first attempt to write about my experience of being bullied a few years previously. This felt like a huge risk, as I had always been unable to talk about what had happened – whenever I had tried in the past, I had felt so ashamed I lost all ability to put words into sentences. Writing about it, knowing that other people would read those words, felt liberating. In the library at lunchtime, a boy in my class came over and asked why our year head was asking for my autograph. I hadn’t always been friendly with this particular boy – until he had come out as gay the year before he had been quite vicious, and an armchair psychologist could have accused him of directing mockery at others so no one would notice enough to guess and laugh at his own secrets. But relieved of this pressure he was actually very sweet, and so I let him read through my work. When he came to the section about bullying, he looked up at me and said “We really hurt you, didn’t we?”. It was so unexpected I had no idea how to reply. I eventually mumbled something to the affirmative, and accepted his apology. I then pointed him to my thoughts on the German Exchange, subconsciously aping his prior technique of misdirecting those at risk of noticing his vulnerability by clowning around. The difference was, whereas he had learned that ridiculing others distracted attention from himself, I had learned to ridicule myself before anyone else could get there. All of my jokes were at my own expense.

The reactions to my writing were confusing but, for the most part, gratifying. I discovered that writing well was something I could gain praise for, and that being honest about difficult experiences could sometimes produce unexpected reactions in people. It felt profoundly validating to get an apology from one of the main perpetrators of the bullying. Bullying which is mostly perpetrated with words is so difficult to pin down. During the worse phases I would sometimes think “I can’t take this any longer, if anything else happens during this lesson I will have to tell someone, I’m not making this up, this is awful” – and then it WOULD happen, someone would say something nasty and what was I supposed to do? Go to the teacher and say “Dan called me a loser”? Picking one incident alone as a breaking point never worked, because individually, each insult or action could easily be brushed off as trivial pre-teen banter, and my distress clearly an overreaction. I had no way of seeing that the damage was not just in the specific incidents, but the cumulative effect over the years: my self esteem was eroded, I was ostracised, I was suicidal by the time I was 11 years old. And at last, years later people had started to understand that. What’s more, because school wasn’t quite so unendingly awful for me by the time I was 15, it was safe for me to begin to understand that. It would have been impossible to keep getting up in the mornings if I’d realised just how bad it was at the time.

My autobiography was incomplete in just one respect. At various points, describing some childhood incident, I had started to write something less than favourable about one of my parents – and stopped. Some things were just too dangerous to write. Because when I was 15, my family had only owned a computer for a couple of months, and as I was so slow on a keyboard, my mum had kindly offered to type my coursework out for me when I was done handwriting the draft.

It was a year or two later that I started writing in earnest. My first audience was the Something Fishy message board for people with eating disorders, and they rewarded well for openness, honesty, and willingness to dig for the meanings behind certain thoughts and behaviours. I felt torn in two directions. On one hand, I desperately craved validation and understanding for what I was going through because it was extremely lacking at home, but on the other, I punished myself severely for writing anything that would have been unacceptable to my parents. Being vulnerable was terrifying, and as still happens now, set off a lengthy monologue in my head about what an awful, lying, manipulative, attention seeking waste of space I was. I found myself trying to cover the footprints of my distress as I went: one sentence dedicated to how scared I was of my eating disorder, another three insisting that I wasn’t genuinely unwell, just pretending for attention (a phrase borrowed from my mother: I had been playing at being crazy for so long I must be starting to believe it). A paragraph describing flashbacks about particularly traumatic experiences relating to the bullying, followed by a few hundred words on how little I had to complain about compared to people who had been bullied with physical or sexual violence. A post about something my mum had said or done that had resulted in self harm and a trip to hospital, accompanied by an explanation of how and why I deserved it and why no one should blame mum because she’d had a hard life. And throughout it all, I made people laugh with strange turns of phrase and self-deprecating jokes.

I think, if I’d been older at that point, and living away from home, I might have been quicker to learn through interaction with caring others to take myself and my pain seriously. But after every moment of realisation of how much devastation had been wrought on my mind, and how little love, understanding and support I had at home, I had to go downstairs, sit at the dining table, and eat with the people responsible for a fair amount of my distress. I relied on them still to keep a roof over my head and food on the table, and as I got older and less able to tolerate education, work, and social settings, there were stretches of months at a time when my family and the mental health services were the only people I interacted with. So there was a limit to how much I could cope with other people taking me seriously, and a limit to how much dangerous knowledge I could tolerate at any one time.

I have a history of killing prior versions of myself, dating from my first decision, age 10, to destroy my unacceptable child self, who kept getting herself teased with her ridiculous naivety and lack of cool. I changed the spelling of my name and tried as hard as I could to keep the lid on every reaction I felt, every word I considered speaking, screening frantically for childishness and stupidity. Similarly at age 24, I tried so hard to disown and destroy the teenage version of myself, who knew and spoke of dangerous things. I shoved her in a box and locked her up, and punished any hint of a return to type. This was during my last serious relapse into anorexia, when I became too unwell to live independently (again), and had to find a way of staying in recovery while returning to live with my parents. I settled on absolute denial that my upbringing or life experiences mattered: my eating disorder was an illness, an unfortunate biological predisposition manifest due to unintentional weight loss from the damage psych meds and allergies caused to my digestive system. All teenagers are crazy, I had been no crazier than most, and if it hadn’t been for that bout of malnutrition my adolescent disordered eating would have resolved itself.

Okay, whatever you need to tell yourself to survive.

I don’t have, to hand, a copy of the autobiography I wrote at age 15. I do have a lot of writing from age 17-19: posts from forums, letters to my therapist. I thought I was so melodramatic and ridiculous at that age, but now I realise I was just taking up where others had left off: punishing myself for taking my feelings seriously.

This is one of the things I wrote, age 18. I knew more then than I do now.

You always tell me what a bad baby I was. Hazel says there’s no such thing as a bad baby. Babies cry when they are hurt or hungry, they are not bad. Well, I was a bad baby. I cried for ten months, almost non-stop the way you tell it. It turned out I had a milk allergy, that I had been in agony all that time and no one had realised. But still, when you retell it, you just say I was a bad baby. You still make me feel guilty. I was a bad toddler too. I turned from an angel to a monster overnight when my little sister was born. I put you through so much. I was good when I was being perfect, when I was getting the grades, in all the bands and choirs and getting the lead roles on stage. Then, I was good, you supported me, came to all my concerts and plays. Then everything went wrong. I was hurting, for no apparent reason. Why was that a cardinal sin?

I’ve been going to the dentist almost every week for six weeks, because I have an infection in one of my teeth and it won’t clear up. An hour in the car with you every week. No way out. Last week you started telling me how dad didn’t love you anymore, then that you didn’t care because you don’t need anyone, you are self sufficient. Then how evil gran was for being so cold and shut off from you. Then how you yourself couldn’t help being shut off from me because I have hurt you too much by hurting myself. I have pushed you too far! How many times have you told me that? In arguments: I am evil, I am cold, I am heartless, I am attention seeking, I am playing at being sick, I am just doing this to push you away, I have played at being sick for so long I am actually staring to believe it. ‘Get that stupid zombie look off your face’. In the subtext: I’m allowed to detach from you when you hurt me but you have to stay present while I attack you, tell you I don’t feel anything for you, tell you you have hurt me so much, I’m allowed to disown you, to tell you you are nothing more than a lodger. But don’t you DARE dissociate. You have to feel what you have put me through.

And yesterday in the car – ‘I gave you everything, I made sure you didn’t know about the money problems, I went without, it’s my fault, I spoilt you’. Doesn’t explain how I knew we were close to being forced into bed and breakfast when I was eight, or how you planned to divorce dad to get away from the legal problems, how I always wore my cousins’ hand-me-downs and we never had holidays and I sat there at Christmas choosing the cheapest things out of catalogues so I wouldn’t upset you and how one year, Christmas was nearly cancelled. It sounds so trivial. It doesn’t explain how I knew when you miscarried. How I comforted you when our dog got sick and when she died I didn’t react while my sister and brothers were devastated. Why I was so proud when I didn’t cry when I got hurt. Why I withdrew from you. Why I couldn’t tell you that the people at school were making me want to kill myself. Why, when I got my period, I was so ashamed I didn’t tell you for ten months, until you forced it out of me. Why I got sick. Why I took to starving to show you how much I was hurting. Why I would rather cut myself to numb my feelings than ask for help. Yeah, I had an idyllic childhood.

And when I needed you most, you cut me off. When I first told someone about the cutting, and they offered to help me tell you, you went to bed so you wouldn’t have to hear. When I first asked for help for my eating you told me, in a cold voice, that you thought I had ‘grown out of that nonsense’. You told me recently that it was perfectly normal for four year olds to have panic attacks. When I was at my sickest you took it as a personal insult and tried to throw me out of the house. When I tried to get on with my life, did the only thing I could and tried to find somewhere else to live, you refused to write a letter saying I couldn’t live at home anymore, so I couldn’t get benefits and couldn’t finance it…you were quite willing to disown me in private, but when it came to making it official, no way.

Nothing is ever consistent with you, is it? You tell me that dad doesn’t love you, that you don’t love him, that he’s a bastard. Then when I grow away from him, or challenge you to do something about it, you deny you said anything. ‘He’s my best friend’. You moan constantly about having too many kids, and about how shit your life is. How you couldn’t become an archaeologist because you are: too shy, too old, too stupid, you don’t have the time, you have too many kids. You start a course, to and make your life better then drop it and somehow always make ME feel guilty. You always have to be the martyr. ‘Oh, I won’t have any’, ‘I’ll go without’, ‘I don’t mind *theatrical sigh*’. ‘I can manage’. I used to call you the queen of guilt trips. You really do have a talent there.

So why is your pain valid and mine not? Why are you always the victim, when it’s me who is hurting so much I’m systematically self destructing, How can this be all my fault?! Why won’t you see that it’s not about you, that not EVERYTHING is about you, that you have taught me that my needs are bad, that I should be able to ‘just cope’, that I CAN’T and that’s why I’m restoring to such extreme cries for help? And if your life is so fucking awful why don’t you DO something about it instead of making me feel guilty for existing?

I think you are scared. You can’t acknowledge the fact that I have reasons for being this way, because that would mean facing up to the fact that you have failed in some way. That you are just like gran, putting your own needs before your child’s, turning into stone and retreating into your own pain when she so desperately needs you. I NEED YOU. You are my MOTHER, damn it. Why won’t you listen to me? You tell me you will, and I try to explain, but you won’t listen…you don’t want to. You bring it all back to you. Say, but WHY? Who hurt you? What’s wrong? Hey, I understand the eating thing, I was anorexic when my dad died when I was 16 but Katy, I had a REASON. You don’t.

And people wonder why I’m so fixated on reasons, why I feel the need to justify every emotion that exists inside me. Every thought must be explained, every action analysed. You wonder why I couldn’t talk to you, why I am so closed off. I hate you. For being a martyr, for making me hate myself, for making me believe I was defective because I couldn’t cope, because I needed help, for making me believe I was evil and cruel, for making me feel such intense guilt I wanted to murder myself. I hate you for not being there for me. For making me feel so inadequate, and weak, and pathetic, and melodramatic, and attention seeking, and BAD. I AM NOT BAD. I HAVE NEVER BEEN BAD. You wonder…you don’t really. You know. You hate me because I am living proof of your neuroses. You cut yourself off from me because I am the embodiment of your needs. You convince yourself that I am just evil, bad, a stupid teenager, because you can see your pain in me, you can see your cruel words on my skin, you can see how fucked up you and the rest of your family are by looking into my eyes, seeing that I’ve been crying again, that I’ve been crying inside for YEARS and you have ignored it. You have created this intolerable pain inside me. You have taught me never to let it out. So you have made me what I am.

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The List

The last time I kept a paper journal was at age 14, and I was hopeless at updating it regularly. I remember writing bad poetry and something incredibly corny about a person I had a crush on. It wasn’t until my family got a computer two years (I’M SO OLD OMG) later that I discovered how helpful it was to translate the confusing contents of my head into black and white text, especially if it was to be read by others on a forum or later, a blog.

Despite not being a paper journal person, I am a sucker for a pretty notebook. I have about ten lurking in my study, awaiting some sort of divine inspiration. A couple of months ago I went into my study, picked up the prettiest of all the notebooks, and started making some notes. Nothing as complex as sentences, just words or phrases. The first, after reading an article on narcissistic parents, was simply “narcissism (mum?)”. That first entry seems to have set the tone for the whole thing.

In the two months since I wrote those two words, my most aesthetically pleasing notebook has become the repository for all my most unwanted thoughts on attachment and abuse. One of the pages I keep going back to contains a list. I love lists – my thoughts are so chaotic, my head so full, that sometimes I can barely speak coherently for being distracted by it all, and lists help me bring order into that chaos. This particular list describes unhelpful behaviours that my mother, father, or both, displayed when I was younger. The critic in my head is very displeased with the list, calling it a spiteful exercise in criticising my parents, but the critic is the reason I made the list. I have been taught to minimise, deny, ignore, forget, or disbelieve anything they – mostly mum – said or did, and as an adult this is really affecting my ability to take myself and my experiences seriously. I needed the list as proof that I wasn’t making things up, I wasn’t exaggerating. The list includes names I was called, ways in which my experience, opinions or personality was belittled or labelled, unhelpful and untrue beliefs about the world and how one should be in it that were pushed onto me, examples of physical abuse and so on.

When I was about nine, I suddenly started feeling intense dislike – revulsion, even – for my father. I couldn’t say why at the time, but it coincided with the beginnings of puberty and he’s never been very respectful of boundaries, so I came to assume it was some sort of heightened fear of having my privacy invaded. I was also being bullied at school, and he seemed so loud and ‘big’ a character to me that I worried I was also like that, and this was making me more of a target. I wanted to be invisible, so I distanced myself from the person who I saw as the source of my visibility. This still makes sense to me, but I never really considered my mother’s role in all of this. From the age of six or seven she had begun confiding all sorts of worries and stresses in me. I knew we were in a lot of financial trouble, I knew that my parents had considered divorcing in order for mum to escape the debts with us, and I knew dad had considered suicide so we could access his life insurance policy (I understand now that they are often void if a person has committed suicide, but I didn’t know that at seven). Aside from these more dramatic and concerning messages, I had a steady drip, drip, drip of “your father is so frustrating, he doesn’t listen, I don’t think he really loves me, he doesn’t respect my opinions, he’s so bad with business, he’s awful with money, he will ruin us” etc. This, apparently, is called parentification – piling adult stresses onto a child who is too young to cope with them, treating them more as ones own parent than a child. I internalised these complaints with a sense of outrage that my mother was being so unfairly treated, but when I acted accordingly, freezing dad out or being disrespectful, or worse, if I repeated something she’d said, all of a sudden I was in a huge amount of trouble with her. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. In this context, it makes perfect sense that I would feel conflicted about my father.

Given I had such difficulties with dad, I expected his list of misdemeanours in my journal to be much longer. In reality, the only major point I could think of was that he is very intolerant of opinions that are different to his, especially ideas he’d consider left wing. This did have a big impact on me growing up – discussions on political and social issues in my family were not discussions, they were an hour of being told extremely loudly (and drunkenly, usually) that you were very wrong and naive and ridiculous and here were all the reasons why and my father was right and the country was going to hell. This wasn’t an infrequent occurrence either, it happened several times a week, and so the twenty-five years I lived at home were a long time to have it vehemently drummed into my head that my opinions were invalid, laughable even. But if you can possibly steer him away from flammable substances such as the Daily Mail or the television, my dad can also be extremely kind, loving, and generous. His less appropriate behaviours are obvious, and as an adult it was much easier for me to name them and untangle myself from them. Now I have a pretty well-developed political and social identity which bears no resemblance to my father’s, and although I doubt the validity of my opinions a lot, I can clearly see where this came from.

The list for my mother is several times as long, and the examples are far more insidious, damaging, and also harder to pin down. It makes me sad to think that throughout my adolescence, my father was the target of all my anger, when in reality that might mostly have been because a) mum set me up to feel that way and b) he was the safer of my parents, the only one I could possibly allow myself to feel anger towards. The worst that would happen if I was angry with him was a bit of a grump about how unfair teenagers were and sometimes the appearance of a guilt-induced gift later on if he felt I actually had a point. Being angry with mum (regardless of whether I was having a teenage tantrum or was justifiably upset about something she’d done) would lead to a tirade of well-aimed abuse, character assassination, absolute denial of whatever I was accusing with the insinuation that I was insane, being given the silent treatment for days, and at the end of it all I would be left in my room, staring into space or cutting myself.

Luckily, as long as I don’t allow him to get onto the subject of Nigel Farage, I get along much better with dad these days.


Critic would like me to know that I am arrogant, ridiculous, self absorbed, unfair, cruel, making things up, exaggerating, melodramatic, attention seeking and…I dunno, I think ridiculous was in there several times actually, it’s their favourite. I’m writing this quick postscript because if I can label these thoughts as a reflection of how scary it was to write that post, and also of what mum would say if I ever said any of this to her, I can kind of distance myself from it a bit. It might be a good idea to record my reaction to all posts on here actually.

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Not too strong a word

I’ve kept a blog on my recovery from mental health problems for many years now. I wrote quite publicly, thinking that being open and honest would help me feel less ashamed and alone about my experience of eating disorders, self harm, post-traumatic stress and other such delights. In most instances, this worked: I wrote about experiences and thoughts and feelings that filled me with such confusion and shame, and doing so helped me both to make sense of them, and to receive feedback from others that the contents of my head were not so weird and broken as I thought. When I wrote a new post I would challenge my fear of vulnerability: would the world end if everyone on my Facebook friends list (close and extended family, fellow students on my degree, ex-work colleagues, friends, etc) read this? Usually the worst thing that happened – and this wasn’t even common – was an ever-so-slightly invalidating comment about how everyone gets depressed at times: the brush off, the making light of. For the most part, people responded supportively, and I felt more able to talk about that topic again in the future.

This system fell down around my ears when I starting considering my childhood in a new light. For years I had fudged my words around the behaviour of my mother when I was unwell as a teenager. I said that some of the things she did verged on inappropriate, crossed a line, were invalidating or hurtful. I reasoned that having a child with a serious mental illness was stressful, that she didn’t have any support for herself, and that it was understandable that she took things out on me. It took much longer to begin to tentatively label earlier experiences from my childhood as less-than acceptable. Maybe it wasn’t okay that I was made to feel guilty for crying a lot when I was a baby. Maybe the degree of force when I was smacked was excessive, and it wasn’t so normal to be quite so terrified of your parent when they were angry. Maybe I was often treated as my parent’s parent rather than a child. Maybe there was quite a lot of invalidation in my house. Maybe I had good reason to come to the conclusion that my opinions and my personality were unacceptable. Maybe.

It was treacherous territory, because whenever I had questioned my mother’s behaviour as a teenager she had denied everything, even incidents that had happened a few days prior. An example: my eating disorder became very severe when I was 17, and mum told me to move out as my behaviour was so disruptive. I was upset but went to see a local organisation which housed youth who would otherwise be homeless. Because I was under 18, I was told that in order to claim housing benefit I would need a letter from my parents saying our relationship had broken down irreconcilably. The next day I asked her to sign something to this effect – and she flatly denied ever telling me to move out. This sort of thing happened all the time – I’d be attacked in some way, only to be told I was imagining things or exaggerating when I tried to confront her. Repeatedly being made to feel crazy eroded my sense of reality, and so going back over incidents as an adult triggered a huge tirade in my head: I was just being melodramatic, making a mountain out of a molehill, making things out as worse than they were, trying to be the centre of attention, trying to find an excuse for my awful behaviour, I was basically a fucking awful person who deserved everything she got.

Reading up on attachment and on the behaviour of narcissistic parents was a revelation. I had so many thoughts on how this related to my experiences, both as a child and reflected in my mental health as an adult. But although my partner is very supportive and willing to talk things through with me, I really missed having that space to write and discuss my thoughts. I felt unable to use my previous blog, as lots of my relatives know where it is. While I don’t think this is a subject I should feel ashamed of either, being open about this in a space my family could access is not something I feel I or my mental health could cope with right now. Hence, a new blog, harder to find unless one deliberately goes looking – and I don’t think anyone in my family will, hopefully.

Two nights ago, I was writing about a recent lapse into self harm in my journal. One of the reasons I felt I had relapsed was that dealing with self harm, as with eating disorders, is easier than dealing with the things that created the propensity towards self destruction in the first place. Focusing on self harm recovery could mean writing a relapse prevention plan, steps for harm minimisation, exercises to discover what triggered it and how to avoid that situation occurring again, and so on. Focusing on recovery from self harm alone is somehow simpler and less threatening than focusing on recovery from abuse.

That was the first time I had ever written that particular word, despite having spent half of my life so far in and out of therapy – fifteen years in all, as I’m now in my early thirties. I still had to check with my partner that it wasn’t too strong a word. No.

I was emotionally and sometimes physically abused by my mother, and this is my space to write about it.

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