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Tuesday 8 September 2015

The Voice

We all want to be accepted. It is one of the aspects of being human. But what if the person who struggles the hardest to accept you is yourself? We all have our strengths and we all have our flaws. For some of us it is difficult to accept our strengths. So how on earth are we ever going to be able to live with our flaws? How can we accept that which seems unacceptable? Especially if these factors seem socially unacceptable, like mental illness? Would these traits be unacceptable in someone else? Someone you love? Probably not. But mental illness is often perceived as socially unacceptable. So, if I want to be accepted, then I had better keep this aspect of myself hidden.
Easy to say. So how do I come to accept who I am? All of me. Well I can't be sure. But, of course, I have a theory. It comes with understanding. Understanding and knowledge. Understanding who we are. And why we are who we are. What has made us who we are. Really knowing. And when we find this out sometimes we are shocked. Because we might be nothing like we thought we were!
And sometimes the things we saw as strengths turn out to be flaws and the flaws turn out to be strengths. Because it is living with flaws that gives us strength and empathy. So our flaws become a source of strength.
This process of understanding can be an enormous challenge. Feeling like your whole world turns upside down.
Having a breakdown that turns into a breakthrough.
I have read about people with all sorts of illnesses who say that they would not change a thing because of what they have learnt about themselves. How, not only do they accept their illness or disability, but they embrace it. Because it makes them who they are. And they accept and value who they are. Well, if I could change what happened to me, I would do it in a heartbeat. If I could choose not to have depression, anxiety and PTSD I would do that in a heartbeat. I try to accept who I am and I treasure the life I have now. But, like many, I am my own worst enemy. Given the slightest opportunity the critical voices in my head take on a volume and a strength all of their own. The expectations I have of myself are not even on the same scale as the expectations I have of others. My self-critic operates in an alternate universe that is All Powerful. But at least knowing that this is a symptom allows me to practise some strategies that I have been taught in order to attempt to moderate this critic. For me, it is helpful to challenge the critic to view myself as they would view someone else. To extent myself the same kindness, empathy, understanding and acceptance that I would extent to others. But it is so hard. Because at the times when I need it most my voice becomes a whisper and the critic becomes a roar. And, because voicelessness is a trigger for me, I can find myself on a slippery slope. Literally. It sometimes feels like trying to climb up a slippery dip that has been oiled. I can see the top. I know where I am. I know where I need to go. I know there are strategies to get to the top. But I can't always find them because my head is way too busy beating myself up for getting myself on the slippery dip in the first place. Why did I go on it? Who did I think I was? I SHOULD be able to get to the top. I SHOULDN'T need help to get there. Put these thoughts on REPEAT at maximum volume and off they go!
Now I know that this is my particular pattern of thinking. And over the last ten years I have learnt where this pattern came from. It developed as an eight year old little girl who was trying to make sense of sexual assault. But she didn't know how. She didn't even have a language for what was happening to her. So to make sense of this, she told herself that she must be bad. She must have done something terribly wrong. There was something terribly wrong with her. When these patterns of thinking develop at such a young age, when the brain is so immature, they are very hard, for me impossible, to break. Because for me they are part of my brain pathology. I just can't think different thoughts. That would be like telling me to grow 10cms taller. Or, like telling someone who is deaf to listen harder. So I have to try really hard not to beat myself up for not being able to think differently. But understanding why I think this way, why my critical guilt-ridden voice is so loud has been the greatest gift to me. Because I have learnt that I am not alone. In fact I am almost a textbook case of someone who has suffered trauma as a child. Which really brings me back to why I write this blog and why the response has been so overwhelming. Because sadly, whether you know it or not, statistics confirm that you know people like me and interact with them on a daily basis. This is why seeking help was critical to my survival. This is why awareness and acceptance of mental illness as a 'real' illness is so important. So that people can feel comfortable to seek help. Comfortable to open up about who they are- just like with any other illness. To not feel like they have to wear a mask. To not feel so overwhelmed with shame and guilt that their lives are no longer sustainable.
So here is a little story to illustrate what I mean. (Clearly I am "a work in progress"!)
About a month ago I noticed that I couldn't lift my left leg, then had dreadful back pain and pain down my leg.
My Voice (MV): That's funny. Oh well, it will be fine.
Hubby: You should see the doctor.
MV: I will go to chiropractor.
Chiro: You should see the doctor.
MV: Pain is getting better. I don't need to go to see Dr.
A week or so later I go to GP for prescriptions. At the end of the consultation I mention that I can't lift my leg and add "but I'm sure it's nothing". GP says you need an MRI immediately. I go 3 days later. Another 3 days before I go back to GP who takes one look at films and says "Who is your favourite neurosurgeon?"
MV: I don't need surgery. I'm not having surgery.
I wait while GP screen shots the film, contacts the best neurosurgeon in Sydney who takes 18 months to get into. GP says he will contact you. MV: In a month or 2? I don't want special treatment. Other people need to see him more than me. GP: No, it will be sooner than that.
I leave the surgery and my phone rings. Receptionist of neurosurgeon says he will see you tomorrow afternoon. MV: No, sorry I have a appointment then. I will just go to my chiro. I don't need surgery.
I go to chiro who says "If DR D can see you tomorrow cancel whatever you are doing and go."
MV: Really? This is a lot of fuss. I don't need surgery. It's getting better.
Hubby says: We're going.
Surgeon says I have to have surgery ASAP. MV tries bargaining "but I'm sure it's getting better."
Surgeon says 4 or 5 days in hospital. MV: I will stay 2 nights.
Surgery done and leg miraculously moves to wherever I want it! MV: So I'm better now. I don't need the drip. I don't need these tubes. I don't need painkillers.
Nursing staff: You need to have painkillers every few hours so that we can control the pain.
MV: I don't need painkillers. A little while later MV: Well if I need painkillers I'm not taking them regularly. I shouldn't need painkillers. I should be fine now.
Day 2 drains and tubes come out. Nurse says: I will be back in 10 minutes to help get you up and shower. MV: No-one is helping me shower. I shouldn't need help to shower. She is busy. Other people need help. Nurse comes back 15 minutes later and I am back in bed freshly showered.
Physio says: "It's good to get up a few times and walk around your room".
MV: I should be able to do more than walk around the room. I'm not weak. I start doing laps of the corridor until someone notices and I'm sent back to bed. Physio doesn't come back.
Morning of Day 3 when I have told myself I should be ready to go home. MV: I should be able to go home. But I don't think I can. I think I need to stay one more night. But that would be weak. I should be fine to go home now. I stay but am feeling guilty about it.
Day 4 MV:Time to go home. I'm definitely not staying another night. I don't need to be in hospital.
Dr D says it's good to be active. Start with short walks and by 6 weeks you should be walking for half an hour. MV: I can walk for more than half an hour now. There's nothing wrong with me. I'm fine.
First day home I walk 4 kilometres. The next day 5.
Fast forward 2 weeks. Flat on my back with infection and haematoma. Painkillers and antibiotics.
Of course everyone has been saying that I have been overdoing it. But no matter how many people say it, no matter how often they say it, or how loudly they say it - nothing gets through as loudly as MV which says I shouldn't be sick, other people are a lot worse, you don't need to be looked after, you shouldn't need to rest.
And I am sure so many of you can relate. We are not kind enough to ourselves. We don't allow ourselves what we allow others. Clearly I need practise. And, logically, I see that.
So I practise. I practise what I have been taught. To talk to myself like I would talk to others. To accept myself like I would accept others.
And I will keep practising.
I will keep practising in the hope that one day I might feel it.