I am not the problem

This blog post deals with emotional abuse, mental distress and suicide.

I had my first panic attack a few months before my sixteenth birthday. One of my family members decided I was going to have a huge blowout party and my objections weren’t going to get in the way of that. I remember very clearly where I was when they started shouting at me, refusing to take no for an answer – until I started hyperventilating. Looking back, I’m glad their behaviour at least had some limits.

After this incident I had to see a counsellor at school for a while. At the time it made perfect sense that the counselling focused on my dislike of parties as a topic on its own, not connected to anything else. The problem was me and the way I was; I had to be fixed so I could be normal. At home I was told I was miserable, too sensitive, hard work, couldn’t take a joke. My family member’s behaviour, the direct reason for the panic attack, was never even mentioned in the counselling. I didn’t even see it as significant myself until about four and a half years ago, when I started having flashbacks to this and dozens of other incidents involving this person and other family members.

I’ve had a lot of counselling and therapy since and am currently being treated with trauma-focused CBT. Essentially I have all the symptoms of PTSD, but because I never feared for my life I can’t be formally diagnosed with it. I’m receiving the same treatment I would get if I were to be formally diagnosed though, so it doesn’t matter that much overall. I’ve also done a lot of work on my own, including reading the stories of other people who grew up in similar circumstances. It’s much harder to dismiss what happened to me when I do this and see that abuse doesn’t have to be happening every minute of every day to a criminal level to be damaging.

The most useful thing I’ve realised in this process is that I am not the problem. My mental health issues are essentially maladaptive coping mechanisms I developed to deal with what I’d argue was the real problem: the hurtful behaviour of the people who should have been looking out for me. These coping mechanisms helped on some level, but they’re not helping any more, so I’m working to find some healthier ones. Recognising that there was a reason I developed them – one more meaningful than the much-cited “chemical imbalance” – has really helped to shift my perspective. I no longer feel as if there’s something inherently wrong with me or that my issues came out of nowhere and are too mysterious to fully address. It gives me hope for recovery. It has also helped me to stop over-identifying with my mental health issues to the extent where I use them as an excuse for not growing as a person or focus on them so much that they get worse.

I recently listened to “Pepper Spray”, the second episode of the “Sincerely, X” podcast, which contained the following suggestion for treating people with trauma: approach them from the perspective of “what happened to you?”, not “what’s wrong with you?” That really sums up what I’m trying to say (so I kind of wish I’d heard it before starting to write this post!).

It’s not about blaming my family for all my problems – it’s about recognising where my problems started, seeing how my beliefs and behaviours developed from there and using those revelations to grow as a person. When I first realised the extent of what happened to me as a child I rushed to “forgive” people and feel sorry for whatever situation “made them do it”. When this didn’t solve anything I swung into impotent anger and thoughts of “why me?”, which eventually turned into “well, why not me?” when I realised how common abuse is and recognised that I would never get a satisfying answer to the question. I am still angry that I was treated badly and no one stepped in, but it’s not as destructive now. It’s frustrating that I have these issues because my family members were too oblivious to work on their own issues, but I’ve come to accept it and realise that I’m a stronger person for it. I pity my family members, but I don’t accept their excuses. I actually feel like less of a victim and more of a survivor now I fully understand the source of my issues.

When I was a teenager the family member mentioned above told me that I might as well kill myself. They told me how I should do it too, just in case I was stuck for ideas. When I feel particularly bad, I’m right back in that moment, and in the aftermath where I had to “be the bigger person” and apologise. (I can’t remember exactly what I said to elicit that reaction, but I think I responded to a question in a tone of voice that they found disrespectful. To be fair, I don’t think the reaction would be justified in any situation.) When I’m in that mental space I can’t help but think: if it weren’t true, why would my own family member say such a thing? When I’m feeling better I can recognise how ridiculous this behaviour was. I would never tell someone to kill themselves, let alone a child. To make things even more ridiculous it happened out loud in a public place; as an adult, if I saw that happening, I hope I’d have the strength to intervene. I actually find it particularly cathartic to laugh at my family members’ behaviour, which I like to think of as tantrums. To me this is part of the process of turning the chaos of traumatic memories into the relative order of regular, less intrusive ones (introduced to me as the linen cupboard metaphor). Here’s an example: whenever I took part in a play or concert at school, the family member previously mentioned would get angry if I didn’t wave to them from the stage. How thin-skinned must they have been for that to be such a profound insult? And they say people my age are “snowflakes”…

As I said, I do not see myself as a victim. Overall I have been incredibly lucky. I’m the first in my family to go to university and get a degree. I’ve held down several jobs and am valued by my employer. I survived abuse and have made a conscious decision to break the cycle. I probably won’t put the latter achievement on my CV, but it’s definitely the one I’m most proud of.

Hello (again)

“Mixed Media Installation by Peter Liversidge: Hello, 2013 (58 Light bulbs, powder coated steel, motion activated sensor)” / Ingleby Gallery / Art Basel Hong Kong 2013 / SML.20130523.EOSM.03963

Long time, no blog!

At first it was my exams that kept me from writing, but more recently it’s been just a general sense of apathy and lack of motivation. Also, to be honest, what I really want to talk about isn’t necessarily prime blog material. I’m continuing to deal with the aftermath of being abused as a child and young adult and realising how much it has affected me. I did have a significant week recently: on Monday I shared my story with a group of 16 and 17 year olds, on Thursday I spoke with a friend for the first time about it, and on Friday I used the word “abuse” for the first time to describe what happened to someone in particular.

At times it feels all-consuming, but keeping busy definitely makes me feel more like a person than simply a victim. The problem is my lack of motivation makes keeping busy quite a bit more difficult! I’ve done a couple of interesting things recently, at least. The first is fulfilling a long-time ambition: volunteering at the Science Museum. I’m working as a Learning Activity Volunteer and so far have helped with storytelling sessions and workshops, including testing one of the latest activities before it “went live”. I also get asked where the toilets are quite a bit. It’s pretty cool.

I’ve also started doing Slimming World. I attended my first group session on the 4th of July, with the encouragement of a fellow member and ex-colleague, and since then have officially lost 1 stone and 2 pounds. My ultimate goal is to lose 8 stone in total, so I’m one seventh of the way there! I’m finding the programme quite easy to follow in general, though I have struggled a bit today – because of this blog post, actually, because thinking about the bad stuff that’s happened in the past tends to make me comfort eat. I’ve managed to resist that urge on quite a number of other occasions though, so I’m quite pleased. Previously I was just using My Fitness Pal to log all my calories, but that was a bit of a pain because I cook from scratch so much and would have to add in everything individually. Slimming World helps give my meals a bit more structure to work with than just “here’s 1400 calories for the day, use them however”. I think the key thing for me has been the group setting – going it alone means I don’t have any accountability and struggle with the motivation to keep going, but the group helps me keep on the straight and narrow. I was hesitant at first as it costs £5 a week to attend, but I’m probably saving more than that by not buying junk food any more. I would definitely recommend it as a sensible way to lose weight, as long as you are able to understand and follow the principles.

My exams were a mixed bag. I ended up getting a Pass 2 for S283 (I only got a Pass 3 in the exam, but my TMA marks pulled the final grade up). Unfortunately I had a panic attack in S383 and couldn’t complete it, but thankfully I’ve been granted a resit in September. I was hoping to be very organised and do loads of studying for that, as well as starting on my new modules, but that hasn’t really happened.

When you’ve experienced difficulties as a direct result of someone else’s actions it’s very hard to strike a balance between taking responsibility for yourself and acknowledging that the other person acted very poorly and you’ve suffered as a result. In the past I’ve gone too far towards the former, basically letting the adults who mistreated me off the hook because oh, they were depressed and couldn’t deal with their feelings and therefore can’t be blamed for taking them out on someone who wouldn’t fight back, even though I know that depression doesn’t work like that. but when you start do the acknowledging that you’ve been badly treated it’s very easy to just get angry. I think I could have achieved Pass 1s in all my modules so far without too much effort if I hadn’t had all this other stuff to deal with. That makes me feel angry, but at the same time I need to take control of my own life. It all ends up being very frustrating. At the very least I can be happy that I’m not going to repeat the same things that were done to me. It really isn’t that hard to not abuse someone, particularly a child.

Anyway, I’m not really sure how to end this post, but I hope I’ll be back to writing regularly soon.

Normal service will resume shortly

I hope it will, anyway.

I’m not sure how many people are reading this blog, particularly since I don’t tend to promote it on social media any more, but since I haven’t blogged properly in ages I thought I’d… awkwardly bring attention to it? I’ve started and subsequently deleted a number of posts because I lost interest or found the process of writing a draft cathartic enough that I didn’t need to make it into a full post. However, I’m setting myself the goal of finishing this one, so if you’re reading this either you’ve run out of decent sites to hack or I’ve actually got something done for once.

I’m currently doing some CBT, but it’s not having much of an effect on my mood, as indicated by my weekly questionnaire scores (the PHQ-9 and GAD-7) remaining pretty much level. The psychologist also tested me on the Impact of Events scale a few weeks ago. It’s essentially a test to see if you have PTSD, with scores above 24 being “meaningful”. I got 50, which indicates my reactions to past events are more than sufficient to be suppressing my immune system. I do like getting high marks, but that isn’t the sort of test you want to ace.

I have alluded to it in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly said on this blog that I’m a survivor of abuse. I didn’t really realise it myself until three and a bit years ago. I could probably write at length about all the complex emotions that have come up as a result of realising this, but I won’t. Honestly, I’m getting a bit bored of thinking about them at this point. This is a good sign, since those emotions have been at the forefront of my mind for quite a long time and being bored of them means it’s easier to not think about them. However, I’m still not back to functioning like a normal person, which is generally rather inconvenient.

My month-by-month resolutions are a good indication of how things are going. On paper, I actually did okay with them last month, completing ten out of fifteen. However, the ones I didn’t complete were really the more important – studying, writing, going to the gym and improving my WordPress skills. I also didn’t include important things like work, household chores and the New to Sci Comm site in my list, so my “success” wasn’t really that significant. At least I’ve been doing something, but I do think that, to an extent, you should earn doing fun things by helping others, bettering yourself and contributing something of worth. In my view, having self-care as your primary focus is just as unhealthy as neglecting it entirely because, amongst other reasons, it keeps your focus inward. [ETA: lots of people also seem to equate self-care with self-indulgence, which isn’t healthy in excess either.]

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I just thought I’d share a bit about how things have been recently and why I haven’t been blogging. I’m trying as hard as I can to get better, but it isn’t really working at the moment. I’ll keep doing what I can though, even if it’s frustrating that all this effort isn’t even bringing me up to the level of the average adult human being.

So, uh… how about them gravitational waves? (Sadly, that is the closest this blog has been to science communication in quite a while. I need to do something about that too.)

Life and stuff

I haven’t been blogging much recently. I haven’t been doing much of anything recently besides procrastinating and doing a bit of work when I can’t procrastinate any more. Oh, and some crafting, which feels like an achievement but is really just another form of procrastinating, albeit with more tangible results than those yielded by mindlessly surfing the internet for hours. Writing does tend to help me feel better, but often the motivation to do so requires that I feel better first, which is a bit annoying. Sometimes though, like now, I can sit down, force myself to put fingers to keyboard and hope it doesn’t turn out too badly.

Recently, I was referred for more treatment for my depression and anxiety. This actually presented somewhat of a problem as I am now employed by a charity that has a hand in running the service to which I was referred. Thankfully working around this issue didn’t require any input from me beyond making the service aware of it – it was nice to not have to do lots of extra organising or self-advocacy to sort it out. I have generally had positive experiences with the NHS mental health staff I’ve encountered, for which I count myself extremely lucky. Despite having been referred last year for counselling, my GP said she was happy to refer me again because she knew I’d put the effort into getting the most out of the treatment, which was a nice thing to hear. I’m glad my issues haven’t made me too resistant to treatment or combative towards people who are trying to help.

Anyway, so far I’ve only had two assessment sessions. Right now the big problem is my anxiety, which I think was triggered by a short but intensely stressful period three months ago. In the last couple of weeks I’ve realised that what I’m really anxious about is people getting angry at me and that this is because of past experiences I’ve had. I’d say most of the things I panic about can be boiled down to this fear. I’m probably going to be getting some CBT to deal with this, but I’ve also found that realising how ridiculous some of the angry people I’ve known were has been cathartic. Some of them are actually quite funny, if you have a somewhat dark sense of humour like I do. (I was going to provide some examples, but most of them are easily linkable to certain people and I’d rather not open that particular can of worms, so you’ll have to trust me.)

The anxiety means I’m struggling a bit at the moment. I decided to give up the volunteering training I was doing because it would have involved working with young people to promote wellbeing, which I can’t do if I’m struggling with it myself to this extent. I’m behind on my studies and haven’t been performing as well at work as I should be. While mindfulness was helping me previously, it isn’t now, though that may be because I struggle with tasks like staying present, noticing thoughts in a non-judgemental way and accepting things (i.e. the whole point of mindfulness). What bothers me most is my frequent retreats into the realm of “why me?”. I hate complaining and self-pity, which I’m sure no one would realise considering how much I complain about how hard my incredibly easy life is. I’ll keep working on it though. I wish I didn’t have to, but I have neither accepted the past and how it lead to the current good things in my life nor finished building my time machine.

Moving onto more positive things, I recently “invested in” (read: spent a bit too much money on) a new planner from these folks. I’ve become somewhat entranced by the online planner community/subculture – I find watching “plan with me” videos oddly soothing and enjoy seeing how people incorporate elements of scrapbooking into their personal organisation systems. I have to admit, though, that my own planning tends far more towards the functional than the decorative, which isn’t quite so video or Instagram friendly. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying using my new toy so far. I bought the student planner, so each weekly spread has sections intended for each class, but I use them for different areas of my life. I haven’t got my system completely sorted yet, and expect it to evolve as time goes by, but it’s essentially a bullet journal with a bit of washi tape, a few stickers and a little colour coding thrown in.

In other news, I’m thinking of attempting NaNoWriMo again this year, though as a form of therapy rather than a challenge to be overcome. I have lots of thoughts and ideas that I could form into a story, thus getting them out as well as working towards a larger goal. The only issue is that I’ve already got a fair amount to do, though if my aim is to make myself feel better rather than win and be the best, hopefully I can fit it in. We’ll see. There’s no harm in starting, at least.

I don’t have much more to say, so I’ll leave it here. I do have a few finished book reviews to post here, so they will hopefully go up soon along with the others I need to complete. In the meantime I’ll try to stop stressing out about every little thing in my life. When I’m not working on the time machine, that is.