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.

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