I have had an on-off relationship with depression for twenty five years now. It’s clutches have all but consumed me at quite random times; sometimes during periods of great stress, sometimes surprising me like a horror movie just when things have been settled and calm. But this last bout has been my most complicated yet, treading water for over eighteen months, smiling and waving on the surface but often feeling my legs weighted by bricks towards the colder depths. Everything else was fine, a fantastic supportive husband, a loving family, relatively financially secure, good health, ok a fortieth birthday to deal with but no biggies. But social anxiety was taking me over 24/7.
A bit of background. I have struggled with groups of people for most of my life. Never fitted in with my age group at school, never understood the subtle nuances within friendship groups. Arguments, even minor disagreements confused me; if someone didn’t believe the same as me how could I trust that they believe in me? In pubs I’ve never been able to distinguish between a conversation next to me or one at the other end of the table. My concentration flits between the two and I lose both the thread and the flavour. Those pictures of varying facial expressions portraying different emotions used in diagnosis of the autistic spectrum? I tried that and my score was low, very low. Phone calls were almost impossible as a disembodied voice going directly into my ear with no back-up clues of body language teamed with the inability to filter out someone’s words with visual distraction cause me frequent distress. I have also discovered recently that I have various dyslexic issues – words refusing to stay still on a page, an inability to remember sequences of numbers, letters or instructions; left and rights were the least of my problems. Even worse, I never realised that these were not universal problems for everyone. That in itself was pretty isolating.
In my teens I learnt the unparalleled joy of playing in orchestras and this, I feel, was life changing. Planned, organised conversation. Such bliss. Everyone working towards the same end melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. Sat centrally in the viola section all the combined sounds made sense. There were written instructions and time honoured rules (follow the conductor, look to section leaders for clear visual clues, blend your sound with others) to be followed that still allowed for creativity, for interpretation, for intellect and emotional stimulation. Music gave me the confidence to make eye contact, to initiate conversations, to follow a joke through. It also provided an environment in which to meet crazy, creative, clever, witty and passionate people. I was less of a square peg.
Fast forward to a year or so ago and I have an awesome husband who loves me with my freakiness rather than despite of it. In fact, I fell in love with him when I realised he was the only person I had ever allowed myself to “be me” with. I have two loving, talented, creative, beautiful and confident daughters. I have no shared musical experiences any longer for various and complicated reasons but I still have the learned skills to appear confident, sometimes to even be confident in situations that require it. It’s not a matter of no longer being shy, it’s knowing that transactions go better between strangers when I am open and friendly. But, within a group of people that I know, and even like, I still do not fit in. Judging when to speak and when to shut up, who to look at when more than one conversation is happening, when to move around and risk crashing into something like an elephant or just sit tight and risk boring the person I’m sat next to – all of this is stressful.
I cannot even relax with drink (I do not like the feeling of being drunk, I feel too vulnerable). I compensate with stuffing my face with sugar and stodge. I joke about being qualified as a nutritional therapist with no discipline around chocolate. I develop increasing anxiety about social situations as basic as the school run (what to wear, where to stand, how to stand?). I make plans then cry off (instead spending the evening crying bitterly at my failure). If I do go out the pressure of ignoring that urge to bolt, to shut doors behind me and run is exhausting and I cannot focus. Friends are oblivious, how can I explain that I just want to be loved, respected, listened to when I know I will not trust any of their attempts at assurances. Those that do not seem scared off I become overly dependant on. Needy. Clingy. My self respect becomes non-existent. I cannot work out what particular flaw makes me not good enough. Am I too boring? Too intense? Too loud? Do I look so bad people don’t want to even look at me? Am I too embarrassing to be seen out with? Have I made the stupid mistake of not apologising enough or not being grateful enough? Did I say something stupid yet again? Exhausted by the inner dialogue I spend hours daily bawling my eyes out, curled into a ball on the sofa. I make the decision to stop contacting anyone so that I do not have to do with the inevitable paranoia that follows when they do not contact me back. I guess I burned too many bridges because I no longer heard from too many people for it to be a coincidence.
I make a doctors appointment, cry, refuse drugs but accept tissues and a referral for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. But do not take it further. Group therapy? Really? I read up on CBT and laugh bitterly when I catch myself noting that while it might make me worry less it won’t actually make people like me. But it gives me perspective. And I read more.
I note that I do actually have a couple of very good friends that I am always comfortable with. They never judge. Always kind. Accepting of my nervous energy and my humour. They are two of the kindest, most creative and most enthusiastic people I have ever met. I always feel better for having seen them although these occasions are few and far between. They see through my often brutal directness and teasing without taking offence and instead talk art, music, health and personal philosophies with me. There is no competitiveness. No awkwardness. And I never have the sense of not understanding the rules when I talk with them. I never feel like I should constantly apologise for stepping over some invisible line. We just talk, listen, interrupt, laugh. Maybe it’s not just that I am an unworthy friend. Maybe I was just trying to be friends with the wrong people.
I finally realise that I know full well the answer to my anxiety and sleepless nights. Pure laziness has stopped me from sorting it out. I remove sugar from my diet. Then grains. I no longer binge eat. I sleep soundly. I stop crying. I do not have to replace eye make up and drag on a uniform of cheeriness and normality before my family return home each day. If the concept of grain and sugar intake influencing mental health is a new one to you I’d really recommend researching it. I knew it in theory, but had forgotten to apply it to myself.
And, over the following weeks, with the clarity that comes with not living daily with anxiety or brain fog I realise that I no longer crave friendship-at-whatever-cost any more than I still crave a tray of hot brownies. Being part of a close-knit gang that have been together since school; having friends that will show up at your house, stick the kettle on and curl up on the sofa with you; trusting others enough to get drunk with them, get into blazing arguments and then proclaim undying love for each other; clothes shopping together, spending an evening sharing wine and secrets; going on holiday together: all those things that make a sit-com, a movie scene, a paragraph in a rom-com novel – they are someone else’s reality. I cannot keep wishing for what isn’t going to happen. Move on. Wise up. Appreciate the thousands of fabulous moments I already have and will continue to have. As my husband quotes regularly, “take pleasure in the details.” I have, and am, so much more than the things I don’t have.
And, as this realisation begins to hammer home, I notice how my energy levels continue to increase, and I rediscover my love of cooking, and I lose weight, and I remember that I actually like to exercise, and time with my family grows increasingly precious. I get that spring back in my step, I care less about what others think of me because it’s largely irrelevant, and I care more about what I think of me. I recall that I was once taught that, “not being the person you are meant to be is the biggest stress of all,” and make the belated connection that if I was trying to be someone else – no wonder I was stressed!
I’m not sure where I go from here. In the last six weeks I feel like I’ve turned several corners. Insight is a marvellous thing! I’m not totally sure who exactly I am, but maybe not everyone does know that, and I guess experience makes us change anyway. The point is that I know now that I’m good enough and that I’m looking forward to whatever the future brings. And I’m truly grateful to the family, friends and experiences that have got me to that level. And, much though I want to apologise in case you’ve read this and wish you hadn’t bothered because what a drama queen! I’m not going to. But I would like to thank you for reading to the end. Much love to you from me, Flojo xxx