What I Couldn’t Tell My Therapist
Social Anxiety and Much More
30 July 2017
Thursday 20th July
Today was really hard. It was my own doing. I had my second CBT appointment at 9 am in the morning. It was two-weeks from my first, located an awkward distance from public transport – but still close enough for me to get there in time – if I woke up in time.
I hadn’t been able to tell my manager about needing to come in late to work today. It had crossed my mind at several moments through the week but I kept pulling out of asking him for the time off. I’m very nervous around him. He would’ve said ‘that’s fine’ straight-away but something kept stopping me. A fear of being judged, scrutinised, thought about. I want to be invisible, as far as possible. Or, at least, hidden. Hence, my poker face, my monotone, my avoidance.
I don’t feel as if I have the verbal skills. I make everything a big deal by hesitating over my words, spoken with utter seriousness. “Erm, is it OK, if tomorrow I come in late – I’ve got an, erm, appointment – a medical appointment – it’s – I’ve been having quite a lot of headaches….”
Like rodeo, a runaway horse, words splutter out, jolting and not really under my control.“Sorry to be a nuisance -”
That’s how I imagined starting off. Casual – but too defensive? It sounded good initially but I backed away. I didn’t know how I would say it – so I didn’t. I left it to email, on the morning.
Now, I supposed, having sent the email in the morning, they will think me unreliable. I’ve had quite a few sick days in my several months in this role. In a lot of cases, I’ve texted on the day. In fact, I took a day off within my first week. I had double-booked with some casual work that I’d been doing and hadn’t had the guts to tell anyone. So, I went to neither – just woke up late and realised that I was just going to use texts to get out of both and let the consequences go to hell.
At least the manager was away till next week. He’d probably pick up his emails and I would, later today, have the painful moment of having to open my email and be confronted with his reply. Not that his reply would likely express any negativity – but behind the words, I’d be imagining his judgements – whisperings. “Unreliable – doesn’t give enough notice. What are these ‘medical appointments’? Can I trust him? Is he just not going to turn up on a day when he’s really needed? Am I being to lax with him – perhaps, I need to be harsher – give him a subtle warning…” My manager’s been very considerate to me recently but I know he has an irritable, angry side which seems to be the manner of a bully.
I put all these things aside – as best I could – as I packed my rucksack, with my lunch and football gear, in case football was on in the afternoon with my old work colleagues. Off I went, running late. I hadn’t given much thought to how long it’d take to get there. I was 20 minutes late last time because a bus didn’t turn up – or passed me by. But, I found out from my first appointment that the place, out in the sticks, was quite close to a local station, and actually quite near to the common that I sometimes go to get fresh air.
I took the train one-stop and walked the rest of the way. Except, I couldn’t remember the route exactly, except there were two large roundabouts, one left, one right or the other way round. These being major roads, the signs were not very helpful. There were no other pedestrians and the roads just go on and on, whilst pavements sometimes peter out. My phone was dead, so no checking that.
Luckily, I found my way and was only 10 minutes or so late. But, I felt lifeless inside. Just helpless and despairing. I listed my latest easily avoidable failures. I hadn’t given my work proper notice. I hadn’t planned my journey to get to the appointment in time. I hadn’t even bothered to charge my phone and could easily have walked forever and missed the appointment – when all it would’ve taken was to stretch my arm out of my bed and connect it to the extension lead. But, like an embryo, I had lain curled in bed, earphones in, connected to my phone playing the same ten year old radio show podcast blaring a ridiculous conversation between comedians and their sidekick in my ear. I listen to these conversations, dipping randomly in and out to soothe myself. They seem to be the only thing that soothes me, slightly. The attraction of the shows is the sidekick’s shameless sincerity and ignorance and the professional comedians shameless mockery. Basically, it’s people behaving without fear.
I felt crushed as I started the session with my psychologist/psychiatrist/therapist. I barely remember the first session, two weeks ago. I was dizzy on anti-depressants at the time, anxious facing this tall, young women with a wide, friendly face and glasses in a small room and despairing at the familiar diagram of the cycle of anxiety and depression presented to me.
I felt an even more sense of hopelessness today. So much so, my voice almost broke and I felt as if I wanted to cry. In that tiny room, faced by this young woman who seemed to be irrepressibly content – reminding me of girls from my primary school with her uncomplicated confidence, I felt an utter helplessness – that there was no way I could express myself and there was no way she, or anyone, could help me.
How can I explain my life in a few sentences? My anxiety derives, I’m sure, from physical difficulty of speaking – my throat continually gets bunged, and, also, from an instinctive fear of judgement.
She asked why I hadn’t been able to do the homework of recording my mood hour-by-hour for a week. I couldn’t find the words. She checked my online questionnaire – the self-evaluation of anxiety and low mood. I had put down that I wished I didn’t exist. She asked what specific thoughts I had had. I assured her that I had no intention to hurt myself but I could explain my thoughts. How to explain the hopelessness of being unable to communicate to someone so apparently happy and communicative as this women?
How to explain my daily routine? Waking, thoughtlessly travelling to work, thoughtlessly doing work, avoiding colleagues, putting on a front to colleagues, being terrified of colleagues, thoughtlessly going home, eating, going on the Internet, watching the news and YouTube and anything else that comes up and then, going to sleep, listening to the podcast, an episode selected at random. How to explain my room, with a desk piled with paper, books, cups, toiletries, clothes, more books, paper, envelopes, medicine, herbal medicine, dust etc. etc? I leave it untouched, except when frantically searching for something, such as the mood diary this morning that I was supposed to have filled in.
The truth is, I think, that my own thoughts are tangled. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t act on what’s wrong. I just sit paralysed, like an embryo.
“I’ve been doing most of the talking – next time can you try a bit more for me?” she said, near the end. I had been reduced to monosyllables. I’m sure it was partly the smallness of the room. I was hiding, I didn’t want to hear the ugliness of my voice and thoughts. The pontificating about this and that as if I understood. I also feared her judgement – I didn’t want her to pity me.
She showed me a diagram depicting the cycle of depression. She made me fill it in and my mind was blurred. I paid little attention but nodded and agreed. I couldn’t blame her. She was doing the right thing. It was me that was the failure.
Why the apathy? Because, if I think about it, I feel that this not the issue. The issue that is holding me back from any progress is my voice. Because it is nearly always bunged and difficult to speak loudly or clearly, I feel vulnerable most of the time. It’s the reason I avoid going into shops or speaking to strangers.
There are certainly other issues – I have serious anxiety. But my voice, I’m sure is preventing me from entering social situations to challenge that anxiety. And, I can’t work on my voice because, firstly, I feel embarrassed talking about it. And, secondly, after a specialist told me that there was no apparently physical issue, I’m convinced that nothing can be done.
Salt water nasal sprays have a temporary effect. Food has a worsening effect. But, mostly, its the same. I’ve developed a technique of speaking from the back of my throat, so that my voice comes out very deep. However, where there is background noise, it fails me.
After work today, I forced myself to go to this Indian restaurant that has a buffet. I had gone in on a previous day just to look in. The staff didn’t seem too intimidating and there were other men eating alone. You just paid and then picked your food and ate.
I ate there but, again, speaking at the counter was hard. Nerves played a part, but my voice was bunged up, so came out weak and strained. I felt immensely vulnerable but stumbled through it, I only had to ask about card payment and then thank the man behind the counter.
I know what the therapist said to me makes sense. We are working on depression, particularly, on two things: behaviours and avoidance. I need to start doing things to lift my mood, which will help my enter social situations, which will, ideally, continue to lift my mood.
But, the voice lies in the way like a fallen tree. What do I do about it? Who do I turn to?
I have other health problems. I have poor digestion, diagnosed as IBS and, I have suffered from irregular undiagnosed tiredness. These too discourage me from social situations and have reduced the mental resilience that I had. I’m embarrassed by my appearance because I often look unwell being very fatigued.
Despite suffering these for years, I’ve not found any ways of improving the symptoms. The tiredness is getting worse. Mostly, I just plod through, ignoring things. I feel so low and self-hating, that I don’t think about myself. I don’t feel I have the mental space to care for myself. I am destroying myself, in a way.
I told the therapist that I was off anti-depressants. This, she said, might explain the worsening depression. I had only taken them for two-weeks. Once again, I’d given up. I feared the drunken effect. I wanted to retain mental creativity and to be myself and to be able to see nature.
Perhaps, I need to take them for a month or two and that will get me through the initial tunnel and I will feel that my brain is functioning relatively normal. Who’s to say? I don’t know what to do but I’m off them for now. My therapist recommended I go back on, to help me find the motivation to work on the CBT. But, I don’t think I will. Not for now.
The 40 minutes or so up, I headed to work, walking into the web of dread of facing colleagues. I felt embarrassed about coming in late. I sneaked past a colleague, mumbling hello so quietly she didn’t hear. One of my supervisors appeared by my desk to check that I had got in. I muttered apologies – afraid, as usual.
Then, I had a relatively easy day, sat at my desk completing a database at my own pace, uninterrupted. I’m very fortunate, my work is relaxed and interesting. My colleagues are pleasant and the manager wasn’t in. But, I have made it too easy for myself. I sit alone, away from everyone else and don’t interact much. It feels safer this way but, it is avoidance. The isolation makes me feel low, when I stop to think about it and my anxiety remains high, an illness that continues to fester and, likely, grow.
If I had been able to explain to my therapist my thoughts of not wanting to exist, I might’ve told her of my self-hatred. I can’t bear to think about myself without a sort of horror and cringing. I am ashamed of my anxiety but, mostly, my falseness. I put on act of assuredness. I make conversation with some of them and play-act to please them. I look intently into their eyes when they talk, I smile, I act very kind and modest. My manager has recently mentioned my thoughtfulness and modesty. “Still waters lie deep” he recently said.
But, where is this thoughtful, modest, kind, intelligent person at home? Not the person who ignores his problem, or, is unable to untangle them and instead lies in a half-made bed on the Internet, day-after-day, as body and mind deteriorate. If my colleagues could see me, how shocked they’d be. Is that the real me? Bedraggled, despairing, directionless, unwell thirty-something year-old?
Note to self: if I’m to keep these notes up, I need to be more rational and less rambling. Rationality will help me, if anything will.
Saturday 22nd July
I came away from work today a little better. It was a relatively easy day: on Saturdays, I do front-of-house work mainly and I was sat most of the day with a volunteer greeting people and, also, helping children with a little colouring activity. I enjoy helping the children but wish I could be less fake and nervous in front of the parents. I really believe in not talking down to children but, all too often, when nervous, you can fall into it.
I really don’t know what to think about life. Nothing is clear to me, it seems, so no wonder that I was lost for words with the therapist on Thursday. For example, children can be delightfully kind and non-judgemental. My anxiety is much lower if the child is like this (though the presence of parents makes me afraid). And, I find myself feeling really fond of such children.
But, I wonder if this fondness is predicated on my sense of superiority and power. I dislike it when I feel patronised or sympathised for my anxiety or timidity. Am I doing the same thing with children? Should I be treating them like equals, as far as possible – as I would interact with an adult?
Moreover, my warmth for children (the pleasant ones, anyway) and my warmth for adults who are nice to me, clashes with my fear of people. Increasingly, I feel it is a futile warmth, almost masochistic, for my anxiety prevents me from being part of a society or community – or, in fact, having friendships. Children will become the adults I fear.
On the way home, in the high street, a bowed man with a stick and trembling legs was begging with a cup held out. He looked of Eastern European background, I guessed. A small girl, of Middle Eastern or Persian background (I guess) gave him some coins. She rejoined her mother, who was wearing a niqab, and entered a shoe shop. However, the girl remained in the doorway of the shop, watching the man teetering on his stick, his legs wobbling. A few minutes later, she ran out into the street again and gave him more money.
When I saw this, I was curious, but something in my heart felt scaly and hardened. Firstly, I wondered whether the man, clearly disabled, was part of a gang. Not far away, there was another Eastern European young women, wearing a headscarf, sat knelt with her head down and hands held out. She held this position, indifferent to the footsteps passing back and forth in front of her.
I also questioned how I felt about the little girl. She seemed concerned for the man – more than anyone else displayed on the street in the five minutes I watched. People gave money and moved on. The girl, however, watched him. Was her kindness a type of ignorance? Would she grow out of it and become like all the other people on the street?
That said, I’ve seen other people give to the beggars on that street. I’ve seen an English-looking man with tattoos and a dog. He himself looked poor. I saw a black teenage girl hand over money to a male beggar. This particularly surprised me as my prejudiced view of teens is of selfishness and insularity.
But, I don’t trust kindness, child or adult. I don’t want to trust any part of this society that has excluded me and inflicts fear into me. That I can’t find a role in and can’t find real friendship in. My love is unrequited and, therefore, I am trying to reject it in turn.
Yet, with individuals that I interact with, colleagues or visitors, I can’t help but respond with warmth to their warmth and kindness. Part of this is fear, I’m sure but part is a genuine response. The truth is, I haven’t wholly been rejected by society, as I have my family, particularly, my siblings who care for me – and I have experienced individuals who have cared for me. I still hold out hope that I will find a role in society.
I want to fight injustice. I want to support low paid workers fighting cruel employers. But, I know from experience, having worked alongside relatively low paid and mistreated staff and been a relatively low-paid retail staff member myself, that my fear gets in the way. How can I feel sympathy and work for people that I’m afraid of and, in fact, feel threatened and even under attack from?
For example, I had a Jamaican female colleague in my previous workplace who was a security guard. She spoke with a strong Jamaican accent and often spoke her mind to me. Security guards were badly treated by management, I knew from talking to them, but I found myself disliking this women – and fearing her. One day, she came into my part of the shop, where I was working, and saw water spilt on the floor. She asked rudely why I hadn’t called for a cleaner. She told me to call for a cleaner. Angered by her tone, I said I would and just stood there. She, to my mind, sneered and again asked me why I didn’t call the cleaners. Enraged, I snapped back and again stood doing nothing.
This woman was not a manager, she was not part of the retail team, she had no authority. Yet, she spoke to me rudely. She did so, I’m sure, because I’m anxious and not of strong character or voice. I can hardly imagine her speaking roughly to any of my other retail colleagues. And, if she did, they’d tell her where to go.
But, I felt helpless, stupid and looked down upon by my anxiety. There are plenty more incidents like this in my working life. This is a very small one of little significance. The reason why it sticks in my mind is because this Jamaican woman was not someone other people found intimidating, as far as I could tell, except me. In fact, one of the my retail colleagues, who I spoke to quite a bit, was very good friends with her. But it shows how it is hard for me to feel solidarity with the oppressed when I feel vulnerable and attacked by individuals from that group. That is, I feel solidarity in principle but in person, I feel oppressed myself.
Another time, another security guard, a tall, broad man from Mauritius, I believe, started mockingly saying that I looked unwell and tired. He always had a mocking air. When I first knew him he was friendly to me and would mock other people and I’d smirk with him. But, then, suddenly, one day, he seemed to turn on me, inexplicably, perhaps, out of his own personal frustrations. That day, which hurt me a lot, his mockery and sneering made me angrily ask why he was so bitter. With a shaking voice, I told him that I didn’t want him to speak to me. He seemed a little stunned but came back, doing his security rounds, and repeatedly asked me if I was OK, that I looked like I’d seen a ghost. I continued to sputter words expressing my anger but I felt very afraid because my voice was weak and my mind disorientated. He had a loud voice, developed with thoughts and he also had brawn.
In the end, I had defended myself, because that man stopped speaking to me and, by the end of my time there, we would exchange hellos and nothing else. He seemed a little ashamed. Nonetheless, I felt no comfort from this. I continued to be afraid of him, behind my nods and greetings. Also, I knew that, if he wanted to, he could hurt me with his words and I would have no come back. It was only his conscience – and, perhaps, fear of being reported, I guess, that stopped him.
The oppressed or exploited are in pain. I am weak and vulnerable. Those in pain, can’t help but lash out on those that they think of as weak and defenceless. How then, can I sympathise with them and act in solidarity – except in sanctimonious thought and speech? The oppressed are tough, mostly, and I am not. I feel oppressed by the oppressed, sometimes. Lowest of the low.
I feel not just under attack but plain vulnerable. Today, whilst at the desk greeting visitors, an elderly woman came along who got started talking about the Tudors and their awful, torturing ways. Then she told us of a local famous poisoning case – the husband, sister and brother-in-law were poisoned with arsenic and the culprit was never found.
She eventually revealed that she was a clairvoyant that had connections with spirit world. She said she’d recently had a psychic dream about seeing her late husband in a tunnel and had, soon after, chanced upon that tunnel.
Whilst listening, I had the familiar sense of being overwhelmed, for, though she was not judgemental, so fascinated by the history she shared, I felt as if I was stood in front of a torrent. I didn’t know how to respond. After a minute or two of speaking, she stopped and I asked if I understood what she was saying. Clearly, I was looking blank, so I started nodding and leaning forward. When I tried to participate in a conversation and ask a question, she didn’t hear me and continued talking about Richard III and the petals of Yorkshire she found on a pavement and then the poster of the King she’d come across in a library the same day. ‘There’s no such thing as a coincidence in what I do,’ she said.
When she saw I was asking a question, she leant forward, unable still to hear me. She had a hearing aid and she got out a little zapper and turned up the volume by pointing to her ear. She leant forward again and finally heard my stupid, forced question about whether she identified with a religion. She didn’t. She believed in God and the other world but was spiritual. All Gods are one, she said.
Finally, I gave up trying to ask questions or say anything and just listened and nodded. She was an interesting woman and though her imagination runs away with her (at one point, some security staff testing the lights flicked the ones above us on and off and the woman started and said, with a smile, ‘I should be off’). She was clearly very well-informed about history. She spoke about Tudors, Jack the Ripper, Richard III, a famous poisoning case in Streatham and one in Croydon, her fall-out with people in her philosophy class because she spoke her mind – not rudely – she said and so on. And, though my insecure nature awakened some scorn in my mind for her, as I silently listened, the truth is, who is to say she is not right. The lights flicking on and off were not caused by the spirit world but they happened when she was speaking to us and that it happened is enough – for what are the statistical chances of that happening? There really are no coincidences.
Eventually, she looked at her watch and said she must be off. She was going to have coffee – and, she muttered, she was quite glad that the philosophy crew had not turned up today to meet her as planned. She also apologised repeatedly for boring me and excused her tendency to ramble to strangers. I mumbled that I was interested but I doubt she heard. She asked me my star sign and on telling her I was Pisces, she said that we are very logical, creative and no-nonsense and that I must, therefore, have been wondering what this madwoman was going on about.
She had detected, or guessed, my scepticism. But, I suspect, it was something more than that – for the volunteer who I was sat with was, I feel, sceptical. I’m sure it’s something to do with my reticence and hiding my feelings behind this.
Returning to my point, with this interesting, imaginative old woman, I felt overwhelmed and, even, afraid. What hope is there for me being of any use in society – and, as I desire, being a force for solidarity and justice. Well, the only hope is by being myself. By exposing my fears and ceasing to try to be anything else. Perhaps, my vulnerability can, somehow be a strength – if I let it be??
Monday 24th July
A day off and the weather outside is miserable and squally. What to do? I have to venture out, I feel. Perhaps, head to a museum in London, though, the day is getting on – it’s already midday.
This morning I started on the mood diary for my CBT sessions. I found it hard to engage with it. Partly because I can’t remember what I did since Friday, let alone, hour by hour. Yet, also, the table printed on the sheet gives little room for information. I must describe briefly what I did in each waking two/three hour spell, note my mood and rate it as a percentage and also rate my sense of closeness to others and enjoyment out of 10. All this in a rather small box.
My initial reaction is scepticism and a sense of being patronised. I know the activities that lift my mood, make me feel close to others and enjoyment. The problem is fitting into society with my anxiety. I was watching the news a few days ago and a woman working for the charity Reprieve came on to talk about some men who were under threat of imminent execution in Saudi Arabia for the crime of protesting the regime. I briefly volunteered at Reprieve last year and sat a few desks away from that woman. I really wanted to contribute to Reprieve and to get experience to pursue a career in the field of international justice and so on, but my anxiety was too much.
I would go in everyday and sit silently at my computer working on a repetitive task and barely speak to anyone. Meanwhile, I’d feel the sense of being an outsider and strange and just generally under scrutiny. I also sensed pity from some colleagues. What tipped me over was that my Irritable Bowel Syndrome – or whatever it is, as IBS is just a catch-all diagnosis, troubled me a lot and I was in constant terror that my bowels, bloated and uncomfortable, would erupt and make some strange or embarrassing noise in the office. It was too much – and I suffering from intense tiredness and, in the end, I quit.
Months later, I tried volunteering in a law centre in London a few days a week. I was put on reception and the stress of that made me quit. I felt dizzy with anxiety when clients came in and found the stress too much. I also felt immensely vulnerable – as if I barely existed. I quit via email.
I have to start owning myself – my health, my anxiety, my future. This year, I’ve buried my head well and truly in the sand. I’ve been getting through my work without considering the fact that in January, next year, my contract will end. I wanted to do a Masters at university but after a brief search and stopped investigating. Fear holds me in paralysis.
Owning my anxiety is to accept myself. I will often try to change to impress other people. On Friday, I was sat at the reception desk with a volunteer who is a man in his fifties who is a very macho Londoner. He’s a pleasant person but I find myself wanting to impress him by appearing tough and even adapting my speech to match his guttural cockney.
That same day, a young black man came in with a verbose introduction about working for a production company in LA and researching Samuel Coleridge Taylor, the composer. He peppered me with questions and I, in a disorientated state flailed at responding, trying to appear dignified and composed. I also started changing my speech, speaking loudly, trying to match the brashness of the visitor and more colloquially, to match his speech.
Faking just doesn’t work, in the end. All the people I really admire are sincere. All the most interesting people are sincere. I have no reason to be anyone else. I am worthy as anyone – believe it or not.
In my previous job, I became attached to some Irish colleagues and became rather obsessed with all things Irish. I’d question them about Irishness, I’d read books by Irish authors – I even ended up going on a little holiday to Ireland on my own.
Now, I realise that I was just seeking an identity and connection where I feel I have none. There are many great things about Ireland and my Irish colleagues. But they also had flaws and, in fact, were not always very pleasant to me. Things could go the other way and I could start to resent other people. Now I reflect, my Irish colleagues never showed any interest in where I was from.
But, I’ll try not to be prejudiced, either way. After work on Thursday, I headed straight to the park to practice jumping on beams and trying to keep my balance, and using the monkey bars. I’ve done this quite a bit for the last two weeks, as I find it quite fun and better than sinking into a morass straight-away at home.
There’s a cafe there which I sometimes get ice cream from and on Thursday, there were some little girls with Irish-sounding accents playing around with the ice creams in the cafe freezer. They were, it turns out, just organising them. These girls ranged from 2 or 3 years old to around 10 years old, perhaps. I heard them apologising to the old man behind the counter about the kids that came in and took some ice creams. “I tried to stop them.”
As soon as I heard the Irish accent, I became attentive and sat down with my ice lolly nearby to listen in. I guessed that they were the children of the traveller families that had set-up in the middle of the park last week. I was drawn the Irish accent and the thoughtful behaviour of the children and wanted to interact with them but they carried on counting the ice creams.
I need to continue having ginger in my tea because my IBS has been really bad recently. I’ve just ignored it – and I can – because at work, I sit apart from everyone else so there’s not the worry about embarrassing noises. That’s the hardest thing about my IBS. Everything else, I can live with – though I’m sure it’s taking its toll on my health. It started over ten years ago at university, in my second year. Suddenly, I couldn’t stay in lectures any more because who knew what horrible sound would erupt. Even if it was just rumblings and growling, they can be very loud and continue on and on. The worst moment was in a lecture at university when my bowels let of a whining sound that sounded like a fart. It made people nearby titter and after that day, I barely went to lectures. I’ve been troubled by it ever since. My life would be a lot easier without it.
Tomorrow, I’m going to a workshop on web writing as part of my training from work. These events are danger moments. If I’m in a quiet room for a few hours or more, my bowels will likely start to build up and become uncomfortable and, then, the unpredictable noises might begin. I become very tense, sweaty and try to hold the noises in in any way I can by tensing my abdomen, breathing and trying to bring gas from my stomach up my oesophagus and out of my mouth. But, none of these techniques work very well. Eating food helps best – a small meal helps most. I think the food coming down just displaces the gas, which is forced out. However, give it a few hours and it’ll play up again.
The day after, I’m going with my manager to another workshop in the morning on heritage funding. That will also be another trying day.I’m hoping, if I have ginger and maybe some other spices and herbal teas – and not take much sugar today, it’ll help this week. And, I have to try meditation- today’s a good day to start.
It’s the evening now and I’m dreading work tomorrow. Since writing last, I forced myself out of the house and into London. Work was playing on my mind as I walked around the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. I got there rather late in the afternoon but I spent just over two hours looking around and I’m glad I did get out of the house – though, it was expensive.
It was enjoyable to walk around and to imagine the artist’s thinking behind the work – though, in fact, it really is only my interpretation. Some themes I noticed, aside from the inevitable focus on environmental and nuclear disaster and Donald Trump, was our connection with buildings and our environment, as well perceptions of women and women’s perceptions of themselves. It was very thought-provoking.
These themes are things that I think about. I find London urban life with its explosion of skyscrapers and development troubling. The way buildings affect the psyche is also something that I’m interested in. For many years, I spent most of my time, when not at school, in one room on the third floor of a terrace house, shared with my brother. My connection with the outside world, again, aside from school, was through the windows, watching the locals on the council estate. In fact, it became an addiction, to the point that some people noticed and responded angrily at being watched by me and my siblings.
The terrace house was a contrast to the semi-detached houses we had been given by the council before that, when we were younger. Playing in the gardens of those houses are some of my happiest memories. Though, the isolation and fear was still there. I used to run back into the house whenever an adult neighbour came into their garden, in fear that they might talk to me.
My homes have affected my psyche, so I was drawn to the sculpture which was both body and decrepit cross-section of a concrete building, complete with barbed wire, like something out of a war-zone.
As interesting as the exhibition was, I found myself feeling lonely as I wondered, gazing at the walls. I was drawn to the people around me. Given the cost of the exhibition and the time of my visit, most were older white people. I noticed a lot of apparently affluent men wearing blazers.
I couldn’t but help looking into the faces of these older, smartly dressed men. I could only hear the tiniest snippets of conversation amidst the hum reverberating around the walls. I caught sight of men with their partners waving a hand behind them at a piece of art and I got the sense that they were despairing at the banality of a piece – on sale for thousands of pounds. Though, I never quite heard what they said to be sure.
My attention was drawn to faces of some men. They were in their fifties or sixties but their skin carried a healthy, composed tone and their eyes, behind glasses, gleamed an egg-white, like that of a child. When I recall the faces of my relatives, uncles, aunts and cousins, of similar or younger age, I see dark circles, mottled skin and eyeballs stained yellow with burst blood vessels. It makes me wonder whether these white, old men have had easy lives – or are made of sterner stuff. Certainly, they are made of sterner stuff than me.
In my loneliness, I was drawn to women looking around the gallery – but I strove not to look at them. I realise I am guilty of the male gaze – a desirous, chauvinistic and, ultimately, delusional and self-destructive attitude to women. There were a number of works in the exhibition that, to my mind, challenged this attitude. It is habituated in me but I am trying to fight it. I have spent decades putting on layers – facial expressions and attitudes that I’ve seen around me or on TV to play a role. This needs to be unpeeled. With this unpeeling, I can finally see myself. To see myself at all times, I can vaporise the delusions and release my shackles.
I’m in a bad way now. I think I can say that I’m living a sort of attritional hell. Anxiety, depression, problems speaking and the other health issues are not killers or themselves immensely painful. But, the isolation they have inflicted on me for most of my life has made my life difficult to bear. They have also robbed me of the possibility of seeing a future. So, I live in a dank present of dread and detachment. And, evasion. I feel like an animal scurrying around to avoid painful interactions.
It is hell. I will tell my therapist that it’s unbearable, that it’s hell. I need to recognise the true extent of my hardship. I was watching the para athletics and I found myself begrudging the athletes for the happiness that they were experiencing. I can’t interest myself in the Euro 2017 women’s football championships because, again, I’m bitter of the joy the players are feeling. The joy of being with friends, of playing sport, of attention, success and money. And, the joy of having a voice. What a joy it would be to be able to speak like people do, so freely, loudly – as if their words come from the walls rather than their mouths. To be able, as I heard a woman doing on the train today, to speak to a complete stranger on a packed, noisy underground train and be heard, respected and engaged.
Coming home from the exhibition – I decided I wouldn’t attend a social anxiety workshop meet-up in London that I had signed up for on the Internet – I felt that familiar feeling of worthlessness and smallness. I feel that I have no dignity – and I have no meaningful role to play in society. I am utterly ashamed of myself. I cringe when the manager speaks to me as if I’m a normal person when clearly I’m not – and, if he only knew all that I’m going through, I certainly am not. It’s different with my other colleagues because I’m not so afraid of them and, therefore, my play-acting takes over. But, with the manager, I’m so afraid and I know it’s visible or, at least, audible, in my struggle to put sentences together that I just wonder disappear.
But, how to be myself? It would mean telling work about my anxiety. I feel this would only be a greater burden because I’m struggling so much already. I don’t have the strength for this. I can, maybe, stop trying to hide my anxiety. For example, if I don’t know what to say, due to my thoughts being disorientated, I can just stay silent. I can, maybe, make tea in the office and, having done so, just walk out, without caring whether I seem rude. I can embrace my silence. This isn’t a desired silence but just the outcome of being so twisted in fear that my sense of self is inaccessible, complete with genuine emotions, ideas, feelings and so on. I can play-act, painfully, or, I can just be.
The problem with just being silent is that I don’t want to come across as rude, moreover, I want to connect with people. But, maybe, sometimes it just has to be. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.
Christ, that’s what happens when you ignore a problem. It eventually blows up in your face. I’m talking about my IBS. But, I’ll try to be rational, rather than just cursing myself and giving into my self-hate.
Tuesday morning, I went to the Web Writing workshop out in West London. I’d been taking ginger bits in my herbal tea the day before and in the morning. I felt OK – just OK. I also took salt water nasal spray to help my throat.
Travelling there was fine but, once out of the station, I began to worry. I was early but didn’t go straight to the building but wandered a little. I went and got some water. Went to the toilet. And, then went and got a tuna sandwich which I half-ate. By this time, the workshop was due to start and I went in.
I was particularly worried that it’d be a quiet room (no hum of AC or computers to cover up my bowel sounds) and airless and crowded. It turned out not airless or particularly crowded but it was quiet. Nonetheless, my bowels didn’t play up too much during the nearly three hours of the workshop. There were several things that helped:
Eating half the sandwich before definitely helped – it displacing gas in my stomach/bowels. I also ate two clementines during the workshop, provided by the hosts (didn’t risk having tea or biscuits which were available) and took sips of water.
What also helped was that the workshop was broken up by group exercises, during which I didn’t have to worry about my bowel noises. During these moments, the build of gas is eased automatically by, I presume, burping or whereever it goes! Also, it relieves anxiety which most likely exacerbates the IBS.
On the bowel front, the course was OK. It was lead by a confident, apparently non-judgemental youngish man. I found myself admiring his manner of delivering the workshop because, though an expert, he recognised the fact that web writing is not a science and he was no didactic or adopt an authoritative role. He really lead the group to find their own ideas.
At one point, he was listing cliches or wasteful phrases and I suggested diversity. I explained that it was very broad and, also, is often used without thought to the reasons for pursuing diversity. After I raised this, I felt self-critical. For, I don’t think diversity is a cliché or should be expunged. I hadn’t thought through my point. On reflection, diversity is important and it needs to be defined and justified. But, I don’t think that it’s a meaningless word.
I made this suggestion during the workshop because I was feeling rather confident because my voice was sounding loud. The nasal spray was having its effect. I introduced myself at the start and had the strange experience of hearing my voice coming out loudly. It was very guttural because I’ve got into that habit but it was heard by all. I didn’t have to strain my throat to speak.
The group of twenty or so participants were mainly young women. Aside from the workshop leader, there were two men amongst us. I was the only non-white person. My group of three other women seemed pleasant enough. I initially felt quite confident participating in the group activities but, as I felt my throat become sealed, which happens with time and also, if I eat, I lost confidence and became more and more quiet.
During the break, I didn’t have the confidence to chat with the other participants who were stood by the table at the back laid with refreshments. I headed to the toilet and then wandered a little outside. One of my group passed me outside and I wanted to engage her in conversation but couldn’t think of anything to say. I got the feeling that she wanted to engage me.
I was impressed by the practicality of some of the people. When given an exercise, for example, to re-write some ineffective text, they went about it methodically, heading-by-heading and incorporating what had been said in the workshop.
I was also impressed by a particular lady, who was older, when she identified the ‘tone’ or ‘personality’ of an organisation – whilst our group struggled with defining this, she produced words like “trusted” and “knowledgeable”. These words can span a number of activities of an organisation, underpinning its ethics.
As usual, I found myself desiring to bond with the people there and, though I felt connected with my group, I left at midday, after the first workshop. Most of the other people stayed on for a second workshop. The truth is, I had only booked the morning session partly because I dreaded the idea of having lunch with other people and, also, the consequent, difficulty with my voice that food seems to cause – and the potential for my bowels to start playing up. I’m sure my manager would’ve ok’d staying on.
As I left, I thanked the host of the session, I young lady from somewhere in the North. She had a really genuine and personable manner – as if she knew me when we first met. She commented that my hands were cold and introduced me to some people.
I then sailed out and passed two people from my group. I merely smiled and waved, not trusting my voice to speak and then left. I had a bit of time, so I wandered by the low Thames, taking in Kew Bridge and the houseboats lined on its muddy, marbled banks and the Canada geese and seagulls and mud-larkers on its fringes. This part of West London felt strange, with aeroplanes passing by low in the sky along the flightpath to and from, I presume, Heathrow. It felt rather sad and lost – as if in-between. I noticed quite a few women in niqabs, perhaps, wealthy Middle Easterners. I also saw high-rise tower blocks, presumably, social housing. Across Kew Bridge was a sign welcoming drivers and pedestrians to Richmond.
If that day was not too bad, today was difficult. This morning was the meeting I attended with my manager. I met him in central London. My bowels were very gassy and did erupt in loud bubbling, rumbling several times. I knew as soon as I sat down that it was going to be tough.
Mistakes I made included not having a sandwich just before the meeting. I met my manager in a cafe and we sat as he talked. I refused any food or drink. I was too afraid to think clearly. Once in the meeting room, there was no background noise to shield me and there was no free fruit to be had, only biscuits and tea. I took some water and hoped for the best.
Initially, it was OK. I suspect, the breakfast I had had displaced gas in my bowels. However, it began to seriously build up. I was sipping water and trying to breathe out the gas but my bowels rumbled/bubbled. I don’t know exactly how it sounds because the moment is such a tense and panicky one. I immediately pressed my abdomen and then pretended that nothing was up.
Naturally, once my bowels were going, I couldn’t pay attention to what was being said. I just sat there pleading that there would be no more. It alternates. Sometimes, after burping quietly, it felt ok. Then, suddenly, it felt really bloated and, invariably, would rumble/bubble.
The meeting was two and a half hours and in the break, I went to the toilet and then grabbed some water and biscuits. Eating the biscuits helped in the second half – but only for about five or ten minutes. Then the horrible bloated sensation would grow and I sat squirming in my chair hoping against hope that there would be no sound. The sound is gas moving within the bowels.
But, it did sound, a few times, quite loudly. The problem is not so much the rumbling. Perhaps, I could live with that. Stomachs do rumble. But, bowels are different. Bowels make different and unpredictable noises from rumbles, as if chairs are moving in a different room, to bubbling, to groaning and, worst of all, the whining sound that sounds like flatulence.
I was scribbling wild, meaningless notes and looking to the speaker intently, all the while, pleading for time to pass and for no more noises. I daren’t look at the other people sat around the table in the large room. There were about twenty people in total, with my manager sat next to me. I’m sure he heard – I know he heard.
Finally, it was over. Another day in my torturous life. But it’s not over. Because I felt dreadfully embarrassed and wanted to get out of the room as soon as possible. But, the embarrassment remains with my manager. However, I just have to think of it as a medical condition. The embarrassment, I guess, is natural. People may have thought that my stomach was empty, hence the sounds. Nonetheless, we feel embarrassment, I guess, because we are embarrassed about the inner workings of the body. The body isn’t meant to exist, except in outer composed form.
I need to do something about my IBS. I’ve ignored it for years. Things have to change because I can’t keep going through this. Although, once it’s over, it feels as if it wasn’t too bad – the effect on my brain can’t be good. All that tension, stress and, also, shame and the on-going shame. Not to mention that my IBS is affecting my digestive and overall health. I can’t live in dread of meetings and lectures for my whole life. I either manage my IBS or avoid people. Days like today can’t go on. I can’t bear it.
My shame, embarrassment and fear of my manager will only grow. He’s been really, really nice of late. He treats me, mostly, as an equal – despite him being supremely confident and running an organisation. It feels wrong and embarrassing to me for him to treat me well. When I talk to him, I feel very uneasy and, often, can barely hold eye contact. I feel worthless and fraudulent. I feel all that I am good for is a manual or retail job – that is, what I should be doing, given my social difficulties.
Guess what? Tomorrow I have to call in and cancel my CBT appointment – and hope that they don’t cancel my sessions. My anxiety stopped me from asking my manager, yet again, to take the time off. I kept wanting to say it and had ample moments when one-to-one but just couldn’t. I couldn’t bear the silent judgements he’d be making. That is, I’m afraid of them and how they’d translate in speech and actions. I’m sure it’d be fine – but the fear is strong.
I was going to ask him today, before the meeting in London. I failed to – then, just as we parted yesterday, he asked if I was in tomorrow and mentioned that we were a bit short of staff. The last two weeks, I’ve texted in the morning about having appointments, so I wonder if he was thinking of that.
Well, now that the manager said that we’re short, I don’t feel as if I can take the time off. It’d be fine, I’m sure but I’m just afraid. I’ll have to call the therapists early and hope that I can reschedule, or, perhaps, I’ll lose the session or, even, if they are really strict, lose all the appointments. I don’t know.
It’s the end of the week. Tomorrow is my day off. I feel exhausted, as if I’ve been in a boxing ring. That’s what every day is a bit like. Knocks, punches and air-shots, mostly, aimed at myself. I don’t know how much I can bear it. On the way home, I was imagining ways of dying – in front of a train, with pills of some sort or with an imaginary gun.
But, it’s impossible. I’d be hurting others, as well as myself and I’m terrified of pain. Even more than of people.
Every day, it’s hard to get home from work and do anything constructive. Hence, not adding to this diary since Wednesday evening. Even now, it’s 10.15 pm. I’ve been home for 2.5 hours on the Internet, not wanting to do anything but to fill my head with the sounds of other people.
Today left me down because it reinforced my alienation. It was just me and the manager in today, and, of course, I was scared stiff but trying to hide it. He continues to be nice to me but the terror remains because I feel he could turn against me and I have no defence. Even being abrupt or dismissive feels really painful and too much to endure. As if, I’m raw with pain and small insults, merely, a look, can really hurt.
So, I sat with him at reception, trying to work but my bowels were really bloated. I couldn’t concentrate and I felt noises imminent. In the end, I had to make up an excuse to go and use a different computer. Which I did, and, I noticed my bowels though still bloated, eased off, which confirms that anxiety exacerbates it.
There were some teenage groups coming in as part of a citizenship scheme. They were going to get a small tour and then practice their business pitch to the manager. Last time, I had shadowed the manager giving the tour and then been on the panel for the pitch. The students were between fifteen and seventeen and not confident public speakers but I was so nervous that I took virtually nothing in from their pitch. I had no idea what the proposal was. I managed, somehow to string some feedback together and didn’t know where to look, as they sat in front of my in a row.
This time, as we were short on staff, I wasn’t involved. I stayed covering the reception. However, when the students came past – many of them tall – I felt real fear. I had no interaction with them, except, to see them walk past but I realised just how afraid I am. The manager had asked me if I wanted to conduct the tour and I had said no, even though, part of me, at the time, wanted to give it a go. But, seeing them, I knew that I would’ve been disastrously afraid. I very rarely have any interaction with teenagers and their rebellious and cutting humour, as I recall from my time at school, scares me a lot.
But, the manager had them in the palm of his hand. His primary strength is his confidence and his booming voice. These two things can take you almost anywhere, I feel. He’s not particularly knowledgable, witty, doesn’t have an intense passion, as far as I can tell and is rarely well-prepared. He does things extemporaneously.
Yet, he tends to dominate interactions with others, as I’ve witnessed, by simply have a domineering manner and speaking very bluntly. Once, I sat with a colleague and a lady from another organisation as they discussed for half an hour, very informatively, a new website that had been set-up and the content. The manager came along and without knowing anything about the subject, took over straight away. He has a skill of identifying practical issues but, I feel, his primary weapons, to my mind, are his sheer self-belief and voice – as well as his position.
That’s not to say he isn’t challenged. When I first started in the role, at the start of the year, he was very irritable, if not rude, to me. I was upset within days of starting and was so incensed that, in the heat of the moment, I confronted him. This seemed to have some effect, as he started treating me with more respect – though, I felt mortified for my ‘outburst’ which I think is, in truth, valid dissent.
I now understand that there is a lot of tension in the team. Whilst my other two colleagues are apprehensive when faced by the manager, they somehow express their dissent and get under his skin. The tension is still there, though, it seems to have lessened. A great strain is the workload. With staff very short and the manager himself working part-time, my two full-time colleagues, I think, feel unfairly overworked.
Well, about me, I’m cruising though this internship and, overhearing the manager discussing plans for recruiting new people in the future, I realise that I have to think about my future. I have been in paralysis this year, blindly going to work each day and crashing at home.
My role is extremely easy and comfortable (barring the anxiety and ill-health). I get to research what I wish, I don’t have a great workload and am in a position to suggest what I want to work on. This is because my internship role is a sort of training position with no serious responsibilities, except to turn up.
I know that I’m letting myself down. On Friday, I sat at my desk all day, no-one around, writing up some research I’d done. Afterwards, I knew this was wrong. I wasn’t challenging my anxiety and I wasn’t doing anything to secure my future. I’m in a comfortable bubble.
Somehow, I need to find the courage to cast aside the shame, self-hatred and fear, to plan and make decisions. It is surely too late to apply for a university course. I will most likely need to find a real job.
On Wednesday, after the meeting that I attended, I had the afternoon off and visited the National Army Museum. I previously worked in a museum gift store and walking into the NAM’s store, reminded my of those several years of being stuck in a room, straightening shelves of mugs, pens, postcards and t-shirts. As I saw it from this new distance, I was horrified, and couldn’t bear to inspect the items much. A lot of the products were similar to what I had sold. A sales assistant behind the counter price-gunned items without looking up. This is exactly what I did for many years. As I left the shop, I recognised the blonde woman who was price-gunning away. I think she recognised me. I had worked with her in my previous job in the gift store. She was Hungarian and did retail jobs to fund adventures, such as working on a cruise ship.
What did I do on Thursday? I was on reception, I think, with the manager. Yes, but, as there were volunteers working too, who help on reception, I worked on a computer on my own, occasionally, covering the reception. I don’t think I did much.
That was my week. I set out to be rational but it didn’t particularly work. I must try again, because only rationality can possibly get me the help I need.