**TRIGGER WARNING – SELF-HARM**
To tie in with Mental Health Awareness Week last week, my workplace ran a course covering topics such as stigma, depression, anxiety and self-harm. It was an excellent initiative, and I was keen to attend, though I anticipated it being a difficult and perhaps triggering experience. I went with a number of colleagues, and it was interesting to hear people’s views of mental illness, and their descriptions of their own encounters with it through friends or family.
Although I felt a little strange sitting there and contributing to the discussion in the full knowledge that no one else had any knowledge at all of the fact that I shared many of the difficulties being described, I thought I had ‘got off lightly’ in terms of my response. The discussions of suicide and self-harm hadn’t felt particularly triggering, and I didn’t feel hugely anxious about whether I was ‘giving the game away’ through my contributions.
However, as I discovered the next day, I was suffering from a severe case of ‘delayed reaction’. The whole of the next day at work I had immense feelings of frustration and unease that are best described by referring to my ‘What’s in a name?’ post from September, which can be found here:
I was a complete mass of agitation – as though there was a writhing, screaming whirlwind trying to tear its way out of me. But the writhing and the screaming were covered by a thick and suffocating layer of dense fog, so that they weren’t directly accessible but could still be sensed in a way that was driving me mad with confusion. I could not stop thinking about self-harm – hurting myself was the strongest impulse I could feel all day. I had a therapy session straight after work and I took a penknife into session with me, in full view of my therapist – it’s the only time I’ve done that and I had no intention of using it, but somehow I had to have it with me, if only to illustrate how present and urgent the desire was.
I’ve tried to figure out what lead to those feelings, and the best explanation I can come up with is that they were the result of a severe case of a kind of cognitive dissonance. A dissonance related not so much to opposing thoughts, but to opposing world-views and identities.
For most of my life I have hidden away my feelings and put my ‘very best foot forward’ as far as external appearances were concerned. It was not that I was intentionally lying or pretending to be someone I wasn’t – it was simply that externally I was one person, and internally I was someone quite different. It wasn’t even a particular effort to do so – it was, and is, just the way things are. My parents expected me to be a certain way; some emotions were not acceptable (for example, anger); and my mother found it hard enough to cope with her own emotions, let alone my own. I was successful at school and at work and it was easy to appear always happy and confident in those environments, and in quite a large part, it wasn’t just about appearances. Those were environments in which I received praise, in which I felt I could achieve something and do something right, and in which I could immerse myself to the exclusion of much else that was going on. But I would never have dreamed of allowing ‘weakness’ (that is, emotion, as I saw it) to infect that part of my life. Giving any sign that I was ‘not okay’ was simply not okay.
This is still how I feel, very strongly, about work. I try to fight it, as I know in my heart that it is a false view – that it IS okay not to be okay. But fighting it feels utterly at odds with everything I’ve ever known. The thought that anyone at work might find out about my mental health difficulties is frightening, and I have no idea how I would even behave or function in an environment in which I was ‘no longer hiding’. Given those feelings and views, the experience of sitting in a room and discussing mental health issues with work colleagues, was like the coming together and overlapping of two worlds/selves which had until now been kept completely separate and compartmentalised. And the impact of that shook me up more than I could have imagined. I didn’t know how to deal with bringing those two areas into contact with each other – the feeling of hiding in plain sight and of part of me being buried and not being heard, was profoundly unsettling. But even worse, was simply the effort of trying to hold those two opposing selves side by side rather than keeping them miles apart. They were fighting with each other – perhaps the intense urge to hurt myself was an expression of the hidden part of me, trying to get out. I don’t know. All I know is that it felt like this, and that that feeling is one I really don’t want to have to experience very often. Maybe that means trying to find a way for those two selves to co-exist or to draw closer to each other and to occupy some common ground. I don’t think it can mean keeping them even further apart – that way lies only further madness.
Interestingly, I think this is a dilemma that I will need to solve in other areas of my life as well. Last week I had dinner for the first time with a woman from church who is a psychiatrist, and who I recently confided in with regard to my BPD. She confessed that she wasn’t sure how to approach a friendship with me while avoiding the pitfalls of trying to be my therapist or asking too many questions; I confessed that I wasn’t sure how to approach a friendship where my mental health difficulties were known right from the very start, as opposed to being revealed after many years of having known each other. We agreed that we would just take it as it comes, and be honest with each other. It is so freeing not to have to hide – not to have that feeling of dissonance. Maybe at some point, I can find a way of allowing myself to be a little more ‘real’ at work. I know I have a long way to go, but ultimately, I think my recovery depends on it.