Mental illness and where it stems from

It’s a cliché I know, but if you have a broken leg, people can see it, and they can empathise with your experience, perhaps understand it, make allowances for your difficulties, help you , support you and be kind to you. When it comes to mental illness it’s sadly different, our illnesses go unrecognised, we are condemned and judged for our rages and behaviour as we act out our pain.  We are bullied, isolated and misjudged.   Our pain is just as real as the broken leg though, but the pain lasts longer, and the recovery can be a lifetime process.  Sometimes we have to hit real crisis and breakdown to break through.

This pain inside can begin in very early childhood. Our most formative years are between the ages of 0-5 years, and trauma and experience during those years can last a lifetime, leaving a legacy of pain and sadness, fear and anxiety.  Our earliest memories can help us get in touch with this pain, and help us to start the healing process with a good psychodynamic therapist.  Our earliest memories are there for a reason, and are the calling cards for healing.  Allow me to demonstrate this point with my own personal example.  In my  earliest memory I am 3 years old, my mum had just died very suddenly of a brain tumour.  My dad wanted to foster me and my siblings out, but an uncle insisted we all be kept together, especially my twin and I.   So my dad brought in a nanny…and then he married her…within about 3 months!  He thought his life had turned into The Sound of Music, but my siblings and I didn’t like her, and we’d had no opportunity or encouragement to deal with our separate grief processes.  Dad announced, ‘This is your mother now.’  In my earliest memory, my 3 year old self finds the courage to go and bang on their bedroom door.  The door does not open.  My little hands are curled into angry fists and I hurl my words against the closed door, ‘You’re not my mummy, I hate you, go away!’  (I can’t imagine the pain I must have been in having lost my mum, and not be allowed to remember her or talk about her.)  From behind the closed door, my father allows my ‘new mummy’ to say to me, ‘I hate you too, YOU go away.’   Deflated, hopeless and alone, I took myself off and went back to bed.  This became my movement in life, any perceived rejection and I take myself off, and I detach.  I hardly let anyone close to me, and this has damaged and destroyed so many of my relationships, and yet juxtapose to this I also have a paralysing fear of abandonment because my mum died so suddenly, another reason not to let anyone in, not to love anyone because they might die and leave me.   Add to this me becoming the family scapegoat and the black sheep of the family, and my childhood didn’t get any happier.  I think when I was little I needed to cling to my twin for security, but maybe this terrified her, and so she pushed me away and leaned on our older siblings to make herself feel secure, she built her own new mummy out of them, and I was very alone.  Aged 4 I was watching Dr Who one day, and I began to cry.  When my eldest sister asked me what was wrong I told her I was lonely.  How does a 4 year old even know what this word means?  I FELT this.

When it is too painful to feel our wounds, we can become very creative, and denial is a coping method. For me, growing up, I never felt the loss of my mother, her death could be compared with the neighbour’s cat dying, it was no big deal to me.  My fear, anxiety and insecurities never left me though, and I always felt so small.  I had a tremendous need to be parented, and this is exactly what my husband was to me, a parent, and he was my best friend.  You’d think this was my happy ever after, but sadly, when you have something to deal with, the Universe will keep bringing it back to you until you’ve dealt with it.  My ‘something’ was my grief.  And when I became a mother myself, I began to breakdown.  Once when I took my little girl to nursery, when she was also 3, I heard another child crying, not even my own, ‘I want my mummy.’  This cry split my heart in two, and I went home and cried all morning until I could pick my daughter up again at lunch time.  I thought all parents felt like this, I thought it was normal.  I didn’t know back then, that my supressed grief was beginning to emerge.  A year or two later, I got creative again, and I brought in some seriously maladaptive behaviour to exorcize this terrible grief.  I had an affair with a man who was always going to go back to his wife, and when he did, I literally regressed to my 3 year old self, and it broke me.  I had a panic attack and experienced sorrow like I had never known before.  I was truly and utterly bereft and devastated.  I felt terrified, I felt the full force of the abandonment I had spent my life avoiding with my denial.  I was transferring all of my feelings onto this man, when in actual fact it was my mother I wanted.  It felt like I had fallen into the deepest, darkest hole which I might never be able to climb back out of, but eventually my breakdown became my breakthrough, but with it I lost my marriage, my home, my emotional and financial security, and along the way my health too, as I also took on my mother’s cancer, but I was a fighter, and I curled my hands again into tight fists and vowed, ‘ I am NOT leaving my daughters the way mum left me.’  And I got through it, and am here to tell the tale.  My daughters are everything to me, the only 2 people in the world whom I trust and love with total abandon.

But let me return to the pain. Pain is an indicator that something is wrong.  The broken leg will hurt for a reason, and so will the broken heart and the troubled, tortured mind, but they are harder to placate and fix, and so we use our creativity again with distraction and addiction.  Pain is always at the root of all addictions.  The addiction is the avoidance of pain, whatever you’re using, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, smoking, overeating, sex, pornography, shopping, gaming, or any other form of substance or behaviour which continually takes you away from YOU.   A quick fix which doesn’t fix.  Often these addictions spiral out of control, because we ourselves are out of control, eventually leading to a complete breakdown or a loss of everything.  This is where the 12 step programme can be so helpful, and life changing.  GO Russell Brand on this, he’s totally made it cool!  Read his book ‘Recovery,’ it’s inspirational.

In my life, I’ve had some battles and a lot of difficulties to overcome, and my mental health has definitely suffered. I developed an emotionally unstable personality disorder.  I wasn’t coping, I didn’t know how to cope.  As a child I was needy, and yet withdrawn and I isolated myself.  I couldn’t focus at school, I never felt truly present, almost as though I was watching my life from some far off place.  I needed ONE best friend and I was possessive and I clung to that one chosen friend like my life depended on it.

I lost myself in books and I comfort ate, and I would take myself off to go and play by myself, safe with my own thoughts and feelings with no one around to judge me or make demands on me which I could not cope with.

As an adult I destroyed relationships one by one and I pushed people away.  I couldn’t trust anyone, I felt abandoned and alone, I was controlling and I was immature and very needy.  Following my breakdown I turned to alcohol and shopping to silence my troubled mind and numb the pain of my broken heart.  One glass of wine in the evening turned to two which turned to three and then to four.  My stop valve wasn’t working, and when I got drunk, I often made some serious online purchases getting myself into debt as well as being almost permanently hung-over.  I kept telling myself for years that I would stop, but I couldn’t do it on my own.  I needed, and I still need the 12 step programme to stay with it.  I have sleeping demons inside me and I don’t want to wake them up!

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