Shaken

These days I find that I am easily shaken. Like a glass of water with sediment inside of me, once shaken it takes time for those particles to settle at the base again.

I’m getting tired of waiting for my feelings to settle before I can see clearly again.

A Few More Steps

I feel like for much of my life I’ve been a few short steps away from a crisis. Thinking broadly about my time since enterring high school, when people have asked how I am, I always seem to recall having to catch myself from saying that I was struggling with something or other. Whether it was study, moving house, processing past hurts, challenges at work, or figuring out my identity, I’ve always felt like I’ve had heavy burdens to work through leaving me little room for extra challenge on top of it all.

Certainly there have been times in my life when I was feeling strong and robust and able to take on more, but as I look back now, I seem to have usually been at 80% capacity for handling stress.

Maybe it’s just ’cause things are hard now that I can’t remember this isn’t my default.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve learned to look for the struggle in life, and that I then focus on how heavy my burdens are.
Or maybe I really am just going through a tonne of stuff all the time, and life is hard.

I guess I can’t figure it out right now. All I can do is keep my head above water, work through what I’m working through, and live my best life. I do worry though that I’ll spend my whole life processing, healing, and working through stuff, and then I’ll die exhausted and spent without ever enjoying the fruits of my labour. When is enough enough, and I can stop working so hard on myself? I suppose I’ll have to make time, and to focus on appreciating that time rather than seeing it as the exception in a problem-saturated story of my life.

Drowning

The bucket inside of me that can hold stress and fear has been very full lately. I find myself teetering on the brink of “coping” and “overwhelmed” several times a day. Sometimes several times an hour.

I have moments where I humble myself before greater powers than myself. Where I open my heart to the stress and the pain because I know it will help me learn something important, or to grow strong and wise.

And other times I feel myself circling the drain. I don’t know how long I can go on. But I won’t let my story end, because I and those who love me have worked too hard to make it this far. I refuse to go quietly into that good night.

But it tempts me sometimes.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way. Like I’m low-key drowning in my own distress, but so slowly it doesn’t seem to be a crisis. That the waters have always been this high and this rough, I’ve just gotten used to it.

In the heart of the maelstrom, I don’t know what will help. I can’t tell if softness or hardness will get me where I need to be. I don’t know whether to lean into it or lean away from it. I can’t tell my yin from my yang right now.

All I can do is recall the advice I gave myself yesterday, in a moment of clarity: that all the things that I think are “important” don’t matter at all compared to staying alive and easing this suffering. As hard as it is to take time away from being “productive”, if it helps me return to my Self sooner then it’s time well spent. It’s difficult, I know, to want to do so much and be so limited. But that’s how things are right now, and you can spend time and energy fighting it, or you can ease into it. You can start to enjoy it. With mindfulness, every moment can be pleasurable, even if it isn’t comfortable.

I can’t promise to be mindful 24/7. But I do want to remember it more often. I think that will be the key to my survival.

My Counselling Journey

A friend recently shared a video with me in which Jenn Im talked about her therapy journey. I found it really moving, and as I watched it I discovered that I wanted to reflect on my own path and how I got to where I am today. So here goes.

 

My first encounter with a counsellor was quite by accident. High school was a rough, rough time for me and I found myself drowning in distress on a daily basis. One day when I was struggling with perfectionism, I opted to miss the first two periods of school so that I could finish an assignment that was due by fourth period. I had to sign in late at reception, in the box listing my reason I wrote the word “moribund”. I’d meant it to be a cheeky way of implying that I was sick, and (in my arrogance) I didn’t expect the receptionist to know what it meant and to just ignore it.

Instead, later that day the Head of Year 12 knocked on the door of my Religious Education class and asked if she could speak to me. Terrified, we went for a walk through the school grounds as she raised her concerns. Yes, I knew what the word moribund meant. No, I didn’t mean it literally. No, I doing okay thank you. No, I didn’t need to see the school counsellor. No really, I didn’t want to see her.

But bless that dear, sweet woman, no matter how much I insisted she would not be turned aside. And so to make her go away more than anything else, I agreed to see Counsellor #1.

 

Counsellor #1 was a beautiful person. She described herself as Funky, Fit and Fun, and she was always smiling. For an hour every few weeks, she would sit with me and provide a listening ear at a time when I was desperate to share the pain inside of me. It felt like I had been carrying this boulder all by myself for so long, and she came along with a wheelbarrow and asked if I’d like to borrow it for a while. Life became more bearable by talking to her, even if it didn’t feel like the weight of my burden was decreasing.

I remember her asking me to draw how I felt inside, and I drew this ragged black thing with cruel eyes and fangs that I called The Nothing. Another time, I said to her that I hated my brother and I found myself sobbing because I realised in the same moment that I didn’t actually hate him, but that I hated the fact that I felt like I needed to hate him in order to protect myself. (Incidentally, we have a wonderful relationship now, and it took us many long years to get here.) Counsellor #1 gave me the validation I had so desperately been craving, and was a wonderful interlocutor as we discoursed on psychology and philosophy.

Things weren’t all great though. One of the things she said to me repeatedly was “There’s nothing wrong with you.” Looking back I think I know what she was trying to do: she was trying to get me to focus on the strengths I had, my victories and successes, the parts of my life that were beautiful instead of the darkness I constantly found myself looking for. But at the time, it didn’t help. I didn’t have the words for it, but there was a part of me that wanted to scream “I’m not okay. I’m so deeply, desperately, broken. I feel awful all the time. Why won’t you acknowledge it?”

One of the effects of seeing her was that I realised when I was feeling terrible I didn’t have to just accept it; that counselling services existed, and that maybe they might help me feel a little better. I started calling the Kids Helpline when I felt overwhelmed, and sometimes they were just what I needed and sometimes they weren’t. They taught me an important lesson too: that all counsellors are just people, and that some of them are absolutely terrible at their jobs (or otherwise not suited to me at all). In those moments, hanging up and calling back to speak to someone else could make all the difference in the world.

Ultimately, Counsellor #1 showed me so much kindness at a time when I needed it most and I will always be grateful for that. She invited me to come back and see her even after I graduated high school, and she always made time for me. However, I realised that I couldn’t continue doing that indefinitely, so upon her recommendation I checked out the counselling services at uni.

 

That lead me to Counsellors #2 and #3.

Honestly, I don’t remember much about either of them, except that I didn’t get on with them at all. They were both white guys in their 40’s, and their approach was really clinical. I guess that after seeing dozens of students a week, they found it hard to connect with individuals and care about them.

Things weren’t all bad though. One of them taught me two grounding techniques that I still use from time to time. In the end, I found that after two or three sessions with each of them I moved on looking for a better fit.

 

Counsellor #4 seemed to be that fit. He was warm, came from a social work background, and had a friendliness that was a welcome contrast to the two impersonal approaches that came before him. He told me that I was mature for my age, and with that simple sentence, he captured the wordless despair I’d felt my whole life at being surrounded by people who couldn’t relate to me at all. Furthermore, he seemed to genuinely care about me. When I shared with him how often I thought about dying, he asked me promise him that I would call Lifeline before I acted on my thoughts. It seemed to me to be the first time anyone had taken my suicidal ideation seriously, and I found it strangely touching.

Counsellor #4 also taught me how to communicate more clearly. At first the talking ratio during appointments was skewed about 70:30 in his favour, and I found it harder and harder to wait for him to finish speaking before I could share what was going on for me. Eventually I just stopped waiting and started speaking when I couldn’t hold it in any longer,  and this turned out to be a very successful way of getting my point across. However after several sessions of this he gently informed me that what I was doing was called “interrupting”, and that some people might find it irritating even though he did not. That was a super important lesson that I’m glad he taught me early.

In terms of the therapy he offered, we weren’t quite a good match. As a student I could only see him 10 times a year, and so most of our sessions were based on anxiety-reduction techniques. He preferred to focus on the present and soothing my anxiety when it emerged rather than delving into my past and exploring the reasons it was occuring. He was really into this thing called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and in a nutshell he wanted me to acknowledge the presence of thoughts in my life without challenging them. This was not helpful to me because as far as I could tell, I wasn’t having any thoughts in particular that were causing me to feel distressed; anxiety was just my default state. (Incidentally, I’ve recently been studying ACT and I find it a very useful and powerful model. Counsellor #4 just wasn’t very good at implementing it.)

Ultimately, even though he was a welcome improvement from my previous counsellors, I stopped seeing him because I really wanted to delve into the deep stuff and bring about some lasting change in my life, and he just wasn’t willing to do that. I figured that I could work on mindfulness and soothing strategies on my own, and so I tried going without a counsellor for a while.

 

It did not end well. I hadn’t realised how poor my mental health was until I was on my final placement and the supervisors organised a meeting to advise me to withdraw. As far as I had known, I had been doing a great job, and it was a tremendous shock to my system to see that “my best” was actually a hot mess in the eyes of others. I decided to make a concerted effort to improve my mental health before trying again.

Finding a new counsellor was unknown territory to me. Up until that point I had been just seeing the most convenient counsellors that were available to me, and I didn’t really know where to start. As it happened, Beth had just started seeing a psychologist that her naturopath recommended, so I checked out her website, saw that she was into Buddhism and figured that it was worth a shot.

I saw the first available GP at the Uni’s medical centre to get a Medicare Mental Health Care Plan to see her. This was another instance that I opted for convenience and accessibility instead of planning for long-term healthcare, and I ended up regretting it too. That doctor at the med centre didn’t give a shit about me, and he seemed irritated that I’d come to him about something non-physical. When I filled out his questionnaire and all of the boxes were “moderately to highly distressed”, he begrudgingly approved the health care plan without a shred of empathy or patience.

 

Still, it got my foot in the door and I was able to set up my first meeting with Counsellor #5. The first session started pretty typically as she talked about confidentiality and I gave her an overview of my life story. It hadn’t been a particularly satisfying session so far, so it really caught me off guard when she said to me “You just want people to see how hard you’re trying to be a good boy.” I burst into tears, because it felt like that was all I’d ever been trying to do my whole life. It was a miracle to me that this stranger had seen and voiced in an hour what I had been struggling to notice in two decades. It taught me that having the perspective of a neutral observer could help me discover things that I just couldn’t see from my own point of view.

At the end of that first appointment, there was one other thing that really struck me; she seemed to have this idea that my life would get better. I found this very hard to wrap my head around because I had come to the conclusion that I would feel anxious every day for the rest of my life, and that all I could hope for was that some days it would be mild enough that I could function. I felt disconcerted by the optimism she seemed to have when faced with the crippling distress that stretched out into my future, so I asked her directly, “Do you really believe that one day I won’t have anxiety?” She answered “If I didn’t believe that, I’d be out of a job.” And with that, hope burned inside of me with a ferocity I hadn’t felt in many long years. She told me that I was safe with her, asked me to trust her. And so I did, putting blind faith in the idea that she could help me if I let her.

Thinking back, I feel complexly about our relationship. In many ways, Counsellor #5 was exactly what I needed to transform my life. And yet when I recall her, all of my memories are tinged with a gut-clenching fear and an effort to remain calm on the outside so that she wouldn’t notice my terror.

On the one hand, she seemed to me the very model of success: she was happy, and wealthy, and convinced me that she’d once been a mess just like me, and that she knew what I was going through. She could be sharp one moment and gentle the next, saying something that brought me to tears and then soothing me as I worked my way through it, smiling at me all the while. She made me aware of how out of control my anxiety had become, and had this ability to snap me right out of my thought spirals and back into reality.

 

She asked me to start attending the group therapy sessions she ran with her colleague, and so introduced me to Counsellor #6. In a nutshell, all he wanted for me was to care about something other than myself, and this was a lot to ask when I’d been stuck in fight or flight for so many years. He challenged me to lean deep into distress, to feel tremendous amounts of fear and just keep walking forwards rather than curling up or running away. Sometimes he was gentle, but those moments were rare. More ofter he would shame me, belittle me, tell me to “grow a pair”. And all the while he said it was for my own good, because he cared about me more than I cared about myself.

And to be fair, I think I needed to be pushed. I needed to be shown that I was stronger than I knew, that I could survive more than I gave myself credit for. It was their pushing that allowed me to stand up and fight for myself when my supervisor on my next placement threatened to fail me again. It was their pushing that allowed me to work six days a week and still face every day even when I felt like I was drowning in terror. They taught me to hide my fear, and this proved to be an armour that protected me from most harms. They taught me many useful lessons that I’ve summarised here, each of which were paid dearly for in sweat and tears.

And money, I guess. In the end, this was the catalyst that lead me to stop seeing them. An individual appointment cost about $140, and the group therapy sessions were $120 each, sometimes twice a week. When I told them there was no way I could afford the group sessions, they agreed let me pay $40/session, and so I attended weekly or twice weekly for two years. Then one night they took me aside and told me they had only given me the discounted rate under the proviso that I was fully committed, and they didn’t feel like I was trying hard enough any more so they were going back to charging me the full price.

I never went back.

I haven’t quite forgiven Counsellors #5 and 6 for the hurt they inflicted on me, the scars they’ve left. Maybe one day I will. But for now, I’m glad that those years are behind me and I can let go of some of the lessons I needed to survive that time in my life.

 

It was several years before I was willing to try counselling again. Things in my life weren’t going particularly well, so I accessed EAP through my work for four free sessions, and that lead me to Counsellor #7.

Counsellor #7 was a welcome change from how hard Counsellors #5 and #6 pushed me. I’ve been seeing her for two years now, and I love and respect her for so many reasons. One of the things I love most about her is that she is careful not to push me in one direction or another: she sits with me where I’m at, strives to understand me, and reflects back to me what she sees. She lets me come to my own revelations, and she never pushes me without asking first.

It’s hard to list all the ways in which I’ve changed since I’ve started seeing her. She helps me understand myself so that I can grow and change as I desire. I still come home reeking of what I call “the fear sweats”, but it’s been so good to have a safe space to lean into my fear and explore it. She’s planting the seeds that one day sprout into my consciousness, enabling me to access thoughts that haven’t previously been part of my narrative, and that gives me hope. Each session, as I settle deeper and deeper into my knowledge of myself, I’m forever amazed at what I discover inside of me.

 

It’s a bit of a cliche, but recovery is not a linear jouney; it’s all kinds of messy. As one of my mentors said, “We have five degrees between us and we’re still fucked.” There will never be a day that I put a trophy on my mantlepiece and say “I did it, I recovered.” And that’s fine, because each time I find myself struggling with the same problems, I’ll have more experience, more wisdom with me, and I’ll navigate the rough waters a little easier.

I have no idea who I’ll be in ten years time. But I’m so grateful to all of my teachers past and present for helping me become who I am today, so that one day I’ll become the person I’m destined to be.

If you’d like to talk about your experiences with counsellors, therapists and mentors, I would be honoured to hear about it. You can find my contact details here.

Whatever your story, I wish you peace and wellness, now and into the future.

An update on my relationship with facebook

Things are pretty bad you guys.

Thanks to that tracking app, I was really careful not to exceed the 30 minute limit I’d placed on the facebook app (unless I really, really wanted to). However, that just meant that I no longer lay in bed scrolling for half an hour, but now checked it a dozen times a day or more. I disabled the app, deciding that if I really wanted to use it I could access it through the browser.

As you might have guessed, it didn’t take long for that to become my new normal. Instead of automatically opening the app, I’d find myself automatically opening chrome and then clicking the fb button on the home page (because apparently I go there so often google knows I’m looking for that next hit).

I also find that several times a day, sometimes several times an hour, I’ll think of something that I really want to share on facebook, either because it’s funny, or thoughtful, or something I want others to learn about. I try not to post more than once per day as a rule, but for every status that slips the net there are many more that are stayed by it.

The problem is partially one of access. But what worries me more is that I reach for my phone whenever there’s a moment of quiet in my day.

One of the times I notice it most is when I’m facing a loading screen. I’ll be playing a game, having heaps of fun and then the match will finish and I have a minute until the next one begins.
Or I’ll initiate travel that requires 30 seconds of pre-rendering for the new environment.
Or I’ll enter a room that takes 5 seconds to load.

And each and every time I’ll reach for my phone.
Not to look up something I’ve been meaning to research.
Not to see if there are any responses to something I’ve posted on facebook.
Not even to see the new posts since I checked my phone half an hour ago.
It’s because I can’t stand the lack of stimulation.

I can’t spend five seconds in my own company without wanting to fill the void. I check it because the algorithm always shows me something new. My current feed is full of posts from Nerdfighters across the world (a community I love, so ostensibly a good thing right?) and from a group that shares nothing but wholesome stories and memes (which make me feel better about being in the world, so that’s good too right?).

It’s like I’m in psychological discomfort, and there’s this big red button in front of me that floods me with soothing hormones every time I press it, and it’s really super hard not to. Why wouldn’t I?

Ah, now that’s an interesting question. In the stages of change model of addiction theory, this is what they would call the “contemplative” stage.

My Old Friend

My old friend Fear knocked on my door today. He walked with me all morning, reminding me of all the things that could hurt me.

I took me a while to realise that I had given him my power because I knew on some level that he was trying to protect me, and God knows I needed someone to. I had given him the reins, and in doing so had let him convince me to shrink myself, to avoid danger, and to run from threats.

Then, I remembered to lean into him rather than turn away from him. There was a distinct moment where I said to myself, “I’m not going to live in fear today.”

And so I turned.

And he pushed back.

And I held strong.

Life is scary. It’s full of painful shit that could hurt me. But closing my eyes and bracing is no way to spend the day, and I refused to do it any longer. I decided that if I were to die in battle, I would face the end with courage and dignity.

And then I crested the hill,

And saw that it was deserted.

But I it did not change my bearing.

Reflections On Our Welfare System

When I try and think of the place where I have felt least respected in my life, the strongest image that comes to my mind is on the other side of the reception desk at Centrelink, or by extension, the job network providers.

 

I get it. There are lots of angry, unpleasant clients to work with who treat staff disrespectfully. Day in and day out, I totally understand how hard it would be to keep treating people kindly, respectfully, trustingly, only to have them (sometimes literally) spit in your face.

I would become guarded too, no doubt about it. I would become calloused and inured, and assume the worst while doing my best to remain courteous on the surface.

 

But it still sucks to be on the receiving end of that barely concealed disdain. Disdain that yet another person has walked through the door in need of something, and they’ll probably ask for it none-too-politely.

It makes me feel small. It makes me feel worthless. And I don’t like it.

 

I see an gentleman in his 50’s wearing a smart business suit approach the reception. He’s a client, and he asks for someone’s email address. He tells a joke and the receptionist laughs, playfully calling out after him as he walks away. When she turns to see the next client her face falls, and she snaps at the young man with dark skin, telling him with a passive-aggressive mutter and increasing bluntness to go sit down and wait.

 

I try and distinguish myself from the other clientele. I lay it on thick, being charming and polite, using big words to give the impression of intelligence and casually mentioning my qualifications so that the staff will treat me like something closer to an equal. I see the moment when they go “Oh, but you’re more qualified than I am. You could be doing my job, or my manager’s job.” I work so hard to give the impression “I’m not like the others”.

And I’m ashamed. Because it means that I’m willing to push other human beings down in order to stand on top of the pile, and be treated slightly better than them.

 

It’s a shitty system we’re part of, that de-humanises people who are looking for work. And I know that when people treat me like I’m worthless, not only do I feel worthless, I want to act accordingly. Because it’s exhausting trying to convince them that I am nice, that I am intelligent, that I am worthy of respect. And honestly, even when I try really, really hard, it doesn’t often change the way I’m treated. I guess a few polite exchanges can’t undo years of being treated badly, and so no matter how hard I try I’m still likely to elicit a care-less response from someone who’s deep in the pits of compassion fatigue.

 

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m the educated, qualified, not-quite-white-but-certainly-not-black one. I’m the one with a family wealthy enough and supportive enough to have bought me a car when I needed one, so I didn’t have to ride a bike to my appointment. I’m the one with a smart phone with internet connection, so that I can find what I’m looking for instantly. I’m the one with a USB dangling off my car keys so I can take the files easily. I’m the one with a folder to keep my documents from being creased, and access to a shower so I don’t have strong body odour. I’m the one that grew up in a safe family where I was never exposed to drugs, and who found themselves in a stable and healthy relationship. I’m the one that grew up speaking English, as a male, currently in the prime of my adult years.

I have privilege coming out the wazoo.

And I still found it hard.

 

It breaks my heart to think of all the people I passed today who will not have such an easy time as I did.

And I don’t have any answers.