Although I feel I have barely scratched the surface of the variety of…. Incidents that lead to a life frozen with shame, I want to talk a bit about a subject I care more about. The things that allowed me to pull a “me” out of all the mess. A “me” who is strong, ok with myself, and resilient (or so they tell me).
I mentioned the support group that I went to. I ended up attending for several years. Partially to expose myself. Something I wasn’t good at yet. Also, partially to help others. I was able to give feed back that helped people. Which was a lucky thing. Otherwise, I never would have stayed long enough to begin to transform.
No doubt about it, group was one of the hardest things I had ever done up to that point. Every week I would leave with this twisting in my gut and burning iron ore in my chest. I worried—did I say too much? Did I say too little? What did the others think of me?
Did I say something that could result in my life falling around me? I had this inner censor. A little voice that went over everything I said, making sure it was safe and acceptable. I didn’t dare say too much.
There was a time when I was feeling angry and didn’t know how to express it. I didn’t even know how to feel it. What I wanted to do was eat mass quantities of pastries until I passed out. When it was my turn at check in, I shared these feelings with the group. Despite the little voice in my head, gibbering, demanding I stop. I asked for feedback. Sadly, the only clear memory I have of the conversations was when a woman who told me I was lucky. Why would I want to feel that, she asked. I immediately shut down. But later, after a long therapy session, I felt a strange swelling in my chest. My head was held up high. I felt proud! I had exposed something I was very emotionally invested in. I had gone back the next week. The group didn’t hate me. This thing, that was so huge for me, had left little impression with them.
Most of the memories that made me hate myself were still hiding behind my screen memory. That memory where I was frozen by the side of that waterbed. Choking on the long past odors, accosted by the moans and screams that were only in my head.
Over time, with the support of my therapist, I gained a level of equilibrium. In the beginning, it took me most of a week to recuperate from my shame and discomfort enough to go back.
Eventually, I could process my feelings in less than two days.
I also started making acquaintances in the group. At the time I started going to group I couldn’t afford to keep my car on the road. So, I was taking the bus. My very first friend was Marie, who offered to pick me up and drive me home.
Over time, just with the little bit of private interaction, we became closer. We talked about life and such. Sometimes about the things that brought us to the hospital. Sometimes about our families. Our fears. Our triumphs. We even, obliquely, touched on sexual matters. She suffered from anxiety. I remember the warm feeling of “I matter” I got when she first called me during an attack.
For the most part, people came and left. They would come for a few weeks, a few months, or only when they needed a little bit of extra support. I was there regularly without fail. I feared if I didn’t go once, I’d lose my nerve and not come back.
There were a few others who were there most of the time. One of them had written the story of her life. She seemed so reserved, but somehow important to the therapist that ran the group. Most of the time she talked about her children. One day, after she had mentioned her book in group again, I told her I’d be happy to read it and give her some feedback. It was a huge risk. I was offering up a tender side of myself. I had made an offer I wasn’t sure she would accept.
What if she said no? I didn’t want to put her in a position that would uncomfortable. I didn’t want to get rejected. I felt my very position in the group was at stake. It took much agonizing, especially in therapy, before I dared ask.
She said yes! She came to my house and we sat for hours, talking about the good and the less good in her story. Our relationship became quite bonded, very real. But that was later.
As time went on some people seemed to consider me a second leader in the group. I did get to moderate it once or twice. I learned that I was quite good at pulling conclusions out of what people said. I learned I could redirect the group, or an individual person, gently yet effectively.
I was amazed, the first time I interjected with a comment about needing time for others during a meandering check in. Even more amazed that no one seemed to take offense. Maybe they respected me?
Group filled a need I had forgotten I had. A need to care about others. A need to see clearly into their situations, and their personality, and offer pertinent suggestions. Ultimately, the ability to share some of that I’ve been through, in a way that was relatable to them.
So, group was the first step on my road to recovery. While there I took other chances. I took some photography classes. I even tried to learn to play bridge.
My only real goal there was to make casual friendships. I had no experience with that. I tended to either shut people out or share too much. Or I would end up being their sounding board. I didn’t want more people I could help fix. I just wanted people I could be friendly with.
The bridge class was a complete failure. I couldn’t keep up. The rules, the bidding, felt beyond me. I stuck it out for three classes. Then I skipped one. Then another. Finally, I accepted defeat. At least I tried, I consoled myself.
I cared more about the photography classes. I had purchased a used DSLR camera. I really hoped I would come out if it with an acquaintance. I wanted to learn this new skill and have someone I could share with that went beyond the classroom. Managing casual interactions across multiple meetings practically took my breath away. Every time seemed to get harder, not easier.
Every week we printed out and shared pictures we had taken using the skills from the prior week. The first time I skipped class. Exposing those pictures felt like exposing my heart. I was so afraid I’d be told my work was “bad”. Or even, simply, not good enough.
I was accustomed to schoolwork, where I was generally a superlative. I was pretty confident I could meet expectations there. In art classes back in high school I loved creating but didn’t think I was very good. Would this be the same?
I was never told my pictures were bad or lacking. Even I could see how much better some of the others were. None-the-less, I stuck it out. I even took another class, and another.
I didn’t make new friends, or even an acquaintance that extended beyond the classroom. Still, people started conversations with me. They seemed to like me.
My next step was to find a new group of people and learn to share, interact, and make friends with. People who were not mentally ill. I learned how to know people without needing them to know all, or any, of the horrors in my past.
But, again, that is a story for another time.