Tag Archives: thegirlfromtheconference

22 Days of Musing: 15

15. Grokking my fullness.

I’d like to talk tonight about how desperately important it is, when you suffer from any kind of mental illness whatsoever – depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder – to maintain a network of supportive and trusted people around you who can assist you to maintain at least a certain handle on the illness, and can act as a soft place to fall if the disorder should get difficult enough to require that. For a plethora of reasons individually too small to consider problematic but joining together to form a larger and more formidable challenge of my psychological strength, it tends to be my friends in whom I place the most trust when it comes to being open and frank about my battle with mental illness. I don’t know what it is that makes me trust them moreso than anyone else. Perhaps it’s the discomfort I feel with the fact that there’s a societal obligation upon family to care – that blood is thicker than water, to the point where in many cultures the word for “family” or “clan” even comes from terms for body parts, as in Māori iwi “clan” (literally, “bone”) and the Ubykh equivalent lhepq (literally “blood [and] bone”) – an obligation that anxiety makes me sometimes question, even as I tell myself not to be so bloody bone-headed. I ask myself, are they being supportive because they truly want to be? Or rather because blest be the tie that binds and the omnipresent ᴛʜᴇʏ would look poorly upon kinship coming not before all? Having anxiety sometimes makes me ask such terrible questions even as I loathe myself for doing so. And so the hands of my friends, bound by no such ties of kin that might conceivably oblige them to catch me as I fall, tend to be those I trust with my psychological well-being (or lack thereof), because I’m more comfortable, on the whole, with the idea that they’re supportive because it pleases them to be so.

Nkiéjuale mğiéjuale waléwmıt.
(Old friends and old roads will not deceive you.)
– Ubykh proverb

This very evening, in fact, I spent a solid two hours (we can’t seem to help talking longer, always, than what either of us plan!) on the phone nattering with my best friend, ranging over a whole slew of topics and running along glorious tangents at every other turn. The peculiar thing is that it need not be a conversation about anything in particular that helps me to feel better or more positive; I don’t necessarily need to drop my bundle or vent my spleen to get a sensation of improvement. It can simply be the mere fact of having contact with another human being who cares about me for just exactly what and who I am, warts and all, that gives salve for the wounds that respond to no physical cure. When you’re mentally ill, the value of having somebody understand you is incalculable. And I’m not talking here simply about passive understanding, the sage nod of the “oh, I see” from someone who intellectually comprehends the words you’ve said, the scenario you’ve described, and might perhaps even feel sympathy, expressed (or not) in a platitude of some sort. Merely being understood is sometimes not what you need, or at least, is often not what I need. Rather, what I mean is having someone actively understanding you, or (with apologies to the late Robert Heinlein) grokking your fullness: not the mere statement of someone’s understanding, but an activity that communicates that understanding. Actions speaking louder, et cetera. The kind of understanding I most value is that shown not by attempting to “understand” as such at all, but by simply interacting, talking, laughing, commiserating, joking, raging together, in a way that demonstrates – that perhaps even performs – one’s understanding of me. Not of my illness, or of my circumstances, but simply of me. This is exceedingly difficult to describe, and the English language really lacks the lexical and grammatical tools to express the idea as cleanly as I perceive it, but equally impossible to describe is the value I place on spending time with people who’re willing to perform this kind of understanding. And sometimes all that’s necessary is to simply exist in the right place at the right time. On two occasions in 2011 after the “girl from the conference” débâcle, I lost my composure and fell apart in public towards the end of two nights out with a group of friends. In both instances, I realised what was happening and separated myself before I dropped my bundle completely. But one friend noticed my unexplained absence and came out to simply sit with me as I sobbed in the gutter and rest his hand on my shoulder. Both times it was the same friend, and he said nothing as I wept. But he knew, somehow instinctively, that I didn’t need someone to comfort me with words; I just needed someone to be with me and perform an understanding of the fact I just needed to feel like I was not alone. To turn a phrase, he understood the shit out of me on those nights, just as my best friend did earlier this evening. Loneliness is one of the curses of depression, and knowing who your truly understanding allies are can help to fend off that loneliness when it becomes too much to bear; I imagine this could be true for any mental illness, that the establishing of a small group of intimately trusted people who can grok your fullness can save you in those circumstances when your mind is seeking rather to betray you.


22 Days of Musing: 10

10. The Big Bad Tale.

Two days ago I noted that often, those who need help most desperately are those least able to see any way out of their own private hell. Sometimes, though, the crash to the bottom of the pit can be so rapid, so deep and severe, that it becomes easier to see the necessity for assistance. So following on from yesterday’s scene-setting, tonight I’d like to – well, not like to, but I will – reflect upon the darkest single time in my entire life: the time when I first realised that I needed psychological help. (I speak this way only in the interest of candour; I apologise in advance for parts of this that will no doubt come across as melodramatic.) Yesterday I talked about first recognising depression in myself in 2008, and that many (though by no means all) of my subsequent experiences with depression would, like this first one, have at least something to do with the emotions surrounding romantic attraction. Let me explain: when I fall for someone romantically, I have a habit of letting those feelings grow more deeply than I should, meaning that when those feelings are removed they don’t slide out neatly like a cork from a bottle; it’s rather more like the uprooting of a tree, tearing away not only the feelings’ roots, but also taking little pieces of my heart with them and leaving raw and gaping wounds behind. It’s happened more times than I care to count, and isn’t helped by the fact that I find it difficult to perceive the subtle cues that most people use to signal romantic interest, so often I think someone might be interested romantically when they’re in fact just very friendly, or have particularly extroverted personalities, or whatever else. Because my dysfunctional romantic sense has sought out those connections and been disappointed so many times, I suppose it’s logical that eventually my subconscious would come to use depression as a means to seal off those psychic wounds: perhaps helping to prevent me from feeling the pain associated with sorrow, loss, grief, rejection.

And so it goes, and so it went also in late 2010, at a conference where I met a fellow archaeologist (I swore an oath to commit her name to damnatio memoriae both for my mental health and for her privacy, an oath I’ve broken only on specific request from previous partners), just finishing her honours. We’d spent the last night of the conference lying on the grass under the stars, talking and holding hands. When we had to leave the next morning, we exchanged contact details, and within a week she was already talking about flying to Brisbane to see me. Over the course of six weeks leading into early January, we exchanged hundreds of messages, chatted or spoke on the phone every single day, and she spoke of her intentions and hopes for us in a manner loud and clear that even my incompetent romantic antennae received. But the day she arrived here, she and I and some mutual friends had a barbeque and an overnight stay at a friend’s place, and after I left the following morning, it was as though extraterrestrials had abducted her, leaving behind a doppelgänger. She stopped responding to messages, she claimed she was feeling ill, she put off us spending one-on-one time, she reneged on coming to stay at my house, she wouldn’t engage with me while we were on a group trip to Dreamworld with our friends, and within a week she finally sent a message with the tired, sickening old saws that turn up on Internet listicles of breakup clichés (and all at once, into the bargain): saying how much I reminded her of her brother (excuse number 3 – bing!), that it was her and not me (excuse number 2 – bing!), that we both needed to focus on uni (excuse number 1 – bing!), and she just wasn’t ready for a relationship at all at that point (excuse number 9 – bing!); she also assured me she’d answer any questions I had about the breakup. Because she subsequently didn’t respond to any of my questions, though, I soon sought advice from a mutual friend to determine whether I’d done something wrong. And suddenly, I did get a response: a page of enraged text lashing out at me about how I’d betrayed her trust and how I’d mistreated her by going behind her back. It was through this period of about a week that I fell headlong into a pit the likes of which I’d never experienced. Cast downwards at first by her sudden cooling towards me and the anxiety, confusion, sadness and disappointment they caused – just before she arrived I had decided to summon the strength to tell her about my feelings of gender variance (at least such as I understood them at the time), something that at that point I had shared with no-one – her angry message ignited a rocket rushing me swiftly down through a blackness into which light shone not at all, the very pit of Apollyon. I had just enough emotional strength left to send a single email to her to respond to her anger, speak in my own defence, and tell her I thought it would be best if we didn’t speak for a while. And for two weeks I lay on a futon, picking myself up only to use the toilet; while awake I stared at the television, not really watching it at all, as all 256 episodes of M*A*S*H (120-odd hours of television) played back-to-back from my hard drive. The only emotion that touched me was utter despair. Except when a family dinner had been prepared, I drank only water and ate nothing. I lost five kilos over those two weeks and by the end of the second week I could clearly see – intellectually, at least – that this was in practice coming close to a depressive catatonia and that I wouldn’t be able to climb out of this pit on my own. That was when I realised I needed help, and I’ll tell you more tomorrow about how I began to act in seeking it.

“Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.'”
– Charles M. Schulz