I’ve been writing this blog, updating daily for more than 10 months now. During that time I have gradually revealed more information about myself, and wrestled with different inclinations about things like being honest vs exposure stress. As I work independently, I’m free to work according to my personal values and beliefs – this means things like I choose to create opportunities for mutual relationships and friendships with ‘consumers’, people the rest of the mental health sector tend to treat as the untouchable ‘them’, against whom inflexible impersonal boundaries must be maintained. This is so important to me. I can’t function within systems that don’t match my values, I crash so fast when I feel I am being forced to be part of processes that are dehumanising. I understand that good people take the harsh edges off bad systems and I am so grateful to those who have done this for me, but I just can’t be one of them. I function in this ‘zone’, this strange tightrope walk where I can do things other people find hard, and can’t do things other people find easy. The downside of this independence, is that every day I make major choices and decisions about who I am and how I will operate. I was at a face painting party recently and someone asked for my card. My business card has this blog address on it. How many Mums looking for someone to face paint their kids are going to choose the artist who talks about hallucinating on her blog? Sometimes I think I’m totally crazy revealing what I have, and sabotaging every career possibility that is open to me. Weeks like this when I’m facing expensive dental work and don’t have enough money for groceries again, the cost of my limitations and my choices really hurts and I doubt everything.
Then there’s the groups – I am so passionate about my groups, and I say ‘my groups’ not in a proprietorial way, they also belong to every single member of them, they are our groups, but they are also ‘my groups’ in that I am also a member, deeply invested and excited and proud and at times exhausted and full of doubt and uncertainty. The government doesn’t fund groups at the moment. They are out of fashion in the mental health world, apparently the concept of groups brings to mind a bunch of confused people whining about their circumstances in a pointless repetitive self-re-enforcing cycle that supports no one. So they are a labour of love, no payment is coming there. The feedback from the people who attend is divided between those who didn’t find it helpful and look elsewhere, those who find it helpful but overwhelming, and those who would lynch me if I tried to shut one down as they love them that much. 🙂
Talks and workshops on the other hand, are taking off. The recent abstract accepted in Wales is a huge boost, really positive feedback that what I’m doing is good quality, professional, useful work. I’m also giving talks locally and being approached by other organisations interstate. This is simply thrilling!
I feel this sense that what I’m supposed to do now, the road in front of me is to work on creating a professional image. It’s critically important to maintain a good reputation for reliability before an organisation is going to front out money to bring over for a talk. They don’t risk this if there’s an even chance you’ll have a psychotic break or drug binge or get appallingly ill out of the blue the night before the big event. I’ve been working on getting myself more set up to make travelling and giving talks easier. I bought an external DVD drive for my netbook (mini laptop) recently so that I can install Microsoft Office 2010 which will allow me to last minute modify a powerpoint presentation or even hook the netbook directly to a projector on the occasion that there are hardware or software incompatibilities. My phone upgrade allows me to access the net, my email, and skype much more easily which helps me stay in touch with those who support me in the stress before or the depression following exposing talks. I have an app that allows me to update in blogger on the go without a computer. You get the picture.
In the meantime, when I’m sick like I have been recently, I write about it on my blog. Instead of creating a slick, professional image I write miserably about how stressed and scared being sick makes me feel. In those days I can feel the whole tone of this blog change, suddenly become more intimate the way personal blogs of people sharing about illness or tragedy are. This scares me. I feel like I’m building a career with one hand and tearing it down with the other. I feel like everytime there’s a clear path in front of my feet I resolutely head off into the jungle instead. I feel like I keep dragging everyone over to the corner and pointing at the terrified little man behind the curtain.
Creating a ‘public profile’ is extremely weird. Going to a conference to give a talk, it is the strangest experience to me when I sit down at a stranger’s table afterwards to be friendly and have them thrilled I did so. I bounce between being a nobody whose opinions don’t count and feelings don’t matter in the worst of the health system, to being a somebody people are excited and grateful to talk to, or hurt and disappointed if I don’t make time for them. It really spins me out and does my head in. It’s scary as hell! And yet I’m doing it. And I doubt that call every week, doubt my motivations, doubt the results, wonder why the hell I’m doing something I find so frightening and challenging, answer that question for myself, and then ask it all over again.
I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I can’t do this process with any kind of dignity. I was hoping the talks would get easier, that I would develop the thicker skin or professional exterior that would allow me to cope with stresses without howling my eyes out on the floor of my supervisors office. I find my vulnerability and sensitivity on the one hand make me good at what I do, and on the other hand are so painfully out of place in a corporate culture, painfully embarrassing. I’ve been waiting for it to improve, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. I just keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone, setting my sights higher. The minute I can cope with what I am doing I add in something else. It feels like training for the olympics, as soon as I can jump that high I set the bar higher. My supportive network appear to be resigning themselves without chargrin to the idea that I quite regularly wipe out into neurotic self doubt and terror, and given some TLC I pick myself back up and get on with it. It’s not a perfect system but it seems to be working.
The process of presenting my ‘best side’ to the world, creating an image of myself that I ‘market’ and ‘manage’ bothers me almost as much as the weird over-exposure and faux intimacy of revealing deeply personal information about myself does. Other people have smuggled personal experience into their professional lives secretly, like Marsha Lineham, who struggled herself with borderline personality disorder as a young person, found some answers, and kept it all quiet as she then worked her way to a PhD in Psychology and developed Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. It has been incredibly difficult to build credibility within the mental health system if you are known to have a mental illness yourself. Lineham is an amazing person who recently ‘outed’ herself at 68. I could have gone down this road. It’s a viable option and one many other amazing people have done. However I’ve rather shot myself in the foot if that was the plan. I have in fact done the opposite and been building my credibility on my lived experience, and not ‘long in the past’ experience but ‘oh last night there were some interesting black creatures scuttling about on my ceiling that only I could see, and how are you?’ kind of experience. I rather resent this; on the other hand people often tell me that it’s a relief to see someone like me being open about my struggles. People feel less alone – which is always what I’ve been trying to do.
Which brings me back to my original point. I guess I keep revealing my vulnerabilities and struggles, even those I feel like I’m not supposed to talk about – like how hard the talks can be, because the alternative, the creation of a public persona that is dazzling and free from all of my limitations, that also feels de-humanising. A different kind of trap to the misery of the ‘consumer’ label I have finally had enough of and turned my back upon, but a trap nonetheless, a place I can’t be who I really am, where secrets lie under all my words and pain is hidden beneath silence and smiles. So I guess I’ll keep muddling along, whether I’m building credibility or shooting myself in the foot. Weeks like this one I remind myself that my backup plan is Frida, who when bedridden with pain, painted onto a modified easel by her bed. I’ve heard of worse plan B’s.
I am on the improve at last. Facial pain is reduced although the skin infections are troubling. I had a rough night full of nightmares and limped out to see my counsellor today. She let me just fall in a heap about everything I’m scared about, overwhelmed by, confused over, and not have to present my ‘functioning side’. It’s a rare gift those people who let you fall apart and still treat you with respect and dignity. I must have drained half my sinus infections, I covered half her coffee table with nasty tissues. (which I threw out afterwards, I don’t hold with the idea that the counsellor has to clean up used tissues!) I came home feeling a 100lbs lighter. It’s so nice to have spaces where I don’t have to know what I’m doing or be competent or calm. I felt like I was drowning without a raft, and no one can take that away really, but it does help to be able to cry about it. Tonight I celebrated feeling a bit better by having a meal that wasn’t blended! Hurrah! A bit of soft fish, mashed spud with garlic, mint peas, and slightly soggy (so I could eat them) sweet potato chips. It was very, very exciting. 🙂