Sometimes vulnerability is the way back

I’ve had a difficult couple of weeks. Stepping away from work has plunged me into terrible depression. Carer burnout kicks in fast, in the form of long mornings frozen in bed, unable to start my day, long crying jags, flashing irritation, suppressed resentment, and profound self loathing. Fear, frustration, and hopeless despair struggle for the upper hand. I’m caught by the chilling awareness of my own broken places, the insanity of my phantom terrors. Just as surely as I know the things I fear are not real, I am seized by them. Obsessed with them. Simultaneously tortured, and humiliated by my torture.

I believe in welfare, believe in care for the poor, opportunities for those of us with disabilities, I believe in dignity. Yet I am drawn helpless, over and over again into a false but compelling sense of my own failure. I am home taking care of my beautiful girls, yet without the prospect of work and career I feel worthless beyond redemption. I had my chance and I’ve ruined it. I’ve let down everyone who’s ever helped me. I have no excuse for such chronic failure and underachievement.

In darker moments I believe everyone I know is secretly disgusted and embarrassed by me. I am in anguish trying to prove I am worthy, that I have tried hard, that I am not a lazy, selfish, useless bludger. The pain is hard to describe, it’s searing, like a hot brand across my face. It’s deep into my soul. It’s a frighteningly powerful delusion.

I’d not thought of it that way before this last week. I’ve turned my mind to a serious challenge – understand the territory Star is lost in, and devise a way out for her. And we’ve done it. Setting ourselves the task of reading a book or 12 articles about autism or eating disorders a day, we’ve absorbed enough to tailor a treatment that’s so far worked spectacularly well. I am so relieved I can’t put it into words. The sheer joy of watching the colour come back to her checks and sparkle to her eyes is magic.

And instead of proud of myself I am devoured by self hate for quitting work, for being poor, for needing support. I’ve never thought of myself as delusional before, although I understand that it’s how thinking works. We all construct tiny models of reality in our minds, none of them vast or complex enough to capture the real thing. We are all deluded. And like all delusions, knowing it’s false isn’t reassuring, it’s just frightening and painful to have been so captured by something that isn’t even real. It’s a very lonely place to be tortured by your own mind.

We’ve been reaching out more than we usually do, sharing more than we usually share. And it’s helping. Also spending time with friends helps me box back up the dangerous whirlpool of thoughts that snares me. Don’t think about work, don’t try to problem solve money or career. In company I find it easier to compartmentalise it. It gives me breathing room.

In vulnerability I seem to be letting out some of the poison. There’s a kind of awkward confession to it. Having friends share their own madness with me, offering reassurance without expecting that to fix it is healing. Finding a way to put words to my terror of being judged by family and friends and feeling (not seeing because I can’t bear to look but feeling) them wince in pain from the ‘couldn’t be further from the truth’ madness that has me standing on cliffs, running from invisible nightmares, changes something in me, slowly. If the reality checking is sensitive and loving it helps. We know this from psychosis and this process feels exactly like that one to me. I’ve been here before in other ways, not beliefs but senses tangling my inner and outer worlds. The impossible dual truth I have to find a way to hold in my mind: it’s not real, but it’s real to me.

It’s not real that my friend loathe me, that I’m a useless failure, that I’m lazy, not trying hard enough, pathetic, a disappointment. It’s not true and I know this. Yet it’s profoundly true to me, and that must be acknowledged too. Knowing it’s not real doesn’t make it go away.

I’ve shared my distress with friends and family, unpicking it despite the insanity of it. The more I show to safe people, the less it bleeds. There’s no need to tell me how crazy this is, that doesn’t ease it. But being safe to be crazy in front of, that’s a balm when your mind is on fire. I know it’s not real, hold me anyway. Hold me. I’m in so much pain. Hold me.

Friends share their own madness, the terrible shame of poverty, disability, or loss. I am less alone, not the only one on fire. Everyone burns somewhere in the night.

Last week a younger member of our system shared her name with a close friend – the first person apart from Rose who knows her name. We tried this once before, different part, with our therapist. It felt like being shot in the chest. A kind of death. This felt nothing like that. It felt like planting a new flower in a garden. Natural, simple, simply the next step. No one was shot, no one panicked. One step closer to a life that doesn’t feel like hiding in plain sight, hoping for closeness while holding everyone back. Each step brings us closer back to our self. We get windows of time with no fire or pain. Time like normal time where we can breathe and plan and live. The darkness retreats to the edges of our life.

We have a new psychologist and we’re talking about things long forbidden. Not trauma but something for us more vulnerable and unspeakable – giftedness. The potential and the vulnerability of being gifted, smart, capable, and utterly different. Repulsed by elitism and afraid of others’ discomfort and envy we’ve refused to even think about it most of our life. Now we’re reading about people who are strange like we are strange, people who can write at a PhD level but can’t make it through an undergrad program. We’ve opened the box and are using the words and into this unfamiliar space comes grace and gentleness. My terrible fear: that being smart means I should have figured out work and shouldn’t be on welfare, is gently tipped over. Not only is it okay to be smart and need support, being talented itself can be a difficulty for which you need support. I find it easy to do things other find hard, and very much the reverse. I thrive with intellectual challenges and emotional and creative expression. I die without them. The very thing that caused me problems applying for jobs (advised to downplay academic achievements, remove training from my resume, constantly told I’m overqualified despite having no qualifications) is a difference that brings its own problems. Most forms of diversity operate in practice as a disability. I’ve walked around for years with my wings bound, trying to hide what I can do so people will be friends with me and not hate me. If I switch the word gifted for anything else, say, multiple, queer, invisible illness, chronic pain, mental illness, I can taste how sad that is, how much it hurts, how concealment breeds shame.

We steer our ship by desperate, painful questions, ‘why are we the way we are?’ ‘What do we need to thrive?’ ‘Is it okay that we are on welfare?’ For the first time in 10 years, we can sometimes believe that yes, it is okay. We have done our best, done well, not failed, not let anyone down. We are okay. It’s okay that we need support. We are okay just as we are.

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