False God

I am feeling a lot of shame over the things I am about to share. I am aware that cognitively I have no reason to feel ashamed but this doesn’t shift the emotional legacy of toxic parenting so… I’m sharing, but feeling uncomfortable about it.

Since my promotion I’ve not been in a good place at all. I spent most of the weekend feeling very unwell – dissociated, heavy, lethargic, quite extreme levels of pain – and whilst I would love to blame it all on the lack of sunlight (which definitely doesn’t help), a busy week, getting my period, and not having anything exciting or joyful planned for the weekend, I am also aware that a lot of big feelings are being held inside and that, as usual, the physical symptoms I have been experiencing are caused by blocked emotional energy. It strikes me as faintly ridiculous that I get triggered by something objectively good, something I should be proud and happy about, but when I unpick the reasons for it I can see that it’s to be expected really, given my narcissistic parents.

There are quite a few strands to unpick to work out how I’ve gone from a place of such excitement and relief to a place where I feel so depleted and small in the face of my success. The first is that I seemed to fall into fight/flight over my promotion – I found it really hard to emotionally regulate in the days that followed, because I am unable to emotionally regulate I guess, and I think being excited and happy and proud of myself are difficult emotional and cognitive states for me. I definitely felt on edge and borderline manic and all my usual routines seemed to go out the window. It is clear that I don’t really know how to deal with any emotions – although my capacity is increasing through therapy of course – and I know growing up I was shamed by my parents for all my emotional states and when I was successful my mum would be proud and happy for me for as long as it reflected on her well, and then she would snap at me that I was boasting and being big-headed. She did this in particular on the night I found out my PhD amendments had been accepted and I was officially Dr B__________. It hurt a lot, because I didn’t know back then all it must have triggered in her, and it felt like I really was showing off and deserving of contempt and humiliation. And it was always so confusing because she was so proud of my successes, especially in writing, but I wasn’t allowed to feel and experience them myself. It was all about her, of course, but it never made sense when I was growing up and I just felt rubbish and not good enough all the time, and that if I felt happy or proud of myself it was because I was a bad person.

So I was having a hard time being with what was happening inside for me last week – I couldn’t take it in or just be with my internal state. I couldn’t even access my internal state. I’m not sure I even had one. I totally disappeared. I said to K earlier it felt like my success was only real when I was talking to other people about it. I think this is linked to the first strand – I needed others to help me emotionally regulate in the face of such a huge event – but goes beyond it also because it stems from growing up with an engulfing narcissistic mother who eclipsed my sense of self. So last week when I tried to feel inside for what my promotion meant TO ME there was nothing there. It’s so hard to explain, but I just had no sense of myself at all, nothing inside. I told K I feel like I don’t exist. And she said how, as we already know, I have a sense of myself not existing unless it’s in relation to others, not having a sense of self, a true sense of foundational self, unless it is reflected by others. And this stings so much because it is true, of course it is, but I feel such enormous shame that I feel so unreal and need other people to validate me and make me real. It feels so shameful because it is like I am always seeking approval from others and trying to make myself visible to them because I want to be better than everyone else. The truth is, as I’ve written before, it is about feeling invisible and unreal unless I am extra visible, leaving me always having to do more than most to exist at all. It feels as though it is my fault that I don’t have a sense of self, that I have been weak and let myself be absorbed and reflected back by others. I know this isn’t how it works, that I didn’t and don’t choose this, but I still feel pathetic for being this way.

And Mum’s absence was loud last week. There is a deep sadness that because we are estranged, and most likely always will be now, I was not able to share this news with her – it was the first time something big had happened and I hadn’t been able to tell her and even though I know had she been involved she would have spoilt it and made it about her and left me feeling all kinds of yuck, she has been there for everything else and knowing she doesn’t even know (unless she googles me, which I guess she probably does do from time-to-time) is hard. She would be proud. She would have bought me flowers and a card and taken me for a meal and told me she was proud of all my hard work. K said earlier how of course it would bring up huge feelings of loss, when something big happens in my life and there is no one to share it with, and that of course I would want to share it with my family of origin even when it is a really complicated situation. I miss my mum so much. There is just this huge hole where she is supposed to be and it fucking aches so much.

She really did help me get where I am now (even if she was a large part of the reason why getting here was such a fucking struggle) and I am grateful to her for instilling a lifelong love of reading and learning in me and for supporting me in my studies. I am grateful that even though she was a terrible mother in most ways, she left me that gift and it is something that I will always treasure. K said this evening that it’s probably the only good thing Mum has left me with – academic success and a love of learning – and it is sad because she she is right, there is nothing else good from her, but it is also something I am so grateful for and I wish she knew that. I wish she knew that even though I can no longer see her, that gratitude hasn’t changed. I love what I do for work. And it saved me from a life of drugs and binge drinking and overdoses, I am sure of that.

K asked what I needed from my Mum, beyond just being able to share the news with her, and I said I just wanted to hear ‘you’ve done enough’ so I can stop now and just be. I cried a lot when I said these words earlier, because all week I’ve had this sense of ‘now what?’ and I just want this to be enough. I want to feel as though I’ve arrived. Cognitively I do have this sense of things calming for me now, but emotionally I still don’t feel as though I’ve done enough. K said how I just wanted to be recognised by her (Mum) for who I am, what I’ve achieved, the struggle. She said how young it is, the need to share, the excitement. And I can feel that. I can feel young parts in me feeling so sad because it was never enough – fantastic GCSE results, 4 As at A Level, a first class Law degree, Research Council funding to do a PhD, getting a doctorate, proper academic posts, none of it has been enough to stop me feeling like I don’t exist.

All I’ve ever wanted is for my parents to notice me, the me inside my achievements, the person I am inside. The text from my Dad last week just said ‘well done’ (ugh) and when I was trying to talk to my Grandma on Saturday about my work and she was asking questions about what this promotion will mean (which was nice as she can’t really relate to my work and was clearly really trying to show an interest) he kept butting in and turning it back to him and then changed the subject entirely after less than two minutes. I get it is a reflection of him, of how he feels about himself, of his insecurities and limitations, and that it is not about me, but it is still infuriating, especially knowing he has been like that my whole life, at times when it will have had a lasting impact on my development. I remember getting twelve awards in an end of term assembly when I was 13 and when I rang to tell him after school he was like ‘yeah? and…’. It is just such a shit way to raise a child.

It came to me this evening when I got home how bizarre it is that I am seeking approval, still, from two people who I don’t even respect or like very much, one of whom I’ve come to see is so damaged and damaging that I can’t have them in my life at all. I do care though, I care not so much about what they think of me, but that they recognise what I have achieved, who I am, how hard I have worked to be where I now am. I hope that the first step in beginning to really, truly validate myself is that I am beginning to question why so desperately want two people I don’t even want to see to be the ones to validate me. I want to make myself real. I want to be the one who gives myself an internal sense of being real and enough, just because I am here rather than because I have done something noteworthy.

K asked how Nina responded and I said she text me straight back and wrote ‘yeeeeessssssssssssssss!’ and then ‘well done mummy’ (and then told a friend my income has doubled now – if only haha). And K said how lovely it was that Nina gets it. And she said ‘and I get it, I really truly do, and I am immensely proud of you. It is amazing’. And my heart filled a little bit, but not enough because I just can’t take it in and make it mean something for me. She gave me a big hug at the end of the session and said again how proud she is, and that she hopes that I start to feel it within myself soon, but that there is no hurry, no faking. And I really hope I can. I hope one day – soon – I can validate myself, tell myself how well I’ve done, that I’ve done enough now and it is time to soak it all in. I am enough. And I hope I can have a sense of myself, for myself, when something else happens, so I don’t have to go looking to the wrong people to tell me I am okay now. That place feels very far away though and right now I am still left with a sense of not being here at all, not existing in my own life, and that is just so bloody hard to live with.

A place in this world

So another year draws to a close. I’ve grown past the need to make grand declarations about all the things I will do in the new year to make myself a better person, but I do think it is a good time to reflect on what has been and the lessons learnt, and to draw a line under that which no longer serves us and can be left behind as midnight passes. K and I were laughing yesterday that this time last year I decided my word for 2019 would be glow, because this year has been unexpectedly really quite bad and that word doesn’t reflect how the year ended up being at all. I was thinking a few weeks ago that when I look back on this year it seems very jagged and tangled – I was expecting it to be a much smoother year than previous years where I would be integrating the healing I had done so far because I had now done the work with K (not all the work by any means, but ‘the work’ – people in therapy for attachment trauma will know what I mean by this), but in fact it has thrown up a lot of things I wasn’t expecting about how I am and how I live my life. And so whilst I’ve learnt a huge amount about myself in recent months, I’ve not yet been able to integrate this new awareness into my life in any meaningful way or use it to make things easier for me.

Moving house took up a lot of time and energy in the first half of the year. It’s easy to lose sight of what a huge achievement it was to buy and sell at the same time whilst working full time and looking after Nina. This time last year our old house was on the market and I had no idea where we would end up or if we would even be able to move at all. The place we’ve ending up living wasn’t on my radar at all at that time and I’m so grateful for all the twists and turns that led to being where we are now. I love our new house, I love the surrounding area and how calm and peaceful it is, I love the new friend I’ve made here and through her I am excited to meet other new people this year. I love how safe it is to let Nina go out and play with her friends and that she can cycle and explore and go paddling in the streams near our house. The stressful self-inflicted summer I had and then the past 4 months of hell at work have meant I haven’t been able to take all this in as much as I would have liked to, but Nina and I walked in the meadow here and had a drink at the local pub this afternoon before she went to her friend’s for a sleepover and it was so lovely and still and there were birds singing everywhere and it really reminded me how far I’ve come to get us here. I made a good decision and I made it happen and I am incredibly proud I did that. Next year I hope to spend less time frozen in my house and more time uncurling in the sunshine and riding my bike in new places around here.

Fully waking up to the impending climate and ecological apocalypse – and just how close it is – also took up a lot of space this year. I fully immersed myself in Extinction Rebellion from April onwards and I’m really grateful I did that as I know I have made a big contribution and meeting others who are awake to the catastrophe most people are sleepwalking into was very empowering and I met some truly special souls. I over-committed myself and although I caused myself a lot of stress because of this, and it meant I headed into the busy time of the year at work without having had a proper break over the summer, I don’t regret it because it helped me uncover some long-standing patterns and, more importantly, the reasons behind so many of the habits I so easily fall into. Back in September I said to K that I didn’t see how I would move past them, and she said she thought bringing them into awareness would be most of what was needed. I was sceptical as it all came down to the fear of being invisible, and needing to be extra visible in order to exist at all, as another lovely legacy of narcissistic and abusive (traumatised) parents, and it felt impossible to move past something that has been so huge in my life, but actually I’ve taken a break from Extinction Rebellion till the Spring and I know I am still held in mind there, and I’ve realised that the most important thing is being visible to myself and this is something I’m continuing to work on. So, as usual, K was right.

Beyond this wish to make myself bigger in my own life next year, I really want to find my comfort zone in 2020. I was talking to a friend on Sunday and I said how there were so many posts on insta at this time of year about the need to push out of our comfort zones in order to experience true growth, but that I would be happy to find mine and stay there forever. I don’t think it had ever occurred to either of us that other people have a comfort zone, a place and way of being where they feel safe and at ease. I mean, I knew comfort zones were a thing, but I’d never thought about what it meant to have one or taken time to notice that I really don’t have one. We were also both confused at to why someone would want to push out of something that sounds like such a nice place to be! I do know there are times when I feel truly present and content and at peace with myself and the world, and I want more of that, but I also want to create a space inside me and a place in the world where I feel safe and at ease. K and I talked about this yesterday and she agreed it was a good goal for 2020 and that we would spend time working out what my comfort zone is, what feels okay and what doesn’t, because I am so used to pushing through everything and it has been hard to see what is genuinely okay and what is dissociation. Since the summer I am starting to really notice so many things that are not okay for me and that I need to leave behind and whilst it is hard accepting the limitations of my life because of my childhood, it is part of acceptance and for me growth seems to be very tied into finding this elusive thing known as a comfort zone.

It is only in the last few months of this year that I’ve really begun to understand how traumatised I am. I know this sounds silly because I went to K knowing I had CPTSD but it was only this year, when things were so much better from an attachment perspective and I wasn’t lurching from one crisis to the next, that I had the space to be able to see just how shredded my nervous system is because of relational trauma. And I think it is this that is making it so hard to keep going at work and in my full on home life – it’s not going to miraculously get better. More than 4 years ago, when I’d only just started therapy, I was worrying about whether I’d be able to keep working and K said that I might want to look at reducing the number of hours I worked in a year or so’s time. I remember being confused, because I had been planning to be recovered by then (ha!), but I can see now what she knew then that I am only just waking up to; healing from attachment trauma is a lifelong journey and the work is never truly complete. I need a different life than the one I envisaged for myself but I am not able to have that right now. It is hard knowing that I cannot make the big changes I truly need, that I will have to keep struggling through at work for the foreseeable future, but it is important to accept what is and not create more stress for myself by resisting it. I know that what I really need is to spend more time healing and caring for myself. Ideally I would work 3 or 4 days a week somewhere calmer that I can leave behind me when I go home so that I could spend more time doing things that help me heal and grow. This is not my reality and can’t be, but it is good to keep in mind the ideal I think, and then work at fulfilling the parts that I can for now, whilst holding in mind that I don’t want to live like this forever.

Realising how traumatised my brain is has shifted things, because I can see that whilst things will get better than this, I will always need a more gentle life than someone without CPTSD and I will always need more time for doing different things to nurture my system than someone without alters/parts. And whilst I have kept going despite work and therapy being horrifically hard the past 4 and a half years,  I am now really reluctant to continue doing this year in year out, barely hanging on at work, because of the longer term impact it will be having on my physical and emotional health. I am so aware of the statistical likelihood of me getting an auto-immune disease, something like lupus or MS or thyroid disease, and the amount of stress my body is under really isn’t good for me in terms of triggering something like that. I do lots of things to take care of myself – vegan diet, alcohol free, exercise, time in nature, yoga, meditation, therapy, avoiding over-stimulating situations, the list goes on – but the amount of toxic stress chemicals so frequently flooding through my body worries me. It is no longer sustainable. It never has been but I have been surviving and getting through every year, and as I wrote back in October, I can’t keep doing that now I know that the reality is I won’t suddenly not have PTSD anymore. I don’t want to keep surviving and pushing through exhaustion and being triggered by overwhelm and an endless list of too many things to do. Life is short and time is precious, and the climate crisis really throws this into sharp relief. We don’t know how long we have left of being able to live like we are now in this country, but this year has really taught me that I can’t just hang in there until Nina grows up and I can work less and have more time for me. I need to live now. I want to live now.

I have had horrific anxiety about returning to work ever since it became obvious last week that two weeks off wasn’t going to be enough to replenish me and reset my nervous system. I was expecting the break to help, but I’ve had a virus for two weeks now and I know that come Monday I won’t be feeling refreshed and ready to go back for another crazy three months. Yesterday morning I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it at all but my session with K last night really helped settle things and I am planning to spend the next 5 days getting myself in as good a place as I can for going back. K suggested last night that we spoke about short, medium and long term in relation to work, and where I could see myself. We talked about why I do what I do, that I love so many aspects of my work and how I’ve said for the past 9 years that even if I won the lottery I would keep doing the same thing, but I said I couldn’t handle the way things had gone in the type of institution I work in and how corporate it now is. I cannot handle the pressure, the administrative load we now have to deal with on top of the actual work we have to do, and how many different things we are expected to hold in mind all at the same time. I could rail against that and dream of the good old days when things were different, but it doesn’t change the reality and therefore it is not somewhere I feel able to work for the rest of my life. I will find out next week (I hope) if my application to come off probation a year early has been successful. If it is I will be so relieved. At the moment I’m thinking I will need to take some time off sick then, but K and I both said this may change as I may feel very liberated knowing I’ve met my targets and had my appointment formally confirmed (after 4 years!) and this may create some space to start saying no to more and doing less that will make it feel more manageable. So we will see. I also need to be prepared that my application won’t be accepted and I’ll have to wait the full 5 years, but I will deal with that if and when it happens. And in the medium term I just need to keep going, because I need money and Nina is only 12 and there are no other jobs that I could do where I would earn enough to pay the mortgage and continue in therapy, but I hope that I will be able to end probation and that this will enable me to make some different choices with regards the shape my career takes now and find ways of being there that mean it doesn’t consume me so fully as it has the past few months. The longer term is harder because best case scenario we have another 30 years before scientists and other academics predict our civilisation will collapse due to climate breakdown but many are predicting it will be less, and so I cannot make a plan for what I will do when Nina leaves home and I have more time and need less money because I’m not sure the life I expected to have five years ago when that time came is realistic, but if I hadn’t read the science and didn’t know what was ahead then I would be looking to change direction entirely and stop doing what I do now forever. So this is the goal I will keep in mind, because I think part of staying present, for me at least, means switching off from the fear of what may one day come to pass and assuming things will continue as they are forever. And I want to make decisions based on love not fear as that is the only way I can see of getting out of this mess humanity has got into in the first place.

So in many ways next year will be the same as this one, which pleases me and horrifies me in equal measure, but it does look clearer and more stable and peaceful, with no huge changes, and I am learning every year a little more about what I want and need and opening to the possibility that I deserve these things and I deserve a place in this world where I feel comfortable and safe and at ease.

And I will finish by wishing a happy and healthy new year to all my readers! Thank you for following my journey this year and taking the time to provide support and insights into what I share here, it is so very appreciated. I wish you peace and joy and strength in the coming year.

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