Years ago here in the UK there was a series of adverts on TV to try to persuade people to make more phone calls and speak to people more often. The tagline was “It’s good to talk.” That might be true, but for some people it’s not easy.
When I was growing up I was labelled shy by pretty much everyone: parents, teachers, relatives, friends. I didn’t like to be noticed. I just wanted to fit in and not draw attention, to be allowed to fade into the background.
It’s not that I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t have many, but there were a few. And with them I could talk. I’d talk about books, or TV shows like Doctor Who (good old Tom Baker). But I wouldn’t talk about me. That would be inviting attention, a big no-no.
As far as feelings went I didn’t admit to having them. I didn’t even know if I did have them. Apart from the big, obvious ones like “happy” or “hungry” or “tired” or “terrified”. Quite the emotional range I had there!
Even when I was being bullied at school I reacted rather than being able to speak about what I was going through. So I literally fought my dad who was trying to force me to go to school, and ended up barricading myself into my bedroom. But even through all the weeks and interactions with psychologists I could never describe how I felt, or what had happened.
Right into my adult years I never got to grips with my feelings. I never thought about it much, not least because I didn’t generally recognise them. And as a consequence I couldn’t talk about them, express them. You can’t describe something you’re not much aware of.
I used to say I never got stressed. I meant it too. But the truth was I didn’t know what stress felt like. I was in my 30’s before I learned to identify the physical signs. And then I realised I had been stressed a lot, and I had developed some coping mechanisms that were less than healthy.
Other major emotions too. I realised I had been feeling them for so long without being aware of it: anxiety, depression. And also the major discomfort–dysphoria–with my body’s apparent gender.
It doesn’t sound credible, I know, that someone could be going through phases of anxiety and depression and not be aware of it. Well, I wasn’t totally unaware: I just had no idea what emotions I was dealing with or how strong the they actually were. All I knew was that I felt things were beyond my control. Hence the coping mechanisms.
My main one was drinking. Nothing quite like alcohol to cut through those inhibitions. The social lubricant, socially acceptable. I got drunk a lot to avoid thinking, to switch off. It just became something I did; the circles I mixed in revolved around alcohol culture.
The only times I ever asked for help until recently, I put it in terms of a drinking problem. I went to my tutor at university about it, but he dismissed it saying that I didn’t drink that much! The college chaplain was a little more concerned but as I couldn’t manage to describe how I felt, I never managed to put across how serious it was.
It was around this time my second coping mechanism began. I started to cut myself. The first time was a kind of dry-run for suicide, but I discovered a side-effect which was that the pain brought a sense of clarity to my thoughts. It gave me one thing to focus on and a sense of bringing things under control.
Because if I am honest, things were kind of out of control. I was drifting along with no real idea of what I was doing, why I was doing it, or where I wanted to end up. I had no structure to form a foundation, I was living independently, and I was out of my depth.
One of the main ways I was failing to cope was emotionally, and I couldn’t even see it. I was on the edge of a breakdown and there were no warning signs that I could identify. I only knew that I was failing, with all the associations of shame that has for me. What did I do? My actions became increasingly self-destructive. More drinking. More cutting. Some dabbling with soft drugs.
Things only improved when I gave up on university and returned home. Back to my safe environment. I largely deflected questions about what had happened; I said that my learning style was not compatible with university teaching. Not a lie but some way from a complete truth.
My breakthrough, my epiphany if you like, came out of the blue after someone suggested I might have Asperger’s. I was in my mid- to late-30’s. I researched. I found blogs by people like Cynthia Kim and Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg. I realised that I was reading about people like me.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I have learned more about myself in the years following that introduction to autism than I ever did all through my life up to that point. I learned how to look into myself, how to recognise my feelings. I’ll never have a finely-nuanced, subtly-graded range of emotions, but at least I can distinguish the major ones.
That was how I came to realise how much of my day-to-day life involved bursts of anxiety and bouts of depression, even suicidal thoughts. My new-found introspection finally allowed me to see that everything was not sweetness and light, and that I was experiencing some pretty major emotional problems.
I was still drinking regularly at this point; the self injury returned briefly as well. But now that I could finally put labels to my feelings I could speak their names. I could describe them to other people. I could talk about them.
I could finally ask for help in terms that explained the problems so that others could understand. I have actually received some help: diagnoses, therapy, medication. Actual medical treatment. It’s helped, and continues to help. The fact is that the adverts from all those years ago had a kernel of truth about them: it really is good to talk.