It’s been a while since I had this lightbulb moment when I recognised that my self destructive behaviour has a big payoff. It makes me feel like people care about me.
That sounds pretty messed up doesn’t it? I have plenty of people in my life who love me. I know this, but I don’t know it. Scrap that. I know it but I don’t feel it. I see that they care, but I can’t let myself believe that it’s real.
The times I really feel and believe people care are the times they worry about me. When people are afraid for me or concerned about something I’ve done to myself, I can feel their care. It feels authentic. I don’t feel it when I make them laugh or hug them or help them out of a tight spot, but I imagine that a ‘normal’ person would.
The only root I can see for this skewed perspective is, surprise, surprise, in my childhood. I am a middle child. My siblings were loud and bad tempered and took up a lot of space. I observed them, in my view, draining my parents’ energy. I didn’t want to have that kind of impact, so I blended into the background. I stayed quiet and compliant. I didn’t make any demands, even in the aftermath of the abuse, which my parents knew about. My mum would occasionally ask if I needed to talk, and I’d always tell her I was fine.
This silence and self containment created a distance. I guess I didn’t allow them to make me feel cared for. The majority of the time, I sat on the sidelines of the family, keeping everything to myself. I wanted them to know I was hurting, but I didn’t want them to suffer too. I didn’t want to inflict my pain on them. As my brother and sister lurched from crisis to crisis, I ended up feeling ignored and unimportant.
That was my whole life up until I had a breakdown three years ago. When I was hospitalised, people suddenly started to pay attention to me. They knew for the first time that I had suffered and was suffering. They wanted to help and they were scared of what might happen to me. I was suicidal and severely self harming. That stuff shocked people, and their shock mattered to me – because it made me feel like I mattered.
This isn’t the only reason I hurt myself. It’s not the driving force behind my eating disorder or my cutting. But it plays a big part. I want to feel important, and when I am doing OK, I don’t. It feels like if I don’t demonstrate my suffering physically, I’ll somehow get forgotten again.
This is all hard to admit. It feels adolescent; like I’m thriving on drama. But I’m not thriving on it. I’m barely surviving. It doesn’t make me happy. But being insignificant feels even worse. Without provoking these worried responses in people, I’m left feeling like I don’t exist to them.
Through therapy and all the reading I’ve done, I now know that many of my behaviours are communications. I’m also aware that words are supposedly a better way to tell people I need them, to tell them what’s going on in my inner world. But I don’t have those kinds of words. I’m a professional writer, but it doesn’t matter how much I strive, I can’t find words for how I feel. And when I do try talking, I rarely get a positive response from my family. They don’t want to hear.
Sometimes I think this gets in the way of my therapy. I think that, to some extent, I sabotage myself. That’s because when I feel like I’m doing better or getting stronger, I start getting scared. I get scared that J won’t care about me if I am well. I get worried she will cut back our time together or retreat from me somehow. Rationally, I can see that she might actually care for me even more if I were healthier and had more energy to engage in the process. On the rare occasions I’ve been in a good place when I’ve seen her, it has felt great; I’ve felt more connected to her than ever in those times. But the little parts of me get so frightened that they will be left alone and ignored and holding all that pain and sadness in silence once again. When she tells me she is concerned about me, those little ones feel safer, they feel held and protected.
There’s one relationship in my life that doesn’t fit this delusional paradigm; my marriage. I never feel like I am unimportant to my wife. She seems to effortlessly ensure that I know I am the centre of her universe. She never shames me for my bizarre, paranoid thoughts, and I never feel judged by her. She always wants to hear what I’m thinking. So I know it’s possible to really, truly feel that care. And I am deeply grateful that she has shown me this. I just wish I could extend that belief to the other relationships in my life.
Photo: Jo Naylor, Creative Commons