Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Perils of Blind Perseverance

You may not believe it, but I was a horrible teenager - moody, surly and uncommunicative. Thinking back on my teenage years, I feel sorry for my family, and especially my mother. She was trying to bring up seven children, the youngest of which was 17 years younger than me, and rather than being helpful and supportive, I was self-absorbed and quick-tempered.

Even a few years ago, I would have dismissed my behaviour as the result of teenage hormones and struggles. I thought all teenagers had exactly the same issues as I did, and I tried to persevere through all my emotional ups and down by simply ignoring them. I never discussed them in much detail with anyone. The important thing was acting mature, right? I wanted to be grown-up, an adult, and I was frustrated at my uncooperative emotions.

When I was 18, I decided to take big step. I moved out of my home and joined a contemplative order of nuns. I liked their calm, stable approach to life, and I thought I was being called to this strict and prayerful life. I looked up to the older nuns and imagined growing to be as assured and    calm as them.

It became apparent after a while that my turbulent emotions weren't going to just go away, and it also became apparent that I was the black sheep among the nuns. When I wasn't sliding down the polished floorboards and waking the slumbering sisters by running down the corridor in an excess of energy, I was dragging myself around the convent grounds and crying myself to sleep in fits of despair. Time and again I was rebuked, and I tearfully promised to change my behaviour. But no matter how hard I tried, I found my moods betraying me. I became terrified of my own emotions, and I tried hard to bury them. But they won through so often and so violently, I found myself acting out without even wanting or meaning to.

The nuns, having no real idea of what was going on, decided after two years that they had given me enough chances to change. I was sent home. I protested, but the sisters had seen enough bad behaviour. So at age 20, I found myself at home again. Though I loved seeing my family, I couldn't quite shake off the feeling that I didn't belong any more. All my friends had moved on with their lives, all my siblings had adjusted to life without me, and I felt useless.

I knew people often found direction in life through volunteering. So when a friend suggested I join a youth team dedicated to mentoring teenagers, I thought I might fit in there. I was accepted, although instead of being stationed in Sydney as I'd requested in order to be close to my family, I was sent all the way to Perth.

In Perth, I lived with two other young women on the same team as me. We had a demanding schedule of school visits, church gatherings and events and part time work. While I tried to make the most of this new start, I found my old enemies, my emotions, welling up again. I had frequent nightmares that I being chased until I was caught and murdered. It didn't take long for these negative emotions to rise up in my waking life, too, and I found myself repeating behaviours I'd used at home and in the convent.

The team had their own set of problems that year, and I can only imagine how my extremes of mood affected my team mates. I tried to show a happy face, but I was scared. I had already lost one path of life I really desired; I had also lost so many friends. This fear made my sad times even worse, and I sometimes wished I could just die so I wouldn't need to struggle on any more.

Things came to a head mid-year, when the director of the youth team visited me. Over a coffee he gently informed me that the two girls I had been living with had asked for me to be moved or terminated. He said he didn't think the youth team was the right place for me.

For the second time, I found myself excluded. I was devastated. Was I ever going to fit in with anyone? I continued to live in Perth, for no other reason than that I had a full-time job there and I wanted, if not to be accepted by society, then at least be independent. I eventually found a room to rent near my workplace, and I settled in a routine. I worked long shifts in a cafe everyday, and filled my spare time with participating in a local church group. 

More and more over time, I found myself withdrawing from people. Living on my own hadn't done much to make me feel better, and I often found myself standing in the kitchen of my workplace, choking back tears, and setting my face into one of happiness as soon as someone entered. Again, I tried to suppress any emotions I had, and present a happy front to the world, but inside, I felt terrible.

One night I was talking to a lady from my church group. I didn't actually get along with her very well, but she must have sensed some of what was going on, because she told me to seek professional help. 

That shook me. I had always assumed I was normal, if particularly difficult and hard to get along with. Even though I had written in my diary that I felt like I was going mad trying to master my moods, I had never considered that I might actually need professional help. As far as I knew, this was how adult people felt all the time, and I was just particularly bad at controlling it.

I wasn't great at going out and talking to people by this stage, but I gathered up all my courage one afternoon and walked down to the local doctor. I had never seen this doctor before, and I felt so stupid sitting in front of her and describing how I felt, and how that had affected my life. She listened, expressionless. I felt sure she was going to dismiss me and tell me to toughen up. Instead, she started printing off some papers.

"You probably have depression," she said. "It's quite normal, one in five Australians go through depression at some point in their life. I'm printing out a Mental Health Plan; with this you can go see a counsellor twelve times at no cost. I'm also referring you to a counsellor."

I was shocked. I could hardly believe that there could be an answer to my problems, one that could be managed, and that others could help with. I took the doctor's advice and saw the psychologist she had referred me to. The counsellor turned out to be lovely, and for the first time in a long time I found myself talking to someone about my out of control moods, and (oh joy!) about how to live with them and accept who I was, emotions and all.

My life over that time blossomed incredibly. Not only did my counselling help, I found myself able to socialise again, and eventually I met a lovely man named Graham who thought I was wonderful. I learned to relax a bit, to guide my emotions, instead of suppressing them with sheer force, and to accept the heartbreak of my past, instead of blaming myself.

Not everything went smoothly, of course. Eventually I found that, even though I had far more control over my life than I had previously, I needed medication to keep me truly stable. This was further underlined when I was diagnosed as having Bipolar 2 Disorder. Though it hurt to know I had a chronic condition that I would always have to work on controlling, it also felt good to have a diagnosis. 

I had been so hard on myself, telling myself over and over again how all the bad things in my life were all my fault. I had convinced myself that I was a horrible person, and it felt good to know that, in fact, I had been struggling against huge odds to function at all. For the first time on years, I felt strong and proud of myself. Most people with undiagnosed bipolar disorder end up doing really harmful things, hurting themselves and those around them with their self-destructive behaviour. Though I had also hurt myself and others, I felt proud that I had never given in to a belief that my behaviour was "good enough", and that "I couldn't help it".

Today, I have been on medication for bipolar disorder for over two years. I am stable, with some good friends, a loving family, and a wonderful husband. I know I have been guided through some very dark times, and I am so grateful that, for the first time in a very long time, I am truly happy. 

I am going to post a few photos. The first is of me as a teenager. I am third from the left, with the straight fringe and round glasses.

The second is of me in the convent. I am posing with my sisters.

Finally, a photo of me on my wedding day.

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