Dr. James Clifton, LCSW, Master, of, Science, in, Psychology, Doctor, of, Ministry, in, Biblical, Counseling
As a child, my father physically, emotionally, and psychologically abused me. He would use a stick and hit anywhere he could, except my head. As I got older, he would slap me, and slam me against the wall. His fingers would leave bruises where he held my arms. One day, while being beaten up, I learned how to dissociate. I learned how to ‘disappear’ in my head. While I was ‘away’ in my head, I could not feel the pain, the yelling, and I could not respond. I was a ragged doll. I got very good at ‘disappearing’.
While I was getting beaten up at home, a classmate at school could not keep his hands to himself. He followed my friend and me around. We told him to stop, but he wouldn’t. In those days, telling a teacher would hurt us more socially, and life at school would be worse, as I was already a ‘misfit’ there.
I eventually got into university, and I thought everything would change. I was wrong. In my first year, someone I thought was a friend sexually assaulted me. I told no one, because I thought it was my fault. A couple of years later in a library, someone made sexual advances on me, even touching me. I was talking on the phone with a friend, and she heard everything.
I believed it was my fault, all of it. Why else would so many people make sexual advances on me? They didn’t know each other. Somehow I was giving out signals. That was the only thing that made sense. I was afraid of being touched by a male, and soon, I was afraid of socializing, afraid of people, male and female.
I knew people in general like ‘happy’ and sociable people. With a lot of practice, I got good at pretending to be happy. While I would smile on the outside, I was really crying. Same thing when it came to being sociable. I could talk and interact nicely with people, but I was shaking like a leaf inside and wishing there was a closet I could hide in.
As my psychiatrist explained, the way I was brought up, and all the things that happened to me shaped me to be what I am today. As my ‘life events’ came out, I was diagnosed with Social Phobia, Avoidant Personality Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. I always knew I was a complicated person, I just didn’t know how complicated.
My support system at the time consisted of my doctors, the people in the therapy group, my lawyer, friends, and my family. By this time, my father had mellowed out and stopped the abuse. My family was very understanding, but only to a certain point. It was only after the problems with the company that I worked for that I realized the truth. My family could understand that someone could be depressed if something very stressful happened, but they could not understand that a person can be mentally ill without having a big trigger. They believed that if someone had mental illness, then it was their own doing. I was a little surprised at that because one of my cousins committed suicide when he was living with us.
My sister-in-law found a job for me in her company. It was a good job, good money, and good benefits. I was anxious to make sure that I did my job well, and every day, I would have a candy, or two, on the drive home. Having a candy was my way of dealing with stress. Although my managers and co-workers liked me, I was let go a couple of months after my probation period, due to ‘not fitting in’ with the company culture.
I was crying for days, not knowing what I did wrong, whom I offended. Being told that I did not ‘fit in’ was not a kind of reason that I could understand when I was well liked. What I found out was that they had to downsize another department and one of the people there had higher seniority than me, so that person got ‘transferred’ to my job.
Knowing why I got terminated did not help. I felt that no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t be able to keep a job. My depression and anxiety came right back. I was very discouraged, to say the least. I was a loser.
Every day, just being alive was painful. The thought of suicide was a constant companion. I even started cutting. I would use scissors, and if they weren’t available, I would reach for anything near me that would do the job, including paperclips. There were two reasons why I didn’t try to kill myself. One was that I was afraid I would not succeed. Success was not something that I had experience in. The second reason was my psychiatrist. Talking to someone who could understand me, and helped put my thoughts into words definitely kept me from completely going over the edge. He diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder.
I felt like I was on automatic gear, a puppet – just going through the motions. I did not know how much longer I could hang on. I was living on unemployment (which would run out in a few months). At the same time, I had health issues, including asthma, glaucoma, and ulcer. I felt like my whole being was a disease. After a few sessions with my psychiatrist, he changed my medication.
I lived on a day-by-day basis. I had to find another job. I sent out résumés with little hope of being interviewed, let alone hired. My family and relatives were quite successful. Engineers, doctors, teachers, and they had their own families, and here I was – unemployed, the black sheep of the family. I was embarrassed. Hopes of me being successful have long been gone.
After a couple of months on new medications, I felt better emotionally, although landing a job remained a distant hope. Getting a job was important. It would alleviate most of the weight that was keeping me down. The main cause of my depression and anxiety was the lack of employment, lack of identity.
While searching for a job online, I found a mental health site – Psych Central. The people there have been very good to me. They were always there when I needed support. They accepted me and that was a boost to my self-esteem. They helped me see that I am not alone in my troubles, and that I am worth something, at least to them. PC was, and still is, a place I could go to when I felt lonely and in need of some comfort and friendship. As my support group grew, I felt better about myself.
Time was running out for me; my unemployment income was ending soon. My desperation increased and I applied everywhere, even to jobs that I thought I would not get, because of my lack of experience. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to apply. At least I tried.
Eventually someone called me for an interview for one of those jobs that I thought I wouldn’t get. I made sure that I had enough rest and energy to put on my ‘act’ of confidence. I gave the interview my best shot. One of my ethics is to always give my best at what I do. As the result of my effort and ‘act’, I was hired – on the spot. I am still with that company today.
Getting that job was a huge relief for me. Although the pay is on the low side, the job does have a lot of perks, and the people I work with are very nice.
I am happy with my job, but my anxiety and compulsivity still rear their ugly heads. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed and anxious they totally consume me, and I can think of nothing but the triggering issues. If a colleague is in the office, I might talk about what was upsetting me, and as I talk, I would go through it emotionally, as if it was happening again, right at that moment. My colleague would tell me to stop because I was so hyper that I was almost yelling. I know it’s not right to take it out on other people, but I didn’t realize I was doing it until someone told me.
I brought the issues of anxiety to my psychiatrist, and he said that anxiety, social phobia, and being compulsive are a part of me. It’s part of who I am, and I can’t change that. I didn’t like to hear that. I want to throw away what I don’t like, and since I can’t fix my anxiety, I want to destroy myself. After a burst of anger, I calm down.
In my rational state of mind, I understand that I need to learn to accept myself. Unfortunately, my mind isn’t always rational. I do have a strategy. With practice, I learn to be aware of when I would start to feel bad and angry, and I would try to reach out for support – be it my friends in real life or at Psych Central. I also have some stress balls and a plastic baton that I would use to diffuse my anger. I would prefer not to be anxious or angry at all, but I understand that not having those feelings is impossible. At least I have some ways of coping.
My experience with mental illness has taught me many things. Mental illness is a battle to be fought. It can be quick, or it can take a lifetime. There are many ways to fight it, but one thing is for sure, it is never easy.
Some people’s battle begins with a single incident, while others begin theirs after many, and sometimes prolonged, events. Mental illness does not discriminate. It can target anyone – male or female, young or old.
My own personal war began with abuse, coupled by sexual assaults and harassment over many years, with the harsh treatment I received from the company I worked for that finally broke me down, and I was sent to see a psychiatrist, because my life literally, depended on it.
I don’t think I can ever be completely free of my problems; after all, anxiety and social phobia are part of me. As for depression and other diagnoses, I have managed to overcome them, for now. If mental illness comes back, I know what to watch out for and how to deal with them. I am a survivor, always have been, always will be.