I was about 10 or 11 when I first felt so misunderstood it stung. Somewhere between what we’d now call year 5 and year 6 I missed a memo. Suddenly being sensible and being able to answer questions in class and being trustworthy enough to take the register to the office were no longer good things to be. All at once everything about me was wrong. My inability to dress in the kind of clothes I saw in Mizz and Just Seventeen magazines, my deeply unfashionable hair, the fact that I hadn’t seen Ghostbusters. It was my behaviour though that was most uncool. I had always enjoyed being clever, knowing answers, being able to work things out, but now speaking up in class engendered a collective sigh and mass eye rolling, especially from the boys. And so I became known as the swot, the teacher’s pet, the boffin, the walking dictionary (actually I thought that last one would be a pretty awesome thing to be). After that came words that were really hurtful: I was, apparently, a snob and arrogant.
Arrogant? I could not fathom how there could be such a gulf between my classmates’ perception and my internal reality. Inside I was a fragile as a songbird’s egg. I was so sensitive that I felt crushed almost hourly by the exaggerated yawning and the eye rolling and the name calling. Inside I was shy. I was anxious and insecure. I was frequently baffled by my peers’ interactions, observing rather than participating, convinced of my own inadequacy. Nobody seemed to realise that being able to perform certain classroom tasks confidently was absolutely no indication of confidence in and about myself.
Thirty years on and I’m still dogged by the misunderstanding that because I can do certain things with confidence, I am a confident person. Last week I was given my care plan, a document I had been told should have been coproduced with my lead nurse. My lead nurse had been on leave since the day after my admission and I had never spoken to me, but here was my plan in hard copy. Don’t get me wrong; I completed goodness how many assessments of probation clients I had never met in order to hit the timeliness standard. I can well imagine that it would feel crappy and tedious to have to draw up a care plan for an unknown someone right before you went on leave. But when I looked at it I became distressed right from page one, which stated: “Charlotte, you are a confident and capable lady who has been through a dark time.”
I burst into tears. It was insulting enough to be told by a stranger who I was, but more importantly my decades of suffering and loss had been erased. My problems had been boiled down to a single spell of difficulty, despite Trust records of five years of continuous consultant care and frequent Home Treatment Team interventions in this very building. I felt the words “confident” and “capable” had eclipsed the pain and also the risk of my recent situation. A judgment had been made about what was going on inside my head based on – what? I’m still really not sure, since I was so timid and anxious when I was admitted and the plan was being compiled.
I’m still rapid cycling and on my well or up days, yes, I am capable of doing stuff. I have been able to order box sets and persuade the shift manager to let us sit in the lounge watching our DVD sharing popcorn and Coca-cola with the lights out. I’ve been sharing colouring books and giving out Sharpies and buying stuff on Amazon so we can make cards.
On bad days like today I sit on the floor by the nurses’ station, sobbing. The idea of getting everyone together and getting the lounge and the nurse to sit with us so we can watch episode 2 of Prison Break (I know, I know) made me cry. I feel guilty and embarrassed and that I am letting all my ward mates down, that I am a failure as a human being because what I could do yesterday, I cannot do today. Strong friendships spring up quickly on the ward but I fear getting things wrong with my ward buddies, getting in their faces too much or not supporting them enough. This makes me hugely anxious as I care about them a lot. I am also obsessing, fearfully, about the fact I will most likely be moved from the triage ward to a treatment ward before too long. On my worst my days I want curl up under the nurses’ desk forever. I want to gnaw and claw at myself to get the desperation out.
I can DO apparently confident things – arranging, planing, supporting, purchasing, deciding, sharing, requesting, suggesting, complaining, etc. I cannot BE confident. I do not have the stability or sense of emotional safety required. I am not robust. I am not resilient. A tetchy word from a busy nurse or a frustrated friend sends me into a tailspin. I fear I am not likeable, that I am too pushy in arranging things, bug the nurses too much and intrude upon others’ pain. On bad days I am utterly raw, yet what sticks in people’s minds is the Charlotte who invited everyone to craft activities and writes it up on the whiteboard. I don’t know how to make people see my fragility. Maybe this is just the standard lot of the bipolar person, writ large because my cycling is so rapid and I’m on the ward? Tonight I am not confident or capable. I am an egg, rolled away into the corner beneath the desk, full of self-loathing for not making DVD night happen. I still have no idea how to bridge the perception/internal reality gap. I’ll have to go to bed now, my eyes are sore from crying.
You could be writing about me, Charlotte. I recently began counselling, and my counsellor has fixated on the fact that “I am doing” even though I keep telling her that it feels like I’m failing at everything and not doing anything right. She seems to think that being able to be capable, as you have been labelled, and being able to organise and arrange (I am still in work, strangely the routine is one of the few things that keeps me plodding on) should be enough of a positive to help me start to recover. Thank you for articulating my own thoughts so well. I will keep following you on Twitter and sending you my best wishes- I won’t say for recovery, as it’s never that simple, but best wishes for at least some stability. One day at a time… x
I feel every word of this keenly! I could have written this. I get told time and time again I am confident but like you it’s an ability to do certain things that gives the illusion of confidence. This is something professionals need to get their heads around.
Like the others, I too, could have written this post, Charlotte. We get you, we really do. It’s just such a shame that the very people ( maybe, not all of them?) who are in the position of helping you, don’t. How do you feel about sharing this post with the staff? Would that be beneficial to either of you, do you think? You’re in my thoughts often and hope with all that I’ve got, that things start changing for you soon. Sending love and healing hugs from “Bonnie Scotland”. xXBrendzXx
I understand your frustation at people thinking you are confident and capable but maybe you are and just need to try and not overthink
Um maybe I should just shut up listen to what people I don’t know tell me about myself? Not a piece of advice I’ll be following, cheers.
I was trying to be encouraging and say not to think that you are not capable because im sure you are ,maybe not right now but hopefully you will be again soon
I agree with you on that one – I always think that telling someone not to overthink sounds just a little bit like telling them to dumb down a bit….
Sorry, my previous comment about ‘overthinking’ was a bit sniffy. I have just seen a book called ‘Women who think too much: How to break free of overthinking and reclaim your life’ ( Susan Nolen-Hoeksema ). On Amazon, positive reviews outweigh the critical by about 2:1.
Incidentally, I have never been told myself that I was ‘overthinking’ (and am not a woman); I have, however been called ‘too sensitive’, warned that I would probably suffer serious emotional consequences if I were ever to practise psychotherapy, and been told that I was a hyperactive child (which was probably true).
Ditto from another ‘high functioning’ person with mental health probs Oh how I long to be really understood by the professionals who actually seem to find it quite painful when I do show my vulnerability and beg me to stop sobbing.
This is such a perceptive piece Charlotte which I completely get. What doesn’t seem to be understood is that when seemingly ‘confident and capable’ people ask for and need help-they really need it. Having your distress minimised by comments that you ‘are’ capable and confident so ‘this’ is just a blip is really undermining and worrying.
Many professionals underestimate and misunderstand just how much energy, effort and personal toll goes into ‘appearing’ outwardly OK which can often be the last straw. Some of us can ‘do’ it some of the time, some can’t, but what you see is not necessary a reflection of what is the true essence or being of the person you see before you.
I do hope your insight and experience is listened to and a bit more reflection given to the entirety of your condition and how best to help you.
In my experience it is anyone who is well-spoken/articulative and in anyway at all assertive. They cannot see beyond the intelligence. I know friends who’ve had the same problem with being well-dressed- when actually they were the only clothes they owned
Yes I too can relate to this, especially “I feel guilty and embarrassed and …. that I am a failure as a human being because what I could do yesterday, I cannot do today. ” I have such difficulty making/keeping to arrangements because I never know what kind of day it’ll be!
Dear Charlotte, thankyou for sharing in such an honest way. I often feel sensitive about things people say, and feel the need to check with a good friend or my husband, if they were having a dig at me based on what I tell them was said. I can’t seem to think independently about it! And I feel ashamed that I need others help to decipher social interactions. Yet really I think I come across quite confident, so I agree with what you said, that sometimes there is a disconnect between the internal and external self. Keep up your blog, it is really helpful!
I’m so sorry you were having such a bad day and night. i think its ok to reach out for support. you deserve it. i’m pretty new to your blog i like it a lot. XX
Thanks! Nice to have you here 🙂
Thank you for sharing this, I too can relate. I don’t have anything more useful to say other than you’re not alone in feeling like this. I hope things improve for you .
It’s so tough, isn’t it, that huge gap between the perceptions and (often) assumptions that other people make and what is actually going on inside of us. I’m in tears today because, yet again, a friend of 20 odd years has asked me whether I’ll be going to a small social occasion. I can’t seem to get it through to her that, at the moment (and for the past almost six months) even talking or being with one person is usually a big challenge. It really hurts that she can’t understand or remember that, or use her imagination to put herself in my place. So I feel for you and send gentle hugs. x
Why is it so bad when people think something good of you?
Mmmmmm because it’s not accurate and totally negates all the terrible suffering I endure??? I thought I kinda made that clear in the article…
(If it were clear to me, I wouldn’t be asking.) As if a capable and confident person cannot suffer terribly.
On the other hand, you dismiss other person’s opinion completely, as if they are blind or stupid. Why other people aren’t allowed to have their own opinions on you?
If you don’t understand after reading the 1000 words or whatever, then I’m just baffled as how to explain it to you in a comment – the post WAS the walkthrough. And no, people do NOT get to have opinions on who I am – especially someone who’s never met me. Not just me, actually, anyone. I might say a colleague is very cheerful – but I can’t know that. They might *appear* very cheerful, but they might be dying inside. People can have opinions on their impressions of others but the absolutely CANNOT say who somebody else is. I’m sorry if you can’t see the difference between what people can do and how they appear and how they are actually are inside, because this is the key to empathy and what I believe we should all be trying to achieve.