At 17 I went out with my boss after work, knocked back ten pints in about an hour and refused to get in the car until my mum promised she wasn’t angry with me. The next day at work I was praised for going in to work and given light duties.
So I can go out on the lash and be rewarded with less work the next day? Game on!
Rewind a few years and I’d been diagnosed with an extremely rare lifelong skin condition where my hair follicles don’t develop like they’re meant to and some become sebaceous cysts. Cysts the size of golf balls on my face and across my body. Anyone who’s ever seen a sebaceous cyst disperse will know just how attractive this can be and, to a teenager struggling to find his own identity, this can destroy your confidence. The mental instability caused me to question every single thought:
Were these my thoughts? Was it the medication? How on earth would I get through this? Drink through it.
At 19 my then ex-girlfriend had an abortion without telling me; by 21 I’d had my first suicidal episode, where I slumped against a wall with a bottle of whiskey berating myself for not having the courage to die, for being so ungrateful and disgusting not to value my parents, for dismissing my good health, for having the arrogance to believe I was intelligent and for being too much of a coward to finish what I started. So I continued to drink through it.
I began to use cocaine to sober up and get to work the next day. I’d end relationships once the honeymoon period ended, convinced if I did it first then I retained the control. I couldn’t then be manipulated or abused. And to cope with this self-sabotaging emotional detachment? I’d drink through it.
I’d go through jobs like a hot knife through butter, convinced I was ‘better’ than this, then appalled at myself for having the temerity to believe I was worth something in the world. To cope with that? I’d drink through it.
It was as if every life situation had ripped my skin off and people would poke at my heart with disinfectant soaked hands. Everything stung intensely. The only way I knew how to cope in the way other people seemed to be able to cope was to drink through it.
This continued until I was throwing up blood in my early twenties and told by my GP if I didn’t stop I’d die. Then I met the (then) love of my life. The pattern was the same to start with, although by this stage I’d taken a liking to other people’s partners so the sex started off in secret and thus lasted longer: She must be desirable because someone else has her and she must REALLY want me because she’s cheating on him right? Wrong. Eighteen months in to our relationship she left me – for another man.
It was the first time this had ever happened to me and I felt unbridled rejection. How did I cope? I drank through it.
The lightbulb moment came when a work colleague told me to go home and sort myself out. The first time when ‘drink through it’ didn’t work. Even in my heyday of drinking 500 units a week nobody had ever suggested it might not be a good thing. When I was openly suicidal to friends, withdrawn, aggressive and unpredictable nobody had ever suggested that drinking through it was not a good plan. But here I was mid to late twenties and suddenly…stopping drinking through it.
I had to figure out who I wanted to be. I started an undergraduate degree – and failed my first year exam. I became resilient, adapted and later achieved a Distinction in my Masters degree from one of the top universities in Europe and was now excelling in a job I had a passion for. I still drank, but had learned the warning signs to slow down or stop for a while. I could still feel the beast within, the dissociation, the self-loathing taunts, the feeling this happiness was all temporary and sooner or later everyone would see through it. And when drinking didn’t work? I cut myself. I knew it wasn't healthy but it eased the mental pain.
I thought that people wouldn’t understand what it’s like to have these constant, relentless, taunting thoughts in your own head telling you how worthless you are and that you’re disconnected because you’re unlikeable; to not be able to walk past a park without wondering if the branches would hold you; to have to consciously walk away from a flyover rather than stray to the edge.
It’s not like I thought the world would be better off without me, I thought I would be better off without the world – I still do. The materialism, the deceit, the treachery, the self-serving attitudes. I’d done well but I knew I needed more help.
Professionals diagnosed ‘moderate borderline personality disorder’, meaning I don’t see or experience the world like other people. Why had this never come up before my mid thirties? Because I’d always just drank through it, assuming everyone else copes better than me.
Schema Therapy fitted perfectly with how my mind processes events and, for the first time, I understood. Now I can identify difficult emotions and be proactive in my behavioural responses. I meditate daily, which helps with emotional control, but I’m not out of the woods completely. I still feel the other guy in me - the intense, rage-fuelled hulk I contain on a daily basis.
I still have episodes of dissociation, which feel so ‘just’ at the time followed by mental exhaustion leading to days of amplified remorse. I have to constantly process my thoughts and feelings and sometimes I get it wrong, but I’ve learned that I am human and I’m allowed to make mistakes.
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photo credit: Old Forester via photopin (license)