WTF? – Part 3

Out of the things my dad’s partner listed that were annoying him about me, there was nothing I had done any different to anyone else in my family. In fact, in some ways my siblings could be considered more disrespectful than I am but he’s never had a problem with any of them. This combined with the bullying I experienced in the past made me feel that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me, and that no matter what I do, it’s wrong. I was so paranoid around other people (even more so than usual) during that holiday as a result of all the vitriol he’d thrown at me during that conversation.

Time went on and on and I felt we were just going round in circles with the discussion. I have never known an adult to act so immaturely and so irrationally. No matter how many times my parents and I tried to explain, he couldn’t seem to understand that his judgements about me and who I am weren’t actually objective reality. My dad’s partner is exactly the same with certain things that other people in my family have done, and that other people he’s met have done, though I don’t think he’s reacted as aggressively towards them as he did towards me that time. My dad said his partner is just like that sometimes, and can be really irrational. Once he makes up his mind about something/ why someone has acted a certain way, or said something, you just can’t change his mind. He once shouted at a shop assistant, “Well I know who WON’T be getting a service superstar award!”, seemingly just because the shop assistant had looked at him the wrong way.

My dad’s partner wanted me to apologise. I considered this carefully but I couldn’t bring myself to apologise for being disrespectful to him, because I would really be lying. And I didn’t see how this would help either of us. If I had apologised to him for being disrespectful, it would have only destroyed what tiny fragment of my self-esteem remained, and would only have made me resent him all the more. If I had apologised, it would have only confirmed his apparent belief that other people are out to get him, and that his perception is 100% objective reality at all times. Yet again, I was trying to help him. But he obviously couldn’t see this. I apologised that he’d perceived the way I was talking to him had been rude. He still wasn’t happy and still wasn’t getting it.

I just wanted an apology from him really. That – and for us to make up and start to enjoy the holiday- was all I really wanted out of the conversation. I had been damn near suicidal for the past 2 days, yet despite this, and all the horrible things he’d said about me, a simple apology would have made it all okay, and I would’ve forgiven him. He refused to apologise to me because he thinks this is a sign of weakness, due to the way he’s been raised. This admission was the closest I ever got to an apology.

Normally in situation like this, I would just acquiesce for the good of social harmony. But I was just so sick and tired of being a doormat and NEVER standing up for myself, even when I know the other person is being completely unreasonable. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to let someone bully me into submission AGAIN. So I stood firm. I would apologise that he’d taken what I’d said in the way he did but I wasn’t going to apologise for something that I hadn’t done and that he was being totally unreasonable about. When my dad’s partner realised that I wasn’t going to apologise, he went off on one again, and stormed off from the table, like a teenager having a strop. I felt awful as he was crying and had clearly been miserable for the last couple of days too, but I was still glad that I had stood up for myself and hadn’t just let him walk all over me.

My dad told me the next morning that it had been a really long night. He said his partner had been so emotional and my dad couldn’t rationalise with him or get any sense out of him whatsoever. My dad’s partner continued to not talk to me for the rest of the holiday. I had tried to keep the communication channels open but he kept closing them. It did unfortunately mean that the holiday was a lot less enjoyable than it could have been, but I enjoyed what I could.

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WTF? – Part 2

I apologise for the complete train wreck of a post that follows. I think this may the longest post I’v ever written on this blog. I had to split it into two posts because wordpress kept crashing!


After 2 days of us not saying a word to each other, I decided to bring up the incident with my dad’s partner because I realised that he wasn’t going to. I didn’t want things to continue to be awkward for everyone for the rest of the holiday, and I didn’t want to continue be as miserable as I’d been – and my dad’s partner had seemingly also been – for the last couple of days. I took my chance after dinner one night, when everyone else had gone off to their rooms and it was just my dad’s partner and my parents left sitting at the dinner table. I just asked him “<Dad’s partner>, if you have anything to say to me or to tell me, please do it now, so we can resolve any issues, stop ignoring each other, and start to enjoy the holiday”. He replied that he was glad I’d said something because he would have never spoken to me about it unless I’d spoken to him first. The conversation that followed went on for nearly 2 hours and, if anything, it just made things even worse.

My dad’s partner started off on a rant right after I asked him, so I just sat and listened for 10 or 15 minutes because I wouldn’t have gotten a word in edgeways anyway. He said he hated the tone I’d used with him when I mentioned about the sunglasses, and that he felt it was an attack. He said that he felt I was talking to him as if he was little boy, and as if he was “thick”. Neither I nor anyone in my family could see how he could possibly have thought this. Like I said before, the only thing I can think of is that it was quite loud in the queue, so I just to shout a little bit. Everyone else had said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my tone. He kept saying “<My brother> was wearing his sunglasses too!” Except I’d said exactly the same thing to my brother, in exactly the same tone, and he hadn’t reacted as if I’d just burnt his entire life savings in front of him.

My dad’s partner explained that in addition to the incident with the sunglasses, there was a whole bunch of other things about me that he hated and that had set him off. Trivial things. For example, one night, a couple of weeks before the holiday, he and my dad had been round at my mum’s house for a night in. My dad’s partner had brought crisps and dip. He said that I’d dipped a bit of crisp that had touched my mouth back in the dip. Except this hadn’t actually happened. But he had made up his mind, and no matter what I said to him, he insisted that he was right. (Even more annoying was the fact that when we were back from Florida, my sister accidentally did something similar to what he’d accused me of doing, when we were all having a meal together. Yet he seemed perfectly fine with it and just told her, “Don’t worry about it – we’re all family here”. WTF?) In the end, I had to just agree with him because I was getting absolutely nowhere.

My dad’s partner said he also hated that a lot of the time, when we’re trying to make a family decision about something, I’ll say that I’m just happy to do what everyone else wants to do, which is true. I’m normally just happy to go with the flow. He hated the way I shrug when I’m not sure about something.

My parents had hired 2 cars for the 8 of us during the holiday, and each was equipped with a SATNAV, which we don’t have at home. I was joking around with my sisters at the start of the holiday, saying that the woman who was voicing the SATNAV was being awfully bossy (as she kept telling us where to go/ what to do). My dad’s partner brought this up and said that he thought I had been very rude when I’d said this. He also mentioned one day before the holiday, when he and my dad had been doing up the house to get it ready for viewings. He’d wanted me to clear the garden of dog poo so that he and my dad could do some work in the garden. This was fair enough, as it’s my dog, but when my dad’s partner had asked me, I’d just gotten back from work and was in the middle of having lunch. I told him I would do it as soon as I’d finished my lunch, but he got angry that it wasn’t instantaneous. I felt bad because my dad then took it upon himself to clear the garden instead.

My dad’s partner also said “Don’t tell your parents that you’re going to help with doing the house up if you’re not”, and he said that this also really irritated him. But I’d never actually said that I would and then not followed through on it. I’d always only said that I could help out with the house when I actually could. He kept mentioning lots and lots of little things like this – small events that had happened, or tiny little things I did in ways that he didn’t like. I’ve listed loads already, and I still have a lot more to mention, but I’d be here all day if I were to list all of the little things my dad’s partner said that he disliked about me. From my facial expressions, I obviously looked very puzzled to him when he said certain things. He was upset and was being very emotional and irrational, so I was indeed very puzzled as to how he’d arrived at certain conclusions. He called me out on this, saying that he hated it. It was as if he was saying I wasn’t allowed to have facial expressions.

Like I mentioned in a previous post, I’d told my dad’s partner about my self-injury scars because I thought (given the community he’s from) that he might be really ignorant about it. It actually seemed that he was really understanding, and he said that his brother had been through depression. But he also said, during our 2-hour conservation, that he felt he was having to walk on eggshells around me because of my anxiety. I do not understand this at all, but to be fair, it’s probably partly my fault – I should have explained my anxiety to him. I didn’t tell him much about it. He seems to think that a lot of what I do because I’m anxious is actually for attention or to try and manipulate other people. At least that’s the impression I got from some of the things he said. One of my sisters had told me the night before that she’d overheard my dad’s partner talking about my anxiety, saying that it’s almost “fashionable” to have something “wrong” with you these days, and that people wonder when there isn’t something wrong with you. Perhaps he feels jealous that – while I don’t think they will ever fully understand it – my family accept my anxiety, and they are fairly supportive when they know that I’m anxious. My dad’s partner was clearly never afforded that understanding and support by his parents when he was being bullied horribly because of his sexuality.

To give yet another of the many things my dad’s partner said he hated about me, he said that he thought I was horrible for saying that I’m sick of hearing my grandad’s stories. This is complete nonsense. I love my grandad to bits and have never said anything like that. Yes, we’ve all heard his stories about a thousand times each, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I lived with my grandparents for much of my undergraduate degree, and I feel that out of his 6 grandchildren, I’m closest to my grandad. I try to visit my grandparents at least a couple of times a month because I love seeing them and talking to them. I know this sounds extremely morbid but I know my grandparents aren’t going to live forever, and I value immensely however much time we have left together. I think perhaps my dad’s partner thinks that I/ my siblings don’t appreciate having them in our lives. He really has no idea.

My dad’s partner has apparently also said to my parents in the past that he thinks I’m “spoilt” and “molly-coddled”. I have to say, the part about me being “molly-coddled” is actually one of the few things he’s said about me that I agree with. My parents, particularly my mum, were very overprotective of me when I was a child and a teenager. My mum is STILL sometimes overprotective of me now. Over the past couple of years, I’ve tried my best to gain as much independence from my parents as is possible whilst still living with my mum. She used to do far too much for me, which is probably one of many reasons as to why my social skills are so poor. I don’t blame her for that – she knew I was very shy and was probably just trying to look out for me. But I would never have got to where I am now (in terms of overcoming SA) if I had continued to let her overprotect me. So yes, the bit about me being “molly-coddled” is fairly accurate, but I can’t figure out what my dad’s partner means by me being “spoilt”. Maybe he thinks the support I get when I’m anxious is me getting preferential treatment – who knows?

At one point during our lengthy conversation, he also called out my parents, asking why they had to be there, and saying “It should be just me and Gemma”. He thought they were taking sides. They weren’t. They were also just trying to rationalise with him. He kept talking over me, and my parents interjected a couple of times because he wasn’t letting me speak/ kept talking over me or twisting my words. But at one point, I refused to yield, and I raised my voice too. He immediately pointed this out. It must be intimidating when you’re used to shouting the loudest and then suddenly the quiet, thoughtful, accommodating person is suddenly playing you at your own game.

 

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WTF? – Part 1

I mentioned in my last post that my dad’s partner had treated me badly during the family holiday to Florida. He and my dad had apparently fought constantly while we were on holiday, presumably due to the strain of trying to hide their relationship from us. I think this is one reason why he had such a disproportionate reaction to something I said. It’s going to sound absolutely ridiculous. Hell, it WAS absolutely ridiculous. And I wish that I was joking. This was one big, final family holiday that my family had been saving for, for many years. We had all really looked forward to it, but unfortunately, it was in large part a miserable experience for me (and presumably for my dad’s partner too).


It started over a pair of sunglasses. My whole family (except my stepdad, who is terrified of rollercoasters) and I were waiting in line for one of the rollercoasters at Universal Studios. It was everyone’s first ride of the day. We were all getting on well enough, chatting while we waited, and looking forward to a day at yet another massive theme park. There were signs alongside the queue telling us to remove any loose items, such as sunglasses, hats, or loose change in pockets. I noticed that my brother and my dad’s partner were still wearing their sunglasses on top of their heads as we were about to go through the security gates, so I said to them both “Remember to take your sunglasses off”. I didn’t want the sunglasses to fall off and injure either of them, or anyone else, while we were on the ride, as the rollercoaster was above a busy walkway. I’m not used to wearing sunglasses (as you might imagine, living in Scotland!), so I would probably forget I even had them on my head if they weren’t over my eyes, and I thought perhaps they were both the same.

Upon hearing me say this, my dad’s partner went absolutely berserk – kind of ironic, given that we were waiting in line for the Incredible Hulk coaster. He shouted at me “I’m not going to let a 21-year-old little girl tell me what to do!” (He got my age wrong by 2 years, which sums what he knows about me/ my life, really). I replied that I was neither 21 nor a little girl. He was absolutely furious as he was shouting at me. I was trying to get a word in edgeways, trying to explain that I was just looking out for him and that there was no malice behind what I’d said. Then I tried to apologise, but he wouldn’t even let me talk. I didn’t understand what I could have done to cause offence because I was just trying to be helpful. Yet he was acting as if I’d just mortally offended him. Any time I even started to speak, to try to explain things, he just said that he wasn’t going to listen to me because I was being disrespectful. I was completely dumbfounded by his response and was wondering what on earth I could possibly have done for him to react like that that. I kept calming trying to reason with him, and to tell him that I didn’t mean to offend him. I was saying to him “<Dad’s partner>, can you please listen to me?”, and he was shouting, practically spitting at me, “No! I’m not going to listen! Why don’t you listen to me?!” I said “Okay, I’ll listen to you. I don’t understand why you’re acting like this. What is it that’s the problem?” Perhaps I’m just very lucky, but I had never seen a grown adult act like that in my life. He was like a 2-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. Eventually, he angrily said “Maybe we should have a conversation about this when we get back to the house”. I had realised that I wasn’t getting anywhere at this point so I just agreed.

Immediately after he’d finished shouting at me, I got very upset and was crying because I just didn’t understand what I’d done wrong and why he was so angry and upset. I thought I must be a truly horrible, disgusting person for someone to have reacted like that to something I’d said. (Everyone else in my family later said the same – they had no idea why he’d gone off on one all of a sudden. It was explosive anger). And I couldn’t even walk away because we’d been in the queue for 20 minutes, and had another 40 or so minutes still to wait in line. So I would have had to climb over several railings and try to squeeze past everyone to leave the ride, irritating lots of people and creating an even bigger scene. So I just stood with my family in line, but as far away from my dad’s partner as possible, crying in front of everyone and feeling awful about myself.

We didn’t speak to each other at all for 2 days afterwards. This made things extremely awkward for everyone. None of my other family members wanted to be seen as taking sides, for fear of making things even worse between my dad’s partner and I. It was 2 days of absolute misery. I felt so alone as no one else from my family even wanted to talk about what had happened. On one of those days, while we were out, I just had to get away from everyone and I face-timed my boyfriend, crying. It maybe sounds ridiculous but this was the first time in years that I’d seriously felt like hurting myself. I just wanted to be back in Scotland, with my boyfriend – the only person who was truly there to support me through all of this. I felt like the one who always causes trouble for everyone else, thinking back to all the times my dad and I had fought. It was ME that was the problem, and my whole family would have been better off if I’d never been born. I was always the black sheep. And no matter how hard I tried, there was something fundamentally wrong and unlikeable about me as a person. It felt to me like I was the most horrible, hateful person in existence.

Two days after my dad’s partner exploding at me, we all visited the Kennedy Space Centre. It took us an hour or more to get there on the bus. We were all sat near each other. I was sat beside my brother, in the aisle seat, and my dad and his partner were sat in a row in front of us, on the opposite side of the bus, my dad’s partner in the aisle seat. I was just resting my eyes as I hadn’t slept much and was a bit tired. I think my dad’s partner thought I was asleep – or maybe he just didn’t care whether or not I heard – because he was just mouthing off about me to my dad, saying that he couldn’t stand me, and that I was a horrible person. He mentioned lots of little things about me that he just didn’t like. This went on for 10 minutes or more. I just kept pretending to be asleep, with tears rolling down my cheeks, hiding my face.

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Family Secrets

This is going to be a very long post.


About a month before the family holiday to Florida last May that I mentioned in a previous post, I found out that my dad and his “flatmate” were in a relationship and had been together for over 3 years. I’d suspected this for absolutely ages, ever since dad’s partner (who is great at cooking) first started joining us for family meals/ doing most of the cooking of family meals that we often have round at my dad’s flat. This had been happening for probably between a year and a year and a half, and I’d strongly suspected it all that time, with my suspicions growing stronger and stronger over time, but I had never had any solid evidence of the two of them being together, and had never actually spoken to my dad or anyone else about it just in case I was reading too much into things or over-analysing things like I sometimes do. I suppose I assumed that if they really were together, my dad would have told us, and would have introduced the man he’s in a relationship with as his partner/ boyfriend, rather than as his flatmate.

As I said before, I’d suspected that they were together for probably up to a year and a half, though I’d definitely “known” since the family party a few months prior, on Boxing Day, though still had moments of doubting my intuition. It was a great party (with only close family left for the second half of the party), and that’s quite possibly the most drunk I’ve ever seen either of my parents! My dad’s partner is extremely extroverted and is always the life and soul of the party, and much hilarity ensued at this particular party. At one point, however, I remember them playing an extended version of ‘Smalltown Boy’ by Bronski Beat, with my dad’s partner and my mum singing along to it. This may sound slightly odd but I remember listening to the song and suddenly experiencing intense empathy for my dad’s partner, who is indeed from a small town where attitudes are rather old-fashioned, and where growing up as a gay person must have been very difficult. I later found out, when I ended up telling my dad’s partner about my self-injury scars, a few weeks before we went to Florida (and a couple of weeks before finally having my suspicions about him and my dad being in a relationship confirmed) that my dad’s partner had been bullied terribly for being gay when he was younger, at both primary and secondary school. It sounded absolutely horrendous, and it sounds like he never got much support from his parents (who apparently know absolutely nothing of his relationship with my dad or of his sexuality), who it seems took the “tough love” approach, and wanted my dad’s partner to fight his own battles. Given the society that my dad’s partner grew up in, given that he still lives with his parents due to not being able to afford a place of his own, and given that his family members are all very religious, with his brother often using the Bible to back-up his homophobia, I can completely understand why he is so reluctant to tell his parents about his relationship. I couldn’t, however, understand why my dad and his partner would not tell us (my siblings and I) about their relationship, or why they would actively try to hide their relationship from us. I have always been very pro-LGBT+, and while my brother was perhaps a little bit ignorant when he was younger, my siblings are much the same. Did they think that their being together would bother us or that we would think less of them? I was a little bit annoyed but mostly saddened by the fact that they apparently felt they had to hide their relationship from us. I felt that perhaps I’d failed my dad in terms of not doing enough to show him and his partner that they shouldn’t have to hide anything, and that we love and accept both of them for who they are.

It was rather bizarre finding out about my dad and his partner’s 3-year relationship not from either of them, but from a card on my dad’s mantelpiece. While round at my dad’s place for a meal, I noticed a card that simply said “Love” on the front of it. As I was placing something onto the mantelpiece, I noticed my dad’s handwriting inside, thanking his partner for a wonderful 3 years together. I wasn’t quite sure whether or not to ask them about it, but ended up asking my youngest sister (who had also been there) about it in a vague way on the drive home, simply asking her how long she’d “known about” my dad and his partner. It turned out that she’d also suspected that were together for ages, and definitely since the Boxing Day party. About a week later, when my other sister was back from university for a few days, we broached the subject with her and she said she’d suspected it for quite a while too. We weren’t sure whether or not our brother knew (he can be a bit oblivious at times, when it comes to this sort of thing). We also weren’t sure whether or not we should say anything to our dad and his partner, or to our mum about it, or whether or not they even WANTED us to say anything about it. I didn’t know whether they even wanted us to know about their relationship. So we decided we’d just leave it for the time being and see if they said anything before or during the family holiday.

I think the penny finally dropped for my brother when we were trying to decide who should have each bedroom in the house we were staying in in Florida. The house was amazing, with 5 bedrooms, so my brother and I both got a room to ourselves, and everyone else shared. My brother seemed so confused when my middle sister suggested that the older adults had the 2 largest (double) bedrooms downstairs and we young adults took the rooms upstairs. Like I said, he can sometimes be a bit oblivious with this sort of thing. He couldn’t seem to get his head around why my dad and his partner would possibly want to share a double room rather than one of the twin rooms.

About a week into the holiday, my dad and his partner still hadn’t mentioned anything to us about their relationship, and still appeared to be acting as if they were just friends. Having to hide the fact that they were together was clearly taking its toll on their relationship (more on this in a later post). I could see how much it was hurting my dad’s partner in particular, so I eventually brought it up with my mum, telling her that my sisters and I knew, and asking her if she knew why dad and his partner had never said anything to us about their relationship. We found out a number of things from the conversation that followed, including that mum was annoyed and baffled as to why my dad had never said anything to us about his 3-year relationship, though she reckoned that he was worried about how my brother (who he has always been very close to) would react. It turned out that my dad’s sexuality was the reason that my parents separated when I was 15. Their relationship had been very rocky and very on-off towards the end, but apparently my dad had an affair, which my mum eventually found out about. She confronted him about it and he denied it at first but then finally admitted that he’d had an affair and that he was gay. She told him that she felt they should tell his parents about everything, and while they were shocked, my dad’s parents were very supportive and understanding. I’m so glad that my mum took everything so well despite effectively being lied to all those years, and probably feeling as if her whole world had just fallen apart (she is from an abusive family, so my dad and his family were the only ones she could trust). I’m also really glad that my paternal grandparents have been so supportive and accepting.

I also found out from that conservation with my mum that my suspicious about another old flatmate of my dad’s being an ex-boyfriend were correct. It must have been so difficult for my dad, hiding who he was for all those years, effectively living a lie for nearly 2 decades of marriage. I was angry at first to find out that my dad had cheated on my mum, but I can understand now. This was in the age of AIDS, and back when the general public hated gay people. I see him in a new light now. While it doesn’t excuse anything he said or did to me, I can now understand how having to hide such a large part of his identity could have contributed a lot to his anger and frustration, which he often took out on me, in the years before my parents split up. He has never admitted to it, but I think there’s a good chance that he has also suffered from depression himself.

After our conversation, my mum and her then fiancé suggested that we try talking to my dad and his partner about their relationship, but after events that took place earlier in the holiday (again, more on this in a later post), I wasn’t too keen on the idea, or at least wanted to leave it a while.  I was still so confused as to why they hadn’t told us in all this time. Did they think we wouldn’t accept them? I think even at the ages we all were when mum and dad separated, we would have understood, or at least I certainly would have. My brother might have taken a while, but even still…Perhaps my dad felt the need to protect us while we were still in (a rather homophobic) high school. But I don’t think high school could have really gotten much worse for me, and even if it had, I would have put up with it if it meant that my dad didn’t have to hide who he was. It may well have made things much worse for my younger siblings, mind you.

A week after we got back from Florida, my dad and his partner finally (with much persuasion from my mum) spoke to my sisters and I about their relationship, when we were round at his place for tea. Dad’s partner was quite open and again mentioned how badly he’d been bullied for being gay when he was younger. He reiterated what we had already learned from our mum, saying that he didn’t know my dad back when he split from my mum, and that he wasn’t the reason for my parents’ separation. My dad said very little and sort of just let his partner do the talking. I don’t know if this was simply because he’s never really been a touchy-feely person, or because he was still so worried about how we’d react. My sisters and I reiterated that we loved and accepted them, and that our boyfriends (in the case of my middle sister and I) and their families, and our friends (in the case of my sisters) would also be accepting of them. We asked why they had hidden the fact that they were a couple for so long, as it did very much appear to be about my brother (who wasn’t there) and how my dad feared he/ his friends might react.

My mum told my brother a couple of days later. Like I said before, my dad and is partner had been really worried about telling him, and my dad was really worried about losing the close relationship he’s always had with my brother, by my brother has been absolutely fine with. My brother is generally a man of few words. After my mum explaining to him that my dad and his partner were together, she asked “So, are you okay with all of that?” His reply – “Yeah, what’s changed?” – was I think all the confirmation that my dad and his partner needed to finally relax around us all. Even now, they still never hold hands, dance together, hug, or kiss each other around any of us, despite us telling them that we have absolutely no problem with them doing any of this. I think they’re still too worried about how we might react to do any of this. I hope one day they will be able to.

The main thing I’ve taken from all of this is that I’m glad my parents have both found someone who makes them happy, and that my family have all reacted so positively. My grandparents can be a little bit old-fashioned about certain things, but I’m glad that they’ve been so accepting. They’ve taught us all how a family should be. I’m also glad that my mum took everything so well, despite how mum being lied to and cheated on must have hurt her. She has said previously that forgiving my dad is one of the best things she has ever done. It’s certainly one of the best things she could have done for our family. I’m so glad my parents are still good friends and that their partners both get on so well too.

It’s unfortunate that my dad’s partner treated me the way he did during that family holiday. It put me in a bit of a difficult situation at the time, but I will do what I can to get over that. I can understand why he reacted as disproportionately as he did, and I think I have nearly forgiven him. More on this in a later post.

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Freshers’ Week

Last week was Freshers’/ induction week at my university. I had two induction days, which went fairly well. My anxiety was through the roof walking into uni on that first induction day, but I coped really well and managed to get talking to a small group of people. I was absolutely exhausted after that first day. I felt almost as if I’d just run the Edinburgh half marathon again! Obviously it was mostly a mental, rather than physical, tiredness, but this is the closest thing I can compare it to. I have absolutely no idea where other people find the ridiculous amount of energy that is required for so much social interaction with people they barely know. It’s not easy being an introvert in an extroverted world. It’s even more difficult (and exhausting!) being a socially anxious introvert in an extroverted world. A friend of mine – who lives in the south of England these days but who I still keep in touch with – who has social anxiety has spoken of feeling the same way during her time at university. She’d have to sleep more than most of the other people on the course because her anxiety took so much out of her.

The ‘Freshers’ Fair’ was on the day between my two induction days. I didn’t particularly want to go, but the other people from the group I’d been talking to said they would go, and I thought I may as well give it a chance. I could always just leave if I was finding things too difficult. The venue was very crowded and loud when I had arrived, and the group I was supposed to be meeting up with were nowhere to be seen. The hall was full of screaming 18-year-olds*, and people constantly approaching me , trying to get me to sign up for whatever society or student membership they were advertising. I felt my chest tighten up and my breathing quicken. I felt the all too familiar queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. But it wasn’t overwhelming. I was walking alone in a noisy venue packed with people, yet I didn’t feel even close to a panic attack. I was coping. I could do this.

I wandered around by myself for a bit, collecting free stuff, then eventually bumped into the people I was supposed to be meeting. We wandered around together, looking at and signing up to various societies, getting free pizza and ice cream (Woo! Healthy eating!), and just chatting. I tried to join in with the conversation as best as I could, but I still felt like a contributed very little. I only stayed for a couple of hours, as I had a bat survey that evening, and already felt drained from anxiety. I’m glad I decided to go. I find I cope far better in many situations than I would have 6 or 7 years ago. I do think that very gradual and measured exposure has helped me a lot. Of course I do still feel anxious in these situations – and there may be a whole load of situations in which I will never be anxiety-free – but unlike when I was younger, the level of anxiety I feel in those situations now is of a significantly milder and more manageable level.

* While I’m on the subject of screaming 18-year-olds, I’d just like to say that it feels so weird being back at uni and – even though I’m only 24 – being older than nearly all of the undergraduate students. I actually feel OLD. I’m glad to hear the other master’s students say that they feel much the same, and that they can’t be bothered with the party lifestyle that is the stereotype of undergrad students, and they would rather be sleeping than out clubbing (Hallelujah!)

My second induction day was trial by fire for social anxiety. I think it would have been any social anxiety sufferer’s idea of a nightmare. The entire day (7 hours) was full of forced social interaction with strangers. In the morning, we had an employability workshop which was partly about “making professional connections”. So everyone on the workshop (there were maybe 60 of us) had to wander around the room, approaching complete strangers, and trying to find 3 things that we had in common with that person. Each of us had to try and do this with 10 different people. It was quite reassuring to hear a couple of other people at my table say that they were dreading it and that they hated this sort of thing. I think just about EVERYONE would feel some degree of anxiety/ apprehension in a situation like this. Probably not to the same degree as someone with severe SA (though you can never really tell who has social anxiety and who doesn’t – most of us are pretty good at hiding it), but I think it does help to know that you’re at least not completely alone in how you feel. The other people you talk to will probably be feeling a least a little bit anxious/ uneasy themselves.

I have to say, even though I’d probably no longer class my SA as being severe, I coped extremely well, and this is coming from someone who always thinks the worst of herself and loves to beat herself up. Did things go perfectly? Definitely not. Did I charm everyone with my amazing social skills, witty banter, and come across as instantly likeable and brilliant to everyone I met? HELL NO. There were many awkward moments, and moments where I didn’t know what to say. Moments I felt like an idiot. But I tried my best. And really, what else can I do, especially in situations like these? I’m sure most of those other people in the room also had moments where they felt awkward or uncomfortable too, even though they all seemed (from the outside) to be coping far better than I was. The illusion of transparency and all that…

At lunchtime, all of the master’s students came together for some free food that the university had provided. I was at a table with a group of guys who are on my course, and who had gone straight from their undergrad into the master’s – and let’s just say you could tell. I’m always more uncomfortable around men than I am around women, but I’m especially uncomfortable if it’s a guy, or group of guys, who are around my age or younger, particularly if they seem fairly immature and still act like teenagers. I assume this is because their behaviour is a throwback to the kind of people who bullied me in high school. I am extremely guarded (and probably come across as unapproachable or even rude) around males of this description. I’m much better around older men, or men who act more mature.

In the afternoon, there was yet more forced social interaction. It was almost identical to the exercise we’d had to do that morning. Again, I coped about as well as I could have with this. The last task we had to do was to line up according to the alphabetical order of our first names, then find out as much as we could about the person standing next to us. After 10 or 15 minutes, we had to introduce that person to the class and say as much about them as we could. I did not do well with this. I could feel my heart beating faster and harder the further we moved along the line, and the closer it got to being my turn. I only managed to say a couple of things at the end, whilst mostly staring at the ground. But I suppose I did get what little I did say right, and the person I introduced still said hi to me in class yesterday, so presumably she doesn’t completely hate my guts and think I’m a complete idiot (which is what my brain was trying to convince me of after the event). I was still jittery for about 2 or 3 hours after I left university that day. I was beginning to wonder what feeling calm felt like. But I’m glad I’ve been able to push myself through all of this. I’ve got several scary things coming up this term, including a public speaking assignment, so I hope I can keep pushing myself and not letting the anxiety win. This master’s will either kill me or cure me.

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What am I doing with my life?

(And yes, I do have an answer, at last!)

A few months ago, after doing extensive research on the profession, I decided that I would like to pursue a career in ecological consultancy. This will be a real challenge for me as it’s a career that demands good people/ communication skills, but I will give it my best shot. If I can’t cope, I can always go back to working in a supermarket or some other, less demanding job. I’d rather fail knowing that I gave it my best shot than not try at all and always wonder what could have been. I’ve done a fair bit of reading and it seems that it’s a career I would enjoy and that I would be passionate about. I’ve also been doing some bat dusk/ dawn survey work with a consultancy since May and – despite intense anxiety at times – have really enjoyed it. Ecological consultancy would be a good mix of field work and writing up reports, and I would be helping to protect wildlife and ensure that new developments don’t harm or disturb protected species. This is the first time in my life that I’ve had any concrete career ambitions, and it does feel really good to have a goal to aim for in that area, as it was causing me so much stress before.

Since the beginning of the year, I constantly debated with myself over whether or not to go for a master’s degree. I don’t NEED a master’s degree to get a job in a consultancy – though it would help – and, in my case (given my experiences during my undergraduate degree), it’s an insane amount of stress – and a huge strain on my mental health – to take on. Despite this, I decided to go for it in the end. I figure that it’s been nearly 2 years since I finished my undergrad and I felt I was beginning to stagnate a little in my supermarket job, and – despite having attended several ecology-related courses and conferences – I still don’t have many contacts. While the course is not specific to ecological consultancy, it’s an accredited degree that focuses on practical skills, which will help a fair bit with employability. I would have loved to do an ecological consultancy specific master’s, but there aren’t any in Scotland, and the really good ones in England were prohibitively expensive (and a logistical nightmare in terms of getting to see my family/ boyfriend, and who would look after my dog for a year).

I’ve just had my induction week for the master’s. Classes start on Monday, so I will frantically try and write as many more blog posts as I can manage before I’m completely snowed under by coursework. The induction week went fairly well despite insane levels of anxiety (more on this in my next post), and it does sound like I will really enjoy the course. It’s at the same university I did my undergrad at, so my mum and stepdad have (very kindly) allowed me to stay with them for another year. I do feel a bit ashamed of still living at home, though I really don’t think it’s uncommon for 20-somethings these days, and I am very grateful to them both.

I also finished up at my supermarket job last week. I’m yet to write a post (or a series of them) on how strained my mental health was during my undergrad, but I do think it’s best if I don’t have people at work trying to pressure me into doing overtime when I have loads of assignments due, and it’ll give me more time to work on coursework/ take a mental health day if I’m really struggling. I finish up my bat survey work at the end of the month but I’m keen to get involved with this again next year. Student loans and savings should tide me over until then. I have to say, I’m so glad I decided to quit my supermarket job and go for the master’s, especially given the way I was treated by my manager just before I left. I wouldn’t speak to my worst enemy the way she speaks to her employees. It just confirmed for me that in that company, anyone below manager level is completely expendable. I don’t know if it was just that particular branch, but the managers had absolutely no respect for any of us, and my manager would speak to us all (even the people older than her) like we were particularly stupid 4-year-olds. So yes, I’m very glad to have left, and to hopefully be moving on to a job where I will at least be treated like a fellow human being! And I’m so glad I don’t have to work there for yet another busy Christmas period, with 4am starts and having to constantly search through a completely full and utterly disorganised warehouse/ fridges for stock. My colleagues were all lovely and all wished me well on my last day. I do regret not getting to know some of them a bit better, but I have come on leaps and bounds since I started my job there.

I am really looking forward to the master’s, and to (I hope) eventually getting into a career path that I will find enjoyable and meaningful. I put WAY too much pressure on myself to get excellent results during my undergrad degree. While it would be nice, great marks are not worth completely messing up my mental health (like I did the last time I was at uni), and I’m also studying full-time (whereas I was part-time during the second half of my undergrad). I hope to make this year more about making contacts, improving my knowledge and skills, and continuing to really push myself when it comes to my anxiety (trust me, by the sound of things, I will NEED to!)

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Volunteering – Part 2 (Update)

I did WHAT?!?

Around the start of the year, I was still utterly clueless as to what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, I thought conservation might be my best bet (though I have since realised just how difficult it is to get a job in conservation). I had been speaking to a careers advisor at my university (you can use career services there for up to 3 years after you graduate), and she let me know about a volunteering opportunity that involved educating children about wildlife conservation. I have social anxiety disorder, and had the worst panic attack of my life while doing a group oral presentation in front of around 50 other people at summer school. So naturally, I voluntarily signed up to go into primary schools all over the Edinburgh area and deliver 90-minute long presentations to up to 2 full classes of kids, often all on my own.

I had to go in for an interview, though it was quite informal, and I coped fairly well, making conversation with the other volunteer who did most of the interviewing. After that, I mostly observed the volunteer coordinator and more experienced volunteers, to get an idea of what needed to be covered in the presentations, and how to lead the games and outdoor parts of the workshops. I would occasionally lead the children in educational games and do small parts of the presentations, which was absolutely terrifying at first.

Even after having signed up to the role, I was constantly questioning whether I was actually capable of delivering a full workshop to a class full of kids. I frequently felt I had bitten off far more than I could chew and that I would have to disappoint the volunteer leader by telling her I simply couldn’t do the role. It made me feel very hopeless at times. I kept trying, though. The role was extremely stressful – probably more stressful than most paid jobs! Things would change at the last minute, and you’d find out you would have to deliver a completely different workshop to the one you thought you were doing, or we’d be short-staffed and have to take more than one class. Soon enough, I was thrown in the deep end and due to being short-staffed, I had to deliver the full presentation, by myself, to two full classes of primary 1 children. The school were thankfully really understanding, and gave me extra helpers, and the children were mostly well-behaved. I’d written down everything I needed to talk about during the presentation on flash cards, and had rehearsed it at home a couple of times, with my sister pretending to be a primary school child. So that first time, it was mostly a case of me reading off the flash cards. As I discovered, despite having about 50 of them in front of me, I was quite lucky to have had the younger children for my first presentation. Young children are far more forgiving than adults are, and they don’t care if you make a mistake while doing a presentation – in fact, they probably won’t even notice.

Despite everything being far more simplified with the younger kids (and therefore not really getting to use knowledge from my degree with them), I came to prefer teaching the youngest kids over teaching the oldest kids. I loved working with the primary 1 – primary 3 age group. One of the highlights of working with the younger kids was some of the rather…creative (and adorable) answers they’d give to questions. For example:


 

Me (after explaining what the word “endangered” means): “So can anyone think of an animal that you’ve seen or heard of that’s endangered?”

Primary 1 boy: “Umm…Unicorns?”

 

Me: “So what kind of animal do you think you might find in this garden pond?”

Primary 1 girl: “A shark!”

 

Colleague: “Can anyone think of a food we eat that doesn’t come from nature?”

Primary 1 boy: “Play-doh!”

Colleague: …


 

I never actually mentioned my anxiety to the volunteer coordinator or the other volunteers. They could certainly tell that I was nervous and not very confident, and I don’t think they realised just how much of an issue those things were for me. While driving me home after volunteering one day, the volunteer coordinator told me that she thinks I’m better with the younger kids because I seem so calm. My internal reaction to hearing her say that was pretty much:

 

I was really proud of myself after that first presentation, and it wasn’t long afterwards that I delivered an entire 90-minute workshop on my own. I found it absolutely nerve-wracking much of the time, though still easier than if I’d had to deliver the same presentation to a group of adults. I found it easier to pretend the class teacher wasn’t there, as it was actually wondering what the other adults thought of how I was doing that was making me most anxious. I’m still amazed that I managed to deliver 3 workshops to primary kids on a weekly basis. My stepdad (who doesn’t have social anxiety) has said that he couldn’t do it as it would be too nerve-wracking! I think most people would actually find it quite scary – something I kept reminding myself of when I was extremely anxious and felt I couldn’t cope. I’m really glad I decided to go for the role and to continue with it, as it did greatly improve my confidence.

On my last day volunteering in that role, I ended up being the only member of staff there for the afternoon. The volunteer coordinator hadn’t told me that I’d be the only one there, and the school had already had us cancel on them twice before, so the teacher who had organised it was (understandably) very unhappy about the prospect of cancelling one of the classes. So I had to deliver an entire workshop to 2 very badly behaved primary 2 children. To be fair to the kids, it was the last week of term, so no wonder they were so hyper. But I think the teachers had given up too and I couldn’t speak for more than 3 seconds without several children talking over me. The teachers weren’t of much help and but I just did my best. Whether or not any of the children actually learned anything that day, I don’t know. But they did at least seem to enjoy it. I was really glad for that workshop session to be over! While the teachers from that school weren’t the best, working in that role gave me so much respect for teachers. It’s certainly not a job I could do (or would want to do) myself – though I think I would enjoy occasionally working with children as part of my job. I really don’t know how they do it without going completely insane, especially towards the end of term.

I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to get involved in teaching children about wildlife conservation – a topic that I really enjoy talking about and making other people passionate about. I’m also glad that despite how incredibly anxiety-provoking the role was, I didn’t quit. I realise that not everyone is at the stage I’m at in terms of overcoming SA, and I realise that not everyone is a lucky as I have been. But if oral presentations are something you really struggle with, I’d recommend delivering presentations to young kids as a bit of a stepping stone, as they really are much more forgiving and less judgemental than adults. Presenting to classes of primary school children is one of my other big achievements so far this year, and it taught me that I’m capable of much more than I give myself credit for.

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