Around five years ago, I was having counselling through Shooting Star again. I was working through some personal issues, one being my inner critic that I had drawn in the shape of a vulture from the Jungle Book. How messed up is that?! However, in one session, I spent the whole time crying and was very, very quiet. I barely spoke. I remember the counsellor asking me how I felt, despite the tears, and I replied “peaceful. It feels lovely.”
“This is the real you,” she said. “I’ve seen glimpses of it in our sessions but, now, all your walls are down and this is the real you.” I started crying all over again.
“It’s been so long since I felt like this.” And I was scared. I knew that, once I was out the door, I wouldn’t be able to stay there, being the authentic me. I was right. Within an hour, the walls had shot back up and I couldn’t get back to that place in my soul that felt so peaceful.
I even had hypnotherapy to help me, which it did . . . for about a week.
The thing is that I have a phobia of vulnerability and, boy, did I feel vulnerable. Somewhere, in the recesses of my subconscious, long ago, it was decided that that person was not safe in the outside world and a new persona was built to protect her, my social persona. Everyone knows me as outgoing, I am an extrovert after all, and chatty with it. I use talking as a defence mechanism. If someone chats a lot, there aren’t any real reasons to ask questions. An old friend once said that when he thought of me, he thought of me always talking but when he asked himself what he knew about me, he realised he didn’t know very much. I’m very selective about what I share. It’s one of the reasons why I am so good at keeping secrets, no one expects me to be.
My social persona is modelled on my mother’s side of the family, where everyone is very expressive, charismatic and personable. They are such a fun family to be a part of and I love them dearly. They attract people. So I learnt how to be like them, how to manipulate the parts of my personality that I inherited from my social, loud, hostess with the mostest mother. I have always been fascinated by what makes people tick, what makes people behave the way they do, make the decisions they make, say the things they say. Given this interest, it wasn’t hard to create an alternative me. I was fifteen when my social persona got set in stone and I no longer could access the other part of me. Until that day in the counsellor’s, I had always thought that I had been freed that day when I was fifteen and snapped. Alas, it turns out the opposite was true; I had been imprisoned.
The thing about not being authentic is that it is exhausting. Utterly exhausting and it feeds depression and anxiety. Every time that I went out and partied, I would need the next day to myself to regroup. I love socialising, I love being with people, but it does drain me, trying to be upbeat, entertaining, likeable. Always has. That’s one of the reasons that I love books and film so much. It’s like attending a party but not having to leave home.
You see the thing is, I have never felt like I fit in. I always felt different. (When I was diagnosed with OS-CS, I thought that was why I felt different. It wasn’t.) Growing up, I used to wonder if I was adopted. I would be severely reprimanded by my mother for doing something naughty but did not always understand what I had done that was so bad. I still have those misunderstandings to this day. I don’t always understand why people get upset about stuff.
My mother and my sister live very much more in the moment. They tend to make more emotional decisions, which is not a bad thing, just different to me. Recently, we got into a heated exchange on Facebook, never a good idea. I understood my sister’s point to a degree. I still don’t understand my mother’s. I deleted the post in the end because it wasn’t doing any of us any good. However, I do not regret the post and the ruckus it caused because it had a remarkable, unexpected effect. It fixed me. After 30 odd years of living inauthentically, in the middle of our exchanges, I suddenly thought “I’d rather be me”. I realised that I have always felt substandard in comparison to them. I don’t connect instantaneously with people they way they do. I can fake it but I don’t feel it. I have great friends, don’t get me wrong, I am blessed, but it takes a long time for me to feel genuine friendship. I’ve only had one or two occasions in my entire life where I have felt an instant connection to someone. I sense people finding the social persona me “too much”. Yet, if I tried to stay quiet in a group of people, I was filled with such intense social anxiety, the only way to release it was to start talking. And I can’t read all the emotional cues. I struggle to recognise and correctly label my own feelings, never mind someone else’s. I can be incredibly rational and logical about things, feeling the need to point out the potential consequences of actions. I struggle with theory of mind and cognitive empathy. I am honest to a fault and I say what I mean. There are no “between the lines” with me, I am literal and, although I understand and use sarcasm, I tend to take things very literally. I suffer from selective mutism. I am tactiley defensive and my auditory processing is downright shocking. I am a visual learner. I am a big picture viewer. I can connect dots quickly. I live in my head a lot. I am constantly analysing. I can’t turn my brain off easily.
I’ve spent most of my adult life disconnected from my true self, like a split personality. The two personas are not so different, it’s just that one has the “social, bubbly” part turned up way too high. I am absolutely enough exactly as I am, wobbly bits, autistic traits, extroversion, grey hair, melasma, quiet reflection and all. I have my mother and my sister to thank. Finally, I feel like I don’t need their validation. I’m 44 and I didn’t even know I was looking for it. I feel whole again for the first time in decades and, for that, I will be eternally grateful.
PS AND it put me off Facebook, which is a godsend. I was way too addicted and I knew it. Now I have time to read, write and crochet octopi for the local neo natal unit. I do still share articles, especially from The Mighty, in case it might help someone else. I love The Mighty. I still check Facebook occasionally because I support other tracheostomy families through it and I like the memories section but, otherwise, I don’t go on. I’m free! Whoop! (Let’s hope it lasts.)