One of the most terrifying things in life is to feel that everyone else is normal except you. That everyone else seems to be able to handle life but you can’t.
This is what it was like for Angela.
In every other area of her life, Angela was as competent as anyone else, but underneath she had been struggling with anxiety and depression for years.
She had tried everything to help herself feel ‘normal’, but everything she tried only seemed to make her feel worse.
As she spoke, all I could do was gently interrupt her and ask her which of her parents was the alcoholic? Angela looked at me stunned.
Angela wasn’t born believing that she was a failure, she learned it
“My father, but how did you know?”
“Because you have spent the last 20 minutes telling me how normal everything around you is and how stupid you are.”
Angela wasn’t born believing that she was a failure, she learned it. She had grown up in a world where everyone around her tried to keep the family going as best they could. Life always revolved around the alcoholic and all the other family members learned to live under their shadow, denying the effects on them and living under the father’s controlling behaviour.
To live, everyone had to try to make sense of the world they were in with their father’s drinking, which meant ignoring everyone else’s needs.
Even now, as an adult, any situation where she didn’t feel a sense of control caused her to feel desperate and vulnerable
As a child, Angela needed stability and safety but, in reality, never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next. Daily life was regularly interrupted by the unpredictable behaviour of her dad. Because she never knew when the next explosion would occur, she learned to be always on edge. As a result, her emotional ability to cope with uncertainty and insecurity never developed. Even now, as an adult, any situation where she didn’t feel a sense of control caused her to feel desperate and vulnerable.
Try as she might, Angela could never fix her dad. No matter how well she did in school, or tried to be good, she couldn’t fix the underlying family dysfunction and her dad’s addiction.
Now, as an adult, she could never live up to the standard of perfection that she set for herself since childhood. As a result, she was always falling short, living in a permanent world of failing and believing that she was a failure. Angela’s brain had trained itself to cope with life’s uncertainty by trying to control the world she was in – as she had learned to do as a child.
Helping Angela understand that while she most definitely had a problem, she was not, nor had ever been, the problem. This was the key to opening the door to her recovery. Gradually, as we looked over her life, she started to understand that her reactions to the family chaos were understandable. This helped her to accept her feelings as normal reactions instead of believing that they were abnormal.
Over time, Angela came to understand the vastness of her emotions but stopped being a slave to them
Because she had never known what “normal” was, Angela could never reassure herself that what she was doing was OK. As a result, she was regularly indecisive and unsure of herself, needing others to tell her if what she was doing was right. So, that was where we needed to start. As she learned to recognise and trust her true feelings, Angela could stop trying to fix everything in her environment, soothing her anxiety, without having to control everything around her.
As her loneliness evaporated, so did her depression. Over time, Angela came to understand the vastness of her emotions but stopped being a slave to them. She started to realise that she belonged in this world, had something to contribute and had always been acceptable as she was.
Hasten slowly, get well gently
Like many things in life, if you haven’t solved your problem after numerous attempts, then you’ve probably been trying to solve the wrong problem.
Everything seems normal until you get to know it. The more stupid you describe yourself, the more normal you are regarding the world around you. The crazier the world you normalise, the crazier you will see yourself. What are, in fact, normal reactions to a crazy world, will now be seen by you as abnormal.
By pulling back the curtain, you will be able to understand reality and recognise the truth of your upbringing
So, start by accepting that you are not mad (or at least that you’re no madder than anyone else), and that you’ve been trying your best to cope with a mad situation. Your brain has been wired to reject this, but seek professional help and learn to open your eyes. By pulling back the curtain, you will be able to understand reality and recognise the truth of your upbringing. Your secrets will no longer imprison you in shame, leaving you to be able to delight in life’s mystery and wonder.
Your head wants instant solutions as it has been wired to reject the concepts of patience and acceptance. So, understand what the journey of recovery looks like as it involves both. In the same way that it took time to condition you to think the way you do, it will take time to dismantle and learn how to understand and practice a new way.
By learning to accept life as it is, you will learn how to handle situations that currently baffle you.
While you alone can do it, you can’t do it alone. You don’t just need therapy to fix this, you need a programme of living to show you how to let community rather than loneliness define your life.
Enda Murphy is a cognitive behavioural therapist and director of Seeme. For more details go to www.seeme.ie. Please email your own queries for Enda to email@example.com