One of the biggest changes I made after my breakdown was to rethink what it meant to be successful. Before I snapped my emotional elastic band, around the end of 2014, I defined success in career terms: the next promotion; pay rise; bonus and job title. I thought constantly about opportunities to raise my profile and build my network of contacts and supporters. I saw my life’s purpose through the prism of my work; my career; my status, and I enjoyed it. I liked feeling important. I like being a success.
That feels like a long time ago now. A lifetime. A totally different country. A world away.
Success now starts and ends with my mental health. How I am feeling today. How smiley the face is in my daily wellbeing journal. Whether I get through the day in one emotional piece. How much self care I have done.
I know it’s a good day if I see lots of my girls; have some quiet time to myself; if I write something meaningful that stimulates my mind and feels good when read back; if I exercise, listen to music, podcast(s) and ideally watch a little of the West Wing. I know it’s a good day if I have the time and space to think properly about my feelings and emotions – listening to myself and accepting myself. I know it’s a good day if I’ve been heard.
As I wrote that I knew that it may have sounded a bit like I was playing therapist bingo – using a buzz phrase I’ve learnt on my course. Mouthing a counselling cliche; a therapy tick box. But it’s not that. It’s a real thing. It really matters to me. There is something hugely important to me in that phrase, in that simple idea that I am being listened to, accepted and understood. Not just by others, but by me.
The most significant change in my life since my breakdown has been getting to know myself better; understanding what makes me tick; what upsets me; what pushes my buttons; why I ended up in hospital and in my dark, excruciating pain. I have learnt so much about what really matters to me, not what I thought mattered to me. I now do know myself and I know that the most important thing to me is to feel heard.
I need to feel that when I am speaking there is someone listening. Really listening, understanding and accepting my feelings. Not trying to answer them. Reframe them. Correct them. Sort them. Dismiss them. Saying ‘don’t be silly” to them. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry. That listening starts with me: with self love, self care, self hearing.
I was an only child for the first ten years of my life and such children – unless they are surrounded by similar-aged cousins or other close family and friends (which I was not) – tend to be alone a fair bit in these key years; in their own heads; talking to themselves. That was me. Me and my portable radio and headphones. Listening at home. Walking to school. Walking home. In the garden. In bed. Pretending to be on the radio, running news and sport bulletins through in my head. Making tapes of my radio shows. Me and my radio. Me with my own thoughts.
I can now see myself back then in my mind’s eye, worrying about so many things from as early as I can remember; watching things; noticing things. Will my mum’s car start in the morning? What is that noise outside the house? Why do I get called names and pushed around at school? Why is my father always late to pick me up? Why is there so much arguing around me? Is everything going to be ok?
For years, I was either not talking – just pushing on through the stress and the pain – or when I did talk no-one was really listening. I just looked like I was fine – getting on with life – chatty, smiling, not complaining. I had already learnt how to get on with things without drawing attention to myself but it meant that I just kept it all inside. Temperature building deep inside the pressure cooker. Sadness building.
I was the first in school each morning, aged 11, before the teachers or any other children walked through the gates. In the ten months before my breakdown – 25 years later – I was in the same routine in the workplace. First in. Alone. Listening to my radio. Trying to manage my (at that time) undiagnosed anxiety and stress. Managing my aloneness. Being alone. Pushing on through my pain. I just didn’t know it. I knew it was a bit odd but I didn’t know why. I wasn’t questioning it. I wasn’t listening to myself or accepting my feelings. I was too busy coping, getting through to the next meeting, the next email, the next target. That’s what I’d always done. Head down, keep going. That’s all I knew.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out why I now write this blog and use social media, or why I tried drama at school, public speaking and politics. I used to pretend to say mass as a child – performing to grandparents and others, handing out communion made from ice cream wafers. Looking for an audience. Attention. Seeking a hearing.
It’s not rocket science either to see why I’ve found therapy so helpful and why I am so passionate about being there for others – becoming a professional listener. Someone to be there to hear. To accept. To be alongside others.
Every day I think deeply about how I can make sure that my daughter feels heard, getting my full attention in the moments she requests it and at times when she doesn’t. I ask how she is. I accept all her feelings. I say it’s ok to be sad. To be angry. To feel jumbled up in her tummy. I try not to judge. I try not to show her if I do judge. It’s hard all the time but so important. Vital.
I am here now, nearly 43, typing this post with a proper understanding of who I am and what I am about and yet I still feel like that little boy. That little boy, sat at a table on his own at lunchtime in the school canteen or all alone even though he is sat with others, just wanting to be heard. To be understood. To be accepted. That is so important. The most important thing. For me. For everyone. For each other.
Being heard – now, that is real success.