Anxiety, Medical school, Mental Health, Relationships, Sexual abuse

Am I Overreacting?

Suffering from anxiety, I often have to take a step back and assess whether I am overreacting to a situation or if my worries are justified. And taking that step back is difficult because I usually don’t know if I am simply ‘reacting’ to a situation or if it would be classified as potentially overreacting. It’s a thin line, and not an easy one to distinguish. What makes it all the more difficult is that the act of overreacting is very subjective. What’s normal for one person, may not be so normal for another person. For me, I hate to be perceived as having overreacted to something, so I usually have to check in with the people around me.

It was a lot easier when I had the opportunity to discuss issues on a regular basis with my counsellor. She usually put things into perspective for me from a more objective viewpoint and that made it easier for me to know if I was overreacting or not.

Since having finished my counselling sessions, things are a lot more difficult as there isn’t just the one person I can check in with. Now, I usually have to ask my family and friends about their opinions on the situation, and I usually gather a range of different viewpoints and make my assessment. If the majority says that I am justified to react in a certain way, then I usually go with the majority and vice versa.

However, my fear of overreacting has led to situations where I possibly haven’t reacted enough. These situations normally involve reacting to behaviour that makes me uncomfortable. As you can read on a previous post, I had trouble dealing with sexual abuse as a child and my fear of falsely raising an alarm overrode my instinct to seek help. Similarly now, I have come across a few individuals over my time at medical school who have made me feel uncomfortable but I wasn’t sure if it was significant enough to raise an alarm. The last thing I want to be is ‘the boy who cried wolf’.

One of these individuals was an older medical student who made me feel uncomfortable within minutes of meeting him by displaying quite controlling and intense behaviour towards me. I felt uncomfortable as he summoned me with a beckoning gesture, after which he expressed his desire to marry soon; a desperate bachelor. The closeness with which he was standing next to me also made me very anxious, almost as if I was trapped. In my head, alarm bells were ringing but when I mentioned this individual with a few friends, some told me that there was no reason for me to be scared of him, whilst others asked me, “Why didn’t you just slap him around the face?” It’s in situations like these when I still struggle.

Another similar situation which occurred more recently involved somebody from my year who I met on my medical placement at hospital. He showed an interest in me, and we started joking with each other within a few hours of knowing each other. He ended up asking for my Facebook details, and after we parted that day, he immediately started messaging me on Facebook. A few messages in, he asked for my Snapchat, which I gave, but I got the feeling that he was moving a little fast, considering I had only met him that day. The messages then continued on Snapchat all the way until a good night message. The next time I met him, he ended up divulging very private details about himself and his family, which I would personally only divulge to someone when I trusted them implicitly, e.g. a very close friend. He started to make jokes that made me uncomfortable like saying he’d steal my duvet from my room when he felt cold at night, and so on. The messages continued and I felt quite overwhelmed at this point. I received a phone call from a relative and he was still messaging me but I didn’t reply. After I finished the phone call, I saw that he’d already started apologising to me for unintentionally doing something wrong as I hadn’t been replying. I was a bit surprised, but still unsure whether this was all normal. I talked about this to a few friends. Some of my friends joked about it, saying he was clearly seeking more than friendship, but my best friend got worried and told me to be careful in case he was a stalker. This definitely made me anxious. I contacted another friend, telling him about the situation and that I was starting to feel creeped out, and when I told him who it was, my friend laughed it off and said I didn’t need to worry as he was pretty sure the boy was gay. I felt a bit stupid at that point for making such a big fuss, but I don’t feel as if it was completely unjustified for me to have felt overwhelmed and scared.

So what have I learnt from all of this? It is definitely worth taking a step back to assess if you’re overreacting but at the same time, there’s nothing more reliable than our instincts. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, so the best thing to do is to react when your alarm bells are ringing. If you overreact, then you look stupid of course. But if you don’t overreact and things are as bad as they seem, the consequences may be even more grave unfortunately.

 

Anxiety, Mental Health, Reality, Relationships, Stress

Paranoia or Reality?

Most of these days, I am struggling to understand whether I am just feeling paranoid or if my suspicions are justified. It may be closely linked with my anxiety, and my constant fear of losing people around me but my question is, how do I know for sure if I’m right?

My paranoia has affected my friendships before, and on reflection, I feel I misinterpreted their preoccupation with their work for indifference towards me and I ended up confronting them accusingly which brought about a great deal of friction between us. When I discussed situations like these with my counsellor last year, she had advised me that if I feel suspicious, the best thing to do is to ask openly without letting the suspicion brew in my mind. So, for example, if my friend hasn’t answered my text in a while and I feel she is ignoring me, it might be worthwhile dropping her a message to say, “Hey, I haven’t heard back from you in a while, is everything ok?” Or even if that doesn’t solve it then something as direct as, “Hey, I’ve kind of got the feeling that you’ve been ignoring me – have I upset you somehow?” And in fact, doing this has helped to sort out my suspicions and worries. What’s helped more is being open with my friends about my paranoia and letting them know that I might have to ask them directly if we’re still ok, and they’ve all been extremely understanding about it.

However, my more recent difficulties have been with my parents. Sometimes I feel as if they are upset or angry with me and when I ask them directly, they pass it off as being busy or tired. Having always been especially close to my Mum, I often feel that she becomes a little cold with me. It could obviously be because she is stressed out, but I really just don’t know. I then feel as if she’s lying to me when I ask her directly about it, just to avoid confrontation.

Another constant suspicion I have is that my parents are talking about me behind my back. I’ve tried eavesdropping but I’ve never heard anything of that sort, but whenever I see them talking quietly to each other, I feel as if they’re saying things about me. It could be completely unfounded of course, but I can’t help but feel paranoid.

When I think about where these paranoias stem from psychologically, I feel as if they are strongly related to my low self-esteem and my desire to always please people around me, which makes it difficult for me to face criticism. Maybe, if I can work on these aspects a little more, the paranoia may weaken because it would simply not matter to me what people are thinking or saying about me. I’m not sure at this moment as to how I’m going to go about doing that, but it’s worth thinking about.

Anxiety, Medical school, Medicine, Mental Health, Reality, Stress

The Magic of Creativity

Most days, I don’t feel like I have the energy or motivation to do anything but curl up on my sofa, binge-watch trashy TV and mindlessly munch on processed junk until I fall asleep and the cycle repeats itself. So when I went to my first CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) session a few months ago and the therapist suggested I engage in enjoyable activities and rekindle my hobbies, I honestly thought, “what rubbish”. I felt so drained of energy that even getting to the CBT session in my pyjamas was an achievement for me.

My turning point was definitely in the weeks following my suicide attempt. After seeing the effect that it had on my family and friends, I was determined to get better and get out of the vicious cycle of depression I was stuck in. I decided that even if I felt life was not worth living for me, it was definitely worth living life for those who loved me. And yes, I knew life was not going to be all flowery – in fact, ever since my attempt in November, things have most definitely not been going my way or in my favour – but it was worth going on for the few minutes that I made my baby sister smile, or for the moments I spent cradled in my mother’s arms, or for the times that my friends tried cheering me up with their banter. So I decided that it was time for me to start getting up from that sofa. It was going to be anything but easy, but with the support from friends and family, I could do it.

The first thing I decided to do was to try and rekindle my hobbies as my therapist had suggested long ago. For me, art and singing have always been my favourite activities – they were both hobbies I’d pretty much given up on because I didn’t feel as if I had the willpower or motivation to do them. So I decided to audition for a singing part at a society-run university play (which required much support and encouragement from a good friend of mine) and ended up getting the part. I also decided to get back into sketching and painting which, I have to say, has been INCREDIBLY effective at providing me with a productive form of distraction when I’m feeling low.

On days that I feel extremely depressed, time doesn’t seem to pass. It’s difficult for me to pick up a pencil or to practice my singing, but once I start, it gets easier and easier. It gives me something to focus on, and I don’t even realise how quickly time flies. Sure, right now it doesn’t really help with my procrastination issue, but one step at a time. The logic is that if our daily average enjoyment levels increase to a sustainable degree, then motivation also increases and the possibility of achievement does too.

It’s always difficult to take the first step, and progress is not nearly as quick as we’d like, but I guess every little helps. I’m not back to my extra-motivated, focused, organised, efficient self yet (nowhere near it, in fact), but at least I’m spending a little less time moping on my sofa staring at the TV screen. And maybe one day, I’ll even be able to get back to being productive with my work and feel more of a sense of achievement.

Anxiety, Mental Health, Pressure, Reality, Stigma, Stress

The Epitome of Self-Deprecation

It’s difficult when the person you despise most is yourself. I find myself to be someone who always sees the good in everyone around me, but I fail to do so when I reflect on myself. People often compliment me, but the voice in my head tells me, “It’s not true, they’re just being nice”. There was a time in my life where I used to outwardly reject compliments thrown my way, but I soon realised that people often misunderstood me for being rude when that was not my intention at all. So now, out of politeness and to meet others’ expectations, I smile and say “Thank you” in response to any compliment I get, even though I don’t believe it.

I’ve pretty much always had a very low self-esteem. It’s because I’m a perfectionist and achieving my incredibly unrealistic goals is the only thing that gives me a sense of accomplishment. I always find faults in myself and always find targets to work towards. I subconsciously compare myself to others and convince myself that I am not good enough. The worst thing is, however, I also tend to criticise things about myself that I can’t modify. And that is even more demoralising for me.

I never really questioned my perfectionism until a few years ago when I started medical school and it became almost impossible for me to be the best at everything. All of a sudden, I was not achieving the goals I was setting for myself and I started believing that I was hopelessly not good enough. Despite the fact that I was studying at one of the best medical schools in the world, I was not good enough. I was not smart enough. And I felt increasingly worthless.

Aside from academics, I have always had issues with my image, from my looks to my weight. And especially at a stage when I thought I was failing academically, these insecurities became even more pronounced in myself. I was scared of looking at my reflection in the mirror. I started using a lot of make-up to cover up my ‘imperfections’. I tried to lose weight, but that’s something that has been and is still a challenge for me. With my depression, my appetite is all over the place. When things get really bad to suicidal point, I neglect food completely. When my mood picks up a little again and to cheer myself up, I tend to binge eat. And that’s why my weight doesn’t budge despite my gym efforts and diet plans. To make things more complicated, I have a very common condition called PCOS which makes it difficult for me to lose weight, and a few of the tablets I take for some other health problems also make it harder for me to lose weight. Being depressed also means that my motivation is at its lowest and without seeing any results after putting in the effort, I feel more demotivated and give up.

I realise however that it’s not really these materialistic things that matter. I can’t help how I look, and perfectionism is a bit of a tall order. But I feel as if I have believed in it for so long, I’ve wired it into my brain that I am just not good enough, or worthy. Some days, I wake up and I encourage myself to feel confident in my own body. It works, but it wears off very quickly. It’s a work in progress and maybe one day, I’ll really be confident. I love everybody else, but I have trouble loving myself.

I know that there are a lot of people who feel the same as I do. There are a lot of factors that contribute towards this, namely environmental influences, parenting and societal pressures. But I do believe that we are not stuck in this way of thinking about ourselves. We are each of us unique and beautiful, albeit not in the ways modelled by society per se, and we have every right to love ourselves for who we are. It’s time we took a step back and cut ourselves some slack, because we most definitely deserve it.

 

Anxiety, Medical school, Mental Health, Sexual abuse, Stress

The Nightmares that Won’t Leave

For the past couple of years, I have been struggling with daily, vivid nightmares which have significantly reduced the quality of my life. Being a natural vivid dreamer, I am accustomed to seeing the odd nightmare once in a while, but I have been continuously battling my fears every night. For most people, nightmares are a thing of the past, something that they associate with childhood. Other people I’ve talked to tell me that when they do have the odd nightmare, it’s something like “falling down” from a height for example. That’s how it used to be for me, and life was a lot easier too that way.

Surprisingly enough, my nightmares have a lot of impact on my daily life. Especially because I remember every single one, and they are so life-like, that they could easily get confused for being memories instead. Some of my nightmares are situations that occur between myself and those close to me – ranging from an emotional and abusive argument to losing someone. Other nightmares involve really intense and frightening situations, for example watching a serial killer kill the people around me in the most disturbing ways (the images are very graphic and detailed in my head to add to the horrific gore) and me trying to escape being killed; I’ve dreamt several times of me being forced into marriages to unknown men by my parents; and just last night, I dreamt of being raped by two men who I didn’t know and being traumatised in the aftermath of the situation.

The thing is, I don’t really think about any of these things consciously during the day. Whilst they may be a reflection of my inner fears, to me they seem quite random. Almost every nightmare I have wakes me up drenched in sweat in the middle of the night and I find it difficult to fall asleep again because I end up remaining traumatised right after.

Recently, I’ve found a coping mechanism which has been to sleep with my Mum. I never thought it would work, but my Mum insisted so I tried it out, and I think that just having the reassurance that I have someone with me when I’m sleeping helps me to recover from any dreams, and sometimes even prevents me from having my nightmares. I’ve also now been told that I talk in my sleep, and it is usually a reflection of whatever nightmare I’m having.

The reason why I feel these nightmares affect the quality of my life is not only because of the content of these nightmares, but also because of the poor quality of sleep I get. My sleep is usually very broken and I often actually get very little as I am unable to fall asleep again. This adds to my fatigue during the day and triggers my migraines. Low energy also negatively affects my depression which worsens and brings on the suicidal thoughts again.

I have tried various sleeping pills which are fabulous for making me sleep (despite making me incredibly drowsy the next day), but I still see the nightmares. My doctors have told me that the cause is most probably my high anxiety levels, and this is something I am to be talking about during my CBT sessions in future.

For now, it’s a relief knowing that my nightmares are only dreams after all. When they’re not real, what’s the worst that can happen?

Anxiety, Mental Health, Reality, Stigma, Stress

“Are you ok?”

Often we can become so caught up in our own lives that we forget to pay attention to the people around us. Moreover, we have transitioned into a society where awkwardness predominates most situations and prevents us from connecting to those around us. It even hinders us from doing nice things for people, because we are unsure whether we would be acting within social norms. But maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about fitting into social norms especially when it comes to doing good for others.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was making my daily commute to university on the tube, I noticed that a woman sitting opposite me was crying silently, wiping her tears on the end of her sleeve. She was trying so hard to make it look inconspicuous that I genuinely wondered whether she was crying or if she was suffering from some sort of allergy causing increased tear secretion. Once I had mentally confirmed that she was crying, I started becoming concerned and was tempted to ask her if she was ok. On the one hand, it is highly unusual for two strangers to start talking in London and striking up a conversation may make the situation uncomfortable, but on the other hand, I really wanted to make sure she was ok and let her know that she is not alone in the problems she is dealing with. I took the next few minutes deliberating over what would be the most appropriate thing to do. I tried catching her eye contact but she started to close her eyes in an attempt to have a quick nap.

A few stops passed and she opened her eyes, so I took the opportunity to say, “Excuse me, are you ok?” She seemed startled by my question, and gave a flustered response – “Yes, sorry, yes, I’m fine, I’ve just had a bad day.” I continued to ask her whether she wanted some water or a tissue to which she said “no, thank you” as she already had some. I thought I’d give her some passing advice and said, with regards to her crying, “It’s better to let it all out than keep it bottled up.” She smiled at me in gratitude and for the remaining stops of her journey on the tube that morning, she kept on smiling to herself and had stopped crying. She thanked me shyly before she left the train.

What this situation made me realise was that sometimes, it’s enough to just let people know you care by asking them if they are ok. It’s a simple and very overlooked question because it’s become so integrated in our casual greeting, “Hey, morning, you ok?” to which the automatic response is “yeah I’m good thanks”. But asked in the right way, it can show the other person how much you really care. In this case, I feel that me asking the woman about how she is when I was nothing but a stranger to her, made a difference. I know that, were it reversed, I would have appreciated somebody else’s concern incredibly. It just gives you the hope that you are not alone and there is help to be offered. It also helps us humanise the busy commuters around us, who we subconsciously ignore in our morning hustle, and if everyone did the same, we would all be more connected as a population.

There have been a few times when I have ended up breaking down on the tube and on the bus, crying uncontrollably. Despite the people around me noticing, nobody asked me if I was ok. I don’t blame them because we often fear the shame of being awkward so much that we forget to do what is more important. When I was having a breakdown, a simple “are you ok?” may have made a lot of difference. Sometimes I forget that I am not alone, sometimes I feel as though there is no one to help me. But a simple reassurance from a fellow human being is enough to make a difference.

So let’s make that change. Overcome the awkwardness, and ask that question.

Anxiety, Medicine, Mental Health, Stigma

Am I Insane?

I ask myself over and over again, “Am I insane? Am I crazy? Am I unstable?” As strange as it sounds, I am haunted by myself. The thoughts that run like obsessions through my mind and my gradual estrangement from ‘normality’ make me question my sanity. I often scare myself so much so that I cower away in the corner of my room and keep repeating to myself prescriptively “I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m normal, I’m ok,” rocking back and forth as comfort, in my attempt to convince myself that I am not insane. Counterproductive? Maybe.

There are a few reasons why I often feel as if I’m going insane. The first has to be my constant struggles with suicidal thoughts. Every day, they creep up on me insidiously, especially when I am alone, and they keep getting stronger and stronger, until they develop into well-thought out plans. The temptation to implement the plans becomes unavoidable, and just as I am about to do it, I stop. I re-think and play devil’s advocate. I think about my family and friends. I think about the knock-on effects. I step back. Then it happens all over again, like a video on repeat.

The thoughts and planning tire me out so much, that I feel completely exhausted. It’s as if I am constantly fighting myself, and it takes its toll. It disrupts my normal concentration, I always feel drowsy and weak, and my motivation drops even more than it’s normally low level. Often after these episodes, when I just about avert the implementation of my suicidal ideation, I break down completely.

With severe depression and anxiety also comes increased irritability and mood swings. I often lash out at the people closest to me, for the smallest reasons. I may say some hurtful things without thinking, and I immediately regret doing so. I apologise, but we can never take our words back, and I feel even more angry at myself for being so incompetent. I just feel as if I am no longer in control of myself. I don’t know how I will react, I don’t know where my thoughts will take me, I can’t do anything that anyone expects of me, I can’t even predict if I’ll still be around a few hours later, or if I’ll end up taking my life before then.

Although not as bad as some sufferers, I have had brief episodes of auditory and visual psychosis in the past which terrified me and made me more convinced that I had essentially ‘gone mad’. It’s scary because sometimes I no longer know if something is real or if I’m just imagining it. This haunts me for sure.

What doesn’t help is also being made to feel alienated because of my mental health. I don’t like being branded or being treated differently, because it makes me feel abnormal. The stigma in society relating to mental health problems is what fuels this alienation. I am lucky to have friends who do their best to treat me like myself whilst being sensitive at the same time. It makes a massive difference to not be shunned but understood. But of course, not everyone is like that. My friends are all medical students which make them naturally compassionate and understanding compared to the rest of the population.

Today, I was at my Medical Ethics and Law lecture on the Mental Health Act 1983, and we were taught that patients with ‘mental disorders’, such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, etc, are not to be considered competent of making their own medical decisions, and may need to be ‘sectioned’ if they are deemed to be inappropriately refusing treatment. Reading this made me feel as if I was an incapable outcast. Although I am depressed and anxious, I would always want to have the right to decide what happens to me, even if it doesn’t quite synchronise with the widely accepted definition of ‘my best interests’. I strongly feel that should I be in the position where I need to make a medical decision for myself, I am able to understand both sides, know the consequences of my actions and am prepared to take any risks with either opting or refusing certain treatment. Basically, I still have competence. To be stripped of that right simply because of my mental health state seems wrong to me.

Maybe I am insane. Or maybe we should re-define insanity.

 

Please note: If you are feeling low or thinking about suicide, please contact the Samaritans helpline on 116 123. They are open at all times and are there to listen.

Anxiety, Medical school, Medicine, Mental Health, Reality, Stigma, Stress

First impressions of CBT

A few months ago, I was referred by my GP to the IAPT service which provides talking therapy for patients suffering from depression, anxiety and severe sleeping disturbances (I suffer from all three unfortunately). After telephonic assessment in August, I was deemed suitable to receive Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which is aimed at altering the way people think in order to prevent harmful behaviour or distressing physical symptoms. Yesterday was my first appointment, and to be honest, I was quite nervous about the experience, despite having had 8 counselling sessions at my university already. I was also quite cynical of CBT because of some negative feedback I’d heard from people, so it took quite a lot of motivation for me to give it a try. My main rationale for trying CBT was that I couldn’t get any worse than I was now, so there would be no harm in trying, and  even if there was the smallest possibility that my quality of life could improve and I could potentially stop my continual suicidal thoughts, it was worth a try.

Just to give you a bit of background, I was formally diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety in March this year. I also suffer from insomnia and regular nightmares which often wake me up in sweats. I was prescribed Sertraline in March – a form of SSRI anti-depressant – and even after six months on the maximum dose possible, my condition did not improve but worsened*. Recently, I have been started on a different type of antidepressant, an SNRI, called Venlafaxine, but it is too early days to know how efficient it has been. It is only understandable however that despite my efforts, and medication and counselling, I wasn’t getting better. So when I received a phone call last week to arrange an appointment, I was kind of relieved that there were still other things left for me to try.

It took me about an hour to find the right place yesterday for my CBT appointment. It was in the most inconspicuous location with poor accessibility and getting lost in the dark only made me more anxious. I don’t know if it was this hospital in particular or if this applies to all mental health hospitals, but it was really difficult to find (despite my usual poor navigation skills!). I suppose it may be intentional so that patients don’t feel embarrassed walking inside for fear of stigma from the general public who may see them walking in. Once I did go inside the building, I felt like I was inside one of the really old hospitals they show you in horror movies. I took a photo which you can see at the top of this post, but it was terrifying to walk inside. I could not see anyone around, the ‘reception’ was closed off with newspaper coverings all over the window, the lighting was eerily dim, the signboards were out-of-date and I was lost once again. After walking around for ages, often just going around in circles, I managed to find somebody in the hospital who was kind enough to direct me to the right place. However, I have to point out that more needs to be done to improve the aesthetics of mental health departments and hospitals, especially because the patients going in are already in a very anxious state of mind, and as research has shown, environments can influence heavily on the mental health of people. I feel that the poor state of mental health departments is a consequence of the severe lack of funding towards mental health by the government. I strongly feel that this MUST be addressed.

On the other hand, after meeting my therapist, I have to say that I was made to feel extremely comfortable. She had a spark in her which made me feel as if things could get better for me, and she reassured me that she would work through my problems with me throughout the forthcoming sessions. I found her to be extremely helpful and caring and I really do look forward to our sessions in the future. Yesterday was an assessment and summary of how things were going to work, and I will see her again for a formal session in 2 weeks’ time. Maybe things will change for the better, we just have to wait and see.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment as I would love to hear them!

* Please note: Just because an anti-depressant did not work for one individual does not mean it will not work for another. Everyone is different and often it is a ‘trial and improvement’ process. My mother has been on low dose Sertraline for her depression and anxiety and it has worked wonders for her, whereas it has had little effect on me. 

Anxiety, Mental Health, Reality

To trust or not to trust? 

For the past few years of my life, I have struggled greatly when determining who I can trust and who I cannot. From a young age I was taught the basic, “don’t trust strangers”, and yet I’ve found myself to be most able to communicate with my counsellor, who is essentially a stranger to me. I still don’t know a single thing about her, but she knows my deepest darkest secrets. I value her advice more than the advice of pretty much anyone else. And I definitely trust her. 

Earlier today, a middle aged woman approached me outside Subway and begged me to buy her a sandwich saying she was starving. I had no change on me and I really felt sorry for her so I agreed. I told her to select her subway sandwich whilst I waited away from the queue. She chose her sandwich fillings and once it was time to pay, she turned around and asked me to make the payment, and I did, whilst she thanked me and hurried away with her food. I wonder now – what if I’d walked away just before the payment? How did she trust me to keep my word? How did I know whether she was lying about not having any money for food? We were complete strangers to each other. But there was definitely an ounce of trust between us. 

A similar situation occurred with me a couple of days ago. I left for the gym with my car and parked inside a shopping mall car park. I thought I had my purse with me, but when I felt in my pocket for my purse, it was empty. I started to panic because without any money, I wouldn’t be able to pay for my parking ticket and I wouldn’t be able to leave the shopping mall. I called home and nobody could find my purse. I thought I’d lost it somehow and I was distraught. I was at the payment meter and there was an elderly couple who were paying for their parking ticket. I turned to them and told them how I had lost my purse and couldn’t pay for my parking. They nodded their heads and took one look at me then asked how much money it was that I’d needed. They gave me the £1.50 I asked for and left. I was incredibly grateful at the time, but I do wonder now how they knew they could believe me. It really fascinates me.

On the other hand, I’ve had some very negative experiences with trusting friends and family. In the past, I made the mistake of trusting a couple of friends with some personal information that I did not wish to be divulged. I thought they could be trusted because they had also supposedly told me some of their secrets. However, the moment that our friendship had turned sour as a result of a disagreement, it didn’t take them a second to divulge my secrets to other people, which I had told them in confidence. Similarly, I’ve experienced a betrayal of trust when a close family member of mine made a fool of me by making me think they were telling me the truth, when in actual fact they had been lying to me for a few years. So is it always true that we can’t trust strangers? Sometimes the most deceptive people are those closest to us – similar to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. 

I spoke to my counsellor recently with regards to my challenge in knowing if I can trust my friends. A useful piece of advice she gave me was that it’s a good idea to test a friendship by telling them a very non-serious/false secret and over time observing whether they end up breaking their word to you. If they don’t, it’s a good indication that they can be trusted. 

Remember however, everybody lies. As cynical as it may seem, there is probably no one you can completely trust, but we must bear that risk of betrayal in all our relationships whilst trying to minimise the possibility. It’s easy to break someone’s trust, but it’s a hell of a difficult job to rebuild it. 

Anxiety, Mental Health, Sexual abuse, Stigma

#MeToo

Sexual abuse and rape are difficult topics to talk about even today. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard some inspirational stories of celebrities who have suffered some form of sexual abuse, and the #metoo hashtag has helped many other victims all over the world to open up about their experiences too. For me, it highlighted just how many people had kept quiet about their ordeals, owing to the huge stigma associated with opening up. Infuriatingly, it is often more difficult for the victims to deal with the aftermath of disclosing their stories than the perpetrators themselves. And this is what fuels the horrendous stigma, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

I thought I would also take this opportunity to tell everyone my story. I too, like many others, have always feared opening up in case I am judged or treated differently. But I don’t think that matters to me anymore. 

I was sexually abused for about 2 years by a distant family member from the age of 9. He was a much elderly individual – I saw him as someone who would be my grandfather’s age at least. It started from the first time my family and I went to his house. I was wearing a cute blue T-shirt with pictures of ice-cream all over it, and of course I was wearing my faded blue jeans with gems at the pocket seams because they were my favourite. I was a bit of a chubby 9-year-old but was not yet pubescent. I was also extremely naive and innocent – I didn’t know anything about sex – I was more preoccupied with making pretty friendship bracelets and getting myself ahead in advanced algebra. 

We all had some tea in the living room after which everyone but myself and this relative left the room to help prepare food in the kitchen. He called me to sit on his lap and asked me to sing a song for him. I wasn’t really comfortable doing that but I’d always been taught to be obedient so I did as he said. After I finished the song, he praised me and started squeezing and kissing my cheeks. He proceeded to start biting my cheeks which hurt and I wanted to shout for help but I was so scared that I couldn’t speak. Whilst biting me, he started groping my breasts and I was silently crying and trying to escape but he was too strong. This continued for a few minutes until we could hear footsteps coming towards the room, which is when he finally let go of me. I was still crying and felt traumatised, and when my mum came in the room asking me what happened, I just didn’t know how to answer. He was laughing and smiling, prentending as if nothing happened. 

For the next two years, he kept finding opportunities where he could get me alone and abused me. A lot of people will ask – well, why didn’t you just tell someone? And believe me, I hated myself for a long time because I asked myself that. It’s a lot harder than you think. Especially when you’re a 9-year-old and you’re taught to always listen to your elders and that your elders are always right so you should never question them. I was really confused about what was happening. I knew what he was doing was not right and I was traumatised from the inside out. From that first time he abused me, I felt as if my childhood had been snatched away. I had trouble sleeping at night, I was always paranoid and scared that he would find me during the day. If I did get some sleep at night, it would be filled with nightmares. And my bad sleep started affecting my health to the point that I started getting severe migraines. I lost a lot of weight because I’d lost my appetite, and soon I started fainting due to severe low blood pressure owing to not eating. 

When my parents eventually found out about this, they were devastated and they stopped going to his house and stopped him from coming to ours. My dad spoke to him in private, and I’m guessing some strong words were exchanged, but I still don’t know what he said. However, my parents never reported him to the police. Although we stopped meeting him for a while, about 5 years later everyone acted as if nothing had happened and we resumed going back to his house. By this point, I was mature enough to stand my ground and thankfully, he didn’t have the courage to abuse me again. But what no one realised was that the damage had been done.

A lot of people think that victims of abuse can completely get over their experiences with time, but unfortunately that is not true. We get better at coping, but it’s something that ends up staying with us. As of a couple of years ago, I thought I’d recovered from the trauma of the abuse, but apparently I still haven’t. Since then, I have found it very difficult to make physical contact with people, and often when I’m hugged by others, I experience a feeling of suffocation and acute anxiety. I always need people around me to be at a certain distance and if they get any closer, I start panicking. I have mild claustrophobia too, and whenever I am in a situation I don’t like (e.g. in a boring teaching session) I get panic attacks. 

I am now receiving therapy to help me cope with my anxiety and I really think that it’s helping me. The point I wanted to raise by sharing my story is that it’s ok to talk and there is no shame in it. It is too often the case that victims are shamed more so than their perpetrators which discourages people from speaking out. But we can overcome this by raising awareness and telling people that it is NOT ok to shame us. We may be wounded but we are anything but weak.