~ Trigger warning ~
This post contains short discussions of self-harm.
Please exercise caution if you find such content triggering.
Under normal circumstances, it takes me approximately thirty minutes to cycle from my home to central Albury. On Friday, as I headed to the local Hearing Voices Support Group for the first time, it took me nearly an hour!
The reason for this duration was not because I was just a bit slow, nor was it because I had a flat tire or other mechanical issue, it was because half-way there I panicked, freaked out and turned back. After chastising myself I spun the bike back toward Albury only to find myself doing another U-turn a few minutes later. After performing two further U-turns, all to the amusement of passing cars, I threw myself onto the side of the road and lit up a cigarette.
I was a grown man terrified by the thought of sitting in a room with a group of strangers. The fact that they shared similar problems to myself (and thus would be nowhere near as judgmental as those with no experience of hearing voices) was irrelevant; my anxiety was firmly in control.
No matter how much I wanted to get to the group, my mind wouldn’t let me. The same arguments that had sabotaged my attendance since first learning of the group last October were back in force. Being around other people is just too damned hard, it makes me vulnerable, open to attack, abuse and ridicule; it’s just safer to be on my own. They would all think I was crazy anyway, a complete lunatic who spends hours upon hours locked away in isolated solitude conversing with imaginary voices, apparitions who resemble faerie dominatrixes in medieval inspired gothic dresses. My mere attendance at the group would render myself a laughing-stock, someone who would be unable to walk down the street without being recognized as the resident crazy person, someone who would be forced to leave the area to circumnavigate the guaranteed abuse that would follow.
As my thoughts swirled to hurricane strength, the voices increased in volume, rendering me motionless for nearly fifteen minutes; unable to continue on to Albury or return home with my tail between my legs. However pathetic it may sound, I could see only one option to break the vicious cycle my mind was falling into. Flicking my lighter on, I allowed the flame to flicker until the metal had heated up and then pressed it firmly against my calves. The pain was immediate and pulled me quickly from the chaos in my mind. For several minutes I sat on the side of the road, shielded by trees, burning my already marked calves until my brain had pulled away from the irrational fears of my anxiety and was focused purely on the distracting pain.
Slowly, I picked myself up and sat back down on the bike. With several deep breaths I cycled off in the direction of Albury, determined that this time my anxiety would not beat me.
My worst nightmare…
Within ten minutes of being at the group, my voices were quick to point out that I should have gone home. Although I don’t agree with them all the time, on this occasion they were absolutely correct, for I had found myself trapped in my worst nightmare.
As a ‘warm-up’ to the group, the leaders decided we should play a game. We all had to stand up from our chairs, one of which was removed from the circle, leaving the group leader without anywhere to sit. Standing in the middle of the circle she then made a ‘have you ever…’ statement, to which anyone who had undertaken the act described in her statement had to swap chairs with someone else who had undertaken the act. Because a chair had been sacrificed, this meant someone was left in the middle of the circle and this someone had to make a ‘have you ever…’ statement of their own.
Now, for those catching up, I suffer from social anxiety:
So, standing in the middle of a circle of a dozen strangers, all staring, all making sub-conscious judgments about this new person who had invaded their group, all deciding I was a pointless imbecile, is easily one of the most anxiety inducing nightmares I can think of. In fact, the only thing that would have made it worse would have been nudity!
After two incidents of being trapped in the center of the circle I refused to stand up again. Even when the questions were have you ever cooked spaghetti bolognaise (I make a damned good spag-bol), have you ever worn high heels (several times courtesy of drama productions) and have you ever dyed your hair (well yes, thanks to random irrational decision-making).
To make matters worse, the final question asked caused every single person to stand up, leaving me the only person who had never done what the person had asked. Under normal circumstances, fine, but when the question was have you ever completed year 12 (for those outside of Australia, year 12 is the final year of high school) it left me realizing that everyone in that room saw me as the only uneducated person in the group. Whereas in reality I didn’t attend high school in Australia so never technically completed year 12 – I completed the UK equivalent which were A-Levels, and in essence, an entirely different thing.
When the game finally ended I felt well and truly embarrassed and began to wish I’d never attended.
Sorry, I can’t…
After being ritually humiliated the group commenced proper. For about an hour we moved around the group allowing everyone to fill in the details of their week; how they’d felt, any issues that had arisen, how they’d coped with things, what they’d been doing. I listened as intently as I could (I’ve always considered myself a good listener) but because of the panic attacks on the way to the group and the anxiety I’d felt during the warm-up game, my voices had used this vulnerability to penetrate my mind. So as well as listening to everyone in the room, I was also listening to the party of voices in my head, which only served to exhaust and frustrate me.
When it came to my turn I muttered something about not feeling comfortable enough to share anything because it was my first group, apologized for this, and then spent the next forty-five minutes feeling rather worthless.
So far I had presented myself as a mute sweat monster (courtesy of the heat and bicycle ride) that had never cooked spag-bol, never worn high heels and never finished high school.
What a fantastic first impression!
When we broke for a short break I walked away from the building, found a shaded spot, lit a cigarette and spent fifteen minutes having hushed conversations with my hallucinations; all of whom love it when I’m so vulnerable and humiliated as it gives them easy access to demean me and encourage my (negative) thinking.
Much like the first half of the group, I said nothing throughout the second half.
We listened to an interview with someone who talked about visual hallucinations before the group had a short discussion about what we had heard. Because of the poor quality of the sound, even if I had wanted to take part in the discussion, I hadn’t been able to digest the interview enough to form an opinion; thus cementing the view that I was indeed a mute idiot sweat monster.
My worst nightmare, reprise…
Fortunately the warm-down game we played at the end of the group didn’t involve me standing in the middle of a circle of strangers. For a few moments we tossed a ball around the group in a set pattern. On the third cycle of the pattern, when you caught the ball, you had to share what you had learnt throughout that group. When the ball landed in my hands I mumbled something about how “glad I was that I had managed to summon the confidence to come to the group for the first time” and then quickly launched the ball to someone else.
Given that I’d expected a roar of laughter (thanks, social anxiety!) I will say that the ripple of applause that came after I made that statement surprised me a little and made me feel quite good :)
After the group…
Following the end of the group I spent an hour or so walking around Albury asking myself dozens of rhetorical questions.
Why am I so scared of talking to people? Why am I always so anxious? Why can’t I function as well as the rest of the group? Why do I sweat so grotesquely whenever the temperature reaches the mid to high thirties? Why am I unable to contribute to group discussions? Why can’t I just be someone who can talk, share and engage with other people? Why do I always let my anxiety win?
The simple fact is I don’t always let my anxiety win; despite the onset of panic and anxiety I had still pushed myself to attend the group, albeit with the aid of public self-harm. It would have been so simple to just go home and spend the day locked away in my isolated imprisonment or done a runner mid-way through the warm-up game. I was even able to recognize I wasn’t able to deal with sharing my story during this session and stated my inability to do so rather than ramble off on a tangent, which could have been even more embarrassing than what actually happened.
Yes, it would have been awesome to have made a sterling first impression rather than making everyone think I was a mute sweat monster.
Yes, it would have been wonderful to have been able to open up and engage with people.
But no matter how hard I am on myself (as I have frequently acknowledged in the past) the simple fact is I should be proud of my efforts to attend the group in the first place. Given that I have never publicly spoken of my hallucinations, even on this blog I’ve rarely written about them, I need to allow myself time to feel comfortable sharing them with others; even those who have had similar experiences.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Things I learned from the group this week:
- My voices understand that the Hearing Voices Support Group is all about them. Cue them coming out in force, kindof like a bunch of horny college students to a keg laden pool party!
- After leaving a support group, remember to remove your name badge before walking around a busy city.
- There are many awesome people in my region who hear voices, some of whom I would love to get to know better. Perchance some new friends?
- Cycling in full length jeans on a mid-high thirty degree day is not a good idea. But it’s better than wearing shorts and displaying your self-harm to the world.
- I didn’t die as a result of attending the group.
- I think leaving the area to negate the shame of being seen in public is a tad dramatic. For the time being, anyway! :p
Will the sweat monster make an even bigger fool of himself at the next meeting? Will he actually speak and dispel the belief that he’s mute? Will he have to stand in the middle of a circle again? Will he drop the ball during the warm-down game? How many times will he U-turn on the Lincoln Causeway?
All will be revealed next week when Addy continues with the Hearing Voices Support Group!