cour·age [kur-ij, kuhr-] noun
1. the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear
2. Obsolete: the heart as the source of emotion.
Too often courage in today’s society relates only to people who carry a wounded soldier 14km across a raging battlefield or the plucky police officer who takes on a group of terrorists that have taken a high-rise hostage on Christmas Eve.
The smaller acts of bravery people undertake on a day-to-day basis are rarely, if ever, celebrated; the individual who goes six months without self-harming in spite of the desire to do so, the single mother raising two children whilst the Government pushes her further into poverty to ensure their re-election or the agoraphobic who walks to the supermarket to purchase a packet of licorice allsorts.
Unless their courage leads to financial gain or momentary fame, it is considered unimportant.
For the last four years I’ve lived alone, my life governed by social anxiety and ruled by Queen Kathy, who constantly drags me kicking and screaming into the abuse I received half a decade ago. The trauma created from this abuse led to insomnia, a deep distrust of humanity, a complete inability to engage with society, near permanent psychosis and annihilated my sense of self to the point I’ve had no idea who I am for over five years.
It led to years of homelessness, social isolation, (at times) daily self-harm and suicide attempts. But rather than focus on the courage I’ve showed – battling severe depression and glandular fever to get into a college course, overcoming anxiety to increase my social network, battling through three years on the street to get accommodation – society focuses only on my failures; the fact I am ‘lazy’ because I’m unemployed, ‘selfish’ because I became suicidal, an ‘alcoholic drug addict’ because I’m homeless, a ‘bludger’ for existing on benefits.
After all I’ve been through it would be easy to slip into those stereotypical insults, but my desire to become who I know I could be, keeps pushing me ever forward. I may not succeed as much as those privileged enough to have gone to university or be part of a social network, but the courage I constantly show is something I feel I should be proud of.
Straight to the pool room
Last week, after nearly four years of being completely on my own, I attended three social functions. The first of which occurred on Tuesday courtesy of GT House, an organisation I mentioned last week.
After a courtesy reminder phone call (which I didn’t need as it had been on my mind all day/evening/night/morning) I showered, shaved and headed down the street to the pub we were supposed to meet in. Given my anxiety had been intense all morning the attack I suffered on the way was not unexpected and I did consider walking home with my tail between my legs.
But, twenty minutes of breathing exercises on the side of the road (where a kindly police officer stopped to ask if everything was okay; it was. This wasn’t my first public panic attack) sufficiently calmed me down so I could complete my journey, albeit arriving half an hour late.
There were about ten people in the group – all men aside from a GT House worker and a young student attending as part of her course – and for ninety minutes we played pool. Given there were only two tables we were playing in doubles so in the first hour I had approximately eight shots (about five minutes of table time) with the remaining fifty-five minutes standing nervously by myself whilst everyone else talked sport.
Regular readers of my blog will know I’m not an avid sports follower. Yes, I have an AFL team, but I chose this by throwing all the team names into a hat and drawing one out. When I randomly picked the team I was going to support I immediately put it back in the hat and drew another, but ended up drawing the same team, so figured fate was trying to tell me something. But even though I support a team I don’t really understand the rules (none of my girlfriends followed the sport, aside from the occasional game where they could ogle the tiny short wearing players, so I’ve never had anyone to explain it to me).
As for other sports; Rugby reminds me too much of my school PE lessons, hockey is something I’ve never had the opportunity to watch, fencing doesn’t receive any airplay, cycling is fun to do but boring to watch, I’m too distracted by the sexy posteriors involved in swimming to focus on the sportsmanship and snooker – the only sport I have any interest in – is considered too complicated for an Australian audience so we only ever hear of it when an Aussie wins, which isn’t very often!
Thus, I stood there, wondering why I was stupid enough to believe I would be able to socialize given it had been nearly four years since I’d last done any. Especially given the high ratio of men to women – the latter being a gender I have far more in common with and, in spite of my anxiety, find it easier to talk to.
After spectacularly missing every shot I took the group drew to a close and everyone went their separate ways. For the walk home I wondered how I had become such a terrible pool player; back in the day I used to be able to clear the table from a break! Yet that morning, I hadn’t sunk one ball.
To say the word failure was bouncing around my brain for the rest of the day would be an understatement. But, the simple fact was, I had still attended the event in spite of my anxiety!
“Qi” is a valid Scrabble word
The second group, again organized through GT House, was on Wednesday.
Although the anxiety was high, there was no panic attack on this occasion. The group is held in the library – a haven for me – so I felt safer there than I had in the pub. Plus, I adore Scrabble.
On my first word I scored twenty-five (with two letters); on my second word I scored thirty-five; on my third, twenty-one. On my fourth word I scored six and then hovered around that for the remainder of the game. Not because I couldn’t score any higher – I really, really, could – but because the people I was playing with hadn’t played much Scrabble before and it didn’t feel right to keep playing the kick ass awesome words that would have guaranteed me hundreds of points.
Instead, I came third, but the look on the winner’s face more than made up for this sacrifice.
Would it have been nice to win? Absolutely. It’s been so long since I’ve won anything I could have done with that burst of happy emotion, but I have no regrets about throwing the match to make someone else feel that happiness.
In fact, doing this stopped me from experiencing the feelings of failure that had overwhelmed me the day before.
Beware the Ives of Munch
The third – and most stressful – of the events I attended last week was the much mentioned social network gathering on Thursday evening.
To say this event consumed every waking (and sleeping) moment of thought last week would be an understatement. In fact, the anxiety I felt in the lead up to this event made the anxiety over the pool and scrabble groups feel like a tiny, insignificant mosquito bite.
Unlike those two groups this was not a ‘safe’ environment. There were no moderators, no trained professionals capable of dealing with mental health issues and should a panic attack occur, no-one to do anything but laugh and point. Throw in the fact it was the first time I’d been to a pub on my own since the night I was raped in 2007, I was positively terrified by what ‘could’ happen.
But, true to my courageous self, battling through half a dozen anxiety attacks on the walk to the pub, I managed to attend.
Walking into the bar all I could see were several youngsters in tiny outfits celebrating an eighteenth birthday. I was already half an hour late so approached the bar and ordered a coke from the beautiful women behind the bar (who was wearing a gorgeous teal shirt) and then stood there looking awkward.
From across the room a brunette woman met my gaze and we stared at each other for a few moments before I summoned the courage to find out if she was part of the gathering. Approaching the table I muttered “Are you…?”
“…part of the munch?” She finished with a smile.
Glad to know I wouldn’t be standing there like a guppy all evening, I slid onto the couch opposite this woman and begin talking. At first she led the conversation, but soon I was asking questions and offering opinions with a confidence I hadn’t expected. In retrospect, I think it was serendipitous that this gathering fell on the day my DSP approval came through. The high I’d been riding all afternoon bled into the evening and numbed the anxiety I was feeling, allowing me to communicate as confidently as I was.
After half an hour another person arrived, someone I can only describe as a stereotypical male. His gaze often drifted to the tiny outfitted youngsters who were buzzing around, his facial expression bringing to mind Jon Voight’s Oscar worthy leer from Anaconda.
The moment he sat next to me, my anxiety rocketed through the roof. Over the course of several minutes I found myself edging closer and closer to the arm of the sofa and my conversation dried up and became the random blurted lines I had expected from the beginning. At one point he suddenly slapped me on the back, an act that triggered a sudden flashback and nearly caused me to drop my coke (as I said, this was the first time I’d been in a bar without protection from a ‘friend’ since the night I was raped by a man!)
Now three of us, the conversation ducked and dived over various topics until a fourth person arrived about an hour later. The moment she did, the other woman left and shortly after she left, so did the man. The moment he left, I began drinking alcohol to calm my heightening anxiety.
One glass was all I needed – not having eaten anything all day – for my mind to become tipsy. On ordering a second glass I complimented the gorgeous bar woman on her gorgeous teal shirt (something I would never do whilst sober) and began oversharing with the remaining woman on a scale that would be best described as biblical. Mental health, homelessness, anxiety, unemployment…all the things I’d promised myself would not be brought up out in case they caused people to flee in fear, were vomited from my tipsy, anxious mind.
Three glasses later we left the pub and given I lived 5kms or so from the bar, she gave me a lift. Another drink at her place led to her looking up my blog and after an awkward hug where I froze more rigid than a rabbit in headlights, began the walk home.
There were no feelings of the failure that had raged after the pool group, or the euphoria of allowing someone else a moment of happiness as with Scrabble. I had enjoyed myself, but I couldn’t stop Queen Kathy whispering in my ear about how much I was kidding myself. Walking through the quiet, pitch black night, I wasn’t focused on my success but processing the emotions of the days gone and wondering what was going to happen next.
Had people liked me? Had I made a complete arse of myself? Was Kathy right? Should I just keep to my own safe isolation? Or should I continue making an effort to push for change?
The battle’s done, and we kinda won, so we sound our victory cheer…
Whether it’s arrogant or not to celebrate my courage of attending these groups, I don’t care. Beating back the anxiety and the safety of my isolation to re-engage with society was a huge achievement for me – even though it’s left me emotionally exhausted and added to my current unease over the changes that are happening in my life.
This week, I will be attending both the pool and scrabble groups again as well as a Hearing Voices group that is held on Friday morning. Already comments have been made on the social networking site about organizing another event within the next few weeks so it’s possible I will have something else to attend.
Over the years I’ve noticed the more I take on in one go, the more likely it is that I will collapse. As such I need to be careful not to throw myself in too deep. The pride I have of the courage I showed last week amounts to nothing if it pushes me back into a dysfunctional state, something I’ve already started to notice is happening.
But for now, I’m happy.
Happy that I still have courage in my heart; even if it is more of a mew than a roar.