On December 23rd, it will be two years since I wrote to a counsellor and said “I’m not happy.” Since then, I’ve seen Jo pretty much once a week for fifty minutes at a time.
I’m not going to lie. It’s not been easy. As someone who spent 33 years of his life not talking about myself – not really anyway – I almost resented it. I dodged some appointments, dreading it. I was combative with her; closed. I wanted her to drive the conversation and ask all the questions – I had to plan what I was going to say on the car drive over, panicking that I had nothing.
But the fact remained that on some level I knew I was hurting, that something was pretty wrong – that for some unknown or specious reason, I was unhappy, and had no way of identifying or fixing it on my own. I knew I’d be resistant to the experience, so I set up an obligation. I’d go and see her, because otherwise I’d disappoint her.
As time went by, this experience didn’t change – I’d be stand-offish, double-guessing every suggestion of hers, trying to out-silence her. No progress, no openness, nothing. Sure, I shared some big news pieces with her, frustrations etc. but it was all just something to get done and get over with.
Then, in November last year, something clicked. I stumbled on a topic that was so emotive that I realized I had to talk about it – but it was five minutes from the end of the session, and there was no time left. So I resolved to talk about it next time – and said as much in the session. Another obligation.
The next week I was totally different – trying desperately to hold back the tears as I relayed the story of a trauma I went through a year and a half earlier. That I talked about it a month after being made redundant from my job of the time was probably no coincidence – I was opening up emotionally, letting the deep, negative feelings out finally, revealing the seething mess I am underneath to someone I know nothing much more than the name of.
Since then, I’ve made a little progress – certainly in dealing with her, or relating to her, as Jo puts it. I go to sessions willingly, and I even walk through the door and up those stairs without a clue what to say. But there always is. And there’s so much more work to do – I feel like I’ve broken a lot of eggs, but I’m still a dozen or two off starting to make an omelette.
I’ve realised that for the longest time I’ve been lonely – even when surrounded by people, I can feel so very alone – and that my self-esteem has hit rock-bottom, and has actually been there for a long, long time. There has been an undercurrent of negative feeling about myself throughout my life, but a lack of introspection, an uncanny ability to compartmentalize and a huge focus on the happiness of others (at the expense of my own) has covered that up.
Ironically, that last point – selflessness – has led me to be selfish, to cover up my feelings with those I care for and love for fear of darkening their lives, and perhaps to cause them to reject me. My very inability to relate to them, to share myself and my vulnerability, has led to them distancing themselves from me, and ultimately contributing to the very rejection I was desperate to avoid.
The thing that I’m only coming to realize – and just starting out on accepting – is that it’s OK to feel bad. It’s OK to reveal your feelings to others. If I have something negative to share with someone and they react poorly – that’s their reaction to own. And telling others how I feel – to share my vulnerability – brings me closer to them; I get just a little closer to feeling accepted by them, warts and all.
And that’s where community comes in too. When I wrote about loneliness earlier this year, my fellow PHPers stepped up. They shared their own stories and fears, and I came to start to feel like perhaps I have another family. A group of people just like me, people with fears, self esteem issues and things weighing on their minds other than backwards compatibility issues and whether you should use static methods or not. I got offers of friendship, offers to go out, to visit other countries – and just a small part of me started opening up to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I’m not alone.
So, this Christmas, whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Pastafarian, please take some time to check in with those you like to spend time with – go to your local user group, take your colleagues out for a meal, even make new friends – and maybe share a little bit about yourself.
You never know, you might just feel a tiny bit happier.