I’ve been good at gathering evidence of my worthlessness throughout my life. At my first appointment with my new psychologist, she took one look at my answers to the test and asked me why I felt like I was so shit. And I thought, “Isn’t it obvious?”.
These thought patterns have recently manifested in some major anxiety and several panic attacks. So I’m spending a lot of energy at the moment analyzing why my brain focuses on the negative experiences and figuring out how to retrain it to notice and celebrate my worth.
The first time I had panic attack I was with my partner, in my own house. My children were with their Dad that day. Like any relatively new couple in an empty house, we had sex during the middle of the day like horny teenagers. Post-orgasm, my brain told me that I was not deserving of such pleasure; that I was a failure as a wife and mother and that I should be doing anything else that was remotely useful. But the most overwhelming feeling was the unshakable and petrifying feeling that my ex-husband would somehow come in and bust me. That he – true to form – would come back early to drop the kids off, and I would be found out.
Top that off with not knowing what a panic attack felt like or that I was indeed having one, and then the embarrassment having a panic attack after sex with a new partner, who you’re still mostly trying to hide your crazy from. So for a few terrible minutes I was trapped in a spiral of shame and fear. My heart was racing. I was breathing shallow, sweating and my hands were clasping and head shaking. You honestly feel like you are dying. All you want to do is curl up and die so you don’t have to feel that scared anymore.
But soon it was over and my partner was awesome and helped me out the other side without one iota of negative judgement. That all came from myself. From then on you have a little voice in the back of your head that reminds you that you could have a panic attack at any time. And that’s enough to induce one. It’s a vicious spiral. I’ve had quite a few more in the past four months or so. I had one in a shopping centre, and one at a friend’s birthday party. But mostly I have them before or after an interaction with my ex.
As a young woman, the person I most loved and who was supposed to be my biggest supporter in life actively sabotaged everything I set out to achieve. For 11 years, I strove to be the best most supportive wife. The more important my goal, the more excessive the sabotage attempts. I was asked time and again to drop everything and reinvent our lives to run from his burned bridges. And what better way to tell someone they are worthless than to prioritise yourself over them, over and over again. And now I’ve internalised that narcissistic treatment.
But it’s not all due to that relationship. Even as a child, I warped the attention my sister got for being a teenage rebel as evidence that even my best was not good enough. If only I could be better – amazing – then I would receive that same amount of desperate heart-wrenching parental attention. That’s why I’m so busy; why I put pressure on myself to achieve and why I am almost always close to burn-out. (I read Meshel Laurie’s book Buddhism for the Unbelievably Busy and made this realisation.)
About three weeks ago, I went to my GP. I told her I’d been having panic attacks and anxiety and I wanted to make them stop so I could work on the deeper root causes. She booked me into counseling and gave me medication.
Five days later, when I started twitching and sweating – startled out of sleep by fighting cats – we just assumed it was a panic attack. But the following night it came back with a vengeance. My body convulsed uncontrollably and I began to click my tongue and stretch my face. I felt terrified, but not in a panic attack way. My mind was clear, I just couldn’t control my body.
It turns out I am allergic to the medication my GP prescribed me. The effects took me to emergency and then left me bed-ridden for a week. Every muscle in my body had been tensed rapidly for hours on end. Muscles in my neck, around my ribs and in my jaw – muscles that I didn’t even know I had – ached. I couldn’t string a sentence together for the clicking of my tongue. It was exhausting.
Neither the paramedics, the ER staff, nor my GP had ever seen such a severe reaction. My symptoms were that of an overdose, but I had only taken the drug as prescribed, not downed the whole box.
The most ironic thing was that I had no less than three panic attacks during my nine-hour stay in the ER. My neighbour on the ward was a man who had been involved in drug and/or alcohol-fuelled violence and my constant tongue-clicking got on his nerves. Trust me, it was completely annoying. His solution was to scream expletives and threaten me with physical violence should I not shut up. I couldn’t shut up. I wished I would. But I was just a noise to him, just a thing to be eradicated. Worthless.
The doctors directed their comments about my condition to my “husband” (he’s not my husband) instead of to me, despite the fact that I was lucid and able to comprehend decisions about my own care (in between the spasms of course). An interesting contrast to when we were in ER last time (my partner had severe headaches for weeks on end – turned out to be a virus), when they continued to talk directly to him despite the fact that he had indicated they should talk to me because he was hard of hearing. I get it. Worthless.
At first they didn’t believe us when we told them I was having a panic attack, because it looks pretty much the same as the spassaming I was already doing. They only moved me after a doctor actually overheard the man threatening me. But note they moved me, not him. I was the problem, the cause. I needed to be removed, because I am worth less than that horrible man.
So to answer my psychologist, I know why I think I’m shit. Because every day things happen that remind me I am worth less than others, or outright worthless (see my blog post about encounters with dickhead strangers). Even in a panic attack during a medical emergency induced by the medication I took to control the panic attacks I felt like I didn’t matter.
In my brain, even one of those experiences far outweigh all the tiny positive things that happen. But no one can say I didn’t try in my past relationship. No one can say I don’t deserve to be happy. No one can say I’m not worth loving. Even me. Especially me.
I still say ‘why would you?’ in my head when my partner tells me he loves me. At least now I’m aware of that thinking pattern. I flag it straight away and I say out loud, “Of course, you do, I’m awesome,” and we have a laugh. I have to actively remind myself that I have a loving partner, a close and supportive family, many wonderful friends, two awesome kids, a house to live in, fulfilling work to do, and creative things I make and write which people love. My life is fucking awesome right now.
Don’t worry, I do know I’m not shit. Unfortunately it’s not easy to re-train your brain after a lifetime of telling yourself you’re worth nothing. But I’m up for the challenge. After all, I’m worth it.