A common problem when discussing men’s mental health is that men are not generally encouraged to talk about their feelings, not to be so sensitive and just to ‘suck it up.’
I would like to extend this issue to successful women. The great, the good and the beautiful. The go-getters. The ones who want to climb to the top. Maybe because women are encouraged to act like men if they want to make it to the said top?
I don’t know. In any case, this culture is very much present in the world of women who want to claim success on their chosen field. At least it was in mine. I was one of them.
I have been described as a go-getter. At one point I thought of it as a compliment. Not anymore.
Journalism isn’t a field for the faint of heart or stomach. You have to deal with a lot of grim stuff: Inquests, fatalities, obituaries and death knocks just to name a few. I wrote an obituary about a man who had only been dead for two days, speaking to his newly widowed wife and daughter. I was the first reporter on the scene of a fatal fire and interviewed traumatised people who had dived through the flames to save that person’s life and how that person was still breathing when taken into an ambulance.
You cannot get emotionally involved. You WILL NOT get emotionally involved. Because the fact that I get upset doesn’t help anyone. My job is to write the story accurately, fairly and in the next available edition. This is how I do my best to celebrate the lives of those who have passed and make justice to those who have been wronged. I can’t do that if I get overwhelmed by something I hear or see. Crumble all you want when you get home but not when you’re doing the story.
I know that a lot of people don’t like journalists but I can assure you that many of them are just ordinary people doing their job, serving the concept of free press which is one of the cornerstones of civilisation as we know it.
Also people are horrible to you at times. You get yelled at for turning up at an inquest even though both the press and public are free to attend those in the UK to ensure that public bodies are held accountable, for writing about a trial just because the person who has been found guilty is embarrassed or for something they had said during an interview and later claim they didn’t.
I entered journalism with a dream of once being the first foreign female editor of a major British newspaper. I was able to separate my emotions from the stories I wrote and to pass the complaint to a more senior reporter like you’re supposed to.
You see, I wanted to be a high-flyer. I wanted to be the great, the good and the beautiful. One of those women with balls of steel and impeccable makeup. Who holds every string tightly at the palm of her hand 24/7. The one who ends up having a feature written about them in a glossy magazine under headline ‘How DOES she do it?’
I thought I wanted to be a high-flyer because at the time I thought that my accomplishments were my only measurement as a human being. If I accomplished a lot and people were in awe of it, I was good and not ruined by experiences I was too terrified to then even consider thinking about.
I was an outfielder. I’m a second language speaker with a weird surname. I had to prove myself even harder. Work even harder to show a future employer what I’m made of. I had the language thing against me, as well as the fact that I’m dyspraxic. I can’t even tie my shoelaces. It’s fine, high heels don’t have laces.
I threw myself into my studies. My second year of university was the worst year of my life but I still made the honour roll. I had As coming in from doors and windows and all I wanted was someone to run over me with their car. As I fought to keep my head together and make it to the next day, the person who told me he loved me was slowly but surely ripping my personality and sense of reality apart.
I remember thinking: This isn’t going to affect anything. Whatever ‘this’ was. I’m going to do well nevertheless. And I did on the outside but on the inside I was of the heart that beat too quickly, breathing that was too shallow and of unimaginable pressure from all directions that made my laughter disjointed and the fits of hysterical crying in the bathroom an increasingly regular occurrence.
I spent days crafting applications for traineeships that rejected me outright. I was the only applicant out of my all born-British course mates on my journalism training who wasn’t invited to a job interview. My makeup became my armour. As long as everything looked flawless on the surface, everything was fine. I would get my stories back from tutors and rip them. I would listen to my course mates planning how they’d travel to their interviews together and when alone I couldn’t stop crying.
Crying became something that I hated doing but couldn’t stop doing. I’d burst into tears when stressed out, what I was constantly. At worst it would be a couple of minutes of hysterical crying at a bathroom stall with some tissue paper in my mouth. Then I would smack myself so hard across the face that you could see the red mark even under foundation. Stop crying you fucking baby! Then I would draw breath, wipe away the tears, fix my makeup and head back to the ring. Because you get nothing by being too sensitive. When you get knocked down, you get back up again. You never give up.
Nine people were interviewed for my first job.
I was a saucepan on a hob that is filled with water. On the outside everything is of steel, hard and shiny but under the lid the pressure is forming. You can ignore it but under the lid it’s building up quietly, slowly but surely. As it reaches boiling point, the lid is going to start rattling. Make a sound to say that something is off. The lid was my hands that haven’t stopped trembling to this day. If the lid isn’t taken off and the pressure removes it, the boiling, hissing and scorching contents are spat at everyone and everything in sight.
As I was getting ill, I’d spend hours obsessing over the stories I’d written, stressing out about whether I had made a mistake, was that woman’s name spelled Marjorie or Marjory. When I’d finally fall asleep I’d dream of work and wake up exhausted. Then I stopped sleeping altogether, only getting an hour in at a time if that. I kept failing my shorthand exam but refused to give up. I retook it about twenty times at several cities across several months but I finally passed. Despite the fact that English is my second language. Despite that by its very nature my dyspraxia makes symbols and I sworn enemies. Once I got the results I physically could not stop crying.
But you keep on trying. You keep on trucking! You push yourself, stretch further and further until there’s only blind whiteness and a vague hope that your leap was long enough to reach the other side. My body was sending out mental and physical emergency signals and I took them for weakness. So what do you do? You try harder! You call up a doctor and get it sorted! This is not an obstacle, a mere speed bump. Give me pills god damn it, I need them!
I started my first meds. I kept throwing up but stayed at work. I drank gallons of coffee because I wasn’t sleeping for two solid hours a night only to immediately throw it back up again. I’d run to the bathroom and just get back to my desk like nothing had happened. I had to be careful when getting up because my head was so light. I was so jumpy that I’d freak out if somebody sneezed. I was a violin string tuned too tight. You could still get a sound out of it but it was an ugly, desperate wail.
Finally I couldn’t even keep water in and I felt like a dying animal in a desert but the mercilessly blazing sun was inside my head. It’s an awfully long day when you wake up at 3am. I’d be covering a council meeting with bile in my throat and the second that concluded the meeting was also the second the pen fell off my hand and I scrambled into the bathroom.
It doesn’t stop, it never stops. It’s just one incredibly long day filled with tasks that are becoming more and more difficult to understand why is everyone speaking so quietly speak up I can’t hear you oh god everything is hurting how is it possible to hurt this much I’m so tired why can’t I sleep why do I keep waking up it’s never going to stop I want to die I fucking want to die!
Once I was hospitalised, I was underweight, my face was riddled with acne and I would convulse for hours for reasons the nurses couldn’t explain. Now my face has cleared, I’ve gained weight and the convulses have stopped. I thought my skin problems were the result of a wheat allergy. Only my trembles are left as a reminder of the saucepan lid.
Once I was given a sleeping medication that worked and I slept through the night for the first time in months, I was too exhausted to cry properly with relief.
Perfectionism is often considered an admirable quality. It’s not. You want things to be perfect and they never will be. Go-getters are lauded but they are not really human. They aren’t allowed to be.
I no longer want to be a high-flyer.
I just want to be well again.