Below the Surface
[Photo: free image iStock_GOWIII_Texture.]
Alone in my dimmed room with just the glow of my salt lamp to my right, I sit and stare at the half-eaten bowl of soup in front of me and I just don’t have the appetite. It’s taken me 20 minutes to eat it so far and I’m forcing myself to eat something. And drink something. I just downed 3 glasses of water. I’m dehydrated and I have a headache. My eyes have dark circles around them and they are red and puffy. A stark contrast to the sassy Halloween selfie I posted on Twitter two days ago but this would have made for a more fitting Halloween look. I’ve been awake for almost 2 days straight and crying for about half of that, thanks to Ben.
But it’s a good thing. Really. And Ben is a really amazing guy who wrote an outstanding deeply emotional book and I just couldn’t put it down. I didn’t know it would affect me so personally when I started it. I’m not even military. I braced myself for some emotions but I wasn’t expecting to open my own God damn flood gates. And this isn’t a review of the book. It’s just my response to Ben’s book based on my own experiences. His book affected me on a level I try to keep covered but I’ve got all these emotions bubbling up on the surface and I don’t know how to handle that. So I’m pouring it out onto a blank page. I’ve seen this coming for a while.
The book itself touches on two soldiers who return home from deployments in Iraq and Kuwait. Josh has lost his leg, Mary is dealing with the loss of love and her controlling mother, friends are injured and killed and Ben takes you on a journey through their trauma, PTSD, suicide, veteran life and he creates a fantastic love story as well. From the moment you open the book you are captivated by the story and you will fall in love with the characters. You just need to read it.
I’ve pondered many a time about how to write about the trauma and loss in my own life without it being all negative and depressing.
I want it to be educational to help people.
“Blogging-It’s cathartic,” says an acquaintance on Facebook.
It’s certainly cheaper than a shrink. However, I don’t want to unleash two and a half decades of crap onto everyone but maybe once I pour all these things out then I can select and fine-tune events into other posts that might be helpful to others? But how do I touch on personal things without casting others in a bad light? (And potentially getting sued for slander in the process.) I need to approach everything with sensitivity and respect. How do you write that balance? How do I talk about my own mental health to a bunch of strangers?
I’ve been to therapy a few times.
I never really managed more than 6 sessions in Germany. I don’t know. Something about sharing all your personal crap to a stranger feels weird. I just can’t connect. I feel awkward.
Soooo awkward and uncomfortable. Christ, us Brits just don’t do therapy. That’s so American.
I don’t know what to say. I worry they will judge me. I worry that they will know what goes on in my head and then if I see them out in a social environment they will have that look and just be reading me or thinking “oh that one is a real fruit loop.” (Pineapple flavour please)
Or they’ll diagnose me with some awful condition or just look at me with pity. I hate that look. I’ve heard so many people, including my family, say “I feel sorry for you” and I hate it. I don’t want pity. And I don’t even want to inspire people with my sad stories.
“You’re so amazing to have gone through that.”
No. No, I’m not.
Others have done far more incredible things and survived worse fates than me. And they are the ones who create all the positive memes on Facebook that I share. They hold me up and remind me that actually I don’t have it so bad and it’s all in my head. I have all my limbs, fingers and toes.
I don’t want pity or praise. I just want someone to say, “I get it. I get you.” And leave it at that.
I want to inspire people with my writing, not with my tragic life events.
Can they be intertwined? Maybe.
I don’t want a sob story. Which is also why I don’t know how to write about it or if I should even show any of my fucking baggage to the real world. There’s enough depressing stuff out there and I don’t need to be adding to it. Simultaneously, once you put it out there, people can be mean, heartless and attack you for it and it can result in doors being slammed in your face or you being exploited and made into some martyr.
I like to have some privacy and protect the privacy and reputations of others as best I can. I’m not going to exploit my own experiences for my own gain.
I don’t want happy pills. I don’t think I need them. I’ve seen friends start on those and they’ve yet to come off them 10 years later. Some have crazy side effects and some pills wipe all emotion from you. You don’t feel the lows but you also don’t feel the highs, those good moments. I don’t want that. I don’t want to change the nice things about me. I don’t want people screwing with my mind.
I hate the idea of being dependent on or being controlled by something. I’ve never smoked, never done drugs. I’m a bit of a control freak.
The average waiting list for a shrink in Germany is about a year and you can’t be choosy about which one you get.
Unless you pay privately and you’re looking at 100 euros an hour. So as not to waste my appointments and hold other people up who need the appointments more than I do, I try to be as positive as possible in my sessions.
I tell the therapist what I think they want to hear and I’ve read a few psychology books so I have all the tools and apps, do my homework and convince myself I can sort myself out. So after a bit of a top-up I feel better and I stop going to therapy.
I’ve tried a couple of times here in Germany but honestly, talking about stuff in German is hard. I’ve been speaking German for about 20 years but I feel the therapists don’t really get me. I speak the language fluently but we’re not on the same emotional wavelength. And also there is a therapist for all kinds of cases and I don’t know which category I fit into. Just put me on the messed up pancake plate.
The therapists here grew up in Germany. They don’t know the references, the 80s / 90s Britain I grew up in and Germans are wired more ‘sachlich’ (matter-of-fact) than emotionally. I mean check out their children’s stories. There aren’t many happily ever afters. It’s “they died a horrifically gruesome death and that was that.” I was given 3 days’ compassionate leave when my dad died and German friends were asking why I was still upset about it a couple of months later. I was so angry at them and they were bored and annoyed with my sadness so sharply retorted that I should get over it and move on because it was a killjoy. I forgot grief has an expiry date. And they still have both sets of parents.
I just feel Germans don’t get me. How can they? I’m British. I’m also an Aquarius, a maladaptive daydreamer and am weird. I’m fluid and squishy. That is not “Quadratisch. Praktisch. Gut.” (1970’s Ritter Sport chocolate slogan.)
I found myself constantly explaining myself to the shrinks to try to get them to understand the reference or concept I was talking about which ended up taking longer and using up the precious 50 minutes. An hour is not an hour in Germany. It is 45 – 50 minutes. It was frustrating. We weren’t getting anywhere fast and I felt more harassed trying to leave work on time to make the appointments and colleagues would give snide comments about bunking off early because I look fine to them or just give me that filthy look. So I just stopped going.
I soldier on, repress stuff and try to think positive, surround myself with positive mantras and motivational speakers.
Now and then I have my weak moments like anyone though. For the majority of the time, I hold my shit together and am sparkly, positive and doing A-OK. But sometimes, things like the Alone in the Light book, knock me off my perch and I get a reality check of where I really am emotionally, under the surface.
Throughout school, I was always the overachiever, and yes, I make my bed every morning without fail
*rolls eyes and smirks.*
I strived to be perfect in everything. I wanted the perfect life, perfect school grades and to be just perfect so people would like me. So boys would like me. So employers would hire me. So my parents would be proud of me. I have 3 huge folders full of certificates, distinctions, prizes, merits for almost every award in the Arts subjects the school offered. And none of that is any good now. It hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Perfection doesn’t exist as I’ve found out and life throws curveballs to knock you off balance. And often, those curveballs are people. They don’t teach you about people and relationships at school.
I’ve often joked that my family is dysfunctional. Whose isn’t? Growing up I loved my parents but I feared my dad. I loved, hated and feared him. He was quick to anger. His temper was really short and just tripping over the dog would set him off in a rage. He just seemed to constantly be at boiling point. I don’t know why. He never spoke about it. In hindsight, I think, particularly in later life, he was in pain. He never went to the doctor about things.
He would shout at us kids and lose it. He’d pin my brother up against the wall and hit him for something he disliked. Only him though. My sister, younger brother and I were ok. I’d scream at him to stop or stand paralyzed in fear unsure of how far it would go. My heart racing and fear or fizzy pop coursing through my veins. Carbonated blood or something. Mouth dry. Dad didn’t hit me but I never trusted the “boys must never hit girls” rule in our house.
Sometimes rage does things to you that you can’t control. It’s a demon that takes over. It blindsights you and doesn’t allow you to think or act rationally.
Mum wasn’t always there to intervene. My dad was difficult to love. He never drank. Was T-Total. But he never showed his desires or dreams. Just showed us what pissed him off.
Dad either joked and laughed things off playing the fool or he’d be in a rage. There wasn’t really an in-between with him. Sometimes I think I barely even knew the real him. I think he told me he loved me a handful of times. That I can remember anyway. He worked a lot, he’d leave around 5 am and be home after 10 pm. I hardly saw him. In the winter months, he worked in the Middle East so he missed a few of my birthdays. My brother left for the army at 16. He’d scored lower in some GCSEs limiting his options for further study and he didn’t want to repeat them so the army was the only other option plus he’d be able to toughen up and hold his own. Dad wouldn’t be able to smack him around anymore.
Don’t get me wrong though, I had a happy childhood on the whole and we were spoiled and had all the things my parents didn’t have. But my siblings and I did spend most of our pre-teens hating each other, fighting physically and verbally and crying in our rooms as we listened to mum and dad yelling downstairs. Do you know those happy sibling videos that float around on Facebook? Usually cute American kids and they are telling each other they love each other and they hug each other? Yeah. That wasn’t us. We’d rather throw rocks at each other and break one another’s toys than be standing a foot near each other. Mum forced us to hug now and then. It was awkward. Luckily that changed once we hit our 20s and all moved out.
When I was 18 I got tangled up in a messed up relationship.
2002. It started when my drink got spiked at a friend’s joint birthday party where the whole 6th Form was invited. What happened next led to a year of being blackmailed into sexual favours, coerced even, stalked and feeling scared to death I’d be a prisoner to this guy forever. He manipulated me and created a web of lies making up a false identity. He was much bigger and stronger than me. I couldn’t tell a soul because he would spread rumours about me and tell my parents. My parents never allowed me to have a boyfriend and even hang out with boys at school. I knew little about sex other than compulsory sex-ed stuff. It was drilled into me to study hard and not end up pregnant at 15 like a few of my classmates. And he knew that.
Skip a few years ahead to 2005, I got away, am at uni but I can’t stop crying, I’ve failed units, repeated a year and still failed the same 2 units, had boyfriend issues and decide to seek a counsellor after an intervention from my friend.
I come home looking like shit from one of the sessions and mum demands I tell her what I spoke about. I can’t tell her because I know she isn’t strong enough to handle it. It’s the session about the messed-up relationship. We’d pinpointed that to be the cause of all my problems and I didn’t even know I’d be talking about it. I wasn’t prepared, I had repressed it and it just came up unexpectedly. I was thrown. I didn’t know what to think or how to even start explaining it. I don’t want to make her feel guilty or that she failed to protect me. And quite frankly, I don’t fucking want to tell her. Patient confidentiality and all that.
I stopped feeling connected to my mum a long time ago in that motherly-daughter way. I’ve been her shrink since I was old enough to understand mum and dad rowing. That’s ok though. She won’t seek a therapist so I’m glad she has someone she can offload to. I feel more like a friend and mother than a daughter.
It means I cannot confide in her. I use the parent-child boundary.
But she pushes and pushes and pulls the “I’m your mother” card so I blurt out a 3-line summary of the session and she stands there in her marigolds, soap suds dripping onto the tiled kitchen floor and is silent. She closes the 4 ft gap between us, hugs me hard, almost choking me and says I need to just move on now and forget it happened.
I think that was for her.
I stand there physically drained yet emotionally at that moment I feel like steel. Hard, cold and inanimate. I hug her back but for her sake. I knew she wouldn’t know how to deal with it so it is good that I didn’t tell her I wanted to drive the car off the Littlehampton Tesco’s roundabout bridge into the Arun river on my way home from that session. I console her but my heart isn’t in it.
We’ve never spoken of it again. I don’t know if my dad ever knew. I never told him and he never brought it up. I think he would have killed the guy had he known.
And I’ve laid that demon to rest with the help of a year’s counselling in the UK.
Wind ahead a couple of years to 2007 and I’m living with my then-boyfriend, to-be-husband, now-divorced-ex but we’re broke and in Germany and it’s been one disaster after another. I’ve flown home at a moment’s notice because my grandma died. I found out when dad phoned me the day before to ask when I was flying in because the funeral was the next day. And then they asked me to write the eulogy and read it. They forgot to tell me she had died the week previously. Out of sight, out of mind. The school I was teaching at even asked me for a copy of the death certificate as proof of leave of absence. That was a kick in the teeth. As if I’d be lying about something like that! Germans and their fucking paperwork.
I didn’t tell my family the situation was as bad as it was. My mum will tell the entire village and exaggerate and she’ll get herself all worked up and worry. Things always seem worse when your child is further away so I only tell mum what she really needs to know and what I think she can handle.
My boyfriend and I have no luck with studies, or jobs and struggle to make ends meet. I don’t have health insurance either. He manages a part-time uni-based job and we survive on 600 euros a month living in one room within a flatshare. 2008 I decide to call it quits, migrate home to retrain as a graphic designer whilst seeking medical advice for intestinal issues and thyroid problems and we do a 3-year long-distance relationship (before the age of smartphones) and see each other once a year for a week at a time.
I emigrate back after I finish the course in 2011. Scared to death I’d go back to poverty again. I cried the entire 24-hour bus ride back to Germany.
My now fiancé promises things will be different and we decide to get married to make the financial side of things easier, I’d be covered under his health insurance and it’s where we are heading anyway. The marriage part, not joint health insurance coverage.
A year later after raising 45,000 euros for our friend’s cancer treatment, having looked after her in our flatshare in our first year of marriage and she deciding to give up, return to Kazakhstan to her son and where she later died, my mum and dad’s marriage is on the rocks … again. Actually, I don’t think it ever got off the rocks. It just lay dormant for a while.
Dad; a workaholic, has been made redundant before retirement and is suffering from what seems like depression. Before I can comprehend all the drama that comes next I am on an early morning flight home in April and dad is in the ICU. He is yellow and there are tubes coming out of him and so many machines. We have to make the decision to turn off the machines. I’m not ready for any of this. Dad died April 28th 2013. I was 28.
At home, I read the suicide notes on his laptop and see the 5,000 pounds he’s left in the envelope marked “for the funeral.”
Police rule it as not suspicious. I sit and process. I try to get inside my dead father’s head.
I try to piece together what seems like a fucked up Romeo and Juliet story and my siblings and I raid the medicine cabinet and throw all the pills into the bin. No one is going to be killing themselves on our watch.
We keep mum under strict observation. The trust is gone. Parents can’t be trusted to look after themselves. I write the eulogy, design the church service sheets, order a cake for the wake, start sorting out the affairs and have a few rows with people on the phone. I never row. I rarely raise my voice but I lost it. Next, I start selling furniture, clear the garage and shed with my brother and have a blazing row with my mum. She has to sell the house. And because the autopsy took forever, I lost my job as my boss demanded I fly back to work. They weren’t prepared to wait for the month it took to finally be allowed to bury my dad and I couldn’t face working anymore on that supermarket checkout being treated like shit and paid below minimum wage because I was the immigrant foreigner without a degree.
Around June 5th we buried dad and I flew back to Germany.
6 months later, I was standing in the pouring rain wearing the same funeral dress I’d worn to my dad’s funeral waiting to take my turn at going into the tiniest of rooms to pay my respects to my friend. She hung herself. I stare at her corpse in disbelief and disgust. Had she not just fucking seen the mess I was in after hearing about my dad. Was this some sick joke? Had I given her this idea? She betrayed me. She left me alone and fucked off.
It was the first open casket I’d been to. You could still see the rope mark even though the funeral directors had placed a strip of lace over her neck to try to conceal it. She didn’t look like my friend in the coffin. I don’t know who it was. And my friend was gone.
2013 was a bullshit year.
Both my dad and my friend were April birthdays. Aries. They both lied, concealed, hid their feelings. They never let us in. I had no idea of their depression. Everything seemed more or less normal. I hate Aries. If someone says their birthday is in April I run for the hills. I don’t trust that star sign. I have another friend who suffers with depression and he is an Aries. (What the hell is it with me and April people?!) He’s been on suicide watch and the happy pills. I watch him like a hawk from afar, watching for the triggers and signs, paramedics on speed dial just in case and emotionally don’t let myself get attached.
My mum still wasn’t speaking to me. For 1.5 years she didn’t speak to me. She ignored my text about my friend committing suicide. I guess it was too painful for her to handle because she’d just lost her husband and was carrying her own guilt.
I cried a lot. I struggled. I was so angry. I had so much rage and bitterness. And hate. I hated my dad. I hated my friend. I fucking hated being broke. I hated that no one else was going through this. I hated that I felt lost. And life seemed hard. Impossibly hard. And dark. And foggy. I just tried to deal with it the best I could. On my own. By focusing on work.
And then the Ukrainian war started.
I pretty much lost my husband, too. Physically he was present but mentally he was in Ukraine.
3 years later in 2016 my own marriage was on the rocks and I moved out. I got involved with Soldiers’ Angels at the end of 2015 and it felt like a lifeline. I met some amazing people and felt needed.
>> Add in codependency psychoanalysis here. <<
Anyways, one young Marine I supported throughout deployment kept in touch for a while. Usually, once they hit stateside you don’t hear from them again.
One night in 2017 he phoned me. From Cali. He was drunk. His messages had always been cryptic or slightly strange. I just took it to be him. It’s his personality. He’d disappear from time to time so long stints not hearing from him were normal. He’d shared some things with me. Some things he was struggling with but he always seemed upbeat and positive. I suspected it was a cover.
But this call was different. And he never called. He emailed or messaged. He was crying.
We switched to video call on WhatsApp as soon as he told me he woke up that morning with a rope around his neck and he needed the pain to go away. I needed to see the state of him and check where said rope was.
He wanted to die.
I felt utterly helpless.
I didn’t know who to call from Germany, I didn’t know any of his friends or his family. I only had one phone and it was currently being used.
All I knew was that I needed to keep him talking to me, keep him on the line, stop him drinking and calm him the fuck down.
I was shaking inside but I didn’t let it show in my voice. I have no experience in this at all and felt like the last person to handle this. I’m halfway across the bloody world and this kid’s life is in my hands. Of all people, he reached out to me.
I feel responsible or like I failed my dad and my friend. People confide in me. They offload to me and I don’t mind that. I learn a lot about people that way. I’ve grown up feeling I’ve had this role of mediator or therapist thrust onto me or I’ve willingly taken on that role out of my own need to feel affection and it feels good when I can genuinely help people. But knowing dad and my friend couldn’t confide in me nor give me the chance to help them hurt. I failed them and I really needed this good looking guy not to die on me.
I didn’t want to come across in a teacher or parent mode but I have no fucking training and I can’t even remember now what I said. Can you ever be prepared enough for this? I willed him with my eyes to not do it, with my every being. I silently blasted him with fucking Care Bear rainbow stares and huge hugging energy. I willed him to just sleep then wake up and get help.
I made him write on a note the words, “sickbay” (I don’t even know if the Americans call it that in the forces) I stayed awake the entire night softly talking at him until he passed out. I don’t know if he was coherent or understood what I was saying. I was terrified to end the call. I sent him a load of messages to remind him to go check into the sickbay as soon as he got this message. I showered and went to work and my insides were frazzled. I felt sick. Would he go to the sickbay and get help? Would he ignore it and just end his life anyway? The next 6 hours were excruciating for me and thank God work was dead because I don’t remember much of the day and I didn’t have anyone to tell this to. I’ve never told anyone this.
He eventually texted to say he’d been admitted to rehab and psychiatric care and I felt I could let out the breath I had been holding. Then I never heard from him. He texted a year later to say he’d left the Marines and enrolled at a university but he’s since deleted all his social media accounts and doesn’t reply to my emails.
Another 3 years on, it’s 2019 and I find myself alone across the other side of Germany starting my life over. I’m grieving the loss of a marriage. Trying to figure out why I am not enough. Why people in my life leave me. Why I’m not enough to stay or fight for. Why men lie. Why people lie. Why people spend their time bickering about bullshit things when there are far more important issues and concerns in the world. Why people hurt each other. Why? Why? Why?
And I wonder how I myself am not on a ward for crazy people right now.
I’ve been numb these past two years. Emotionally numb. Just going to work, dealing with crisis after crisis there. Coming home to sick bunnies and drama back home and me getting sick. Crying. A lot. My eyes are glassy and the smile lines around my eyes are missing. My body isn’t handling it and it needs a break. And I need to get off the treadmill. Something has to change and I need to figure out who I am and where I am heading.
I’ve only skimmed over some of the events that I’ve experienced in the past two and a half decades. These alone could each be 10-page essays and so much emotion has been brought to the surface in these two days by Ben’s book. I’ve been aware of my situation for a while but I haven’t really confronted it head-on and Ben’s book has given me the courage or more like a shove off a fucking cliff to start talking about things.
You know I was getting there, slowly. It’s been 6 years since dad has been gone so thanks for the push, Ben 😉
(Add sarcastic tone with smirk)
Reading Josh and Mary’s story, I could relate to things and despite the tragedy and tears, I felt comforted and the words soothed me. I felt like the characters understood. They got me. I didn’t feel alone and I recognized things I do in their behaviour of dealing with painful emotions and difficult people.
I always focused on academics as a goal in life. That was my compass. But every time the job or studies didn’t work out it threw my focus off and I floundered. I’ve been working and taking on projects and filling my time to avoid facing the pain. But I’ve also been avoiding finding out who I am in the process and what my purpose is and what I truly want. I’ve been used to helping others and being there for them that I don’t really know what I want. Other than to write.
Life is too short and I don’t have time to waste moping around so I try shaking off the downers and steer my thoughts to positive things. But as much as I try to be productive I have to be honest with myself. On my days off I lie in until midday and have no energy. By the time I’ve gotten what should have been breakfast has turned to a late lunch I then feel bad about wasting the day and there’s no point in starting something because I’ll have to go to sleep again soon. I wake up feeling tired. Yet this year I’ve been sleeping more. Slowly, I’ve been recognizing this isn’t getting better, things aren’t changing and my mood is grey and bleak most of the time. I’ve been distancing myself from people and staying in. I rarely go out. I have some good days but then I have more lows than good. And I’m tired of crying. I feel lonely. Really lonely. There are people around but just no one relatable. And until I sort out the emotions and stuff I am repressing I am not going to be able to figure out what I want. It’s bubbling under the surface and getting in the way.
I don’t want to move back to the UK but I’m not sure I want to stay in Germany either.
I don’t know where I am supposed to go or where home is. And I’ve got all these things I’ve been through tucked inside and I don’t know anyone here who has gone through that. Who speaks English and who just fucking gets the raw emotion that comes with all those things.
I feel broken. I feel like a mess and I feel the only people I connect to the most are those who like me, are a bit fucking broken and trying to glue themselves back together again. Sarcasm helps. It’s a great adhesive.
What I love most is writing. I just feel me. I feel free and happy. It’s my respite in the storm. It’s my version of Josh’s pottery wheel. (Read the book!) But for a while, I’ve felt blocked because of my mood. I hope maybe Ben’s book and this, whatever this is, a post, an essay, a journey through my dark thoughts, will lighten the weight some. I feel I needed to get this out there so I can move onto the next thing. And maybe this will be enough. Maybe I don’t need to write any more than this about those chapters of my life.
And if I’ve just thrown my writing career into the toilet before it’s even taken off then fuck it. People need to know about mental health and need to know it’s ok to talk about it. And we need people to support us. And I need to admit that I probably need to talk to someone about this stuff or write it down in a diary.
I want to be a writer who is approachable and relatable. I want people to know I am real.
If I can leave one bit of advice to give this heavy post a positive end it would be this:
Nothing and no one is perfect. Life evolves. It changes you. You get your corners knocked off and you toughen up. Or break. Sometimes both. You get dealt a shit hand. And that’s ok. You will get back up again but you have to want to. You have to pull yourself out of the funk because no one else can do it for you and you have to find the reasons to live, the purpose and meaning for you and actively do it. And that takes time. Just make a start and keep going, baby steps. Get back in the game and keep trying. You learn as you go and eventually, you’ll be the one holding all the ace cards.
Sometimes you need a mentor or friend to support you. It’s not cheating. It’s taking control and steering your life in the direction you want it to go in. And you need to offload all those feelings and emotions because they will fester inside you and make you sick.
I’ve always wondered why icebergs are always bigger below the surface yet can stand so tall. How come that weight doesn’t pull them down? Below the surface, we all have our own issues. We leave all the shit at the bottom and narrow in on the stuff we like and are good at. It’s probably why the tips of icebergs are narrow and smaller. All the deadweight has been shed long ago.
So it’s now 2 am on the third morning of no sleep. I will crash, then edit and upload this tomorrow. The first major step of feeling vulnerable and putting myself out on a ledge. I might need a stiff drink to hand, ready. Who am I kidding? It will be a Sencha green tea. I hope this wasn’t too weird for you.
Thank you for listening.
National Suicide Hotlines:
Germany: 49-0800- 111-0111