Escaping the Asylum

Today is a historical day for us. Today we will leave the mental health system for the first time in 11 years because our psychologist, Neil, is retiring. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t a little anxious. We’ve never experienced adulthood without the mental health system. We get the sense the strait jacket dresses we bought last Halloween may be coming into use…Neil did offer us the choice to go with another psychologist, but we declined. It’s hard for us to open up to people and we’re not sure another psychologist could tune into our frequency as easily as Neil does.

It was nice knowing that when something went wrong, it wasn’t that long until we saw Neil and he’d help us sort it out. There is something comforting about having someone completely separate from your life who will back you up, help you out, or just listen to you rant and weep. Everyone should have a psychologist 😀

We first saw a psychiatrist when we were 15, having been diagnosed with clinical depression at 14. We saw our psychiatrist for 2 years until an incident led to her never calling us back. To be honest, we didn’t find the sessions helpful, although she did prescribe us Propranolol for our panic attacks. Looking back, we weren’t completely honest with her. We were scared that if we told her everything we felt and thought about, or that we’d lock ourselves in our house, armed with knives, in case someone came to kill us, that she would have us locked away in Whitchuch. We were scared of our own minds and what we might be capable of. We tried going it alone for nearly 3 years, but we got worse. In the end we went back to our GP and told him needed help. He put us on the waiting list then when we were 20, we met our clinical psychologists, Neil and Andrew. They decided as we were experiencing the same problems, they would treat us together. Andrew later left to join the CRISIS mental health team. We don’t remember much of the first meeting (our memories are like black holes – the older we get, the more they swallow) but we do remember crying from pretty much start to finish. And it’s rare we’ll cry in front of people.

We haven’t been the easiest patients. Every time Neil would try to praise us or compliment us, our stock response would be “but you’re paid to say that.” Such smartarses 😀 He described us as ‘exotic’ and ‘paradoxes’. For the first time, someone got us. It took us a while to actually be willing to change. It might seem weird to people who have never suffered from depression or anxiety, but the idea of getting better terrified us. As much as we hated the depression and anxiety, they were familiar. Safe. We knew who we were. We didn’t like who we were, but we knew us. We were scared that we wouldn’t like the people we would become if we changed. People didn’t like us, what if they hated the new us more? The idea of not being depressed or anxious was so alien to us that when Neil would ask us what we would do if we were better, we couldn’t answer. Our whole lives had been under these demons’ control that it was unthinkable to imagine a life without them. He set us a challenge to write where we thought we’d be in 5 years’ time. At that point, we weren’t even sure if we’d still be around then. Turned out, 5 years later, Neil came to our first ever book reading at Waterstones when our first story was published. It was him who encouraged us to start submitting our stories. Without him, we would not be published authors.

Gradually we came to realise that Neil did actually like us and not because he was being paid to be nice to us 😀 And somewhere along the way, we became friends. After 7 years of bullying, we couldn’t see why anyone would like us. The kids in school found plenty of things to dislike about us, so we naturally assumed everyone else felt the same way. To this day, we struggle to see why people like us. We’re the same people we’ve always been. Neen will often tell us how much people we’ve met like us and we always respond with “but why? We don’t speak to people.”

When we first started battling our social phobia, Neil set us a challenge – we had to one scary thing every month for a whole year. The first thing we did was book tickets to see Rocky Horror in the theatre. One month, we sat outside Starbucks, too scared to go in. After half an hour, we drove away. We returned in the afternoon, but it was busier than it had been in the morning. Again, we drove away. It wasn’t until our first visit that we went inside and stayed. It wasn’t a comfortable experience, but we kept doing it. Social phobia isn’t just being anxious about social situations. There are more layers than that. The thought of ordering something left us cold inside. What if they didn’t have anything we liked? (A high probability as we’re extremely fussy.) What if there was nowhere to sit? We hated eating and drinking in public. When you have social phobia, it feels like everything you do is on a giant TV screen, with everyone watching every single tiny move you make. Eating in front of people was unbearable. Even smiling in public was unbearable. We used to practise what would we say so we wouldn’t mess it up and embarrass ourselves.

Now we embarrass ourselves all the time on YouTube 😀

The end of that year resulted in us going to see My Chemical Romance in concert. Thanks to Neil we can now eat and drink in public. We can now use public toilets – something we wouldn’t even do when we were kids. We wouldn’t even use them in school. We can now go to the cinema, something we hadn’t done in 12 years. We go out to pubs, we go ghost hunting all around the country. We even flew to Edinburgh last year and are going back in a couple of weeks. When we first met Neil, we didn’t have any friends. Now we do. We’re now online – something which took him about 2 years to persuade us to do, as we feared being bullied online. We’ve been to gigs, a rock club, we’ve done poetry performances, done a reading at a literary festival. We do zumba, which involves two things we hated – people and dancing in front of people. And we love it. We started swimming again after an 18 year gap because the thought of wearing bathers in public terrified us. We used to be really good swimmers. When we started back up in October, we could only swim one length before stopping. Now we swim a mile non-stop. We’ve now joined a Boxercise class. And it’s all because of Neil. Because every time we go with our first instinct, which is to say no, we think ‘what would Neil say?’ Neil would say “go for it. Feel the fear and do it anyway.” We were going to say no to the reading at Salem Literary Festival, as all the other authors were highly successful and had been published for years. We’re nobodies. We’re not successful. Nobody’s even heard of us. We felt we had no right being there. But we heard Neil’s voice urging us to say yes. So we did. And it was brilliant. Everything we get invited to, we have to fight the automatic ‘no’ and say yes. Something we’d never have done without him.

To us, social interaction has always seemed like a game where everyone knew the rules, yet somebody had forgotten to give us the rulebook. We’d be on the outside looking in, not understanding a single thing that went on. To be honest, we still haven’t fully grasped it, but now we make up our own rules. And we don’t care if we get it wrong. We used to consider ourselves failures because we didn’t have what everyone else had, what our family had – a well paid job, their own home, marriage kids etc., society’s view of ‘success’. He said to us “is that what you want?” we immediately said “no. That’s exactly what we DON’T want. It’s our version of Hell.” Neil “then how is that successful?” Us “society says that’s successful.” Neil “but that’s not YOUR version of successful is it?” And he was right. We were comparing ourselves to other people. But we didn’t want what they had. We wanted something different. From that point on, it changed our view of what success was, and it wasn’t the typical set-up society presented. A nice house, good job, marriage, kids etc. is fine for other people. But not for us. So this is why at 31, we still live with our mum. Society says this is wrong and we should be living elsewhere but we no longer care what society says. We’d rather live here and be able to afford to travel the country ghost hunting and buy what we want rather than being permanently broke just for the sake of having a place we can’t afford so society accepts us. We don’t have a well paid job – we earned £300 between us last year for writing – and we’re single. And we love it. We’re full time writers (which we couldn’t do without our mum’s support), part time ghost hunters and we can spend all day with the animal army. THAT’S what we’ve always wanted. Although it would be nice to be successful writers…

We haven’t won the war against our social phobia and depression, but we win the small battles every time we say yes. We still don’t like doing certain things – like ordering at the bar, walking into a crowded place, making phone calls, but now we do them. We don’t let fear dictate what we do. Well, not always. You can’t win every battle. And some weeks we won’t leave the house for days. But that’s no longer because of the social phobia. It’s because we’re natural hermits and leaving the house means interrupting writing time 😀

It’s not every day you meet someone who changes your life and saves you from yourself, so thank you Neil.