I used to be a confident Cat. Aware of my achievements, secure in my ability to communicate and engage with others, and comfortable in a professional context. Being ill has changed many things about me, but one of the things I struggle most with is the decimation of my confidence. Now I feel waves of anxiety when I have planned to meet someone, even someone I know well. I worry about my ability to carry a conversation, I feel like there is little of value to say about my life and I picture running out of thoughts and words. I’ve started work on book number II and part of that will involve interviewing people, a thought that currently terrifies me so I’ve been hiding in the realms of Internet research instead. There’s a lot of Internet to hide in.
But I must write the book so I must overcome these issues. I’ve tried to push myself outside of my comfort zone, something my community psychiatric nurse has been encouraging as she fears I’m too reliant on my husband now. She’s right. I worry about walking between places by myself, picturing a tsunami of things that could befall me, and consequently I depend on my husband’s presence on virtually all journeys. I used to be such an independent creature, travelling to India, South Africa, Tanzania and Peru by myself. Now I struggle with the 5 minute walk to Sainsbury’s.
I’ve tried pushing myself by making playdates with friends, despite the sense of trepidation it gives me, because invariably when I get there we have plenty to talk about and the conversation carries just fine. I can do it. I just fear I can’t. And I get so much from these encounters in soft play cafes and coffee shops. I’m grateful to the women who meet me, who make the effort to reach out, they have no idea how valuable their time is to me.
Playdates are a sensible step, but I’m not always a sensible soul. One of my personal quirks, that has not been altered by illness, is my tendency to go all in. Which is how, despite my fear of Sainsbury’s, I found myself with tickets booked for a trip to London. By myself. My inspiration was strong – a free dinner at Claridge’s and the opportunity to meet the Dean of Harvard School of Public Health, an accomplished woman with experience of maternal mental health research. My fear was also strong – the tube, a hotel, streets bustling with busy people. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I stayed in a bit of London I knew well and didn’t stray from it, apart from my trip to Claridge’s. It’s a bit that holds the Wellcome Collection (which houses my favourite exhibition and bookshop) and the British Library (one of my favourite spaces). I knew those streets, I cried when I saw them again, like meeting an old friend after a long time apart and with much water under the bridge. The atmosphere was made all the more nostalgic by the busker playing Adele’s Someone Like You, “Old friend, why are you so shy? Ain’t like you to hold back or hide from the light…” I made frequent, often tearful and fearful, calls to my reassuring husband. I chain ate Valium. But I did it. I had a pretty positive evening, made much easier by the kind and clever conversation of the dinner guest to my right. Together we were bold enough to approach the Dean, who was a pure delight to speak to. Thoughtful and insightful when I asked questions, compassionate when I told my story of psychosis and depression.
I did it. But it came at a price. I thought once I proved I could do London I could do anything, like ripping off the proverbial plaster. Instead I returned even more anxious. I don’t know if it was the massive build up of adrenaline from the trip, or seeing the gap between how I used to breeze through London compared with my now terror-stricken tube riding, but something made me even more fearful of speaking to people and of venturing out alone. Perhaps I used up my annual allowance of bravery on that one trip.
Now I’m not so brave, but I am still slowly pushing out my boundaries with more manageable challenges. If you have any tips or advice for reclaiming confidence after maternal mental illness I could do with them! Today’s challenge is going to a book group. I’ve read the book, I think I understood it, but I’m incredibly nervous about the prospect of discussing it with bright literary types. But I’m going to do it because the world I currently inhabit is too small for me. I want it to be bigger, bolder and brighter. I want to reclaim that fiercely independent Cat I used to be. And one day I will.