I am seventeen years old and I still can’t ride the bus alone. The word “childish” does not begin to cover it. My mother, so frustrated with my inability to drive and my refusal to catch the bus, rightfully cuts me off. She will no longer pick up me up from my after-school cleaning job. I see this for what it is, a “kick the baby bird out of the nest” move that is ultimately done in love, but I stubbornly refused. Not because I enjoyed being the only non-driver my age who hadn’t grasped this small mode of independence, but because my anxiety about public buses was too strong. Small interactions with strangers sent me into a tailspin. There were too many factors to consider! Too many unknowns. Over the years I had made progress in this area. I could order a coffee in a coffee shop on my own, I could ask a waiter in a restaurant for a glass of tap water or where the toilets were, I could even take the train on my own (because I could buy a ticket in advance and not speak to anyone). But I could not get past the bus.
It’s something to be ashamed of, and everyone tells me so.
They don’t realise, and I don’t even realise yet, that life is composed of these tiny battles I will have to fight to be as capable as everyone else, and I am fighting the best I can. Rather than saying that, rather than telling them that my brain sometimes tries to hurt me rather than help me, I just blush and try not to mention it. So when my Mum cuts me off I walk the 4 miles home next to the most polluted road in Britain. I even enlist the support of my kind, adorable boyfriend at the time who lives close to my school. He walks two miles to the school, to walk me five miles home, to then walk six miles home. He was a sweet boy. And I broke up with him. In the part of the route where he still had six miles to walk.
(Well done, teenage self. Real classy moment.)
Once cut off from my walking companion, those four miles seemed more unpleasant than they had before. I felt myself initiate the slow build up towards doing the nameless thing I was afraid of. My best friend and I caught the bus home from town and I bought the ticket myself. Sort of. She went first and I followed and said “Same please,” which has been my go-to for confusing circumstances since then. (I’ve ended up with a lot of drinks I didn’t like this way.) I carefully noted the route the bus took, so I knew how I could get home at every point if the bus broke down, or a serial killer came aboard, or I was alone and the bus driver turned out to be a pervert. (Yes, this is how my brain works). I memorized the name of the stops so I would never say the wrong one. I pre-decided what seat I would sit in, and what seat I would sit in for a back up. And then, one day, without telling a soul, I made sure I took extra change with me to school. After I had finished cleaning classrooms, I walked nonchalantly towards the bus stop. I told myself that if a bus came that was going the way I wanted, I would get on it. No pressure. I could still walk home at any time, I could even get off if I got on and freaked out. I got on the bus, enjoyed a moment of tentative victory, and then panicked and got off two stops early. But by then it was only 1 mile home, not four, and I had done it.
“About time!” everyone said.
To me, it was one of the biggest achievements of my teenage years. Now I ride the bus all the time. I like riding the bus! Just like I like ordering coffee now, and going out to dinner, and chatting with shop assistants. But these things were hard-won for me, they weren’t natural, and I have often felt a pressure to keep that part of my narrative silent. There are some things we are all just supposed to be capable of as adults and to admit that we can’t do them, or that they give us fear, is perceived as unacceptable. It seems to make us less of an adult, or less of a person.
We don’t ever think it just makes us a different person.
Some things have always been very natural to me. Writing for instance, and reading. Singing and dancing. Listening, empathising, falling in love. None of those things have ever been hard for me, and yet so many people find them incredibly difficult! But rather than being told they should grow up, there are movies made about them. Hell, there’s a whole arm of the rom-com anatomy dedicated to the individual who is afraid of falling in love. How many movies are dedicated to the narrative of the individual who is too afraid to show-case a hidden talent? Instead of being riddiculed, they are nurtured towards the spot-light.
That’s not the case when “Normal” things are hard what you find hard. Scared of meeting new people? You just need to put yourself out there. Does going to the doctors give you anxiety? You just have to deal with it. Does eating keep you awake at night? You just need to be less fussy. You just need to be “normal.”
“Well, we all find some things hard,” some people say. “we just suck it up, and move on. Just get on with it!”
Just get on with it.
If those words were effective, I would honestly have conquered every fear in my life long ago. Because that is the internal monologue of someone who is struggling with their mental health and staring down a roadblock in their life. Except it’s all the time, and it’s much more vicious:
Just swallow the thing, just eat it! You’re so stupid, you’re so weird, why can’t you eat it? You bitch, you’ve totally let yourself down, and now you’ve spit it out. You’re pathetic.
Just go to the party! Who cares if you’ve never been there before? You’re such a baby, you’re so stupid, why can’t you just deal with your crap? Why do you have to let it ruin everything? God, you’re such a failure.
Why are you making them take time out to go with you to this doctors appointment? Don’t you know that everyone thinks you’re pathetic? God, look at yourself! You’re in your twenties and you can’t do this simple thing – do you realise that no one likes you or enjoys your company? It’s because you’re too much work.
I wish you were dead, I really do.
Being constantly told by society and yourself that your problems are just the manifestation of your own weakness makes you dark.
And I can promise you, it’s not just me. I know other people who find “normal” processes hard can experience the same kind of vile self-hatred. Our own frustration is more powerful, more violent, more disgusted than anything anyone could say, and yet, perversely, a big part of our growth process is learning to say no to that frustration and the ugly voice that comes with it. Recovery has a lot to do with learning that you might be… well, okay as you are?
Still, it feels unfair that the world shouts “Get Better Now! Be the same!” but the path to getting better begins with saying “It’s okay that you’re not the same.”
How do you even begin to answer that contradiction?
I’ve started to listen to the shouts of the world less, and the whispers of the heart more. I have started seeing the little things as what they really are, achievements in the making, rather than failures. Some things are very difficult for me to achieve, but just because they’re easy for others doesn’t mean I should devalue my own progress. I should celebrate it! And I am beginning to.
So yes, I had to take my husband with me to get a blood test and I am 27 years old, not an infant. But I didn’t have a panic attack before or afterwards. I didn’t cry or scream or suddenly be unable to extend my arm or let the nurse touch me. And I got on with a normal day afterwards, whereas in the past an encounter with a nurse and a needle might have sent me retreating to bed, too disappointed with my own weakness to face the condemnation of the “normal” world. So I’m calling that an achievement.
And I’m calling it an achievement that whilst I have been struggling in some areas, like being honest and vulnerable online, I have been making progress I never even thought possible before. I am generally eating normally and enjoying food, which is a bit miraculous in itself, but I am also currently holding down a full-time job that I love and am passionate about. I am getting paid to write. For me, even if I still can’t sleep alone or quite get to the point where I don’t panic about meeting new people or taking new bus journeys, this relatively “normal” step of holding down a regular job, is an achievement.
These little achievements. They sound small, but they are giant to me. They remind me that the world is not controlled by my anxiety, and that it is possible to live beyond the bounds that my mental health currently sets. The future can be different, maybe. And it is a path paved with little achievements.
I want to live in the beyond “normal” way that I am capable of.
Less shame, more celebrations.