I know that the majority of people have a bad experience with shared housing/odd landlords at some point in their lives, but I have never managed to live comfortably alongside other people. More specifically, when I move into a place full of people I don’t know, I never get to know them. This happened in Cardiff, York and here. I have great intentions, but I am always paralysed by the same dilemma. I want to make friends, so I don’t want to tell everyone about my mental health problems too soon in case people judge me. But in trying to hide my problems, I have to gloss over such a huge part of my life that virtually any subject of conversation becomes a complete minefield. I usually go down the “I was ill for a few years” route when asked why I haven’t been in work or education for so long, but then they want to know what the illness was, and even if I go so far as to admit to an eating disorder that still leaves out so much.
I tried to be a bit more open when I moved in here, so I shortened the story to “I was at university, I got sick, I came home, I got better” – but that still leaves out around five years of my life, and gives the impression that I am totally fine now. I didn’t wear short sleeves during the four months I lived in halls in York, and I haven’t worn short sleeves here yet either. I tried my best to go out to a pub with my landlady and the other tenant a few weeks ago, but I hated every second of it and felt so intimidated and anxious. I had to bite my lip when the other tenant here started talking about a graphic rape scene in a programme we both watched recently. I don’t want to talk about such personal experiences when I’ve only known someone for a few weeks. But trying to pretend that nothing is wrong leaves me stilted and visibly uncomfortable, and people see straight through me, and eventually give up trying to be my friend.
I don’t know how to make friends anymore. I am slightly more comfortable meeting other people who have had mental health problems themselves. With the rest of the general public I feel horribly inferior. Even if when I am trying to make friends with a new person, they ask me a question about the last decade of my life, I answer honestly and they respond well, I still find it very hard to go any further than the bare minimum, because I wonder how much craziness they could take before they decided I wasn’t worth getting to know. Anorexia, bulimia, self harm, suicide attempts, depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, agoraphobia, emetophobia, three stints in hospital as an inpatient and one as a daypatient, bad reactions to medication, eight years of unemployment, surviving on benefits, dropping out of university four times, and the list goes on.
For all my sticking up for my friends with mental health problems when they have bad experiences with judgmental people, for all my beliefs about mental illnesses being just as real as physical illnesses, for all my support of advocacy and awareness raising campaigns, for all my desire to help other people in the future, I do not treat myself the way I wish other people to be treated. But isn’t that true for most people with mental health problems? So many people I know have one set of rules for themselves and another for others, whether they think that other people have faster metabolisms (whereas I need far fewer calories than most people), would be sick at “that weight” (but I have a small bone structure/would be huge at that weight), don’t deserve punishment (but I am bad and should be hurt), are depressed (I’m just lazy and self pitying), are suffering from anxiety (whereas I’m chickenshit and useless), are ill and have problems and have reasons for those problems (but I am stupid, melodramatic, there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m just pathetic). I have levelled all of those accusations against myself at some point in my life, and although I have worked through most of my false beliefs about myself, I still can’t shake the shame over having had mental health problems. I even imagine that other people with a similar history to myself are looking down on me – thinking that I was not THAT sick, that I shouldn’t have needed to drop out of university, that they sorted themselves out much younger than I did, that they still have friends and a job/degree so why don’t I, and so on and so forth. Shame on me, I am a failure.
I have a bad habit of losing contact with people. It usually goes something like this: a friend of mine goes through a busy patch, isn’t around as often. I don’t want to bug them because I think they only bother staying in contact with me through pity anyway, and would be annoyed if I chased them up. The longer it goes on the less likely I am to poke them and ask if they want to meet up sometime. This has happened again and again and again and again. My attitude is that anyone who talks to me is doing me a huge favour, and I’m so sorry to impose on them like this. It’s pathetic, it really is. But thinking like that just makes me want to inflict myself on other people even less (because what if I’m irritating them with my lack of self confidence?).
I am able to be assertive about practical matters. I happen to think that I’m an okay person sometimes. But I don’t think that other people think that, or at least I don’t think other people would think that if they really knew me. So if I worry that being open would drive people away, but being closed isolates me, how the hell do I find the middle ground? I have tried again and again, and there doesn’t seem to be one. Giving out small bits of information in a bid to help people get to know me doesn’t stop me worrying about and hiding the less socially acceptable parts of my history.
I am not good at this. Some people seem to be born with great social skills; other people are born loners; still others – myself included – have no idea how they would be naturally, because they were bullied or missed important parts of growing up through illness. I am great at faking confidence. But I don’t want people to become friends with fake-me, because it’s so bloody hard to keep that up.
And so far, all my attempts to wander out into the big wide world and find some new people to talk to have ended in the same way – with me sitting in my bedroom, using the internet as a substitute friend, feeling lonely as hell and wondering if there is some fundamental flaw in me that means I am just unable to make friends.