Continuing on in my vein of chick-lit with a difference, I finished Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown last month. To start with, it’s kind of autobiographical – it’s in the non fiction section, and it’s based on Lorna Martin’s Grazia (shudder) column Conversations with my Therapist. Although she’s a first time novelist, she happens to be an award winning Observer journalist who’s reported from Bosnia, Albania, Romania, Benin, Malawi, Jamaica and Thailand (talk about an impressive CV!).
Basically, she seems like the kind of accomplished, together modern woman we all aspire to be. But she’s lonely, stressed, and depressed. Oh, and her relationships with men! She’s brave enough to admit she’s seeing a married man, and to lay it all out on the line – the clinginess, the desperate texts, calls and emails. It was all so self destructive, it was hard to read. For someone so afraid of rejection, she sure didn’t seem to have a problem making a fool of herself (I mean that in the kindest possible way).
Like many people, she says, she never thought she needed therapy. That was for the weak and needy, the self-absorbed. But as she found out, uncovering memories she didn’t know she had helped her to identify patterns in her life, to deal with issues and learn to like and respect herself again. Apparently, everything we do in our adult lives stems from childhood. This is very much a theme toward the end, as Lorna grows more self-aware, and (a little cringingly) describes herself as learning to be her “own parent”. This was probably the part I least enjoyed .
(Incidentally…I once harboured ambitions of becoming a psychologist. Nobly, perhaps, I wanted to help others, who didn’t breeze through life, but, like me, stumbled over cracks in the ground, or over their own feet.)
Looking inward, I don’t think I have to explore very far into my past to see where some of my biggest issues come from. I’ve got an ingrained fear of conflict; I hate arguments and I don’t even like debating with my closest friends. I don’t feel like I was ever taught how to. I was on the debating team briefly in high school, which helped, but growing up, my parents didn’t argue constructively. I have memories of hiding in my room listening to their raised voices through the walls, and feeling a little ball of stress form in my stomach. To this day, when I’m worried or nervous, I feel it in my tummy first. They would not negotiate with me, either: their word was always final and inflexible.
On a related note (and I don’t know specifically why this is) I have a fear just of speaking up and voicing my opinion. Maybe it’s a fear of being wrong, looking stupid, losing face. After a few years in my current job, and feeling confident in my understanding of our systems and my contributions, I’m a lot better about piping up at work. I also think having a fairly tight-knit and supportive environment in third-year journalism helped my confidence quotient a lot. I still detest public speaking, but thankfully, I’m not in a field where I have to make presentations or give speeches.
The other thing that cripples me is a fear of criticism. I think I’ve gotten a lot better over the years, but let’s face it, I haven’t had to deal with too much of it. I did well in school and university; I seem to be good at my job. Probably the worst part is under pressure, I blush bright red and start sweating. Even if I’m taking constructive criticism to heart (ie, not personally), I don’t exactly look like I’m keeping my cool…more like I’m about to rush off to the ladies’ for a cry.
One other thing which stuck with me from the book was the assertion that most people can benefit from some kind of therapy, but that some things are just too painful for some people to deal with- and it can be better for them simply to almost bury it and move on. While generally I think ignoring problems is a bad idea, I kind of agree on this count – but of course, it depends on so many things. I had a patch of trouble with my family towards the end of high school. I moved out on bad terms, made a life for myself and never went back, although I’m sure they envisaged I eventually would. We’ve never really talked it out or acknowledged that time, but I think the distance and independence has done the job. I was angry and hurt for a long time; but now, I can have a conversation with my parents, tolerate their idiosyncracies, and ask for their opinions or advice if I need to.