My partner and I live next door to his parents – a nightmare situation for some but it suits us just fine.
On Friday afternoons, they look after Little Niece (age three) and, once school’s out, Little Nephew (age six).
Most weeks I’ll go round and we drink tea and eat biscuits while playing parties or drawing.
Little Nephew often poses inquisitive questions, wanting to know more (on one occasion I taught him the two times table). Little Niece likes to tease in the way only toddlers can; woe betide anyone who isn’t prepared to pretend they’re a monkey!
A fairly ordinary, perhaps mundane, scene in the life of an extended family in the suburbs of a provincial English town.
Yet for me this is a time that I treasure, holding it dear as a symbol of thriving in the face of my ongoing mental health issues. In these moments I am not just surviving.
Friday afternoons were not always like this. For months I wrestled with my urge to pop round. I’d take the rubbish out in the hope of catching someone’s eye and being invited in for a cuppa or would think up an excuse to call in.
Alternatively I’d admonish myself for these flimsy pretexts and inwardly declare a self-imposed exile in my own home, only for my resolve to crumble quickly when my partner returned home and I’d greet him with the leading question ‘Shall we go and see the kids next door?’.
Why the angst? Simple: I truly believed that I should not want to visit my neighbouring family. To me, the desire represented weakness, a character flaw, a chink in my armour of self-sufficiency. If I was a stronger, better person then I’d surpass such whims, or so went my thinking.
A similar thought process informed all my decision making. Desires, or worse still needs, formed a deadly triangle along with emotions and the consequential vulnerability. They were dangerous, to be repressed, suppressed, minimised and managed.
I was also wary of the relationships that developed out of my desires. Intellectually I understood that connection was an essential part of the human experience but in practice I denied it.
It was in spite of myself that my current partnership developed. Despite being in a loving relationship, I continued to regard my desires, feelings and emotions with suspicion if not outright hostility.
I was unable to recognise that efforts to detach from my feelings were directly contributing to my mental health struggles.
I have only come to see this connection thanks to gentle encouragement from my partner and some of the amazing professionals that surround me now: a psychologist, my case manager (a social worker) and the mental health nurses in my emotional regulation therapy group.
With and through these NHS staff, I have learnt and experienced that my wants and needs are not the enemy and that as well as creating vulnerability, these emotions provide the foundation – the very lifeblood – of human connection.
Individually and collectively these people are assisting me in enjoying my life. Welcoming my Friday afternoon urge to see Little Niece and Little Nephew and not being ashamed of it, is a big part of this: embracing an emotion (love for certain people) and nurturing the connection that is central to this (spending time with them).
This shift from denial to permission hasn’t been easy or straightforward, nor is it complete. However my automatic default of resistance is gradually being replaced by the belief that emotional connections are vital to good wellbeing and resilience.
This new awareness and new behaviour is helping me to thrive even as my broader mental health struggle continues.
Some days I am not just surviving. I’m experiencing levels of joy and contentment previously unknown.
Roll on next Friday afternoon.