Grace under pressure
The stories we tell ourselves “define the potentiality of our existence”. The stories we tell ourselves create our lives because they have the power to destroy us, or they can be the source of our power. When we have the courage to tell our inside story to the outside we step into that power. Blinking. Jelly-legged. Heart-thumping. Truth-telling has that effect.
The story below, like all stories, is not the truth, but it’s the best I can do to put into the words the source of my “why”. But it threatened to destroy me, until I found the ordinary courage to tell a new story and create a multiplicity of new paths.
In 2007, a psychologist tasked with assessing me for a job described my empathy as “off the scale”. As a result she had to do more to test my robustness, which was also very high. Robust, yes, I was a pretty hard-ass alpha woman in finance, but empathic? Thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate? Not the first words that sprung to mind.
I knew myself deeply. I was the product of a global company that relentlessly developed its people – I was an ENTP (borderline J), I knew my Herrmann Whole Brain profile, my Signature profile, my Gallup strengths, my PRISM colours. I ran leadership programmes and new hire colleges and L&D for the UK. I threw myself into the bi-annual appraisal process, gleefully harvesting every opportunity for personal growth. I knew myself deeply.
In 2003, I found myself in intensive care as a result of complications during childbirth. So, now I knew myself deeply and lived life with the irritating joyfulness of someone who’d had a wake up call. Carpe the hell out of each diem! I was a damned know-it all.
The irritatingly joyful know-it-all clearly needed another wake up call and that came in 2008 when my husband phoned to tell me my Mother had taken an overdose.
That this was the catalyst for the wheels to properly come off my life was somewhat of a surprise. I’d calmly walked out the office, caught a taxi to the hospital and tracked down my father working in Ethiopia. Landing in London the next morning, he scooped up my broken mother and I returned to the very crucial work I was doing as a very senior leader in a very important function in a very large company. I was Leaning In hard and loving it.
That I might have unravelled at some point should not really have come as any surprise. As an undergraduate studying English literature I fell in love with stories of women on the edge: Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. “The Trick is to Keep Breathing”? Yes Janice it is. I devoured the thinking of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Toril Moi and Helene Cixous. My dissertation was entitled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.
Naturally I then became an accountant.
French psychoanalytic feminist theory wasn’t taught at the state school I attended in the 1980s. “Forries” was no place for an aspiring post-structuralist existentialist feminist, as clearly that would have made her a snob and / or a lesbian.
I chose instead to be a truant. School was tedious, often dangerous and I spent hours outside the classroom in corridors or washing dishes in the staff room for serious transgressions such as not paying attention or giggling with Sarah. The only class I enjoyed was maths because it was taken by a teacher who sang David Bowie to us. And he’d played football with my father at university – there was a photo of the team framed behind his desk. Bob was cool.
However, I went right off him the day I told him I’d been absent the previous week because my mother had been sectioned under the mental health act following a diagnosis of acute paranoid psychosis. His face told me that the subject of my mother’s unravellment was not one I should speak of again.
And so I didn’t.
So what happened? How did I find the ordinary courage to tell a new story? Well that took years, but the catalyst though was a desire to help another. Not long after that call from my husband in 2008, a colleague’s brother became suicidal and over too many glasses of wine it all came tumbling out. Looking back I can see that I was “metabolising” my own story and my own pain through the conversations we had. Adam Phillips, one of the UK’s foremost psychotherapists put it like this:
In conversation things can be metabolised and digested through somebody else – I say something to you and you can give it back to me in different forms – whereas you’ll notice that your own mind is very often extremely repetitive. It is very difficult to surprise oneself in one’s own mind.
This was a very painful time for me; I began to question everything; I felt too much, and not enough; I felt painfully self-conscious; there was an endless conversation in my head; I felt anxious and had panic attacks. And as I began to unravel I worried that my mother’s experiences pointed to an inevitability to the way it would end……..if only I could rub myself out and start again.
So, I did the only thing I knew how to do well – I read and read and read and read….and then connecting the dots as I went, I read some more. Returning to my days as an undergraduate studying English literature I read and made notes and wrote them all up, until I felt I’d sufficiently answered the question: “Vicky Ferrier: What the F**k?”.