for better mental health

At last I felt I wasn’t alone

Friday, 21 February 2020 Catherine

When Catherine found out about avoidant personality disorder, her behaviour began to make sense to her.

"What's wrong with you?"

This is the question I would constantly ask myself throughout my life. I had observed other people well enough to simultaneously know, firstly that I wasn't normal and secondly, how to imitate someone who was.

"Avoidant personality disorder is characterised by intense sensitivity to criticism and a feeling of being judged."

Most of the time it worked pretty well, but then I'd glimpse it in someone's expression - "What's wrong with you?"

Avoidant personality disorder is characterised by intense sensitivity to criticism and a feeling of being judged and observed. Socialising is extremely painful - I am self-conscious and vigilant about how I'm acting and what I'm saying, determined that no-one should see who I really am. It's exhausting, yet I would feel my most comfortable in groups. A group is somewhere to hide.

"I would move on and try to start again. I had lived in six different countries on three different continents by the time I was 26."

The problem was being alone because that is when the thoughts would start. I would forensically take apart every interaction I'd had that day; what had I done wrong? How much of a fool had I acted? Who hated me and how much? Had I showed my anxiety to anyone? This level of analysis and self-loathing inevitably led to depression and emotional isolation. I convinced myself that friends didn't really like me and I was better off without them. I would move on and try to start again. I had lived in six different countries on three different continents by the time I was 26.

But I couldn't outrun myself.

I finally settled in Barcelona where I met a group of friends I felt comfortable with but I masked my fear of emotional closeness with a lot of drug taking.

That lifestyle couldn't last though, and after the effects of the drugs had worn off, I wondered where those feelings of closeness had gone and if they were ever real. I was still alone.

My friends started to get married and my avoidance became harder to conceal.

I was 36 years old with no significant relationships behind me, and a career based around avoiding the interview process and working with colleagues. I felt intensely judged for my poor life performance and exhausted from constantly hiding who I was.

"My sleep was disrupted, I would wake up feeling like I'd been thrown down a flight of stairs."

Eventually this got the better of me and in my mid-thirties I started experiencing exhaustion. Over the next few months this became more frequent. My sleep was disrupted, I would wake up feeling like I'd been thrown down a flight of stairs and my energy would fluctuate unexpectedly from day-to-day and hour-to-hour. After several months of testing, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.

I was devastated.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a famously misunderstood illness, even by health professionals and I encountered specialist after specialist telling me my illness did not exist. It was the worst thing I could imagine happening to me, an illness that nobody believes in. I already felt judged and criticised. Things were about to get much worse.

So I ran away again.

Coming to terms with my new life situation was unimaginably difficult. I felt judged by everyone and more alone than ever. I believed I had no one to support me and decided to relocate to Bali.

Inevitably I ended up alone again- extremely, intensely alone. My illness isolated me further. I spent birthdays and Christmases alone and depressed. I looked for support groups, I joined chronic fatigue support groups, I joined groups for anxiety and depression, but none of it resonated. Yes, I was depressed, yes I was anxious, yes I was sick but that didn't explain why I couldn't form close relationships. I just felt more isolated - no one was as alone as me.

But I persevered, watching videos about mental health conditions, listening to podcasts and reading blogs until, one day I discovered avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) and I broke down in tears. I checked every single condition on the diagnostic criteria, in spades!

For the first time in my life I felt that I wasn't alone. I felt like there was nothing wrong with me. I had a mental health condition.

"I still feel judged but I am able to rationalise it as part of my condition."

Knowing my limitations with this condition allowed me to accept myself. I did cognitive behavioural therapy to control the negative self-talk, I spoke with my therapist about my fears and anxieties around social situations and how to address them and I joined a 12-step program for codependency. Joining Coda (Co-Dependents Anonymous)and having a space to speak and share my experience with others, allowing them to see me at my most vulnerable, was a huge step forward and something I wouldn't have been able to imagine doing before. I still feel judged but I am able to rationalise it as part of my condition and I don't have to believe it.

I'm still in Bali, but now I'm here because I want to be. I'm improving and building resilience until I'm ready to go back. The difference is I now have people I can call friends. I have emotional support and I don't feel alone. Slowly, I'm repairing relationships that I had given up on and am starting to believe that I can have a life too.

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