I can’t help but wonder whether it is a fine example of the strength of human character or just a case of selective amnesia that allows us look back at some of our worst memories with a tinge of nostalgia.
I say this as I look back at my life for some potential reasons as to why I turned into an obsessively anxious and depressed irrational worrier – one who deep down used to always feel unworthy and not good enough. In this post I will be considering two main reasons in particular.
Before we go on, just to summarise where we’ve been so far and where we are heading on the journey, my last post was intended as a brief foray into what I used to worry about. This third post looks at why I used to worry so much, and my next post will be focusing on how it felt – especially when it all went really pear-shaped one day not all that long ago.
OK, so the great selective amnesia versus strength of human character debate. Take my schooldays as the primest of examples. A few years ago, in the years just prior to Facebook, I came into work one day to an email from my old friend Katie back in Scotland. She told me about a new (addictive!) website called Friends Reunited. Once you registered on the site, you could look up your old schools and then contact any of your school friends who had also registered. Curious to find out what everyone was up to, I registered and had a look for myself.
A smile came across my face as I found the names of people whom I had neither seen nor heard of in nearly two decades. Memories came flooding back, not just of these people but also of places – classrooms and corridors; science labs and soccer fields that I also hadn’t thought of in decades. All these places had seemed insignificant at the time I was at school. Yet the memories of them now filled me with that warm, glowing sense of nostalgia.
But as I sat there wallowing in all the memories, something didn’t seem quite right, something was missing. The most vivid memory of all then came from leftfield and gave me a great big wake-up slap in the face. I was flooded in a dark, nostalgia-drowning wave when I then remembered – and I think you may have guessed where I am going with this – that my schooldays were in fact amongst the most depressing days of my life!
When I was ten, I was given the harmless nickname Pizza because I was considered Italian. But I very much felt and wanted to be seen as Scottish. I was born in Glasgow, I had a thick-as-cold-porridge Glaswegian accent, for God’s sake I even loved to see England lose at any sporting event against any other nation. But I also had four Italian grandparents and an Italian surname to boot. So as much as I hated to admit it during my schooldays, there is in fact as much Scottish blood flowing through my veins as there is life on Mars.
Being called Pizza made me different when all I wanted to do was fit in. So although it was a pretty tame nickname, I didn’t like it one single bit. I did the worst possible thing any kid could do in a situation like that – I showed that I didn’t like it. I reacted!
In the years that followed, the nicknames flowed – Prosciutto, Pepperoni, Grease Bowl, Baw Heid, Tomato Heid (ok, yes I have a particularly round-shaped head!) to name but a few of just the printable ones. It was the most vicious of vicious circles – the more I reacted, the more the list grew; the more the list grew, the more I reacted. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, along came puberty, and with it a particularly bad dose of acne; Pizzaface was born and cruelly added to the list!
The taunting also went beyond just nicknames at times and I would get picked on for just about anything. It eventually got so unbearable that I became a practical recluse in my early teens for the best part of a year. I would nervously hide out reading in empty classrooms at lunchbreaks to avoid more taunting, and stay within the safe confines of home when school was out. I guess it was also a case of boys will be boys, pick on or be picked on, but the worst part of it all was that the biggest tormentors of all were my supposed friends.
Now I’m not after the sympathy vote here, I assure you that is the last thing I want. But to say I was not exactly part of the in-crowd at school would clearly be an understatement. In fact I’d be in denial myself right now if I didn’t fess up to being a bit of a loser back then! I was hardly one who felt worthy of having any friends. But I am long since over it all now, and not at all ashamed of my past. I am not the same person nowadays that I was all those years ago. I also remain amicably in contact with many of my former tormentors, who themselves are not the same as they once were. I’m just setting the scene here for one of the many possible reasons behind what was for so many years my lack of self worth despite anything I ever achieved.
Of course, after I left school, I continued to blame the fact that I was picked on at school for why I felt so unworthy, so unwanted, and found it hard to really trust anyone for so many years. Perhaps, I thought, as I also looked back in search of reasons for my anxiety and worrying – my irrational fear of failing all my exams, of losing all my girlfriends to better men, of being fired from all my jobs for no real reason, of the ceiling in my investment property falling on my tenant’s head, of me going to jail and losing my family as a result – perhaps they were all the fault of my tormentors. Perhaps my fear of losing all the good things in my life emanated from a subconscious and mistaken belief deeply engrained in my head since my schooldays that I simply wasn’t good enough for any of them.
But the more I thought about it, the more I felt there was an alternative explanation. Perhaps it wasn’t because my school friends picked on me that I was left feeling unwanted and not good enough. Perhaps it was the other way around. Perhaps I was already sensitive, I already felt unworthy, perhaps even genetically-so. Furthermore, perhaps my school friends subconsciously sensed all this, and perhaps that was why they picked on me. Perhaps all my years of tormenting were a symptom of my underlying view of myself as unworthy, and not the root cause. And the more I thought about it, the more this rang so true for me.
Whether or not my lack of self worth was the chicken or the egg, at least I can say with certainty that something good finally came out of my endless taunting, my little gang of nicknames. Without them, my weaknesses – that lack of self worth and belief that I wasn’t good enough – might never have fully revealed themselves. I therefore might never have become aware of them and been able to strengthen them. It is worth considering, after all, that one of the greatest strengths a person can have is to be fully aware of their weaknesses. That way, they can learn to control their weaknesses and create the choice to react differently in a given situation, rather than being unaware of their weaknesses and being blindly driven by them.
Perhaps there always will be a part of me that instinctively believes I’m not good enough, if only to keep me in check, to stop me from developing an ego. Fortunately, as I am now aware of how I am wired, I do now at the best of times choose to ignore my ever-weakening old instinctive reactions. I now choose – and believe – that I really am just as good as the next guy. I can now reach to for all the things that my dreams are made of with a newfound injection of self-confidence.
And so in hindsight, rather than feeling I should lay any blame on my old school friends, I truly have a lot to thank them for. They were arguably the best teachers I ever had, because they were the ones who taught me where my weaknesses were. I was just a slow learner in that particular subject.
31st August 1996. A date that has become firmly embedded in my mind as one of life’s great milestones. Being a Glaswegian, you might think I’d be used to having things embedded in the vicinity of my head – bottles, bricks and other people’s foreheads for example.
But this particular date sticks out in my mind because this was the day when, at the ripe age of twenty-five, I finally left Glasgow and headed south to begin a new life in the hustle and bustle of the Big Smoke – London. With a fresh start, a cleared-up complexion, and a couple of Uni qualifications under my belt, I was determined that I was going to make it there. Sweet success was just around the corner, and I could smell it already. Failure was not even a consideration.
I had often dreamed of a life in the Big Smoke where I would have a high-powered successful corporate career, involving regular assignment onto a diversity of mission-critical projects. I would be part of a small, cohesive team of popular, confident individuals. We would be renowned for our dedication to the job, our ability to think creatively together outside the circle, and our “problems are not problems, they are just challenges waiting to be overcome” attitude.
We would willingly work late into the night whenever the need arose in order to meet our regular strict deadlines, and we would always do so just before the final buzzer. Having heroically saved the day once again, we would then congratulate ourselves with a round of high-fives and slaps on the back, followed by a celebratory bottle of Bollinger or two.
I would dress in sharp designer suits for work, and change into trendy clubbing gear at the weekends for all the endless parties. On the weeknights that I wasn’t working late in the office, I would be working out in a modern corporate health club in order to work off the (fashionable) executive stress.
If I wasn’t in the gym, I would be entertaining all my new friends at dinner parties in my hip waterfront bachelor pad. Interesting and attractive girls from each corner of Europe would be sat at each corner of the table. They would all be dazzled by my impressive range of culinary talents, and swoon over my silverware at the way I seductively rolled my ‘r’s in my smooth Scottish tones when I would say “och, it’s nothing rreally, it’s just rroast trrout wrrapped in shrredded prrosciutto”. The fact that I had never before cooked anything that wasn’t frozen and had instructions on the side was not a problem – this too was just another one of those challenges waiting to be overcome.
My Saturday afternoons would be spent shopping for new additions to my ever-expanding wardrobe, the latest enhancements for my impressive hi-fi system, or other new electric gadgets and games. Sunday afternoons would be spent taking one of those interesting and attractive European girls for a spin around the countryside in the soft-top, or laughing and relaxing with friends over a few beers in the likes of Soho or Covent Garden. It all sounded like the perfect lifestyle, the only problem with it being that I never realised just how much of a wanker I was actually aspiring to be.
People say that expectations often lead to disappointment. As I discovered, the opposite can also be true because I had no expectation whatsoever for the sheer enormity of the rent bill, the supermarket bill, the phone, gas and electricity bills, the taxman’s healthy helping to a slice of my pay, and the cost of a travel pass, to name but a few. Not forgetting, of course, the essential weekly ritual of needlessly flushing what little was left of my pay down the toilet in the pub on a Friday night. Those swift couple of beers always and without fail turned into six beers and four whisky chasers on an empty stomach, followed by a gentle stagger into McDonalds on my way to catch the last tube home. The less said about waking up on Saturday mornings the better – mainly because I can hardly remember ever waking up on a Saturday morning.
Although I was earning more money than I had ever earned before, I was still unable to afford the lavish lifestyle and endless entertainment that I had once dreamed of. Only once a month, just after pay day, I felt rich – nae, unpoor – albeit briefly, and I would treat myself to a bonus Saturday night out with some friends; the rest of the month was all about surviving until the next pay day. In short, London was not a happy place for me.
It was only when I faced the harsh reality of life in London not working out as I had planned that I realised all the money, motor cars, masquerading as a master chef, and movements up the corporate ladder I had once dreamed of were things I was trying to achieve in order to prove something to other people rather than to myself. Perhaps I was even trying to prove to my old school tormentors that I was good enough after all.
Of course I’m not saying that everyone who wants for cars, corporate position and mountains of money is a wanker. I know and have a lot of respect for several good people in fairly high places, some of whom even drive fast cars. There is nothing wrong in wanting these badges of success, but what made them wrong for me were the reasons why I so coveted them. For me, they were all about looking good rather than feeling good and being myself. In reality, not a single one of them were all that important to me.
To suddenly come to this realisation after spending nearly twenty years in an education system with this as my end game was quite a sobering and depressing thought. It is as though the decade and more that we spend at school preconditions us into accepting that it is ok to do something we don’t necessarily enjoy between the hours of nine and five – as long as we generally have our evenings and weekends to do with what we want, with a mountain of cash to help us along the way.
Unfortunately, what they don’t teach you at school is that it quickly becomes about more than just 9am-5pm. We feel invincible as we take our first steps into the workforce, but we can so easily become overloaded. I all too often found myself thinking about work all the time – in the evenings, at weekends, or lying awake at 3 o’clock in the morning in a state of panic, driven by that constant fear of failure. This in turn led to my fears of being fired now being triggered by even the slightest and most harmless things.
I guess one thing that the corporate world can be good for is revenge – the opportunity for the bullied to become the bullies. I have come across more than a handful of people over the years who, just like me, were clearly never part of the in-crowd at school, and were also most likely bullied to some extent. A few years down the track, and lo and behold, they end up in positions of authority in the corporate world, with a new-found hierarchical power over those who were clearly once the bullies. They seem to be the only ones who don’t realise just how much they are blindly driven by revenge. I often wonder how many of them are going to wake up feeling empty one day when they come to this realisation. I don’t wish it upon them, however, as ignorance is indeed often bliss.
As for me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was about my work that contributed to my underlying state of depression – but I knew there was something. Not knowing what you want to do in life, or worse, knowing what you want to do but not feeling good enough are indeed both prime suspects. I didn’t hate working as an IT Systems Analyst, I actually quite enjoyed it at times, it just wasn’t something I was truly passionate about. And given the choice of the office or the pub, I knew where I’d rather be.
I finally stumbled across the missing part of the answer I was looking for in a second hand bookshop in Melbourne one day. It was one of those bookshops with a damp and dusty smell in the air from the thousands of old pages that filled the shelves.
I’d read a lot of self-help books over the years. I was the guy who would stand sheepishly in the Sports section of a bookshop, trying to gaze unnoticed to the section to my left. On this particular occasion, my gaze fell across a copy of The Conquest Of Happiness by Bertrand Russell. It was a 1931 edition, a slightly worn red hard-backed book but still in great condition. To say I didn’t find the book but rather the book found me would sound a little clichéd, but it does accurately convey just how much it stood out on the bookshelf against the others. I picked it up and flicked through it, imagining all the people who had read the same pages over the previous seventy years as I breathed in the dusty smell of the pages. The book kind of then fell open naturally towards the end, at a page that had clearly been read more than the rest of the book since 1931. The spine of the book was slightly cracked at this page as evidence, and therein lay my answer. Now I’m not usually a big fan of quotes, but I am a fan of this big quote, so I would like to take a break from my own words and share the following excerpt with you:
“The savage hunts when he is hungry, and in doing so is obeying a direct impulse. The man who goes to his work every morning at a certain hour is actuated fundamentally by the same impulse, namely the need to secure a living, but in his case the impulse does not operate directly and at the moment when it is felt. At the moment when the man starts off to his work he is not feeling hungry, since he has just had his breakfast. He merely knows that hunger will recur, and that going to work is a means of satisfying future hunger. When the tribe is going to war the tom-tom rouses military ardour, and herd excitement inspires each individual to the necessary activity. Modern enterprises cannot be managed this way. When a train has to be started at a given moment it is impossible to inspire the porters, the engine driver and the signalman by means of barbaric music.”
Now I’m not suggesting that we should all pack in our jobs, regress to living in caves, and make beating our women over the head with clubs part of our culture again rather than an act of crime. But what made reading these words such a turning point for me was purely and simply a new sense of awareness. It is also perhaps a leap of faith for me to say that the above excerpt may go a long way to partially explaining the reason for the increase in anxiety, depression and other mental conditions in modern day man and woman.
Of course I bought the little red antique book. It has been sitting proudly on our bookshelf for about four years now, but I’ve yet to read any more other than the above excerpt. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, I don’t feel the need.
In closing, as I look back at my past nowadays from a safe distance and in a safe state of mind, I can truly do so with a sense of nostalgia. It is now about self acceptance rather than selective amnesia. As for Pizza, he will always be a part of me – it is more that he is now in a state of calm and rest than that he has been laid to rest. I have also found a whole new sense of purpose in my work – in any work in fact – which I will be discussing in a later post.
And after several hours on the psychologist’s couch over the past few years, as well as performing some self-root-cause analysis here, I can confidently say that my underlying state of mind was indeed caused by past events in my life. But I recently discovered that not all the reasons were circumstantial. Some of them were also chemical.