91. Stand Down, Soldier

She’s still sat in the same position as she was when I let myself in three hours ago, but at least she’s drunk her tea. I know she only tried to eat that sandwich so she could take her tablet. Gently moving the ornaments closer together, I make room on the mantelpiece for the cards that arrived today. She’s been stroking his sweater all day, trying to remember when she knew the people whose thoughts she’s in. I put the picture of him in uniform holding his son, onto the coffee table.

“Joan?” I pause, whilst the word registers. She slowly turns her head to look up at me, and smiles weakly with recognition. Reaching for my hand, her grip is feeble and grateful. Tomorrow, she won’t let me go.

“I wrote down everything I did whilst I was here. I’ll come back tomorrow at 8 o’clock to dry your hair and make you some breakfast. Ring me if you want me and I’ll come straight round. I’ve got a key.”

I kiss the top of her head and manage to hold in the tears until I’m out of earshot half way down the street.

Buried deep within the walls, air in the pipes make them shudder, and they give out a desperate, low shriek, as I hold my fingers under the slowly warming water. I inhale through a hot wrung-out flannel pressed over my nose and mouth, count in for four and silently scream out for seven. I wonder if he still cries in the shower.

This mirror has seen so much.

Too busy living his own life to visit, never travelling the thousands of miles to say goodbye to his own father. She’s lived off scarce letters for years. He smiles in photographs with people we don’t know, on beaches we will never see. It’s unjust and I’m not ashamed to feel bitter that he is the one who will get the sympathy tomorrow, but this isn’t my battle to fight. I have to disengage. Become detached. No-one dare say it, but we all know why he’s come back. She won’t be living round here much longer.

I just hope time has rubbed his raw edges smooth.

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72. Serenity Now

This post is about the consequences of adult bullying.

I may as well not even be there. I sit between them in the open-plan office and they ignore me. They talk animatedly to each other, about TV, music, food, football, the weather, their families, office politics, weddings, sport, films, holidays, diets, alcohol, clothes, celebrities. If I try to join in, I am frozen out. I sense a prickle in the air as the atmosphere changes. Like I’d opened the window on a winter’s day. Once I asked them if they could talk about a new film another time because I hadn’t yet seen it, so didn’t want any spoiler alerts. Their incredulous looks sent pangs of ice through my heart.

My opinion is of no consequence at all. It does not matter. I am irrelevant. Old. Pointless. Unwanted. Snobby. Up my own arse. Too political. Not cool. Weird. The volume of their voices drowns out everything in my headphones. So there I am, invisible, listening to their chit-chat and jokes all day, but excluded from contributing anything. I am in a glass bubble. Mute. Silenced.

Their repeated, anticipated reaction means I am learning to be afraid to speak. There is a tacit agreement that I am forbidden from joining in. If I do, then the conversation will abruptly end, or they will pretend they have not heard me. If someone does reply to me, our conversation will run parallel to the original one.

My heart booms in my own ears and stomach, my throat constricts with a dry, nervous cough. Swallowing is impossible now. I press my tongue to the roof of my mouth, trying to blink back tears, but cannot stop one from falling down my cheek. I rise, head down and slip out of the room, unnoticed. I want to run. I try to remember my mindfulness training and breathe through the impending panic, then lock myself in the ladies room. I figure that this is the best place for me right now. Silent screams. I blow my nose and wash my face. I could be in here all day. No-one will come looking for me.

They think I’m depressed, anxious, bipolar, have aspergers, hormonal, borderline, got ADHD or every other amateur diagnosis they’ve heard of or read about online. I’m high maintenance. Overemotional. Hypersensitive. Can’t take a joke. Too full on. Annoying. Jekyll and Hyde. That I’ve got pain issues so I’ll snap at them for no reason. A crazy bitch. I talk to much. A nutter. That I never shut up ranting. I don’t fit in so they cannot accomodate me. I agree I was a bit much for a few weeks. It was well over a year ago, I was completely upfront about it at the time, and my new medication stabilised me very quickly. I’ve been a model employee for nearly a year, but as we all know, old habits die hard. No-one likes to be proved wrong. I haven’t said more than 20 words a week to them in the last six months. I’ve worked really hard to change. Have they? When will they consider I have been punished enough? Then, I remember that I’ll be gone soon, so what does it matter? I feel better for a moment. This time next year it will be as if I never existed.

Being treated like this makes me seethe. So much so, that I’ve gone back to my boxercise class to try to rid myself of this constant bubbling anger, and to yoga to try to regain some peace. I’m wearing a teeth guard at night because I grind them so much.

They’ve been counting points and having naughty, cheat days, and between them they haven’t even lost half of what I have. If you really want to know how to lose weight, try being bullied for over a year. A side-effect of the stress.

Every morning I wish for some kind of minor illness so I won’t have to go to work, but I have to, because an employer will look at my sick record. Applying for every new vacancy takes so much effort, and takes up most of my weekends, but I keep going because every day that passes is a day closer to leaving and starting afresh. I can’t even take a day off, because I’m saving up all of my holiday to use in my notice period.

I know the circle never ends. Bystanders don’t intervene. They don’t want to take sides. It’s nothing to do with them. They’re staying out of it and not rocking the boat. Why should they be the one to stick their head above the parapet? They don’t consider being complicit as bullying. People would rather be loyal to group, even though they know it is wrong, for fear of themselves being ostracised. I might think they’re my friend if they’re nice to me or turn on them, mistaking their kindness for pity. Best not to get involved at all.

I wonder if they would want someone to stand up and support the victim if it was one of their family that was living through this day after day?

I’ve seen them walking towards me in the street. I felt like I was going to pass out. I had a few seconds to prepare my reaction and all I could do was wave a hand in a hi gesture whilst willing myself not to cry. NO EYE CONTACT.  DO NOT PANIC.

I breathe in for four, hold my breath for five, then breathe out for six. Repeat until calmer.

Then, one day, I take my house key out of the keyhole, and push open the front door. A large, fat letter on the door mat is preventing the door from opening as smoothly as usual. I notice the envelope has the logo of the company I interviewed with a fortnight ago and in that split-second, I know that everything will be ok.

42. Sonder

sonder, n. the realisation that everyone is living a life as complex and separate as your own.

It was a shock to find out that I didn’t mean as much to them or was not as important in their lives as I thought I was. Lower down in the pecking order. I think the term that is kindly used is “people have different priorities.”

They said they were keeping it quiet in case it didn’t work out. Then they just assumed I already knew and was cool about it. Being discrete and respecting their privacy. Polite.

It’s difficult to be calm and collected when you’ve just found out that two people you’ve known since you were kids have, (deep breath), been going out for six months, got married yesterday, and the first you hear of it is right now at her birthday party when they announce they are having a baby together.

“We wanted to wait until after 12 weeks, to make sure everything was ok with the baby.”

The words hung in the air. Time slowed. My mind was speeding. Like the time I saw the taxi come towards the car and I knew we were going to crash into it but I didn’t do anything to stop it happening. I could have shouted to the driver to “look out!” or grabbed the wheel myself, but I did nothing. It felt like I had so much time, but it was a fraction of a second at most.

I joined in with the clapping and smiling. Hugged them when it was my turn and kissed my congratulations to her parents.

I had no idea. At all. Of any of it. I don’t recall that one had ever even mentioned to me in passing that they thought of the other in that way before.

I know people keep whatever they like private. I’m not entitled to know anything about anyone.

An anxious conversation starts up in my head. “It’s just that… you would have thought… it is me after all… I’m not just anyone… It has nothing to do with me… am I really that naive? Stop making this about me. I don’t factor in this. Get over yourself woman. It was their choice to do the whole “ta-da!” thing. I’m not taking that away from them. People can tell people whatever they like, whenever they want. Or not. It’s up to them. They’ve shared a house for years. Half the people here thought they were going out anyway.”

I feel like the young Briony Tallis in ‘Atonement’ when she doesn’t understand what’s going on, or know what to do with the information she has, but no-one will explain anything to her because it’s none of her business.

Right now it stings. I’m winded. I need to catch my breath. This is going to take a little time to process, of which I will have plenty, during these next few months.

In the meantime, I’ll top up some glasses and mingle with the guests.

“No, I had no idea. Yes, it is a surprise. A lovely surprise. Yes, I’m a bit emotional. It’s a lot to take in. Look, my hand is still shaking. I know! Like a whirlwind. You must be delighted. I never expected tonight to turn out like this.”

I hate surprises. My blood drains cold at the idea of spontaneity. I need time to prepare. My mind has to marinate, soak, absorb. I know myself so well. I know that my first reaction is not always my true opinion. I only have to be here for another 45 minutes, an hour at most. Everyone knows I always leave a party early, that I get overwhelmed by too many people. I am genuinely well chuffed for them, I really am. I can’t always have advance warning of a surprise though, because that’s the point, which for an INFJ poses a dilemma.

I just need time for it to sink in. I don’t know how I feel.