“I’m really sorry, I am, I’m sorry! But I didn’t do it!”

Tears were streaming down my face as I tried to explain to the teacher – this angry, spiteful, menacing teacher – that I hadn’t stolen anything. It wasn’t me. I didn’t know why she was accusing me, but she was, and here I was – in trouble, again, and not understanding why. I wasn’t covering up a theft. I was covering up the fact that I couldn’t remember having stolen anything. Damage limitation was the only thing I seemed to be able to do, and it became a major part of my life.

I had been accused of stealing money from my friend’s drawer at school. But I hadn’t done it. Surely, if I’d done it, I would know that I had? My protestations of innocence were genuine. I really didn’t think it was me. But somehow I always got the blame. I was constantly being accused of behaving in a way that just wasn’t me. How dare they accuse me of these things and then call me the liar?! I didn’t understand the rules. I didn’t understand what it was that I was supposed to do. Everyone was angry at me, and that anger grew more frequent.

“She’s a pain,” I heard them say. “She’s a liar,” said someone else. “Attention-seeking!” I didn’t understand what it was that I was doing to be accused of such things. Over time I just accepted that whenever something bad happened, it would be my fault. So I felt confused, hurt, and constantly paranoid. If an adult became angry or even just irritated, I would assume it was my fault. If another child were smacked by a teacher, I would shake, convinced that I was next. I lived in permanent fear, scanning the faces of teachers for the smallest clue that I was in trouble. A frown, a sharp turn of the head, a change in intonation of an adult’s voice: all these were signs that I was bad. I had an intense feeling all the time that I was being watched, and that it spelled danger.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the teachers probably had good reason to accuse me. I can see how my denial had stoked their anger, but at the time it felt like a matter of life-and-death. I wanted to do the right thing by telling the truth – and the truth to me was that I hadn’t hit anyone, hadn’t stolen anything, hadn’t said the things I was accused of – but that just seemed to make it worse. I would beg for forgiveness, genuinely mortified by my apparent crime. But it didn’t help, because in the very next breath I would again forcefully deny it. I eventually realised that denial was doing me no favours. In fact, it was drawing more attention to me: it not only made me look bad, but my greatest fear was that it would make me look mad as well. I felt very different and didn’t fit in. I felt ‘weird’ and didn’t want other people to see me this way. So the only option was damage limitation.

Now as an adult, with the understanding and the knowledge I have, I can see that perhaps other dissociative parts of me were influencing my thoughts and behaviours at certain times. Other parts of me acted or reacted in ways that I would not. But I still got the blame.

Secondary school was no different. Nice teachers turned into angry teachers as I missed parts of lessons and couldn’t complete homework. Some of them thought I was hard-working, respectful, and caring; others that I was disruptive, rude and lazy. No one could make sense of me.

Friendship was another realm where the rules didn’t stack up. No one seemed to like me, so I edged around friendship groups looking in from the outside. Trying to make friends at school was an attempt to belong – I had an all-consuming need to fit in, to be a part of something that felt solid and real. My life didn’t seem real – it felt like I was watching myself, but not really taking part. And I watched other people too, scanning constantly for an inkling of how I should be around others, so I could mimic the ‘right’ behaviour. Although I knew I was a person, I felt like an alien, and I was convinced that others could see right through me. I constantly feared rejection for who and what I was.

But I desperately wanted a friend. Every day, on the inside, I tied myself in knots with my conflicting hopes and fears, longing for friendship but being condemned by the voices in my head that told me that I was evil, bad, filthy, scum. I couldn’t believe that anyone would even want to be near me, let alone be friends with me. I knew I was never going to mix with the popular kids as they had already labelled me “a freak” and “a nutter.” But I did eventually make friends with some other stragglers: we seemed to attract one another, and formed a kind of secret ‘misfit appreciation’ society.

From that group, I formed one friendship that became particularly intense. We would go into the toilets at lunchtime and cut ourselves, and then rub our self-inflicted wounds together, declaring that we were now blood sisters and that we could never be parted. But the friendship ended suddenly a few months later. She came away for the weekend with me and my family, and when we returned her parents stopped her from being friends with me. She wouldn’t tell me why, and in utter devastation and despair I would follow her around school, begging her not to ignore me.

To this day I don’t know what happened. I felt abandoned and rejected, and had an even deeper sense that there was some kind of evil in me. I blamed myself, figuring that she must have sensed that I was bad. So from that day on, I became determined to bury this evil within me and get on with my life without friends. I had a heavy-hearted realisation that I really didn’t belong anywhere and that I just didn’t understand people. It was less painful to be alone.

I thought that College would be a fresh start, but there was no chance of that. Alone and lonely, I would go to lessons desperate to get on with my course, to get my ‘Access to Nursing’ qualification and then be able to go on to train. But I would later find that I had acted strangely and left the lesson halfway through. On more than one occasion I had an apparent seizure and was taken to hospital. Eventually the College tutors had had enough of my strange behaviours and they referred me to the College counsellor.

And so I began my first batch of counselling. Week after week we would talk about everyday things. I didn’t see the point in being there – everything was fine; it was everyone else who had a problem. This ‘apparently normal’ part of me was in major avoidance and denial, and yet at the same time, just to the side, was another part of me that was in total despair. That part of me was desperate to tell the lovely counsellor lady of the horror I felt, of the feelings of impending death, of something around the corner that was about to jump out and grab me.

I desperately wanted to be able to trust this counsellor, but at the same time I was driven by a desperate need to get her away from me. I couldn’t bear for her to see what was inside my head. She kept coming close to it, but time after time I just pushed her away, saying, “I’m just tired – that’s all.” I felt sickeningly ashamed of everything, whilst not even really knowing what it was that I was ashamed of. It was inevitable therefore that after a short while the counsellor seemed to get frustrated with me. She told me that she didn’t understand me, but that it was obvious that I needed “something.” That just increased my shame, but I covered it up with a vow to myself never to need anything or anyone. “Nothing’s wrong,” I said to myself. “I’m just tired.”

“I’m just tired” became a kind of mantra for me. I found it covered up a wide range of behaviours. Being “just a bit tired” is what people say when they are forgetful, when they’re preoccupied. It seemed to me the perfect cover-up. But in the end, with the counsellor advising that I “get some help,” I had to leave College. Being “just a bit tired” wasn’t fooling her any more, and it was ruining my life chances.

Shortly afterwards I was admitted to a psychiatric unit after an incident at the GP surgery when I was sedated and my behaviours presumably had caused extreme concern. It was to be the first of many experiences on a mental health ward. To a point, I even accepted being there: I knew that I was mad; I knew that mad people were put on these kinds of wards; so it made sense for me to be there too. And maybe, while I was there, they could make the madness go away.

It was this ‘madness’ that I had spent my whole life trying to cover up, so that my entire existence seemed now to revolve around it. It was as if I had to avoid being ‘mad’ at all costs, and most importantly I had to avoid anyone else thinking that I was ‘mad’. I had developed a whole series of strategies for managing the little blips that plagued my daily life, such as suddenly waking up to find myself in the middle of a conversation, but not knowing how it had started. Or meeting someone in the street whom I didn’t recognise but who obviously knew me. I would make excuses about soon-to-expire parking tickets, or imminent appointments. I would apologise again for things that I wasn’t aware of having done. And of course covering a multitude of sins was, “Sorry, I’m just a bit tired.”

To this day I still scan the faces of everyone I come into contact with. I have a need somehow to be prepared for any eventuality. It feels like danger is always imminent, even though in reality it rarely is. This heightened alertness, this sense that I’m always on the edge of my seat, affects everything I do. I even refer to myself as being crazy, or mad, using humour to try to deflect from the reality of what I constantly feel. “Oh, did I say that?” I laugh, when the gaps in my memory are again making a fool of me. “I don’t remember,” I say, shrugging it off, and then with a broad grin: “I am such a scatterbrain! I think it’s time I booked my weekend away in that padded cell, with the hug-myself jacket!” Mostly it works, as people falsely reason that mad people don’t joke about being mad.

But throughout adult life my difficulties have continued: not just with my missing chunks of time, but with the push-pull agony of relationships too. I would plunge headfirst into a friendship and within days be convinced that I had found my soul-mate. There would be an indescribable rush of excitement as I believed that now, at last, I could truly belong. The relationships however would be roller-coasters: the highs would make me feel incandescently alive; I wouldn’t want to be parted from my friend; and those inevitable separations would make me crash. Just the threat of abandonment from a falling out, real or imagined, would be devastating. Feelings of worthlessness would overpower me; a sense of evil would choke me; and my explosive self-hatred would become a very real threat to both my sanity as well as my life itself. Sooner or later it would end, and I would vow, “Never again!” But sure enough it would:again and again.

All of my relationships were tinged with this double-edged sword of a yearning for closeness that at times was so intense that the pain of it would burn in my chest; and at other times the desperate urge to run, to push people away. That urge would be so powerful and overwhelming that I would end up hurting the very people I was yearning for. I hated myself for this contradiction, and voices full of condemning failure shouted loudly in my head: I don’t need anyone; I can do it on my own; I don’t do people; people are scary; people are confusing; I don’t belong around people; I don’t belong anywhere. To manage this, I would retreat into my imagination and conjure up the perfect friend, the someone I was always wishing for, the someone who really cares, the someone who really likes me. Before I knew it, I could almost see them. So I managed to bury my need for real people.

But deep down within me I also knew that I wanted more. I wanted to live a life free of this crippling fear, this sense of evil and shame and not belonging. I began to be just a little curious about who I really am and what it is that I am running from. And I began to explore the idea of one day becoming a counsellor myself. This led me to an interview at another College with a view to starting a Diploma. I was asked what I thought my strengths were. All I could think of at the time was, “I’m good at covering up.” Of course I couldn’t say that: it is hardly the best attribute to have as a counsellor! I felt ashamed, but I also felt that I was stepping forwards. I felt a sense of urgency to come to terms with the life that I’m living: of covering up, of damage limitation.

Feeling crazy whilst trying to appear normal in real life takes up a lot of energy. And I began to realise that all this effort to cover things up was for one purpose: to fit in, and hide who I really am and the evil that lies inside me. Eventually I decided that I’d had enough, and that I was going to stop running, that I was going to stop avoiding this incessant noise inside. I went back to therapy again, this time with a local Women’s Counselling Centre.  I had run away from relationships, and I had run away from what was going on on the inside of me. Now, in therapy, for the first time, I had to be willing to face them both. I had to be willing to build a relationship with this new therapist, and I had to be willing to face my difficulties. I knew deep down that I struggled because of bad things that had happened in the past, but I had done everything I could to avoid it all my life.

I am ashamed to admit that avoidance – whether through covering up, through dissociation, or by consciously or unconsciously turning away – had become the hallmark of my life. My early experiences with the counsellor at College was about trying to avoid and cover up the fact that at that stage in my life my craziness was starting to really take hold. I desperately wanted to be a nurse and I was trying to cling onto every minute of sanity so that I could study, and achieve my goal. I had always needed to try to appear normal, but doing so had become a huge monster that was demanding more and more time and effort, and that was beginning to take my energies away from College.

I fought the College counsellor not because I was being awkward but because I was afraid of the power she had over me. I was afraid that she could wipe away my College life and take with it my ability to become a nurse. So I kept quiet about the crazy thoughts, the voices in my head. I kept quiet about the hours and hours in each day that I couldn’t account for, or the way I felt that I was watching my life rather than living it. I kept quiet about the horrific nightmares that kept me awake at night.

My involvement with psychiatric services taught me to avoid too. The professionals working with me at that time prescribed me medication to help me avoid – or tone down – the voices. And then they taught me distraction techniques so that I could avoid them when it was obvious that medication wasn’t going to drown them out completely. I found that I could avoid anything and everything by filling my ears with music so loud that my head would vibrate. It worked – until I took the headphones out. And I found that there was so much that I could avoid if I was busy enough, if I was tending to the needs of others. I would literally accept any task, respond to any request, because the urge to avoid was so strong. If I could fill every second of the day with doing things for other people, I would, because it helped me to avoid.

As I started again in therapy I began to realise how much I had avoided the voices in my head, and the ‘parts’ of me that they represented. There are frightened parts, needy parts, upset parts, angry parts. They know things that I don’t want to know, and they want things that I am ashamed of.

I’ve been in therapy for a couple of years now and it has taken me that long to begin to realise that I can’t cover everything up and expect to get free. I have to face some of this stuff. Part of my work in therapy has been looking at how and why I get into the intense friendships that I do, and why I caregive to others so extremely. To do this I am having to stop avoiding relationships, and actually build one with my therapist. It’s terrifying! All the acceptance she offers; all the unwavering belief that I can do the work that is necessary to heal; all the calmness she shows as I sit week after week, sometimes in utter frustration, trying to make some sense of the unreal madness that plays in my head – it’s terrifying. It goes against everything I’ve ever done, just to survive.

I have a therapist who seems to have a belief in me that I don’t as yet have in myself. I try to convince her what a useless waste of space I am, but she doesn’t buy it. I am ashamed to say that I have tried to convince myself that I don’t like her, or that she doesn’t like me. I have made every effort to try to get her to be angry with me, to reject me, to tell me to go away and never to darken the door of her office again. I want to make her hate me: I’m convinced that she must see that I’m a filthy, good-for-nothing low-life. Other parts of me are straining in the opposite direction and when there’s a rupture between us they want to go back to the calmness and the connectedness of the relationship that we have worked so hard to develop.

But whatever we do, the woman can’t be moved! This is by far the most white-knuckle, terrifying, confusing, frustrating, heart-rending, yet warm, connected and safe relationship that I’ve ever experienced. It’s utterly puzzling. How can she still manage to accept me? This brings up conflicting, difficult feelings in me, and feelings, I’ve found, are horrible things. I’ve spent my whole life avoiding them, but now they creep up on me and jump out at what feels like the most inappropriate moments. This therapist suggests that I just “sit with” them, but sometimes I can’t and I succumb to avoidance, disappearing handily into the carpet. It’s taking time to live life a different way, but my therapist just patiently shows me that it’s okay to avoid things that I can’t handle yet, and it’s okay to face some other things too.

This unwavering acceptance from my therapist is nice but it’s also the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced, and I can’t quite be at peace with it yet. I want to say to her, “I know I must be frustrating, and exasperating, and a downright pain in the backside sometimes. But thank you for not giving up. Thank you for trying to keep up with me when you have felt lost. Thank you for a million and one things, but thank you just for being you.”

I have made a commitment to healing, and although at times it overwhelms me, I have to think of the positives it will eventually bring. I’m hoping that one day my life will be more than one of damage limitation: I hope one day to work with others who struggle with dissociation, and I am trying hard to see that the journey I’m on is a key that will enable me to do this in the future. No more covering up.