It’s okay. You can come out now. Honestly, it’s all over! Whichever survival strategies you’ve used (could be an article in that …), whatever your own quirky (aka dysfunctional) individual coping mechanisms have been, it is now officially safe to emerge from the November-December tunnel. You can even walk confidently down the High Street again. No more eyes-down on the pavement, or eyes up on that hazy horizon, very determinedly not noticing (and how good at we at that?!) what the rest of society are apparently entirely absorbed by. I remember as a child being delighted the first year that the January sales began on Boxing Day. In my amazingly adaptive mind I had previously managed to reduce Christmas to two days: 25 and 26 December.

I mean, all that run-up to Christmas wasn’t too bad really because it wasn’t actually Christmas, and at least there were still other people around. Often those people were appearing to have a considerably better time than I was, but that didn’t really matter. It’s just the way it was. But on Christmas Day, the world drew its curtains closed and there was no escaping the grim reality of my life at home. For two full days I was effectively trapped into somehow tolerating what I was so skilled at avoiding: being me. So when the sentence was effectively halved and Christmas was now a one-day event, my relief was palpable. I would spend the 26th happily riding the buses and trains thanks to my 30p ‘All Day Supersaver’ ticket, merrily pretending that I was just another regular kid. For those of us who now spend the final months of each year in the company of The Ghost of Christmas Past, 2nd January presents us with a new beginning. Maybe even with hope … or am I taking this too far? So I have decided that, rather than write some black-humoured diatribe against the big ‘C’ (tempting though that it is), I will be positive and optimistic about life. (Do tell me to stop if this becomes irritating …)

But in the latter half of the year 2012 I made a great, life-changing discovery: I learned how to care for my garden. I’ve never had much time for gardening. In truth, I’ve never had any time whatsoever for it. As long as there’s a small patch of concrete attached to my house where I can sit and read in the sunshine, I’m more than happy. Grass, flowers, trees, hedges and shrubs certainly have their place in my world – it’s called ‘The Countryside’ and I love it. I love it because it’s always there when I need it to walk or cycle in, and the greatest thing is that it’s not dependent on me. It just gets on with being beautiful in my absence. It has no claim on me – it is entirely separate, and most of the time, it is completely outside my awareness. Perfect.

Gardens, on the other hand, are needy, complex, demanding and unreasonably visible – nothing, in my opinion, but a millstone around the neck of the foolish gardener who could be doing so many other important things, like working, or running, or trying to figure out what the hell is going on with folks outside the garden. All that pruning and weeding, trimming and chopping, sprinkling, watering and tending is for sorted people, like my husband, who trusts that life will tick along nicely, even without his active surveillance, while he neatens up the borders. He even believes that his friends and family will still be around whenever he finishes the pruning. Yes, gardening is just another luxury for the securely-attached, or so I used to think …

There seems to come a time in a survivor’s recovery when ‘psychoeducation’ reaches saturation point. In a desperate bid to get to grips with the chaos, like me you’ve probably read an enormous amount of material about DID. You may have been lucky enough to go on several training courses on ‘affect regulation’. Hopefully you will have had many fruitful discussions with a therapist about ‘triggers’, and accessed peer support online to discuss ‘shame’. I arrived at this point in September 2012. I’d waded my way through The Haunted Self, could almost recite Trauma and Recovery word for word, but I still had a sneaking suspicion that I still didn’t quite really get it. I could talk about ‘it’, write about ‘it’, reflect endlessly on ‘it’, but I was terminally bewildered as to the real root of ‘it’. You know, ‘it’ – my problem.

I was in a bad way. In early August I was (finally) invited to ‘Initial Assessment’ Number 3 (sic) with the ‘Senior Consultant Psychologist’ at the PSTD / Anxiety Disorders Clinic. I was buzzed into an intimidatingly old building with lots of loud swinging doors that locked securely behind me. The receptionist sent me to a run-down, drafty waiting room with hospital-green walls where I had to complete a routine questionnaire. The room seemed to expand in direct proportion to my alarming desire to contract. But I held it together long enough for the doctor to arrive, unsmiling, and show me to her office. At the centre of it was an enormous, elaborate, brocaded couch, which I instantly decided not to register.

There ensued a discussion about the horribly circuitous route by which I’d arrived before her, and an almost-apology for the unnecessary involvement of Ivan the Ponytail Man who should have referred me straight to her team 18 months ago. “Still, you’ve stuck with us,” she added cheerfully, and ever so slightly resentfully. “Let’s see what we can do.” She then looked directly at me and asked me to tell her about my earliest childhood memory. The question bounced right off my body and flew abruptly back into her face. We both jerked backwards a little, but she held my gaze until I answered, “You’ve got to be f*****g joking?! No way. I’ve only just met you!” Looking more than a little displeased, she nodded, and the conversation continued until the 45-minute threshold at which she said, “Well, we need a follow-up appointment, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to be prepared to work much harder than this. You’ll simply have to talk about your childhood if there is to be any hope of deconstructing this … this … this fortress.”

And so, having successfully reduced me from client to patient, she showed me to the door.

I returned four weeks later, ready for action. She began by asking how I’d felt about the prospect of therapy with her. I smiled wryly and said that the couch thing was a little scary. She smiled back and, nodding sympathetically, suggested that maybe I wasn’t in the right place for therapy. Perhaps I was a little too ‘unstable’ and ‘resistant’ for the kind of long-term therapy that they were allegedly able to offer.

Unfortunately for her, my 12-year-old part’s strong sense of imminent adult abandonment made me grip on all the more tightly. I told her calmly that I am not ‘unstable’, that my Care Coordinator could vouch for that, and then I asked her, quite reasonably, who wouldn’t feel a little apprehensive at encountering at close quarters the enormous elephant immediately adjacent to my carefully-chosen hard-backed chair? She sighed, sounding so wrung-out that I felt sorry for her. She informed me that there had been an unexpected death in the ‘Department’, leaving them one psychologist down. Realistically it was unlikely that that person’s position would be replaced, meaning that it would be a minimum of 12 months before therapy could begin.

Before I could react, she added, “Come on now, Mrs Le Roux, as one public sector worker to another, I’m sure you can understand …” I raised my eyebrows in disbelief. She then proceeded to enquire as to whether I had considered the possibility of private therapy. “Oh no,” I replied, beaming. “No, you see, Ibelieve in the NHS, so I’m going nowhere.”

I was gutted, of course – we all were! – but I left her Clinic with a ‘Keep in Touch Appointment’ (an ‘Are you really not going away yet? Appointment’) booked for February. She tried to make it a ‘Keep in Touch Phone Call’, but I insisted on a face-to-face meeting with my Care Coordinator, knowing how difficult it can be to reach these frightfully busy people by telephone.

Six months after ‘The Second Ending’ with Sheila my ex-therapist, four months following the ‘Therapy for two to three years soon’ Promise, I felt that the NHS had chewed me up and spat me out mercilessly. Paranoia has never been my thing, and Sheila always used to say that I had ‘good guts’, so I am certain that I read the situation accurately: the good doctor really had done her best to bump me off her waiting list.

Feeling uncharacteristically dejected, I met with Meera, my Care Coordinator. She was profusely apologetic about the embarrassing dis-coordination of my care. In an unbecoming mix of seething anger and desperation, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help my case. Maybe I needed to have some kind of ‘crisis’? – You know, commit a minor criminal offence, perhaps fake a suicide attempt? But she assured me that this sort of behaviour would be catastrophic as then I really would be classed as ‘unstable’ and possibly even lose my job to boot. Fair point, I conceded. The best she could do would be to look into some ‘alternative treatment options’. More than ever, I felt my journey along the Healing Superhighway was dwindling to a dawdle along the Road to Nowhere.

To add insult to injury, a week later I received the usual letter summarising my new ‘Care Plan’ from the PTSD / Anxiety Team. As I tore open the envelope, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The letter was a copy of one addressed to … wait for it … Ivan the Ponytail Man! What the hell?! So I still haven’t managed to shake him off, even though nobody knows why. And I’m prepared to bet money that despite his absolute, recognised, documented irrelevance to my case, some day soon in a small green room with Ikea armchairs, he and I shall meet again.

In early October I travelled to Huntingdon for the PODS Healthy Boundaries and Relationships day, more out of curiosity than perceived need. You see, at work I am well known as The Baroness of Boundaries, The Queen of Consistency, and the Dame of Appropriate Distance. No student of mine is left in any doubt as to who is in charge, what The Rules are, and what happens if The Rules aren’t followed. I make it 100% clear that my purpose is to teach them French or Italian, that I couldn’t care less what they think of me, and that I certainly have no interest whatsoever in going out for pizza with them. Texting young teenagers, Facebook-ing them, hanging out with them in the canteen are all asking for trouble, in my book. Nobody holds a boundary quite like Mrs Le Roux, and although many staff deem me old-fashioned, inflexible and downright cold towards my charges, I know from experience that this arrangement keeps us all safe and working productively. So what could anyone teach me about boundaries?!

Sometimes it’s the simplest of images that prove to be most effective. As I sat in the hall feeling cynical and hardened, jaded and all psyched-out, something quite revolutionary began to take seed. It began with the seemingly innocent sentence, “A boundary is not a rule.” Well of course it’s a bloody rule! Everyone knows that! It’s an absolutely vital rule that keeps all the f*****s in their right place: a mile away from ME! As such, the boundary has nothing at all to do withme. It’s completely detached from me – dissociated from me, if you like. It’s all about them. That lot. Other people.

The idea that caught my attention in Carolyn’s talk was the concept that between me and my treasured boundaries, there existed a space. Up to that very moment, I had been completely unaware of that space, so busy was I policing the Great Wall of my … of my … of my … Fortress! And that space could be thought of as a ‘garden’ (the analogy that Carolyn was using to describe what boundaries were there to do, and to protect). But really it was my life.

For the first time I focused in on what I had been so preoccupied with protecting: my very own ‘garden’, which I had never watered, never weeded, never tended, never even spent any time in.

My mind started to race: how everything I had ever done for myself – all my schoolwork, my time at university, my career, all my running, even having children! – had been motivated either by caring for, or even frantically trying to escape from, other people’s gardens. It was as if I’d been living in a high-rise flat with no balcony but an excellent view of everyone else’s gardens, into which I had installed CCTV cameras, just to be on the safe side.

I have some memories of trying to establish my own metaphorical ‘plot of land’ as a child. There always seemed to be someone trying to smother me with cloying, suffocating, unwanted ‘affection’. If I tried to protest, I would be accused of being selfish, uncaring, cold, and bad: “just like your father”. I should be grateful for having such a loving brother and a devoted mother, having all my needs met before I was even aware of them – because my mother could “read me like a book”. The only way I could cope with my frustration was to savagely bite my own hands until they bled, an action mimicked by my parents, who found it hilarious. My developing body was the object of constant ridicule and contempt, but still I fought to resist their intrusions and to make space for myself outside of my home. As I grew older, I became a full-time ‘gardener’, specialising in pruning the chaotic weeds of my parents’ alcoholism, violence, and abuse of others, while trying to grow hedgerows strong enough to contain my brother’s growing sexual desire.

As the PODS’ day progressed, I began to imagine for the first time what my ‘garden’ might look like. And I began also to fear my own responsibility for looking after it. And then there were my children, whose gardens I’d been happily growing for the past 12 years. I could now see that I had to teach them to care for their own mini-gardens rather than making them look pretty by doing it all for them. Where would I get the time from? Was there some kind of manual to follow?

As Carolyn continued, I couldn’t help but think of what my husband and children were doing at the same time. They had gone to meet with my father for the first time in three years. And yes, part of the reason for going on the PODS’ day was as a useful avoidance strategy to get me through that terribly difficult and painful day! When I arrived back home, my husband told me unspeakable news about my mother’s situation, gleaned from my father – news designed, no doubt, to motivate me to resume my previous role of family ‘head gardener’ and rescuer and stop pretending to be mentally ill once and for all.

While all this was immensely triggering, I had new insight with which to resist my urge to hop in the car, drive North and sort them all out. I will never really know the truth about what is happening in my parents’ lives, but armed with this new concept from the PODS day that we all have our own ‘gardens’ – our own lives – and we are each ultimately responsible for our own garden, not for the gardens of others, I realised now that it’s their stuff, and it’s in their gardens.

It saddens me to think about the state of my parents’ ‘gardens’ – the out-of-control weeds, the never-pruned hedgerows, the unmown lawns – but I realised that I have my own, complicated garden to learn to care for. And that’s going to be tricky.

Thanks to Carolyn, I am spending lots of time in my own garden nowadays. But I have someone else to thank as well: the NHS! Meera really did research alternative treatment options, and after an almost-comical struggle managed to get me a place on an NHS ‘Mindfulness’ course consisting of eight 3-hour sessions of group therapy in exchange for a commitment to one hour of meditation practice each day. But that’s a story for the next edition …