A thirty five year old man, lets call him Joe , came into my clinic last year and stated ” I am waiting for a bed in a psychiatric hospital because I tried to kill myself on the weekend and that’s the fifth time that has happened in the last few years”.
I thanked him for his openness and asked him what had been the trigger event for this recent attempt. He told me he had been at a wedding and his friends wanted to introduce him to a girl. He didn’t mind this because he didn’t have a girlfriend and in fact he never had had a girlfriend. However when he started to cross the room to talk to her he started to feel anxious , this grew into a full blown panic attack and he went home and attempted to kill himself.
After he had spent some time in the hospital Joe returned to my office and we started a piece of work. “What were you thinking Joe when you were crossing the room to talk to that girl at the wedding?” I asked him.
“I wasn’t thinking anything” he said.” Ah but you were ” I said, “you just weren’t aware of it” . “I didn’t want her to know what I was really like” he said after a while. “What are you really like ?” I asked him…..”I’m ugly and I’m stupid……Crikey I don’t know where that came from!!” he said.
“That came from your 14 year old self” I said.
We all have negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves and these really start to flourish in our teenage years. This is the time when due to pure biology, our brains start to see themselves differently, as little specks in the universe and we start comparing ourselves to our peers, usually in a negative way. When Joe was 14 he started to suffer from depression, and feel anxious in the school environment in particular. He didn’t do his Junior cert, he was “sick” and he didn’t do his Leaving Cert. He hated the farm he lived on, but was afraid to leave it. As the years passed he did less and less away from the farm and truly believed he was stupid and ugly. But I suspected Joe wasn’t stupid, he mentioned in sessions the things he had taught himself like computer programming etc. so I suggest we do an IQ test….Joe’s IQ was in the Superior Range. Then we went to work on how the negative thoughts Joe had about himself started to grow in his head and change from thoughts to facts, from ” I FEEL ugly and stupid” to ” I AM ugly and stupid”.
The point of this story is the following; after some weeks working on these negative thoughts Joe stopped me and said
“Wait a minute Maeve, are you telling me 1) I’m not stupid and 2) I’ve been making myself worse by the way I’ve been talking to myself in my head?!”
“Well that’s a bit simplistic but its basically right” I said.
“20 Effing wasted years” he replied!!!
And that is why I love working with teenagers. It is a time when due to the many pressures they are experiencing they can go off track and lose their way. However with some extra help perhaps we can make sure they don’t waste those 20 years.