boys on bus

Living with agoraphobia: an immersion essay

There’s a tingling in my fingers and it’s not from the alcohol. I don’t belong on this dance floor and these kids know it. What do most people do when they find themselves in the middle of a herd of sweaty, cocksure teenagers? If I were their age I suppose I’d go with it — throw my head back and just be. But I’m not their age. I’m not even from the same galaxy. They tower over me — a different species — as if anyone born after the year 2000 was endowed with superhuman height.

Must be the millennial bug.

There’s the familiar stench of body odor and frothing hormones that conjure memories: the mid 90s, football halls crammed with staggering, sloshing teens bobbing their heads to Foo Fighters. But now … here … I’m an imposter. My breathing is unsteady, my heart throbs at a staccato, racing to match the pulse of the music. Become the pulse, feel the music. The music surges skyward and I wish I were lifting with it … up and away. But instead I am shrinking and certain that some unseen, enormous hands are closing in — fingers splayed, invented for smothering.

I watch as one of the male creatures pirouettes into my space — not before glancing down to check if I’m real. He’s been baptized with Hollywood looks, vigorously gay and comfortable in his own skin. He wears a polyester blue shirt fastened with bubblegum braces and his hair’s a shock of wax chocolate.

There’s an amused expression plastered across his face, as if studying an oddity — a man out of time. And I am. I’m a time traveler.

The young man cranes his neck. From this close I can see a hint of mascara and some glitter peppered across his right cheek. Then quite suddenly, he contorts his face and gyrates around me — striking ostrich poses, his neck doing things my arms could only attempt. Ignore the cartoon, I tell myself. Ignore the dread — the true provocateur — but it’s too late, fear is out of its cage. I close my eyes.

And why our healthcare system isn’t helping

Grace sad image

We had a deal. Had created a system for when she was feeling ‘under the weather.’ In fact, it was a code for when she felt suicidal, a simple text message that used a hurricane category scale system.

If Grace was feeling blue but it wasn’t too serious, it was a Category 1. Winds were picking up and there might be some falling debris, but usually some music or a silly movie could calm things down.

If it was a Category 2 or 3, I’d start to worry. Sometimes she’d text: Category 2 … I think, maybe worse. Definitely strong. And I’d wait to hear back, hoping her foundations wouldn’t be ripped from the earth, all the while knowing she was in a dangerous sway towards a free-fall. Often a hot chocolate and a long chat would do the trick, and I would feel a swell of relief that she was stable, calm and safe.

But if it was a Category 4 or 5, things were serious. This was when the storm was rushing around her, and her fragile frame was being shaken apart, nearing total collapse. This was when she was heading for a complete ‘outage,’ where her foundations and her entire world was suddenly plunged into an all invasive darkness where nothing could escape.

There were a few rules with a Category 5. She would need to speak to Lifeline or call her dad or a friend, any hour of the day or night. Grace thought the hurricane system was a good idea. I remember her saying … “Jake, you don’t have to worry … I’m not going to do anything silly, I promise.”

The following Tuesday I received an out of the blue Skype call from a friend in London. He asked me if I was sitting down, and told me that he had been contacted by Grace’s boyfriend Peter. And then he dropped the bomb …“I’ve got some sad news man … Grace killed herself.”

My world did two things in that moment. It spun in circles and the walls came crashing down. I hung up without a word and sat there staring at a blue screen. Gutted and in shock.

I was a week away from moving to London. One week. This was not for a holiday, this was to start a new life, to try something new. And now I had to fly to Hobart and attend my best friend’s funeral, before I even had a chance to understand what was happening.

I booked a flight and was in Hobart 2 days later. I was given bogus directions and arrived late, but eventually I discovered her family and friends gathered around a small plot at the back of the cemetery. Grace’s little sister was crying and leaning over her grave. I watched as she dropped several roses over the coffin. It was everything you would expect a funeral to be … it was even raining.

Why you should give up the need for validation

digital-man

You want to be popular, you want people to like you and that’s completely normal. Maintaining a healthy self esteem is vital. In fact, it’s becoming even more important as our society grows ever more competitive. And yet, the race towards popularity comes with some adverse side-effects, such as depression, alienation and anxiety. Being ignored can be just as painful as being rejected, and it’s exactly why external validation has become the latest ‘psychological drug,’ administered online by trained App Developers.

Your self image is exactly what fuels social media companies. It’s why they re-purpose language (like, follow, friend, love) and it works perfectly — for them. They understand that people have a need to control painful feelings and prove their worth. It’s why you make posts, it’s why you upload selfies to Instagram, and it’s why you use social media in the first place — to be seen, to have a voice, and to feel that buzz that comes with each like. But it’s also a behavioural pattern that many of us aren’t aware of.

Loneliness, guilt, anger, acceptance, fear of failure, fear of rejection … all these emotions play an integral part in the quagmire of validation.

Elizabeth R Thornton calls these patterns our ‘mental model’ — our deep-rooted ideas and beliefs about the way the world works and how things ought to be. It means that we expect certain results from the things we do, say, create or share. In fact we are predisposed to seek validation and this influences our behaviour, and as Thornton explains, these mental models can keep us trapped in old ways of thinking.

External validation is just one of these models, as is perfectionism and control. In Thornton’s ‘Objective Leader Assessment’ survey, 55% percent of people responded that their self-worth was often, more often or always tied to what others think. There are so many people busy projecting an image of what they believe others want, that they rarely stop to consider their own unique qualities and gifts.

kid

We want to feel included and important … seen, heard and ‘liked.’ And it all starts in childhood.

Children seek attention as a survival instinct. They want reassurance that they are loved, protected and secure. If they’re hungry they might cry or slap the wall with mash potato, if they’re fearful or angry they might lie or throw a tantrum. We expect this from children — but when adults play attention seeking games it’s seen as a form of manipulation. However, if this need for validation is something learned, then it is directly connected with how our brains work. In fact, studies have been made to show how the reward part of our brain is more active when others agree with, or reinforce, our own opinions.

In 2010, a team of researchers from University College London and Aarhus University in Denmark investigated brain activity in relation to validation, and published their findings in the journal Current Biology. They took 28 volunteers and asked them to make decisions based on a selection of musical pieces. Once their opinions had been recorded, they were informed of the ‘experts’ opinions, and discovered that when participants opinions coincided with these experts, the area of their brain associated with reward lit up like a Christmas tree. Soon after, volunteers decided to change their choices to reflect the expert opinions.