All of my adult life I have had spates of shopping, almost obsessively, for clothes. Without consciously deciding to, I find myself trawling through shops with a rather manic sense of desperation, trying on clothes and feeling a mounting sense of panic each time I leave a shop empty handed.
I am looking for clothes that will make me feel better. Better about how I look. Better about how I feel. Better about who I am. Better about my life. I am looking for clothes that can change me, or at the very least disguise me, physically and emotionally. I want to look in the mirror and see someone other than me, or at least someone better than the person I know myself to be. Needless to say my quest generally does little to boost my morale: despite my new attire I am still fat, still frumpy and still ugly.
There have been occasions in the past when I have spent a small fortune (the best part of my monthly rent) on clothes that improved me, or so I believed. Nowadays, when I am hijacked by this urge, I do at least trawl mainly charity shops and not the more expensive high-street shops.
As often as I have spent my rent in one splurge, I have returned to the shops within the next few days and returned at most, if not all, of my purchases: having arrived home with my purchases I am always mortified to realise that they do not bring with them the new life I sought.
As I progressed through my 18 months in a therapeutic community (TC) I became aware that these frenzied shopping sprees, and other equally impulsive behaviours, were actually an indication of something much deeper happening within. They invariably occurred as a response to an extreme sense of pressure, which precipitated overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear.
The pressure could come in any form, from anyone and anywhere. It could be a deadline, an expectation, a responsibility, an obligation, a decision I need to make or am waiting for someone else to make, or a social situation or event to name just a few. It could be an external pressure that is coming from someone or somewhere outside of myself, but it could also be a pressure that I impose on myself for a reason that as yet remains unknown. Wherever it comes from, the pressure feels entirely real, and it is terrifying.
At the root of my fear is a deep-seated and long-standing belief that I am unacceptable, disappointing, and unlovable – in essence: who I am is wrong. The challenge for me to prove I can be anything other than ‘wrong’ becomes the driving power behind my reactions when confronted with pressure.
Short of any inspiration, when put on such a spot, as to how to change myself, I seek to reinvent myself superficially, as though that would ever suffice. As I said, this is not a conscious decision; it is an impulse, and one that can continue for several days at a time.
A few days ago I found myself in the fourth charity shop of the day, on my third day of shopping. I say ‘found myself’ because it was as though I became aware, for the first time, of where I was and what I was doing there. My heart was pounding, and my hands were clammy. I was hanging up clothes back on the rail, having tried them on and I was beginning to sink in despair. I tried to connect with myself, with how I was feeling. I tried to calm down whilst acknowledging for the first time that I was not calm. I felt scared, and I couldn’t do ‘it’, although for the life of me I did not know what ‘it’ was. And then, finally, I remembered what I had learned in TC. I remembered that certain behaviours or impulses can serve as a warning sign for some emotional distress that requires our attention.
Three days, countless shops, and a few pounds later I remember this! But the important thing is, I did remember and as soon as I did I knew exactly what was happening. I didn’t realise until this point, that the pressure I was carrying was as big as it obviously was. I was aware I was feeling anxious, but I thought I was on top of it. I didn’t talk much to my wife or my friends about it, as I thought I’d sort it soon enough and it was no big deal.
The exact nature of my anxiety and fears are not relevant for the purpose of this blog. The point is, there was a warning sign and I missed it. There are times when my emotions escalate from 0 to 100 in seconds and in these cases I don’t have a smidgen of hope in intercepting the inevitable mayhem.
But there are other times, such as this, when my emotions creep up and somehow seem to multiply without me noticing. It is gradual, subtle and dangerous, and the more I am able to recognise the warning signs the more chance I have of being able to deal with it whilst it is still a manageable size.
Buying clothes from a charity shop is, perhaps, a relatively small and innocuous impulse, and whilst I am all for a bit of retail therapy I have to accept that it is all too easy to become reckless and careless given the right (or wrong) circumstances.
I learned in therapy that changes do not happen overnight. Progress is an ongoing, never ending series of decisions, choices and yet even with this in mind it took a inordinate amount of effort not to be annoyed with myself for not seeing the tell-tale signs sooner. I may see them sooner next time (and I am sure there will be a next time) or I may not. What is important is that I will see eventually, and that when I do I take appropriate care of myself as best I can.
I am still learning to be patient with myself, just as I am still learning to understand myself – I don’t believe I can do one without the other. And I am learning to be aware of myself and of the warning signs, both big and small, that I give myself if only I am paying attention.
My journey is often exhausting and intense, but I believe it is worth every ounce of effort I afford it. I also believe, more often than not, that who I am is not ‘wrong’ – I think I’m kind of ok. Sometimes.