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Dark times: mental health, highly sensitive people and bullyism

Woman in black dress looking at the sea
Stormy Seas



A little bit of backstory here seems necessary, and maybe even beneficial. I am a highy sensitive person (HSP). People with this trait are creative, empathic and very, very (VERY) sensitive to their environment. They have a rich inner life and a great appreciation for beauty. Unfortunately, they very often fall victim of unhelpful comments such as “You are too sensitive!”, “You are too easily offended,” and so on. If I had known all this when I was a little girl, it really would have helped. Instead, all I knew is that I should “toughen up”, but had no idea how to do that. My skin was like tissue paper: everything hurt. Throw into the mix the fact that my parents, both born a few years before the Second World War, came from incredibly numerous families where survival came, rightly, before everything else, so you can imagine how much emotional literacy might have surrounded me in infancy – the only exception being my incredible older sister, who was my saving grace. By everyone else, I was seen as wingey, weak, oppositional and, again, “too sensitive”.

By refusing to eat most things, I earned myself a few courses of horrible injections, the administration of which terrified me. To this scenario, I must add that my older brothers and my dad teased and bullied me in a way that they must have thought of as funny, and I guess they were convinced I would see the hilarious side sooner or later ... (by the way, my brothers are wonderful people now!)

Fastforward to age 8, and I am sent to Catechism so I can prepare for my First Communion. This is not a story about childhood physical abuse, but it definitely touches onto emotional abuse. The priest, an older man in a black cassock and thick glasses, did not skimp on images of Hell, threats of eternal damnation and more fun things. I still remember with horror a painting he showed us with a child hesitating between two staircases: one, cold and bare, going up to Heaven; the other, warm and covered in roses, going down to Hell. Well, I can tell you (and you are allowed to laugh) that every time I descended the stairs of the blocks of flats where I lived as a child, I was terrified of ending up in the flames, with Satan running after me wielding a pitchfork.

Unfortunately, this was not funny to me at the time, and I developed a mental illness, obessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Again, I did not have a name for it at the time. In my mind, I was going crazy, and worse still, I was BAD. I was going to pay for this. At age 9, I had intrusive thoughts from a kind of OCD called “scrupulosity” (have a look here if you would like to read more about it). Also, I would check a door was closed about 10 times, opening and closing it again to make very sure it was actually closed. I would turn off lights when asked to do so and then check a million times, otherwise someone I loved might die and it would be my fault. Thanks to some help by a missionary priest passing by the church I attended (I wish I could remember what he said to me) I got better, but that was not the end of it. It came back when I was 15, at a particularly stressful moment in my life, and it was excruciating. This time it was my amazing sister who helped me, also recommending that perhaps I should start giving church a miss (THANK YOU!)

My mum and sister brought me to a psychologist, to whom I told the whole story. Before the second appointment, however, I was told that another person would be looking after me. The idea to repeat those words to yet another person terrified me. There was so much shame, so much fear, so much stigma ... it was too much. I did not go, and I regret it.

And then, between 18 and 21, again. This was the longest, and the worst, bout. It crept in and got slowly more intense until, at 21 and while studying for a Spanish Literature exam in college, I stabbed my own hand with a pencil to try send away the thoughts. My best friend Angelo came to my help this time, with truly magic words and a constant support that cost him a lot in terms of time, patience and love. But it worked.

I can happily say I have made a full recovery, but I do mind signs. OCD manifests in lots of little obsessions that get bigger if you are not careful so, knowing I am prone to it, I keep an eye out. This also helps me being more compassionate and understanding towards people who are going through a tough time. We never know what is happening in other people´s lives.

In a way, my story shows how dangerous people in power can be, and how different each child´s reaction can be to the same thing. Out of all the children in that Catechism class, I am sure a high percentage were not particularly affected. But in me, because of my sensitivity, all those horrible talks of hell, evil and sin found a fertile ground for creating suffering and mental illness. This is why I think that no children should be exposed to such tales of damnation. I know we all have different opinions on this subject, but, having being scarred so badly, I feel I have reason to stay away.

I think I suffered through these things for a reason. I think it all brought me here, feeling finally like I am a good person, a person capable of understanding and holding space for others (most of the time, at least). It also helped me understand suffering and develop compassion. Highly sensitive people have disadvantages, but also advantages. I love creating, writing, walking in Nature, reading. I am highly attuned to people´s emotions. I understand suffering and do my best not to cause it (though I am not always successful in this). I cultivate kindness. I enjoy time by myself, have strong friendships, and never ever bully someone.

I am sure I share many details of this story with other people, but I wanted to put it out there so that others do not feel like they are going crazy. So they do not feel ashamed and alone. It would have helped me so much to know that this happened to others, and that I was neither bad nor alone.

Speaking about mental health openly will, I hope, remove the stigma, and allow all of us to seek help when needed. This post is also a celebration of the people who selflessly helped me, just because they loved me.




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