On Friday 22nd July, it was the 25th anniversary of my father’s death at the age of 38. I don’t often talk about this, mainly because it happened so long ago, but also because it’s only recently that I’ve been able to emotionally connect with the reality of the situation. Thanks to the support of an excellent therapist, over the last few years I have managed to peel back the layers of emotional scar tissue and allow myself to feel the extent of grief buried within me, and, more importantly, allow myself to mourn his death. I used to feel proud of the way I could speak about his death so easily and flippantly, it’s only now I can see how disconnected I was, and how my ‘brave’ front was actually just a paralysing protective shell. So I used to not talk about him because ‘it didn’t matter’ and now I try not to talk about him that often because it matters too much.
But Friday was different. It was a milestone event – 25 whole years since he had died. It felt important to acknowledge this – to visit his grave, spend some time with family and friends who knew him, and to feel a connection with him back in my home town. It also felt right to put a message on Facebook to that effect, sharing some photos of him with me and each of my siblings. I wasn’t thinking about doing it for attention or for a specific response, it just felt right for me to honour him. So when dozens of notifications and messages of support came through I was truly overwhelmed! As I read through comments from old school friends who knew my Dad, or Uni friends or colleagues who had no idea he had died so young, I felt my eyes well up realising that my ‘protective shell’ just holds me back from getting support like this from the people who love and care for me. It is only by opening up and allowing myself to be vulnerable, that I allow people in to help with bearing my burden.
This is not the only time I use this shell – I often find myself trying to resemble a swan at work: legs kicking furiously underneath the water while I try to project an outward semblance of professional confidence, gliding through the surface above. In my head, everyone can see that I’m one step away from falling apart completely – that I have to work hard to keep this illusion going for fear that I will be revealed for the impostor I truly am. But by working with professional mentors I am learning that my perception of how I am coming across is completely skewed with how others see me – they don’t see an impostor, but they do only see the top half of that swan, so they have no idea how hard I’m kicking, let alone see that I might need help.
Since moving from the railway to private property development, and taking on a far more intense role, I have learned that I cannot hide the fact that I need support. Although it took me nearly 9 months to admit it, I did finally say that I was struggling and feeling overwhelmed. That felt like a milestone for me – hearing my voice say out loud “I need help. I can’t do this by myself” felt like the first step to finding a healthier balance at work. It’s been 6 months since then, and that request for support has had varying results, but I am also working on my boundaries to be clear on how much I actually should be doing, and identify areas where I can and will allow people to provide help and support. This feels far more sustainable, rather than trying to pretend I can do it all, and then failing to do so. I’m allowing myself to be vulnerable, but strangely feeling stronger as a result.