sad or tired woman who has collapsed into an armchair, what I've learned from failure

Lessons in failure.

Guest feature

8th February 2022

A personal narrative on failure by Clare A. Wood – woman, avid reader and podcast addict. 

Trigger Warnings: mentions of Anorexia, Depression, and suicide.

 

Taking inspiration from Elizabeth Day’s podcast ‘How to fail’, here are three things I have failed at and subsequently learned from as a result of my mental illness (these being Anorexia, Depression, and Generalised Anxiety Disorder).

If you’re not familiar with the podcast, in brief every week Elizabeth talks with a new interviewee, and they explore their failures and what they have taught them about succeeding better.

The three failures I have chosen to explore are:

Failure to put my needs before that of others whilst in treatment for Anorexia.

Failure to believe that I am enough as I am without the need to buy the love and friendship of others.

Failure to be a good daughter/sister/auntie.

 

Failure to put my needs before that of others whilst in treatment for Anorexia.

 

I first needed hospital treatment for my eating disorder in 2005 when I was 18, and most recently in July 2021. Whilst in hospital you are encouraged to seek support from staff to help you manage your distress, such as at mealtimes, and you are also expected to participate in group therapy sessions. Even during my first admission to hospital I was never very good at allowing myself to utilise the support available, instead preferring to keep quiet so as to ensure that staff would be free to meet the needs of those I believed were more worthy than me. I would frequently sit there with an internal battle raging in my mind whilst displaying no signs of distress for fear of taking up space others so desperately needed.

I would also consider myself to be an empath, so when attending group therapy sessions, it quickly became important for me to play the role of rescuer, offering up words of support, encouragement, and compassion to others in an attempt to save them from their eating disorder. For many years I believed that if I allowed myself to seek support from those willing to give it, or if I were to take up space in group sessions with my own struggles, I would be selfish. After so many years of being in and out of hospital and nothing much changing, I have come to realise that these all too familiar patterns of behaviour haven’t been serving me well. On reflection I have learned two important lessons:

  • By giving my energy to those around me I have been unable to keep any energy to focus in on myself and what it is that I needed. As a result, I have been failing to make any progress. I haven’t found healthier ways to manage my distress nor have I worked on quieting my self-critical inner dialogue. This means I quickly decline in physical and mental health upon leaving hospital. If I were to need another hospital admission and want to make any positive changes, I am going to need to shift the focus from them to me, to give myself an opportunity to be helped. In the wise words of Brené Brown “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

 

  • I am worthy of taking up space and it is not selfish or weak to show vulnerability. This brings to mind another great quote from Brené Brown’s booked ‘Daring greatly’, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness”. It is only by doing so that I will be able to manage a degree of better health and remain out of hospital.

 

Failure to believe that I am enough as I am without the need to buy the love and friendship of others.

I’ve never been someone who has made friends easily. When I was a child, my closest friends were my sister and cousin. It felt safer this way as they were tied to me by blood, so the promise of them sticking around felt greater. I was less afraid by what I stood to lose if I said something stupid or if I wasn’t cool or funny.

Trying to make friends who weren’t related to me was terrifying. I believed I was unlikable and had nothing to offer. There were always people funnier, kinder, and cooler than me. I learned early on that what I could offer was things. As a child these ‘things’ were toys or books I owned and as I started to get pocket money (or, later, earnings) I would buy gifts, lots and lots of gifts. Buying friendship and love felt easy, it was something I knew how to do and it seemed to work. It felt nice to make people happy and I liked the way it made me feel to see that something I had done made someone I liked smile. It wasn’t until recently that I really started to think about where this need to buy peoples’ friendship came from. It wasn’t until a friend said to me ‘Clare, I love you for you and want to spend time with you not because you buy me gifts but because I value your friendship and enjoy your company’.

On reflection, I think it stems from low self-worth and a highly critical inner dialogue. I have never felt good enough. Thanks to my friend I have started to believe that maybe I am enough and if someone doesn’t like me just for my witty conversation or my words of wisdom then maybe they aren’t worth investing in. I am making progress and my bank balance is happier for it, but I definitely have a long way to go. There’s a lot of work to do but I’m getting better at not buying peoples friendship, and the few friends I do have I know are very good friends and they are helping me to learn my worth.

 

Failure to be a good daughter/sister/auntie.

I love my family, I really do, but my mental illness can make it hard for me to be an active member of the family and often causes me to act in ways that don’t reflect my truest feelings. Depression can numb emotion and it is hard for me to access the feelings of love I have for the people that I am closest to.

I am one of four and I am an auntie to 5 beautiful, small children. All of them, my parents included, do a lot together. They go on holidays, go for meals, hold birthday celebrations and much more, but I am rarely able to participate so don’t feature in many of the memories that they have made. My mental illness has meant I have been missing from their lives for a long time. Even when there in person I’m often somewhere else in my mind. I know my family miss me and it hurts that I have been making them sad for so long.

For so many years I have failed them all by being so mentally unwell. I know my family don’t see it this way and would definitely disagree with me, but I have always really struggled to feel deserving of their love. In 2020, I tried to end my life and at first my family were angry which than led to sadness and confusion, why would I do something so final? It’s hard to explain to the people I love why the idea of no longer being here was more desirable than staying. Why would I not choose to fight my demons, so I could grow with them? I have failed to make them glow with happiness and beam with pride. On many occasions I have asked them to walk away from me, to get on with their lives but yet they remain.

Although I feel I have failed them in so many ways, their refusal to walk away, the love that they continue to show me and the unwavering support they provide is helping me to reframe this failure into an opportunity to learn. To learn to trust that no matter what life throws at me, and how much of a bad person I believe I am, they will always walk a long side me, holding hope that one day things will be better.

 

I would like to caveat all of this by saying that although I have learned many important lessons, putting these lessons into practice can be really difficult when my depression is at its worst, so they are still a work in progress.

I hope by reading this that you can find some comfort in your own failings. As Elizabeth Day says at the beginning of each podcast episode “learning how to fail in life actually means learning how to succeed better”.

I’d like to end by sharing a few of my favourite quotes on failure from some of the wise and wonderful people, who have been guests on Elizabeth Day’s podcast:

 

 

It’s not going to be plain sailing all the time, especially if you want to be somebody great. You have to be prepared to fail sometimes” – Eniola Aluko, former England women’s footballer.

 

Through failure, if you’ve honest and you see where you’ve failed, how you’ve failed, then every time you get a bit stronger” – Gina Miller, Campaigner

 

“I would rather deal with uncertainty than the certainty that I am going to remain unhappy” – Steven Barlett, Entrepreneur, speaker and podcast host

 

The ability to admit failures is always an expression of strength” – David Baddiel, Comedian, Playwright and Author

 

The more you can be vulnerable around failure, the more time you’re going to save other people, It’s an act of singular generosity” – Alain De Botton, Philosopher

 

* The beautiful artwork above was created by Faustine Badruchani (@faustinebadruchani.art).

Comments
jacqui Wood

Very well written and deeply expressive…maybe giving the ones that love you for you an insight into your deepest fears and anxieties. Thank you Clare.

Iris Brannan

It is a very moving piece of writing, isn’t it? Clare’s willingness to be vulnerable is quite remarkable. Thank you for reading this, and taking the time to leave such a heartfelt comment.

Lisa Marchetti

This a very beautiful piece of writing. I feel tremendous respect for the honesty and perspective shown here. It has given me a lot to think about. Sharing this story with us is a true act of, both, bravery and generosity as I believe it could be very helpful to many.

Add Your Comment

CATEGORIES