Summary of speech in front of psychologists , 3rd December 2011 , Barcelona
Location: psychology study center, Carrer Berlin 9, Barcelona
This speech was conducted in a question-and-answer style.
1) How were you as a child? How was childhood for you?
Answer: I was a very isolated child. Contact with other children was not interesting me. I did have a high intelligence and learnt rapidly. At age 3 I could count, write and read. I also was interested in things at young age that most children have no interest in, such as animal rights and religion, which made me decide to become vegetarian at age 6 and refuse to do my Holy Communion as I declared to be Atheist at the same age. I was very much interested into “adult” subjects such as travelling, other cultures, religion.
This however isolated me from other children who all had other interests. I hated school and was bullied a lot. Outside of school, I locked myself in my bedroom each day to study maps and read travel guides. The dream of moving to far away countries and discover other cultures, was dominant from a very young age on, and I think it helped me to survive during a very unhappy childhood.
My parents first tried to encourage me to socialise with other children but saw rapidly enough that it was not something I wanted, so they respected my choice for reclusion. If I had social contacts, it was with people the age of my parents: they had travelled, seen a bit of the world, and were much more interesting to me.
While my parents were very helpful and respecting my being different, this does not go for the rest of the family. On mother’s side, family respected me how I was and realised I was different, but without making it a negative thing. On father’s side, where family is a lot more conservative, they did not accept me being different and even blamed my parents for bad parenting and not “making me normal” (as if this were possible at all). It would eventually lead to me and my parents breaking all contacts with them, and today this is not back to normal and probably never will be. I hated family visits and such visits had to be carefully planned. If my parents said “1 hour only and we go home”, it had to be really 1 hour. Anything longer would result in erratic behavior from my side. My parents were very careful and respected/accepted that I had my issues.
I visited psychologists and psychiatrists from a very early age, but at that time (the eighties) in conservative Belgium, it was hard to get an official diagnosis, even when my parents were very aware there was something different about me. I can honestly say I had a very unhappy childhood, but was lucky with having parents who respected me as I was. School however was very unpleasant and, at times, traumatic.
2) How would you describe an average (working) day?
ANSWER: I wake up, go to my job, and work from 9 AM to 6 PM. During the course of these working hours, it is a difficult struggle against the rituals such as going to the bathroom to wash hands. Every day, with little exceptions, is a struggle. I am much more relaxed and calm on non-working days.
The difference is flexibility. On non-working days you can take things as they come and let the rhythm of your body decide your day. On working days, you have to perform during a specific set of hours. There is no flexibility like being able to take an hour break to distract yourself from your rituals. In the end you end up doing the rituals, leaving me scarred and injured sometimes from the many scrubbing and cleaning. A working day can be very exhausting, whereas I feel a lot more calm on non-working days. Companies do tend to say they are tolerant to people that are different and have special needs. In the end, keep in mind that often hypocrisy is present. Not for every company and every person, luckily. But in many cases, tolerance ends the moment you’re not performing anymore.
Routine plays a large role in my life. Something as simple as going shopping in the city center is stressful: buying things and taking them home clean is very stressful. Only once I am at home and put the items at their place, safely, I feel calm again. After a while you just feel too stressed and anxious to go shopping again. That way I end up spending a lot of spare time in pubs watching football or in internet cafes. It’s not like I wouldn’t like to do other things, but these are the few places where I feel less stressed. (And when you’re already tired from work, you don’t always have the energy to face more stress in weekends). My life is very routine-esque purely because of fear to do other things.
Other examples of how fear dominates my life: prior to coming to Spain some traumatic experiences happened. They are still stuck in my head, and whenever checking emails or writing them I am afraid to be confrontated with people I used to know before. Using my own computer, CD’s, etc is very stressful, the feeling I am most comfortable with is to simply not use them : I know they are there, that gives me mental energy, and I know they are safe since they are not touched. That makes me use internet cafes even when I have my own computer. (note: not mentioned during speech but interesting to know is the self-anger, which also makes me afraid to enter the room where I store my emotionally valuable items)
Fear dominates my life. I am always afraid and tired.
3) You mentioned some routines. How do we try to fight against them?
ANSWER: Some routines, other than fears as described, involve going to the toilet and washing hands too long, sometimes to the point of scars or bleeding. We try to limit this by restricting myself to only 3 drops of soap, only a few minutes per toilet visit, only 2 toilet visits during working hours allowed, … The point is trying to normalise things and replace fears with rational thoughts. Of course some days it works better than others ; on non-working days it is easier to do the instructions because you don’t have to divide your energy between work and fighting OCD.
4) What about social fears? What is the ideal social relationship (friendship) for you?
ANSWER: I feel best when a social relationship is very well described and clear, like a framed picture that doesn’t go outside of the frame. Then I don’t need to ask myself what the intentions of the other persons are. The ideal friendship is when the intentions are very clear and no questions about intentions have to be asked. If those intentions are unclear I begin to wonder why someone wants to seek my company and what their intentions are. That can lead to high anxiety. An example of a good social interaction is my language course (I study Hebrew): everyone there is there for the sake of learning a language, period. My political activities are another example: I am there and the others are there to stand up for our political believes. Period. No other intentions involved.
I don’t read body language or fail to understand sarcasm and irony. This can lead to embarrassing situations. For example you misunderstand sarcasm or jokes, one may laugh at you in the face and you may not realise. Or vice versa it can lead to embarrassment when the other person’s message is not coming across well.
This is why I am very open about my problems and how people have to approach me. I found out the majority of people are really helpful or at least try to understand. A minority will take advantage of your problems, so in a way being open makes you vulnerable. But the advantages of being open are bigger than the few disadvantages, the majority of people at least tries to be helpful.
5) You keep a special relationship with colleagues?
ANSWER: I keep them at distance socially, as in: work life and social life are very strictly seperated by choice. At work intentions are clear: everyone is there to work, that’s it. The moment colleagues would show up at my out-of-work activities, the line gets blurred. Hence I prefer to separate work from private life very strictly. I like it when things I organise attract a large crowd and clearly reaches people, but the few people I prefer not to see in the crowd are colleagues. Work and private life are seperate things to me. I even prefer simply that colleagues to large extent don’t even know what I do outside of work hours.
6) What is your biggest fear?
ANSWER: Losing control.
This can mean different things: losing control on my dream of staying abroad and not going back to Belgium. Losing control on social situations and friendships, leading to anxiety. …
7) What is your ambition towards the future?
ANSWER: First of all I want my artistic project Illusion of Purity to become something that has been relevant in the battle against the taboo on psychological problems. I really wanna develop this project into something that has been “big” as in: that has made a difference in that battle against the taboo.
Secondly, I hope to keep travelling, see much more of the world and immerse in different cultures, although I would like to settle in the Middle East. This is also why I learn Hebrew. I lost my heart there and would love to live my life there.
Next there is an interlude in which I read the poem “Windswept“. This is a poem about depression, when you feel like there is nothing left to hold on to, except for hope for a better future. I also asked all psychologists attending to pass me addresses of performance halls or pubs willing to organise readings, since I wish to take this project to other cities where the people have not heard my poetry before. The taboo is universal so I want to read in other Spanish cities, in other countries too.
Finally two people from the audience asked additional questions.
8) Is it not difficult to change country so often? You say you have a life of routine, but are the rituals and anxieties not very large when emigrating?
Answer: No, quite the contrary. The excitement of discovering a new country is too big, and is bigger than the anxieties. The excitement is strong enough that you find the strength to put the rituals and anxieties aside for a while. Also, mind bureaucracy. A lot of paperworks are to be done upon arrival, you need to find a home, … There is little time for rituals when there is a lot of work to be done and a lot to discover. The routine and anxieties and rituals come a bit later, once you are becoming adapted to the new country. The first weeks, sometimes months, are usually better, only afterwards the OCD and anxiety become stronger again. In the beginning there is too much excitement and too much to do to spend a lot of time on rituals.
Also, you gotta keep in mind, emigrating and never returning was a dream of mine. When you have a disorder, you can either drown in self-pitying and do nothing to realise that dream, or you can pack your bags and go. I chose the latter option.
9) Is it hard to find work?
Answer: within the EU, it is surprisingly easy when you speak different languages. I usually arrange a job before I move to a new country. I go on the web and talk to people in the country I wish to go to. They often recommend workplaces where they need multilingual people. Then I send around CV’s and leave once a job is secured. I only did it once that I moved without first arranging a job.
The bad side: outside of the EU it is difficult. And as I said, my heart lies in the Middle East. I really want to return there, but the economical crisis left many locals unemployed. So companies will usually only pay working permits for foreigners with rare skills, for the average job there’s enough local candidates that don’t require a work permit. This is the downside because the countries that attract me most are difficult to get in, and the crisis made it only harder.
Within the European Union, it is quite OK. However, there is a lot of hypocrisy and I grow increasingly discomfortable with capitalism and big corporations. Very often companies claim to not discriminate and accept people that are different, but that tolerance ends when they cannot use you anymore, when your problems become bigger and bigger. They respect you only as long as they can use you.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be bitter. We should strive for being respected no matter what, not only for being respected as long as we’re useful to them. So we have to stand on the barricades for a better tolerance.
That said, my growing discomfort with capitalism and the pointlessness of multinationals where everything is centered around money, is leading me to think that I won’t seek new employment within the office world anymore. The ambition for that is no longer there. I want my artistic work to really mean something, to make a difference in the struggle against the taboo. Other than that, humanitary aid is something that attracts me. Making money for a company is so irrelevant compared to helping people in need and making a difference in someone’s life. My ambitions lie in different things than what I have been doing up until now so I won’t be applying for office jobs in the near future.