Mommy Transference at Work

It’s been almost two months since Nikki left. At first, I missed her intensely, thought about her constantly, was counting the hours and minutes and seconds until she’d be back, but I was stable. No self-harm, no suicidal ideation.

Then I crashed. Like a piano falling out a twenty-storey window. It was loud and dramatic and I ended up in pieces at the bottom. Without Nikki around to catch me and protect me and parent me, I glommed onto the first mother figures I could find, and I can’t make myself let go.

Unfortunately, those mother figures are my managers at work.

***

There’s Carol. Frighteningly competent, matter-of-fact but with a sharp sense of humour. Two teenage children, boys – she invited me to go camping with her family last year. I’m completely in awe of her, and I so badly want her to think well of me that I get tongue-tied whenever I talk to her. She’s the human resources manager, and she’s told me I’m precious, beautiful, intelligent, hard-working and good, but she was also the one who sat me down and told me I was coming across as arrogant and my colleagues were complaining about me.

There’s Sam. Only been with the organisation about a year, and I feel less intimidated by her. Has a teenage son with major mental illness, and is fascinated by brain plasticity and optimistic about healing. The level of detail I’ve shared about my issues is way out of proportion to the depth of our relationship. Over the last fortnight, she’s started calling me “dearest“, and “hon“.

And Kim. The manager of the internship program, the one who’s known me and believed in me since I was an undergrad law student with no work experience. Her brother killed himself in front of her – this stuff is re-traumatising for her, but she still sticks around. Calls me “love“, “bubba“, “my angel“. The first time I had surgery and she was visiting me in hospital, she said “I wouldn’t let one of my kids go home in this state, so why would I let you?“. Later, when she said she had too much on her plate and she could be my friend but she couldn’t be my mother, I was humiliated at the implication that I was expecting too much from her, and crushed.

***

It started with the overdose.

I’d been in a downward spiral for days. Not going to work, not even getting out of bed. I couldn’t make myself do anything, and that made me anxious, and that made me even less able to do anything. So, I texted Kim, and asked if she could pick me up on her way to work the next morning. That way I’d have to get up. Inconveniencing Kim by not showing up on time and making her late would be even more anxiety-provoking than getting up and going to work.

Except I impulsively decided to take thirty times my normal dose of anti-psychotic, (knowing it wouldn’t be fatal), and I did not show up on time. I slept through all fourteen of my alarms. And they panicked.

When I woke up, I had missed call after missed call, and a bunch of texts. The last one was from Sam, and it said I had half an hour to get in touch before they called the police.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I felt so stupid. Why was I so fucking useless I couldn’t take myself to work? Why was I so fucking useless I couldn’t get out of bed on time? Why was I so fucking worthless? I called Sam and told her I was fine and I was about to start work on a report, but I felt so young and guilty I couldn’t put up my normal professional front, and I was slurring my words, and she worked out something was wrong.

It didn’t take much convincing for me to tell her how many pills I’d taken. I wanted to give her a better reason for scaring them than just I’m a useless cunt and I slept in.  I felt about four years old, and she was talking to me in the kind of tone you use with very young children.

Can you unlock your door? I’m sending someone around to check on you.

I heard Carol’s voice in the background, muffled, and then Sam came back on the line.

Rea, have you cut yourself at all?

Nooo.” I was disappointed with myself – I wished I could say yes.

Carol’s voice in the background again, then another question from Sam.

Have you done anything else at all?

It was one of those crazy frustrating moments where I just wanted to shake myself and yell at myself to snap out of it. Rationally I knew that I hadn’t, completely 100% knew, but the part that was running the show genuinely felt unsure.

Don’t think so.

You don’t think so?” A pause. “Can you have a check and see?

I thought for a second. “I’m fine.”

You’re fine,” she repeated in a cooing, baby-talk tone, presumably to pass my answer on to Carol. “What about your arm? Is your arm okay?

Yep.”

Yep. What about your legs, are your legs okay?

 

She kept running through and confirming different body parts, and part of me was going I’m a 26 year old woman with a law degree what the fuck is happening, and the rest of me wanted to be babied even while I found it ridiculous and embarrassing.

What about your neck? Is your neck okay?

While the rational part of me was saying internally ‘Yes, of course it is, it’s fine‘, I was standing in front of the mirror, examining it, leaning in close to check. Then the intercom rang.

Do you know what that noise is? That’s your door.”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, no. I put her on mute, and started taking pills as fast as I could swallow them. The same thing I always do when help is on the way – make sure I’m really fucked up enough to need it. Things had gotten so out of control so fast, and this was the only thing I could control.

Rea? Rea? You have to let them in, hon. You need to let them in. Go and push the button for the intercom.”

“Rea? Rea? Rea?”

“Rea, it’ll be okay, just go push the buzzer and let them in.

I could hear Carol telling the police that I wasn’t responding, but I didn’t know what to do. My mind was running frantically, trying to come up with a way to undo it all. To go back to 8am and get in the car with Kim and drive to work and listen to her nag me about whether I’d eaten breakfast.

I’m fine, Sam,” was all I could come up with.

I could hear her brain working, trying to come up with a new angle to convince me. “Well, just let them in so they can see that you’re okay, and then it’ll all be okay. But if you don’t let them in then we don’t know you’re okay.”

I caved, but it didn’t matter – they’d gotten into the building anyway, and they were on their way up.

I’m going to stay on the phone, okay? Will you leave me on the phone so I can be here if you need me?

The whole conversation makes me cringe, and I want to block it out and hold it close, both at the same time. But that part – that part makes me feel warm. She wanted to stay with me.

***

That afternoon was beyond awful. The police called the paramedics, and they decided not to schedule me, and I was pitifully relieved. But the sedative effect of the pills took all control away from me.

I had a psychiatrist appointment in the city, and I woke up five minutes before it started. Getting up and walking downstairs was a struggle, and I kept gagging in the back of the Uber. By the time I walked into the building, I was staggering like I was drunk, and I crashed into the wall and then collapsed on the floor. I couldn’t get up. My face felt hot and my arms were tingling and I thought I was really going to die.

This is rock bottom, I thought. Oh my god.

Lawyers from the chambers in that building were walking past and stepping over me, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t sit up, I couldn’t keep my mouth closed, and I couldn’t think of anybody I could call. I just had to lie there.

After fifteen minutes or so, I managed to stagger the four steps into the lift, and once I reached the fourth floor, I stepped out and collapsed again, so close to my psychiatrist’s door I could have reached out and touched it. It was another ten minutes before I could get up again.

***

I didn’t go in to the office the next day, but I talked to Sam on the phone. She tells me she feels closer to me, and she feels like she got to talk to the real Rea for the first time.

I don’t want to dump this stuff on you, though.”

There was a moment on the phone where I just got this gut feeling that you’d gone – I thought you’d slipped away, and the way that felt…” She trailed off.  “Anything is better than that. I’d do anything to prevent that.”

***

Things kept getting worse.

It’s heartbreaking for me to see you like this,” Kim says, while I’m lying on the couch in the Story Room at work, unable to get up and sit at my desk.

We’re deeply worried about you,” Carol says, after pulling me into a private office to ask me why I have steri-strips holding together a cut on my face.

Everest isn’t the only one who loves you,” Sam says, holding me while I sob and tell her she has to keep Everest if I die.

One night, when there’s nobody else around, I take out the rope I bought specifically for this purpose, climb up onto a wobbly desk chair that’s missing a wheel, and hang myself from a bracket in the wall. The rope leaves friction burns on my neck, and even though I cover them with concealer the next day, people notice.

***

A couple of days ago, Carol and Sam left for a week-long visit to one of our remote program sites, and the childish intensity of my feelings was terrifying – I had to literally bite into my tongue to stop myself saying “I don’t want you to go“. When I found Sam had rushed to the airport without coming to say goodbye to me, I was crushed.

But I wanted her to check on me, the little parts whimpered. I wanted a hug goodbye. 

Yesterday morning I had to text them both to tell them I’d be working from home – that’s the deal. If I don’t show up and they haven’t heard from me, they call the crisis team.

Are you okay? Is there a particular reason for working at home today?” Carol texted back.

This is where I fucked up. I could have kept a balance between honesty and boundaries, and told her I wasn’t feeling great but I was able to work as long as I could stay in bed. But those baby parts have no fucking boundaries. They hurt, and they need mommy to know that they hurt.

Nope, not okay. Mostly working from home because I can’t get up, but also am not safe being in the office atm. I am being productive and have talked to [boss] about priorities for today and tomorrow.”

Reading that makes me want to kick myself in the face. I hadn’t told anyone about hanging myself in the office and the massive triggers I was facing there and I desperately needed someone to hear that things were really not okay, but I knew that sending that message was just feeding an unhealthy dynamic. I knew, and I sent it anyway, because I so desperately needed to not be alone.

She called me immediately, and tried to convince me to go to the emergency room. I didn’t want to, so she gave us both half an hour to think, and then she and Sam called me back on speaker, and spent twenty minutes coaxing me into a safety plan for the rest of the day. We agreed I’d work for an hour, then I’d go out for a walk, and I’d text Carol a photo so she knew I’d got up.

Okay, so that’s the plan – you do that, and then we’ll talk again later this afternoon, okay?

You really don’t have to do that.

Yeah, I know, but we want to do that,” Sam said firmly, and Carol chimed in over the top of her.

Yes, we want to.” And I felt held, and a little more stable. I showered, and I went out. I texted Carol a photo of the McDonalds sign [“This is what you meant when you said to go outside, right?“], and sent Sam a couple of photos of the kittens.

They didn’t call.

***

I cried on my bathroom floor for hours last night. I thought about taking myself to hospital, but the thought of going alone…I didn’t want to do it. I wanted Carol or Sam to take me. I thought about texting Kim, but it was late, and I was afraid she’d say no. Or say yes, even though she didn’t want to. A couple of weeks ago, on a really bad day, she’d offered to take me to the hospital, but made it clear that she’d just drop me off, she couldn’t stay – she had to work on a scholarship application with her daughter that night. And it stung. She’s not my mother, and her daughter comes first. But it stung.

I feel very alone. I know there are millions of people in the world who feel the same way I do. Who’ve hurt themselves the way I have, and worse. But in my therapy groups, in my friends who self-harm, I’ve never connected with anyone who understands what it’s like to spend hours breaking your own wrist. To burn yourself badly enough to need surgery. To smash your head against the wall hundreds of times until you’re bleeding from your eyes. To have done two of those things while you were still a child. I’ve hurt myself so, so much. It feels like too much.

I climbed into bed with Everest, and she curled into me with her head on my chest. I kissed her nose, and told her I loved her so much, and that everyone knew how much I loved her, and they’d make sure she was okay.

And then I took an overdose of Panadol.

(Which I almost immediately threw up. I’ve taken so many overdoses my body anticipates the nausea before it even comes. I can still feel the chalky taste of the pills in my mouth.)

***

There was no way I was going to the office this morning, but I didn’t want to tell Sam and Carol that. I wanted to be petulant and sulk. I’m not your friend any more. Making them chase me, though – no. I was grouchy with them, but I didn’t want them to be grouchy with me. So I sent a short text: “Staying home today“.

An hour or so later, Sam called me to check in, in a casual ‘I’m assuming everything is okay’ kind of way, and we chatted amiably for a couple of minutes. Until I threw another.fucking.dramabomb.

Is there anything you need from me before I go?” she asks.

It would be good if you or Carol could refer me to the crisis team,” I say off-handedly, and she’s startled.

What’s happened?

It doesn’t matter.

It does, it does! Okay. You’re very – well done, okay? Have you taken something?

 

We go back and forth – I’m cagey, trying not to over-share, and she’s insistent that I tell her what’s going on.

Don’t be shame with me,” she says firmly. The way Aboriginal people speak about shame really resonates with me – it’s not something I feel, it’s something I am. Every piece of me is consumed with it, wants to disappear into myself, hide. I’m so mad at myself for being so high maintenance. I’m not worth it; I’m a waste of space; they should just fire me for causing so many issues.

I tell her. Carol calls the crisis team multiple times, and they refuse to get involved.

***

I don’t know how to make myself stop.fucking.disclosing.everything. I have to have better boundaries, but it’s so hard to put that cat back in the bag. Especially when they’re actively encouraging me to reach out to them. I’ve made some feeble attempts to be more professional and take a step back, but:

I don’t want to keep holding you guys up. I know you’ve got lots of stuff you need to be doing.”

You’re not holding us up. I don’t want you to feel like that. We want to make sure that you’re safe. That’s the priority – us supporting you as best we can.”

How can I not crumble?

Mommy Transference at Work