Here's the thing: I am not a strong woman, nor am I an independent one. According to Wikipedia's definition of the term, I would have to be (among other criteria), someone who does not allow a man to affect her stability and self-confidence, supports herself entirely on her own and is proud of doing so.
I have tried, failed and tried again. The simple truth is, while I usually manage to find happiness on my own terms, at times my self-confidence does rely on other people's opinions. Men have definitely impacted my emotional stability and confidence, both positively and negatively. Still, on occasion, I find myself glancing at society for validation and attention. Although I'm not proudly proclaiming my above "shortcomings" , I made my peace with them and sometimes even embrace them.
I admit to craving human connection more than anything else in the world. I believe, that (prepare to gag) the chorus to my life's verse is made up of relationships with people that I cherish and adore. The ultimate fulfilment, purpose and meaning of my life comes in the shape of laughter, words, tears, touch, warmth and the occasional bark.
When I was a little girl I suffered from separation anxiety. I would even get attached to chocolate wrappers. My Mother would often buy me a chocolate bar after picking me up from school and while we were strolling through town on our way home, I would indulge on the silky smooth treat, but never without glancing down at the colourful, torn wrapper that lingered in my palm.
I felt the faint but familiar sting of separation panic knocking on my chest, announcing the inevitable. I knew once we passed a dirty rubbish bin, my mother would say, "there now darling.. throw the wrapper in the bin." The faint stab of panic quickly mutated into a diabolical dagger, twisting its blade into my chest. The thought of what would befall that innocent wrapper, that had become my friend in the short time we had spent together. For it to then end up next to rotting scraps of a sandwich or even worse, a used syringe (it was the 80s after all).
Depending on how horrific the bin content was, I would endeavour to place the wrapper in the position of least harm. On the way home, guilt would overcome me about leaving it to such a gruesome fate. Relief eventually came in form of Sesame Street on the TV. Grover, who I had a crush on, sprinkled some fairy dust on my twisted mind and alleviated the pain.
Looking back, I agree, maybe I should have visited one of these beautiful old manor houses overlooking lake Zurich, that had been turned into s "health clinic" and where a Doctor asks at admission, "have you tried to calm yourself down with a variation of tea? tea with honey, lavender aromatherapy? Breathing therapy? Yoga, Walking in the Forest, moving to the rhythm of a tambourine? No? Didn't it help?" No, it didn't.
I turned twelve and while indeed drinking my way through all sorts of herbal teas and teas infused with honey, then tea with Baileys until I was of age and drank the Baileys without the tea, it was to no avail.
The chocolate wrappers had long made room for more intense pain triggers like Bully M. who used to chase me around school with an open mouse trap, Neighbour Boy J, who pulled my hair and lifted my skirts, and giggling girl cliques who waited around the corner to beat me up after school, simply because I was such a delicious victim, always quick to cry.
'As soon as I extended a tentative hand out of my parallel universe, the unforgiving daylight of the real world exposed me for who I really was and all confidence evaporated.'
When I turned sixteen, Robbie Williams had become my very best friend, in the solitude of my mind at least, where I had set up an alternate universe. It was in this imaginary haven, where his songs seemed to have represented my life, allowing my avatar (an exquisitely polished version of myself) and Robbie to go on adventures together. We had the best conversations. The most intense intimacy. For a while I thrived on this borrowed confidence. As soon as I extended a tentative hand out of my parallel universe, the unforgiving daylight of the real world exposed me for who I really was and all confidence evaporated.
I couldn't hide from being seen. At some point; I must have just grabbed Robbie's hand and pulled him with me into the real world. He started to walk to school with me, looking proudly over my shoulder when I was sitting an exam, cheering me on when I scored a goal at football. I wasn't hallucinating, I was fully aware that he only lived in my imagination. With him by my side though, I felt on top of the world. My parents and siblings on the other hand started worrying.
They worried even more, when I was entering my twenties and Robbie had moved to the back burner, making room for real boys. On the surface, things didn't look too shabby. Although not exactly high achieving, I made it through University in England as an international student and went on to holding down several jobs that I absolutely hated.
Acquaintances, work colleagues and even some friends who orbited outside my personal microcosm saw the cheerful Sabina who could dance till dawn. The one that chatted and laughed her heart out with anyone, got heads turned and presented the first ever (and last) Miss and Mr. University of Reading election. This Sabina would also bring a gigantic raw fennel to the cinema, shamelessly, simply because it was her favourite snack. The excitable, seemingly confident Sabina was just as genuine as the whimpering, trembling shadow of herself.
Then the bitter taste of the real world started to do things to me.
There were boys I wanted to be my boyfriends and never were, boys I had to turn down, ghosts of boyfriends pasts, heartache, heartbreak and clinging on to boys who had long since started galloping off into the sunset. When I fell in love, I always fell deeply and completely, and so letting go of a person and moving on, somehow always felt like I was cheating on love itself. The ugly and beautiful shades of love carried a sharp shovel that started digging through to the excruciating vulnerability that forms the bedrock of my emotions.
Therein lay the deep rooted fear of being unworthy of love, friendship, or any connection with other human beings. My inner chatterbox started to work overtime to convince me that I was too shy, too outspoken, not slim enough, rich enough, smart enough, funny enough, cool enough, interesting enough.
Of course the anticipatory fear eventually materialised in my mid twenties when I lost what I had believed was the love of my life. Receiving that last message of goodbye left me penetrated with my personal apocalypse. I was internally pounded by a demon wearing a spiky boxing glove. For days and nights I remained curled up on my bed, screaming the torment into my pillow , scratching my face with desperation and self-hate until exhaustion left me paralysed. The anguish was all-consuming and left no room for the seeming banalities of everyday life, let alone work. I didn't eat, I didn't shower and blamed myself. I had failed, for he didn't love me anymore. Blame turned into guilt.
Although equipped with compassion for anyone and everything else that wasn't me (remember the chocolate wrapper) I failed miserably at being kind to myself. What right could I possibly have to give room to my internal sufferings when there were millions of people in the world dying from wretched circumstance?
As hard as I pushed myself, I simply couldn't function as was expected of me. Yet expected was a lot: "Toughen up", "Get a grip", "Don't let it get to you", "you can't go through life like that" , they said.
It was around that time, that I stumbled upon the first of many psychiatrist or more accurately, was pushed to stumble upon many therapists by my family. It was decided that my suffering had outgrown the spectrum of normality and something had to be done. In the end it was Dr. H., oozing all the pragmatism I was lacking, who introduced me to the complex world of anything neuro: neuro-doctrine transmitters, neuroanatomical disruptions transmissions. It sounded fancy and I was intrigued.
Whether I really did have a panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder or whether it was simply my hypersensitive disposition, didn't really matter in the end. After a few visits with Dr. H. I walked out of his office with two boxes of oval pills and a promise, that I would shortly feel like myself again.
Reluctantly, as it had felt like admitting defeat, I started swallowing. Sertraline on a daily basis and Xanax whenever needed. Over time, a rather eerie calmness started to fill my chest. One rainy day I realised I had walked past a couple of snails on the pavement without picking them up and moving them onto a leaf and to safety. I didn't feel like myself anymore and asked Dr. H to reduce the dosage, which he did.
'Gradually I filled the empty space with courage to strip down to complete transparency. Standing in front of my mental mirror, completely naked and staring at the bedrock of my identity, my emotional disposition didn't look so ugly and threatening.'
In the end, the right amount of the right medication took the edge off my suffering without numbing me completely. This allowed me to create room in the midst of my claustrophobic internal mess. Gradually I filled the empty space with courage to strip down to complete transparency. Standing in front of my mental mirror, completely naked and staring at the bedrock of my identity, my emotional disposition didn't look so ugly and threatening.
What was tentatively glancing back from my internal mirror was the silhouette of a delicate maple tree whose blossoms could be just as beautiful as the strong trunk of a mammoth tree. There was nothing wrong with being a "maple tree", I simply needed to protect my blossoms and learn to persevere in the face of harsh conditions. I needed a bark that would not dissolve if it was peed on by mankind. A bark that could withhold people pulling out the verbal axe attempting to cut down its trunk.
I made a promise to the maple tree-me, that I would no longer try and turn myself into a mammoth tree. I would never be a mammoth tree. I found beauty in being "the only one of me". I let myself be truly seen by the people around me and learned that therein lay the only way to form lasting, honest connections with others.
To this day, Sertraline gives me enough emotional stability to move past difficult emotions and defy their control over me. (Yes, I'm picking up snails again). There are moments, when the demon and his spiky boxing glove return to visit and all I can do is breath from one hard day to the next. When things get really tough, I have a couple of special people I can turn to. And no, none of them is Robbie Williams. As for him, he still pops by on occasion and we catch up, have coffee, play a game of UNO. It's friendly between us.
I will never be the toughest woman in the room. I won't ever measure up to society's perception of "normality". But here is what I am: strong enough to admit my neediness, to admit that the ultimate fulfilment, purpose and meaning of my life comes in the shape of laughter, words, tears, touch and warmth.
Sabina South is the mother of two boys, currently living in Lugano, Switzerland with her family. She works as a freelance journalist and writer.