As a teenager, hearing the “dramatic” girls in school described as “attention-seekers” was the norm. Whether they sobbed loudly in the school toilets or rushed out of the classroom in a panic, the gossip was always the same. The words, “she’s such an attention-seeker,” would be spat out with contempt. Being shy, I didn’t use those words myself, but I also didn’t challenge them… largely because I thought they were true.
During my college years, teacher training and first 15 years of teaching, my opinion didn’t change much and my reaction was much the same. Of course I’d show sympathy if any of the children in my class were upset but, in true “British-stiff-upper-lip” style, I would encourage them to go out to play as the “fresh air will make you feel better.” As for colleagues, I truly believed feelings could be kept under control, there was no place for them at work and that any outward display of extreme emotion at work was indeed “attention-seeking.”
Then, out of nowhere, I was struck by severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For the first few months, I didn’t recognize it, acknowledge it or even see it. I continued to work, though it was an unbearable struggle. A year on, a good friend and colleague told me how I behaved in that time and according to the standards by which I had always harshly judged others, my behavior could only be described as “attention-seeking.”
I’ve never been one to sob loudly, even in the comfort of my own home, but after two hours teaching, I would frequently cry in the toilets during my break. My red eyes gave me away as I returned to class, but I’d avoid eye contact with anyone I passed. But I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.
I began to avoid meetings with large groups, knowing it would be noticed, but also knowing I couldn’t bear being in a room with so many people who were more confident, smarter and more in control than I was. But I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.
I started to mark books in my classroom with the door closed and the lights off. I knew it was odd, but the brightness and the hum of the strip-lights tormented me. And I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.
I ceased to eat lunch in the staffroom, before ceasing to eat it altogether. Weight was falling off me. My clothes hung off me, but I felt so sick that eating felt impossible. It sapped my energy. I looked pale and weak, shuffling around school rather than dashing as before. Everyone noticed but I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.
After a few months of this struggle, the school nurse invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat. She asked me how I was. “Fine,” I answered, without looking her in the eye. I knew that was a tell-tale sign of lying, but I had no real reason to feel so awful and didn’t want to believe it myself. I certainly wasn’t attention seeking.
“No you are not OK Claire,” she replied gently. “You’ve lost so much weight, you’re not eating, you’re pale, you’re distant from everyone, you mark in a dark room… the list goes on. Can I ask you something? Can you look me in the eye? Claire, are you suicidal?”
My eyes that had met hers for a millisecond, hit the floor. For the first time in my life, my body was overcome with heart-wrenching sobs. Putting my head in my hands, I bawled as though I could never stop. How on earth did she know I no longer had the will to live? Was it that obvious? I swear I hadn’t been attention-seeking!
There began a year-long absence from work, intensive therapy and endless moments when I “sought attention.” These included moments when I sobbed down the phone begging for a “crisis” appointment with my therapist. Times during which I spent days on the sofa or in bed, barely responding to those around me. Desperate occasions when I self-harmed but never actually went “too far.”
All of these occasions filled me with shame and disgust. How was it that I couldn’t control my emotions? Why couldn’t I just “get a grip”? How could I put my family through this? And so it went on… and on.
This self-battering took place one day during a therapy session. My therapist listened patiently, waiting for me to finish. Her words that followed provided me with more comfort than anything that had been said to me for a long time.
“‘Attention-seeking’ is hardly a swear word. I see all of your actions as a cry for help. You were desperate. You needed support and you asked for it. You did it in the wrong way sometimes. But we can work on that. You need help. You simply need to learn how to ask for it.”
I absorbed her words.
And then sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed.
She had undone three decades of prejudice against others and prejudice against myself.
It was OK to need attention. It was OK to seek attention. And once I knew that, I was ready to do it in the right way.