You might not see it when you first look at me, but I am different. I have come to accept my singular experience and have learned to blend in, becoming something of a shapeshifter adapting my character to match those around me, to hide my 'alienness'. But blending in is not the same as fitting in. You might be able to hide that part that doesn’t fit for a while, paint over it, dismiss it, ignore it – covering your ears while singing loudly, even convince yourself that you are like everyone else, but it’s always there and it just takes one piece of music, one movie scene, one heartfelt speech by a Hollywood celebrity to strike a chord and bring it all flooding out into the open.
This is my story
I was an only child and for the earliest part of my childhood we lived in a house that was the first in a housing development with no close neighbours. Other than occasional visits from cousins or children of friends of my parents, I had no one my age to play with. The first time I started interacting with my peers on a daily basis was when I started school at age six. By then, being a loner had already become ingrained. And I’m thankful for that – it became the basis of my self-reliance, my self-preservation, my strength which I needed later in life.
Though I was born in South Africa, my parents were English-speaking immigrants and that made me the wrong kind of white South African. I grew up feeling like an outsider, a foreigner in my own country. When I was 27 I moved to New Zealand, becoming a true immigrant and though I’ve lived here now for nearly 20 years, I still feel like an outsider here too.
It’s when I started school that I began to realise that I was different. I was a target right from the start. My parents gave me a name that guaranteed it: Skye. Teased simply because of my name. The butt of jokes. Even the teachers couldn’t get it right and called me everything from Skey, Syke, Ski to Sickle at roll call to the laughter and sniggering of my classmates.
I had an overbite and crooked teeth. I wore glasses. I was clumsy with an awkward gait. My lack of coordination and poor balance made me useless at sports and at an age when everyone was playing games out on the playground, no one wanted me on their team. It was many years later when my physical limitations were recognised to be due to very real medical issues and in my late thirties I finally had the major surgery I should have had as a child to deal with symptoms that had been brushed off in my childhood as ‘attention-seeking’ and due to ‘laziness’. I was finally exonerated.
However, it soon became evident to me, that it wasn’t just what was on the outside that made me different; there was also something on the inside that made me fundamentally flawed.
I was quiet, reserved and even from an early age I felt older than my years. I didn’t like the right music as my peers. I didn’t have the same interests. I didn’t like parties. I didn’t follow the group mentality. I didn’t dress right. I didn’t read the right books – I read biographies and books on science while the other girls read teen romances.
I faced daily scrutiny to conform to the norm and there was no question that I would fail. I didn’t even wear my school uniform right and for months after I started high school I was accosted daily by a group of older girls demanding I roll down my socks instead of folding them as per school regulations. I could have rolled my socks down to get them to leave me alone, but I knew they would only find something else to torment me about, so I resisted. And I think I felt a small perverse sense of pleasurer by not complying. They made my life a misery, but by not rolling my socks down, I was taking a stand, I was staying true to myself, I was discovering that I had power.
High school was better for me than junior school and even though I was still bullied mercilessly, I do look back at much of that time, my teachers, those school friendships with affection. During that time I did find a brief sense of belonging with the other nerds though I didn’t quite have the right grades to participate in the special programs for the A-students which I always coveted. However, the big nerd events: writers' circle meetings, the annual science fair and trip to the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland were highlights of the year. Plus I had the blessing of a close friend who understood me as if we were made from the same cloth; we were kindred spirits. With her by my side, and me by hers, we were able to endure anything the bullies threw at us, physically and mentally.
I’ve never been a girly girl. Sometimes I even think I should have been born a man – I find men more interesting than women, I feel more comfortable in a hardware store than in a designer dress boutique. Fashion, make-up, dress sense has always eluded me. My father compounded my feelings of inadequacy as a female by continually criticising me that I was not feminine enough, that I wasn’t ladylike enough and needed to wear dresses and skirts. At school this was particularly difficult for me – I didn’t fit in with the girls, but thankfully the nerd crowd, mostly boys did accept me and let me hang with them, though this effectively friend-zoned me and I was never seen as a potential girlfriend.
I was frumpy and awkward. The popular boys used to say I was so disgusting, that just looking at me made them want to vomit. I was the recipient of cruel prank Valentines’ day cards. We hate you read one sent to me by a group of boys who didn’t even care about hiding their identity and signed their names.
Many years later a guy I was dating told me I was beautiful and I responded by laughing and replying yeah, right, and immediately became suspicious of him. He had to have a hidden agenda. He responded with anger, why couldn’t I just take a compliment?! Until that point it had never occurred to me that a guy might genuinely find me attractive and the incident made stop and re-evaluate the beliefs I had about myself. Were they really mine or those of others and were they accurate or made simply to inflict pain?
I still struggle with my self-image and dress down. I’m a bit the ugly duckling who turned into a swan – I can put on a tight dress, heels, slap on some make-up and turn the head of many a man (and woman), but they’d only see the outside. And it’s the inside I want someone to fall in love with. But it seems whenever I reveal my inner me, it’s like the light is so intense that it burns anyone who gets too close. So in an effort of self-preservation, to save myself from being hurt, I keep it hidden; avoid drawing attention to myself.
It’s ironic that on the one hand I feel deficient as a female – not interested in all the feminine wiles, never married, never had children, and yet when I do reveal my femininity through my sensitivity and emotions, I’m then rejected for being too sensitive, too emotional, too intense and for taking things too personally.
In the first part of my life, I felt I was a misfit because that’s how people treated me. Now in my forties, people do accept me as I am (or at least the version of ‘normal’ me that I allow them to see), however, I still feel like I don’t fit. I lack the same points of reference and because I experience life so differently, on a deeper level, though I do have things in common with the people I generally come into contact with, there is still something lacking, something that still keeps me an outsider.
So what exactly makes me me?
Despite my parents, teachers, peers and even family doctors and school counsellers telling me there was something wrong with me and that I needed to try harder to be like my peers, I could not accept, refused to accept, that there could be a right way and a wrong way of being and that who I was naturally, from birth, could be so unnatural. But as a child and teenager I lacked the tools to defend myself, and the message that I was substandard, a reject, took hold and it was only in my twenties that I began to find the tools to tear that down and begin rebuilding myself.
The first step was when I was around 21 years of age and we had just got hooked up to the Internet. My father came home from work one day all excited that he now had something that would prove to me once and for all just how abnormal I was. A colleague at work, whom he had been talking to about me, had given him the link to an online test that he thought might help. Poor Dad, he was convinced this test was going to measure my defectiveness and spit out a message, you are a very sick person, please seek psychiatric help immediately. I was of course furious that he was still trying to fix me and recruiting others to help him, but I relented and did the test to mollify him, though I was determined to ignore anything the test said about me.
It turned out that the test was a Myers Briggs personality test and instead of telling me that I was defective, it told me that I was actually perfectly normal for my personality type. Normal. Normal! Just rare, my personality type (INFJ) making up just one percent of the population. But, normal. I was vindicated!
At last I had something I could use to fight back. I immediately read up everything on the site about extroversion vs introversion, intuiting vs sensing, feeling vs thinking, judging vs perceiving. It all made so much sense, confirmed what I already knew to be true about myself but had never been able to express coherently. I printed out the analysis, stormed back to my father and told him in no uncertain terms that I was perfectly normal and did not want to hear him utter another word to the contrary ever again. I also insisted that he and my mother do the same test and then sat them down to explain the results to them – pointing out traits we had in common and traits that made us clash.
After that I devoured anything I could find on personality types, temperament, character, relationship psychology, self-image, mood, depression, happiness, strength, resilience, love, identity…
Several years later I was struggling with settling into my new life in New Zealand. I arrived first, on my own, not knowing anyone, paving the way for my parents to arrive a year later so the pressure was on me to adapt quickly, succeed and above all, not let them down. I felt exhausted, emotionally drained, physically spent. Every day was a struggle and I would often go straight to bed as soon as I came home from work. Yet, my mood didn’t feel low. I didn’t feel depressed per se. Like many times before, I headed to the library looking in the self-help section for something to resonate. Nothing did. I gave up and headed out via the psychology section and noticed a book that was jutting out from the shelf (cosmic synchronicity, I believe), The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron.
That book was a lifesaver. It explained all the things that my specific personality type could not. And it completely explained why I was struggling at the time. The highly sensitive person has a more sensitive nervous system which means that every bit of sensory information whether it be physical, emotional or intellectual is processed more deeply than the non-HSP. This depth of processing has an unavoidable side effect – one becomes easily overwhelmed by everything and burns out faster. Again, intuitively I knew what was ‘wrong’ with me and was taking the right action. Once I understood this part of my nature, I stopped worrying and learned what I needed to do to support myself. So for several months after my transition into New Zealand life, I slept 12 hours a night until my body and mind became accustomed to all the new information, sensations and emotions I was being bombarded with.
Being an HSP is the second part of the puzzle. Sensitivity in some form affects around 20 percent of the population. That makes the trait relatively common; however, I don’t necessarily bond with every HSP I meet because of the personality element.
So who am I then? I’m an HSP INFJ. That effectively describes me empirically. If the INFJ type is only 1% of the population and only 20% of INFJs are also HSP, then that means the HSP INFJ makes up a tiny 0.002% of the population. Or to put it another way, only one in 5,000 is HSP INFJ. This then, is my kind, my people. I make up part of an exceptionally rare group of individuals; a minority group so small that most people have never even heard of it. “Hello, my name is Skye Bothma and I am HSP INFJ,” just receives a lot of blank stares. Ignorance rather than intolerance keeps sending us back to the closet.
Introversion has had something out an ‘outing’ thanks to people like Susan Cain author of Quiet, and most people generally dump all qualities of quiet reservation and reflection into the introvert category. To just call myself an introvert, to explain my experience of being to people in that way, misses out too much of my identity. I also identify with terms like old soul, visionary and empath, but I’m hesitant to use these as they tend to carry connotations of New Age spiritualism and enlightenment; I don’t wear flowing gowns, carry crystals or cleanse my chakras and have yet to achieve a state of Zen.
Whatever name or label I try to come up with, it all boils down to one thing: depth of experience. I feel deeply, think deeply, observe deeply, process deeply. I am a Deep Being.
Desperately seeking connection
As a loner, content with my own company, I rarely feel a sense of loneliness, however, I am often keenly aware of my aloneness.
Being a Deep Being is like being an iceberg. We are massive in our complexity and that’s just what is visible above the surface. The other 90 percent that lurks below, that we rarely reveal to the world, can be harder to comprehend. We may even struggle to fully understand it ourselves.
We feel older than our years, as if we have lived many lives. Layers of experience laid down over millennia, compressed under its own weight, making us dense and impenetrable. And for those of us who identify as icebergs, other people are like the thin transparent ice on a puddle on a frosty morning – thin, transparent and disappearing as quickly as it appeared. Others may be more substantial, like the sheet ice covering a lake in winter, promising to hold your weight but betraying you and breaking when you lean on them. Or if they are able to hold you, it’s only a matter of time before they eventually leave, melting in the spring.
Like icebergs we tend to be solitary, broken off from our origins, we drift the oceans of humanity in the hope of coming across another iceberg before it’s too late, before we drift too far from where we started and melt away in the equatorial sun.
And for all our sensitivity, empathy and compassion we can sometimes be cold and unkind to others when our patience is tested, we’re overwhelmed, exhausted or have been hurt or betrayed.
As Deep Beings we appreciate raw honesty, crave it. We will bare ourselves to those we trust, reveal our innermost truths hoping for the same in return. But, most often that honesty is not reciprocated and we either lose interest and move on, or we are left feeling exposed, naked, betrayed and violated. Eventually we learn to distrust and build walls and either stop revealing ourselves or keep people at a distance or both.
Even if we are within a safe space, we may feel vulnerable when we reveal our true selves. It's like when walking into a quiet secluded spot that at first glance appears tranquil and harmless, but then begins to feel creepy, as if danger lurks in the bushes, and we feel we have strayed too far and need to withdraw inwards again.
You have no control over being a Deep Being. You can’t switch it off or be less deep just as a person can’t change the colour of their skin.
Journeys into darkness, embracing the void
When a person experiences feelings of being an outsider, a misfit and is victimised for being outside the norm, I think it is an inevitable consequence that that person will also struggle with depression. Often the depression does not come from their feelings of ‘not fitting in’ but from feeling so far away from others who they identify with.
Depression is a broad term and everyone experiences it differently. In my childhood and teens depression was a self-loathing and feelings of worthlessness. Once I began learning about my uniqueness through personality and temperament studies these feelings started to fade and were replaced by feelings of isolation and of being disconnected from others like me. Now as I am older and I have come to accept myself and my aloneness depression has become more a form of fatigue, an existential weariness where I struggle to see the point to life and my purpose within it, and a desperate longing to go home, though I have no idea where that is.
I have thought of suicide on occasion throughout my life. There has been the temptation to just bow out, exit stage left, a longing that I might just go to sleep and dissolve into my dreams, never to wake, but the fear of Divine retribution has held me back. When I’m done I want out. I do not want to be sent back to start from the beginning because I failed to complete the course.
There is a misconception that depression is unhappiness, the opposite state of happiness, a failure to be happy. My father would berate me all the time for being so depressed, so ‘negative’ all the time, pressing me to 'be more happy'. I’ve always felt that happiness was far too great a goal, an impossible task. I mean, no one can be happy all the time. I strived instead to be not unhappy and by doing so have achieved a state of contentment, the lows are less frequent and the joys treasured. For how can you appreciate the brightness of a star, if you cannot also appreciate the darkness, the emptiness of the void? Once you can appreciate both, you achieve balance. And the balance between happiness and unhappiness is contentment.
For most, the darkness, the void is a place of which we should not speak; a curse that you might invoke upon yourself if you look into it too closely. So, though depression is something that is becoming easier to talk about today, there is still a sense of taboo and shame about it. There is still this sense that depression is something that needs to be fixed and eliminated, that those with depression need to be tranquilised. Equalised. Neutralised.
However, I think Deep Beings are the one breed of people who are not afraid of the darkness, the void. Through our depth of emotion, it comes naturally to us, feels like a familiar companion and in fact we often actively seek it out, for it is a source of insight, inspiration and enlightenment, and a connection with the Divine.
I feel we need to separate depression from these very normal, natural and healthy visitations into darkness which are so inherently part of the Deep Being experience.
Recently, I was in such a place, having been triggered by a speech I watched online that brought to the surface a lahar of memories and emotions. In our weekly phone catch up my friend, a counsellor, picked up on my fragile emotional state and immediately started worrying that I ‘might do something silly’. There was no risk of that – the thought had never even crossed my mind.
As the lahar began to slow and solidify, I was able to translate these emotions and began working on this piece. I sent her a text a few days later to say I was ok and said that for me these kinds of moods very often precede bouts of insight that lead to a surge of productivity and that I was writing. She responded that she was glad I was 'channelling the mood into something positive'. This irked me. It implied that my earlier emotional state was as a negative, when I didn’t see it that way at all. A highly emotional state is an indication that the Deep Being is operating within its normal parameters. I'd be worried if the Deep Being didn't feel emotionally down now and then.
People are quick to tag any low mood, melancholy or sadness as depression. There is folly in this, it makes us believe that every low mood should not be indulged and needs to be analysed, medicated, treated; stamped out before the glowing ember has a chance to turn into a fire. I believe that if we embrace these low moods, even if we’re not sure where they’ve come from and ride out the storm instead of abandoning ship, the mood will pass faster and more effectively than if we try to deny, eradicate and cure it. The ember will very often cool and leave on its own. If we do this we can prevent the depression that forms from continually denying or suppressing emotions.
I also feel that people latch onto depression as way of avoiding talking about the real issues that are central to that person – race, religion, identity, sexual orientation – that people may feel uncomfortable discussing. Even when I visit my family doctor about my chronic health issues, it always seems to be easier for her to discuss my mental health than the symptoms that cause me real physical pain but have yet to be fully diagnosed and successfully treated. Talking about my mood is a way of avoiding the questions she can’t answer, a way of detracting away from the thing that is actually affecting my mood by sweeping it under the carpet, tossing it into the ‘too-hard’ basket in the hopes that I might not notice and won’t press her for the answers she doesn’t have.
While chronic depression can be a condition on its own, it is almost always the symptom of another underlying and often ignored issue. We mustn’t lose sight of this, and while we support the depression, we also need to find the root of its cause, acknowledge it and treat it if it needs be treated or embrace and celebrate it if it’s something normal and natural.
The lone star
My life as Deep Being, my depth of experience may cause me to feel isolated and disconnected, but I wouldn’t part with it. I see it as a gift. It is the source of my artistic inspiration. It allows me to see the beauty in this world from the raw honesty of grief to the way sunlight pierces through dark clouds and turns a single raindrop into a glittering gem. It’s made me something of an animal whisperer – able to communicate with our winged- and four-legged companions on an almost telepathic level – to calm a kitten no one else can tame, have a horse I have only just met rest its head on my shoulder and fall asleep. I love the way it lets me zero in on the song of a sparrow amid the noise of a crowded city street and the way listening to certain music can make me feel like I have escaped the confines of my body and am floating in space among the stars communing with the universe. This is my intrinsic me-ness, the core of my star.
I look out onto the vastness of space and long to find another like me, still feeling the loss of my kindred spirit who tragically passed away when she was just 19 and left me incomplete. I’ve looked to male partners in the hope of finding that same connection, but have come to the realisation that she was my soulmate and that it’s likely I’ll never find another. That is the power of the Deep Being’s bond – it transcends age, ethnicity, gender… time. It is a bond of the soul, and your soulmate, the love of your life, might not be a romantic partner at all. Only a Deep Being will get this.
If you too are a lone star, be proud of your inner light. Let it shine for all to see. It may burn those too close, but it can be seen across great distances. This is why we shine so bright, so that we may find each other in the darkness.