Recovery is hard. It is not simple. It is not linear. And there is no ‘quick fix’. It is painful, scary, and exhausting. But let me assure you this: It is possible. I did it, and so can you…
Mental Health has been a significant part of my life for as long as I can remember. And if you- or a loved one- are dealing with a mental health problem, then I am sure you’re aware of the significant impact it can have on those dealing with it, as well as those around them.
Today is World Mental Health Day and given that the daily lives of all of us have changed considerably this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the topic of mental health is more important than ever. The consequences of this year have had such an impact on people worldwide. With all the uncertainty, loss and fear, mental health problems have become even more prominent. But nobody should have to suffer alone. I’m here to share my story with you to try and instil some hope that there can always be a way out of suffering.
My first experience of depression was fourteen years ago. Back then, I didn’t even know that there were medical words to describe the incessant sadness I was experiencing. I was a fourteen-year-old, shy, but happy little girl, and my parents just told me that they were getting a divorce.
This news hit me hard. For me, it was unexpected, and I really felt as if my world was falling apart. I adored my family, and I could not understand why this was happening. My parents, as I remember, were happy and friends, as were me and my brother. I have very few memories of any bad times my parents had, or even hearing them argue. My immediate reaction was the natural instinct of many young children; to blame myself. Why could I not make my parents happy?
The change that followed was the worst bitter pill for me to swallow. Seeing the people that I loved in so much pain made me feel utterly helpless. My mother- usually such a fun, vibrant, strong woman was changing before my eyes. My father moved out of the house and I could see his sadness and his suffering. I wanted so bad to take his pain away. Several months down the line, my mother met someone else. Someone the polar opposite of my father. He was in my home. My father’s home- the one he built with his two hands. I hated this new man and I resented my mother hugely.
I felt completely stuck…and I stopped eating. I was always insecure as a child and I turned to starving myself because I didn’t have the knowledge, skills, or resources to better manage my anxiety and trauma. I didn’t know how to process or deal with my emotions and I didn’t have the confidence to ask for help. I suffered in silence. My eating disorder, like all eating disorders, was a mental illness.
In the beginning, it was more about control than anything. I felt lost, lonely, and broken. I felt powerless over what was happening in my life, but what I chose to eat- that was something that I could control.
My anorexia never really stemmed from a desire to be thin or fixating over calories, as I had no concept of what those were. But over time the lines became blurred. My obsession with having the control over something in my life- and the ability to control my body- became so intertwined that anorexia and becoming dangerously thin was the inevitable outcome.
I never understood that losing weight- too much weight- would also have serious psychological consequences. I became increasingly isolated and withdrawn, spending days in my room alone, not seeing friends or talking to my family. I became uncontrollably anxious. My energy was completely depleted, and I lost my spark and appreciation for life. All the things that I used to love couldn’t bring me joy anymore. I was living so much in my own head that I was numb to everything around me. I was depressed. Restricting became my new answer for everything. I was consumed by anorexia and starvation was the only thing that I could cling on to.
It all happened fairly gradually, but eventually my friends, teachers and parents started questioning me. I couldn’t hide it anymore, yet I was still unable to pinpoint my pain and process how I was feeling. I knew that my BMI was dangerously low. I knew that my body was shutting down- That my organs were fighting each day to keep me alive. Eventually my hair fell out, my period stopped, my clothes fell off me, my veins stuck out, my bones protruded and hurt me when I sat too long. I felt more unattractive and isolated than ever. Yet, none of that mattered and I could not surrender to logic. The mental anguish of eating, with the fear of having to feel my emotions again was just too much.
I got taken out of school and sent to a psychologist at a mental health clinic. This person sat me down and asked me, ‘What is wrong?’. Naturally, I shut off. I was so angry- I never asked for any of this! Why couldn’t they just understand! I resisted all help because I felt that their only goal was for me to put on weight and ‘just like that’, I would be cured. The underlying issues were never addressed. They simply put a plaster over a wound that never got the opportunity to heal.
The day that changed my life:
It must have been close to midnight. I was asleep in my bed when my older brother stormed into my bedroom. He turned on the lights and I could see such fear in his eyes. He pulled my duvet off me and began yelling and sobbing. ‘Look at yourself! You’re disgusting. How can you not see what you are doing; to me, to our family? You are dying! I cannot lose you. You need to get better!’. These words still haunt me to this day. But it was the harsh, honest, truth that I needed to hear. Sirens started to go off in my head as these words pierced through my bubble. I finally realised how selfish I was being. For the first time I internalised the impact and suffering I was inflicting on everyone around me. He was right- I was dying. Yet in that moment I realised that I had a way out, and that I had a choice.
My brother was right- we all have a choice to regain our mental health. And I chose to live. But this decision could only come from me. Only you have the capacity to do this. Everyone around you can stand on their heads and say you need to do this, do that and to get better. But ultimately it is up to you. Only you have the power to do this.
Physically I got better. My weight was ‘normal’, and I managed to finish school and go on to university (ironically I studied psychology). However, I continued to ignore and push down my emotions and I remained at war with my mind and with my body. I struggled until my early twenties, still putting enormous pressure on myself to do everything perfectly. To make both myself, and others proud. This became my new identity. I ran myself into the ground with university, with work, with over exercising and toxic relationships. I watered myself down by constantly trying to please others. I was everyone’s saviour. I so desperately wanted to feel that I was enough. My depression was back. But this time I remembered that I had that choice.
Eventually, I did the healing work. I started to talk about my feelings and to ask for help. I told my friends and my family what was going on in the inside. I met with therapists, coaches, nutritionists, personal trainers, and spiritual teachers. I did the soul work. Without them, I would not be where I am today, both literally and symbolically. I am happy, I am healthy, and I am loved.
I learnt to slow down, and to stop running from my feelings. It wasn’t until I did this that I was able to listen to what my depression was trying to tell myself for all those years. It was in that slowing down that I was finally able to understand what it means to choose myself, to be with myself and to honour myself. I had to stop letting my inner child, who was afraid and insecure, making adult decisions for myself. I learnt to do things in moderation. I let go of my obsession of having control over everything, because I learnt to understand that this is impossible. I had to work through the discomfort and challenge the voices in my head that said the opposite. I had to stop looking outside of myself for the answers.
Periods of my younger years were heavy, but I needed it to be. I needed it to hit me hard in the face with reality so that I was forced to let go of all the old beliefs I had about myself. You cannot keep ignoring, pushing aside and keep repeating the same story. You must quit all that in to be able to invite a new way of being in. I no longer mould myself into others’ expectations of me. I set boundaries and put myself first. I believe that when we give our stories a voice, and share the lessons learnt, it can help others to see more clearly through the fog.
I look back at my younger self and my heart cries for her. I wish all those years ago that I had asked for help so much sooner. I wasted precious years of my life being depressed, battling alone in my head, and denying myself of happiness. I wish I had known that I didn’t always have to be strong and that asking for help is ok. I wish I would have had the knowledge to let people in, and the courage to explore and work through my pain. I now know that emotions are like a pressure cooker and unless you deal with them, they will always find a way to resurface. It’s ok, to not be ok. Just don’t unpack your suitcase and stay there.
Bottling things up and suppressing your emotions, is never the answer. Whether its sadness, grief, anger, or loneliness- they can always result in mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, or depression. The effect is the same, even if the core emotions are different. You can try to run away from them, but they will find a way and manifest themselves back into your life, no matter where you hide. I encourage you to address them. Learning to understand and manage your emotions, as well as learning to like who you are, is the biggest investment you can make in yourself and in your life. Don’t cage yourself in a prison like I did. If you have trouble understanding or expressing your emotions, begin with simply talking to someone. Reach out and trust. There is no shame. You can always break free and find the path back to who you are. I will never promise that this journey will be easy, but you never have to travel it alone.
Sometimes, when you’re in the dense darkness of recovery, it can feel like the light will never shine in again. But it will, I promise. Keep looking for those little cracks in the window. You need to make the decision, every single day not to give up. You have got to learn to select your thoughts the same way that you select your clothes in the morning. Rewiring your brain and learning new ways of being is hard. But you too have the choice to heal and be happy. You deserve to be well. You deserve to recover.
As the Senior Case Manager at Yes We Can Youth Clinics I use my own experiences every day, as do many of my colleagues, and is one of the reasons Yes We Can Clinics is so special. I can relate to many of the struggles our fellows and their families are facing, for which I have a huge amount of compassion and empathy. Before each fellow comes to Yes We Can I try to establish a relationship with them. I often first tell them about who I am and my experience with mental health before anything. This can take away a lot of their anxiety and helps to pave the path for honest, open conversations. For them, having someone to talk to who understands and who doesn’t give up on them is integral. If I can help even one fellow to begin the process of changing their sadness and fear to happiness and courage, then I am doing the work that I really believe in. From every story I learn more, and the lessons learnt I can pass down to others. This is the beautiful thing about this process, as the more we talk about our experiences and lessons, the more we can help the collective.
I invite you to grow with me. I invite you to make yourself vulnerable. Not to numb, run or hide and to share your struggles with others. The undoing is a process- but I promise you that freedom awaits on the other side.
I want to share some of the lessons that I have learnt on my journey with you. Life has its ups and downs, and it can be hard to always stick to them. But having a list of my Do’s and Don’t always helps to remind me of where I’ve been and which direction I want to keep going in when I feel like I’m slipping off the tracks. Maybe this World Mental Health Day you could choose this act of self-care and make a list too…