The stories we tell ourselves become who we are.
I guess this is me telling my story. Although it’s not a story in the traditional sense with a start and an end – a neat beginning and a well-formed conclusion; it’s life. It’s messy and chaotic yet simple and repetitive. It’s changing all the time, whilst staying the same. It’s full of closed doors, packed full of open ones.
I’ve been using this space to write and explore for exactly a year now. Whilst I’ve touched on my own experiences with Mental Health issues as a way of exploring the different aspects I focus on here, I’ve never really explained what my personal experience was like, other than allowing a few sentences here and there to add insight. The reasons for shying away from this were two-fold:
- Because I didn’t believe a post dedicated to my experience could be all that helpful – as every person is unique and so is their recovery.
- Because even though I’m more open than I ever have been, there’s still that little voice that wants me to feel shame for my challenges.
Based on the above I’ve formed my own rationale for doing this post:
- Because I have a voice. Because in any singular moment, on the other end of this screen, someone might be going through the same or similar feelings/thoughts/behaviours that I experienced. Because they might not feel so alone. Because this 1 post could help that 1 person in some shape or form.
- Because I want to challenge that voice that makes me feel something I know I shouldn’t. Because this platform was built to de-bunk that shame. Because shame can go stick it where the sun don’t shine.
No labels, just me
In 2013 my full diagnosis had 3 spectrums: anxiety, depression and anorexia nervosa. I remember sitting opposite my therapist;
‘So, Sarah which of these areas would you like to focus on first?’
I was stumped by her question. In my mind, one couldn’t be separated from the other. One didn’t come first before it’s pushy side-kick threw its weight around. One couldn’t be treated without the other putting its sticky claws over its recovering back-side. How could I possibly find a starting point to all of this..
Although I felt in this moment, sat opposite this stranger, that I was locked into a life driven by the characteristics of my diagnosis, I have since learnt that there is a way to quieten the noise and live a life on my terms. These mental challenges have undoubtedly played a part in shaping my current identity – my values, my beliefs and who I am as a person. But they are not me.
So where did I pick these issues up from?
Hmm, you tell me? I can’t be sure, but I know that both my personality and some early childhood/young adult experiences lay a good fertilizer for the issues I faced. I’m a perfectionist, not naturally ‘intelligent’, but hard working, relatively high achieving and a ‘typical worrier’. Mental Health issues are in my family and I remember from a very young age facing challenges around some of the areas that came into full fruition later in life.
In primary school – probably around 8 or 9 years old for example, I regularly felt discomfort around food. Eating in front of new people gave me a funny feeling in my tummy and I often threw my packed lunch away or ate very little until I got home which felt safer to me. I know I started lying about food on a minor scale before I even hit secondary school.
Fast forward to my first year at University and after the first term I had my tonsils removed. I lost weight as a result of the procedure and the complications that followed, and while I was able to put the weight back on quickly, I’ve come to understand that this was actually a trigger point. I think the process of seeing and feeling my body change added fuel to an existing need for some control in my life. Slowly, I found ways to make my physical body, my self-worth and my esteem smaller and smaller.
The face of it all
When people talk about anorexia, depression or anxiety there sometimes seems to be a pre-conceived notion about what this is, what it looks like or what the character of a sufferer might be. From the outset I was extremely happy. I was relatively energetic, smiley and ‘positive’. I held down a part-time job whilst studying, had a boyfriend, went out and could function as a ‘normal’ person. I probably looked ‘healthy’ most of the time rather than the typical vision of someone with mental health issues such as anorexia.
I was however, pretty good at deceiving those around me. If I went out for a meal, I could manage to consume like my peers, but it was always accounted for or meant some earlier or later sacrifice; It was always pre-planned and recorded – everything that passed my mouth for over a year was written down. The face of depression also has many colours. People perceive a typical depression sufferer as a person very ‘down’, low in mood, unable to get out of bed for example. Damn I was straight out of bed! Anorexia drove me to get up and move. Depression gripped my hand to whisper in my ear at night as I tried to settle. Anxiety kept me awake and even when I did fall asleep, I was sometimes pulled out of bed due to nocturnal panic attacks.
There are many situations and events that I recall which are uncomfortable to think about. At the time I was convinced I wasn’t ill enough to get any form of help. I just carried on as things got worse, then got better, then got worse again and spun in this circle for some time.
I remember one event in particular.. I’d spent over an hour in the supermarket, filling only a small shopping basket for myself because decision making under the rules I had built around food meant I had to battle against my wants and needs and my willpower. I walked home angry, upset, hungry and felt completely hopeless. Who was this ‘pathetic’ person? My train of thought was interrupted by the sound of a car horn. I had walked in front of a car – so wrapped up in my mind that my own safety didn’t really matter that much anymore. I hadn’t meant to cause myself any harm but at the same time, I didn’t really care all that much either way.
This post isn’t about all the ways in which I have found the space to move forward with my challenges, but I will say that one letter did spark the start of change. My mum showed me this letter a couple of months ago. She kept it and said that one day I would look back, read the letter and see how far I had come because she knew I was strong and would pull through it. She said that the things I have been through and learnt will stand me in the best possible position to help and support people – my main ambition and something I am consistently striving towards.
Writing about what was going on and how I was feeling was the only way I could really let it out. Of course, those closest to me knew what was going on and they had their concerns, but the reality is, change must come on your terms.
If you’re struggling, who can you reach out to? If you can’t speak about your challenges, what other ways can you get the support you need?
This post ends as it started. A reminder that in my opinion, there really is no specific end or clear cut conclusion to Mental Health issues. This may seem a bleak concept but the way I see it, my experiences hold great power and continue to shape the person I am today for the better. Whilst there is sometimes the little tug of old habits or a knock at the door from well rooted limiting beliefs that want to pull me from my place of stability, I am always learning how to manage, evolve and grow. Time heals most things, and what time can’t solve, you have to solve yourself.
“When you start to feel like things should have been better this year, remember the mountains and valleys that got you here. They are not accidents, and those moments weren’t in vain. You are not the same. You have grown, and you are growing. You are breathing, you are living, you are wrapped in endless, boundless grace. And things will get better. There is more to you than yesterday.”
– Morgan Harper Nichols