Mental illness: My story

Somewhere deep down, I always knew I was a bit different. I wanted to write about this – my story from start to the present day, because I recently realised that despite my few years of mental health campaigning, I’ve never written a detailed account of where my passion comes from.

Even as a small child, I suspected that I felt things more deeply than most people of my age. It never took a lot to make me cry and looking back, I’m sure my anxiety levels were much higher than they should have been. Once I was actually diagnosed at the age of 16, my mental health issues were put into the bracket of depression, although they have manifested themselves in a range of different forms over the years. It’s kind of been a random mashup of depression, SAD, different types of anxiety and phobias. As I’ve already mentioned, it started out primarily as anxiety. As a small child I remember having anxiety about going to school – there were days up until being about 8 or 9 where the thought of going would be so upsetting to me. I would occasionally have to be physically carried into school. I suppose this to some extent is quite normal for a young child, but I never really grew out of the anxiety; it just transferred itself to different situations. By the age of about 9 I had developed a complete and utter phobia of buses – more specifically of travel sickness. Travel sickness is something I’ve always suffered with, but in this situation I think it was a vicious cycle. The anxiety made me feel sick hours or even days before I knew I had to get on a bus, so on the day I thought ‘I’m already ill so I definitely can’t go on the bus or I’ll be more ill’. The next time the memory made the fear even stronger. I got myself so worked up that even on short bus journeys I would often end up being sick.

However, it was only when I started secondary school that my issues really began to interfere with my life regularly. At the beginning of year 7 I got really ill – just being sick all the time. I was so scared of being sick at school and so had a lot of time off in my first term there. I would often get into school but end up throwing up and having to go home. It was a complete mystery illness at the time; I lost a lot of weight but when I went to the doctors, they couldn’t find anything wrong. Looking back, it’s blatantly obvious to me that it was all anxiety. Deep down, I was terrified of going to school, which was making me feel sick. My mind was telling me that the sickness was causing the anxiety, but in reality is was the other way round. It seems crazy that I had no idea, but I know all too well how your mind can play tricks on you, in an effort to protect you from the truth.

From this, my health continued to steadily decline. It’s so strange to think that it never occurred to me that I may actually have a mental illness, when looking back it is so clear; I was incredibly sensitive and in tears almost every day for years. This is why I believe mental health education from a young age is vital, and I will always stick by this belief. Whenever I’ve brought this up before, teachers have shied away from it because it’s deemed as too heavy a topic for very young children. However I believe it doesn’t have to be scary; there are ways to present mental health education in an age-appropriate manner. I would also argue that a child growing up as I did, convinced that they are just ‘pathetic’, is vastly more scary.

At the age of 15, things took a real turn for the worst. A variety of factors really triggered something in me, and I just fell into complete despair. I isolated myself every day and barely even spoke to my friends for about a year. At the worst point, I felt completely detached from my body. It was the weirdest feeling and it’s probably hard to imagine unless you’ve felt it yourself. The best way I can describe it is that it was as though I was floating above my body – not living my life, but just observing it. I couldn’t feel anything at all. I could see myself walking around, and hear myself talking, but it wasn’t me that was doing it. I think it was my mind’s way of trying to protect me from feeling so depressed, but it was counterproductive. For me, feeling nothing was so much worse than feeling awful. Expressing what you feel is how you heal, and not being able to feel what you need to is actually indescribably frustrating. I used to try to make myself cry because I needed to get the emotions out, but I just couldn’t make myself feel anything. I was so detached from my own life that I can barely remember that year at all – it’s completely lost. My one vivid memory is standing in front of the mirror at college one day and physically jumping, because I didn’t recognise my own reflection. I eventually plucked up the courage and went to my GP, because by this point I knew what I was experiencing was not at all normal. However, it was completely brushed off and I was told that every teenager feels this way – it was devastating. I actually wanted something to be wrong; if something was actually wrong with me, measures could be taken to make it better, but if what I was experiencing was deemed as normal, I essentially just had to live with it. I knew in my heart something was seriously wrong, but was so defeated I just buried my head in the sand.

When I was 17, I was suddenly hit with an awful anxiety related to my health. I don’t want to go into details about this because, of everything, I actually find this the hardest thing to talk about. It was so strong that it actually caused some of the physical things in my body which I was worried about to happen. This is the one experience that cemented my belief that mental and physical health are so closely connected. My health was constantly on my mind. At about the same time I started getting into strange habits of repeating phrases in my head and touching certain objects at certain times because it temporarily eased my anxiety. I knew logically it made no difference to anything, but it felt as though it ‘balanced’ things in my head somehow. However the immediate sense of comfort these actions gave me never lasted long, and at the worst point I was doing them hundreds of times a day. It was very easy to hide because it was mostly just silently saying words in my head, but it meant my head always felt ‘full’, it was so frustrating and impossible to concentrate. This is a habit I managed to cut down on massively, although I still to this day repeat a set of phrases in my head every night before I sleep. It’s so ingrained in me that I honestly don’t know if I will ever be able to stop doing it – but it doesn’t really affect my life much anymore, so it doesn’t particularly bother me. Like I said, the anxiety I was experiencing also caused physical symptoms, which just fed the anxiety even further, so it turned into a vicious cycle. It was at this point I decided to go to a different GP, armed with everything I had experienced written down in my phone. I was a lot more prepared and made sure I really put across how miserable these issues were making my life. This time, I was taken seriously; I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication – and was already having counselling at school.

Since then, it’s been a constant journey and I can honestly say that not a single day has gone by where I haven’t learnt something new about myself. I’ve tried tons of different treatments; medications, counselling, CBT and hypnotherapy to name a few. I’ve had so many issues with side effects of medications (one of which almost ruined my A-Levels). I’ve lost count of the number of times I have fought to get myself better and then completely gone back on myself. However, every time it happens, I eventually pick myself up and it strengthens me. I used to get frustrated with myself for letting things slip over and over again, but I’ve found that a better way of looking at things is from a ‘what will be, will be’ stance. Taking every day one at a time and trying to stay focused on being well, but not torturing myself if I go downhill again. At the end of the day, falling down and making mistakes are a vital part of the process of learning how to heal. I think mental health issues are often seen as something that somebody gets, recovers from and then it’s left behind and forgotten about. From my point of view, I don’t believe in that; I think it takes constant work. I don’t think there will ever be a day in my life where I don’t have to consciously decide to keep working on my health. I think recovery from mental illness is not a destination to be reached, but a constant state of making the right choices for yourself, and of knowing what to do if things do start to decline again. Nowadays I don’t really put myself in a bracket of ‘this is what I have’ and ‘these are the clinical symptoms I have’, because it’s never been that black and white for me. I simply have come to the conclusion that I feel the same feelings as everyone else, it’s just that whatever emotion I feel, it’s to the extreme. I am either happy as hell or everything is terrible, and every situation that provokes an emotion, that emotion is without fail, so intense. Part of me hates this, but another part of me thinks what a beautiful thing it is to be able to feel everything so deeply. The year where I felt nothing at all makes me – in a strange way – grateful for my excess of emotion now.

At this point in my life, in a strange sort of way, I feel grateful for everything that has happened. It has made me incredibly self-aware, determined and ambitious in a way that I don’t think I ever would have been, had I not experienced all of this. Weirdly, it’s sculpted me into a much more positive person; I think when you have seen such catastrophic lows, it makes you more grateful for everything that is good in life. Although never in quite as much detail as this, I have told this story so many times now. Each time I feel more comfortable revealing more and more, because as I continually grow I become more at peace with my past. I worry that speaking about this so much makes me look self-absorbed, but I don’t tell my story to generate attention for myself. I tell it to generate attention towards mental health. My input is small and although my personal story may not reach many, if it can encourage one other person to be open about their struggles, or to reach out for help if they’re struggling right now, then surely it’s worth putting it out there. I’ve always said this, but in a way I feel as though I was dealt this card in life so I could work through it, and then turn it into a positive and help others. I think the sharing of personal stories is one of the most powerful tools in mental health awareness. Sometimes it’s hard to put into words how you feel, but the more people who share their experiences, the more likely it is that somebody will read something that strikes a chord with them, and suddenly they will realise they’re not alone. If that hope makes me attention-seeking or self-absorbed, then so be it.

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