I’d just like to start this World Mental Health Day post with a trigger warning, as I’m going to be touching on a few potentially triggering topics including depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, compulsions, cancer. Despite all of this, I do hope that the overall conclusion of this blog post will be an uplifting one.
I’m not sure quite where time has gone, but it’s been over three years since the last time I wrote about my journey with mental illness. So, in keeping with World Mental Health Day I thought it might be interesting to tell that story again. I feel like with three additional years of progress and a lot having happened in that time, I can offer a different perspective to the one I presented back in January of 2017.
When I wrote my previous account, I was in a good place, but being in a good place was fairly new to me. In the three years since, a hell of a lot of healing, reflection and growth has occurred. There have been a lot of huge milestones to navigate and hurdles to overcome, but at the age of 22, I am a completely changed person (for the better!)
Every now and then, I like to share my story because it has been a journey to say the least; there have been countless ups and downs along the way and there were times when I just couldn’t imagine ever feeling ok or normal, let alone happy and content.
Unfortunately, there will be people out there who feel that same way right now, and I hope that through telling my story, I can provide somebody else in the same position as I was with the hope that things can change for the better (as cliche as that may be – honestly, if somebody had said that to me back in the day I’d have potentially wanted to punch them).
So without further ado, let’s take a journey through the life of Elise…
1998 – 2012: The Anxious Child
I was always a very anxious child, which I think is common in many children. It doesn’t always necessarily lead to anything more, but for me I think it was definitely a precursor of things to come.
I was pretty much nervous about everything: going to school, going on school trips, being away from home. Anything out of the ordinary (or sometimes even the day-to-day) would make me extremely anxious.
Things became more intense when I moved to secondary school and developed an intense feeling that I was ill. I didn’t like the thought that if I was ill, I was trapped at school, and this obsession would cause me to convince myself that there was something wrong with me.
During this time, I struggled to eat and was probably throwing up at school more days that not. I convinced myself so firmly that I was ill that I actually became ill. What is key looking back is that I thought being sick all the time was causing me to feel anxious, when in reality it was the other way round. Aside from this, I was generally very shy, sensitive and tearful.
2009 was also the year that I sustained my pelvic nerve damage which caused me intense chronic pain for 7 years before I finally sought help. I’m not going to speak in too much detail about this as I have another blog post dedicated to it, but throughout all of my struggles, this was a definite added complication that really influenced every aspect of my life for years.
2012 – 2014: Hello Depression
When I moved into my GCSE years, something shifted, and that anxiety turned into a deep and dark depression. I can’t even tell you that much about this time because to be honest, I can’t remember a lot of it.
I know that I spent a lot of my time feeling very dissociated. If you’re not sure what this feels like, the best way I can describe it is that it’s a bit like when you’re driving in autopilot and arrive at your destination without remembering the journey. I remember feeling as though I was walking around with my legs, but I wasn’t in control of them, and when I spoke, it was like I was listening to someone else.
It was during this time that my Dad was first diagnosed with cancer, and looking back I think this ‘out of body’ feeling may have been my mind’s desperate attempt at finding a coping mechanism. For a couple of years, I cut myself off from my friends completely and wasn’t interested in interacting with anyone.
2014: Health Anxiety, Antidepressants and Therapy
During this really dark time, my health anxiety emerged for the first time, and this is something I still struggle with (albeit in more manageable doses) to this day. I became convinced that I had throat cancer myself, and this fear unlocked a very obsessional side to me that had always been lingering in the background, but had never taken centre stage.
I started making irrational connections and getting intrusive thoughts of horrible scenarios, usually related to illness or dying. To cope with these, I developed compulsions which somehow ‘neutralised’ these thoughts (although never for very long).
Even though I knew realistically that carrying out these compulsions wouldn’t have any effect on the likelihood of whatever my current obsession was being true, I somehow thought that if I ‘took the risk’ and didn’t do them, it proved that I didn’t really care if that thing happened, and therefore made it more likely to happen.
I’m completely aware of how ridiculous this sounds, but anyone who has dealt with this cycle will know exactly what I mean. A few of the main compulsions I performed were:
- Touching my head
- Biting my lip
- Clicking my finger
- Blinking/rolling my eyes
- Grinding my teeth
- Repeating words and phrases in my head
At their worst, I would be doing these probably hundreds of times in a single minute. In fact, I actually tore the tendon in my little finger from clicking it that much ,and it was left permanently damaged – I’ve attached an image below (you may not want to look if you’re squeamish but it isn’t graphic, it’s just how my finger looks now!)
Although I was never diagnosed officially with OCD, I definitely think there was some element of it there – in fact, I still repeat phrases in my head before I go to sleep every night. Health anxiety and intrusive thoughts/compulsions kind of all rolled into one massive shitshow for me, but health anxiety was the overarching element that was identified.
It was at this point that I decided to go to my GP. For me, living in constant fear and being overwhelmed with compulsions was unmanageable, and I knew I couldn’t carry on in this way. I was incredibly fortunate to have an exceptional GP who has helped through a hell of a lot over the years. I think I was ‘officially’ diagnosed with depression/anxiety, but it really wasn’t very clear cut and was more of a hybrid of various different things all mixed together.
At this point, I was prescribed my first antidepressant, dosulepin. In true Elise style, I convinced myself that this medication was killing me so then started taking fluoxetine (Prozac), which I didn’t get on with either for various reasons. Eventually, I ended up on sertraline (Zoloft) which really worked well for me with minimal side-effects, and I am still on it to this day.
I also tried out CBT, which to be totally honest, I didn’t get along with. What can I say, I’m a Capricorn at heart and am far too stubborn to be told what to think. Of course, that’s not really what CBT is about but that’s how I viewed it at the time, and it really wasn’t for me. To be honest, I’d done my research and I knew what I needed to do, I just didn’t want to do it.
2015: A Complicated Phase
17 and 18 were weird ages for me. At the time I think I tried to believe I was ‘all better’, but this was really far from the case. I was still very depressed and had terribly low self-esteem. I developed a troubling relationship with alcohol and was a shitty friend who really did her best to push people away (and what angels they were that they never left). During this time, I became a lot more impulsive in general.
2015 was also the year that we found out my Dad had cancer again, so of course this added to the strain and was a big part of the reason I turned to alcohol. This was a very chaotic time of drinking to excess, sleeping a lot and giving up on college, which essentially led to me doing rather badly in my exams.
2016 – Present: Emergence of Hope
In 2016, something shifted in me. I realised that I couldn’t go on like this any longer, and had to face my issues head-on. The huge swing of ups and downs was getting too much, and I realised I couldn’t hide any longer. When you’re struggling with mental illness, I think it’s definitely true that you have to be ready to recover. For many years, I was fearful of leaving that place, because it was familiar and weirdly ‘comfortable’ in its uncomfortableness. I’m sure there are others who will be able to relate to this.
A desire to do well in my A-Levels drove me to focus more heavily on improving my mental state. I faced a lot of underlying issues, and seeking help for my pelvic pain was definitely a huge step in addressing a lot of other things. Taking those steps forward were certainly not easy, but I did all I could to turn my attention inwards and focus on self-care and nurturing myself. I joined the gym and weightlifting became a lifeline and eventually a passion.
Around this time, I became more of a carer for my Dad, and this was another force that drove me to work on my mental health. It was kind of a case of being forced to make a change, we had no other choice but to be strong, and although the time leading up to my Dad’s death was horrific and I would do anything to change it, it was also a time of intense change in me.
The imminent loss of someone so close to me sparked a realisation that I really had to keep up these changes I had made. It made me realise that life is short and I had to live it to the full. Going back to where I had once been was simply no longer an option.
Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that mental illness can be combatted with sheer willpower – far from it. Yes, I was ready and incredibly determined to find happiness and peace, but it’s important to note that I have also been on medication for the past 6 years and have tried and failed to come off it several times.
Since 2017, so many positive things have happened. I’ve moved out of home for the first time, completed 2 great years of university, got my clever little brain back, progressed with my blog and started my freelance writing business. I have my bad days for sure and health anxiety is something I definitely still battle with, but they really are few and far between.
Above all, I’m content. I genuinely find happiness in most days, which is something I could never have imagined as a teenager. I didn’t think life would ever change. I guess my message is that however hopeless things may seem, and however much life is dragging you down, things can and do change. Maybe you’re not quite ready yet, or maybe you’re still struggling to navigate your recovery, but don’t give up hope, no matter how unhopeful life may seem right now.
Mental illness dictated my teenage years, and I truly could not see a way out. Truly. However long and ramble-y this blog post may be, I’ve barely even scratched the surface here.
But things did turn around, and if you’re dealing with something similar, they will turn around for you, too.
And whether you have been touched by mental illness yourself or not, we must push for improved mental health services in this country. Year-long waiting lists for therapies, dismissive medical professionals and lack of education are not good enough. When people do seek help, they deserve to receive it.