Tuesday 17 September 2013

The Power of Shared Experiences

I developed anorexia when I was 13. It was a terrifying experience for me and all those close to me. I hated life with anorexia, but recovery terrified me. I was fortunate to have good support from the medical profession. My GP understood, both that I needed help and that she did not know what would be best for me. She sought advice from colleagues and made a referral for me to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist referred me to a therapist who worked with me with understanding and compassion to explore what recovery would mean for me and how I would get there. This professional support was fundamental to my recovery. But it was support that I received for, at most, an hour a week. That left another 167 hours a week to get through on my own.

My friends struggled to understand my fear of recovery. I became incredibly anxious and my social anxiety was something that left me feeling very isolated. The thoughts running through my mind on a day by day basis were strange and far removed from the every day world of most teenagers. This left me feeling very cut off from my friends. I wanted to just be normal and fit in. I wanted to have fun and be fun to be around, but so often anorexia got in the way.

I had times when I was really desperate and felt completely hopeless about recovery. I just wanted someone to say, I know what you are going through and trust me, everything will be okay. When I felt like this, I contacted support services run by mental health charities. They could talk to me then and there, but they could not be there for the long term. They couldn't say, I understand, I've been there, I know. They wouldn't tell me to pull myself together and get on with recovery.

When I was 15, I met Rachel. I met Rachel online, through a web based recovery forum. I found the forum to be a lifeline for me - It was an opportunity to check in with people who understood what I was going thorough. The members of the forum offered support and encouragement that helped me stay on track with my recovery, but they were always just anonymous strangers. So I decided to meet up with Rachel. In hindsight everything about meeting Rachel was a risk that a vulnerable 15 year-old should not have been making, but this was a girl who, in the online world, seemed to really understand me.

Meeting Rachel turned out to be one of the turning points in my recovery. Rachel is an amazing individual. She had been struggling with mental health problems for years. She understood the chaos in my mind. I didn't have to explain things to her, she just knew. It was amazing to be able to talk to her. Rachel was there for the long run. Not being part of my group of friends, or knowing any of my friends, I could talk to her without the rest of my life changing. I could chat on a Thursday afternoon, knowing that my friends would all treat me the same way on Friday morning. This took some of the pressure off my other friendships. It helped me spend time with my friends, as friends, to have fun, while anorexia could be left out of the picture.

Rachel was always a positive and supportive person in my life. She pushed me towards recovery, even when she was struggling herself. She pulled me up when she thought I was not trying hard enough and challenged me to be brave and have confidence when I was scared of recovery. She could do all of this because she knew what the bad days were like and she could say with confidence that there would be good days.

Rachel was a lifeline for my recovery. I believe that peer support groups can offer students the kind of lifeline that Rachel provided me. They offer students the opportunity to meet others who share similar experiences, to talk to people who really understand. The facilitators at the groups ensure that the sessions are always safe and always looking towards recovery. I hope that these groups make it much easier for students struggling with recovery to find their "Rachel".

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