Thursday 16 July 2015

Talking - "I can't be certain that I would be any better, but I can be certain that I would have spent less of my life feeling alone"

It's been nearly six years (or 304 weeks, or 2126 days) since I began to suspect I had an eating disorder. It's been even longer since I started having problems with my mood. Yet it's only in the last 128 days that anyone in the world has known anything about this.

Although there are many reasons why I didn't tell anybody, the biggest factor was that nobody talked about mental health, so I thought I couldn't talk about mental health. And because nobody talked about it, I had no idea what was going on.

I didn't know what was wrong with me.

I didn't know that there were other people going through the same things I was.

I didn't know that I could have an eating disorder without being underweight.

I didn't know what help was available, how to get it, or whether my parents would find out if I did.

I didn't know how to even broach the subject with anyone, or who that person should be.

I didn't know if I was crazy. Or if I would ever be okay. Or if it was my fault.

So I spent over five years keeping everything to myself, because it didn't seem like there was any other option. The idea of telling anyone, even my friends or parents, just didn't seem like a possibility. In fact even a few months ago I still felt exactly the same. And that meant many years of feeling incredibly isolated and alone. I spent what were supposed to be the best days of my life, my school and university days, in a constant state of worry and lies and pretending to be okay. I was never myself with people, because I was scared of being rejected if they knew the truth - and so even though I had lots of friends, I never felt particularly close to anybody and everything I told them felt kind of superficial. That just made me feel even more alone and distant from people.

Part way through my second year at university it just got too much, so I went to the doctor and was prescribed anti-depressants. The doctor also suggested counselling, but I was too petrified of talking about how bad I really felt, so I just stuck with the medication. It was still another year until I told anybody anything, or even that I was taking the medication. Another year of loneliness and uncertainty. My eating disorder did not fit into one of the typical categories - I wasn't underweight and I didn't purge - so I just spent years in a limbo of starving myself and gaining the weight back; horrible enough to make every day a struggle, but not horrible enough for me to believe I deserved help or for it to be physically obvious to those around me (which just made me think nobody would believe me even if I did tell them).

It was only this year, when I actually did become underweight and I was repeatedly directly asked if I had a problem, that I finally admitted the truth, slowly - a bit at a time, to a person at a time. And nothing terrible happened. Nobody stopped being friends with me or treated me differently; in fact many people had experience of mental health difficulties themselves.

In itself this is obviously fantastic, and I am very grateful that I was able to be open and it turned out okay. But all those years I spent alone could have been avoided if I'd witnessed more openness and willingness to discuss mental health. Because I was so scared and uncertain of what would happen, I kept it to myself, and now I can't get those years back. I'm not necessarily any better, certainly not recovered, but just the knowledge that I'm not alone has felt like such a weight off my shoulders. Though it's sort of bittersweet that this weight could have been taken off my shoulders a long time ago. Obviously it was down to me whether or not I told anybody, but (like many others) I was just a kid when my problems started and I was simply too scared. I'm not even sure if, without my problems having become more physically visible this year, I'd have ever told anybody.

This is why, not only for the reason that early intervention has been shown to be very important in recovery from mental health difficulties, but also for the simple reason that I and many others didn't need to spend so many years isolated and dealing with this alone, it is vital that talking about mental health becomes less of a 'taboo' - We need much better education and awareness about mental health, especially during school when people are particularly vulnerable. I don't have all of the answers, and certainly wouldn't know where to start, but something needs to change. I wish I'd felt I had someone to talk to, or knew what I do now - I can't be certain that I would be any better, but I can be certain that I would have spent less of my life feeling alone, and for that reason alone I think it is worth it.

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