By Claudia Congrave
*trigger warning: this post contains references to mental illness and eating disorders*
When it comes to getting personal about struggles with mental health, I feel like it's often a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't.
I mean sure, we've progressed to a point where these discussions are much more common, but that's not to say we've achieved full understanding and acceptance just yet.
There are always whispers of "oh wow I would never imagine they were struggling like that" "they don't look like the type to have 'problems'". You even hear the occasional snigger or suggestion that having any kind of internal battle is in some way a weakness.
Something I have come to learn is that it really is true what they say, that you never know what's going on in someone's head or behind closed doors. It's also true that it's a lot easier to understand something once you've experienced it yourself.
So, in the spirit of what this magazine is all about, I'd like to lay myself bare and let you in on some of the battles I've faced over the last few years, some of which are still very prevalent in my life today.
Let's start from the beginning...
I first became aware that my mental health was suffering at the age of seventeen.
During the summer before I started Sixth Form, I lost a lot of weight in a very short amount of time. All of the pubescent puppy fat that was making me insecure had dropped off and the 'glow up' was a phase I had come to enjoy.
To ensure that this post is as honest as possible, I have to admit that I developed an obsession with how it made me feel to lose weight and feel good. As awfully upsetting as it is to admit, I started to develop a complex whereby the skinnier I got, the happier I became.
Developing this toxic mindset came at a very bad time, just as the stress of A-Levels was setting in. Gradually, the impact of exams and increasing workloads caused me to feel intense waves of worry. The anxious feelings spiralled fairly quickly and every morning, like clockwork, I would wake up with that feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. The whirling, sea-sick feeling became a daily pattern that I accepted and didn't think too much about. That is until it progressed to physical sickness.
All of my pent-up, fearful feelings were making me feel dizzy and sick, but I had no knowledge of how to sensibly offload them. It was affecting me so much that I needed to come up with a way to function through it. From then on, the anxiety became a natural trigger for nausea and was something I began to induce on a daily basis.
The best way I can think to describe the relief of it all is if you think about how you feel when you're unwell, or even hungover. Your body is suffering and telling you to flush yourself out in some weird attempt at feeling better. When I was sick, I felt I had just offloaded all the emotion and, in a weird way, re-calibrated myself. For most people being sick is an awful experience, yet I would just get up and carry on as if nothing had happened.
While these episodes of sickness were being encouraged by something that I now know to be anxiety, they also became a dangerously convenient method for maintaining the new body image I had 'achieved'. Somewhere along the way, my brain clocked on to the fact that being sick was just fuelling my desire to see just how far I could go with my weight. It was no inconvenience to me at all and my poor mindset was thriving off it. While others were concerned for me, I was secretly enjoying it.
Luckily for me, something that could have spiralled into something much more dangerous somehow managed to switch itself off after several months. Fortunately, I managed to wean myself off what I suppose you could call a kind of addiction. Everything just began to settle down and I almost forgot about it entirely. It took a while for me to come to terms with the fact that I had been welcoming that daily routine. In fact, I think it’s probably only something I’ve realised recently. At the time I didn't want to think about the possibility of having anxiety or address the toxic relationship I clearly had with my body. I see it a lot clearer now, but that was still my introduction to just how bad it could get.
How it progressed...
In the last three years, my time at university has been the most eye-opening for observing the fragility and fluctuation of my mental health.
The earliest memory of immense concern was when I had a breakdown over a doctors appointment in one of the first weeks of first year. At the time I was really ill with tonsillitis, so I booked an appointment at the doctors. The sheer panic that followed was nothing I had ever felt before.
I wasn’t worried about the appointment itself, nor the health side of the situation or the social interaction. Those things don't panic me at all. For me, the fear was situational and central to the fact that I had to actually get there on my own.
Mind you, the doctor’s surgery was less than a mile walk outside of my halls, quite literally a 5-minute walk down the road. The basic logistics of it didn't matter to me and, for an entire week leading up to the appointment, I was a complete bag of nerves. I stayed in my room every day just sitting, worrying, crying and imagining a million different possible things that could go wrong. My mind tricked me into such an irrational sense of fear that, on the day of my appointment, I just couldn’t go through with it.
It was after that incident that I sat down with myself and thought, what the hell is going on!?
Signs that I was really suffering from anxiety continued to crop up so frequently after that, creeping up on me and having a massive impact on the things I was doing. It’s so difficult to explain what goes on in your head in those instances, especially when you don’t even really have an explanation yourself.
Without reproducing scientific jargon, the best way I can explain anxiety is that it's like you have two sides to your mind.
One is very rational: this is the voice that tries to reassure you and bring you down, the side that attempts to help you rationalise the situation and accept that you are and will be completely fine.
Sometimes that voice just can’t be heard over the other side, the irrational side.
This is the side that pushes through anxious thoughts and won’t let you forget the worrying possibility of the ‘what if’. The smallest, most insignificant thing is blown entirely out of proportion and all of a sudden it seems like the worst thing that could happen, when really it's the most minor thing. At the end of the stress, the panic attacks, the tears, you're left thinking that it's better that you just avoid the very thing that made you anxious in the first place.
When my anxiety is at its worst it controls me more than I would like to admit.
These days I go in and out of phases with it. Sometimes it presents itself fairly mildly and I just about manage to talk myself down. Other times it comes at me like a tonne of bricks and the hysterics last for days. I struggle with things not being planned, I don't like going to places I'm unfamiliar with, I have to be somewhere excessively early just incase, I don't deal well with being home alone and I worry ridiculously over most things- and these are just a few things that trigger me the most.
It's all part of the learning curve of life, I suppose.
You're taught about nurturing the body and you're even told to be careful with your sexual health, but looking after your mental health was never even introduced as a concept to me. It's as if you learn that only 'certain people' have to deal with that. Mental health struggles have sort of been sectioned off for a long time as something relegated to a certain 'category' of us.
Most of you who are reading this may know me, but you may or may not know about the experiences I have spoken about. Some of you may also have had similar experiences to those that I have spoken about and some none at all.
If there's anything I've learnt from my experience it's that the capacity to struggle with mental health issues, at some point or another, is within all of us. We all have our demons, whatever they may be, and the mind is a very fragile thing.
What makes it all easier, though, is feeling understood. In my experience, it is a whole lot more helpful when people share and spread awareness. Even if you may not feel that it is relevant to you now, there will always come a day when we each need that affirmation that we are not alone in how we feel.
Hopefully, this article was that affirmation for some of you.
If not, I hope still that you have got to know me a little bit better from it.