My Mental Health Journey
My Mental Health Journey
I was fourteen years old when I decided that I wasn’t satisfied with myself and needed to make some changes. I wanted to lose a bit of weight and get fitter, so I could dodge the ridicule at school during gym class, and maybe get willingly picked, rather than being the girl nobody’s really wants on their team.
I was in something of a bizarre situation when I was fourteen. I was in a class of four, and I was the only girl. I was also a Goth. The bullying was relentless. The teachers turned a blind eye for reasons that aren’t important here. School wasn’t the only problem though. My parents were having something of a rough ride, plus they wanted to uproot our family from a tiny mining village on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, to a bleak, industrial town in Teesside. At fourteen I felt I lacked control in any part of my life and I needed something to keep me going through these shit times.
My diet changed quickly and profoundly over the space of a few months. I started to avoid all the foods that just months previously I would have happily noshed, things such as bread, butter, whole milk, chocolate, you get the drift. I felt euphoric when I realised that my body was slimming down. I felt I finally had control over something. But it wasn’t enough. Or so ‘the voice in my head’ convinced me.
As I continued to reduce my food intake and increase my exercise load, I became utterly obsessed with food – when I could eat, what I could eat, what I couldn’t eat. I loved the fact I could say no to my Nanna’s flapjack. I loved that I could ride through the pain of an empty stomach.
As my weight dropped, and my collar bones became more exaggerated, the ‘voice in my head’ became more than something that would pass comment. It would judge me, it would mock me, it would harass me to eat less and move more. When I did as it commanded, I was rewarded with praise. When I went against what it wanted, all hell would break loose and my head was hammered with abuse.
I started to see things in the mirror that weren’t really there. I would catch sight of a fat roll around my hips, or another chin sneaking out. I was convinced that I had these blubbery masses staking claim on my body.
I remember having some obsessive compulsive tendencies as a child, and as my health deteriorated, OCD patterns of behaviour crept back into my life. If I left my toothbrush at the wrong angle, my family would die. If I didn’t close the door four times I would gain fifteen stone. If I didn’t put my coat on the fourth hanger from the door I would get cancer. All utterly ridiculous, but in my head at the time, entirely possible.
Depression moved its dark bulk into my head not long after I started losing weight. I isolated myself, rarely spoke to my family and dreaded interaction. Any interaction. My outbursts, when they happened, were cataclysmic. We’re talking fucking Exorcist style here. Any notions that you have of depression being something romantic, fucking lose them now because it’s most definitely not. It’s traumatic, it’s wounding, it’s ugly.
Anorexia affects every single part of the body, including the brain, and due to lack of nourishment, mine was rapidly drying out. At school it became impossible to concentrate. Nothing that went in stayed in. I was leaving at the end of the day unable to remember anything that I was supposed to have learnt. I was staying up until ridiculous hours of the morning, because if I fucked up one word, I had to screw up that page and start all over again.
Family meals became a no go zone, and I would lie about having already eaten. I wore baggy clothes and avoided conversations with any member of the family by claiming I was busy with homework. Within a matter of months, I had gone from being a normal fourteen year old kid with a dream: to become a writer, to something almost inhuman with a fanatical drive to get thin enough.
Downy fur started to grow all over my body. My circulation was struggling, leaving me with blue lips, teeth and hands. My hair was falling out. I couldn’t get warm. The skin on my hands was dry, cracked and constantly bleeding. When I hurt myself, wounds that would clear up in day usually took weeks to heal. My backbone was starting to protrude, as were my ribs. My heart was slowly starting to pack in and my stomach shrunk. My bones were starting to weaken. My body was constantly covered in bruises and my periods had stopped. When anyone mentioned what was happening to my body, my head would tell me that it was all evidence that I was making progress.
After a tip-off from my sister who had seen my bones while I was changing, my Mum marched me to the GP. I protested, but not much because I didn’t believe they would find anything wrong with me. They told my mother I would grow out of it, or something along those lines. I left the Steiner School (with just over 70 pupils) and moved onto a State School (with over 1,000). It was an enormous shock to my already fragile system. I’d never had to wear a uniform before and I was unable to do my tie properly. I remember one day my Dad wasn’t there to do it for me before school. I left it off that day and hoped it would go unnoticed. No such luck. In the first class of the day I was ordered to stand up and put it on in front of everyone. My hands were shaking so badly I could hardly hold it, let alone tie it. I started to cry, so another student helped me out and got it done. I can’t remember learning anything. I do remember crying nearly all day, every day while shaking my legs trying to burn calories.
I was at my new school for six weeks before I was pulled out after falling on my bike and experiencing horrendous pain in my heart. I was in James Cook hospital for a few days, and was told I was too ill to be at school. When I was discharged from the hospital all I could think of was how many miles I’d have to ride to make up for the hours I’d spent lying in the hospital bed. I’d been given a diet sheet which I stuck on my wall but ignored. I said I’d follow it, but by now I was a professional liar.
I was admitted into a psychiatric ward a few days into 2003 and was put on immediate bed rest. (Basically this means I wasn’t allowed to walk anywhere because my heart was too weak and I’d burn precious calories). Naturally this fucked me off, as even at this point I didn’t think that was anything really wrong with me. Within five minutes of putting my reluctant, bony arse on the bed, I was scheming as to how I would be able to exercise. The introduction of my meal plan followed soon after this initial shock. I spat venom about how I was going to refuse this quite frankly ridiculous list. They wanted me to go from eating one or two rice cakes a day and maybe an apple and some branflakes with water, to having three square meals a day and three snacks. Two of the three snacks would include a drink called Ensure, which is a high calorie meal replacement milkshake.
My life revolved around meal times. When I wasn’t eating I was reading, writing or listening to my metal music, crying or secretly exercising. There was a ‘school room’ but I wasn’t ready for that yet. (They gave me cross stitch to do in my room until I built up my strength). Privacy in this place was hard to come by. I had to have someone in the shower room while I showered to make sure I didn’t exercise, someone waiting outside the toilet, someone sat with me during meals… I was told that the more weight I gained the more privacy I would receive. Despite being furious about being watched constantly, it wasn’t tempting.
I remained on bed rest for five months before it dawned on me that I wanted to get better. I decided that I wanted to write a book about my experiences to help people, and realised I wouldn’t be able to help anyone if I was still on bedrest.
My stint in the psychiatric ward lasted for nearly a year. I was discharged a few days before my 16th birthday. I told a room of doctors and therapists that I was nearly back to ‘being fine’ again. That wasn’t true. But there was a part of me that wanted a life away from my illness.
I clung to anorexia for a further 8 years or so, before other things started to become more important, like my career as a writer, and love and happiness. I had multiple therapists during my anorexic years, but none of them assisted in my recovery as much as writing has.
I was in my third year at university when I had a mental breakdown that wasn’t linked to anorexia. It was 2009. I was at my student house in Carlisle, waiting for my boyfriend to return home from France and I developed a migraine which wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t long before I was Googling to try and find out what could be wrong with me. My immediate assumption was that I had a brain tumour. And once I had that thought in my head, that was it. I was at my doctors nearly every day of the week for months. Eventually he made an appointment for a brain scan. I had the scan. My brain was fine. It took about a month for me to believe this and by then I thought I had skin cancer too. That led to a benign mole being removed from my back, all so I could have peace of mind. But then I was convinced I had breast cancer and ovarian cancer… my poor boyfriend didn’t know what the hell to do during all this. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write. I considered killing myself but something made me stop at the last-minute.
I was closely monitored by the Crisis Team who for the first few weeks made sure I didn’t commit suicide. Eventually I was talked round into taking medication, something which I had point-blank refused to do from the age of 14. I was prescribed a heavy dose of citalopram and an equally heavy dose of quetiapine. It took a few weeks for them to kick in, but life did start to calm down and I was able to finish my university studies.
During the past few years, hypochondria has reared its ugly head again, but it’s the manic depression that has punched the life out of me. For a long time it left me unable to work, unable to socialise, unable to think rationally. Once again, it’s through writing that I’ve managed to pull myself back and get well. Nowadays I manage my mental health by being creative, helping others to open up to their creativity and by embracing my passion for the far north. I can say, hand on heart, that writing saved my life.
This is but a brief insight into my experiences with anorexia, hypochondria, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression but I hope that it’s been somewhat enlightening.
I’d like to end it by mentioning my family. While I was ill I treated them like shit, and I feel bad to this day for making them go through such hellish times. They supported me constantly and most of the time I threw their support back in their faces. We weren’t a properly functioning unit for many years, and I take full responsibility for that. However, I’m incredibly lucky that in the past few years we’ve been able to become close again. We’ve learnt to love and respect each other. As a matter of fact, we’ve never been tighter connected as a family and for that I’m eternally grateful.