It’s World Mental Health Day today (the 10th of October if reading retrospectively), and it’s a topic I am extraordinarily passionate about, because we all have mental health and we all have the propensity…as humans…to face mental health struggles at some point in our lives. In fact, the statistics say that the majority of us will suffer from some level of mental ill health at some point in our lives.
So as a ‘fu%^ you’ to the stigma that keeps so many of us struggling with mental health issues…silent…I’ve decided to tell my own story, one that I have not openly talked about online (in full ) to date. I guess partly for fear of judgment from peers and colleagues, but enough is enough. Our struggles are a part of us and in many ways shape who we become…for (hopefully) better and sometimes not so.
I am not sharing my story because I feel the need for validation or sympathy, and believe you and me, it’s in no way an uncommon story, but simply as a way of saying ‘yeah, me too, you’re not alone’. And also because I don’t wish to hide from my past anymore, I am not the same person, but those experiences have taught me so much and have (or so I like to think) shaped me into a better human, friend, daughter, sister, clinician…today.
Yep, having an eating disorder (anorexia to be exact – though I never managed to access the treatment that would’ve given me that formal badge) in my early teens was one of the most isolating, debilitating and devastating (to those around me) challenges that I’ve faced to date.
It destroyed my physical health (it’s taken over 10 years to recover my reproductive function – never again will I take menstruating for granted, that monthly period = body working, apologies if that’s a little too much to read, but hey ho!). It also wrecked havoc with my digestive function for years and years, even after being “weight restored”. And yeah, I am now that dietitian who also has IBS.
It held me back emotionally, distanced me from others, diminished my ability to form close relationships with friends, to meet new people, find first loves…it paralysed me with social anxiety. Something that I still struggle with.
It strained the relationships with my own family (never have I seen my parents so stressed… trying tirelessly to support me the entire time, whilst the voices in my head and that reflection in the mirror, forced me to push so strongly against them!)
It made me question my role on this earth, during the lowest points culminating in thoughts and desires of not wanting to be here, to live…anymore. These are the scariest moments to reflect on, that the hatred I had for myself made me truly question my desire to continue living.
I know upon careful reflection over the years since (and yes I likely need therapy to still process a lot of this shit, though it’s a rather expensive commitment to access such services reliably in the UK!) that what guided me back onto the path that chose to live (and recover) was primarily because I could not face the hurt that I, that IT, was causing to others (surprise surprise I am still a people pleaser!) around me (most especially my family) and because I knew that if I wanted to ever work in science/medicine/healthcare/nutrition, then I needed to be ‘well enough’ to help others, and to be able to study/complete the relevant degrees without further compromising my own health.
I was an average, middle classed, straight sized, relatively privileged young adolescent with supportive, loving parents and siblings…a good education, supportive food and body image environment… a comfortable upbringing. A dedicated straight A, high achieving, school loving student (though cough, cough…hello control manifesting in other way!). The odds were from the outset, to those looking on, stacked for me, not against me. I share this story being unable to imagine what it is like to struggle with mental health/illness when the odds are most completely stacked against you.
I have worked with many individuals since (as a dietitian and clinician) to whom this in the case. Who have been afflicted by similar struggles with eating, body image and ultimately self worth (not only patients in eating disorder recovery, but also more widely with well and sick individuals)… whose issues with food, health and their bodies are deeply rooted in poverty, past trauma, abuse and addiction. And whilst I can’t pretend to know what’s it like to be them, I can and continue to show my utmost compassion to them, to provide them with support, to listen to their fears and to ensure they feel heard (and yes, to also be that person who bluntly challenges that faulty voice in their head!).
I now know/recognise/believe that my own experiences (in some small way) ultimately help me to better empathise with and support my patients/clients, and to ultimately be a better person-centred clinician. Because I too have been there (and there shouldn’t be any shame in saying that even as a ‘healthcare professional’) and although I don’t know better, I like to think I am able to help people ensure that they can better see their own worth (beyond what they eat/look like/weigh) and get them to a point of physical health (and in their relationships with food and body image)…where the reasons to keep living are clearer… they become non-negotiable.
So if you’re reading this…my only hope is that gives you the courage to share, to speak up and out to others if you’re struggling, or simply want to debrief. Mental health and illness are not dirty words, and I won’t be shying away from talking about the topic anymore.
And remember especially to check on that friend/colleague/acquaintance who seems ‘fine’ or even looks like they’re ‘nailing life’…because all is often not as it seems and creating a space where some feels they can talk about it, and feel safe enough to show that vulnerability should never be underestimated.
PS. And yeah these days I may be “recovered” – in textbook terms, mental health is for life and managing anxiety, panic and those body image wobbles are just new and ongoing challenges that I choose to now to approach with genuine curiosity, that teach me multitudes about myself and my own vulnerabilities. But the difference is these days, I know how to challenge that voice, and most importantly when to reach out for help.
If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs anonymous, non judgemental help, then please, please reach out to the following:
In the UK:
Call free on 116 123 or visit the Samaritans website
For young persons crisis support: Call HopelineUK on 0800 068 41 41
Text 07786 209697
13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467
1300 224 636
1300 78 99 78
1800 551 800 (27/7 crisis support)