I spent the majority of my adolescence controlled by a mental illness I didn’t understand. At the time, it felt like I was just broken. I was depressed, anxious and obsessed with my weight and food intake. I didn’t believe I had a mental illness because I didn’t deserve to have one. I wasn’t skinny enough to have an eating disorder. My life was too ‘good’ to warrant depression. There was just something wrong with me, and I hated myself even more for it.
To everyone else, I painted a picture of normalcy. I went about my day; I portrayed my eating disorder as being healthy and loving fitness. I laughed and I smiled, even when it felt like I was breaking into pieces. I took on extracurriculars; I organised prom and events for charity, I worked hard for all of my classes. I was high-functioning, and so it was hard to see everything that lurked beneath the edge.
Sometimes I wonder how much people knew, or at least suspected. I look back at photos of myself, and they scare me. I was too thin for my body type, and my eyes were empty. I don’t remember a lot of that time, maybe because I didn’t have the energy even to form memories and do more than exist. I was so desperate to be loved and wanted, and I searched for it everywhere. I needed someone to care for me, and people tried. But I also was too scared of that, so I continuously pushed people away. It felt easier to sabotage myself when no one was around to watch. It felt easier to hate myself when no one cared about me.
I feel embarrassed that people might have known and seen through it all. That they witnessed my self-destruction and had to smile to my face, that they knew the lengths I went to. I feel embarrassed for the mess that I was and the way everything seemed like the end of the world to me. The tears, the drinks, the breakdowns, the desperation, all of it makes me shudder now.
I feel angry at the idea that people didn’t know. How couldn’t they see what was right in front of them? Why didn’t they look further than my smile and actually care? I was too young to be in so much pain; I clearly needed someone to notice, I needed someone to tell me they were here.
But I also don’t blame them. Mental illness is terrifying, whether it’s happening to you or someone else. It’s this mess of darkness that no one taught us what to do with. It must feel easier to avoid it, to take the smile and not look further than that. You have to protect yourself, and I get that, as much as I wish I didn’t.
I spent a lot of time in therapy, and the first three times, it was unsuccessful. But then I was correctly diagnosed and treated by someone who specialised in personality disorders, and I finally felt understood. I was no longer crazy as apparently other people felt this way too. The difference was also in that I entered therapy ready to get better this time. I knew that I couldn’t continue this way anymore; I was too tired. My father had passed away, and the grief was too much for me to hold; I needed to share that burden with another. I spent countless hours with my therapist, and in that time, I began to see the light again, something I no longer recognised. I began to learn why I do the things I do, and I realised that all these aspects I once associated to my personality were actually symptoms of my illness. I realised that I didn’t have an identity, just puzzle pieces I had stolen from others and haphazardly shoved together, anything to keep people in my life.
I began to see just how bad it had been, and for that, I now feel shame. I am healing, and it’s a challenge every day, and now I feel the first urges to reach out to people. I left high school and kept little contact with people. I considered them good friends, and yet it felt like too much pain resonated there. The same happened after university. But time has softened the pain and allows me to remember the small moments of good nestled amidst it all, and now I miss them.
I’m scared to reach out as then I know I need to acknowledge everything I did. I feel like I need to apologise to everyone who surrounded me, to explain why I acted so crazy. It feels like reaching out would require me to reintroduce myself, as I’m no longer the person they knew, and in many ways, she never really existed. Now that I feel almost okay, I can see the damage I caused and the fear I may have instilled, and for that, I feel shame.
So I consider what I would tell you, my reader, if you were in this position. It’s a great exercise I recommend everyone try in moments of doubt; just think of what you would say to a friend feeling this way. I would tell you that your mental illness was not your fault, and so you shouldn’t feel guilty for it. I would tell you that you were doing your best and that’s all that can be asked of you. We all hold pain and shame over the past, but it shouldn’t be welcomed into the present or future. We are all doing the best that we can, and anyone who would choose to hold the ghost of your past self to you now isn’t someone worth your time. Bridges can be mended, but only if they benefit both sides.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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