“I desire the things which will destroy me in the end…”The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 23
[Writing this post took all the balls in the world for me today.]
On the 18th February, I cried for hours. And by hours, I mean from approximately 5pm to 1am. It then concluded with a grand finale of a monumental panic attack in which I forgot how to breathe and thought I was literally going to die. (PSA: I know I have the tendency to be dramatic but this is actually in no way exaggerated!)
This is what mental health looks like.
I have a terrible habit of bottling up my emotions, and I guess that partly stems from being an only child – I am in no way blaming anyone but myself for this terrible habit! It’s a life-long lesson I am slowly beginning to fully comprehend. I also suffered an extraordinary amount of psychological abuse during high school (ironically, mostly from teachers), and that impacted both the perception I had of myself and the way I lived my life. My social anxiety most probably is a result of being punished weekly at secondary school by teachers who viewed my insubordination as a threat to their authority. (Fun fact: I hated teachers who thought respect was their automatic right, simply because they were responsible for our academic education.) They broke down every single piece of me until my identity was entirely consumed by the failure they enforced upon me. Now, I know it sounds like I’m bitter and resentful, but I do believe I have earned the right to own the effect they had on me. I never truly accepted my secondary school experience as traumatic until I developed an eating disorder at the age of sixteen.
My general anxiety (which I define for myself here, through my personal experiences which are in no way universal, as random bouts of extreme nervousness, worrying excessively over minor, minor issues which I exacerbate in my own mind to become something huge etc.) is a part of me I’ve learned to live with for a long time. It’s like a scar; I know it’s there, I can feel it with me all the time but more often than not, I’m able to live peacefully without it sabotaging my way of life. I guess on some level, everyone has a form of general anxiety. Some have it worse than others. However, there are days where I can feel my anxiety digging its claws into my skull and tearing everything to pieces. I’m left feeling exhausted, worn out and emotionally numb.
This is exactly what happened on the night of the 18th February. Being as busy as I am, amidst the chaos of my final year of university whilst simultaneously juggling a job, I don’t have time to process my own thoughts – the good, and the bad. Having a health condition which causes moderate to severe pain daily also massively plays into my anxiety, and the two are inextricably intertwined. Undergoing my surgical procedure nearly one month ago, and having to deal with the agonising consequences of a rather horrendous recovery whilst trying to catch up on missing a month of university took quite a toll both physically and mentally. That night, I broke; I felt my body physically break. I cannot quite describe it in any other way. I screamed obscenities at the ones I loved the most, blamed the world for my problems, cried then felt absolutely nothing. It’s only now, looking back, that I realise just how painful that breakdown was. I saw no way out of my own head; I was drowning in my thoughts and that manifested into physical suffocation. I could not breathe.
I guess the aim of this post is to draw attention to the silent sufferers of mental health and to raise awareness. If you’re struggling, drop me a message. Drop someone a message. Don’t suffer the weight of your world on your own – God, I cannot stress this enough. Don’t be someone you’re not just to impress a few people. The social concept of ‘fitting in’ is so fucking overrated. Don’t suffer in silence. For so long, I created a facade of myself: one that’s strong and fearless and brave and all of that bullshit. But there are times like this where I remember just how vulnerable I am. I’m not anywhere near as strong as I want to be. I’m not always the person you see on Instagram every day. And that is so, so okay. It makes me human. 6 years on from the operation that changed everything (gallbladder cholecystectomy) and I’m still learning so much about myself.
I’m done with pretending to be brave for the sake of others. I’m done with pretending to be someone I’m not, and it’s truly the most wonderful feeling in the world. At 23, I’m finally finding myself. I’ve spent 6 years trying to forget the pain I went through, but I’ve never really forgiven myself for it. My body has been fighting itself for years, and it’s time I showed it a bit more understanding.
A little more self-love.
I did all of this work just to get sick and not be able to live my dreams
A new Netflix series aired recently surrounding the stories of people suffering from chronic illnesses, undiagnosed or “unspecified” by medical professionals. Symptoms were extreme, leaving most of the participants of this docuseries unable to perform any of their daily activities.
Each person differentiates themselves from another through their symptoms, and the symptoms present themselves as different illnesses entirely – from the offset. The words “psychosomatic” and “Lyme Disease” are thrown around often through the episodes, suggesting a potential link between the participants, their symptoms, and the disease. I’ll leave the opinions of other participants to the general public, however. There’s one person in particular that I want to focus on.
We’re introduced to Jake in the third episode of the docuseries; an aspiring musician whose career was suddenly cut short due to the onset of symptoms linked to Lyme Disease. The beginning of the episode features Jake’s struggle in articulating his current symptoms to the camera, and as the episode progresses, the viewer is lead to understand the events which took place in his life but most importantly, how his life has been dramatically impacted because of his illness.
22 minutes into the episode, I had to stop watching. Any documentaries featuring people struggling with chronic illnesses hit a nerve, so to speak. The intention of this post, however, is most definitely not to associate my condition on any kind of level with those in the series. This post was to highlight the unimaginable trauma of those who may look physically well but are struggling with an uncontrollable and unpredictable illness, of which there is no cure yet and treatment which consists entirely of trial and error. Watching a relatively young man’s life turned upside down due to something both entirely out of his control and entirely unanticipated is definitely heart-wrenching. To see the ambitious light in his character gradually diminish – it puts everything into perspective.
Learning about stories such as that of Jake’s really makes me realise how lucky we are, how lucky I am. I can call myself a survivor, but am I really battling a condition of no known cure? No. Has my life been stripped from my hands overnight? No. I agree with one thing, in particular, the docuseries mentioned; those who are sick have a tendency to associate their identity with their illness. They’re not just a person anymore – they’re a sick person. I, too, have fallen victim to enshrouding myself in self-pity when, in retrospect, my health is improving, I am most certainly not bed-bound, and I do not rely on medication to essentially live. Those who have suffered from chronic illnesses, and/or chronic pain can definitely identify with the overwhelming trauma it leaves one with, even once they’ve overcome the worst of it. And perhaps this motto isn’t the healthiest to live by, but the documentary showed me how people undeniably have it much worse than people such as myself. Granted my health isn’t the best it could be at the moment, I’ve learned that relatively stable health is often taken at face value.
I intend to bring myself to complete the rest of Jake’s story. And he’s taught me just how lucky I truly am, to be able to live my life to its fullest potential – he’s given me perspective. I sincerely hope from the deepest of my heart that his story has a happy outcome.
The transience of life is all too often overlooked and underestimated. We have an overwhelming ability as a society to conceal ourselves behind issues which are ephemeral in comparison to others.
The series, in general, verges on the side of sensationalism as opposed to information and fact, but the stories of the participants raise some interesting questions in relation to chronic illnesses, pain and an array of unspecified symptoms.
Featured image: Afflicted, Netflix Original Series (2018)
My proudest moment of 2016 is knowing
I overcame the worst
life could throw at me.
I broke into
god knows how many pieces,
I put myself back together.
If that’s not my greatest achievement
I don’t know
The past few years have been turbulent, both physically and mentally for myself and those around me; the constant rejection of the answers I was desperately looking for, the reluctance to be treated for whatever is going on inside me, and the anxiety surrounding being in pain everyday were painful to say in the least. However, with the news that the investigations into my health conditions have now come to an end, I’ve stopped hoping for a miracle, adopting a rather more realistic approach to dealing with the pain. I’ve made peace with the idea that I’ll have to treat these symptoms, potentially for the rest of my life, rather than having multiple doctors, surgeons and specialists poke me here and there, performing countless tests.
Those closest to me will know how much I despise pity and sympathy: my health is something I have yet to come to terms with (I know, I know, it’s been 4 years) so handling other’s reactions isn’t something that comes easily to me when I don’t really know how to handle it myself. However, the one thing I have always been grateful for, but now more so than ever, is the relentless support of my parents.
During my darkest hours, they shared my pain and agony. In 2013, they shared my fear of going under the knife for the first time in my life. But they put aside all their own emotions to support me, comfort me and encourage me. Many will comment on my bravery in suffering from a debilitating health issue, but I believe the bravest of them all are my parents, for being strong for me. I remember waking up from the general anaesthetic after my operation and hearing my mum sob because she couldn’t handle the sight of me being attached to wires, an oxygen mask, and tubes attached to me. This was the first time I’d heard her cry since I was diagnosed, and in many ways that was more painful than the actual agony of a gallbladder attack. As parents, there’s an assumption that you have to be strong for your children, and my parents exceeded that. I know for a fact that their support has helped me live through this, and without it, I don’t know where I’d be.
It’s time for me to stop thinking about how I’ll survive living with whatever I am going through, but rather focus on how I can live my life to the fullest with it. Perhaps I was justified in my selfishness regarding the whole thing – after all, it was my illness, something only I was experiencing. But in many ways, my pain is also my parents’ pain. I haven’t given them enough credit for helping me survive the worst days of my life. I owe them everything for helping me keep it together when I was at my lowest points. Their ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel when I’m blind to it myself is a gift they are blessed with.
So thank you both, for transforming me into the strong woman I am today. I am a survivor because of you. You love me even when I’m at my worst, and boy am I an absolute nightmare. Through your care and devotion, you have created a human being who is prepared to fight whatever life throws at her head on. You have given me the strength to survive my darkest hours, and it’s only your words which help me overcome them. Your strength and courage lives within me, and I am so proud to call you my parents. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I’ll be able to embrace it because of you.
There are times when my health brings me to my knees, both physically and mentally. Sometimes, it does feel like things will never get better – the risks, the waiting, the bad news, the symptoms… It’s hard to put on a brave face when you’re looking at the possibility of a future of pain worse than I’m enduring now.
But then I realise: other than my pancreas being a slight disaster as of recent, and my bile duct muscle failing to work properly, I’m pretty healthy. I can walk, run, go about my daily activities properly, albeit to some extent. My condition is not terminal. I’m not going to die. (Hopefully!) There are people out there, some much younger than me, who are going through traumatic experiences, unbearable pain and are suffering incomprehensibly from terminal diseases. Their chances of survival are increasing with new technology and research dedicated to finding cures, but they’re still low.
Family and health are the two most important things in my life, and ultimately, I have both. My body may not be working perfectly, but it’s working nevertheless.
This week marks Eating Disorder Awareness Week. This month marks 10 months since I beat my eating disorder.
I guess the first stage of overcoming it was actually coming to terms with having an eating disorder; admitting to myself that I was struggling to cope with the operations I’d had the year before and just missing out on my grades to get into uni. In many ways, starving myself was a coping mechanism as well as a method of maintaining control over my life through my body weight. So admitting to my parents and my psychotherapist that I had a problem was the first step on the road to recovery.
The second step was finding the courage to seek professional help; that in itself took the longest. My mum’s friend is a therapist and recommended a few private professionals as the prospect of being put on a waiting list when my condition was getting so serious was impossible to accept. After flat out refusing to see/talk to anyone about my problems for well over a month, I realised I’d either have to pluck up the courage to talk through my anxiety and pain or spend the rest of my life miserable, isolated and starving myself until I was close to death/actually died.
My first session with the psychotherapist was incredibly daunting; naturally, every instinct in my body was telling me not to trust her because she was an outsider. My brain was screaming she won’t understand. I think she, too, saw my apprehension and helped me work through it by sorting through my personal life piece by piece. She began compiling a timeline of every significant event in my life, from starting high school up until present day. Of all things, I didn’t expect a chronology to be as helpful as it eventually proved to be, because once she’d organised key moments of my childhood and adolescence into categories on her timeline, it eventually unravelled what the cause of my anxiety was.
My anxiety had physically manifested itself into an eating disorder and the only way I could tackle the eating problems was to tackle the anxiety first. This was, and to some extent still is, incredibly difficult. Seeing a therapist every week was incomprehensibly effective as she helped me trawl through the trauma I’d experienced essentially since high school, and soon this slow but steady psychological improvement was reflected in my eating habits. The root of my eating problems was ultimately a lack of self esteem, originating from mistreatment and psychological trauma at my high school. Teachers and a few students made me feel worthless and I guess I spent 6 odd years growing up with the belief that I was nothing but a failure. Once my therapist helped me through this harrowing acceptance of my high school experience, I began to accept other aspects of my life, too. For example, my physical health deteriorated rapidly in 2013 and the trauma of relentless, disabling pain also took its toll. Over the course of a year, I managed to work through the psychological aspects of my life which were contributing to a lack of self esteem and my anxiety attacks.
The other fundamental factor of overcoming my eating disorder was accepting that my body was a thing to be loved, not loathed. I was so desperately trying to achieve an ideal body weight that I lost all sense of rationale. This ideal body weight soon became dangerously life-threatening which is when my parents confronted me about why I was so thin, and why my hipbones were sticking out through my jeans. I was incredibly careful to hide everything from them; from putting food wrappers in the bin despite eating none of the contents, to wearing baggy clothes. (thereby hiding my weight loss) I used to starve myself from morning until 5pm, binge on whatever junk food I could find, only for it all to come back up because my stomach was shrinking and couldn’t tolerate a massive influx of food in one go. Due to my inability to keep food contents inside my body, I was rapidly losing weight but no one really noticed, so I kept pushing to lose more. Over the course of the year that I received help for the eating disorder, I learnt to love myself a lot more. Surrounding myself with good, positive influences and detaching myself from toxic, negative people is ultimately what saved me.
It’s incredible how many people compliment me on my body now, three sizes up from what I was two years ago. It’s also incredible how far I’ve come, emotionally and physically, since high school. Beating the eating disorder not only saved my life but it also helped me get over the trauma of my high school experience. It made me realise that I’m a survivor.
I cannot emphasise how important it is for people to show solidarity amongst understanding and compassion for those suffering from eating disorders. Sticking around for someone can make a world of difference. Whether it’s a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold when times get tough, just being there is what helped me through my darkest hours. Cowards walk away from people in desperate times of need. Don’t be that person.
Here’s a list two websites which helped me in times of need, too: