Okay. Breathe. Okay. Just write something!
Well hello! As I sit here typing, I’m terribly terrified of what will happen after I press the publish button on this post. Mostly because I don’t know quite where I’m going with the whole thing but also because it could be quite hard to get through. I just want to clear a few things up and be really honest to not only you but myself about certain things in my life. This is not a sob story, a cry for help or anything of the sort. What I hope to gain from writing this is some sort of release but, I also hope that somehow this could help someone who is dealing with a similar situation.
I would just like to ask those of you who know me not to take too much from this. For those of you who know a vast majority of this, it’s likely you support me daily and are genuinely wonderful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. For those of you who don’t, this should explain a few things but it doesn’t change anything. And last and least, I’m not a spiteful person but for those of you who know and have made things worse, I hope this is a wake-up call for you. Kindness is free.
There is no rule book on how to talk about these kinds of things, but I want to. There’s such a stigma for associating yourself with the words mental illness. The words attention seeking and drama queen get tossed around a lot when people bring up mental illness. It’s because of this, that I have been so afraid of talking about this openly. It’s come to the point where I both need and want to.
I am unhappy. I have been pretty unhappy for a couple of years now and this is an obvious problem. I do not love myself the way I should. Trying to love yourself is not easy. Some people have positivity poured into them when they are created so much that it brings out the same trait in others. I wish I was like this. Instead, negativity is my best friend. I am not in a place to either moan or sugar coat but living in a constant battle with yourself is hell. Mental illness is a fight to be happy. Nobody should have to fight to be happy.
I should start somewhere. I wish I could pinpoint the moment that it began. Midway through writing this I went to look back through things I have kept in a memory box to find some reason for feeling the way I do, but I just got sentimental. The date that I kind of realised something was seriously wrong is pretty clear in my mind though so I’ll start there.
On Christmas Eve 2011, I was sitting on the living room floor surrounded by my family. My Mother (who I love very much but if you cry whilst reading this you’re an idiot) was plaiting my hair as I had just come out of the shower. My brother points to my head and says, ‘what’s that bald patch on your head?’. Me, being a 14-year-old girl who was incredibly insecure anyway, freaked out asked someone to take a picture for me. There, on the left of my head was a small bald patch, no larger than a 2p coin. I went to bed with a heavy heart even though I was told not to panic. This was probably the worst Christmas gift I have ever received.
In primary school, I was confident and full of energy. I was the child who wanted to be a part of everything and was such a natural leader. I was also quite healthy in terms of my weight. At the end of year 6 and into secondary school I began putting on weight and it didn’t stop. I can laugh at pictures now (and do quite frequently with a friend) because being a carefree child, I just honestly did not notice the weight I was putting on. By the age of 14, I was larger than most. My face was round and chubby, my whole body was out of proportion and I just didn’t know what to do. My self-esteem was at an all-time low because secondary school made me compare myself to everyone around me. It’s been almost 4 years since then and never at any point have I been able to say I love my body. My weight is now at a figure I will not share with you (or anyone really) and although I can angle a camera to look slimmer and have lost a little here and there, I am in medical terms, overweight. This is, unfortunately, my biggest insecurity. I hate my arms, my thighs, my stomach, my back, my bum, my legs, my chest… There was, before the age of 14, very little explanation for it. I exercised regularly until this point and I ate sufficiently healthily but that wasn’t enough anymore and I lost control. I also broke out badly and have dealt with acne ever since. I think that’s why I fell in love with makeup so much. (I could go on about this for hours and that’s not the main focus of the post so you can read about my acne here.) As a result of my overall appearance, I was unhappy. Really unhappy.
By Christmas Eve 2011, I had lost the buzz and enthusiasm I used to have. I lost myself. I remember sitting in the doctors with my Mum as she told my GP ‘I just want my happy little girl back‘. Finding that bald patch offered up some answers.
Shortly after Christmas, I went to the doctor and he diagnosed me firstly with alopecia areata. Very few people know about this because I chose not to talk about it. It’s an autoimmune disease, with hair loss usually from the scalp as the body destroys its own tissue as if it were an invader. It affects 0.1-0.2% of humans and has many forms. If it’s not too severe (and I am so fortunate for this) it grows back partially or wholly. I was given some ointment to stimulate the regrowth. Naturally, I panicked every time I showered as I watched the hair gather in the drain. I think I had 4 bald patches at one time, but they were mostly covered by my hair. It was worrying for me as my hair is one of the few things I love about myself. I cannot pull off a hat at all, hahaha. Although sometimes alopecia is hereditary, my hair loss was connected to stress. I am so lucky that my hair grew back. Every now and then, a small patch can appear on my head but it always clears up. Nethertheless, once they found the alopecia, things got worse. My doctor told me not to panic (why are people always telling me not to panic? I hate it!) but they wanted to run a few tests just to check for further problems.
Alopecia can certainly cause psychological stress. Those affected tend to have a slightly higher incidence of problems related to the immune system, including the next stop on my list of conditions, hypothyroidism. Having that first blood test was horrifying. I made the stupid mistake of watching my blood fill the little tube and nearly passed out. The second time, they couldn’t find my veins so the nurse stuck the needle in about three times like I was Frankenstein. After that, I kinda got used to the vampire treatment and I just look the other way and breathe deeply. Within a few weeks, the results came back to show my thyroid hormone levels were low. I panicked (again) and was told not to panic (again).
Hypothyroidism is a disorder of the endocrine system. It occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone. There are many symptoms, the list seemed endless when I first googled the disorder. The list includes: fatigue, dry skin, feeling cold, depression, poor memory and concentration, hair loss, weight gain with poor appetite, slow pulse rate, shortness of breath and other various swellings and changes in body shape. I now had an explanation for the way I had been feeling. Symptoms like fatigue, depression, hair loss and weight gain were the most significant for me. Clearly my alopecia was linked to this as well as the gradual but substantial weight gain over the past year. My doctor started me off on 25mg of levothyroxine, a medicine which would act as a replacement for the lack of thyroxine I was producing.
After a few months of trial and another blood test, the dose was increased to 50. Then gradually over the past 4 years, 75, 100, 125, 150, 175, 200. Every time there were more and more blood tests. During this time, we discovered I’m also slightly anemic, probably because I steer clear of red meats. I started taking iron supplements too. 200mg of levothyroxine was pushing into the higher end of the bracket so I was dropped back to 175. At first I felt ashamed to be taking medication which sounds ridiculous to me now. It’s there for a reason, to make me feel better. I pictured myself an old lady, popping several pills a day and smelling like old cabbage. In reality, lifetime medication just becomes a part of the routine and you barely stop to think about it. I have never experienced any side effects from this medication, however, if I forget to take it for a day or two, my emotional crash will come pretty badly around 3 days later. The emotional side of things affects me the most. Having both depression and anxiety is certainly damaging.
My first panic attack was honestly one of the worst experiences of my life. I was out with my family at a county show in a field, Summer 2012. My Mum and I decided to go to the toilet and the queues were long. Standing in line, I was exhausted and it was extremely hot. I first noticed that I felt sweaty and I began shaking. My breathing became very irregular as if I almost forgot to do it naturally and was forcing the air in and out of my lungs. Then, my eye sight went fuzzy and dark, I could barely hear and all I could think was ‘I’m going to die, I’m actually dying‘. It was horrible, to watch my Mum come in and out of focus asking if I was okay and what was wrong and all I could do was cry. Feeling dizzy, almost collapsing and feeling for sure that I was going to be sick, many people in the line gave up their space for me to move past them. I remember struggling to find the steps, locking myself in on the toilet and sobbing. It took 10 minutes to even get out of the cubicle. Mum dragged me to some shade, told me to sit down and I kept telling her that I thought I was dying. My Dad bought me a chocolate crepe for the sugar content and a big bottle of water and I sat on the grass feeling defeated. In all honesty, I did not fully understand what had just happened to me. It took a while for me to be completely okay after that as it was such a shock. I spent the whole of the next day in bed, scared to move and feeling very drained.
The thing is, panic attacks are always different. Most last from 5 to 20 minutes. Symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes. Some people say that they deal with attacks lasting for an hour, but this is more likely consistent attacks or a high anxiety level after the actual attack. If I have a panic attack, it will usual last for 15-20 minutes but it can be hours until I finally feel calm and the anxiety has reached a level I can deal with.
After that, anxiety became part of my everyday life. My second panic attack was on a bus and since then I’ve only used a bus once (this was a few months ago. I was supported and not made to feel like an idiot so shoutout to that person). I had one at my first real party but was too ashamed to tell anyone (I am now pretty calm at parties as long as I am with someone who understands should anything go wrong). I’ve had a handful at school and couldn’t even go into one of my classrooms for a few weeks without reaching the door and panicking. In the past few months, I had one at work when it was a particularly stressful weekend with lots of extremely rude customers. It lasted for around 3 hours of consecutive panic but I was too worried to ask to step away and calm down (thank you to my work best friend for doing the right thing and acting calmly and sensibly for me). I’ve had them in my bed in the middle of the night. In restaurants, whilst shopping. Going out for a few drinks but being stood alone whilst someone goes to get them has set me off. I’ve had panic attacks in the car too which is so dangerous. I failed my first driving test because of a panic attack. They can happen anywhere, without warning.
In the moment, it is truly terrifying. But once all the anxiety has settled, I just need time to recover. After a while, I just came to terms with the illness. I hate saying the phrase ‘mental illness‘, I really do. The attacks used to be more frequent at around three a week but since then it has calmed down. I know how to calm myself down. I rely heavily on something called rescue remedy which is especially helpful when you find yourself in traumatic situations. I take long deep breaths. I get some air. I go outside. I lie down. I wash my hands (I don’t know why this helps, but it usually does). I listen to calm music or find complete silence depending on the severity of the panic. If I am capable, I talk to a friend about things I am passionate about. I know what works for me. This is also why I don’t drink excessively. I know my limits and drink until I feel merry but feeling like I have no control usually sets me off. Is this how I want to be? No. But it is how I was built and I have accepted that. It’s easy to blame yourself. I am supposed to be happy! Why can’t I enjoy the things my friends do? Why do I have to bring down everyone around me? Even now, I don’t think all of my friends fully understand or accept it. I guess I never really explain things well either. I used to be invited out a lot, but I think people just assumed I’d say no for the fear of having an attack. Despite this, I have really pushed myself recently and I’m proud of that. I’ve stopped feeling like such a burden to everyone and I know I will cross that bridge when I come to it should I panic (as I said, they are less frequent now unless it’s a particularly stressful time).
You would not ignore a physical stab wound. Why should you ignore an emotional stab wound? But, the idea of having to get help was at first so alien to me. I do not need it anymore or at least I don’t think I do. I have learned to live with it. Unless you can deal with it yourself, you should get professional help. Whilst I had counselling for a few months at school, I felt unappreciated and generally it made things a whole lot worse. But I took one thing away from it. My counsellor told me that the way I feel has its perks. I know, a terrible thing to say. But now looking back I understand her completely. Feeling this way does have its perks. I am compassionate and I can empathise. I’m a good listener, I want to make others feel better. I am capable of loving people with everything I have. I can channel what I feel into what I create. I understand emotion.
But despite knowing I am a good person, I always seem to think that people judge me. Maybe they talk about how weird I am. Maybe they see me as wingy and pathetic. I always think people assume I’m making it up, using it as an excuse or looking for attention. That’s the thing about mental illness, there’s such a stigma. As more and more people are suffering, it’s more difficult to understand. It makes me sick that people, young teens especially, think it’s ‘beautiful‘ or ‘cool‘ or ‘interesting‘ to have some sort of mental illness. It’s none of those things. Take mine if you want them, it’s not something you want. Even writing this post, I’m worried that people will see it as a desperate cry for attention when it’s really not. Having a mental illness is not something to brush aside or to laugh at but at the same time I don’t want to be treated any differently for it. Although it sucks having a panic attack or feeling depressed, I am fully aware that it’s not a nice experience for those around you. I am at a stage where people respect me despite everything and if worst came to worst they would help me without a second thought. My close friends know what to do, the right things to say. They understand how my brain works and I am not too much for them to handle. If they did feel this way I know they would tell me and I would step back. It works both ways, I support my friends no matter how big or small their problems. Of course, at the same time, there are unsupportive people too. Unsupportive people who are still part of my life. Not everyone can understand. I’ve certainly pushed people away because of everything and I’ve lost others all together. I am so thankful to have the people who do care in my life. They know who they are.
Weight loss is such a touchy subject for me. Hypothyroidism frankly drains me. I’d say this is 75% the reason I don’t exercise enough. The remaining percentage is 10% lack of knowledge, 10% laziness and 5% shame. Since I first noticed the weight gain, I have lost 3 dress sizes and now I look healthy just not thin. It’s not much at all, I’m still hugely embarrassed by myself, but it’s something. I haven’t done anything, in particular, some of it has fallen off as my body matured and the rest is short-lived attempts at healthiness. I’m exercising more, I’m eating better. I’m not expecting crazy change, but I don’t need it. As long as I learn to accept myself and I am as healthy as possible, why should it matter what others think? The opinions of the people who love me are the only opinions I care about. The same can be said for my acne which is worse than ever. At least I’m smart. At least I’m caring.
Being depressed is a part of my life. It’s made me who I am. It doesn’t get much easier and it can’t be ignored, but it’s always there so the best you can do is fight it. And I am fighting. I’m doing well, really. Just because you are unhappy doesn’t mean you can’t laugh at funny things. It doesn’t mean you can’t marvel at wonderful things. You can enjoy happy moments and feel pride. You can smile. I am passionate about so many things. I find joy in little things every day. I love people. I love beautiful things. But I am still dealing with depression and anxiety every day. I am still ill and ashamed of my appearance. I cry too much. I feel too much. I overthink. Some days are worse than others. Some weeks you barely think about it because you’re on a constant sugar rush feeling that you hope will last a little longer. Some nights everything hits you. But I am so happy despite being unhappy. I’m strong and I know it. I have a few supportive close friends and wonderful family. I’m lucky. I have had so much opportunity in my life and I know that I need to push myself to find the happy moments and enjoy them as they come and go. I’m filling my life with positivity and positive people. In the wise words of Ronan Keating, ‘life is a rollercoaster I just gotta ride it‘. And I am happy even though I’m unhappy.
That’s all from me, I could ramble for hours but I think I’ve covered everything I set out to and you’ll probably fall asleep. I promise the next post won’t be so dramatic, haha. Keep comments friendly please. No matter what you’re feeling, you will not be alone. If you know me or not, I’d be happy to talk to you about anything you need help with. P.S. no matter how many times I read this, re-wrote it and hesitated about posting it, I still wasn’t happy with it so it took a lot to press publish. Love to you all.