For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an anxious perfectionist. When I was 3, that centred around using up too many stickers or colouring outside the lines; at 5 it was a fear of dying; at 8 it was a paralysing fear of lifts and at 16 it was the incessant worry of not getting 100% in everything at school. For years, I dismissed these feelings as normal parts of life, necessary sacrifices for success, things that everyone had to deal with. One day, I remember, after having stayed up half the night making sure some homework was ‘good enough’, my friend asked me how the energy I fed this overwhelming perfectionism was sustainable. I laughed, brushed it off and exclaimed that if I’d managed this far, it seemed to be.
Unsurprisingly, my friend was right. The energy that the fear of failing gave me in adrenaline wouldn’t fuel me forever. Over the next few years, I began to struggle to breathe properly. I felt as though I was drowning in stress, constantly unable to get enough air. I had palpitations, chronic tummy aches, dizziness, and felt too sick to eat. Some days, life felt utterly insurmountable. I couldn’t understand how someone as joyful as me could feel like streams of anxiety and negativity were gradually eroding me away, replacing the spaces where my quirks and joys and things that made me me, used to be. I felt desperately scared that I wouldn’t be able to find all the pieces to put them back together again and that I’d never escape from my own thoughts. I’d look around me at all the smiling faces, and wonder how everyone but me could cope with life so effortlessly.
But that’s probably what people thought about me, too. Afraid that if I told anyone how I was really feeling they’d give up on me, or tell me not to be so silly, I hid behind a veneer.
Meeting people at university who have been open about their experiences and what they’ve been through has been the only thing that has made me feel able to talk about my own feelings. Those people may never know who they are or what a difference they’ve made, but it gives me hope that the stigma that kept me silent can be broken, one brave person at a time. It would be a lie to say that asking for help is something that I feel entirely at ease with, but when I remind myself of how I’ve been encouraged by the honesty of others, it somehow feels right. Part of ending stigma and breaking harmful stereotypes will always be doing things you don’t feel entirely comfortable with.
Talking openly has helped me to see mental health in a different light. For me, it’s a case of learning to accept and embrace this part of myself. Wishing it away is futile. Without it, I wouldn’t be me. Some days still, I feel frustrated that my anxious body won’t let me do all the things it seems like everyone else can. But the realisations that there is nothing to be ashamed of, that everyone has mental health and that when your mental health isn’t quite so great that is not a sign of weakness, have allowed me to accept my feelings as perfectly okay. And somehow, when I accept my feelings as natural and okay, they have infinitely less power over me.
More than anything, I know that this doesn’t define me, but the things that I’ve learnt from it, and the amazing conversations that I’ve had, do. I’m someone who loves spending time with people. I love dancing, swimming, acting, campaigning and singing in the shower. I’m a sister, a daughter, a friend, a dancer – the list goes on. I refuse to let outdated stigmas control or silence me. I can truly say that throwing off the shame that I was once enveloped in and talking honestly is the best thing I have ever done. I love the fact that something as simple as asking someone how they’re feeling can not only change someone’s day, but have such power that it weakens the stigma that surrounds mental health that little bit more.