February 25, 2014

Mosaic tilesI recently attended a Time to Change Champions' event and spoke for the first time in front of so many people about living with, fighting with, loving, hating and trying to recover from anorexia nervosa. After I'd spoken I was touched by the kind words of the other people attending the event and I felt proud that I'd managed to, in a small way, bring comfort or provide insight to other people. So, when I received an email asking for people to blog about their experiences of talking about mental health, I jumped at the chance to write something. And here it is...

The Japanese art of ‘kintsukuroi’

Over the summer, a friend told me about the Japanese art of ‘kintsukuroi’, a term which translates as “to repair with gold”, and refers to the process of mending broken pottery or artefacts with melted gold. The underlying principle to this art form is that a broken sculpture or pot can become more beautiful and valuable for having been broken and mended than it ever was before the breakage. Although many people assume my ‘problems’ started when I began to lose weight at university, I now know that the distressing and unpleasant thoughts I experienced throughout my childhood and adolescence (now recognised as a condition called Pure-OCD) contributed to my core belief that I was inherently a bad person who deserved to be punished. I now believe that the physical degeneration of anorexia through self-punishment and self-denial was my way of showing the world how broken and corrupted I felt inside - much like the smashed pots that are the starting point for kintsukuroi. 

My experiences have made me into a stronger and more capable person

The past few years have often been incredibly painful; I have struggled, and wept, and been disappointed in myself when I’ve felt like I’ve failed. But with each set-back and relapse I have learnt something new and I know that my experiences have made me into a stronger and more capable person. If I had not developed anorexia, I would not have the same self-awareness that I have now or the ability to empathise with others in their own period of crisis (a skill much needed in my current work with a charity). 

I know that many people who have been diagnosed with a mental health illness, myself included, feel like they are a failure or that they are weaker than other ‘normal’ people in society. Kintsukuroi, however, teaches us something very different. It tells us to pause before we discard the broken pieces of our soul or sweep them under a metaphorical carpet out of embarrassment or misguided shame. Instead we should lovingly pick them up, inspect them, reach out to others to help us work out what happened, patiently piece them back together, and proudly show the world we are not ashamed of the cracks that have made us into the unique and beautiful person we are today.

I worry that if people hear the word ‘anorexia’ they will judge me

Ok, so that all sounds very good, but it’s not quite so easy in reality, is it? I am not ashamed of my mental illness, but I do worry that if people hear the word ‘anorexia’ or ‘depression’ they will judge me because they have a limited understanding of what those terms actually mean. Perhaps they will think being anorexic means I’m obsessed with looking like a model. This couldn’t be further from the truth, my anorexic journey has been one of self-punishment not beautification, or maybe they will think I’m attention seeking or selfish. In the past these fears have kept me silent and my silence has kept me isolated and ever anxious of being ‘found out’. And suddenly I am using the language and living the life of a criminal who is on the run and consumed by their guilty secret.

By speaking about our experiences we can challenge the myths

Yet having a mental health illness does not make me or anyone else a criminal, it is not something we have done wrong and we should not be punished because other people do not understand the true nature of mental health illnesses. Instead, by speaking about our experiences, we can challenge the myths and show that we are just another human being finding their way in the world and facing challenges along the way.

A huge step for me in beginning to talk about mental health happened just over a year ago when I went to my first job interview after graduating from university. I deliberated for a long time over whether to tell my interviewees about my mental health illnesses or keep quite. In the end I opted for the truth as I realised that the experiences I had gained from my time in treatment actually gave me a lot of insight in human emotions, behaviour and needs and made me a great candidate for the role, not a weaker one – or as kintsukoroi would have it, a more precious pot! The interview went well, I got the internship and that led onto a paid role.

It’s great to feel safe enough to be open

Today, my colleagues know I still receive treatment for anorexia and I am always touched when they take the time to ask how I am or sit down for a cup of tea and a chat with me. After years of keeping secrets, it’s great to feel safe enough to be open. What is more, I’ve learnt that I’m not alone – it’s amazing how many people go on to tell me they have been through something similar…

 

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