I spent most of my childhood and teenage years hiding my mental health, partly because it was never spoken about. I didn’t know what mental health was and the little I did know was based on what I had seen on television. I grew up believing that a person had to be thin to have an eating disorder and that a mental health hospital was all strait-jackets and restraints, but my beliefs were wrong. It was because of these beliefs I hid more, I never spoke up or asked for help, I was ashamed, confused and lost.
From the ages of thirteen to twenty-one, I hated myself; my mind, my body and my whole existence. Don’t get me wrong, I was still able to smile, enjoy days and have some good memories too, but underneath it all, at the back of my mind, I wanted to disappear.
I remember friends saying to me ‘you have the mind of an anorexic’ – healthy on the outside yet living a life of obsessive calorie counting, food restriction and over exercising. Those friends soon disappeared, as did I, loosing myself more and more each day. My life became what I can only describe as a nightmare, I was a puppet to the voices inside my head, the ones that called me fat, ugly and pathetic, the ones that were in complete control, pushing my friends and family away, taking everything I was. I became weaker at every moment and felt utterly exhausted both mentally and physically.
If only somebody could have seen, not my body or a number on the scales but what the illness was doing to my mind. If only more people didn’t believe in the mental health stereotypes seen in the headlines and knew that eating disorders are mental illnesses, not physical, not based on appearance.
At the age of nineteen and after just finishing a very dark first year of university, I was diagnosed with ‘anorexia nervosa’ – finally a name, something in black and white, an illness, something to end the confusion and feeling of being completely lost. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that, a diagnosis is no cure, it is just the beginning. People would stare, point, blame my family, say it was a phase, that I was attention seeking and that I just need to eat.
After a very long up and down journey, at twenty-one, I was admitted to a mental health hospital. I spent six months there and for the first time in what felt like a lifetime of being alone in it all, I met people who truly understood. I was given the right treatment, taught how to feed myself, cope with fears, anxieties and truly begin my recovery. Like the diagnosis, hospital didn’t cure me, there was no ‘quick fix’, recovery is a journey and one that takes time.
My time in hospital is one of the hardest, most challenging things I have ever and probably will ever do, but I did it and it is something I am now extremely proud of. Thanks to organizations like Time to Change, I no longer feel the need to lie about why I left university, the two years missing from my CV or the time I spent at hospital. Because of my illness, I am who I am today. I am strong, brave and no longer the girl wishing to disappear instead wishing to be seen and more importantly wishing to be heard.
The stigma and discrimination around mental health is partly what led me to suffer in silence, to feel ashamed and confused. The mental health stereotypes people often believe in led me to think I was not ill enough, that I did not deserve help and allowed the illness to go unnoticed by those around me.
Please let what I, and so many others, have experienced teach us that we must stand up to stigma and discrimination. We must try to understand, educate future generations and hopefully prevent anyone who experiences a mental illness from feeling ashamed or embarrassed.