Everyone says that your school days shape your life. But I feel that mine did in a profound way. And I’m still affected by it every day. I was sixteen when I first started struggling significantly with mental ill health. At the time I had no idea what it was – or even if I was ill – and that terrified me; the idea that I could be like that forever was my worst nightmare.
I cried all the time and barely spoke to anyone, but mainly because no one spoke to me. When you’re sixteen and you have loads of friends one minute, and you walk home on a Friday only to return to school on a Monday to cry, and have everyone stare at you and no one talk to you, you feel incredibly lonely, and desperate. I remember sitting in the library by myself while people stared at me over their books, but I didn’t really understand why. I remember running out of classes, and sobbing my heart out in front of teachers. In the space of a few months, my life had totally changed.
I didn’t go to the doctors, and no one in my family talked about the way I was feeling. Maybe if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist, right? Wrong: in the long run it gets worse. By some miracle my symptoms improved, so I put it to the back of my mind, made new friends and lived happily for the next three years. Until it happened again. This time I had to do something about it; I went to the doctor and was prescribed anti-depressants.
A few years on, I received talking therapy, but my symptoms were cyclical so I kept finding it relevant, then irrelevant. Then it wasn’t cyclical: it became constant. My symptoms were horrific, and I needed someone to hear me. At 27 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and at 29 with schizoaffective disorder, which makes a huge amount of sense to me and validates how I’ve been feeling, maybe since I was a small child.
But it’s those months when I was sixteen that I keep coming back to. I was judged, and stared at, and ignored, and I think it was that stigma that made me too scared and ignorant to seek help for years, in turn possibly making my illness worse. If young people in particular know the symptoms of certain illnesses, and know that you’re not a “freak” for being ill – you are just that: ill – then we might recognise that there’s something wrong with someone, instead of leaving it too late.
Time to Change has given me the opportunity to feel that I’m making a difference. The thought that somewhere out there a young person (or anyone, for that matter) might be experiencing what I did is too horrible for words. I want that person to know that, however lonely they might feel, they’re not alone. And I want the people around them to know that the way they behave can make a world of difference to their life.