My TEDxYouth talk: Eating disorders have no face

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Diffusing pain

It is easy to lose sight of those around us, the thoughts and feelings of a disorder or illness can drive an entire existence. The brain hosts a daily war zone between negativity and attempted rationality. This battle overshadows a perspective outside a tunnel of vision, pushes aside family and friends, believing that they don’t care, that they will never understand, and cannot be allowed to cross a line of danger, into the war that exists internally.

This is something that the individual struggling must become aware of themselves, for there is truly always someone that cares. Even through a swarm of bullies, disrupted families or poor relationships, there is someone. It may be a stranger, it may be a forgotten friend, but do not forget, that although the pain felt may not be identically reflected within another, the pain does diffuse through a society. Onlookers to the destruction that loved ones inflict upon themselves, feel helpless and live their own turmoil, in a world of anxiety, stress and fear that the one they care for is endangered by mental illness.

Recovery is a long process, sometimes unbearable, sometimes it means taking a few steps backwards before leaping ahead, sometimes it involves feeling like recovery is possible, and then falling suddenly, right back into the grips of a mental illness. But recovery isn’t just about regaining a life for oneself, it is regaining a life for everyone around you. My words have no intent to place guilt on someone struggling, because not a single sufferer (or as I prefer to say; recoverer) is to blame. I simply wish to state, that even if one’s suffering only affects one person, their stress will diffuse to the network surrounding that person, which in turn affects their network and so on. A majority of humans by nature, wish to empathise and will consequentially wish to tend to the pioneering pain that the recoverer feels. Mental illness fundamentally affects an individual, but also family, friends and a society through a process of diffusion.

Wandering through life

There is an awkward stage between being entwined in a diagnosable illness, and what can be considered a ‘recovered’ person. The stage of mental health limbo, where symptoms are residual, bad patches still occur, thoughts and emotions are at times overwhelming, and slip ups are inevitable. But it’s presumed you’re ‘better’, you’re ‘strong’, because you’re over the worst of it. However this to me, is an incorrectly black and white illusion of mental health, as I’ve previously written; mental illness occurs along a spectrum. Similar to this recovery is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ prospect, it is a journey with ups and downs, and although I’m not entirely convinced there is any such thing as a ‘full recovery’ from mental illness, I do believe it can become ‘fully manageable’, with room for dips and highlights along the way.

In this limbo stage of recovery; where can you go for help? and how does one refer to oneself? A recovering alcoholic still has an addiction, they still need to work on their recovery, still need to work hard every single day and minute of their waking hours to avoid the liquid that could send them back down a slippery slope. They may not be drinking, but they are still fighting hard as ‘recovering alcoholics’. This in between stage can feel quite lost, an undefined category between health and ill, it is conflicting and scary to reach out for help, for instance something I found from my experience, is that reaching out is incredibly difficult in this stage, you don’t want to say words like ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m anorexic’, because without the severe and obvious symptoms, nobody can see the internal struggles. It’s like giving yourself a name you are somehow not worthy of, for not being ‘ill enough’ or for not being ‘strong’ like others say you are. Yet when it comes to trying to express yourself, just saying it’s ‘a bad patch’ or ‘I’m just feeling low’ doesn’t express the utter and complete turmoil inside, saying you feel ‘depressed’ doesn’t even carry the impact it once did, it is unfortunately, an overused term.

If it is you in this stage of despair, then don’t forget you have as much right as anyone to reach out for help, get someone to fight your corner and get that help. Your journey is your own, no one else’s, don’t compare what you perceive as ‘less severe’ compared to someone else get in the way of your recovery. The fact you have realised you need that support and are willing to expect it, is something professionals need to recognize. That kind of attitude is hard to come by but it what makes therapy successful. We need to remember that these wandering, recovering bodies should not be forgotten, not by the family and friends surrounding them, healthcare professionals or even oneself. It may not be immediately life threatening, but a full blown mental illness is easy to fall back into. Don’t assume that someone out of hospital or presents themselves as healthy is ‘recovered’, mental illness is secretive, so keep in mind those who are recovering. A life of being residually unwell is no life at all.

Location Location Location

One thing I’ve learnt, which retrospectively I should have realised earlier, is that a mental health condition doesn’t disappear or improve by simply moving location. Whether it be moving house, going abroad, starting University, a new job or living with different people. A mental illness is firmly manifested within the mind and body of an affected individual.

Taking someone out of a triggering or stressful situation from a temporary spell of anguish, is definitely a helpful action to take within that moment. However avoidance of a problem or assumptions that by moving around, the problem will disappear, is unreasonable and flawed. A temporary relief can be felt, surrounding oneself with new people and environments can influence a different self-reflection and world view, but ultimately the sly ways of a mental illness will not be fooled by a new setting.

Triggers, factors or causes of mental illness may lie within a given location, but that also doesn’t mean that ridding of such a place will provide a permanent cure. In reality, if the root of illness lies within a location, then everywhere you ‘run’ to will hold direct or indirect reminders of that place. Without dealing with real issues embedded within, the problem will reoccur and perhaps, with an almighty bite.

Where are you on the spectrum?

Mental illness isn’t something that affects the minority, the less well off or the isolated members of society. It is something that can manifest within anyone, and in fact every single individual with their unique personality may show traits of different mental disorders. Do you ever go on a ‘cleaning bender’ or even refer to yourself as ‘a little OCD’, perhaps you have a day where you just feel really down and like you don’t want to see anyone? You may get easily upset or instantly worried or even angry at small things? The difference is that somewhere along the spectrum, these personality traits such as being quite sensitive, emotional, paranoid or anxious build and bundle together along with life events and neurological pathways to form a mental illness, a whole new world and reality for the individual and a new perception of the world and or themselves. The thoughts and behaviours that come with it aren’t just part of a personality type but they become uncontrollable needs, coping mechanisms and ways of life which when deviated from can cause the individual to feel indescribable challenges and distress. Everyone at some point in their lives need a little extra TLC, some support and a helping hand, those with mental illness require exactly this, just a little more of the time. Mental illness is serious, it can isolate you from everyone so you feel like you’re in a lone bubble of no hope, it can destroy and take lives, but in all cases, it’s important to note that everyone deserves the same compassion and care to aid recovery. One in four people are thought to have a mental illness so before you stigmatize and form an opinion of them, just think how similar the two of you may be.