Invisible.

‘Your condition was very acute’. The words my dad and step-mum said to me last weekend, such an innocent comment so why has it upset me so much?

Yes I want to be better. No I don’t want people to see me as disordered. Yes I’m glad people see me as a smiley person… but sometimes I want my struggle to be acknowledged. Is over 6 years of my life being overshadowed by an eating disorder simply acute? I can understand that only the beginning of my disorder is remembered by those around me who only saw the external weight loss… but does my dad not know that things have never really got better? The discomfort and hatred I feel towards my body has never faded, nor the whirring calorie calculator in my head, I have never felt fully recovered so why is it assumed that I am? The voice of an eating disorder inside my head has silenced my real voice.

The day my dad said this to me, I reacted by purging my lunch. It was almost like a vain attempt to prove that things hadn’t got better and that I am ill, chronically ill. Of course i didn’t tell him I did this… just as I won’t tell him that this evening  I have binged and purged 3 times within a few hours,  I entered a subconscious zone opening cupboards and the fridge to satisfy my unsatisfiable stomach. Then regret, guilt. Then self-induced vomit.

The problem is that this dominating part of my eating disorder is secret, I can’t admit to this disgusting habit so how  can I expect my dad to know the torment I go through. He can’t see that food is not enjoyable, it is a substance that may taste nice but it is also a substance that provides guilt.

I don’t want to be an ‘inspiration’, I don’t want to be ‘strong’ because I’m not either of these things. I have not beaten my eating disorder and if the way I live my life is what others aspire to have then that would make for a melancholy world. I am lucky to live with my mum who has been there by my side for the past 6 years, who has seen that the eating disorder’s grip still hugs me tight, and she doesn’t assume. If you know someone who struggles or has struggled with their relationship with food, don’t assume, allow them define where they are on their journey, allow them to struggle if they need to and make sure you support them if you can.

 

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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.

Christmas cheer & tears, chaos & calories

Christmas is upon us, a day known for merriment, family, laughter and food. It marks a special occasion not only for religion but for bringing a society together, where our charitable inclinations increase and acts of kindness are abundant. However, behind all this, there is a hidden world, where the idea of Christmas can represent an occasion of fear, anxiety and ambivalence. For those with autism, the lead up to Christmas can be a bizarre concept; for not everyday is Christmas so why are we decorating, advertising and exciting ourselves? For those with social anxiety, the idea of a room full of people, shops swarmed with the last minute purchasers can initiate the physical and emotional feelings of panic. Depression has leached the enjoyment out of life, and that doesn’t change for this one day out of 365. Christmas may evoke feelings and memories of pain, loss or abuse, everyone has an individual story to tell and it cannot be assumed that this festive season is jolly for all.

The intense focus on food is particularly challenging for one with an eating disorder, the fear of family members piling calories onto your plate, adding up to what is no longer a serving of nourishment or pleasure, but a numerical, quantitative pile of anxiety. Eager family members laughing around the table, looking expectantly for satisfied faces and yet the disordered response is a tentative one, avoiding complimenting the food due to an infestation of guilt that one could simply allow or accept that they can enjoy this nutritional necessity. The whole day becomes a nightmare of thoughts- resulting in tears, binges, purges, restrictions, anxiety and self-doubt, to a point that the very acceptance of presents becomes a guilt-driven activity. After the mechanical action of eating, the anxiety doesn’t dampen easily, the day will hold fears of having eaten too much, gaining weight, continuing to eat uncontrollably and results in a day lost in a world of clouded vision, an unintentional, self-centred bubble of worry and rumination.

Even if someone is struggling, people can be helped to find enjoyment from Christmas. If you have a loved one who is struggling in any way with this holiday- talk to them before the day. Put a plan in place. Whether it be discussing the meal with them, choosing certain foods, firming a safe place they can go if it’s overwhelming and reassuring them that it’s ok to need to ‘escape’ the family laughter and loud jokes. Make sure that person knows who they can talk to on the day, make sure they feel safe, that they know they are cared for and that even if they just show their face for a short while, they deserve to enjoy Christmas. Whatever an individual likes about Christmas, get them to focus on that and even if it’s just for a moment. Christmas holds some universal enjoyment, and please remember if someone is withdrawn at Christmas time due to mental illness, it is never their fault.

A bad day V.S the exhaustion of depression

There is an initial stigma that already surrounds the diagnosis of clinical depression, one that infers they can simply ‘snap out of it’, that it is simply an overreaction to a bad day. This of course is a myth that perhaps the more healthy minded won’t ever understand; depression is an illness that truly and completely overwhelms an individual through to every ounce and cell of their existence. It is waking up in the morning and feeling as though you are paralyzed, as though the laws of gravity have magnified and you can no longer push against it, no longer pull yourself up out of bed or off a chair because the smallest task is incomprehensible.

It can be near impossible to see on the outside, depression may not show itself 24/7, so when one can muster the energy to interact, force a smile then the society that observes them will see nothing but a normal person who has bad days. Yet the shame to admit that one suffers from such demons behind closed doors can prevent them getting the help they need.

Depression becomes a cloud, a muggy fog of poison that covers and infests you. The problem is that along with the less known physical symptoms of nausea, headaches, fatigue and indigestion there is a manifestation of negative thoughts and overthinking. Through the day, depression can prey on those with already shattered self esteem and cause doubt through the mind, judging every action and every thought which quickly turns into a dangerous and overwhelming over analysis of ‘Should I have done that?’, ‘What if everyone hates me?’, ‘What if it’s not good enough?’, ‘It’ll be all my fault’, ‘I’m a bad person’. Depression creates a world of misery, anxiety and isolation for the sufferer, an internal battle that is near impossible to explain to others when one is caught in the thick of it. Outside noise can cause frustration because on top of the internal noise of thoughts, this can become a horrid whir of conversation that one can’t concentrate on, mixed in to the inner voice of negative thoughts fed by depression. It is easy to become irritable because one loses touch with reality to a degree, becoming lost in a world of their own so when something, however small happens around them such as an item out of place or a change of plan then the sufferer can feel great anger which is followed by more guilt and confusion to why they feel such extreme emotion that further consumes them in the negative cycle.

Anyone with the mind monster of depression can experience it differently and in different severities but if you can take anything from this, it’s that depression is physical and emotional, it is not just sadness; it is a clinical illness that can destroy the very identity and life of a person.

Identify yourself

When someone questions how we would define ourselves or to sum ourselves up into an articulated list of characteristics, it can be a very challenging task. Suddenly we have to put into words an entire essence of who we are and how we see ourselves to be; do we say how we think others would describe us? How we see ourselves? Or perhaps we are just totally flustered and unsure of what to say that we rummage through our brains to find the most simple description of ourselves, such as being caring or having blonde hair or simply a job description in fear that we could sound too big headed.

Whatever or however we see ourselves, one thing is for certain; an illness does not define you. If someone asks you to describe your auntie Betty (and it so happens that she has leukaemia), you’re not going to say ‘Oh you know Betty, the leukaemic!’ It would just be wrong.. You would want to describe auntie Betty by the way she looks or by her bubbly personality perhaps. Now suppose you’re asked to describe your friends; Bill and Bob; one has schizophrenia and the other has anorexia, these illnesses  could change the appearances of Bill and Bob, making them look tired or unwell, and of course it will change their emotions and interaction with the world (just as cancer can to Betty), and again you are asked to describe them. In society, it seems we often refer to those with such mental illnesses as ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘anorexic‘, yet this ‘ic’ on the end of the word appears to depersonalise the individual entirely; stripping them of their true self and replacing them with nothing more than an undesirable illness, no longer accepting that Bill and Bob are friendly, kind hearted or good looking but simply seeing them as outsiders to society. This ‘ic’ on the end of their diagnosis overshadows everything healthy and desirable within the individual. Having a mental illness can make ones sense of self less clear as it is, but with the added stigma of the ‘ic‘ in society, it means that not only will the individual feel the need to define themselves by their illness but others around them will too, making it near impossible to escape the disorder and harder to keep reaching for recovery.

Someone’s illness, whether it be physical or mental is no way to refer to someone, there is no active choice to develop depression, just as there is no choice to have cancer, having a mental illness or disorder is nothing to be ashamed of but there is always a lot more to a person than the diagnosed jumble of words on a doctors note so; think before you speak.

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.