It’s funny, I’ve had to tell my story to countless health professionals over the past couple of weeks and yet every time I get asked “So what’s been going on?” I get so overwhelmed and I have no idea where to start.
I could start in 2004 when my aunty Col lost her battle with cancer. Or in Edinburgh two years ago when I worked out why I was waiting up till 5am for my boyfriend to come home every night. Or when I was 10 and was made to feel by my teachers that my sensitivity was a sign of immaturity and low intelligence that would mean I would never be as good as my friends. Or in 2011 when I watched my family mourn the loss of relative after relative after relative. Or I could even start all the way back with my family’s history of mental illness and women’s health issues that gave me a predisposition to put me where I am today.
Or I could start two weeks ago when my world got flipped upside down and my heart ripped out in a way so much worse than I could imagine I was able to feel. It doesn’t matter where you start, I have never let myself deal with any of this. I thought I had, I really did. I could feel all the hurt and sad when I lost my aunties, all the stress and panic during high school exams, and all the pain and betrayal of heartbreak. But more notably I could feel all the hurt and sad and panic and pain my family and friends were feeling too.
If you’re OK, I’m OK
So that’s what I focused on, and so grew the “if you’re OK, I’m OK” ideology that would carry me through my teenage years and start really haunting me when I tried to have relationships and become my own person. I think by the time I fell in love I knew you couldn’t pin your happiness and self worth on someone else, but I didn’t know any other way.
I would stumble through my teenage years feeling, feeling, feeling, all the time but never wanting to burden anyone with this because “if you’re OK, I’m OK.” So I “just kept swimming.” And the great bit was I was so good at feeling for others that people would become dependent on my empathy for their various life struggles and hardships… And before long I would let it consume my identity. Maybe this makes me sound like some wonderful, selfless hero, but anyone who was close to me knows there was a dark side to this. I was building up years and years’ worth of emotional trauma and not allowing myself to express any of it.
Just keep swimming
I would become terrified of this darkness slipping out and live my life on edge in a state of constant anxiety and dread, waiting for the next time my emotions burst out of me in unstoppable panic attacks. It was a constant battle between a nagging emptiness and hollowness of an identity lost to other people’s happiness, and an overwhelming panic and terror of years of intense emotion hitting like tidal waves. And there was no in between.
I had sports though, and I knew this was a good outlet for me. So I would run and run and run until one day I was running so hard I tripped in the sand and vomited. And it felt great. Looking back I guess this is where my unhealthy addictions began. I would continue to obsessively over exercise as a form of escape until next, I discovered Tumblr. Oh Tumblr, the wonderful romantic world (this is sarcasm) of teenage depression and self-harm. It normalised the horrible act of mutilating myself and before long my thighs would be left looking like a battleground. But no one would really see or know about this until years later. Realising I could keep secrets like this gave me a sense of control I think. If no one knew then it didn’t count, because “if you’re OK, I’m OK”.
Things looked to be heading up when I got my first boyfriend and started going to parties and drinking. But it wouldn’t take long at all for me to develop a pretty toxic relationship with alcohol too, but once again I was so good at hiding it that at the worst my alcoholism was just a bit of a joke among friends. I moved on from deliberate self-harm and convinced myself the holes I was scratching into my skin were just little slip ups and a sign I should cut my nails. When people asked I always had a story ready about how silly, clumsy me had fallen on a rock, or burnt myself on the coffee machine at work, follow this up with a giggle and a smile and no one will ask anymore questions. “If you’re OK, I’m OK.”
And finally, one weekend in 2016 during a pointless bender I picked up a joint, and so began the next crutch that has carried me through to where I am today. I noticed the pattern a couple of months ago when I had my first puff of a cigarette and realised I could so easily have another. Meanwhile my “If you’re OK, I’m OK” system was starting to crack as those closest to me started insisting that I was in fact, not OK.
For years I have used these behaviours, habits and substances to stop the waves of emotions from fully consuming me. Because when they hit, they hit hard. But they were only hitting harder and harder as my façade became challenged and I tried to trust people with my dark and unmanageable side.
And so, 2 weeks ago I learnt in the hardest, most abrupt way possible that my dark and unmanageable side was too much to take. Part of me understood fully, I should never put anyone through that but I swear I didn’t mean to. I’ve been managing it the only way I know how, on my own, and he was the one who insisted it didn’t have to be that way. And just as I had started to work my head around that, he left.
Just like that a decade’s worth of hurt and pain came gushing into me at a force I really cannot manage. It was different to any of the panic attacks I have had before. This was different because I was so angry at the world, I felt so betrayed, I was done. My head and my heart and every inch of my body was screaming at me to get out, get out, get out, and I was looking for any way to make this happen. And it wouldn’t stop.
At this point whichever Dr nods, smiles, and tells me as warmly and encouragingly as possible that “being here today shows I’m already on the road to recovery” and “thank you for your honesty” and a bunch more well-meaning cliché’s that I don’t care to hear. I know in my head that this is all likely true, but I don’t feel it in my heart at all.
But here’s the real paradox of my story. I think that is exactly why I am going to get through this. For the first time in my life I’m saying I’m really NOT OK, I am sick. All my secrets are out in the open and I feel incredibly vulnerable, but I’m here, and the world is still going round.
My head can try to distract itself from these uncomfortable feelings of doubt and fear and loneliness but I’m finally seeing that this won’t make them go away.
So this week I’m making up for years of suppressed sadness and grief, justified hurt and betrayal, and forgotten about anxiety and panic. Its been the hardest most sobering week of my life to have to sit properly with my emotions for the first time since I decided they were too much for me all those years ago. I’m having to undo all my minds tricks of over analysis and logic and altruism that I have used to get out of my head and just feel all the shit. It fucking sucks, at times it really feels like the most impossible thing in the world, but if I want to be emotionally whole, then I have to do it.
I’m speaking out because for every person who will roll their eyes and look down on my story I believe there is someone else out there who is trying too hard to be OK, to “just keep swimming.” Because for whatever reason (and trust me there are billions), they don’t feel they can speak up, and be honest, and say I’m not OK and that’s OK.
I have a lot more to say on this topic, and I could keep rambling here forever about our society, our mental health system, and our attitudes and actions that are fostering this epidemic. But I’ll leave it here for now. I, like so many others, have tried to “just keep swimming” for so long that I was starting to drown. We need to realise that even marathon swimmers need their rest. We all need to appreciate that at some point “just keep swimming” becomes an unhealthy mantra to live by. Just as we will all struggle with colds and flu’s, and sprained ankles and broken arms, we will also struggle with our mental wellness too. It’s part of life. We need to be able to say, “I’m not OK and that’s OK” and give our minds and hearts the time to heal just as we would our physical bodies.
I hope that by going through all this I am giving myself the opportunity to plant my roots deep in the Earth and give myself a foundation to grow to be the strong, bright and positive woman I have always wanted to be. And I hope you, whoever you may be, have the courage and patience to do the same too.