So I Wrote A Thing For World Mental Health Day

(Trigger warning for self harm.)

Today is World Mental Health Day.

If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to say. I’m in the middle of the worst depression I’ve ever experienced and I’m very aware that my perspective, my opinions, my hopes are distorted by that. If this was a video, I might just sit and cry. But this day is important so I’m trying to pull myself together and put something out into the world that is (hopefully) positive (and maybe helpful).

This year’s theme is the mental health of young people. When it comes to things like this, I’ve never felt comfortable talking about anyone’s experience but my own. So that’s what I’m going to do. I hope that’s okay with you guys.

My experience at secondary school was a very mixed one. I spent the first three years dealing with some complicated health problems but by the time I reached Years 10 and 11 (ages fifteen and sixteen for those of you who don’t know the education system in England), I felt really settled. I loved learning, particularly English, Maths, History, Psychology, and Philosophy (real shout out to my teachers in all of those subjects). I got real satisfaction from working hard and that was reflected in my grades. I came out of secondary school with not unimpressive grades, especially when you consider I missed most of the first three years. So I felt pretty good about going into Sixth Form (A Levels/ages seventeen and eighteen).

But that was when it all started to unravel. I really, really struggled. I’d gone from completing the work with ease to barely scraping by. I couldn’t understand it: I was trying so hard and it didn’t seem to make any difference. And I couldn’t see it at the time, but my anxiety was getting worse and worse and what I now know to be depression was creeping in. But I didn’t know it was happening so I just kept pushing forwards. I spoke to a couple of people about the high anxiety I was experiencing but each one told me that anxiety is normal and that was the end of the conversation.

It all came to a head when I failed an exam, something that had never happened before. I’d been told I was all set for an A* and I came out with a U. I was absolutely devastated. I know now that our worth as human beings has nothing to do with grades but I was eighteen years old: I had only ever been valued based on my grades. It’s no one person’s fault but that’s how the education system in this country works. It needs changing.

But back to this little story. I don’t remember much after I opened the envelope and saw that U but I ended up in one of the less used college toilets, self harming repeatedly with a broken paperclip. I don’t know how long I was there (long enough that the automatic lights went off and I was plunged into a very appropriate darkness) but at some point, my friends tracked me down and coaxed me out of the stall. I still remember seeing my reflection: my make up all down my face, my hands shaking, and the scratches barely hidden by my long sleeves. One friend took me to a nearby café, bought me a hot chocolate, and just talked to me. And eventually I told her what I’d done. Her kindness and gentleness was so healing, not for the whole problem but for that very difficult day. I will never forget it and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay it.

After that, I dropped out of that course and clawed my way out with two A Levels and an Extended Project, far less than I and everyone had expected of me. I went straight into a music course but had to drop out two days in because my anxiety was so bad that I just couldn’t cope. I spent a year grappling with the anxiety and depression, trying the first of many antidepressants (so many) and trying to retake some of the exams in the hope that I could improve my A Levels (I didn’t end up opening the results of those until after I finished my degree, three years later, but that’s another story). During that year, I tried desperately to get help from the NHS to no avail: my anxiety was so bad that talking to people I didn’t know was practically impossible and they refused to help me if I wouldn’t talk. Eventually we were forced to go private, something that I’m endlessly, endlessly grateful has been possible. And I only managed to get my diagnoses when my university said they weren’t able to help me if I didn’t have an official diagnosis.

It still upsets me to talk about. I asked and asked and asked for help but no one either seemed able or willing to help me. I would not be as twisted up now had that not been the case. The information and support was not available to me, it wasn’t available to my family, and it wasn’t available or deemed important enough (I’m not sure which is worse) to the medical professionals I saw. That has to change. It is not acceptable.

Now that I’ve told my story, I want to include some other important, relevant stuff.

The first thing is that I want to link you to Hannah Jane Parkinson’s recent article in The Guardian. She makes the very important distinction between mental health and mental illness. And this is where, I think, physical health and mental health are most comparable: your mental health is something you take care of (or don’t) everyday, by eating and sleeping well, exercising, talking through your emotions, and so on. Mental illnesses, similarly to physical illnesses, can be caused by not taking care of your mental health but there can also be genetic factors, environmental factors, and just hard stuff going on in your life.

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Talk – Talk through your feelings with someone you trust.
  • Keep a journal – This way you can air your thoughts and feelings in private.
  • Keep in contact with friends – It’s really easy to get busy and fall out of touch but spending time with people you love and feeling connected to other people is so important.
  • Exercise – This doesn’t mean every or any kind of exercise will help. On a personal level some types of exercise can potentially hurt your mental health. You just need to find the one that does help and then it will really help. I always recommend swimming because it’s non-weightbearing and therefore causes less strain on your body when you’re potentially already struggling with physical symptoms, like fatigue.
  • Eat well/drink sensibly – Everything we put into our bodies affects our minds.
  • Be mindful of your commitments – Yes, social interaction can be really helpful but if you’re taking on too much, it will take more from you than it gives you. And then you won’t be able to cope as well with whatever else is thrown at you.
  • Ask for help if you start to feel mentally and emotionally overwhelmed – Fortunately it’s starting to become easier to access support and counselling but even if it’s a struggle, it is a struggle worth going through.
  • Spend time with animals – It’s scientifically proven that being with animals is good for your health!

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS:

  • Work with a medical professional/therapist that respects and understands what you’re struggling with – Finding one can be the mission of a lifetime but having that presence in your life whose sole purpose is to help you through your struggles is incredible.
  • Medication – If you’re prescribed medication, take it diligently.
  • Try to keep track of your triggers – Knowing what they are doesn’t always prevent them from sending you into a complete spiral but even one spiral avoided is progress.
  • Create a support system – This isn’t something you can necessarily do without help but, over time and with the help of people who care about you, building a circle of trusted people who will support you through whatever it is you’re going through is so special and helpful.
  • Take time off if you need it – This is one I think we all struggle with. It’s a learning curve for a lot of us but it is important and can prevent small problems from becoming big problems.
  • Find a stress reliever – Whether it’s reading, or watching every episode of your favourite TV show, or doing something artsy like watercolouring, taking a break from all the stuff in your head is well worth doing.
  • Create a safe space for yourself – Living with a mental illness is exhausting and so having somewhere where you can just exist without thinking or masking is so important.

And of course, there is overlap between these two lists.

Where we go from here, I’m not sure. The information about mental health and mental illness is spreading and spreading and more and more people are speaking up. Now we need the right systems to support it: doctors, treatment, government officials who advocate for positive change. For now, that’s all I know. For now, I’m just trying to manage one day at a time.

(And a gentle reminder, my debut single, ‘Invisible,’ which I wrote about my experiences with my mental health is available on iTunes and Spotify and all those places and all proceeds go to Young Minds, a charity that supports young people in their mental health.)

Things I’d Tell My Younger Self

Have you seen the book where various different celebrities or famous people write letters to their younger selves? Some of them write pages and pages and some of them write a sentence, maybe two. But the majority of them reveal very little about their lives because they believe that the journey to the major events is as important as those major events. I don’t disagree with that but considering my levels of anxiety, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for my younger self to have a little more certainty. Most of my stresses, then and now, are about the future so this would’ve been the perfect thing to calm younger me. Obviously this is a hypothetical exercise since we haven’t actually invented time travel and therefore don’t have to worry about causing a paradox that dramatically alters human history. We’ve all seen enough sci fi to know that that always ends badly.

  • Your grades are only important for the next step. I know everyone keeps talking about how universities and jobs all look at your GCSE results and maybe in some fields – like medicine or if you wanted to be an astronaut (yes, I know, there’s a little bit of you that really does want to be an astronaut but, spoiler alert, that hasn’t happened yet) – that’s true but for the most part, your GCSEs only matter until you have A Levels and then your A Levels only matter until you’ve got a degree. Hopefully, you get my point. Try not to stress too much. If you get a grade that wasn’t as good as you wanted, feel it, process it, and let it go. Move on to the next thing. It will be okay. There’s always more than one way to get somewhere.
  • Try not to worry about fitting in. I know you wish that you could be like the beautiful girls who all seem to have it so together but it won’t always be like that. The years will pass and you’ll be glad that you have your life and not theirs, not because there’s anything wrong with their lives but because you are where you’re supposed to be. I hope.
  • You will get to Nashville. I know how much you want it. I’m not going to tell you how it happens because that journey is important but I promise you that you’ll get there and it will be worth the wait and the effort. I know it’s stressful and you’re terrified that you’ll never get there but you will. And it will be magical. Take it from someone who knows.
  • Don’t let people treat you badly. You don’t deserve to be treated that way. There will always be people who think it makes them superior (*cough* or a better teacher *cough*) but it doesn’t. I know it’s really emotionally overwhelming but you are strong enough to stand up for yourself. I promise you, you are.
  • It’s okay if you feel like you’re never going to get through something or if you feel like things are never going to get better. People will tell you that you will and you won’t believe them but that’s okay. There are things in life that you can’t know until you’ve experienced them. You can’t take pathways in your brain that you haven’t forged yet. So, when people tell you that time heals everything, try not to despair. They can say that because they have had that experience. It’s okay that you don’t yet. So keep going, keep living, and try to remember that everything you do and everything you experience is shaping you into the person you have the potential to be. And, chances are, a person who knows that time heals and a person who will annoy the shit out of a younger person by saying that time heals.
  • You are so much stronger and can endure so much more than you think you can. I know that that’s not always a blessing but we have to believe it is, you and me. You’re gonna go through the wringer and it will feel really unfair but you’ll get through it. At the very least you’ll make it to twenty-four.
  • There’s a reason you’re feeling the way you are. This is the point I’ve thought about most, about whether or not I should include it, but my gut says that I should. You’re autistic. I know that seems like a weird idea but you’ve always felt like your brain works differently to everyone else’s and this is why. Your only experience of Autism is the boy who was always being told off for being disruptive in primary school and most of the time, it’s really different for girls. You’ll figure it out, you’ll create a relationship with it, and what you learn will help other people.

Ultimately, there’s not much to be gained from wishing you could change the past and while there are things I wish had been different, I don’t think I’d change almost any of the things I had control over: the people, the pursuits, the loves… I’d choose them all over again.

Stepping Back in Time

Sometimes I wonder about what it would be like if I could go back to secondary school and to sixth form but with everything I know now. Obviously it would help with the lessons and exams but what I’ve learned about myself would’ve completely changed my experience of school. I’m such a different person at twenty-three than I was at sixteen or eighteen (as I would hope we all are). Throw in the ups and downs of my mental health and I’d say I’ve learned a lot in those years. I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a while now so I thought I’d write down some of these thoughts and compile them here:

On Choosing Subjects To Study – I am fascinated by what my life would look like if I’d known I was Autistic, if I’d known about my mental health challenges, and this is a good example of that. Because of the identity issues that often come with BPD, choosing the subjects to study at sixth form was distressing. How was I supposed to know what I wanted to study when I didn’t know who I wanted to be, who I was even? I want to write about identity a lot more but it’s such a big subject that I haven’t managed to tackle it yet. I promise I will. In this case, I knew I liked Psychology and I knew I liked Maths but I wasn’t sure what to pick for the final two options so I did what I always do when faced with a question about myself that I don’t know how to answer: I filled the empty space with real people and fictional characters that I liked and admired, people that embodied the things I wanted to be. That was how I ended up choosing History and Physics. I don’t regret those choices but now that I know that that happens, I approach things differently.

On Standing Up For Myself – I was fortunate not to go through any extended periods of bullying during my school years. There were a couple of incidents but they never went on for very long; they either got bored of me ignoring them or I pushed back which made them stop. But I had several teachers who didn’t behave particularly well: shouting at the class, humiliating us, telling us we were stupid, etc. Back then, I just kept my head down; I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. I was terrified of getting in trouble and standing up to an authority figure was something I just didn’t know how to do. I was just trying to get through it; I didn’t know that I didn’t deserve to be treated like that, that I could push back against it. Were I in that situation now, I wouldn’t let someone treat me that way, let alone anyone else. If it wasn’t abusive, it was a downright unacceptable way to treat the children they were responsible for.

On Trying To Fit In – When I was younger, especially in my early teenage years, I would look at the girls in my classes and in my year group and wish that I could be one of them. They were all so pretty and seemed to have everything and had been friends all their lives. I’d missed a lot of school due to illness and there was some hard stuff going on at home and my one good friend had just moved to the US. I felt very alone. I wanted to belong somewhere. I went on to find some amazing friends – many of whom I’m still friends with now – but the feeling of belonging is a hard one and one that I guess I’m still learning how to handle. But if I was going to secondary school all over again, that isn’t something I’d worry about. I think that the need to belong isn’t so urgent when you feel like you belong to yourself. I’m not all the way there yet, but further down that road than I was at sixteen.

On Blending In – It wasn’t until I looked back that I realised I was trying to be invisible. I didn’t put my hand up when I knew the answer, I hated any activity that required me to be at the front of the class, and I did everything I could to avoid drawing attention to myself. Even the way I sat – hunched over, trying to make myself smaller – reflected that. And yet I was desperate not to be forgotten. Apparently teenage me was an oxymoron. But no, I get it: I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t want people to know me, or remember me, as something I wasn’t. And worse case scenario, I embarrass myself and that be what people associate with me forever. But as I started to know myself, this behaviour started to change. Finding something that I loved and something that made me feel like I was where I was supposed to be, i.e. songwriting, really helped with that too. In a way, finding that gave me permission to exist, to take up space, and that gave me confidence. These days, I can look at myself and feel so unsure about everything but all I have to do is look back to know how far I’ve come.

The last couple of weeks have been hard, mental health and medication wise, but I’m hopeful that that will start to ease and then I can spend more time and energy on here. Thank you, as always, for reading.