This is one of a series of exclusive stories that we are highlighting as part of the Time To Change See The Bigger Picture campaign, led by the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, which aims to end stigma around talking about mental health. Please note that these articles contain discussion around topics that may be triggering to some readers.
‘Don’t worry, you’ll grow out of it’, a doctor with a thick Cornish accent told me, ‘it’s very common for young girls to feel emotional, it’s the hormones’.
I heard this while pulling my sleeves down to my fingers to hide the self-harm that was covering my arms.
I’d had just told him about how I had suicidal thoughts, how I was self-harming through the night, how I felt so low and anxious that my heart was racing and that I was sure I could hear it pumping in my ears – but I was dismissed.
It’s one thing to hear something like this from a friend, a work colleague or an out-of-touch relative, but to hear it from someone who was meant to help me was shocking and sent things even more downhill.
I started struggling with my mental health when I was 14. I am now 24, so I’ve endured a decade of dealing not just with myself and my own mental illness, but with the attitudes of those around me.
And I can assure you, the latter is nearly as exhausting as the former.
I struggle with depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts and have a difficult relationship with food. This leads me to self-harm and suicide ideation often swirls around in my mind.
I’ve had many diagnoses, all of which are usually decided by someone who has met me for around 45 minutes and then attaches a label to my name. But these labels dictate how people react to me.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2014 – a diagnosis that lasted one year – I remember how the man I was dating at the time got a very concerned look in his eyes when I told him about it. It wasn’t a nice kind of concern, but more of a freaked-out ‘I better leave now’ look.
It was also during this period of my life that I lost contact with some friends. I don’t know if it was the diagnosis or if we had coincidentally just moved on with our lives, but I felt it best not to ask.
It was later decided that I didn’t have bipolar disorder after all, and my label changed once again, this time swapped out for depression – which I felt sounded a lot more palatable to everyone around me.
I find it strange how people’s reactions change depending on the term used for my condition. In my opinion, this is down to the stigma surrounding different diagnoses; depression is more casually spoken about now and I feel like my mates and I are able to chat about it over a beer, yet there are still other mental health topics that cause discomfort for them and which we definitely don’t touch on as much.
When I talk to someone about my mental illness, particularly someone I don’t know so well, I’m not seen as ‘me’; I turn into a preconceived idea of what that mental illness is and that in turn is reflected in how I am treated and reacted to.
But to this day, regardless of how much I preach about the importance of talking and reducing stigma, it is easier for me to call work saying I have the flu rather than explain that I’m in a bad place.
I am not a mental illness, my name is not ‘Mentally Ill’ or ‘Anxiety’. It is only a small part of who I am and what makes me, me.
Living with a mental illness is hard work.
Although I try to make myself a more multi-faceted person in order to not let people define me by it, my illness is still present and at times exhausting. Even when things are going well, the fear I have of ‘when will things get bad again’ and taking medication on a daily basis is a constant reminder.
It is tiring and it can be intense – but it is not me.
My current diagnosis is anxiety and depression. Emotionally unstable disorder was suggested but not confirmed. Similarly, at one point they thought I might have obsessive compulsive disorder, but this wasn’t confirmed either, although I do struggle with intrusive thoughts.
My diagnosis changes often, which also causes uncertainty, especially when it comes to treatment. When I was younger I struggled with eating and body image. I still struggle with body image and I do have a complicated relationship with food.
Life now is up and down. It’s a rollercoaster and the unpredictability causes anxiety. I work part time as full time isn’t sustainable in the long run. People tell me ‘but you’re so extroverted’, because I still see friends a lot and I am in a relationship. They find it hard to believe I struggle when I am so sociable and outgoing.
This is my experience and the next person’s is probably different. So rather than judging someone based on what you perceive in your head, talk to that person about how it affects them.
Time To Change
The reality of living with less common mental health problems like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder remains largely misunderstood. Time to Change is calling on people to see the bigger picture – click here to find out more.
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