When it comes to my mental health, I never really know where to start. Even though I’ve had plenty of years to reflect on it (and have been asked countless times by professionals), I still don’t think I can really put my finger on how it all began. It’s like when you find a bruise on your leg but you don’t know where it came from, or when you get a headache but you don’t know the cause. For some people, there’s an obvious trigger for their illness. For me, there never was.
To be honest, I can’t even pinpoint exactly when it started. I just seemed to sink deeper and deeper into misery, until – surprise! – all of a sudden, it had gone from a spot of the blues into actual, diagnosable depression. I self-harmed from the ages of 12 to 16, and I’ve now been clean for seven years. In all honesty, most of my memories from that time are a blur.
Self-harm’s not actually something that I’ve ever talked about publicly before. Although I feel somewhat okay mentioning that I suffer from mental illness, talking about the darker side of it still scares me. I guess you just get so used to hiding. But the more it’s talked about, the less alone people feel. So I don’t want to hide anymore.
My emotions were bubbling up inside me, but they had nowhere to go
My mum likes to compare my experience with self-harm to a bottle of fizzy pop. If you shake the bottle hard enough, the drink will start to bubble and bubble and bubble, and the bubbling builds up and up and up. It gets more and more intense – but the bubbles have nowhere to go – and so, eventually, the drink explodes.
Like the fizzy drink, my emotions were bubbling up inside me, but they had nowhere to go. And, like the bottle, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed release. I had all of these horrible thoughts and feelings brewing inside me, but I was too scared to tell anyone about it. I didn’t want to be a burden, or to waste their time. And so, the poisonous feelings built up and up and up and up. But, because I wouldn’t talk about it, there was no way of getting them out.
When I started cutting, I thought I’d found the release I needed. But boy, was I wrong.
If I could go back in time, I would absolutely tell myself not to cut. I would tell myself that there are other options. Better options. Scars are permanent, but emotional pain isn’t. I wish I didn’t have to look down at my arm now, a changed person, and still see those hateful words carved into my body. But, even though I can’t go back in time and change what’s happened, I can change how I cope with things now.
For me, the turning point came when I was 16. My self-harming was still a secret at this point, and I was yet to be officially diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I kept everything very much to myself. At school, I would skip lessons when my mental health was particularly bad. But, unsurprisingly, I couldn’t get away with that forever. Eventually, a teacher confronted me about it. When asked why I’d been skipping classes, I just couldn’t hide it anymore. I completely broke down.
The relief that I felt when that teacher told me that she understood, and that she’d been there too, was indescribable. She held my hand as I cried and promised me I was going to get better. I couldn’t even bring myself to nod back then, because I still didn’t believe that this was possible…
But she was right. Things were going to get better.
Most importantly – we talked.
She told me about the free counselling service that the school offered, and said she wanted me to start there next week. And now that the school knew what was going on, I felt it was only fair to tell my parents, too. I was scared. I didn’t want them to worry. But it felt wrong not to tell them now that the secret was out.
And so, that Friday night, rather than do it face-to-face, I wrote them a letter. I stayed up waiting until they went to bed, and then left it outside their door. The next morning, after they’d read it, they called me into their room. I sat with them on the bed and we hugged and we cried, and – most importantly – we talked.
That really was the start of a new chapter in my life. Suddenly, I didn’t have to face this alone anymore. I began counselling at school and my parents booked an appointment with my local GP. They referred me to a mental health clinic for young people, where my psychiatrist prescribed anti-depressants. A few months later, I was (finally) fighting off my illnesses with the help of talking therapy, medication, and support from my parents.
Everything changed when I finally talked about it. It was the first step towards recovery. I think there’s so much power in talking. When we’re physically hurt or ill, we have no issue getting help and letting other people know. But when our minds are ill, we feel pressured to cover it up.
I want to live in a world where everybody feels okay talking about mental illness – which is why I want to share how much it helped me.
When I started counselling, my counsellor described something called the “Depression Veil”. When you’re depressed, the Depression Veil blocks out the sun, and stops you from seeing that all-important “light at the end of the tunnel”. Slowly but surely though, after reaching out for help, I started to peel the veil back from my face.
First, there was just a little bit of light – but you’ll be amazed what a difference a little bit can make. Just to see the light – to finally know that it was there… it gave me something to live for.
Don’t get me wrong – the tunnel was long. I didn’t escape it overnight. Some days were harder than others. Some were okay, some felt like running a marathon. It took support from other people. It took medication. It took therapy. It took work. It took perseverance. It took hope, but it also took acceptance. Acceptance that some days I’d get closer, some days I’d fall behind.
I gave my thoughts a makeover, too. Every day, I actively try to make my mind a less negative space. It was like a domino effect. Once I started getting help – once I saw that things could get better – I was determined to do everything I could to make that happen. First, I stopped dwelling on the past. Bad days get crossed out on my calendar. I’m not allowed to relive them, or beat myself up about them. Then, I stopped fearing the future. I halt bad thoughts in their tracks. I can’t predict what’s going to happen, so why stress about it?
I finally started seeing a future for myself
I stopped wallowing in my sadness all the time. I found happy pick-me-ups, which I turn to when I’m feeling down. I stopped avoiding the things that made me anxious. Instead, I started trying to tackle them head-on. It’s not easy – but it sure as hell gets easier.
I found healthier ways to express my feelings – like through talking, or even through writing (hi!). I finally started seeing a future for myself, and applied to study Creative and Professional Writing at university. I wrote about my mental health for my dissertation, and graduated with a first. Then I blogged about it, and got messages from so many people, all saying that they’d been through something similar. They thanked me for making them feel less alone, but they made me feel less alone, too.
I think of recovery as a journey, as opposed to a destination. Ups and downs are just a part of life, but I’m better at coping with them now. When I was self-harming, I felt defeated by my mental illness. But now, I work every day to fight it.
Recovery has been like learning to walk again. I began by crawling. An unsteady crawl. Then eventually, I found my footing. I was a bit wobbly at first, but it got easier. Sometimes I fall, but I get back up again.
You can always get back up again.
If you’d like to read more from Talia, you can check out her blog: earthtotalia.blogspot.com