Mental Health Awareness Week

Wonderfully, this year’s Mental Health Awareness week coincides with the start of my exam season. The exam period is to mental health what January is to physical health, but instead of a barrage of flu strains, hangovers and chocolate overdoses, the onslaught consists of sleep deprivation and intense pressure to succeed, all within the shadow of ‘your future’, which for four weeks appears to depend solely on how quickly you can scribble down an essay.

Last year, exams pushed me dangerously close to the precipice of a relapse. A return to therapy and an unpleasant few weeks dragged me back to normality, but the wobble made me very aware of how complex my mental health is. While I had predicted heighten anxiety, and possibly a quick spell in the fog of depression, I hadn’t anticipate such a full-throttle resurgence of some anorexic tendencies. This unpredictability defines many people’s experience of mental health conditions and can make everyday life difficult. Someone suffering from generalised anxiety disorder may predict that an exam or job interview would trigger heightened anxiety and they could therefore take steps to manage the situation. However, sometimes the heightened anxiety is present from the moment the person wakes up, with no obvious trigger, making preventative steps practically impossible. 

Over the last few years, attitudes towards mental health have changed markedly, and the taboo is lifting. But while some conditions – such as depression and anxiety – are increasingly escaping the stigma, other mental health conditions are still discussed in hush tones, or simply not mentioned at all. Over the last year, greater attention has been paid to the prevalence of self harm and eating disorders among children and young adults, and advocates such as Bryony Gordon and the Channel 4 comedy Pure have been instrumental in increasing understanding of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But other conditions – such as the other nine diagnosable personality disorders – are yet to be acknowledged and accepted in public discourse.

Charly Clive, star of Channel 4’s ‘Pure’. The programme is based on Rose Cartwright’s real life struggle with Pure O, a type of OCD

Mental health awareness is still in its early days, so it is unsurprising that there is a level of universalisation and simplicity that is not always helpful. Triggers are seen as linear – stressful situations trigger anxiety, sadness can spiral into depression and social media pressure triggers eating disorders. Logic follows that if you can avoid these triggers, you can avoid poor mental health. But triggers are individual to the person. Social media is not a huge trigger for me, whereas the possibility of failure is a big old issue which I still struggle with. Stress can trigger depression and sadness can trigger anxiety; usually there is a knot of triggers that are almost impossible to separate. Some conditions do not have triggers – schizophrenia is thought to have a strong genetic element, and people who have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) are more likely to have another mental health condition such as OCD or generalised anxiety disorder.

This simplification of triggers is also present in attitudes to treatment. Self care is frequently advocated as a way of ensuring everything is hunky dory in the mental health department, while drugs are demonised as a last resort, a temporary measure. I don’t mean to be dismissive of self care. At my worst, self care was cleaning my teeth and getting out of bed; usually, self care is eating my vegetables and an early night. I value self care hugely, but it is not treatment. My treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and taking my anti-depressants. And within my CBT sessions, maybe 5% is discussing my body image and social media; they are unhelpful, but they are not major triggers for a decline in my mental health. Exercise is a fantastic form of self-care, but as someone who has danced around exercise addiction, it is not always suitable. Baking a cake may be therapeutic but it is not always healthy to demolish the whole thing or aggressively feed it to others while not eating a crumb of it yourself. 

My favourite self care expert

In the same way that being white, or cisgender, or wealthy, or male, provides a certain level of privilege, I am conscious that I have a level of ‘mental health privilege’. I have low level anxiety, easily medicated depression and was lucky enough to receive treatment for anorexia very quickly. People with schizophrenia, types of OCD, BDD and other less well understood mental health conditions are frequently misunderstood, misdiagnosed and remain heavily stigmatised. I fit within a socially acceptable idea of mental health, I have relatively predictable triggers and self-care does help with some of my symptoms. But it is important to remember that this is not the case for everyone. We should not kid ourselves into thinking that the stigma surrounding mental health has disappeared. It is not our job to become experts in every mental health condition, but being willing to learn, understanding nuance and acknowledging our own ‘mental health privilege’ can help us move beyond black and white triggers and treatments to a more holistic understanding of mental health.

Recovery

Almost two years ago, I found myself in a toilet stall in Malaysia, on the phone to my parents back at home, verbalising for the first time that my mind no longer felt like my own. After a month away from home, the Anorexia that had been controlling me through much of my final school year had grown into spitting, skeletal monster that had wrapped itself around my brain, distorting my perception of everything around me. The relief I felt when I finally said the words out loud was unparalleled, and in the weeks following my return home I felt like progress was being made. I had accepted I had a problem. I was receiving the counselling and nutritional guidance I needed. University still seemed like a sensible goal come October. Surely, the gap from diagnosis to full recovery would be a matter of months?

Unfortunately, this was not the case. I spent large parts of my recovery being told that I was brave for talking about my illness, and that I had overcome the biggest hurdle by accepting that I was unwell. But for several months after my first counselling session, I continued to feel that surge of euphoria when I stepped on the scales and the number dropped. I continued to weigh out my food, count my steps and calories, continued to overexercise. Recovery is not the neat, brief process I had imagined it to be, and accepting I was unwell was not the most difficult part. In fact, it became a new tool for the Anorexia to use; if I had accomplished this step, there was no need to try new foods or gain the weight back. As long as I was talking to people about the fact that I was unwell, I didn’t actually need to do anything to address the problem. I ended up in a bizarre situation where I could openly discuss my plans for recovery whilst edging closer to hospitalisation; I took a twisted pride in my manipulation of the situation, kidding myself that I was fooling those around me into believing I was engaging in recovery even whilst I faded into a bruised and delusional skeleton.

 

Recovery is not a smooth process, and it does not take mere months. I took an enforced gap year and when I finally reached university just over a year after my original diagnosis, it was not the experience I had been led expect from friends and the media. How to manage freshers’ week when you can’t bring yourself to drink alcohol for fear of ‘wasted’ calories? How to talk to someone you like when you are internally assessing every physical flaw you possess? How to deal with deadlines when you are too depressed to get out of bed? I made some fantastic friends, have a hugely supportive family and have medication to manage my depression, but first year has been a struggle. I have recently returned to counselling after verging on a relapse during exam season, and have been booked in for a bone density because I have not had a period in over two years. The fantasy of the rapid recovery I had talked about with my parents over the phone in Malaysia is laughable now, but not an uncommon perception. Mental health recovery is not smooth, it is not a journey of self discovery, it is not glamourous. I am still on antidepressants, still obsessed with food, still capable of spending hours at a time in front of a mirror dissecting my body. The body that may not be able to bear children because of what I have put it through, the body that I continue to berate and critique on a daily basis. 

Recovery is the best thing I have ever done, but let no one tell you that it is not brutal. It is necessary. It is the only option, but it may take years and it will not be without struggle. Do not be cosseted by the notion that talking is enough; it is crucial, but you have to act on your words. I have to act every day to prevent the monster feeding on my hunger, and it is empowering, exhausting and exhilarating all at once. But it is a battle I am proud of and a battle that is happening in every country, city and home every day. You are more than your illness, more than your recovery and every action you take creates a new identity that is not defined by these things.

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Previously posted on https://foodfitnessflora.blog