As part of a new series I want to start I am interested in hearing people’s own stories of how they’re either conquering or have overcome their personal mental health struggles. Not only do I find it fascinating to hear each individual’s journey, but also I believe that by sharing these accounts, what’s helped and what’s hindered people’s recoveries, we can work together to reduce the stigma surrounding them, raise awareness and help others who are battling similar mental health disorders.
I know from personal experience that these disorders can be incredibly isolating, but that the impact of reading someone’s story, and realising that you’re not the only one out there with these thoughts/behaviours/worries, it can reduce that sense of helplessness and hopelessness and increase ones autonomy to get back on track and make positive changes.
So, as I rocked up to the Surrey Sports Park Starbucks I was eager to meet my first interviewee. She actually approached me about whether the topic of self-harm and depression would be one I’d want to cover in my blog, and if id be interested in hearing her story, of which I replied “of course!”
For me it came as such a surprise to learn that she had this story to tell, and that in itself is a lesson best learnt early on – to never judge a book by its cover. But I felt privileged that she was allowing me to turn over and delve deeper than the front cover…
Having moved to this country in 2012, this talented young lady started her A Levels in a nearby boarding school, making lots of friends, getting top grades and being a fantastic athlete. Whilst on the surface there seemed no obvious reason to punish herself, underneath her strong persona layers of low self worth festered, bombarding her mind as soon as her bedroom door was closed.
When were you first aware you had depression?
I can’t pin point an exact time it started or when a diagnosis was given to me – it wasn’t. But I experimented with self-harm before moving to England, with periods on and off with my mood. However, when I moved over to this country to boarding school it was then that I would say it became a more persistent problem in my life. A friend found me one day, and the housemaster was alerted. Going home and breaking the news to my parents was awful, my mum had such a vacant expression on her face, and they both didn’t know what to say or do.
How would you describe your experience of self-harm and depression?
The best way I can describe the experience of depression is an all-consuming heaviness. Everything, even small trivial things people take for granted, like getting into University, seemed tricky. I started missing lectures that worried me.
The world begins to look cloudy, and what once was vibrant was just dull.
It really felt like my body was intolerant to happiness, I could be having a fantastic day but as soon as I got back to my house and sat in my room it was as if my body had an allergic reaction to doses of happiness that were too high, and I’d be plummeted into lowness. Self-harming was my way of connecting my feelings with a visible representation; I could focalise my feelings visibly onto myself. It felt like all the thoughts in my head needed a physical tangibility.
What impact did it have on your relationships?
I felt really ashamed for my problem; I hid a lot and wore long sleeved tops. But it always felt like I was hiding from myself. I didn’t want others to see, I couldn’t deal with the questions and judgment, so I pushed many people away. But it made the relationships with those who I did trust to tell stronger – they were part of my support network.
When my parents first found out they wanted me to move back home and focus on getting well, but I refused, I need goals and distractions that take my eyes off the problem. Plus I am stubborn. I felt that because I was so independent, this was something I could handle on my own, but my parents always reminded me that they were there for me. It’s just that I didn’t reach out to them much. I knew that it was a personal problem, it was my problem, and so I wanted to fix it. I had moved away from home therefore I didn’t want my parents help. My relationship with my mum has never been great though.
Do you know what triggered your depression and self-harm?
Not really, no. Shortly after disclosing the issue to my parents I started getting psychotherapy, which gave me ample time to talk about issues and explore the problem more, but I have never been able to pinpoint exactly a trigger. Even now I can wake up and know when a day will be good or bad but I still can’t say why.
My relationship with my mum has always been a slight irritant, and I guess that didn’t help. I come from a family of lawyers and I was the one who decided to go against the grain, mainly because I resented Law so much from the dominating impact the subject had on many family gatherings and meals. I chose to study English Literature and French, which then made me feel more inclined to keep up this perfect persona because I felt I had to prove myself, and my choice not to do law, to the family.
As well as that, I had a relationship breakdown when I went home for Christmas the second year I was in boarding school. He was a very dear friend of mine and we decided to become an item, but I got rejected shortly after we became more intimate. I think guys forget how impactful they can be to a young girls self esteem – they may not be aware of hang ups or body issues they have and this can really scar someone and any future relationships. Luckily I am in a very supportive and happy relationship now.
Through your battle with depression and S-H what positive coping strategies have you learnt to help you?
Music has helped me hugely and always been a constant in my life. I find it humbling and often listen to playlists when I do my creative writing.
I think as well accepting the problem has helped me acknowledge and accept that there will be good and bad days, but that’s ok. I know at times the urge to self-harm will be there but I have good, trusting, housemates who I can be around (even if I’m not feeling social).
Playing Squash and keeping active does help me because I want to be able to compete and play for teams but can’t do so if I’ve self-harmed because of the kit. I missed out on the ‘Tournament of Champions’, which is a fantastic opportunity to play with some top athletes in the sport, but I didn’t want anyone seeing my arms.
Seeing how much concern my loved ones have for me has helped me to value myself a lot more. You begin to try and see what they see, and even though positive affirmation when you’re low doesn’t seem to sink in, just having the love of others makes me value what I have more.
My boyfriend has been very understanding of it as well, and I know how much it would hurt him to see my body harmed in any way, and so pleasing him and keeping our relationship sturdy also helps.
Are there things that haven’t helped?
Hasn’t helped…I think looking back. For me alcohol is a trigger, I will be fine before and on the night out, but as soon as I get in at whatever early hour in the morning, it’s rock bottom. I found then seeing pictures of the night hard and unhelpful.
Asking myself “why me?” was also not helpful. It’s so easy to beat yourself down about a problem. There was no major life event or adversity I experienced, so why did I feel this way? This perception that I believed people had of me to be this perfect girl, who could take on anything, prevented me getting help. It’s knowing it’s OK to need help and coming out of the denial.
As well, I think stigma doesn’t help. There have definitely been times I’ve been worried what people would think and having to hide your problems is difficult and can prevent wanting to reach out for help.
You’re a fantastic squash player, and keep fit in the gym, do you find sport and exercise helps you?
It does and it doesn’t. My eating has never been affected by my depression; my weight has fluctuated, but just the same as anyone’s does. Sport definitely helps me stick to routine as it’s a release, and lifting weights is empowering. It’s a good feeling to feel like you’re empowering yourself from a state where you’ve felt so small. There are times when I’ll have a bad gym session or squash lesson and I’ll feel powerless again. It’s just about knowing that there will always be the good days and the bad days, and being okay with that.
There was one incident where my self-harm was very bad, and it nearly took me away from playing Squash, and I think that was an eye opener for me and what was really important in my life. Occasionally I have taken the odd training day off when my mood has been low and I’ve wanted time on my own.
What advice would you give to someone experiencing the same/similar problems?
Have a triangle of support ready for you:
- A go-to activity: something you adore doing that you have the energy to do regardless of your mood. For me it’s my creative writing and music.
- Professional help: this is so important because it’s likely that your friends and family won’t be able to give you sound medical advice. Issues like this are serious and do need to be properly monitored and handled by someone who knows what they’re dealing with.
- Friends/Family: they are vitally important for the sentimental side of things, especially when you just need to have someone to lean on.
It’s always good to have positives to look back on. When I feel really low I like to remind myself of what I’ve achieved, especially in my writing. I had one occasion where I sent a chapter I’d written to a friend and got such a positive response it just boosted me; it’s my dream to be a bestselling author.
Go on then, tell us your top ‘must reads’:
- Perks of being a wallflower (by Stephen Chbosky)
- All the bright places (by Jennifer Niven)
And what’s your go-to song?
Umm that’s hard! Probably a song by Prides called “The Kitestring and the Anchor Rope”
My interview with her really allowed the rawness of her experience to surface, and as we departed I felt honored to be allowed a glimpse into the world that she has faced, and the battles that she has learnt to armor herself against. It saddened me that this beautiful young lady should be subjected to such mental torment. I have huge thanks and admiration for her bravery and honesty. I have no doubt with the air of authority and certainty she spoke with, that she will go forward to reach fantastic feats regardless of set backs.
I hope this account has been both informative and eye opening for you.
If you have been affected by anything you have read in this interview, or need to speak to someone about an issue that has come up please view the links below:
Mind Helpline: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helplines/
Samaritans Website: http://www.samaritans.org/