This is just one of many powerful messages that the US-based, non-profit organisation 'To Write Love On Her Arms' are promoting on a daily basis to provide hope to those suffering with mental illnesses, particularly those experiencing thoughts of suicide.
World Suicide Prevention Day is today - 10th September 2018. According to the World Health Organisation, 800,00 people die by suicide globally each year. That’s one person every 40 seconds. Recent research tells us that the suicide rate for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 reached a 40-year high in 2015. Between 2007 and 2015, the suicide rate for these girls doubled. What do these statistics tell us? That rising suicide rates are a serious problem, and the stigma surrounding mental illness is often pinpointed as the main reason for people not reaching out. However, if individuals suffering from mental illnesses are ready and willing to talk about their mental illness with someone else, but when they are finally ready to talk, they find that there is no-one around to talk to, is this still due to the stigma surrounding mental illness? Perhaps they are intricately connected, but I believe the issues of loneliness and isolation are needing much greater attention. We know that stigma often leads individuals with mental illnesses to isolate themselves from social situations, and to also be isolated from such social occasions, but I am referring to those individuals with mental illnesses who may have been isolated due to receiving long-term inpatient treatment or needing long-term bed rest due to the physical manifestations of mental illnesses, such as extreme fatigue, or the psychological symptoms of mental illnesses, such as extreme anxiety that prevents them from leaving their home for days or weeks at a time.
These questions take me back to my own experiences with mental illness; much of which I have not shared with many at all. The past thirteen years of my life have been coloured by harsh highlights and hopeful undertones. I was fifteen years old when I was first diagnosed with the clinical eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. Following receiving this diagnosis, my weight plummeted; over a period of six-months, despite weekly sessions at the Children’s Peace Hospice, I had lost 50% of my total bodyweight, and doctors advised that in just two-weeks, if I carried on at the pace I was with damaging my organs, I would be facing the worst. Even to this day, I struggle to put into words the immense suffering anorexia nervosa caused, to both myself and my family. That intense drive I once channelled into my sport and education was now being channelled into starving myself to death, and I didn’t know how to stop. Professionals kept trying to convince me to “just eat more” and “exercise less”, as if I was well-enough to think and behave rationally; like someone who wasn’t in the grasp of the most deadly mental illness. I was continuing to deteriorate physically and mentally under the supervision of those co-ordinating my care and it was at this point that something inside of me clicked. No matter how ill I became, no-one was coming to ‘save me’ from this torture… no matter how badly I wanted and needed them to. I was on my own and it was time to take control of my own recovery. For the first time in over a year, albeit for only a few seconds, I was able to think rationally… and that thought ultimately changed my life. Or so I thought.
A year had now passed, and after finally reaching a ‘healthy’ body mass index and receiving the green light to participate in sport again, I anticipated things would be better, but I was not prepared for anorexia’s after-effects. After being so isolated during my treatment for anorexia, I remained incredibly isolated throughout my time studying for my A-Levels, not through any fault of my school teachers or friends, but because anorexia had robbed me of so many experiences during the last 1-2 years, such as celebrating my GCSE results (which I have no comprehension of revising for!) and the ability to socialise with peers, including maintaining friendships and building new ones. Something that I was not prepared for, nor expecting to happen, was the known post-anorexia symptom of engaging in binge-eating. When your body has been in starvation mode for a long period of time, your body begins to intensely crave large amounts of food due to not knowing if or when another period of starvation will occur. Not knowing how to cope, both emotionally and physically, with these episodes of binge-eating, I soon resorted to purging through self-induced vomiting and engaging in excessive amounts of exercise, to an extent where I quickly developed severe bulimia nervosa. However, due to the huge amounts of shame and guilt that accompany bulimia, I did not ask for help until two-years later, just one-month before I was heading off to Loughborough University to study Geography and Sports Science. Nothing was going to stop me from gaining a degree at one of the best universities in the world for sport… until one day, on the 8th of June 2008, where I attempted to take my own life.
The months before, whilst studying at Loughborough, were full of self-harm, self-loathing, and a complete sense of worthlessness. I was incredibly lonely due to engaging in bulimic behaviours all-day and when I did manage to chat with friends, I could not relate to any. I felt considerably different; an outsider, and stuck with no way out. I don’t know what exactly led me to attempt suicide on that specific day, but I genuinely believed that: (1) my friends and family would be better off without me around due to causing a lot of pain over the years with being unwell, and (2) I could not see a future for me living in this world. What I do remember of the moments before, is the feeling of looking into the eyes of the person looking back at me in the mirror and not recognising the person I saw. I felt completely detached from my own body; something I now know as ‘depersonalisation.’
Fortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful and what followed was a five-year period dedicated to rebuilding myself from scratch, including a formal withdrawal from my place at Loughborough University. Those five years involved volunteering at my secondary school, St Michael’s Catholic High School in Watford, Hertfordshire, where I slowly reconnected with my passion for helping others through supporting students in lessons and coaching athletics after-school. My periods had started and I was now going through the process of puberty, aged 19, since this had been delayed by three to four years. However, despite being physically well in one way, my body was still being destroyed on a daily basis due to my severe bulimia nervosa. Episodes of severe dehydration and exhaustion led to two, long-term inpatient stays on the Adult Eating Disorder Ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge where I received intensive physical and psychological treatment between 2011 and 2013. Here, I learnt the importance of holding on to the hope that things can always get better and having faith in your own ability. These two words I had tattooed on my wrists, not because I simply like the words, but to act as daily reminders that I can achieve whatever it is that I put my mind to and that I am worth fighting for.
In September 2013, I made the decision to return to Loughborough University to finish what I had started. Here, I took a much greater interest in sport and exercise psychology, particularly because I found it incredibly difficult managing my own return to sport – in terms of understanding how my body responded and adapted to exercise and how psychological fatigue from recovering from a mental illness and still engaging in disordered eating impacted upon performance. Ultimately, I developed an intense appreciation of how the mental affects the physical, and I wanted to use this passion to learn how to best support those competing in sport in reaching their full potential. I had finally found a purpose in life… as a Sport and Exercise Psychologist.
So, what am I trying to get at by rambling on about my own experiences? Hope. Hope wants you to keep going. Hope wants to pull you forward, long enough so that you can someday take a look back at your story and finally see where the dots connected. Each and every one of us has a purpose, whether we are currently aware of this or not. I also hope that by continuing to speak openly about mental illness, it will inspire others to hold on for that little bit longer, so they too can live to witness the dots in their story finally connect.