When I think about my mental health journey the first thing I think about is the first time that someone spoke to me about needing professional help. They tried to reassure me that seeking help was a really normal thing to do and related it to having a broken bone and that people get broken bones fixed all the time. But now that I’ve been through the journey, I realized that it really isn’t like that at all. Bones are easily fixed, put a plaster on it and let it rest; the body does all the work. The process of recovering from a mental illness takes work and commitment. It takes courage and a whole lot of patience. It takes longer than fixing a broken bone.
When I was 18, I found myself in a situation that is unfortunately all too common. I was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. I was worn down to a shell. I was constantly made to feel worthless and powerless and a burden. This relationship lasted two years. Two years of feeling all of these things – I knew nothing else, I had accepted that life. I stopped knowing how to care for myself because all I knew were the rules that had been set for me. I didn’t know how to leave and I didn’t really want to. Some nights I would leave, I would stay in a hotel room and sit with my back to the door afraid he would find out where I was. I spent a lot of these nights not sleeping. I remember it being the middle of summer, in a tiny hotel room with the only light coming from the air conditioner that I had left on all day. But I felt nothing. I wasn’t hot. I wasn’t cold. I was just numb. I spent a lot of time staring at myself in the mirror, watching bruises forming around my neck and repeating the words “this is your fault”. But I knew nothing else, I always went back. That is, until the world shifted slightly and I decided I needed to go. It was both the hardest and best decision I ever made. I was out but I was broken. What came next was a very long process of figuring out what had happened to me. My abuser did a really good job of taking away my voice. I was afraid that people wouldn’t believe me and sometimes exactly that happened. I was 21, living in an entirely new town and the only people I knew and trusted didn’t mind when I decided not to be kind to myself. I was 21 and I was addicted to drugs.
Having unhealthy coping mechanisms was incredibly exhausting. Drugs were just the beginning of avoiding how I truly felt. It was the perfect mask. Needle goes in, self hate evaporates and I feel warm again. I was walking a fine line between throwing my life away and being a perfectly functioning adult. I was paying rent, working two jobs and socialising – I was functioning. Self harm was my way of being able to feel again. I was stuck in a cycle of trying to accept what happened to me wasn’t my fault and punishing myself for what happened to me. I refused to speak about it and I refused to believe I had a problem. Something had to give, and it did. I overdosed. I never really wanted to die but I definitely didn’t want to live either. I was 23 and I was in a hospital bed detoxing. It was November and almost my 24th birthday. No one knew where I was and I was too ashamed to tell anyone. I needed help but I didn’t know how to help myself and I certainly didn’t think I deserved it. I felt an overwhelming amount of shame. Every time someone noticed the track marks on my arm or the self harm scars, I would get a stab of shame in the pit of my stomach and I felt like I was on fire. But this time I noticed something different. There was finally light. It was small but it was there and that was all I needed – hope. I was clean and I was ready to deal with my mental health.
It took me quite a long time to feel comfortable talking about myself. I was embarrassed and being honest to a complete stranger was terrifying. But the counsellor was patient. He let me change the subject over and over again. I relapsed a lot throughout this process. But I didn’t fail. I relapsed again and again but I never saw it as failing. Just part of my process. The more I opened up about what I had experienced the more I realized how unwell I had become. I was getting flashbacks multiple times a day, I wasn’t sleeping and I couldn’t focus on anything. I didn’t want to take care of myself anymore. The counsellor noticed these signs before I could and made a referral to someone who specialises in trauma. I saw this as him giving up on me. I spiraled and I lost control again. Eventually I reached out to the service I was referred to. I didn’t meet their criteria and was refused counseling. At this point I knew I wasn’t doing well. Addiction was hiding close by in the shadows and I was still using everyday. I kept searching. I found a program really close to where I was living. I was accepted and put on a waiting list. I waited for 3 months. I was in limbo. The first session was with a trauma specialist. I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t like her approach. I felt invalidated and I felt small and fragile. I left the session asking myself if what I had experienced was really that bad at all, had I just overreacted? Why was this still affecting me? all these years later. This is when I learnt the valuable lesson of one counsellor doesn’t fit all. Keep trying. Keep searching. Keep allowing yourself to get the help you deserve because I did deserve it and I still deserve it now, today.
It took me many years of being incredibly unkind to myself to learn the importance of self care. Being kind to myself gives me the mental clarity to be kind to other people. Take a warm bath with candles, watch your favourite movie with your favourite person with your favourite food. Enjoy food for what it is without counting calories and feeling guilty. Go for a walk and stand on all the crunchy leaves. Caring for yourself can sometimes be the hardest part of the day but if you’re empty then so is everything you do. Fill your cup first.
I turn 28 in a couple of months. 10 years on and I’m still in counseling. I’m still allowing myself to heal and I’m giving myself as much time as I need. Because healing invisible wounds takes longer. If there’s anything I have learnt from everything I have experienced it would be to remind myself that I deserve happiness. It’s not being ashamed of having scars and covering those scars with tattoos doesn’t take them away. It’s catching myself before I fall because I definitely still fall sometimes. It’s letting myself feel everything I need to feel and understanding why. It’s being proud of myself and being proud of what I have accomplished. It’s coexisting with myself and being comfortable.
Recovery is a word that means something different to everyone, today it might mean that you got out of bed and you washed your hair and you let the warmth of the sun hit your face and you were able to smile and laugh. Tomorrow it might mean staying in bed and letting yourself recharge. But every inhale and every exhale means you’re still trying and that’s what recovery is all about – not giving up.