Monthly Archives: March 2015

Fear

Fear is a powerful emotion. It’s one which we are evolutionarily programmed to respond to- known as the fright/ flight response. It is an emotion which can incapacitate us and yet at other times can drive us to seemingly superhuman feats. It can make us freeze or it can inspire extreme acts of bravery. It is an emotion of extremes and one of the most basic human instincts.

For a while now fear has been driving me. Ever since the assault I have lived in fear, terrified by attention, by anything that might draw attention to me, terrified of being believed, terrified of not being believed. For a long time I deflected that fear onto food and my body. I deprived myself and starved myself in an attempt to make myself safer. As I diminished I felt more powerful and less in danger- instead of people looking at me and seeing me, they simply saw an anorexic, a skeleton, and that felt a lot safer. It was easier to say I was terrified of the jacket potato and cheese sat in front of me than to admit the real reason I was scared.

I’m better with food now. I still struggle a lot with it, but more with the bulimic symptoms than the anorexic ones. I’m freer with food and whilst I’ve a long way to go, I’ve come a long way from where I was. Which is a positive, but at the same time it feels counter-intuitive and frightening. Suddenly I am in a vulnerable position again and the fear raises it’s head again. Getting my period back, walking down the street and receiving positive comments, clothes fitting as they should, all are terrifying and take me back to the place I was in when I was assaulted.

Fear induces the fright/ flight response. For a long time I’ve been running as fast as I can. And yet at the same time I’m frozen. Terrified to move. What I haven’t really done is fight, fight the dear to get my life back. Now it’s time for that to change. I’ve had a bad week- on monday I overdosed. Not as a suicide attempt but because the memories and fears were so intense I felt that something unnameably awful would happen if I didn’t. It was one of the most selfish things I could have done and I regret the hurt it caused my family immensely. But one thing the resulting challenges from my mum have done is made me finally stop running. Since starting to see my boyfriend the flashbacks and fears have been so intense and I have finally agreed to get help for it and try to face things rather than running from them.

The fear is still so strong. I am still scared of food, still scared of what might happen, scared of anything which brings me positive attention, scared of losing control, scared of living. But it’s time to stop letting the fear rule my life. And that’s scary in itself.

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Support at university

University. It’s supposed to be a time of exploration, of learning, of being young and free, being independent and having fun. But for students with a mental health condition this is often not the case.

My mental health problems developed long before I went to university but I didn’t seek help for them until a year after I’d started uni. It was summer term of my first year, exam season and I was surviving off muller light yoghurt, purging and forcing myself through hours of exercise. I started getting chest pains and after turning to the Internet for support made an appointment to see my uni GP. It was then that I was first diagnosed with bulimia and referred on to the eating disorder services. Sounds good so far right? Only my weight meant I was low priority and spent a year on the waiting list before becoming critically ill. 

That was where things fell apart. I hadn’t told my parents what was going  on and I spent that year in free fall. I knew I needed help but I had no idea where to turn. I was living away from home and physically and mentally deteriorating whilst trying to juggle my studies, a social life and other every day responsibilities. 

This is where I think the problem lies. At university, especially as an undergraduate, you are usually living away from home for the first time. On top of that you have a demanding course load and new groups of friends to navigate. Your usual and known support network are miles away and you’ve very suddenly gone from school kid to adult. And many people, with and without a mental health problems, need extra support with this. 

Universities do offer support systems- there are student counselling services, student GP centres, personal tutors… But when you’re in crisis it’s bewildering. 

By third year I was in real trouble and just before Christmas I was hospitalised with anorexia. I had to interrupt my studies just before my final exams. I had no idea who to talk to at uni, the stock I answer was always ‘your personal tutor’ but I’d only had two personal tutorials during my entire time at uni. What’s more my personal tutor was make, as were all the senior tutors. In a predominantly male university there was no female tutor for female students with sensitive/ personal problems. I had been beginning to fail my coursework due to the illness but it was only upon hospitalisation the university offered me mitigating circumstances. I had no contact after being signed off for a year until I was about to return. After returning to uni I was once again with no university support or guidance. I quickly went downhill again and was hospitalised again. And again. Uni were good in a crisis, they helped me with the interruptions of study but no longer term support was offered.

Now througout this my uni GP was excellent. After receiving no support prior to my first hospitalisation I had been seeing my GP fortnightly to talk and have some general support. 

I think what I’m trying to say is there needs to be a more cohesive system of support at universities. It is a vulnerable time in people’s lives. The personal tutor system needs to be upheld and regular meetings a key part of your degree. Personal tutors are supposed to be your first port of call for any personal or academic issue and yet I barely knew mine. And for students who do experience difficulties there needs to be follow on support to ensure that student achieves the best they can at university and doesn’t fall backwards.

Dying isn’t glamorous

Anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, Binge Eating Disorder. All eating disorders. All serious. All as worthy as any other of help and support. 

Something that continually baffles me about eating disorders, my own included, is the need to be the illest. They way you feel threatened by anyone else being ill, as if somehow that means you’re not unwell. On Instagram there are regular postings of ‘my lowest BMI was only X, so I’m not ill enough to recover’ or body checking photos comparing themselves to a community where the norm is unhealthy. And these posts are usually followed by a series of comments along the lines of ‘just because you’re a healthy weight doesn’t mean you’re not dying’. Which makes sense, until you think on it a bit more. 

Since when did reassurance mean validating someone’s eating disorder as being life threatening. Many undoubtably are but when did it become a ‘good thing’ to be so sick? There is no glamour from dying of an eating disorder. There is no beauty or nobleness in being the sickest. Maybe you’re not dying from your ED but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recover! Anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, BED. They’re all mental disorders with physical side effects. But primarily they affect the mind. So why do we give so much thought and importance to the physical? 

This is probably an unpopular view but I don’t think telling people that they should recover because they’re tiny or dying from their ED is helpful. It feeds the eating disorder and satisfies the need to be the sickest. Instead of driving the person towards recovery it allows them to bathe in the glow of a ‘successful’ ED. 

Maybe you’re not dying from your ED? Maybe it isn’t killing you? But that doesn’t mean it isn’t ruling and ruining your life. That should be reason enough to recover. You don’t need to be dying to break free from the shackles of an ED. 

On self harm

Yesterday was Self Harm Awareness Day, a day when we aim to reduce the stigma and secrecy surrounding the topic of self harm. I wanted to mark the day by doing something, but couldn’t think of anything I was brave enough to actually do. So instead I’m going to blog about some of the stereotypes, falscities and misconceptions surrounding self harm as I experience them.

“Self harmers are dangerous, if you can do that to yourself what can you do to other people?”

Self harm is not an indication of a dangerous person. Yes some dangerous people self harm, many dangerous people don’t, some self harmers are dangerous, the vast majority are not. Self harm is often a way of turning strong emotions back on yourself rather than expressing them outwardly. Where someone may feel angry and shout or scream or throw something or slam a door, I turn to self harm as a way of punishing myself without risking hurting other people. Many people who self harm feel other people’s emotions acutely and desperately try to avoid expressing emotion that might hurt others.

“Scars are a sign of how strong you are.” “Your scars are beautiful”

For me this isn’t true. I don’t want to be told my scars are beautiful or a mark of my strength or a reminder of all the times I’ve survived. They are not tragic.  I hate the way people look at me with them and do a double take. The scars on my wrists do not remind me of the times I have survived but of the times I have failed. Self harm is not glamorous or beautiful, it is not tragic or any other such word. It is messy and tiring. It is failing again and again. It is black thread buckling your skin. It is iron tablets and transfusions. It is itching, constant itching and scars that blister. It is wearing your weakness on your skin for everyone to see, and that hurts. It is looking at your skin and seeing the time you were sectioned. The time the nurse called you attention seeking. It is being reminded of your darkest times every day.

“Self harmers don’t feel pain”

I’ve been asked if I don’t feel pain countless times. Many people have said to me “oh I couldn’t do that to myself, I’m rubbish with pain!” Truth is so am I. And I do feel the pain, I just experience it differently. For me when I’m self harming the pain is a focus and a “good” thing (I use good loosely here), I don’t experience it as meaning “stop, this is bad” but “keep going, you’re bad and you deserve this”.It’s like being in an altered state, I still feel pain. It hurts like anything and especially after. And I will still wince at stubbing my toe or getting a papercut too!

“You’re a pretty girl, why are you doing this to yourself?/ You have a loving family, why are you doing this to yourself”

I don’t really need to expand much on this. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate between pretty people and non-pretty people- after all beauty is in the eye of the beholder!- and neither does it discriminate between people lucky enough to have loving and stable upbringings and those who didn’t. I couldn’t have asked for better parents and yet I still got ill.  I read somewhere that genetics loads the gun and life pulls the trigger when it comes down to mental illness. And those life experiences can be anything, not just family issues. And for some people there is no discernible experience which triggers mental illness.

“It’s just attention seeking”

This one really gets me angry. In my last inpatient admission I was told my self harm was attention seeking and manipulative, a way of eliciting care from others. My self harm was never about attention seeking. I feel so self concious rolling my sleeves up in case people think I’m deliberately showing my scars off. For me I self harm out of distress and desperation, in hospital I self harmed despite being on 1:1 observations because I couldn’t live in my head without doing something to get the badness out. Also, when did attention seeking when you’re unwell become unacceptable. When we are ill with a cold we tell everyone about it, seeking attention. When we’re unwell with mental illness, however, seeking care and attention is seen as a negative. That shouldn’t be the case.

“It’s just a phase”

This was said to me when I first started age 14, ten years later it’s still something I struggle daily with.

“It’s not a serious cut, it’s not that bad.”

ALL self harm is serious. From the slightest scratch to the most gaping wound. My self harm got worse and worse as time went on, but the emotions and feelings behind it were as difficult to deal with when I was scratching as when I was requiring stitches several times a week.

As I say, these are only my experiences of self harm and the misconceptions surrounding it. It is different for everyone, but it always needs to be taken seriously.