I was driving back from a family wedding a few weekends ago – something one normally associates with laughter, fun, and loving memories. But driving home, watching the sun set with a smoky autumnal haze, I couldn’t help but wonder what my estranged family members would think if they knew what was really going on with the girl behind the smile.
I have struggled with my mental health since childhood. My first bout of depression hit when I was a teenager, and it was the most terrifying time of my life as I had no idea what was wrong with me. I thought I was broken and that I was the problem. Going back 10-15 years, technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now, so I couldn’t google the symptoms or use my phone to look for guidance or support. I felt I was truly and utterly alone. I had cardboard and towels covering my bedroom window, as I couldn’t bear daylight, and I didn’t leave the house once in about 9 months. It really was my version of living hell.
I eventually somehow managed to muster the courage to get myself a job. I joined the gym and worked out regularly. I ate a healthy diet. I practised yoga, meditation and mindfulness…..yet somehow, despite being so high-functioning, something still didn’t feel quite right within. I ended up in an abusive relationship, and working a full-time job plus a second job in the evenings. I was so desperate to feel ‘normal’ that I was going clubbing or drinking most nights – because that’s what I thought people my age did – and I wanted nothing more than to be just like everybody else. I indulged in drink, partying, holidays and smoking, all in a desperate attempt to feel ‘normal’. Yet something was still amiss.
Fast-forward a few years, and I was now single and still trying to ‘find myself’. I had stopped drinking and smoking so much and was trying to focus on nothing but my health. I had a good group of friends around me, yet I still felt like the outsider. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. I still felt like I was completely and utterly alone. I still had that torturous, nagging feeling inside. Then I realised it had never gone away. Life had distracted me from it, and there were placebos, but essentially there was still something going on that was beyond my control.
Fast forward again to 2016, and something inside me just snapped. I felt a fear more extreme and profound than I had ever experienced before, so I had no other choice but to seek help. I was mute for two weeks, put on medication and signed off work…..and I haven’t been back to work since. The next 18 months turned into a hurricane I never imagined possible. I was self-medicating with alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescribed medication.
An all-time low
Then I reached an all-time low, where I found myself self-harming and not wanting to be alive any more. I just couldn’t take it: the embarrassment of telling people that I’m STILL off work sick, trying to explain to my friends things that they would never fully understand, hiding my self-harm scars from everyone, and attending so many appointments that I lost track myself. I felt like I’d blinked and a year and a half of my life had been lost.
The first time I took that first antidepressant I felt that same terror I did as a teenager. I felt like a freak and a failure but I knew I had no other option. At 27 years old my dad sat me down and watched me take that pill like a parent spoon-feeding their baby…..and I felt like I’d lost my independence. I felt like I’d lost my life.
After a few months I did a LOT of research, and started to understand my conditions far more clearly. They weren’t scary to me any more, and I did start to feel a lot better. I felt alive again. If someone has a broken leg, they get it fixed. So if you have a broken brain, you need help to get that fixed too.
I spent a few months both on and off medication, and now in December 2017, I no longer drink, smoke or take illicit drugs on a path of self-destruction. I freely admit that I am on antidepressants and prescribed medications, and no longer feel shame or embarrassment about that fact or the fact that I’m STILL off work while I am in recovery.
I used to have panic attacks and feel unworthy if I bumped into somebody and they asked, ‘So, what are you up to?’ Those words filled me with dread and horror…..but I’m not ashamed anymore. Yes, there is a stigma towards mental health and antidepressants, but that’s because it’s the fear of the unknown. Talking and spreading awareness is the only way that we can break these stigmas and finally normalise mental health. Not everybody will understand -and that’s okay! But everybody should be aware. Education is paramount. I don’t understand how to fix an asthma attack or an epileptic fit….but I am aware of the signals to get help.
I no longer feel shame
If we can spread awareness, end the stigma around medication and mental health, and educate people on what to look out for and notice among their friends and family, then we might just save a life. We all deserve to be ourselves without the fear of judgement or ridicule.
Whether you decide to take medication or not is completely your choice, and you should make that choice without condition or judgement, whether you decide to take prescribed medication or holistic and natural remedies.
I’m proud to share my story now as I’m passionate about spreading awareness, ending the stigma, and helping people. We are all still scared of the unknown, and facing a mental illness alone is one of the most terrifying things you can encounter. It’s like your own body and mind are betraying you.
Mental health conditions do not have a ‘look’ or an ‘appearance’. They do not have an age, race, religion, gender, or social status. They can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. People struggle to understand this concept – they think that because you look a certain way there can’t possibly be anything wrong with you, because you ‘look fine’.
Find the thing that sets your soul on fire
My advice to anyone struggling would be to find your passion. Find the thing that sets your soul on fire and makes you, you. Find what you loved before mental health dominated your life. It could be sport, art, hiking, reading…..just make sure its yours and yours alone: not just what your family or friends or society want you to do. Mine is music, and essentially music saved my life.
So that’s why my video is black, because to me that’s how depression and/or other mental illnesses can feel: black, empty, lonely. Nothing.
Music is a massive help to my – and I’m sure thousands of others’ – survival. It can feel like your only friend and comfort when you feel like no-one else will understand.
So I decided to sing Ed Sheeran’s ‘Supermarket flowers’, as a tribute to my mum who lost her battle with cancer in 2013, and as a tribute to everybody who survives just one more day.
If this helps just one person then I’ll have achieved what I set out to do. No-one should ever feel alone.
Embrace what makes you different. Embrace what makes you, you.
Thank you for your time,
The girl behind the smile.