An Honest Recount of My Mental Health

As a young child, I was introverted, though I’m sure most outsiders interpreted my reserved nature as being painfully shy. I suppose one would be correct to make this judgement, but now that I have had the opportunity to reflect upon my childhood, I can see that my self-esteem was at its pinnacle, for my confidence had not yet been tarnished by uncalled for bullying and unwelcomed opinions. As someone who would often escape to an alternate reality through imaginative play, I remained blissfully unaware of the fact that my differences would one day be taken advantage of; used against me. It pains me to know that my younger self was so severely unprepared for what was to come, but perhaps it was a blessing that my innocence was somewhat shielded from the brutality of this world. Perhaps if I had the knowledge of what hardships were awaiting me, I may never have had the courage to carry on.

It’s difficult to know where to begin, given that my experience of mental illness is such a complex entanglement of anxiety, obsessions and depressive episodes, but what I do know is that my battle began upon transitioning to secondary school. As ‘the quiet kid’, being brutally plunged into a new environment with over 1000 people felt incredibly overwhelming, so much so that my mental health almost immediately began to suffer. Instantaneously, my differences were devalued and my inability to form new friendships was questioned. I was made to feel ‘other’, not only by my peers, but also by teachers who took advantage of my innocent nature, choosing to humiliate and degrade me as opposed to offering support. As you can imagine, my insecurity grew tremendously during this time, and alongside that came intensified levels of anxiety. Upon entering the school building each morning, my stomach felt as though it was twisting into a tight knot- never to be untied. A wave of sickness would overpower my body as I sat at my desk, contemplating the events that were about to unfold. It’s almost impossible for my words to reflect just how lost I was feeling during this time, but the best way I can describe it is that I felt akin to an alien who had descended to earth from space. I felt far removed from my peers, almost like we spoke a different native language, and attempts to communicate failed on my behalf. We clashed, and though I spent years wondering why this was so, I now understand that we did come from different worlds, for I was neurodivergent, and they were neurotypical.

Matters only worsened when I entered year 11, which is arguably the most pivotal moment in one’s secondary education. With my final exams just around the corner, I should have been joining my peers in the feeling of anticipation, but instead I felt myself becoming increasingly more distant, not only from the school environment, but also from wider society. I adopted tunnel vision, where the only thing in my life that held meaning and importance was achieving respectable grades, and though I am confident that so many of you reading this will relate to the perfectionistic tendency of wanting to do well, I’m not sure anyone will be able to comprehend just how much of my life I had given up to studying. My routines were labelled by healthcare professionals as ‘obsessive’, which soon became apparent to teachers when they noticed my preference to sit in the same chair, revising the same content over and over again. In my irrational mind, revising was of a higher importance than eating and drinking, so I dangerously deprived myself of vital resources throughout the day, ultimately leading to a binge upon my arrival home in the evening. Now, it’s painful to see photos of myself that were taken during this time, because I simply appear to be a shell of a human: malnourished, depressed, and agonisingly lonely.

Upon embarking on my A-Levels, for which I studied Biology, Psychology, and Sociology, my mental health was degenerating at an unimaginable rate. Whilst anxiety had always been a significant part of my life, it began taking on a new persona, flooding my body with feelings of unease and terror. Walking across the corridor was enough to cause severe heart palpitations, so as you can probably imagine, partaking in class discussions and sitting in a class amongst 20 other students was practically unbearable. I distinctly recall not understanding how to walk, display the correct facial expression, or hold eye contact with another person. My awkwardness became more apparent, and whilst my peers' social circles were flourishing, I felt as though I was retreating backwards, regressing back to a vulnerable child in need of validation, reassurance, and support. The pain that I had suffered for so long was now being reflected in my physical appearance, yet still people remained oblivious to my deterioration. Anger would be a natural response to this lack of regard, but at the time I felt so consumed by anxiety that I didn’t recognise how in need I was of help. I didn’t recognise that without intervention, my health condition would soon become chronic.

On December 26th, 2019, my health deteriorated to a point of no return. After three consecutive years of pushing my body to its capacity, it finally could take no more. I was exhausted, but more worryingly I was severely depressed. When I close my eyes and try to imagine my life during this time, the images appear in black and white, for a dark cloud was always lingering over my head, overshadowing my innate ability to focus on the good. Everything had been stripped away from me. My education, my independence, my health, and my happiness. The growing levels of fatigue forced me to close the chapter on education prematurely, leaving this period of my life feeling unfinished. I never got to say goodbye, and I never had the opportunity to seek validation for all of my hard work. Instead, I was just plunged into reality, which proved difficult to bear for someone who finds comfort in routine. Almost immediately, I developed an eating disorder in an attempt to gain back control over my life, but of course my attempts failed. Instead of gaining control, my life spiralled into a chaotic storm of agonisingly low moods, which enveloped me in a swarm of anxiety. I was broken. Broken from heartache that mental illness so cruelly imposes upon one’s life.

At this point, I began questioning why my mental health was not improving. Other people with a diagnosis of anxiety were still living a relatively ordinary life, so why was every inch of my existence being consumed by constant worry? Why was I still confined to the four walls of my room whilst others had the privilege of enjoying the freedom associated with adolescence? By this time I had adopted a holistic approach to recovery by seeking support from therapeutic practices and antidepressants, yet there were no noticeable changes to my mental health. If anything, with each day that went by, my moods were only hurtling faster towards the breaking point. There was only one conceivable reason for this: autism. When this word first revealed itself, I was dismissive. It felt a little drastic to be labelled with such a debilitating mental illness, yet at the same time it felt right. Autism is a disability, which helped to explain why I wasn’t simply growing out of my social awkwardness. It helped me to understand why my work patterns became obsessive, and why I adopted ritualistic routines in times of uncertainty. In many ways receiving a diagnosis of autism significantly improved my life, for now I understand that my suffering was never my fault. I was simply trying to navigate life with a different neurotype, which is painfully difficult when this world is built for people with neurotypical brains. This insight has carried with it a profound feeling of peace, but I would be deceiving you if I pretended that the diagnosis was solely positive. It left me suffocated with feelings of self-doubt, disbelief and hurt. I was angry. Angry at those who had failed to recognise the extent of my suffering, but more significantly, angry towards those who decided to sit and watch as my physical and mental health deteriorated into a state of disarray. It took about a year for me to put these feelings aside, and though they are still apparent, there comes a time when you have to move on. I know that is far easier said than done, but now that I have the answers, I can inspire other people to find theirs. This will continue to be my ambition, and though I know the road will be long, with a number of twists, turns and changes in direction, I hope that my work will one day inspire change.

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