Usual disclaimers apply. This is an opinion/thought piece, not grounded in scientific fact or research but anecdotal experience. I welcome contrasting thoughts and opinions, but this isn’t meant to be a sweeping statement of How Things Are, and nor do I expect everyone to have had the same thoughts as me.
If you have battled with, or are currently battling with, the issues mentioned below, then please do not seek guidance from the Internet alone. Please look at getting professional help and support. It can save your life.
Content warnings for: Depression, suicide ideation, death, eating disorders, questionable parenting, shitty pop psychology.
Mental Health is something I’ve struggled with since around the age of 13.
I’ve always had a distorted body image, not helped by a congenital foot condition that saw me wearing clumpy orthopaedic boots and plaster casts up to my thighs between the ages of 4 weeks to 11 years. No delicate slip-ons for me; no ballet or princess dresses when you stomp and limp around the place with the delicacy of an elephant that can’t even tip-toe. When people extol ‘real curves’ and celebrate the likes of Jessica Rabbit with her tapered legs, they generally aren’t talking about over-developed thighs, wasted calves, and too-small feet in the really-real world.
Growing up an army brat was probably the best thing for me. There have been a lot of interesting studies on ‘Third Culture Kids’ and the impact of growing up belonging to a culture that isn’t bound by geography, but by the fleeting, intense relationships you build with other rootless people who might be around for three years (maximum), but more likely 6 to 12 months. I learned to flash my scars as a talking point that brought friendship to me. I learned to be quirky and eccentric because it was a conversation starter, and when you didn’t know how long you’d be in a place, anything that got the ball rolling on young friendships was good.
Being different was a way of sticking in people’s memories, and that was no bad thing.
Skip ahead to ’93/’94. When my family and I finally settled in England, I was 10. There was death around this time, but that’s a story for another day.
Soon after that, it transpired that my dad had been having an affair and he left me, my mum, and my older brother and sister to fend for ourselves. For better or worse, we’d moved to Cumbria which – if you’ll excuse the sweeping, damning statements – is every bit the epitome of Withnail-ian insularity and suspicion you might expect. For a county that thrives on tourism, they don’t much like outsiders.
So imagine – if you will – a gimpy, strange, corkscrew-haired little beast bounding into a school where the children had known one another from birth, telling tales of other countries, bizarre collections (it was pencil-shavings at that time), and trying to impress her peers with her ability to count to 100 in German.
Needless to say, I didn’t make many friends. Hell, most of them thought I was a liar.
My eccentricities made me weird, not interesting. Friendship groups had been long-established, and my celebration of my messy, wild hair and scars marked me out too much.
There were a few good people, and I did make friends. Life didn’t end there, and when I moved on to high school, things got a lot easier. But still.
People around me weren’t growing up too fast, although it felt like that at the time. They were growing up as quickly as you’d expect teenagers to. They were getting into relationships more serious than passing notes, exploring how much they could get away with in the town’s many, many local pubs. They were fast-tracking (or, well, ‘normal’-tracking) along that path that asks “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and becoming little faux-adults with their smoking, experimentation, and scary music.
Me? Well, I was still sproinging around like a lead-hoofed lamb, talking about how much I liked cats and PS1 games, writing fanfiction, and laughing at farts. Which I still do, incidentally. Farting is hilarious.
But I digress.
I had a good group of friends at that time, but I was very much known as the Weird One. Or, at least, the one who didn’t really know when to stop, and wasn’t great at acknowledging when everyone else was no longer laughing. I think I might have been a bully around then. I’m not proud of it. I don’t think I did anything overtly cruel, but I was like the Big Bad’s sniggering, simpering henchman who screams if you so much as flick a wet cloth at them. I wanted to be a part of the Group, and sometimes – apparently – that involved singling others out. Nothing unites cruel kids like a target or two.
I’m not proud of it at all. It just felt good to not be alone. I remember a time that one of my best friends turned on me for being two-faced. She said it pissed her off when I was nice or apologetic to people, only to then laugh along when they were having a piss taken out of them. I think that’s indicative of my behaviour. Not mean enough to actively throw stones, but not brave enough to stop them. Or, more specifically, not able to gauge when to stop laughing.
That was a small part of my life as an adolescent, but it’s clearly sticking in my head otherwise I wouldn’t have written two paragraphs on it.
So while everyone else around me was getting their rocks off after school, I was skulking off home and delving into the early Internet. I discovered chat groups, online RP, and fanfiction. Online RP turned into offline RP as I fell into a group of slightly older outcasts who introduced me to D&D and other tabletop systems.
Now there was a quality drama. Love triangles, IC bleed, and politics – oh my! A story for another time, though.
I never wore trousers. Or pants for my non-UK readers. It’s difficult finding the right fit when your lower body resembles a couple of chicken drumsticks. Fat thighs, fat arse, and a perma-pudge not exclusively caused by a weird, over-compensatory posture. I remember once trying on a pair of cargo pants from Gap – as was the fashion at the time – and leaving the changing rooms a sobbing mess. I didn’t look like the models on the pictures, and – more importantly – I didn’t look like my friends, either.
“You shouldn’t wear leggings, or anything tight that shows your legs,” my mum would tell me. “It doesn’t suit you.”
I became very paranoid of People in general. To coin a cliché, I became my own worst critic. Girls around me pouted at their reflections as they contorted their bodies to declare that their arse looked huge in their tiny skirts or that their freshly-straightened, shiny hair looked frizzy. I remained seated – corkscrew hair and well cushioned hips – and prattled on about fanfiction or what happened in D&D the night before while they changed the subject.
I couldn’t join them, so why bother? I’d made my place as a weirdo in our group, and I was going to own it. No make-up for me. No fashionable outfits, or even wholly unfashionable outfits that showed off too much of my body. Besides, my mental image was not one of a haute couture icon, or sexy J-Lo (look her up, kids) Independent Woman. Buried in RP as I was, I wanted – no expected – to be a waifish, willowy elfin type whose ethereal, dignified beauty was only matched by her prowess in battle.
Certainly not a dumpy, 5’4” limpy idiot who laughed at poo jokes and talked incessantly about JRPGs.
It was as much about composure as it was about body image. My place in my social circles had quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t know if my friends exclusively thought of me as an idiot, but I couldn’t help but act it whenever they were around. Sure, they could talk about pot, giving head, and getting wasted at the houses of older men, but I could hoot and holler loud enough to drown them out. I could complain about how noisy and offensive their Slipped Korn and Cradle of Knots music was, and they could roll their eyes and continue talking about how fucking sexy Maynard James Reznor was while sporting their fishnets, knee-high boots, and Maryl-NIN Manson hoodies.
I remember the first time I started experiencing what I now know as Depression. I must’ve been around 15 years old. I asked my mum a barely-veiled question about “Can people who have good lives be depressed?” quickly adding: “I’m worried about a friend of mine…”. I can’t remember her answer.
I do remember a short while after when she saw the cuts on my wrist, however.
“What the hell are these?”
“Cat scratches,” I tried.
“If I find you doing this again, I’m going to get you locked up,” she said.
And that was the last time we ‘talked’ about mental health for some years.
I didn’t do it again for a long time. Curiously enough, that didn’t make the problem go away.
Going to University was a game-changer in many ways. I saw it as an opportunity to re-invent myself. I thrilled in the excitement of escaping the role I’d trapped myself in, set out to discover like-minded geeks and freaks, and become the elegant, mysterious woman I’d wanted to be.
I needed to lose weight first though, I decided. People will never take me seriously as I am.
Unfortunately, when I got to University, I didn’t really stop.
If I could lose the pudge, I’d be elfin. If I could tame my hair, I’d be beautiful. If I spent enough time doing my makeup and losing my spots, I’d be ethereal.
I got down to 91lbs and was beyond fucking miserable. I still saw myself in the same way I always had. Look at those fat, disproportionate thighs. Look at that huge arse, and that paunch. Can’t even wear heels to make myself taller on account of my stupid malformed feet. The spots still blooming – no porcelain complexion here – and that stupid fucking mop of hair: The cherry on the dog turd.
A lot of things happened during my degree. A lot of really, really good things, but even now looking back I see them as bad. I remember being cold – anorexia will do that to a person – forever sick, utterly miserable, and alone.
Oh, I had a lot of friends. Some of the best friends I’ve ever made, and they’re still with me today. But I’d spent so long crafting my image and doing the best with what I had, that if I gained so much as a single pound or was too tired to put on the full make-up works, I wouldn’t leave my room. I didn’t want anyone to see me. My self-worth was so bound up in what I wanted to look like and what I wanted to project that my ego was fragile as ice. I spent more time hiding than I ever did in the open as a result. God forbid they should see me as fat or spotty. God forbid they see me as the idiot I was.
I spent a lot of time talking to people online and keeping myself alive and present in that way. I regained a lot of weight on account of not leaving my room and turning to comfort food, and subsequently bulimia, to pass the time. It became a pretty grim cycle, all told. One that I didn’t break out of for a number of years.
More things happened. I passed my degree on a technicality and left the University.
Once again I determined that I was going to reinvent myself, and this time it would definitely, totally stick.
I started another degree at another University. I made new friends, got a couple of part time jobs I loved, and had money to spare.
The problem with mental health is that it’s not so great at being left behind. It came with me wherever I went, and by the time I hit Reinvention Part X, it was so well-established and so intrinsic a part of me, that hopes of dancing into a new life and succeeding were laughable.
My relationship with my mum became more and more strained since I was living at home again. She knew about my eating disorder and depression. I hid it reasonably well, but it’s hard to completely disguise the fact you’re binging and purging on a daily basis, chugging down laxatives like they’re going out of fashion, and never have any money or energy.
Choice comments like “You look like a heroin addict” or “You used to have such a beautiful smile” were common.
It didn’t help that my brother – one of the lynchpins of my family – was going through some hard times of his own. Hard times that ultimately reached a happy ending, resulting in him emigrating to Australia around this time. He was the only one that could make my mum laugh.
In hindsight, she was dangerously depressed too, but her way of coping with it was deflection and distraction. She saw a counsellor extensively after she and my dad split. I remember her crying a lot in those early days. She was exhausted from working all the time at a shitty job that paid minimum wage (£3.80 or so in those days with tips), trying to support her children, and attempting to study to get a better job and better life.
I’m not angry with her. Absolutely not. She did more than anyone else could in those circumstances. It wasn’t her fault that her youngest was self-obsessed to the point of mania. It didn’t help that I wanted a Tamagotchi because everyone else had one while food was scarce, and that the love of her life had shacked up with some woman he’d met while training to be a copper, leaving her all alone in an unkind place which we’d moved to for his choice of career.
She’d pushed through it, but it had made her hard as a result. She’d risen from that god-awful job when I was 11 to being a fully qualified midwife when I hit 20-or-so. How’s that for amazing? She’d left school when she was 14 and didn’t have a single exam result to her name. We went from living in a former drug den council house, to a new property without a history of police raids. When I first went to Uni, the gov income assessment determined that we were so fucking poor that all my fees would be paid for me. By the time I came home aged 21, my mum had a new car.
It’s little surprise that she didn’t have much patience or tact when it came to mental health issues when she’d pushed through so much.
Another digression. I would apologise, but I think that context is important. When we’re mentally unwell, we don’t exist in a bubble, after all.
Funnily enough, the new degree didn’t stick. I lasted a little over a year of academia and living at home before deciding to fuck it all and move back to where I’d originally attended Uni, where I’ve now lived since 2007. I realised that I was miserable, and if I was going to be miserable wherever I was, then I might as well do it among friends.
There’s a lot more history to go here.
I could go into details of the complicated story behind myself and my now-fiancé. I could go into detail about how I discovered I was bisexual, about my bizarre work history (including periods of unemployment), about how I ultimately overcame my eating disorders, and got a chain around the neck of the Depression Beast only to develop crippling Anxiety, but that would take too long in an already too-long blog entry.
Here’s where I get to the point of this post.
Things are good for me now. I’m one of those dire pessimists that believes you can never be truly free of mental health problems: You just learn how to cope with them, whether that’s through drugs, therapy, or life changes and distractions that give a sense of purpose. Whatever works for you. I don’t think people can completely change their brains to undo years – decades – of those invasive thoughts and obsessions. I do think you can learn to recognise and subvert them if you’re very fortunate, however. I don’t believe everyone can do that, or that mental health issues make you an inherently stronger or better person. Mental Health problems of all stripes fundamentally change the make-up of your brain. They change your life experiences, and that – subsequently – changes the way you approach things in the future. Whether there’s a physiological or a wholly experiential-based cause, our brains are shaped by what we do and the way we solve problems. We are products of our bad days, as much as we are products of the good.
Not every day is so spoiled by mental health, or rather, sickness. Not every day is your perspective so framed by the Gloom. Sometimes you can smell, see, touch, taste, hear, and laugh without filters. Those days are Good and there are many of them to be had.
All of this circles around my brain as I’ve been thinking about relationships and growth lately.
There are some people – people I’ve known since I first came to this town in 2002 – that I barely interact with any more. In some cases, I actively feel an aversion to them. I wonder to what extent this is because of how much I’ve changed.
Learning to overcome mental health problems is a little like growing up, or undergoing some major life-changing experience. I’m sure that if I met up with friends I went to school with, we’d spend a bit of time reminiscing about the old days. But it’s been over 15 years since I spent time with them, and a lot has happened since then. Unless there was some wonderful spark between us, beyond the polite pleasantries of what we’ve been up to since, I doubt there’d be that spark – that enthusiasm – we’d once had. That spark that made us ‘friends’ and not just ‘people who spent time together because the Education Act of 1996 says we have to’.
Having permanently lived in the town I’ve come to call home for just over a decade, I’ve met a lot of people and am fortunate enough to call them friends. I met them at different stages in my potted mental history, and they – as a result – met a different me. Many of them have been through their own mental health battles, and many of them are still locking swords. Some of them may never achieve a wary sort of peace with their inner demons, and to them I extend my love and my patience as my own limits allow.
Recently I attended a friend’s birthday BBQ and it was interesting to see people I hadn’t interacted with for a long time – not since that first degree back in ’02. They’re all doing well, I’m happy to report. I felt awkward and very small. I wondered if they looked at me as I was, or if their impression of me was still that of an ED-riddled, depressed little adult-child. I wondered if they could possibly separate the me I’ve become from the person they first met. I wondered if they ever should.
That got me thinking about other friends and how strange my relationships to them have become. If, indeed, a relationship still exists.
Among the wider web of my connections there are people I was close to at my darkest times. I have loudly and publicly declared that some of them saved my life in a very real way. Whether that was talking me down from self-harm or suicide, or appearing at my doorstep and dragging me to the cinema regardless of my skin or shape. They are more important to the continuing story of Me than I could possibly give them credit for.
And yet… these are the people that I feel most uncomfortable talking to these days. Is it because I’m afraid they can’t see the person I’ve become? Is it because they’ve seen me at my most vulnerable and pathetic? Is it because they were the people who patiently read my many-thousand-word long emails as I bitched and griped about myself and the world around me, and deflected my venom onto people who didn’t deserve it? Is it because I’m ashamed and when I see them I’m reminded of what I was?
For all my scars, I don’t like who I was. I don’t feel sorry for that person. I’m angry with them for so many wasted years and so much wasted potential. I’m not proud of my struggle. I’m bitter and embarrassed by it.
I don’t feel like the same person I was during that time. Looking back, it’s like watching a POV movie with a 2-dimensional character I feel no empathy for. Perhaps that’s why I hate Peep Show so much. I feel completely disconnected from the drives and obsessions that consumed every waking and sleeping hour back then. I was less of a person and more a bundle of neuroses and zombie-like compulsions.
Sometimes I wonder if we – me and some of those friends – were simply damaged people who found one another and took solace in being damaged at one another. Because many of us were pretty fucked up. I wasn’t the only one dealing with my own poisoned brain.
With no small amount of guilt, I wonder: Much like my friends in high school and our legally-required contact time, was being damaged the only thing me and those friends had? Now we’re older and (theoretically) wiser with divergent experiences under our belts, do we have anything in common except the memories of late night/early morning MSN conversations where we’d feverishly write about how such-and-such was the cause of all our problems, philosophy, and lying to one another and ourselves about how tomorrow would be a new start even as the clock ticked over past midnight?
Or – and here’s an idea – am I just over-thinking and projecting my issues?
One specific friend I had (have?) was one of my great go-tos for gnashing teeth and cathartic, venomous gossip. In the past few years, I found less and less motivation to spend time with them. I realised some months ago that the reason for this was we didn’t have anything in common any more. We’d spent so long building our relationship on mutual woe and casting stones, that as we’d become better, stronger people we no longer needed to do so. A large part of me was actively concerned that if we did socialise again, old, bad habits would return. We’d drink too much; conversations would start innocently enough as “do you remember when…?” and would sink deeper and deeper from there as gin-soaked memories became clearer and more present.
“What is such-and-such doing these days?”
“God, can you remember that-person? They were such a twat.”
“Urgh, don’t remind me.”
“I remember when I did a thing that caused so much chaos.”
“It’s okay. We’ve moved on.”
“It changed me so much.”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I heard this wickedly awful thing…”
My friend group is larger and more diverse than it ever has been, but it’s also less intimate. No longer do I have those great outpourings of self-pity and cries for help, and nor does anyone rely on me for the same. I wonder if that’s because I’m a cunt, or if it’s because I’ve come to acknowledge my own capacity and know that if I give too much, I’m liable to collapse again.
Whatever the reason, I am at peace in my own company.
Unless I’m viewed as an unlikable cunt. If that’s the case, I’ll need to do some work.
All of this isn’t a one-way street, however, and I guess this is what’s been on my mind. For all the people I once shared those bitter experiences with and grew beyond, I get the impression there are others who have done the same.
There are people who once reached out to me that now seem awkward when I try to speak to them. They become small and quiet, edging back and away – exchanging pleasantries, but otherwise looking elsewhere for conversation. I still feel close to them. I worry about them and want to be a part of their lives, but it seems clear that they don’t want the same.
We no longer laugh as loud or as long at the same stupid things that once crippled us. They seem defensive; argumentative and closed off. To paraphrase a hideous line of my mum’s, they don’t smile as much as they used to.
They have good people around them, people I see them laughing with. I know they’re under stress and that they have support networks much stronger than I could ever offer. I know they’re growing as individuals with their own divergent experiences and that they’re fighting their own fights which they no longer want or need me to be a part of.
And yet… I miss the things we used to talk about and the stupid shit we’d get up to. In hindsight, I’ve come to realise that they might see all that stuff in the same way I’ve come to see the relationships I built with others during my darker times. They have new jokes to laugh at – jokes that aren’t stained with Gloom or self-hate. I’m happy for them, but a selfish little nugget misses their company.
I wish them well.
I suppose the conclusion of all this isn’t a conclusion so much as a self-reflection (and projection) which will be refined and revisited many times in the future. No doubt in another decade when I look back on me writing this I’ll be as embarrassed as I am now, looking back a decade.
Ultimately it’s fascinating the way we continuously grow and develop as people. I’ve come to consider that while most mentally well people move organically from A to B – their growth and development relatively linear and predictable based on the trials and tribulations of their life -, mentally unhealthy people have bizarre fits and starts; diversions, side steps, and bursts of change. Our perspectives aren’t purely shaped by the events that got us here; they’re influenced so heavily by what sort of mood we were in at a given time, or whatever damaging obsession or intrusive thoughts clouded our minds. Our internal landscape is equally overhauled by external events as it is by storms of the mind that tear up our mental forests, destroy our thought-brick towns, and move emotional oceans. We have little to no control over when these things happen.
It’s a little frightening to consider that although the world still spins, the sun still rises, and the seasons change, a younger, less mentally stable Skeleheron could completely change on the flip of a coin and her entire life could shoot off in another direction at the whim of a wholly internal hurricane.
Hell, it did. And I suppose that’s why I’m here writing this now.
The person you might know one day can and may change the next. This isn’t an inherently bad thing. It could be a step towards recovery. We need to learn how to recognise when those changes are good both in ourselves and others, and how best to support them when that happens. It can be sad, but it can also be beautiful.
Sometimes that might be to simply stand back and let a person transform.
Mentally unwell people have such terrifying, beautiful potential. Ultimately, we are all protein soups held within a thin, tough skin.
This change happens after gorging ourselves to the point of bursting. It’s gross, but also kind of awesome. If we’re lucky enough, we metamorphose through a truly unique sequence of biological engineering, and emerge from our pupae to live meaningful lives supping on nectar, or sucking blood.
Oh wait, no, that’s insects.