MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK: OPENING UP
A phrase I still struggle to type, let alone say out loud. A phrase I’ve used on this platform before, but never directly in relation to myself, never blatantly stated. A phrase I never thought I would identify with, and a phrase, still, I don’t want to define me, and because of that has been something that I’ve avoided labelling myself with.
This week is mental health awareness week. And I’ve realised, that still, I find explaining my ‘stress’ or ‘anxiety’, or even my experience with depression a lot easier to talk about than my experience with disordered eating or over exercise or that I’m in recovery from an eating disorder. Because along with that comes a different kind of stigma, a whole other layer of a taboo subject; one that brings awkwardness and judgement and misunderstanding, from a lack of awareness, education and open-mindedness.
I’ve become so aware of this because I too used to believe the stigma around eating disorders and was sucked into the stereotype. Of course there are excuses; I was young, the media don’t portray it well - and most importantly, no one talks about them. So how could I have expected myself to be educated on the subject, when any exposure that I did have was clouded by negativity or other peoples opinions that came from a lack of understanding?
It shouldn’t be like this. I shouldn’t have to package my struggles with mental health into the word ‘stress’ to explain my circumstances in life to others, a word I know will dissipate any concern or allow the subject to be brushed over. I shouldn’t feel embarrassed to admit that I’m in recovery, that I’m going through therapy and although I’m not ‘fixed’, I’m not ‘broken.’
I shouldn’t be fearful of people treating me differently, of losing friendships, of judgement, of missing out on opportunities if I’m honest about my health, and what I’ve really been going through.
It’s been difficult, trying to figure out how much I want to share, and how much I feel is maybe too much. Part of this conflict lies in that for so long I was so deep in denial of what I was really experiencing, in all aspects of my mental health, not only in relation to my disordered eating but also my struggle with anxiety and depression. I didn’t want to admit to myself, let alone anyone else that maybe, what I was feeling and what was going on in my mind maybe wasn’t okay, and maybe wasn’t healthy.
I feel like I go through phases of being so open, then wanting to close off completely as I re-enter these clouds of denial that I would ever have found myself in this position. I remember distinctly saying to my mum, a few years ago as the topic came up at dinner time; ‘I could never have an eating disorder. I love food too much.’
This is why I know I want to be open about the subject. Because by closing up, by shutting myself off from the world till this point in my life seems like a bad dream I feel like I’m brushing past an opportunity to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, and to educate my younger self, and help young people not only recognise things within themselves that I can only wish I’d become aware of sooner, but help them learn how to take care of themselves mentally, and how equally important to physical health it is.
For a long time I was in denial because I didn’t think things were ‘bad’ enough. Alongside other mental health conditions, the eating disorder picture the media paints is very much distorted.
People hear ‘eating disorder’ and picture a young, emaciated girl, in inpatient treatment in a hospital. It’s someone who ‘took dieting too far’ or just needs to stop being so stupid and selfish and ’eat a burger.’ It’s someone who is obsessed with vanity and image. And although the patient described does exist, the other associations are far, far from reality, and what the disorder is.
The sad truth is, to learn what an eating disorder really is, I’ve had to experience it. And although it’s something I still hesitate in disclosing as part of me will never want it to be associated with myself, due to the stigma it carries, I have to appreciate that it IS a part of my past, and it’s not something I should be ashamed of. Just like I wouldn’t be ashamed if I had to admit to someone I have a rare kidney disease. Because it’s not my fault. It’s not something I chose to have suffered from, and it’s not just something I can ‘switch off.’
I don’t want this sense of shame to surround mental health issues forever. Things are changing, and by having awareness weeks like this, more and more people are opening up about their own struggles. And slowly, the understanding of different mental health disorders are improving, and the picture painted by the media is changing.
I’ve already started to open up, both in real life and on my blog and instagram, but I know that especially online I do tend to talk about things very much in 3rd person, and be very vague about the subjects I discuss. There are a lot of more specific topics I know I could write about, and things I do want to share, but have been hesitant to. It’s easy to dissociate yourself from things you’ve already shared and written, letting a similar sense of denial cloud you again.
But this week, with mental health awareness, I want to break through that for myself. I want to stop feeling ashamed of what i’ve experienced, and what I’m going through.
I’m not perfect. I am struggling with my mental health, but I’m getting better. I’m still the same person I was, although part of me has been lost over the past few years. But in time, I’m resurfacing again, and I know that part of me will be stronger because of it. And if you’re going through a difficult time, know that you will too.