Well, it’s been a while since I had a vent about mental health, isn’t it?
On Thursday, I went back to counselling for the first time in two years. It was just an initial consultation, and I’ll still need to wait a few more weeks before being offered a regular slot, but it’s something. As my problems are more deep-rooted and longer-term, they also suggested I look into long-term psychological treatment, such as psychotherapy. I asked my doctor about it and she agreed to make a referral for psychiatric services so that I have the option of psychotherapy on the NHS once I finish short-term counselling. It’s got a long waiting list, but at least it’s a safety net for if I feel like I need something else beyond counselling.
But anyway, that’s not the point of this post.
Having to answer questions in my consultation about triggering factors in why I’ve been so down the past few months prompted me to dwell on issues from my early teenage years, and I realised that I have actually wanted to express what went wrong for quite some time, but have been unable to find an appropriate time and place. So here I am. I’m finally going to be honest with myself and put the words out there, because maybe I’ve been ill for a lot longer than I’ve convinced myself to believe.
Throughout my childhood, I was the “fat kid.” My parents said I’d grow out of it. I didn’t. Aged 11, starting high school and already over a year into puberty (yay for early developers and the poor support system that primary school offers…), I was still chubby. My parents continued to tell me I’d “slim down soon.” It wasn’t until I finally did hit my current size 10, aged 17, that they admitted they just told me that to comfort me and they did actually worry about my weight all along.
And I worried too. I was bullied all my school life; if it weren’t my weight, it was the fact that, in my early years, I was too outspoken in my “black-or-white” moral thinking, and in my later years, I was shy and socially anxious and wore Aldi trainers and discovered eyebrow grooming a couple of years after everyone else. At least my weight felt controllable, if I tried really really hard. I might as well try to match up to my classmates in some way, I thought.
I fell into some seriously worrying eating habits. At the age of 13, I was keeping a food diary and counting the calories every day. I lived off rice cakes and Heinz tomato soup, even when I was in a summer production of Oliver! and rehearsing 10 hours a day, dancing and running around all day; other kids nipped over to the University shop for tubs of Ben and Jerry’s, while I sat in the auditorium with my rice cakes, water and friend’s Nintendo DS. I lost a stone over the two weeks I was in that show and I was so proud. I knew that it was manageable and that I could lose more if I wanted. I can’t remember if it was that summer or the next, but I have vivid memories of spending time at my gran’s house (as I always did) and feeling absolutely sick with panic at the thought of the pizza baguettes, sausage rolls and biscuits she pushed my way. “I’m not that hungry, actually…” I’d lie.
Fast forward a year and a bit later, and another problem presented itself. I was just starting my Standard Grades when I became obsessed with my art teacher. She was everything I aspired to be: sharp-tongued, smart, artistic, thin. She wasn’t popular, but I admired her total refusal to take shit from anyone. I tried to emulate her catty attitude in front of her, hoping she would be impressed by my put-downs and mature attitude towards my peers’ wild behaviour (not a technique I recommend. I lost friends for that one, and it wasn’t even worth it). I longed for her approval, and spent almost all my waking hours thinking about her. Picturing us as friends. Alone together, where she would see me as an equal and not a face in a sea of pupils. I listened to The Art Teacher by Rufus Wainwright on repeat every day, bawling my eyes out as I stared at a blank wall. I had no idea what these feelings were, although I read about limerence and cried at how much it seemed to fit. Was I bisexual? I was so convinced I was, and it tore me up, because falling for your teacher at the age of 14 is not the ideal way to figure that one out. To this day, I’m still not sure – I’ve never really been sexually attracted to a woman, but I’ve had far more of these “squishes” on other women than is probably average.
(I mentioned my feelings to a woman in her 20s I was chatting with on the Holby City forums (because I was cool enough to pay a subscription), who was a lesbian and I thought might understand my confusion. Regrettably she ended up trying to initiate kinky Holby lesbian roleplay with me via text for years to come. Less support, more stalking.)
Anyway, I digress. My teacher announced she was leaving, mere weeks before she actually left. I don’t think I’ve ever been so distraught in my life; it felt like a part of me had died. I locked myself in the toilets for all of break, and some time around then, I self-harmed for the first time (and the last time until 2012). I took a pumice stone to the back of my hand and rubbed the skin away until it bled and flaked. My parents questioned it, and I pretended I’d spilt something on it in Chemistry. I thankfully managed to talk them out of having words with my Chemistry teacher about classroom safety. But then, my disordered eating returned. In one final attempt for her to notice and care for me, I skipped all meals one day, knowing that I might be able to make myself faint in her class, which was the last of the school day. I didn’t quite manage it, but I did manage to be sent outside the classroom with a cup of water and far too many tears. She brought me one of her cereal bars, and I challenged myself to the roll I’d skipped at lunch, but I was hyperventilating too much to be able to chew properly. I did get sympathy (and free food), but now I look back on it, I was just one silly pupil in a line of many. Starving yourself does not make people fall for you, although at the time, I pinned all my hopes and dreams on this flawed strategy.
Funnily enough, once she left, I bounced back surprisingly quickly. I still think about her now – when someone introduces you to those kind of feelings, can you ever really forget? – but in retrospect, it wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it was at the time.
What is a big deal, though, is how I became drawn to these harmful behaviours – friction burns, starving myself, obsessing over my body at such a tender age, punishing myself for taking things too seriously. Nobody ever knew. I’ve never told anyone really until now (and to be honest, I’m bricking it about pressing “publish”). I’m fairly sure I had EDNOS, even if it wasn’t diagnosed, and judging by the empty feeling I lived with for months and the self-harm, perhaps that was even the start of my depression, giving me a brief taster of things to come once life got a whole lot tougher and I got a whole lot weaker.
I wonder if and how it has impacted me now, years later? And if so…why have I never acknowledged its importance before?