I started to struggle with my mental health when I was about 14 years old. I think that’s a typical age for lots of people. But, in general, people dismiss bad mental health at this age as teenage hormones. I experienced a lot of sadness and a lot of anger as a result of not being to move through that sadness. I also had an unstable family background and I think at a time when my body was out of control having my surroundings also be out of control was just too much. I began to experience suicidal ideation, a lack of motivation and started to regularly self-harm in secret. The worse thing about it was the shame. I felt so embarrassed for having allowed myself to hurt myself. I thought it was silly and childish and I couldn’t really understand why I wouldn’t stop. It felt like an active choice, but I realise now it became a compulsion and it wasn’t something I could really control. There’s lots of stigma around self-harm that suggests it’s some kind of attention-seeking behaviour which simply isn’t true. Most people are extremely embarrassed to have self-harmed. I remember when mine first got noticed I thought I was going to implode with shame. I used to lie on a regular basis about what had caused it and try to cover it up.
If you are struggling with self-harm behaviour, especially cutting, it's really important that you hide your cuts without potentially infecting them. Not that you should ever feel like you have to hide cuts. Make sure you’re cleaning and disinfecting any open or bleeding wounds regularly. Please don’t try to cover open wounds with foundations or any other kind of make-up, this can get into cuts causing pain and infections. Clean bandages are the safest option, but things like sweatbands and other similar soft materials work as well.
Turning 16, I still really struggled with multiple aspects of my mental health. After my parents found out I was self-harming they sent me (back) to therapy. I’m so grateful that they pushed me to do it, because it wasn’t a step that I was ready to take, but it was one I definitely needed. Having been silent for so long, I thought that when I got into my first counseling session I’d maintain my hard exterior. But, I don’t think I’ve spoken so quickly and so honestly since. I clearly had a lot I was desperate to get off my chest. I just needed the space to do it. I was in therapy for a year and returned for a short stint after I had a brief relapse in sixth-form. One of the best pieces of advice that I can give is to always seek support sooner rather than later. The longer you leave bad mental health, or a mental disorder to fester, the worse it will get. This means you’ll have more to work through when you eventually do get the help that you need. Also, you deserve it! Lots of people don’t seek out support because they feel like their mental health isn’t really that bad and other people are more in need. But, just as everyone deserves support with their physical health, everyone deserves support with their mental health.
In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I was sexually assaulted. Unsurprisingly this affected my mental health in ways that I had never experienced before. Initially, I was very much in denial about what had happened to me. I wanted to write it off as a bad sexual experience which resulted in a lot of self-blame. It also meant that I didn’t take care of myself in ways I probably should have. I was determined that what had happened to me, whatever it was, wasn’t going to knock me off track. But I couldn’t deny that my anxiety levels had gone through the roof. Things that I used to look forward to now brought me dread. I started to notice sounds and movements that I’d never really noticed before which made it really hard to concentrate. Sudden movements or sounds made me jump and the confident personality which I defined myself by was slipping away.
After being triggered on a night out by a random man groping my bum, I came home and couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to regress to bad coping mechanisms I’d used when I was younger and I felt myself losing control. I ended up having an outburst. I relayed my experience to my boyfriend, at the time, who, along with my best friends, help me see sense. I began to register what had happened. I started to believe that it wasn’t my fault and I knew I needed help. So, I went back to therapy, Pattigift therapy on Corporation Street in Birmingham.
My Journey to come to terms with my trauma is on-going, although I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made so far. It took me a long, long time to stop making excuses for my attacker and understand that there is never an excuse for not caring about another person’s consent. I’ve had to learn to manage my symptoms without the support which is sometimes fine and sometimes feels impossible. I always try and be kind to myself. The world is a scary place at the moment and for people who experience any kind of trauma, Covid-19 can be very triggering. To help manage my symptoms, I try to keep honest lines of communication open with friends and family. Especially, my flatmate who offers me an incredible amount of on-going support. This means I don’t keep my emotions locked inside too much which is a big risk factor for PTSD.
I paint, I draw, I write poetry, I dance and I sing. All recreationally of course. But for me, creative expression helps my mind feel connected to my body and soul which is really grounding. I also play sports and do martial arts which again makes me feel at home in my body but also makes me feel strong. Finally, something I’ve been doing recently which I’ve found really helpful is exposure. This is when you confront things that trigger you by letting them trigger you and attempt to manage your reaction. It's important to only expose yourself to small triggers at first, but learning to manage these small triggers is slowly building my confidence back up.
When I was first assaulted I thought that I would never be able to have control over the impact it had on my life. In all honesty, I am still angry and I am still hurting and I think that’s something that will always be there. Deep down I know that my journey is not linear, and it’s not easy but it’s worth it. Keep yourself surrounded with people that love and believe you. Love yourself enough to keep caring for your mental health. You are a collection of all your experiences, trauma is just one of them.
Even though it might feel like your experience defines you on your worse days, it never does. You are always so, so much more.