Almost a year ago now, I shared the first in what I hoped would be a series of interviews documenting people's experiences of mental (ill-)health. I was able to share my lovely friend Jen's story with everyone back then, but for one reason or another I never pursued any more and the series was unintentionally shelved for some time.
That was a shame, because I still believe now - as I did then - that there's something incredibly powerful about hearing someone else's story. It can touch us and move us in all sorts of ways: perhaps broadening our understanding; allowing us to feel less alone as we recognise some of our struggles in someone else; finding hope in their light moments; and learning from experiences that might not be our own.
It's an incredible resource, the length and breadth and depth of the human experience.
It's good to connect and tap into that. It's good to talk.
It's good to connect and tap into that. It's good to talk.
I'm going to try and bring this series of stories to life once again.
My beautiful, brave friend Alice* (not her real name) agreed to talk to me today to kick things off...
To begin, my first question is simply this: Who are you? For anyone who doesn’t know you, tell us a little bit about yourself..
Hi, I'm Alice*, I'm 21 from Scotland.
Can you tell us a bit about your own experience of mental health/ill-health?
My experience of mental health.. well, it’s been a rocky one. I guess I first became unwell at the age of 9, when I became obsessive over little things and I felt horrendous if I couldn’t carry out certain tasks. For example, I had to push my bedroom door shut four times before getting into bed - if I didn’t, something bad would happen to someone I loved. It got so bad that when I was 12 years old I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and hospitalised briefly. It was during this hospitalisation that I disclosed that I was being sexually abused. The hardest and most painful thing I have ever done - but also the bravest.
It was also around this time that I quit playing hockey at school and as a result of reducing my activity levels, I put on a little bit of weight. I remember being repulsed that my school skirt felt tighter, that my stomach was bigger - it was the first time I remember calling myself fat.
But it definitely wasn’t the last.
I started throwing away my lunches, and throwing up my dinners. This was also the year my case made it to court, and while my abusers were sentenced to years in prison I was sentenced to months in hospital. Again. This admission came with three shiny new diagnoses - Dissociative Identity Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Anorexia Nervosa.
Somehow through the midst of this I scraped together enough exams to go to university. I had been doing okay eating disorder wise, I hadn’t dissociated in months, and my PTSD was limited to nightmares and occasional flashes of pain. Unfortunately the freedom of university came with its own downfalls and soon I was skipping meals again, losing hours of days and having meltdowns at the slightest touch.
At the end of my first year of university, I was hospitalised yet again, and diagnosed with a complex depressive disorder.
At the end of my second year of university, I was hospitalised in brief spurts of short-term detentions, which ended in my current two year inpatient period. This admission came with a surprise of its own - I was diagnosed with being on the autistic spectrum. It was also the hardest admission of my life. I was on 1-1 observations for seven months to stop me hurting myself, tube fed for six months to stop me starving myself and I fought the damn to get to where I am now.
Where are you at on your journey today?
I’m doing a lot better. I’m managing my disorders a lot more now, in fact I was undiagnosed with OCD last month due to being *pretty much* compulsion free for a while. I’m being moved to a day-patient programme soon. I’m looking at going back to university.
What things have aided you in your recovery and/or helped you to cope day-to-day?
I've learned to take recovery one day at a time - any further forward than that and it becomes too overwhelming. I’ve started trauma therapy but had to take a step back from it at the moment, because it was too painful. I've learned to realise that that is okay - taking a break from therapies is okay - it is not ‘failing’ at them, it is learning to put yourself first and the system last, and that is absolutely fine.
What impact has mental ill-health had on your life as a whole? What has it cost you?
Mental health has cost me my freedom, my university degree, and a lot of friendships. It's hard being friends with a sick person. It's hard being detained under a Mental Health Act with no say into your own life. It's hard seeing your class graduate without you, people's lives moving on around you, while you are stuck in a hole and you can’t see a way out. It’s hard.
Would you say you’ve gained anything positive from your experiences?
Yes. I have gained friendships with beautiful, strong, wonderful fighters both through social media and hospital admissions. I have gained an insight into the workings of the NHS. I have helped the police with abuse inquiries and dealing with mental health. My disorders do not define me, but they make me me. They’ve made me strong.
What are your hopes for the future – mental health and otherwise?
I don’t believe mental health will ever leave me - I've been thorough too much. But I do hope for a future in which hospital is not always on the horizon. I want to finish my degree and work in my dream job. I want to help people.
Is there anything you’d like to say to someone who might be struggling today?
You can get through this. It does get easier. Take it from someone who’s been there. Keep fighting, keep swimming - you can do this.
And you can do this too, Alice. You have my sincerest thanks for bravely sharing some of your story with us today, and my very best wishes as you continue in your journey and recovery. Here's to better, brighter days ahead!