I’ve had issues with my mental health for 33 years. Blimey, it scares me to see it so blatantly in black and white.
I became anorexic when I was about 12, and gosh… it messed up my life. I was hospitalized for a while, ‘fed and fattened up’, and had a short time of family treatment with a psychiatrist who kept his eyes closed when he talked to me. To my father’s horror (and my mother’s stifled giggles), I’d frequently make rude gestures in exasperation at his lack of eye contact. I was told that my anorexia was caused by a)a lack of zinc in my diet and b)my wishing to be a boy. Really helpful. Relatively little was known about eating disorders, especially in the present-day context. I ‘progressed’ onto bulimia, spending much of my school years in agony with my eating. I had part-time jobs, and these helped to fund my binges, which would take place up to seven or so times a day. I hated my body and was obviously struggling with life. Eurgh, it really is difficult to put that in writing. Guilty, nasty secrets, held for all those years. No one talked about stuff then, certainly not in my family, and the only references to it were hefty criticisms and being told off. Or being vilified – I would often end up taking the blame for my siblings’ eating habits – there was (and is, even after all these years) a lot of eating disorder-ness in the family.
I often wonder if, given the family and environmental circumstances, if I would have ended up with problems anyway. But there was another aspect: just after I finished primary school, I was sexually assaulted by a man in his (I think) twenties, a chap who was unconnected with, and unknown to, my family. I kept this secret until I finally talked about it in therapy twenty years later. I’d blamed myself for what happened for all that time, and it’s only recently that I’ve come to see that I was not the bad person that I assumed I was. Twenty-ish years! What a waste…
Currently, I’d say that the bulimia is in remission. I’ll always have problems with my eating and my body image, and I have accepted that – or, more like, I’ve resigned myself to that. The depression and anxiety, however, are different matters. I can maintain an ‘ok’ front for a while, but then I’ll fall apart. This has blighted any hopes of my having any sort of constant career, to my huge regret.
Incidentally, my main career has been as a registered health professional within adult mental health. I have seen both sides of the mental health services, have worked with the best professionals…and some of the not so great and good. I have a full awareness of the research out there that supports the idea that exercise helps people to manage their mental health, have spoken at conferences on this issue, and know that being outside helps me too. But I don’t personally experience the “runner’s high”, and seem too to have lost my ability to be in ‘flow’ when I’m swimming.
I live with a sort of permanent dread: activities (even the ones that I enjoy) are preceded with hours of little motivation, an agonising sense of having a dull, grotty deadweight in my belly. I love being outside, but find it unbelievably difficult getting out there. A trip to the local supermarket will take immense amounts of forcing myself to DO it! So you may be able to imagine how much effort it will take to go out for a swim, cycle or run. I don’t know why this happens – I dread seeing people, but I have no illusions that people are spending their time watching me. I try to remain invisible, and if I do see anyone I know, then any conversation that happens will be swift and inwardly agonising! I was walking a friend’s dog the other week, in deserted farmland and fields. I did happen to see another dogwalker heading towards me, so I – daftly – made a swift diversion down another track. My dog looked bewildered and “Eh?”-ish …and in my head I too knew how silly this all was. The dogwalker and I would merely have exchanged greetings. I mean, really, why didn’t I do just that, instead of panicking and swiftlyshearing off into a teeny, narrow track into OvergrownBrambleLand?
Give me a presentation to do, or an interview, or a performing role, and I’ll be fine. But place me within a group of other people for any length of time and I’ll struggle.
I often have suicidal thoughts. There have been two serious attempts in my early thirties, and I guess I’m lucky to have survived them. I’ve spent many years trying medications, with little success – I have had awful side effects from some meds, and have experienced depersonalisation with all of them. I’ve frequently been viewed, as a result, as being resistant to treatment, a label that I find deeply patronising. Meds work for some people, but they seem to be detrimental to me, so I need to find a med-free way through all of this. I’ve had various forms of therapy, including CBT, CAT, DBT and EMDR. (Oh, how I adore acronyms! I’ll try to go into these in another post.) My depression and anxiety have worsened over the last eighteen months or so, and this is all reflected in the amounts of exercise that I’m doing – or NOT doing – at the mo’.
If I look at my diaries one to eight years’ back, my levels of exercise weren’t too shabby, despite the autumnal/wintery time of year. I was doing about 10-15 hours’ training per week: at the moment, I’m managing around 4-8hours. And this concerns me. [Update: this aspect seems to have changed as we’ve moved through January. Am desperately hoping that this little improvement continues upwards and onwards…] The ironman may be months away, but I need to be building a solid base of fitness and endurance at this stage. I’m not finding my exercising to be any source of solace from the depression, and I’m trying to accept this – instead of fighting it.