Teenage hormones. A catch-all answer for a myriad of behavioral, emotional and physical problems for those “difficult” years of 13 to 19. At age 14, this is what I heard a lot as the standard reply to why I felt so low: hormones. If only it really had been “just hormones” life would have been so much simpler.
But, by the time I got to age 15, my “hormonal” low days had turned into self-harm, anorexia and suicide attempts. It was at this point my family and then finally my doctor realized something more serious was wrong. I was promptly prescribed anti-depressants and referred to the mental health unit at my local hospital to see a psychiatrist. I was terrified. I didn’t understand what was going on, I had no idea what was going to happen, what they would do to me (“they” being the mental health team in charge of my case). What if they forced me to stay as an inpatient? Fear took over my whole being, I had so many questions and absolutely no answers. I started to wish that I could go back home and pretend that it was just a phase, that I was really all right and I would grow out of it. But what I didn’t realize was that when a 15 year old tries to take her own life, every health care professional steps in to intervene. No one was going to let me grow out of it, intervention was required, and rightly so.
Decisions were made on my behalf and I started a full-on treatment plan. I was diagnosed with clinical depression due to a chemical imbalance in my brain- low levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. This was treated with anti-depressants, which redressed the imbalance and would in turn, make me feel less suicidal. Treating the anorexia however was a more complex battle and required a more active part in my recovery. It was tough to feel anything positive about myself when all I felt was self-hatred and disgust at the way I looked. It was the start of a slow and painful journey.
What I remember the most vividly was the feeling of isolation and loneliness at that time. This was the early to mid ’90s. There was no Internet, no mobile phones, support groups didn’t exist in my suburban town and I felt too ashamed and embarrassed to tell any of my school friends what was going on, so I lied. I forbade the discussion of my mental health problems at home with my family because I felt like such an unlovable freak and couldn’t bear to admit my pain and sense of failure at life.
My family was amazing, though. They didn’t ask questions (they soon learned that questions made me clam up even more), they just quietly nurtured and supported me, even though I pushed everyone away and built a lead wall around myself. They were always there though and never judged me. I didn’t realize how important this was at the time and how significant it was in my recovery, but I am so grateful that they never gave up on me even when I gave up on myself.
As well as the isolation and loneliness, I found it hard dealing with the stigma of being a mental health patient. This ended up becoming a vicious cycle. You feel lonely, isolated and stigmatized so you don’t want to talk to anyone other than those you have to talk to like psychiatrists and psychologists, but by not talking and opening up, you end up feeling more lonely, isolated and stigmatized. It was a very difficult cycle to break, and I struggled with it for years.
My journey of recovery took more than a decade. In my twenties I still had anorexia and I still had suicidal moments when once again I attempted to take my own life. But those feelings became less and less as time went on. I discovered self-help books and spirituality. I decided I would try and find my purpose in life. I started to realize there were aspects of my emotions I could control, and I was even more delighted to discover that I had the power to change my thoughts and alter my perspective.
I started to use these different life tools alongside my conventional treatment. My anorexia was being treated successfully, I no longer felt suicidal and my depression was lifting. Gradually I felt empowered rather than fearful, excited rather than in the depths of despair. Ten years ago I came off anti-depressants and was discharged from the care of a psychiatrist. I haven’t needed either since then.
Because of my own mental health problems, I have made it my mission to get people feeling better about themselves. Part of this self-appointed mission is to do all I can to help take away the stigma of mental health issues by being open, being of service to others going through something similar and also educating people. Many people suffer from severe low moods due to life traumas and stress, and many people suffer from a lack of self-esteem. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Admitting this and admitting that we might need help because life gets us down sometimes is a sign of strength, not weakness.
I am just about to turn 37 years old. I have a career I love, a fantastic family, a mortgage, a lovely circle of friends- but best of all, these days I am sure of my purpose in life. Don’t get me wrong, I am still who I am, a human being who is ultra sensitive, feels things very deeply, and takes things to heart way too easily. I will never be able to get away from the more challenging aspects of myself that have the potential to ambush my happiness, but the difference is, I wouldn’t want to separate them. They are part of me. And loving and accepting myself fully and unconditionally means loving and accepting the good and the perceived “bad,” not editing out the bits I don’t like.
My history of mental health problems is part of me. It’s not the whole of me, but it is a facet of myself that exists and that I no longer want to hide, because with it I have gained wisdom. I have been able to help other people, I have been able to feel compassion more easily and empathise more readily. It has given me a deep insight into the fragilities of the human condition but has also highlighted how strong people are despite this. It has helped me understand people better; it has shown me that mental health problems do not have to dominate your life. You can still go on living a “normal” life.
Mental health problems do not have to define you, they are not all that you are. Above all I have learned that the whole of you is worthy of a full, loving and joy-filled life.
Jo Taylor is a writer, inspirational speaker, goldsmith, jeweller and health and wellness advocate. She balances her work in the luxury goods sector with a large dose of meditation, spiritualism, personal development writing and motivational speaking. Jo is on a mission to get people feeling better about themselves and she founded her website Eve Rebooted so that women could be encouraged and galvanized into positive life transformations by reading uplifting stories. Jo loves sketching, photography, playing records and getting lost in the woods. At the end of a long day you’ll find her curled up with a steaming mug of nettle tea, listening to the shipping forecast. She lives in Amersham, a small town tucked between London and the wilds of the countryside. You can check out her website Eve Rebooted, or you can find her on twitter @EveRebooted and Instagram @EveRebooted.