Friday 13th May 2016. The day I first stepped foot inside a pyschiatric inpatient unit, and the start of my life living in and out of hospitals, swinging from crisis to crisis. Over the past few years, I have screamed my throat raw, cried my eyes red, bruised, bled, starved, scarred. I have also laughed myself breathless, hugged achingly hard, met some of the most beautiful people I could ever wish to know and grown more than I would have thought possible at the beginning of my journey with mental illness. Sometimes I am left suffocating in my mourning for everything I have missed out on, drowning in regret as I watch friends leaping ahead to A levels and university - but if I had, like most people seem to, stayed on the relentless conveyor-belt of life's 'normal' trajectory, who would I be today? As much as I acknowledge that I would have had an overall much easier time of my adolescence, had it been free from mental health problems, I like to believe that my experiences of being unwell, have in the end helped me to flourish.
My first recollection of hearing the term 'anorexia' was around the time of when I started primary school, as my brother teasingly commented on how small I was. Impressed by this new piece of vocabulary, I asked him what it meant, to which I received some wildly inaccurate and uneducated reply about people making themselves throw up. I laughed. I would never be like that. Likewise, when I first discovered that there were people in the world who intentionally hurt themselves, I thought the idea was entirely absurd. During my fourth and final inpatient admission, this time to the specialist eating disorders unit which I called home for 7 months, I often contemplated what it would be like to re-live my childhood innocence. 'What would it be like to be normal?', I wondered as I sat crying and shaking over the snack a nurse had placed in front of me. 'What would it be like to just not care?' I longed to be somebody, anybody else while watching in horror as my weight shot up kilo after kilo. My recovery began with my curiosity.
In the time I have been a patient with NHS mental health services, I have undergone numerous different treatments, with varying levels of suitability. However, I do not think that if I had received more appropriate treatment at an earlier stage it would have had much (if any) impact on the length of time it took for me to begin recovering.
Because here's the thing: when it comes to mental health problems, you have to WANT to get better for any therapies or other such elaborate interventions to be successful. I lay no blame on the misguided hospital staff in my first few admissions who believed that my food restriction was a product of temperamental tastebuds rather than a serious psychological disorder, nor do I hold any grudges against those who allowed me to negotiate my meal plan down to the bare minimum. Of course, in an ideal world, mental health workers would all be well equipped to support people struggling with eating and body image, but as much as I would love to place the onus of my poor health onto somebody other than myself, I know that the change and effort had to come from me. And eventually it did.
Nobody else but me could force me to dip my toes into the uncharted and quite possibly shark-infested waters of life outside of sickness and hospitals, but after many failed attempts I can now confidently say that I am firmly on my way to being healthier. I am bold with recovery; I eat peanut butter out of the jar, I wear short sleeves in the cold, I make the decisions that scare me most and stick with them. I force myself out of my comfort zone, and I discover that these places of unease can be wonderful. That life can be wonderful. I no longer find comfort in being cocooned in the safety of the institutions I stayed in for so long, and I have realised that the openings in my future, that recovery is bringing me, are far greater than any opening I could ever carve into my skin or any hospital doors I could swing open. I could go on forever about how much better things are now that I am not controlled by calorie-counting compulsions, exercise or self destruction, but at the end of the day if you are suffering then YOU have to take the leap of faith.
At 13 I learnt to hurt myself. At 14 I learnt to starve myself. At nearly 17, I am learning to move on from years of pain. Monday 1st October 2018. The day I last stepped out of a mental hospital, and the day I began to live.