I get in my car. I drive to my meeting, my eyes fixed on the dark road ahead. I try to clear my mind after the anxiety of the day. The ups and downs. The pain that is slowly building in my stomach. Last I didn’t sleep well. I was thinking about this meeting. Before I get out of the car I tell myself over and over: Just be brave, just be brave. I attend the meeting. I am quiet, withdrawn. My stomach ache is getting worse, and with it, my panic. I don’t want these people to see my anxiety, my fear of being ill in a strangers house. I say a curt goodbye at the end of the meeting and try to smile, but I am still the worst one to leave. I get in my car, wondering if I can honestly drive home like this. My stomach is so sore and my heart rate is so high, I am struggling to keep control of my breathing. It is only when I have put the car in gear and pulled away from the drive, only when the dark of the night and the motorway consumes me, that I can let the tears fall. I know I’ve done well enough. I attended the meeting. I was brave. But I don’t feel it. Not at all. Instead, I feel like a failure.
I’ve been working on a project for mental health week called “Don’t keep it a Secret.” In my job, I am privileged to be able to go into school and influence young people positively, and this is a great opportunity. Given my history, this is something I am really passionate about. I’m putting together a video to show the students, which will hopefully feature a lot of people holding signs up with their “truth,” their “diagnosis,” on it, with the hashtag #notasecret. I’ve been plugging it on social media, trying to get volunteers, and basically shouting it from the rooftops. I’m going to be in the video too. Holding a sign saying “Eating and anxiety disorder. #notasecret.” I don’t have any problem doing this. After all, I know that this is who I am, and sharing this with people is what I care about.
What worries me is that people might get the wrong impression from me doing this stuff. Sometimes, being outspoken about a cause can give the impression that you are no longer one of the people affected by the cause. I sense a slight shift when I talk about projects to do with mental health that I am promoting or creating. I sense that people start to believe I have overcome my challenges and are now encouraging others to do the same. I am aware of the resistance within myself at this idea, this idea that I believe is built on a lie from our society: that a person cannot be struggling and helping at the same time. As a culture, we like winners. We like those who can say, “that happened to me, but it’s not me anymore.” The prisoner who becomes the CEO, the drug addict who founds a charity, we love a good transformation story. But we are unforgiving, and often very black and white in our understanding of exactly how that transformation should play out. You are only a winner if you transform in the right way. It’s just so clear from the attitude we have to those who have recovered, versus those who relapse. We see these things as two, clear, definitive states rather than both of them as the ever-winding journey of recovery. Someone who had an eating disorder and has overcome it can be a role model. Someone starving themselves cannot be.
I find this difficult because of the story at the beginning of this blog post. That was from this week. At that meeting, I spoke about the mental health week project. I will be going into schools and encouraging young people not to hide the secret of their mental health. I will tell them about my eating disorder and depression throughout my own school days. I will hold up a sign that declares my mental health status. But the real secret, I guess, is that I am still a person who is struggling. If anyone is looking for a winner, they won’t find her here. I care desperately about the young people I am working with, and I urgently do not want them to feel what I have felt in the past. I do not want them to know the humiliation of your teacher telling you that you’ve been “very naughty” for self-harming. I do not want them to know the embarrassment of calling a helpline late at night and hearing the bored, uninterested tone of a person who doesn’t take them seriously. I do not want them to fear the judgement of their peers, to have no space in their school to talk about their issues, and have no education about what mental health even means. I so badly want to help them. But if it means I have to have it all together, then I guess I will have to sit out.
Because at the beginning of this week, I had a panic attack. I’m not over my anxiety disorder. Because I am on the waiting list for CBT therapy. I’m not over my depression. Because every day I struggle to eat what is healthy for my body and mind. I’m not over my eating disorder. But I am living with it. Brutally, angrily, every day, I am living with it, and I am talking about it and getting help. If I wait until I have beaten all of these things, until I am a real winner and clearly on the side of the recovered, then I might never be ready to do it. And I can do something good now. So I’m doing it.
I guess this is my way of saying that you don’t need to have it together, you don’t need to have put everything behind you, in order to affect the change you want to see in the world. You don’t even need to be having a majority of good days. This week has had some truly bad days, and yet, the mental health project still advances. Because I don’t need to be fixed. I just need to be brave. I don’t even need to feel brave. I just need to be it. Stumbling blindly forward, even if it’s just on my knees.
So, in honour of that, this is me, holding up my real sign. Because I’ve been many things, and my diagnosis and my mental health state will still be shown in that video. I will hold up a sign saying “Eating and Anxiety Disorder, #notasecret.” I will still share the truth of who I am with those young people, but I also wanted to share with you this part of my truth, just in case it is your truth too: I am not perfectly recovered. I am not constantly relapsing. I am something else, something messier.
I am Recovering.