By Jessica Thornycroft
For mental health awareness week in previous years, I’ve always kept very quiet about my mental health journey. However, in the most unexpected way, I decided to finally talk about it. Well, write about it.
My dad approached me with an idea at his work. The management team wanted to raise awareness of the people in the workplace who had experiences with mental health issues and, in my dad’s case, that landed the spotlight on me.
It’s not that I am ashamed of my mental health status but it’s simply never felt right to say anything about it. Until now.
Please see below for my story of my mental health journey.
I think that everyone has their own unique, defining aspect of themselves that makes them stand out. Some people have unique physical attributes and others have a unique talent such as being able to sing or play an instrument. For me, one of my unique, defining attributes is the fact that I am a young person with a mental health illness.
This might seem odd. A mental health issue defining you is something quite bizarre, I do not believe in that it wholly defines me but at the same time I wouldn’t be acknowledging something that has made me the person that I am today. Let me explain my journey with mental illness and how it impacted my life.
When I was six years old, I was living in South Africa on a beautiful wine farm. It was one of the most magical places that I have had the pleasure of living in and experiencing. At the same time, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD. I have my mother to thank for taking me to the many psychologists and psychiatrist appointments and when I finally got my diagnosis, it must have been some sort of relief that we were able to tackle the problem now.
I remember very distinctly being terrified of any contamination by germs so much. It got so all-consuming that I remember one day walking in a mall in Cape Town. I wouldn’t want to touch anything. I washed my hands to the point that they were so dry that they would bleed. I was also so consumed by the fear of contamination that I would sit in the bath at home all day. It was a mission and a half to get me to go out the house and there were days when I didn’t go to school. I was put on medication very soon after the diagnosis and have been on meds ever since then.
In 2006, we moved to the UK. I was 8 years old and struggled with the move. Apart from the usual task of settling into a new school and making new friends, I had to deal with my OCD symptoms. When we moved, the logical step for my parents was to get me registered on the NHS system for my mental health. I went to a set of 4 or 5 sessions, both one-to-one sessions and group sessions, and I was taken off my medication – they didn’t believe in medicating young children. All I can say is that decision ended up in a terrible experience. I started having complete meltdowns in the house so much so that I was incoherent. It was so bad that my mom often had to coax me out of my panic-stricken state, lying on the floor of the hall way, for at least 30 minutes before even slight progress was made to get me back to an ok ground. I sometimes couldn’t go to school because the anxiety of bringing contamination from school into the house was unbearable.
Soon my parents decided to get my medication from my private South African Psychiatrist, and I went to a counsellor pretty much every week. Simultaneously I went to senior school and completed my GCSEs and A-levels with A’s all around. Although, I was doing well in school and was very involved with the school’s extra-curricular activities, I never really spoke about my OCD and my mental health. I felt that no one could relate to me in any way and that I was all alone in what I was dealing with.
Today, I am training to be a veterinarian and about to embark on a year in London to study pharmacology for an intercalated BSc. I would say today that I don’t show OCD symptoms, but I do suffer terribly from anxiety and depressive episodes. I speak to my dad and my mom and my sister about my “wobbles” and panic attacks all the time but now instead of keeping quiet about my struggles, I tell my close friends that I am struggling and I’m realising that I was never as alone as I thought I was.
That’s what I wish I had known and believed when I was younger and first diagnosed: no one who has a mental health condition is truly alone. It may seem like that at the time but there is always someone who can relate to you. It may be your closest friend, or it may be the bus driver you see on your way to work. You never have to be alone.