Hushed voices, sideways glances and minced words: too often do discussions of illnesses like depression and anorexia display such characteristics. We need to move towards talking about them honestly, positively and proactively. This column is my contribution to that movement.
It’s not you
I developed anorexia – and soon after, depression – when I was sixteen. It all began when a necessary diet got out of hand: a childhood of eating what was put in front of me, and resultant indifference to calorific input, had come to an abrupt end, just as life got more complicated and serious and scary. This had a profound effect on me.
At first I attributed the way I felt to ‘growing up’. After all, the transition to young adulthood is full of nasty realisations and shattered conceptions. Isn’t it? But after a while I realised that the constant anxiety bubbling at the back of my mind wasn’t normal. So I assumed I was going mad.
Never once did I consider, while struggling through several very long months, that the illness was neither my fault, nor a natural state. I spoke to no one and I focused on changing the way I looked. I thought if I could be happy with my appearance I could be happy full stop.
But depression is not an emotion, it’s an illness; anorexia is not a habit, it’s a disorder. When I finally grasped this, I felt indescribably free. Understanding that there was a way out – that I didn’t have to be like this forever, that this wasn’t my new personality – was the first of many steps on the road to recovery.
After the worst was over, I spoke to a friend of mine who had had a similar epiphany in fighting her illness. The conversation was something of a revelation for both of us, since neither of us had been particularly open about our problems, preferring to deal with them alone and hide our troubles under baggy jumpers.
However, in sharing my experiences, it became apparent that many of the habits I had subconsciously developed – spending hours perusing cookbooks, telling everyone I was gluten intolerant – were symptoms, and therefore identifiable and combatable. As recognisable manifestations of an illness, I could further separate them from my personality, which may have been suppressed by my symptoms, but it was still underneath them all.
And so, though I was already recovering by that stage, conversation became a key step in dealing with what I then recognised as a disorder. Mental illness feeds off loneliness, isolation and fear. We must therefore starve it with discussion, mutual support and honesty.
I realised that sharing my experiences could help other people. This was the only visible good that has come out of my illness, and I’m determined to exploit it fully. That is the purpose of this column. Cambridge is full of intelligent people who think too much. Mental illness is rife, which means if you’re a sufferer: you are far from alone.
So why am I writing anonymously? Well, I may have come to terms with mental illness, but society hasn’t: stigma and bigotry remains. The state of affairs does make me furious, but that’s another matter. This column is going to be about the individual road to recovery, not the equally important battle against stereotyping, miscomprehension and exclusion. This battle is progressing, but in the meantime I refuse to allow my illness – and its associated baggage – to limit me any more than it already has.
It’s important to understand, however, that the majority of people are sympathetic to mental illness – particularly here in the bubble, where it’s well understood and provided for. It’s therefore never been a better time to face up to a disorder. Making the leap may be scary, but it’s transformative.