Trigger Warning: This piece contains descriptions of eating disorders, and discussion of mental health and mental illness.
I was the perfect poster child for eating disorders. For a start, I’m a white, middle-class woman, and eating disorders are a luxury only privileged girls like me can afford, according to the media. While poor people and black people and men are busy struggling with the tough reality of life, white girls starve themselves because of magazine images and boredom.
I had also grown up a competitive dancer, and had always been prone to perfectionism. Contrary to what my messy teenage bedroom would tell you, I relished order above all else.
It was only a matter of time before I developed an eating disorder.
And yet, I was utterly amazed when, aged 15, I found myself crying on the floor of a toilet cubicle at school, the remnants of my meagre lunch staring up at my from the toilet bowl.
I was stunned every morning when I snuck downstairs to weigh myself before anyone else awoke, even when my body was begging me to stop.
I was floored when I found myself obsessively marching in place at 3am, desperate to undo the ‘damage’ I’d done during the day; yearning to burn off just 5 more calories. 10 more. 100. 1,000.
“It never occurred to me that I could possibly be suffering from an eating disorder.”
See, in my head, I couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder. I didn’t want to look like a model. I didn’t even think I was fat–and eating in public didn’t trigger a cataclysmic meltdown. I had no ‘fear foods’, I didn’t weigh every crumb I ate, and I’d never had a screaming match with my mother over dinner.
I also wasn’t emaciated. I was thin, sure, but I didn’t look ill. Stressed, maybe. Tired, definitely. Anorexic? Not at all.
My image of eating disorders was so set in stone that it never occurred to me that I could possibly be suffering from one.
See, we don’t do mental illness in my family. While everyone around us falls apart publicly, we hold it together. We keep marching on through our worst moments and tell the world that we’re fine.
Don’t let the b*stards see you cry. That’s what my mother always said to me.
I don’t remember when I first broke that rule; when the cracks in my surface started to show. But I do know I never thought of my cracks as the first signs of a mental illness. Mental illness was scary and violent. It was hospitals and medication. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t this.
So when my mum first noticed the sudden weight loss, and my teachers couldn’t help but stare as I entered every lesson a tear-stained shell of my former self, I told them I was fine–because I was fine. I wasn’t ill. I was just a teenage girl, filled with all the angst a teenage girl is supposed to feel.
No mental illness here, no siree.
“My reality didn’t look like the picture of mental illness that I’d built in my head.”
What I didn’t realise was that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year; and 1 in 6 experience a common mental health problem (such as anxiety or depression) in any given week.
I didn’t know that nearly 8% of the UK population suffers from mixed anxiety and depression. That nearly 6% have General Anxiety Disorder. 4.4% have PTSD, and 1.3% have OCD.
I had no idea that a staggering 20.6% of the UK population has had suicidal thoughts at some point in their life.
My reality didn’t look like the picture of mental illness that I’d built in my head, so therefore I didn’t have a mental illness.
In recent years there’s been a big drive to encourage people to speak up about their mental health struggles. But while we’re good at telling people who already know they have a problem that it’s #TimeToTalk, we’ve still got a long way to go.
Between months-long waiting lists for basic therapy on the NHS, a lack of support and education in our schools about mental health, and little to no comprehensive understanding of how race, class, and gender can compound and shape mental health issues, we’re failing countless people every day. We send young people to their GPs, only for them to be met with dismissive responses and a couple of leaflets. We put people on waiting lists, give them six sessions of CBT, and send them on their way. We tell people to seek help but turn them away from our hospitals because we have no beds and no resources for mental health patients.
We leave people unsupported, unhelped, and undiagnosed.
“I was the perfect little poster girl for mental illness, and I never knew I was ill.”
And then there are the people that our hashtags and awareness campaigns never even reach. The men who can’t talk about their eating disorder, because they don’t know that men can even have eating disorders. The black women who must be Strong and Independent at all times; whose histories and identities are rooted in absorbing suffering. The poor people who don’t have time to seek help, because going to their GP means missing a shift, and missing a shift means losing money, and losing money means losing their home.
You can only speak up if you know you have something to say. You can only share your mental health struggles it you know that you have mental health struggles. And you can only seek help if the system is accessible.
So until our awareness campaigns start actually raising awareness about what mental illness looks like (spoiler alert: it looks different for different people)–and until our campaigns start removing the barriers to help and support–we’ll keep failing the most vulnerable in our society.
I was the perfect little poster girl for mental illness, and I never knew I was ill. How many more like me are there out there, not-so-blissfully unaware that they are not broken, they’re just ill?