I didn’t manage one blog post a week. I didn’t even manage one a month. Turns out, my mental health had to get a whole lot worse before it started getting better. In the hour between the last day of February and the first day of March, I swallowed the entire, extensive contents of my medical box, wrote a note to friends and family, and lay down to die.
Skipping the gory details, six days later, I am sitting in my eating disorder therapist’s office, still unable to think clearly, see straight, smell anything except a strange, lingering chemical stench, stand upright, make decisions or form complete sentences. Poison has reduced my body to a senseless shell. ‘On the plus side,’ says my wonderful, ever-optimistic therapist, ‘we know this is rock bottom. The only way is up.’
One of the difficulties of living with a chronic illness is knowing when to give yourself a break. Where an able-bodied person might take a couple of weeks off after breaking a leg, when you’re breaking bones at a rate of five or six a year, taking time off for each one is simply unfeasible. Like many people with a physical disability, sometimes the only way to cope is to take a ‘mind over matter’ approach: as long as my mind is working okay, my body can drag itself along behind, regardless of whatever state it might have got itself into. Which is fine, until it’s your mind that has broken.
During the three years of my undergraduate degree, I broke sixteen bones, and only missed one essay (I handed in a plan instead.) That wasn’t bravado, but necessity; had I taken a week off for each break, I would have missed 15-30 essays, and an equal number of supervisions. Two weeks before the deadline for my second piece of MPhil coursework, still unable to process information or read text without crying, I requested a deadline extension. A fortnight’s extension was generously granted, no questions asked, but I was left feeling bereft. My ability to ‘power through’ physical difficulties is something on which I pride myself; accepting that my mind simply couldn’t keep up felt like admitting defeat.
Why, when and how mental illness rears its ugly head is still, for the most part, a mystery. I know that my family history makes me more susceptible to mental illness, and that chronic pain is often linked to depression. Going through my ‘life timeline’ as part of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), my therapist has identified a number of events as ‘major’ or ‘traumatic’, and continually asks how I ‘dealt’ with them. Perhaps if I’d spent a little longer ‘dealing’ with things, I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in now. Then again, perhaps if I’d spent a little longer dwelling on the things I don’t like to think about, I’d have gone loopy a long time ago.
I’m still learning to find the right balance between giving myself enough time ‘off’ to stay well and making sure I’m not just being lazy. The good news is things are, as predicted, on the up. I completed and passed my coursework. I had the time of my life abseiling, zip-wiring, clay-pigeon shooting and learning archery at the Brittle Bone Society’s ‘VOICE’ youth event at the Calvert Trust in Kielder. Since January, I have gained over 10% of my body weight, and am four kilos away from reaching a ‘healthy weight’. I spoke to an audience of over a hundred people at the Cambridge Rare Disease Network launch event. I recently took up wheelchair racing, which is proving hugely beneficial for both mind and body. This is the first time I have ever participated in disabled sport, ergo this is the first sport I have ever been kind of good at. Training sessions are hilarious, hard work and incredibly empowering, and have instantly become the highlight of my week.
My family and friends are still getting over the events of February and March. My mum still answers the phone with a panicked ‘are you alright?!’ constantly anticipating the worst. This was my third major suicide attempt, and each one has cost me friendships. The people I love the most in the world are the people I have hurt the most, and it’s a hurt I can never make up for. But here I am still going, still reading, writing and thinking, still plugging away at this poor neglected blog. I got better. I always do.