It’s #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and this is a photo of me aged 18, flying totally below the radar as a young person at risk. I am perfectly hidden due to my excellent disguise of having an outgoing personality.
It’s 1991. This year was a big turning point for me and I would like to share why. At the time this photo is taken I’m subsisting on a diet of nothing for breakfast, one diet Coke for lunch, one small bag of pretzels and half a salad I share with a friend, then the least amount of dinner I can get away with at home claiming I’ve eaten snacks and a school lunch. I’m wearing huge clothes because I can’t believe that I’ve lost weight and still think of myself as the fat (jolly) girl.
I wear 3/4 length sleeves all the time so that people can’t see my self-harming cuts and scars. As I go to a religious school, no one questions the length of my sleeves, even on very hot days, even given that previously I would wear shorter ones. I’m cutting myself fairly regularly.
I’m living predominantly with my grandmother during the week with the external story being that it’s much closer to school, therefore more convenient but the underlying truth is that my behaviour at home is erratic and creating tension so my being somewhere else most of the time is more convenient for everyone.
I’m aware that I’m going to fail my exams and don’t know what to do about it. I’ve spoken to teachers at school who have explained that the situation is of my own making (previous truancy which is actually partly down to being bullied and changing schools and also due to frustration with a then undiagnosed processing disorder which makes me feel stupid) so they can’t/won’t help me. I’ve spoken to a careers advisor who had seen my school records and recommended that I set my sights low. My family has a strong academic background and, as far as I know, I will be the first failure.
I’m well known amongst my peers for being a singer-songwriter, I perform Jewish songs and covers of pop songs and my own comedy songs. I write funny poems and elaborate parody stories and make people laugh. I rewrite musical theatre and perform it in class. I also write dark, dark poems and essays and songs about how I really feel and they are hidden below a drawer in my room.
I have insomnia and terrible nightmares, some are down to the first flickerings of a neurological disorder which no one has picked up on. The worst are connected to exploding head syndrome but I won’t have that diagnosis for about 10 more years. I hate sleeping alone as I’m terrified of my own thoughts.
Having made some previous poor relationship choices I now have another serious boyfriend who is bad for me. He has his own demons, I suppose. He is controlling under the guise of caring. I can’t be myself with him. He will later stalk me for a while. I’ll make fun of it because it’s frightening.
It’s 1991. And as I said, this year was a big turning point for me and I would like to share why. At the time this photo is taken:
I realise that I somehow have enough resilience to avoid drugs and cigarettes and control my alcohol intake. Some of the friends I’m hanging around with when I’m not at school are using to varying degrees but a part of me knows that I have an addictive and destructive personality and if I start I don’t know where I’ll stop so I. Just. Don’t. Start. Incidentally, I still limit my alcohol in some ways. I don’t ever drink when I’m angry, nervous or upset. Not if I’ve had a bad day. Not if I’m bored. That would be a slippery slope for me.
I read books about people like me and strategies that helped them. I call a helpline a few times.
I realise that I have a friend who I can tell the truth to. I am honest with this friend. This is an enormous gift.
Six weeks after this photo is taken:
My exam results come as a shock to my parents who now discover the truth about the hell of my last five years at school. They tell me that they realise that forcing me to re-sit my exams will be pointless if I’m not ready. (They’re right, I would have doodled and avoided my way through it and reinforced my self-identify by failing again). They thankfully decide that they are still sending me on my gap year (a Jewish educational project through the youth group I go to involving working on a kibbutz, time in a seminary, training in community work and a few weeks of volunteering). They suggest that I use this time to discover what I want to do and to formulate a plan. This is an enormous gift.
I want to take the opportunities that this gap year will present and I’m terrified that I will mess it up. I don’t trust myself. I spend hours with my trusted friend talking about how I might manage situations. I pack up everything I use for self-harming and give it to my friend to look after. I agree with them that at the end of my year I can either ask for them back or ask for them to be thrown away. Spoiler alert, it’s option two. I never intentionally cut myself again.
Two months after this photo I leave for my year in Israel.
Once away with my friends, I take a deep breath and choose to see it as a fresh start. It’s not perfect. But the nature of the programme means that academic pressure has disappeared. I’m working outdoors so physically tired enough to sleep and sharing a room with two friends is comforting so I rarely have night terrors. As we’re all learning and growing into ourselves, it’s ok not to be perfect. We have the freedom and the opportunity to be creative. This is an enormous gift. A group of us learn improv.
I get the chance to decorate the enormous doors of the centre at the organic vineyard and pomegranate orchard where I’m working with murals of Winnie the Pooh, The Little Prince, The Hungry Caterpillar and other designs. They have limited colours which makes it a challenge. It takes about a week, it’s headspace outside in the fresh air and people praise me and I can recognise that I’ve achieved something positive and internalise it.
I have uncomplicated fun. I enjoy living in a dorm building and having a routine and being part of something. Amongst my friends there are people who love comedy and musical theatre and act and play instruments and we can do those things for enjoyment and not just as an escape. There are photos of me smiling and it’s genuine.
I write observational material, mainly poetry and songs. They’re about what I see and not just introverted, introspective, destructive thoughts and feelings.
It’s not all roses. This isn’t a film. Not all of my choices are healthy. There are meltdowns. The programme I’m on ends in July 1992 and there are ups and downs on that journey.
But here it’s 1991. And as I said, this year was a big turning point for me and I would like to share why. At the time this photo is taken I am almost unknowingly starting to take the first steps in accepting the good and resisting the bad both in my attitude towards myself and also what life presents to me. It’s the beginning of a very, very long road.
You are welcome to share this. I’m hoping that it might reach someone who needs to know that sometimes the worst of moments is also the moment that something in you has the resilience and strength to spark change.