I pride myself on having no sense of shame. When I realised I'd done my entire GCSE Drama performance with my skirt tucked into my knickers, I laughed it off. When an anonymous social media user described me as having my head so far up my own arse it was "back where it should be", I took a screenshot of the comment and made it my Facebook cover photo. So why do I find it so difficult to talk about my mental health?
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, a project started by the Mental Health Foundation in 2000 to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing. This has made me think a lot about when I was diagnosed with anxiety, around a year ago. You might think "well everyone gets anxious sometimes" and you're right, everyone does get anxious, before things like exams or job interviews. But imagine having that terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach for a substantial part of your day, or even constantly; that's when it becomes a mental health issue.
My anxiety was a result of experiencing a lot of pressures in my life all at once. I was on my year abroad, so was completely without the support network that my family and best friends had given me all my life, and was hundreds of miles away from my boyfriend. I was studying at a particularly high-pressure university (a French Oxbridge equivalent), where my two hour long classes could start as early as 8am and finish as late as 9:15pm. Every class was registered, and if you missed more than three classes of one course, you were automatically failed. I also had to keep on top of the work I was expected to do for my university in the UK. Living in Paris, I was struggling financially, even with the support of my parents, my student loan and my part-time job. And, of course, I had to live in another language.
As these pressures became more and more difficult to manage, I developed this overwhelming sense that nothing I ever did would be good enough. Everything I did seemed pointless, because I didn't feel like I would ever succeed in anything again. I began to crave organisation and order, and the smallest change in my plans caused intense stress. Once, I stood outside Bristol Temple Meads station in tears because I'd missed a train and was going to be late to meet my friends. How late? About 10 minutes.
My anxiety also took a toll on me physically. I suffered with insomnia so was constantly exhausted, I had awful skin, my hair was falling out, and I lost almost two stone. Losing weight was particularly hard for me. I'd been the same size since I was about 16, so whenever I saw my friends back home they'd always tell me how "great" I looked, despite the bags under my eyes, my spots and my thinning hair. Because whenever a woman loses weight it must be intentional, right? Wrong. Every time someone commented on my weight loss, I was thinking either "what was wrong with me before?" or "well, I feel pretty horrendous on the inside".
Despite all of this, I'm fortunate because my anxiety could be treated, as it was a product of the situation I was in at the time. It isn't something I will have to manage for the rest of my life. I decided to leave Paris as soon as my academic commitments were over, so I could be back at my mum's with my family around me. I was prescribed sleeping pills, which shouldn't be used long term, but helped me get back on track physically. I started an internship in the communications department of a charity, something which I was actually good at, which made me realise that I wasn't a failure. Once I went back to university for my final year, I started to feel a bit more like myself. Now, a year on, I am sitting my finals with absolutely no problems, and will be going straight into my dream job as soon as I graduate.
So why is this so hard to talk about? I can only speak from my own experience, but I didn't talk about it openly because I was worried about being judged. People always saw me as "strong", and I didn't want to suddenly become "weak". I didn't want people to walk on eggshells around me. I was worried people wouldn't understand how I could have been leading a dream life in Paris, while simultaneously feel like my world was falling apart. I was scared people would think I was making it up, something I believed myself at times.
We wouldn't judge anyone who had been diagnosed with a physical illness, something as big as cancer or small as flu. We wouldn't see them as weak, accuse them of lying, or show zero compassion. Why can't the same be said for people diagnosed with mental illnesses? One in four people will suffer with a mental health condition each year. If it's not you, it will be your friend, your colleague, someone in your family. We desperately need to raise more awareness of mental health, to talk about it more, be more open, listen more and just care for each other more. I've used Mental Health Awareness Week as an opportunity to talk about my own experience, something I still find so hard to discuss, and maybe this will encourage other people to do the same. I hope that one day, we won't need an Awareness Week to give people an opportunity to talk.