A week ago, I found myself hiding in the kitchen of the coffee shop where I work. For once it wasn't due to a barrage of one shot, extra hot, medium, soya, decaf mocha latte orders (with a kitchen sink on the side please). A group of teachers from my old school had just sat down and I was ashamed they'd look down on the A* student from ten years ago now clearing tables for minimum wage.
Explaining what it's like to live with an eating disorder and depression is very simple; there is no living about it, you merely exist. As with any mental illness, they affect every area of your life whether that's the ability to hold down a job, build a relationship or simply concentrate on what the person in front of you is saying.
While I remain proactive about recovery, at 26 I now live back with my parents for emotional and financial support. Relationships, travel and social activities are fraught with uncertainty if not impossible and full-time work is currently out of the question. Of course there is nothing wrong with working in a coffee shop (barista-ology needs to be a degree) but I had other intentions for my life. And I'm not the only one.
Mental health and behavioural problems such as depression, anxiety and drug use are reported to be the primary drivers of disability worldwide, causing over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29 year olds. It makes sense the theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week (8th-14th May) is Surviving or Thriving; the perfect opportunity to explore why up to 87% of us aren't achieving good mental health and how we can take steps towards it.
Thriving is what we all aim for in terms of happiness and making the most of this life. When friends are climbing the career ladder, getting married or travelling the world and you can barely drag yourself out of bed, wallowing in a pit of your own prospective doom, it can feel like you're failing.
But here's the deal: if you've seen the bottom of that pit, never underestimate the strength it takes just to choose survival. If you've battled through hopelessness that could swallow you whole, loneliness that weighs on your heart and fear that keeps you up at night, you aren't a failure. You're a warrior.
At best, a mental illness is destructive but it's deadly at its worst. Suicide is responsible for 800,000 deaths annually in sixty countries measured by the World Health Organisation. For every person who dies by suicide, twenty people survive an attempt. Everyday you fight that inner battle is a victory.
"My view of surviving or thriving is not that these are two ends of a mental health spectrum," explains Mark Rowland, director of fundraising at the Mental Health Foundation. "It's not like a tug of war with prizes for those who are strong enough to pull through to thrive. An experience that requires surviving can pave the way for further understanding."
Combatting a mental illness not only takes courage and self-belief we rarely know we have but teaches us about ourselves, our strengths, weaknesses and resilience - the first step towards thriving.
That day in the coffee shop, my teachers knew nothing about my battles or survival. But then they didn't need to, only I had to in order to recognise my own power. Eventually I did and went out to speak to them (and clean their table) with my head held high. As every self-help book ever preaches: "everyone has their own mountains to climb". Just because mine aren't visible doesn't make them any less valid and neither are yours.
With insight, self-discovery and campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week, hopefully we can all learn to thrive mentally and beyond. But remember, even on those days hiding under the duvet, you are already stronger than you could ever imagine.
Feature image courtesy of pjbrez.