When I was a child, I learnt to be many things. Strong was one of them. My life wasn’t easy, and it didn’t get much better as I grew up. I had to develop a thick skin to survive in a country in where people like me weren’t accepted or/and were always singled out, because of our skin colour. While racial attacks were uncommon for me in school, not being feminine, not being conventionally pretty and being overweight caused me trouble to fit in girls groups. Still, I was never considered “one of the boys”: I just didn’t have many friends.
Though my relationship with most of my classmates was cordial, I was always chosen last or not chosen at all for group work or similar projects. I ended up getting used to this and at some point I stopped asking myself what was wrong about me because it led to pain rather than a response.
Meanwhile, things at “home” weren’t easy: due to a variety of family problems, I grew up in a children’s home looked after by social services since I was seven years old till I was fifteen years old. Due to this, I was never able to develop a close relationship with my parents and the rest of my relatives (except my siblings). I had not emotional support other than social workers who were paid to make sure I ate, went to school and behaved appropriately.
At some point I saw a psychologist because of a supposedly traumatic event that occurred, yet it was a short period because I didn’t open up to her. I did what I know to do best: lie and repress pain. When I was young, it made sense because I was trying to protect people I loved, and because I thought seeing a psychologist was bad and made me a weird person. I wish someone would have told me how wrong I was.
When I got out of the children’s home, my parents and the rest of my relatives had to face a teenager whom they knew little to nothing about, while thinking they knew everything. I felt constantly misunderstood. I also started to realise how my race wasn’t my only handicap: my gender became a problem as well, constantly being told to do this and that because I was a girl. In the children’s home, I was relatively free and gender roles rarely stopped me from doing what I wanted. With my family, the story was very different.
On top of everything, I moved to another country and my inability to make friends became worse due to the language barrier. The three years I spent in college before going to university were the worst years of my life. The isolation was real and what is worst: it was self-provoked. Things at home weren’t any better: living with my aunt and uncle was hard because they didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand them.
All this led to the breaking point of the fake cape of strength that surrounded my brain. My low self-esteem and self-confidence, my cyclothymia (mild bipolar disorder) and my binge eating disorder, issues I have always had but I pretended they weren’t real, came to surface. I also developed OCD and occasional episodes of social anxiety.
I must point out that, back then, I didn’t know I had any of those mental health issues. While I knew something was wrong, I didn’t give it much importance, as I tried to focus on studying to get into university and to leave my house, on working to save money since I knew my family wasn’t financially reliable, and on volunteering to get experience for my CV and to sdo something for the local community.
After successfully finishing college and getting into university, I moved out and began my life as an officially independent young adult. I thought everything would be better because I would no longer have to deal with family problems (which caused most of my distress) and I could have a chance to make friends (with my improved language skills). However, that didn’t happen. My mental health issues were still there and my emotional wellbeing ended up sinking after a few weeks. I stopped going out, spending most of my time either in lectures/seminars or in my room. My plans to lose weight also vanished, with binge eating becoming a real problem for both my heath and my wallet.
Finally, I realised I couldn’t cope anymore. I went to the health centre in my university, I spoke with a doctor. That’s when I was told about the mental health issues I had, and recommended anti-depressants and counselling. I only chose counselling, because I thought it was too early to deal with medication and that my issues weren’t that severe.
Fast forward to the second year of university, which I finished half a year ago. After a fun month in Singapore and an enlightening trip to Palestine during the summer of 2016, lectures started again, together with group (counselling) therapy sessions I decided to sign up to. The first couple of months went relatively okay, yet by November, I wasn’t doing fine at all. I was suffering due to an unidentified physical health problem, with sever body pains and fatigue.
On top of that, my cyclothymia worsened and so did my binge eating disorder. I had to force myself to see my doctor and start taking the antidepressants I had previously rejected: I was scared about failing the term, I had missed various seminars and lectures, and my assessments weren’t of excellent quality.
Fortunately, the medication was very helpful for my cyclothymia, my moods became more stable and so did my behaviour. Unfortunately, my physical health kept worsening till the end of the term. On January this year, I finally got diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency and started taking tablets, yet it can take over a year for me to recover completely.
Though my grades were fine for the first term (an average of a first [70%/GPA 4.0]), the second term went definitely worse, with my attendance below 50% and maybe even 40%. I even signed up to the Student Support Unit in my university to see what help I could get, which was mainly extensions for my assessments. Still, my grades suffered: my average of 70 (GPA 4.0) went down to 68 (around GPA 3.75).
While this doesn’t seem a big decline, it effectively kicks me out of the first degree classification, UK’s highest degree class. I was unable to achieve my target, though I didn’t feel very let down because I knew I had been ill and because the year only counted 40% of my final degree mark, meaning that my last year (which counts 60%) could still save me. In addition, since I was going away for an uncounted (final grade-wise) year abroad in Morocco, I would have time to recover and take things more easily. I must say, getting a first (GPA 4.0) isn’t just a matter of personal satisfaction or simply excelling: I want to do postgraduate studies, and potentially apply to certain high level universities/courses and scholarships.
The aforementioned mental and physical health problems didn’t only challenge the academic realm in my life: they challenged the personal one too. I hate relying on others and being unproductive. I’m known for keeping to myself and for always doing stuff. I had to force myself to share my issues with my university, my GP, my friends and members of my close family.
During this year, I have still been working and travelling even if not in perfect shape. But, sometimes I had to say “no, relax” and stay at home. And that annoyed me a lot. Fortunately, having a smartphone allowed me to do things from the comfort of my bed while my body pains and fatigue wouldn’t allow me to move much. I completed a whole personal/artistic project, which I’m currently polishing for future release. I could do readings for my seminars, and socialise through messages/social media. I wasn’t totally isolated and useless.
Vulnerable is something I have never allowed myself to be, even if my whole life has been marked by vulnerability. Coming from a disadvantaged and dysfunctional background, everything can break or disappear very easily in my life, yet I avoid having that mindset because my everyday life is enough. I’m an autonomous person, I enjoy and even seek loneliness now, and unless it is an emergency, I don’t like asking for help.
I like to be in control and seem a firm person with a stable life, because I don’t want to be manipulated or tricked. Hence, accepting my mental and physical health problems which make me vulnerable and dependant hasn’t been easy. I’m not concerned about stigma, my reputation and public image is not something I care about deeply. The problem is not people knowing I’m in a bad/weak place: it is feeling like if I need others to get on with my daily life.
Must be said, coming to terms with my mental health problems hasn’t been as hard as with my physical health issues. However, I don’t think I can’t talk about one without the other. The truth is, I deeply believe my binge eating disorder has affected badly my physical health. I have gained a lot of weight during the last year, which also relates to the fact that I have had to rely on takeaways since I felt too weak to cook healthy meals, as I used to. And at the same time, my self-esteem has plummeted because of this, which affects my mental health and mood swings. Basically, all the problems are interconnected, and to some extent, my fault and/or things natural science can’t easily fix.
At present, I’m based at Morocco, and I just finished my first semester abroad. While my overall health has improved, I still struggled to get through the term, balancing academic work with an internship. Nevertheless, I’m in a much better place than last year. I have written this post because it is long overdue and there were things I had to explain for people to understand my behaviour in the last couple of years or so.
Please, don’t feel pity or sympathy. I’m slowly recovering and things are getting better. I’m fine, I could be worse! I’m glad I made it, at some points I thought I wouldn’t. My mental health has been pretty good for a while and my physical health is slowly improving, with some ups and downs.
When comes to me and vulnerability, well, I’m getting there. Sharing this post is probably a start. Living in an increasingly neoliberal world that advocates for self-reliance makes it hard to face the handicaps in my life. To many people, they aren’t real. Therefore, they can’t be real for me when I have to deal with those people i.e. the wider society. But, since my blog is my personal space, I guess it is fine if I talk about my difficulties on here. Ultimately, I would like people in similar situations to know that they aren’t alone and that their struggles are valid. We might have to mask them or risk being mocked, nevertheless they are still valid. I was taught to be strong and I always thought it was the best thing. But, you know what? It is fine not being fine. It is fine to be weak and vulnerable sometimes.