Someone at some point has probably said the following to you ‘I can’t believe how fast this year has gone’ right?
Bang on. Bang bloody ON you guys.
Hasn’t it though? It feels like a mere two weeks ago that I woke up on New Year’s Day with a broken iPhone 5 and a half eaten roast beef sandwich from the ‘Secret Bakery’ on the floor. With each moment of consciousness came another horrifying fragment of the night before – tears, the holding court in the bathroom, the fucking sandwich and of course the bar fight I caused which ended the night early for everyone.
This wasn’t the way I wished to start a new year. The night before I had written out my 2016 goals and as I look over them today, I’m mortified that only one of them was achieved. I’m a big believer that the moment your thirst for knowledge and learning dissipates, the moment you become stagnant, boring and miserable. I’m embarrassed to admit how much time I wasted on things that haven’t improved me as a person in 2016. I immersed myself in socialising and looking a certain way to numb the pain of my break-up, rather than working on one of the most disregarded aspects of myself – my self-esteem or lack thereof.
The coming of 2017 will mark the 20th year I have lived with an eating disorder and all of the accompanying extras that come with it. These include but aren’t limited to: crippling anxiety, rock bottom self-confidence, erratic mood swings and depression with a side of acne and split ends. I have lived with it longer than I haven’t in varying intensities and I thought writing about it might help reverse this year’s regression and maybe even help other adults suffering with the same anxieties and pressures. No this isn’t sexy, I’m afraid but I’d like to be honest and dispel the notion that my life is everything the @lalaregan89 Instagram account would have you believe. Behind every bikini photo of 2016 have been endless sobbing, solo walks, grieving and the masterminding of new ways to avoid eating. So if you ever fancied me or thought I was cool, read on. I will almost certainly surprise you.
I can trace my issue back to being about eight years old. As the oldest of six children I very happily assumed the role of older sister. Bossy, caring and nurturing, the break-down of my parent’s marriage caused me such stress that I would be sick and not understand what was happening to me. The culture that has incubated us all since childhood insists that to be loved, a woman has to be perfect, thin, ready to sacrifice and feminine. This didn’t matter so much when I was a boisterous tomboy during my early years, it was when I hit adolescence at boarding school that the full spectre of womanhood and all of its impossible pressures loom. What had started out as an involuntary reaction to home stresses, had morphed into an eating disorder of which I was so ashamed, I kept it secret for a year before being caught. Meanwhile, I hollowed out; it was like everything interesting, warm and spirited about me left my body, leaving behind an empty, disembodied me. It’s really hard to be disembodied if you hate yourself, especially when you factor in the rampant hormones, endless exams and perpetual homesickness that go with being a teenage girl. The vicious cycle of understanding and acknowledging the self-harm, the desperate desire to stop the behaviour followed by not feeling you are worth anything more became an omnipresent battle for the next 8 years. My parents were beside themselves and after my weight dropped below 46 kilos, I was checked into a treatment centre. I had always thought these sorts of institutions were for people with severe mental health issues but in hindsight it was exactly where I needed to be. I was sick, I was in pain – it was just invisible.
The doctors told me I had bulimia and depression which are both mental illnesses with severe side effects. How do you process that you have a mental illness that will affect you for the rest of your life at 19 years old? That was almost eight years ago and even though I still (and always will) experience the same highs and lows, I’m really proud of how far I’ve come. I’m much healthier, I exercise (reluctantly) and try to approach eating with a moderate and mindful approach. I’ve come to be self-aware about the thoughts and behaviours that trigger the panic around food and ultimately be detrimental to my well-being. I’ve still told almost no one about this – just my family, a few friends and my two long suffering ex boyfriends who went through it all with me (thanks fellas). Despite all the progress made, the scars that have been left behind are the hardest to hide. Ever since being diagnosed, I’ve been fearful of people knowing, afraid people will think I’m not smart or competent and that my relationship with food and myself renders me hysterical and unreliable. I’ve been called ‘psycho’, ‘crazy’ and ‘a bitch’ by people who have no idea the sadness and pain I’ve caused myself and those around me. This sort of language actively perpetuates the myth that people with mental illnesses are violent, only further consolidated by comments by Trump about ‘deeply troubled’ women being more sexually gratifying to men. Whilst this is of course a disgusting statement made by a world leader, I believe the stigma that surrounds mental health is deadly because it prevents people from talking openly about their issues, even though it affects almost everyone.
Having a mental illness isn’t a sign of weakness. I still have days where I cry for no reason, feel ugly and am convinced that what I have to say isn’t important. I’m grateful for how far I have come and that I can reflect on 2016 and understand why it is I feel disappointed in myself. I can reflect and rationalise that regressing back into old behaviours was a reaction to being heartbroken and that what doesn’t matter is being fancied by everyone or being told I’m pretty. I lost sight of the fact that something as simple as what I was born with is absolutely not the most I have to be proud of when my spirit and resilience have overcome issues I thought were insurmountable. Whether you have ever been affected by a mental illness or seemingly benign anxiety of any sort, I really hope this spurs you on to fight with everything you have to make it through the day. My ability to fight for my strength has only momentarily been relinquished. I am proud that I’ll be able to celebrate the start of 2017 in the knowledge that it’s not my weight or face that make me unique – it’s the confidence that my opinions and beliefs are what make me beautiful and not the other way around.
So for anyone else who had a shitty 2016, I get it. I hope this open letter makes you feel less alone because we are all born so beautiful. The greatest tragedy is being convinced we are not.
(sidenote: these photos sum up what I am thankful for from this year)