Le gravier is French for gravel. I first learned that at age 14, just before I went to school for a term in Lyon. My French was okay at that point and would become very good by the time I returned home three months later, but I needed to know the word for gravel before I arrived. Secondary schools in France don’t generally insist upon a uniform and I realised that the likelihood of a sunny day in southern France is significantly higher than at home in Yorkshire and as such, my arms would likely be on show at least once.
My arms are littered with scars, my whole body is in fact, a result of my skin scarring easily and my being fairly clumsy. Ten years of part-time work in cafes and kitchens have left the remnants of oil splashes around my wrists and marks on my right-hand fingers due to once using them to check whether the hob had been switched on. It had. Tumbles caused by chronic daydreaming in my youth and too much student drinking in my teens and early twenties are all commemorated with some sort of blemish on my legs. I can remember the stories behind some and not behind others.
However, at age 14, preparing for my trip to France, there were some prominent scars on my left arm which I was certain would be commented upon by someone when the sun, and thus my arms, made an appearance. Rather than wearing long sleeved t-shirts and missing out on a suntan (there are very few things that take priority over a good tan), I instead prepped my response, translating the line I’d been pedalling to people in England for the past year: “Je suis tombé dans mon jardin et le gravier était coincé dans mon bras.” I fell in the garden and the gravel got stuck in my arm. No one ever pressed it any further, gave the international wince of sympathy and carried on with their lives.
The truth is it was less embarrassing to admit that I fell over in a garden than it was to explain that between the ages of 12 and 13 I was going through some complex emotional states that I chose to deal with through self-harm.
And why is that? Why is it still so shameful to own up to suffering from mental health issues? Hindsight has allowed me to understand that at the time, I didn’t understand what mental health was, and it would never have occurred to me to voice my concerns to an adult. I knew that if I had an upset stomach, my mum could give me medicine or that if I fell over on ice walking into school, I could be taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a mild concussion. I did not understand that should my head feel full to the point of implosion, or if underneath my cheery, popular at school demeanour my mood was swinging violently from anger to sadness, that I could also go to the doctor. That my mental state could be treated in a way that didn’t involve snipping off my upper epidermis with a pair of nail scissors.
I have never taken antidepressants. When my self-harm was discovered, I had a couple of sessions with a counselor until she was signed off work sick (for depression incidentally, an irony proving that anyone is capable of being affected). After that, slowly over the years, I found ways to self-medicate when my head got fuzzy, some more successful than others. For example, though I don’t do it as frequently as I could, exercise always makes me feel better even when spending an afternoon staring at an empty wall seems like the most appealing use of my time. Alcohol, when consumed in a group of fun friends, can be a temporary distraction, though when glass three veers towards glass four (as it often does in the North of England) the hangover the next day will increase any issues tenfold. Having friends, family and a boyfriend who understand that occasionally I will bail on plans not because I don’t want to spend time with you but because all of a sudden the thought of having to get dressed and leave the living room is too much to handle, is amazing.
I’ve also learned to recognize when I’m in a bad mood for a legitimate reason, such as a snap election being called, and when I’m beginning to sink into a vat of my own thoughts so deep I’m unlikely to emerge for several days. When that happens I now address it head on as much as possible, I get proactive, try and make some changes.
Where I would once wait until everyone had gone to bed before fishing those nail scissors out from behind some books on my bookshelf and feeling ten seconds of numb relief, I now write or walk.
Those two acts more than anything help me to clear the fog that sometimes fills my head. Both give me time and space to think freely, get stuff out of my head that I don’t want in there anymore. I’m lucky that I managed to work out that’s what works for me, without much help from a medical professional though I now know they’re there when I need them and will go to my doctors, unashamedly, whenever I need to, be it for visible illnesses or invisible mental issues.
When I finish writing this, instead of shutting my notebook and shoving it back in my drawer, I’ll click publish, share on my social media, and wonder if anyone reads it. I already feel slightly nervous and panicked about that. Not because strangers might read it, but because people I know might. Because, after everything, the sad fact of the matter is that mental health is still not taken seriously, or spoken about enough. People still roll their eyes when the word depression comes up in conversation or a story is told about someone off work on stress. I would never call in sick to work because of a mental health issue, though I would if I’d twisted my ankle. My response when people notice my arm scars is still, invariably, that I fell over when I was younger and got some gravel stuck in my arm.
But I realize that if I want the conversation around mental health to change, I too must work to normalize it, and that starts by admitting I’ve never actually had gravel stuck in my arm. When I show people the way my broken finger grew back wonky they look with interest, yet if I mention I’ve struggled with mental health issues they more often than not stare awkwardly at the floor. Let’s change that so that people growing up now and in the future understand the normalcy of their own problems and make an appointment at the doctors, instead of hiding a sharp implement behind their copy of Jane Eyre.