“You need help.” These three words, in spite of being my worst nightmare, saved me. They first came to me in the form of a delicate voice inside my head, and even though my first reaction was to say “shut up” – yes, I was talking to myself – I didn’t dismiss them completely, because as much as I hated to admit it, they were absolutely right.
I grew up as a cliché – or at least that’s what it seemed. I hardly ever threw tantrums as a child – not even on my first day of kindergarten. I was utterly ashamed of the chocolate milk stain on my new uniform, but I refused to cry and make a scene. I always ate my veggies and I mostly got A’s during my education years. As far as I can remember, perfection had always been my ultimate goal.
The life I apparently had was fake, just like the mask I wore when I was around other people. But everyone bought it. As it turns out, I’m quite talented as both an actress and a liar. It was during my alone time, however, that reality hit me – it has a way of doing that, no matter how hard we try to run away from it. All of a sudden, I’d start feeling extremely nauseous and my palms would start to swear just before my whole body did as well, and it would feel like I would freeze to death. This inexplicable cold announced that the shaking was about to begin, and I knew very well that the hallucinations would haunt me soon – aggressive voices screaming angrily at me and shadows with scary eyes flying around. Most of these panic attacks would start while everyone was sleeping and end up with me curled up in the bathroom floor for hours after having thrown up in the toilet.
As a child, I often wondered if the way I lived was normal. (Perhaps everyone felt the way I did and I was simply not good at handling life. Perhaps it was okay to perform funny rituals to relieve anxiety – like turning the light switch on and off 10 times before going to bed because otherwise my house would catch fire and my family would die.) But the years went by and I started to realize something was very wrong. The possibility of transforming myself into a perfect being was slipping through my fingers, and of course, I could never let this show, so I kept up my act. I also decided I didn’t want to feel anything anymore.
To this end, I started thinking of ways I could become numb and careless in order to take a break from my own mind. In the eyes of other people, I was only behaving according to my age. Some partying and innocent flirting never hurt anyone, after all. Healthy eating and exercising a lot were actually good for me, right? Nope. I got drunk as often as I could, although only socially and never having it become an addiction, it was still one of my temporary escape routes.
At times I felt indestructible, almost superhuman, a state similar to that of being high on some substance, some kind of hypomanic state that never lead to true happiness. But I knew that the better I felt, the worse the fall would be. It didn’t take long for me to feel empty again, only for the cycle to start all over again.
I developed an eating disorder, because what better way is there to engage in self-destructive behavior? Putting food in my body suddenly felt unnatural to me, and starving myself made me feel in control and eased my anxiety. Of course, these apparently positive feelings where only an illusion created by my malnourished brain.
I still don’t know which was more difficult, realizing that I had been living with mental illness since I was very young or accepting that I needed help. Either way, what matters is that I became humble enough to bow my head and, for the first time in my life, say the words “I cannot do this on my own,” out loud.
I am aware of the stigma that accompanies mental illness, which is why I must state that I am in no way ashamed of my disorders. I am, however, not going to mention the psychiatric names of my diagnoses or which medication I’m on, not because of shame, but because I refuse to be defined by any of it.
This is not a war I have won, it’s more like a series of small battles I fight every day. Truth is, life does not get better: we do. Things become easier because we become stronger. We must learn to become our own rainbow after the storm, for it will not appear magically. I am not a victim. I can still get lost, but I know how to find myself again. Turns out I’m never going to be able to reach perfection – nor do I want to –, but I sure as hell know how to crawl my way back from a dark place.