Trigger Warning: Suicide and Self Harming mentioned here.
For the first few years of high school, I had two choices of how to get there. The first two years I took the main road, until one day a guy tried to pull me into a stairwell on the premise that he needed help reading the names on the entry phone system. I got the gut instinct that he wasn’t legit, and I ran like the wind. After that I began taking the shortcut along by a river and then a cycle path. It was usually deserted and I rarely encountered anyone walking along the river path as it was usually so muddy.
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s on that path that I had what I think was probably my first God encounter.
It was 1999. Devolution had happened, and I with many others took to the streets the night before the last day of the school year to celebrate the opening of Scottish Parliament. Garbage were playing (for the young’uns out there, they are a band, and I loved them). I was thirsty and I drank my older friend’s cheap lemonade. Turned out it tasted gross not because of it’s cheapness but due to the vodka she had added to it.
This was to be our first night of seeing why me and alcohol don’t mix well. I don’t remember much but I do remember getting hysterical at one point and feeling horrific the next day. Soon after I started having panic attacks and I had no idea why.
I don’t think I dared share with my friends about it, they saw me have panic attacks I think. I would also black out. I don’t really remember properly. I also began self harming. I would actually sometimes wake up and find myself with tools for self harming in my hand. I did not understand what was happening to me, and I was so ashamed that I didn’t have it ‘together’.
What I do remember is about 9 months later leaving school and walking not to my house (we had moved) but with my friend who lived close to the cycle path. I said goodbye and I remember thinking that’s the last time I’m going to see you.
I walked down to the river.
As usual it was completely deserted.
I climbed onto the railings.
I took a breath, and got ready to launch myself in…
…and something pulled me off the railings.
I thought it was a person, but when I turned around there was no one there.
That freaked me out even more.
And then I heard a voice, asking me what I was doing.
By this time I was sobbing “I just want to die, I can’t deal with all of this anymore”
And I heard so clearly, “No, you need to live, and one day you’re going to help people that have been through these horrible things you’ve experienced”
I think I had a conversation with this voice for a few minutes longer, and I honestly don’t remember now what was said. I just remember hearing someone saying ‘No’ as I got pulled back off the railings and telling me that I needed to live so I could help others.
And no one being there. That really freaked me out.
Afterwards, I took a few deep breaths, wiped my eyes and went home. I did confess to one of my friends outside of school a little of what happened later that night. Not the hearing voices part. Just the trying to throw myself in a river and ‘deciding’ not to part.
That friend told one of my friends from school, who rightfully told a teacher. I was so angry with her, even though I knew deep down she had done the right thing.
At that time, I had two family members who were really struggling with their mental health (one was in hospital). I knew knowing I was unwell too would not help and their reaction would probably add to my problems rather than solve them. A school nurse or psychiatrist called a girl out of class to assess her because the girl had a similar name to mine and thought she was me. This girl also happened to be sharing a class with me the following period and I overheard her talking to her pals about how she’d been pulled out of her last class and asked all these questions about why she wanted to kill herself.
Next thing I was being pulled out of class and being made to do a questionnaire. I was smart enough (or dumb enough) to doctor it. It was fairly obvious how they needed you to answer, so I answered enough to not seem too fine, but enough to make it seem like I was perfectly ok, and convinced both this health professional and my Guidance teacher that I was just having a case of teenage melodrama and begged my Guidance teacher not to call my Mum.
They left it at that, and I was relieved.
I made a decision that I needed to survive, and really did work on it.
A month later I took part in an exchange, met my high school boyfriend and in some ways life got better.
My mental health illness did not go away.
Neither did my physical illnesses – I developed migraines, psoriasis, and continued to experience what we now know to be symptoms of endometriosis.
My Mum got concerned and went raiding my bedroom until she found my journals from the previous year, and went with my Aunt to the school. They then told her about my pondering suicide.
The reaction was pretty much everything I expected and worse.
My GP was pretty shocking when I went to them about multiple issues, and even told me I was to blame for my Mum being ill. She (the GP) had no interest in my health whatsoever.
I turned 16, and I took charge – staying at my boyfriend’s and various friends to avoid being at home. Because I was now an adult I was able to change to a different medical practice and saw a GP who began to treat my illnesses. However, I never confessed about my depression, self harming and panic attacks.
I got scared by the extent to which I would feel like I’d never escape my life. Although I never tried to attempt suicide again, I did fear I would at points where I felt hopeless. I even wrote letters and asked my friend to keep them for me just in case something happened to me.
I should have told the good GP. I should probably have told a friend’s parent (who I trusted) about what was really going on. My blinkered teenage mind who didn’t have enough knowledge and thought I knew enough didn’t know that there was help for me.
In the end, I left Edinburgh and went to Aberdeen. Only then did I feel safe enough to share with trusted friends and process the cause of my panic attacks. They encouraged me to go to a good GP (thanks to freshers flu and other first year uni dramas, between a group of us we had met several of the university GPs and so knew which ones were good and which ones were likely to seem a bit clueless or dismissive). I went to counselling for a bit, which wasn’t helpful because the counsellors weren’t a great fit, but I lacked the courage to try again. I also lacked the courage to go to the support group my GP gave me the contact details of. In the end, it was a friend coming to my flat after overdosing on painkillers and accompanying her in the ambulance that shocked me into doing something to change things once and for all.
Because of not facing the problems head on, and being so ashamed, I drove a wedge between my friends and family in Edinburgh. It was always hard to come back. And on the day that I decided to come back 11 years ago, the thought of living in this city again filled me with a lot of anxiety and fear. Fear that only subsided because a good chunk of friends from Aberdeen moved to Edinburgh in the months before I did, and that made me feel better about it.
So in all honesty? This is a tale about how not to deal with mental health.
I didn’t seek medical help.
I didn’t understand that just like not all GPs are the right match for you, it matters even more when it comes to counselling. And counsellors are not going to be offended if you try them and want to try someone else.
I let shame and fear of stigma stop me from telling the truth to the people that loved me for way too long.
I let fear of seeing how others reacted to medication stop me for trying it – and I probably needed it at some points.
Things got better when the secrets were out. It meant that friends could be supportive, empathetic and understanding. I learned who my true friends were, and they were the people who didn’t call me crazy. They were the people who had my back and didn’t judge.
I’ll also say that the best decision I made was to stop drinking alcohol. I do occasionally have a drink, but I only got better when I stopped drinking. Alcohol makes me hysterical and then brings me crashing into a depression. I also got a bit scared when I used it to numb myself when my insomnia was insanely tough to handle. Because of the timing of this decision tying in with when I started going to church, a lot of people assumed that being pretty much teetotal was to do with me being religious. It’s not. Friends in church were used to people not drinking for religious reasons, so they were cool with it. Friends outside of church wondered where the Bacardi Queen had gone, and used to tease me and pressure me to drink. After a while, I stopped going out with those friends out of self-preservation.
If you are a school teacher or GP reading this…if you have a teenager dealing with mental health stuff, please be sensitive to the fact that teenagers are smart. They know when something is out of the ordinary like pulling someone out of class with no explanation (especially if the staff member pulling them out is not someone who is a known staff member). School gossip will stop kids talking when they need to. Equally if you are a GP, treat a young person with the dignity and respect you would an adult. They might not have the same knowledge as an adult with a bit more life experience, but they aren’t stupid. They just need to have information explained to them, and they are likely going to be terrified about asking ‘silly’ questions, or embarrassed to talk about their bodies.
If you are a parent, your child may need to talk to someone different from you who is outside of the family. Unless your child asks you to be present, let them have the space to talk freely without the pressure of fearing that you won’t like what they say or you getting upset. Your children might know how hard it will be to hear that their baby is in pain…and they want to protect you. Protecting you from hearing stuff may indirectly silence them. Equally they might need you to talk for them or be in the room. Also, know that you probably are going to need support so you can support your child better, and that’s ok. It takes a village (that cliche is incredibly true).
If you are someone who has had depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, I’m not going to say JUST TALK. Because you need to choose the right person to talk to. Talk to someone who has the tools to help you. That might be a Guidance teacher, school nurse, your occupational health person at work, your GP, Community Psychiatric Nurse, a counsellor or a charity like The Samaritans. Likely all that’s going to happen if you randomly choose someone you’re going to find they don’t respond the way you hope, because they don’t know any better. And that’s not necessarily their fault. You might end up feeling more hopeless as a result…but there are people that can help. There are tons of charities as well as the samaritans, like Mind, Scottish Association for Mental Health. It might be you need to find an organisation that will give you support about another facet of your life which needs dealing with and is causing your mental health to take a dip. Do not give up until you find the person with the tools you need. They are out there.