Trigger Warning: This post contains descriptions of self harm, eating disorders and other mental health issues. If you, or someone you know is having mental health issues you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 for help and support. For help with eating disorders in your local area visit the National Eating Disorder Collaboration website.
At some point last year I began to eat less. I started to compare myself to every girl I saw and found myself wanting. I started to exercise more and weigh myself more and watched as the scales fluctuated. I spent hours poring over Facebook photos of myself comparing my face shape, weight and attractiveness to that of myself in previous years and to other people. I starved and then I binged and my emotions became entirely tied to what the scales showed. I would check my body in the mirror what felt like hundreds of times a day and sometimes be so disgusted with what I saw that I would pick at the skin on my face to calm myself down. I began to avoid mirrors entirely after a while, and getting dressed to go out became almost impossible so I stopped going out a lot of the time.
Then one day I started crying in between classes or after being out of the house. I woke up and felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, that I couldn’t breathe and that it hurt to see the sunshine. I would look at strangers or the people around me and feel an overwhelming sadness and sense of missing out because I couldn’t do anything. I tried to do things that had always made me happy, like taking my dog to the park, but I only cried more because happiness now wasn’t any part of the experience. I stopped listening to music because every song reminded me of something I was missing.
Then one day I decided that I couldn’t get out of bed. That I couldn’t deal with the thoughts and the sadness anymore. I felt tired all the time, anxious about leaving the house and I cried almost every time I opened my eyes, so I stayed in bed. Sometimes I could pretend I was ok and go outside, but those moments became further and further apart. I began to fantasise over and over about hurting myself, about stabbing myself in the stomach. Instead of worrying me these thoughts gave me peace.
One night I drove. I wanted to escape but the crying came with me. I tried to drive off the road or into the path of an oncoming truck but couldn’t bear the idea that others might be hurt in the process of me hurting myself. I hated myself for not being brave enough to do it. I stopped down an empty country road and chose a rock, then drove to a truck stop and tried to work up the courage to smash it into my face. I got out of the car and sat on a tree stump and cried because I couldn’t. I drove home. I woke up in the morning and pretended I was fine. I told nobody.
I started to think about what my future would hold. How I couldn’t have children because I didn’t want to pass on a predisposition for depression and how I wouldn’t be any sort of a role model or mother to a child. How I couldn’t have a relationship because I hated myself physically and didn’t want anyone to see me naked. How no-one would want to be with someone who was always negative, preoccupied or obsessed with their weight and appearance. How I couldn’t have the career I wanted because my depression would always be there making it impossible to hold down a job. How I didn’t believe that I would ever be smart enough, or brave enough, to have the career I had only just begun to realise that I wanted. How my friends would grow tired of my need for them and realise that our friendship wasn’t worth their while. How my family would all be better off if they didn’t always have to look after me.
I asked for help and got it. It didn’t get better. I cut myself to ease the pain, asked for help and got it. It didn’t get better. I remembered that this had all happened before. The anorexia as a teenager and the depression as a young adult; they hadn’t ever both visited at the same time before though. I began to think that because it had happened before, it would happen again and again – forever. I will always be weaker, needier, sadder, less than other people. I will never hope, I will never understand life, I will never be happy with myself, I will always be left behind, and I will always be a burden to others – financially, emotionally, and time-wise. That there is a secret to living that I have somehow missed, that perhaps I was a person who just wasn’t built to live in this world.
And mostly I felt guilty. Guilty about having everything – family, friends, good grades, money, work, health, youth – which meant I had nothing to be sad about. That there were people out there so much worse off than me who deserved the time and energy I was demanding. I felt spoilt and needy like a petulant child and guilty that I was letting down everyone who was trying to help me get better. Guilty that I cried at the dinner table while trying to eat which made everyone around me cry too. Guilty that I rejected the small tokens of food my family offered, in frustration because they hadn’t got it exactly right. Guilty that I sometimes hated the very people who were offering everything they could to support me; hated them for the simple fact that they were able to do everything that I couldn’t and that they had everything I wanted but had no hope to ever have.
I felt disconnected from everyone and everything, including myself. I didn’t know who this “Rachel” person was who everyone claimed to miss or want back. Or I knew who she was but I wasn’t her anymore. I even became envious of that Rachel because she sounded so perfect. I couldn’t understand the pain on the faces around me. I couldn’t understand why people were messaging and calling, or sending flowers and balloons. I couldn’t understand that the people in the street around me weren’t all staring and judging me. People noticed I was different but didn’t know how to ask what was wrong and it made me feel alone. I felt like I would never be the same as them and that people just thought I was weak and attention seeking.
The hardest part was feeling that I had somehow brought this on myself. That I must have previously done something so bad in my life, or was innately such a bad person, that meant that I deserved to feel like this. I thought that no-one could possibly be so unlucky as to feel this way by an accident of genetics, or a predisposition to mental illness. That other people didn’t feel this way because they were better and stronger than me. I had brought this on myself; I deserved this.
I heard professionals tell me that I was sick; that I was clinically depressed, anxious, and anorexic but I didn’t truly believe it. They said that I needed treatment – antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, and food more than anything else. They told me that hospitalisation was the next step but I didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. When they talked about hospital I thought “surely I’m not that bad” or “there are people out there much sicker than me” so I left myself no option to get better. I didn’t want this struggle to be my life. I couldn’t stand to wake up even one more morning feeling like this and it not getting better. I didn’t want this life anymore. I didn’t want to wake up anymore.
I took some pills, then took some more. I took them feeling a calm and clinical detachment. I was numb. I waited for them to take effect and pressed a hole in my arm with scissors. I wrote “I hope it won’t hurt anymore” on the back of a note my friend had wrote me that said “You are beautiful – don’t ever forget it”. My mother came to say goodnight and I pretended I was fine. My father came to say goodnight and I did the same. I closed my eyes and thought let fate decide this. By chance, my mother came in to check on me again and so I told her. I closed my eyes and waited as my parents sat beside me and pleaded for me to stay awake. The ambulance came and through the sleep and the pain and the sickness I heard them comment on how little of me there was and I felt a flash of satisfaction. I kept my eyes closed through the night so I wouldn’t see who was trying to talk to me or who was trying to help me. I kept my eyes closed through the ambulance journey to the hospital while a woman told me to hold on and that I’d be ok. I lay in the hospital bed and when a doctor told me to open my eyes I did and all I saw was my parents standing behind him and the pain on their faces so I shut my eyes again. I answered the doctor’s questions and felt guilty and ashamed about what I had done. I came home from hospital and couldn’t make eye contact with my family because I was so ashamed. I watched them cry and didn’t feel anything but guilt for what I had done to them. I was not me anymore, I was not a sister or a daughter or a friend. I tried to explain and they let me talk and let me cry and now I think about it every single day. I carry the note with me every single day.
I thought all the time about how many months I was wasting in sickness, lost time that I would never get back. I hated myself for not being able to live life to the fullest. I started talking about how I had just missed a season. But I realise now that part isn’t true; I’ve been here the whole time.
If my suicide attempt had have succeeded I wouldn’t want to have just been missed for my happy, smiling, fun, silly, easy-going self and have people shocked and asking how “someone like that, someone so happy, could possibly kill themselves?” I would want the part of me that is withdrawn, the ‘me’ that lies un-showered, curled up on the couch, crying while reading or watching a Disney movie to distract myself from the pain, to be remembered and missed too. The part that I don’t share because I see it as a weakness, because it’s needs too much of others’ time and attention, because it’s not something that others could possibly want to be around. This part, this is also me.
It turns out I haven’t missed a season or lost months that I won’t get back. I’ve been here that whole time. I may have missed some outings, some parties, some classes, some of the day-to-day aspects of life, but I was still here. I need this part of my life to be recognised, because I feel lost in it. I feel separated from my ‘normal’ life; I feel ‘sick’ and ‘weak’, which makes ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’ an impossible dream, a place I will never get to again. I think I realise now I can be both, though I’m still learning how to do this.
I need to know that it’s not so black and white. That I can have moments where I smile then cry, or look forward to a future while being terrified that I won’t have one, or feel like I can’t possibly do this while hoping that I can. That as hard it is to know that no-one can possibly truly know the pain that I’m feeling there are people in my life who I can count on to try to understand. That I can feel like this but that it can get better. That I might feel alone but that I am definitely not alone.
Recovery isn’t as simple as making the choice to fight or give up, it’s a slow, hard and confronting process. My recovery started soon after my suicide attempt when I made a choice to tell a few select friends and ask for their help and support. I started treatment at St Vincent’s hospital’s eating disorder program and began to understand what makes me vulnerable to having an eating disorder; my family history, my tendency towards perfectionism, and not being a person who opens up or asks for help easily. I worked with a psychiatrist and psychologist to learn how to understand the relationship between my depression and the eating disorder, and to find new ways to manage distressing emotions and low moods. Medication, relaxation and sleep became essential recovery tools.
Slowly I started to get better. One good hour became one good day, which became a few good days, which became a whole good week. It was like riding a rollercoaster and the constant ups and downs exhausted me and made me feel, again, like I would never recover. But thankfully the good days kept coming back. For me, recovery involved changing behaviours and thought patterns that I had relied on for over twelve years. At times it has felt like I am leaving a part of myself behind and striving for a future that in some ways is completely unrecognisable from my past. I have learnt to take time out from social media and the world when I need to; how to use mirrors in a healthier way; the importance of not making comparisons with others; and how to see asking for help as showing not weakness but strength. I have learned to question the values and beliefs I place on my idea of perfection, and better manage the ways in which I berate myself for not meeting these expectations. My family and the network of friends I trusted with my ‘secret’ helped me to see that I had nothing to be ashamed of and gave me ongoing and unwavering support which I have relied on over and over and over again.
My best friend told me recently how amazing the change in me is and that seeing the ‘real me’ starting to come out has been incredible to watch. This one simple statement has been one of the most resounding rewards for my efforts. It turns out I’m ok just as I am.
If you think you or someone you know is experiencing despression or anxiety you should talk to an adult you trust about it. If you don’t want to tell someone you know about it try going to your GP, local community health centre or find your nearest headspace centre. You can also call beyond blue or get online counselling at eheadspace. (These services are all confidential).
If you think that you or someone you know might be suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important to seek help straight away. Visit the National Eating Disorder Collaboration website for more information on help in your local area.
Rachel is a daughter, sister, twin, godmother, goddaughter, girlfriend and friend. About to hit 30. Totally dog obsessed. An avid dancer, reader of Scottish crime novels and watcher of Disney movies. An aspiring sociologist and self-confessed nerd. Learning to become a voice for mental health openness and awareness.