Looking back, I can’t say that I really had much understanding or even awareness of my mental health until my early twenties, when I started to explore my sexuality.
Whilst “coming out” to others is the scary part for many LGBT people, my story is a little bit different. Realising I was gay was the hard part, and I believe coming to terms with my sexuality triggered my struggles with my mental health.
Liking girls didn’t give me a mental illness. However, the process of accepting my sexuality seemed to push the chaos in my mind too far. Not being able to explain or make sense of what I was feeling really floored me. For the first time in my life, I was faced with something I couldn’t control. I use the term “triggered” when discussing how my sexuality contributed to my struggles, because when I look back on my life, I’ve always had a bit of a chaotic mind. My mood can change as quickly as the weather, and I’ve never been able to do things by halves. I can get obsessed with things (and people) and I have a long list of self-destructive tendencies. However, I don’t remember this causing me much concern until I reached my twenties.
In late 2013, I went through a dark time. I changed from a sociable, carefree individual to someone who laid in bed and cried at the end of each day. I mostly stopped going out at the weekends, and any nights out I did have were alcohol fuelled, often ending with me sitting on my bedroom floor in a flood of tears. I stopped socialising with friends. My grades at university suffered, which the perfectionist in me couldn’t cope with. It was as if I was on the outside looking in, watching, as the person I had spent twenty years becoming fell apart in front of my very eyes.
Things reached a climax in January 2014 when I felt I physically no longer could go on. There’s a powerful quote about suicide that reads:
“I didn’t want to die; I just wanted the way I was feeling to stop.”
Looking back, my twenty-year-old self related so much to this. I had and still have so much going for me in life, but the strength of my emotions just felt too much to bear. The day after I was hospitalised, I was referred to the local crisis team who introduced me to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It was during this time that I started to explore who I was for the first time and face some of the feelings and emotions that I’d previously tried to push down.
Over the next few years, I was in and out of therapy. I tried tirelessly to get to grips with my intense emotions, and to understand the root of them. Whilst my self-awareness had started to grow, I began to struggle with intense feelings of anxiety, particularly around my romantic relationships. I’d follow the same cycle of falling hard for someone, then going to extreme lengths to avoid them leaving me, even though they had no intention of doing so! I was consumed by a need for certainty and reassurance.
Most of my twenties feel like an anxious blur – I spent a large part of my life really disliking who I was. I would watch others navigate life and relationships with relative ease and often wonder why everything felt that little bit harder for me. It felt like I was more emotional and more sensitive than everyone around me, and that the feelings I felt were felt that little bit deeper. Whilst everyone else was happily riding the waves of life, I was forever fighting against the current.
Things started to make sense in April 2018, when a psychiatrist diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Personality Difficulties. Following my diagnoses, I was recommended for psychodynamic talking therapy. This felt very different to CBT, in that it delved deep into my past and helped me understand why I think and feel the way I do. I always used to think of myself as a very open person who was okay with being vulnerable. I’ve had more than one person tell me “I bet you’re great at therapy, you love talking about feelings!” However, I’ve since learned that even the most “open” people have their limits and that reaching inwards can be really difficult.
I think the mistake a lot of people make with therapy is thinking that by the end of it, you will be “fixed”.
Over the years, I’ve put a lot of time and energy into trying to change the person I am, trying many “self-improvement” techniques and waiting in anticipation for the day I wake up and feel “fixed”. You may be surprised to hear that at thirty years old, that day still hasn’t come. However, years of therapy has changed my perspective. I’m no longer hoping to wake up as a different person one morning. I’m learning to accept my softness, sensitivity and depth. I am working hard to understand how I fit into a difficult world filled with complex people. I’m learning how to live.
I love a good analogy and for the last few years, I’ve tried to think of managing my mental health like learning to ride a bike. Someone shows you what to do, guides you and maybe holds you steady for a bit whilst you’re wobbly…but ultimately, you’re the one holding the handlebars and doing the riding. Eventually, with a bit of practice you get less wobbly, and you can ride on your own. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy… There are bumps in the road and difficult conditions and even the best riders fall off. However, having the perseverance to get back on that bike and keep peddling… That’s the real test.