This week is Mental Health Awareness week in Ireland, and as I sit here awaiting the arrival of my third tiny human, I’ve had time on my hands to reflect on my own mental health, my past experiences and where I am today. Mental health will mean different things to different people, but many of us have struggled at some point in our lives sometimes unknown to the people around us. That’s the thing about mental health, it’s not always something you can see. It’s not a broken leg that you can slap a cast on and mend in a specific amount of time. It’s invisible at times, the struggle can be silent, and accepting or seeking out help can be a massive challenge.
I Need Help
When I was 23, I admitted myself to St.Pat’s Hospital in Dublin. I had managed to develop an eating disorder which was out of control and I knew I needed help. A series of events had led me to become obsessed with my weight. My restrictive diet was all consuming, and my weight had spiralled downwards over a 10 month period. I was stuck in a binge/purge cycle that I couldn’t stop and my health and well being were slipping away. I knew I was out of my depth and I knew I didn’t know how to fix it. I was lost.
On the face of things, very few people knew what was going on for me. I wore a mask, I acted the clown and over exerted myself to be the life and soul of the party. When I look back at the time, I can only describe myself as a performing monkey – trying my hardest to convince myself and everyone around me that I was great when inside I was crumbling. Making that realisation, and coming clean with my now husband and family was incredibly difficult. I was embarrassed and ashamed yet I knew I needed their help. An eating disorder is an awfully sneaky affliction, that makes you deceptive and untruthful. It makes you into a person you don’t want to be, and your end goal is everything, even to the detriment of some of the most important relationships in your life.
The Road to Recovery
I will be honest, I was determined from the outset of my treatment. This maybe wasn’t the case for everyone on the programme I was on, as obviously everyone’s experience was incredibly different and personal. I was a girl on a mission – I didn’t want having an eating disorder to define who I was. As much as I loved being skinny (and boy did I love it at the time), I loved being able to actually enjoy my life more, and deep down, even then, I knew that. Eating again, getting my weight back up and resisting the urge to purge after meals was agonising. It was stressful and upsetting.
Through cognitive behavioural therapy techniques and a series of other programmes, I finally found a way to manage, get through and use strategies to support myself enough to move in the direction I wanted to. After spending a 3 month period in and out of hospital, I finally started to transition back to the real world. I returned to work. I slowly began to socialise again. I began to be able to eat out again and enjoy things I once had. It took time, and support from those around me, but I started to feel like myself again.
I continued to check in with a consultant for 18 months until she was happy to discharge me fully. I felt a huge relief that day. I had been well in myself for a while and wanted to be free of a less happy time in my life. I wanted to look forward and move on. Family and friends kept a close eye on me for a time, conscious of what they may have missed and been unaware of before. A smiling happy face doesn’t always mirror how someone is feeling and that was a lesson we had all learnt the hard way. I had gotten engaged that year, and everyone worried about me and the temptation to diet for a wedding. I on the other hand had moved to a place in my head where I had a certain level of acceptance for how I looked. I had made a firm decision within myself that I didn’t want to return to that dark place ruled by obsession, deception and unhappiness. No dress or wedding day was worth that.
Becoming a Mom
6 months after marrying the guy, who had supported me through what can only be described as a shit storm, I got pregnant. The feeling of seeing a positive pregnancy test was one of utter relief. Relief that I could get pregnant. Relief that I was pregnant. The instant protective instinct that came over me was primal. That was the day I started giving my body credit for what it was capable of, and started appreciating just how incredible that was. To think of the abuse I had subjected it to for almost a year, and here it was about to give me one of the most incredible things in the world I could ask for. Becoming a mother is one of the most life changing experiences I think I have ever gone through. I don’t mean this to sound dramatic, but I’m being honest. All of a sudden my focus shifted away from how my body looked to what my body was creating – and for me that was revolutionary.
My children have left me with many marks to remind me where they once were. My stomach is now a tribute to their existence. I’m happy to be in a place in my life where I can appreciate that for what it is. Motherhood has made me appreciate my body more in the last 3 years than I had managed throughout the rest of my teenage or adult life. My outlook is very different to that of 22 year old Emma. Worries about what people think of me no longer consume me with anxiety and dread. Instead I’m happy in my skin, happy to be taken as I am and happy for that not be to everyone’s taste. I have learnt to be grateful for what I have, and measure my success beyond my weight or how I look. I love to eat, I love to cook and I love being with my family – and I am mindful never to lose sight of the importance of any of those things. I am happier in myself now than ever before, and I have motherhood to thank for that.