Treading the line between not stigmatising mental ill health (after all, one in four of us will experience a diagnoseable mental health issue every single year, which is about half of us over the course of a lifetime) but not glamorising it either is one of the most important aspects of my job. Over the almost-thirteen years I’ve spent touring schools, colleges and events throughout the world speaking about mental health and related issues like body image, I’m not afraid to say I haven’t walked that tightrope particularly well, in the past.
I’ve equated my eating disorder with my former, extremely brief, foray into modelling, when the truth is it began years before. Being amongst fashion industry types might have exacerbated my bulimia, but it didn’t cause it. I’ve been reticent to share when I’ve been struggling with ongoing anxiety, believing my audiences had to buy into the notion that I was 100% ‘recovered’ in order to take anything I was telling them about mental health seriously.
The unvarnished truth is far more nuanced, but also (I have discovered) way more powerful. After years of therapy and introspection, I now know that my eating disorder was a terrible coping technique for buried trauma and subsequent panic. Whilst I would describe myself as recovered from bulimia nervosa, it’s root cause – anxiety – is something I still have to manage. My recovery continues to involve constant readjustment in response to shifts in the tectonic plates of my environment and circumstances. It is an exercise in vigilance, but it is totally worth it.
Mental health issues aren’t aspirational and the notion that they are is both dangerous and pervasive. The narrative which tells us mental illness is synonymous with creativity and fame still lingers in every fable of the ‘troubled’ musician or ‘tortured’ artist. Yet, there was nothing conducive to inspiration or innovation in the eight years of my life I spent with my head in a toilet, or the numerous episodes of panic which have seen me hyperventilating in a corner.
And yet. Experiencing mental illness has undoubtedly given me something valuable, something which has enhanced my understanding of what it means to be human. Or, to be more accurate, recovery has. Embarking on the recovery journey involves, first and foremost, admitting something is wrong – something which you alone do not have the resources or capacity to fix. It requires acknowledging your reliance on others and seeking to nourish your relationships with them. But most of all, it necessitates an understanding of ourselves: What triggers certain emotions or responses, techniques for managing those responses and developing a knack for identifying not only which situations might be difficult to navigate, but also when we’re not coping.
Experiencing mental illness has undoubtedly given me something valuable, something which has enhanced my understanding of what it means to be human
In my case, the most valuable thing I learned in recovery was the concept of ‘obsessive compulsive drive’. I am a person with hella anxious energy. This presents me with a fairly binary choice: I can either channel that energy into a project, convert it into passion and let it propel me forward, or I can stand still, let the energy turn inward and self-destruct. That’s why all those insta memes telling anxious people to ‘have a lavender bath’ do my swede. Once I understood this about myself, everything about my history and behaviour fell into place. Suddenly, it felt like anxiety was a wave I could surf, rather than standing on the shore helplessly waiting for it to knock me over.
This might explain why people recovering from mental illness are generally the sanest people I know. They’ve taken the time to get to know themselves better. As well as being safe aware, people in recovery are, in my experience, savvy to social issues too. Often, recovery involves the realisation that there is something fundamentally toxic and broken about the way we live, that low mood or panic are a reasonable, human response to it and that, in the words of my favourite quote of all time from Jiddu Krishnamurthy ‘it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society’.
The truth is, mental illness or not, that voyage of self-discovery is something everyone should embark upon. With more of us struggling with our mental health in a post-pandemic world, this might be a potential silver lining to a very dark and ominous cloud.