Last week was Mental Health Week.
Endorsed by the World Federation for Mental Health and marked in over 150 countries at different times of the year, Mental Health Awareness Week is held every year in October. The Mental Health Foundation has organised Mental Health Awareness Week in New Zealand since 1993. If you or someone you know is struggling, help information can be found at the bottom of this article.
Today, Christchurch woman Megan Nelis shares her story – a battle with mental illness that almost claimed her life. She has opened up to raise awareness, help others and get the message across that mental illness has many faces.
Ever since I was young, I have always been the self-conscious kind – worried about what people think of my hair, my clothes, or what I say.
Despite this, I had a happy and fulfilling childhood, but things started to change around the age of 12/13, when puberty and my secondary-schooling education started.
The awareness of myself escalated to the extreme, causing self-esteem to plummet.
I never let it show, however, by putting on a smiling face, trying to make those around me, friends and family, accepting and connected to me.
This low self-esteem had me feeling out of control, the world was unpredictable and I didn’t like this.
To initially cope with this feeling, I put my head down in the books and studied, unknowingly lessening my contact with people.
It was my way of dealing with the unpredictable and uncontrollable chaos around me.
My head was turning into a ground of torment and torture – a critic of every move, word, thought – but a smile was still shared with the outside world.
As time progressed, this unhealthy strategy soon lost its ability to make me feel in control – I needed more.
So, at around 15, I decided to turn to food.
What started off as “clean-up” of my diet soon became addictive and took a turn for the worse.
I was never overweight, a perfectly healthy and proportionate size.
Slimming down on my intake started to produce results – my weight was dropping and control was being felt.
Not long after, people started noticing, “Megan, you are looking really good!”.
This fuelled my desire to keep going, if people liked me more a few kilos less, imagine if I lost even more weight!
Even with such positive reinforcement from my friends and family, my head was still hurting.
Nothing I did was ever enough – there was always room to improve, someone would always be better, I was never worth it, despite the outer world saying otherwise.
In 2016, within the space of six months, I had lost almost 30kg, dropping to a BMI below 16.
I was constantly exhausted, with clumps of hair falling out, and lanugo forming all over my body – a lifeless, emaciated form of my previous self.
Nevertheless, the smile still remained.
I denied having a serious problem, to myself and others, for so long that I started to believe it, and maybe others did too.
It was my school’s guidance counsellor that broached the topic of an eating disorder with me, and forced me to make an emergency doctor’s appointment – this was the beginning
of hitting rock bottom.
My local GP soon referred me to Princess Margaret Hospital’s Eating Disorder Service, the only one for the entire South Island of New Zealand.
My heart rate was 40, where it usually lies between 60 to 80 in healthy people, and blood results looking appalling – I was told I wouldn’t last much longer if I kept going the way I was.
My body was wasting away, my heart and other organs were literally feeding on themselves in order to get energy needed to keep me alive.
The diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa, along with several depressive and anxiety disorders, saw the beginning of my long, bumpy journey of recovery.
For the next three years, my life was composed of strict bed-rest at home, countless numbers of pills and medications, meals and snacks three times each per day, weekly and
often twice-weekly medical appointments for weight, blood tests, physical observations, and numerous types of therapy approaches.
In addition to this, I spent four months collectively as an inpatient in the eating disorders unit at the hospital.
Spread across four different admissions, with both nasogastric tubes and the Mental Health Act enforced on me, I spent long periods at a time gaining weight under the careful eye of specialist doctors, nurses, and accompanying staff.
These three years saw me gain weight, but I was not ready for this.
Despite this, I once again wore a smile on my face to let everyone know that I was “better” now.
Weight = recovery.
It wasn’t until the end of 2016, when I watched the Australian documentary Embrace, and stumbled across the motto of “state not weight”, that recovery truly began from me, and for me.
I started to let my facade down, and became more comfortable with telling people that I wasn’t well, that things were rough – and for the first time in my life I felt as if this was okay.
I realised that the world is chaotic, and not controllable by anyone, I had to learn to effectively deal with this and not let food, or any other negative behaviours I had acquired, to feel better.
Fast-forward to 2017 and I honestly feel like a completely revolutionised and changed person.
I have a newfound appreciation for my body – although I do not always love my body I have unbreakable respect and thankfulness toward it.
Of course, I still have rough days dealing with food, bad mood, or sky-high anxiety – and that’s okay.
I am still on my road to recovery – and that’s okay.
I am still learning new things about myself – and that’s okay.
I now attend university studying toward a career in health, the first full-time study I have been able to manage in five years.
I also work part time, exercise for enjoyment, and have formed and strengthened friendships.
For the first time in my life, I feel things are truly starting to inch towards a life I wish to live.
The point of my story?
Before I was physically ill – I smiled through the pain.
At my mentally worst – I smiled to avoid those I love becoming worried.
During recovery, and now – I smile.
A smile can hide a lot of pain going on behind eyes and behind closed doors.
I think we all get told by society that “bad” emotions are not okay to experience or express – shut them off and hide them from the world.
There are no “bad” emotions, people have every right to feel unhappy, sad, and just a bit off, and this should be seen as an acceptable and okay thing to do – just as saying you are having a headache or a pain in your arm.
Regardless of being physical or mental, health is health and needs to be looked after.
Just as you go to a doctor and talk with your peers about a sore back you may have, you should be able to do the same if feeling overly anxious, or having a low mood, or going to see a therapist.
At the end of the day, mental Illness has no “typical” look on a person – weight, smiles, appearances, they are no indicators of mental health.
Please, see today as a sign to check in with others and within yourself – are you okay, REALLY okay?
It’s okay to struggle, we all will in our own ways.
Just don’t be ashamed, reach out. I am here, others are here, we are all in this together, and it is time to start being more proactive about this.
Where to get help
If you or someone else is in danger, or endangering others, call 111.
If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
• NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
• SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
• RURAL SUPPORT TRUST: 0800 787 254