This post is part of my series for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018! The series includes articles, poems, and photo essays by many guest authors about mental health and related issues. For more information, click here!
I have struggled with my mental health since I started self-harming aged 13. Throughout high school my mental health was dismissed as ‘being a teenager,’ and my mood swings and destructive behaviours were treated as something I would ‘grow out of.’
Well, I’m 28 now and I still don’t seem to have grown out of them.
Mental illness has been a part of my life for fifteen years now, and it sure does like to make itself known! In terms of symptoms, my mental illness hasn’t really changed much as I’ve grown older, but there are some definite differences that being in my late twenties has brought to the table.
Empathy has limits
One thing I’ve noticed as I age is that there have been huge shifts in how other people have reacted to my diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and Borderline Personality Disorder. As I mentioned, my teenage struggles were brushed off as if they were normal. As an older teen, and in my early twenties, I found I received the most help and support. During university, I struggled immensely, eventually having to drop out midway through my third year and re-sit it completely. At that time, I felt fully supported; my parents, my university tutors and my doctor were all in agreement with me and I didn’t feel an ounce of judgement. Then, I hit 25 and my anxiety hit me full-force. I was having panic attacks at work, was terrified to leave my house and was in floods of tears daily. My husband encouraged me to leave my job – so I did. I haven’t worked ‘properly’ for over two years, and it has been so beneficial for my health – but good lord does it come with some judgement.
See, by the time you’re in your late twenties you are expected to have your act together. You should be in a stable career, saving for a house deposit and making regular pension payments. Anything that varies from that is ‘Not Acceptable,’ and I do find myself having to justify my lifestyle to people constantly. It’s as if the people who helped me when I fell apart at uni think I should be ‘over it’ by now. Their empathy has a limit; they don’t seem to appreciate that this is not like having the flu, over in a couple of weeks and no more to be said about it. It is hard to have to explain to people who only see you at your best that you are not like that all the time (I recently had someone who sees me for a maximum of 2 hours a month describe me as having ‘mild anxiety’ – ha, I wish). Perhaps it is that they expect me to be cured – but there is such a drastic lack of mental health resources here that I am just trying to cope.
The stakes feel higher
Obviously, everyone’s situation is different, but for me there is a whole lot more responsibility in my life now than there was ten, or even 5, years ago. A decade ago, I was struggling with university assignments and a part-time job. I was living in a new city, trying to make new friends and experiencing my first taste of independence. Becoming an adult is hard – but so is being an adult.
I have a husband now, for a start, which can sometimes feel terrifying. My Borderline Personality Disorder is fed by huge abandonment issues, and the idea of a divorce is ten times scarier than the thought of us breaking up while we were at uni. There’s also the fact that my (considerably long) employment gap looks a lot worse at nearly 30 than it would’ve done at 22 – having to choose between my mental health and career prospects isn’t a fun position to be in. We have bills to pay, deposits to (theoretically) save for, and a future to prepare. It’s expensive, and my impulsivity when I’m having a Borderline ‘episode’ can see me basically chucking money away. My husband and I have also discussed having children, but the thought of parenting with a mental illness has always put me off.
As I’ve aged I’ve definitely noticed that my mental health is always a factor in the big life decisions I have to make. Dealing with my symptoms is something I have to actively think about on a daily basis. It can be intimidating, but in a way, I am grateful for feeling like I have something that would hurt to lose – it’s not always been the case.
It’s so hard not to compare yourself
I constantly look at the people around me and notice how much more they appear to have achieved. It is really difficult to not feel like I have fallen behind somewhere, that I will never catch up, and that I am missing out while life passes me by. I can feel completely defined by the fact my brain works differently – it affects every aspect of my life and I often wish I could be more ‘normal’. Looking at Facebook posts of people I went to school with, showing off their newly purchased homes, or sharing the travel they’ve indulged in, or talking about their promotions does hurt. I so badly want to be like that.
Even as a teenager I knew I was different from them, but it seemed much less obvious. We were all in the same boat in high school and university – consistently broke, stressed, and not really achieving anything substantial. Now my best university friend has a PhD, is in a high-flying career, owns her own home and travels extensively, whereas I might as well still be in uni for all I’ve achieved since. The gap between our accomplishments is so wide now that we barely speak – not because she has ever rubbed any of this in my face, but because I can’t help but feel like I am failing when I am reminded of her success.
Everyone has their own personal goals they’d like to achieve, and it can be really hard to spend ten years making no progress towards them while others smash theirs. I’m not even 30 and I can often feel like it’s too late for me – but I remind myself that life is not a race, and I will get where I am meant to be one day soon.
You live, you learn
Despite all the doom and gloom, I do think there are some positives in there too. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become excellent at identifying my triggers, acknowledging the patterns in my behaviour, and learning how my brain ‘works’. Of course, it is never going to play ball and act nicely the way I’d like it to, but I have become much more confident in anticipating how my mental illness will affect me.
We all know recovery isn’t linear – there is not a clear, straight path to being ‘cured’. In fact, for me, my BPD behaviours seem to go in cycles of stable and, erm, not so stable. Whether it’s my age or my experience, I’m not sure, but the cycles are getting longer – meaning there is much more time in the ‘stable’ periods and the (much shorter) episodes are fewer and further between. Anxiety is a little different, but I am now at a stage where I feel able to openly discuss that whereas I wouldn’t have dared five years ago.
In short, I feel like I am managing my mental illness much better. Five years ago, every episode was a crisis – I was at the brink at least once a month and I felt like I was on a rollercoaster headed for derailment. Don’t get me wrong, I still have crises but they are much less frequent – the rest of the time, I am able to fight back against my irrational emotions and get myself back on an even keel.
Mental health in your late twenties is a complicated beast. Dealing with it takes time, a lot of hard work and patience, but it does get better. I’m proud of the steps forward I have taken. They might look like smaller steps than those of my peers, but we were never on the same path. I may not have a house or a career, but I have overcome a lot and I am still here – surviving and beginning to thrive.