Hello to all struggling with mental illness
My name is Dawn
When I was young I loved to play make-believe fairy tales with my horses and dogs. I dreamed I was a princess riding through the forest. Our family animals gave me comfort. You see, I was always aware of this feeling that I didn’t belong. Not in my family, not with my friends, not at school. I sometimes wondered how it feels to be someone other than myself. Would I have different thoughts? Would I feel different?
It was only at the age of 31 that I realized that what I described above is called “dissociation”. This is what people do to cope with trauma. I was aware that something wasn’t right, but never knew the exact cause. Only countless sleepless nights filled with nightmares and being horrifically scared in my own bed. My first suicidal thought was at the age of around 9 or 10. I just knew that I couldn’t face the heavy weight I felt on my soul. I never told anyone. I am not sure what came first, the depression or the trauma…
Either way, I was followed around by an unknown darkness of shame and guilt. The source of this was not known to me. I had always thought that maybe I was just a bad little girl. And happiness was meant for other people. This guilt and shame made me hate my own body. I hated being a girl. I was so ashamed.
I remember during a PT class in Grade one, the teacher took our class swimming. Everyone was so excited. I dreaded every moment of each day before the planned outing. The day came. I faked an illness. At six years old I could not bear the shame of being exposed in a swimsuit in front of my classmates. I was ashamed. This pattern continued on and off right through my school years and as an adult. “No thanks I’m not big on swimming” was always my answer. I constantly withdrew from people. It was easier this way for me. I hated being hugged or touched in any way. I was so angry at my body. I shut down. Blocked out the pain. Endless nights I cried myself to sleep. Then the dreaded nightmares came. My body betraying me in every way.
I started running during the final year of my studies. I was extremely unfit at the time and was unhappy with my body. The running improved and I entered a short trail run. The distances increased and I worked out at the gym every day. When I moved to Stellenbosch from Johannesburg, I still ran and I entered the Two Oceans half marathon. I started doing boot camp for a short time and then discovered CrossFit. My body was under a lot of stress because I was depressed and didn’t sleep or eat properly. But the complements of how great I looked kept rolling in. Something I was not used to at all. Being able to wear a size 6 dress was amazing! It was short lived. I constantly worked out and never took time out to rest. I was on Accutane for my skin (medication that tells you to refrain from any strenuous exercise whilst taking it) but I never stopped training. I felt I needed to push my body to its limit. I felt good on the surface, but deep down I still had the shame and guilt following me around. I was still unhappy with how I looked. Never being comfortable and loving my body. My need for perfection in anything I do or how I look outweighs my logic. Because of my childhood shame and guilt, I taught myself to think something along the lines of “maybe if I’m perfect, they will like me more…”
Last year I was at my absolute breaking point. My body quit on me. It forced me to stop training completely. I was in so much pain that some mornings I could not get out for bed. I decided I need help, because despite the fact that I tried my utmost best, I realized that I could not fix this hurt inside me by myself.
I am now treating my depression and PTSD. With medication and therapy I am working to heal the PTSD and manage my depression. Recovery from trauma is hard work, to say the least. My journey has not been an easy one. I haven’t gone back to full time exercise yet, because I am not 100% ready to not fall into the cycle of self-harming again. I do horse riding and have taken up surfing as little fun things to do outdoors. I trust that soon I will be able to exercise again for the benefit of my health, and not as a means of punishment because I am unhappy with my body. I am thankful that I have a great therapist who helps me to process my trauma and teaches me to how to manage my depression.
This journey I have been on has taught me one thing. It is that my happiness and confidence does not depend on the size dress I wear. I am now 10 kg heavier than I was when I trained so intensely. But now I am learning to love myself. I am not where I want to be, but I am slowly changing my negative words and thoughts into loving praises for myself. I am learning to feel again. I was so numb that I hated feeling anything. Bad or good. Complements made me anxious. Now I will say “thanks” and just accept the compliment and feel how it feels to feel good about myself. It has also taught me that I don’t need to be or look perfect to be loved.
If I could send a message to the younger me I would say, Dear beautiful one with the fiery spirit and the caring heart. I am sorry that I took so long to realize that I need to take care of you. I wish that you knew earlier on in life to direct some of that love that you so easily give away to others, towards yourself. I am sorry that I didn’t listen to your emotions. I am sorry that I kept quiet about all the pain. I am sorry that I was ashamed of this beautiful, strong and perfect body. Please know that what happened was never your fault. That healing from that pain is possible. Never be ashamed of your story. Of your talents. Of your body. Of the fact that you love deeply. Choose to let people in, despite that it was someone closest to you that hurt you the most. Learn to trust again. And believe that there are good people out there who will love you for everything that you are.
I would like my fellow women, mothers, daughters, grannies and free spirits to know that it is okay to not be okay. I want people to realize that having a mental illness does not make you a secondhand human being unworthy of love, friendship and affection. I share my story because I became aware of the stigma towards mental illness that exists within our society. We are labeled as flaky, lazy, untrustworthy, emotional, drama queens and the list goes on. I want people to realize that you can be a functional human being and have a mental illness. People lose their loved ones daily to suicide because of stigma. Because of the shame in asking for help. Regardless of what other people’s opinions are about medication and therapy, please go get help or ask for help. Just remember hat this does not define you. It is just an illness, much like diabetes. Go and get help in any which way so that you can continue to live the life you were meant to. You are not broken because of an illness.
In sharing my story with you all I have learnt that I am a marvelously perfect creation and a work in progress, simultaneously.