My name is Elisabeth, I am 20 years old and I’m currently a university student studying BioMedical Science. I have been reluctant to share my story (and still partly am). However I have now chosen to share it with the hope that any other person who maybe feels as lonely or as lost as I did, will find the courage to either ask for help, or will be reminded that they are not alone. I also hope that this will give others, anybody, faith in themselves and their ability to hold on. Though this story, my story, doesn’t start out on the best of notes, I promise you that it ends on a much brighter, hopeful one.
I was 14 years old the first time I tried to end my life. I had grown up living in a home environment of domestic abuse and violence and social services had recently removed us from my mum’s care deeming her ‘no longer fit’ to look after us. Though doing well in school, after years of abuse and trauma and a period of time caring for my two younger siblings, I eventually became too overwhelmed and took an overdose. I was taken to the hospital by ambulance where I spent the night before being assessed by doctors. The next morning it was decided that I would be admitted to the local adolescent psychiatric ward. I was terrified and even more reluctant to go, but was told that it would only be for a few days until they find me somewhere better to stay.
What was supposed to be a few days quickly turned into a few weeks and before I knew it I was spending Christmas there. The four, white walls of that hospital soon became the place I called ‘home’ for the next two years of my life.
I never really tell anyone about the 2 years I spent in a psychiatric hospital because a lot of the time, people have the wrong ideas about them. It is true that there are often alarms going off and occasionally it’s hard to sleep at night because of somebody screaming or crying a few rooms down from you. But for a while after being admitted there, that person was me. When I was first admitted I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and attachment disorder. Both of which were as a result of physical and emotional abuse and neglect.
For somebody who hasn’t had to witness a traumatic event in their lives or hasn’t grown up in an unstable home environment it can sometimes be hard to understand the affects that these things can have on the human brain.
When a person witnesses or goes through a traumatic event cortisol levels increase sending stress signals to the brain. The brain automatically goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode in an attempt to keep a person safe. Fight the threat or the thing causing the stress response, or flee/run away from it. Once the traumatic event is over, stress levels begin to decrease again. Because I had spent a long period of time under chronic stress and in repeated dangerous situations, my brain had (in short terms), ‘shut itself off’ in order to help me to cope and survive. I was basically constantly living in survival mode. During my time at home I emotionally shut down and cut myself off from others in an attempt to try and protect myself so that I could somewhat ‘function’ and get through the day. I felt more like a zombie or something of ‘use’ to others than a human being. I rarely slept, I put on my school uniform, I went to school, tried to avoid coming home and then did it all over again until (eventually) social services were called.
When I was admitted to hospital the threat from home was longer there, my stress levels slowly started to decrease and my brain began to realise that it was now safe for me to start being emotionally vulnerable and open again. I became completely overwhelmed by everything I’d been through. I cried for the first time in almost 5 years and started having violent flashbacks that would usually result in me getting restrained and sedated in order to keep me safe. Every single day was exhausting but the nurses, doctors, therapists and patients helped me to get through it.
Though I was somewhat excited when my discharge date eventually came by, I was way more apprehensive and terrified than I was happy about leaving. What I don’t think ex-patients mention enough, is that although being admitted to a psychiatric ward is hard, it’s the getting discharged and trying to get your life back on track that’s the hardest part. That hospital saved my life and gave me the chance to process some of the trauma that I had been through. It gave me routine and everyday was pretty much the same,
-Wake up at 8:30.
-Smoke a cigarette.
-Get escorted through to the onsite classes.
-Have evening snack.
-Go to bed.
Monday’s were for therapy, Tuesday’s and Thursday’s were for staff/patient meetings, Wednesday’s were ward round and Friday’s were for going on home leave for anyone who was safe enough. It was the first place and time in my life that I felt properly safe. I’d lost touch with pretty much everyone from school and was too afraid to tell anybody anything about what had happened or where I’d been for the last 2 years. I wasn’t sure if I was ready.
In July, 2016 I was finally discharged but during my time there I had lost sight of school and my education. Before attempting suicide and having to leave school, I was a predicted A* student studying to sit 11 exams. I had every opportunity I could possibly want laid out right in front of me. When I was eventually discharged I had no qualifications and had to go back to college to pretty much start from scratch. Whilst I was eager to learn and start moving on with my life, I had chronic anxiety and was too terrified to leave my house and be around people again. Most mornings were spent crying whilst my mum pleaded with me to try and go into college. Mostly I would refuse.
In February, 2018 my Grandad had a sudden, severe stroke that left him more or less completely paralysed. Two weeks later he passed away. My mum struggled to cope with the stress and relapsed with drugs and alcohol and I began to feel trapped and out of control again and turned to food in order to cope. By the summer of 2018 my weight had dropped and I was referred to the local eating disorder services and diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I started my sessions with my therapist there completely lost. I felt helpless that I couldn’t help my mum and I was struggling to process the death of my Grandad. My life wasn’t how I wanted it to be or feel. In other words, I was stuck in rut.
One day my therapist sat me down and said:
“Elisabeth you are so, so intelligent. You don’t know this yet, but this isn’t your whole life and it doesn’t have to be. At ANY point you can decide that this isn’t the life that you want for yourself. This doesn’t have to be your life!”
It was the kick that I needed. In September, 2018 I enrolled in a local college and went back into education to get the grades I knew I was capable of. Many days consisted of panic attacks and stress but I was determined that I had to do it. I’d had my eyes set on university since before I even started secondary school so to know that I was behind on almost 4 years of education made me more driven to work hard. My weight began to slowly stabilise and I’d made a couple of good friends in my classes. Eventually I was able to make bus journeys to and from college without panic attacks and it seemed like everything was finally starting to come together. At home however, my mum was becoming more and more sick and her drug and alcohol addiction spiralled. In March, 2019 (a month before I was due to sit my exams), I was terrified that I would lose my mum for good and reached out to someone within the family for help. I sat down with mum and suggested rehab and she was eager to go. A week before exams started we booked her into rehab and for the first time in my life I was home alone. With exam stress and pretty much being left to my own devices, my weight dropped further and my blood results were showing signs of Liver damage due to malnutrition. My hair was falling out and I began doubting my capabilities to get through it all.
With the help from my therapist and dietician though, I managed to stay stable enough to sit my exams. Mum came home from rehab and was the best I’d ever seen her and I passed my exams achieving the highest grade in English in my entire college (I was shocked to say the least). I stayed in college for another year and as of today (November, 2020) I am finally turning into the person I always knew I could be but had lost sight of for so long. I’m currently studying BioMedical Science and I intend to go on to do my Master’s in either Medicine or Law. Coming to university and moving out of home has been a HUGE challenge but after everything that’s already happened I’m finally beginning to realise what I’m actually capable of. I turn 21 years old in January and I never even had the intention of reaching 18. I haven’t self harmed in over 2 years, my weight is stable and I’m the healthiest I’ve been in a long, long time.
Getting to where I am today has in no way been easy. I still struggle with PTSD and anorexia and have also been diagnosed with high functioning autism but I know now that these are not the things that make me who I am. I know now that I am more than my past and than the things that have happened to me and I no longer wear the person I used to be with shame.
I wish that I could go back to 14 year old Elisabeth and tell her that everything is going to be ok. I don’t think that she would have entirely believed me, but I think that she still would have been grateful to have somebody there. I also wish that I could reach out to you. To anybody reading this, whatever age or gender, who is able to resonate with any parts of my story. To any parent scared for their child’s future or to any child or teen or young adult scared for their own. I wish that I could reach out to all of you individually and tell you to hold on. Tell you that you are WORTHY of love, that you are MORE than the things that have happened to you. That you were not placed onto this earth by accident and that you DO have a meaning and a purpose here (even if you haven’t found it yet).
What I will tell anybody reading this is to check up on your friends. To check up on that quiet kid in the back of your class, on that guy you only see for days at a time living at the end of your street, on the girl who’s always smiling in the school corridors, on the boy who sits alone at the bus stop. Check up on people. If you have concerns or doubts, offer them an open ear or 5 minutes of your time and if you’re really worried then speak to somebody else who might be able to help. You have NO idea of the impact you could have on somebody’s day or even life by just acknowledging them.
I hope that after reading this I have been able to give you some kind of hope. If I haven’t then I hope that something or somebody else does. I also hope that it has encouraged anybody who might be needing help to reach out. I know that speaking up and asking for help can be absolutely terrifying but I promise you that there is ALWAYS somebody who is willing. If you’re not speaking it you’re storing it, and that shit gets heavy. Above everything I can guarantee that they would rather hear about and listen to whatever dark stuff you have going on or whatever worries you are having than read about your death in the newspaper.
You are not a burden and you are not weak for needing help, you are human.
P.s. You are not a reflection of those who cannot love you.
P.p.s. Remember who the f*ck you are.
Photo credit: Image courtesy of the storyteller.