DISCLAIMER: this post includes at least one reference to each of the following: anxiety, depression, anorexia, body dysmorphia, self-harm, suicide and sexual assault.
One of the reasons why I started my blog was because I felt as if my newfound self-expression would become a method of therapy. All my life I had restricted myself out of fear of what others would think or say, so this would be the first step in me finally reclaiming my voice. I want to share my story because I think that it is time and quite simply, it just feels right. The only problem is, I’ve been staring at this blank page for half an hour and I have no clue how to start.
How do I start to talk about the thing that has let me down all these years? How do I begin to put into words the constant state of sickness that I live in, even when I’m at my happiest and with the people whom I love? How can I finally reveal to those in my life that every single day, I feel like their lives would be less burdensome if I was no longer in it?
In November 2019, after an entire decade of fearful suffering, unforeseeable events pushed me to breaking point and I had no choice but to finally go to the GP. It was a Wednesday morning and I remember plodding into the surgery with my wonderful mum by my side, my hair unwashed and unkempt and my eyes stinging from tears and exhaustion. I hated who I had slowly become and I was afraid of who I would eventually turn into. The appointment was terrifying at first but the wonderful staff put me at ease- a true testament to our NHS. Here I was immediately diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and clinical depression, and prescribed medication which I still take to this day. It was a strange feeling to finally get stamped with a medically-enforced label but once we left the surgery, I told my mum that for the first time in a long while, I finally had a shred of optimism. At this point, it couldn’t have gotten any worse.
When It All Started.
As far as I can remember, my anxiety started around the age of 10 when things started to become extremely difficult within my family. I had always been a fairly shy child and never liked to upset anyone in authority, whether this was a teacher, doctor or even a friend’s parent. But I know that this innocent and normal characteristic quickly festered into something greater than that: a pure fear. As I was tossed between warring family members and effectively weaponized, I grew terrified that I would hurt any of my loved ones and found myself consistently censoring and over-analysing any little thing that I did or said. This intense desire to be kept in people’s ‘good books’ led to the necessity of my being liked by everyone at secondary school, where I was now entering. I clung to girls that I knew beforehand and while they made other friends, I forced myself upon them all because I was terrified to feel even more alone than I already did. I truly believed that these could become healthy platonic relationships. Unfortunately, they were nothing of the sort.
I remember walking into my form room one morning and the entire class went silent. As I edged towards various tables, each and every girl turned their back on me, making it all too clear that I wasn’t wanted by any of them. On one occasion, a girl even said to me in the playground that nobody liked me and they just wanted me to go away. I was consistently teased about my appearance, laughed at, picked last in PE classes (oh yes, the high school stereotype sometimes does ring true!) and made to feel like I was worthless. The girls that I used to be friends with had isolated me completely, and their status as the so-called “cool girls” of our year group pretty much cut any potential ties I could have with anyone else, as nobody wanted to be associated with me. For these first 3 years, I had no real friends. I would feign sickness to get out of PE (which led to some girls continuously asking me if I was pregnant), have tantrums at home while forcing my mum to keep me off school, and if I did make it into school, I would sit on a bench by myself for break and lunch.
The world seemed to pass by me. I was trapped in a box with no holes to breathe from. I couldn’t move. Every day was a battle in a war that would never end. Whenever we would have to work in pairs or groups in class, I would privately beg my teacher to let me work alone so that I wouldn’t have to go through the shame of rejection. I wanted my peers to think that I liked being independent and that I didn’t care if they wanted me or not. But the truth of the matter was that I DID care, and it broke my heart. I questioned why I had alienated the girls I was supposed to grow with. I don’t recall being rude or selfish, but judging by my obsession with being included at the very start, I probably annoyed them more than anything. I just didn’t understand why that would warrant such treatment towards me. As I turned 13, things then changed for the worst.
My family situation eventually became unbearable and I felt in danger both at home and at school. I was living in a constant state of fear, always petrified that I was upsetting people and because no one seemed to see or understand me, I was desperate for help. As my grades slipped and I was unsympathetically moved down from some top-ability groups, I genuinely began to hate myself and when this switch in my mind went off, I didn’t care what I did to my body anymore. I stopped eating breakfast and lunch completely, and would only eat a couple of spoonfuls of dinner. No snacks or sugary drinks. The only thing I consumed on a consistent and daily basis was water. I wholeheartedly believed that I didn’t deserve nutrition and I was severely obese (even though I wasn’t AT ALL) but as I ate less and less, terrible stomach cramps developed which further deteriorated as I consistently deprived myself of food. In mere months I had lost several kilograms in weight and at one point, I became so thin that I could trace the disks in my spine with my finger, like a fossil in the ground. My close family pleaded with me to eat, saying that I was gaunt and lifeless, but I didn’t listen. Nobody at school noticed or cared and it only pushed me deeper into the abyss.
I wished that I was dead. I thought about how much easier everything would be once I couldn’t feel anymore, so I frequently hurt myself as I built up to the eventual crescendo. Thankfully, such an event would never come to pass, but it still scares me to think of what could’ve happened in the aftermath, had it occurred. At the time, I saw no other way out.
Writing these memories thus far has been challenging. Much of what happened through the ages of 10 to 14 no longer exists in my memory and throughout therapy (which I have been undertaking since May 2019), I have learnt that this repression is a very common response and defence mechanism. Hence, I now jump forward to the time I remember next: when I was in Year 10, 15 years old and preparing for my GCSEs.
The change into becoming a ‘black jumper’ (NMBEC girls will understand 😉 ) gave me a somewhat new experience in secondary school. In the final weeks of Year 9, I had sought solace with and become close friends with a small and lovely group of girls, one of whom is still my best friend today ❤ While family matters were still quite tumultuous, they were nowhere near as challenging as before and little by little, things started to appear on the up. I began eating again and returned to a more healthy weight, my grades were on the rise and I had learnt to ignore the teeth-kissing and side-eye of the girls that had made my life hell. I thought that if I could show them that I wasn’t afraid anymore then I could become free, and in many ways, I did.
On my GCSE results day I was in France attending the annual Super Mario Kart championship, so my mum had to collect my results and wait a few painful days for me to return home. Upon coming through my front door, I opened the results and it was a miracle that I performed so well considering the journey I had taken to reach this crossroad. I achieved 3 A*s, 6 As and 2 Bs (Biology and Physics let me down, sad times) and had successfully gotten an offer to stay at my school’s Sixth Form for my A-Level study, wherein I would remain with several lovely girls that I had met during the GCSE period.
However, it unfortunately wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. My body went into shock because the intense stress caused by my GCSEs (ridiculously, I had around 25 exams in a 3-week period) exponentially increased my appetite and suddenly, I had put on more weight than was healthy for me. In a mere 2 years, I had gone from skeletal to overweight. That summer, my family and I went to Malta, and looking back on the pictures made me feel mentally and physically sick. I DESPISED myself and how I looked, and the only mentality I had was: “well, you may have been severely ill and depressed before but at least you were skinny”.
I quickly became jealous of my friends, new and old, whom I deemed to be much more beautiful than I was, simply because they were much slimmer. My dress sense shifted into the deliberate wearing of baggy and oversized clothes as I desperately tried to hide the monster I believed I had become. When I got my Sixth Form ID card, I remember telling my lovely English teacher (and new Form Tutor) that I looked like a “beached whale”. Thankfully, this period didn’t last, as within a few months of healthy dieting I lost some of that weight and have remained relatively consistent since then. But, I’ll admit that I still look in the mirror on most days with disgust, asking myself how anyone could ever love or want to share their life with me when I’m so ugly. This is something I’m currently trying to work on.
Such a self-hatred worked very well in tandem to my anxiety, which despite cooling off ever-so-slightly during the summer holiday, was back in full dominating force. My friendship group at Sixth Form (whom I love dearly and am still in contact with everyday, although I miss them!) were very outdoorsy and active girls, who understandably wanted to live their lives and experience the world. They tried on many occasions to get me to join in, bless them, but I just couldn’t bring myself to it. Walking down the hill from my house to the school every day was enough to cause me stress and I refused to navigate further out by myself. I attended very few gatherings and my appearance would only be possible if I was dropped there and back by a parent and be gone only a couple of hours. I felt sick leaving my house and the thought of knowing that I soon had to step out of my door created an indescribable level of nausea in the pit of my stomach and in my throat. The panic attacks which I had experienced from 10 to 14 had returned, along with the excruciating migraines that even 12 hours of sleep could not remedy.
I felt like such a burden to my friends. I felt like they deserved better than me and I hated that I was pulling them down. I felt selfish and I felt like sooner or later, I would push them away as I had done with so many other people. They are incredibly special girls because they have never left my side and when we reunite, it’s as if nothing had ever changed. For that, I love them dearly. They know who they are ❤
The Road to University and Beyond.
When I was 17 years old, I began my final year of compulsory academic study. I had now been at this institution for nearly 8 years and while the first half was rocky, the last two years there were (despite the academic stress!) the best two of the whole. It is always the case that if you dislike change, you finally grow used to the place that had terrified you only when it is time for you to finally leave. Applications to university were all that was on anyone’s lips and I couldn’t believe that it was my time to go. All my life, I had looked at people in university and thought that they were so old and experienced and a million years ahead of me. Well. Spoiler alert, kids: IT’S NOT TRUE!
Judging by my predicted grades of AAA, it was no wonder that our Head of Sixth Form pushed me to apply to Oxford University. I unwillingly obliged and applied here, as well as three London universities which I had much greater intent of attending. The thought of moving away from Upper Norwood, the bubble which I had been protected in my whole life, was daunting and extremely anxiety-provoking. The application process for Oxford involved an entrance exam which determined if you would be invited to your selected College for a 2-day interview process; this completely tore me up inside. It affected me so badly that I deliberately didn’t study for the exam and purposefully flunked it because I wanted nothing more than to be rejected, so that I wouldn’t have to make the journey to Oxford by myself. I obviously got my wish and eventually received an offer from King’s College London, which is where I study today as a home student. (NOTE: My next post will be all about my university experience!)
The extent of my anxiety at this point was undeniably sky-high. On my very first day of classes at KCL, I had to make my hour and half-long commute into the Strand and this was the first time I had ever taken a bus by myself in my entire life. I was 18 years old and legally an adult. Knowing that there were students my age travelling across continents to study when I was too afraid to get on a local bus made me feel worthless and pathetic. Every day when I had to leave my house I was literally quaking in my boots in complete and utter panic, and I had to chew gum just to stop myself from throwing up on the bus. The same could be said for my first time alone on a train, which occurred when I was nearly 20 years old.
You may be wondering, what was it about public transport that affected me so badly? Well, I’ll tell you. When you have severe anxiety, your brain is incredibly clever at identifying all of the things that could go wrong and subsequently making you believe that they WILL go wrong. I could get on the wrong bus/train, I could get off at the wrong stop, my bus/train might terminate early, the service may be cancelled and I would need to quickly identify another route, a creep could approach me, I could be involved in a collision, I could be mugged, I could be raped, I could be killed…the list is endless. Each and every journey I undertake is preceded with these thoughts, even today. Even as I have gotten very used to my uni commute and don’t feel anywhere near as sick anymore undertaking this particular journey, whenever a friend invites me somewhere I completely panic if it is an unfamiliar place. I have turned down so many invitations to parties, social gatherings and meals purely because I was too afraid to leave my house and make my way there and socialise.
As for when I am in said social environments, the anxiety does not stop there. Every time I speak to someone, inside or outside uni, if I am not a close friend of theirs then I am fixed in a state of fear. I often stumble on my words, say stupid or irrelevant things and watch the looks on their faces as their smiles slowly crumble into displays of awkwardness. If I am with my friend and their own friend comes along, my heart beats like a racehorse and I lose the capacity to converse like a normal human being. I have to stay silent because this is the only way I won’t make a fool of myself. However, at times, at uni especially, I have tried to branch out and talk to people that I’d seen around. This is partly to serve as a behavioural experiment (as part of my CBT treatment) and also because it’s always nice to make more friends. Sometimes these have gone well and I’ve become close to the person I reached out to, but other times they go catastrophically wrong and I am left looking like an awkward, desperate and weird person, which wholly depletes my confidence.
I could count on more than one hand, the amount of potential friendships, romantic relationships and engagements I have ruined and/or pushed away because I was afraid. For years I have cried myself to sleep because I know that I’ll forever be crying alone. I used to joke that I would die an old spinster with no one to love her, but the sad thing is that this is no longer a joke. It is something that I truly believe will happen to me and it is the norm for someone struggling with severe anxiety and depression.
Moreover, talking in seminars has also been an issue. I could count for days the amount of times a teacher has asked my class a question and while my peers all sit in bewildered silence, I am screaming the correct answer inside my mind but the words just can’t come out. I want to speak and I want to contribute but it is physically impossible for me on most occasions, even when I know that I’m right because my anxiety tells me that since this is ME, there is a chance that I could still be wrong. That chance is too large for me to ignore. But, if I ever do speak out, then rest assured that even if I’m smiling or I sound comfortable, my heart has never beaten so fast than in that moment and I am a single atom away from being physically sick.
Another “symptom” of my anxiety is frequent jaw ache, as a result of the near-constant grinding of my teeth. It’s such a silly thing to happen and I write it off sometimes because I don’t think it is important enough to be noticed by anyone, but a couple of years ago my dentist pointed out the effects this was having on my dental well-being. I was fitted for a mouth guard which I am supposed to wear every night (although I’ll admit that this doesn’t happen) and I guess that it’s kinda funny because it’s like wearing retainers all over again. Suddenly, I’m Rocky Balboa in my small little bed, ready for the fight of a lifetime.
The Effect on My Championship Presence.
Speaking of battles between nations, one question that I have understandably received quite often is: “how have you managed to attend Super Mario Kart championships abroad and away from your parents for so many years?”. Well, firstly, for every single edition I have travelled with my uncle Sami (whom I look upon as a brother) and he has taken great care of me whenever I’ve had an anxiety attack at the event. A few times he was unsure if he would be able to attend and I knew instantly that if he couldn’t make it, then there was no way I could go either- even after I’d turned 18.
Despite championship-week being by FAR the best of my year each and every time, it has brought its own challenges. One of the things I hate the most is the initial welcoming back of competitors after a year of global separation, wherein the hall is filled with the hustle and bustle of people greeting one another. Even though most of these people are my friends or we are on friendly terms, I feel physically sick whenever I have to do my round. In last year’s edition alone, I was in tears in the taxi on the way to the venue and had to carry out rigorous breathing exercises to stop myself from throwing up. But after I get used to the environment and community again, things do begin to stabilise in that regard.
Our SMK community is one-of-a-kind and pretty much all of my most hilarious anecdotes come from something insane that someone did there at an event. Yes, I’m talking about you, Drew! Throughout the week I am genuinely happy to be there and have the chance to compete, although at times I will admit that I do feel suffocated. I feel like it is too good to be true and that people there are only pretending to like me because I’m Sami’s niece. I over-analyse every little conversation if I sense the most minuscule of differences in someone’s tone when they speak to me. I know deep down that there is absolutely no need for this, but unfortunately it just can’t be helped for now. I am trying to change my mindset, though.
As mentioned previously, in May 2019, I made the step to refer myself to counselling at KCL where I began a CBT model to start altering my mindset. After completing the maximum sessions here, I was referred to the NHS IAPT service to enrol in a fully immersive and extended CBT practice. These were two very hard steps to take because I had been trying for many years to take such action, being held back by the fear that had caused me so much psychological torment. I’m very thankful for these sessions but I know now that the severity of my conditions meant that I needed something more in addition, which would turn out to be the medication. Despite being a traumatising period of unforeseen and incredibly difficult circumstances, I believe that November of last year was a necessity because that is what led me directly to the GP’s office. Without going there, for the first time in years, I would never have received my long-awaited diagnosis and thus never been placed on my medication, which has effectively helped to stabilise my mood and allow me to approach behavioural experiments with a hint of ease.
It has been an undoubtedly tiresome and exhausting journey. For 10 whole years I have believed that I wasn’t smart enough, pretty enough, slim enough, cool enough, funny enough, likeable enough and good enough. Even to this day, I find it hard to sleep and wonder how the hell I am going to cope once I leave university. I managed to somehow secure and work a part-time job at Next Home during the summer of 2019, but the fact that it left me in a constant state of fear and I had to eventually leave, makes me believe that it almost doesn’t count. I didn’t go three steps forward. If anything, I feel like I took three steps back. What on earth am I going to do? How am I going to cope? How am I going to build and live a life that isn’t one characterised by fear? I am so lucky in that I have wonderful groups of friends and some lovely family members, as well as a roof upon my head, but I worry that I’m going to let all those people down.
I’m scared. I am so terrified that I will become a failure that I’ve deprived myself of life, and this has only started to hit home in recent weeks. I don’t want to be scared anymore. I don’t want to wake up when I’m 50 years old and look back on my youth to see nothing but misery and ignored opportunities. It’s hard when people tell me “oh but Leyla, how can you be so anxious and depressed when you are always smiling and being so nice?”. The honest answer is: I am good at facades. I am good at spectacle. I have always been told that I am good at writing and writing can at times, be its own performance. If I am able to successfully do that, then what’s stopping me from embodying that spectacle in my own physicality? If there is one thing I want everyone reading this to take away, it is that every single person on this earth has a struggle and too many of us are hiding away and not speaking about it. When you don’t speak up, then it can eat you away inside. My anxiety and depression has rotted my brain and body for over a decade and I am tired of it. I don’t want this anymore. We, as people, deserve better than to hate ourselves and feel like we are alone, because the truth of the matter is that we aren’t alone. We’re all navigating this crazy world together and we can help one another, even through the smallest of means.
I don’t know what the next couple of years will bring me. I don’t know if my imposter syndrome will finally go away or if I will not feel like every good relationship in my life is a conspiracy against me. But one thing that’s for sure is I know that I will get there in the end. I’m going to continue with my behavioural experiments and see where they take me, although I do know that the first stop should be Paris in June (please don’t take this away from me, oh mighty Coronavirus!), as I’ve booked Eurostar tickets to stay with my dear friend Sophie (shout-out à Notre Dame de Liège!). To say that I’m terrified of travelling to a different country alone is an UNDERSTATEMENT, but if I can do this a mere 3 years after my first solo bus journey in London, then I’d say that I’m onto something good.
If you’ve reached this far down my post, then thank you. I really appreciate the time you have taken out of your day to read this. Trust me, I can’t even put it into proper words! ❤
And if you too have had any struggles with your mental health, alike or unlike my own, please confide in a trusted person. I know that it is incredibly hard to do this, but I believe that it is the first step to becoming well again. Just remember that you are enough.