The first time stress took control I was a teenager. I didn’t even know I was floundering. It wasn’t a case of on the outside I was smiling and putting on a front, hiding the inside sadness. I was happy. I had good friends. But I was anxious. And I was stressed.
I developed alopecia, and tufts of my hair along my centre parting began to fall out. It’s not known exactly what causes your immune system to attack your hair follicles, but it is thought that stress is one of the factors that plays a role. Obviously, having some of my hair fall out as a teenage girl didn’t help my self esteem or amounts of stress.
Ultimately, even though I was generally happy and well liked, I didn’t feel good enough in any part of life. I wasn’t enough for teachers, always handing in my homework late, or just not doing it; I wasn’t enough for any of the boys, always having jokes made about my big nose; I wasn’t enough for anyone. I began to believe, despite many people championing me, that I was not enough. The problem was me. I needed to be different.
When I went to university, I reinvented myself. I was affectionately known as ‘Party Olivia’ and was well known for being the life and soul of the party. In time though, my self esteem plummeted and my anxiety sky rocketed. I patched myself up with nights out and alcopops, seeking affirmation from all the worst places. I remember staring at myself in the mirror and dreaming of being thinner, more toned, prettier.
September 2009 was around the corner, and I should have been heading back to university for my 3rd year. I can’t remember why, but my mum asked me if I actually wanted to go back. Then she said the words which changed the trajectory of my life: “We will be proud of you no matter what.” Within days, I’d dropped out of university, and moved into the house where she was living for her curacy. Life’s problems weren’t solved, but it gave me breathing space and I moved up to Lancaster 2 years later to begin my teacher training.
I arrived and instantly felt at home. Finally, I was in a space where I could begin to deal with my anxiety and accessed counselling via my local NHS trust. I had great housemates and a wonderful church family. I excelled academically for the first time in my life, and enjoyed the challenges of the teacher life. I had a kind and loving boyfriend, who quickly became my chief cheerleader. And then my husband.
But my mental health issues didn’t end there. I longed for a child, and we fell pregnant in the late spring of 2015. I spent 9 months dreaming about motherhood, with people telling me what a natural mother I’d be. I was just, apparently, so maternal. And so, it utterly floored me when this tiny human was born and I felt so utterly helpless. Anxiety and stress crept back in, dark thoughts controlled my brain, and the silence and loneliness were painful. Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t enough once again.
Feelings of unworthiness, anxiety, stress can be crippling. I say ‘can be’ because they no longer control my mind or my life. With the support, love and prayers of those close to me, I exercise conviction and battle those thoughts when they do come. I have a wonderful counsellor who I see regularly, and I can not recommend talking to a professional enough.
I am 31 and I’ve hidden in the shame of mental ill-health for most of my life. But there is no shame. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to be hurting. And it’s ok to talk about it.
But remember, one day you will smile again. And that will be ok too.