Mental Health affects everyone in some way shape or form. Problem is, you can’t always see it – but it’s there in the background. Sixteen years ago I helplessly watched my very best friend become consumed by a mental illness.
This is my story (well, part of it anyway).
We were 3 best friends who all met in Kindergarten and did everything together. We were some of the happiest kids you could meet. By the time we reached high school, we were typical 16-year-olds, eager to hang out with each other and just be girls.
No one anticipated that the most vivacious person out of the 3 of us would be diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness. Although Kristy was always a little unusual (in a good way), the news still hit me quite hard. I couldn’t stop thinking why her?
I first noticed Kristy starting to change before her 16th birthday. By accident I noticed deep cuts on her legs. My natural reaction was shock and I immediately asked how the injury happened. Kristy brushed it off and said the cat scratched her. I wasn’t entirely convinced, as I couldn’t believe a cat could cause so much harm, but I let it go.
As time went on, the cuts moved from her legs to her stomach, her arms and her chest. For about 3 or 4 months Kristy kept brushing me off saying that she ‘fell’ on a tree branch or used her cat as an excuse. I knew deep down she was lying to me but she was my friend…And I was going to believe my friend.
The catalyst for me realising something was terribly wrong was when I dropped by her home unexpectedly one morning to walk to school together. While she was getting ready, I could hear Kristy talking with someone in the bathroom. Suddenly, I heard her voice change and she started yelling and cursing. I barged into the bathroom and couldn’t believe my eyes- my very best friend was staring at herself in the mirror with a razor in her hand.
I knew something was very wrong.
She was covered in blood. Her blood.
She was yelling at her reflection.
I was frightened and didn’t know what to do. It was just us two in the house. There was something about the look in her eye that made my heart skip a beat – I did not recognise this person in front of me. It took me 15 minutes to persuade her to put the razor down and assure her that no one was out to get her. We cleaned up her wounds, went to school and the rest of the day was a complete blur…I didn’t tell anyone about it. Not even my other best friend.
Reaching Breaking Point
I didn’t have to keep silent for long because Kristy’s behaviour changed dramatically in the coming months- she was becoming really ill. Her behaviour and attitude towards everyone, including me changed. It changed to such an extent that without realising what she was doing, she held a knife to my throat and threatened to kill me. Whenever she was having an ‘attack’ she turned into a monster whom we didn’t recognise.
The school picked up something was seriously wrong and our peers mocked Kristy because they didn’t understand the situation. Soon enough everyone ostracised Kristy and ignored her.
She was still our best friend. The qualities I loved about her- her sense of humour, our similar interests and our shared history, I couldn’t just forget all about it. Those things were so important to me, it was what drove us to stick by her side, especially when we knew she was desperately trying to fight her illness. She couldn’t control it but she always did her best to not let it take over her.
My other friend and I both paid a price for sticking by Kristy’s side. We got teased for remaining friends with her, even though people in our grade knew there was something wrong with Kristy.
I remember getting angry.
One day the anger poured out and I lashed out at one of my peers when they continued to mock Kristy. I got in further trouble for yelling at our School Advisor because I felt she was not helping us. The pressure of dealing with this situation was getting too much- at this time Kristy had been temporarily institutionalised and was being assessed by a mental health professional.
For a 16-year-old, that was a tough pill to swallow. What made it worse, there was very little support. Back then, schools weren’t educated on how to accommodate students with mental illness, as it was a taboo subject. I was upset about the dismissive attitude shown to us by the school counsellor, I needed someone to help me comprehend what was happening but no one did. I suppose our school did what they could at the time but it wasn’t enough.
What they don’t tell you about Mental Illness
When I slowly started to comprehend the old Kristy was never going to come back, I felt an overwhelming sense of grief- it felt as if I lost my friend.
I felt betrayed. I didn’t know this new Kristy. She was nothing like her old self, the person whom I had grown up with since we were 5 years old.
I felt alone.
I felt guilty, why did she have to suffer while I was able to live my life? but most of all I felt complete and utter helplessness.
I couldn’t help my friend.
I wanted to ‘cure’ her and kept telling myself it will all be over soon- sooner or later she will snap back to her normal self and I would get my ‘normal’ friend back. Little did I know that this is something that would stay with her for the rest of her life.
Almost half (45%) of Australians aged 16-85 years will experience mental illness at some stage in their lives
It took a long time for me to realise that running away or searching for ways to escape reality will not change anything. I admit it was a difficult step to take- I couldn’t bring myself to say out loud what the situation was. I couldn’t verbally admit that my friend was sick until the day came when I got tired.
I got tired of running away from the reality of the situation. I got tired of running away from Kristy who desperately needed a support system. I got tired of lying to myself and everyone around me. It was exhausting pretending to be ok when I really wasn’t.
You come to a point in your life when you have that wake up call and you realise enough is enough- no more running away.
Learning to Accept
It has been nearly 17 years since Kristy was diagnosed. I thank God every day she is still alive despite her many suicide attempts. It took me a good 10 years to fully accept the person she is now. I am at peace knowing that no matter what I do I cannot ‘turn her’ back into her old self.
This is who she is.
Before acceptance, I tried to make sense of Kristy’s mental illness by looking for someone to blame.
I blamed God, I blamed her parents, I blamed her boyfriend, you name it I blamed everyone until I finally learnt to accept that it is what it is and it’s useless playing the blame game. What will that achieve?
Nothing. You can only look forward.
Mental Illness; the importance of talking about it
One in five Australians will experience a mental illness within a 12-month period.
One in 5.
If you told me 17 years ago that Kristy would turn into a shadow of her former self, I would not have believed it.
Nothing in life can prepare you for this.
Mental illness does not only affect the person with the illness- it causes a ripple effect for everyone in that person’s life
It can be a challenging adjustment period for everyone. Take your time, you will learn to accept it. The first step is to acknowledge there is nothing you can do to change the diagnosis, accept what is and move forward.
We are going to come across many things within our lives that we will never make sense of and instead of losing precious time and energy trying to figure it all out, accept what happened (even if it does take you 10 years) but most importantly look AHEAD.
Don’t do what I did and bottle everything up and pretend everything was fine. I lied to my teachers, I lied to my parents I even lied to my friends. On the outside, I looked like I was handling this well, but on the inside, I was torn. Express your concerns, express your fears. VOICE YOUR OPINION.
Shift your focus to the positive and focus on what you can control. Being thrown this curve ball was painful because it made me feel I had no control of the whole situation.You might be feeling that too and you know what? It’s ok to feel that way.
Take a look at the resources available to you through work, school, medical institutes etc. There is an abundance of tools out there that can help you through it.
I hope my story serves as a testament that with challenges comes solutions. Things will change, but you will grow from this experience- just like I did.
When we go through adversity, it is not personal. It is universal. You are never, ever alone through life’s challenges.