Thursday, 14 May 2015

Real or Feared

When I recount my time in secondary school these days, I am recounting the early stages of my mental illness.

I recently did an interview with The Irish Farmer's Journal, where they asked me about the start of my depression. The truth is that my mental health story starts when I was 12.

It wasn't until I went through counselling, when I became aware of the signs and the symptoms, that I recognised I had had depression in secondary school. Signs that are so obvious to me now.
It's easy for mental illness in teenager to be dismissed as nothing more than being a 'moody' teenager. But I have had depressive episodes for years. My counselor described my illness as a result of my life circumstances.

As a 1st year, aged 12 coming into my new school I was brave. I was confident and I didn't care what people thought of me. This was my chance - a fresh start.
I'm only a shadow of that young girl now. This ambitious, outgoing girl that I was 11 years ago was short lived.

I still find it hard to use the word 'bullied'. It's not a word that I use lightly. And in true Zoe form, I feel bad about using it in case it upsets other people. If you asked me when I was 14, 16 or 18 whether I was bullied I would have said 'no'. I would have said 'people say and do mean things. Bullying is such a harsh term and a serious issue'.
But bullying, whether real or feared is how I would now describe some of my secondary school experience.
So in my, and my counsellor's perception of my time in school, yes I was bullied.

I am over it now, and I hold nothing against anyone. I am at peace with my past. But it's an important part of my story.

Throughout my time in secondary school, I was relentlessly mocked for my appearance. I was teased over my acne, my weight, my psoriasis, my eczema, intoeing (where I walk with my feet pointed inwards - which is a real medical condition thank you very much), and my inability to distinguish between r's and w's when I'm speaking (it's called rhotacism and it's basically where I'll get a little Jonathan Ross if I don't practice how to say certain words,).
These were things that I had no control over. And yet they singled me out for ridicule.

For my Christmas exams in 1st year I got 11 A's. But this wasn't something to celebrate, because it ended up being another thing that I was told was wrong. Where I felt that I was wrong.

Ever since that Christmas I have had very low self-worth. I tried everything I could to be liked after that. I was desperate to have other people to like me because I couldn't like myself if everything I did lead to me feeling belittled. I relied on other people's opinions to define myself.

Don't get me wrong, I was not perfect. I'm not saying that I didn't say cruel things too. But I felt hated and isolated and alone during those years. And this is my story.

I was deeply unhappy. My grades fell drastically. I couldn't study after that Christmas, to the point that I ended up having to cheat to pass tests. I failed exams. In fact I never studied until I fell in love with Leaving Cert. History. One teacher told me I had potential, but I never saw it. By not studying I risked my future.
In January 2011, shortly before my diagnosis, I stopped being able to study. I couldn't concentrate or focus. I lost interest in my subjects and lacked motivation. Here, this can easily be linked to a symptom of my depression. But when I experienced it in school I didn't know what it was.

I briefly engaged in self-harm in my Junior Cert year, while in the middle of the Mocks. I was angry and stressed and I lashed out. I remember hoping my mum would notice. Self harm reoccurred 4 and half years later.

In the December of my 6th year (Leaving Cert) I didn't attend school for two weeks. I couldn't face it. But thankfully for me, 6th years taking 'study days' was common. I've always been in the habit of forcing isolation on myself when I'm down. I always recognise the pattern now.

I could never sleep as a teenager. It took me up to two hours to fall asleep at night, so I always went to bed super early to ensure I still got enough sleep. When I awoke, I still felt tired. Always. People said I was oversleeping. But that was never the case.
Sleep Foundation says this about sleep and depression:
Depressed individuals may suffer from a range of insomnia symptoms, including difficulty falling asleep (sleep onset insomnia), difficulty staying asleep (sleep maintenance insomnia), unrefreshing sleep, and daytime sleepiness.

When I moved away from home for university, it triggered a severe depression. All those feelings of isolation and loneliness escalated. I just wanted to be accepted, and I felt that I wasn't. All those worrying symptoms of depression - weight loss, insomnia, loss of appetite, lack of energy, loss of interests, sense of hopeless - I had them all. But I've experienced the signs of a mental illness for as long as I can remember. It's a scary thing to know.

For so long I had thought that there was something wrong with me. That I was made wrong. (As a 4 year old I thought I was an alien because I didn't feel 'normal'). That I would never be able to experience happiness. And I've said this before, but my diagnosis changed everything because I learned it wasn't me, it was an illness.

I don't know if I believe that I was born with a pre-disposition for mental illness. But I am an extremely sensitive person, and I've always felt more deeply than others around me. A snide comment would float around my head for months, and I wouldn't be able to let it go. It made me feel weak.
I based my own self worth on the opinions of the people around me. And when it became clear that they didn't like me, I couldn't like me.

But my sensitivity is also one of my best qualities. It's given me empathy and the ability to care so much for those around me. (This RSA short describes me so well - especially the bit on how vulnerable being empathetic makes you) What felt like a weakness for so long, because it made me suffer for years, is really a strength if you turn it on it's head.

I have been hiding the story of my teenage years for a long time. Partly because it's tough to talk about a time in your life that was so difficult you'd rather forget it happened. You feel ashamed at how pathetic you were. And I never talked about it at the time. My parents didn't know until a fortnight ago.

But when it felt like my life was on repeat, and I was back in the same rut of isolation, I had a breakdown.

And that's the truth. My mental health story started when I was 12, almost 11 years ago. And I had no idea what was wrong with me.
Don't dismiss either your own low moods, or that of someone else you know. It can be a sign of something much more serious.


  1. Very brave to write about your experience and highlight it to others that they are not alone. You are very strong and I really hope I get to meet you soon x

  2. Well done Zoe. Too often teenagers are dismissed as moody or sullen when so much else could be going on. Thanks for sharing this x

  3. Your so brave talking about your problems. And your right most people dismiss teens as just moody or going through that teenage stage. Depression is such an awful thing and because it's something that people can't see its easily missed and people suffer in silence.