How It Didn’t End

Trigger Warning: This post contains references to rape, assault, and suicidal thoughts.
This is a personal story being shared as part of personal recovery.

Two and a Half Years Ago

In moments of particular emotional stress I seem to regress back to the time of a previous abusive relationship. I hate that it happens and it actually hadn’t occurred for months until last week. During these moments I seem to get very disorientated as to where I am and who I am with. I start confusing facts and memories and muddle Samuel with aspects of my abusive ex. It’s stupid little things, mainly revolving around food for some reason. Food seems to have been one of the greatest impacts that my ex had on me, until a few weeks ago I actually hadn’t cooked anything for over two years. Whilst he hated everything that I made, I am still not sure why the relationship had such a drastic and lasting impact on this aspect of my life.

In the general I start muddling likes and dislikes, subconsciously remembering things about my ex and projecting them on to Samuel. This is not the only way that the past invades our marriage. In more severe instances I will actually flinch when Samuel approaches and recoil if he touches me.

None of this is conscious. I am not afraid of Samuel. He is the one man that I feel safe around and the one person that I trust completely. I wasn’t even aware of the flinching until recently when he observed that I had started doing it again. I can’t even imagine how it must feel for him when this happens and I hate the fact that my ex still lurks in my subconscious and even now infiltrates my marriage. Especially when, I at least, am certain that if it wasn’t for Samuel, I wouldn’t actually be here at all.

From Anxiety to Suicide

As I have become increasingly aware of my mental health over the past few years, I realised that anxiety and suicidal thoughts have been constant shadows. I  developed anxiety in childhood and contemplated suicide on a number of occasions throughout my teens. Creative writing seemed to maintain an equilibrium and although I  experienced panic attacks which at times culminated in suicidal thoughts, overall I my mental health was stable.

The stresses and pressures of starting university had no qualitive impact, but when I entered into a relationship during my third year, the panic attacks started becoming more frequent  and started to interfere not only with my studies but my daily life. I would struggle to leave the flat, attend lectures and had no concentration for studying. My grades started to fall.

There is still so much of that relationship that I just don’t understand. To ourselves and, to my knowledge, to others we seemed a perfectly happy couple but when we disagreed it could become very vicious. Lots of couples argue, some even fight, and there were wrong-doings on both sides. But (I realise with the power of hindsight), as the relationship developed, he began to get subtly manipulative. What really should have been an alarm bell for me was when we’d had a discussion about what would happen if I became pregnant and he told me that he would feed me abortion cookies if I was adamant about keeping the child. I have no idea what he planned to put in these, or why I didn’t recognise this as a severe lack of compassion and respect for my body or my rights, but a few months down the line I was going to learn exactly how little right he considered I had over my body.

I paid for missing that warning. It is an example of what can be very difficult for many listeners or observers to understand, that individuals experiencing any form of abuse do not always recognise it as such, especially if it is not physical and escalates very gradually. I don’t know why I stayed with him or how I missed these earlier signs, but eventually it evolved into stalking, coercion and, eventually, rape.

At that point, I finally packed a bag and walked away, ending up homeless for a few months and fortunate to have friends who were able to let me stay for a couple of weeks at a time.

When I found a new flat, I thought that everything was behind me. Although my grades and university attendance had suffered, I was entering my final year with a recoverable average. But then I was sexually assaulted on my way home from work on Halloween and harassed by two individuals for the following six months.

These events had an accumulative effect and my anxiety reached a point were I was relying on adrenaline to function. As I mentioned above, my panic attacks are frequently accompanied by suicidal thoughts and these were growing increasingly invasive.

Deciding Not to Die

I was fortunate to have not developed a plan and that my encounters with suicide remained contemplative and not active. I believe this is due to the timing of meeting Samuel.

Samuel and I first met in the last few months of my degree, just as my dissertation was falling due. My coping mechanism is avoidance, which is very far from ideal when you have 12,000 words to produce and are rapidly running out of time. I had not been taking care of myself at all over the past semester, I wasn’t eating proper meals and my flat had no heating throughout Edinburgh’s experience of February. Samuel and I had just started dating and he suggested that I stay with him and his brother so that he could make sure I ate whilst I spent the last two weeks before my deadline finishing my dissertation.

I have very little recollection of what occurred over those final two weeks. All I know is that despite what felt and appeared like focused hard work, I did not have a dissertation at the end of them.

After a final weekend of very little sleep and a 12 hour long panic attack, I was at crisis point. Alone in the living room of the flat Samuel rented with his brother, I was hysterical and exhausted, feeling that I had let everybody down, feeling unable to face my family and feeling that I had no way out of the situation. The fear and desperation in what felt like a frozen moment was agonising.

Perhaps my subconscious intervened.

Through a renewed panic attack with my chest tightening and feeling unable to breathe, I stumbled to Samuel’s room.  It was still early in the morning and he was asleep, but suddenly, for the first time since I was 13, death no longer felt like an option.

Samuel didn’t physically say or do anything that changed my mind, he simply represented a future beyond that moment of immense despair. As far as I am concerned, he saved my life.

‘my suffering reached a critical mass of desperation: either I was going to kill myself or a completely different way was going to be revealed’
(
Women Food and God, G. Roth, 2011, p.24) 

Because of the pause that seeing Samuel, the person who had provided me with a safe space, had created, and with suicide not being an option in that moment, I suddenly had to do something else. I finally reached out to the mental health support services at the university and the medical profession and together they opened up an alternative future.

I didn’t submit a dissertation in 2016, and I almost had a complete relapse when I finally submitted something and graduated in 2017. But by that time I was married and now am expecting a baby, and living a life that following my experiences of 2015, I had given up all hope of ever having.

If you are seeking mental health support, the Samaritans are free to call from any phone, any time, on 116 123. You do not have to be suicidal to call them. 

 

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14th February

This date is like Marmite: people either ‘love it or hate it’. It’s the day were everyone is focused on relationships. My husband and I are approaching our second wedding anniversary, but we hadn’t even met this time two years ago.

Our Story
My husband and I met whilst I was investigating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He was a life-long member, a returned missionary, and I had just started meeting with the missionaries. The timeline is simple.

February
Most people laugh when I tell them the story of how I met the missionaries. All converts get asked their story and mine is not particularly exceptional. They laugh because I remember the exact time. It was 11:50 A.M. on the 4th February 2016. My friend and I were about to deliver graded presentations and had two hours to practice (we were both suffering from undiagnosed depression at this time and had finished them the night before).

An Elder asked me for directions to Sainsbury’s outside the university library. Obviously, he didn’t actually want directions, he wanted to talk about Jesus. I am terrible at disengaging from any form of conversation. It doesn’t matter if it is a sales person, a Mormon missionary or a charity worker, once they have stopped me and started their spiel, I can’t escape. I was desperate to get rid of him because I was preventing my friend from practicing her presentation and I really didn’t want her grade to be affected because I couldn’t disentangle myself from a pavement conversation. To end the conversation I gave him my number. In fact, I corrected him when he wrote it down wrong. This was because I felt sorry for him. His companion (I didn’t know anything about Mormons at this point and didn’t realise missionaries travel in pairs) was standing at a distance and I thought he was alone on a cold day in February. I also imagined (again wrongly) that most people had not been very pleasant about being stopped and asked to chat about Jesus Christ. It turns out this is not an unreasonable assumption, one of my husband’s companions was chased by a man with a meat cleaver! Anyway, in February I started meeting with the missionaries and investigating the Mormon church.

March
I finally attended a Sunday service at the local LDS church. The missionaries told me that they wanted to show me a church film at our next meeting and someone of the same sex as the Elders would need to be present. This was because we would be meeting at the church building rather than in a public place, like a café or the local park. It’s the same principle as adults who work with children not being with a child alone and it’s the same when two Sisters meet with a male investigator. It’s not a lack of trust it is just for security because unfortunately in the past there has been inexcusable behaviour from both missionaries and investigators. The reason that it is a member of the church of the same sex as the missionaries is because it otherwise appears a bit like the worst double-date imaginable. However, there is something that perhaps needs to go on record and be considered.

This was the second time I was going to be meeting with the missionaries at the church and the first time had been dreadful. It was, in my opinion, worse that the worst double-date that I can imagine. I was not in a good place at this time. I had been in an awful, manipulative relationship and a whole host of other instances of sexual harassment and assault had followed. Then I turned up at the church (I hadn’t been to a service yet) and was met by three men. The two missionaries I had met before, the third man I knew was going to be there but I had never met him. They decided to start by giving me a tour of the building but for some reason hadn’t turned any of the lights on… I was in a gloomy building with three men I had met twice or not at all. The man they’d brought along to help teach was silent almost the entire time. When they showed me the font I stood as far away as possible because I honestly wasn’t sure what they were going to do next. I had gone through five months of traumatic experiences involving men and this was not a positive encounter for me. But then along came Samuel.

April
This was the month that I got baptised, on the 21st April 2016. I already had a belief in God when the missionaries stopped me in February. What I had never had was the spiritual connection that I had heard people talk about, when people say that they were in conversation with God. I did find that with the LDS church which is why I became a member. As I mentioned in a previous post my conversion was not complete at this time, but I was convinced that this was where I was supposed to be, perhaps because I had found someone I wanted to be there with.

I didn’t join the church for Samuel, but there is a possibility that I wouldn’t have joined if I hadn’t met him. When I was in my baptismal interview, I was asked whether I believed that the gospel had been restored to earth. I responded that I wasn’t sure. In short, I wasn’t convinced. I knew that I was finally in a good place and that I was beginning to feel spiritually good once more (I hadn’t been to a church since I left home for university and I had begun to feel disconnected with my faith which truly saddened me). The Elder conducting the interview was very concerned by this, the interview that usually took around fifteen minutes took about two hours for me. It’s safe to say that despite popular belief I didn’t join a cult. The Elder asked me what would happen if I decided that the Book of Mormon was not true (if it were a cult they wouldn’t have been willing to have members who didn’t believe core parts of the doctrine) and I told him it wouldn’t matter. Now we are at the part where most people get confused. How can you be part of the Mormon church and have doubts about the book the church is named after?

For me the answer is really simple. The lifestyle that comes with being a Mormon: going to church on Sunday; not working, shopping or going out to dinner or the cinema on a Sunday; not drinking alcohol, tea or coffee; not smoking or taking drugs, was going to be my lifestyle now. Samuel and I were engaged to be married.

It was not the whirlwind romance that you might be expecting. I really don’t know how this man did it. He met me at the lowest point in my life (between his proposal and our wedding day I had almost dropped out of university, was given the opportunity to postpone my dissertation and final exams for a year and had seriously considered suicide). I had almost completely lost my sense of humour and believed that there was no part of me that was worth loving. Samuel and one of his brothers lived together at this time and I was living in their living room because if I was left alone there was a significant chance that I would cause myself harm. For me, that he could fall in love with me and give me constant care when I was almost incapacitated by my own mind makes him very special. I should also mention that we had discussed and agreed that we would get married even if I never joined the church.

What prompted me to say ‘Yes!’ when he proposed three weeks after we met, was the conversation we had when we decided to risk entering into a relationship. I say risk solely from my perspective. I had been through a lot in a very short amount of time and had not had a positive relationship in over three years. The last proper relationship I had been in before the disaster of 2015 ended with a broken engagement. Before you panic, I had known this man a lot longer and we had been in a steady relationship for a lot longer as well. But it all ended in tears. The man I walked out on in 2015 had cried too, hysterically (but I’m not sure about that as he raped me a few minutes later). Anyway… the point was that I was worried that I was going to take the heart of the lovely man I’d just met and metaphorically jump up and down on it until it was pulp. That was how I saw myself – a relationship wrecker and heart destroyer, unworthy of love.

What changed everything was his quiet acceptance of how I was feeling. That he was willing to give me space and time to heal. He still does. This was a huge contrast to what I had experienced over the past few months. A friend had asked me out and started sending hurtful text messages when I politely declined. A fellow student and I had dated briefly, but I decided it wasn’t a good idea two months before our dissertations were due and we broke up a few days after going out. This student then proceeded to message and call me. One night I was at the house of one of the youth from the church with a lot of other investigators and new converts watching Disney movies and he called me seven times in a row. This was about a week after Samuel and I first met. With all that was going on I guess I needed to offload to somebody and he was kind and close enough to listen. When we were sitting in my flat a week later, talking about whether or not we should risk dating, he told me that he’d wanted to ask me out earlier, but when I had told him everything that was going on he didn’t because he could see that I didn’t need anyone else telling me that they liked me; that I just needed a friend.

That’s what we are. Best friends. We both collect rocks, are academic geeks who love their respective subjects and Star Trek. Samuel is good at maths and I’m the one who reads and writes all day. We have the same attitudes, hopes and dreams. He is the only man I have ever met who put my needs before his own desires. That’s why I married him three months after we met. We don’t suggest others rush out and do the same, but it worked for us. We eloped to Gretna Green and since that day I have started to get better. It has taken a really, really, really long time but with the support and love of a very patient man, I know that my tomorrows will continue to get brighter.

 

 

Dreaming of the Temple: Part 1

I thought about starting a blog for a very long time. I had lots of thoughts buzzing about in my head and I wanted to write them down. But I already have lots of notebooks full of scribbles and ‘notes to self’ and I either never look at them again or I look back and can never quite remember the whole idea behind the quick bullet point. A blog seemed more meaningful. It also seemed more mindful. Rather than a diary that for me at least would be a continual out-pouring of emotion, without reflection or any consideration as to what happened, why and the outcome; blogposts are usually things you edit, an act which, by its very nature, is reflective. You pour out all the things you feel and ideas you have on a topic and then stop, maybe even walk away for a time, look over what you have written and delete the elements that are too personal, sometimes too painful, to post on the internet. A finished post is essentially composed of the highlights, is a synopsis, of the thought process inspired by a particular thought, event or feeling.

I guess, on some level, this blog is to provide myself with closure. Everyone has difficult times in their lives and the last two years were immense for me. I was assaulted, raped, harassed, diagnosed with anxiety and then depression. I contemplated suicide. Then I got married to a man who I am confident will help ensure that I never go back to the same depths of darkness as I did in April 2016. I used to be a mental health listening support volunteer at university and have always been very passionate about mental health, but now I am much more conscious of my own mental wellbeing. As I mentioned in the post Reflection, I had heard that blogging was a useful tool for those exploring their mental health. I mentioned that I could feel an early benefit of blogging because it made me reflect. Because it got everything out. It doesn’t matter that the final post doesn’t contain everything. That what feel like the most powerful, painful, perhaps even traumatic aspects were typed and deleted. The important thing was that they were written. That they were typed out and effectively looked straight in the eye. They don’t have any control anymore.

Blogging is very cathartic. And I also feel that I am telling my story. We all have a story, whether it is about mental health or mistreatment, or anything else, we all have things happen to us, things that are different and that we react to differently. No two stories are the same, which is all the more reason why they should all be told. So we can all strengthen and empathise with each other. So no one feels alone with what or how they are feeling. That no one feels embarrassed, or isolated or singled-out. That we all know a story from which we can draw hope.

I hope on Monday to be able to find a designated quiet time to finish addressing the darkest part of my story. For my benefit if no one else’s.

Changing the Narrative Around Medicated Mental Health

I have one distinct memory from that first time I took anxiety medication. I got on a bus. That was it. No elevated heart rate, no sweating, no nausea. For the first time I realised the way I had felt for most of my life, was not usual. I wasn’t supposed to get worked up about getting on a bus, I was meant to just get on, buy a ticket and sit down.

I was first prescribed anxiety medication sometime during the disaster of a relationship that was the tipping point for my slide into depression. For some reason I didn’t take it for months. I think some of the reluctance to take it came from a notion that I wasn’t ill enough. As if, because I wasn’t yet suicidal, I wasn’t worthy of treatment. At the time, I thought my experiences were almost insignificant compared to the trials of other people.

A great many, myself included, have had to struggle to get people, primarily ourselves, to understand that they are ill. We look healthy and the same as when we are not suffering from mental illnesses, but we know that we are. Yet, sometimes, it can feel that you are constantly trying to ‘convince’ others of the same truth. For those of us with mental illnesses, such as anxiety, one of the greatest fears is that we will not be believed.

The comment I now hate hearing most is that everyone feels stressed, or that everyone has low days. I became convinced that I must be a ‘drama queen’, an ‘attention seeker’ and just not able to handle what all my peers could. Fortunately, I now know that isn’t true, but it took me a long time to gain that knowledge.

After that relationship ended a number of things happened, and I finally started taking the medication. I think I was worried about yet more comments from friends and colleagues. So when I told my friends about what I was taking and they said how they had studied it at vet school, it felt so casual. Completely devoid of judgement. I suppose they had studied it, and so understood what it was for and didn’t see it as a big deal.

Medicating mental health remains a personal challenge. A great many of us are not adverse to medication, and applaud others for treating their own mental illness through it. We compare it to the logic of taking painkillers, antibiotics or any other medicine that we consider necessary to treat physical ailments. Yet when it comes to taking it ourselves…

What makes us shy away from treating our own mental illness as we would a physical one? Are we guilty of viewing it as weakness, as if ignoring our struggles stop them from impacting daily on our lives? Do we feel that by drowning out the cruel voice of our own mind we are defeated by it?

If it is considered that the first step to recovery is acknowledgement, then the second has to be changing the narrative surrounding medicated mental health. The idea that someone is weak, dramatic or attention seeking for acknowledging mental illness is interfering with treating and recovering from that illness. It needs to stop.

 

‘New Year, New You’

Trigger Warning: This post contains references to rape, sexual assault and suicidal thoughts.

Today was my first day back at work following the festive season. I am very fortunate to have a job that I really enjoy and is relevant to my past (and hopefully future) studies. Whilst I was down in England I had my haircut. A very simple action, but one that received a lot of (positive) attention. I am very grateful for the compliments my friends have sent my way but some comments at work got me thinking.

When I walked into the office this morning a number of people called out, ‘New year, new you!’ The New Year actually wasn’t involved in the decision to cut off over a foot of hair. I thought it was a very practical choice as I work as a tour guide in a city that has average wind speeds of almost 13mph. I was getting fed up of having my hair tied up all the time, especially as I am not very good at styling and so it just ends up in a lacklustre ponytail. So I thought a bob was the way to go. Easier to wash, quicker to dry, letting the style do the talking as it were. However, perhaps there was an underlying motivation.

Me Too

It had been over 3 years since I last had my haircut or styled, coinciding with the start of quite a dramatic period in my life. Summer 2014 had been a really fun time for me. I had just finished my second year at university and I was able to travel, working on archaeological excavations and staying with friends living across Europe. I felt very happy and positive.

Then I went back to university.

I entered into a relationship in the middle of the first semester and it took me a long time to realise that a number of aspects of it were unhealthy. During this time my mental health began to decline. I have always suffered with anxiety, I am prone to overthinking, catastrophizing and compulsive hand washing. For the first time, I began to experience stress-induced migraines, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

My confidence was slowly being chipped away by what evolved into, what I truly believe to have been, an abusive relationship. My boyfriend complained about my cooking, so gradually I stopped. He attacked me about my religious beliefs and when we moved into a one bedroom flat, I lost a safe space to pray. I used to have a mole on my back, it never bothered me but my boyfriend would often comment on how ugly it was. It eventually had to be removed for health reasons, and I expected a positive response. But I was left with a scar which I was told was ugly too.

My boyfriend struggled with my anxiety and I was not without fault during this period. I have a very quick temper and unpleasant insults were exchanged on both sides. There were times I caused him to worry because I was out late with work colleagues without my phone. However, one night I had been out with colleagues after work, answered his texts concerning where I was, and looked behind me on my way home to see him following me. I was working a lot during this time and researching for my archaeological dissertation. I was tired as a result and no interested in sex. But my boyfriend would pester me until I would allow him to have sex with me so he would let me go to sleep.

Eventually, I voiced to a colleague what was going on, and that I didn’t want to go home that evening because I knew that I would have to have sex. She asked me why I was staying. It was a wake up call, I finally realised that I didn’t want the relationship to continue. I went home and told him I was leaving. A number of things happened next, including some very manipulative behaviour, culminating in him raping me.

I was lucky. I was scheduled to leave for an archaeological excavation the following day and I was able to pack a bag and walk away.

Unfortunately, although it was the end of that relationship, it was not the end of a year of sexual harassment, assault and suicidal experiences. But this was one of the main purposes of starting this blog, to be able to work through what happened, to gain healing and to talk about it – something that I am very passionate about. I posted on social media as part of the recent #MeToo campaign. It was really emotional, and almost frightening, to speak out about my experiences for the first time. Society needs to change so that those who have experienced any form of sexual misconduct or mistreatment no longer feel afraid, embarrassed or fear that they will not be believed if they speak out. I believe the best way we can support each other in anything is by talking about our experiences and encouraging others to talk about theirs.