About the Make a Ripple campaign
This series of blog posts are part of the See Change Make a Ripple campaign, an initiative to help end the stigma of mental health problems by sharing experiences and building public understanding. If you’d like to tell your story, you can visit the Make a Ripple stories portal. If you’d like to write a longer piece like the one below, you can contact a member of the See Change campaign team firstname.lastname@example.org or on 01 8601620
When I was 16 I went on a family holiday to Portugal. On the second day of the holiday I was raped. I was out having a few drinks with my siblings and at the end of the night I met a guy. We kissed and I let him walk me back to the car, through the clichéd dark alley. Things quickly got out of hand, I ended up locked into a dirty men’s room with him and I shut down.
I was in shock. Years later I learned this was a completely normal reaction to the situation but at the time I blamed myself. I felt overwhelming levels of guilt and disgust with myself. Afterwards I didn’t tell anyone what happened to me. My logic at the time was that what happened wasn’t really rape and that I didn’t want to upset my family. For the next year I suffered from quite severe post traumatic stress without having any idea what was happening to me.
I felt like I was loosing my mind. I couldn’t be in a room with people for more than a few minutes without having to leave and break down in tears. I was having horrendous flash backs daily, reliving what happened over and over and over again. Being out in public terrified me, I began having panic attacks, the only time I felt safe was locked in my room with my back against the wall. At the time I was so hurt that no one in my family noticed how much pain I was in. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them what had happened and any time I tried to let them know how I was feeling was met with responses like “Don’t be so ridiculous”, “For god sake snap out of it”, “You’re just a kid, wait till you grow up and have real problems”.
I felt so useless, like there was something really wrong with me, why couldn’t I just forget about it and move on? I was completely alone and it took every ounce of energy I had to keep up the pretence of normality. I felt like I was wearing a mask, pretending to be a normal teenager when in reality I was a freak. One day about 9 months later my family decided to cut down all the trees at the back of the garden and everyone was to help. However, I was having what I termed a bad day. I couldn’t leave my room. I locked my door and refused to come out.
Eventually my mother became so angry at my refusal to leave my room that she told me when I did I was to leave the house as well and never come back. I left the house completely broken, screaming at my mother that she didn’t know what I was going through or what had happened to me. Internally begging, screaming for her to realise the pain I was in. She just looked at me with cold fury and I began the four mile walk to the bus. After about three miles my mother came after me in the car and told me to get in. I refused for a while but I was just too emotionally exhausted to fight.
She asked me when I got in about what I meant when I was leaving the house but for me it was too late. I was completely shut down and just wouldn’t utter a word. That summer I built up the courage to tell my mother what I had happened. I still experienced physical pain from the attack and as I’d never seen a doctor I was scared that some permanent damage had been done. I also knew at this point that emotionally I was a mess and I needed help. But I wasn’t strong enough to ask for it myself. When I told my mother she was wonderful, she held me as I cried and told her everything I had been through over the last year. I thought finally things were going to change, everything was going to get better.
My mother said she would tell my father for me and I went to bed. The next morning I woke up scared but hopeful. When I went into the kitchen there was money on the counter for me to go shopping, something that never happened in my house as we were always taught to work for our money. Both my parents behaved as if nothing had happened. What I told them was never spoken of. At the end of the summer I started college, the best thing that could have ever happened to me as there I met the wonderful people that would become, to me, my true family.
I found lectures extremely difficult as to me I was trapped in a room full of people. I was having panic attacks daily. A girl had become close to in college noticed something was wrong, the first time this had ever happened for me. I confided in her what had happened and over the course of a couple of weeks she convinced me I needed to get help. One evening my father was driving me to the doctor for an unrelated reason. In the car I gathered all my strength and told him that I was going to ask our GP to recommend a counsellor for me.
My father was wonderful about it. He said he thought it was a good idea and asked me to let himself and my mother organise it for me. I agreed. I trusted them and once more it was never spoken of again. Years later during an argument I discovered that my mother had felt it was better for me to just forget about what happened. I was in college now and starting a new life so what good would come from dragging up past traumas. But for me it wasn’t in the past. It would never be in the past. I lived with it every day. A few months later I self harmed for the first time.
I was in a head on collision with my mother one day and I remember my only thought at the time was finally, finally the world is rewarding me for suffering through all this pain. I get to die now. It will all be over and I won’t hurt any more. It would be another year before I finally built back up the strength and the courage to seek help. In second year of college I was lucky enough to move in with a wonderful friend who also had a chequered family history. It might sound odd to say that it was lucky to move in with her but for me it was the first time I had found someone I could talk openly and honestly about all the thoughts swirling around in my head.
We would sit up for hours and talk and sometimes laugh about our problems. For the first time in years I didn’t feel completely alone. My first counsellor was a lovely woman in the Dublin rape crisis centre. And while initially I struggled talking about things I had spent years repressing it helped me no end and I started to feel comfortable in my own skin again. I saw her for just over 9 months until one day I decided I had enough. I was tired. While I would feel better for a while I would simply crash again and it was almost worse now that I had a taste of normality so I decided to stop seeing her.
I started to retreat back into myself again. I felt guilty burdening my friends with my problems so I started wearing my mask once more and pretending to be OK. I became obsessed with my weight and pretty much stopped eating altogether when I did eat I would throw it back up. At this time I was in my first serious relationship and living with my boyfriend. I was throwing up twice a day and again feeling like no one I loved noticed how my pain I was in.
When I was 25 I was out with a friend one evening and fainted. It was a wake up call for me. I went to see my GP and he prescribed Prozac and referred me to a counsellor. Little did I know that this woman, Mary, would as far as I’m concerned save my life. Prozac was not a good fit for me, I became more withdrawn on it and when I started to feel suicidal I realised I needed to stop taking it. It had caused me to stop caring about everything. Mary however recognised that while I would make progress for a little while I would continue to slip right back to where I started.
She gently broached the idea that I have a psychiatric evaluation. I was diagnosed with a Generalised Anxiety Disorder in the context of a vulnerable personality. I asked the doctor what he meant by a vulnerable personality. He told me I had a personality disorder but there is such a stigma associated with it even in the medical community that he did not want it in my file. He did not want me branded. For me though, finally 9 and a half years after the initial trauma I had a name to put to how I felt every day. It took a couple of years to get the medications and dosages right but I remember vividly one day walking down the street and stopping in shock.
My brain was clear, I felt calm and relaxed. Is this how ‘normal’ people feel? It was absolutely wonderful. After my diagnosis and with the confidence my counsellor had instilled in my I decided to be open about who I am. I have a physical illness and as far I was concerned it was nothing to be ashamed about. I had spent all my adult life hiding behind a mask and I refused to do it any more. I was shocked though by the reactions of fear and ignorance I encountered.
I finally told my family about the self harming, bulimia and my diagnosis. While initially they were supportive they quickly became frustrated by my openness. These things shouldn’t be talked about I was told. It was selfish and just upset other people. In my work life being open about my illness had cost me 2 jobs. In the first I was bullied every day by my manager. Told I was fragile, that he felt like he had to walk on eggshells around me. I only lasted 4 weeks there. In my most recent job I disclosed my illness the day I began work. And while initially they told me they would provide accommodations when I used those accommodations such as a slightly later start time I was told I was taking advantage of my illness.
They extended my probation for 9 months and eventually sat me down and told me that I would not be made a permanent employee. With my health I was not a suitable full time employee in that company. It was for my own good they told me. With my health I would be better off working somewhere else. The perception of me in the office was that I was lazy, despite the fact that I had been working 12 hour days and weekends. Because my style of working wasn’t the norm I had to leave.
That night, for the first time since I had gotten a stable level of medication I tried to take my own life. I felt so completely worthless. Because of my health I wasn’t good enough. Thank god my boyfriend realised what I was planning on stopped me. I am now working in a new role and I am slowly recovering from the extreme blow of my treatment in my former company. If it weren’t for the level of fear and ignorance around mental health in Ireland maybe my family would have recognised how ill I was and helped me get treatment sooner. If I had known that it is normal and OK not to feel OK I wouldn’t have felt so completely alone.
The fear surrounding the illness I have has left me with a very strained relationship with my family and damaged my career. My hope is that by talking about my life, by making a ripple and refusing to be ashamed of having this illness there will come a day when children are educated about taking care of their mental health. Parents learn not to dismiss their teenagers problems as ‘teenage angst’. Employers learn that with a little accommodation a person with a mental health problem can be every bit as good an employee as any one else. I hope my story helps.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in Siobhan’s story, or if you need to speak with someone, click through for a list of organisations that can help
See Change understands that there is a complex multiplicity of perspectives on mental health problems and the experience of being unwell. See Change encourages the publication of material that promotes understanding of mental health problems, the experience of being unwell, and recovery. The opinions expressed by contributors to the Make a Ripple campaign are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of See Change, funders, or partner organisations.