real life

'At 12 years old, my family shamed me for my anxiety. It affected me for years afterwards.'

This post deals with eating disorders and suicide, and might be triggering for some readers. 

I come from a British working-class family. 

Crying was seen as a weakness. 

If you had a problem, you sorted it with your fists and you didn’t ask for help. It was frowned upon to talk about negative feelings and talking about mental health was out of the question.

Watch: Clinical psychologist Amanda Gordon discusses children and anxiety. Post continues below.


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The first time I heard an adult in my family talk about mental health was when I was seven years old. 

My aunt said I would kill myself before I reached adulthood. I was displaying symptoms of anxiety and my family was ashamed of me. Even though I was well-behaved as anxiety made me fearful to the point of obedience, I was viewed as a problem child.

I tried to bottle up my feelings and be normal. I wanted to please my parents. I wanted my aunts and uncles to like me instead of talking about me as if I was weird. I wanted people to stop talking about the "funny farm." This was an expression commonly used in my family to refer to the local mental hospital. 

If I struggled with anxiety, I was warned to "snap out of it" or I would end up in the funny farm.

It’s no surprise that my anxiety got worse. At 12 years old, I started to experience panic. 

I had started secondary school, which is a big step for any child. But for an anxious child, this is not just a big step. It’s a gigantic leap.

I was bullied by older students, some of them as old as 15 and 16. 

This is when my mental health issues started to spiral out of control. It was no longer limited to excessive worrying and crippling shyness. 

I worried about my weight, the way I looked and was constantly on a diet. I felt so hideous that I wanted to die. 

Little did I know, I had developed Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

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My family never sought treatment for me.

It wasn’t until I was 16 that the school referred me to a counsellor. My father reluctantly took me to my appointments, always making a point to tell me how it inconvenienced him. My mother talked as if I had done something terrible.

"How could this happen?"

"I don’t understand why you have turned out like this."

"Your sisters aren’t like this so why are you?"

I hadn’t done anything wrong. I know that now. My only crime was being born into an unsupportive family. My mental health issues stemmed from their emotional abuse, so it is no surprise they had no desire to help me get better. That would mean taking responsibility for their actions.

Fortunately, not all families are like mine. Some are unsupportive, but not for malicious reasons. Mental health is a complex subject and if you are from a family that never talks about their feelings, it’s even harder to understand why someone may be struggling.

This is what I needed my family to know when I was struggling with my mental health.

I am a person, not a set of symptoms.

Although my symptoms were a big part of my life and influenced my behaviour, I was still a child with a unique personality. But everyone seemed to forget that. 

I was described as fragile, painfully shy, overly sensitive, and damaged. It’s so difficult to grow up hearing these things about yourself.

I wish I had heard about how kind and creative I was. I was seen as weak when in actual fact it took incredible strength to fight mental illness every single day.

Believe in me. Focus on what I can do, not just on what I can’t do.

Sometimes I would dare to dream and talk about things I wanted to do.

"You can’t do that! You will fall apart!"

"You’ll quit it like you quit everything"

"What if there’s a problem? You won’t be able to deal with it."

"Remember the last time you tried this and you couldn’t cope?"

It’s true that at the time, I was struggling with the real world. But that didn’t mean my dreams were impossible. Instead of focusing on my limitations, I needed my family to focus on my strengths. 

Then together we could have built on these to make my dreams a reality.

Seek professional help.

There is no shame in reaching out and asking for help. Even if that means needing to go into a mental hospital, which seemed to be something my family thought needed to be avoided at all costs.

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I’m sure my family thought hospitals were like the old asylums and maybe they had good intentions with warning me to "stay out of the funny farm." But if they had taken me to a doctor and explored the options, they would have realised that wasn’t true.

There was also a lot of shame and stigma tied to seeing a psychiatrist or any kind of mental health professional. 

I appreciate the environment and culture we lived in heavily contributed to this. But I wish they had understood seeking help wouldn’t have reflected on them negatively. 

In fact, not seeking help and leaving me to struggle reflects on them very negatively.

Show interest in learning more about my issues.

There was the odd occasion when a mental health professional would give my parents something to read so they could better support me. They never read it. 

Maybe they perceived the situation as being told how to parent. Maybe they wanted to ignore the problem, so it went away. I don’t know. But I do know I wish they had tried to learn more about my problems and their lack of understanding.

If they didn’t want to hear it from professionals, they could have heard about it from me. I desperately wanted to talk about it. I needed to be heard and I strongly believe being unheard for so long is why I struggled to heal.

It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers.

From my perspective as a child, it seemed the adults in the family couldn’t cope with difficult situations if they didn’t have the answers. I can understand this. 

As an adult, I want to be able to solve my child’s problems and any problems my nieces or nephews may have. It’s very difficult to deal with when there is no solution.

Throughout all of my struggles, I didn’t need answers. I needed validation. I needed my family to believe I was struggling. I needed them to believe my problems we important to me. 

And most of all, I needed them to believe that life could and would be better for me one day because I most certainly didn’t.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission.

For more from Laura Fox, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected] You can also visit their website, here.

Feature Image: Getty.