“You’re living your best life”

“You’re doing so great”

“I wish I was as clever as you”

“If anyone could do it, you could”

“I wish I had your life”

When people say these things to you they mean well, of course they do, but they don’t really understand. What you see online, in passing or even in conversation with someone may seem great. They might look like they’ve got it all together and are having the time of their life. But you only see an hour or even a couple of minutes of their life every week. The reality could be quite different. And that’s certainly the case for me. When people say these things you feel you have to continue to act up to it, create this persona that I'm crushing life and every day is a breeze. I continued to put on a show that was ultimately just that, a show. It was certainly not my reality.

For anyone that’s just scrolling past this and doesn’t know me. I’m Holly, 21 years old and looking like I’ve got it all. I co-own a pretty successful small business with my incredible boyfriend who I’ve been with for almost 8 years now. We started that business whilst I was completing the final year of a Politics degree, for which I achieved first class honours. I played football to a pretty high standard in my teens, won awards at school and was head girl in my final year of sixth form. Probably sounds like I’ve always had life sussed out, have everything that most people want and have done great in my short (almost) 22 years of life.

This is what everyone else sees; they see the successful, high achieving, sporty Holly. Yet this is just 5% of my life, few see the Holly that exists 95% of the time. The Holly that overthinks social situations, doesn’t like answering the phone, struggles to leave the house some days and can wake up with her heart racing for no apparent reason. Not many people see, or know, the Holly that suffers with anxiety and depression.

I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was 13 when I was the victim of bullying in my second year of secondary school. Since then both my depression and anxiety comes and goes. I’ve had times when I’ve been ok for a couple of years even. However, when I started university, it didn’t go. It just kept coming and I didn’t know what to do. I barely spoke to the people I lived with, slept little more than 4-5 hours a night, didn’t join a single society and never went on a night out. I relied on visits from my other half (literally, I think he is the other half of me) Joe, to keep me going. I can barely remember those months of my life now. I think I’ve blocked them out. Every single day seemed the same. All I really remember is this feeling of numbness, like I was observing everything from a distance and never really interacting with my life. That was the depression. The anxiety manifested itself in panic attacks, a need to plan conversations before I even saw people and a general avoidance of social situations. Eventually, in January 2019, I eventually visited a doctor. She diagnosed me there and then with depression and anxiety, prescribed me some anti-depressants, wrote a letter to release me from my university accommodation contract… and sent me on my way.

Within a week I’d moved home, was commuting to university and taking the anti-depressants. No one outside my immediate family knew what was going on or why I’d left university accommodation. Every time I was asked I just said “oh, I just didn’t like it”. The pills made a difference from where I was, I didn’t feel the emptiness and didn’t wake up feeling anxious every day. But social situations were still hard and something still didn’t feel right. Yet, I just got on with it and continued to ride the rollercoaster.

When Covid hit I almost expected to struggle, but I didn’t initially. I found myself spending less time on social media, having more free time and spending more time doing things I enjoyed. I should’ve remembered how this made me feel better when things started to go downhill at the end of 2020. By this time I'd also stopped taking the anti-depressants. They'd worked for a period but I felt like I was no longer making any real progress in my attempt at recovery.

It was almost like starting my dissertation, at the end of 2020/start of 2021, was the trigger that started the decline. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Every day I woke up with the same anxious feeling in my body. My brain couldn’t tell me why I was anxious but the physical symptoms were affecting my day-to-day life. My stomach hurt, my heart was always racing - to the point that it affected my breathing - and I was grinding my teeth. My teeth was the worst part. I was doing it absentmindedly to the point that my jaw hurt and it actually locked out at times. Part of my filling fell out and I was wary that my teeth were increasingly sensitive. This wasn’t just once or twice a week, all of this was every single day. This wasn’t the hardest part though, the worst of it was the way it affected my relationships. I was always cancelling plans with friends, not replying to texts, or if I did I was just pretending everything was good, I'd just say I was “so busy”. The worst was the way I communicated with Joe. I felt angry with myself for the way I felt but only showed that by snapping at him or getting angry with him about small things, when really it was something completely different that was bothering me. Yet, I was one of the lucky ones. Many people don’t have someone who understands, who gets the situation. For example, the scariest manifestation of my anxiety is the panic attacks. They happen so quickly that often I can’t stop them before they start. But Joe is able to spot them quickly, he says he can see my hands clenching before I’m even aware anything’s happening. If anyone watches Ted Lasso, the way they portray his panic attacks are very similar to mine. The first time they showed one in the programme I knew straight away what was happening. Ultimately, they are unpleasant and leave me exhausted, but I’m lucky that I have someone else who can read them.

This year has been the hardest battle with my mental health. The physical symptoms of my anxiety have often been so severe that I feel like I don't have any control over my body. I’ve had days when I’ve been physically unable to leave the house, cancelled plans, had Joe cover my work claiming that I was"ill", ignored texts and calls, cried for no apparent reason, or just done nothing but get myself through the day. And just getting through the day can be hard sometimes. I'd wake up to anticipate just getting to bed in the evening. I'd wish my days away just hoping for a better tomorrow. It's hard for me to admit all of this, but life was harder than I thought I could deal with sometimes.

I realised, only recently, that a lot of my trouble was because I was trying to live the life everyone thought I had - that everything was perfect - and not accepting that it’s ok to not be ok all the time. Things have improved now that I’ve learnt to live in the present, stopped always looking forward to what’s to come and am finally realising that a bad day doesn’t have to determine the rest of my life. I've started to live a life that I want to and not the life that others expect me to. This is very recent though, and why I feel comfortable talking about my struggles.

Why have I written all of this? I’ve written this firstly as a reminder that mental health is invisible. Someone close to you might look like they’ve got it all together but actually they might be falling apart inside. Create a culture with your friends and family to make people feel comfortable to talk when they’re not ok.

I’ve also written this for anyone else who might be struggling when everyone else thinks they’ve got it good. If anxiety, depression, or anything else is affecting your life, stop pretending that you’re living your best life. The best thing you can do for yourself is actually accept that you're not alright. I've learnt the hard way that pretending only makes it worse. Only then will you be able to actually live your best life. You need to come first, and only then will you be able to enjoy the company of others and build relationships. None of that can happen if you’re not whole.

This is also a testament to the people that have carried me through. No matter how long you’ve been in my life, I’m grateful for you.

“I would say what others have said: It gets better. One day, you’ll find your tribe. You just have to trust that people are out there waiting to love you and celebrate you for who you are. In the meantime, the reality is you might have to be your own tribe. You might have to be your own best friend. That’s not something they’re going to teach you in school. So start the work of loving yourself.” — Wentworth Miller

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