Beyond labels: facing up to mental illness

Eli Shafritz shares her experience of being diagnosed and learning to live with health anxiety, a journey that has revealed the importance of talking about mental illness.

 While growing up I’d always find it unhelpful being labelled a ‘hypochondriac’. I knew exactly what being one meant, but it never made me feel any better about my constant neuroticism. It felt like I was being mocked for something that other people saw as ‘over-dramatic’ or ‘attention seeking’, while for me it was a very real experience of panic, fear and guilt. It was only once I started counselling with CAMHS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) that I was diagnosed with health anxiety and things became clearer.

It had got to a stage where my ability to function on a day-to-day basis had become incapacitated by obsessive checking behaviour and continuous panic attacks, followed by the instant need to seek reassurance from a doctor that I, or a member of my family, was not in fact terminally ill. I would have been happy to maintain this behaviour if it wasn’t for the exhaustion and strain that this ongoing cycle caused me. My behaviour, in my eyes, was normal but the low moods that it brought on were not and this is why I got help.

Through the excellent counselling I received, I was able to understand how my behaviour and actions were undesirable and weren’t helping to protect my family or myself. Once the link between my anxiety and a close family bereavement was made, I could see how my thought processes were irrational and yet completely reasonable. A significant moment for me during this was when my counsellor said to me, ‘You might like to know that you’re not actually a hypochondriac’ as I didn’t fit the specific diagnostic criteria. This statement has stuck with me ever since, because it was then that I realised I wasn’t someone who could just be attributed a label to. I was someone learning to live with a mental illness.

Not only did receiving help improve the state of my mental health but it also taught me the importance of loving one’s self. Seeking help for something that I barely realised was wrong with me was really daunting and the help itself was effective but hard. Upon reflection, however, it’s ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My quality of living has improved so much so that I now feel empowered to reach out to others suffering from anxiety-related mental illnesses. While on my gap year, I’ve been given the opportunity to volunteer at a camp for seriously ill children. A few years ago this wouldn’t have been an option for me, and although I’ve had to do a lot of thinking, I feel confident in my decision to take the opportunity. I once believed that asking for help was a selfish method of dealing with my sadness, but it’s only enabled me to focus more on giving back to others.

Although it’s under a lot more control now, I’m aware that health anxiety is a part of who I am. I’m glad it’s invisible to most of my friends and family as there’s no need for them to see how it affects me, however, I’ve also learned not to be scared or ashamed of telling people about it. I think it’s sad that in order for me to learn and speak up about mental illness I have had to experience one myself. The society I live in today is getting past the stage of stigmatising mentally ill people, now it’s time to educate. There’s still a lot of naivety surrounding the topic due to lack of education and information in schools. Not only does this make it hard for the many who suffer from mental illness, but also for those who wish to give their support.

I’d encourage the vast number of people who’ve been affected by mental illness in some way to start conversations about it. Through this, I hope that more people will become sensitive to the fact that more often than not, people with mental illness will hide it behind a mask of ‘I’m fine’. Right now, it takes a lot of courage to remove this mask and expose yourself by revealing vulnerability, but my dream for the future is that it will become less frightening and more natural for someone to speak up, ask for help and love one’s self.

Eli is 19 and from London. She is currently on a gap year in Israel/Palestine with her Jewish youth movement and is going to study at King’s College London next year.

Photo of bright sun rays shining through a leafy forest onto a winding track by D B, shared under a Creative Commons licence.