My first experience of mental ill-health was over 20 years ago, but I barely remember a time when I felt ‘happy’ even from early childhood. I was plagued by unwanted thoughts and much of the time I lived in my own fantasy world.
I remember at school one day thinking “I wonder when things will get better?” – I still ask that. I couldn’t get to grips with my emotions, I couldn’t fit into the world, I just felt empty. I struggled with family relationships and was badly bullied at school, both of which affected my ability to cope with a world that seemed very alien to me. Eventually, this became self-destructive; the only way I could connect with how I felt inside was to express it physically. I self-harmed daily and then was diagnosed with anorexia at 20.
The diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) came that same year, after a long road of trying different medication and other therapies.
I was booked to go into a specialist eating disorders unit at 21, but the nature of BPD can mean spontaneous decisions to opt out of therapy. I often sabotaged my own treatment and it’s not easy to control. At that time I’d decided that I wasn’t ready for an inpatient stay, so I chose not to go. During university, I survived the loss of my mum, and it was at the end of my degree that I knew I had to draw a line – even if it was under just one of many damaging behaviours. In 2006, after being abused in the street by a stranger because of the scars from self-harm, I decided to have both arms fully tattooed, and that was when I knew I never wanted to cut again, but of course, it wasn’t easy.
I was a keen musician and music kept me going through my childhood and into my first career as a professional musician, but it’s a tough career to hold down and I always had other part-time jobs, which led me into working with disability. Working to improve things for others has always been important to me and luckily I found a role with Barclays through doing this.
One of the lowest points for me was after giving birth to my son. I fell into a dark depression and relapsed into anorexia. Suddenly my mental health was going to directly affect someone else’s, and I couldn’t think of anything worse than passing on my problems to my child. His birth came after a time of upheaval in my life – so there was a huge build-up of feelings that I’m still dealing with today.
I’ve had to work much harder to have a stable career and relationships because of the way BPD affects executive function and emotional responses.
But nowadays things are better. I have a career in accessibility so it’s my job to create a level playing field for people with disabilities, including mental health. I’m also a published composer writing music for film and television. I write for various online publications and my own mental health blog too which is really therapeutic and helps raise awareness.
I also chose to be part of a mental health campaign at work, made for colleagues, to start conversations around mental health. I shared my story to show people that I can still live up to my potential with acceptance and understanding. I may work differently but I’m effective and I have a lot to give. I’m still me. I am not my diagnosis.
I believe very strongly that organisations need to begin to challenge preconceptions of mental illness, and what a ‘professional’ looks like – if not then a lot of talent is wasted.
One of my passions lies in helping employers understand how to make adjustments for mental health and creating tech solutions to improve the lives of people with severe mental illnesses like mine.
If there’s anything I’ve learned over my journey so far, it’s that for the most part people aren’t judgemental when you open up to them. I’ve been overwhelmed with positive feedback, which just goes to show the power of sharing – my story has helped others to break the silence.
Helen is an IT accessibility manager for Barclays and leads the mental health agenda for the staff disability network. She also works as a mental health consultant to large organisations, chairs the London Regional Committee for the charity Rethink Mental Illness and writes for several organisations and publications, including the Bank Workers’ Charity, The Early Hour and Purple Space.