Loneliness and mental health; or, how I found my right to bare arms
Content note: this article contains references to and descriptions of self-harm that readers may find upsetting.
When writing this piece, I sat at my laptop and stared at a blank screen with an equally blank expression. Then I googled sayings to do with loneliness, and then the etymology of the word lonely. Then I realised I wasn’t writing a best man’s speech in a 90’s film so I started again.
I’m focusing instead on how loneliness can be a symptom of mental health issues – as well as a cause – by sharing my own journey.
Let’s rewind to the annals of young Kat: picture pencil-thin eyebrows, a truly dreadful haircut and a love of jewellery that leaves your skin green. Young Kat, while in the midst of a fashion disaster, was also in the throes of a mental health one. I was at university, facing so much uncertainty and turmoil and my behaviours spiralled. I was self-harming daily, hiding my cuts but simultaneously wanting someone to see them and ask me if I was ok. I put the onus of talking onto other people but also then shied away from them.
I think it was a feeling that I needed to be impervious, for people to think I was coping. We didn’t get taught about mental health at school, in favour of talks about how to stay away from cults (90’s schooling, people). So I didn’t know that what I was feeling were symptoms of depression and anxiety – I just thought I wasn’t as good as other people, that something in me was broken and shameful.
I especially hid this from my family, my ever-loving family who would have supported me and been there for me (spoiler – they did and continue to do). It was a constant circle of self-harm, shame, hiding, chastising, vowing to stop then immediately starting again. At my worst it wasn’t daily – it was hourly. I was on my own – or I thought I was – through my own actions and inaction.
What changed? Honestly, I wish I had a road to Damascus moment. But it was more that I finally couldn’t cope; I had barely any unscarred skin left on my arms and my patchwork appearance was impossible to ignore.
In the middle of a drama society meeting, rehearsing one of the tuneless musicals known to man, I rang my mum, sobbed incomprehensibly and told her everything. Now bear in mind, this is my Indian mum who also wasn’t exactly well-versed in mental health issues either. She calmed me down, drove to my university the next day, picked me up and, in her own quiet way, surrounded me with love. I don’t remember what she said or how she said it, but my feeling of isolation lessened. Not the shame – that would take many more years and lots of therapy. But the loneliness started to lift.
I opened up to my family, bit by bit, including having to recount some of the triggers which drove me to self-harm (now that was really tough, looking under the rocks of some very poor decision making). And I opened up to a few friends, who responded with love and in quite a lot of cases, with empathy. Who knew I wasn’t the only one struggling?
That’s the thing about mental health issues, they can isolate you and make you extremely egotistical. Of course, I wasn’t the only one suffering but it took me to confronting my own barriers to see I was isolating other people as well as myself.
It has only been with the support of these amazing people that I can keep on top of my mental health. When I need help, I ask rather than hide. I open up and invite support rather than assuming it’s not there in the first place. I view self-harm like an addiction – it will always be there, it’s always an impulse I have to control rather than one I’ve conquered. It’s about having people around, knowing it’s perfectly fine to ask for help and accepting it.
And now I don’t hide my scars, I don’t cover up when people stare – I call this my right to bare arms (nod to the title! It’s like I planned it). They can look away – I don’t want to. They are part of who I am and honestly, the people who keep me from being lonely don’t even notice them any more.
I don’t have a big life lesson for you from my experience – thankfully I’ve lost the self absorption of assuming I’m the only one. Maybe that is the lesson? That you’re not the only one. Not the only one who has mental health issues and not the only one who cares about you. I care. Your issues will rob you of love and support if you let them; don’t let them.
(BTW the etymology of lonely is from the 1580s, a blend of lone +ly and meant solitary, lone; unfrequented. Really not very interesting after all).
Written by Kat Dare, Practice Director, Brand
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised:
Call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans, or email: [email protected] for a reply within 24 hours
Text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, or text “YM” if you’re under 19