Emma Smallwoods - My Mental Health

I am currently living the dream and travelling Asia/Australia after spending 4 months teaching English in a local primary school in Hong Kong. I stand in awe of the amazing cities and counties I have seen and often have to pinch myself to remind myself that I’m really here, I’m well enough to live out my dreams and live independently.


If you told me two years ago, I would be where I am today, I would never have believed you. I was so consumed by depression and anxiety that I didn’t actually see a future. If you told my medical team that I would be travelling the world, they would have deemed me as medically unfit as my body, heart and kidneys were so weak that I was barely functioning due to my eating disorder. Yet here I am, defying the odds.




When Darren approached me and asked me to share my mental health experience, I jumped at the chance. The aim of this blog is not to trigger, but to show recovery is possible regardless of how dark things can get. There is hope and I promise things can get better.


I’m not yet ‘recovered’ and not sure I ever will be, but I can now live my life and have control and coping mechanisms to help me live a high functioning and ‘normal’ life. If you’re still interested at this stage, sit back, buckle your seatbelt, relax and get ready to read my bumpy journey to recovery.



The act of control that stripped me of all control


Throughout my childhood I was a happy-go-lucky, mischievous girl who was popular and had top grades at school. At the age of 14, I was bullied by an older woman who told me I wasn’t enough, and I’d never be enough. I had never heard these words spoken over me before and as a 14-year-old adolescent I believed her. I developed anxiety about seeing her around and her words often spiraled in my head until they were all I could hear and I began to believe them.



My self-esteem and self-worth deteriorated very quickly and I became very isolated, depressed and began to stop leaving home. Being depressed reduced my appetite and I began to lose weight. I then found losing weight was something I was ‘good at’ and I began to count every calorie, skip meals and purge after anything I ate. I couldn’t control what people said about me, but I could control what I ate and for me, this became a destructive obsession.



The obsession with food continued throughout my teenage years and early twenties and the thing I once tried to take control of, very quickly took control of me. I had every calorie counted out, I measured my fluids, I weighed myself 10+ times a day and forced myself to exercise if I gained even 0.01kg or if I had not lost weight.


I began to fear showering incase my body would absorb the water and make me gain weight and I was also afraid of using moisturiser for the same reason. My mind was a battle field and my life consisted of restriction, over exercising, binging, purging, often taking a packet of laxatives and diuretics daily.



This affected me in all aspects of my life. I had to repeat a year of school, I had to drop out of my university degree, I was deemed unfit to work and was put on sick leave. I was not allowed to travel, or exercise. My mood decreased further, and I became a shell of the person I once was. I was suicidal, self-harmed and all I wanted to do was fade away.




I pushed those closest to me away and isolated myself which added to my feelings of unworthiness and loneliness. I often didn’t talk to anyone or leave my room for days. My skin became dry and weak, my hair fell out and my periods stopped. I was a woman living inside a child’s body. I became very ill and was sent by my GP to the local eating disorder service as an emergency case.




Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.


Once referred to the service I would not admit that I was sick or had a problem. I believed everyone just wanted me to ‘eat’ to make me fat and not because I was deathly unwell. At my worst point, I was attached to heart monitors and was under the care of a consultant cardiologist at the age of 21. I also had a consultant urologist and a kidney stone nurse. My kidneys were unable to function due to excessive diuretic abuse and fluid restriction which lead to the formation of kidney stones and infections.



This left me hospitalised with sepsis due to my weak immune system. I had weekly dietician and occupational therapy appointments to teach me to eat and live again and I saw my therapist twice a week. I also had an eating disorder consultant (the only one in Northern Ireland- which makes me angry) who travelled over 80miles to see me twice a month. Even at this stage I did not see how ill I was. I still wanted to lose weight and still wanted to die.



One night I just prayed to God to take the pain away, I was at the end of my rope and couldn’t hold on much longer. My family and friends were breaking seeing me slowly starve myself to death. I took a leap of faith and put my trust in God and my medical team. I wanted to believe they could help make things better. This did not happen overnight, but over a period of weeks/months. Slowly through prayer, re-feeding medication, hundreds of appointments, blood tests and trusting my team I slowly began to gain strength and get better. I applied to university and got accepted and this was my reason to fight for my life back.



Demi Lovato once said, “One of the hardest things was learning that I was worth recovery”. For me this was definitely the hardest thing. I had lost all self-confidence and self-worth and didn’t believe I was ill enough or worthy enough for a space in treatment. The process took a long time, daily battling, medication and lots of therapy but I learnt that it doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you don’t stop. Believe in yourself and all that you are.



Recovery is about progression, not perfection.


Maybe you read my story and you can relate, or maybe you read my story and can’t relate at all. That’s entirely fine. You don’t need to relate to my mental illness battle, but you do need to know that recovery is possible.


Everyone faces hard time and demons and that’s ok. It’s ok to not be ok.

YOU are worthy of love and help and life. As cliché as it sounds, things can and do get better but you have to work for it.


There are people who want to help you, you just have to open your heart and accept their help.



Some of the things that helped me get through the recovery process were:


⁃ Trusting in my medical team and their treatment plan


⁃ Taking my medication daily and following my meal plan


⁃ Talking openly about how I was feeling


⁃ Making a pro’s and con’s list of recovery


⁃ Praying to God


⁃ Making plans for the future


⁃ Taking one day at a time


⁃ Having distractions


⁃ Music


⁃ Believing in myself


If you are struggling please reach out, drop me a message or make an appointment with you GP. Do not believe that you aren’t worthy or ill enough- a healthy person does not wish to be unwell. Recovery is a process and as I said, I’m not sure it ever ends, but you get better, and you work at it. I still take daily medication, battle with my intrusive thoughts about food, but now I have strategies to deal with it.



If you have got to the end of this blog post, thank you! It’s my first time doing anything like this or sharing a snippet of my story online. It’s frightening and scary, but also empowering to know that my story could potentially help someone else.

Signed,

The girl who is two years in recovery and busy travelling the world.

Emma xx




Darren Shields

Healing through Honesty

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