Mental illness and addiction does not discriminate. From a perfect childhood, Em’s life morphed into teenager confusion, loneliness, depression and an eating disorder. On the brink of self destruction, Emma fell headfirst into a life of addiction, pushed to her limits, fighting her inner demons, and finally setting herself free. Em believes that vulnerability is not only the birthplace of fear and illness, but importantly, also the birthplace of courage, hope, connection and recovery.
Daniell Koepke wrote:
You’re going to be ok.
Breathe and remember that you’ve been in this place before.
You’ve been this uncomfortable and anxious and scared, and you’ve survived.
Breathe and know that you can survive this too.
These feelings can’t break you.
They’re painful and debilitating, but you can sit with them and eventually, they will pass. Maybe not immediately, but sometime soon, they are going to fade and when they do, you’ll look back at this moment and laugh for having doubted your resilience.
I know it feels unbearable right now, but keep breathing again and again.
This will pass.
I promise it will pass.”
We all have a story. Stories are what connect us to one another. And despite our many differences – age, race, religion, likes, dislikes, and a myriad of life experiences, we are bonded by something higher. We are bonded by our humanity, our “human connectedness”.
My story began in New Zealand – I was born to Australian parents who happened to jump the Tasman, in the pursuit of continuing education and jobs. I was lucky to inherit an older brother, and a younger one too. And together we grew up fighting over the important things in life – like who got to sit next to the window on family car trips. Together we conspired to jump on Mum and Dad’s bed in spite of their warnings. Together we shared early childhood triumphs, like losing our first teeth, and surviving the devastating news that Santa and the Easter Bunny didn’t live behind the kindergarten like we were led to believe.
By all accounts, from the outside looking in, my early childhood, my family and our life was the stuff that 80s sitcoms thrived on; good old fashioned family values with a healthy dash of dysfunction (that, for most part, was kept behind closed doors).
One of my favourite quotes is that: “Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect” (Margaret Mitchell). When I was a little girl, I had expectations of growing up and becoming a ballerina …
If all else failed, I fantasised about the perceived glamorous life of a flight attendant. I imagined that life would follow a unique, yet reasonably ordinary pathway – school, university, a career, maybe marriage, children and a house in the suburbs.
What I didn’t expect, is that as a young teenager, I would fall into a confusing and lonely depression; that my late teens would be preoccupied by a demanding eating disorder; that my adulthood would be hijacked by addiction; and that terrifying psychosis, anxiety and trauma would require me to be a warrior, fighting for my very survival.
Quite simply, mental illness and addiction nearly cost me my life.
My story has been colourful (to say the least). I am so fortunate to have had my life coloured by adventure, beauty, love, education, family, friends, food and travel. But, significantly, my life has also been coloured by mental health challenges, life-threatening addictions and terrifying trauma.
For a long time, I felt deeply ashamed of my story. Chronic illness and a destructive lifestyle shattered my confidence and self-esteem; I was deeply wounded and bereft of hope. I remember feeling broken beyond repair, believing that I was too damaged to recover.
Recovery from what I call, “complex truths” has not been simple; there has not been one solution or quick fix. However, I have experienced and continue to experience, life-changing interactions that inspire hope, courage, gratitude and the desire to not only live, but to thrive – these are the interactions that matter.
I am living proof that mental illness and addiction does not discriminate – it knows no age limits, economic status, race, creed or colour. As Ruby Wax says, “It’s so common. The trouble is, nobody wants to talk about it. And that makes everything worse.”
For me, addiction and mental health challenges have shown up in lots of different ways. My symptoms morphed into a variety of disguises. I promise you, that I did not ask to receive my illness – I didn’t study, sign up or submit an expression of interest for the adversity that came my way.
I understand that from the outside looking in, my behaviour, my mood and my choices often did not make sense. I get that it’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t simply “make better choices”. However, I promise you that from the inside looking out, it’s even more stressful trying to explain what’s going on in your head when you don’t understand it yourself.
One of the most important things I’ve learnt is that having a mental illness, an eating disorder, or being an addict, is NOT MY FAULT – it is, however, my responsibility to look after.
Reflecting on my story, it’s uncomfortable to be reunited with the confusion and loneliness I felt as a teenager with early onset depression. I feel sad when I recall the relentless exercise and food restriction I committed myself to during my high school years. I feel shame creep in and fear judgement when I admit to the phase of my life that was controlled by addiction and littered with paranoia, psychosis and trauma.
How and where did it go so horribly wrong?
In hindsight, the overarching themes that drove all of my manifestations were ISOLATION, SHAME, FEAR and UNCERTAINTY. I didn’t understand what was happening to me as I imploded. Looking back, it was as if a grey cloud wrapped itself around me, disconnecting me from positivity and numbing me to the world.
Self-loathing, constant comparisons and body image insecurities were temporarily silenced by exercise and dieting. However, healthy regimes quickly developed into obsession and compulsion, denying me of nutrition, rest and inner peace.
I feared I would drown in vulnerability and shame – I was too afraid to ask for help or share what I was experiencing, fearing rejection and judgement. I didn’t know who to turn to, or where to go to for help. Later, as my addiction progressed, drug-induced psychosis and paranoid thoughts distorted my thinking, creating a parallel world that was founded in conspiracy and unreality.
It was exhausting. It was disabling. It was painful. I didn’t feel safe. I craved comfort and certainty – regretfully, any small and short-lived relief was delivered via reckless behaviours and addictions. I became reliably unreliable – isolating myself from the world, whilst grieving fragmented memories of a time free of mental and physical anguish. And although I knew that in the long term my addictions would kill me, I craved immediate relief from my internal hell, and escaping gave me temporary comfort.
Today, gratefully, my life is different. And whilst I am grateful and proud of the life I now cherish, I wish that I had found a pathway to wellness earlier.
So, why didn’t I get help earlier?
Author Stephen Hinshaw says, “there’s a crucial reason why so many people don’t seek treatment – it’s STIGMA – the shame surrounding the entire topic.”
Looking back, I realise that shame and stigma had enveloped every cell of my body. Isolated from the world, feeling hopeless and defeated, I resigned myself to the idea that I would never experience joy, love or happiness ever again. I prayed for something or someone to rescue me from the mental prison that kept me separate from the world.
For me, this rescue came in the form of an unexpected intervention when I attended a friend’s wedding in 2003. It was a miracle that I was there – my illness had progressed with overwhelming symptoms of paranoia, making it hard to leave the house, let alone attend a wedding on Moreton Island.
Whilst at the wedding I was confronted by two things – the first was love – a feeling that was absent from my lonely existence. The second, was meeting someone who bravely shared their own experience of recovery from addiction with me. Family and friends had pleaded with me to access help before … but there was something different about this intervention.
Here was a person, who described a life that had mirrored mine, that had somehow transformed himself and his life. He was living a life free from addiction and was seemingly able to manage any symptoms of mental illness.
For the first time, (in a really long time), I felt hope.
My breakthrough came when I admitted that I needed help. I surrendered to going to rehab and began to share the pain and parts of me that I feared would be judged and rejected. Incredibly, the response I received was that it is the parts of me that I had tried to hide that make me strong, courageous and compassionate.
I was nurtured and supported by peers in recovery who were courageous in sharing their own vulnerabilities. And despite any differences in our stories, we identified and related to each other’s emotional journey, bonding through lived experience. This extension of humanity inspired hope, built trust and provided evidence that I was not alone in my efforts to overcome adversity.
My recovery journey has taken many twists and turns; my recovery pathway has involved going to rehab, as well as attending well-meaning doctors, counsellors, therapists, psychologists and 12 Step meetings. What is clear is that, whilst my illness was shrouded in isolation, my recovery has been the opposite. Quite simply, I have not done this alone.
My recovery began 16 years ago. One day at a time, I have rebuilt a life rooted in wellbeing. I have learnt to be mindful of my thinking, as memories and flashbacks of how it was still have the capacity to haunt me, tainting my world view. In these times, I comfort myself with compassion and kindness – ever reminding me that the soundness of my heart and mind has been restored. The wreckage of my past has been dealt with, and with support, I can avoid problems in the future. And although I can’t control the challenges that life throws at me – today I have a choice as to how I respond to these challenges.
As time has progressed, those who have carried the flame of recovery before me have inspired me to create a life worth living. I have returned to study and pursuing career pathways that allow me to connect to others and give back to my community.
My continued recovery and wellbeing requires vigilance – it demands courage, healing and growth. Sustained wellness requires daily maintenance – for me, wellness is grounded in getting quality sleep, eating delicious and nutritious food, moving my body from a place of love, and connecting with friends, family and loved ones.
Today, my life is about showing up in the world and being seen. It’s about switching my head off and my heart on. It’s about stopping, breathing, grounding, feeling, accepting, and surrendering. It’s about practising gratitude and being intentional about how I can move forward in line with my values. It’s about accepting myself just the way I am – acknowledging with varying levels of conviction that I am “perfectly imperfect”.
In recent years I have embarked on nutrition and exercise pathways to heal from painful patterns. Like other aspects of my recovery, this has not been a linear journey. However, today I do my best to treat my body with respect, with a mindset committed to nourishing not depleting myself.
A key component in my physical recovery has been discovering the power of Pilates. A beautiful friend introduced me to Reformer Pilates about a decade ago. And whilst I didn’t grow my practice then, the seed was definitely planted. Roughly two and a half years ago, the same friend casually asked me whether I would be interested in opening a studio. My response: hell yes! Since then I have completed anatomy, matwork and reformer instructor certificates (with Studio Pilates), and as a team, we launched a studio in January 2018.
Pilates is now my movement of choice.
Words feel deficient to describe all that I feel and all that Pilates has done and continues to do for me and my body. It has me feeling strong. It has me feeling confident. It has me feeling safe. Completing a class quietens my mind whilst challenging my body. Teaching a class has me feeling connected and grateful. When I think about it, it is perfectly aligned with values of health, vitality, connection and wellbeing. To sum it up, it’s a one-stop shop for a healthy body, mind and spirit.
Today, through my work as a Pilates instructor and an inner work coach (life coach), I invite people to connect to their human experience, sharing conversations about their life – about what makes them beautifully complex. We all know that mental illness, addiction and suicide aren’t rare in today’s world. We also know that when people have the courage to reach out, things can really change for the better. Encouraging open discussion is key.
The power of sharing my story as part of “Strength Redefined”, teaches me that vulnerability is not only the birthplace of fear and illness, but importantly, also the birthplace of courage, hope, connection and recovery.
I can’t manage, nor do I want to manage my vulnerabilities alone. I need help and I invite support. Today I realise that above all, I need connection. I suspect that when it comes down to it, that’s what we are here for in life – to connect to self and feel connected to one other.
In the end, connection just might be the ultimate cure.
In closing – remember:
“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heart-breaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.” LR Knost