Thursday, 14 June 2012

Developing Passion(s) for Life

I read this post by Stina Lindenblatt and it got me thinking about passions and life in general. For those who don't know, I have a mental illness and I've been assessing where I am and thinking about the future. This is a long post, but I think my story could help other people. It's important to talk about mental illness and people's experiences, otherwise the stigma will remain. See

The Void

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety several years ago, although I had been suffering symptoms since I was 14/15. Between the ages of 19 and 22, my life was extremely bleak. I was deep in depression and too scared to leavc the house a lot of the time. I withdrew from my friends and had to quit jobs because of the amount of time I needed to take off. I was suicidal, self-harming and regularly having panic attacks. I thought my life was over - I had failed to go to university, like my friends, and nothing I tried (including losing 60lbs by starving myself) made a difference.

Thankfully, medication and counselling helped me feel a little better and start thinking I might have a future. The NHS is wonderful. Sure, it's slow and under-funded and there are many other problems, but I would not be here without it. The support I got from some family members (especially my parents) and friends was also vital and invaluable. So I found myself, just having turned 23, frustrated that my life was so painful and empty.

One of my best friends was living in Valencia for several months and had invited me to visit her. The air fare was cheap and I could stay in my friend's room, so all I had to pay for was food and fun. I felt lonely, desperate and ready to make a change: I arranged a 10 day holiday at the end of July 2007. It changed my life.

The Candle Flame in the Cave

Looking back, I can't quite believe I did it. I'd only been abroad twice before and had never flown. The furthest I'd been on my own was the city 25 miles away, where I went to college. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking in parks, soaking up the sun when my friend was working. Education has always been important to me and, in my darkest times, films were my only comfort; so I decided to go to university and do a Film Studies BA.

I was still depressed and anxious, but had enough 'good' or just 'okay' days to make plans. I could attend the university in the city where I went to college, living at home and travelling to lectures by train. I would have my family's support and my parents charge considerably less rent than student housing. To prepare and get references for my application, I did an A Level Psychology evening class (at my old college!) and a short course in creative writing with the Open University.

This rekindled my passion for writing and gave me more confidence than I'd had since I was a kid. I decided to learn how to drive - something I'd been far too nervous to do before. Living at home and rarely going out (other than to lectures) made my student loan go a long way!

Rolling Down the Rockface

My first year at university was terrific. My anxiety and depression were more controlled than they'd ever been. Sure, my experience was far from the drugs, sex and rock n roll stereotype the media love to portray, but since I was a hermit 2 years ago, I was doing pretty damn well. I thought about what kind of future I wanted and kept coming back to writing.

So my plan had a next stage: do a Creative Writing MA. The only way I could afford this (and, frankly, cope) was to get a place at the same university. To prepare (and, again, get a more relevant reference than my film tutors could provide), I decided to do 2 year-long, part-time Open University courses in creative writing. They were both fabulous and confirmed my desire to be a writer. I could also get a diploma by completing them.

 The Jungle  

My mental health continued to fluctuate and then deteriorated. Despite doing well at university and passing my driving test first time, which meant I could drive to campus instead of taking the train - often a challenge due to my anxiety, there were still times when I wanted to die. I also realised I had problems with impulsive spending and had resumed self-harming. I knew I had what I wanted, but I still felt depressed and hopeless a lot of the time.

I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) a year and a half ago, at the age of 26, and everything made more sense. It explained my problems/behaviours that didn't fit into the categories of depression or anxiety. Some people find the diagnosis of BPD scary or isolating, since it's a complex illness with a range of symtoms and a name which doesn't describe it very well. I found it reassuring: I have an illness which makes it difficult to control my emotions and makes me react strongly to events I can't control.

The Lagoon

BPD is hard to live with, but I understand more about the way I am and can be more compassionate towards myself. I was disappointed that dropping 10 marks on my average in the last year of my BA meant I got a 2:1, whereas I'd averaged a 1:1 for the 1st and 2nd years. However, I am learning to accept that it's a great result considering the challenges I faced. Especially as I stubbornly refused even a deadline extension: I had learnt that real life doesn't give concessions and I wanted to succeed on my own terms.

I got a Distinction for both my OU courses and received my diploma last year - just before starting the MA. I hope to hit a Merit (there's little hope of Distinction with the grades I've already got) and that's fine.  I took some risks with my assignments, some of which didn't pay off, and I'm glad I pushed myself.

Doing the MA has taught me so much about my craft and about myself. It's been worth it, even if I fail - though I hope I don't! Writing is a learning process anyway and grades don't determine success: stories do.

The Waterfall

Which brings me full circle back to Stina's post about passion. I will hand in my dissertation at the end of August and that's the MA done. For the first time in 5 years, I will be left with no course to do and no plans other than 'work on writing and try to get published'.

I'm terrified. I look forward to spending more time on hobbies I've neglected, such as drawing, painting, baking, yoga, improving my French and learning Italian. It will be great to relax a little, without a looming deadline. I hope to manage my BPD and improve enough to get a job and pay off my credit card and overdraft quicker. But it's all so uncertain.

One thing I must cling to is the shard of hope I've been clutching since I booked my trip to Valencia. I still find living very difficult, but there are days when I can sit back and realise I'm passionate about life. There have been moments of joy among the pain and all I can do is keep trying, keep hoping the future will bring me happiness.


  1. You have coped so well, Hayley, and far more than simply coped. I was so moved by your story. You've travelled such a long way and survived so many debilitating setbacks, while still pursuing so many goals, that you richly deserve those moments of joy. And I hope you have many, many more. You deserve every one of them. There can be no better way to explore and enjoy your passion for life than to write. I wish you every success with it and lots of happiness along the way.

  2. You've achieved so much more than many young people, Hayley and, as Joanna says, that's a moving story. I'm wishing you much enjoyment, expression, and success with your writing career.

  3. Thank you both for your kind comments - I'm incredibly touched :-)

  4. This is an amazing story of perseverance. You should have participated in the in Never Surrender blogfest last week. This is one of the best examples I've seen. *hugs*

    I struggle with self harming myself too. While I hate to hear that other people also deal with it, I'm glad that I'm not so alone with the battle. When I was in university, I thought I was the only one who did it. Kind of tough getting help when you think that way.

  5. Thank you, Stina. I didn't hear of anyone else self-harming until I'd been doing it a couple of years - then it was another few years before I heard of someone I knew doing it. I suspect it's more common than even the surveys indicate; sadly, it's something people are more reluctant to talk about than mental health in general. Hopefully more of us will feel able to talk about it and help other sufferers to feel not so alone.