Trigger warning: this article contains themes of addiction, mental health and depression
BY JULES HAYDON GUAITAMACCHI
IMAGES BY KALEIDO SHOOTS
My hope with this is to come across as sincerely as I can about myself and my experiences. The ability to articulate in this way has given me strength and had a profound effect on my life. I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to mental health, but I struggled due to an extremely chaotic childhood and fortunately had the opportunity to receive the kind of help to turn my life around when I was very young. Now I share my these experiences professionally as well as running workshops and teaching life skills to people all over the country and abroad. Predominately I work with young people, have worked with people of all ages and there is nothing more rewarding than witnessing the power of your own story touching the life of another, especially those struggling with a similar experience, to watch their eyes begin to open as they start to acknowledge their internal world.
As a child I experienced the physical and emotional absence of my parents, having the support of a loving family, I always say they did the best they could with what they had but unfortunately, I slipped through the net. Instead of following a path to a bright future, the result was that I followed a path of self-destruction that landed me in rehab twice before the age of 21.
I didn’t do too badly for someone who struggled their way through school, but I wasn’t present for much of my education and even had to skip university to check into treatment. So my vocabulary isn’t particularly broad and I often feel inadequate when I compare myself to writers or fellow speakers. This has sometimes caused me to give up for fear of ‘not being good enough’ story of my life, and yet I have come to the realisation that I don’t have to base my worth on comparing myself to others. In order to break this debilitating pattern I need to go against the stream and fight the fear of being seen.
A significant part of my recovery has been owning my worth by learning to take responsibility and knowing where to direct accountability, learning what’s mine and what isn’t. In reality, there were conditions imposed upon me before I even left the womb, the moment my parents found out my sex and chose a name for me.
I was a ‘tomboy’ because I preferred what was considered to be more masculine, like football, climbing trees and dressing up in ‘boys’ clothes. When I came home from school I’d take off my school skirt, slick my hair back, put on a pair of trousers, a shirt and a tie and I was back to feeling me again, but those times were few and far between. I am reminded of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in The Wall Pt.2, as children are moulded and shaped into identical products of a cruel education system. A clear reflection of the division between adults and children and partly the reason I have refused a version of adulthood that I think is incredibly dysfunctional. I have found myself growing down into childhood and a need to discover a much younger, more authentic version of who I really am, a self that I lost over the years.
I was told that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt means ‘I have done wrong’ and shame means ‘I am wrong’. I have lived most of my life full of shame. Growing up with an identity that didn’t fit me, in a body that was growing in a way that became increasingly uncomfortable and if I dared to be different I’d get bullied and laughed at. My short hair meant I was ‘a boy’, my personality meant I was ‘a freak’, my obvious lack of attraction to the opposite sex meant ‘er you are such a lesbian’ and this happened on a daily basis.
Life at 11 was hell. Every day I would wake up with the anxiety of the day ahead, knowing that I’d be the subject of these words that cut through me deeper than a knife. When I finished school I’d have to attend an after-school club, as my mum worked desperately hard to provide for the both of us because my father didn’t pay any maintenance. He just saw me during the holidays, pretending that he was the better parent, poisoning my young and naive mind. I believed him and began to resent my mother. All I could see was her struggle, her stress and depression. I was neglected as she worked virtually through the night to keep us both alive. I’d pretend to be ill so I didn’t have to face the bullying and so that my mum would go to work, leaving me at home, on my own, where I felt the safest. My isolation became my safe place at that time, but I felt so unsafe that I began to suffer from paranoid delusions and slept with a baseball bat in my bed fearing for my life.
Studies have shown that childhood trauma can cause neurological changes in the brain, including lower serotonin production, which to me makes total sense and why I was more susceptible to self-medicating, or the symptomatic issue our society refers to as ‘addiction’. If I want to better understand my mental health I need to reflect on my history.
As the years went by the consequence of this chaotic background resulted in complete rebellion. I changed everything about myself so that I could fit in with you and seek the connection from people that I craved so badly. I put on my survival costume and modelled myself on the people that hurt me. During my teens I barely drew a sober breath, attempting to scribble maths equations on a whiteboard, stoned out of my mind at 9 o’clock in the morning, until out of frustration my teacher would shake her head and ask me to sit back down.
This behaviour worked perfectly as a performance that I played as this so–called rebel, that didn’t care, that seemed untouchable… Anything than being the quiet, shy, vulnerable one, who always got attacked, the real me that I couldn’t possibly show you. If you’re unsafe as a child, you will find any way to protect yourself and unconsciously find ways to survive. This was survival at work but the only problem that it was actually doing the opposite and about to destroy me. I think we all wear a survival costume or a mask we just don’t really question it. I had to take mine off because it was killing me…
I began to get closer to the idea that it might be easier to stop trying. All I wanted was some kind of peace. I exploded into my teens and the trail of destruction resulted in broken teeth, cigarette burns, stab marks to my shoulder and hand, 16 stitches where I cut through half of my arm, scarred legs, a fractured skull, hospital beds, ambulance drivers knowing me by name, school suspensions, black eyes and bloody noses. This may sound dramatic, but it’s important to highlight that I treated myself with utter contempt.
After leaving rehab I was presented by this idea of being a ‘woman’ I couldn’t identify with. Even though I focused so hard on my recovery, working towards a career, slowly starting to accept my sexuality, I kept hitting a brick wall, having breakdown after breakdown.
Coming through this and living what I consider a reasonably functional life, controversially I won’t ever label myself as mentally ill. I have the scars and sometimes I may need the medication, but I see myself as a survivor. If you live in the world I lived in, the response I had was completely understandable – it was the way many people would have responded in those circumstances, but this is not the essence of who I am.
I am a big believer in removing stigma and acknowledging the fact that people hurt and life is painful. I believe we all suffer with this thing called mental health, influenced by our experiences, predispositions and hurt we face in life. I developed so many unhealthy patterns of behaviour, all of which I have vowed to tackle ever since. Finally, I reached a time in my life in Brighton, surrounded by people so incredibly diverse, and it was as though for the first time I was allowed to be different. Finally, I started to question all the times that I had wanted to express myself in a certain way and what that meant. Nine months ago I came out as non-binary. The term non-binary seems to be very confusing – some claim that it doesn’t exist (I pinch myself)… Nope, I’m definitely still here. This identity fits me perfectly.
I am currently in my 11th week of taking testosterone and mentally I have felt better than ever. I resent having to choose a gender, so I swing my legs on the fence with the attitude of why should I have to? Why can’t we allow people to be who they are without this black and white notion of gender? The effect of this socially constructed mayhem has caused me so much grief. My experiences are definitely not isolated, and a reason we really need to start talking more about how to support mental health in the LGBTQ+ community.