I was 15 and depressed. I was 15 and abused. I was 15 and mentally unstable. I was 15 and had ADD. These are some of the facts that you will find attached to my medical files. Life as a teenager for me was not pretty or pleasant and I did not enjoy it. In fact, for a large portion of my teenage and young adult life I was unhappy. Let me paint you a picture.
I was raised by my mum and step dad. My mum is amazing but mentally ill. She did her very best but life had damaged her and she was unable to move past or over it. Oh boy, did she try, but it was too hard and painful, so she remained as she was. My step dad was angry, violent and very volatile. You never knew what you were going to get, whether you would be greeted with a hug and “how was your day, mate”, or with a violent push, shove or slap. I felt like walking constantly on eggshells, unable to rest properly for fear of what was going to happen.
I didn’t eat particularly well: I thought a bag of corn chips and a bottle of Gatorade during the day would be sufficient. And I didn’t really sleep. All this led to my behaving badly and disrespectfully. I wasn’t a naughty kid. I was confused, scared and hurting. With every diagnosis I received, my attitude towards life would worsen as I would convince myself that something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t normal or I was a reject in life. Back then I didn’t understand that each thing said about me (and often over me) by a doctor or a professional didn’t need to define me. Every meeting and script written at the time just confirmed to me that I was weird and different.
The funny thing is that looking back now I see that in each of these engagements I was just being handed tools to navigate the tough years of life I walked through (and of which I had many more to come). Thinking of that time, I don’t have fond memories of myself, of the things I did or the things that were done to me. However, I do understand and appreciate that everything I went through helped to shape and train me into the gloriously strong woman I am today.
I was a miserable 15 year old, convinced to be worth nothing, and being just a burden and darkness to those around me (depression label). I was convinced that I wasn’t worthy of love or care due to the physical, emotional and sexual abuse I suffered (abuse label). I was also convinced that my personality was too much for people (ADD label). As a young person I enabled these three labels to define me. I couldn’t see past my given diagnoses, certain that they summed up who I was and there was nothing more to me.
I couldn’t see that I was also kind, funny, smart, patient and creative, and had many more amazing attributes. The diagnoses were simply of an illness and didn’t sum up my character, I was more than that. Instead, I allowed my sickness to dictate who I was and even – to a degree – how I behaved. Towards the end of my teenage years I was in a cycle of negative thinking, destructive behaviour, making some pretty dangerous choices.
By then I was in foster care and had amazing foster parents. They were so patient and kind to me. One night, my foster mum sat down with me and I thought to myself “here we go, another self-help pep talk” – she had given me these frequently. To my surprise, this time the conversation went something like this:
“Darling, what’s wrong?“
“Ok, then who are you?”
‘“What do you mean?”
“I mean: who are you?”
“I am me”
“Well, who is me?”
Long silent pause…
“Me is me, you know the depressed, hyper-unstable girl who needs help.”
A very silent and what felt like a very long pause followed. I will never forget the look in her eyes as she stared at me. I didn’t see judgement, pity or annoyance. I just saw this beautiful and deep compassion as she stared. She took a big deep breath and after what felt like forever she said the following words:
“Hannah, the words we speak over ourselves can either lift us or drown us. Hannah, our words have the ability to shape our worlds: what we speak out we eventually walk into.”
I sat and stared back. I was confused. She also asked me questions along the lines of “would you speak to others the way you speak to yourself” and “have you told yourself lately that you are actually remarkable, resilient and strong” – both to which I answered no. She then handed me a piece of paper, told me to go away and read it, and come back when I was ready. I still have the letter today, tucked away in a little box, from which I can pull it out when I start to feel a little lost. It goes something like this:
I am writing this because I have been watching you lately, while walking alongside you in this journey we call life. I have seen the way your shoulders drop every time we leave an appointment. I have seen the sparkle leaving your eyes as you begin to believe that you are just your illnesses. Oh darling, can’t you see you are so much more than that? Can’t you see that the doctors are simply here to serve you, to hand you tools so that you can live your best life? Can’t you see that you are a gift to the world around you?
I knew the moment we met you that there was something special about you and I don’t know what you see in the mirror, but what I see when I look at you is something exquisite. You are like fine China made so delicately and carefully with every detail just as it should be; you are like a rainbow bringing colour to the world around you and a promise of better days to come; you are like a warrior who refuses to give up but one who makes a choice to keep fighting despite the odds.
Oh darling girl, you are a miracle! The labels you have been allowing to define you are simply part of your story, they make up the mountains you climb and the rivers you wade through. They are part of a story which you will tell others one day. My girl, don’t let them define you, your name is not depression, your name is not a victim and your name most certainly is not ADD. Your name is Hannah and you are strong and brave, and your steps are writing a story that needs to be told.
So honey, let the doctors tell you part of your story, let them give you the tools to climb that mountain and then, when you reach the top, make sure you look back and admire just how far you have come.
It was like a light bulb moment, an awakening, just wonderful. It was like I could see slightly more than just the sum of my diagnosis.
Soon after this, Mandy and I started a book called “Who am I”. She was so kind to me. Every Friday after school, we would sit together and unpack one thing about me that was worth celebrating. There were so many it felt kind of mind-blowing: I was kind, I was patient, I was resilient, I was beautiful, I was strong, I was an overcomer. The list went on. I took about a year to complete it. Even now, I turn back to it regularly to remind myself how awesome I am.
Sitting here now, at the age of 37, I can see the mountains I have climbed and the rivers I have waded through. I see the story I can share, which may help someone else. You see, when a doctor told me I was depressed, he wasn’t giving me a new name. When I suffered abuse I didn’t change my name, and when the doctor told me I had ADD, he wasn’t changing my identify – he was simply handing me tools to navigate life and adding some more pages to my beautiful story.
Wherever you find yourself carrying a label you’ve picked up, can I encourage you to understand that it doesn’t define you, it doesn’t make up the sum of who you are? It’s a tool and a part of your story. And when you catch yourself talking unkindly to your own self, let’s take a moment to remember that our words can uplift us or drown us. In the words of Dory: just keep swimming!