Just a heads up - this episode discusses themes of suicide and eating disorders. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service.
When I was four, I first started playing violin. I remember practicing for weeks and weeks and getting up on stage. It was the first time that I had a panic attack. My hands really sweaty, my body became really numb. I didn't really have any conscious control over the song that I was playing. It was just like muscle memory at that point. I was just like autopilot. I got off stage and I remember meeting the adjudicator and I had done well, but I don't really remember too much of it. No one could really tell.
Welcome to Not Alone, incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about measuring up to impossible standards, and the masks we put on to try and get there.
In this episode, you'll be hearing from Emily, whose pronouns are they/them. Emily grew up in the suburbs of Perth with their brother and parents. Emily was a curious child, loved trying new things, especially musical instruments. They were four years old when they first saw another kid with a violin, and knew they had to try it. Emily excelled at everything they tried. But in their mind, they were never quite good enough.
When I was younger, I think I was very bubbly, but reserved. Like very, very well behaved, very friendly, very polite. Very much just panicking on the inside all the time though. I was just constantly bombarded by these, like really anxious thoughts, very self critical. I remember like I would just pick up like the tiniest comment that anyone would make, but I would carry it along with me. And anything that I would do, I just really overthink a lot of the time. But on the outside, I was totally fine. You know, high achieving in school did all the hobbies, all the sports, it came off as happy. And no one can really tell anything was wrong. But was kind of just coping.
My parents both emigrated from different countries in different parts of Asia. And in their culture, like expressing emotion isn't really a thing. There's not really an individual person in a family unit, you're just a part of a bigger thing. And so everyone's saving face. Everyone's pretending like everything's okay. And when I started struggling with a lot of stuff, it wasn't okay for me to say anything about that, because I was bringing shame to the family. And I felt like I was disappointing, not just me, but like everyone else that was related to me. Mental health didn't really exist to them. And it was really, really hard for them to understand anything that I was going through because they were taught that they weren't allowed to express emotion. And so of course, I wasn't allowed to either.
At home, there was a lot of pressure to study and achieve well, whether it be at school or in tennis competitions, whatever. I just felt like I always had to be enough. And if I didn't bring home like a trophy or like 100% on a test, it was a failure. Just constantly felt like I had to like measure up to someone else's idea. And I was always just cutting off pieces of myself to try to fit into this mold. I felt like I was simultaneously like too much and not enough all the time like I was too loud or too quiet or not fast enough or smart enough or skinny enough. And yeah, those sorts of expectations just followed me everywhere. And then I kind of took them on board and I became my worst enemy.
Emily threw themselves into their studies and often received top marks. However, soon the anxiety about getting a perfect grade started to overwhelm them.
When I didn't get a perfect market school, I would feel like I was really disappointing the people that I cared about and that cared about me, that had given me all these amazing opportunities and I just let them down. I didn't feel like I was worthy to be around them. I felt like nothing I did was good enough and those marks were just a representation of my worth.
Trying to measure up to everyone's expectations, Emily became an expert in wearing a mask, putting on the fake smile, insisting they were fine.
For me, there's like a wall of masks and like, I'll go into different situations and pick a different mask and like swap them out. But you know, they'd be like masks upon masks, and no one would really see the real me. I always had to pretend to be someone else, whether it be the very quiet studious kid or the very like, out there drama kid or the competitive sport kid, I couldn't just be me.
In all those situations, I had to be like one specific facet of myself and had to present in a way that was convenient or rewarding, and wasn't allowed to just bring all parts of myself into there, I was just too much. And I think that's the hardest thing I've ever learned to do is how to take off that mask. And it's terrifying. These days, even sometimes when I'm not wearing the mask, and I know that I'm safe, I'm still scared that someone will tell me that I am not allowed to just be me.
Eventually, the pressure from parents, from school, but mostly from themself, became too much. Emily was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, but struggled to connect to any support. Emily felt trapped, completely alone, with no way out.
It was so weird experiencing anxiety and depression at the same time, because my depression made me want to stay in bed all the time. But my anxiety would just make me so anxious about not doing anything. Or I want to sleep all the time. But my anxiety would keep me awake with these 'What if' thoughts and just make me very anxious and hyper aware. What if I never took that coorse at uni? Or like, what if I didn't eat that thing for breakfast this morning? What if, what if that person who like said that they liked me the other day was actually lying?
It was just this constant battle inside me. And it was so tiring to have to take care of both. To try to rest but then not be okay with resting. It's like a war that no one would ever win and I can't tell you how tiring that is.
Everything sort of reached ahead when I was like 14. I just felt like I had poured everything that I had into trying to be someone that I wasn't. And it felt like everything that I was doing just would never be good enough. I felt this like growing emptiness inside of me. And it was like this sink that could never be filled. Because at some point I'd lost the plug. And no matter how much I tried to fill it with, with anything with friends, with family with studies, it just felt like it could never be filled. And I just felt inherently broken.
At that point, I, I just didn't want to feel that way anymore. And I didn't really have any other option. I just felt like I was a burden to everyone. So if I couldn't change the situation I was in I would just, I guess remove myself from it. So when I was 14, I tried to in my life.
Emily never really dealt with their suicide attempt. Like most of their struggles, they learned to hide them behind a mask. When Emily entered her middle years of high school, they began to target the one thing they could control; their body.
After my first suicide attempt, I just went back to school. I went back and just pretended like everything was normal. And not many people knew. And still not many people know because I seemed completely fine. We just put the mask right back on. It felt like everything was out of my control. No matter how much I tried with any of it, it couldn't really get better. I think at the time, I sort of realized that there was one thing that I could control and it was the food that I ate.
I didn't really realize it at the time but I developed a bit of an eating disorder when I was about 15. I think it was just me trying to regain control of my life and trying to fit into some mold. I definitely got a lot of criticism about like the way that I looked growing up. Like you know, not being pretty enough or skinny enough, like racist comments and stuff like that. So lots of stuff like you know, the colour of my skin, shape of my face and eyes and nose and everything. Definitely like lots of comparisons with everyone else. And so that did play into it quite a bit.
But I think the majority of it was me just trying to regain some sort of hold over my own life. That's been a really big journey to be more okay with who I am physically and to try to not shape myself into something that I'm not.
Emily continued to struggle with their mental health throughout high school and into university. They felt like they had nothing left.
A few years later, I'd started uni. And I've been coping with all these things, I'd been in therapy the whole time, but it just, I was so tired. Fighting that unwinnable war in my head. Living with something that like constantly tells you that you're not good enough. I just run out of energy and understanding with myself. And I lost everything that I could be, like, kind to myself about.
So when I was 18, I tried to end my life again. And I think the thing is, like, I didn't necessarily want to kill myself, it was just more so I wanted the pain to stop. And I had absolutely no idea of any other way to do that. It just felt like a last resort.
This time round, Emily would find solace in a new way of healing, connection.
After the second attempt, I discovered these online forums where people were sharing their different experiences and stories of mental health. I can't really tell you how healing it was to really, you know, find out that I genuinely wasn't alone. Like, you know, those phrases of like, 'it's okay to not be okay,' and 'you're not alone' have been thrown at me a bunch of times, but no one had really demonstrated it. And it was the first bit that I found someone talking about their own experience, and like, how all these different parts of their identity had really fed into that.
Because for me, like talking to psychologists, and other professionals, I definitely felt like my experiences were sort of explained away by one side of things. Maybe I was sad because of my family life, or because of my life at school or anything like that. But online, I found these stories where people were talking about how their, you know, their gender, and their sexuality, and their culture and like all this other stuff, like fed into how they're feeling. And it felt like I could actually bring all those parts of myself into that as well. And really understand those parts of myself.
I felt genuinely motivated to actually get better. And this is the first time that I really felt like this is a place where I could be me too. And maybe I could use my stories and my struggles to help someone like they had helped me.
At first, Emily would only browse the forums in incognito mode. But soon, inspired by the stories of others, Emily felt ready to take off the mask they'd worn for so long.
I volunteered for a bunch of community type programs where you know, you rock up at the store and you hand out these badges and like these resources. There was just one that I volunteered for and it was like the first like speaker type program. This program, I was going to be talking about my experiences. I'd never really done that in a public forum before or really at all outside of the psychologists room. And when I rocked up, you know, I was surrounded by these other young people who I could tell, you know sort of nervous like me.
One of the first activities that we did together was this thing called 'Step to the line.' There was this like masking tape on the floor and we needed to like step like back from the line, and then they'd say like, you know "step to the line if you had a coffee this morning," and then budget was a step up. Or like "step to line if you have a dog at home." The questions got increasingly more personal. "Step to the line, if it was difficult to get out of bed this morning." "Step to the line, if you've tried to kill yourself."
I remember closing my eyes stepping out because I was like I'm here. I want to be honest about who I am. And when I opened my eyes, there were shoes next to me. I looked down the line, there were a whole lot of other people that had stepped up as well.
In addition to peer support, Emily now has a psychologist and psychiatrist they connect with really well. But it's the support from a close knit group of friends that help them get through the hard days.
Honestly, the way I like to be supported and the way that my like, friends and family support me is super non-traditional. I'm a very food motivated individual. So sometimes they'll send me like a cheese toastie via UberEATS or something. But often it's like, you know, we'll just have a call and we'll just sit. We don't need to talk about anything.
Them just being there and allowing me to be me, with no expectations, is so powerful because I've always felt like growing up I needed to give something to the situation or I need to present in a certain way. And with them. I just feel like I can be however I am and they'll still be there.
For so long. Emily felt like a disappointment constantly falling short of their parents expectations. Finding support that Emily connected with helped them see a way forward and slowly they found ways to help their parents understand what they were going through.
I am proud of myself for coming this far, but I'm really proud of them too. Because they've, they've grown so much with me. I remember the first time that my mom just like, asked me if I was doing okay. And I said that I wasn't, and I just cried with her. And she didn't try to like, tell me to go for a run or to eat an apple or anything, because I told her that that doesn't work for me. She just let me cry. And like that would have been really difficult for her because, you know, she's trying to fix things.
And my dad who is like, possibly the least emotionally intelligent person that I know, he really tries his best. My mom messaged me, at like, 2AM at one point being like, Dad is still up, like watching YouTube videos about depression and trying to like understand what it's like. And the next day he like sent me a YouTube link to like a video by Bipolar, which I don't have. And he's like, "is this what you what you go through?" And I'm like, "Not quite, but like, it's so nice that you're trying."
Now in their mid 20s, Emily's still discovering who they are, but is enjoying the journey. Emily moved out of home and now finds joy living independently and making their own rules.
Moving to Melbourne, I can't tell you how at home, I feel here. And I feel like wonderfully anonymous. It's amazing to like walk down the street and not really like bump into like a million people that I know, and not really worry that much about what I wear or how I look. And also be not the odd one out if I'm queer or culturally diverse. And it's so lovely to feel so much less alone and so much more permitted to be me.
It's kind of odd to be continually discovering who I am. But it's also really nice. It's not like I didn't know who I was. But I think I definitely prioritized like shaping myself into something that I wasn't. And now I, I can come home to myself.
I get to finally explore who I am away from all these expectations. And of course, I still carry some of them with me. But this is the first time that I've really felt like they're not always following me and I get these like brief moments where I get to just be me and I'm really looking forward to more of those moments.
We want to say a huge thank you to Emily for sharing their story with us.
We've covered a range of mental health issues and if anything has been upsetting for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 22 4636. We've also listed a number of resources in our show notes.
This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of the land.
Thanks for listening to Not Alone.