Just a heads up - this episode features a personal story of mental health. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service.
I became quite a perfectionist. My brain was basically wired to do this repetitive habit to control my environment and to try and make me feel like I had control over things such as biting my nails, or it eventually led into pulling my hair. My confidence, which just further deteriorating. I couldn't hide the physical symptoms.
Welcome to Not Alone. Incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about how letting go and letting people in can help us heal.
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Meet Nicole. As a kid, she was loud, bubbly and always laughing. She loved dancing and dreamed of being a ballerina. Her dad called her his little Miss Sunshine. When Nicole was about 14, things changed. She went through a traumatic experience that had an immediate effect on her mental health. To protect the privacy of those involved, Nicole won't be sharing what happened in this episode.
When I was younger, I was put in a position where a very, very familiar and comforting environment was no longer safe. And that is really what shaped me to be so defensive of myself and to not accept help. Because this place that was meant to be so safe for me was not anymore. And it was a prolonged, unsafeness as well.
It was something that I had to endure for some time and endure alone, which I think kind of created some really unhealthy boundaries for who I was as a person and how to deal with particular situations that are unsafe because it was somewhere that I should have felt my safest.
I felt very isolated and very misunderstood. And I think then I would retreat and I really would sort of try and protect myself and create a shell because I thought that was the best thing to do for my mental health, you know, to kind of internalize it and and deal with it myself. Rather than asking for help.
Without support Nicole struggled to control her emotions.
I was either really, really happy, kind of manically happy or retreated and sad and depressed. It really started to eat away at me and I really had no self-worth about who I was or what I brought to my relationships or my friendships or just generally in life. I started to exhibit OCD tendencies. So I really wanted to control my environment and things that were around me.
And that meant that I became quite a perfectionist and things such as biting my nails, or it eventually led into pulling my hair and I was diagnosed with trichotillomania, which is a condition which is a compulsive disorder, so very similar to people who bite their nails, my brain was basically wired to do this repetitive habit to control my environment and to try and make me feel like I had control.
It was pulling of my hair, especially on my head, but also skin picking as well was a really physical thing across my legs and my arms, which created a lot of damage. And of course then when you have such physical symptoms, my confidence, which just further kind of deteriorating at that point because they were things that people would say, I couldn't hide the feel-I can hide the feelings, I suppose is what I thought I was doing, but I couldn't hide the physical symptoms.
As these physical signs started to show. Nicole tried to keep things hidden. She started wearing a headband to conceal the growing bald patches on her head. Before long, she had the headband on every day. Kids at school started calling her ‘the headband girl.’ Things were getting worse.
I had a pretty tumultuous time through school. I went to private school and so there was a lot of emphasis on your appearance and, you know, wearing school uniform correctly and things like that. And the very last day, what they tended to do with all of the year 12 was we would sing the school song and a song that was chosen by the year 12s.
And so we had all been sitting in this assembly, and then they called all the year 12s up and we'd sung our song and it was this great moment. You know, you've you've achieved school, you've just gone through 12 years or whatever it is to get to this end and to move on to the next stage of your life.
And that day I'd worn a green headband. Something that kind of semi fit with school uniform. It definitely wasn't allowed. And as I came down off the stage to take my seat, the principal was kind of sitting in a chair next to the stage and he casually tried to kind of jump up and go, “That's not part of school uniform” and pull it off quickly.
What I assume he thought was quite low key, but it was it was a pretty traumatic experience. And I don't think that anyone bar me would have picked up on that. But when that's something that was constantly a focus of attention from multiple people of why does she wear the headband? What is she doing with the headband on?
For that to happen in such a public settings was really humiliating.
Nicole wanted to put her past behind her. When high school wrapped up, she packed up her room, hopped on a plane, and arrived in America to be a camp counselor. She thought she could run away from everything. When she returned to Australia after the summer, she jumped straight into her next big thing, becoming a professional dancer.
When I was little, I definitely always wanted to grow up and be a dancer. Pretty much the whole way growing up. That's always what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be out of school. I was still very much in the headspace that I wanted to dance full time and I started doing a lot of research around schools in the area.
I auditioned my very first very professional audition for this dance school, and I got in out of high school and basically went into a very, very rigid routine of Monday to Friday. 9 to 5 was dancing. I never really understood how much that it was helping me mentally. I could just exhaust all of my feelings into my dance.
I could take everything that was frustrating me or making me sad or, you know, that I didn't understand. And I could kind of put that into my dance. Not always. Sometimes the you know, there was classes that I just wasn't that great at, like hip hop. I just was not great at hip hop. But, you know, when I got into those classes and I could put that technique and that thoroughness and perfectionism into dance, it helped me to really digest my emotions. At the same time, while I was dancing full time.
When your career depends on your body, there's one thing you want to avoid Injury.
Right after I completed my dance course, I unfortunately ruptured my hamstring. I did a pretty good job and managed to pull it straight off the bone. So we had a very quick surgery booked in to reattach it. It was a pretty lengthy rehab after that as well. That went through a lot of different alternative therapies and things like that because it wasn't responding very well.
And I had a second surgery a few years later. And I think that whole time frame of trying to fix these physical things within my body that I again couldn't control was really exhausting and really took a toll on where I was mentally and where I'd come because I'd come so far through the few years post school. I think it was really hard to understand that that was something that wasn't going to get any better, and I couldn't control that.
And it was, again, that feeling of not being able to determine my own path and to protect myself. I had put myself in this position where I couldn't I couldn't fix it. And I wasn't very good at being in those situations where I couldn't fix it. And that just made me feel broken again, even further than what I'd felt in the past, because it was this one thing, this one outlet that allowed me to digest my emotions and I had to give it up.
With her coping mechanism gone, Nicole's world came crashing down and the wounds of the past she'd tried to hide came bubbling to the surface.
I lost routine. Things that that should have been helping me and should have been, you know, getting me in a better mental state were just not happening. The sleep was a really big thing for me. I just, my mind would just be ticking over all night. And I would just lay there and stare at the ceiling and then wake up even more exhausted the next day.
And when you're exhausted, you can't process your emotions or, you know, keep yourself in check when you're that tired. So lack of sleep was definitely a big thing for me. And then also my relationship with food was all over the shop. I almost had this kind of mentality that I deserved bad food because all these other bad things had happened.
So I'd go through stages of bingeing and it was always attached to emotional feelings because I felt that I was neglected so many other things. Why couldn't I just treat myself to this particular thing? But they were such unhealthy habits because I was just trying to, I suppose, give myself something because I couldn't control other things. I considered that I was doing a very good job at keeping my emotions and my feelings and my troubles in check.
And to a lot of my friends, for the most part, apart from my really close friends, I think I was just seen as the outgoing Nicole, you know, always up for a laugh, always up for a joke. I internalized so much of that trauma and things that had happened throughout the years that there was no way for them to really understand why I was moody or why I was sullen or why I was feeling anxious in a situation that shouldn't make me feel anxious.
And so I think that I would have come across quite moody and come across as someone who was a bit all over the shop. So to speak, because one minute she could be so happy and then the next minute she'd be angry or distressed or anxious or, you know, pushing people away. And I think I really didn't understand my emotions either at that point, which doesn't help a lot of that backlash and a lot of that push would really impact my relationship with my partner.
He kind of came into my life where I was still kind of running away from a lot of those feelings. So when I really tried to tackle them head on, it was quite an exhausting experience. And so that range of emotions, you know, from manic happiness to just down in the dumps, he would experience all of those and I think that really took a toll on our relationship, because then he was coming in and trying to be the protector.
And similar to how I would experience that when I was growing up, I would I would want to fix it myself. So then I would push him away, which was so contradictory because I knew he was one of the only things that was kind of keeping me in check. But it was a protective measure, always.
Despite their relationship experiencing its challenges, when Nicole was at her lowest, her partner stepped in. One day, he casually suggested she go to the GP. It was the gentle nudge she needed.
It was terrifying. I remember going to a GP and being in a way that I couldn't even control my emotions. I was so low. Things were just, you know, pouring out and I was crying and there was just no pity. And I think that was kind of a switch in my mentality about how I was dealing with everything.
When I went and saw this GP. They weren't judging me in any way. They weren't asking why I felt like that. They were simply saying, okay, we understand you feel that way. These are the options that we can explore. And so I think that was definitely a turning point in the way that I viewed my feelings and my emotions and and all of the symptoms that I had with my trauma was that it wasn't something to be judged or pitied on.
It was something to figure out how to to manage and to go on a journey and figure out what was best for me, that was definitely a stage where I was very lucky to have a GP that was so open to exploring lots of different methods and seeing what I was comfortable with. And that really started me on a very big journey of figuring out what would work for me.
Nicole was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
Once I had that diagnosis, I worked with a therapist quite regularly and we explored medication for me in the earliest stages of my journey. I was on anti-anxiety medication and SSRIs for I think about 2 to 3 years, which really helped to kind of stabilize my mood as I was working through quite traumatic things and trying to digest a lot of traumatic emotions. As I worked through that as well, along with the therapy and the medications, there was a lot that a specialist did with cognitive behavior therapy.
Once you have compulsive tendencies that you do, there's a lot that changes in your brain and the synapses in your brain that create a habit. And it's a lot to do with when people say they can't stop biting their nails. It's quite true. You can't stop those compulsive behaviours because your brain rewires to make that part of your everyday routine.
So CBT was a lot of understanding those and understanding what my compulsive tendencies were and trying to retrain my brain.
With her emotions in check and a mental health care plan in place, things were getting back on track. But there was still one box Nicole needed to tick.
I think once the floodgates opened and I realized that there were so many things that I should not be ashamed about talking about and opening up, I realized that those closest to me would understand me better and would be able to support me better if I explained a lot of what had happened to me through some of my teenage years and how I was dealing with that emotionally.
I started to tell a lot of my really close friends, friends from high school, friends from my dance course. Again, very terrifying experience to kind of lay your soul bare. But everyone was just so open and thoughtful and interested in what I had to say. But the biggest one that was really hard to do was my parents. I said the words to them that I wasn't okay and I wasn't doing okay.
I think it was a shock to them. They knew that there was obviously things that had happened within my teenage years that were really hard and they were privy to to helping me through a little bit of that in my teenage years. But I think seeing me in my, you know, in my twenties explaining that I'm just, I'm not doing okay, was a really big stepping stone for a better relationship.
Nicole now knows what to do when she's feeling low or out of control. She's no longer reliant on one outlet like Dancing. Instead, she uses a variety of tools to look after her mental health.
I think what I've learned on my mental health journey is that it's never the same journey. It constantly evolves. What I did a few years ago, there's elements of that that I'll still be exploring, but there's new things that I’ll potentially be looking into. It kind of ebbs and flows. There's times where I'm doing great and I feel like I've got a handle on things and then there's some times where I just have to stop and let myself have those emotions and have those days where I don't feel 100%.
It's just always about looking for what's the next thing that I can explore and how is that going to help me with where I am at this point in the journey? If someone is thinking or wanting to seek support, don't settle for anything less than what you think is going to be best for you. You may not find the right medical professional the first time around.
The advice that you get the first time around might not be the the advice that you think will work for you. And I suppose the biggest piece of advice is to just keep trying and just keep sourcing options that you know are going to fit for you because it will change. And what works for one person might not necessarily work for another.
Nicole and her partner have settled in Melbourne and recently moved into their very first home. She's now surrounded by friends and family with no shortage of someone to connect with. And instead of hiding her struggles, she does the opposite. She shares them, she shares herself with her parents, with her partner, with a mental health professional, and with you and the rest of our Not Alone listeners across the globe.
And that little girl who dreamed of being a dancer, she's still there and she still loves dancing.
My journey and my focus with dance now is to use it as a place of happiness and still to find that ability to digest my emotions and use that as an outlet for it. I think the competitive nature of what I was originally striving as a career is not there anymore, and it's more the social aspect of it and the connections that you make with the people that you dance with and whether I can take those particular feelings that I was able to digest through dance and that creativity and pass that on to other people so that they can enjoy that to.
We want to say a huge thank you to Nicole for sharing her story with us.
We've covered a range of mental health issues and if anything has been upsetting for you, 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 and we'll run free country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these islands.
Thanks for listening to Not Alone.