Back in 2013, I had just had my third visit to the doctor in a month. I had been suffering from headaches, extreme fatigue, insomnia, and had developed large dark circles under my eyes. I’d also been unable to concentrate on my work for months. Worse still, and the final straw which made me bite the bullet and seek help, I had fainted twice.
After some tests over a number of weeks, my GP ruled out the most likely things, and came to the conclusion that the cause was actually my lifestyle. I had developed anaemia induced from both a combination of obsessive over-exercise and also quite severe under eating.
In my bid to make myself resemble the image of myself I aspired to, I had drained myself to the point of illness, and was now running on fumes. My doctor told me if I carried on like this I could make myself seriously ill.
At the bottom of this were issues around body dysmorphia and issues of control relating to other reoccurring mental health problems I have experienced. At its most basic, the more out of control I felt in my life, the more I tried to take control through my diet, exercise and whatever I believed would improve my physical appearance.
Added to this was my frequent inability to reckon with the differences between the way I would see my own physical appearance and what others would perceive; the latter inevitably being better than what my own eyes would detect.
This has been an issue I have grappled with, on and off, for as long as I can remember. I have had a number of bouts of poor mental health, of which my own perception of my body has always been either an aggravating component, or an outlet through which I try to feel like I am in control in situations where I feel powerless.
At its worst, frankly, I would even describe it as a form of self-punishment. An almost puritanical sub-conscious urge, where the more exhausted I felt and the more lunches I skipped, the more autonomous I would feel, and the more I sensed I was bettering myself.
Concerning my mental health more broadly, I have had periods of depression, anxiety and more manic periods. These have included moments where I can feel frenzied and on top of the world one minute, and then with no palpable prompt, in a pit of panic, wracked by an inability to focus, or recognise really that I am in one of these phases. These feverish moments would go on for days, leading to highly erratic behaviour, that those closest to me have sadly had to deal with. For this too, I treated myself with over exercise. The more tired I became, the more easily I could shut my brain down and avoid my thoughts.
The following may seem like an odd analogy, so please bear with me, but I always compare these more chaotic phases as being like an oil tanker in rough seas. In the past many ships had no internal compartments to prevent the oil from flowing violently from one side of the interior of the ship to the other. As it would rush from one side to the other, it would build momentum and eventually sink. In my more panicked manic moments, I am unable to separate my worries, and so I go frantically from worrying about one thing to another, with the panic feeding upon itself and building its own momentum, in just the same way.
These days I am, thankfully, much better. I saw a psychiatrist for over a year and I learnt a lot. This included both what is underlying a lot of this and also what triggers the most self-destructive elements. I want to be clear, however, in saying that these things have gone, and nor will they ever. I have just painstakingly learnt how to manage myself. Most critically I would say, however, I also now comprehend that even at its worst, it will pass. It is, actually and thankfully, transient. And that is what I cling to. Though I am still learning.
As a result of these things, it took me one hell of a long time to agree to do this photoshoot with Chris. It wasn’t really that I felt like I have a problem being naked or taking my clothes off. Anyone that follows any of my social media accounts can see this. It was more about the issues of control and particularly how they relate to my body and image. If I post a picture of myself shirtless, I have control over taking the picture, but also choosing if I want to post it. Allowing someone else to have input over this was something completely different. It involved letting go of some of that. Something I do and did find incredibly difficult.
The day itself was really incredible. I enjoyed doing the pictures and talking to Chris a lot. He is an incredibly reassuring, patient and interesting guy. I met him at the train station and we took a long walk back to my flat, chatting about our lives and enjoying the sun. He seems like someone that is just so easy to be around and feel comfortable with. The difficulty for me came in seeing the pictures afterwards.
No matter how amazing each of the pictures were, and the few people I showed them to told me they thought they were, it brought out some of those feelings I’d been learning to deal with for years.
I started to be incredibly self-critical of how I looked. My first instinct was to run and back out of it. I was letting myself think that the way I see myself was how others would see me, and I was also beginning to react to feeling like I was not in control with the same behaviour as before.
I am glad I haven’t backed out, however. It may have been tough in the aftermath, bringing back some dark thoughts and moments, but I learnt, and I still am learning, a considerable amount. Mostly about letting go. Not just saying it or paying lip service to it, but trying to actually do it…even if not always completely successfully.