Like a balloon with no air

This was incredibly hard to write. It is a collection of thoughts that struck me whilst I was in intensive care over Easter Weekend and the following week. It is incredibly hard to read, now. Thankfully, I am doing much better now. Today I am proud to say that I have not cried – not even one tiny tear. I have smiled today. Today I am doing better. There is a long way to go, and I’m definitely not the same as I was a couple of weeks ago, but today, for the first time, I’d be OK with saying that I’m fine. Not great, but fine. 

But sometimes life throws a curveball at you that’s completely unexpected. It winds you. Leaves you flat on your back. Destroys your confidence. And leads you to rebuild yourself, changed. And it is ok to feel angry. To feel powerless, guilty, upset, destroyed, broken. But you’ll get better, with time. It takes time, faith, and a lot of people that you love. Together, you’ll find a new way of living. And the sun will slowly come out again. I am confident that I will live every day to the full, knowing that no day is ever taken for granted. Life will be different, but it won’t be any less worth living, and loving.  


How are you today? They ask as if everything’s normal. Like they expect me just to say that everything’s fine. Because that’s what we do in Britain. We say everything’s fine. We say everything’s fine, but inside, nothing is really fine at all.  So I say I’m OK. And instead I ask whether it’s still raining outside. Because I can’t see the sunshine anymore, the streaks strained through the dust onto the sanitised wall. Yesterday there was a bit of sun. Today, they say, there’s none at all. Black clouds.

I could have told you that. Because I wasn’t really commenting on the weather.

Today I’m not fine.

I feel like a balloon without any air. A dying balloon, a mockery of its former self, sagging away in some dark corner, the life slowly seeping from it. The symbol of a joy that once was. Because everything was going great. The balloons were out in life. The spring time blossom was in full bloom. The sun was shining. I had just visited the University where I hoped to go in September. I had healed a broken friendship. I had made new friends, found new love. I was performing again. I said yes. I felt optimistic about my A levels. I could see a vague shape to the next months. It was like my life was full of shoots emerging from the soil, each on the brink of bursting into a new flower.

But it’s not the same anymore. Now those shoots have withered. Now I am like a balloon without any air. Now the black clouds are overhead. Thrown by a violent storm off the mountain I have climbed, I feel crushed, crumbled, curled in a ball in the pit of mud at the base. Winded, struggling to breathe, I stand and fall. I don’t have the strength to climb any way back up today. In fact, I don’t know when I’ll be able to take another step. My shadow laughs at me from the peak, veiled by the dark night. Ignore it. Move on. She’s just the shadow. The last remaining bit of who I was. Where I was. On top of the world. But she is laughing at who I’ve become, a withered drooping plant. She’s stirring up a storm. I cannot face climbing the mountain again.

How are you today?

Today I am struggling to be fine.

Would you not feel the same, if they told you that you had been dying? If they told you that your body had been eating itself for weeks? If they told you that you were in a critical condition? If they told you that your life would never be the same again? It’s critical ketoacidosis. You’re in intensive care. And you’re not going anywhere. When you do, you’ll be in chains.  Going back uphill. It would be easier just to give up now.

The nights are the worst. They bleed me. Poke me. Measure me. Drain me. Revive me. Feed me. Pity me. They look at the TV above my head. It tells them more than I ever could. I can’t move my head. I don’t have the strength to pull up the blanket, but I can’t stop shaking. Please help me, I scream. But no one can hear the screams. They’re trapped, circling incessantly inside my head. I can’t reach the call button. It mocks me. I’m thirsty, but I cannot drink. I can’t speak – the words don’t come. The nights are the worst. Alone. Dark. Scared

I don’t know who I am anymore. Why me? Why now? I am defined by numbers, units, doses, needles, carbohydrate counts. She’s the girl who almost died, they say as they walk past. Ward round. Judgement. They all stand there. Looking at me. Like an animal in a cage. The only one under 65 in intensive care. It shouldn’t have happened to her, they say. I look away to hide the tears. Because the pity doesn’t help. They can’t change it. They can’t do anything. The pity in their eyes kills me.

Today I’m not fine.

I’m the one who’s angry. Angry that I can’t break free from it. Angry that it’s me, and it’s here. Angry that I can’t seem to see past the night. That I will have to fight to survive every day. Angry that my entire future has seemingly been defined with the blink of an eye. Angry that I didn’t see it coming. That I don’t remember anything. That I will face medical complications for the whole of my life.

I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry this has happened to me. To us. That you will always be worried about me. That every night there is a chance I might not wake up. That you will always have to ask ‘what if?’ That you lay awake last night, not knowing. That we will never be able to escape this. That I cannot eat without counting the cost. That life has to be planned to the second. That my life is like a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, and that I can’t stop screaming.

I’m the one who’s scared. Scared of what could happen. Scared not of if, but when. Scared where I’ll be. Scared who I’ll be with. Scared that they won’t know what to do. I’m scared of going home, because then it’s just me and the monster all alone. Scared of going back to school and facing all the music. Scared that everyone will walk away. Scared of coping with exams and medication at the same time.

How are you today?

Today I refuse to pretend I’m fine. Today I am like a balloon without any air.

And I’m so sorry. I’ve been so caught up in my own whirlwind that I haven’t seen that you’re hurting too. This makes you angry too. It makes you scared. And yes, it is different for you. You can’t understand my fear. I can’t understand yours. But deep down, maybe both our hearts are grieving for the girl that was. She’s gone, we both know that. It’s a new girl who’s lying here, on this bed. They’re similar. But something’s changed. Hold my hand, please. Let us be together, alone in our fear. This is all my fault. I am so sorry.

They say I can do anything, I just have to find a new way. They say there’ll be light eventually. They say September is a long way away. I might still get there. But they don’t know that the man in the bed opposite me died last night. His name was Graham. They don’t understand that Death was here last night, so close I could have reached out and touched him. Right here. There was a sustained bleep and the anguished cry of his wife and children. That’s how I knew he’d been taken. It could have been me. Do you see? I close my eyes. The darkness can hold me for a bit longer. It seems fitting for this morning. Shut the curtains please. I don’t want to face the people today.

Do they realise it could have been me? They don’t know. You didn’t see. Whether you live or die here seems equally possible. It’s like walking on a tightrope with your legs shaking badly. Like you’re waiting to fall. And you don’t know who is going to be there to catch you. Or if there’ll be someone to catch you. No one could stop Graham from falling.

Darkness please hold me a little longer.

How are you today?

Today I am like a balloon without any air.

T1D

Advertisements

Ready to be 18?

Written on New Year’s Eve… and posted today because these last couple of days have just been a bit of a blur with family, New Year appointments, travelling and facing the reality of work!  

Today is the 31st of December. New Year’s Eve. And tomorrow will be a New Year. 2018. Today is also interesting, because it is the only day that scientists reckon in history that everyone who is an adult was born in one century (the 20th), and everyone who is a child was born in the following (21st). Random fact, I know.

But that fact hits home for me, because it means that I am nearing the end of my childhood. In just a couple of days, this millennium baby will be 18. A scary thought for me as well as you. Adults have always been who I’ve looked up to. And now I am going be one, and for a while I’ve struggled with the question of whether I will capable of the burden of wisdom, assertiveness and self-belief that seems to magically be present in the adults in my life.

At the end of the school term, this was really worrying me. I was sat in my House, probably looking a little forlorn, in the process of finding snippets of the Christmas story in the Greek NT for translation later in the day, when my tutor came in and asked me what was wrong. Nothing, I said. It’s not important. But it is, he said. You are worrying about something. And I just said it: I’m not ready to be an adult. I don’t want to let go to the innocence and protection of childhood. I want more time.

And he said: So let’s make it stop. For two minutes. Let’s think about your last year of childhood. And let’s think about whether you’re ready. And so we reflected on this last year, what has happened, and how it has changed me.

Learning to drive: At the beginning of this year, I couldn’t even contemplate getting in a car. When we had been in America in 2015, staying with our friends from Mississippi, I had been scarred by them physically pushing me into the driver’s seat of the hire car and telling me to drive around the driveway of the property. I couldn’t do it – I was shaking and terrified that I would kill someone. They said I’d be perfectly safe. Their son, one year older than me, was driving by himself aged 16. So could I. But I couldn’t, and there were tracks through the grass to prove it. So suffice to say I was terrified that I would be learning to drive. I did want to, the freedom afforded would be worth it. But getting in the car for the first time was scary. And so it went on. Each time I learnt a new procedure, I was convinced I’d hit someone. Then I passed my theory test first time. And my driving did get better. And I became more confident on the roads. And I drove to school every day, and home again. And then I failed my first test. I was ok about it – 1 major and 1 minor. My driving was safe, I just made a stupid mistake. I’d try again. I failed again. And that time I was mad with myself. Old thoughts of failure came raging back, and I could feel myself getting more and more agitated, and frustrated and angry. When I got home, both my parents were out and just sat in my room and cried because I thought I had failed. I had failed myself, and I had failed my instructor, and I had failed my parents. It would be 2018 before I had any chance of passing with the new test regulations. And I didn’t know what to do to stop myself from drowning in this dangerous thought whirlpool I recognised so well.

I remembered that when I failed the first time, I read a book that one of the Canons at the Cathedral had sent me. JK Rowling’s Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure. And so, I took a deep breath and opened it. Unlike the first time, I don’t think I read much of it. I just had to look at it. I knew that someone had sent me that book because they believed in me; I wasn’t a failure. And I knew I had to get back in the driving seat. I’m going to take my test again. Of course I hope I’ll pass. But if I fail, I’ll find the book again, and I’ll be OK.

I was changed because I saw that in the grand scheme of things, people love and appreciate me for who I am, and not whether I can drive or not. I was changed because I picked myself back up. And I have been changed, because I am beginning to understand what it is to succeed in failure.

Being operated on: Being operated on was a big thing for me (background to the operation is here). I had never had an operation before, and I was very scared, because the operation I had did carry risks, not only that, with my blood condition, I could have had a dangerous bleed, but also that it might not stop the nasal aspect of the condition, it could actually make it worse, especially as by working on both sides of the nose, they left me with a very thin dividing cartilage which might collapse or be easily perforated. And to save you more gory details, the operation wasn’t going to be as easy as it should have been. In the pre-op meeting, the nurse could tell I was nervous, as we went through all the major risks of surgery. And I just broke down and said: I’m scared. I took down that barrier of pretending that I am not afraid. And it has let me live for 6 months without being admitted to hospital with major blood loss.

And I was changed, because I admitted I was scared, and I let myself be vulnerable.

Athens: In April, I was able to go to Greece for the first time. As an aspiring Classics student, this was AWESOME. I was soo excited. We visited all sorts of Classical monuments, from the Parthenon (obviously), to the Roman forum, Hadrian’s library, the temple of Olympian Zeus, Sophocles’ prison, the Panathenaic stadium and more. We ate lots of ice cream, wandered all over, and even had cocktails on the waterfront at Piraeus, and watched the sun set behind the Acropolis, painting the sky with flaming pink. What more could you want? Well, this trip didn’t just confirm to me that my UCAS application would not be in vain. This trip showed me the cross-cultural community that exists in faith. The last day that we spent in Athens was Palm Sunday, and to be honest, I missed being at the Cathedral, despite the eternity that is usually spent singing All Glory Laud and Honour whilst trudging around the entirety of the Cathedral, only then having to do the awkward side swapping to get back on the side you were seated on as you approach the nave. And I wasn’t in a very good mood. But it is evidently a custom in Greece to hand out orange blossom and real palms to passers-by on the street. Christ’s coming was everywhere. And throughout the next few days, and the rocky emotions accompanying them, I was repeatedly struck by the inescapability of faith, and the wordly body of faith that transcends a single heart, Church or country.

I have been changed because I realised that I couldn’t escape God however hard I tried, and that He would never escape me.

Ypres: Just after we went to Athens we were lucky enough to tour with our school Chamber choir to the Ypres Salient, notably singing masses at Ghent Cathedral, in St Martin’s Cathedral Ypres, and St George’s English Church Ypres, and performing at the Menin gate, and at various CWGC sites. It was a great opportunity to see the world with friends, meet new people, perform and hang out. Ice cream and chocolate featured heavily; unfortunately we were too young to join the staff in Belgian beer. We were also able to go to the cemetery where my great great Uncle, who was killed in the First World War, is buried, and leave a cross and wreath. It was a personally touching moment in the frenzy and chaos of a choir tour. But for me it was a difficult couple of days, coping with the emotions of being in a place that evokes so much sorrow and yet so much hope. It was difficult to share a room with 5 other girls with one bathroom. And it was difficult to get up there and perform, often very exposed, in buildings I wasn’t familiar with to larger audiences than we ever have when we sing in England. I have always been a nervous performer, but the tour took nerves to a new level. But I got through every performance, and by the end our conductor even said that I smiled sometimes. And at our last performance, singing at the Menin Gate Ceremony, I was able to sing with strength for the men we were representing, to smile and to talk with pride with visitors who had come to the Ceremony from across the world. One woman burst into tears when I was able to converse with her in French about our school and why we had come to tour. It was a very special evening.

Coming back to England, the performances that stacked up were more high-profile and exposed than I had ever done, with an evening at St John’s Smith Square singing Duruflé’s Requiem, soloing the Pie Jesu, followed by performing alongside Tenebrae and playing in our quartet for weddings. But each time, despite only being able to think ‘I can’t mess this up. I can’t mess this up. I can’t mess this up,’ I survived, remembering that night at the Menin Gate. And each time I got a little bit more confident. It was a massive achievement to be able to sing Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter at Nine Lessons and Carols in December in front of the whole school. And for once, I am excited as to what the New Year of music making holds, especially upcoming performances at the Cadogan Hall, and competing in the Barnado’s Youth Choir of the year competition in March.

This year the nerves didn’t beat me. This year I was changed, because I learnt how to channel nervous energy into music that captured people’s hearts.

Doing the impossible: Two years ago, I was told that taking an A level early would be impossible. Taking AS Greek would also be impossible. I would have no lessons, no teachers could fit me in. I would have to juggle the work on top of 4 other A levels. I would not be given compensation, I would not be given curricular help. I wouldn’t get study leave. And ultimately it wouldn’t be worth it, because I couldn’t give it the time. But I wanted to challenge myself.  Whilst taking my GCSEs, I took French AS. In September, I saw the head of MFL again. What can I do, I said, to convince you to let me take the A2 in June. Nothing, he said. It’s not possible. So I took my timetable to the Head of Academic Studies. I want to do this. Show me how we can fit in time, to make 5 A levels possible. She did it, warning me to stop if it got too much. And slightly nervous, I knocked on the door of the U6 French class, and said that I would be joining them for the year. And so it began. That afternoon, I went to the Head of Classics, and we started Greek. Let’s do this, she said. And so my Lower Sixth year was characterised by never-ending lessons, my free periods occupied by French, and with Greek lessons before and after school. I was so tired, most of the time. But it was worth it, in August, when I received the results that proved everyone wrong. I did it, and I am now taking a second year in Greek. Looking back, I probably did cause myself a lot of unnecessary stress, and I sacrificed a lot of myself and my energy to working late into the night for two exams. I should have taken my Deputy Head’s advice, and stopped when it got to much. I would sit on my floor at night and ask why I was doing it. I would pray for guidance and rest. Looking back, I probably should have thought a bit more about what I was letting myself into before I jumped in headlong. I should have taken more time for rest. But, having often leant on God, I had managed it. And even if I hadn’t, my attitude to results had definitely changed.

And so I was changed, because I realised that with prayer, motivation, and lots of hard work, the impossible is always possible.

Becoming a prefect: In May, I was made a School Prefect. It’s a job that involves many menial tasks, running around the school, as well as managing behaviour in lunch queues, tuck shop queues, rugby matches, in corridors, and during breaks, and acting as a secret spy network for the Head. Someone’s been feet away from a plate being dropped from the third floor window of one of the male houses, we know about it. Someone’s suspended, we know about it. Someone’s being bullied about it, we’re their shield. Someone’s looking under the weather, we’re there. Someone needs someone to talk to, we’re the closest shoulder to cry on. Someone looks sad, we’re a bit of sunshine. Someone is jeopardising their livelihood by not crossing at the zebra crossing, we have eyes in the back of our heads. And that’s why it such a rewarding role. You are daily on the front line of issues, disagreements, break-ups, inappropriate behaviour, successes and failure. You’re the link between pupil and teacher. You lead the school, but you walk with the school. You share in laughter and tears. And I’ve been able to hold people’s hand and say I’ve been there. This happened to me. I’m here today. I got through it. And they squeeze my hand back. Thank you. It’s so simple. But it can be hard too. When I first got the role, I sat down with my Housemistress. We talked through what I would find difficult being a Prefect for the School. I said that I would probably find time commitments hard. Sacrificing lunches and breaks to stand in freezing weather, in the snow and rain, to shout at 16 year old boys who are jumping on each other in the canteen queue wasn’t exactly something I was looking forward to. I liked to have every minute possible in my control, either to work, or to take time out. She acknowledged this but said she didn’t think it would be a problem. You have a gift for giving of yourself when you have nothing left, she said. I think you’ll manage. Here’s what I think you’ll find toughest. Giving too much. You are too compassionate. You bear everybody’s problems, and sometimes you forget that there will be problematic times for you too. And she was so right. It is such a privilege to stand beside pupils through the good times and the bad. But I have had to learn to say no sometimes. I can’t humanly cope with stretching myself between 5 places. I have had to prioritise and put my health, work and primary duties first. And say no to things that other people can, and are willing to do. And in doing so, I’ve been able to spend more time doing the things that I love within the school, acting as Librarian to the Choirs, serving in Chapel, leading Debating, singing in choirs, playing in quartets and orchestras. I do as much as I can, and say no to things that don’t matter. But my door has always remained open.

But I have been changed, not only because I have learnt the joy of sharing in compassion, and being a face of light in darkness, but because I have had to recognise the balance between giving freely to others, and giving too much of myself.

Community Holiday: This week was probably the stand out week for me this year. It is one of the greatest things that our school is able to do, to host 20 children with disabilities ranging from high functioning Autism, to Cerebral Palsy, ADHD and Down’s Syndrome, and to provide a team of student volunteers, assisted by medical and teaching staff, to care for them 24/7. I use disability in the loosest possible term. Because although some of these children were wheelchair bound, partially sighted, provoked by the smallest movement, or the slightest change in environment, had no verbal capacity or no concept of social conventions, they were some of the happiest and most able people I have ever had the chance to work with. Each of us was paired with a child to care for overnight. I had no idea what to expect, and I was in for a tough week. My night time child was mid-teens, with ADHD and Asperger’s. She came from an incredibly difficult social background, and arrived  with little other than the clothes she came in. For a week with activities ranging from high ropes, to muddy trails, swimming, the beach, a theme park and a boating expedition, she had one spare shirt, and a towel. It was heart breaking to see how scared she was of the shower, revealing to me that she has a bath once every other week. And when we tried to bathe her, she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. She was a runner, and I spent a large portion of my week chasing after her down the corridors, as she sprinted away from medication, meals and bedtime. And during the night, she would wake up, screaming. I ended up having to take three nights off, just so that I could get some sleep. It was certainly difficult. But seeing her smile in the morning made it worthwhile. And whilst of course I remember the big moments from the week: ice cream on the beach, seeing Aladdin at the theatre, the pirate ship at the theme park; it is the smaller moments I remember most fondly: after spending an hour in the dining hall, successfully managing to coax a child into eating a single meatball, followed by an empty plate 10 minutes later, or getting a child to sit in the sing-song ring for the first time. It was a week full of smiles, laughter, and the greatest joy. To see the children’s faces light up was incredibly special. By the end of the week, I had built a connection and a sense of trust with all the children. It was incredibly hard to say goodbye. And whilst the week faded into joyous memories, the abiding peace that I felt having sung Kumbaya to the children at the end of each evening is something I still hang onto.

I was changed because I was forced to lost myself and my inhibitions in giving of myself for a week. I was changed because I could make a little girl who had nothing experience everything. I was changed because I couldn’t communicate through words, but had to communicate through showing love. And I was changed because my appreciation of the value of life, and what is to truly live, was transformed.

Lambeth Palace: In the middle of July, I was lucky enough to have just come back from the beach, had taken a shower, and was just contemplating the bubbles in the boiling pot of spaghetti, when my phone flashed with an email from the Dean of the Cathedral. I can remember that moment vividly; I think because that email, and everything that has happened since, was completely unexpected, completely humbling, encouraging and so completely scary, it has become imprinted in my mind. I was invited to be interviewed and speak at Lambeth Palace about my experience of being young and in a Cathedral. I have to admit that, at first, the stubborn part of me thought about saying no. I didn’t want to be dragged out again as the ‘token young person.’ But I knew this was an amazing opportunity, and something made me reprimand myself for thinking as I had. I had to go, and clearly, from babbling on here too much, I have a lot to say. And it was a day that I will never forget.

But what was perhaps more affecting for me than actually what I said, or what my heart said, was the response I had following the evening. I remember being on the bus back to Waterloo, and I did feel slightly in awe of what I just had the opportunity to do, and I had a lot of thoughts and prayers buzzing around in the back of my mind. But what I was not expecting was the torrent of messages, tweets, hugs, calls, emails and letters that I received, and all the conversations that arose. I felt such divine love. I was so completely overwhelmed. I didn’t realise that people had been so touched and affected by what I had to say. In sharing my experience of faith, and my journey, I could spread the word of how faith has saved me. In faith, I could touch people. I know that the conversations and opportunities that have arisen from that one night are not over. I keep receiving new reminders of how transformative sharing and serving can be. My thoughts are continually racing. I don’t think it would be so far to say that whatever indescribable glorious thing I experienced that night, and the ongoing friendship and fellowship,  has been utterly life-changing in how I see the future unfolding. And I know there is so much more to come.

I was changed, because I allowed myself to openly speak from my heart and share who I was, and who I have become in faith. I rejoiced with those around me, and have felt such connection to so many more. I acknowledged the indescribable glorious thing.

And somewhere in the midst of the speaking, in the frenzy of the following days and weeks, I was changed because I heard God calling me.

This year I was changed. In so many different ways. In ways that I could never have predicted at the start of the year. Changes that arrived on unexpected days, in unexpected places, with unexpected effects.

My tutor and I sat there. Me in tears. His eyes gleaming with his own appreciation of the significance of everything I just told him. And he said: I think you know what I’m going to say. You are already adult. And to be honest, what I’ve learnt is that the secret of adulthood is knowing that you’ll never really feel like one. You’ll never want to let go to the protections of childhood, because the nature of adulthood is incredibly scary – you are getting ready to venture into the world alone. And you need the strength to be able to thrive. But since I met you, 4 years ago, you have continued to grow in strength and love. You’re continually changing, you’re learning to find that strength. You’re ready to take on this world, and fly.

As I watched him leave the room, still clutching the Greek NT, I sat in silence. It was a profound movement of stillness and self-awareness. I realised that I did change this year. I grew in resilience, in openness, in wisdom, in empathy, in perseverance, in failure, in success, in leadership, in trust, in vulnerability, and a lot in faith. And so, sitting here on New Year’s Eve, I’m not so scared anymore. Adulthood is not about perfect wisdom, life-experience, maturity. Adults still fight battles with self-belief. But I think adulthood can be about taking your childhood, and, acknowledging how you have been changed, finding the courage to fly.

“We are both the authors of our own stories, and the heroes of our own destinies… A new year is just another day. And the dawn of each and every day brings equal hope. We never know which change we make will be the one that will twist our story for the better, but I can bet you that it won’t always be the change you make at the beginning of the chapter, at the beginning of the year, but the one that comes on an unpredictable page, on an unpredictable day. So take every second, every word and relish it. Have courage, faith and make changes each and every day, even when you are afraid to do so, and you will live your life to its full capacity. You never know – perhaps your story will be read for eternity.”~ Me, one year ago, A New Year Hope

When I wrote this a year ago, how little I knew that it would come so true. The best plot twists this year have been unforeseen, shocking, scary, and emotional, but all utterly life-changing. And so, with myself as my own author and my own hero, I am once again ready to take each day as it comes. I can’t wait to experience more unexpected life-changing moments in 2018, and I’m so ready for all that this next crazy year is going to throw at me – from finishing school to leaving home.

And although I never thought I’d say this, I’m so ready to be 18. Bring it on!


My thanks go to all of you for supporting me throughout this year. It’s been one of up and downs, but I have been so touched by all your prayers, emails and messages. You are all amazing, and the love I have felt has been so overwhelming and has lifted me up in darker days. I give my love back to you, and wish you too all the best for this new year ahead. May you continue to love, laugh, and live.

To me, to you

I was privileged to have a visit a couple of weeks ago from Hannah from ‘Hello me, it’s you‘, a charity that aims to help give teenagers a voice, normalise mental health issues, and offer hope. It was a moving visit. They have collated letters from a wide variety of contributors, all of whom have experienced mental health struggles in some way or another, which give advice to their younger selves. It got me thinking about what I would say to my younger self. I am 17; this is a letter to my 13 year old self. Thank you Hannah, for giving me the impetus to write this. 

Hello me, it’s you.

You’re sitting in the toilet cubicle, in the bathroom. You’re getting changed for sport there, because you don’t want to change in the locker room, with all the other girls. They are so much thinner than you. They are so much prettier than you. They are so much better than you.  You’re sitting on the toilet, with the scissors in your hands. You are staring at them, like they are going to bring you some kind of relief. But they won’t. The tears of blood won’t weep away your pain. Put the scissors down. After a while, you will.

You might have saved yourself the physical scar. But every time you stopped yourself, you carved a deeper scar in your mind. Putting down the blade doesn’t make you feel ok just like that. You still don’t feel good enough. You are still wracked with guilt that you weren’t good enough, you aren’t good enough. You thought you had ticked every box you defined yourself by, unmatchable grades, honesty, modesty, the rest. But you told them your secret, and they punished you. You were being honest. But this was how they repaid you; not even your grades could save you. There was no seat for you anymore. They filled it with another, thinner, sportier, perfect girl. And you are the leftovers. You’re not enough.

You go back into the changing room. It’s claustrophobic, it smells, there are clothes everywhere, girls shouting, taunting, screaming, throwing paper planes, beating their lacrosse sticks against the wall. Someone has rubbed your books with rotten banana, the black skin is sitting in your locker. Your perfect books, which never had a cross in them. You feel dizzy, you feel your heart beating faster, faster, you are shaking, there are those pains in your stomach and you think you are going to fall and you know you have to leave but you can’t because that would be showing you are weak. So you are sitting,  waiting for them all to leave so you, and Mr A can be alone, and sort some things out. You want to pick up the scissors, but you don’t want to go back there again.

You see, Mr A has been in your life for a long time now. Those symptoms are Mr A’s way of telling you that he’s coming round to stay. Right now, you think you are alone with Mr A. You don’t even know he has that name. He’s just this thing that’s inside your head, and you know he’s there but you can’t really describe him to anyone. He’s like an indescribable criminal that is blackmailing you, robbing you of your smile, your sparkle, your life. But you can’t tell anyone. Because that would just make him stay. You think if you forget about him, he might go away. After three years of trying, you’ll realise that Mr A is like any guest. He’ll come and go as he pleases, and you can’t really control it. But when he comes, there are rules. And by the time you are ready to leave home (and not running away, properly leaving home), you and Mr A will, mostly, respect each other, and each other’s rules.

But for now, you and he are in a war, raging in your mind. And you think he’s about to explode, and you can’t tell anyone. It’s easy for me now to say that you were wrong. That you could tell. But I remember how you were feeling, shaking in front of that rotten banana.  You couldn’t tell someone. You were the odd one out, not them. They’d never believe you anyway. But the people who mattered already knew you weren’t right. They didn’t know what, where, when, why or how. They didn’t know about Mr A or about the bullying or about the murderous perfectionism or about the scissors. But they knew something wasn’t right. Because you used to smile with your eyes. And right now, your eyes are black voids of pain. While you are sitting there, with your eyes closed, waiting for the shouting to go away, and fighting with Mr A to shut up, they are already planning to come and save you.

One week later, you won’t have to go to school anymore. Not for another five months. And even then you wouldn’t be going back there. But you will have to go back for your final speech day. Prizegiving. Where that perfect girl will take your seat, and your parents’ seat. And you will be crammed into the back of the regimental Chapel, Mr A’s hands on your neck, suffocating you, whilst she took your seat. You will think that you will never be good enough again, no matter where you were going.

You will move school, and you will think that everything is better. For a year, you will be perfect again, the same star in a new sky. Shining brighter than everyone else, and filling every space with your light. And it is partly true, you will regain some of your light. But not all of it. And it won’t stay that way. Because you will think running away to a new school means running away from your self consciousness, and from your imperfections, and from Mr A. You will forget about him. You think he will forget about you too. But he won’t. He will come back, with the others, and his friend, Mr D, so much stronger than before. And, aged 15, you will be struck by a wave that winds you, and you will be a whale beached on the shore, unable to swim. You won’t even want to get up in the mornings. You will experience bullying for an innumerable time. You will be irritable. Then silent. Then burst into stupid tears at the smallest things. You will lose all your friends, and no will understand. The closest person to you will tell you simply that clever people are always lonely, and you’d just have to get used to it. You’ll try to keep it to yourself, the emotions clashing, and bubbling, and exploding.

But there’ll be one difference that time. You will sit at the table and you will cry and cry. You will realise you are not, and would not be perfect. You will realise that you are incredibly lonely, and you just want someone to give you a hug and tell you that it will all turn alright in the end. And you will realise that Mr A had become inseparable from Mr D, and together they are binding you. And you won’t be able breathe and you will feel dizzy, and you will almost collapse in pain. And you will touch the scissors. But she will come in, and see you, and you will say: I’m not ok. And that will be you at your most vulnerable, and at your strongest. You will say, I’m not ok. And, in effect, you will say that you need help.

And she will give you a space to talk, where you won’t feel judged. She will give you a counsellor, a support team, daily meetings. She will give Mr A his name, because you didn’t want to be shut in a box labelled ‘Anxiety’ for the rest of your life. She will help you to control Mr D, Mr A’s Black Dog. Because having a relationship with Mr A will be so much easier. Everyday you will just have to rank yourself and Mr A, 1 through to 10. Gradually, you will move from 1 to 8. Gradually you will build rules for Mr A. Even by age 17 you’ll never push yourself above an 8. But you’ll still working on it. Gradually you began to see a true light, and find a true sparkle.

And while all this bullying, anxiety, loneliness and pain is breaking you, you will be saved. Saved by your school, for sure. But saved by something all together more wonderful, indescribable and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. You have just been confirmed. You believe, sure you do. But I think you’ll really only need to test your belief, and learn to BELIEVE in the next few years. Because you won’t be on this journey alone. You’ll soon come to realise that the place you feel most at home, the Church, will become more to you than just a place. It will become that place where Mr A has been, and Mr A is, and Mr A will be, but it will also be the place where God is, and will be forever. There will be times where Mr A takes over; you’ll wobble emotionally, and religiously. But you will always find God again, and you will be able to do anything with Him.

Your relationship with Him will grow and grow and grow, to the point that there won’t be a day that goes past without you seeing a glimpse of his presence in the world. In the sunlight, bursting through the trees. In a chick as it finds itself in the wrong egg. In the soft breeze as it whispers through the trees. In snatches of music. In the comforting embrace of a warm bed. In the frost as it smokes. In a laugh. In a smile. In a tear. You will learn what it is to experience transformative prayer.

And you will be called into His service. You will live out God’s love in your own life, wherever he calls you. You will hold a hand. You will lend a smile. You will laugh and cry with people. You will serve. You will testify. You will speak. You will share. But you will be there. Because you will come to understand that the loneliness you are feeling right now is nothing unusual. And though you might still struggle, you will understand that the love you experience can make others’ lives better. You can give them the love you are searching for right now. With God by your side, you will inspire, you will love, and you will be.

I don’t know why, but you’ve never been good at talking to your parents about how you’re feeling. Yes, I’m talking to you, who still hasn’t told her parents that she’s spending her lunchtimes in the library to avoid people. You who haven’t told them that you need them. Because you don’t know how. You still find it hard at 17. I mean for goodness’ sake, you will take to writing them letters, because it’s easier than talking.

But at the Cathedral, you’ll find a family you can talk to. An angelic host. Clergy, Virgers, Stewards, Choir Parents, Choristers, Lay Clerks, Organ Scholars, Congregants. Friends. People who love you, and care about you and your family. Sure, you’ll have your run-ins there. But you will also find your voice again. You will share in their joys and sorrows. And they will want to share in yours. You will be ok with going to have coffee and talking about scary things, without feeling scared. You will be supported and uplifted. They will bump into you in random and unexpected places – on the street, at the station, at a concert, at school. They will talk with you, pray with you, light candles for you. And they will enable you to shine like the star that you are hiding away behind the facade of books.

It will all start with you saying: I’m not ok. And sometimes I wish that you would have said it earlier, because you knew it all along. But you said it at the right time for you. And so I guess that’s ok too. And every day that you continue to say: I’m not ok, I am proud of you. And every day that you say: today I feel good, I am proud of you. And you and I both know that there will be days when together, we will sit in front of that locker and fight with Mr A. But there’ll be other days when he will be visiting other people, and you can breathe.

You will still have Mr A days. Though you sometimes still get breathless and dizzy, you will sometimes just be angry, or extremely tired, or unproportionately emotional. You will feel sick, and you will get that sharp knot in your stomach. Those days will be tough. There will be weeks that test you to the maximum. You will feel incredibly lonely. But you will know that you’re not alone. You will never be alone. You have faith, friends, and family. And each day that passes, you will show your strength. One day, you and Mr A may even have a day where you will stand, hand in hand, and smile. You’ll say: we’ve got this. You and I, we’re OK today.

I know that you probably didn’t read that all. It all seems a long way off, and you don’t believe me that things will get better. So if you didn’t read anything else, remember my these pieces of advice for you, to get you through the next few years. And remember, I’m still learning too. You and I, we’ll be learning for a lifetime. And I bet we’ll never find one right answer.

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk. Talk to your friends, talk to your family, a teacher, a co-worker. Say: I’m not ok. And go from there.
  2. Stick to your own values: honesty, compassion, kindness, selflessness, modesty, fortitude, reverence, patience and trust. Learn to be ok with you Catherine-ness, and celebrate it.
  3. Take it one step at a time. Don’t try to run before you can walk. Don’t run away from the problems. Acknowledge they are there, and take each day as it comes. Try and make one small change a day and in a week, a month, a year, two, you’ll see how far you’ve come.
  4. Cherish the memories you make with family in the moments they happen. We all know families aren’t perfect, but you have a good one. When you feel able, tell them how you feel, write if you need to. Look out for them too.
  5. Don’t be afraid to try new experiences. You know that there will be occasions/weeks that trigger Mr A but don’t let that make you say no. You can try, who knows, you might even have some fun! By doing this, you will have some life changing experiences.
  6. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion, and speak up for what you think is right. Sometimes people need to hear a new voice.
  7. Embrace your inner nerd, it will make things easier in the long run. And there are lots of normal people who like Classics too.
  8. Pray. A lot. For your friends, for your family, for the world, for you. They all need your ongoing prayers.
  9. Say thank you. Give praise for everything you have got, and how far you’ve come. You’re awesome, and the world around you is too.
  10. Serve others. It’s where you find your greatest joy. Listen to others. Be there. Give more than you receive. Love.

I love you. You are enough. You matter. And I think, though you might not recognise me right now, you’re going to learn to love me too. And if you can’t quite manage that right now, put your fingers around the cross you bear. And know that He loves you.

See you on the other side of 17.

Cx