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Mental health and a birthday to remember: Rachel’s story

Rachel shares her mental health journey through her 18th, 20th and 21st birthdays and tell us why, against all odds, her lockdown birthday turned out to be the best one she’s had in a while.

Content Warning

This page has discussion of mental illness and suicide.

On my 20th birthday, I’d been in the hospital the week before. I’d originally gone out with my friends for a night out, but I ended up having a panic attack outside my house. You don’t normally get hospitalised for a panic attack – they hospitalised me because I was 1) under the influence and 2) threatening to kill myself.

This happened because I’d taken a piss in an alleyway outside the club and got paranoid I smelt of wee and thought I’d ruined my birthday. In hindsight, if I had smelt like piss the entire night, that would’ve been bloody funny. At the time, it was humiliating.

In the build-up to wanting to end my life over smelling like piss, over the past six months I had:

  • Ended things with an ex-boyfriend a second time that I was devastatingly in unrequited love with
  • Been in two very dodgy friends-with-benefits relationships with two very dodgy blokes
  • Had a friend cheat on his long-distance girlfriend with me in our friend’s bed whilst that mutual friend was spending the night at the hospital with another friend of ours who had a dissociative seizure at their party that evening

In hindsight, it had been a bad six months. I was sure I was doing okay though – I thought I was better than I was when I was 18.

On my 18th birthday, I sat in a restaurant with my mum, dad, two brothers, grandma, ouma, oupa (side note: ouma and oupa is grandma and grandad in Afrikaans), and my brothers’ girlfriends.

I was sat next to one of my brother’s girlfriends, and told her that I felt like I was dreaming. I used to get these dissociative spells where it was like having a dream whilst awake, but I also couldn’t tell whether I was having a really intense memory of a dream or a really intense moment of déjà vu. Either way, it made my skin prickle, my heart race, and everything around me look really bright and dim at the same time.

I’d been having a flare-up of these dissociative spells since my boyfriend had broken up with me the week before (not the previously mentioned one I was in unrequited love with – this one had dumped me after seeing me have a panic attack but told me we might be able to get back together after exams. Side note: we did not).

I hadn’t been in love with him, but I had been absolutely obsessed with him.

At the time, I was having a bad flare-up of cystic acne and felt ashamed of the way I looked. I used to hit myself as punishment for being ugly. I was not ugly, and acne does not make you ugly.

I thought about ending my life because I was scared my spots wouldn’t go away but decided not to because I remembered I had a boyfriend. In hindsight, I think that relationship ended for the best. At the time, I thought I’d never find anyone as good as him again.

On my 21st birthday, I was in the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic. A huge family crisis had occurred two months prior (not getting into this because it’s still raw and affects people very close to me), I had begun taking Fluoxetine two weeks before, and I was socially distanced from nearly all the people I love the most, except my mum.

My mum put so much effort into making sure I had a great birthday: she hung up “happy 21st birthday!” banners around the living room, went out to buy me a cake, and bought me a balloon. We had the most delicious meal that evening – panko halloumi burger and BBQ jackfruit dirty fries. It was bloody heaven. Also… I got a Nintendo Switch. It was like a kid’s party, albeit downsized.

We video called one of my brothers and his girlfriend and visited my brother and my (now) sister-in-law; he bought us all ice creams and we walked their dog (I would like to clarify: this was within UK lockdown guidelines, thank you very much). My friends from school video called me with a quiz they’d organised, and another one visited me and dropped off their birthday presents to me, with (another!!!) cake. I got happy birthday wishes from all my other closest friends. I even had a cheeky gin and prosecco cocktail.

That was the best birthday I’d had in a while.

In nearly the past four years, I have:

  • Had ten counsellors, from the NHS, private, from charities, and from university
  • Contemplated suicide more times than I can count
  • Had countless bloody panic attacks
  • Dissociated near constantly for six months straight
  • Had one good birthday

After thinking that my world was ending all that time, now the world is actually ending it doesn’t feel that bad. Kidding! The world isn’t ending.

But after feeling so intensely crap for such a long time, I can absolutely promise you that if you are miserable right now, it will go away.

Even if it goes on for years, even if you need to see a ridiculous amount of doctors and mental health professionals and try a variety of different medications, I can promise you that eventually, things will be okay.

It’s OK not to be OK

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year (NHS England, 2020).

If you are worried about your mental health, or about someone else’s, there are lots of places that can offer you help and support. You don’t have to be diagnosed, you don’t even have to know exactly what’s wrong. Whenever you are ready to talk to someone, you can.


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