Discover more from oldest wisest self
My mental health history
Let me introduce you to the Toilet Escort
Context is everything, so let’s get on the same page.
Who am I?
My name is Erin Donohue. I am a poet, novelist and editor living in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa. My book Because Everything Is Right but Everything is Wrong (Escalator Press, 2017) was a finalist in two categories in the 2018 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and it centres around mental illness, high school and being a teen with the whole world stretched out in front of you.
I have been featured in the Auckland Writers Festival, the Nelson Readers and Writers Festival and Verb in Wellington. My novel has been studied in high school English classes around the country and my poem Slideshow was included in the 2022 NCEA level one nationwide English exam.
I write and talk about illness, perception, disability, love, body image and fear and am currently working on a collection of personal essays.
I like therapy, barbershop, my cat Maura, who is named after a Love Island contestant, and taking pictures of the clouds. I am my most authentic self when I am riding my moped on a sunny day or swimming in the sea, in any weather.
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What’s my damage?
There’s a lot. I’ve never written this down in a chronological way like this. but let’s see what we can do. Obviously, this has to be brief. For eveyones’s sake.
2012, age 16
About a month before Christmas, I told my mum I thought I was depressed, anxious and struggling with an eating disorder. I had been for years, but by now I was beyond miserable. It was nearly exam time and I was on study leave. I spent my days at home paranoid and terrified and I just couldn’t do it anymore.
We went to the doctor. He referred me to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). This was over ten years ago; the system had more capacity than it does today.
It was nearly the end of the year. Nothing would happen until after the Christmas break. So we did our best to manage until they phoned.
2013, age 17
I was seen at CAMHS at the beginning of the year. It was clear I needed their help and I was assigned a psychiatrist and psychologist and they were great: empathetic, kind, determined, caring and grounded.
I went on meds. Had regular therapy. They assessed me for bipolar and schizophrenia and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how all of my symptoms fit together. They referred me to the Central Regional Eating Disorder Service (CREDS) to be assessed and maybe get some support from a dietician. They weren’t too concerned about my weight though it was low and I was underweight.
The BMI scale is widely used when assessing eating disorders. Sometimes in isolation or as a reliable general indicator for eating disorder severity. Because I am very short and was a quite small to start with, my BMI didn’t look as bad as it could have.
When CREDS assessed me, they diagnosed me with anorexia. I was seen at the hospital by a specialist who gave me two weeks to gain weight at home or she would put me in hospital. The BMI hadn’t shown what the weight loss, restriction and over exercising had done to my heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and electrolyte levels. I was very unwell.
CREDS/the hospital saw me 3–4 times a week: dieticians, doctors, nurses, family therapists, individual therapists, blood tests, ECGs, heart scans. It was endless and felt like a full time job. I dropped out of ballet, half of my school classes and most of my extra curriculars. I was put on a complete exercise ban.
When I wasn’t at school, I was at appointments, the dining table or napping. Through CAMHS, I joined a CBT group therapy programme that helped a lot with my social anxiety, which was one of my most debilitating issues at the time.
I gained weight and by the end of the year I lost it again. I was admitted to the clinic day programme for a few months. I missed my final exams, and I wasn’t discharged until the next year.
2014, age 18
Out of school, I went straight to uni to do a degree in Creative Writing. I loved it but half way through the year, I had slipped too far again and I got admitted to the clinic residential programme. I was there for a few months and completed the rest of my degree online.
While there, I was formally assessed by a psychologist. She did a complete history and her report mentioned that I had some borderline personality disorder tendencies that were noticeable as early as age 11. It was never mentioned again.
2015, age 19
I started my second year of uni and was dedicated to writing my first novel. I relapsed again and was put in hospital on the medical ward in the second half of the year. I spent about two weeks there. I was under 24 hour watch. I wasn’t allowed out of bed and if I needed to get out of bed (to use the bathroom, for example) I had to get into a wheelchair and be pushed there – even if it was only two metres away. Also, the infamous toilet escort. It’s exactly what it sounds like. There was someone in the bathroom with me to make sure I wasn’t Engaging In Behaviours. Intimate.
2016–2018, age 20–22
I maintained relative stability physically and continued therapy with my CREDS therapist. We worked on some DBT techniques (a type of therapy designed to treat borderline personality disorder) as I found them useful. I asked her about BPD and that assessment I had had done years prior. She told me the psychiatrists at the service had “always thought there was something else going on” with me. That I didn’t quite fit nicely into any diagnosis.
When I got my first full time job, I decided to find a private psychologist. The public system had kept me alive but they are always keen to discharge and move on to the next person. My therapist wasn’t going to discharge me but I felt I needed more security and time anyway.
2019–2023, age 23–27
I found a clinical psychologist and have been seeing her ever since. She has diagnosed me with OCD and eventually (after I raised it first) BPD. Having access to a private psychologist is a huge privilege and I am incredibly grateful for the validation and growth it has afforded me. And also, I have worked hard and dedicated myself to learning as much as I could about BPD in my spare time. (I have written about the experience of being diagnosed with BPD here in more detail.)
I still have a lot of work to do. It is unending. I live with many chronic and complex mental illnesses. My life will likely always have mental illness to some degree and accepting that has been freeing and ultimately positive for me. It allows me to work on small, tangible things that feel good and productive on a day to day basis.
It means I can stay present and focus on what I need right now in this moment. I can still become older and wiser within that context and this, writing this, is part of it.
And if all else fails, being mentally ill has made me really funny.
Thanks for being here. See you next week.