Steph Innes’ life changed when she realised her anxiety was no longer just that little niggle she’d always had.
To the outside world she was still eating, exercising and topping all her classes… Everyone thought she was fine! But Steph had hit rock bottom in her self-love journey.
So how did she make the brave journey towards recovery and change her outlook on life to find her sun again?
Q1. TAKE US BACK TO LITTLE STEPH. DID YOU HAVE ANY STRUGGLES GROWING UP? WERE YOU AS SOCIAL AND OUTGOING AS YOU ARE NOW, OR MORE INTROVERTED?
Gosh, little Steph. See this is the funny thing because I feel as though my life has gone full circle. From age 3 to about 10, my mum would describe me as “her little ray of sunshine.” I was bright, bubbly, smiley, happy, energetic. However all through my life there had always been that underlying feeling of uncertainty and worry.
It never grew more than a queasy stomach, or heat behind my neck, but it had always been there. But overall, life was good for little Steph! It was just a little “niggle” she’d always had.
Q2. WHEN WAS IT THAT YOU REALISED YOU WERE SUFFERING FROM ANXIETY? HOW DID YOU FEEL?
I think the first time I truly realised that what I was feeling was more than just the normal little worries of life, was when I first started high school. I was forced to quit my favourite sports because of a knee injury, so suddenly all of my bubbling energy had nowhere to go. Other than into extreme stress over EVERYTHING.
My insomnia also made everything worse. I’d come home from school crying, falling onto the couch exhausted – but my mind would still be wide awake.
However, my strong type A personality meant that my grades never dropped. My need to be the “best” never dwindled. I was very good at hiding my anxiety for those 6 school hours… It was my mum who copped my breakdowns and daily panic attacks.
It reached a peak when I was forced to go on a school trip to Canberra. I had a full-blown panic attack where I couldn’t control my mind or my body. Still one of the scariest moments of my life.
Q3. HOW DID YOU COPE WITH YOUR ANXIETY? IN A “HEALTHY” OR UNHEALTHY KIND OF WAY?
I don’t remember if I asked for it or if mum simply said it was happening, but I started to see a psychologist every Tuesday before school for a good 6-8 months. I hated it. I felt ashamed. Especially when I’d have to return to school with a red face and puffy eyes.
One night mum was asked to come in with me and that’s when I was diagnosed with depression and put on antidepressants. On the car ride home I said one sentence to mum through silent tears; ‘I don’t want anyone to know.’
The unhealthy portion of my story comes when I visited a doctor for my insomnia. Without asking any further questions, I was prescribed a sleeping pill (classed as high risk of addiction) and told to simply “wear myself out and do more exercise.”
That was the spiral of my exercise addiction.
Q4. WHAT WERE SOME OF THE NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES? DID YOU HAVE A ROCK BOTTOM MOMENT IN YOUR SELF-LOVE JOURNEY?
It was around this time of extreme amounts of exercise as well as extremely ‘clean’ and restrictive eating that I dropped around 10-15kg. I lost all female functioning. I had no period, no interest in anything. I was numb.
I couldn’t go out. Thoughts like “What would I eat? When would I train? What if we sat down for too long? What if I needed the bathroom and there wasn’t one around?” causing so much stress that I couldn’t bear to go to school.
I didn’t smile often. I didn’t laugh. I isolated myself from my friends and more so my family. Bursting into tears at the smallest of triggering comments from my brother or Dad. I didn’t move much unless I was excessively exercising, then I slowly walked everywhere, hugging my bony frame, turning blue in the cold and losing my hair.
To the outside world I was fine. Eating, exercising and topping my classes. In reality, I was seriously sick.
Q5. HOW DID YOU PULL YOURSELF OUT OF THIS AND BEGIN TO TURN YOUR LIFE AROUND?
This is something I’m not even too sure of myself. It’s such a complex thing, recovery. There wasn’t one thing that magically switched everything back into place.
But I do remember my year 11 school trip to Africa… Showing me that the happiest people in the world were those with nothing. It showed me how big and mighty the world truly is and how small and crazy the things I used to stress about were. It took me WAY out of my comfort zone but in a truly incredible way I’d never felt before.
Suddenly there were bigger issues in front of me than worrying about what I would eat next or how much I should be training. Something started to switch inside of me.
But that doesn’t mean I was “recovered”. The start of uni was my largest relapse of all… To the point where I didn’t know if there was any coming back.
But I did. I’d say it took about 5 years and to be honest, I’m probably still in it. But it’s the tiny steps everyday that lead to one day, waking up.. and just SMILING.
Q6. HOW HAS THIS CHANGED YOUR LIFE? HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE GIRL THAT YOU ARE NOW COMPARED TO WHO YOU WERE?
This has changed my life so much now that I can finally say I’m living my dream. Because I am living as Steph. The real Steph. I no longer see mental illness as an identity. Just like any other illness, you ask for help and you will get better.
I now have a bigger view of life and what’s important. I strive to reach my dreams and goals and enjoy the journey along the way. Life’s way too short to spend it doing anything other than what lights you up. There is no way I was put on this world to torture myself so I will not let that happen.
Q7. WHAT IS YOUR NEW OUTLOOK ON LIFE, AND HOW DO YOU REMAIN POSITIVE EVEN ON THOSE DOWN DAYS?
I wouldn’t say I ever have down days anymore because I see them more as moments. When that feeling sinks deep into me, I embrace it. I feel it, ask why it’s there and try to make sense of it. Quite often it shouldn’t be there and I rationally talk myself out of it.
I surround myself with an epic group of people and I focus on being present in every single moment.
Q8. TO THE GIRLS WHO ARE CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING THE STRUGGLES THAT YOU WENT THROUGH, WHAT IS ONE THING THEY CAN DO RIGHT NOW TO BEGIN THE CHANGE?
Every morning you wake up, lay there in bed for a second, then tell yourself:
‘I am brave, I am worthy, I am kind and I can do anything.’
Then fist pump the air and remind yourself how grateful you are for life.
Q9. WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU COULD GO BACK AND TELL YOUR YOUNGER SELF?
First I would hug the poor thing because sometimes that’s all she needed. Then I’d tell her there is so much strength and power in her, that she can do anything. That she’s never alone. That there is always help and hope.
Her light will come back. Never give up. NEVER LOSE YOUR SUN.