Monica Cosgrove

The Chaotic Ramblings of my Neurodivergent Life

Life in the Broken System

Chapter One: Bluebell

            When approaching mental health issues compassion, empathy, and kindness are essential. A harsh word at the wrong time, something said in the wrong tone, impatience or frustration in a vulnerable moment can trigger a negative chain of thoughts a person you cannot begin to imagine or understand unless you have lived through it in my experience. When I first began learning about my mental health it was a complicated time, the process was not as complicated as it has become when searching for a diagnosis but was complicated for other reasons. Before even attempting to get a diagnosis, I did my own research. I was first exposed to discussions about mental health issue as a teenager on Tumblr, this was a less than reliable source, but it began the curiosity, I resonated with many of the posts describing symptoms and it prompted me to do more extensive research online, well, as extensive as a 15 to 16-year-old can do.

            When learning things from the internet, particularly from a blog-based source, you will never be exposed to one opinion however and Tumblr is also where I got my first taste of mental health stigma. There were many posts condemning those that spoke openly about mental health issues and symptoms, claiming that it was merely attention seeking behaviour. There were others stating people were claiming to have mental illnesses simply because it was the latest trend, it was some kind of edgy thing to have to make yourself interesting, there were yet more discrediting the validity of self-diagnosing. On the face of it, self-diagnosing through the internet can seem incredibly invalid and there is some validity to the notion that doctors know better for the most part, they have expertise the general public does not and can perform tests that are crucial for diagnosing conditions. However, something I have learned throughout my life is that a diagnosis is a privilege many cannot access. There are so many barriers in the way of the average person accessing the healthcare they need that we cannot possibly completely discredit those who do self-diagnose. This is something that I will discuss in more detail later, for now I will focus on the impact these posts had on my teenage mind. At the time I did not have the way to express what I was feeling but now I understand it to be imposters syndrome. You see I was right, I was suffering from anxiety and depression and there was a reason these posts resonated with me and why I related strongly to the symptoms list. But when you’re young and full of doubt about whether that is actually what is happening and you see posts telling you that you cannot possibly have an inclination from relating to other people’s experiences, even though you have spent time looking at other sources, it increases the doubt in your mind. It causes you to think that you’ve just gaslit yourself into thinking you have these symptoms because you desperately want to be interesting, or liked and this is all actually for attention, despite the fact you haven’t voiced how you feel to anyone except maybe a few close friends who are having the same experience. Something is not done for attention if you are not getting attention for it.

            The first time I broached this subject outside of this intimate group of friends it solidified these feelings. In hindsight I can reflect on the moment and understand that the ones I told were unaware of how I was suffering, did not understand mental health in the way that they do now, and the situation was less than ideal to say the least. Shouting that you think you have anxiety and depression in burst of emotion in the middle of an argument is probably not the best atmosphere to announce that and anticipate compassion. However, unfortunate as it was, it happened, and the result was further doubt, misery and instability. It made me afraid to go to the doctor as I was convinced, I would be told there was nothing wrong with me and so I didn’t.

An important thing to know about me before this continues is I have always been completely obsessed with horses, when I was little it was my dream to have a horse, we lived in the country and weren’t very financially well off, I was fortunate enough to have horse riding lessons once a week from the age of six, this was mainly due to the rates being much lower than they are now and in the city, in the countryside it’s much cheaper to have horses, and run equestrian businesses as there is much more farm land available than in the city. When I was little the idea of having a horse was a dream, something that would never be attainable, but I so desperately wanted it to be a reality, I used to daydream about it all the time and pretend I had one in my back garden. Myself and my parents moved to the city when I was 8 years old, this move absolutely devastated me, I was taken away from my friends, the countryside that I adored and everything I knew, however this did change one thing. My parents began earning more money and eventually this dream was finally within reach. When I was 14 my parent bought me my first horse, Bluebell. I am so very fortunate in some regards, and I recognise this, it worth noting that just because someone has great fortune in some respects or seems to have a wonderful life, that does not mean that it is and they have no difficulties or struggles, or that they’re not suffering.

Bluebell was my dream come true, she was the most perfect horse I could’ve asked for, she’d had a hard life, her body was riddled with scars, including one on her face, and whatever she’d been through had left such an impression on her that she was terrified of anyone trying to touch her face, in particular if she did not know them or they reached for her blind spot. Anyone who claims animals does not have sentience has never had a bond with one. When I first got Bluebell she was incredibly skinny and nervous but over the years our bond grew and she grew to trust me completely, by the end of our first year she would jump anything in front of her if I rode confidently into it, it was like if she knew I believed she could do it that was enough for her to give it a try, and she would, she would try regardless of the height or type of jump. Our confidence and skill grew together, when I entered the field and called, she would come running, it didn’t matter how far away she was, if she heard me approaching the stable she would run to the door and call to me, she would follow me without having to be lead anywhere and eventually her trust built until she allowed me to stroke her head and face, she trusted me completely and I loved her. She gave me such unconditional love and for 5 years she was my companion.

My final two years with Bluebell came whilst I was studying my A levels, at the time I had passed my GCSE’s well and had gone on to study Chemistry, Biology, Music, and English Literature. Studying these subjects was far more demanding than anything I had faced at GCSE and it took a huge toll on my mental wellbeing, I didn’t understand how to actually study and the increased demand for self-motivated independent work made it almost impossible to succeed, my relationships with teachers and friends became strained, I began to become isolated, the mounting pressure to decide what career I wanted, where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be began to build. I failed my first year of Chemistry and Biology and was forced to swap them for a single year of another subject, I passed English Literature and Music but not anywhere near as well as I had done in GCSE. The second year was harder still, whilst studying less subjects I decided upon a course to study at university, Music, I was choosing to pursue a career as a Film Composer. The truth is I was too young to be making big decisions about what I wanted my future to be and I think most people would say the same thing, but this is a discussion for another time.

 Leading up to my exams and coursework hand ins I was feeling the strain of the pressure I’d had several anxiety attacks and my attendance dropped. My parents began to notice something was wrong but still did not fully understand and the closer I got to deadlines the more the pressure built. I was certain I was not getting into university; my piano teacher had been adding pressure on top, trying to get me to do my practical grades four, six and eight in a year alongside my grade five theory and my final year of A levels. I was doing all this whilst also attending my extracurricular activities, like acting in a school production, attending band practice, caring for and riding my horses, for Bluebell was retired at this time and I was fortunate enough to have another horse on loan that I could ride. I was very fortunate to be able to have both horses and when I retired Bluebell it was initially under the understanding, I would not be able to have another horse again. Whilst I was very fortunate to have both the horses it did add a degree of stress to my life, when previously it had been an escape. I began to have negative interactions with people at the stables where I kept them, I lost friends, began to be isolated there too, the owners of the horse I had on loan were leaning over my shoulder, constantly checking everything I did with her and reaching out to an instructor I had rather than myself and I was being intimidated and bullied.  

Finally, on the 1st of May 2016 the final blow to my already delicate mental health was dealt. It was already a tough day when I received the phone call, one of my friends – who I will call Cassie – who had been helping me out by riding the horse I had on loan a couple of times a week and feeding Bluebell, had gone up to feed Bluebell but something was wrong. Bluebell didn’t come over like she usually would. She had called to Cassie but hadn’t moved, and didn’t seem as cheerful as she usually did. Cassie approached her but she still did not move which was extremely out of character. She then caught Bluebell and attempted to get her to walk to the gate to have her dinner, but she still didn’t want to move. After some convincing Bluebell finally moved, but something really wasn’t right, she moved like every step caused incredible amounts of pain. She walked very slowly and carefully, which was the polar opposite of her usual demeanour despite her arthritis, so instead of feeding her Cassie decided to bring her in and make sure she was okay and I knew what was happening. I had to get the bus up to the stables, so I called my parents to make sure someone would be there for when the vet arrived, and they headed up. Whilst I was on the bus my phone rang again, it was my Mum, as soon as she started talking, I knew, my heart sank.

When we had retired Bluebell, it was a decision as a result of many vets visits to find out why she was sore on her legs. As part of the investigations the vets had done a blood test, the test had revealed that alongside her arthritis she had a condition called Cushing’s, when a horse has this condition it affects their ability to gain and maintain weight, it causes them to have a very thick, curly coat, and it also puts them at higher risk of getting other conditions such as Laminitis. This is a condition where the bone inside the hoof drops and presses against the bottom of their foot, it’s incredibly painful because it means that their bone is pressing almost directly against the floor and is not cushioned. This usually happens to horses when they gain too much weight for their feet to be able to handle. When Bluebell was diagnosed, it was explained to me that if she got laminitis there would be nothing we could do for her, as the treatment would require at least 9months of being kept continually in a stable on a strict diet moving as little as possible, which would make her arthritis worse and ultimately cause her more suffering.

So, when I heard my Mum’s voice, I knew what it was, I knew what the vet had said. I arrived at the yard and walked around to her stable, she heard me coming and called to me, but it was fainter, there wasn’t the usual enthusiasm. As I rounded the corner, there was no happy face looking expectantly at me over the stable door waiting for treats. I walked to the stable door, Bluebell stood huddled in the back of the stable, head lowered. She looked up slightly at me as I drew near, but that spark you see in a person’s eyes when they’re happy, that burning will to live and keep enjoying every moment of life, that always seemed to blaze out of her had gone out. I had once asked an older member of staff, who had been in the horse industry for many years, how you knew when it was time, when they’d had enough, and she had said to me “You look at them and you just know.” At the time I hadn’t understood it but in that moment I knew. I went into the stable, approached her and gave her a cuddle. I could see the pain in her face and how utterly defeated she looked. I stayed with her while it happened, we did it outside, her last moments she was with the person who she trusted and who loved her. Right as she was going, she leant into me for one last cuddle.

Afterwards was a blur. I was numb with grief I didn’t know how to process, the yard owner cut off a chunk of her mane for me to keep, and told me to go home, she would take care of everything else. I never got asked if I wanted her ashes, I was too numb and disoriented to think about that, so I don’t know what happened to them. I wish I had her, but I’ve still got the piece of her mane. I want to get it preserved in some kind of memorial piece for her, but I’m too terrified of losing my only piece of her to send it anywhere.

Her passing broke me completely. It took me three whole years to be able to begin to process the grief, and the hole she left. One small positive that came out of it all, it finally made my parents understand how I was suffering, it began their journey on learning about mental illness and how they can support me, and it lead me to finally see the doctor and get my diagnosis of anxiety and depression.