21 September 2021 | Gesundheit

Embracing the darkness

Her skin is like a canvas, acting as a shield to the judgement and disappointment her mind throws at her body.

“You are more than an illness, a diagnosis, a label.

Henriette Lamprecht – An old soul, passionate at times, creative with most things she does in life, performing random acts of kindness, making others feel appreciated and noticed.

In her own words, this would describe Michelle Steenkamp, but she is so much more than that. Not fitting into a box most of society would put her in, she has learnt to embrace the darkness which has been a constant companion since she was a little girl, finding it hard to describe her feelings as happiness but rather resorting to contentment.

Michelle admits she seldomly finds herself pondering who she is as a person, but has found comfort in certain things along the years which have been consistent.

One of her treasures is her service pup, Hagan, which she describes as her angel in disguise.

“On my hard days, he is always tightly cuddled next to me, and his kisses and cuddles make me feel more okay than my mind tells me to be.”

She also has an amazing partner, who strives to always be her lighthouse when “my seas are full of rage and emotions.

“She always makes me smile, and laugh, even when I can't remember how to. Her love has changed how I feel about myself, and how I see myself. That makes a big impact on how rough my bad days can get. Lately, she notices before me when I am getting a downer, and she always is patient with me, understanding that sometimes I need comfort, more than solutions.”

Michelle also has an “amazing best friend” who is endlessly supportive, and always reminding her that she matters and that the world wouldn't be the same without her.

Emotions play a big role in how her mind acts, and the way she perceives things and situations.

“Anger is one of my biggest downfalls. I tend to get irritated at small things, and being impatient with myself and how I am feeling. I have learned that being patient with myself when I am at my lowest, is better than trying to push myself to feel better when I honestly feel like rock bottom has a new basement.”

“I’m sort of like a plant,” Michelle admits. “A very needy, moody, bi-polar plant that needs lots of assurance, but also patience.”

She first realized there was “something lurking in the shadows of my brain” when she was six years old.

Her parents were going through a divorce, and at the time Michelle was assigned a therapist. The therapist did the procedural things, including the Rorschach test, or better known as the inkblot test. After naming what she saw on the images, the therapist furrowed her brow and looked her up and down with whiteness in her face. “Almost like she wasn't sure if she needed to throw a book at me, or run for the hills.”

Up to this point, Michelle has been plagued with nightmares, and constant thoughts about self-harm and extreme guilt.

“I remember her saying that I should imagine my mind is like a forest: in some places the sun shines brightly through the treetops, illuminating everything it touches, and some places are covered in cold, dark shadows filled with mist and uncertainty. Sometimes I will find myself hiding in these shadows, and that’s okay because it feels safe.”

Michelle was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression.

“I realized that the darkness that I experienced has a name, I wasn't completely out of my mind, and there was still hope for me.”

At first, she admits, it felt like a death sentence. She was expecting to be escorted to an asylum with white padded rooms, heavy medication, and incarcerated souls who were sleeplessly trying to exist. She started to sleep most of her days away and for a while, this was her life, a constant suspension of heavy sleep and unrecognizable depression looming above her head.

“Ultimately, I had to realize what pack of cards I have been dealt, and I needed to pull up my socks, and start working on being okay with my diagnoses.”

Michelle admits she hasn’t made peace with the fact that her brain has a shortage of dopamine and serotonin, sometimes still fighting with the universe about her mind being broken, and why she has to deal with the looming shadows.

“Ultimately I have not really made peace with it. I simply live with it, and do my best to not let it drag me down to the pits of despair.”

Some days she fails miserably, and other days “I sprint like an impala who has just escaped a hungry lioness.”

“I have learned to go with the flow of my emotions, acknowledging how I feel, not questioning it, and not pushing myself to feel otherwise when I am not ready.

A bad day starts with small things, having nightmares the evening before, or insomnia that toys with her mental state.

“From there on it is simply a test of patience, of where and when I fall into the arms of depression and anxiety.

She “toughens it out” at work, putting on a happy face.

But as soon as she gets home, she cuddles up with her pup, either sleeping for an indefinite amount of time or watching documentaries on anything that piques her interests.

“Having a ‘safe space’ has helped me learn to be okay with what I’m feeling, but also having something to look forward to when I simply do not feel like existing anymore.”

Michelle’s aunt, whom she describes as a “wonderful, plump ray of goodness and love”, is her mentor whom she turns to with all her problems and emotions.

“She would always make me feel less like a crazy individual, and more like a normal human.”

She lived in Cape Town where Michelle would visit her on school holidays, spending a lot of time on Bloubergstrand.

“She once told me that your mind is like the ocean. It has high tides, when the waves hit the sand, collapsing all hope of calmness, plummeting against rocks, and beach, almost punching at everything it reaches. And sometimes it has low tides, where the waves casually lap at the sandy beaches, caressing the seashells, and dancing in the sunshine. And even though the ocean has immense moments of turmoil and destruction, at the end of the day, it is still majestic, beautiful, and extraordinary. And no amount of destruction or crashing waves will ever cause a dent in its beauty.”

For Michelle, her tattoos and piercings have an impact on her self-esteem and how she perceives herself.

“I am uncomfortable with my skin, and how ‘empty’ it looks. I also have severe body image issues, and struggle with being completely comfortable.”

Since she started getting tattoos and piercings, her self-esteem has picked up, and she has found comfort in “my art displayed on my canvas, almost covering up my problem areas, and acting as a shield to judgement and disappointment that my mind throws at my body”.

She got her first tattoo at the lowest point in her life, when she was 15 years old. It is a quote from a song written by Oliver Sykes, “We all have these things inside that no one else can see, they hold us down like anchors. They drown us out at sea.”

It is a song she usually turns to when her mind is dark, finding comfort in knowing that she is not the only one feeling like her mind is “like an anchor, dragging me to the depths of the ocean, trying to drown me”.

Tattoos have been a very important coping mechanism for her, Michelle admits, finding comfort in the pain and the body’s endurance during a session.

“I tend to cope with traumatic events, and painful memories by inking them onto my skin and to have a ‘therapy session’ while getting said tattoo done. It has helped me stay in tune with my emotions and caused me to stay aware of how I deal with things.

“Mental illness has a way of numbing you from emotion, and it is terrifying. Hence, I find solace in tattoos, and the procedure of it, to cope with how I feel, and why I feel.”

Don’t alienate or detach yourself when you have a darkness haunting you, says Michelle.

Do not give in to the lies that your mind throws at you. It is important to find someone who understands, who listens, and who does not pass judgement, she says.

“You need to know that you are not alone, and even though I know how dark and claustrophobic the darkness can get, always remember that there is an end, it always ends and the sun will shine again.

“You are allowed to be a work of art, and a work in progress at the same time. You matter, and you are precious.”

It is important to remember that setbacks don't equal failure, says Michelle. You are allowed to set boundaries for yourself and others to protect yourself, and your emotional well-being.

“You are more than an illness, a diagnosis, a label. In the end, you deserve to be okay with yourself. And even though recovery does not mean curing the imbalance, it means that you matter, and you deserve a chance to work on you, for you.”

As she always had a passion for wildlife, Michelle is currently working on a tattoo design for her leg, which involves an elephant with a broken tusk, amongst some marulas. This is to honour the gentle giants who have fallen to the greed of the ivory trade, and the brutality of mankind.

Michelle enjoys colouring and the calmness it brings, and loves creating custom tattoo designs, bringing a vision to reality. She also finds joy in reading, poetry, and literature, she says.

“I tend to turn to creative writing to express my emotions and mental state, somehow turning my turmoil into ink. Dotting it down on paper has been a huge turning point in acknowledging my emotions, and not forcing myself to feel different than I do. I find comfort in the words and metaphors of literature and language.” - [email protected]

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