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Who am I? - Anna Welch

One of the things that I find hardest to cope with is my lack of a sense of self. But I also find it very hard to explain. How do you explain a lack of something that everyone takes for granted? How do I explain that even though my friends tell me I am a nice person, I can’t even acknowledge the fact that I am a person (never mind the nice bit…)? One of the scariest things for me is looking in the mirror and not seeing me there or trying to answer the innocent question: who am I? I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain it, I’m not sure it will make sense yet, but bare with me and I’ll give it a go:

Lets start outside with a blank canvas and some watercolours. If you were going to create a self portrait on the canvas, a sensible place to start would be to sketch the outline of a person wouldn’t it? No details, no colour, just a rough guide to follow when you apply the paint. Having drawn yourself you can then start to apply the paint. First with broad brush stroke the main underlying colours: the skin tone, the hair colour. Then you start to paint in some details: lips, eyes, nose. But its still not quite you yet. You still have to add the little things that make you you, the facial expression, that mole (definitely a beauty spot), the freckles – the things that mean that someone who knows you could pick you out from the crowd.

Okay now lets say that the water colours are the things in your life. The broad brush strokes are your hobbies, your job, where you come from. The details are your friends, your family members, your pets. And that pencil outline at the start? Well that is your sense of self. It guides all that you do, all that you strive for, your likes and dislikes, the direction you point yourself in.

Now can you imagine how hard it would be to paint that self portrait, with all the details, without the guide provided by the outline? How hard it would be to get all the proportions correct. How hard it would be to get all those little details that make you you in exactly the right spot. It would take some time right? Some trial and error. Maybe a few big mistakes along the way.

But the thing with water colours is you can wash them away. Just add water and you dilute out the paint until you get back to an almost blank canvas again. Good right? Or not… because remember you don’t have a pencil outline. Now you have to start all over again and you don’t even know where to start! Your self portrait was defined by the details, by the colours. But they have all been washed away. All you are is invisible.

There are somethings that you can’t control. Remember you’re painting outside! The rain starts to fall and some of the drops are erasing the details of your watercolours. In some storms your portrait completely blurs, changes shape in front of your eyes. Leaving you reeling and wondering which way up your portrait even is?!

Worst of all is that fact that, the more you have to go back and wash out the water colours, the more storms there are, the more damaged the canvas becomes. It wears away, becomes discoloured. But without your pencil outline you have to keep filling everything in from scratch after the storms and the details still aren’t quite right.

Now perhaps you can understand a little, why I cling to my course, my vocation, even when I’ve been told I should take a year out. Maybe you can see why I cling to my hobbies. Perhaps you can see why friends moving on or drifting away feels like abandonment to me. All the little details are so precious. Without them this picture isn’t me. And without a sense of self I have no way to rebuild it. I use the venerable and changeable watercolours in place of the pencil outline, my sense of self. When I feel I am close to a self portrait I will protect it for all I’m worth because tomorrow when the storm arrives I will be nothing but a blank canvas, invisible again.


Hello, I'm Anna, I'm 22 and live in the UK. I am studying to become a vet at Cambridge. Animals are my passion. Their unconditional love has seen me through some tough times and I hope that in the future I will be able to help a few animals in their moment of need in return. I love sports (rowing, horse riding, running), music (I play piano, clarinet and bassoon), travelling or, failing that, a good book to escape into. I am hard working and determined. I enjoy my studies and try to put my all into them. But this has been made very difficult by my mental ill-health. I have been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety and my psychiatrist has also given me a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. I struggle with suicidal thoughts, self harm and panic attacks. I have been struggling for years but I learnt to hide it all behind my mask. The mask broke for me 2 years ago, resulting in a complete mental breakdown and forcing me to reach out for help. I am now taking a leave of absence from university to try to find out what recovery can look like for me.

Writing helps me a lot. There is something healing about spilling your soul onto paper. When I am at my lowest I find it very hard to talk out loud. Finding a way to string a sentence together in conversation feels impossible. So I have learnt to turn to writing to try to explain what is happening for me to those around me. I have found it very hard to cope with the stigma that is attached to mental illness, especially from within my own family. Writing has become my way to try to explain to them just how crushing it can be and how I can’t ‘Just cheer up’. Paper was my confidante when I felt completely alone. Poetry has become one of my most vital coping mechanisms. I write it when the suicidal thoughts and my voices become overwhelming. I find that making a rhyme and a rhythm slows my thoughts down enough that I can find myself again.

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