The scars on this young woman’s legs and arms bare the pain of her five year battle with a self-harm addiction that almost claimed her life.
But despite losing most of her teenage years to her mental illness, Lauren Darlington says her scars are now a source of strength as she strives to become a champion body builder.
It started when she was 15 – small cuts to her legs and arms because it was the only way she could feel a release, and while her thoughts were frantic, it was also something she could control.
But what started as a way to physically represent the pain she felt in her mind began to control her.
“After a few years it stopped working effectively and it became an addiction,” Lauren says.
“I’d be at school and that’s all I could think about, so I’d have to go home and do it – until I’d self-harmed it wouldn’t stop.
“It took over my life.”
She overdosed on prescription drugs and eventually dropped out of school because she was spending so much time in hospital.
It was only when she overdosed so badly 18 months ago, and her heart physically stopped, that she found the inspiration to get her life back on track.
She woke up to find her father by her bed, crying; later Lauren’s friend came to show her that she’d had her name tattooed on her body.
“At the start it [self-harm] was a good release, but then it stopped working and it became like any other addiction,” she says.
“I knew I had to stop, and I’m in a place now where I don’t do it anymore because I don’t want to.”
Not only has she happily put her illness behind her, she’s now channelling her energy into a particularly demanding sport.
She’s just weeks away from competing in a major amateur body building competition.
An incredible turnaround
For someone to pull themself out of such a serious darkness with regular self-harm is impressive, but to then dedicate themselves to a sport that prides itself on physical appearance is fascinating.
Wollongong youth psychologist Virginia Williams says it’s an inspiring case.
“Lauren is an amazing young woman and it fills me with pride to hear she’s done that [body building] and the fact she’s sharing her story is amazing for our community,” she says.
“Sometimes something with an equivalent physical intensity is a good fit [for people suffering from self harm].
“I love the fact that what she’s doing now is about enhancing her body and treating it well rather than directly causing injury.”
Lauren agrees that she has probably replaced self-harm with body building, but is keen to point out the difference between the two.
“I’ve never taken it on to that extreme addiction – I’d push myself hard but never because I want to physically hurt myself,” she says.
“The release I get from doing it and seeing the strength I can have in my body and mind is much more of an overpowering release than the self-harm ever was.”
Even being open about being a body builder has had its challenges.
At first she told no one about her new-found sport, hid her meals from work mates to avoid questioning and says it took a while to get the courage to admit to what she was doing.
“I thought body building was unattainable – you look at magazines and think it’s an out-of-reach dream,” she says.
It turns out the dream is very much within reach when you’ve already experienced intense physical and mental pain and have the determination to literally come back from the dead.