When scrolling through my Facebook timeline one is bound to find stories about my experience with mental illness amidst all the other life updates. Some people wonder why I choose to be so open, thinking I would like to keep that information private.
However, keeping what I was going through to myself is what led me to some scary places. I haven’t always been so open about my experiences, mostly due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. But I have found my voice and my power in sharing my story.
It all started when depression hit my senior year of high school. Though it was hard in high school, it really began to take a toll on me during my freshman year of college. I felt completely alone and this made it easier for me to isolate, which in turn fed my depression. I was too afraid to admit to anyone I was struggling for fear I would be met with judgment. However, things escalated when I could no longer cope the same way I had before. I began to isolate myself, began self-harming and engaging in disordered eating behaviors.
Eventually, going to class became too much and I felt like I was spiraling out of control. At this point, I didn’t think I deserved to eat and my restricting intensified. My mind was telling me I was worthless and had nothing to contribute to the world. I felt unworthy of the love I received from those who cared about me. I thought all I did was bring bad things to the people I loved most. But I still couldn’t tell them about these thoughts swirling around in my head.
With encouragement from my friend Juliette, who I knew cared about me, I sought out a therapist. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. While I knew I had an eating disorder and had been formally diagnosed, I still could not accept it. I realized I was facing hard statistics, like the fact 5 to 20 percent of people die from this completely treatable disorder. Facts like this shook me because I was already experiencing physical complications characteristic of an eating disorder.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.
I was closely monitored by physicians because I had a low heart rate (if it had fallen any more they would have had to hospitalize me). Again with the support of Juliette, I entered a partial hospitalization program. I was terrified to go and wanted to believe I didn’t need this level of help. Juliette stayed with me the night before my first day and walked me to the door of the program I would spend the next five months in. I think she wasn’t sure I’d actually go if I was left alone.
My first day I was afraid to talk to anyone and sat in the corner doodling during breaks. A running joke among patients was if a new person knew where the bathroom was by the end of their first day they were doing well. So by everyone else’s standards my first day was a success. I quickly became lovingly referred to as “corner girl” because I always claimed the corner seat in every room. This nickname helped break the ice and I was able to build friendships with other patients in the program after recognizing we all shared a similar struggle. I felt it was safe to confide in them.
In the program I met Shayna who also struggled with an eating disorder. Her friendship provided me with someone to relate to about what I was going through. We supported each other through our recovery processes — eating meals together, going grocery shopping and lending an ear on the harder days.
After being in the program for a while, I found I still could not say the words “eating disorder” or “anorexia,” even though I was working towards recovery every day. When talking about my eating disorder I would vaguely call it my “food issues” or not label it at all.
Even after being in the program for months, I still hadn’t told my parents anything. I finally decided to call them and let them know what I had been going through. My voice was shaking but I finally blurted out the words: “I have an eating disorder and have been in treatment for a few months.”
What happened next contradicted all my worst fears. My parents said they loved me and were so proud of me for seeking the help I needed. I had expected rejection but was met with love and understanding.
Through my recovery process I came to own my story. I was finally able to admit to myself and others I had anorexia. When I finally said “I have anorexia” out loud, the words felt funny in my mouth and caught at the back of my throat, but the moment I said it I became free of my eating disorder’s control over me. My denial had ended. Though it scared me, I began to be more open about my experience and spoke on a panel about eating disorders. Anorexia no longer ran my life.
Though my friends didn’t always say or do the most helpful things for my recovery (like standing outside the bathroom crying or questioning if/how much I’d eaten) I knew they cared because they were trying. I’d much rather them try and stumble along the way than stay silent. The silence I experienced from others made me feel alone. Juliette and Shayna were my primary supports and we all learned along the way what kind of support I needed. Juliette guarded my scale for me, kept me accountable and challenged my bad body image thoughts by telling me to “say something nice about myself” whenever I said something negative about my body. Shayna helped me plan my meals and navigate the grocery store. You could often find us in the toilet paper aisle — by far the safest area of a grocery store because there is nothing triggering there. They were great support because they weren’t afraid to ask what I needed. Even though I didn’t always know what I needed, them asking reaffirmed to me they were there for me.
A big part of my recovery has been breaking the silence around mental illness because one in four college students will face a mental health challenge. This means 75 percent of us have a friend who is struggling and needs our support. I choose to speak about my experience with an eating disorder because the conversation is so frequently avoided when many mental health issues are completely treatable. The way we respond to someone who has shared with us they are struggling could affect how they seek treatment for the rest of their life. Don’t be afraid to say the wrong thing — you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be there.
I share my experience with anorexia for the benefit of others but also for myself. I want others to know they do not struggle alone as well as educate those around them so they can be supportive during recovery. It has been a tremendous blessing to be able to share my story as it has helped me heal.
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