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When I Learned to Stop Minimizing the Mental Health Struggles of Others

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In my experience, it seems like having a mental illness can do one of two things. You might become a more gentle and supportive person who uses their experiences to be more understanding or you might become harsher and resentful that others have not felt your pain or lived through your trauma. You can either grow or you can pull away.

I refuse to let depression, anxiety and anorexia turn me into a person I don’t want to be. For a long time, I let it shape how I treated others. I was spiteful. I was angry. I was harsh. My friends had never been through the things I had been through. They all had things so easy. Their families were together, they didn’t struggle the same ways I did. They had no concept of mental illness aside from what they saw me go through. I was lost. What did I do to deserve these things? Why did I pull the short straw? When I heard about the struggles of others, I minimized them because they weren’t as bad as mine, as though I was somehow the judge of that.

One day I woke up tired of being that person. I realized it was not my experiences, my illnesses or my past that made me act this way. It was me.

I realized I don’t want to take part in the “sadness Olympics,” where jaded people gather to measure people’s struggle and pain as though they are the authority on it. Just because you have survived terrible things doesn’t make other people’s pain less valid. It’s impossible to compare. Yes, I have an anxiety disorder, but it doesn’t mean my friend isn’t incredibly nervous for her exam. Yes, I’ve been through anorexia, but it doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t struggle with his body image. Yes, I have depression but it doesn’t mean someone else isn’t allowed to be sad or empty or upset. We all have different tolerance levels for pain, including emotional pain.

Comparing your struggles is like comparing sleep. You slept three hours last night and your friend slept five. She got more sleep than you, yet you’re both tired. You can’t determine who’s more tired based off the hours of sleep you both got, because it depends on the person. Bottom line is both of you are tired. You just can’t compare. The same thing goes for sadness, stress, anger.

It can be so frustrating to listen to people complain about problems you deem silly or small. You wish your problems were as minor as that. Yet, problems are problems. In their lives, these things might be major. Something small to you could be the worst thing someone else has ever gone through. We all deserve support.

The idea that not all problems are deserving of attention stops people from seeking treatment. I’ve had countless people talk to me saying things like, “I don’t have an eating disorder and it’s not as bad as things were for you but…” and go on to express something valid and deserving of help. We don’t need to qualify our struggles by saying they aren’t as bad as the struggles of others. Struggles are struggles. It doesn’t matter if someone has had it “worse.”

Do not let illness rob you of your sweetness. Do not let the world take away your soft heart and leave you hardened. Do no let yourself become jaded and cynical and hateful.

Use your pain. Use it to grow. Use it to change. Use it to adapt. Use it to make art. Use it to help people. Use it to heal people. Use it. Use it. Use it.

If you don’t let your pain push you forward, it will hold you back.
You can’t avoid pain. You can’t avoid the terrible pieces of your illness. You can’t control the fact you have a mental illness. But you can control how it shapes you. You can control how you treat others in turn.

My battles with mental Illness have made me a better person. I’m kinder now. I’m more supportive. I’m more helpful, more understanding, a better friend. I’m a better version of myself. Hard times change you, but I decided to make it be for the better.

When it comes to mental illness, you don’t choose it — it chooses you. You do get to choose what you do with it. Choose to grow, rather than to pull away. Choose to be gentle and supportive rather than harsh.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Why I Started Being Vocal About My Anorexia

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“Look at how skinny she is,” I heard a woman say in Starbucks, referring to a young lady in line. “She has to be anorexic.”

Her friend turned toward her, her face displaying confusion and pity. “I just don’t get why they don’t just eat,” she said. They both looked at each other, shrugged, and continued onto another conversation.

This is one of many conversations and comments I have heard regarding the eating disorder that is anorexia nervosa. More often than not, people are confused as to why someone would deny themselves the pleasure of eating food or how they could possibly enjoy starving. I wanted so desperately to jump into their conversation and explain to them just how complex this eating disorder is. I wanted to explain to them that anorexia is filled with “rules” that do not make sense to someone that is not struggling, but to someone with anorexia, it is logical. I wanted to explain to them that anorexia has a loud internal voice that can consume someone’s rational self. I wanted them to leave Starbucks knowing more about anorexia than when they entered.

But I bit my tongue, got my grande black coffee and went about my day.

Eating disorders, and in my experience, specifically anorexia nervosa, are often misunderstood. The amount of hurtful comments or incorrect information I have heard about the topic is enough to write several books. Oftentimes, I would get fed up and burst. I would rant about how hurtful someone’s comments about the illness were or I would inform them that to “just eat” isn’t as easy as it sounds. For me, this outburst of information was immediately followed by regret. There was always someone that would ask: “What makes you think you know so much?” I would dance around the subject of my struggles with the illness like a world-class ballerina and eventually, the subject would be dropped.

Before I went into treatment, I took a vow of silence when it came to being vocal about my struggles. I always told myself that my comments weren’t needed and that people did not care about how I was actually doing. So, I bit my tongue and silently battled with my eating disorder. The truth is, I did not want to be known as “that anorexic girl,” and didn’t want my eating disorder to be the topic of conversation when I left the room. I didn’t want to be pitied, I didn’t want any attention brought to me. I preferred to be invisible.

I struggled with anorexia for three years prior to being medically diagnosed in November 2014. A year later, I entered treatment the day after Christmas. Through the month and a half of treatment, I slowly began to realize that I am not meant to be invisible. My voice matters and my own struggles with this disease could help someone else. I left treatment with the motivation to inspire others. I pushed my feelings of wanting to be invisible aside and answered honestly when people asked where I went for a month and a half. No more dancing around the subject — I was putting a voice to my struggles.

Another hospitalization later, I am still continuing to remind myself that being visible is OK. I do not pretend that I am always doing OK in this recovery process, because some days I am not. Recovery is an option that I have to choose every morning, every hour, every meal. And sometimes, recovery looks like a daunting mountain that I am too tired to climb, so I do not choose it. But, I know that I can always start again tomorrow. Being vocal about my struggles is not always easy. It can get uncomfortable and awkward, but I also know that hiding in the shadows can only get you so far. If I can show someone that recovery is within reach or inform someone about how multilayered anorexia is, then all the uncomfortable feelings were worth it.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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When Loved Ones Hope Recovery Will Make You 'Like You Used to Be'

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My junior year of high school, I earned a nickname on the cross-country team: Little ray of sunshine. “You’re so optimistic all the time!” my teammates would say. “How is it so easy for you to be happy?”

Descriptions like this weren’t novel for me. According to my parents, from the moment I learned to speak, “joy” was my default mode. I’d toddle around noticing the world, naming things with indiscriminate delight. “Squirrel!” I’d cry. “Dirt! Bagel! Sidewalk!”

“That’s Emily,” people would say. “Radiant. Curious. Bubbling with joy.”

I think about this most Tuesdays while I sit in the waiting room of Yale Student Health. I wonder how many of these adjectives still apply. There are plenty of things to notice here: the hum of the water machine, the typos on the “Safe Sex” poster, the smell of disinfectant so strong it makes you forget Earth has things like grass and dirt and squirrels. I stopped noticing months ago. Now, I nod to the receptionist, who knows me by name. I sit. I wait. I’m here to relearn one of life’s basics: how to eat.

I’m in recovery from anorexia. A year and a half into treatment, I’m still getting used to saying this phrase. I’m ashamed of how small and selfish it makes me seem. Malnutrition causes half of worldwide deaths in children under five. Yet many mornings, I look in the mirror and can’t stand my body. I need a team of therapists and doctors and nutritionists to help make myself eat.

Anyone who has faced an eating disorder has heard a version of this phrase: “to recover from anorexia, I must learn to accept myself.” But here’s the problem. Anorexia threatens everything I’ve always claimed as my identity. I’m strong: I’ve climbed mountains, survived salmonella in rural East Africa and experienced the daily trials of my brother’s disability alongside him. I have dreams: to fight climate change, to write, to love, to have children. I am selfless and caring and kind. This Emily does not belong in a nutritionist’s waiting room. This self is so much larger than an eating disorder. Yet here I sit. Who am I?

“I just want you to be happy and healthy,” my parents have said. “Like you used to be.”

This comment comes from good intentions. They’ve watched this illness ravage their daughter for years, stripping away body and spirit. They want to remind me there was life before anorexia—I once was joyful and this capacity still lives inside me. But this comment makes me feel trapped. It assumes a dichotomy. The “real” Emily is happy. Anorexia is a false self, a gross distortion, an enemy to be eradicated. The truth is, I’m no longer two-years-old. I’m a 1,000 times more complex. Sometimes, I’m happy. Other times, I’m sad or anxious or angry or depressed. Isn’t there room inside “Emily” for all of these things?

Recently, I decided to try an experiment. I began to be honest— to let others hear about my struggles and see me as human. Often, honesty brings huge relief. Saying “anorexia” out loud diminishes the feeling of guilt and secrecy and isolation. But other times, honesty makes me feel ashamed. The word “anorexia” hangs like an icicle in conversation, fragile and cold and untouchable, making me into a person who is weak or selfish or sick. Many times, honesty is a gateway to someone else’s vulnerability.

“I’ve struggled with body image my whole life, but I’ve never felt comfortable talking about it!” my friend confessed. A few rare times, honesty brings exactly what I need to hear. “This is not your fault. This illness does not define you. You are still Emily.”

To recover from anorexia, I must learn to accept the whole of me. Not just the parts I like. Not just the parts that are happy. Recovery does mean only reconnecting with the Emily who noticed and loved the world. This Emily is still alive and real. My parent’s comment is an invitation to remember her. But letting go of anorexia doesn’t mean agreeing life will always match the untainted joy of childhood. Sometimes, I’m sad. Sometimes, I’m angry. All the time, I’m complex. This Emily is equally real. This Emily is human. No part of our self is more right or wrong or true than any other.

When I remember this, I feel less trapped. I feel like there’s a way forward in which health and complexity can go hand in hand. Then, the real work can begin: discovering how all of these parts of me fit into a whole.

Sometimes, a person hears about my struggles in recovery—weekly weight checks and meal plans and heart problems and anxiety about my body. “I never would have guessed. You’re still so happy all the time!” they say. I don’t know how to reply. My point was to convince you I’m not a little ray of sunshine. Instead, you seem to think I shine brighter because of my struggles. Do I?

Happiness isn’t a given. It’s a choice I make daily, a choice I face at every meal. Many times, I win. Other times, I don’t. Everyone faces his or her own version of this choice. Is my happiness more profound because of its contrast with my struggle? Maybe. Does this make my illness justified somehow, a lesson in strength and perseverance? No. It’s not that simple. But questions like these help me think—about strength, about resilience, about what it means to hold pain and joy simultaneously and embrace them as two sides of one whole. They help the illness take its place—a small part in this person I am proud to be.

Recently, my mom texted me: “Your road has been hard. You have permission to be present to the pain and to tell this story. Someday, you’ll tell the story not only of how hard it has been, but also how you got through. So take notice. Notice each choice. Notice each joy. Notice what made the difference. There’s room for it all.”

I’m still trying to figure out how to embrace the pieces of me and make a whole. I do this work every day. When I walk out of Yale Student Health, I go to class. I read poems. I sing in symphonies. I identify new coral species under a microscope. I run. I crunch my boots on fall leaves, notice squirrels and laugh with delight. This looks a lot like being happy. This is a different kind of “happy” than the little ray of sunshine or the two-year-old who named and noticed the world. This joy is new and honest and multilayered and real, like I am. This joy is worth it.

Next Tuesday, I’ll be back in the waiting room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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People Question My Diagnosis Because I Don't Look How a Person With Anorexia 'Should'

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Last month, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where I was diagnosed with anorexia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Now PTSD was no surprise, as I’ve struggled with it for several years. Anorexia however, caught me off guard.

How could it be a surprise? I never considered myself “sick enough” for an actual diagnosis. I’ve had problems with body image, self esteem, restricting, bingeing, purging and occasional compulsive over-exercising, sure. But it never seemed that serious to me. That is, until I was sat down and told, “they’ve diagnosed you with anorexia.”

Afterwards, I shared with one of the other patients about my diagnosis. Her response was “no you’re not. I’ve seen you eat before.” She meant to comfort me by telling me they were wrong and show me proof of why I couldn’t be anorexic. I know she meant no harm. Anorexia is terrifying. She was trying to help ease my anxiety.

Others though, respond in confusion by saying, “but I’ve seen you eat” or by looking at my body with disbelief.

But what they don’t see is how hard it is for me to eat breakfast in the morning because eating feels like giving up. They don’t see the anxious, terrified thoughts screaming at me to stop eating because I fear anything I eat will make me fatter. They don’t see me bingeing after not eating and then hating myself for it. They don’t see me purging in the bathroom at work, at home or in restaurants. They can’t see that being pale, shaking and about to pass out is easier for me than eating at times. They don’t see me standing in front of the mirror pinching, squeezing and scratching as I try to claw the excess fat from my sides. They didn’t see me when I would weigh myself to decide if I got to eat that day or not.

You may have seen me eat. You can see I am overweight. But what you don’t see is the battle between my disorder and my recovery. Please try to understand. I may not look “dangerously thin,” — I may not even look sick to you — but I am struggling.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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4 Ways I Deal With Food Sensitivities as Someone in Eating Disorder Recovery

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

I’ve been in recovery from an eating disorder for five years now and from my experience, the first months and years are the hardest. It is difficult to learn to live again without the disordered voice in your head and become comfortable in your own skin. Recovery is a process with highs and lows. Easier days and harder days. I’ve had my share of both. My recovery has been put to the test.

My first true test came when my recovery was still young and fragile and was something that still needed to be protected. Around the time of my first anniversary of being discharged from inpatient hospitalization for anorexia, I was diagnosed with severe lactose intolerance. It was to the point that no Lactaid pills allowed me to still savor a slice of pizza or ice cream on a hot summer’s day.

Having to remove a food group from my diet could have been disastrous for my recovery. I worked hard to ensure this wasn’t the case. Little did I know in the coming years there would only be more to follow.

A diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) led to the removal of beans, fried foods and high FODMAP fruits and vegetables. Two years later, blood work showed I had celiac disease and with this, gluten went out the window. Fast forward two more years and an mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) diagnosis forced me to say goodbye to high histamine foods which run the gamut from bananas to spinach to chocolate.

I now eat a vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, low histamine diet. If it sounds highly restricted, that’s because it is. Not by choice, but by bodily limitations. And like it or not, I’ve had to learn to live with it. I’ve learned how to take care of my physical health, but also not forget about my mental health in the process. Because to ignore the echoes and the memories of the disorder from all those years ago would be to leave a gaping hole for ED to fill. And I have no doubt he wouldn’t ignore the opportunity to return to power.

For me, the disorder was in many ways, an addiction. And like any other addiction, I must be wary of temptation. It’s too easy to become a habit. Only through near constant vigilance have I remained the victor of the battle and I can’t let my guard down now.

So how have I adjusted to my body’s new “normal” without providing a new target for the disorder’s enjoyment?

Here are four ways I deal with limiting food sensitivities as someone with a history of anorexia:

1. Keep to My Schedule

One of my disordered behaviors was skipping meals. Now, even years into my recovery, I always eat every meal. No matter what. Even if I sleep late, I don’t skip meals. Engaging in this behavior just brings back bodily memories of the disorder and it is too easy to fall back into the pattern and not view it as an issue. Part of the possibility of reawakening the disorder has nothing to do with what I am able to eat, but rather when I am eating.

2. One Food Out, One Food In

Continuously removing food groups from my diet without adding anything new would eventually leave me with almost nothing. And being forced to eat the same foods day after day is not only boring, but it would fool my mind and body into becoming comfortable in a box.

This is why I make a concerted effort to continue to expand my horizons within my dietary restrictions. For each food I must remove, I find a new one to add. I browse the aisles of health food stores and am introduced to a whole host of new items like quinoa, seitan and kale. Much of my diet is made up of foods labeled “hipster,” but I enjoy them for their superfood power, not fad status.

It’s also important to note in the past decade, the food industry has come a long way in finding options for making favorite foods allergen free. My local supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to gluten free and dairy free options. Thankfully, I haven’t had to give up french toast, pizza or even mac and cheese, all of which have a modification to accommodate those with food sensitivities. Often, I don’t have to eliminate foods, just replace them.

3. Changing My Perspective

“You can’t eat that!” This was a constant refrain during the years I fought the disorder and a phrase ED would often whisper in my ear. A reminder I wasn’t good enough or skinny enough to eat any number of things. There were entire food groups “off limits” to me.

In reality, it wasn’t a matter of being unable, but rather, unwilling. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eat a certain food, I simply wouldn’t.

During my recovery, it was important to change my mind’s perception when it came to food. This is even more true when it comes to the food I now exclude from my diet. It’s crucial I don’t return to the habit of categorizing foods by what I “can” and “can’t” eat. It’s important I remind myself I am not being pressured into eliminating foods. I choose not to eat a food because of my body’s physical ability to digest it and not as a result of disordered thinking.

No longer do I think, “I can’t eat that.” Instead, I remind myself since my body cannot tolerate it, “I don’t eat that.”

4. Indulge

A category of food that caused me particular trouble and induced true fear was dessert. The disorder had caused me to become so obsessive about eating healthy and I compulsively avoided any foods that could be considered a “sweet” or “junk.” At my graduation party, I passed up a slice of cake. When we commemorated back to school, I refused the celebratory ice cream sundaes. For years, I refused to treat myself.

Through recovery, I have learned the importance of pampering myself. And so I do. Although “typical” cakes, cookies and the like contain dairy and gluten, I find the allergen-free versions just as satisfying.

Indulging and not berating myself for it later is like giving a continuous middle finger to my eating disorder. It is a reminder being healthy doesn’t mean depriving yourself and multiple food sensitivities won’t trick me into falling back into this trap.

I fought long and hard to be deeply rooted in recovery. It is not a position I would abdicate lightly. When my fight with ED and the emotional war with food were followed by my body’s physical revolt against the very substances that sustain me, I wasn’t going to give in.
Learning to live with multiple food sensitivities was a steep learning curve, but despite my history with an eating disorder, I am not fated to repeat history.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Learning to Love My 'Recovery Body' in Anorexia Recovery

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

I recently passed my year mark of getting admitted to treatment for the last time and accepting my new body is probably the hardest part about recovery. Because I had been in my eating disorder for a long time, I got stretch marks that seemed to appear overnight, cellulite I previously thought was something only older people got and fat in places that honestly made me cry. I struggled with with these new additions for quite a while and still do.

I still have good and bad days and when I need a pick me up, I listen to Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” and Fergie’s “Fergalicious.” These songs inspire confidence and borrowing theirs even just for three minutes helps me remember why I chose recovery.

Although I would love to get rid of my cellulite, if it means relapsing into my eating disorder and risking my life, I would take my cellulite any day. I can walk and use the bathroom without someone watching or holding me. I didn’t just gain weight, I gained freedom and life. I am not ashamed that my body is beautiful and healthy now. My stretch marks are more beautiful than my sick body. Because of my round cheeks, my smile isn’t fake anymore and it’s a lot brighter too. My body’s natural fat is padding to my body so I can sit and lay down comfortably instead of being in pain while trying to relax. With every ounce I gained, I gained another day and another piece of me. I can now lift up my arms long enough to be called on by a teacher and because of this I am able to ask questions and speak my mind. When I hear the negative thoughts in my head and I start comparing myself to others, I remember others are doing the same to me. We live in a world where perfection is strived for yet it doesn’t exist. I have laughed, loved and lived more in this body than I ever had in my other one and I would never trade that to be “perfect.”

Some days I won’t accept my body and I will hide, but it doesn’t mean I will give up because I know I am beautiful even with all my “flaws.” My new body is a flag full of memories of me and I wouldn’t do anything to change that. I love my new body.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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