Eating Disorders and Mental Illness: This Is My Story
Everyone has a story, and this is mine.
I’ve held off sharing my story for a long time and have thought long and hard about whether or not I was ready. However, I believe that there is no better time than now to share my experience with mental illness. The reality of the situation is that staying inside during the coronavirus pandemic has become significantly harder as the days progress not just for me, but for everyone who shares a similar darkness they are working to overcome. And this is only the beginning.
As I started to think about the possibility of allowing myself to be vulnerable, questions immediately started running through my head.
How would I be perceived? Would people think that I was just sharing my problems for pity? Would anyone even believe me? Would people look at me differently? Will they think I’m weak? Am I ready to have everyone know my deepest, darkest demons?
The more I started having these questions pop into my head, the more it angered me. Who were these ‘they’ I was constantly needing the validation from? Who made up this collective group of ‘them’ I felt would judge me or decided what I should and shouldn’t do? The frustration of my inner dialogue ultimately became my driving force to share my story.
The stigma that is surrounded by mental health is one of the main reasons why I have found my recovery to be as hard as it has been for what feels like forever. I have spent too much time shaming myself and hiding instead of seeking proper help or allowing myself to open up to others in a way that is so desperately needed.
Since the coronavirus, myself along many others are needing to find new ways to connect, find routine, get the help we need, and stay consistent with our mental health recovery regardless of what our story is.
So here it is. My story that I choose to share here, in my tiny corner of the internet. My journey through eating disorder recovery, discovering the true nature of my mental health, surviving trauma, and how I hope to be a part of something bigger than myself.
Why would I share such personal information with a bunch of strangers?
For the longest time, I’ve wanted to feel like I was contributing to this world. I just never really knew how I could do that or what that would look like. This, I believe, is my chance.
- To be a part of a community that breaks down the walls of stigma surrounding mental illness.
- To support others who suffer from these difficult issues and let them know that they are not alone like I thought I was for so long.
- To find connection through this virtual world while attempting to navigate these strange and uncharted times.
- To educate those that don’t know enough about eating disorders, how to support others, or how they themselves can help the movement.
- To hold myself accountable throughout my recovery.
- To speak my truth in hopes that I will no longer have to hide behind my disorders, but rather come out from behind the curtain of shame that masks who I really am.
- To not be afraid or feel like I have to whisper in the discomfort of solitude.
- To provide an honest, safe, supportive, and loving dialogue with others in this community that is significantly bigger than most people realize.
Now, let’s be real. Not all of you who are reading this or saw my Instagram or Facebook post are complete strangers. You are individuals I haven’t seen since high school, haven’t interacted with since college, or I once crossed paths with somewhere in life. You are loved ones I talk to on the regular or coworkers I am used to seeing daily. You are the people I’ve connected with through my dance community or shared incomparable connections with throughout my travels.
You are the ones I am most afraid to share my story with because you are what is tangible and real. You are the ones I’ve come into contact with that share a piece of my life’s timeline with. And for that, I’m choosing to let my vulnerability portray itself as bravery and strength.
My eating disorder is real. My mental health is real. I am real. And so are you.
So, here is the real, honest truth.
In 2017, I set sail with my boyfriend at the time on a trip to explore as much of the world as I possibly could. It was both exciting and romantic. I threw caution to the wind and together we journeyed through Europe and South America. Every minute was absolutely glorious. At least that’s what Instagram says.
By the time we had reached Italy, I found myself in this strange depression. There were mornings I couldn’t get out of bed. I cried endless amount of tears. Yet, here I was in this beautiful country, living a life people only dream of. I say strange, but this wasn’t the first time I had experienced something quite like this before. Many times throughout my life, I had gone through bouts of severe, debilitating, depression. A few days or weeks later, I would come out on the other end like nothing had ever happened, happier and filled with more energy than before. This time seemed different.
We continued on our venture, which brought us into South America, a truly transformational part of my life. We hiked countless miles throughout Patagonia from the southernmost part of the continent in Ushuaia, Argentina up through the magical town of Bariloche. Whether it was the water, a dish that wasn’t clean enough, or the meat we bought from the market, I became incredibly sick. For the next two weeks, I couldn’t keep down a single meal. I found myself around a dinner table of new friends eating raw potatoes while everyone else was chowing down on delicious, homemade burgers. It was pure torture, but eventually my appetite had shrunk so much that I barely even noticed when I didn’t eat.
I finally was able to keep food down once we made our way to Lima, Peru. At this point, even the one belt the two of us shared wouldn’t fit my waist on the smallest notch. None of my clothes fit me so I had to buy new shorts to keep my underwear from hanging out (which was also sagging tremendously because I had completely lost whatever ass I once prided myself on).
My boyfriend didn’t notice the weight I had lost. We were with each other every single day so it seemed like it was a gradual decrease in my size. I never heard a word from anyone about my weight loss aside from my wardrobe because there was never anyone consistently coming in and out of my life to notice the change.
Occasionally I would receive a compliment from someone on social media when I posted a photo saying how fit and great I looked. It definitely was something that fueled the fire within me to keep my figure what it was. I mean, the reality was that I was walking every single day carrying my life on my back. I was constantly hiking for multiple days at a time. I definitely felt like I was stronger, but the truth was, I was at my weakest.
My depression hit an all time low near Colombia. I was done. I couldn’t continue living this life of backpacking. I was finding myself struggling through the tears and the exhaustion of pretending that everything was totally fine. I knew something had to give. Our relationship was on the out, more fragile than ever. I didn’t realize how messed up we were, even when people closest to me were trying to tell me (but that’s another story for another time). I had already lost some of my closest friendships. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why, when I was in such a beautiful place, my entire life seemed to be spiraling out of control, falling apart beneath me.
Returning back to the states was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I didn’t actually want to leave the road, but for some reason I felt something inside telling me to. Talk about reverse culture shock. Someone referred to it as ‘ repatriotization.’ They couldn’t have been more right. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone. I only heard complaints about how people drove on the highway or that a piece of furniture they ordered wasn’t “distressed” enough. In the back of my mind, I could only think about the indigenous people who were run out of their homes so people could use their land for drugs. I could only think about the young children working in conditions that people living Western civilization would deem horrendous. When I returned home, I couldn’t relate to anything people were saying. It was like listening to adults speak in Charlie Brown.
I cried almost every day. It was unbearable the confusion and disconnection I had from everyone I once knew like the back of my hand. I didn’t want to go out and mingle with friends. I drank because it was a social lubricant while I sat quietly and listened. But the scariest part was how people looked at me. I felt like an alien, kicking my eating disorder behaviors into full gear.
The first time I heard the words “ emaciated” my whole world shifted. It was like my heart broke into a million pieces. When I finally had time alone, I looked at myself in the mirror, but I didn’t see anything different. I still saw the girl that weighed too much. I still saw someone who was depressed and simply not good enough for anyone or anything as my relationship had engraved in me. I didn’t know what this person was talking about when she referred to me that way because I was seeing myself through the lens of someone with body dysmorphia. I saw something that wasn’t actually there.
Time went on, and I continued to battle with my behaviors. Again, nothing was done. During this time, I was going through what I thought was a totally normal relationship with my partner (spoiler alert, it wasn’t). But it didn’t matter because I was blinded by my codependency on this person. I decided to buy a car and together we would travel around the United States as we went from coast to coast in search of a place to settle down for a while. We finally decided after four months of driving we would call Denver, Colorado our new home.
Not even a month after settling down, I went into full on eating disorder mode which was more apparent at this point than ever before. I was physically hurting myself in ways I won’t even bother getting into right now. I would become lightheaded when I sat up and would need to sit down before the white in my vision turned to black as I collapsed beneath myself. I was at an all time low.
One day, everything clicked. I’m not sure what it was that allowed this moment of clarity, but it happened, and I am so grateful every day that it did. As I was laying on the couch, I went to scratch my thigh. When I touched it, I could only feel skin and bones. I shot upright and ran into the bathroom. I looked closely at my body for what felt like an eternity. It was the first time I had seen myself for who I really was. I was sick, and I needed help.
That night, I turned to my boyfriend and told him what was going on. He said he knew, but he didn’t want to say anything. (Disclaimer: If you suspect someone of having an eating disorder, staying silent is not the answer.)
This was the day that I had come to terms with the fact that I had an eating disorder and I needed professional help. This was the start of my road through anorexia, binge eating, and other mental illness that came into full fruition after years of remaining idle, sitting on the back burner for the big reveal.
The truth about eating disorders is that they are never the root, rather a brittle, fragile branch that stems from something much deeper, larger, and stronger.
These issues I have dealt with my entire life. They finally had a way to manifest themselves into something tangible, something I could “control.”
Since then, I’ve developed a narrative in my head that says. “I am not enough. I am too messed up for anyone to stick around. I am not worth the fight and no one will ever be able to love the challenges that I come with.” This is a story I have told myself for a long time and a series of events throughout this last year has only reiterated that story. But today, that all changes.
The rest of the story will be a part of why I’m here. To talk about my recovery. To talk about what it really means to have an eating disorder. To talk about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, trauma, and mental health. To finally feel like I’m being authentically me, not this version of myself I’ve been hiding behind. But I’m also here to talk about self acceptance and love. To be an advocate for the body positivity movement not just for others, but to hold myself accountable too.
I need to write about the joy in life that I deserve just as much as the next person.
It has been 1 year and 5 months since I have begun working towards my ED recovery. I would like to say that I am “cured” or have reached the point of ‘conquering’ my disorders, but for anyone who suffers from this knows that this is something that will live with me for the rest of my life. It is not about reaching some end destination. It is learning to manage my depression, quiet the self-deprecating voice in my head, rebuilding and maintaining my relationship with food, my body, and myself. I will forever be on this journey to love myself more and more every single day and allowing myself to fall back in love with life too.
I still have times where I want to cave into behaviors. I still have moments where I want to retreat back into my eating disorder due to the comfort I find in the familiarity. It’s easier to return to a cycle that your brain has been conditioned to live in for well over a decade. I am in no way giving up, and this is just another step I am taking towards moving forward with my life.
Now, I have a team. A support system of various groups and individuals I meet with every single week to continue my road to recovery. Someone recently referred to it as my own personal “Justice League” which they thought was pretty cool, and I do too.
And yes, because of the Coronavirus, my “team” looks a lot different than it used to. For the first two weeks, I stepped away from my support group, therapist, and doctor. How could virtual connection actually help me? I was convinced that it couldn’t work and nothing could be as powerful as human, in-person connection. But I am wrong, deeply and severely wrong in this statement. I am seeing a world out there connecting in ways that we haven’t before, and I want to be a part of it too.
So, again, you ask why I might be sharing such personal information with a bunch of strangers. And again I will tell you it is because this is something bigger than myself.
Eating disorders affect over 70 million people around the world.
I am just a tiny number in the grand scheme of things, and I want, no, I need to do my part in this. Otherwise I am just another human being standing by on the sidelines. All that I’ve gone through will feel like it’s for nothing if I continue to watch my potential float away. All the while, I could be doing something to help support others alongside their journey.
I am not here to share numbers or post photos of what I once looked like. I am not here to shame myself or tell you how difficult everything is. I am here to be a positive light for myself, and for others. I am here to be anti-diet culture and pro-body positivity and self love.
I am here for change.
I may not necessarily go about all of this in the right way, but I guess if you’ve made it this far, then I’m happy to say that we’re in this together. Thanks for listening, and I look forward to having you here with me again.
If you are seeking individual or family support for eating disorders, get in contact with NEDA to start seeking proper care. They also offer a National Helpline at 1–800–931–2237.
Originally published at https://www.laurendow.com on April 20, 2020.