My Personal Tribute to Mental Health Month
I am not a medical expert, and this is not a guide to recovery. Mental illness varies, and requires different approaches by different medical practitioners. My journey may not reflect the needs of someone else’s.
If you suffer from any form of mental illness, and are finding it difficult to cope, get in touch with a medical professional (family doctor, local clinic, helpline, etc.) immediately.
This article is a two part series and may have some triggering language. For those dealing with eating disorders, please be cautious and do not continue should you start having difficulty with anything that is written below.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or is borderline, please see resources below:
National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) – Canada
Toll Free: 1-866-633-4220
*Or google “eating disorder resources canada” for listings of clinics in your area
For Eating Disorder Clinics in the USA, click here and choose your State for contact information.
Just want to talk? Chat anonymously with an active listener at 7cups.
Recent picture of me after splashing water in my face and spending time reminding myself that beauty isn’t just an “outside” thing.
I remember the first time I made myself puke.
It was my second year in university, night time – when my cravings are at their peak – and I went on some kind of binge as I sat alone in my room. I remember the overwhelming feeling of guilt the moment the binge concluded. I had zoned out, not realizing the copious amounts of food I had been shoveling into my body. My brain was flooded with pleasure; I was on a high that numbed the fullness, the rational thought…and then I came to. My stomach was distended, I was physically uncomfortable and mentally unprepared for the flood of shame and self-loathing.
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed for several moments, contemplating the best way to rid myself of all the bad feelings, when I unconsciously made my way to the bathroom. I leaned over the toilet, stuck my finger down my throat, and felt myself slowly becoming empty. What I hadn’t realized then is that this emptiness would spread rapidly, consuming the rest of me – my confidence, my happiness, my health, my overall wellbeing.
After that first purge, I walked back to my room, grinning. I was quite pleased with myself. I even took out one of my journals, and across the top of a page, wrote, “Bulimia Diaries”, as if I had just discovered something worth documenting. I don’t think at this time I took it too seriously. I hadn’t meant for it to go spiraling, sending me flailing uncontrollably into anxiety, obsession and severe self-deprecation.
How did it start? My therapist would tell me that perhaps it was a combination of events in my life – even ones I thought were harmless at the time. My five year relationship with a bodybuilder who, at one point told me flat out, that he wanted a woman who was “120 lbs with hair down to her ass,” may have played a role in my decline. The cherry on top of a ticking time bomb. Especially considering I have never been 120 lbs post-puberty.
Either way, I have always been susceptible to people’s opinions of me. Especially those of whom I love. I don’t like to say I was weak, even if there were many days I would beat myself up for, not only having stayed, but having let it get as far as it did. I understand that I had control over my life then, as much as I have control over my life now. The difference? Self-efficacy, self-love. Relationships are only a sum of what each party brings into them. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking people will change. Sometimes we make the even bigger mistake of putting the responsibility of our own self-worth in others’ hands.
This man didn’t have a high libido, so I concluded it was because he wasn’t attracted to me. He wasn’t very affection, so I concluded that it was because he wasn’t attracted to me. He didn’t want me to go to parties or bars with him, and I concluded that it was because he wasn’t attracted to me – in fact, I thought he was straight up embarrassed. So, my response to all of this? Refine. Refine. Refine. Here is a picture of me during this time, to put into perspective the body dysmorphia I was dealing with…
Me posing at a friend’s house, showing off my new hip tattoo. I believe I was 22 years old here.
I joined a gym. Worked out every day. Barely ate during the week, then drank copious amounts of alcohol on the weekend. I remember one night in particular, I had a few friends visit me at the university for a concert. I fasted the whole day, knowing very well I’d be drinking that night. Result: my friend holding my hair back as I puked my brains out, crying, and, of course, hating the pounding and voices in my head.
In retrospect I recognize the reality of that situation. This man was as insecure as I was, he just had his own way of coping. One night between one of our many break ups, he admitted: “I feel inferior to you.” I could have let those five words save my life, but at that point I was so deep into my illness, I just let them fly on past me. I don’t’ blame him, even if it seems like I’ve done so this far. The problem started within me! I believed that the way people treated me was a reflection of my value.
I sympathize with him now. We all have our demons, our walls, our triggers. The brief and few moments I think about that time of my life, I recognize the boy that was hiding beneath the muscle. The façade. My insecurities lead me to internal hostility (self-loathing); his insecurities lead him to external hostility (bullying). I hope for him that one day, if not already, he can learn to release that ego and love himself and others for what they are, and not what he thinks he or they should be.
So, after the demise of that relationship, how did I get back on my feet? Please, read on.
For anyone who is struggling with mental illness of any kind, body image or confidence in any way, first let me tell you:
- You are not alone! Ever!
- You are gold, just the way you are
- Always remember:
Here are the first 3 steps I took in finding myself again:
I told someone I trusted (and who has my best interest at heart)
I’ll never forget that initial conversation I had with my mom. We were driving home one evening, and nonchalantly I had mentioned that I “occasionally” make myself vomit in order to feel better. If she was alarmed, scared or shocked, she never let on. She simply said to me, “That isn’t healthy. Let’s do something about it together.”
My mother told my immediate family – my two sisters, brother and father. I was not angry, I understood why she needed to do it, especially since we all lived together. They needed to be aware of my behavior in order to keep an eye on me, and accommodate me when I was hitting lows. They also began to recognize suspicious behavior that they hadn’t noticed prior, which made it difficult for me to carry out the behavioral aspects of the illness – especially purging.
Not only was my family hyper-aware and supportive of me, but knowing that they knew suddenly made me realize how deeply my suffering was affecting them! This probably hurt more than anything. I realized I wasn’t alone in that dark place anymore, they were suddenly there with me. I was just lucky enough that they brought candles – maybe even a blow torch – to help guide me back out. They were relentless in my recovery. They were there for me, held me, spoke to me, cried with me, encouraged me…suddenly coping seemed to get easier. Talking openly about the illness replaced actually giving in to it. If I felt the urge to get rid of what I had consumed, I said it, and they sat with me long enough for it to pass.
“Often the deepest pain empowers you to grow into your highest self.”
I got professional help
Having the support of your family and friends is key, but sometimes, and by no fault of anyone, they can only provide so much. Eating disorders, or any mental illness, can be tricky to handle because sometimes what people think is the right thing to say or do, can profoundly backfire. For example, there were several days my family had to watch me binge without telling me to stop eating because they knew that being “told” what I can/can’t eat was a factor in the development of my disorder in the first place. Instead, they would calmly ask how I’m feeling during and after, and keep close to me in case I began to have the impulse to purge.
After revealing my bulimia to my mother, we were almost immediately in touch with my family doctor. Now, I can’t speak for the process in other provinces/countries (this occurred in Ontario, Canada), but my family doctor had to complete a profile for me in order to get me into a local outpatient program. For those of you who don’t know what an “outpatient program” is, it’s when a patient visits a hospital/clinic, but is not required to stay overnight or for an extended period of time without leaving.
This process took time; however, I was fortunate enough to have a doctor who committed to seeing me on a regular basis until I was accepted into the program. The program was broken into three parts:
- Nutritionist appointments
- “Group” – a group of patients would attend talks on body image, discuss issues and share experiences
How did this help me?
Therapy, of course, helped break down triggers, problem areas, and ways to cope/improve. Some things I was required to do:
- Keep a food log for a designated period of time in which the therapist/nutritionist would read at every session. If you have or are susceptible to the development of mental illnesses, only do this under the supervision of professionals, as keeping a food log is not considered “normal eating behavior.” As well, it may be a trigger point for some people.
- Weigh myself only during my appointments, which were bi-weekly or, maximum, per month (I never did this on my own, again, as it was a trigger).
- Confront underlying issues I had with myself or others, in order to change the story in my head (includes talking about the past, present and future, setting goals and being realistic with oneself).
The nutritionist reassured me that what I had been defining as a “binge,” actually wasn’t. She assisted in eliminating the guilt around food, as well as educating me regarding what my body needs in order to function properly, and the negative affects of not eating. She, and a close friend who is also a registered dietician, taught me about “mindful eating.” Eventually I was able to identify my hunger cues, and naturally stop eating when I was full.
Group, although I only attended once, provided me a deeper sense of acceptance. Seeing others at different stages in their own recovery reminded me that pain is not exclusive. I am also a people person, so being able to share stories with others – especially those who understood first hand – was humbling. Group also assisted in reverting false perceptions of beauty I had created for myself.
Professional help is an integral part of recovery from an eating disorder. At first it seemed scary, but knowing I had a professional team behind me, encouraging me to get better – and giving me permission to take back my power – was something I will never forget!
I eliminated all that disempowered
This may be one of the most difficult tasks for anyone, at any stage in life – but I encourage it, regardless if you’re struggling with mental illness or not. Cleaning out life’s closet, so to speak, is one of the most liberating things you can do for yourself.
I started by distancing myself from people who had negative influences on me, whether it included people I would drink or do drugs with, people who made me feel anxious or bad about myself, or simply people who had similar self-deprecating habits that would feed mine or vice versa (such as binging, obsession with being skinny, etc.). Any relationship that is remotely toxic, draining or reinforcing of the negative feelings/bad habits should go.
Of course, I understand that removing people from your life can be difficult. Instead of thinking, “I can never be friends with them again,” be honest! Tell them that you won’t be in contact for a while because you are going through a recovery process, and need this time for you. If they don’t understand, or try to pressure you in ways, it reinforces that the distance is needed. You want people in your life that will support you and look out for your best interests, even if that means not being a part of the process.
After that, I moved on to more obvious things: substances. No more alcohol. No more weed. Clean. Sober. These substances are depressants. They literally do to your body the exact opposite of what you need while going through recovery! It’s as simple as that. Of course, if you have an addiction, get professional help for that as well. Talk to your doctor, go to AA meetings, do what you have to in order to get on your feet.
I think it’s important to note here, that for me, I never put restrictions on food. Because my illness was profoundly engrained in “eating”, I had spent years doing this, and it only created a vicious cycle of binging-purging, shame and guilt. So, food, although I did take other measures (I’ll speak about in a minute), was never off the table for me.
Some other small things I did was:
I stayed creative. I am also a fiction writer, so this was a major piece in my recovery. In fact, I ended up writing a book during this time.
I stopped listening to music that took me into a “sad” or “depressive” state. This was very hard for me, as music is the love of my life! But I realized that listening to Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” on repeat, was only pushing me further into the dark.
I stopped listening to degrading music. For example, lyrics like “You look so much cuter with something in your mouth,” only made me angry about being a female and having the body I had. It also triggered my anxiety about men and sex (whole other topic!)
I stopped all social media. It may seem extreme, but social media had become a trigger for my anxiety. Social media is known to cause jealousy. Not only do you have access to, you know, ex-boyfriends, but also the new women they are seeing. In addition to that, social media smothers you in people’s highlight reels! And you know that quote, “Our biggest problem is we compare our ‘behind the scenes’ to other people’s ‘highlight reels’”? Ya, that’s exactly what I was doing, and it was breaking down any grain of self-esteem I had left.
I stopped school. I quit my job. Okay, okay, I get that this is not possible for some people. I had been living with my parents during the time of my recovery, and they understood that any extra stress/pressure was dangerous for me at that time, and could potentially work as a trigger for unhealthy behavior. My suggestion for people who cannot quit school/work:
- School: Take on a lighter study load. If it takes you longer to graduate, who cares? If you don’t have your health, that degree isn’t going to matter anyway. Speak to your academic advisor for options.
- Work: Talk to your HR Department. That’s what they’re there for! Depending on what you do, they can also lighten the load, or perhaps give you a leave of absence/more days off, etc.
I stopped dieting. I ended the rules and I let go of numbers. I let go of the “goal weight”; I stopped buying anything that supported diet culture; I stopped weighing myself and taking measurements; stopped counting calories, and “making up” for the extra food I consumed. Instead, I paid attention to how my body reacted to certain products, and naturally swayed from items that left me feeling lethargic or sick. I paid attention to how I felt in my clothes. If something felt too tight, instead of obsessing with the “weight I needed to lose!”, I went shopping. I started listening for hunger cues. I gave into cravings guiltlessly. And if I had a bad day (obsessions, guilt, shame), I would reflect back on it and try to find what may have triggered me. From there, I’d take the necessary steps to rewrite the story that was in my head.
” The wound is the place the light enters you.” – Rumi
Next week I’ll discuss the last three steps I took towards my recovery, including some practices I still do today.
Fuck-well, my friends & stay positive.