It all began when I was about 8 years old. I had always been a bit of an anxious child, but it had never been a serious issue. However, it seemed like one day I was suddenly slapped across the face with unbearable anxiety. My childhood up to that point had been pretty average: I had supportive and loving parents, friends and had managed to stay out of trouble for the most part. I was always eager to please those around me and I craved attention. Then things changed. A neighbor boy had made some sexual innuendos that caused me to become very confused about whom I could trust. I went home crying to my mom and reported the scenario but nothing she said was able to calm my anxiety. After several days of constant worrying and obsessive thoughts, I went to the doctor who assured my mom and I that this would all just go away, that it was only a stage.
Only it didn’t. The anxiety progressed, growing in intensity with each passing day. I desperately wanted to find relief from this stress and paralyzing fear but I couldn’t turn my mind onto anything else. Now, not only was I dealing with anxiety, but also OCD. I had obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors like hand washing. My hands would crack and bleed after scrubbing them hard with soap and water for hours on end. The hand washing gave me some sense of relief as it was a distraction from the thoughts that would otherwise result in panic attacks if I had to actually face them. Although the hand washing was a coping method that seemed to help in some regards, it was also debilitating. I refused to go to friends’ houses, art class, or outside because I might get my hands dirty.
The following years were a mess of psychiatric hospital stays, therapists, psychiatrists, and medications. There was relief at some points but it never lasted all that long. With all the anxiety I felt, and with no clear answer on how to fix it, depression took hold of me. This cycle of anxiety causing depression, and the depression causing even more anxiety felt as if it was unending and uncontrollable. There was no way to possibly interrupt and escape from it. I was also incredibly lonely and felt like a total outcast amongst my classmates. I didn’t know how to fit in and was tremendously self-conscious. At some point, the depression heightened and I became suicidal. More than wanting to die though, my suicide attempts were really a cry for help, an attempt to let the world know how much I was struggling and that I couldn’t take it any longer.
After spending 6 months in a residential center and finally finding a medication that seemed to help, my middle school years were manageable although the underlying anxiety, depression and self-consciousness were still there. However, high school was another rocky start and I tried to play off that things were fine. I found it difficult to connect with the other students and felt that no one liked me. At home, I was feeling the pressure to live up to the athletic and scholarly achievements of my older siblings. I believed I needed to be perfect in order for others to like me, to have friends, for my parents to love me and ultimately to be happy.
I sought perfection in every way I could. I wanted to be the best dancer, the brightest student, the skinniest girl. As I pressured myself to be the best, the more obsessive and anxious I became. I had anxiety attacks before dance practice, spent ungodly amounts of time on homework and studying, and started calorie counting to diet and lose weight. Seeing the results of my dieting efforts gave me a tremendous “high”. I felt as if I had figured out the answer to my problems. If I was skinny and beautiful, then surely the kids at school would like me, and I would be confident and happy. Calorie counting was my secret tool and I delighted in thinking that I seemed to know something that no one else did. I could control my weight by eating less and increasing my exercise.
Initially, it all felt very fulfilling and I was getting compliments. So I kept it up. Calorie counting, just like hand washing before, was a very useful means of distraction from all the other issues I was facing. Instead of thinking about how hopeless I felt, I could think of how many calories were in my lunch. Others seemed to be impressed by my “willpower” to abstain from unhealthy food and with my motivation to exercise. For once, I felt important and special.
I was diagnosed with anorexia during high school and went through some treatment but I never fully committed to the idea of recovery. I didn’t want to obsess about calories and exercise, but I also wanted to control my weight and so treatment wasn’t all that effective.
Fast forward to college. Even though I believed I was managing my anxiety, depression and eating disorder quite well , things starting unraveling and I lost control. My anxiety about school and socializing was skyrocketing which only perpetuated my loneliness and depression. All of this fueled my eating disorder. Eating less, weighing all my food, tracking calories, and exercising for long periods of time made me feel like a success. It was a game that I was winning, although in reality, I was the only one playing. I became so entrenched in these behaviors that I no longer really even desired for things to be different. I wasn’t happy but believed that if only I lost a little more weight I would finally find what I was looking for. But no matter how much weight I lost, how restrictively I ate or how many hours I spent at the gym, nothing really changed. My health suffered and I needed to be hospitalized.
Even as the doctor warned me that I was dying, I refused to accept that as true. I reluctantly, after much urging from my parents, entered a residential eating disorder facility. The first months were brutally challenging and I packed my bags on several occasion after feeling like my recovery was too far out of reach. I stuck around with the threat of being committed by the state, and my attitude slowly changed.
I found hope in the treatment team that supported me even in the midst of my anger and resistance; in my parents who had stuck by my side through all my struggles; and in the other patients who could relate to what I was feeling. I was surprised when my personality began to return and that I enjoyed being with other people. I had truly thought that I could never experience anything worthwhile ever again. The glimpses of happiness during my stay there were enough to convince me that recovery might be worth fighting for. Perhaps another reality besides one of anxiety and depression could exist.
I have since left the residential facility and have continued my treatment with several care providers. Many days are still challenging and at times I feel stuck -but there are also constant reminders that I have the ability to feel differently. I can deal with the challenges and become stronger from them. I no longer have to avoid life by giving into disordered thoughts and harmful behaviors. I am so grateful for all the things I have faced in my life and for the courage to fight them to find peace and acceptance in myself. Recovery and happiness now seem within reach. I not only have great hope for myself, but for all those who struggle with mental illness. I know that if I can find relief and support on my journey for happiness, that it is possible for anyone.
By: Natalie Richards, AiT Contributor