I was first truly introduced to mental illness as a whole when I was a sophomore in high school. I took a basic psychology course that included probably two weeks about psychopathology. I found all of it incredibly fascinating. While going over generalized anxiety and depression, I wondered if I might struggle with them too (but that part is a story for another day). We had an assignment alone or in pairs to explain the diagnoses we studied to the class in some sort of presentation. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of these still is significant looking back.
Two of my classmates pulled up their PowerPoint. In big letters were the words “anorexia nervosa.” I think I had probably heard of eating disorders at that point, but I knew nothing about them. I intently listened in. I don’t recall many of the details now, but one part has stuck with me. There was an animation with a girl looking at her body in the mirror as larger, then zooming out to find she was actually emaciated. I was somewhat shocked by this. I also understood feeling that way about your reflection.
I was born with pectus excavatum, a deformity of the chest wall where the sternum is sunken in. I began to feel self-conscious about it when I was just around 5 years old. It was the first time I ever hated my body. I had surgery to correct it in 8th grade, but it both semi-helped and hurt me. I gained weight very quickly due to less stress on my heart/body post-surgery. My disgust with my body shifted to the weight I had gained. It felt pretty terrible to be forced to buy new clothes when I was the same size for so long.
All of these feelings and the whole PE experience meant I felt connected to the girl in the video. My thoughts weren’t entirely distorted at that point, though. I would consider them pre-ED thought patterns. I disliked my body. That was the case for over half my life and my “normal,” so it didn’t concern me. I wanted to lose the weight I had gained and go back to the comfort of my old number. I probably spent a little more time staring at my reflection than I should have. In my mind, nothing about this was unhealthy or wrong. Most girls I knew would say things negatively about their appearances sometimes. It was completely the norm.
Even as I compared my struggles to someone with anorexia, I never imagined that would be my life in less than a year after seeing the presentation. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I instead took the class junior year. Would I have recognized the red flags then? I actually did take AP psychology which contained a mental illness unit, but that didn’t give me the same shock/connection to anorexia like before. We glazed over the diagnoses. This only increased the belief that I was fine and an eating disorder definitely can’t be something I struggle with.
If I could go back and talk to 15 year old me, I would tell her to pay attention to mental health and well-being, look for help if she needed it, remember what symptoms can show that it’s not all okay, and share about her body image even if it doesn’t seem as severe as the girl in the video. I would give her a hug and tell her she was loved through the silent struggle. I know that none of this could have prevented me from slipping into anorexia, but I think even the awareness would have changed how long I went without treatment. It’s also a little surreal to realize that around 6 years ago I knew pretty much nothing about eating disorders when it’s now taken over much of my life.