First encounter with anorexia

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.

I take psychiatric medication and that’s okay

I remember back to the first time I ever went on psychiatric medication. It was shortly after starting therapy. I was at my yearly pediatrician’s appointment and it ended up being really awkward with some different mental health concerns, but in the end he prescribed an antidepressant. I felt very judged by him and that automatically went to shame. If I had to take this medication that even my doctor felt wary of, was I just defective?

Over the years , I’ve grown to be wary of telling anyone I’m on medication. The stigma of being “crazy” or abnormal because you take these drugs is pretty strong. Doctors are especially hard to tell, given my first experience. I would never even share this information with those who are well aware of my mental health struggles. That made me feel more alone and increased the negative belief I had about myself for needing this treatment.

I’m no longer afraid to admit that I take medication for my mental illnesses. In fact, I wanted to write this post because a change in my prescription (and a new psychiatrist) has greatly impacted my life. I have a ton more energy, less “blah” feeling, better mood, and I just feel lighter. My parents can tell a huge difference. Obviously the medication alone doesn’t get rid of my symptoms, but it has lowered the amount of distorted thinking significantly. I’m at a better functioning baseline level. As a whole, the various drugs I’m on have impacted me by significantly reducing sleeping problems, basically removing suicidal thoughts, lowering anxiety, preventing the lowest of lows, and generally making my thinking and functioning better. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to fix my brain chemistry in this way.

It’s okay to take psychiatric medication. Someone with lupus wouldn’t want to avoid autoimmune drugs for any reason. Anything that helps reduce suffering is worth it. You are not alone in this. If you are considering trying out this form of therapy, I want to reiterate how much of a change they can make.

1 in 6 adults are on some form of psychiatric medications. We need to end the stigma that surrounds taking these sometimes life-saving drugs. They do not fix a flaw in character, just the biological brain chemistry imbalances. Everyone should be given support and respect for the brave choice to put their health first in this way.

World Mental Health Day 2017

I am so incredibly thankful for awareness days like today. They are an opportunity to change minds on what mental illness and mental health entail. It can erase stigma and prevent biases. People who are undiagnosed can recognize their symptoms and reach out for help. It is everyone around the world coming together for a cause that affects 1 in 4 people globally.

I have a ton I could say today, but I want to go with this: talking about my mental health has saved my life. Without therapy, psych meds, outpatient programming, partial hospitalization, inpatient, and residential treatment, I don’t think I would be alive right now. It took bravery to speak out and say that something was wrong. Even more strength was necessary to head into my first day of therapy. No matter how scary, treatment has been the best thing for me. The support I have received from family and friends is also invaluable.

If you are struggling, please reach out.

If your friend, family member, or loved one seems to be or is struggling, reach out.

Silence is not the answer.

No matter who you are, please take some time to learn more about mental health and mental illness. You DO know someone with a mental illness. Maybe that could be your significant other, classmate, child, sibling, coworker, relative, or friend. They need your support and they need you to be knowledgeable about what they’re going through. If you think that you don’t need any information on it, look at all the people you care for. Would you be willing to ignore them if they have a cry for help? Would you do the same if they had a physical diagnosis? Even for those without any mental illness, caring for our mental health is important. Everyone gets stressed, sad, angry, etc. Learning a few self-care techniques and coping skills can really go a long way.

Today may not mean a whole ton to you, but I promise it means the world to anyone who does struggle or will struggle with mental illness in their lifetime.

For more information:

Oh how I love my psychiatrist

Hopefully you can sense the sarcasm in that title because my God has he been progressively worse this year v. last. I’ll give a quick rundown of what I’m talking about before I share on yesterday’s appointment.

In October he oh so kindly told me my BMI, which was significantly higher than the last time I had seen him in the spring. That’s bad enough in itself, but then he added on that I could lose 5-10 pounds. I see now that this was definitely a catalyst in my relapse; not the main cause, but still…

Since then:

  • was basically convinced I had OCD when I was talking about using DBT skills (???) and wouldn’t believe me at first that I have never been anywhere close to diagnosed
  • asked why I am not eating and if it’s *just* that I’ve decided I’m too fat
  • insisted on upping my one medication even though my blood showed I have above therapeutic levels (which after that point doesn’t have increased effects)
  • in general a complete lack of understanding of EDs and how to approach them in an appropriate way

I went into the appointment yesterday automatically assuming I would get some sort of ill-advised advice or comments. I was right, but didn’t expect the absolute disregard for my struggles. At first it was just remarks on my sleeping patterns (1-3 am and wake at 7:30-8:30). His advice: go to bed earlier. I then talked about the major lack of motivation I’ve had. We are trying a new medication to possibly replace another one. That I am fine with. He made more comments about me choosing not to eat and how that isn’t helping blah, blah. The last part, however, is the worst advice I have ever heard from a medical professional regarding my eating disorder, right up there with my old therapist asking for diet tips.

His suggestion for being tired all of the time: give me either Ritalin or Adderall. What the hell?!!? Does he not realize that one of the main side effects is weight loss? Does he not know I am diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, a disorder that already has a huge focus on weight and thinness? In addition, it is highly addictive/causes dependency/can easily be abused. I have had a history of addictive type behaviors (eg SH). I really don’t need another opportunity for that to happen. I can see this causing so many issues. If I won’t be addicted from the actual effects of amphetamines, I would probably be hooked on the weight loss it causes. On a less serious note, it can affect my heart as well.

I left in disbelief and very distraught over the entire appointment yesterday. I just don’t think I can handle having a doctor who doesn’t get this anymore. Hell, I would almost settle for Dr. VH. Almost. I think it’s time to consider switching to a different doctor. I hate doing it. I hate change, but maybe this is worth it? I’ll definitely be talking to my mom, support people, and treatment team about this. Maybe one of them can talk to him for me, ha.

Has anyone experienced something like this? Advice? Am I overreacting?

“How do you have an eating disorder?”

It was my first night inpatient at Forest View. I was more than terrified. I stood nervously in the hallway near the nurses station. Why I was standing there I can no longer remember, although it may have been waiting for the 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th blanket. Maybe I was afraid of being alone in such a scary place. I don’t honestly know because I was completely stuck in the ED, my mind fogged by all of the restriction from the majority of the past year.

Either way, there I was in the hallway, wishing I was anywhere else. I would have rather been at MCC eating in the cafe, back in high school, at work, or stuck in PHP since I would be able to go home then. I knew I was supposed to be there, I knew I wouldn’t do college if not. I knew that this was a chance to stop behaviors for a week and hopefully head into the school year in a better place. Of course, I was wrong about that. After my encounter that night I was so upset that I considered just signing myself out AMA.

A girl around 20 came up to me in a wheelchair. She had announced why she was in the hospital many, many times: she drank bleach with the intent to commit suicide/self harm as well. I had no reason  to judge her. In fact, I never felt anything but compassion and understanding for any other patients. All of them, myself included, were seeking help for mental illness. We had no right to say someone is worse off, that you are better than them, they seem “happy/just fine”, or that there’s no reason for them to be inpatient. Despite these unspoken rules, she did anyways. It hurt me in more ways than she would ever know.

Right away, she told me why she was at Forest View (only the 10th time I’d heard it) then proceeded to ask me, “why are you here, you seem fine?” This worried me right away. I could have lied, maybe I should have. Instead I admitted that I’m suffering from an eating disorder and that I’ve been very bad this whole summer. This primed her for one of the most hurtful comments I had ever received in regards to my ED: “How do you have an eating disorder?” If that wasn’t enough (trust me, it was), she started telling me I was way too large and compared me to another girl who had a BMI in the low teens, which I know because said girl told me in a bragging way :(. She claimed I shouldn’t be here because I’m not *that* bad. Then, she laughed at me and gave me a terrible look. I walked away because I could barely hold the tears in and found nothing else to say that would make her see I wasn’t just a fraud.

I went straight to my room and cried in the comfort (well, not really but it was better than being out in the common room) of my own bed. I couldn’t stop the thoughts that only multiplied following her words. I tried to muffle the sound as much as I could, but the nurse doing rounds heard me anyways and became somewhat concerned. She asked if I was just scared given it was my first night. I shook my head yes so she sat with me for a minute and gave a little pep talk. After she left I knew I should quiet down. I did, and tried my hardest to push her remarks out of my head.

I would love to say that her words haven’t affected me since that day. She questioned the validity of my illness and assumed I shouldn’t be in treatment. I have always dealt with these fears on my own but she only intensified them. I still struggle with that. When I entered residential I was convinced they would tell me I wasn’t really struggling, that nobody would believe me since I wasn’t emaciated and had no physical changes due to my ED. I waited for someone to not take me seriously. Thankfully, that never happened and I was continually supported by everyone. Her comments have also made me hyper-vigilant when I tell others I have anorexia. My automatic expectation is to have a repeat of what happened that night in inpatient. I imagine them saying I’m too fat, too happy, attention-seeking, etc.

I am working past that 2 minute conversation. The most important thing is to know that I am sick. I cannot mull over everyone’s reactions to determining whether I am or not, because in the end, I do have anorexia.

Next time you see or learn of someone with chronic illness, please treat them with dignity. What’s on the outside doesn’t reflect how they truly feel. Any “how do you have ___” questions do nothing but harm.

I took care of myself today.

*written Monday, but didn’t finish/had a billion things going on

It has been forever, or so it feels. I’ve missed blogging so much. I planned to come back to it a thousand times, but now is that time. I will explain everything that’s happened in another post soon.

Today is World Mental Health Day. Whether you struggle with a mental illness or have a good handle on everything, self care and awareness is necessary. Today I have practiced many forms of self care and I can clearly tell a difference. On to what I’ve accomplished today:

  • destressed after a rough, long lab by taking a nap
  • had lots of yummy fruits
  • had all 3 meals and a few snacks
  • ate dinner after group because I woke from my nap with too little time to have it otherwise
  • watched some Youtube and Netflix (currently on a Private Practice kick!)
  • attended ED support group
  • shared in ED group (I was voluntold, but still)
  • used distraction to quiet maladaptive thoughts and behaviors
  •  gave myself grace

Today would have been much more sour had I not taken the time to care for my mind and body. These small actions, when combined together, have lifted me up to more growth. It was a really great day, the best in a while when it comes to self care. I yearn for this to be a norm and not happen once a week, month, etc.

Acceptance

For a long time I grappled with my mental health issues. Some were easier to deal with than others, but I still couldn’t stomach it all. I truly believed that somehow, somewhere I had just screwed up or thought too much about different things and that one day, it would be gone. I was embarrassed that I needed to see a therapist, start medication, and later enter into treatment. I’ve felt so many things regarding my diagnoses and tendencies: disgust, shame, disbelief. I’ve wanted them all to go away. In the past month or two that’s all changed.

I no longer wake up and hope or wish to be “normal.” My mental illnesses will always play a part in my life, whether that be big or small. They have shaped my past and will affect my future. I see them as a part of who I am. I can genuinely say that I am okay with all of this.

Now that I have come to full acceptance, I want to be clear on what this doesn’t mean:

  1. I am giving up hope of a better future. I know my mental health will always be clouded with irrational thoughts and behaviors. This does not make me hopeless, but realistic. I do have hope that things will get easier with time and hard work. I so desire that for myself and will do everything I can to get there.
  2. I define myself by my mental health. I am not the anorexic, depressed girl, anxious freak, compulsive exerciser, perfectionist, or self-harmer. I struggle with all of these with varying degrees of severity. They shape my actions and thoughts each day, but I will not be victim bound by labels. I am so much more than my diagnoses. I am Emily the college student, photography lover, girl in recovery, future nurse, etc.
  3. I am helplessly controlled by my disorders. Acknowledging the impact these have on me and that they won’t go away in no way leads to this belief. I have the power to recover and work towards quieting the bad thoughts. At times this may seem grueling and near-impossible, but I am never powerless.
  4. This is all the only/most important part of my story. Of course everything related to my mental health have significantly impacted my life. How could it not when I’ve spent the majority of my days battling irrational thoughts? Significance, however, does not mean governance. Playing soccer, attending the school system I went to, early college, and my faith are just a few influences unrelated to any of my MH struggles. They are important too.
  5. I will let any of this hold me back from my dreams. I will become a mother. I will work as a nurse. I will help support others who have the same struggles I do. I will move away from my family and other physical support one day. I will travel the world. I will create and keep meaningful relationships. I will have a better relationship with food and exercise. I will own prairie dogs, a papillon, an emotional support animal, and whatever other pets to make my heart content (not all at the same time aha). I will grow my faith. I will write a book or two or three. I will earn at least my master’s degree. I will love life. No mental illness, negative thinking patterns, or self-doubt is going to stop me.

Acceptance feels good. Its a starting point of understanding how I can manage all of this for the rest of my life. I feel so much better now. The weight of denial, uncertainty, despair, and shame have lifted. Yes, I struggle with mental health issues. Yes, I am going need constant self-monitoring and then working through each dark time I experience. Yes, I accept myself and how my mental health struggles have shaped me. I am okay with it all.

My BRAIN is sick.

My brain is sick. My brain is sick! God dammit, my BRAIN is sick!!! 

I want to scream this from the mountaintops. Maybe that could stop some of the nonsense people spew at me and my fellow recovery warriors day in and day out.

I am weight restored. I have followed my meal plan since the day I entered treatment. I am out of residential. I no longer exercise compulsively. I am not physically sick enough to need a feeding tube, be in the hospital, require urgent care, have daily blood draws.

The above makes others believe I am doing wonderfully, amazingly, fantastically awesome with all the rainbows, unicorns, and glitter. They see me and just know instantly that my eating disorder must be – poof! – gone. They compliment me on how great I look, boast how proud of me they are. They walk away assured they’re right. After a few weeks or months they forget the eating disorder ever existed in the first place.

What they can’t see, and sometimes won’t see, is that anorexia is still here. In fact, it may be here for a very long time. Some effects will last my whole life. It is not making itself known in my behaviors and physical appearance anymore, but my mind is in its control regardless.

The obsession, body dysmorphia, irrational thoughts, they all began long before I ever restricted my first time. In fact, by the time I actually started using behaviors I was fully in its grips. Once the weight loss became dramatic, when others finally noticed, I’d been dealing with the mental effects of anorexia for a very long time. This is because my body was never sick. I wasn’t simply behaving in a maladaptive way or following some extreme diet. No, my brain is and always was, the part of me that is sick.

Please, before you take a look at me, or anyone recovering form an eating disorder, remember that. Remember that outward appearance and actions can never explain what is on the inside. Remember that the brain is the last thing to heal and the first to become damaged in the first place. Before assuming everything must be okay now realize that it probably isn’t and we are still fighting against the thoughts every single day.

We survived.

So this my not be your average Christmas Day post, but then again I am not your average person. Like 1 in 4 people in this country, I suffer from mental illness that just so happens to peak in severity during the holidays. Also like 24 million of those 1 in 4, I have an eating disorder. I like to look at those statistics every once in a while. It helps me realize that I am not alone. We are all here, some in recovery, others in the depths of their disorders, all fighting like hell to keep going each day. This season is hard. It’s not quite over yet either.

No matter how today went, whether you won the battle or not, all of you out there are warriors. You survived today. You did it, we did it. I don’t care what anyone says, because the fact that we are still here living, fighting, beating those demons within us is a huge victory. I really do mean huge.

2014 is almost over. We have spent 359 days this year battling our illnesses on top of everything else life threw at us. There were good days and bad, maybe even times we wanted to give up. The fact that we didn’t is truly a miracle. We’re just six short days from starting a new year. Let’s make 2015 one of resiliency, strength, and refusal to back down. These disorders do not own us and we can continue to overcome them this next year!