While mental illness takes many shapes and forms, and some do become dangerous to themselves or others, the majority of us struggling with mental health are the people sitting opposite you in class, your bus driver, your boss, your friend, or your brother. And there is a fairly good chance you had no idea.
To celebrate Mental Illness Awareness Week from October 4 to 10, Vancity Buzz will be publishing stories from readers who have struggled with mental illness either currently or in the past.
“The Sickly-Thin Stereotype”
A couple months ago I was having drinks one night with a group of my close friends when we decided it would be fun to describe the person to your left in three words. When it came to my turn, one of my closest friends said, “fun to be around, funny, and I don’t know..smiley?” Everyone aww’d in agreement and I laughed. I went home that night replaying those words in my head. I assume that’s how most people see me. I am complemented on my smile and laugh quite often and people are always referring to me as easy-going or happy-go-lucky. Most people have no idea that I’ve been suffering from mental illness for as long as I can remember.
I was seven years old when I first remember feeling depressed, although at the time I had no idea what was happening. I was two years old when my parents split up so I had never really known any different, but around this age I think I started to really understand the impact of what a ‘divorce’ meant. I was so miserably sad, and angry, and couldn’t understand why. I didn’t know how to deal with my emotions so I began to self-harm.
I was always quite an active kid; involved in dance, gymnastics, and volleyball. I was naturally competitive, especially from growing up with an older brother. But around age eight or nine I remember a different type of competition beginning. I began looking at the other girls in skintight leotards and thinking, if I were only as skinny as them I could be as good as them. It wasn’t long before I began to dread going to gymnastics and dance class. I didn’t want to have to put on a tiny leotard and stand next to ‘the skinny girls’. I felt massive, uncomfortable and uncoordinated and knew I had to fix this.
Growing up my mother was always extremely thin. To this day, she still watches everything she eats, counts every calorie. I try not to blame my mother, but I do know that at a young age I began to copy many of her patterns. Weight was something we always discussed. We would talk openly about it; about dieting, calories, or tricks for eating less. In high school I began restricting heavily and engaging in self-destructive eating patterns. This went on for many years.
Throughout my eating disorder my weight fluctuated a lot. My body was always changing and because of this, no one was able to fully recognize what I was doing or going through. I was very secretive. And for the most part I never got sickly thin. At my lowest weights people would make comments, but mostly positive ones. My mom once asked me if I was making myself sick or starving myself. I told her no, and that was the end of that. She (as with everyone else) just didn’t know any better, and because I was only a size 2-4 instead of 00 it was okay.
After years of destructive behaviours, crash diets, and crazy fads, my metabolism was shot. I was in high school and should have been enjoying some of the best years of my life, but I was living in a daily hell. Eventually my closest friends stopped wanting to hang out with me. I was fighting with my parents constantly. I felt so completely alone and miserable.
It wasn’t until my final year in high school when my friends finally said that something needed to change. They said I was no fun to be around, I was always irritable and lifeless. And it was completely true. I began trying to build a normal relationship with food, but when I started to gain weight I couldn’t help but feel horrible. And to combat these feelings I began to overeat and binge, hoping to somehow hide from it all.
In fall of 2014 I decided that after Christmas I was going to move to Australia. This was the motivation that sparked what was one of the worst phases of my disease. For the next four months I was restricting heavily and engaging in many self-destructive behaviours. I left for my trip as a shell of a person, my weight/body was my life and my disease consumed me.
Australia was a complete mix of emotions. I felt free living on my own in a new country. But even though I was in a new city, making new friends, and exploring new places, I fell into the same cycle. I cried myself to sleep many nights, and I was pissed off that I was in this amazing place and yet wouldn’t let myself enjoy it. I considered telling my parents almost every day. But every night I told myself; tomorrow I’ll be better.
After a month long trip to Asia and a 20-pound weight gain I was a complete wreck and began having suicidal thoughts. I finally broke down and emailed my mom. I told her everything, and we decided it was time for me to come home.
Since I’ve been home it’s been a roller-coaster ride. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. I started seeing an amazing therapist and with her help I’m trying to recover. But every day is difficult. Only a few of my friends know exactly what is going on. To most, I am still that easy-going, happy girl. The obsessive thoughts still plague me most days but I know it is a long process that will take time. In telling my story I hope that others who may not fit the ‘sickly-thin stereotype’ of people with an eating disorder can find comfort knowing they’re not alone.
I am hopeful of my recovery yet I am scared. I don’t know anything else but this disease. And I’m not sure who I will be without it. But I know that my closest friends and family can’t be that far off. I am a funny, smiley and fun person to be around, and my disorder can’t take that away from me.
Check back tomorrow for another story from our “My Mental Illness” series.
For information and resources on mental illness, please visit the follow:
- Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health
- Canadian Mental Health Association
- Here to Help BC
- BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services
- Kelty Mental Health for Child and Youth information