Part 2: My Story
When I was twelve, I left home to attend a rigorous academic preparatory school. I felt significant pressure to get good grades, pursue extra-curricular activities, and excel at sports. My parents had high expectations for us; I internalized their hopes and put a lot of pressure on myself. In turn, I developed a slew of perfectionist tendencies. I had always been creative, but I was made to believe that art wasn’t something you really made a career out of, or could succeed in financially. I worried about living up to my parents’ success, and I feared falling short of their expectations.
High school had its ups and downs, but something painful happened there that I hid from most of my friends and even my family: I was taken advantage of sexually. I felt guilty about what happened and felt lost and confused. Combined with the academic pressures, I quickly began to feel like I was drowning. I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I couldn’t handle things, and I worried I may embarrass my family if I sought therapy. I grew up in a small town in Connecticut where many tried to make their lives appear perfect. People were into superficial things like flashy cars, designer jeans, and brand-name colleges. No one talked about their families’ problems. Many people were openly judgmental, and I didn't want to subject my family to the embarrassment I was sure they'd face.
So instead of talking about what I was going through or finding help, I did what I thought I was supposed to: suck it up and bury the pain deep inside. Sigmund Freud said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” My unexpressed emotions came back in the form of a terrible case of anorexia.
I remember the exact moment that triggered it all. I was on a family vacation, and someone teased me that I had gained a few pounds. That was all it took. From that moment on, I slowly stopped eating. I have a high metabolism to begin with, and I’ve always been thin. So with each pound I lost, I inched closer to death by starvation. When your body starves, it goes into “flight or fight” mode and the brain releases endorphins. I began to feel a very real and enjoyable high.
Like alcoholism has little to do with alcohol, eating disorders have little to do with eating or food. I believe out-of-control substance abuse, whether it’s drinking or drugs, works in the same way as out-of-control eating or starvation. It's a defense mechanism against the world when life gets to be too much. My focus on food was a mechanism to protect and distract myself from dealing with other pains I was afraid to address. Weight loss was my drug, and I quickly became addicted to the new sense of control and positive emotions it supplied. This worked well for a little while.
My anorexia began as an attempt to gain power and control, but it quickly stripped all of my power and control away. The goal to lose five pounds became ten, then 20, then 30. Months after my eating disorder began, I experienced something I had never felt before: I became incurably cold on a warm spring day. I put on layers of sweatshirts and wrapped myself in dozens of blankets but the cold permeated through every muscle, down to every bone in my body. The chill became so painful that I started to panic.
I was rushed to my school’s medical facilities where they discovered I weighed 75 pounds. Despite the physical and mental symptoms that had been taking over in the past few months, I had been in complete denial that anything was actually wrong. My body had started growing a thick coat of hair (called lanugo), I was having heart palpitations, I developed osteopenia, I couldn’t sleep, I developed severe anxiety, and it hurt to sit down for long periods of time because my bones protruded so far from my body. Worst of all, the “high” from the initial weight loss had been swiftly replaced with a severe depression from the lack of nutrition and rest.
I was determined not to let anyone know the ugly truth of what I had done to myself, I didn't even want to admit it to myself. So I lied and said that I had lost the weight from the stress of school and being homesick. The first doctor I went to prescribed me milkshakes. That might sound ridiculous now, but awareness about eating disorders was not as widespread back then, and my family seemed as happy staying in denial as I was. I forced myself to gain weight back quickly to pretend nothing was wrong, but that was like a bandaid on a deep wound, and several months later I lost the weight all over again.
The following years were marked by a yo-yo in my weight and diet. My doctors, often misinformed and confused about how to deal with me, made the situation worse by forcing me to eat and putting me on a dangerous cocktail of prescription drugs. I learned to purge meals, hide weights in my clothes, and pop laxatives like breath mints. I filled my emptiness with “negative calorie foods” like celery, black coffee, and Diet Coke. I filled my diaries with obsessive calorie counting spreadsheets. I measured my self-worth in the gap between my thighs. There would be periods when everyone thought I had recovered, but I just got better at hiding it.
There would be periods when everyone thought I had recovered, but I just got better at hiding it.
I had only meant to harm myself, but I slowly took my family down with me. I remember my dad shaking me, saying that it was so simple, that I just had to eat. They desperately wanted to help and would have done anything to get me better, but most days I'd just shut them out completely, leaving them as scared and confused as I was. I've always prided myself on honesty and transparency, but anorexia makes you very deceitful, even towards yourself. Just as I had lost my appetite for food, I had lost it for life. Everything felt like a struggle; I could barely handle each day in front of me. I began to feel so broken and so ashamed; the only options seemed like death or some sort of radical change.
My parents never gave up on me. At my worst, they made the difficult decision to pull me out of high school for an entire semester to do full-time therapy at an eating disorder clinic. I was angry at them at first but of course much later I felt grateful, as it was there that I was finally able to gain some perspective on my behavior and the disorder I was battling. At the clinic, I began to make the necessary changes that would allow me to recover. I wish I could say it was all smooth-sailing, but recovery from eating disorders do not happen overnight.
There is no magic switch that can turn anorexia off. There are no pills that fix this. An eating disorder is not something you just “get over." It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole, but it can take years to figure out how to climb back up. Recovery was a mess of contradictions: I was hungry to be normal but also hungry for the high of emptiness. Some days I was determined to rid myself of the disease, to be who I was before the addiction got hold of me. Other days there was nothing more I wanted than to cling desperately to the delusional sense of power anorexia provided. I had lost touch of what it meant to feel normal, or even what it meant to feel alright. I wasn’t dead but I wasn’t alive, trapped in a war I had waged in my own mind, where pain meant victory, starvation made me strong, and eating made me weak, disgusting, and unworthy.
Letting go and giving in to the ordinary desires of hunger felt like failure, and anorexics do not like to fail. Nutritionists would try to tell me what to eat and I'd smile at their ignorance: No one knew more about calorie counts and nutrition than I did. Therapists would tell me I was too weak to exercise and I’d roll my eyes: I was running five miles a day and doing perfectly fine, thank you. Doctors would tell me about how my behaviors were shaving decades off my life: I’d smile because I didn’t care, I didn’t want to live much longer anyway. Even after my body had eaten through all the fat and into my muscle, I’d lean over and pinch whatever skin was left on my stomach, believing its existence was a sin. I fantasized about cutting it off my body, I was that desperate to be perfectly thin. I wanted to disappear. I hated being alive in my own skin.
Recovery at the clinic came in baby steps, three steps forward, one step back. There was the moment where I allowed myself to eat something without memorizing its nutrition label. The day when I only weighed myself two times instead of twelve. The day when I ate pizza without purging. The day when I genuinely smiled.
Group sessions with the other girls who were struggling proved surprisingly therapeutic. Looking around the clinic, I saw smart, talented, beautiful women who were slowly killing themselves. I couldn’t understand why. Many of their stories reflected my own in their struggles, traumas, insecurities, and pain. I found great compassion and empathy for them, and in turn I started to find it for myself.
Something amazing came out of my time at the hospital. We were required to do an art therapy class, and I learned to channel my obsessive behaviors into art as I rediscovered my passion for design and drawing. I came to accept that creative work was what made me truly happy, and I gained confidence that it was something I should pursue as a career. In high school I had been doing what I thought was expected of me: I was taking business and politics classes that didn’t excite me, so that I could someday go to a great business school that would probably have made me very unhappy. When I went back to high school my senior year, I dropped the business classes and replaced them with art classes. My senior year, I applied to the Rhode Island School of Design; and when I started there in the fall, I finally felt excited about the prospect of life.
If I’m honest with myself, I carry massive guilt and shame about being a recovered anorexic. It’s a loaded term. Anorexia carries a heavy stigma, and the disease is shrouded in false assumptions. Many believe it’s just a phase for teenage girls, a choice, or a diet gone wrong. Eating disorders are sensationalized by the media as a celebrity spectacle. These assumptions are not only extremely harmful, but they are the furthest thing from the truth. Anorexia is nothing less than an ugly and painful symptom of psychological pain that can break you down further and rob you of life.
I’ve thankfully been able to enjoy most of the last 12 years recovered and eating disorder-free. After brushing so close to death, I came back with a whole new appetite for life. My experiences recovering from anorexia and self-harm ultimately made me much stronger and more self-aware. But I can’t deny that when life gets really stressful, I sometimes find myself thinking about food or calories as a distraction from what’s really going on. I’ve learned to be patient and compassionate with myself, to understand why it’s happening, and a few times I’ve sought therapy again as reassurance. I don’t believe anorexia ever entirely leaves you, but you can definitely learn to overcome its grip.
Anorexia is the most deadly of all psychological illnesses. Over 20% of those diagnosed with anorexia will die from complications, heart attacks, or suicide. In addition to suffering severe psychological torment, those who struggle with anorexia shorten their lifespans by up to 20 years. It is time for society to do what we ask of anorexics: see past the weight and vanity issues, dig deeper, try to understand that there is real pain, and find compassion. If society could have more empathy for those struggling with eating disorders and we could do away with stigmas, more people would open up and seek help for their illness. The earlier those suffering from anorexia seek treatment—and the more compassion and empathy they encounter—the more lives will be saved.
In the end, there are several reasons why I’ve decided to release this story. In part, it's my own process of acceptance: trying to move past the years of pain I caused my family. I understand rationally that eating disorders are a highly complex disorder often caused by a mix of triggers: mental or physical trauma, pressures from society or family, self-hatred, feelings of failure, faulty brain chemistry, and the need for control. But even so, I've always only blamed myself, and I’ve felt really guilty all these years for what I put my family through. I finally want to let go.
I also want to share my story in case there’s anyone reading this who is going through a dark period, facing addiction, or dealing with any kind of physical or emotional struggle. I remember reading success stories from those who had overcame anorexia, and those stories were part of what inspired me to get better and give life a chance. We all have our own unique (and sometimes messed-up) ways of dealing with the world. There shouldn’t be so much shame around that.
My grandfather once said to me, “I know you’re struggling, but you will overcome it, and one day all this pain will make sense to you.” I wasn’t sure I believed him then, but his words inspired me to keep going and push through. It’s been said that sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself, and this was definitely the case for me. I would not be where I am today, doing work that I love, if it wasn’t for the experiences I went through during that difficult time in my life. It made me who I am, and I wouldn’t take back any of it.
Part 3: Let's Talk About Mental Health
Writing down my own story has been incredibly empowering and freeing. Since I've started talking openly about my issues with people around me, I've been surprised to find just how common mental health issues are. Friends and colleagues who often lead seemingly perfect or successful lives, even those in prominent positions within the creative industry have come forward and shared their stories. This has inspired me to start a website to collect these stories, called Let's Talk About Mental Health.
Look around you. On average, 1 in 4 people are struggling with mental illness
For further reading:
World Health Organization: Mental Health
All kinds of people are affected, and many live otherwise healthy and productive lives. In fact, some of the greatest CEOs, artists, and leaders of our time have suffered from mental illnesses. People like Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Virgina Woolf, Edvard Munch, Princess Diana and Abe Lincoln have suffered from illnesses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder.
For further reading:
Slate: Madness made them great
Forbes: Mental Illness Makes Som Executives Stronger
CNN: The Dark Side of Creativity
Wall Street Journal: Depression in Command
Despite these issues being common, very few are talking about them, because there is still so much stigma around mental illness in society. I like many others, I almost died as a result of these stigmas. I was afraid to tell anyone what I was going through, and suffered in silence until it was almost too late. I hope in our generation we can move towards ending the stigma and shame around mental health issues, and I hope to contribute to this movement even if it's in a small way.
Isn't it crazy that it's socially acceptable to go to the gym to strengthen our bodies, or go to the dentist to maintain the health of our teeth, yet there is still stigma around going to a therapist to strengthen our minds, when the brain is one of the most vital organs relating to our quality of life? Why is it we can take medications to fix imbalances in our blood, yet there is still stigma attached to taking medicine for a chemical imbalances in our brains? What can I do to help end these stigmas?
In the last years I’ve struggled with how vapid social media can be. I find myself feeling empty when I see my feed filled with perfectly stylized breakfast tables and selfies. Many of us curate our best moments in life to present facades that are unrealistic, which I'm not sure is a healthy image for society. Believe me, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. After Essena O’Neill quit Instagram for these reasons last fall and this topic went viral, many blamed Instagram for the vapidness
For further reading:
Essena O’Neill quits instagram claiming social media is not real life
Social media is not real, says teen Instagram star
. But we can't blame social media for the shallow ways some of us choose to use it. Social media is an amazing, powerful way to connect with loved ones, to share ideas we believe in, to start discussions, and to promote causes we care about. It's up to each of us individual to use it for good.
Life is full of beautiful moments, but it's also full of difficult and messy ones. I believe if we were all more honest and real, we'd all feel less alone in our fears and insecurities and find that they're surprisingly universal. This step is part of what inspired me to start posting more unfiltered thoughts and anxieties on Instagram under #jessicawalshhasnofilter, and today I'm also going to start posting contributors' stories at @letstalkaboutmentalhealth and #letstalkaboutmentalhealth.
If you have a story you're willing to share, please do email me or submit on the website — it can even be anonymous. Your submission can be about your recovery, your current struggles, a piece of advice that helped you, a story about a friend who has suffered, or anything else you wish to share.