Trigger Warning: This post could potentially be triggering if you struggle with an eating disorder or depression. Please be aware while reading.
Yesterday was mental health awareness day, and I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, since it is something I’ve dealt with for a long time, even before I could name it. I grew up with the idea that mental illness immediately sent you to a psych ward. I loved books by Sylvia Plath and other memoirs about people with mental illness, but most of them were extreme cases, causing me to feel like I wasn’t sick enough to get help. In my mind, the kids who were depressed wore black nail polish and dog collars. I wasn’t bad enough to get help, but destined to suffer my whole life.
I remember anxiety from a young age; fear that my parents had left in the middle of the night; so I would purposefully set an alarm for 2am, checking to make sure they were still there. I remember guilt and fear about what happens after death; praying multiple times a day for forgiveness, so I wouldn’t go to hell.
I remember being eight and feeling so dirty, I would wash my hands over and over until they bled. The pediatrician told my parents that it was common and I’d grow out of it. I had to wear cream and gloves on my hands, mittens really, so I sat in front of the tv with clubs at the ends of my arms. Guess what? I didn’t grow out of it. OCD has been a constant since I started washing my hands, making eating and new environments a challenge. I didn’t get diagnosed until last year, when I was finally put on medication. I often consider what would have happened if that pediatrician knew to diagnose me with a mental illness, and what would have happened if I had gotten help when I was eight instead of twenty-six.
I remember developing an eating disorder in my pre-teen years, where I couldn’t focus in school; I was easily agitated and threw my lunch away when the bus dropped me off. I lost a drastic amount of weight, and was praised for my self control and passion for “healthy foods”. I have journal entries as a twelve and thirteen year old, where I cried out to an empty page about hating my body, how I didn’t have friends because I was ugly, and I “felt” like I could have an eating disorder, but because I wasn’t emaciated I didn’t. In health class we learned about anorexia and bulimia, but the pictures on the slideshow didn’t look like me, so I didn’t ask for help until last year. No one taught that you could be at a normal weight and still have an eating disorder.
I remember being told I was self centered and vain for always worrying about my appearance. At twelve I was paid $20 to lose ten pounds. I was beautiful and “good” when I was thin, ugly and “bad” when I wasn't. No one said those words out loud, but I felt them deep within me.
I remember being depressed since I was a child, but didn’t know how to verbalize it, since I was always taught that a christian should be joyful at all times. I prayed and prayed for joy and peace, and felt frustrated when I still couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I experienced a lot of shame because of it; growing up in a christian household, I was often given a “lets pray for you” response, which I have no problem with, but in my case, didn’t solve anything, and instead just caused frustration. For years and years I went up for prayer at every church service, asking for healing for my brain, and was told that I was healed, and just needed to have faith. I would leave so excited, and then wake up depressed the next day, overwhelmed with the feeling that God must be angry with me, causing the healing not to “stick”. No one told me that depression wasn’t caused by demons or sin. At the time I was wearing a back brace for scoliosis, but mental health wasn’t even spoken of. Now I know that the two aren't so different.
I remember being scolded for eating lunch in the school library everyday in high school. “Rachel, You need to be more social. You say you're painfully lonely, but you’ll never make friends if you isolate yourself. Go introduce yourself to new people.” In reality, social anxiety had me so exhausted by lunch time that I needed to decompress before the rest of the day. Eating in the library was self care.
It was exhausting defending myself and feeling constantly misunderstood.
When I was struggling with an eating disorder as an sick, average size girl desperate to lose weight, I heard: “All you need is self control. Just don’t eat carbs. Take some diet pills, they’ll help. Just tone up. Stop being so vain. Cut out sweets. Don’t wear your hair parted down the middle, it makes your face look round. You’re so lucky you have a pretty face. You can't have everything...it wouldn't be fair if you were talented, smart, AND thin. Just suck your stomach in. You’ve lost weight before, you can do it now.”
When I was struggling with an eating disorder as a sick and thin girl, I was told: “Wow you have such great self control. What diet are you on? You look beautiful. What are your plans to keep it off? How much more are you trying to lose? Don’t eat that or you’ll gain it back. I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of you”
Proud of me for what? For being good at my eating disorder?
When I was struggling with depression and anxiety I was greeted with: “You should get prayer at church. You just need faith. Memorize more scripture. You need to choose joy. What are you so upset about? Your life is great. Smile more. It will pass. Stop looking so sour. Start thinking about other people; they have it worse. Stop being lazy. Why are you so tired? Just stop worrying. Stop napping. You’re fine. It won’t last forever.”
Oh perfect. You telling me I’m fine just fixed me completely.
Because I felt so misunderstood, I sought out anyone who noticed me and made me feel heard. That resulted in dangerous relationships that made everything worse. I feel really sad for little Rachel and teenage Rachel. How would my life have looked if someone realized that I had a mental illness, starting from childhood, and needed therapy and medication? Why did it take 20 years to finally have a doctor diagnose me? Why was religion and mental illness so at war with each other?
I’m sure so many of you had no idea that I struggle. I am diagnosed with a mood disorder, OCD, and an eating disorder. You can’t tell by looking at me. I function well to the world and have always done amazing in school and in life. But it is a daily struggle, and no different than if I had diabetes or cancer. Both need treatment, both can be life threatening. Unfortunately, I have to pay for all my appointments out of pocket, since insurance doesn’t cover them. And when I share about myself, a lot of people still act like I choose these things. I did not choose to have a mental illness, but I AM choosing to be treated so I can live a full life. No more surviving, but flourishing.
I hope in reading this you will feel compassion for people in your life who struggle with these things. Become educated and greet them with patience and love. Encourage them to get help, so they can do more than just survive.
Please know that most of the time you won’t be able to tell if someone has a mental illness. Take your children seriously when they are showing signs of anxiety or depression. Don’t just think, “they’ll grow out of it”. Ask your friends how they are really doing. Stop using phrases like, “ugh I'm going to kill myself” when chipotle gets your order wrong.
If you struggle with mental illness, be open about it. Don’t be ashamed to get help. I guarantee the majority of people in your life either struggle or know someone who does. Let people in. You can’t do this alone, and you never know when you’ll hear a “me too”. And those words are the greatest gift.
I know that I am more than a broken brain; I am spirit and full and creative and loving. I have hope and future and this life has been chosen for me before the foundation of the world. I am seen. I am deeply and eternally loved. I know that I’m made for adventure, and even though I have quite a few hiccups, I’m learning to love myself and that there is no shame in struggling.