Queen’s faces of mental illness: Eating disorder recovery

As part of Mental Illness Awareness Week, Lifestyle featured personal stories from Queen’s student each day from Oct. 6-10. We’ll be continuing the initiative throughout the year with more stories. If you’re interested in submitting a story, please email journal_lifestyle@ams.queensu.ca.

WARNING: This piece talks about eating disorders, depression and suicide, and may be triggering for some readers.

When I was in high school, very little emphasis was placed on mental health. Mental health and mental illness awareness wasn’t talked about much. That’s something which has always bothered me.

October is a month for me that’s filled with a strange bitter-sweetness. Between Thanksgiving and Halloween festivities and the return of Homecoming here at Queen’s, you’d think October would be filled with nothing short of fun and games. In some ways, it is. In other ways, it’s a subtle reminder of the years that I‘ve struggled with mental illness, and the challenges that I’ve faced in the last year and half.

To most people, Oct. 17 would mean nothing. But for me, the date is significant. It means I’ve been in recovery for 18 months.

A year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), a restrictive subtype that was accompanied with a compulsive exercise disorder. EDNOS encompasses eating disorders that don’t fit the criteria of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.

In some ways, EDNOS is more dangerous because it’s harder to diagnose. As a result, it’s often overlooked. Affected individuals commonly feel their disorder isn’t serious enough, and thus, recovery isn’t something they think they deserve. But this is never the case.

Your life and your worth should never be measured by diagnoses or your perceived “severity” of a diagnosis.

According to goodtherapy.org, 80-90% of eating disorders begin with a diet. Unfortunately, this was the case for me.

My eating disorder is something that I’ve struggled with for six years. It’s something I struggled in silence with for nearly five. Despite words of caution and concern over that time period, nothing anyone said seemed to affect me.

Eventually, the voiced concerns turned into whispers.

There was nothing anybody could do for me. I was completely absorbed in what I perceived in my mind as normalcy. Through my years spent struggling in isolation, I lost almost everybody that I cared about, outside of my family.

When you’re living with a mind warped by mental illness, you don’t realize how the people outside of it are affected. You learn to put up a wall that nobody can surpass, and in turn, bottle everything up inside of you.

As a direct result of my eating disorder, I struggled with severe depression in high school. I was never diagnosed, I never took medication or received treatment. Whenever I’ve mentioned the latter, people have always asked me how I knew it was something that I even struggled with.

You can tell when you feel absolutely everything and nothing simultaneously. When getting out of bed in the morning physically hurts. When you feel like absolutely nothing in your life matters because nobody really cares. When you wake up every morning wishing that you hadn’t, and wondering what it would be like to, perhaps, step out into oncoming traffic. Wishing that something would happen to take you away from here, because you were too much of a coward to do it yourself ― because you couldn’t bear what it would do to your mother.

You just know.

And still, I did nothing. I said nothing, because I had seen how people had reacted to stories of mental illness in the past ― and those reactions were filled with nothing but negativity. My depression is something that I acknowledged at the time; my eating disorder was not.

Somewhere between October 2012 and April 2013, something clicked in me. I started to become increasingly aware that something was terribly wrong, and something had been terribly wrong for a very, very long time. I looked into it more and did my own research on the topic of eating disorders, because I couldn’t possibly think of any criteria that I fell into. I couldn’t be that girl.

Finally, in April 2013, I broke. Overwhelmed by the stress of university coming up, I confessed everything that I’d been feeling for the last few months, and everything that I thought was going on with me, to my mother.

I was immediately referred by my doctor to the outpatient eating disorder program here in Kingston at Hotel Dieu Hospital, where I was officially diagnosed. I saw a counsellor the summer before starting at Queen’s, in addition to dietitian and psychotherapy sessions, as well as regular appointments with a nurse when I arrived in September 2013.

As cliché as it may sound, coming to Queen’s was likely the best thing that has ever happened to me. I had an especially rough transition into first year being in a completely new and foreign environment, and being away from the support system I’d built for myself at home. My treatment was something that caused a lot of stress for me as well, especially feeling like my struggle with mental illness was something that I couldn’t talk about.

But the progress that I made in my recovery through first year was exponential. I’ve met so many phenomenal and supportive people over the course of my time here at Queen’s – including two of my current best friends. The inclusive community and positive atmosphere at Queen’s is definitely a change that I needed ― it’s something that I never experienced in high school. The educational initiatives the University has been undertaking regarding mental health have been incredible.

Because nobody should ever have to feel alone or like they can’t talk about something they struggle with. Nobody should have to feel like their mental illness is the elephant in the room.

A year ago, I never would have thought I’d be talking about my struggles with mental illness publicly. A year and a half ago, I didn’t even think I’d be talking about it at all. Three years ago, I didn’t even think I’d be alive right now ― and to be blatantly honest, I shouldn’t be alive right now.

But I am.

That’s not to say I still don’t struggle sometimes. There are certain foods I still struggle a lot with. Exercise is something I still struggle with, as well. And every now and then, I’ll get caught in a wave of depression that almost feels debilitating. I'm not going to sugar-coat it ― these are things that I will likely struggle with, to some extent, for my entire life.

But the support system I've built for myself is something I know will never falter. So in times when I feel like I am, I turn to them.

And I promise you that more often than not, the smile you see is genuine. The happiness you hear and you feel is genuine. After five years of doing nothing more than existing, I can genuinely say that life is something that I’m excited about again.

And I promise you that regardless of what you’re struggling with, or what you have struggled with in the past, you’re a marvelous piece of the universe and you deserve life.

It starts with a few words ― even if those few words are the most difficult ones you’ve ever spoken.

Talk about it.

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