Depression and anxiety flow through all the women in my family, repetitive thinking and furrowed brows connecting us when we are apart. Genetics were the foundation of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and made its development relatively unsurprising. I started struggling with OCD at the end of 8th grade.
I felt like I had to be perfect for a lot of reasons. I had to be the perfect daughter so I wasn’t a burden, so I could make my mother happier, so I could be successful. With high school, then college, on the horizon, my anxiety increased and I developed random compulsions that I had to complete perfectly before I felt any ease. The thoughts and behaviors became so intrusive that I couldn’t get through the day productively. I had severe separation anxiety and would be terrified every time I was home alone or tried to go to sleep.
I went to a cognitive-behavioral therapist who led me in talk therapy and exposure therapy, the latter of which is basically forcing yourself to feel anxiety and not complete compulsions in order to break your habitual thinking. It was torturous, but OCD was worse and I wanted to get better. The same traits that heightened my OCD — stubborn, determined, persistent, headstrong — ·also helped me recover. I was so focused on eliminating my compulsions that I put everything I had into therapy. Although I still had generalized anxiety, my compulsions subsided.
Unfortunately, once I got really sick my therapist was no longer enough. I stopped eating the summer after my sophomore year in high school. It was as if a light switch had been flipped inside my brain. I had to get surgery at the end of the school year and was on bed rest for weeks, during which time I put extra weight on my already heavier than average frame. The number on the scale was at an all time high and I was miserable, especially in a town where everyone looked the same, and different from me. All the pressure I had felt from doctors, family, my town, society, and myself came to a head and I made a decision that quickly spiraled out of control. To be clear, I initially made the decision to lose weight. My eating disorder, on the other hand, was not a choice I ever would or could have made.
I cut my calories down to a shockingly low number per day and worked out relentlessly. My mother, who has eating issues of her own, became worried after she and my father noticed me eating little else but a few select types low calorie foods for weeks. She contacted my therapist, who I hadn’t seen for a while. I lied and said I was fine. I’m fine. I was numb. I lied to everyone, including myself, because I barely knew what the truth was anymore. Eventually I went to treatment after dropping dozens of pounds in three months without signs of stopping.
Three times per week, my parents drove me for forty minutes to an intensive outpatient clinic so I could spend four hours with other women suffering from eating disorders. I was triggered by everything. I spent that Thanksgiving measuring out my food in the kitchen before bringing it into the dining room to make sure I had enough, and not more than necessary. I worked so hard to be in control of myself and my body and my life that I completely lost the ability to conquer my own thoughts.
The months I spent in treatment are fuzzy. I recall most of my first night vividly and a few particularly awful dinners therapy sessions, meal planning each week and some useless activities about body image. None of it helped. Nothing mattered. I was addicted to losing weight. It’s hard to put words to the way I seamlessly began associating negative emotions with restricting my intake when, for many people, those things have nothing to do with each other.
I struggle with explaining what depression is like, too. Waking up in the morning feels like starting each day with a dead battery, like your spirit was sucked away while you slept, like maybe you didn’t sleep at all because how could you possibly be this tired if you did and don’t be so dramatic some people don’t even have beds or homes but how will I possibly get through today there are so many hours left and I can’t stand to brush my teeth will I even fit into jeans I’m too fat to wear clothes what do I do it’s like nothing and everything at the same time I can’t even begin to think about what to eat maybe I shouldn’t eat at all then I don’t have to worry about it but if you don’t eat you’ll be too tired to work out it doesn’t matter you have to they won’t even care if you don’t nobody cares everybody cares you’re making them miserable you’ll die if you go to college like this you can’t go to college fat skip breakfast no skipping breakfast will ruin your metabolism skip lunch you’ll be at school so tired people have bigger problems move on take a nap.
I don’t remember all that much from that year. I remember basically failing my Pre-SATs because I couldn’t fuel my brain. I remember smoking weed because talking about drugs meant not having to talk about myself or utilize a personality that I lost with the first 15 pounds. I remember feeling like a success once I finally hit the weight requirement to be considered Anorexic instead of just Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. I had no motivation, no energy, no clarity. I won. I lost. I won. I lost. I lost more weight and thought it was by accident. I didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody knew. I was euphoric and terrified at the same time.
Having an eating disorder was harder than OCD because I wanted so badly to keep it. I wanted to be sick, to maintain that identity, to win a losing battle. I also wanted to make my parents proud, to get better, to be strong, to laugh, to go to college. I wanted to beat it, but that meant beating myself. Having an eating disorder is like having two completely different people in your head at once that are constantly fighting and questioning each other. I really didn’t see a way to get out of this. I was stuck. I’m smart. I knew that I couldn’t go on living the way that I was forever, but the fear of eating immobilized me. I couldn’t imagine ever eating normally again and sometimes I didn’t know if I wanted to. I thought about going into my garage and keeping the door closed. I thought about turning on the car and just sitting. Relaxing for the first time in months and months. I would close my eyes and take deep breaths and go to sleep and finally stop thinking.
I was born with enormous privileges that made my recovery possible and facilitated my access to various forms of support. However, mental illness knows no boundaries and can impact anyone regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, age, religion, ability, or geographic region. Being able to receive comprehensive and sufficient health services is a basic human right, and I have lived my life in a position where most services are unlikely to be denied to me. That being said, recovery is an internal process that comes only from the self, facilitated by external supports.
I’m still here. I wake up every morning and get out of bed. I show up. I show up for myself because I work hard to keep myself going. I show up for the people who love me. I show up for the people who can’t right now. My journey with mental health has taught me a lot of things: that it’s never over; that binaries (good or bad, all or nothing, better or sick) won’t serve you well; being vulnerable is a sign of strength; self-love can be quiet and loud; you’ll have really terrible days that won’t last forever; never assume you know what someone is going through; honesty is rewarded; spreading kindness heals you. Tomorrow is a new day. The sun will come back out.
I know exactly what it feels like to truly not believe that things will get better. I know hopelessness. Now I’m another person telling you that things will get better. But I’ll say it as many times and in as many ways as you’d like. It gets better. It gets better. It gets better. Trust is a beautiful thing because you can always rebuild it. Trust me, it gets better. Trust yourself, it gets better.
P.S. I took Prozac for 4.5 years and it saved my life. Medication isn’t for everyone but it worked for me and I would encourage anyone that has access to try it with a doctor’s supervision and a supportive environment. Let yourself ask for help—it is cathartic and necessary and you deserve it. I’ve also found that pancakes double as Prozac in a pinch because they are also therapeutic and delicious.
Written by Juliette Verrengia