In high school, I gripped the fat on my stomach and stretched it thin until I could feel the hard, protruding bones of my ribcage. I sat in the basement of my house and flipped from the pages of my Algebra textbook to the threads of pro-anorexia blogs. I still remember the anxiety that struck me every time I walked on a scale, how a single number could reduce my diet that day from two meals to none, from a salad for dinner to a few grapes and no lunch.
Flash forward to this past semester of college. I attended a graduate school information session – the only sophomore in a sea of juniors and seniors – and sat in a small pool of people interested in degrees in Psychology. I ate a slice of pepperoni pizza and drank from my bottle of juice, keen on observing what my professors had to say. When they started to talk about what to include in personal statements, one professor commented, “I do not ever want to hear that someone has had an eating disorder. How would I know about their current health or dieting habits?”
Ever since then, I thought a lot about the role of disclosure, of past struggle, of mental health. I doubt that anyone would tell a cancer survivor not to apply to medical school, or someone who has broken their leg not to pursue a career in physical therapy. While I understand that mental health has its differences from physical health, as it should, I keep wondering: why do the rules play against survivors? Why does society think of us as weak?
I recovered from my battle with food and family with the help of many therapists. Not any professional therapists, but my close friends, the books I read, this blog – resources that guided me as I fought for myself and discovered my purpose. I worked hard to get into a good university, and I conducted a research project on analyzing eating disorders portrayed in memoir. I read books about how to best help people, nonfiction that centered on listening skills, therapeutic techniques, feminism and mental health. In a sea of talented young adults, I carved a space for myself in the realms of Psychology and English; I fought to form my intrinsic passions after a long climb from the bottom of my life.
People learn to live with and to conquer their demons. In his book Love’s Executioner, renowned psychotherapist Irvin Yalom states that “the first step to all therapeutic change is responsibility assumption. If one feels in no way responsible for one’s predicament, then how can one change it?” As Yalom says, people with mental illness have taken matters into their own hands time and time again. Kay Redfield Jamison wrote a memoir about battling with bipolar disorder as she rose as a researcher in the field of mental illness, and she now serves as a Professor of Psychiatry at John Hopkins and an esteemed Clinical Psychologist. Andrew Solomon, a writer and lecturer with depression, has won the National Book Award and many other honors with his work. These inspirational figures show that a diagnosis does not determine someone’s likelihood to succeed, nor does it preclude any possibility of achievement.
I have dealt with an eating disorder, and I have survived abuse. My struggles with these unseen issues do not define me; I define myself. Perhaps I will not disclose all of my past in an interview or a personal statement, but even if someone finds out about my history – even if someone stumbles upon this blog – I know myself and my capabilities. I assess my intelligence, my accomplishments, my personality and my compassion. I can articulate with my eyes closed why I do what I do, not because of cockiness or outright confidence, but because I have learned that my motivations and my actions matter more than my disordered eating in high school, or the relationship I have with my family.
As I write this, I plan to visit my grandmother with Parkinson’s and say goodbye to her before I leave the country on Tuesday. Later today, I will send out emails to members of a peer health education group on campus, in which I lead the mental health branch. Tonight I will run to “Break Free” by Ariana Grande on the treadmill in my basement, not because I want to get thin, but because I love that song and I love my body.
I do not need to erase my eating disorder, because no matter what, my past will remain. But I draw the lines of my future, and I write the words of my present. I use my voice, strong and clear, and no one will ever take it away from me.
What do you guys think about mental health/illness and recovery? Any dissuading opinions or ideas? What have your experiences been with mental health/illness, if you feel comfortable sharing? I planned on writing a post about rape culture and Downton Abbey today, but because I leave for a ten-day cruise on Tuesday and will not have internet access, I wanted to publish a more personal post as a send-off. Anyway, I look forward to hearing your thoughts, and I hope you all have had a great 2015 so far!