To say this year has been difficult would be a vast understatement. This past week has been especially heartbreaking and once again demonstrated the significant racial inequities and poor leadership in our so-called “great” country. Then, of course, there’s the coronavirus, which has somehow worsened and is showing no signs of improving anytime soon. Add to that the worst president in American history making one horrible decision after another, and times are pretty bleak.
With so much chaos constantly transpiring, maintaining my mental health is challenging. There are days when I feel hopeless or angry or defeated or all of the above simultaneously, and I have to fight just to get through. And I’m not alone. I’ve done a few virtual recovery talks at treatment facilities I was previously admitted to, where it’s clear that everyone is struggling. Mental illness rates are at an all-time high, and it’s no surprise why.
As tempting as it is to vent about how shitty the world is right now, I thought I’d instead use this post to share some ways—tips, if you will—that I’ve been surviving these trying times and keeping my mental health in check. The first way is by not watching the news. I’m a politically-charged person who always wants to be “in the know” but at this point, tuning into one tragedy after another is causing me more harm than good. While watching the democrats win back the Senate was exciting and hopeful, that story was immediately followed by the storming of the White House, then by the rising COVID rates, then by Trump saying or doing something awful. On screen, the negatives far outweigh the positives so I’m taking a break for a bit. I’ve even unfollowed CNN on Twitter temporarily, which has made for a much less depressing timeline.
There’s a lot I don’t have control over right now, which is why something else that’s improved my mental health is focusing my energy and attention on what I do. I’m using the extra time I have from being unemployed to get ahead in my education, as well as work on new and exciting writing projects that, in addition to passing the time, give me motivation and hope for the future.
Eating well and exercising are two seemingly-simple steps that make a huge difference in my overall health and happiness. With my history of disordered eating and compulsive exercise, maintaining balance hasn’t always been easy but I’m in a place where, with a little conscious effort, it’s possible. The weather is pretty nasty in New England at the moment so I’ve found ways to get some movement indoors: yoga, cardio workouts on YouTube, and now running on the treadmill my parents bought us for the holidays (thanks, Mom and Mama).
Participating in hobbies and activities that bring me joy and distract me from all the stress and heartbreak has proved to be quite helpful as well. Reality television like The Great British Bake Off and The Amazing Race and TV dramas like The Queen’s Gambit and Schitt’s Creek keep me entertained for a sustained period of time and provide much-needed breaks from my writing projects and schoolwork. Games like Scrabble and Ticket to Ride challenge me mentally and force me to interact with others, which brings me to the next and final tip . . .
Not going at this on my own. I find it funny that in the early days of the pandemic, introverts like myself joked about how we’d been preparing for this moment and how social distancing would be a piece of cake. Well, this introvert got real sick of social distancing sometime mid-summer and wanted nothing more than to walk outside and hug a random stranger. But since I can’t do that, I’ll appreciate that I have the support of immediate family and continue to keep in touch with my friends over Zoom and Discord. Technology often gets a bad rap but it’s provided a way to stay connected with friends and family until we can see them in person again, and while it’s certainly not the same, right now it’s the next best thing.
Especially in the news, we hear a lot about nasty people doing nasty things. But there are just as many—if not more—kind and empathetic people who want what’s best for humanity. The doctors and scientists who are working twenty-four-seven to put an end to this pandemic. The mental health professionals who are taking on new cases all the time without complaint. The teachers who are trying their best to provide kids with a decent education in a complicated hybrid learning environment. The politicians who aren’t corrupt and genuinely care about their country or state’s wellbeing. The list goes on.
Just like those good people exist, so does hope. It’s cliché but this too shall pass, and when it does, when the pandemic is finally behind us, we’re all going to be a hell of a lot stronger—and hopefully a bit more gracious. But until then, I’ll keep practicing these tips and recommend that anyone else who’s feeling how I am—anxious, frustrated, and doubtful—try to as well. One final suggestion I have—and one I’ve said before on this blog—is to take life one day at a time. The future is so uncertain that there’s no point in stressing over it; instead, let’s focus on the present, be grateful that we’re still here and still in decent health, and be inspired that if we’ve made it this far, we can absolutely see this thing through.
Okay, so the last part of that title isn’t quite true. I’m waiting for the final results of the election before I make any relocation plans. In all seriousness though, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as shocked and repulsed as I did watching the election. If I thought the nauseous feeling in my stomach was bad in 2016, it was nothing compared to last night.
A quick disclaimer that this post is very political/contains strong language and my own opinions and rants. Because what else would you expect from a sleep-deprived, politically-charged twenty-year-old who’s fed up with misinformed and close-minded adults making all the decisions?
Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Anyway, back to me feeling sick last night. Did I expect a blowout? No. Did I expect Biden to have a solid lead? I was cautiously optimistic. But I certainly didn’t expect such a close race. (Seriously, who’s conducting these misleading polls?) As I sat on the couch in my TV room, my two moms sitting next to me, and watched as more districts and states on John King’s magic wall turned red, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like 2016 déjà vu.
It genuinely baffles me how people—and so many at that—can vote for the bigoted, ignorant, disgusting man “running” this country; a man who once bragged about grabbing women by the pussy; a man who continues to spew hatred every time he opens his mouth or tweets; a man who has broken more rules and has had more scandals than any president in American history; a man who has taken an already-divided country and completely ripped it apart. And let’s not forget that this is the man who is responsible for thousands of people dying because he refuses to believe in science and wear a goddamn mask.
At least in 2016 no one knew how much damage this man was capable of causing.
But this is 2020, nearly four years of witnessing Trump wreak havoc in office. How can so many Americans still think he’s a good leader—or simply a leader at all? How can so many Americans still believe his lies and support his open, unabashed prejudice? And let’s not forget we’ve got four more years of McConnell and Graham too (howdidthishappen?).
A lot of people will say I’m overreacting; that I’m being a “poor sport” because my candidate might lose. But this isn’t a fucking basketball game; for many of us, our rights and our freedom are literally threatened by Trump. My rights as a queer female, my same-sex parents’ rights, my gay friends’ rights, my black friends’ rights, my Jewish extended family’s rights are all at stake. And that’s fucking terrifying, knowing that the leader of my country doesn’t just dislike me but wants to take my freedom away. The worst part is; I know I have it much better than many other people on Trump’s shitlist. At least he doesn’t despise the skin color I was born with.
If you’ve never experienced that fear, then you have no right to tell people not to be upset about the results of last night.
Honestly, even if Biden does pull through (and I have to remain hopeful that he will), I won’t be truly happy because that won’t change the fact that, despite all the awful things Trump has done, millions stood by him last night—and will continue to support his close-minded beliefs for years, decades, probably even centuries to come. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
2020, simply put, has been a complete clusterfuck. Worst. Year. Ever. It’s caused irreversible damage and brought immense pain to individuals and families across America and the world. Just when I thought there was a chance for some redemption, I was sadly mistaken. Because although Democrats turned out in unprecedented numbers, Republicans did too.
If you’re like me and feel upset, sad, scared, angry, disgusted, or all of the above right now, I advise you not to internalize it. Write about it, confide in someone you trust, do something that will make you smile or laugh or simply distract from this political pandemonium. Above all, look after yourself this week. It’s going to be a long and stressful haul so please prioritize your mental health and don’t get down on yourself. You did your part yesterday by showing up and participating in democracy. What happens next is out of anyone’s control.
The best we can do at this moment is to take care of ourselves and keep hope alive. And if things really do go to hell, at least there’s still Canada.
I’ve heard a lot of people saying how weird Halloween is going to be this year. Many towns, mine included, are adamantly advising against trick-or-treating, while others have banned it completely. Then there’s the issue of staying socially distanced at parties, parades, attractions, and all those other highly anticipated, heavily populated festivities. Elizabeth Park, a popular local rose garden that always goes all-out for Halloween, actually decided not to put up their elaborate decorations this year to avoid drawing a crowd.
All this talk has got me thinking about my weirdest Halloween.
I’ve had a lot of interesting Halloweens in my young life. The worst one was in eighth grade when my eating disorder was so severe that a hundred-calorie chocolate bar seemed, in my mind, more terrifying than any ghost or ghoul or goblin. And who other New Englanders remember the very premature snowstorm that got the holiday canceled altogether in 2011? But I think that, of all my unconventional Halloweens, tenth grade takes the prize of being the weirdest, wackiest Halloween of them all.
In late October of tenth grade (in 2015), I was about a month into my nine-week stay at a residential treatment facility called Center for Discovery in Southport, Connecticut. CFD exclusively treated eating disorders, so suffice to say I was not the only person in the house with an irrational fear of sweets.
Those of us who were on Level 2 or higher were permitted to go on a staff-selected outing every Saturday. The Saturday before Halloween, that outing was to a pumpkin farm. I’ll be honest; I don’t remember much of what happened that day, other than a kid in my group getting scolded for trying to steal a pumpkin. But I do remember having fun—as much fun as I could have in eating disorder treatment anyway.
The next day, I visited a local Halloween store with my parents (thank you, Level 3 privileges) and bought a spooky masquerade mask and a white cape. I’m not sure what look I was going for; I think I was just so happy to be out of the house for a couple of hours that freedom was more important than costume coordination.
On Halloween night, three of us dressed up in actual costumes, two kids who didn’t have costumes on-hand borrowed hospital gowns and went as—no joke—insane asylum escapees, and the final kid refused to dress up altogether and wore pajamas. Our little motley crew, accompanied by two counselors, headed outside into the unusually warm autumn night and walked through the very dark and very desolate streets for about half an hour. (The houses in that particular neighborhood were enormous and pretty spread apart, which was good because if anyone saw us, they’d probably think we were a bit mad.) Afterward, we returned to the house for evening snack and ate however much candy we needed to fulfill our daily Exchanges. (1 fun-sized candy bar = 1 starch.) Then we made our nightly phone calls, watched a creepy episode of Supernatural, and went to bed promptly at 10:00.
In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad Halloween per se—at least in comparison to eighth or ninth grade—but it certainly was unconventional. Leave a comment letting me know what your weirdest Halloween was or if this year will take the cake. And if you are going out tomorrow, please, please, please be safe and wear a mask. And no, I’m not talking about the spooky kind!
There’s nothing quite as long and lonely as a sleepless night. I should know; I’ve had a lot of those recently. Getting enough sleep has been an issue for me for years, however over the past couple of months, it’s gotten so much worse. Even on the nights when I’m not pulling dreadful all-nighters, it can take me ages just to turn off my active mind and fall asleep.
I’m currently writing this post at 3 a.m. (although I’ll surely edit it with a clearer head). It’s been about five hours since I took my melatonin and crawled into bed; five hours of tossing and turning, of practicing the many sleep skills my therapist taught me, of anxiously staring at my dark ceiling wondering why none of those skills are working, and finally of reaching my breaking point where I can’t take it anymore and grabbing my computer.
Basically a pretty typical night in the life.
Pinpointing the direct cause of my insomnia hasn’t been easy. At the end of the summer, I decided (with the consent of my psychiatrist of course) to gradually reduce the dosage of an antianxiety medication I’d been on for six years. I went from 225 mg to 50 mg over the course of a couple of months. (I tried going off it entirely but that was a disaster so I stuck with 50). We think this was around the time my sleeping got worse.
But I’ve also been more excited—and stressed—lately than I have in a while. Anxiety about the pandemic and politics aside, a lot has been happening in my personal life, namely the upcoming publication of my third book. Anyone who’s ever self-published a book knows how much there is to do to get ready for a launch. From communicating with my cover designer to editing proofs to uploading materials to KDP to figuring out how I’m going to successfully market this thing entirely online, I’ve been working diligently all day—and sometimes through the night—to make sure all the key components are in their place. Add that to the semi-weekly uploads to Nourish and my ever-growing college workload, and my mind is in overdrive twenty-four seven.
Then, of course, it could be the time of the year. Historically, my mental health is always the worst in the fall for a variety of reasons (check out my September Slump post for more on that). Usually that slump manifests as depression, but this year, anxiety seems to have taken the reins. And, like the insomnia, determining the culprit for my anxiety, not to mention how to best manage it, has been a puzzle more perplexing than the four-thousand-piece jigsaw in my living room.
Whatever the reason is, I know I can’t go on like this. Good sleep hygiene is essential for everyone—especially for people who are in recovery from mental illness. When I’m tired and have no energy, I’m more likely to feel depressed, and when I’m depressed, I’m more likely to restrict. It’s a toxic chain reaction that begins with a crappy night and ends with a plethora of mental health issues.
I’m Zooming with my psychiatrist tomorrow so hopefully we can sort this out. I’ll be sure to post an update when my sleep improves and possibly share tips if I can find ones that work. Please let me know what works for you in the comments. At this point, I’m open to trying almost anything that will help me catch some Zs!
I’ve decided that September is my least favorite month. It’s not the coldest or the longest, but in my experience, it’s the saddest. I had hopes for this September—not very high ones, I’ll admit, but I was still optimistic that it might be okay for once. After all, I’m home, comfortably enrolled in an online school, and have some exciting new projects I’m hard at work on. But recent events in my personal life have made “taking back September,” as my therapist so eloquently puts it, a difficult feat.
I’m currently writing this post in South Hampton. I’m in a beautiful place with nice people, working Wi-Fi, decent physical health, and plenty to look forward to, and I’m not having a good time. On the contrary, I can’t wait for vacation to end so I can go home. It’s thinking like that that makes me wonder: what’s wrong with me?
That, in of itself, is a loaded question. One important thing to note is that I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. I wrote a post on SAD ages ago (you can check it out here), but basically what it means is that my mood dips when the seasons change, the temperature drops, and there’s less sunlight. I have my lightbox and antidepressant, but neither is a cure-all. Acknowledging that I will feel sadder and more tired at this time of the year, that there’s nothing I can do about it, and, most importantly, that there’s nothing to feel guilty or ashamed of, is important for my wellbeing. I’m the type of person who always likes to be productive and will work myself to the point of exhaustion. I have to accept that because of my mental health, I won’t get as much done during the colder months, and that’s okay. I owe myself that much.
In addition to SAD, there are the bad memories of past Septembers: eighth grade, when I spiraled into my eating disorder; ninth grade, the first time I was admitted to the hospital; and, of course, last year: my epic college flop.
I don’t talk a lot about college because it was such a disaster. Having to medically withdraw—and after such a short period of time too—was a reminder that my eating disorder was still very active and could return to wreak havoc on my life at the slightest sign of weakness. Even though I was able to rebound and get my life together, the memories, especially at this time, exactly one year later, are still so present and upsetting.
Talking about them helps. Venting to my parents and my therapist, people who have been there for me when I was at my worst and who I know will listen to me without judgment or criticism, is good when I need to get something off my chest. Of course, writing helps a lot too. Maybe not on this blog—yet—but in the new stories, fact and fiction, I’m working diligently on.
So, will this be the year I reclaim September? I think not. The best that I can do, I’ve decided, is to simply get through it while trying to focus on the positives. Things like the online cookbook, Nourish, my mom and I recently launched, the abundance of pumpkin spice foods, the fact that one of my favorite TV shows cleaned up at the Emmys, the four-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in my living room, my adorable therapy cat, Chibi, the upcoming release of my third book. I have a lot to feel good about it, and even if it doesn’t “fix” my depression or break this slump I’m in, it’s somewhere to start.
It’s been almost seven years since I was admitted to Walden’s Intensive Outpatient Program for my eating disorder, but I still remember my first day as if it had happened yesterday.
I was thirteen, deep in the trenches of an eating disorder, and convinced that a number on a scale determined my worth. I wore baggy sweats to hide the body I’d grown to despise and carried my backpack, as I’d just come from middle school. My two moms and younger brother accompanied me. All three confused and conflicted in their separate ways. One thing was clear though: we were broken and desperately needed help.
And Walden did just that.
On that first day alone, it exposed how bad my illness had become when I wouldn’t complete my meal, staying until 8:30 PM—nearly two hours past closing—because I just couldn’t eat a snack-size bag of chocolate chip cookies. Over the next eight weeks, I was challenged again and again. I yelled, cried, and even ran away once, but at the same time, I also gained long-term skills and strategies that helped me cope in moments of crisis. And while I was still a conflicted mess when I discharged, Walden was the starting point of my long and complicated journey to getting better.
The years that followed were the darkest and scariest years of my life with numerous inpatient admissions. I felt lost, confused, and hopeless. I was convinced that my eating disorder—the thing that was killing me—was the only thing that mattered. It was my identity, and without it, I didn’t know who I was. That is the sad truth for many people who struggle with eating disorders. Breaking out of the mindset is incredibly difficult, but with support, time, patience, and determination, you can do it. I have.
My recovery began in late-2015 when I was admitted to a residential eating disorder treatment facility. This was my last inpatient admission. After years of refusing to embrace help, I was finally in a place in my life where I was genuinely fed up with my disorder controlling me. As my mom would say: I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
With the help of my treatment team, support from my family, and my own internal strength, I’ve stayed on the road to recovery. Sure, there have been detours and speed bumps, but even when I’ve strayed, I’ve always managed to find my way back.
During the summer of 2017, I started writing my first book Changing Ways, a story about a sixteen-year-old’s journey to overcome mental illness. While marketed as fiction, much of Changing Ways is based on my personal experiences. Writing, then subsequently publishing a book, marked a new chapter in my life. I realized that if I was going to put Changing Ways out into the world, I couldn’t be afraid to talk openly about my mental illness. I’d spent most of my adolescence feeling ashamed of this part of me—and wrongfully so. It wasn’t my fault that I was mentally ill, and the sooner I accepted that the better off I’d be.
Sharing my story was intimidating at first, but when I saw the impact my candor and vulnerability had on other people, especially those who either knew someone or was personally battling mental illness, it made the nerves entirely worthwhile. This creative hobby that had saved me when I was at my worst was now helping other people. I was slowly chipping away at the stigma associated with mental illness, and it turns out that all it took was speaking my truth.
Eating disorder recovery isn’t easy. It’s messy, unpredictable, and so brutal that some days, I just want to give in. But when I think about how far I’ve come from an insecure thirteen-year-old filled with self-hatred to an independent young adult proudly living her truth, there isn’t a single doubt in my mind that it’s worth it.
*This post was written for Walden Behavioral Care’s blog. Read the original post here.