The past few weeks have really put my recovery to the test. First, my parents flew to Montana for four days, leaving me at home to cook and eat meals on my own (I’m still amazed that I didn’t burn the house down). Then, of course, I published my second book. Obviously I’m overjoyed that Breaking Free is out, but at the same time, it’s turned me into a colossal nervous wreck. I’m constantly on edge, and I’m even more indecisive than I usually am, which is a problem whenever I have to make choices surrounding my diet. Deciding what to eat for dinner has been exceptionally challenging lately.
This week, my family and I were vacationing in Southampton. I use the word “vacation” cautiously, as my trip was largely spent networking and promoting Breaking Free. That said, I had a lot of fun. It was nice to escape the constant hubbub of suburban life to relax in an upscale lake house with laidback people and—dare I say it—some damn good food.
My family aims to visit Southampton every summer, but I haven’t been back since seventh grade. I’ve had difficulty in the past adapting to unfamiliar environments, and, after a string of failed vacations, I decided a few years ago that it wasn’t worth the hassle. My rigidity around food made it impossible for any of us to enjoy vacation because we were constantly at war with each other. Any small alteration of my meal schedule would send me into a full-blown panic, and I’d cry or yell or just shut down. As if that weren’t bad enough, more often than not, I’d return home weighing a pound or two less than when I left.
But as years went by and I developed skills that made stepping outside my comfort zone less likely to result in catastrophe, vacationing slowly became enjoyable again. I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about returning to Southampton, where the lifestyle is a stark contrast to that of WeHa’s, but this trip has exceeded my expectations in more ways than not.
Rather than spending most of my time holed up in my room, I had genuine interactions, partook in local activities, and even went to a waterpark—in crappy weather, but still. Food, while anxiety-provoking at times, was overall manageable. I adjusted to a more lenient routine and even enjoyed brunch with my cousin’s South African neighbors. Brunch is difficult for me, as it falls around the time when I eat my morning snack. I’ve historically avoided it at all costs, but, since I’m trying not to let my anxiety get the better of me anymore, I decided “screw it,” had a bowl of cereal to tie myself over until eleven, and went to brunch. It turns out that with quality food and the right people, brunch isn’t so bad after all.
I’d encourage anyone who struggles with eating away from home—whether because of an eating disorder or something entirely different—to not let that fear hold you back. Exposure therapy isn’t easy, but with time and patience, it’s gotten me to a place where my mental illness doesn’t dictate whether my vacation is good or bad. That’s in my hands now.
Of course, there were still a few hiccups along the way, but my trip to Southampton was yet another indication of how far I’ve come. Realizing that I can do well outside of my comfort zone motivates me to keep progressing in recovery. I have an entire lifetime of vacations ahead of me, and while I don’t expect that they’ll all be smooth sailing, at least I know that anything is possible.
Publishing a book is nothing short of terrifying. It’s vulnerable. It’s unpredictable. And, by putting your story out there, you’re deliberately subjecting yourself to criticism and judgement (thanks, Goodreads). So, why did I do it? There are many reasons that compelled me to write and publish a book, but the most important one was this: I had a message that people needed to hear.
I vividly remember the nerve-wracking feeling of sitting at my computer and staring at my browser as my mouse hovered over the orange Publish Your Paperback Book button on KDP. This was in early September, when I was getting ready to publish Changing Ways. Questions sped through my mind:
What if this is a bust?
What if nobody reads it?
What if they do read it and hate it?
What if the past year of my life has been all for nothing?
But, amidst the negativity and doubt, another question arose: what if this works out?
Spoiler alert: it did.
Changing Ways has been the best thing to ever happen to me. Being a published author has opened a door to so many opportunities that I never imagined I’d have. I’ve spoken at libraries and book stores. I was on an anxiety panel at my former high school with four licensed therapists. I did a live interview with Fox61 and a podcast with iHeartRadio. But above all, I now have a platform to share my story, and by doing so, reassure people who are actively struggling with mental illness that hope DOES exist. Not everyone is as fortunate.
Yet despite how well my first publication went, as I get closer and closer to publishing Breaking Free, I can feel the anxiety returning. Doubts keep me awake at night, and with each preparation I make, I question whether I’m ready to put myself through this 24/7 stress-fest again.
Rest assured, I’m going to publish this book. Because while the unexpected can be daunting, it can also be amazing. Who would have ever thought that a socially-awkward eighteen-year-old with a convoluted history of mental illness would one day have the confidence to publicly share her story? Not me—that’s for sure. Outcomes like such emphasize the importance of taking risks. As cliché as it sounds, change rarely comes from playing it safe.
So, take a chance. Embrace the unexpected. And get ready for Breaking Free, ‘cause shit’s about to go down.
This week, my mom and I visited Boston, where I’ll start school at Emerson College in the fall, to meet with three potential therapists. All of them walking distance from Emerson and trained in eating disorders, our objective was to find someone to offer me local support as I begin this next chapter of my life. This is one of many steps that I’m taking to ensure that my first year away from home is a success.
While we were in Boston, we also had lunch and dinner at the dining hall. For many people who struggle with an eating disorder, having to choose from so many options—not to mention the noisy and crowded environment—can be incredibly overwhelming. At home, I have an eating routine. I know which foods I like and, for the most part, they’re accessible. And while I’ll likely continue my three-meals-and-three-snacks-a-day eating schedule, I’m fully aware that I’ll have to adapt my diet to meet my dietary needs.
Despite the initial panic that overcame me when I stepped foot in the dining hall, it turns out that having options wasn’t as challenging as I’d anticipated. I was able to assemble meals—pizza and salad for dinner; a sandwich, apple, and chocolate milk for lunch—that resembled what I’d have at home. Yes, I had to make adjustments (i.e. there was no soy deli meat, so I added another slice of cheese to my sandwich), but overall, it was a good experience.
I returned home feeling victorious. I had a new therapist I liked, I was confident that I could handle the dining hall, and I felt comfortable enough getting around the general vicinity. Additionally, my request for a single room had been recently approved, and I’m looking forward to furnishing with my graduation money.
I know that next year will present challenges that I’ll have to overcome. I know I’ll get overwhelmed and struggle with portion sizes and doubt whether I’m eating enough or too much. Recovery isn’t linear; it’s messy and unpredictable—but that’s not to say it isn’t worth it. For a long time, I never imagined that I’d be in a place where college was feasible. Now that it is, I’m excited to embrace college life. I’m ready for a fresh start.
I apologize for being so inactive lately. Between book events and end of high school preparations (three more weeks!), I’ve been very busy. I recently did an interview about Changing Ways with two wonderful women who run a blog. The full interview is on their site but here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
What inspired you to write Changing Ways?
Changing Ways was inspired by my struggles with mental illness. In eighth grade, I was battling an eating disorder and depression. I was unable to talk about what I was going through and suffered in silence until I discovered writing. Writing became my voice and my escape. Without writing, I honestly don’t know if I would have found the strength to commit to recovery. Five years later, I decided I wanted to use my passion to help other people in the way that it helped me. I wanted to create a realistic, authentic story to spread awareness and understanding of mental illness. So that’s what I did.
Like many kids, when I was younger, Christmas was my favorite time of the year. From the presents to the food to the traditions to the time spent with my family, it was an all-around magical experience. Snapshot memories like riding the “Polar Express” in Essex, portraying an Archangel in my church’s Christmas Pageant, and exploring Rockefeller Center in New York City have stuck with me to this day, many years later.
But the holidays weren’t always a joyful time for me. I have my mental illness to thank for that sad truth. In eighth grade, I was completely entrenched in my eating disorder. Food, once one of my favorite aspects of Christmas, had become something I dreaded. I wouldn’t allow myself to enjoy my favorite childhood treats, like peppermint bark and sugar cookies, I loathed the way my new clothing looked on my recently weight-restored body, and I was constantly at war with my parents. Everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, was a battle with them to the point where we were better off not speaking at all.
Ninth grade was even worse. I was at such a low point in my life that I genuinely believe that the excitement of Christmas was the only thing worth living for. So, when Christmas morning came, I tortured my family by opening every gift painfully slowly, desperate to drag out the experience for as long as I possibly could. And then, when there were no more presents under the tree, I cried. That small shred of hope that I was clinging to was gone, and it was devastating.
This idea that Christmas was the temporary cure for my problems persisted in the years that followed. While my fear of food gradually diminished, I continued my new tradition of making Christmas last all day. I would block out times to open gifts around my scheduled meals—an hour after breakfast, thirty minutes after morning snack—and would frequently take breaks in between. And of course, when the time came to open my final present, I was overcome with sadness and disappointment. No matter how amazing my gifts were, it was never enough to compensate for the fact that the next morning, I’d return to my miserable daily grind. The vicious cycle of deprivation, denial, and defiance that had dominated my life since eighth grade seemed like it would never end.
And then, propelled by external support and internal strength, it did.
This holiday season, I decided I would not let my eating disorder dictate how I spent Christmas. Instead of preoccupying myself with worries about food and dreading the moment that the highly-anticipated festivities ended, I focused my attention on everything that was good in my life. I’d recently been accepted into my number one college. I had a book on the market that was doing well. I’d even begun to enjoy food again.
I know that I will never forget those miserable Christmases, but at least I have the opportunity to create new memories—better memories. Unlike in the past, I’ve found reasons to look forward to the year ahead. I’m excited to embark on new experiences, to meet new people, and to continue improving myself as a person. After all, isn’t that what the New Year is about?
**Uploaded from National Eating Disorder Association**
Talking openly about my feelings has never come easily to me. Even when I was younger, I would rather deliver a vague response of “okay” or “I’m fine” than engage in a lengthy discussion with someone else. And that was never really a problem—at least not until people started expecting me to speak.
To a person who has never had an eating disorder, they’re virtually impossible to understand. The concept of deliberately depriving yourself of food, the building block for our species’ survival, seems irrational, illogical, and, as I’ve heard many times before, crazy.
But that was my life. From the start of eighth grade to not too long ago, I was convinced that my self-worth was dependent on the number of calories I ate—or lack thereof. I existed in a black-and-white world where I was tired and hungry all the time, unable to sleep, and lacked enjoyment in every aspect of my miserable life. My mind was convinced that I had no purpose.
But then I discovered writing.
I’ve always been creative. As a kid, my teachers would frequently comment on how strong my writing was. I was told I had a “gift,” and that I should pursue my talent, which I did—kind of. I wrote a short story every now and then, I participated in a writing course one summer, and I won a poetry contest at my local library. But it was ultimately my illness that compelled me to tear off the pretty wrapping paper and whole-heartedly embrace my gift.
Eighth grade was, without a doubt, the most challenging year of my life. Overwhelmed by my insecurities and anxieties, I clung to control in the only way I knew how; restricting food. But what began as a fairly innocent diet quickly developed into a full-blown eating disorder, wreaking havoc on my life and the lives of those closest to me.
After months of sheer torture, I was admitted to an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). I was there for eight weeks. When I discharged, I was physically in a better place, but mentally, I was still extremely sick. I was no longer allowed to attend school because I was unsafe, so I spend most of my time at home watching television or sleeping or moping around my house, bored out of my mind.
Also around that time, my then-therapist was suggesting coping skills to make my life more manageable. Most of her ideas I refused to try. I thought they were stupid and a waste of my time—I even thought that about writing the first time she proposed it. But once I sat down at my computer and began typing, this incredible feeling of relief overcame me. After years of suppressing my troubling emotions, I finally had a non-destructive release for them.
I realized I had found my voice.
I continued to write diligently in the brutal years that followed. No matter where I was or what resources I had, I would always find a way to write. I remember at a psychiatric hospital composing a poem on a scrap of paper with a stubby orange crayon because patients weren’t allowed to have pencils.
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that every treatment facility I’ve been to encouraged me to explore journaling, the majority of my work at that time was fiction. It made sense that I didn’t want to reflect on the constant turmoil I was enduring—instead, I wanted to escape into a world that was different than my own. I wanted a story that I could control.
As my mental health slowly improved, so did my writing. Recovery provided me with a greater understanding of myself and my life, which I incorporated into my stories. I learned that I don’t have to be perfect to be successful, and that food, once my worst enemy, is actually what enables me to pursue my passion and achieve my long-term goals.
Some days, I wish I could travel back in time and assure my eighth-grade self that things do get better; that obtaining self-satisfaction, no matter how little, is not a false hope but a reality I’m now living in. Other days, I wish I could forget that grim period in my life ever existed. But every day, regardless of my mental state, I’m grateful to writing for giving me the opportunity to reestablish my identity. As long as I have my computer, or at the very least paper and a pencil, by my side, I know I’ll be okay.
Happy World Mental Health Day. Today is a more important day than ever to remember those who lost their battle, celebrate those who found the strength to persevere, and remind anyone who is still struggling that they are so much more than their illness.
When I was very sick, I relied on my mental illness. I was convinced that without it, I was nobody. Now that I’m in a better place, however, I realize how completely wrong I was. Mental illness destroyed my relationships with my family and friends, stripped away everything I once enjoyed, and made me feel worthless and unwanted to the point where I wanted to die.
But with a lot of therapy and support, after three years of enduring constant mental and emotional torment, I was able to commit to recovery. If you or anyone you know may be struggling with mental illness, please do not hesitate to seek help. Whether or not you believe it now, YOU ARE ENOUGH.
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255