So . . . I left college.
One month later, it’s still hard to say that out loud. I went to Chili Night at my church last week—which was largely to please my mom, who thinks I don’t get out of the house enough—and college came up quite a lot. Most of the people at the event were under the impression (rightfully so) that I was still at college and was simply visiting for the weekend. And even though their reaction when I explained that, no, I’d medically withdrawn from my school and was back home for an indefinite amount of time, was overwhelmingly positive, the truth hurt nevertheless.
My last blog post (from two months ago) was essentially a six-hundred-word tangent on why Orientation is the absolute worst. But, as it turns out, Orientation was a merely warm-up jog for the uphill marathon that was college. To say that my college experience was a disaster would be an understatement. In every way that I could have failed, I did on an epic level. But hey, I learned some things along the way, and I thought they’d be helpful to share so something good might come out of this mess. So without further ado, these are the six biggest takeaways from my short-lived college experience.
Number one: Traditional education isn’t right for everyone.
Just because something works for most people doesn’t mean it will work for me. This seems to be a trend when it comes to my education. In high school, I had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that gave me certain privileges, such as my part-day schedule, to help me succeed socially and academically. And while there were still many challenges I faced, in hindsight, I doubt I would have survived without my IEP.
I didn’t have an IEP in college, and, after nineteen years of having a fairly structured and sheltered homelife, being thrust into an unfamiliar environment with thousands of strangers was a complete shock to my system. As I was riding a crammed elevator to the fourth floor of my new dorm building, I was struck with the realization that, for the first time in my life, I was on my own, and there was still so much I didn’t know. I’d been so reliant on my parents that the thought of everything that could go wrong now that I was left to my own devices terrified me. Even though I’d done a lot to prepare myself, in that moment, I found myself wondering if it was enough.
Number two: Even the best thought-out plans can flop.
When I began touring colleges in spring of 2018, I had certain criteria to determine whether the school would be a fit. It had to be on the smaller side, focus on the arts, have adequate mental health services, not be affiliated with a specific religion, and be within two hours from home. Once I was accepted into college—my top school, for that matter—I took a number of precautions, including finding a therapist near my campus and applying for a single room, to make sure that my transition was successful, which it was . . . in the beginning.
And then I relapsed (whoops). Without going into too much detail, basically everything that could have gone awry did, and I couldn’t cope. It felt like all the progress I’d made and everything I’d worked so hard for was falling apart right in front of me, and I couldn’t stop it. I kept trying to convince myself that it was just a phase, and that something good would finally happen, and I’d be able to climb out of the hole I’d fallen into. But as days went by and nothing changed, I realized that if I didn’t take action soon, that hole was only going to get deeper. So one afternoon, as I lay motionless in bed like a zombie, I did what anyone who desperately needed to be rescued would do and called my mom. I told her that I couldn’t do this anymore and begged her to take me home, which she did.
Number three: Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
I think the greatest lesson I’ve taken away from this whole ordeal is that asking for help doesn’t mean I’m weak. In fact, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Accepting that I’d failed and my mental illness had won was the first step to healing. Had I kept lying to myself, I might have never found the strength to call my mom, and while I wish I’d reached out sooner, in hindsight, it could have been so much worse.
Number four: Relapse doesn’t equal failure.
This one is hard for me, as there are still times when I feel like I’ve let myself and my family down by withdrawing from college. But then I remind myself that recovery isn’t linear. Recover is like a roller coaster ride: bumpy, unexpected, and full of so many twists and turns that at times, I simply want to hurl myself over the rails in frustration. As for relapse, well, relapse is horrible, but it happens, and it’s not my fault. I didn’t choose to be this way after all.
Number five: Relapse isn’t the end of the world.
Just because I took a couple of steps back doesn’t mean that all the progress I’ve made has been for nothing. This is simply another hurdle I must overcome, and that’s exactly what I plan to do. I’ve been home for a month, and while my mental health is far from perfect, I think I’m headed in the right direction. I’ve started writing again, I’ve applied for several book events, and I’ve even been taking driving lessons, which will hopefully pay off at my road test tomorrow (pray for me). I don’t know what will happen in terms of my education, but thankfully, I have plenty of options from online schooling to community college to getting a job around town and growing my bank account. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of it’s that recovery is still very possible. My mental illness may have won this time, but it won’t defeat me in the long run.
Number six: Communal showers are terrifying and should be avoided at all costs.
Seriously. Forget ghosts and ghouls and werewolves and whatnot; this spooky season, the scariest thing of all is communal showers. Happy Halloween!
My week-long Orientation at Emerson College has finally come to an end, and I couldn’t be more relieved. Between daily meetings with our Orientation Leaders to mandatory information sessions to theater productions every evening, it’s been a busy seven days. And while I’m glad to have had a chance to learn about the school I’ll be attending for the next four years, it’s fairly obvious that Orientation targets a specific group of people — and I’m not one of them.
I identify as an introvert. For me, introversion isn’t synonymous with shy or antisocial; it simply means that I get energy from being alone rather than from social situations. I can still interact with people, an example being the countless craft fairs I’ve participated in since I published Changing Ways. I genuinely enjoy company, and I’m not afraid to put myself out there to achieve a goal. That said, my personality desperately needs time and space to “recharge my batteries” as my mother puts it. I need breaks every now and then so I don’t burn out or overwhelm myself.
Thankfully, I have a single room this year to disappear into when I need to decompress. I have my own space to do things that relax me, like writing and yoga, without worrying about anyone disrupting my peace. It’s required me to make an extra effort to connect with my peers, but I love my single nevertheless. It keeps me sane, and at the end of the day, sanity is my priority.
But nothing — not my single room, not my nightly phone vent sessions with my parents, not even The Great British Baking Show — could replenish the energy Orientation had sucked out of me, like a vacuum cleaner sucking up the crumbs of a delicious homemade muffin (I really miss my mom’s cooking). It was so draining that at times, I worried I wouldn’t make it to the actual start of school. Thankfully, I got my shit together, but it was a legitimate concern of mine for a day or two.
Don’t get me wrong; Orientation wasn’t all bad. In fact, there were parts of it that I quite liked. I met some really neat people. I enjoyed most of the performances I attended. I got to explore Boston before the weather goes to shit. I even participated in a dodgeball tournament, which despite the overabundance of testosterone plaguing the gymnasium, was a lot of fun.
Plus, I have an excellent therapist who’s only a five-minute walk from Emerson, and my parents seem more than happy to listen to me complain (I think they just like hearing my voice). Perhaps this wasn’t the ideal start to college that I had in mind, but in hindsight, it could have been much worse. Emerson is an amazing school. It’s stands for everything I believe in: inclusion, diversity, and authenticity. Not to mention that the president is well liked, which, in my experience, is unprecedented. I’m looking forward to exploring all of the opportunities Emerson has to offer me, whether that be working behind-the-scenes on their television channel to participating in an organization to earning some extra cash at an on-campus job to maybe — and this is a big maybe — picking up a sport again.
My first class starts shortly, so I’d better dash. As this will be my first ever seminar, I have no idea what to expect, but I’m excited to finally delve into my major nevertheless. And if there’s one thing I know for fact, it’s that I sure as hell am glad Orientation is over.
Society is at it again. Super Happy Fun America, a nonprofit organization that sounds like a child named it, is vying to add “S” to the LGBTQ+ acronym because “it’s great to be straight.” In their quest to exacerbate the prejudice queer people face on a daily basis, Super Happy Fun America obtained a license to hold a Straight Pride Parade in Boston this Saturday, which will march past Emerson’s campus. While this is obviously a political stunt fueled by privilege and ignorance, the fact that these things are still happening in 2019—and on a regular basis too—is pitiful.
As the daughter of same-sex parents and an out and proud bisexual, this issue hits close to home. Even in my liberal hometown, homophobia is all-too-prevalent. Gay slurs plagued the hallways in middle and high school, while at my former job, I was subjected to frequent assumptions about my sexuality. “Do you have a boyfriend?” one coworker asked. “I know you’ll meet so many boys in college,” said another with a suggestive smile.
We live in a heteronormative society where everyone is presumed to be straight. For centuries, queer people have been marginalized, rejected, beaten, and even murdered simply for being themselves. Promoting a “straight agenda,” as Super Happy Fun America has deliberately chosen to do, merely worsens the issue at hand. It incites the delusion that such hate crimes are permissible and encourages others who share similar opinions to participate in this blatant discrimination.
While I acknowledge that society has made progress in terms of accepting the LGBTQ+ community, we have a long way to go. Equality is possible, but to obtain it, we can’t back down in the presence of bigotry. We must use our voice to combat the outdated norms that rationalize homophobia. We must speak up for those who are oppressed. We must advocate for equal rights and acceptance through non-violent methods. We must be true to who we are—even when society tells us otherwise. Because at the end of the day, there is nothing more liberating than authenticity.
Queer people exist. Choosing not to accept them is not an option. The fight for equality is far from over, yet we press on. Maybe freedom won’t exist in five years or ten or even fifty, but I’m hopeful that the day will come when living your truth isn’t condoned—it’s celebrated.
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.
Here it is. After months of nonstop brainstorming, cramped fingers from vigorous typing, sleepless nights, and meticulous edits, I’m pleased to announce that my new book Breaking Free went live on Tuesday. Breaking Free is the sequel to Changing Ways and chronicles the protagonist’s life outside of a treatment facility as she learns how to navigate the complicated real world. Similar to my first book, the story is based on my personal experiences of being in recovery from a mental illness.
Recovery has taught me the importance of perseverance. When I started writing Changing Ways two years ago, I had a goal, and nothing was going to stand in my way. Not my unpredictable mental health. Not the people who told me I was too young or inexperienced to write a book. Not writer’s block—though that came close to bringing me down on more than one occasion.
Almost anything is possible if you want it enough. No matter how many times I get knocked down or how many obstacles I’ll have to overcome, there’s one thing I know for certain: I’m never going to stop writing.
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.
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. In eighth grade, I was struggling a lot with my mental health. Food, once one of my favorite parts 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 fit me, 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 mental health slowly improved, I continued my new tradition of making Christmas last all day. I would block out times to open gifts around my scheduled meals 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 mental illness dictate how I spent Christmas. Instead of preoccupying myself with worries about food and dreading the moment that the 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?
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.
*This post was written for NEDA. Read the original post here.