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.
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
I knew when I decided to self-publish a book that negative reviews would be inevitable. I processed it, I accepted it, I prepared for it . . . and it still sucks.
Earlier today, I received a review on Goodreads that claimed the psych ward in Changing Ways is unrealistic because Grace had “far too many opportunities to get away with not eating.” A large part of me was tempted to leave a comment rebutting this reviewer’s remark. After all, Grace’s stay at CTC is entirely based on my own experiences with psych wards, many of which were utterly incompetent when it came to eating disorders. Like Grace, at six of my seven inpatient admissions, I too manipulated the system and consequently lost a startling amount of weight.
I wanted to say this. But I didn’t.
I knew it wouldn’t matter. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion because everyone sees things a little differently. And that’s what makes humans so fantastic. I don’t expect every person who reads Changing Ways to like it. It tackles a subject many people are uncomfortable with and is written with a strong teen voice, something others may find annoying or unsophisticated (yes, I’ve heard both of these).
I’m proud of my book, and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. If I had let my fear of criticism get the best of me, I never would have published Changing Ways. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to share my story, to speak my truth. But I do, and that alone makes every shitty review worthwhile.
A life that’s dominated by fear is a life I do not want to live.
Fall is undeniably one of the most beautiful times of the year, but for someone like me, who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s also one of the most difficult. As the days become shorter and the temperature drops, I begin to feel sad, tired, and lack motivation to do even the simplest of things, like getting out of bed or dressing nicely. It’s because of this that the majority of my winter clothing comprises of sweats.
I began struggling with SAD when I was in the eighth grade. Although it’s been five years since I hit my lowest weight, four since my first hospital admission, and three since I was finally able to commit to recovery, many of the bad memories I associate with fall are so vivid, they might as well have happened yesterday. And while there are still times when I feel overwhelmed or lose hope, as the years progressed, I’ve discovered several coping mechanisms in order to prevent SAD from derailing my recovery:
1. My lightbox. Lightboxes mimic sunlight to evoke a chemical change in my brain, which lifts my mood and alleviates other symptoms brought on by SAD. I usually spend ten-to-fifteen minutes under my lightbox while I eat breakfast. The morning is the best time, as lightboxes can disrupt sleep if they’re used too late in the day.
2. Focusing on the positive. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s easy to forget the progress I’ve made when I’m down. That’s why, whenever I feel my mood beginning to dip, I take a moment to reflect on how far I’ve come over the past few years and another to remind myself of how shitty it would be to return to that dark, miserable place.
3. Being with people. For me, nighttime is when my depression is the most intense. That’s why in the evening, I hang out in a central location or watch TV with my family until I’m psychically and mentally exhausted. That way, when I crawl into my bed, I don’t have the energy to think negative thoughts or remember unpleasant times.
4. Doing fun stuff. It’s really easy when I’m feeling down to lack motivation to do much of anything. I used to sleep to escape the pain, but now I force myself to engage in activities that bring me joy, like board games or funny YouTube videos or playing with my cats.
5. Putting my health first. This should be a no-brainer, but for many people (including myself) it’s easy to get caught up in the constant hubbub of school, work, sports, etc. That said, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that nothing else matters when I’m not well.
Remember; how you let SAD affect you is (mostly) in your hands. There are dozens of other coping skills I didn’t mention, but in order for them to work, you must commit to using them every day as best you can. YOU have the power.
If you think you have SAD or want to learn more, click here.
On Saturday, September 29th at 1:00, Book Club Bookstore and More will be hosting my first book talk. I’m so excited (and a little anxious) to finally have a platform to share my story. The past five years of my life have been a mix of terrifying, insightful, unexpected, and at times, downright crazy. I’ve had days when I couldn’t get out of bed, then others when I embraced the world with open arms. I’ve sobbed for hours on end. I’ve laughed until my stomach hurt. I’ve wanted to die. I’ve fought tooth-and-nail to be alive.
When I began writing Changing Ways one year ago, I had no idea where it would take me–and I still don’t, not really. That said, I’m ready to start exploring this next chapter of my life. The future is an open door . . . and so is Book Club Bookstore and More. Now all I have to do is figure out what the hell I’m going to say.
It’s happening!!! My debut novel Changing Ways is officially available for purchase on Amazon. This is a huge accomplishment for me and an even larger step forward in my recovery. Four years ago, I couldn’t imagine living today, much less achieving my goal of becoming a published author, and now that I have, I’ve never been happier to be alive. This is a dream come true, and I’m so excited to share it with each and every one of you.