This article addresses: suicide, overdosing, vomiting, depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, body image
When I was in 5th grade, I suddenly became extremely aware of my appearance. It was a very abrupt realization.
At eleven years old I was refusing to have my picture taken for the class photo, devastated that I was fat and ugly. Mirrors became my enemy. This was the earliest point in my life where I felt I could never be loved because of my “abnormal” appearance. The following year I was diagnosed with depression, but I was way too embarrassed to explain how I felt about my self-image.
When my Dad died of brain cancer in 2000 I felt like I had lost my best friend and the only person in my family who understood my interests and hobbies. I sought comfort in the only thing I felt was providing me some: food. A lot of food. But what I thought was comforting was slowly making things worse; I refused to go to school and ultimately got kicked out of public school, followed by dropping out of an alternative school. I changed my appearance frequently, hoping that something would make me beautiful, but it never did. It is important to understand that at that time, I wasn’t changing my appearance because I thought it was exciting and fun. I was doing it because I was so unhappy with myself. My heaviest weight was 250 pounds at age 16, and I became so obsessed with my physical appearance that I had a complete nervous breakdown and ended up overdosing on some anti-depressants I was taking at the time. I know it may be difficult to fathom such a thought. How can one be so absorbed in their physical appearance that it causes them to attempt suicide? I wish I knew the answer to that. Because even today, even though I am aware that I have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, I can’t explain the hows or whys as much as I’d like to. It’s one of the most intense feelings I’ve ever experienced; extreme and irrational loathing focused on my appearance.
Throughout the rest of my teens and for most of my twenties, I suffered from bulimia. I wish I could tell you that I instead chose a healthy lifestyle and took control of my weight through beneficial ways, but that’s not how it went down. Healthy wasn’t even a part of my agenda; being thin was.
I came from a family that put a lot of emphasis on food, crash diets, and how the media perceives beauty. I look back at my teenage years and wish I had the resources to help me make better choices, but I didn’t. I saw how other people responded to women in the media, which then caused me to obsess over the photoshopped images on covers of popular magazines, desiring with every fiber of my being to look like those women. I didn’t even realize how unrealistic the media’s perception was; I was too young to fully understand the, for lack of better terms, utter bullshit the beauty industry is constantly spewing. I told myself, as many people who suffer from an eating disorder do, “I’ll just do this until I’m thin. It’ll be fine. Then I’ll be happy.”
That day never came.
Bulimia is a highly secretive disorder. I felt like I could tell absolutely no one what I was doing even though it may have become obvious to those close to me as time went on. There’s a stigma around eating disorders and body image; It’s often taboo to discuss these subjects openly. Some people think that disorders like these stem from vanity or the desire for attention. In some ways, I wish I was vainer; vanity is defined as having a very high opinion of one’s appearance (often to a fault, however). My vision of myself was so abysmal that it was very tough for people close to me to empathize.
Despite becoming very thin, I could not stop purging. It was extremely addicting, and I felt intensely guilty whenever I didn’t. Food was not fun. It was not enjoyable. It was the enemy and I hated it. There was actually a point where I had stopped binging and started eating incredibly healthy food, and even then…I still purged everything. I purged lettuce. I purged vegetables. It didn’t matter what if was. Any food I ingested…ANY food…was not allowed. I became so ill that my hair fell out, my skin yellowed over time, and my teeth began to rot. I suffered frequent fainting spells. Even though I was aware of how much damage I was doing to my body and my mind, I could not stop. I drove myself into such malnourishment, that I hallucinated and became delusional. I told someone close to me that I would rather be dead than overweight. There were a few overdoses; attempts to just end the pain I was feeling. That was the breaking point, and it took years of behavioral therapy to even begin to recover from bulimia.
The most taxing part of the process was finally being honest with people close to me. Because of the stigma around eating disorders, I was too frightened people would judge me harshly and cause me to spiral deeper into depression. Those close to me, ACTUALLY close to me, were horrified, but they were more than willing to help me get through this. Some people judged my mental illness, and I lost them as friends. It sucks. But it’s also okay. There are always people who will be compassionate, and I am glad I trusted those people with my feelings. But imagine how much better it would be if that stigma wasn’t there to begin with. Imagine how many people would feel more comfortable reaching out, getting help, even just talking to friends.
One of the things that haunted me over time was the feeling that others would question my intelligence if they found out I was suffering from BDD and purging my food. I’ve always been a smart, quick-witted person and I like that part of myself (wow, I can’t believe I just complimented myself. Even that can be challenging some days). I love learning, and I love applying what I know to challenging situations, but whenever I succeeded in one area of my life, I felt like I failed in another. I felt like I failed myself in regards to my mental illness. What if people don’t think I am smart anymore? I failed. I kept repeating to myself “I can’t believe I did any of this. I’d never do this. I’m too smart for this.”
I will tell you right now; suffering a mental illness does not mean you are not smart. You can be the most knowledgeable person in the world and still be susceptible to depression. Mental illness doesn’t recognize how smart you are, or how wise you are, or how amazing you are as an individual. I know you may feel like you are something less, but I assure you, you are okay. You may not feel it, but you are. It took me a long time to realize that my mental illness was not my personality. I have so many facets that make up who I am as a person. Suffering a mental illness is one of many things that contribute to who I am and these days, I don’t consider it a negative. I can take what I’ve learned and apply it elsewhere. I can talk to people. I can empathize. I can get through all of this.
I used to think that body dysmorphia was who I was, and who I always will be. It is not true for me, or for you. You are not your mental illness.
Don’t ever be afraid to talk about your feelings. We can’t erase the stigma around eating disorders or ANY mental illnesses unless we are candid. I know it’s scary to open up to people when humanity can seem so bleak at times, but the more knowledge we can share with people about mental illness, the better. You cannot teach something to someone by not discussing it, and there will always be an audience willing to listen. Maybe by speaking out, you can change some of those ignorant mindsets. More people will start to understand, and perhaps one day, people won’t be afraid to talk or seek help. I wish someone had encouraged me to discuss my issues earlier on because when I did speak more frankly about them, I noticed my disposition change. I felt better. I felt more okay. And if I can inspire one person, or even just teach someone something more about bulimia that they didn’t know previously, then that is a great accomplishment.
You should know that I still suffer from BDD, despite recovering from bulimia after 10 years of suffering. Some days it seems unbearable. I am a content creator, often on camera for videos I produce, and those days can still be some of the worst. Sometimes I can’t face myself in the mirror. The days I can face myself make it worth it to keep moving forward. Every time I release a video where I am on camera, I celebrate it as a victory. I remind myself that I recovered from something horrendous and I deserve to be proud of myself. I don’t feel okay sometimes, but I know that I am. And I know that as long as I continue to communicate how I feel, I will be okay. You will be okay too. You ARE okay right now. You are never alone.
We CAN change how people view mental illness. Always, always speak up.