I have done a lot with my life already at the age of age 21. I have traveled to 23 countries and have raised over $90,000 dollars for various causes. I graduated at age 17 with my International Baccalaureate diploma and took a gap year during which I lived in Tanzania and Honduras, getting my Divemaster and Instructor certifications, among other things. I have an amazing, supportive family and I have always been relatively good around people - I’ve even been close with my parents’ friends. All of this makes me wonder if most people, especially the adults in my life, were shocked to hear that, after my junior year of college, I entered into residential treatment for depression and bulimia.
My parents have told me that they began to notice signs of depression when I was as young as age 7, however, elementary school is when I first remember feeling depressed. Although, at the time, I simply saw it as just another way in which I was weird and different. My depression became even more significant during high school, the “memories” feature on Facebook is a continual reminder of that. I was the type of person who would post so many sad, negative status updates. One time, a friend wrote on my wall how it “had been so nice to see me in a better mood the past few days”. However, over time I became much quieter about my depression. Sure, I would go a while without posting anything on social media, which meant that I wasn’t saying anything negative. But it was also a bad sign as I had become really into photography my sophomore year in college and loved to share my pictures. This spread to all areas of my life. I was embarrassed about my eating disorder and depression. They seemed unwarranted and I felt as if I should be happy because of the circumstances of my life. I isolated myself from my parents, my sister and the majority of my friends at school, rather than let them see how much I was struggling.
My freshman year of college I excelled academically. I enjoyed my classes but spent the remaining 20 hours of my day in my room, reading or on Netflix. Sophomore year was somewhat better socially, but then I began to struggle academically. I ended up dropping a few of my classes and my self-esteem became worse than ever. I found myself eating whenever I felt bored, sad or anxious, and gained weight because of that. Finally, that winter I began throwing up after one or two meals a day. It didn’t really seem like a problem to me; it was just my version of eating healthy.
By the time I entered into treatment, my life had fallen apart. I was sleeping incredibly erratic hours, rarely if ever attending my classes, and my eating disorder had taken over my life. I was binging and purging up to 7 times a day which led to both massively increased levels of depression as well as early signs of numerous health concerns. I spent every day living in pain with the belief that my whole life would continue to feel so empty and hurtful. I had isolated myself from all but a few friends, and put on a fake, happy mask to my family. In the final weeks before asking for help I had even begun to isolate those friends closest to me, lashing out and feeling that no one could ever understand how it felt to not want to live anymore. I had begun to misuse my ADHD medication, using it solely as a means of curbing my appetite for the day. This led to more anxiety, depression and anger towards myself and those around me. I began having a reoccurring dream in which I would wander through an abandoned city, completely alone. At that point, my dreams became almost as painful as my waking moments. The only joy I found in any given day was in the few friends who knew what was going on in my life, who would come to my room and check on me multiple times. I was truly living for other people, not seeing any point in my life but not wanting to cause anyone else any pain they might feel were I to end it.
In April of this year, I realized that continuing to live with suicidal thoughts would most likely end up being fatal. I could no longer stand going to sleep each night wishing a new day would not follow, or the pain I felt any time I was forced to be alone. Finally, I called my parents while they were on vacation and asked for help. I told them I needed a residential program, and quickly. About a week later, I arrived in North Carolina for a three and a half month stay in a treatment facility. At the time of my admission, I still didn’t consider myself as having an eating disorder. But after a few days of not purging, I found myself fighting such strong urges and finally realized that my bulimia was a significant problem too. I learned a lot of skills during my months in treatment. I learned how to ask for help when I needed it. I learned how to express my feelings in a way that was not as harsh as I had previously expressed emotions. I began to work on not taking things personally, instead understanding that everyone is at a different place in life. However, the most important thing I gained was the chance to rebuild my relationship with my family. I was painfully open with them about my struggles as well as my triumphs. I shared with them things that they had done that had helped me, as well as a few resentments I was holding in.
I just celebrated seven months of eating disorder sobriety and it has, hands down, been the most rewarding and challenging six months of my life. I still struggle weekly with my self-image. Some days I cannot stand the way I look and the weight I have gained in treatment; looking in a mirror is almost painful. But other days, I look in the mirror and truly think I am beautiful - which was a very rare occurrence six months ago. Perhaps the biggest blessing that has come out of this experience is that I have discovered my inner artist. Previously, I always believed that because I could not draw or paint, I wasn’t “creative” and would never be an artist. However since entering into treatment I have discovered my passion for collaging, my love of spin pottery and began a photography apprenticeship to further develop my photography skills. I have found a huge therapeutic benefit in my art. It gives me a chance to be vulnerable and create visual images that represent my feelings, hopes and dreams.
I’m planning on going back to school in January and I know that it won’t be easy. I will continue to see both a therapist and a nutritionist on a weekly basis and will be at risk of regression if I do not use the skills I have learned during these past six months. However, between my newfound passions for rock climbing, art and life itself, I have faith that I will be able to continue to make strides forward. You can too.
I advise anyone struggling with depression, an eating disorder or other issue would be to reach out and ask for help. It is so easy to isolate and feel that no one will care or understand, or will even judge but truly as soon as I asked for help the response I got was astounding. Reach out to family, a friend, an organization or a support group.
EPILOGUE "DID YOU KNOW?
DEPRESSION has a way of tricking even the happiest of people into thinking that life isn't worth experiencing. Their energy is evaporated, what once was pleasurable is now less-than appealing and the physical symptoms are completely taxing. While many people consider mental illness in the abstract -- an affliction outside the realm of possibility in their own lives -- the sad reality is that these disorders are distressingly common. In fact, it affects so many people that it is often referred to as the "common cold" of mental illness. 350,000,000 people globally are affected by some form of depression and that includes 20 million Americans...that is 11% of the population.
EATING DISORDERS are real, complex, and devastating conditions that can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships. They are not a fad, phase or lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that affect a person’s emotional and physical health. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder...and for various reasons, most cases are likely not to be reported. By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.
Thank you so much, Bryn, for sharing your personal story and giving hope to millions!