“When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘We,’ even illness becomes wellness.”
Happy May, y’all! You may remember that I actively participated in a few quiet campaigns last year for Mental Health Awareness Month, but I was admittedly scared and skeptical of the judgement I’d be subjecting myself to. However, time changes your perspective. Although early childhood literacy will always remain a cause near and dear to my heart, my personal and professional mission has clearly become inspiring young girls to embrace their bodies and minds for each and every quirk, imperfection, and perceived deficiency. It’s so important for us to change the way we think about mental health, and with today’s generation plagued by cyber bullies, standards of unobtainable perfection, and societal pressure to fit in, I’m finally ready to come forward with my own story in an attempt to reach anyone who may be currently suffering. Remember, 1 in 4 Americans experiences mental illness in a given year. If you’re that lucky person, you’re clearly not alone.
Quick preface: I want to give a warm and sincere thank you to everyone who has helped me along my very long journey from eating disorder victim to eating disorder advocate and survivor. To those of you who inspired me to seek help, reclaim my life, and finally speak out about my own struggles and the dire need for mental health awareness, this post is for you. Thank you to Rent the Runway for lending me this gorgeously ethereal white Badgley Mischka dress, Gigi New York for donating a fabulous Island Green Embossed Python Uber Clutch (giveaway widget and outfit details at the bottom of this post), and to Martha Destra Photography for capturing all these amazing photographs. Your willingness to support my mission of mental health awareness, specifically eating disorder awareness, is truly heartwarming.
This all kind of materialized through my pageant journey. Growing up, I was called perfect more times than I could stomach. Aside from the obvious notion that nobody can possibly be perfect, this label set a criterion for how I felt I needed to look and act. I didn’t grow up in an ideal family atmosphere. Who does now-a-days, though? My dad never told me I was pretty; however, to be fair, he wasn’t really around too much. My parents began their tumultuous divorce when I was in 4th grade, and the custodial tug-of-war didn’t end until middle school. Because my dad and his new girlfriend continually accused my mom of being an unfit mother, we were interviewed by social workers, had to get our private school involved in a drawn-out trial, and coped with a depleting stream of paternal income by sleeping on floors and searching for quarters in our couch for fast food. Our well being became collateral damage, and although my brothers received years of mandated counseling, my performance as a seemingly well-adjusted and undaunted popular rich kid was Oscar worthy (if I do say so myself).
I was told around age 18 that I had a genetic predisposition for mental illness. In retrospect, I probably should’ve been seeing a psychiatrist from the get-go, but it took a solid 5 years before I was ready to accept it.
When I won my first local Miss America title, it was my first-ever rush of what I considered to be objective validation. A panel of strangers, mostly male, voted me as the most well-spoken, talented, and beautiful. These were 3 adjectives I hadn’t heard used to describe myself very often. I was elated beyond words– until I saw that someone wrote on a message board that I was “an 8 in swimsuit and forgettable everywhere else.” In an instant, I was crushed– by an anonymous poster, who would now be known as a cyber bully. I truly began to believe that all I had going for me was my physique. Not my brain, not my talent, and not my elegance, just my body. I had to win Overall Swimsuit, since that was all I thought I had to offer. I immediately began obsessively working out and cutting carbs. Cutting carbs turned to drastically reducing calories. Obsessively working out progressed into completing an Insanity workout four or five times a day.
This emergency fitness plan started in April and continued until July. I’ll admit, my body was in the best shape it’s ever been in on the Miss Florida stage, although I paid a hefty price of what I thought was temporary anxiety, fatigue, and ostracism from friends. However, once the pageant was over, my desire to keep up this mega woman facade didn’t fade. In fact, my obsession with weight intensified. Since my body was the only controllable facet to ever receive recurring praise, I had to not only maintain but improve my physique if I wanted recognition, and more specifically, if I wanted attention from boys.
Fast forward to the end of my first real relationship, which lasted somewhere around three years given a handful of break-ups and make-ups. I was dumped. A few days later, I did enough stalking to discover there was another girl in the picture. Although it wasn’t at all comical, the situation was comparable to Elle Woods in a very depressing rendition of Legally Blonde, when her boyfriend breaks up with her in lieu of proposing. It was the worst emotional pain I’d ever felt in my entire life. I had physically, socially, emotionally, and mentally transformed myself into what I believed was his vision of the perfect partner, and it wasn’t good enough. Even my very best self wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t workout, I couldn’t even move. I was depressed, and not like a teenage girl who’s grieving over the end of Gossip Girl. I was mentally ill and borderline suicidal.
In the midst of all my compounding depression and anxiety, I naturally developed a severe case of Gastritis, ie. inflammation of the stomach, which was exacerbated by my stress and lack of appetite. I reached a point where my muscles were so weak I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t work from home, and I couldn’t even eat jello without getting sick. I knew I was dying, and I didn’t care.
I hit rock bottom when I drank myself into oblivion one evening with a BAC that could’ve easily killed me. Somehow, and I genuinely don’t know how, I survived and awoke to loud noises coming from a breathing mask on my face. As I slowly regained consciousness, I could see my mom out of my peripherals shedding tears of joy. She told me she watched her baby die three times in the ER. I stayed under high surveillance by both medical and psychiatric professionals in the Florida Hospital ICU for about a week.
I wasn’t too sure what to make of my near death experience. The only absolute truth I knew was that my family, who never left my side in over 170 hours, didn’t deserve any of it. My dad and step mom rode with me to the ER, my mom hightailed it from Tampa to Orlando in under an hour, and my brothers cleared their life schedules to ensure I was comfortable. I never wanted to willingly put any of them through that much pain again. With the help of a dedicated team of nutritionists, counselors, doctors, nurses, friends, and family, I made an almost full recovery within 6 months. My weight was stable, and I felt strong for the first time in a long time.
Unfortunately, that complacency didn’t last. I stopped taking my prescription medication for anxiety, since I kept hearing non-stop criticism of the pharmaceutical industry and thought I no longer needed them. I started having panic attacks on a twice-daily (or even more frequent) basis. This spurred a borderline addiction with muscle relaxers, and coupled with an all-pill diet and lack of mental health medication, it transpired into another spout of Anorexia.
After a few frighteningly close calls with potential over-dosage, I, coerced by my friends, received help yet again for my debilitated physical and mental health. Unfortunately, by this point, I had gotten so comfortable being under 100 pounds that anything in the 3-digit weight category was fat. I started eating to appease people and avoid public scrutiny, but that turned into to severe condition of Bulimia. This went on for about 3 years… because here’s the thing about Bulimia– once you get used to eating whatever you want, you continue craving those same perceived “caloric mistakes” in your every day diet. Thus, the binge-purge cycle escalates. At my worst, I was purging more than ten times a day.
Because eating disorders drain every last drop of your energy, I developed a daily routine of drinking coffee like water to say awake during the day and wine at night, mixed with high potency sleeping pills, to put myself to sleep once the caffeine shakes kicked in. I noticed a change in my skin almost immediately, but I attributed that to moderate dehydration. It wasn’t until I started having sporadic tooth pain and passing out on a monthly basis that I decided to open up to my counselor about my undisclosed eating habits.
My counselor had (and has) been with me through every step of my journey, but I was afraid of opening up entirely to anyone, since the threat of another rehab treatment loomed in the back of my mind. Because I’d received involuntary medical attention previously, I wouldn’t let my guard down to anyone, especially not a medical or psychiatric specialist. I only confided with complete transparency in my two best friends. I looked like I had my life together, and I felt like I was letting my counselor, my family, my friends, my job– everyone— down with this disease. Again. My mom was already dealing with a family member’s drug addiction and subsequent repeat visits to both inpatient and outpatient rehab, so the last thing I wanted to do was add more to my familial stress plate. It wasn’t my place to attract attention. I, in turn, internalized all these frustrations, and the Bulimia continued.
When I told Catherine, my counselor, about this episode, she started asking questions. She convinced me to see my family doctor, who ran a handful of new medical tests. Mind you, I’d gone through every test under the sun throughout the whole Gastritis/ICU debacle, so nothing seemed cause for concern. Apparently, Anorexia and Bulimia are really really bad for you, and my entire body was severely off kilter. My heart rate was abnormal, and my BMI was even more concerning. However, the worst blow was that, through all my self-inflicted bodily torture, I had essentially made myself infertile. I made myself infertile. For a little girl who dreamed of having 3 kids, a perfect husband, and a white picket fence around the red brick house in Home Alone, this was hard to take– although by this point, I genuinely started doubting whether or not my issues and I should even be allowed to reproduce in the first place.
I also needed gum surgery, which is an extremely painful procedure, and an intensively long round of outpatient rehab. Inpatient was preferred, but given my two full time jobs, it was all I could manage. After hearing the agonizing laundry list of my previously unknown health and lifestyle impediments, it became very clear to me that I couldn’t physically continue living the way that I had been. This frightening realization, combined with intensive treatment, medication, support, and, most importantly, willpower, was enough for me to actually tackle the Body Dysmorphic Disorder head on for the first time in my life.
It’s taken time, support, honesty, and hope to get to the point I’m at today. I’ve spent a decade of my life denying, adjusting to, accepting, and fighting this horrible illness. If you or somebody you know is going through a similar experience, I promise there is light at the end of this very dark tunnel. By many people’s standards, I’m still “too thin,” but I’ve learned that my feelings about myself are the only things that offer any real value. I feel good. I feel healthy. I feel happy. Yes, I’m on prescription medication, I still see my counselor weekly, I write five nice things about myself on a piece of paper every morning, and I still have moments where I’m “out of sorts.” It’s just part of who I am, and I’m not ashamed of that anymore.
I genuinely hope my story will inspire young girls to not fall victim to the unobtainable modern standards of physical perfection– the way I’ve been affected for roughly half of my life. Love yourself and have no shame in being your own best friend. In case you do start experiencing body dysmorphic tendencies or confusion, there is always help, and there is always somebody who will listen. Mental illness isn’t a choice; it’s a disease. Just like a physical disorder, you seek treatment to mitigate the pain and make yourself better. Show support for those who are coping with their conditions by wearing green this month. Even if it’s just a subtle pair of green stud earrings or a small ribbon, it symbolizes something so much bigger. The more comfortable we become talking about mental health, the less of the stigma will remain and the more sufferers will feel empowered to seek treatment.
Photography: Martha Destra Photography | Gown: Mark & James by Badgley Mischka from Rent the Runway | Shoes: Kelly & Katie (No Longer Available), Similar Here | Clutch: GiGi New York | Bracelets: Charming Charlie | Rings: Charming Charlie | Earrings: Charming Charlie
My Most Trusted Mental Health Resources
Just in case this long post of anecdotal evidence didn’t convey the message strongly enough, I couldn’t have done this alone. I wouldn’t be alive today if I had tried. Whether you’re confiding in family, a counselor, a confidential informant on a hotline, or information on a website, allow someone or something to provide you with added strength and support.
Also, don’t discount the web. The internet offers a wealth of information for Mental Health and Eating Disorder Awareness, including organizations specifically centered around support for eating disorders, depression, personality disorders, anxiety, addictions, etc. You can find statistics, personal eating disorder advocate stories like this one, effective strategies for positive thinking, and contact information through a plethora of educational resources (see below)– and there are tons more still out there.
Here are some educational resources I personally found invaluable on my road to recovery. As an eating disorder advocate and survivor, support just doesn’t get better than this:
1. National Eating Disorders Association | Confidential Helpline (Monday through Thursday, 9AM to 9PM, and Friday, 9AM to 5PM), 1-800-931-2237 | Contact them via email at info@NationalEatingDisorders.org
3. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANAD) | Confidential Helpline (Monday through Friday, 9AM to 5PM), 630-577-1330 | Find support groups here | Request a recovery mentor here
6. Active Minds | 202-332-9595
9. Help Guide
10. “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by Dr. David D. Burns and 10 books for better understanding mental health here
Mental Health Awareness Month Giveaway
And now for the Mental Health Awareness giveaway, which was oh-so-generously sponsored by GiGi New York. Enter via the Rafflecopter widget below to win a personalized Island Green Embossed Python Uber Clutch— identical to this one (twinning!). Contest starts May 1st at midnight and ends Friday, May 15th at midnight. Good luck!
Hope to see y’all joining in on the #GoGreen movement. Together, and only together, we can change the way we think about mental health.