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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, 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.
Helpful Eating Disorder Awareness 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–
1. National Eating Disorders Association(NEDA)- They’re pretty much the leading organization in the ED recovery realm (they organize walks, fundraisers, and a variety of community events), and they have a wonderfulconfidential helpline.
2.Eating Disorders Anonymous– Eating Disorders Anonymous is a Twelve-Step fellowship of individuals who hope to help one another recover from their eating disorders. Find eating disorder awareness meetings near youhere.
3.Project Heal– The Project HEAL helps provide treatment grants for applicants who need and/or can’t afford quality care.Here’s a link to the application page. They also have a few in-person support groups, as well.
4.Recovery Warriors– Find treatment centers and support groupshere.
5.Eating Disorder Hope– Eating Disorder Hope can help you find treatment centers, coaching, and support groups. They also have a great blog and recommend a lot of wonderful recovery books.
6.The Alliance for Eating Disorders– The Alliance for Eating Disorders provides programs and activities aimed at outreach, education, and early intervention of eating disorders. Find an in-person support group here.
7.Eating Disorders Coalition– These guys are less of a support group and more of an action-oriented political organization. They’re focused on making eating disorder awareness a public health priority and offer a lot of great activities and events for meeting fellow ED recovery advocates in the community.
8.Recovery.org– They’re a wonderful resource for finding treatment centers and recovery programs for coexisting conditions. You can reach their helpline at 1-855-399-9032. You can also submit a contact formhere.
9.Stamp Out Stigma– Stamp out Stigma is more of a general mental health awareness organization, but they’re doing amazing work in the community. They list all of their mental health partners and resources for suicide prevention, addiction, etc.here.
10.Action for Happiness– Finding happiness in ED recovery can be tough, so Action for Happiness is a movement of people committed to building a happier and more caring society. If you’re in the UK, you can also find a nearby Action for Happiness meet-upshere.
3 Nice things about myself:
I'm obsessed with my hair, I am loving my body everyday and I love my brain for how smart it is and how it's been getting me amazing grades!
Thanks for the chance, you look beautiful!
Thank you for you openness and honesty. You are such a beautiful woman – inside and out – and deserve all the joy and peace there is to find. We love you!!
I smile a lot.
I am a good listener
I like helping others.
I applaud you for being so open and raw in this post.
I know that it's really tough to open up about things like this.
You're a beautiful person from the inside out.
I hope you have an amazing day!
And here are the 3 nice things about myself:
1. I am very ambitious and will do whatever it takes to be the best I can be
2. I am very dedicated to helping anyone in need
3. I try to keep a positive outlook on life even when everything seems to be at an all time low
xoxo, Jenny || Breakfast at Lillys
It takes a lot of courage to share your story with others, and I know that your honesty and bravery will empower others to share their struggles as well! One story at a time, we can diminish the stigma surrounding mental illness and increase support for those who need it most! Love you!
It's really hard for me to think of three nice things about myself because I also have been through anorexia and I'm still getting used to my healthy sized body.
I care a lot about others
I have great style
I have a good sense of humor, a great heart and am a good cook.
I choose to be positive daily
I am smart
I am a great mom
Your story is very moving, I'm so glad you're in a better place now!
3 Things I like about myself are:
I am a good cook
I am smart
I have a good sense of style
Great post indeed!
1. I have a great smile.
2. I'm a very positive person.
3. Very caring.
Wow, Stephanie! You are SO inspirational! Kudos to you for everything that you have overcome, and I'll be praying for you as you continue your journey. PS – Please know that you look like a goddess in your photos!
My list of positives is:
1. I am a hard worker.
2. I am creative with my style.
3. I strive to keep a positive outlook
XX, SS || A Little Seersucker Sass
What a great post! I know I had a lot of struggles when I was younger with my self confidence (it was always either my acne or my weight) and it's really inspiring to see someone so honest about their own journey.
3 Positives About Me:
(1) I'm an extremely charismatic person
(2) I inherited my mother's amazing work ethic
(3) I've always had gorgeous hair
Pick Your Beau
You are absolutely so, so brave for sharing this story. I can't imagine the struggle you went through over those years and still continue to deal with today. It really goes to show that just one mean comment on the internet can really lead to horrible things, and people need to stop hiding behind their screens just to be cruel to other people. I love that you were brave enough to speak up to the people in your lives and then also share your story here. I think everyone can be inspired and moved by it.
Thank you so much for being so vulnerable and sharing your story. I think it is so important for us to share our struggles so that others can turn to them in their own times of pain and suffering. You aren't alone and it is so beautiful that you are helping others feel less alone as well.
The ideal of perfectionism and placing all of our value in beauty is difficult to combat. On one hand it is so great to be told you are beautiful but when you begin to think your looks are all you have to offer it is difficult not to get obsessive. I've found myself torn apart and srcrutinizing photos of myself because being thin and pretty is such a large part of my identity. I constantly have to remind myself that being thin isn't what makes me a valuable person. My value is so much bigger than a thigh gap or a small number on a scale.
Thanks again for sharing!!!
Incredible post. Thank you for the courage to put this out there!!!
Three great things about me:
1. I'm very creative & artistic
2. I have a great sense of humor
3. I'm a great mother (and my kids are proud to call me their mom!)
~ Kim Pincombe Cole
Thanks for sharing your story! I totally agree, mental health is something that too often is stigmatized, and we need to have a more open dialogue about it! I will be wearing green this month for you, lady!
This is one of my all time favorite posts by a blogger- completely real and inspiring. Thank you for your bravery. You are helping so many people by sharing your story.
I am so so proud of you for sharing your story! I can only imagine how many girls (and guys) you will help just by being honest about your journey. What an inspiration you are! XO
This is such a beautiful post and I could relate to so much of it. Thank you for baring your soul and being so transparent!
-I feel I'm a good wife 🙂
-I'm efficient and can get anything done
-I love my hair 🙂
This was such an inspiring story and you are beautiful inside and out. I know the battle isn't yet over but I want you to know how admirable your strength and courage to share this story is. You are amazing!
I can't wait to see what you accomplish in life. Thank you for sharing and putting everything into perspective.
This was so amazing and inspiring to hear your story. I am so happy for you that you are doing so much better. I have struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life, and I completely agree that it is important to be open and honest with those around you. A strong support system is so important! You are so beautiful inside and out!
Progression By Design
I am kind to others. I help others. I am honest. Thank you for the contest.
such honesty is rare these days. I'm glad today you r in a place where you can do that and help others. Sometimes it is hard 2 love ourselves the way we are. I'm glad you're in a better place today. I like 2 help others and be kind to others as well. Thank you 4 sharing your story.
I love animals, I do volunteer work and I respect all people.
I know how to take care of my mental health needs and I take my meds a prescribed. I have learned that putting others ahead of myself is not always a gift to them or me. I see my counselor as needed and as scheduled. ( I am a bipolar mom)
I work hard, am very loyal and a great friend!
I am strong. I am a mother to two beautiful children. I have learned to accept my flaws.
This was such a powerful post. It takes so much courage to even write something like that, and I can't imagine what it must have taken to hit the publish button. Thank you for writing this and giving me a different outlook on things.
1) I am still struggling with my health, but I haven't given up yet.
2) I stay levelheaded in a crisis.
3) I will always be there for my friends.
Julia // Little Miss Haute Couture
Girl. You are so so so brave to post this. I feel for you. I struggle with anxiety, OCD, and occasionally depression. Your story is so vulnerable, and so inspiring, and also an amazing story of God's faithfulness and grace. You have helped so many people y sharing your story, and I thank you for that. God Bless you!
I am a hard worker.
I am loyal.
I am accepting.
Thanks for sharing.
I am compassionate, sincere and honest
I am kind and patient and I have a good heart<3!!! Thank you so much girl! You are such an inspiration and it would be an honor to be clutch twins with you :)!!!
This is such an incredible story- thank you so much for sharing! 3 things: I am a good listener, I am friendly, and I'm a good friend.
This Side of Paradise
I am compassionate, sincere, loyal, and honest.
I love helping others, I am a sincere person, and I always give everything my all no matter what it may be!
Thank you so much for sharing your story! I lost a friend to suicide earlier this year, so removing the stigma from mental illness is something I am so passionate about as well. I hope that your story will encourage others to seek help!
As for my 3 nice things: 1. I have great hair 2. I am kind to others 3. I am a good friend.
Three nice things about myself: 1. I'm great with listening 2. I have nice hair 3. I'm funny
wow, thank you for sharing all of that. it's hard to look at some of these "perfect" bloggers with their "perfect" lives, or at least with their latest designer digs, that's how it seems. so three things about myself-i got the raise i deserve after being at my agency for 7 years, i am witty, and i am the best cat mom out there, lol.
I also have a mental illness (major depression) and I was diagnosed a few years ago with Multiple Sclerosis. I can't work so I can't afford to buy a smartphone (therefore can't get Instagram). 3 things, I can be humorous; I try to be organized; I try to be a nice person.
Thank you for your openness and honesty. I still struggle a lot with the shame of my mental illness so I have a hard time with that. Three nice things about myself: 1) I am tenacious 2) I am a survivor 3) I am intelligent.
My son is bi-polar. Believe me, I understand mental illness. I am generous, kind and I despise mean people!!
I am caring, positive and have a lot of patience.
Stephanie thanks for your story. Right now, I'm going through something myself and your story has inspired me to seek some help. You are truly a beautiful person inside and out.
What would you suggest for someone who is mildly depressed?
1) I am forgiving
2) I am loving me
3) I have determined
The three things about me is that I am honest, humorous, and beautiful!
I am sensitive, fear, and depressed
List 3 nice things about yourself. I am friendly, helpful and sympathetic.
I'm compassionate, funny & reliable !!
I'm helpful, polite and thoughtful of others.
Thank you so much for sharing your story! I have dealt with bullemia, mental health issues like anxiety, pill addiction, addiction in general, bipolar, ptsd, and daddy and mommy issues….. I'm a mess lol but in treatment and I'm the best I've been in a while! Reading your story makes me feel better that other beautiful women out there struggle…I always feel like "white trash" or just not good….you know, the stereotype of mental health patients….so thanks for sharing your story!
3 good things about myself- I'm a super caring person, very loyal, and I think I'm a great mom!
Oh my goodness sweetie, I've been following your blog for about a year now and had no idea of your sufferings. I also live in St. Petersburg, Florida and feel like I've "known" you for awhile now. I'm much older than you and have lived with severe depression and anxiety for most of my life. It's so not easy. Thank-you so very much for telling your powerful story. Now, 3 things about me:
1. I'm a gentle person.
2. I'm an understanding person.
3. I'm an animal over who has rescued my dog and my now passed cat.
I'm a caring person, I'm willing to step outside my comfort zone to help others, I'm loyal.
Your story is beautiful and brave. It takes so much courage to share that. I have suffered with social anxiety disorder my whole life and different spouts of depression. Much more recently I have been diagnosed with an incurable chronic illness. I am special education teacher serving students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. I am working hard to increase mental health awareness within my school community. 3 nice things about me are that 1. I am loyal. 2. I volunteer constantly and always try to give back. 3. I am very ambitious.
You are so brave for sharing your story. Thank you!
What an amazing idea.
1. I love to help others and see them smile
2. I am friendly and love to make new friends
3. I am loyal, maybe to a fault…
I have a huge heart, I try to help make everyone that I can happy, and I have pretty eyes.
I try to do my best.I can do craft work. I love my kids unconditionally.
I'm selfless, kind and witty 🙂
I'm generous of my time, affectionate and charitable.
i am friendly
i am sincere
i am patient
I am honest, loyal and trustworthy.
I am domestic violence survivor
I am loyal
I am trustworthy
I'm caring , loving, and a good listener
i am empathetic, determined and loyal.
This was incredible to read. I wish I saw this when I was in the worst of my anorexia! I’ve struggled with an ED for 6-7 years now. I’m lucky I live in the same city as one of the best eating disorder treatment facilities. I’ve definitely spent over a year there (not all at once) and it’s still hard…but recovery is so worth it!
Here are the 3 things nice about me:
1. I am smart and creative
2. I have strong willpower and never give up
3. I care about people
Thank you again for making mental health posts and raising awareness. I would love to talk about this more with you if you ever get the chance. 🙂
I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it, Victoria! Since they’re so rarely discussed, it’s always comforting to connect with other women and men who’ve been harshly affected by eating disorders. Feel free to reach out to me any time– I’d also love to chat with you more! 🙂
Really like your blog and enjoy reading!How about working with us?Please contact me: [email protected]
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