But I also believe that the only way to combat stigma and effect change for others who may struggling is to talk about it and share honest experiences. So, here I go.
In the spring of my senior year of high school, I was diagnosed with clinical depression by my general practitioner. I began a regimen of fairly low-level anti-depressants, and while they seemed to help at first, I was barely hanging on by summer. I began therapy, which helped, but could not combat the increasingly dark thoughts and obsessive behaviors that were beginning to control me. These behaviors mostly focused around eating and a need for physical perfection, spurred by intense anxiety, self-hatred, and fear. Things worsened throughout the summer, and by July I had begun to experiment with cutting, other methods of self harm, and thoughts of suicide. My parents discovered the self-injury and took me to the doctor again, who told us this was beyond her scope and we needed to pursue specialized treatment. We went to the Emergency Room at her suggestion, where we were told that they lacked the resources necessary to help me. Instead, they referred me to an eating disorder treatment program.
I faced an intake evaluation with a therapist the next week, and was admitted into the hospital treatment program shortly thereafter. I was still unconvinced that I had an eating disorder, but I was supposed to leave for college in a little over a month and decided that it would be best to take care of whatever minor problem there was so I could go to school. I was scared by the increasingly dark thoughts of self-harm and suicide, and had begun to suspect that my mind and body were betraying me. The program provided me with a psychiatrist, therapist, nutritionist, and group therapy. I entered the hospital ready to nip the problem in the bud and move on with my life.
It wasn’t quite that easy. The first week was excruciatingly difficult, and I began to realize that there was something seriously wrong with the way I viewed food and my body. I was seized regularly with what I now recognized as anxiety attacks—I had experienced them before but did not know what they were. I was not sleeping well, I felt physically sick most of the time, and the future seemed as flat and blank as a sheet of white paper. The effort of eating when I didn’t want to and talking for the first time about the demons that littered my thoughts exhausted me in a way I had never experienced. I was irritable, volatile, and extremely sensitive. I thought my nutritionist had it in for me, my psychiatrist wasn’t taking me seriously, and my therapist was unreasonable. By the end of my second week my therapist told me that I wasn’t going to school any time soon, and I realized she was right. It was three weeks before I was supposed to leave. The idea of dropping out of college humiliated me; all I wanted to do was climb into a warm, dark cave and never come out.
And so in August and September when all my friends were entering the fray of college life, complete with roommates, professors, and illicit substances, I was still in the hospital. I stayed there through October, until I was discharged into a different program that included weekly individual and group therapy, and saw a nutritionist and psychiatrist independently. I went through several more medication changes and regularly vacillated between progress and regress. I got a job as a bank teller, and in the spring I applied to a different college than the one I had been planning to attend for as long as I could remember. I was accepted into a competitive honors program, received a full tuition exchange scholarship, and moved onto campus in September. And so the story had a happen ending…more or less. But as I entered my freshman orientation I could not shake the fear that my new classmates would discover my secret. I found a therapist, psychiatrist, and nutritionist near campus, and began to build relationships with them. I also began to make friends and regain confidence in my academic abilities.
But I rarely, if ever, revealed the true reason I had taken a year off after high school. My stock answer was something along the lines of being really burnt out after senior year and taking some time to work and earn money. This was not exactly a lie, but it also did nothing to account for the suicidal depression, crippling anxiety, and physically, emotionally, and spiritually destructive eating disorder. And, looking around, I began to realize that I was hardly the only one struggling. I longed to reach out to other young women and men in pain, but the wall of fear seemed insurmountable.
One of the most healing things to happen during the year I spent at home was that I began to write again. I have written fiction consistently since I can remember, but the pressure of the last year had almost completely sucked away my creative impulse. I began to write about my experiences, reframed in the character of a girl who was very much like me (her name was also a near anagram of my last name). As I wrote I began to discover and process things that even therapy had not fully addressed. The story sprouted supporting characters and parallel plot lines, until a novel-length manuscript emerged. As I realized that writing was the best way I could relate my struggles, I also began to recognize it as a way that I could share my experiences in a human, relatable way. I dreamed that my writing would become a platform to open discussion about the experience of mental health and combat the stigma I feared.
It has taken me almost five years, and that dream is still strong. But first I have to be willing to share my story publicly, even if I still fear what people may think. Consider this my coming out.