This interview was originally published on November 2, 2018 by Ryann Summers.
How would you describe your journey with mental health?
When I was in 7th grade, my dad was hospitalized with polycystic kidney disease. My mom has always struggled with bipolar and she was hospitalized around the same time. It was a time in my life when I felt like no one was really taking care of me–I felt like I had to just take care of myself.
I developed an eating disorder called orthorexia, which is centered around health and clean eating. In my hometown, it’s not caught very quickly because clean eating is part of the culture here. I was constantly complimented and people were telling me they admired my self control.
In 8th grade, I ended up in the hospital. It was really weird for me because I was in denial at that time. When friends would ask me what was wrong, I’d say I was in the hospital because I ran too much. I didn’t want to admit that anything was wrong.
Where did you get your information about mental health?
I remember having a mental illness unit in 7th grade with a brief section on eating disorders–it was mainly focused on bulimia and body dysmorphia. My science teacher said that when people with eating disorders look in the mirror and then draw an outline of their body, their drawing doesn’t match their true shape. Since that didn’t apply to me, I didn’t identify what I was going through as an eating disorder.
I didn’t learn anything about orthorexia in school. There’s this idea that if you’re eating something, you don’t have an eating disorder.
Orthorexic behavior is not only normalized but glamorized. Everyone was just like “I wish I could run as much as you or eat as healthy as you.”
Do you think social media has changed people’s attitudes towards mental health?
I wouldn’t say social media was a player for me in developing an eating disorder. But it’s made sharing my story with people a lot harder. The media portrays eating disorders as a choice, and frames it as being about popularity and skinniness. It makes sharing scary, because you can get more judgment than you do sympathy. And it’s already hard to share something so vulnerable.
Having an eating disorder is like having two voices in my head. I learned that recovery is when your actual voice becomes louder than the eating disorder voice. Eating disorders are so stigmatized. There’s this idea that it’s a choice. I’m not vain. It’s not dieting–it’s an illness.
What was most supportive for you in your recovery?
My parents have been incredibly supportive. Being the parent of someone with an eating disorder has to have been so hard. When my eating disorder was in control, I’d do or say anything I needed to to eat less. I’d say things like, “if you make me eat this I’ll hate you forever.” Looking back, that must have been crushing. I’m so grateful that they were supportive and stuck with me even through their own health issues, and that they took the time to supervise my meals in addition to both of their jobs.
One really formative thing that happened while I was at the hospital was meeting two little boys on the same floor as me. It was a floor with people for heart conditions and these two 7 year-old twins were the only people on the floor whose condition was unrelated to malnutrition. They followed me everywhere, we played Legos, and spent a lot of our time together. They helped remind me of who I was before my eating disorder convinced me that I was just a body. Playing with them helped me remember how much I loved working with kids, and arts and crafts. It was the first time in a while that my actual voice started feeling louder than the voice of my eating disorder.
Then, my second time after leaving the hospital, I went to an outpatient treatment called Healthy Teen Project, or HTP. My parents wanted me to go, but I really didn’t want to. Well, I’m glad I went because HTP really turned my life around and launched me into recovery. I met my therapist who I’ve been seeing for about 3 years now. And I met a whole support system of other people in recovery. In the hospital, it was about life or death. At HTP, it was more about mental health and the day-to-day.
After I left the Healthy Teen Project, I threw myself into my high school’s theater department. It was an amazing space to be vulnerable, and I found people I could look up to because of their talent and art (not their bodies). I regained passion for all the things I’d lost, and found a goal to work towards that had nothing to do with my body.
Recovery was shitty at first. It’s the hardest part, and I don’t think anyone ever feels “ready” to let go of an eating disorder. A quote that I really latched onto was, “she took a leap of faith and grew her wings on the way down”. Recovery will not usually be your first choice. People will force you to do it and you just have to trust that it’s right. I’m just so grateful to my past self now that I realized it was the only way.
One skill that’s really helped me was to be grateful for the other things in my life — while acknowledging that what I was going through was really hard. My therapist gave me an exercise that I’ve done daily since my freshman year. Before going to bed, I write 3 things I’m grateful for that day. Now, I see myself consciously looking for things, like “oh I can write about that tonight”.