Mental Health is one of those topics. If you’re “in the circle,” it’s completely normal to discuss and analyze emotions, behaviors, patterns, and treatments on a daily basis. Out of the “circle?” Lacking immediate relatability and understanding, mental health is either ignored or taboo. Let’s be honest, to the rest of the world, those “in the circle” are either quacks, crazy, helpless, selfish, attention seeking, needy, or a variety of other ethnocentric and degrading classifications.
My mother is a guidance counselor. She’s also a recovering alcoholic that has spent most of her life struggling with depression and an anxiety disorder. Because of this, I was born “in the circle.” Despite my father’s type A/OCD/workaholic/I-can-fix-it-on-my-own personality, I grew up in a home that understood the benefits of therapy. That being said, I also grew up in a home with parents who promised to pay for my eventual therapist every time they “f*cked up.”
They seem to regret that promise now. This shits EXPENSIVE.
Real Talk: When was the last time that you truly took a look at your life? Sat down with yourself and really examined all the shit that comes up? Instead of pushing the negative aside, actually dug deeper. Investigated. Learned. Broke down.
Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the day I put my entire life on hold to do exactly that.
Apparently its shocking to most that I was extremely shy and introverted when I was younger. Ok, ’til I was in my early 20s. I mean, I’m still introverted, I’ve just learned to be social. Back then? Talking to strangers…public speaking…standing up for myself…even just being in a crowd larger than 2 or 3 people was uncomfortable and, frankly, unheard of unless it was unavoidable. Because of various social and familial dynamics, I thought if I made myself smaller then at least I wouldn’t add to the drama in the world around me. Even my clothes were 3 sizes too big in the hopes that no one would notice me.
My “story” is probably more complex than you’d anticipate just by meeting me. On the surface, all my ducks have always been neatly in a row. My life was devoted to laying low and maintaining the appearance of perfection. I’d tell you I’m a horrible actress, but in my life I played the perfect student role, the perfect Christian role, the perfect girlfriend role…whomever I thought I had to “be” so I would blend in, wouldn’t attract drama, wouldn’t draw too much attention, yet would still be noticed and accepted. Let’s be honest, I just wanted people to like me…even if the “me” they liked was all an act.
As with any dysfunctional pattern, these things are never sustainable. I actually had no idea it was abnormal to be anxious and stressed ALL THE TIME. While being an overachieving perfectionist in high school and college helped me get a solid education (2 majors, 1 minor, and a master’s degree in 6 years…) and jumpstarted my career, it caught up with me in the worst way possible. The “real world” isn’t black & white. There are no standardized tests, study guides, and answer sheets. Humans invoke an unpredictable variable and I suddenly found myself drowning in ambiguity, lost in New York City, overflowing with insecurities, and panicking whenever my “ducks” went askew.
Not that most people could tell. No one in my life really knew anything was less than perfect. I really missed my calling as an actress.
I was so well trained to project confidence and perfection that, no matter how much I was struggling internally and behind closed doors, no one knew I needed help. In retrospect, I didn’t even know I needed help. If anything, I was so ashamed that I “couldn’t get my shit together,” I wouldn’t dare drag someone else into my mess. And I definitely wouldn’t DARE to be that vulnerable.
It’s hard to say exactly when I stopped letting people in, but over the years experience had taught me that vulnerability was a weakness that gave others the upper hand. A few key disappointing people, broken promises, and extremely painful periods of darkness left me convinced that being honest and having needs dependent on other people left me abandoned and lost. It was safer to suffer silently, maintaining a safe distance from all forms of attachment.
When I was 18 I’d experimented with using food control to calm my anxiety, literally to numb the overwhelming waves of emotions I wasn’t prepared to take on. What started as an occasional bad habit quickly spiraled out. 5 years in New York City actively avoiding needing people, bolting when I suspected the pending doom of attachment, chasing anything that I thought might dull the black void that never seemed to subside, and running myself into the ground almost killed me. Literally. My coping skills spanned the gamut of eating disorders and the deeper I got, the more impossible it seemed to ever get out.
Shame and fear kept me stuck in ways that I’m still trying to understand. My perfect walls began to crumble and I found myself drawing more and more into myself. Lost and confused, lacking direction, desperate to be saved but too afraid to ask.
Enter Colleen…the first girl I ever dated and my latest attempt at deciphering what needed to change in my life so I could finally feel whole. I just wanted to finally feel free. Yet, like clockwork, my vulnerability alarm went off and I bolted when it got too intense. Too close. Too unsafe.
It took the relentless pursuits of Colleen to get underneath all my bullshit and create a space I felt safe enough to open up in. To this day, I have no idea why she refused to let me push her away…I can only assume that must be the real definition of love. To say I’m lucky is an understatement.
Coming undone, allowing myself to be seen without my masks and layers, being honest with her and, in turn, with myself, changed everything. That summer, with each baby step, I started to really see progress. Finally. Suddenly, I was no longer complacent to be stuck in a constant state of anxiety and fear. No longer willing to merely exist. I was frustrated, angry, and ready to fight.
With that fire, fueled by the most anxiety and fear I’ve ever truly experienced, I swallowed my pride and made moves. With the help of my therapist, and endless support of a few key friends I was willing to finally be honest with, I went on medical leave at my job and packed my things.
…THEN SHIT GOT REAL
On August 26, 2013, Colleen put me on a plane to St. Louis, MO. Literally. I’d been crying so long, she practically had to push me through the gate. I was so f*cking terrified. That afternoon, I drove my rental car to (what felt like) the middle of nowhere and checked myself into Castlewood Treatment Center.
I chose Castlewood because they were the only facility that agreed to take me on for less than 30 days (usually the minimum). I thought if I just got myself out of my environment and out of my head, in a week or two I could reset and go home. I couldn’t understand why most of the girls laughed when I said that upon arrival. Clearly I had no idea what I was in for…
Undoing years of damaging habits and unresolved issues isn’t a quick fix. And it sure as hell isn’t easy. Over the next six weeks (yes, I stayed for 6), I discovered that I was dealing with a lot more than low self-esteem and f*cked up eating habits. My therapist and I uncovered years and years of events, moments, situations, and people who had impacted my life and led to me to this point.
Once I got past the initial anger and fear that naturally comes with placing yourself in an environment where you retain little to no control over your life, I began to let go. As with all addictions, its never actually about the substance in question – instead, eating disorders form when there is an un-met need. So I spent countless hours in individual and group therapy sessions learning about the patterns of unmet needs in my life and how I’ve used food control to fulfill them.
I learned more about myself in 6 weeks than I had in 29 years.
WHAT I LEARNED
The relationship I had with my parents as a child created a disorganized attachment disorder. Essentially, I was never sure whether they would be smothering me or completely absent, and the irregularity of their presence left me consistently confused and cautious. As I got older, I experienced a variety of other relationships that had a similar feel – 100% around and committed then suddenly vanished, leaving me alone and confused. Suddenly my greatest fear became invisibility, abandonment, and needing people who weren’t around.
Thus, I built walls upon walls upon walls up to guard me from getting too attached to people in my life, in anticipation of their abandonment. I constantly battle this conflict where I want to be intimate and connected to people but I have an innate need to run away before they hurt me. Its f*cking exhausting. My eating disorder came in to a) manage my image to ensure that I could present myself how I thought I should be, and therefore people would like me (and I’d maintain the upper hand), and b) keep me company when I was lonely and needed to use food behaviors to numb my emotions and suppress my needs.
Everything was rooted in control: controlling food, weight, body, emotions, appearances, etc. If I could help it, I never needed anyone or anything. ‘Miss Independent’ with all her ducks in a row. Sister Mary Sunshine. Just tell me what role to play and I’ll perfect it – I could be whoever you wanted me to be if it meant you’d want to stick around. As my therapist put it, I presented myself so I’d be seen – so that I felt no one could miss me. Yet, in the process, made myself completely missable because I was always trying to control the situation rather than just be myself.
I left Castlewood with the tools I needed to fight the urges to give in and let my ED take over. My “behaviors” were no longer an option. Instead of using food to suppress/numb my needs and emotions, I was finally learning to be honest with my feelings, first with myself and then with those around me. I’d learned to ask for help, even though its extreeeemely uncomfortable for me to be “needy.” Plus, I’d stopped dividing foods into “safe” foods and “fear” foods – apparently I won’t spontaneously combust if I put grease in my body 😉
Coming back to NYC, I wasn’t ready to return to the life I’d lived in the city and considered relocating to start fresh. Instead, the universe stepped in. Through a variety of crazy events, I left my corporate job, started teaching yoga more (the ONE place I’d learned to actually feel my body and be ok in it), and just started going with the flow. I had no idea where I wanted to go, but I finally knew what I wanted my life to feel like.
Looking around me, I’m still astonished that this is my life. According to my “life plan,” I’m supposed to be married with two kids and making Super Bowl ads at some high-profile advertising agency. Instead? I live in brooklyn with my girlfriend, roommate, and two cats. To support myself, I alternate between teaching yoga, instructing cycling rides, freelance designing, and studying holistic nutrition. I’m in control, but I’m also doing things that matter. Things that make a difference. If you told me, even a YEAR ago, this would be my life…I’d laugh. But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Hmmm, imagine that…
Its been a year since I dropped out of the rat race. A year since I stopped playing games. A year since I made an active decision to choose life. A year that I have truly lived. I wrote this down because my “story” is the reason that I chose the career path I’m in today. You will never hear a reference to food, calories, shame, or punishment in any of my classes. My goal is to empower those around me. To help just one person a day feel “ok” in their own skin. To equip YOU to ask for what you want and recognize your needs are vital and important.
I spent years wishing I could crawl out of my own skin. Wishing I could disappear and, yet, feel validated at the same time. Desperate to actually believe someone when they told me I’d be ok. To believe I could actually be the person I pretended to be. I never thought I would be strong enough to actually get there.
Whether its on the bike, on the mat, or in the weight room, my mission is clear. I’m here to share what I have learned: you are stronger than you think you are. Especially since the first place I considered believing that was on a yoga mat.
Next up? Health coaching. I enrolled in IIN in March and have been slowly training to start my own health coaching business. Why? Because I want to pay it forward. Because there is nothing you can throw at me that I havent either a) experienced myself or b) talked through in a group therapy session and witnessed progress and recovery from. Whatever you’re working through, I want to help. Honestly.
AND THEN I MADE A MAILING LIST
Teaching, coaching, helping…these have renewed my life’s purpose and, in turn, saved me. Theres lots more coming. I’d love for you to be the first to hear about special events, health coaching specials, new tips and tricks I’ve come across, classes, recipes, etc. by joining my mailing list. I promise I wont spam you…I left the advertising world a long time ago 😉