Photo credit: Ed Bowron
I first began to restrict my eating when I was in grade 3. I had begun my growth spurt earlier than most kids and had been one of the tallest in my class since kindergarten. By grade 3, I had decided I was an “ogre” towering over the other kids and concluded that they would find it “disgusting” to see me eat certain foods and so I started to cut them out at recess and lunch. When looking at photographs of myself, I’m frequently surprised to see that I look like a normal little girl rather than the distorted image I had.
Things got worse in junior high school. In times of stress, I severely over-exercised and under-ate. In gym class, I acquired “dieting tips” from the films that were intended to warn us about the dangers of eating disorders. In retrospect, restricting food was an especially bad idea because I am also hypoglycemic and so my mood (and blood sugar) deteriorates quickly if I don’t eat several times a day. I became very depressed and withdrawn, as well as terrified that something was “chemically wrong” with me that would make me feel this way forever. I evaluated methods of suicide… but fortunately this scared me and I told others about it. Friends, family, and teachers grew increasingly concerned, and I wound up in counselling at age 15. I liked my therapist because he assured me that there wasn’t anything unfixable or fundamentally wrong with me and he encouraged me to figure out what type of person I wanted to be, rather than worrying so much about what other people thought. He encouraged me to consciously look for the humour in things, and said it was a choice whether I let things “drive me nuts” or not. On the other hand, I wanted to be a self-assured person who didn’t hide the fact that I was going to counselling, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friends. And so I hated myself for being “weak”.
In spite of my mental health, I was a high-achieving student. I used my experience as a career-plan and chose to major in psychology in the hopes of being able to help others and do a bit of good in the world. On the downside, I coped with the initial stress of university and living away from home by plunging back into my disordered eating and over-exercising. I became an extreme perfectionist in terms of my grades, but started to re-evaluate after receiving 100%’s and still not feeling like it was “perfect”. My distorted body image began to normalize in my third year. In my peripheral vision one evening, I jumped because I thought I saw a skeletal ghost reflected in a classroom window… but was more startled when I realized it was my own reflection. That hadn’t been the goal that I had been working toward! It hit me that something was very wrong with my self-perception, and I stopped to get a candy bar out of the vending machine on my way home after class!
I also began to recognize that my social anxiety was irrationally holding me back: In spite of often having the highest grade in the class, I was too afraid to participate in class discussions for fear of saying the wrong thing or looking stupid. When my mother suggested group-therapy for people with social anxiety, I was eager to sign up. The experience was eye-opening. It made me realize I wasn’t alone and it felt cathartic to finally be open and talk. It was also startling to realize how kind people can be to each other, but unkind they can be to themselves. We could see each other as having all sorts of great qualities, but not ourselves. But group-therapy began a “re-awakening” period of learning to perceive things differently for all of us. My mental health has evolved into a more conscious experience that I have a reasonable amount of control over, as opposed so something that I felt powerless to control.
In my current job as a psychology professor, it feels inauthentic to hide my mental health struggles from students when we are covering topics that I can relate to personally. I have been sharing more stories in class each year (some humorous and some painful), if it seems like it will enhance the course material. Last year, my PSYC3103 students chose the topic of mental health issues among university students for their term project. We learned just how widespread and common it is (affecting more than half of the students in any given class), but also that most students hide it, don’t get help and suffer silently. Admittedly, it is much easier to be open now, than it would have when I was a student. I hope that by sharing my story, students will realize that they don’t have to feel ashamed or alone, that things get better (especially when you get the courage to seek help), and that mental health challenges can even help to shape your goals and dreams, rather than holding you back.