Mental Health Awareness // Trigger warning: OCD, self harm, eating disorders.
Every single person that advocates for destigmatizing mental health issues is a step in the right direction. I feel it is my duty and responsibility to be open about my experiences, which I have never fully really done — and to be honest, it is hard to recall a lot of details because I believe my brain has subconsciously dug them very deep into my memory. I’m being more open about this than what makes me comfortable, but it is 110% worth it if it encourages even one person to reach out and get help, feel unashamed about their mental health issues, or helps anyone in any way.
My battle with mental health issues started around 4th grade. I remember laying in my twin bed in my childhood room in St. Joseph, IL — my dresser was to the right of the window facing the backyard. Each night I would have to get up out of bed and touch the corner of the dresser at least three times. There were rules: I had to be thinking about a certain thing while I touched the dresser. If I didn’t, I had to get back into bed, get back out, and touch it again. The same went for the light switch. My parents began to notice, probably because they heard my bedroom light go on and off several times at night. The number 3 was significant for me, and I’m still unsure why — but I tended to do things in threes. I had many odd habits far beyond the stereotypical hand washing and re-checking to make sure doors were locked, though those were included in my routine as well. I remember abiding by the “step on a crack — break your mothers back!” bullshit saying and spending recesses at St. Joseph Grade School looking at the concrete below my feet to ensure I wouldn’t step on a crack out of fear I would put my mother in danger. Ridiculous, right? It was such a real fear to me that I couldn’t help but prioritize it.
In 6th grade, we were assigned to read The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. This was a fucking STRUGGLE for me. Generally, I’m a fast reader. But my obsessive compulsive tendencies and my out-of-touch-with-reality fears sent me spiraling down.
Usually with OCD, there’s an underlying fear of something that will happen if you don’t obey the compulsions. My fears changed throughout the years, but this was my first: my ultimate fear was that I wouldn’t get into heaven. (This in itself is problematic for a variety of reasons, but I’ll carry on…)
I was absolutely terrified that Brian, the main character in The Hatchet, was going to suck me into the story, abuse me, and I would be stuck in the book forever and not be able to re-enter reality and ultimately, wouldn’t be able to get into heaven. This fear gripped me SO hard that it would take me 5 times as long to read a chapter than everyone else. My teacher even let me go into the hall to read alone one time, thinking that being alone would help. But no — I would still force myself to have to think a certain thing while reading, and then have to read a sentence a minimum of three times. How was I supposed to retain any information about the book (or any book, at this point) when I was so distracted by my fears?
I would have liked to ask my parents to recall some of these events, as they probably remember better than me — but I’m writing this on Mental Health Awareness day and am going to do my best to recall on my own for the sake of publishing today, with a few texts to my mama to gather some details. My parents have always been my number one fans, and would do anything to help me. I think for a few years, all of us were just so confused as to what my deal was and we all chalked it up to being a quirky kid.
I opened up to my parents about how I felt, and obviously they were extremely concerned as this was not normal behavior for anyone, let alone a 6th grader. They scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist for me at The Pavilion in Champaign.
This psychiatrist was extremely dry, and I would kind of come to resent him later in my pre-teen/teen life. (Note: he never did anything wrong, I just felt that he didn’t give a shit and that no one can get to know me by talking to me 5 minutes every few months. This is not how all mental health professionals are and most care very deeply.)
He diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which, to his credit, was definitely an accurate diagnosis.
Obsessively obeying these compulsions left me mentally exhausted, and so jealous of all the kids at school that didn’t have these issues. Combined with the pressures of fitting in, being “cool,” and getting good grades — I was miserable.
My history teacher assigned a project one week, and it involved field trips to a local cemetery. The project was going to the cemetery, examining what was said on the graves, and putting a piece of paper on the graves and shading lightly with pencils over the raised stone writing so that we had a copy of what was on the graves to take back to school with us. I don’t quite remember exactly what the point of this was, but I remember this was very dark for me. I was filled with jealousy for the people in the graves — they just got to sleep and be unconscious. I was so tired and all I wanted was to escape my own head, to rest. And they had eternal rest. I didn’t necessarily want to die, I just didn’t want to be awake. And those feelings would resurface periodically well into my early 20s. My parents ended up calling me in sick for the remainder of the days the class took the field trip to the cemetery. Any parent that has a kid talking about being jealous of dead people must be horrified. I went back to the psychiatrist and was prescribed Prozac.
As anyone who has taken any sort of drug for mental health problems knows, it can take MONTHS for these drugs to start working. I was very discouraged that I was still having these thoughts and turned these feelings into anger. I was angry this was happening to me, I was angry the psychiatrist pretended to know my mind even though he barely talked to me and asked the most basic questions such as “how does that make you feel?” And “do you ever want to hurt yourself or others?” Well, Dr., it makes me feel fucking awful! Finally, Prozac seemed to kick in and work for the remainder-ish of my grade school years.
Throughout these years, I switched counselors quite a few times. Only one counselor in my preteen years really reached me, and it was an older woman that practiced out of the second floor of her home. I had some great breakthrough with my OCD with her, but stopped going once high school started.
Unfortunately, weight gain is a side effect for some people on Prozac. I was always a really skinny kid with no body image issues. When 7th-8th grade hit, I was filled with them. I wanted my hair to be stick straight like all the popular girls, but it was curly. I wanted Hollister jeans so that I could have the cool design on the butt pocket. I wanted to have perfectly clear skin and was devastated by my acne. And most of all: I developed the deep and harmful desire to be skinny. In 5th and 6th grade I ran cross country and was pretty good at it. I was slender, yet ate pretty much whatever I wanted in moderation. I remember the year I stopped doing cross country, someone made a comment that they could tell I stopped running because of how I looked. This went straight to my heart and I will never forget it.
Looking back, I was never “fat.” And even if I was, so what? Around freshman year of high school, I was definitely starting to binge and restrict food. I was so mad at my body and my self. I hated myself. I hated that I wasn’t a cool girl, that I never got asked to wear a stupid football jersey at the football games, that I despised who I saw in the mirror, that I was so jealous of the girls who looked what I thought to be “ideal.” I was hyper emotional and didn’t deal with it well, and it came out in shitty ways. I know many high schoolers go through a rebellious stage much like this, and I was certainly one of them. My poor parents still grimace when freshman-year-of-high-school-Anna is brought up. I colored my hair pink with sharpies (lol) which led to me dyeing it a very dark brown/almost black. I began listening to bands like The Used, Silverstein, Hawthorne Heights, etc., (which by the way, I still enjoy, so NO judgment to this kinda music because it will always have a place in my heart) and dressing in dark colors. I was really into the cyber world of MySpace and Flickr, often feeling like some of my online friends were more relatable than the ones I had in real life. I was deeply insecure.
I learned what self-harm was, and was curious about it. I started telling myself that if I ate over a certain amount of calories, I deserved to feel pain, and maybe the pain would stop me from over-eating again. I used sharp items to cut myself occasionally — my goal was NOT to kill myself, and never was. My goal was to punish myself for being a “glutton” and a “waste of space.” I had an eating disorder, and it consumed nearly every thought.
I obsessively counted my calories. I requested that my mom buy the “Smart Ones” meals at the grocery store because they were 270 calories a serving and I would eat them for dinner. I still have several notebooks filled with calorie-counting pages. And I mean SEVERAL. So many pages filled with my calorie intakes for the day, often ending in a binge of some sort and a hate-note to myself about how fat and terrible I was. In art class, a sweet friend of mine always brought snacks in. I remember I would always eat them and be SO upset because they were 130 calories a serving and I wasn’t sure how many servings I had, and that would derail my calorie intake for the day and often result in a “fuck it” binge. There were times I would eat too much at dinner and immediately go running for miles in attempts to reverse the “damage” I had done. My ultimate fear had gone from fear of not going to heaven to fear of being fat.
These battles inside my brain were causing havoc everywhere in my life. I got in trouble at school, I mouthed off to teachers, I was sent to the school counselor for a yelling fight, I fought with my parents when they didn’t deserve it. One evening I remember threatening to run away and left the house. My dad drove to find me and once I decided to get in the truck, I bawled. He told me that him and my mom had considered taking me back to The Pavilion right then and there, but decided against it and I went home and just cried. God bless my parents, they are such freaking troopers for dealing with me with such grace and love all of these years.
I’m not sure what switch turned or how I was able to begin to cope, but the latter years of high school were a 180 for me. Well, more like a 160, but they were much better. I think a lot of that is attributed to my love of art. I discovered photography, I was drawing, I was listening to music and becoming inspired rather than becoming angry. I started taking self portraits since I didn’t have anyone else to photograph, and that aided in a self-confidence boost. I lost some weight from getting some of my binging/restricting under control as well as running a bit more (though I was still just as obsessed with calorie counting,) and people started asking me to photograph THEM. My school agenda became filled with photoshoots after school of anyone who wanted to be photographed. By the time I graduated high school, I received the award for the student with the most improved GPA from freshman to senior year. I remember my dad crying tears of happiness when my name was surprisingly called and I walked across the stage in my graduation gown to receive the award, and feeling proud.
After high school, I went to college, as many 18 year olds do. I went to SIUC for business management. I absolutely hated my first semester. So much, that I actually dropped two classes and ultimately dropped out after one semester. To be completely honest, one of the main reasons I wanted to go to SIUC is because I knew I would be forced to walk around a bunch from class to class and I could keep to myself and hide my eating disorder. I would go to the dining hall and eat carrots, celery, and an ice cream cone. If I overdid it on portions, I would come back to the dorm and run on the treadmill if the gym was open, or do jumping jacks in my room if it wasn’t. I was obsessed with pro-anorexia Tumblr blogs and made many “friends” in the internet world of Tumblr. I followed “thinspiration” to discourage me from eating. I tried my damnedest to throw up in the dorm bathroom if I overate / binged, which I often did. This was a horribly unhealthy cycle. I had friends at school, but I started ignoring them so that I could be isolated and alone with my eating disorder. Ultimately, this led to a deep, deep depression. One day I felt so desperate that I went to the student health center and tried to get an appointment with a counselor. They were concerned I was suicidal, so they got me in to talk to someone ASAP. I guess I felt a little better afterward, but mostly I just felt stupid. Stupid that I let myself get this way. Was I pretending? Was I just over dramatic? Was I crazy?
I decided to move back home with my parents and attend community college at Parkland after the first fall semester in 2011. Looking back, I am SO glad I did this. I needed my family for support, I wasn’t stable enough to be on my own.
I started going to my favorite therapist I ever had, here in Champaign-Urbana. She helped me work through many thoughts and feelings I had, especially with my relationship to food. She empowered me and showed me that mental health struggles are nothing to be ashamed of.
I went to Parkland for two semesters before deciding to drop out of college all together to pursue my photography business. A lot of self-realizations happened that year, from late 2011 to 2013. I started to find myself. I still wasn’t confident, but I was learning. I made friends with fellow creative people in the community, went on countless photoshoots, and spent time with like-minded people. My photography business was going really well, and I felt fleeting feelings of happiness.
Once I moved out of my parents house to Champaign, more depression and disordered eating crept back in hard. Sure, on the outside I was doing awesome. I was really busy with photography, but on my own at the end of the day — I was deeply sad. I would cry myself to sleep very often. I was depressed for a variety of reasons — I felt that I wasn’t good enough to be loved, no one cared about me, I didn’t have any real friends (I did), and I hated my body. I look back at old journals and read entries that were pretty dark and unhappy. I wrote a lot about not wanting to live, but not wanting to die. I think this is a very common thought process with depression, and if you have ever felt this: you are not alone. It will get better. And I am living proof that it does. I remember my dad came into town one day and we sat in my apartment living room and we had a heart to heart. My parents were my ultimate constant throughout everything—my parents and art. And they always will be.
One thing that I felt severe guilt about is that I was so anxious and depressed — but why? I had a solid middle class upbringing, the best family I could ask for, and everything I needed. What was wrong with me? Was I just a weak and pathetic loser? The answer is obviously no, and guilt is not the answer. Chemical imbalances are real and valid and scientifically proven over and over again.
The next few years were a rollercoaster as well. Panic attacks. I started having full-blown panic attacks when I lived alone in Denver, and continued when I lived in Richmond for the short time I was there. I knew panic attacks ran in my family, but when you’re having one — it feels like you’re dying. It is hard to even describe what they are like, but when they started to creep in, I would start to feel like I was falling through a black hole and my body was falling apart and I had to hold it together in order not to just die. I would roll up in a tight ball in bed and cry. I would call my parents in desperation as they talked me through it. I would listen to Explosions in the Sky because sometimes, that was the only thing that would calm me down. I believe I had panic attacks then not only due to chemical imbalances and the fact I was off of any anxiety / depression medication, but my life was also in a very rough spot that I was subconsciously always on high alert, resulting in panic. Thanks to my family and friends who counseled me through this and learning that I won’t in fact die from a panic attack, I learned to deal with them more healthily.
Fast forward—I moved back to Champaign and went through some really tough shit again, and it was such a learning experience. Once I started healing from traumatic experiences of the previous couple of years, I began to find real confidence and realized that I loved myself for the first time in my life. I am a strong, kind, creative, and ambitious badass.
What is important is that I GOT THROUGH THAT SHIT and I am genuinely and honestly happy now. I don’t take that for granted. This doesn’t mean I don’t have sad days or even off weeks — I definitely do. Sure, I still can’t help but subconsciously count calories sometimes, and I am by no means “cured” of OCD or a poor relationship with food. I still give in to compulsions every once in a while and I still get upset when I eat too much, but I don’t let it control my life. I currently take Zoloft every day and have for about 3 years. I am not ashamed of that, and I am so grateful it helps stabilize my thoughts. I don’t plan on getting off of it any time soon, either. One day I believe I will be able to, but don’t feel it is necessary now.
This is getting crazy long once again, but my point is: mental health is IMPORTANT. Destigmatizing mental health is IMPORTANT. Encouraging humans in general to get the help they deserve is IMPORTANT. Mental health is damn near as important as physical health, and nobody should be ashamed to get help. I know you have heard this before, but getting help is a sign of strength. If any of you are struggling and don’t know where to turn, I am always here for you. So many people are. I am not a professional, but am happy to help find professionals that will fit your needs or just lend an ear.
And all this to say, absolutely all the hardships I have ever encountered make me who I am, and for that I am grateful. They led me to where I am now — and that alone makes it all worth it. You can get through this — we can get through this!
A note about body image: I hope that using the term “fat” did not offend anyone, that was not my intention at all — it was honestly just what I thought and felt at the time. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with being fat, skinny, or any size — appearance is a deeply troubling societal pressure put on all of us and it is bullshit. I am trying VERY hard to unlearn a lot of what I knew and thought growing up. Appearances aren’t everything or anything even, and you deserve to love yourself and be confident NO MATTER WHAT. I am passionate about body positivity and believe you can be fat and healthy as well as skinny and healthy as well as average and healthy. And when it comes down to it, we need to stop caring about size and weight at all. It is a very hard thing to learn to think differently about, but I am really trying.
And one more shoutout to my freaking amazing parents, Ellen and Warren. My brother Michael, too. And last but not least, my future husband Patrick. I am absolutely obsessed with them and am honored to call them my best friends. They are my constant in the adventure of navigating life, and my compass in the wickedest of storms.