Why is it that we tread around mental illness like broken glass?
Why do we feel weak to speak on our struggles and be real with each other?
Why do we prefer to shove it aside – without doing the work to uncover and understand this incredibly complex epidemic?
Yes, I use the word epidemic – because I truly believe we are living in a mentally ill society.
We are rewarded for working crazy hours on the daily.
For pushing ourselves beyond our limits.
For taking incredibly heavy burdens upon our shoulders, while half-joking about having mental breakdowns and addictions.
We compete with our neighbours in the name of meaningless titles, or wages that plug into an insatiable thirst for validation.
We are losing the ability to see value within ourselves. Our selves that remain when all the material things fall away.
The same selves that are worthy of being seen, in the midst of your best or your very worst.
And we all have our “worsts”.
I always struggled with body image around the age of puberty. I was a late bloomer and my peers took notice, frequently making comments on my body. Some nonchalantly, some intentionally cruel.
I didn’t let it stop me from living my life, however I stored every single one of those remarks in the back of my mind.
Entering high school, I was very mindful how I came across to others. I always did my best not to show any of my perceived flaws, whether physically within my personality. I never let anyone enter my mind for fear of having my low self-esteem discovered. I had lots of friends but kept everyone at a distance.
I smoked a LOT of marijuana. I was acting out at home, and made stupid decisions that would stress out my family and create a lot of tension.
I never understood how I was feeling, and would never express myself in healthy ways.
This was the very beginnings of my disorder.
I dealt with a lot of anger and resentment as a teenager.
I had a tendency to stress-eat, and had CONSTANT munchies from being stoned, I would go through cycles of bingeing on thousands of calories in a sitting, and then eating nothing the following day, still groggy and feeling terrible from the night before.
I would crash in the afternoon and stay up all night. I never got adequate sleep, and my moods were erratic.
I developed some pretty serious blood sugar issues, to the point where I was experiencing fainting spells.
When you eat something, your body responds with insulin to help shove the energy from that food into your cells for your body to use. This hormone system works very efficiently with a consistent schedule. When we cycle through extreme amounts of food intake, followed by starvation, the system goes a bit haywire. Since it is a hormonal system, it can affect so many other body systems that are influenced by hormones (basically all of them).
I remember one time, sitting in science class after not eating for over 24 hours. I ate a sugary granola bar for breakfast and didn’t pack any other food. I was staring at a computer screen when I got uncomfortably hot. I started breathing heavier and my vision began to blacken at my periphery. I got up to ask to leave for the bathroom. By the time I reached my teacher’s desk, I could hardly see his face. I crossed the hallway and completely blacked out, hitting the bathroom doorframe with my head.
After that episode I went to the doctor, who simply told me to eat a better breakfast.
Since he made it seem like not a big deal, I didn’t make it one. In fact, I never examined my relationship with food until much later.
Looking back, I was developing an eating disorder and wasn’t willing or able to see it.
I glided through my school years without health as a priority but that began to change after graduation.
I made more friends who liked to spend time outdoors. We would go hiking, biking, or spend the day by the river in Fish Creek park. I felt like my love for the wilderness that I had as a child began to re-emerge, and I noticed that my mental health improved drastically.
I could sit with the sun on my face, listening to the river rush over the rock, and nothing could ever bother me. Life was made simpler in those moments, and I began to appreciate nature on a deeper level.
I was also going to the gym quite frequently, and made exercise and nutrition a priority.
I was constantly researching on natural, whole foods and medicines, and experimenting with them on my own body with positive results.
I was progressing to a very athletic and capable physique, but this all came to a halt when I had a climbing accident.
If you have ever been to Nelson, BC, you have likely seen the majestic Cottonwood Falls.
The first time I moved away from home was to the West Coast, and I stopped over in Nelson for a day on my way out.
Foolishly, late at night, I was descending from the top of the falls alone when I slipped and sailed over the edge. I landed hard in the gulley below me, breaking my wrist, and twisting both of my ankles.
I ended up in surgery and left the hospital unable to even walk, let alone live the active lifestyle I loved.
With the help of my family, I still made it to my new home, but was rehabilitating on my own in a completely new town. For what seemed like forever, the most active I could be was walking up and down the driveway carefully with a cane.
I had moved in order to pursue farming work, and it was clear I could no longer do this.
I felt quite depressed, without purpose, had entered an unhealthy relationship with someone, and ultimately stopped taking care of myself.
Since the accident I was experiencing terrible digestive issues. I had frequent infections. My energy seemed to be disappearing.
I told myself this was simply a phase and my body would just have to adjust. So I stuck with it. I kept living my life and had good experiences while I was out there but at the end of the day I felt like a rain cloud was hovering over top of me and I was beginning to lose my emotion.
Before long, I was tired ALL OF THE TIME, and felt like I couldn’t live my life to the fullest. I was so frustrated and confused. I had left my home in Calgary on a complete high and now had plummeted into one of the lowest points in my life.
I didn’t know what the hell to do.
In response to all the stress, I began using food as a comfort and fell back into the habits I had so many years ago. Except this time it was worse.
I would binge, become overwhelmed with disgust and subsequently vomit or use the waning energy I had go to the gym and work out to the point of exhaustion and dehydration. I would log every single thing I ate in my mind and try to compensate for it. I would always check my body every time I was in front of a mirror. Sometimes I would grab my stomach or my legs or my chest and just scream because I loathed what I saw. The whole process of this was layered with so much anxiety.
I never told my partner at the time what was going on. I never spoke to my family or friends about it.
I was so ashamed and disgusted with myself that I couldn’t admit all of this.
Owning up to it all terrified me more than the actual consequences of continuing.
So I became very good at numbing myself around others, and hiding my turmoil, even when it was so bad.
I began to get dark circles under my eyes. My menstrual cycle was all over the place. I flat lined completely as a person. I hated who stared back at me when I looked in the mirror.
I used to have my own back, and now I had made an enemy out of myself.
Months of battling my mental and physical health took a toll. It was clear I wasn’t nourished, and I wasn’t able to continue developing myself as a whole human being.
I took stock and left my new life behind to come home.
At this point, the seriousness of my eating disorder had become apparent to me, but nobody else.
That changed when one day, having hard-core anxiety after eating, I had thrown up in my bathroom.
As I flushed the toilet, the doorbell rang.
It was someone coming to buy a tent I had for sale that I forgot about. My eyes were watering and bloodshot, my face scarlet red, my nose plugged, and my throat was completely raw – but I had to answer the door. I was so embarrassed. Nobody had ever seen me in this vulnerable state and it was mortifying.
But, being in front of that person all of the sudden made me ACCOUNTABLE. Nobody knew I struggled with this. This person had been the closest contact between my eating disorder and the outside world.
It totally rocked me. It made everything real. It forced me to look at myself, and look hard.
This was the moment that I realized I had to get myself straightened out.
My health was coming undone at this point; my body had clearly had enough and it was seeping into my mental health quite radically.
I worked really hard at eating properly and avoiding my binge foods, and had less and less occurrence of purging episodes. Although this had improved, everything else was still off-kilter.
Getting out of bed in the morning became a burden, like a huge anvil was sitting on my chest. I could never get enough sleep. The simplest things seemed to require huge effort. The only emotions I seemed to experience were anxiety and the occasional sadness. At this point my period had completely disappeared and my emotion hardly existed.
The divide in myself was intense. My head was full of negativity, bitterness and self-hatred. I scoffed at myself for being so weak and had a strange sense of naivety and foolishness when I had positive thoughts. As if I didn’t deserve to have any relief from my own scrutiny.
But there was still a small part of myself that just watched this mental battle in utter disbelief.
Who I was, was not who I had ever been.
I was seeing many different specialists and gleaning very contradictory advice. I wasn’t sure what to think. What one practitioner told me, another would discredit. The internet was a jungle in itself.
After many consultations, blood tests, pap tests, and an MRI, a diagnosis was finally formed.
“You have something called ‘Hypogonadotropic Hypogonadism’”.
I’m sorry, what?
HH, we called it from then on, is an endocrine disorder of not only just the sex glands, but all the way up to the brain. The pituitary to be exact.
The hormonal communication between my brain and the rest of the body was not working.
And it was idiopathic – meaning the cause was “unknown”.
But deep down I knew what the deal was.
The truth was that I made my own bed.
“Life always waits for some crisis to occur before revealing itself
at its most brilliant.”
– Paulo Cohelo
I knew I did not trust just any doctor with my mental health.
I knew I did not want to take artificial hormones.
I knew I had to straighten myself out.
My body was giving me a potent warning signal.
This was not a time to play victim, this was not a time to bury myself in apathy.
It was time for me to step up.
I put in work to show up in my life in the ways that mattered, and I had to learn to say a firm “NO” to the things that didn’t. I disappeared from a lot of people’s lives, but I also began to understand my real priorities.
I needed to finish school and heal myself.
I dedicated myself to learning my body all over again, and made sure I was nourishing it in the right ways.
I made some hard lifestyle changes, and corrected unhealthy habits.
I got proper sleep. I made sure I was resting.
I worked at transforming the poor attitude I had towards myself.
I hardly ever missed classes.
I studied and handed in all my assignments.
I showed up to work every day.
I continued to volunteer at a community kitchen and tried to help other people.
I made sure my house was clean and that I was fed.
I went outside as often as I could.
I maintain a good relationship with those who love me the most.
Some days I would still feel emotionally detached, and on these days I learned to use logic instead and put these things on a to-do list. Even simple things like taking a shower. I made it my duty to do these things.
And there were days when I fell off, and fell off hard.
This whole process took radical vulnerability, which terrified me to the core, but without being open, you cannot receive the love you need.
As soon as I finally got real with myself, something magical happened.
Upon realizing that people in my life still accepted me when I was a disaster, it became easier and easier to shove my hands inside my own dirt and uproot the things that anchored me to my destructive habits. The process was extremely humbling, and I had no choice but to simply take it day by day.
Using my Nutrition education, getting outside, using self-control exercises definitely helped my process.
But, the everyday decision of stepping forward and taking responsibility for my life was the real medicine.
Nowadays, I still keep those priorities.
Many of my physical health issues have resolved.
I feel my emotions, have the confidence to chase my goals, have so much energy to give out to the world.
And, I use nature as my maintenance protocol.
Every time I step into the forest, it is like coming home again, and I still feel my worries dissolving when I’m in complete appreciation of this Earth’s beauty.
With every struggle you face, you have a choice to crumble, or build yourself up to become stronger. And if you choose the latter, the resilience you will discover inside of you is enough to blow anyone away. You owe it to yourself to find those things in life that make you feel strong and loved, and to peel away all that doesn’t.
If you don’t know what that is – I suggest taking a walk in the forest, and having a listen 🙂