From Anxiety, to the Psychiatric Ward, to Self-Acceptance. This is her Story.
By Erin of @thekeepitrealproject
Imagine wearing a full body costume, that covers every inch of you.
From your toes, up your legs, around your torso and chest, down your arms to your fingertips, and over your head and face. Imagine this costume looks like a person when you look at it in the mirror; it looks like you. It has the same skin, hair, and facial features as you. It has curves, dimples, contours. Now, imagine coming to realize you cannot remove the costume. There are no seams. No zippers. No buttons. You’re trapped. Locked beneath the surface of this body that doesn’t belong to you. You look the same, but every part of you, every sensation feels foreign.
This was my reality for a very long time. It has a name: Anxiety.
My diagnoses? Panic disorder, Phobic Anxiety, and ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder).
I grew up with a health-related phobia of germs, illness, and contamination. Some of my earliest memories involve serious panic attacks, obsessive thoughts and behaviours, and avoidance techniques. I had become fixated on the idea that something bad was going to happen to me. All of my bodily sensations were heightened and I experienced constant stomach pain, nausea, and cold-sweats. Normal everyday activities like going to school would send me into full-fledged meltdowns. It became so serious that my parents were forced to pull me out of the mainstream school system and homeschool me for a number of years.
I spent my days obsessively showering and washing my hands until they cracked and bled. I spent hours on end by the toilet, convinced I was going to throw-up (I never did). I ate a very small number of simple foods that I deemed “safe”, and my weight stayed dangerously low for most of my childhood.
Things improved slightly as I aged with the help of a number of therapists, psychologists, and a nutritionist. I was looking forward to going to a public high school and getting a fresh start. But…
At the beginning of my grade 9 year, my Mom passed away suddenly.
I was 13, dealing with the typical freshman problems of making friends and fitting in, I was predisposed to mental health issues, and now here I was dealing with an extremely monumental loss, the worst pain I would likely ever endure. My Dad remarried within a year. So, in a way, I kind of felt as though I had lost both my parents.
I felt so alone.
I was so desperate for attention that I became very rebellious. I felt betrayed by my Dad (and by the world quite frankly) so I disobeyed everything he said. We fought so much; I felt like it was impossible to see eye to eye. I skipped school, and when I did show up I acted out in class and got in trouble a lot. I left for days on end without telling anyone where I was. I lied to anyone and everyone and dug my “lie holes” deeper and deeper. I started hanging out with other people who were participating in the same destructive behaviours in an attempt to feel a sense of belonging. I was “popular”, surrounded by people, but still felt alone and misunderstood.
I managed to graduate high school on time and off I went to college a couple of hours away. As soon as I arrived and moved into my dorm room, I started having night terrors, panic attacks, and major depressive episodes. I had no appetite and barely ate anything. I would stay in bed for days, so overcome with anxiety and sadness that I was unable to attend my classes or participate in social activities. My dream of the true college experience was completely squashed. I only made it until thanksgiving before dropping out and moving back home. I felt totally defeated. I was ashamed and disappointed in myself. I felt as though I would never get the “fresh start” I had always wanted, and I wallowed in this sadness.
My world got smaller and smaller; first I didn’t want to leave my neighbourhood, then, my house, then, my room. The simplest of tasks felt monstrous. I stopped taking care of myself. I felt like a zombie who couldn’t shower, get outside, or eat. I just laid in my bed in a constant state of panic that was never ending.
I remember thinking to myself how horrific it felt to even be alive; to feel things. To need to eat. To need to breathe. I didn’t want a body. I didn’t want a life.
My family witnessed all of this and were at a loss for what to do. They tried to help me in so many different ways, but eventually their only option was to take me to the hospital. I was admitted to the psychiatric ward against my will. This was one of the scariest moments of my entire life, but it’s when I had a revelation of sorts:
I had to start taking my mental health seriously.
I was given my diagnoses, my medication was adjusted (which made a massive difference) and I was put in an intensive outpatient treatment program, which was 4 days a week for 4 hours. My world had become so small that this seemed like the most massive commitment, and in a way it was. I was overwhelmed and ashamed of the idea of sitting in a room surrounded by “crazy” people. But when I got there on the first day, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by a diverse group of people who I would never expect to be there. There was a successful lawyer, a mother of 3, a fashionable girl around my age. I realized that seeking help wasn’t a shameful act, and that more people experienced issues with anxiety and depression than I ever could have imagined. It made me feel less alone. Every day I got up and made my way to the hospital. We talked about our struggles and experiences, we learned a bunch of skills and tools to help us cope, we even did different activities like arts and crafts and sports. I found the program, at least, gave me a purpose and a reason to get out of the house and, at most, changed my life. I was actually kind of sad when the program ended and definitely scared to be thrown back into the “real world”. But I used the skills I had learned to slowly get back to a normal life.
Things got better. Not immediately, but gradually and steadily.
I reintroduced my body to food and gained my appetite back. I started seeing my friends, driving my car again. The times where I felt relaxed and not preoccupied by my own symptoms and what they meant became longer and more frequent. I was finally beginning to live.
I owe who I am today to self acceptance. Accepting that I need a little bit more discipline and care than the average person might, and that’s totally okay. I owe it to taking my wellness seriously, investing in myself, and putting in consistent work to stay healthy and happy.
I owe it to all the incredible people who love and support me. I owe it to asking for help, and actually accepting it (I’ve had countless therapists over the years but it wasn’t until I truly accepted help that I started to see changes). But most of all, I owe it to me.
I have saved me.
I still feel trapped in the costume sometimes. But now, I realize something drastically important: it’s not a costume at all. It’s me. It’s MY skin, MY hair, MY facial features. MY curves, MY dimples, MY contours. This process of reclaiming my body as my own has been wildly liberating, and I have never been happier or healthier. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this beautiful life, the same one I once resented, holds for me.