It’s #BellLetsTalk day and it’s ALL about mental health awareness. How many people do you know that struggle with their mental health? Bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia. Anxiety. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Depression. Eating Disorder.
These are just a few of the many mental health struggles people face every day. Often, it’s more than one. The only way to end the stigma around mental health, is to end the stigma around mental health. We must stop treating this side of the health and wellness industry as lesser than, simply because you can’t see someone’s pain.
Gymnastics and My Mental Health
I honestly don’t remember the day my mental health worsened, when it began creeping into my body and soul. Awareness for mental health was slim when I was young, and in truth it has not gotten that much better. Growing up in the world of gymnastics, the size of my body and the ability to build and keep muscle was important. I don’t think it was until I was on the older end of my team that I really started to notice body types, shapes and sizes…and become concerned with whether mine was good enough.
When I did start to notice, I couldn’t shake it from my mind. I started watching what I ate, but not truly restricting myself. I remember the days that I “over ate”, how upset I was with myself. The days when I didn’t eat enough, I was so hungry. I didn’t understand how I could eat so much. Others around me seemed fine with so much less. In hindsight, I was an elite gymnast training 30 hours a week, a dancer training a minimum of 8 hours a week, and a full-time student in high school. My body was constantly burning through everything I ate, of course I was hungry!
Something I never fully recognized until later, was that the people around me who I saw eating so much less, could have very well been struggling like I was. But I couldn’t see it then, and I cared less about what those people needed from me. Whether it was love, attention, compassion, respect – honestly it went out the window with the food I didn’t eat, or the food I did eat that affected my brain’s ability to function well. To anyone affected by my behaviour during that period of my life, I truly apologize.
The High School Years
High-school was filled with anxiety, bringing all of my insecurities to life. I had convinced myself that everyone who looked my way was disgusted with my appearance. The term “muscular” was code for “fat” in my mind. In Grade 11, I was constantly in a panic, stressed about literally anything I could possibly think of, begging for something to put my life on hold so I could take a moment and breathe. I believed I needed more time; so I quit gymnastics, despite it being my one constant since I was 4 years old.
I wasn’t working out every day, and people had something to say about it. “You’re not doing gymnastics anymore? You’ll have to make some changes.” “Be careful what you eat. Your body won’t be like that for long.” “Are you going to the gym? You’re losing muscle.” You don’t realize how hard it is to hear things like that until it comes from the people you least expect it: family. I know now that these things weren’t said with the direct intention of hurting me. But, it hurt just the same.
It seemed like everyone around me had the rest of their lives all figured out. I, on the other hand, was stressed to the max, counting calories, and removing meals from my day. Lunch was the first to go – a useless meal that no one in high school ate anyway. Dinners became a quick snack, and breakfast was tea with almonds. I stopped eating altogether for 3 days before I passed out. I was getting ready for school, felt a bit off (shocker), and remember reaching for my dresser to lean on, before everything went white.
Diagnosis: Eating Disorder
It was official…I had an eating disorder. The idea of seeing a therapist was embarrassing, I made a mistake but I didn’t have a problem. I would just start eating again, feel less anxious, smile more. As it turns out, it’s not that simple. I saw my therapist until I left home for University.
We didn’t really talk about eating disorders, nor about anxiety or depression. I suppose that’s the point. Those diagnoses are in part, because of other problems. Focusing on those labels doesn’t help much if you aren’t working through what put you there in the first place. I talked and talked and talked, and I remember the session where it occurred to me why I hurt myself. The years of comments on appearance, life choices, intelligence, the pressure to be good, it added up and it took its toll on me.
Sharing My Story
I have considered sharing my story many times; when mental health came up in conversation or when I felt I could trust someone. Whether I was worried of what they would think, how they would treat me after knowing, or the conversation changed or turned negative, I stayed silent. I wasn’t ready. Some people find it easier to talk to others, to talk about themselves…for me, it’s very hard to be vulnerable. My eyes water up, my body chills and my throat chokes up with anxiety over the mere idea.
For a long time, I wanted to talk about it, about what I was going through, about how my mind worked. But, I was worried that they wouldn’t really hear me, or make me feel like my problems weren’t real. I don’t like the way people talk about mental health, about eating disorders, anxiety or depression. The scrutiny and the stereotypes; weak, stupid, insecure, attention-seeking. Why do people feel they have the right to judge? I wouldn’t want them to “walk in my shoes” to understand, I would hope they just wouldn’t judge at all. Unfortunately, people don’t always think before they speak.
Today, I could care less if someone has something negative to say about my struggles. If they think it’s all my fault, so be it. If they believe I’m making it up for attention, they’re entitled to their opinion. The thing is, it’s my story. These are my emotions, my feelings, my thoughts. External factors may have worked to create a disease, but I put myself back together every day.
Listen to Your Body
Sports and fitness have played a large role in my life since I was 3 years old. First with dance, soccer and then gymnastics. The health aspect, and how impactful it was to fitness, didn’t occur to me until only a few years ago. When you diet for example, you put restrictions on your life. If you think you’re just cutting out foods, think about how food plays a role in your everyday life. From lunches with coworkers to dinner with family or a drink with your partner at the end of a long day. Just as our jobs should not take over our lives, food is supplemental. Jobs allow us to make an income, so we can live a life we want. Food allows us to fuel our bodies, so we can live a life we want.
If you are an athlete, you’ve likely heard that “your body is an instrument”, and it’s true. The body is a carefully tuned instrument, and when you listen to it, it will tell you everything you need to know. Western society has fallen to the knees of laziness. We eat when we’re hungry, we eat when we’re not, we eat when we’re watching tv, while we’re working, while we’re driving. The same happens with technology; when was the last time you didn’t multitask? When was the last time you watched tv, ate a meal, or drove (as a passenger) without also being on your phone?
The point I’m trying to make is that we don’t know when we’re hungry anymore, we don’t know what being satiated feels like. We don’t know how to single-task, how to enjoy a moment without a camera filter, how to have a conversation with eye contact and authentic body language. We need to re-learn how to live. In order to do this, we must listen to our bodies. They will tell us when something is wrong, when a doctor’s opinion is necessary, when we need a glass of water, when we need food… If you listen to your body, it will not steer you wrong.
For Those That Are Struggling
You will find your way. It has taken me quite a while – almost 10 years – to be in a place where I don’t struggle every day. I still feel it sometimes. I fall and I have to push myself to get back up. The difference between 15-year-old me and 25-year-old me is that I want to be here, and I want to be here for a long time…to share adventures and grow old with my husband, to raise a family who raises a family. These thoughts didn’t happen overnight. That said, they did come…it occurred to me that if I wanted those things, I needed to take care of myself (and not just for the short term).
It goes on, even when we’re gone. Knowing that other people struggled and overcame it, did not help me face my problems. Hearing that everything would work out, that everything happens for a reason, that I need to have faith and trust that the universe has a plan…none of it made me feel understood. What helped was talking about it. Talking about what was going on in my head…and not being told that I was crazy, that I was overreacting, that I needed to suck it up. There is no shame in having a therapist. Find one, find a good one, and pour your heart out to them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I worked extremely hard to get where I am today. I also have many people to thank for helping me. The people who listened when I needed them to. The people that didn’t judge others, and made me feel like one day, I might be able to open up to them. At the end of the day though, I cannot forget to thank myself. I put in the work; the self-care, the self-love…I hope that by sharing my story, one day, you find time to share your own. Whether it’s by writing it down in your journal, typing it on a computer only to erase it, recording it with audio and/or video. This world, and the people in it can take away a lot of things, but they can never take your truth.
CMHA, the Canadian Mental Health Association has many resources that may help you. A great place to start is with the Mental Health Meter 🙂