My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues (Part 2)

When it comes time to hit publish on these posts, this is who I feel like:

A fun workout you can do in your living room! Vegan finger food recipes! Natural deodorants! That time I alienated myself from loved ones because of my crippling emotional instability!

Womp womp wommmmmmmp.

I admittedly treated last week’s post like a cathartic therapy session so I think it came out a bit on the dramatic side—not that I exaggerated anything but man did I go HAM with the descriptions of sadness. This week’s post deals with equally heavy subject matter but I just spent the last hour laughing at memes (very productive morning over here) so I’m thinking a little less angst. Hmm this is probably why real writers hire editors …

If you’re just tuning in, this is the first post from the series. And this is the second post. In today’s post I talk a lot about my unhealthy relationship with food so I think according to unspoken Internet laws, I’m supposed to put “Trigger Warning” here. So … there ya go.

My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues (Part 2)

When I withdrew from school, I felt a massive weight lifted from my shoulders. Immediately I knew I made the right decision. I also felt like a failure and a complete loser. Looking back today, I see it as a surrender—not a failure. I was going through something I couldn’t handle on my own and I needed to get help in fixing it and make that my priority. But back then, I was embarrassed.

I decided to stay in Chapel Hill even though I wasn’t enrolled in school for the remainder of the spring semester. While having to tell people at school I had withdrawn was embarrassing, the thought of going back home to the Vineyard felt like the ultimate defeat. I guess I thought it’d be less noticeable to stay put.

I don’t know what the policy is at other colleges, but at UNC, if you withdraw from school for mental health reasons, you need to see a school-approved psychiatrist before you’re able to return. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was so ill-equipped at verbalizing my feelings and explaining what was going on inside of me that the first session was a blubbering mess. I don’t think I spoke a single complete sentence (“I just … I feel like … I don’t know … it’s like … I just don’t know”).

Still, I felt better after the session. And week by week, the words started to come together. My psychiatrist suggested anti-depressant medication but I was adamantly opposed. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with taking medication, but because I still didn’t really accept the fact that I was depressed. In the back of my mind was still my self-sabotaging, ass-hole of an ego telling me I had it under control and could fix everything myself. I was convinced that all my issues were because of external circumstances. I just had to change my major and lose weight and I’d be happy and back to normal again.

Lol. Nice try, girl.

But I did lose weight and I did feel better. Temporarily. In fact, I lost every single pound I’d gained. I had two months of no classes and no job before I went home for the summer so let’s just say I had a lot of free time to go to the gym. Now I knew *nothing* about nutrition, health or fitness at the time. My workouts consisted of me endlessly doing the elliptical with no resistance and then doing 50 crunches and calling it a day. I had no idea how to work out effectively!

But I ate healthier foods and reduced the amount I was eating (reduced it way too much in retrospect, but again, I had no idea what I was doing). I also wasn’t drinking alcohol as frequently because I felt like I didn’t really deserve to be out partying with my friends since I wasn’t taking classes. I also wanted to avoid conversations in which I’d have to reveal that I wasn’t enrolled currently. The guilt and shame weren’t healthy, but a break from drinking certainly was.

When the semester ended, I went back home to the Vineyard at my pre-college weight. I was getting compliments on my appearance, I felt confident in a bathing suit, and for the first time in almost a year, I was actually excited to be social and go out. When I came back to UNC for fall semester of junior year, I still felt great about the way I looked and I had a manageable class load. Things were great! Problems were solved!

Narrator (Morgan Freeman Voice): In Fact, Things Were Not Great. Problems Were Not Solved.

Two things happened when I applied the temporary band-aid of losing weight and changing majors: I ignored the deeper issue that I had been depressed and I created an association in my mind between happiness and thinness. As soon as I started feeling the instant gratification of losing weight, I stopped seeing my psychiatrist. I was stubborn, independent to a fault, closed off, and convinced I could fix it all myself. For me, the satisfaction of seeing the number on the scale drop was proof of that. 

Eventually, a frantic, maniacal obsession over what I ate was born.

I had the full-length mirror in my bedroom framed with pictures of Victoria’s Secret models. I thought of it as “inspiration”—now I just see that as incredibly sad. I downloaded a meal and workout tracker app to my phone and recorded everything I did and ate, obsessed with calories in vs. calories out. I would weight myself daily and record it in a spreadsheet on my computer, graphing out my losses and gains. I was never *not* thinking about food and weight.

I was putting so much pressure on myself to be rigidly, impossibly “perfect” that I fell into a vicious cycle of restriction, binging and guilt. I’d plan out my days to the minute and follow the plan strictly for a couple days at a time. Inevitably though, life would happen. Something I hadn’t planned for would pop up (a classmate brings donuts to class, my roommate invites me out to lunch, I’m swamped with homework and have to skip the gym), and I wouldn’t be able to handle it. That one little deviation from my plan would cause me to completely give up on the day and consider it a wash. It was perfection or flaming dumpster fire, there was no in between with me. Since the day was “ruined,” I’d binge eat ice cream, cookie dough—anything I could get my hands on and vow to start again fresh the next day.

No sooner than the food was finished, I’d be overcome with crippling guilt. What had I done?? It was agonizing. The only relief from the guilt was to make an even more restrictive plan for the next day. I had notebooks filled with failed itineraries for the day of when and what I’d eat and do. It was all I could think about. I’d never wanted control so badly in my life, yet I’ve also never been so completely, utterly out of control.

And I knew I was out of control, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was ashamed by what I was doing so I’d hide my binges from my roommates. Eating rolls of Pilsbury cookie dough alone in my locked bedroom then burying the empty wrappers deep in the trash out of sight. After a binge, I’d be so disgusted with myself I couldn’t even look in the mirror. One time I even showered with a t-shirt on so I wouldn’t have to see my body.

It was all in my head—I was always a “healthy” weight and if you look at pictures of me during that time, I look totally normal. Great even! I mean the side bangs and outfit choice are concerning (why were waist belts ever a thing??), but I was never under or over weight.

Having that kind of relationship with food was incredibly isolating. I was falling right back into my same patterns as sophomore year. I couldn’t bring myself to participate in social situations so I’d try to convince myself that I didn’t want to participate in the first place. That sounds so stupid, why would I want to go out to dinner with friends?? Order a pizza and watch TV with my best friends—pffff who would ever want to do that on a lazy Sunday night??

Almost all social situations—especially in college—involve eating and/or drinking. I was stuck in this violent all-or-nothing pendulum and couldn’t handle moderation. So I’d go out to dinner with friends and it’d turn into a binge. I’d say “fuck it” after one bite from the bread bowl and then it’d be all downhill and I’d feel sick and guilty and not want to go out to the bars afterwards.

If I’d had a “good” day with restrictive eating and then my roommates invited friends over the house that night, I’d be so terrified I’d ruin the day that I’d stay locked away in my room, avoiding the gathering. It was a prison of my own creation: Listening to laugher and my friends all having fun in the next room and being mentally and physically unable to participate.

It wasn’t just the issues with food. I’d never really dealt with my depression and there was always this ever-present void deep in my chest. The best way I can describe it is a pull towards darkness/nothingness; a feeling of being suspended in space while the world moves on without you. Throughout the remainder of college I was in a continuous game of tug-o-war with that pull. I’d have good days, sometimes a string of good days, then with a heaving yank, I’d be thrust back towards the dark void. I’d say all the time, “I’m just in a funk. I just need to stay in tonight and I’ll snap myself out of it tomorrow.” But tomorrow never came. I wasn’t “in a funk,” I was depressed.

Inside I was frenzied and confused but still trying to blame external things for my unhappiness instead of looking inward at that chaos. This caused me to misplace my anger and frustrations, lashing out at others when really it was me who needed confronting.

On countless occasions my friends tried to talk to me about it, but there was nothing anyone could have done to really help me because I didn’t want help. It was too scary to accept that something was wrong with me so I just remained in denial and projected the negativity onto others. I was convinced I would get it under control myself.

This went on right through senior year. Good days, bad days, feeling embarrassed about the bad days, shame and guilt breeding more shame and guilt. But a gradual shift was beginning to take place. And when I say “gradual” I’m talking that GEICO commercial with the sloth playing Pictionary—this was a slowwww process.

I started to *want* to get back to my old self and started to accept that *I* was the problem. My internal dialogue slowly started to shift towards “I need to change” instead of “all these external situations around me need to change.”

Accepting that YOU are the problem is both terrifying and empowering. The idea that there’s something ill within you is upsetting, but in a way it’s also a relief. The problem is identified and defined, and that in itself makes it feel conquerable.

______________

In next week’s post I’m going to talk about what prompted that shift and all the ongoing solutions that helped me start to heal. I appreciate you all letting me interrupt the regularly scheduled workouts and fun posts to (over) share my story with you.

JUMP TO NEXT POST

xo Nicole

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Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story! I appreciate your authenticity every day, but even more so with this series. 💕

  2. I went through a very similar experience in college and my heart hurts for my college self when I look back on it. This seems to be a super common problem in college age girls. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think I can do as a mom to prevent my daughter (she’s only five right now) from going through the body issues in college.

  3. Loving these posts so much. Thank you for being open and vulnerable about this!

  4. I can relate to this so hard! Thank you for sharing. Seriously.

  5. In this day and age of perfectly staged Instagram posts and Photoshop, this so refreshing to see real content from real life. Thank you for sharing. Your honesty is so appreciated.

  6. Wow! Going through a similar thing myself right now. I have depression and PTSD. Been trying to pull myself out of it, but keep going backwards. Looking forward to hearing how you pulled yourself out of it. Thank you for sharing your story!

  7. You are doing a great job here, but could not help noting that on the Carbon 38 website that comes up to the left, their “Large” is a size 10 (and a pretty tight size 10 at that). This tells ladies over a thin size 10 that a) they do not belong in workout mode and/or b) they should just give up and wear a men’s xxl tee for workouts. Oy.

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