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 While having to tell people at school I had withdrawn was embarrassing, the thought of going back home to the Vineyard felt like the ultimate defeat.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.

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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.

xo Nicole

My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues (Part 1)

My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues

First and foremost, thank you so much for the sweet comments and messages following last week’s post. Something I’ve learned from talking about my mental health with friends and peers was further proven to be true in reading through the responses to that post: More people understand what you’re going through than you may think. Depression (and other trying situations and conditions) can feel extremely isolating but there are others who’ve gone through it as well and can help give words to what may feel very confusing.

I guess that’s why I want to put all this on the blog. I’ve learned how important communication is when you’re struggling, but I’ve never been good about verbally articulating what I’m feeling. It was doubly hard in college because I was trying to speak a language I’d never learned. I’d never been depressed before and I didn’t have the words to describe and define it. My first meeting with a psychiatrist sounded something like this: “I just … I don’t know … I just feel like … it’s like … I feel … I don’t know” (on repeat for 60 minutes with some tears and nose-blowing thrown in).

When it comes to talking about my feelings, my verbal communication skills are the equivalent of Lil Jon yelling “Yeeee-ahhh! Okayyyyyy! Whaaaaat? Yeeeee-ah!” in the background of an Usher song. In writing, however, I think I do a bit better—hence this blog series. When I was in college, I was so lost as to what was happening to me, and I think reading something like this would have been beneficial. Yes! That’s how I feel, too! Yes! That description is like me! Those are the words for which I’m looking!

So in that way, this blog post series is both about me in college and for me in college.

My Past Struggles with Depression & Body Image Issues (Part 1)

My struggle with depression in college was deeply intertwined with negative body image and a terrible relationship with food. (My most recent bout of depression last year had nothing to do with those things.) Like many, I gained weight freshman year of college. Twenty pounds to be exact (what can I say, I’m an overachiever—the Freshman 15 didn’t stand a chance). It honestly didn’t bother me that year though. I was having too much fun to notice or care! Plus my boobs got huge! Life was good!

I don’t think it really registered with me that I’d gained weight until I went back home for the summer, and I can’t pinpoint it to one instance, but gradually I became hyper-aware of my body. Things would rub together and jiggle that didn’t normally, and that sensation would drive a pit deep in my stomach. Whose body is this??

And I want to pause the story to just say that talking about weight is tricky because we all have different bodies. It’s not that rubbing or jiggling is bad—it’s that it didn’t feel like the body I’d always known. Growing up, I was a skinny kid. My parents are both tall and thin and so I believe the scientific term for my genetic predisposition is Gangly AF. Even 20 pounds heavier, I know I still looked like an average, healthy girl. And the last thing I want to do is come across as some skinny chick complaining about a small weight gain. What I’m trying to explain is the feeling of being trapped in a body that isn’t yours. It intensified to the point where I wanted to quite literally crawl out of my skin.

My body occupied every thought in my head throughout the day and I was cripplingly self-conscious about it. Wearing clothes felt uncomfortable, looking in the mirror felt uncomfortable, simply existing felt uncomfortable. I was disgusted by my body—words that are hard to write today because I now love and am so thankful for my body and know it’s not deserving of that.

As I headed back to college for my sophomore year, a storm was brewing internally.

Sophomore Year – Fall Semester

All my life I had been a perfectionist and an overachiever. Today I’m much more chilled out, but back then I was intense. Up through high school you’re pretty much on a fixed track with a clear direction towards college, and I excelled at that. You don’t have a ton of choices as to what you study, but my default was to always chose the most advanced classes because I knew I could handle them. When I got to college and suddenly was given the task of choosing a major and what I wanted to study, I realized I had no clue what I actually wanted to do. Every other month I changed my major and for the first time in my life I felt directionless.

Going into sophomore year, I was pre-med because I just defaulted to the only identity I’d ever known: the girl who takes all the advanced classes and choses the hardest route because she can. Since I didn’t choose this route until sophomore year, I had some catching up to do and my course load was ridiculous. And as if genetics and organic chemistry classes aren’t hard enough as is, I was miserable because it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.

So at this point I’m feeling trapped in an unfamiliar body and unsure of what I want to be doing with my life. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was confused, panicked and deeply unhappy. But I’d always been fiercely independent and I thought I could fix things on my own. Instead of taking a step back, talking about it with someone, and figuring out what was going on, I kept blindly shuffling along in silence and things got worse and worse and worse.

But how could I, a privileged girl with a great family and friends, be depressed?? It didn’t even cross my mind as a possibility. I thought I was just overweight and needing to get through this tough schoolwork. Fix those things and I’d be fine. Now, yes, my body image and directionless course load were contributing to my unhappiness, but my depression was bigger than those things. (I’d find this out when I changed majors, lost weight and STILL felt empty.)

As I got more depressed, I started withdrawing from my friends and avoiding social situations. I had this whole narrative I’d tell myself to justify it though—always blaming external things for my problems and failing to realize that *I* was the problem. I told myself and others that I couldn’t hang out because I had too much schoolwork. I did have a lot of schoolwork, but the truth was that I just couldn’t bring myself to be around happy people. It made me uncomfortable because it made it apparent how different I was from them and forced me to confront what was happening to me. Plus I just didn’t have the energy to be around people. I was in a complete fog.

I’d also just straight up lie to myself. I didn’t understand that I was depressed so I’d explain my inability to partake in social situations by writing everything off as stupid. Why would I want to go to a stupid party with my friends? Parties are so stupid. No I don’t want to go out to lunch with you—going out to eat is so stupid. These are activities that (when healthy) bring me happiness! But I couldn’t fully process why I was so paralyzed and unable to enjoy them so I just told myself I didn’t like these things and rightfully so because they were just so stupid.

At the same time I was using schoolwork as a scapegoat to avoid being social, I wasn’t getting any work accomplished. I felt like my brain was broken. I was always a straight-A student growing up. And I wouldn’t say it’s because I’m smarter than anyone else, but more so that I’m just good at school. I like the work and I enjoy the process of studying and learning. College is very different from high school and by no means do I think I would have been getting straight A’s in pre-med classes had I not been depressed (hell to the no, that shit is hard!). But I wasn’t even getting in the ballpark. I was straight up FAILING everything.

I couldn’t concentrate in class, the library, at home—anywhere. Everything was fogged and muffled. I felt guilt and shame for struggling in my classes, so not only was I using schoolwork as an excuse to avoid social situations, but a part of me felt like I didn’t deserve to be social. I was failing! Yet when I skipped social events, I didn’t get any studying done because my brain was so foggy. It was a maddening cycle, a vicious wheel spinning in place.

Although my insecurities about my weight gain fed into my initial decline, it got to a point where I was so depressed that I stopped caring about my body altogether. I stopped caring about everything. I didn’t shower, didn’t put any effort into getting dressed, and stopped caring about being overweight because I just felt like I was a piece of shit anyway and it didn’t matter. All self care went out the window. Still, I pointed to external things to justify it (I’m too busy with school to workout/shower/etc) instead of looking inward. Nothing was my fault. Things were happening to me not because of me.

Sophomore Year – Spring Semester

You know how in commercials for antidepressant drugs they always depict depression as a little cartoon walking around with a rain cloud over its head? I think it’s a good analogy, but it misses the mark. I actually see emotionally and mentally healthy people who are going through a tough time as those cartoons with the little rain cloud over their heads.

A beloved grandparent has passed away; you’re going through a bad breakup; you’ve been laid off from your job—there is a proverbial rain cloud dumping down on you. But it’s just that one cloud and it’s just hovering over your head, and there is still all this blue sky around you that you can see. Everyone experiences bad times and sadness, that is a fact of life. But if you deal with these tough times in a healthy way, you can acknowledge the cloud and feel its rain without losing sight of all the blue sky around you. There may be a lot to be down about, but you have the perspective to see that there’s also a lot to be grateful for as well. You know that with time and work (happiness is a choice—and at times it takes HARD work!) the rain cloud will pass.

With depression, the rain cloud isn’t hovering over your head. You’re in the rain cloud. It creeps lower and lower, slowly shrouding you in its fog, getting thicker and heavier as it swallows you oppressively into its dark core. You can no longer see the blue sky. And the longer you stay enveloped in the bowels of this rain cloud, the harder it is to differentiate yourself from it. You are no longer separate entities; you become the rain cloud.

By the start of second semester of sophomore year, I was a rain cloud.

All I could see and feel was negativity or—even worse than negativity—nothingness. My internal dialogue was all negative and because I wasn’t talking to anyone else about this (not friends, family, a counsellor), I wasn’t allowing for any other outlooks. When my roommates did try to challenge that negativity and confront me about what was happening, I couldn’t handle it. The thought of facing what was actually going on inside me was too overwhelming and scary. So I’d respond by getting angry and isolating myself from them even more. It was an agonizing feeling of needing help so desperately but being utterly incapable of accepting it.

It was a month into second semester when I finally hit the “eject” button.

Amidst a cloudy year, this day stands out in my memory crystal clear. I was sitting towards the front row of my Organic Chem lecture in a huge room with stadium seating. The words coming out of the professor’s mouth bounced off my hollow, numb ears and floated away. I couldn’t concentrate and knew not a single fact spewed would be retained. I looked down at my blank notebook. What was the point of even taking notes? What was the point of doing anything?

I kept staring at my notebook page and to me it was just the saddest thing I’d ever seen. I was looking in a mirror. Blank and empty, I wasn’t even pretending to try anymore. Tears started falling from my eyes, hitting the page in loud, angry splats and soon I was sobbing in the middle of a 200-person lecture hall. I packed up my books and walked up the stairs to the door, passing row after row of students who were probably staring at me but I didn’t care.

I cried all the way through the quad as I walked back to the duplex I shared with my friends. I closed the door to my bedroom and between heaving sobs dialed my mom’s phone number. I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t live like this anymore. I knew something needed to change but I didn’t know what.

When my mom picked up, I told her I was withdrawing from school.

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Part 2 will be up next week. I know this isn’t the most uplifting way to send you into the weekend, but remember that I’m writing this from a good place. And if you’re going through something similar, know that you, too, can get to this happier, healthier state. xoxo Nicole

JUMP TO PART 2

Words for 2018

Words for 2018I didn’t necessarily make any resolutions for the new year, but I did sit down and write out some words for 2018. When I reflect on the year 12 months from now, these are the words I hope will come to mind. These are the words I want as my year’s descriptors. These are the words to which I am committed.

2017 was a bit of a struggle for me. If I were to write down words for 2017, it’d look something like this: stagnant, stuck, immobile

I could go on, but you get the picture.

To explain, I need to back up a bit. I’ve mentioned in passing several times that I went through a rough patch in college, but have never gone into detail about my struggles with depression. In college, it was so all-consuming and paralyzing that I couldn’t function and participate in the life around me. I finally ended up withdrawing from school. I took the semester off to seek therapy and get a handle on things and am grateful that I was able to return in the fall.

But by no means was it all sunshine and roses from there—more of a rollercoaster of being trapped inside my own head. Relationships were negatively affected, I had good and bad periods, but I was able to at least function as a student and get the work done I needed to graduate.

After college was when I really got control of the situation and felt like “myself” again. In fact, it got to the point where I felt like depression was a thing of the past for me. Like anyone else, I had bad days, fell into funks, experienced sadness—but as healthy, normal reactions to what was happening around me. For years, I felt great. I was happy, a full participant in my life, and my relationships with friends and family were thriving.

If it’s possible to be cocky about your mental and emotional stability, I was. I would almost brag about how “self-aware” I was (I feel like such a d-bag typing that sentence haha), and I credited my stability to this acknowledgement of my issues with depression. I thought I had conquered it and had total control, and I regarded my past struggles flippantly.

Welp. 2017 was humbling.

Turns out self awareness only gets you so far. In fact, self awareness without action isn’t very useful at all. I was depressed throughout most of this past year. It crept up on me slowly, and I saw all the signs and recognized my behavior patterns were exactly those of when I struggled with this in college. But I was stubborn and convinced that I could get a handle on it myself without help from anyone else. Yeahhh … not so much.

I turned a corner later this fall and for the past month or so have felt like myself again so I’m confident this bout is behind me. I’m also no longer so naive to think that’s the last time I’ll experience this.

One thing I’m sure of is that keeping it to myself and refusing to talk about it out of conviction that I could solve all my own issues was the worst thing I could have done. When I talked to my mom about it at Thanksgiving, she said something that couldn’t be more accurate (she’s so wise and I’m an idiot for not seeking her guidance more often). I’m paraphrasing here, but:

Everything is scarier in the dark because it’s hard to see clearly in darkness. When you hold your issues to yourself in secret, they’re living in shadow where they can fester and grow darker and bigger and meaner. It’s when you bring those issues and struggles out into the light of the world around you that you can see them clearly for what they are. They become a lot less scary and a whole lot easier to overcome.

I haven’t been able to get that visual out of my mind. I picture reaching into the depths of my chest and pulling my depression out of that dark cavity to spread my palm open into the light. From there the pain dissolves in the sunshine and sparkles off into the air.

When you hold things inside, your worldview becomes myopic and your issues become all-consuming. You eventually become inseparable from your troubles. When I finally got the (jumbled, incoherent) words to come out of my mouth to Joe, it was like a ton of bricks had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt light in both meanings of the word: no longer weighed down and no longer in darkness.

I also have been feeling compelled to share these experiences on the blog. Maybe selfishly as a type of catharsis? But hopefully with benefit to readers who may be experiencing something similar or know and love someone who is.

I don’t think my mental and emotional hardships are extraordinary. In fact, compared to what a lot of other people go through, I honestly feel a bit silly claiming to have overcome any sort of obstacle. I know that all in all, I’ve had a pretty damn privileged life. However, it doesn’t matter where your issues fall on the spectrum: If you are unhappy and unhealthy, you need to address what’s going on. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to be able to look at the bigger picture and see that people have it worse than you—that perspective fosters gratitude and optimism and helps us avoid sweating the small stuff. However, just because your struggle isn’t as large as someone else’s doesn’t mean it should be ignored. ← This “wisdom” coming to you from the Queen of Ignoring Her Issues

This month, I’m going to talk more about my struggles in college with depression and disordered eating; my recent bout of depression; and the resources and practices that helped me then and continue to help me now. I’m going to break it into a series of posts because I’m long-winded (as you’ve probably noticed by this post) and will publish one a week. If you couldn’t care less, there’ll still be recipes, workouts and other posts published in between so fear not!

The new year always feels like a bit of a reset button, and that couldn’t be more true for me right now. I feel like I’ve emerged from a fog and am excited to once again be an active participant in my life. For most of 2017 I was just sort of floating suspended as time and life moved on without me. Nothing progressed (personally, career-wise, etc.) because I was paralyzed by this depression. This year will be different.

My words and phrases for 2018: progress, movement, mobility, create, produce, COMMUNICATE, LIVE.

Looking forward to sharing the next post in this series with you next week. [JUMP TO NEXT POST]

xo Nicole

Photo by Nick Cosky.