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.

_____________

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.