Eating Disorders as Coping Mechanisms

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For me, there is no talking about mental health without talking about body image. I remember feeling the pervasive desire for thinness, the necessity of dieting, and seeing food as either “bad” or “good” from as young as 6 years old. Blame fat-free food marketing of the 90s, or blame my vast collection of Barbie dolls, but somehow my body has consistently been a target for negativity. On the heels of Canada’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I thought it appropriate to share how my relationship with my body and food became my first outlet for my mental health issues.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, and as I’m sure you can relate, we all have our coping mechanisms for managing our mental health, and these strategies sit on a spectrum of things that can be healthy for us, or not so much. You’ll recall that in my early 20s, I used work, my social life and a shocking amount of cocktails to avoid confronting depressive feelings. However, as an adolescent, these coping mechanisms weren’t available to me, and my world was much smaller and contained.

I developed an eating disorder in high school in response to an unstable and stressful home environment. At a time in my household when I had no control over what went on and could never predict what I was walking into on a given day, what I ate and managing my weight became the outlet where I channeled all of my energy, stress and negative emotions. While I was busy obsessively reading food labels and writing lists of calories I had consumed that day, I was distracted from what was going on at home.

Living with this disorder was an exhausting experience, defined by cycles of guilt and joy that were completely dependent on the number on that scale. My unrelenting inner critic kept me laser focused on my goal: to be smaller, to take up less room in the world. Thoughts of how I could require less food consumed my day, so there was not an ounce of room left in my mind to feel the full impact of life at home.

And like many coping mechanisms, it worked for a time. Losing weight and eating very little felt like an accomplishment to me, at a time when my home life was not a source of confidence or security. At the very least, I would think to myself, I had this under control.

Only my oldest childhood friend and boyfriend ever called me out on my bullshit, asking me where my lunch was, or not believing that I had “already eaten”. At the time, I felt attacked – how dare they challenge me? Now I see their confrontations as the sincerest act of love and as much as they could do as teenagers themselves.

As my home life improved and I moved away to university, the pull of the disorder had quieted and I found myself able to loosen the reigns on such restrictive eating patterns. I was happier, and not merely surviving.

Some residual effects of the illness remain, mostly in the form of emotional self-harm. This is how I describe the repeating soundtrack of negativity that I will sometimes allow to play over and over in my mind. This can range from remembering all of my most embarrassing moments in quick and vivid succession, to beating myself up for drinking too much, to finding myself in a social media black hole comparing myself to strangers on the Internet – all of which certainly fall under the “not-so-good-for-you” category.

There is no physical harm, but I have to be careful – emotional self-harm becomes reminiscent of the pervasive thought patterns of my disorder that kept me safe for a time, but nonetheless controlled my thoughts and behaviours for too long.

I also have this weird aversion to bagels. Someone had told me once, at a clearly impressionable time, that bagels have as many calories as 5 pieces of bread. I can imagine that frightened me to no end and thus, I have not eaten a bagel since 2005. There’s a fleet of new flavours at Tim Hortons that I have never tried, and I’m finding myself a little curious…

Avoiding bagels was one of many coping mechanisms that worked for me for a time and so I have to respect them. They served their purpose. Now, I have better tools, stronger relationships, and more love to give myself, so maybe I don’t need that one anymore.

 

What Depression Looks Like on Me

There are days I wish mental illness presented like any other physical illness in that its effects could be seen, validated, and hopefully understood by other people, because living with an invisible illness can be an exhausting experience, particularly for people whose depression and anxiety symptoms fall outside of how we often categorize “mentally ill” people.

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I identify as an extrovert – I receive my energy from interacting with people, being social and connecting with others. More than loving a good party (although I most certainly do) I feel energized, alive and spirited when I am with friends, meeting new people and having good conversation. Having high social needs means that the symptoms of my mental illness don’t often align with traits people normally associate with depression or anxiety. When I share with people that I have clinical depression, they are often surprised: “But you are so outgoing! You don’t seem depressed at all.” Thank…you. Does not displaying the stereotypical depressive characteristics (whatever those are…) make my illness less legitimate?

What does depression look like on this particular extrovert? In an effort to avoid generalizations, I speak only to my experience in describing how I wear my particular illness.

I prioritize my relationships and social life, making sure I am being an attentive friend, remembering important dates in the lives of people I care about, making the long drives to see loved ones and showing up for events and gatherings even when it takes every last ounce of my energy. Perhaps people assume that social events would be the first things to drop during a depressive episode, but that’s not the best thing for me. As an extrovert, I am pulled in two directions, 1) needing to spend energy pulling myself out of my funk, and 2) desperately craving a social energy hit.

In short, you likely won’t see my relationships suffer too much when I am feeling depressed because while my personal internal and external environment may suffer, my remaining energy goes into my friends and family, who will only notice I am not doing well if they know what to look for.

My particular brand of depression looks like:

Unwashed dishes: My friends know that I can laugh at myself about this not-so-cute-at-27 quirk. I am tagged in all the dirty dishes memes and before I invite anyone into my apartment, they should know I’ve likely spent over an hour washing every dish in my house. Why? Because I’ve used every dish in my house. Why? Because I couldn’t be bothered to wash them right away, and they’ve become a pile that will take me an hour to wash, and that’s an hour I could spend sleeping so I have energy later to hang out with friends.

Untidy house: Self-proclaimed “clean freaks” have always fascinated me. Why clean every day when you could, I don’t know, be sleeping. I never understood how people didn’t spend an entire day cleaning their house, until I finally came to the realization that part of my depression means I don’t make time (read: don’t care) to clean a little every day. This leaves me with a 4- hour cleaning frenzy to manage because I agreed to host the girls’ fondue night. I don’t clean for me, I clean for the benefit of other people.

Eating take-out:  Subway, Panera Bread, Pita Pit…you name a sandwich place during a depressive low, and the employees working there know my order. I don’t care enough to cook or prepare something at home because 1) I don’t have the energy to cook for just me 2) there’s no food in the house to prepare and 3) there’s no clean plate to put it on anyway. Logically I know that my health and my wallet would benefit from eating at home, but I can’t be bothered to take care of myself in that way when I’m feeling down.

Three-hour naps on the daily: Another adorable trait that I make jokes about but speaks to how much sleep I require to recover and heal during a low. I also use sleep as an avoidance tool – can’t overthink things while you’re snoozing!

Attention deficits: My friend and I have discussed how nice it would be to sit down with a book and read the whole thing without getting bored or distracted or feeling compelled to check our phones. Imagine being that at peace! My downtime is spent drowning out thoughts that make me feel bad by watching comforting, mind-numbing TV shows that I know every line of dialogue to. My depression looks like distraction so that I don’t have to directly listen my thoughts, and then can run quietly in the background instead.

Self-deprecating humour: Ahhh…the quintessential coping mechanism for so many depressives! Why make other people feel uncomfortable by your illness when you can make light of personality quirks like being sleepy, untidy and hyperactive? Don’t get me wrong – joking about my illness is helpful to me too, but it’s one way I know how to reach out when I need help that makes people feel a little less uneasy.

So, much like online clothes shopping, even depression may look different on you and me than it does on the model. What I hope to work towards in sharing my stories is to help more people feel validated that their feelings are important, they deserve help, and most importantly, they are not alone in this.

 

Choosing Happy

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The season of #BellLetsTalk is a great time to talk about reaching out for help with our mental health struggles, and supporting one another by listening and being a friend.

It’s a mark of great courage to trust someone else enough to be that vulnerable, and I certainly respect that. I have found it’s quite another thing to admit to yourself that you need help and manage the fallout that comes with an evolving identity that suddenly includes mental illness.

In my early 20s, I had some great strategies for dodging my depression and avoiding pesky feelings: overworking at a demanding job, over-committing in my social life, and a weekly alcoholic beverage count that absolutely stunned my pure, wide-eyed, naturopath. These strategies worked for a time – no one guessed I was depressed, and I did not have the time or attention span to confront my deteriorating mental health.

I moved home after leaving my demanding job, and figured I’d begin the quirky rite of passage of moving home as many people do, complete with aggressive resume distribution and calling my parents “my roommates”. Eight months later, I was still a barista, living in my parents’ basement and eating an impressive amount of expired pastries from Starbucks.

I had time on my hands. I didn’t have a team of staff members to focus my energy. I worked weekends and early mornings so margarita weeknights were a thing of the past. There was nothing for my shitty feelings to hide behind: I was not okay.

Admitting that my tried-and-true coping strategies had turned stale quickly was not easy. I kept telling myself, but I’m not the sad girl, I make everyone laugh. I’m not the underachiever, I held a great job for years. I thought I knew myself and my capabilities, and adjusting that perception was a hit to my ego.

I did not want to be on medication. Medication meant admitting to needing extra help that other people didn’t need. It meant that I wasn’t capable of handling the “challenges” of my already privileged life. It was admitting failure. It wasn’t me.

My change of heart came when my family rented a cottage in the late summer of 2013. Being around just my immediate family for a week with limited social stimulation, no cell phone service and poor weather, the last of my well-crafted performance art fell away. My mom said even my face looked different: there was no life there. I didn’t have to pretend in front of my family, so I didn’t.

I agreed to take antidepressants after ruining that family vacation with my piss-poor attitude, although it was certainly no miracle pill initially. My emotions, even positive ones, were dulled, and I was heartbroken when I found myself unable to cry at the funeral of my best friend’s mother. I was groggy in the morning, had wicked indigestion, night terrors, and my all-time favourite, night itches.

So I switched the meds, and tried again. And I found a combination of brand and dosage that works for me. And the best part? The meds allow me to feel as though I can manage the highs and lows of life, without huge blows to my confidence and self-esteem. Negative thoughts are promptly triaged and evaluated logically, and often quieted or released completely.

With this help, I consistently feel like the capable person I am, so why would I deprive myself of something that works for me? To preserve my pride? There are more important things. My ego need not require that much real estate in my life – not when I could be happy instead.