A 12-year old is not exactly Seventeen Magazine’s target audience. In 2011, before I became a teenager, I endured my first bout with mental illness. Little did I know that a seemingly harmless read of my older sister’s copy would set in motion a continuous cycle of battling against my own worst enemy.
I would not call myself a perfectionist, although I hold myself to very high expectations. As a young child, there should be no pressure — no “I am not good/pretty/fit enough”. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most people. As a middle schooler, my sense of fitting in was fueled by my desire to be healthy. In my eyes, being healthy meant exercising, eating good foods, and being health conscious. What started as an innocent trek towards “healthy” developed into a spiraling fall into the grasp of Ed. Who is Ed? He is the name my dad gave my eating disorder.
I had not realized how deep into the thralls of anorexia I had become, until family members, friend’s parents, and track coaches began commenting on my appearance. The words “gaunt” and “sick” will always induce an extra, sharp edge in my vocabulary. I vehemently denied disliking my body image, the constant, secret exercising, and my growing obsession with counting calories. It was not until my parents gave me a reality check and spelled it out for me, did I realize my impending fate: I was on the path to dying.
To give me the best chance at beating my anorexia, my parents chose outpatient treatment. My dad quit his job to stay home with me everyday, the Summer following my seventh-grade school year. Through trial-and-error, he found that giving my eating disorder a name helped humazine its monstrosity. My parents and two older sisters fully supported me, even through my violent outbursts, crying fits, and suicidal exclamations. Being vulnerable and open at home is one thing; whereas being in a school packed with judgemental, unaware 12-14 year-olds was a whole other story.
Around the time people found their clique, I was finding myself to be lonely. The good news? Over the following months, I beat my eating disorder. The bad news? I had developed social anxiety. My anxiety was present during my bout with anorexia, but it really began to rear its ugly head as I transitioned into my high school years.
A normal school day for me was filled with hiding in the bathroom stall during passing time, special privileges to visit the nurse’s office (I would get emotional and needed a good, quiet place to cry), and eating lunch alone in the bathroom — you know, stuff that you think only happens in the movies. I only had a few friends but I hardly spent time with them; if we did make plans, I would make an excuse not to follow through or I would eventually go home. I constantly felt overwhelmed and not energized to maintain even a simple conversation. I felt awkward, unlikeable, and not needed in their lives.
Cue another transition period: ending high school and beginning college at the University of Minnesota Duluth. As my anxiety had gradually shifted to the back burner, I spent my freshman year maintaining a steady mental state. I began thriving; I met so many people who seemed interested in getting to know the real me, not just my facade. I wish this is where my story ended, having sprung free of the hold anxiety had on me. Alas, my bout with mental illness was hesitant to give up just yet.
As the years went on, my ever-growing sense of detachment from friends, school, and self caught up. By the time I was a Junior in college, I had been dating my boyfriend-at-the-time for 3.5 years. If “blinded by love” was a person, I do self-proclaim. For the better half of that relationship, I felt empty. Feelings of inadequacy fueled my self-hatred. Having been pushed aside time after time, in hopes of something better, I began to turn my back on the world, as well as myself. I skipped class, hardly ate, and succumbed to the depths of nothingness. I entered a depressive state and truly felt as if there was nothing to live for. I knew my behavior and mindset were self-destructive, but the pain I felt was debilitating.
In all honesty, I cannot quite remember what fueled my positive change. Whether it was the support of my parents, an upcoming summer break, or a monumental amount of self-reflection, I began leaving the funk I was in. Fast-forward a few months and my life looked like this: started senior year, ended my 4.5 year relationship, enrolled in major-focused classes (I chose psychology — ironic, right?), and lived alone. Once again, it seemed as though the last of my mental health struggles had come. Little did I know, my toughest battle against OCD was slowly creeping in.
I am not sure if I can count the number of times people have awkwardly laughed when I say, “I have trouble locking my front door because of my OCD.” They think I’m joking. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is greatly misunderstood. For the last 2 years, my life has been a series of “what-if” statements and not the inspirational kind. The little things, such as turning off the stove or switching off the lights, cause me immense stress and delays. Not only do I endure repetitive actions, but I have compulsively anxious thoughts.
I worry about very unrealistic circumstances. Every day of my life is plagued by a fear that I may accidentally run someone over while driving, worry of whether I locked my front door, and obsessive hand-washing. In an unfortunate similarity to my depression, my brain knows that these behaviors and thoughts are not productive. Yet, I can only accept adequacy in these actions if they simply ‘click’ in my brain. It is as though I have no control — the kicker is that all I want is control.
My journey through all of these disorders was seemingly delivered in a cause-and-effect relationship. As I fought and overcame one disorder, another one would take its place. It is common to experience co-occurrence when having any of these disorders — each one overlapping the previous. One consistency throughout these last 11 years has been my desire to speak out. After having escaped from the weight of anorexia, I promptly took to sharing my experience on Instagram. I became vocal online and in-person about my anxious thoughts, panic attacks, and feelings of emptiness. I am grateful to have been met with patience and understanding. Today’s day and age is so present online that sharing my story over social media is optimal for reaching an at-risk audience.
I am comfortable with my past struggles. I am accepting of my ongoing fight with OCD. Relatability is key to generating a response from others who are struggling. I use my platform of inherent knowledge to spread awareness, advocacy, and realness. Due to my struggles with mental illness, I have lost friends, failed classes, hated myself, and lost valuable time. It has been easier to look back and dwell on the negatives and what I missed out on, rather than to focus on what good may have come out of it all. Regardless, I have learned many things about myself. I am: strong, capable, willing, receptive, and determined.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, in December 2020. At my lowest point, I did not think I would achieve this outcome, let alone make it out of bed each day (it is not just a cliche). After much self-reflection, I decided I wanted to utilize my experience with mental illness and be a direct ally for others. I now work at a treatment center, assisting clients with administering medication for combating mental illness and addiction.
I have multiple goals when sharing my mental health story: to gain confidence in my capabilities as an individual, positively impact or inform other people, and break the stigma behind mental illness. Enduring mental illness is not dirty or shameful. Talking about mental illness in a safe setting is uplifting and eye-opening. A simple conversation with your friend, co-worker, or even yourself may illuminate where mental health struggles lie. Recovery is not always easy or quick — but regaining confidence and peace of mind is worth fighting for.
Image credit: niekverlaan
Livia Koehler recently graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth, with a B.S. in psychology. She is currently working in the field of public health and is passionate about mental health advocacy. Besides her full-time job, Livia is a Public Policy Intern for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Along with promoting mental health awareness, she recently moved to Salt Lake City, UT, is parenting an 11-year old cat named Sirius, and cares for her ever-growing collection of houseplants.