In honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to share my story in the hope that it resonates with some of you. Hearing other peoples’ stories has been one of the strongest motivators in my recovery journey. Seeing other people be vulnerable has given me bravery to do so as well. So, I share what I have learned not from a place of having all the answers. Quite the opposite, in fact; I don’t really believe there are any concrete answers to confronting a mental health struggle. Each is unique and deserves to be treated that way. However, I do hope that in sharing my personal realizations, it resonates with someone and pushes them just one step closer to living their most authentic life — the life we all deserve to live.
I have struggled with an eating disorder and anxiety for most of my teen and adult life. I was formally diagnosed (otherwise known as the time it became too obvious to hide from my parents and doctor) with anorexia nervosa and generalized anxiety disorder at the beginning of my junior year of high school. Under the careful care of my parents and my treatment team, I was able to keep things ~mostly~ under control. I stayed in school, continued playing sports, and participated in extracurricular activities.
Then, I went away to college. Coming to Michigan, 10 hours away from my home in New York, I was entirely on my own for the first time in my life. And for the first time in my life, I felt free. Or, at least I thought I did. I was ecstatic to be at Michigan. It was my dream school and I was determined to make the best of it, leaving no opportunity unexplored. I threw myself into commitments left and right. Club rowing team, sorority, and a business club, piled on top of the full course load of classes I was taking. And all of that was in addition to merely existing as a freshman — navigating dorm life at Bursley, making friends, finding my place at a huge school.
The thing is, I genuinely thought I was thriving. Getting involved, making great friends, and performing well in my classes is pretty much the best-case scenario for first semester freshman year. I couldn’t see that I was being crushed under an avalanche of essays, exams, club meetings, practices, and parties. Sleep was a luxury and self care was foreign. There was a battle being fought inside my head 24/7, a battle that most of the time I was losing. I was slowly disappearing. Barely held together by the anxiety driving me to chase perfection and an eating disorder to feel a sense of control amidst uncertainty run rampant.
When I returned home for Thanksgiving, the first time since leaving in August, my parents saw through my facade of good grades, involvement, and fun stories. It was obvious I needed help. They wanted me to stay home. But there were only two weeks left of the semester. There was absolutely no way I was going to leave all of my hard work unfinished. I made a deal, if they let me return to Ann Arbor and finish the semester, I would seek treatment when I came home for winter break. They agreed.
When I returned home I completed the intake process at The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders. Then, I awaited their recommendation.
A treatment center 4 hours away from my home, living with about 40 other women also working toward recovery. Days filled with therapy groups, one after another. I would be there for weeks, months even.
A whirlwind of thoughts ran through my head…
I cannot miss school. I’ll fall behind and never be able to catch up.
Your mind is exhausted, you barely finished this semester.
I have leadership positions in my club and my sorority, I can’t just abandon them.
Someone else will have the opportunity to fulfill the position better than you can right now.
I’ll miss precious time with my friends. They will grow closer without me.
You weren’t fully present with them. Your mind was constantly at war with itself.
I am stronger than this. I can do this on my own.
Why are you so determined to be alone? Accept help, you need it desperately.
Other people have it so much worse than I do. Getting help would be selfish.
You getting help does not make anyone else less worthy of getting help.
Perhaps your bravery will encourage someone else to do the same.
Nothing bad has happened to me. I haven’t hit rock bottom.
Why can’t this be your rock bottom?
Is it not enough that you are fighting a battle inside your brain every second of every day?
Is it not enough that your weight has dropped to less than what it was when you were 10 years old?
Is it not enough that you are relentlessly freezing or that your hair is falling out in large clumps?
Is it not enough that you feel exhausted all the time or that you get dizzy when you stand up?
Is it not enough that you are in danger of going into cardiac arrest?
What more are you searching for?
It was the following statement, from my therapist, that finally got through to me:
“Rock bottom is death, do you realize that? The only difference between where you are right now and rock bottom is that you still have a second chance.”
I agreed to go to residential treatment and accept the level of care that I needed, taking off the second semester of my freshman year. I arrived at the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, bags packed without knowing how long I was staying, feeling terrified and alone. The road ahead of me was dauntingly long but I finally made the decision to put my needs first. Leaving school, no matter how painful right now, would allow me to return as more myself. Without an ongoing battle inside my head, I could be present with my friends, get the most out of my classes, and truly enjoy campus life.
My recovery journey has been anything but smooth. In residential treatment I found support in the community of women fighting for the lives they deserved to live, just as I was. They welcomed me, inspired me, and gave me hope. In therapy I have confronted the most painful beliefs I had about myself, ones that had kept me paralyzed for years. Untangling my authentic self from my eating disorder, rewriting my narrative, learning to feel again. Creating a motivation that was internal. I gained the necessary skills to take recovery into the real world, into a life of true independence and freedom.
Today, almost three years later, I am living my second chance. It is a fight I have vowed to never give up.
The following is a collection of the most important things I have learned throughout my journey…
- I am worthy of being helped. It is okay to ask for help.
Aching for independence, this was not an easy realization. However, the more and more I let my eating disorder take over my thoughts, the less independent I became. Accepting help was the first step in regaining my independence and fighting for myself. At the time I saw it as a moment of weakness. Now, I see it only as a sign of strength. We are all worthy and deserving of help. Ask for it, accept it, let it move you forward.
- I always have time for the things that are important to me.
As high-achieving and driven students, I’m sure many of you can relate to the “not enough time” backtrack constantly playing in your thoughts. It’s not true. Yes, I acknowledge that time is a limited resource. And that we all have commitments. But you are in control of how you decide to spend your time. I’m not saying you can do everything; that is impossible. Rather, I am advocating for intentional decisions about your time. What nourishes you? What makes you feel alive and energized? If something truly matters, make time for it.
- Life isn’t black and white. The depth and richness of life exist in the gray.
I was a perfectionist paralyzed by indecision. No matter how much research and consulting others I did, it was never enough. Yet the one person whose opinion I always seemed to neglect was my own. Why did I so readily trust the opinions of others (or the Internet) and not myself? One thing that helped me begin to rebuild trust with myself was to stop thinking about things as solely black and white, a right choice and a wrong choice. Instead, I had options and information. Information about myself and information about each option. All I could do was make the best choice given the information and options I had at the current moment. There is no way to make a “wrong” choice if you can think about each decision as an opportunity to learn more about yourself.
- I write my own story. And how I narrate it matters.
In untangling and rewriting my internal narrative, I have found that even the smallest shifts can make an incredible difference. I stopped saying things “happened to me.” I am the object of this sentence. A passive being in my own life. Instead, I say, “I lived through this.” I am the subject. I am active and empowered. I have agency.
The way we think shapes our perception. And the way we think is dictated by the words we choose to narrate our lives. We have the power to change our thoughts by changing our narration. Narrate wisely.
Written by #UMSocial intern and Michigan Ross senior Keara Kotten