Why I’m Celebrating My Relationship With Myself this Valentine’s Day

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By: Etta Eckerstrom

As Valentine’s Day approaches, the emphasis is on celebrating romantic relationships. Flower and chocolate sales skyrocket, dinner reservations are made, and cute social media posts abound. I may be single this year, but I’m choosing to celebrate another relationship: the one with myself.

Flashback to last Valentine’s Day, and I was deep in recovery for anorexia. Each week consisted of another doctor’s appointment, another day to follow my meal plan, another struggle to fight the voices in my head that told me I didn’t deserve to be healthy. The ones that promised that if I stayed within the prison I built for myself, I would finally be enough on a campus and in a society that screamed out all the ways I didn’t measure up.

I lost much more than weight when I was in the depths of my eating disorder. My desire to be around people. My passion and love for music. My ability to feel. Certainly any love for my self. All gone. My days were structured around workouts and how many hours I could last without eating. My worth was based off the number the scale flashed back at me and how “good” I had been with the food I did consume. Mental space that had once been devoted to school, relationships, and dreams became a home for my preoccupation with how I could minimize the physical space I occupied. My value was based off these numbers and ability to follow my eating disorder’s rules. But even as these numbers fell lower, it was still never enough. My life was no longer mine. I was no longer me.

It wasn’t until I hit my stride in recovery that things began to change. It didn’t happen overnight, and I don’t think I could identify a single moment where I realized things began to change. Slowly but surely, however, the passion for things I loved, and people, and life, started to return. I imagine it was what Dorothy felt like, stepping out into the Land of Oz: a world, lived in only shades of black and white, suddenly flooded with color. I did not realize what a shadow of my former self I had become until I could feel and breathe and think clearly again. Any sort of social interaction, once a treacherous, exhausting game of “how normal can I act?”, became something I craved. Music, once senseless noise, made me feel alive again. Even the simple things, like walking across campus without feeling dizzy, became something to notice and celebrate, another sign that I was becoming healthy again.

I no longer take the simplest gifts of life for granted. I love that I can love. I love that I can feel. I love that there are so many things in this world that I am passionate about, and that I now have the freedom to devote my whole self to them. But the greatest gift recovery gave me is the ability to love myself. To see that I am worthy. To see that not only can I give myself love, but I deserve it. I deserve the happiness and life that I stole back from my eating disorder. I deserve to wake up, look in the mirror, and tell myself how beautiful I look today. I deserve to put on my favorite song and dance, just because I can. Because it makes me feel good. I deserve moments of peace, and rest, and bliss. I deserve to live fearlessly and unapologetically and to be my imperfect, often messy self. People may wonder why I care so much about this cause. Having come from the empty place I once allowed myself to be, and seeing how embracing self-love has had a ripple effect throughout the rest of my life, I feel a need above all else to help others experience the same. Once you embrace true, radical, self-love, I truly believe it has the power to change your life. It has certainly changed mine. If everyone could learn to cultivate a radical self love, think of how we could all love each other more?

All of the energy spent trying to fit ourselves into an impossible mold, all the time spent dwelling on what we aren’t could be spent using what we are to build others up. At the end of the day, we all have a finite time on this earth. One life to live as we choose. Why would we choose to spend it hating what is ultimately just a vehicle for our souls? I want to lead by example, and change our culture of comparison, to one where every individual can see their inherent worth, worth that ultimately lies far beyond our physical bodies. Even now, however, I am not perfect in this endeavor. I still have days where that voice inside my head rattles off the ways in which I could be doing more, always more. But those days have become fewer and farther between. And when they arise, all it takes is reflecting on the beauty of the life I built back up to remind me that the voice is a lie. I am always grateful when I can silence the voices that used to drown out all else. So this Valentine’s Day I will buy myself flowers for my room. I will buy myself chocolate, and savor every bite. I will surround myself with people I love, and people who love me back. I will love myself with the same love I strive to show other people everyday. Life is too short, too precious, to let it pass by in a prison of self loathing. You are worthy. You can find hope and healing and happiness. But you have to choose it. You have to choose recovery. And you have to choose happiness. I hope you choose wisely. You deserve it.

About the Author: Etta resides in Nashville, TN. She is earning a degree in public health and psychology from Vanderbilt University. At Project Heal, Etta is dedicated to having a positive impact, directly or indirectly, on those who are in recovery. She is passionate about empowering others and educating people on eating disorders. She can often be found studying at coffee shops around Nashville, going for a run, and spending time with friends. Etta’s favorite ice cream flavor is anything with chocolate.

My Recovery Affirmations

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By: Maya Chandy

There was a time when I would wake up each day and think, “you don’t deserve to eat.” I would tell myself that I could eat when I had a prettier face or better grades- until I accomplished certain goals, I had to be hungry.

I was absolutely miserable. I could not have friends because other people ate. Study snacks, dinners out, and coffee dates accompanied friends, and I was not allowed to indulge in these simple things. I would skip school at least once a week because I was too hungry to sit through class. I hated my family because they made it difficult to avoid meals or social outings which involved food. When my parents planned incredible vacations, I was angry because I would not be able to control what and when I ate, and even favorable opportunities presented threats since they had the potential to problematize my rigid schedule.

For a long time, it never occurred to me that I was unable to appreciate what I had or improve my circumstances because I chose to deprive myself. But, as I continuously downed cups of nyquil so I could sleep through the hunger, as I skipped exams, as I made my family increasingly worried, and as I continued to sabotage myself, I gradually began to realize that if I continued to maintain such a detrimental mentality, I would never be able to move forward.

I eventually understood that I desperately needed to make conscious effort to shift my perspective, so I wrote affirmations to tell myself each day: 

Acceptance starts with you

Do not be ashamed of who you are

You deserve to be here

Choose to like yourself

Strive for progression not perfection

You can do it 

Don’t compare yourself to others

You are not alone

Problems have solutions

Forgive yourself

 I read these statements every day, and it wasn’t long before I genuinely believed what I told myself and, to my surprise, a lot changed for the better.

When I could finally eat without crippling guilt, I discovered that it was my mind-set not my brain or body that was dysfunctional. I was truly shocked when I was actually able to think! If I had known that food would allow me to write essays, to comprehend calculous, to simply remember information for more than five minutes, I may have started eating sooner.

I quickly realized that FOMO (fear of missing out) was very real, but, fortunately, I no longer had to miss out on day trips, restaurants, parties, desserts, new friendships, cooking, and so much more. I could finally appreciate the people in my life. I actually looked forward to eating dinner with my parents. I enjoyed running and playing tennis with family or taking late night walks with friends because I was no longer preoccupied with the calories I would burn: I was no longer submerged in a world of numbers, so, for the first time, I was present everywhere I went.

Essentially, recovery gave me freedom. The positive statements I told myself replaced the voice who had previously trapped me in a seemingly endless state of despondence. I never thought life would be more than something I had to tolerate. Before recovery, I did not realize that I could actually want to be alive.

About the Author: Maya resides in Santa Barbara, California. Maya is earning a degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a Project HEAL National Ambassador, Maya is dedicated to offering support, guidance, and information to those dealing with eating disorders and hopes to help people with loved ones who are struggling express empathy and understanding. She is passionate about reading, journaling, and visiting new coffee shops. Maya’s favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate-chip-cookie-dough!

A Different Type of Scale

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By: Eva Romanoff

When I was nine years old, I asked my mother if I could buy a new sweatshirt. They were this new brand that were super soft, and each one was unique with a special design and color. My parents gave it to me for my birthday, but as my mom placed in my excited hands, she said that, while it was a very cute sweatshirt, she didn’t think it was like my style had been in the past. The next day at school, my friends and I all obsessed over our new sweatshirts, until a week later when a girl bought a new type of backpack. Then I wanted that. I didn’t particularly like the bag, but I began to think, if my friends all liked it, then they wouldn’t like my bag if it was different, and therefore wouldn’t like me. A perpetual system of self-doubt and comparison began to form. At twelve years old, my friends began to diet. I had worried about eating certain foods in the past, but I had never followed a strict meal plan. When my friend group at school began to diet together, I assumed I should join in, because what if they resented me for eating “junk” food in front of them while they were eating “healthy” food? At thirteen, when my friends began to work out intensely, my actions immediately followed theirs. What if their bodies began to change and mine didn’t, what if I stood out too much? My eating disorder, the loudest voice in my head, was shouting that I should follow the other people in my life.

For me, my anorexia focused my thoughts on my general body shape and appearance rather than specific weight and numbers. Instead of counting calories or weighing myself, I placed my life on a different scale, those of my peers. If my friend dressed a certain way, I mimicked her style. If my sister cut her hair, I scheduled an appointment at the salon immediately. If my friend talked to a boy with a certain attitude, I needed to talk to a boy and use the same attitude. I needed to be the best, the first, the most accurate. I placed myself on a metaphorical scale of self-worth and comparison rather than pounds. I was able to deceive myself, convincing my brain that these weren’t connected to my eating disorder, that these thoughts were normal and consistent with teenage life. Unfortunately, I was very wrong. Without realizing, my eating disorder voice crawled into my common sense, and they morphed together to sway me against my values. My goal had always been to be my individual self and to hold true to my values, yet my brain was telling me that acting and looking exactly like my friends were my values. The scale that my eating disorder forced me onto wasn’t just about weight or appearance, but included weighing my intelligence, my emotions, my athleticism, and my personality against the people around me.

When I went into residential treatment at fourteen, we did a group activity about two months into my stay. We gathered around a scale, wrote the cruel things that our eating disorder told us on the plastic in a big sharpie, and then took hammers and smashed the scale until it was screws and broken pieces. My therapist called it “scale bashing” and it was a way for us to visibly take power away from our eating disorders and the pressure to be a certain weight. I had a difficult time with this exercise though, because what if my central problem wasn’t my weight? What if it was the weight of my values? How did I bash that scale? I grappled with this for months, even after I was discharged at a much healthier place, and especially when I was reintegrated into school and my social life. My eating disorder voice and my healthy voice were separated, and my healthy voice was winning each daily battle. Yet the squeaks of my eating disorder that I still heard were centered around comparison. It wasn’t about being the funniest in the world, but simply the funniest in my friend group. It wasn’t about being the smartest girl in the school, but just in my grade. My obsessiveness around food was gone, yet here lingered these thoughts of comparison. After dealing with these ideas for the better part of my freshman year of high school, I realized that my eating disorder hadn’t morphed into a new disorder, but rather the core of it remained. It was like an apple; the skin and flesh of the fruit were about food, weight, and appearance, but the core was based on my position within a larger group of people. This isn’t how everyone experiences their eating disorder, but for me, the revelation that it hadn’t been about food was life changing. I didn’t need to bash a real scale, as much as a needed to bash the scale of my self worth. What I began to understand was a simple concept that I had never previously grasped; respect for oneself cannot and should not be based on other people’s life and actions. It should be based on your own perspectives of the world and your own opinions. My experiences are what should shape my values, not my friends experiences. This shift in thinking was my first step to understanding the personal scale I had built for myself. I didn’t need to ‘fix’ myself, I needed to change my focus from my friend’s opinions to my own.

When I realized this was the root of my eating disorder, I began to look at the larger picture. Throughout my life, I was raised with the same set of children surrounding me. My best friends, my sister, my classmates and my acquaintances. I had spent the last fourteen years of my life with these people, and we had essentially raised each other. How was I supposed to find my own voice when the people I loved seemed to be expressing kind and helpful things as well? Why did I need to have my own values when my friends believed in kindness and acceptance too? I grew to understand that my friends and family could have good values that I related to, and they could guide me in my own journey, but the end result had to be discovered on my own. I couldn’t blindly follow others opinions just because, I had to analyze the purpose of my perspectives before I could connect them to myself. Through discovering my own thoughts independent of others, I am able to engage more fully in vibrant discussions, and hold true to my own personality, something that was previously hidden beneath the scales of my eating disorder.

About the Author:  Eva resides in New York City. Eva is a high school student who works with other teenagers to instill a sense of hope regarding the possibility of full recovery, as well as what that means and what that looks like in a teenager’s life.  At Project HEAL, Eva is dedicated to providing others with a sense of community and security throughout the process of recovery, spread education and awareness to fellow high school students, rand to promote a healthy lifestyle that allows everyone to discover their true selves and purpose.  She is passionate about horse back riding, learning about history, and spending time with friends and family. Eva’s favorite ice cream flavor is coffee ice cream with chocolate chips and caramel sauce.

 

A Recovery Pledge

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By: Amira O’Kelly

Today I will not punish myself. I will not eat to fill a void or because I feel like it is my only chance to have the thing I want before I have to restrict again. Today I will not binge and purge or make excuses for why it’s necessary to empty my body. I will remember all the effort I put in to make my metabolism work again to go to the bathroom naturally again. I will remember purging will lead me to my grave – even if on the worst days when I feel like there is not a reason I want to live or be here. I must remind myself I don’t want to die kneeling over a toilet bowl and lying on the floor of the cold tiles in the bathroom. I will remember the panic attack I had on the train when I became too afraid to eat dinner. When I pulled my hair out because I had  over my limit for the day.

When the calories spun around inside my head torturing me for hours upon hours and days upon days weeks upon weeks and months upon months. I will remember the Father’s Day I ruined because I was not eating and too weak to enjoy an outdoor fair because the whole time I felt like I needed to faint. And when I got angry at my dad for stopping to eat because I could not stand the thought of putting anything into my body I will remember the nights I’ve hung out with my girlfriends but was too weak to enjoy anything. When I cried looking at the menu because I did not know the exact calorie count or kind of oil they cooked their vegetables in. I will remember to truly trust my hunger signals and eat only when my body needs it not when I am bored lonely happy or emotional. I will remind myself that no matter how powerful I feel when I starve myself, it always leads to a road of self-destruction. I will remember not to be weak at night when I feel as though I’m completely alone – food will not fill that void and will ultimately lead to over eating or a binge which then leads to a purge. I will remember the days and nights I felt happy to be alive. When I have a truly amazing laugh with my girlfriends, when I do a good job at work and get a lot done, when I get my favorite breakfast every morning, when somebody I love hugs me. When I am distracted from the constant validation I need from my eating disorder brain. I will work out and not become obsessed, but I will do it because it makes me feel sexy and powerful. I will nourish my body and remember the only reason I feel so lost is because my eating disorder still lives inside of me.

About the Author: Follow Amira @amiraokelly

Moving Forward: My Story

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By: Samantha Havens 

 I’ve never been bullied by a classmate, friend, or family member. However, I lived with a bully in my head for years. That bully was my eating disorder. He gave me orders to eat less, count my calories, and cut out certain foods. If I didn’t listen to him, I was a failure. He tormented me. I let my eating disorder consume me. I was 11 years old when his voice crept into my mind. I never thought anything of it. I simply thought it was my insecurities getting to me. I always saw myself as overweight when I looked into the mirror. I never realized that I looked malnourished and underweight in reality. My eating disorder never let me think I looked good. One day my best friend told me she was worried about my weight, that a lot of people thought I was too skinny. When I looked up anorexia online, there were a lot of symptoms I related to. As I read the complications of having this mental illness, I got worried.

I decided to tell my family. After I told them I felt relieved; I thought it would all go away now. However, it got a lot worse before getting better for me. I was hospitalized at an eating disorder inpatient unit. The hospital was intense and frightening. I was only 14 years old when I got admitted. There were strict rules, my eating disorder was stripped away from me. I felt as if the hospital had all the control, and I craved to have that control back.

However, the second time in the hospital changed my life. I listened to my treatment team, ate according to my meal plan, and tried to push my eating disorder out of my life. As I was opening up in therapy and getting to the roots of my problems, I felt less drawn to restricting. When I wasn’t restricting and consumed with worrying how fat I looked, I began to live in the moment and enjoy life. I may have still been in the hospital, but I felt true happiness and genuine laughter once I started to let go of my eating disorder.

Recovery is not easy, it is a tremendous amount of self talk all the time. You have to fight the voices everyday. However, it is all worth it. I believe that suffering is a gift. It gives us the chance to embody courage, to learn, and to grow. My eating disorder was a gift because I learned a lesson not many people actually learn: I may not have control over what happens in my life, but I can control the way I react to it. Being anorexic is not having control, it is being controlled. All along I had the control to put an end to it and chose real happiness. I came out stronger than I ever could have imaged from my struggles. I will forever use that strength in times of any struggles and obstacles I encounter.

You have one life to live. You have one body that is given to you. Your body has amazing abilities to keep you alive and to do everyday functions. Why waste your life away hating yourself? I promise you, you will get so much more out of life if you can try and start to love yourself, and live the happy life you deserve. Everyone’s story is unique. Don’t be afraid to share yours. Eating disorders are nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a disease that no one chooses to have. Nobody wakes up wanting to become anorexic or bulimic. However, you do get to choose to fight and get your life back. The more people open up and share their stories, the less stigma there will be surrounding eating disorders. Not only that, but sharing your story can motivate someone silently struggling to open up.

About the Author: Samantha is a past volunteer for the central New Jersey chapter.

The 5 Most Important Lessons Recovery Taught Me

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By: Simran Bansal

1. ACCEPTING HELP IS NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS.

In fact, it is actually a sign of strength. It takes courage to admit that you may not be fully in control of your actions at the moment. To address your weaknesses and flaws and be in tune with them is the first step to taking back what is rightfully yours—a healthy, happy life in which anorexia and the concomitant negativity has no place. To be humbled by others and ok with that….that is what I call sheer character.

It took me awhile to hold onto a helping hand—not because one was not offered, but because I was ashamed. I was ashamed that at 12 years old, I still hadn’t mastered the art of feeding myself. I was ashamed that at 12 years old, I still had no control over my own actions. I was ashamed that at 12 years old, I still was unable to silence the constant internal shaming of my body, of my essence. To me, accepting help was equivalent to admitting what a pathetic excuse for a pre-teen I was.

I was wrong.

2. YOU HAVE TO HELP YOURSELF BEFORE YOU CAN HELP OTHERS.

Yes, sometimes by helping others, you can in turn help yourself, but this is not the case for a person wrapped up in the midst of a mental illness. To truly focus on recovery, you must simultaneously focus all your attention on helping yourself….at least until you get back on your feet. Focusing on you is not always selfish. In fact, in this case, putting yourself first is perhaps the most selfless act. Because only by beating the illness can you divert your attention towards other scopes of life, such as giving back to others.

When I was little, I dreamed of helping end poverty and sadness and war. I dreamed of travelling to third-world countries, helping to rebuild the slums and provide the destitute children with the comfort of a future. I wanted this so bad, more than anything else. For years, I begged my parents to let me travel for a summer to fulfill my dream. For years, my parents said no. And this rejection angered me because I just didn’t understand.

However, while in recovery, I realized that I couldn’t make those impoverished children happy if I was so miserable….First, I needed to regain my own happiness so I could share some with them. And so I did. I recovered selflessly for the children, for myself, for my dream. It was so worth it—after focusing on myself for awhile, I was finally able to travel to Thailand, working with neglected children at orphanages and rebuilding slums. I used to think that I didn’t need to be happy before committing to bring others joy. I used to think that focusing on myself was shameful.

I was wrong.

3. RECOVERY IS ABOUT SO MUCH MORE THAN JUST WEIGHT RESTORATION….IT’S ABOUT LEARNING TO LOVE AND ACCEPT YOURSELF.

And it is probably the hardest, yet most rewarding process you will ever encounter. I don’t really understand why it is so easy for us to love and accept others, to treat friends and family with kindness, to think they deserve the world….yet, think that we ourselves are unworthy of this same sense of belonging. I don’t know why it feels so impossible, I just know that it does. Recovery not only forces us to confront our worst fears, to feel our favorite pair of jeans becoming tighter and tighter with every passing day, but it also forces us to do perhaps the most difficult thing—to recognize that we too, are human. That we too, are worthy of love and laughter and unconditional comfort. That we too, despite our mistakes, are strong and genuine and deserving. Recovery is a process that locks us in a room alone until we become friends with ourselves….It is an intervention that replaces self-abuse with self-love.

Recovery forced me to question why I only focused on my weaknesses and flaws while overlooking my many strengths. Recovery forced me to see the seemingly contradictory—that at the same time, I was the bully and the victim. Recovery forced me to accept my weaknesses because I was only human and the very nature of humanity is imperfection….I used to think that loving myself was absurd, was impossible, was delusional.

I was wrong.

4. PATIENCE IN THE PROCESS IS NOT ONLY A VIRTUE, BUT ALTOGETHER ESSENTIAL.

It took me over 5 years to reach a point where I could genuinely and truthfully say I was recovered. It took me over 5 years of hospitalization, months and months of being away from everything I had ever known. It took me 1825 sleepless nights of crying, 1825 days of grey, sunless skies. Recovery is not at all a fast process. Recovery is the evolution of us….a gradual, unpredictable venture into the unknown. Without patience, you will never reach the finish line. Without acknowledging that recovery will not happen overnight, but over the course of many nights, you will find yourself without the strength to keep fighting. Without recognizing that recovery is a prolonged battle, that you can only emerge victorious after apparently endless days filled with both defeat and triumph, your endurance will vanish. Patience is key. Patience is the indispensable weapon.

I remember all the nights I cried, wondering when, or if, I would see the sun again. As time went on and I kept relapsing, I became increasingly frustrated and impatient.. I used to think that I could recover quickly—that recovery could be some continuous, hurried process.

I was wrong.

5. YOU GET OUT OF RECOVERY WHAT YOU PUT IN.

In other words, there is no half-assing recovery. Not if you truly want to complete the process, to truly live a life untainted by internal war. You will only take away from recovery how much effort and heart you put in. You cannot carelessly stroll your way through recovery….to reach the finish line, you must persevere and exert all the energy and willpower you have. Otherwise, you will just lose stamina. No one can force you to recover. You must want to recover yourself, to truly put in the work to reap the full benefits. You decide the extent to which you will gain meaning and insight.

As a teenager engrossed in the unattainable journey towards perfection, I couldn’t have cared less about recovery. At therapy sessions, instead of talking about my feelings and issues when I so desperately needed to, I would glare at my therapists, wearing a smug smile of silence.  Little did I know that I was only hurting myself and my chances for a happier future. 1-hour sessions, week after week, would go by with no progress. I rebelled every step of the way, trying to compromise with my nutritionists, trying to beg my therapists for freedom. I couldn’t understand that it was my own apathy, not my therapist, that was keeping me trapped, caged, stuck.

You cannot expect to magically feel better after putting in no effort towards healing. It was only after I really was fed up with a life of misery and Ana’s broken promises that this suffering would all be worth it in the grand scheme of things that I truly fought with everything I had. I didn’t want to be those 60 year olds who cycled in and out of treatment centers their whole lives….I wanted to see the sunshine. And so I fought to end the rain, to paint over the grey. And it was only after ending my rebellious, recovery-is-not-for-me phase that my smile became natural, that my heart became full. I used to think I did not have to focus on recovery to truly recover.

I was wrong.

This blog post was originally posted here 

About the Author: Simran Bansal is a Project HEAL national ambassador. 

How I Told the World About My Eating Disorder

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By: Gabriela Mischel

A few weeks ago I could easily count the number of people in my life who knew about my struggle with anorexia and depression. That is no longer the case, because last week I released a video with my story to the world. 

For years, I was ashamed and embarrassed about my struggles with mental illness. I hid that piece of my life from everyone around me for fear of what they would think. I thought if I shared my struggles I would be viewed as weak and unstable. Most people didn’t know about that piece of my life and I had every intention of keeping it that way.

I spent my teenage years consumed with feelings of not being worthy, deserving, or good enough. I had convinced myself that I needed to be perfect, so I set impossible standards for myself. I wanted to fit this ideal I had created in my mind, and I nearly let that kill me. While most people my age were worrying about first loves, graduating high school and other teenage concerns, I was worrying about how many calories I had consumed or how much weight I had gained. I was stuck in a world that revolved around numbers. I spent years going through the same cycle of relapse, recovery, relapse, recovery, on and on. It consumed my life for years.

When I finally got to a place where I was able to hold a job and lead what would be called a more “normal” life, I never once considered telling people about these struggles. These aren’t things you can just waltz into an interview and share with people. Mental illness is often misunderstood, and I was scared of being labeled a certain way. So I kept my past to myself and that seemed to be working.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to land a job at Jerusalem U, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of film to educate and strengthen the connection of young Jews to Israel and their Jewish identity.

Although I built close friendships at work, until a few months ago only one coworker of mine knew about my struggles with mental illness. And I’ll tell you a little secret, that coworker happens to also be my mom.

But then something changed. A few months ago, I was casting for a short video series and we hit a wall. We were producing a series about personal journeys from despair toward empowerment and self-love. The idea was to feature people with a range of stories, touching on different issues. Right off the bat we had a few topics we knew we wanted to cover, one being mental illness.

This immediately struck a chord with me because of my own personal experience with mental illness. I knew that I was going to put everything I had into this series. We had an opportunity to make a difference, and I was excited.

We started casting for the series, but we were struggling to find someone to go on camera and discuss their struggles with mental illness publicly. I couldn’t blame anyone for making that decision — I was doing the same thing. After hitting a few dead ends, we began wondering if we should give up on the mental illness angle and look for another story instead. It was an important topic to talk about, but we couldn’t tell a story we didn’t have.

As we discussed this issue, I would think to myself, “I could talk about this topic,” but I kept pushing the thought away. I had worked so hard at hiding that piece of myself, and I wasn’t about to get on camera and tell my story now. And then one night I jolted awake at two in the morning with the realization that I had to tell my story. The opportunity to make a difference was right in front of me, and I was going to look past it because I was scared.

I realized that if I let my fear of being judged keep me from telling my story, I was no better than all the people who made me feel I needed to hide that part of myself. The next morning I called the director and told him that I was going to tell my story on camera.

For so long I had feared telling people about my past, but as soon as I started, I realized how wrong I was. They didn’t judge me or perceive me as weak. Learning about my struggles made me stronger in their eyes. I was so sure I was going to be judged that I didn’t know how to react to all the positive feedback I was getting. I know that without their support, I would not have been able to follow through with telling my story on camera.

When the day came to film my story, I felt ready. I’m a naturally shy person and I was definitely out of my comfort zone. But as soon as it was over I knew I had made the right decision.

My goal in sharing my story was to help other people know they’re not alone. It’s hard to share our struggles and stories, but if we don’t, people going through similar experiences might never understand that others have walked this path, and it can get better.

My struggles and my past are a part of me. Obviously it sucks that I struggled with mental illness, but it made me into the person I am, and that is something I can live with. I hate when people tell me that what they went through is nothing compared to me. Anyone who is able to overcome their struggles is a hero in my eyes. The scope of your struggles isn’t what’s important. If you overcame the cards you were dealt, you should be proud of yourself.

Life isn’t always fair and unfortunately many people learn that the hard way. I was one of those people. I spent years living in a dark place and thinking about how unfair life was. It was not a way to live. If all you see is the bad, you won’t ever be happy. It’s not always easy to find the good, but it’s so important to remind yourself that there is good in the world, even if it’s just the small things. At the end of every day, I try to think of two good things that happened that day. They can be anything — I smiled at someone, I liked my outfit, I had fun, I love my family, anything. It forces me to remember that there is so much good, even when it feels like everything is bad. I hope that by sharing my story I can help other people remember that there is good out there, and that they are not alone.

This post was previously published here

About the Author: Gabi is a survivor of an eating disorder, a pastry chef extraordinaire, and a film producer at Jerusalem U, where she is thrilled to be creating movies that make a difference in the world.

My Mom and My Eating Disorder

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A little over three years ago, my whole world changed. My parents were separated, living in CT, while I️ was in DC, working at the American Psychological Association. I️ usually texted my family every day, and always heard from my mom every few days at least. One day I️ tried calling her, but no answer – it went straight to voicemail. I was worried, but I️ thought her phone must have died so I️ tried to call later. Voicemail again. I️ called the next day. No response. I️ became worried, anxious, and didn’t know what to do. I said I️ would wait one more day and sure enough, the next day, no answer. I️ panicked. I️ left my desk and started calling everyone in my family, but no one had heard from her for several days.

I️ asked my dad and my sister to go to mom’s apartment to check on her. I was worried about what they would find. Her door was unlocked, car in the driveway, but her computer was gone. She was missing. I️ almost lost it. Where was my mom and was she OK? I️ immediately thought the worst. Little did I️ know that just a few months later we would receive a diagnosis that, in my mind, is worse than I️ ever could have imagined. In the months leading up to my mom’s diagnosis, she was evicted, in the hospital, and finally ended up in a woman’s shelter. It was so sad to watch my mom bounce around from facility to facility with no where to call home. We knew she was sick, but no one had a clue what was wrong. Thankfully, after several weeks, a social worker at the woman’s shelter started asking the right questions, and they were finally able to determine a diagnosis that made sense, and she was able to get the appropriate care.

Three years ago, at the age of 59, my dear mom was diagnosed with Pick’s disease, an extremely rare form of frontal temporal dementia. Unlike other forms of dementia, Pick’s disease is different. You see, it attacks its victims at a very young age. My mom was only 59 when she was diagnosed, but in retrospect, it started several years earlier, perhaps even when I️ was in middle school, nearly 10 years ago. This form of dementia changes people. My mom, like me, was once a very emotional person. She was the most creative person I’ve ever known. She’s intelligent, brave, and always stood up for what is right. But now, I don’t know who she is. She has no emotional affect. Hardly a smile. No laughs. No tears. Just a blank demeanor. Each time I️ visit her I️ just pray that she remembers me. Who was this woman? Her eyes are lost. Is she in there? Can she hear me? Can she understand me?

Her body is shutting down. She has lost most of her vocabulary and her main means of communication is humming. It is without a doubt the saddest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever witnessed. There are so many things I️ wish I️ could tell her – so many things I️ wish I️ could say – and so many things I️ wish she could understand. How much I️ love her. How much I️ looked up to her. How much I️ miss her. How much I️ took her for granted. How much I️ wish, more than anything, I️ could hear her talk about her passions, her stories, her life. There are so many questions I️ didn’t get to ask. So many things I️ never knew. And now, there’s no hope.

Her life is trapped beneath her empty eyes, and all I️ can do is sit with her, and hug her, and hope that deep down, she knows that I’m right there with her. I️ hope she isn’t scared and I️ hope that she knows how much we love her. She was, she is, an amazing woman and I’m so glad I️ get to call her Mom. I cannot help but think of all things that we will never get to do together, and it makes me so sad. She won’t be there to help me pick out a wedding dress. She won’t be there, and I mean really be there, for my wedding. We will never be able to talk about parenting when I have kids. She will never get to babysit or give me advice. I will never be able to go to her when I need her. And this is so hard.

I miss her and all I want is to spend time with her, and I mean true quality time. This is SO tough. I️ think this would be tough for anyone. But for me, going through recovery from anorexia, it often feels impossible. Every time I️ went home to see my mom, I️ would relapse or slip or slide. I️ would stop eating because the pain in my heart was just too unbearable and I️ couldn’t cope with it. The only way I️ knew how to cope with the sadness and anger and hatred was through restricting. And it would send me down a spiral that could last days, weeks, even months.

But now, I’m in recovery. And I️ have to use every ounce of strength I️ have to stay in recovery, even while watching my mom drift away. I’m sure my mom always had a hunch that I️ had anorexia, but she never knew for certain. And sometimes I️ just wish she knew, so that she could be proud of hard I’m working to be better- to get better. And sometimes, I’m glad she never had to see the depths of my eating disorder because I️ cannot imagine the pain of a mother seeing her daughter starve herself.

But I️ just wish she could be proud of me. I️ wish she could tell me she loves me, no matter my weight, no matter my size. I️ wish she could tell me that she thinks I’m beautiful or that she thinks I’m hard-working, or that she thinks I’m brave. I️ so desperately wish to hear these words from her, but I️ know I️ never will. So I️ have to reach inside myself and remember all the wonderful memories I️ have of her. Every laugh. Every smile. Every story. I️ know deep down that she loves me. She told me a thousand times. But I️ took it for granted. I️ know she’s lost now, but I️ know that if she could, she would tell me everything I️ needed to hear. I’m not sure how many of you are in this situation – probably not many. But just know that if you are going through recovery while faced with heartbreaking situations, you are not alone. My friend recently told me that I️ have to chose recovery every minute, every hour, every day. No matter what obstacles come across my path, I️ have to stay strong and fight for my recovery. Every day is a new beginning. But you don’t need to wait for tomorrow to start over. Fight for your life because no one else can do it for you. Recovery is so worth it, and I️ hope that you can find the strength to recover, no matter what tries to stop you. And Mom, I️ love you. More than you will ever know.

About the Author: Lizzie Janniello is a Project HEAL treatment grant recipient. She graduated from Hillsdale College with a degree in Psychology in 2014. Lizzie lived in DC for several years, working at the American Psychological Association and a large research firm. She recently moved to Cleveland, OH and wants, more than anything, to help others recover from their eating disorders.

What It’s Like to Weigh People Constantly As Part of My Job

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By: Brenna Briggs

I work in a medical practice. I’m a medical assistant. I greet the patients, escort them to their exam rooms, get all of the information, and take their vitals. When we get to the “I’m just going to have you step on the scale so I can get your weight” part, there is always a pit in my stomach. I have not had one person that is eager or happy to oblige with the task I suggested. It brings down the entire mood of the person, eating disorder or not.

It’s a terrible feeling for the patient, but also for me because I get it. We allow this silly number to have so much power over us that it literally can make or break someone’s day. I have gotten used to dealing with the patient’s comments, because well, we have no choice. I need to get their weight, it’s part of my job, it’s protocol. I try to make jokes to make light of the situation, and normally we get through the awkward moment fairly quickly. The part I’ll never get used to is the patient’s that say to me “If I looked like you I wouldn’t have a problem getting on the scale.” I grit my teeth, and I smile, because what else can I do?

I can’t tell them that I was a slave to the scale, I spent my days not eating, or getting rid of every little morsel of food I did let myself indulge in. I did this because I didn’t want to look like me. I was depressed, I was sad, I was trapped in my own body and I was a slave to the scale and my eating disorder. One hospitalization and treatment center after another, hostage by my own mind for 12 years. They don’t know this though, how could they? I’m short, and at my healthy body weight I am on the smaller side, but I’m healthy. I’m strong, I’m courageous and I beat a disease that almost killed me.

I’m proud of the way I look because it took me a long time to get to that point, and you know what? If you were me, you wouldn’t have a problem getting on the scale because I don’t have a scale, I don’t weigh myself because I am more than a number and I will never let a day be ruined by a number. I will never be a hostage to a number and I am damn proud of that. Recovery has given me my life back, and it has given me so much more than that as well. A new outlook on life, a new power. A new passion for helping people especially those struggling just like I was. I know these patients don’t mean any harm by what they are saying, but I guess my feeling is, you can never be too careful with blunt statements. Everybody is fighting their own battle and demons, think before you speak, bring each other up. Spread love, not hate, and especially not germs.

About the Author: Brenna Briggs is a Project HEAL Boston Chapter volunteer. 

Finding Self-Worth and Self-Compassion in Recovery

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By: Leilani McIntosh

In honor of my official discharge from my (almost) 4 year journey of being in all different levels of treatment, I want to repost an article I wrote for an awesome online magazine, “Be Wise”, started by my beautiful friend and role model, Ceciley Hallman.


I spent the majority of my high school experience in treatment for my eating disorder. Strong people fight cancer. Brave people fight in war. Educated people fight within a justice system. I fight with myself. I fight a battle inside my head every day. It is not easy, nor enjoyable, and it is certainly not a choice. A common phrase one might here is, “You are your own worst critic.” Analyzing the world around us, why shouldn’t we be harsh on ourselves?

Women and men are bombarded with guidelines the world has laid out for us. For example, a common expectation is to look like we always have everything together. Mothers are supposed to be holding the world on their shoulders, smiling, without breaking a sweat. Men are coached to show no sign of weakness. One’s manhood is threatened when they choose to open up to someone. The world has also given men and women guidelines on what the ideal body looks like. Men are supposed to be built and muscular, when women need to be skinny yet curvy. Women are taught they need make up to look beautiful… the list goes on and on. So how does that impact our lives?

Step back and ask yourself: What do I see when I look in the mirror? Am I happy? Am I comfortable in my own skin? Do I immediately find a quality that I wish I could change about myself?

I started nitpicking about myself in the fourth grade. People started commenting on my body and I became very self-conscious at a very young age. I started talking about diets and was worried about exercising. As I got older, those thoughts turned into my reality. Through my high school years, I went through many trials which I didn’t know how to handle. Some people cope by drugs or drinking, which turns into an addiction. I coped through eating disorder behaviors, and it became my addiction. It took me going to treatment to realize how unhappy I was.

Often I listen to the seconds of the clock ticking away… physically I think I am alone until I listen extra closely. I hear a voice. A clear voice who knows exactly what I am thinking. It is a voice who I am so familiar with that I don’t even notice that it is around. It is a voice whom I can find being my best friend and advocate, but it is also a voice who is my worst nightmare. My frenemy is the voice in my head.

When I went away to residential treatment, I felt stuck for a long time. I was just sitting there, following the rules, not speaking to anyone, and keeping to myself. When I had therapy appointments, the first little while, I kept things very vague; until my therapist asked me, “Do you love yourself?” The question brought me speechless. I ended up just shaking my head, no. She continued on, “Do you believe you have self-worth?” To be honest, I had no idea what she meant. The dictionary defines self-worth as “the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person.” Your self-worth is commonly used as a synonym for self-esteem; but I have found it goes much deeper than that. Self-esteem is usually measured through one’s actions, when self-worth is valuing your own inherit worth as a person. It is about who you are, not what you do. My therapist told me that I needed to find what makes me worth it as a person, before I could love myself; so the journey of finding my worth began.

The first step to building self-worth is to stop comparing ourselves to the world and being overly critical about every move we make.  Easier said than done, I know. To be able to conquer the challenge of caring what everyone thinks, we need to challenge our “critical inner voice”. With these internalized conversations of thoughts, or “inner voices”, it undermines our self-worth and may cause destructive behaviors and may make you feel worst about yourself. Dr. Lisa Firestone explained in her article “7 Reasons Most People Are Afraid of Love:” We all have a “critical inner voice,” which acts like a cruel coach inside our heads that tells us we are worthless or undeserving of happiness. This coach is shaped from painful childhood experiences and critical attitudes we were exposed to early in life as well as feelings our parents had about themselves. While these attitudes can be hurtful, over time, they have become engrained in us. As adults, we may fail to see them as an enemy, instead accepting their destructive point of view as our own. As we challenge these critical thoughts, we will be able to see who we are and what we are capable of.

Find self-compassion for yourself. Self-compassion is the practice of treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion as you would treat a friend. I often resisted having self-compassion because I didn’t want to be conceded. WRONG. That was just an excuse my critical inner voice told me. Having self-compassion is a form of self-care. I learned three steps that helped me to have self-compassion.

1) Acknowledge and notice your suffering.

2) Be kind and caring in response to suffering.

3) Remember that imperfection is part of being human and something we all share.

By challenging your inner voice and stopping to compare yourself to others, you can begin the process of recognizing your own self-worth. You can push the way you see yourself from just an average, or below average, to a worthwhile person in the world. Developing my self-worth is something I work on every day.

This is my battle, and it is not easy, nor does it happen overnight; but it has truly changed my life. You do not know how your subconscious or present thoughts about yourself, truly affect your and your everyday choices and lifestyle. You can’t control many things in your life, but you can surly control your thoughts. It is hard to dig up uncomfortable feelings about yourself, and it may bring up a lot of emotions; but I promise you, it will change your life, because it has changed mine. Don’t let that inner voice stop you from becoming the best person that you can be. Don’t let others bring you down, because my friend, you are worth it.

About the Author: Blogger – NYC Based – Trying My Best In Recovery, Project HEAL volunteer. Follow her journey @leilani_mcintosh