Why I never thought I would make it to my thirtieth birthday

Note: The following was written on my 30th birthday, August 18th, 2017. It began as self reflection for a day that I never thought possible. After some consideration, I decided to share on the blog to encourage people struggling with depression and eating disorders to get help, talk to someone and lessen their burdens. I’m grateful that through treatment and constant maintenance I am now in a healthy, manageable place. I am not cured and am not preaching, just merely spreading a message of hope. 

bday cake
My 30th Birthday cake, made by my best friend

Today is my thirtieth birthday. Although I’m excited to be celebrating with my closest friends and family, I can’t help but think about my younger self, and how I didn’t believe I would live to see this day.

For the past twenty one years I have lived with anxiety, depression, anorexia and bulimia. My relationships with these illnesses are some of the longest, most intimate relationships of my life. I have lived with these growing and continuously shape shifting “beings” for so long that I can’t remember a time without them.

Twenty-one years.

My eating disorder is legally eligible to vote.

My depression is old enough to drink internationally.

In high-school, when my eating disorder and depression became more than I could handle alone, I began treatment at McMaster Children’s Hospital. I was scared, uncomfortable and angry. Thanks to medication and  a meal plan, I gained weight and my menstrual cycle returned after a two year absence. The changes and the idea of being without my safety net scared me. Deeming myself cured because I physically fit the part of a healthy teenage girl, I stopped going to my appointments. My decision was premature and I was far from healthy.

Emotionally, I was broken and hopeless. I distanced myself from all of my friends, stopped going to school, and my grades began to slip. Everything felt so difficult for me- too difficult. I fell deeper and deeper into depression. When everyone began making plans for college and university, I began negotiating an age I would commit suicide. What age would be old enough for my family to see that I had tried to get better? How long could I endure feeling the way I did?

I decided on twenty five.

Over the next few years, I graduated, went to university, and tried my best to go through the motions and appear “normal.” When I had a severe bout of depression and a relapse of my eating disorder at twenty-one, I took medical leave from university. I spent almost two months in bed, ready to break the silent promise I had made with myself years ago.

During a visit with my family doctor, I agreed to try the anti-anxiety and anti-depressant, Effexor. Having taken a number of anti-depressants in the past, I was apprehensive to try something new.  The other medications I had tried had severe side-effects like rapid weight gain, insomnia and made me feel numb. I was hesitant, but I reminded myself – only four more years. Just four more years.

To my surprise, I felt as though I was chemically healing with the new medication. My panic attacks became less frequent, I was able to sleep, focus, and was no longer afraid to leave the house. I was able to hold a job, and felt strong enough to go back to school twice a week for night classes. I was pacing myself, but I was surviving. The first time I received an A+ on a paper, I broke down in tears in my car in the school parking lot.  When a professor complimented my writing, I called my mom to relay the news with pride. Every small achievement, every compliment gave me hope, but there was still something missing.

I was finally cleared to graduate in May 2012, months before my twenty-fifth birthday. My family held a party to celebrate, and for a moment, when I crossed the stage to accept my diploma, I finally felt it: happiness. It rose within me, from my toes, to my chest, and out the top of my head, like a fever gaining strength. I felt hopeful, and wanted another taste of that feeling that had eluded me for so long. I knew I wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

For me to get better, I had to work on both my mind and body. By taking anti-depressants, I was only treating half of the issue. I was finally ready to talk to someone, and give therapy an honest chance. I had been to therapists and psychologists who were wrong for me and thought for a long time that I could fix myself, or simply end everything. On my most difficult days, weeks and months, it felt as though those were my only two options. Fortunately, I found a psychologist who I was able to connect with, who made me feel comfortable and safe enough to be vulnerable and honest.

During our sessions, I disclosed my feelings about living on borrowed time, about how I felt unworthy of happiness and a healthy, fulfilling life. Saying it out loud, to someone who didn’t dismiss my feelings and allowed me to dispel the toxic feelings that were inside of me, was a catharsis like no other I had ever felt. Therapy was work. It was messy and heavy as I unpacked feelings and memories from my childhood. At times I would leave exhausted and exposed with nothing left to give, but I trusted my doctors and had faith that he would lead me through my depression and into a new way of living.

For five years, I’ve gone to therapy at least once a month. In that time, I’ve had bad days and bad weeks, but I’ve learned valuable skills that help me cope with my depression and eating disorder. I’m managing my depression, instead of being held captive. Suicide was off the table. I decided to stay.

By choosing to live, I realized that I had no idea what I would do with all the time that had suddenly opened up before me. One of the hardest things I’ve had to work on is granting myself the permission to dream about the future. I had given myself a finite amount of time, and had refused to entertain the prospect of a career, a partner and a family of my own. Through treatment for depression and my eating disorder, I was able to see for the first time that I am not my mental illness. I am not the dark thoughts and feelings that had plagued me for most of my life. I am more.

Deciding what to do with my life, deciding what interests me and brings me joy was a surprisingly difficult process. Happiness, love, and intimacy felt uncomfortable at first, and made me uneasy. Therapy and medication have helped me learn to accept and feel worthy of these wonderful and powerful aspects of life that give life meaning and depth. My world has gone from black and white, to Technicolor, and I am in awe.

I know that there are millions, perhaps billions of people who suffer from depression, eating disorders and mental illness, and that many of them sadly, turn to self-harm and suicide. I also know that many people don’t have access to affordable mental health care, that government or provincially funded treatment involves lengthy waitlists and doesn’t guarantee a program or a professional that will benefit the patient. Private treatment, is expensive, and can take a financial toll on individuals and families. There is still so much work that needs to be done before mental health issues are accepted in the public sphere and given the same compassion and options for treatment as any other malady. I know this, and yet I felt compelled to share and encourage others to persist, to have faith in themselves, and to seek to build an arsenal of professionals and loved ones who will help you fight your battle with depression.

My younger self could not imagine this day. I have spent the better part of today overcome with gratitude that I was wrong all those years ago when I believed that I could never be happy, could never be loved, never give love, and that there was no hope for me. I was wrong. I was buried under the lies depression tells you as it strips away everything you have.

It has been twenty-one years of tears and self-punishment. There will be obstacles ahead, and days stuck in bed when my depression rears its ugly head and I need time to rest and recover. I will most likely never live without depression or have moments where old habits from my eating disorder require management and forgiveness.

Today I can look back on the path I’ve been foraging in search of happiness and take in the distance of where I started to how far I’ve come. I will look behind me for just a moment, to wave to my younger self, who lived in darkness and call her forward, to tell her how beautiful it is to finally be in in the light. She is with me now, finally at peace and together we can continue forward to places we never dared to imagine.

 

If you are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts please visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website to find a crisis center in your area.

Always have hope. You are more than your depression.

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