Living with mental health issues and addictive behaviors, made me live a double life, to protect my social status, and hide my fears, shame, mental health issues and eating disorders, until one day…
My truth shall set me free – which truth is keeping you imprisoned?
I am not a health coach, who came from a healthy place. I am a Health Coach who beat the odds of a 17-year battle with an eating disorder, depression and severe anxiety. I was successful on the outside, yet terrified, alone and broken on the inside. This article is not only to honor my personal journey, because I am no longer afraid or ashamed, but also to give hope to those struggling. Be it a bad habit, personal, professional or health challenge, or an addictive behavior to whichever degree, there are many of us who have struggled, who share your pain, who have overcome, who understand. Knowing that can already make a difference.
I was always a perfectionist and thought negatively about myself, even though to everyone else I was a happy kid with a great life. The negative thoughts spiraled from anxiety into obsessive compulsiveness at age 10 and at age 16, I developed a severe eating disorder that followed me for the next 17 years, sometimes extreme, sometimes I managed, but I never felt like I could overcome it.
There were countless moments of despair. The loneliness, guilt, shame, rejection, fear, and self-hatred that I often experienced is not something I wish upon anyone. Be it anorexia, orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating), bulimia or a mixture of disordered eating, whatever overwhelmed me was numbed by abusing food. Restricting it, shoveling it down, purging it, controlling it, ignoring it, lying about it, hiding it, throwing it away, buying excessive amounts of it. Something would trigger me and it was as if a switch went off in my brain. I was on a mission to just focus on food in one of the previously mentioned ways. In my worst episodes, I was in such a state of delirium that whatever happened over the next few minutes, or perhaps hour, was literally a blur when I came to my senses. It was uncontrollable and terrifying, yet often my only way out of feeling whatever it was I thought I would not survive feeling.
This is a reality I know I am not alone with. Nevertheless, the tolerance and understanding for eating disorders is low in our society. Alcohol, drugs and gambling are understood as dangerous. For those suffering like I did, food is or was that numbing substance. I was judged for wanting to be skinny, despite my slim frame, and for not being logical.
Food is normal, it is necessary. How messed up must I be not to be able to manage this basic need on Maslow’s hierarchy? We do not need drugs and alcohol to survive, yet food is constantly in our face. It is part of practically every social setting on a personal and professional level. Being social meant I had to lie, cheat, pretend and hide even more in order for the truth not to rear its ugly head. Being social meant I had to persistently control my addiction in front of others, because my greatest fear was losing face: to have others look at me with the contempt, disgust, hatred, fear and shame that I saw staring back at me in the mirror every day.
Especially in Switzerland, where I have lived for the last 14 years, this issue is still shoved under the carpet. Nevertheless, many people struggle with eating disorders, disordered eating and, as in my case, the often related issues of depression, severe anxiety and insomnia to only name a few. Mental health issues, addictive behaviors, or whichever category you want to select, the problems are real and too often kept quiet.
I tried every form of support from alternative methods to classical psychology and am still grateful for all the help, input and inspiration I received. I made progress, but not feeling understood made me doubt if I could be helped at all. Furthermore, I lived a dual life the entire time – successful, competent, social and pretty on the outside versus lonely, depressed, terrified and broken on the inside. I felt like a liar and a fraud. I often wished I could speak to someone who has overcome the illness successfully, but never found anyone around me. Why? Sharing your truth and struggle means letting others know about these real issues no one wants to discuss.
Whatever is not understood, real and different is feared and shamed. Opening up means being vulnerable and it means taking responsibility. While I did a lot of work on finding out the cause of my illness, this did not give me a peace of mind. The reality is that the emotions and fears driving my illness were not resolved with a simple answer to a question.
Who cares about the “why” when you cannot get through the day? I blamed myself for how and who I was, but this was as useless as blaming someone else, since the outcome is the same: victimization and inaction. It had nothing to do with taking responsibility, but no one told me that, or perhaps I could not hear it since I felt completely alone and not at all understood. I could write a book on the countless ways I tried to cope, improve and recover. Often the process was two steps forward, three back, but there was progress. When I felt like I had come to a good point in my life with a more suitable job, healthier family relationships and friendships, and somewhat stable food habits, things took a turn for the worse.
Over three years my health disintegrated and I was shoved into the “burn-out” bucket, because my symptoms made no sense to anyone and to be honest, no one really wanted to take time to take a closer look.
A Blessing in disguise
What I experienced thereafter is what pushed to become a Health Coach. Getting physically ill to the point of struggling to move, digest or sleep, forced me to slow down, to study, to research, to ask the difficult questions without the help of a doctor, since I had lost hope and had no more strength to seek out anyone else.
Getting help and truly taking responsibility are two different things. I had to stop searching for answers outside, thinking “if this…then that,” and do the hard work of taking my anxiety, emotions, traumas, experiences, relationships, habits, thoughts and beliefs apart with the right questions. The process forced me to understand the signs my body has been sending me for so long and to slowly learn to accommodate what I need.
Things did not change from one day to the next, but setting goals and taking committed, concerted action every single hour of every day, will lead to progress. I stopped planning one year ahead and focused on getting through hour by hour, day by day. I tried and tested dozens of tools, questions, healthy coping strategies until I was equipped with those that got me through those difficult days. They still show up, but I accepted that an addiction does not disappear.
I remain vulnerable, I remain honest. There is still too much shame attached to addictive behaviors and mental health issues, even when someone has beaten the odds, which quite frankly should be celebrated and shared. Today I celebrate and share my success of making the impossible possible, of making my pain my purpose. I had to learn that in order to heal, I don’t need THE truth, I need to honor MY truth. I was scared to share this story for years and realized that as long as fear and shame dominate, I have no real chance to live fully. Fear and shame are prisoners to our souls. My truths may not be yours, but I urge you to honor your own.
Which truth is keeping you imprisoned? Discover it, honor it, work through it and allow that process to set you free.