At the age of 11, the earliest traces of my eating disorder (ED), specifically anorexia, started to emerge. A significant factor behind this struggle was my family environment. For most of my early life, I grew up with a half-sister, eight years younger than myself, and a single mother who was psychologically abusive, a behavior I now attribute to her own mental illnesses.
According to my mother, she had never seen anyone look more evil than me. She told me regularly that I was ungrateful and asked for too much. She told me I was so selfish that I should never have children. She repeatedly accused me of not loving my sister, and as a consequence, she would periodically force me to spend time with my sister “until I loved her”. She accused me of stealing her money and her food. She told me my experiences were not real, and that I lied when I referred to previous things she had said and done to me. She told me that she was the only one who really cared about me, the only one I could rely on.
When my mother was particularly upset her anger manifested in periods of silent treatment and object-flinging outbursts. When she napped, I was not allowed to do anything but stay in my room. using the bathroom would be too loud. Nighttime brought stricter rules: I was not allowed to make any noise after 8pm, even when she watched TV until late into the night. All of the food belonged to her, and she decided what I could and could not touch. For example, the Diet Coke was hers alone, and I was not allowed to eat more than an apple a day. Her control extended beyond the kitchen. I was even instructed on how much toilet paper I could use.
At 11, I was crying myself to sleep most nights, often unable to sleep. I yearned for an alternate life, an alternate family. I’d imagine scenarios: a happier mother, living with another family member, or foster care. Once, I carelessly mentioned my excitement about living with my aunt if my mother passed away. I did not intend to upset my mother, it was simply a slip of the tongue revealing my ceaseless escape plans. Unsurprisingly, my mother was deeply unhappy with this announcement, telling me that I was never allowed to say such a thing again. She stopped talking to me.
Those nights plunged me into hopelessness, a state that sapped my appetite for both food and life. This marked the inception of my self-imposed starvation, though full-fledged anorexia did not grip me until I turned 16. My ED was an attempt at control, at attaining some consistency, something perfect. If I could not have love, I would have educational success and physical beauty. I did not care about being a good person, I cared about surviving.
I was angry and sad, constantly looking for ways to escape but unable to do so until I turned 18, when I finally broke free from my mother’s grasp. Sadly, I would remain under the control of my ED for another eight years.
My recovery is a story of its own, spanning several years, punctuated by countless relapses, and woven together with the support of numerous individuals whose names are too many to recount.
In hindsight, two things emerged as pivotal in helping me: my graduate education in neuroscience, and learning how to build and nurture authentic and healthy relationships.
I am embarrassed to tell you that for most of my life, I failed to grasp the significance of community support for my own (and that of others) wellbeing. Although I had always longed for connection, I often resisted it for many years fearing vulnerability and pain.
Through lived experiences, I have learned the value of wholesome connections with friends and family. Concurrently, I delved into scientific literature demonstrating the significance of community support as one of the most effective, yet highly underutilized methods, for preventing mental illness.
Psychoeducation involves learning about the roots of mental disorders and the science behind the possible treatments – a treasure trove that my neuroscience background held. Moreover, it validated my frustrations when healthcare providers and loved ones mistakenly asserted that my recovery was impossible or that my struggles were self-inflicted choices.
Psychoeducation is scientifically proven to both prevent and treat mental illness, yet it is rarely provided to the people who need it the most and it is hardly ever given at the right time: way before a mental illness sets in.
I sometimes wish I could erase the chapters of my life marked by an eating disorder and other mental illnesses. Yet, as always, every dark cloud has a silver lining. Living with an ED gave me, as a scientist, a unique insight into the deeply personal ways in which a mental illness can control our lives.
More importantly, recovering from ED – an accomplishment achieved by less than half who grapple with it – granted me a profound insight into the possibilities that are yet untapped within mental healthcare. My ED could have been prevented, and it could have been treated much earlier.
While I cannot rewrite my past, I am determined to help reshape the future. Using what I have learned, I established Mind Blossom, a non-profit endeavor that implements psychoeducation programs in schools and other organizations around the globe.
Our programs are targeted to students, teachers, and parents in an effort to empower them with the knowledge to understand why mental illness surfaces and afflicts either themselves or their loved ones.
Importantly, we also teach students, teachers, and parents where and how they can receive evidence-based help that is accessible. By breaking internalized stigma surrounding mental illness across generations we are enabling conversations that can help us build stronger and healthier communities.
* If you are interested in supporting us and learning more about what we do at Mind Blossom, please visit www.mindblossom.org for more information.