On Jan. 28, Bell organized its annual Let’s Talk day, encouraging people to call, text, and hit social networks to talk about mental illness and to alleviate some of the stigma that surrounds the issue. The initiative inspired me to share my experience, in hopes of breaking down some of the stereotypes that surround mental illness.
Since middle school I’ve been dealing with eating disorders on and off and, unbeknownst to me until I entered a psychologist’s office, mild clinical depression. The first time I was officially diagnosed, I was 14, but it wasn’t exactly breaking news to me. When you feel the weight of guilt every time you eat a normal, healthy meal, when every time someone talks about going out for dinner all you can think of is the calorie count and whether you’ll have to make yourself sick later, and when hours of your day are consumed by binge cycles you can’t control, you can be pretty sure that something’s off.
But the real shock came after my diagnosis, when the psychologist gave me a list of possible reasons for my eating disorder, ranging from perfectionism to control issues. None of this made sense to me. I never felt like I chose to be sick to spite my family, to rebel. In fact, I never felt like anything in my life was particularly out of my control. I had my disagreements with my parents, but what teenager doesn’t?
That’s the problem with these issues, and the reason why I chose to keep them to myself. Speaking up about eating disorders tends to get you placed in a particular category.
The few times I did open up, the responses I got rarely felt comforting. I was told I was depressed because I’m girly, negative, and emotional, and that I had an eating disorder because I have no self-control, because I’m vain and conceited or because I want people to admire me and for guys to think I’m attractive. The worst response I ever got was from a guy I dated who said that I was “making my own life difficult,” that I should just gain weight, that my depression was due to my “negativity,” and that “anyone else would have left me after finding out about this.”
None of this felt remotely true. I wasn’t torturing myself to make people jealous, or to impress anyone. But I interiorized it. I was made to feel like this was my fault, like it was my choice.
The reality is that mental illnesses are like most other human phenomenons: unpredictable and variable. Those coping with these illnesses do not fall under the same category, much like how not every individual fits into a certain gender stereotype. Mental illness is more than just a box that you check when you visit a new practitioner. It doesn’t describe you, and it should never have to define you.
While mental illness does have a tendency to spill into many aspects of one’s life, it isn’t an indicator of a certain predefined identity or manner of seeing the world. Talking about “The Mentally Ill,” “The Bulimic,” or “The Schizophrenic” doesn’t help. We are not our illnesses, we are coping with them, and we all cope in our own way. The only way to really help people with mental illness get on the right track is to stop labelling people.
With me, it was only when I realized that there was an entire person hiding behind the illness that I was able to recover. I still feel the effects every once in a while. I’ll always have a love/hate relationship with food. But at least I know that there is more to the individual that I am than the problem that I have to live with. I have opinions, passions, dreams, and ambitions, and just because I talk about bulimia or depression, it doesn’t mean that I am reduced to that tiny fraction of myself.