“Mental illness is so deep inside your head that people don’t know what to say. They don’t have the right words to say, so they say nothing,” my mother said, crying in earnest now.
I listen from behind a mask of calmness cultivated by years of practicing journalism and living with mental illness. For the past several months at my college’s newspaper I interviewed survivors of depression as part of an ongoing dialogue about stigma and recovery.
I have had a decade to befriend my own demons. They no longer scare me.
My mother and I are sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom while we discuss Anorexia Nervosa, which along with a healthy splash of depression has lurked in my shadows for the better part of a decade. I inherited my father’s green eyes and height while my mother passed down her loud voice and food insecurities. I hear her influence when I laugh and when I lie.
When I was 14-years-old, my physical science teacher told the class an anecdote about a frog. If you drop a frog into a screaming hot pot of water, it will immediately recognize danger and hop out. However, if you stuck that same frog into a nice lukewarm bath and slowly turn up the heat, the frog would be content to sit there and ribbit before he realized he was cooked.
Slouched at the grimy classroom desk, I popped two pieces of gum in my mouth, 10 calories, as I considered how I spent the last four years of my life in a boiling pot of Anorexia. Towering over my classmates at 5 foot 8 inches tall, I weighed a sickly 87 pounds, carefully hidden beneath layers of clothing and lies.
At home that September afternoon in 2010, I carefully removed my five shirts and two pairs of jeans, ensuring my ice-cold fingers did not brush my skin. I kept my eyes away from the mirror as I turned on the shower to the coldest setting and stepped inside. With the icy water pounding on my skeletal back, I sat cross legged and rested my forehead against the tiles.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, fat, fat, ugly, worthless my brain whispered as I raised the temperature. The water was screaming hot as I ran through, again and again, what I had eaten that day. My sharp nails picked at the skin on my stomach until it was raw.
When I felt finished, I carefully turned off the water and laid on the bathroom floor to do a thousand crunches until I was sure the 10 calories of gum were gone.
“When did you decide to take me away?” I asked my mother from the other side of a tape recorder that provided enough separation to make this conversation easier.
“It was the coldest day of the year in December. I called the doctor from the high school parking lot and hoped you wouldn’t hear me. I was so afraid they would lock you away in the hospital. I didn’t want to change you, even though I knew what you were doing was so bad for you,” my mother said.
I easily recall how it hurt to be in my skin. I was a full head taller than the boys in 9th grade and too shy to open my mouth. Lanky and pale, my spine bent like a question mark as I tried in vain to take up less space. My mother called me a weeping willow, mean as Medusa, or just plain manipulative depending on my mental state.
“People like you and me are good at manipulating people. It’s what we do,” my mother said.
Family learned of my illness on a need-to-know basis only. Those who were left out of the loop swallowed the lie that I was fine. My father told me not to wear clothing that showed the thinness of my arms and legs. With messages flying at me from all angles I saw through a distorted lens who I was supposed to be.
“You were so good at hiding your disease. You’d wear twenty layers of clothing, but if I peeled back the layers there would be nobody inside,” my mother said.
Anorexia gave me a way to feel in control of my body when the rest of the world felt like a runaway truck.
“The crash was coming and I had to get out of the way or close my eyes to it. I had to make a decision in those 90 seconds it took you to walk down the brick corridor,” my mother said of the day she brought me to inpatient treatment.
In a dark corner of my brain, I never forgave my mother for saving me from my destructive behavior. I never forgave her for every day, week, and year I spent under the hospital’s microscope while she, with her own bones visible got what I saw as a free pass. Even as I slowly emerged from the darkness my guilt and anger bubbled within the body that never felt like mine.
Tattoos helped me to reclaim my flesh. The first, a black swallow on the sharp point of my shoulder blade was an act of rebellion. My mother found it within a week. The shimmer of black through the white of my shirt betrayed my secret. Unsurprisingly, she always seemed to unearth what I hid beneath clothing or long hair.
By the age of twenty my breasts accumulated a maze of thick, black tattoos. Medusa lived sprawled across my sternum, ribs and stomach. I gave myself a pixie cut to know what it felt like to have no hair to hide behind, then dyed it black. My abdomen collected scars as surgeons scraped scar tissue from my organs, removed my gallbladder, and tried to salvage my reproductive system.
Skin is a topographical map of lived experience. By reclaiming my flesh I reclaimed my mind and found my voice. When I looked in the mirror I no longer saw my mother’s body.
The week of Feb. 26 to Mar. 4 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In the United States, some 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their life. As individuals find the courage to speak about their conditions, the stigma of mental illness will change.
Psychology professor Linda Isbell teaches a course on the stigma of mental illness at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. According to Isbell, this stigma is “stronger than ever” but as individuals find the courage to speak about their condition, the culture is changing.
“Historically there is a sense that mental illness has been a sign of weakness. The sign of strength is that you are going to try to do something about it and reach out because there are a lot of great treatments out there…People can recover. If there is one message that needs to get out there it is that recovery is very real, even for people with very serious problems,” Isbell said.
I spent a decade fighting my body and fighting my mother before I reached solace.
“Did I screw you up?” my mother asked.
I hit pause on my audio recorder and shook my head no.
I come from a long line of strong women who wrestle with invisible wounds and insecurities. Mental illness isolates the sufferer even as it drives deep wounds into those around them. Mental illness is the collective demon we shamefully battle alone while there are real resources to reach recovery. It is time to change the conversation about mental health.