‘Mental Illness’ Isn’t A Curse Word


Trigger warning: illness-related weight loss, mental illness, chronic illness

My body holds the key; she is the keeper of my magic. She is the most sacred vessel, the only one I get in this life, and I do not always greet her with kindness. I chastise my body; I scold her and lament her weaknesses and all the times she has not been on my side. It’s a continuous battle of my head and my heart, my body versus all of the plans and dreams and aspirations I have. See, I have this mortal fear; it’s so tangible and persistent. I fear that my own body is failing me.

It began when I was 20. I moved across a couple provinces to follow the man that I loved. Perhaps I held all the rose-colored love and whimsy that one could possibly muster, but I truly did believe that this cross-country move would work out effortlessly. Well, spoiler alert: I was very wrong.

I started having debilitating panic attacks every single night. Usually in the time after supper and before bedtime, my body would start to shake, I would break out in a cold sweat, I would feel the nausea come over me in waves, and through my eyes it seemed as if the entire world was imploding, except I was the only one who could see it. My partner would hold me and comfort me through these episodes, but he didn’t have the knowledge or tools to help me cope – neither did I. This was uncharted territory for me, and I had no idea what was happening in my body, and it was utterly terrifying. I had anxiety attacks every day, sometimes multiple times a day. It happened one day while I was shopping at the biggest mall in the city, and I couldn’t breathe, I flew into a complete state of panic and out-of-body mode. I ran to the nearest mall exit, through the T&T supermarket. I believe I must always know where the nearest exits are in any building I am in, on a subconscious level, for this reason. When I sense an attack coming on, one of the first things I need to do is breathe fresh air, get out into open space, and not be around a bunch of strangers. I am hyperaware and hypersensitive at all times, but during an attack, this is all elevated. I need room. I need calm. I need to breathe.

Simultaneously, I stopped eating. I would wake up for work and maybe choke down a strawberry Pop-Tart or a Christmas orange. I would pack a micro lunch, only composed of yet another Christmas orange, maybe some cheese and crackers, and some water. But I struggled to eat this as well. And on any given evening, we would cook supper but I probably didn’t eat more than a few bites. I couldn’t even finish half a subway sandwich. I drank Starbucks daily, which was the only constant going into my body. As a result of not eating, I lost 20 pounds in approximately 2 months. None of my clothing fit anymore, I lost the athletic curves I had always loved, my breasts went down 3 cup sizes, I had no butt anymore – one of my favourite physical features that came from lifelong skating, playing ringette and hockey. I flew home for a friend’s wedding and my family was shocked at how thin I had gotten; sure, we’d spoken every day, but they hadn’t seen me in person. My dad looked at me and said, “You are too skinny, my girl.” The concern in his voice and the worry in his face really struck me.

I kept getting worse. A couple more months of unbearable anxiety and panic attacks ensued, mixed with the deepest depression – I was trying to stay in the city for my partner and our relationship instead of doing long distance, but I was dissolving in front of his eyes. I lost all joy of any activities and hobbies. I would go to his hockey games but I was a shell of my former self. My mom flew down to visit every month for a week, in hopes that it would help my spirits and lift a bit of my fog and depression. It did help while she was there, but the minute she left for the airport, I was gripped with anxiety once again. Looking back, I am astounded that my partner didn’t have the presence of mind to take me to a nearby hospital; I was dying from the inside out. My ribs and collarbone and spine were noticeable in a jarring way, my hip bones jutted out, I had no fat left on my face. We finally arrived at the difficult decision that I should move back home. So I began packing up my life once again, knowing that I would be doing a long-distance relationship with the man I loved, but I would also be surrounded by my family and close friends once again instead of living in a new city. I do believe my partner held this against me; he saw this as giving up, folding, not sticking it out with him while he was in college playing hockey. But I had to take my life back, because I was losing it at a rapid pace.

One of the greatest acts of love I have ever received was the weekend I moved home. My dad has been a long-haul truck driver for over 30 years, and he worked all week driving across western Canada just to get back home, get in the car instead of the rig, and drive through the night 13 hours to come and move me home. I remember thinking, “How on earth did Dad do this, he just worked a 60+ hour week, then drove 13 more hours to get to me.” I will never know how to repay him for this, but if I do find a proper way, I’ll let you all know. I know it is all part of being a parent, but I digress – I was beside myself for putting my parents through this stress and unknown territory.

The day I moved home, I weighed myself. I hadn’t been weighing myself, but I did keep track of what I was eating and drinking in an attempt to keep myself accountable. In truth, that didn’t really help, but it was these little acts like that showed I wanted to keep living and fighting. At my most sick and weak, I weighed 95 pounds, and on a small 5’2 frame, that is shocking. But then I had a literal angel come into my life – my dad’s new doctor. He had gotten me on as one of her patients, and from my very first appointment with her, she began the colossal task of bringing me back to life.

That day, I filled prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants. And though my dosages and the actual medications I consume have changed over time, I am in my seventh year of using meds to help manage my mental illness and chemical imbalances. I used to feel so much shame around using medications, and truthfully I still do, but I am working through it every day and making progress. The shame I feel for utilizing medication for my anxiety, depression, and chronic illness is a liar; it wants to see me fail, it wants me to shrivel up, make myself small and insignificant. But that’s the thing – I won’t shrink myself anymore, I won’t water myself down to fit other people’s perceptions of me and what I think will appease them. I am me unapologetically. And I am nowhere near done growing, stretching, dreaming, loving, and living.

I am living.