Mental health issues? Eating disorders? “Curing it,” or staying in recovery, is kind of like having acne… and to get rid of or “fix” the acne, you scrub it with a really harsh exfoliating face soap like St. Ives. You know the one – with what seems to be shards of glass in the mixture.
This is a weird analogy but stick with me. If you’ve ever been a teenager and/or have teenagers, you know what I’m talking about… especially as a teen with oily skin (*raises hand*).
Listen, this was me. As an athlete who sweat (plentifully!) daily, it was the majority of my teenage days that I had a couple of pimples. I really didn’t know what else to do than use the coarsest face wash I could find to level off the mountains building on my face. All I wanted to do was react to the problem of acne to rid the surface crud.
This is also a version of what my older sisters did and my mom just wanted us to be hygienic and was glad we washed up at all. There was no YouTube and no beauty influencers. There were no effective gentle and natural products on the market – just blotting papers and benzol cream.
It’s only years later (like, three years ago?) that I understood that what our skin looks like on the outside has a lot to do from what’s going on in the inside, BUT you still have to treat the outside with kindness. I didn’t know that skin is an organ and our organs rely on hormonal health. It likes things like water and clean air, too.
And, hello, puberty? Treating a problem (acne) with anger (vigorous scrubbing) exasperates the problem. And long-term should be valued over a quick-fix, but it takes a lot of trial-and-error to figure out your skin’s preferred skin care routine.
Duh. Learned. Now, I’m starting to know.
But then, I didn’t. So, I used the St. Ives with overnight creams and toothpaste to dry my skin out. Then I’d pour on the concealer only to clog my pores when I went to practice and sweat it all out on my practice t-shirt… which I wiped my face with over and over. SRSLY? Yes. C’est la vie.
When I began my eating disorder journey, the responses from my family and loved ones were pretty much the same: Cover it up on the outside. Get the quick fix. Gain the weight and be done with it.
My senior year of high school is when my eating disorder became out of control for the first time. I was sent to therapy, doctors, and a nutritionist regularly – they were my prescribed night creams and St. Ives. I was sent to them to monitor my weight, essentially, and learn how to gain a healthy amount. If I was my hormones and they were the St. Ives, we clashed.
In the winter of my senior year of high school, my family and I took a trip to New York City around Christmas time. It was beautiful and so cold. If you’ve never been underweight, then you might want to know that you’re always cold – if it’s 80 degrees, if you’re inside, in the sunshine, and especially when it’s 20 degrees, like in NYC around Christmas. I was determined to put my face mask on and pretend like I was healing – a cover-up. Part of this cover was being unable to run from my parents feeding me all the full-fat hot chocolate and super-protein power bars they could find.
I came back to school having gained around 10 pounds over Christmas break. I recall my volleyball coach commenting on looking better, a compliment from him, but something I took offensively at the time. My parents made a “deal” with me – which they liked to do because they knew I was still competitive – that I couldn’t play club volleyball until I had gained 10 more pounds.
My thoughts were simultaneously, “That’s it?” and, “No, that’s not fair!”
I knew that I really wasn’t eating that much more than before, and I was freaking out about gaining 10 pounds so quickly over winter break. Inside I had already been planning on restricting my food to lose that winter weight. My face wash had done its job temporarily, but the underlying reasons for having damaged skin, or in this case a disordered mind, wasn’t going away so easily. Even though the outside looked like it was on the mend, the inside still wanted to cause problematic skin… or, behaviors.
Because it’s our habits that tell the bigger story of health – what we do, how we speak to ourselves, the messages we hear and then internalize, and then act on. Scrubbing it away, or eating the triple-decker weight-gain bars for a week, only takes care of the surface problem. An eating disorder is, in fact, a mental disorder, so it’s important to note that I wasn’t thinking like a rational person.
To get to my “goal,” I tried to control it, still. My mom would watch me eat breakfast and then when I was done, she’d surprise me with a 500-calorie smoothie on top of it which I’d take with me on the ride to school and dump most of it out. It’s too much. I said I wanted my goal, but not her way. The stubborn pimples don’t go away so easily.
When I got what I set out to (sort of) achieve, that is to play club volleyball my 18s year long enough to finish Nationals, I also held on long enough to be sent away to college. With the stress and pressure both relieved and higher than ever at the same time, it was then that the internal behaviors and habits came roaring back. It wasn’t enough and St. Ives couldn’t take me any further.
I needed to wash my face twice a day and use toner, lotion, and sunscreen, and also use some patience – not just scrub deeply once a day and say, “See, I’m trying!” It’s a cover-up and a lie I told myself that it would be enough. But, I covered it up, too, because other people were satisfied with seeing me try. If it looked like I was trying, then I’d get to be “the girl with acne,” or, “the girl with the eating disorder,” and they’d let me be, hiding in my misery.
That’s the problem I’m getting at it. Sometimes (if we’re lucky) we grow out of our struggles, but we don’t always grow from it. If people give you the label, then you might feel obligated to fulfill the label. Being “The sick girl,” or “the volleyball player,” or “the girl with acne,” allows us to form an identity around it. No one else knows your potential and no one will do the internal work for you. Identity work, who we think we are and who we could become, take time and patience and more than “wash once daily” work.
Sometimes, like in my case, healing comes from a prescribed, not always glamorous or comfortable method. You’ll stumble and you will rebel. But, because you know it works, you do it. Every day.
Note: I realize that many mental health disorders are not simply “cured” with time and therapy. This is just one perspective from one person’s experience with a mental health disorder.