Alison’s Story

My name is Alison, I’m 29, and I deal with depression, anxiety, ADHD, and have a history of an eating disorder.

I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and anorexia nervosa at age 14, but looking back, I struggled with mental illness far before I was actually diagnosed. As a child, I felt sad and lonely all the time. I would always feel like something bad was going to happen when there was no logical reasoning behind my thinking. I placed a lot of pressure on myself to succeed, and I felt like I was never good enough. I never liked the way I looked and I desperately wanted to change that. I began to focus on food more in elementary school, looking for ways to lose weight, and that continued for several years. In my teenage years, I saw food as a method of control when I felt like I couldn’t control anything around me. Dieting turned from a habit into a compulsion. As I say in my comeback story, these actions, emotions, and self-deprecating thoughts created a “perfect storm” for my eating disorder to develop.

My road to diagnosis of my eating disorder was unique, because I actually went to my pediatrician on my own accord and told her that I thought I had food issues. She said that most people with eating disorders were brought to the doctor by a loved one and were unwilling to admit that they had a problem. At this time, I knew I had a problem but didn’t want to get better. It wasn’t until I entered residential treatment for my eating disorder and was forced to face my eating disorder head-on that I broke down and realized how much damage this was doing to my mind, body, and soul.

I reached out for help when I decided to go to a residential treatment center for the first time. I came out of an appointment with my dietitian, who had given me a meal plan for one week, describing foods to eat and the portion sizes. I realized that it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to eat all of this food – I couldn’t eat all of this food. I saw my therapist and she encouraged me to call a treatment center.

My family members (mom, dad, and twin sister) were the first ones to know about my eating disorder diagnosis. They wanted more than anything to be supportive, and they tried everything. They didn’t understand though, and that’s no fault of their own. They had never been exposed to eating disorders/mental illness of any kind. The most important thing is that they were there for me when I needed them and tried their hardest to support me. One of my primary supporters was my middle school guidance counselor, who knew how to support me. She let me eat lunch in her office, and helped me come up with strategies to manage school and my recovery. She could see past the eating disorder when I couldn’t, and that was so valuable and touching.

I have gotten a lot of support and learned healthy coping skills by attending therapy since my eating disorder diagnosis. I still remember the therapy session where I came to realize that I was a lesbian. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I do remember that she asked me about my sexual orientation, and it honestly caught me off-guard. It wasn’t something I had ever thought about concretely, but over time, I did realize that this was a part of me that had subconsciously existed for quite a long time. I came to see that one of the functions of my eating disorder was to hide my sexuality, because I wasn’t exactly comfortable with it at that time. I began to open up about it more in therapy, then to my family. For the next step, in true millennial fashion, I took the huge risk of coming out in a Facebook post. So many people offered their congratulations and support. These days, I can openly talk about it, and I’m proud of it. I am so grateful to have a supportive group of family and friends that accept me for who I am.

One strategy that really helped me reach a place of solid recovery from my eating disorder was exercise. For many people with eating disorders, exercise can be a maladaptive coping skill. I initially started exercising because of a fibromyalgia diagnosis I received in 2018, because my doctor said it could help with pain management. Not only did it help with that, but I was able to see my body in a new way. Instead of setting calorie limits or weight loss goals, I set goals to be able to do push-ups and strengthen my core. Instead of tearing my body apart, I could build up strength. I had fun going to Zumba, barre, and yoga classes, and I was able to get out of my own head for a little while. I didn’t care what the number on the scale was. I felt good and at home in my body, which was something I had never felt before in my life.

The things I struggle with the most today are depression and anxiety. I struggle with fibromyalgia and am currently dealing with an undiagnosed illness that really impacts my quality of life, as well as my mental and physical health. These experiences have made my mental health challenges significantly harder to manage. As a part of reaching a diagnosis, I have tried various elimination diets (under a doctor’s supervision) to see if there were certain foods that were causing gastrointestinal distress. This has impacted my eating-disorder thoughts. While I have not really acted on the behaviors, the amplification of my eating disorder voice causes stress and frustration.

I currently manage my challenges with medications – I take depression, anxiety, and ADHD medications every day. I also have a cat, Iris, who always makes me laugh. Caring for her helps me take better care of myself. I also write about my experiences, sharing pieces through my personal blog, as well as social media. I have even published a few pieces on The Mighty, a website for people facing health and disability challenges.

I am attending Boston College to earn my Master’s in social work. I am passionate about doing advocacy work and hope to use my experiences to help others in some way. I am also passionate about animal welfare, which I hope to incorporate somehow into my social work career.

Reflections for myself & others

If I could I’d tell myself that there is no timeline in life, and that milestones do not necessarily have to occur when they are “supposed to.”  I graduated college a year later than I intended, and I switched schools. I thought I wanted to work in education, and then I had a job that made me realize that education was not the right field for me. I worked several jobs that were not the right fit before I found The NAN Project. While I’ve had a lot of adverse experiences, I have also had opportunities that have changed my life for the better, like The NAN Project, going back to school, and getting the right help to deal with my mental and physical illnesses. I would remind myself that, no matter how many curve balls life throws my way, there will always be good things ahead.

A phrase I like to tell people is: be mad at the disorder, not the person. A person with a mental health challenge may do things that make you angry, upset, or scared. But remember that this is not intentional.

Finally, remember to seek help for yourself if you feel like you need it. Watching a friend or family member struggle can be painful and upsetting. By talking to a professional, you can let out your feelings, and it might help you not to let out your feelings on the loved one, even if it’s unintentional.