Every day I talk to hundreds of thousands of people across Canada about the weather story. I remember the nerves of my first time on air as a weather presenter, but today it’s second nature. The viewers feel like family. I’m comfortable with them, I can tell them to get to the basement in a storm or share a laugh over one of my bad jokes (even though it’s just me alone in a room giggling away). Yet, there’s one thing that always makes me uncomfortable... telling my story of mental illness.
Let’s go back.
Being a teenager is hard… really hard. Hormones begin to affect us, our bodies start to change and emotions can feel out of control. At the same time, the pressure to be pretty and perfect began to creep in for me. Bad combo and it get’s worse.
At 16, I got a modeling agent, but there was a problem: with my developing body, I was just “ … a bit too big.” As a perfectionist, this was unacceptable for me.
I began working out regularly. I’ve always been athletic but had never worked out to try and change my body. At first, it was great and working out eased my stress, gave me time to think and be present. Low and behold I lost 3 pounds. It felt good. But if I could just lose a little bit more, then my agency would be even happier with me.
So, I began eating smaller portions and kept up my workout routine. Over the next two months, I noticed my mind felt… different. I started to feel anxious about food, obsessively planning my day around meals and workout times. Then came the guilt associated with eating anything I deemed unhealthy. I figured if I just cut these “bad” foods from my diet that the guilt would go away. It didn’t. Maybe if I cut out dinners it would go away. It didn’t.
Food soon preoccupied every moment of my life, I was so hungry that thoughts about food even crept into my dreams. Yet, for half a year, I didn’t tell one person how I was feeling, even when I began experiencing the physical symptoms of malnourishment.
I was chilled to the bone, my body was constantly sore, my hair was falling out, my skin was terrible and I was sleeping all the time. Emotionally, I felt sad, this persistent, all-encompassing dullness. I lost my spark. Friends started asking, “what happened to fun Michelle?” I never socialized anymore because I felt more alone in a room of people than I did by myself counting the number of calories on my plate.
After several months, the weight loss was dramatic. My jeans wouldn’t stay up without a belt, my face was hollow, my bones jutted out and people started to notice, including my parents. They went into panic mode when one hot spring day they realized the extent of my weight loss when I wore a tank top. I denied it, of course. But this voice inside told me to like the weight loss, not to listen to anyone who would try and make me gain weight, and to strive to lose more. So I isolated myself, no one would know what was going on inside my head.
There’s a reason solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments a human being can endure. Being alone is painful. Mental illness is solitary confinement, it separates us from the world.
In hindsight, I understand that a disease was taking me over, but six months into this battle, I still didn’t know her name. I’m a journalist by trade and research has always been a part of me so that’s what I did. It didn’t take long. I typed my symptoms into Google. The two most dreaded words I could have imagined popped up, at once shocking me and confirming what I think I knew deep down: anorexia nervosa.
In that moment my life changed forever. I was now someone suffering from a mental illness. This knowledge was a secret too big to hide, and when I dropped down to what I weighed when I was 12 years old, I knew that this was heading one of two ways: get help or die.
Telling my mom is such a clear memory. We were sitting on my back deck on a hot summer day and I looked at her, with tears streaming, and asked, “Can you help me?” My family sprang into action. They pulled me out of modeling, arranged schooling from home and put me into an intensive outpatient treatment.
During the next six months, I made big strides, after all I am a perfectionist. I graduated high school and was accepted into university. Life was pretty good and yet, I would relapse two more times.
I did well in university but I never let myself have fun because anorexia doesn’t like you to be social. My weight yo-yoed on underweight to severely underweight for years. I went to so many counselors but would quit after one session every time because I didn’t want to get rid of anorexia. It felt like a comfort when I was lonely and a way to control stress. Anorexia was mine and I was hers, though I now know that she had control of me and it was anorexia itself that made me lonely and stressed.
During my post grad, my first love and I split up. It was my first real heartbreak and I was devastated. But it was this feeling, combined with six years of battling a mental illness, that lit a fire within. Anorexia is not a choice but I was choosing to fight her with everything I had.
I was lucky enough to find a councillor who specialized in anorexia. I told her after my first meeting, don’t let me quit. She promised. It was painful to dive into feelings I didn’t know existed, terrifying to eat foods I once restricted and angering to step on the scale each week and see the number climb. However it was during this anguish, that positive things started to happen subconsciously. I’d refer to the disease as “her” as opposed to “me.” This technique gave me a sense of freedom. Then sometimes I’d catch myself going a minute without feeling anxious or thinking about food, then an hour, a day and inevitably four years since.
Don’t be fooled, I still have days when I cry because I feel uncomfortable with the way I look but I understand that these emotions are trigged by something else happening in my life and I have the coping mechanisms to deal.
I am recovered from anorexia nervosa, but mental illness will always be a part of me. In a sense, anorexia helped me become who I am, someone strong, someone I am proud to be, someone who hopes that you never suffer, yet knows if you do, you can get through it. But let’s get one thing straight, anorexia does not and never will define me.