I wish I could say that I’m an activist, but I’m not. I don’t feel like I’d have what this needs. I am only someone with questions. I sit, observe, put things together, and then ask myself questions about this process. The same goes for the outer world. I sit, observe, gather information, and then try and make something coherent out of everything.
Or this is how it used to be, as 2020 came like a hurricane, shattering every single thing I thought it was already figured out. It brought a pandemic and a whole list of questions to be answered. It brought new issues to be addressed, and put some light on older issues, often left for later.
One of those issues to-be-addressed-later is the way we are looking at politics. I used to hear frequently that old line, I am not getting involved with politics, it is none of my business to do so! long before 2020. But then a pandemic came and made us ask ourselves Is this true, or just comfortable?
But let’s look a bit closer to it. When we talk about politics, we talk about agendas. About issues and core values that politicians find worthy of being prioritized. From women’s rights to migration and education, everything is or could be, a point on some political agenda. And I’ve managed to see a lot of issues being publicly addressed by politicians, real and heavy issues of the society. Excepting for one: the mental health state of the population.
Even when the environment is toxic, focused on competition and over-achievement and, constantly fearing that you mightnot be good enough, no politician or political party has made a statement about the mental health crisis. Because it is a crisis, and the pandemic is only putting it under the spotlights. And there are a lot of arguments as answers to any related questions.
It is a crisis because it does not provide any kind of recommendations on how to stay sane during these times. Our lives are nothing like before, we still have restrictions to face, dear ones that we can’t see, and are told to limit any unnecessary kind of interaction, for as long as it will be needed. We are being told to obey the rules, protect ourselves and the others, but no one tells us how to cope with all the anxiety and frustration that this situation has brought.
People have to deal with anxiety, grief, stress, and uncertainty on their own.
There is no real support system for psychological needs. Access to psychotherapy is a privilege and not a realistic possibility. I’ve heard a lot of I will start going to see a psychotherapist as soon as I will afford it from people perfectly aware of what they are facing.
There is no real support system for the children’s psychological needs either. They are also feeling anxiety, depression, pain, neglect. They are also feeling rejection and heartbreak. They are also needing help with learning to manage their feelings. They also need someone else to be there for them with empathy and objectivity. A bigger person, worthy of their trust and openness.
And I will not talk here about the lack of psychological support for the families having a member with disabilities or chronic conditions. I will not even open the subject.
Yet all these have a common root, even if it doesn’t necessarily look like it: the social stigma associated with the topic. Society doesn’t see mental health as actual health, but more as a trifle. It is optional, not vital. Public policies on mental health can wait, we have bigger things to focus on. Even if this might, to some extent, be true, there is just as true the fact that a bunch of individuals facing mental struggles all by themselves won’t form a thriving group.
The public agenda on mental health policies is empty. No words about deconstructing the social stigma surrounding the mental issues, no words about increasing the awareness about anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and nothing to be said about the tendencies of romanticizing mental struggles. Silence and empty pages waiting to be written. People waiting to be seen, heard, and represented.
Nothing can be changed overnight, but this doesn’t mean that things have to stay the same forever. We need help, and we need it on an institutional level. Of course, the help given by the NGOs that advocate for mental healthcare is like a glass of water in the desert. Deeply needed, and definitely something to be grateful for. But it is not enough.
If we scream and brag about how much we care about people’s health, yet we won’t do a thing for their mental health, then our care for the overall health is just a lie. A lie we keep telling ourselves and others, without understanding that we can’t have a healthy individual with a struggling mind. Even this splitting between mental and physical health is artificial, therefore worrisome.
There is a lot to be built, but the good news is that it’s worth it. Because a society where you can afford seeking medical help when you have a broken bone, but not when you have a depressive episode, that is by no means a society that has any interest in her citizens’ health.
WARNING: This article might be triggering if you are in recovery or suffering from an Eating Disorder. To be read with caution and a grain of salt.
Ana is a simple homegirl. She’s got good grades, she’s friendly and she loves fashion. Everybody loves her, loves the way she gets involved in humanitarian causes. Her smile and her jokes. But they don’t know that they’re in love with a lie. Because Ana is sick. You can say that it’s an invisible illness because you can’t see a thing, excepting the fact that she’s getting thinner and thinner with every single day. She is losing weight, and sometimes this could even be a good thing, but, you see, good things become bad too.
She’s a very good actress. You can’t tell a thing about her complicated relationship with her body and food, it’s hidden too well behind her smile. And even if you’d expect her life to be pink, it’s rather a deep, very deep shade of grey. As deep as her emotions. Ana is suffering from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder. This could be translated in very low self-esteem, hating her body, being deeply ashamed with the way she looks and starving. Lots of starving. And let me not forget about her desperate search for love. For a mother to love, validate and cherish her. Because her own mother doesn’t know how to be there for her daughter. It’s a very big lie, her apparent balance. A lie hiding depression, anxiety, the fear of not being good enough for the cherished ones, and, above all, the fear of being fat. For Ana, every pound lost it’s a step taken on the path to happiness, every pound gained, a step taken on the path to death. There’s no in-between. You’ll tell me that I’m lying, that Ana is eating. And she does. But she’s also puking after. Drinking plenty of water and doing hard workouts. She’s punishing herself for daring to eat. Ana cares about two major things- getting thin and her grades. School is important to her, she wants to be the best. She wants to impress, to be the best in her future career. But she also wants to be as thin as humanly possible, no matter the costs. She forgot how genuine joy feels like, and her life became exclusively about calories. Nothing else matters for Ana.
I told you that she hates her body and having to eat, but there’s more than just that. For her, food is something with whom she’s deeply bonded. Food brings her peace, joy, guilt and shame, punishment at the gym and puking at home. Because every single Ana knows that you don’t miss that particular food, but the taste of it. Because every single Ana girl knows that every pound she’s losing is not one step closer to happiness and fulfillment, but another cry for help. For love and attention. She’s sick, but there are days when she’d do anything to fall in love with life again. To stop counting calories, pounds, diets which didn’t work out for her, or how close she is from her almost-deadly-thin weight goal. Because she has to be goals- body goals, lifestyle goals, family goals. And she’s nothing but damaged, and she knows it better than any of us does or ever will… But she’s trying. She’s trying so hard to live up to her high, self-imposed standards.
There are days when she makes it- she’s respecting the diet, the workout schedule, she gets high grades and manages to somehow trick everyone around her to think that she’s fine, everything while she drops pound by pound, getting thinner and thinner. And there are the days. The days when she’s binge-eating, gaining weight, skipping a workout, losing focus and getting bad grades. The days that remind her that, no matter what she’s doing, she just won’t be enough. Not tall enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not sexy enough, not thin enough…not good enough. Because, at the end of the day, this is all about- about being good enough. At what costs? Irrelevant, they’re not important, since no one knows about them. As long as it looks natural, it doesn’t matter how horrible it feels, how strange, how bizarre. Ana is needy. She needs every single bit of love and attention that she could receive, but you shouldn’t expect anything in return, and not because she’s selfish, but she can’t. Her emotions are compulsive, superficial, she’s not able to authentically love someone. And you can’t blame her for not having anyone around able to teach her how to share the love and good vibes with the others. Her life is movie script-worthy, but the beginning of the whole story was an enormous cliché- everything started with Ana being bullied.
Yes, I know, it seems so little. But it really isn’t. Everything started at school, with a colleague screaming Hey, fattie, come here, my friend wants to meet you!. They’ve laughed, but she left, and a question stayed with her: Am I really fat?. She gets home, goes to the mirror and she starts analyzing herself. She’s noticing that she really has some extra-pounds, but she won’t say that’s because of puberty, no, it’s all her fault. She’s eating way too much and way too unhealthy, and that has to change. Now. And it does.
Everything starts with her first date with a diet forum, where she’s gonna meet her Ana best friend which will give her valuable tips and tricks about how to lose weight fast while pretending you’re alright and fooling everybody around you. Losing weight feels so. fuckin’. good. She gets more confidence in herself, becomes more popular, can wear everything she wants to wear.
But nothing’s ever built to last. The lost pounds are coming back. She’s having her first major depressive episode. She’s not getting it- what happened, what was she doing wrong? So she’s starting to binge-eat. To have reported cheat-days, weeks, months. Her body looks worse than before, she’s fatter, no one likes her, she can’t be as trendy as her classmates anymore. She’s a fat, ugly, unpopular girl. Being smart it’s not helpful, but at least thanks to God that she’s not stupid as well. This is how she starts to look for Pro-Ana websites, blogs, Tumblr accounts…whatever works, at this point. She’s meeting new Ana girls, with more experience than she and she start learning. In the beginning, about the aliments- how many calories has each one of them, which are allowed and which are totally banned, which should be her daily calorie consumption in order to get thinner again. In the meantime, as she starts binge-eating again, being weak in front of her cravings again, she starts looking for more advanced things. How to artificially produce her vomit, how to make it look like you have just finished eating, but not eat anything at all. How to eat three cupcakes now and then starve for two days, just because she was craving them. How being fat feels like, because fatness isn’t only a fact, a trait that you have or have not. It’s a feeling. It’s feeling like you’ll never be like them, that girl squad that’s so thin, beautiful and trendy while it’s eating KFC on a daily basis, how she will never have as many people dying to be her best friends, that many beautiful, last-Instagram-trend clothes, that many apparently perfect boys wanting them. It’s about becoming a social no-no. About feeling ugly, feeling unuseful, feeling rejected. Reportedly rejected. So you get sick of it and try to change it, and you make it, but…
This is how things work. Especially when you’re a teenager trying to find herself in a visual society. This is how things work when you’re a young girl losing a big amount of weight, as well. There are a lot of psychological traps that no one tells you about. No one will tell you that you lose weight faster than you get used to the changes. Or that you try to look at least close to the girls on social media which have an army behind those flawless looks. And some good photo editors, too.
This is a common story. It is a part of my own story, but also of my close friends. It affects young men and women from all over the world. And it has so many forms of manifestation that you can’t even put a finger on it on its early stages.
When you lose weight, when you lose big amounts of weight, things get to happen that no one teaches you about. You don’t get told, for example, the fact that you will, at a certain point, feel like your body makes space for a new, stranger one, hidden inside of it. Somehow, it is a psychological metaphor of blooming, to explain it somehow.
No one will tell you that you will have mixed feelings about your body, either. That you will love feeling your bones when you dress up, or that you’ll feel insecure about being looked at on the street. You won’t be told about the joy felt when you’ll randomly notice in the mirror, one morning, that your collarbone is visible. The collarbone is the consolation prize of any Ana girl because it is the first bone to show up. No one will tell you that, one day, the feeling of your bones under your fingertips will be the synonym for accomplishment. Or that your close ones telling you that they’re proud of you for losing weight will put pressure on you to get rid of the rest of the weight quicker. Because being admired for the way you look is a newly encountered, addictive feeling.
And they won’t talk to you about these things not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know how to. Some don’t even know that this is an actual need to be met in the weight-loss process. The only people that made me aware of all these things were my Ana friends. They warned me that I am becoming one of them and that I could be the perfect Ana. Actually, I could’ve turned into an Ana girl and no one would’ve suspected a thing, because, as they’ve told me if you become anorexic when you’re already thin, you’re sick, but if you become anorexic when you’re overweight, then you’re a success story. This is crossing my mind even today, whenever I think about my weight-loss journey. Because it is a long, possibly dangerous journey, even lethal for some. But it’s also rewarding.
I’ve managed to save my friends by loving them and always being there for them. By teaching them that their best will always be enough. That if somebody is conditioning them by telling them that they will be loved only as long as they do this or that, they don’t need that person’s love. No matter how much they care for that person or want it in their lives. I’ve also encouraged them to seek help, to go in therapy. I’ve learned a lot by working with them and helping them become the wonderful young girls they currently are. I’ve documented on the eating disorders spectrum, learned how to help them and how to help myself.
But if I was to name what I know about this now, I’d say that Ana is not a disease of a body, but a universe trapped inside of a human body. An imbalance misleading the vulnerable ones towards a fake perfection.
And if I want you to know something, on the Eating Disorders Awareness Week, it’s just that you have to pay attention to what happens around you. Seriously, that’s all that it takes. Pay attention to the girl that lost a big amount of weight all of a sudden. To the girl that has always just finished eating when it’s invited to take the dinner or lunch in town.
Take her for a walk, encourage her to talk. Or him, for that matter of fact, as I’ve seen plenty of boys developing eating disorders as well. Talk, let them know that you’re there, ready to listen without judgment. Read about it, learn to recognize the signs, and be always ready to show them their best sides, as they often forget about them in their quest for perfection.
Because this is how Ana works her deadly magic: firstly, it makes you feel unworthy of appreciation and love, and then, it isolates you from all the loved ones. It is not just about the person battling the disorder, is also about everyone else who loves her and cares for her. Ana hurts and drags down everyone around the victim.
And for you, for all the people that managed to seek help and are now in recovery, you have all my love, admiration and support. You’re some different kind of rockstars, so make your voices heard and tell your stories exactly as they were. No matter if you’re a teen, an adult or even close to the old ages, your story will help. Your story will heal. Will let the young ones, the confused ones, the ones that have lost faith know that there’s nothing lost forever.
Because it might be true that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, but it is also true that happines is so, so much more than a number on a scale. And if you want to discover it, giving up on caring about that number is the best start you could possibly have. Your beauty is not a number, and your intelligence is not your grade.
It is, somehow, only one number that really counts: the number of people that you’ve made to smile, the number of people that you brought joy to, even for five minutes. And that is not depending on how much you weigh, not even a bit, not at all. So get yourself together, and put the guilt, the shame and the good enough stuff in a box. Tomorrow is a brand new day, the sun will shine, and you will try again, totally aware of the fact that small steps are still steps taken forward.
As the conversation about mental health gets more personal and spreads wider, another topic makes room into our lives and talks. Self-care. Understood as a set of practices and rituals that help enhancing one’s well-being, self-care is praised, talked about, and made look like something pretty, pink, comfy and glowy.
And, even if, at times, it really is comfy, pretty, glowy and pink, it rather isn’t. Because the first thing about self-care routines that should be understood is that any routine of this kind responds to a state of need. There is no self-care if there is no need for it. And it can be anytime. Self-care ain’t as pretty as social media makes it appear, because there’s more about that particular routine than the cozy surface. There are issues that one tries to manage behind every self-care routine shared.
And self-care is not always about bubbly baths, cozy sweaters, or hot chocolate and cheesy movies. It also is about anxiety, emotional pain, about hanging on and diminishing the damages. It is also about uncomfortable but necessary life choices, like learning how to properly manage one’s money, taking that medical exam you keep avoiding, or getting into therapy.
It is also about long, sleepless nights when you just sit with yourself, and revisit milestones of your life, trying to figure out what went wrong. What could’ve been done better. About admitting that, no matter how dear, some people around us are toxic, and we need to distance ourselves from them.
But, above all of these, self-care starts on the very moment when someone understands that self-sabotage will lead nowhere. Because a lot of the problems which require self-care routines for minimizing their effects, are the consequences of past self-sabotaging acts. And from compulsive shopping, to hanging on the wrong people repeatedly and for too long, everything can, at some point, turn into a self-sabotaging act.
No one thinks about little kind gestures done for themselves in the good days as self-care. But, whenever the bad times hit, the little coffee dates we’re taking ourselves to, the long baths, or any other thing that used to bring us a good vibe and we keep doing even if we feel like drowning, suddenly gets labeled as self-care. Actually, it is just about being persistent, and not giving up on who you are.
Because self-care and self-sabotage are the faces of the same coin. As mental health is not constant, is something fluctuating, depending on a lot of factors, and not as much that can be under our control as we’d like to be, same is this continuum.
There is a personal dynamic in every story of self-sabotage, as well as in every routine of self-care. Even if social media tries to say so, not every kind of self-care routine works in every situation, for every individual. As the journey unfolds, the needs to be met change, and there are all kind of needs and days.
There are days when cleaning the house while listening to my favorite gangsta rap tracks is as close as seeing a therapist as one could get. There are days when all I have to do is to cook something both tasty and healthy, while chatting with mom. There are days when I need a long bath, some blues and getting my nails done in order to calm down my anxiety and feel better about myself. There are days when I cry myself to sleep, in order to let the grief and the hurt release themselves. Days when I’d do all of this at once, or not at all, none of it.
But there are also days when all I need is sitting with the cats and listening to some blues. Or when all it takes is a good chat with my favorite people and a memes exchange. Or maybe a short shopping session. As well as the days that require me to make big decisions for what will come next.
These are all forms of self-care. As well as procrastinating, hanging out with the wrong people, eating your feelings or letting yourself get devoured by anxiety are forms of self-sabotage. Basically any action taken, aware or unaware of it, that has the potential of endangering our well-being, even if we talk about immediate, mid-term or even long-term well-being, counts as self-sabotage.
Of course, life will always be a mix between these two, and this should not scare us. I know, it seems to be easier said than done, but fictional expectations will never lead to real progress. And there’s nothing that did more harm than the idea that the journey to recovery should be smooth, linear and predictable. Neither the recovery journey, our mental health needs, or the self-care routines are. And this is absolutely great, as it was never supposed to, in the first place.
Because they’re so intimately linked to someone’s life history and personality that you’ll never see two of them to be the same. Might seem alike, but that’s only a superficial feeling about a façade. Self-care is, somehow, the bright side of the story, the one that brings us joy as we practice our ritual, and as we tell the others about. The side that tells the others we know in the same kind of situation that good days can still happen, despite of all struggle.
But there are the self-sabotaging moments the ones who really get to shape us into different persons. The moments that make us take deep breaths, while asking the eternal question: How on earth did this happen, why I’ve got to this point?. Those moments when we feel like quitting. Like taking a nap for the next…few years, until every problem we have will be solved. The moments when, even if we feel like giving up, we keep going. And, especially, the moments of enlightment, when we finally understand what are we doing wrong.
Of course, it ain’t easy to talk about these moments, that would mean the healing is easy. And everyone knows it ain’t at all. Healing is a beautifully dramatic story, with ups, downs, and even stops. How one approaches this, though, is a whole different thing, a thing shaped by their personality and values, while changing the person’s personality, values and beliefs. Getting the courage to actually sit, even with a single other person, and tell the stories of those moments, is a great thing. It is the main sign of the pain starting to fade away.
At the end of the day, the only thing that should be let to sink in is the fact that self-care is not just a label we mindlessly attach on random practices.
Self-care is a whole category of small gestures of kindness directed to one’s person, that allow us to function during the tough times. This is why it matters to openly talk about self-care, even to share our favorite self-care routines, and perhaps even their stories, or what they’re good for, and this is also why, when somebody tells us about a thing that it functions as a self-care routine for them, we don’t get to tell them that they don’t.
Because the only person entitled to label a thing or other as a self-care act, is the person practicing it, with the good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly sides of their journey.