We’re living, as many of us can tell, interesting times. The pandemic has forced us to see the real dimensions of some issues often put aside from the public conversation. It showed us how those things we claimed to be not important enough to be prioritized had an impact on so many areas of our lives. And the mental health, the caregivers, were two of the things we’ve finally got to see that can not be postponed anymore.
Because, as much as we wouldn’t want to admit it, there is a great need for mental health services. There are people in need that can not afford the costs of their therapy sessions. There are no programs to support people’s access to mental health services. And there is for sure necessary to have mental health advocates. Here’s why.
Mental health issues occur at earlier ages than before
It ain’t easy being a child or a teenager in this era. Everything has to happen now to be relevant, and the pressure is huge. Family pressure, peer pressure, social pressure, everything has an impact on our children’s mental health. And there are enough studies that warn us about the symptoms of anxiety and depression having a rise in the age group 10-13. Our pre-teens are not alright, and their mental health is just as important as their physical one. What are we actually doing for them?
Mental health is a matter of public interest
There is no single aspect of someone’s life to not be affected by their mental health status. It affects their consuming behaviors, work patterns, productivity, empathy, ways of interacting with other people, everything one could possibly think about. In extreme cases, it is a matter affecting public safety, as well as the individual’s safety. And there is no responsible society letting their most vulnerable citizens deal with this on their own.
Mental health affects everyone’s lives
Mental health issues are not individual but systemic issues. They are the result of living in a hostile society. But they also have an impact at a social level: people needing mental healthcare are harder to be included on the job market, have less social ties, and sometimes become bargains for their close ones. Things that could be avoided if there would be a support system that would tackle the mental health challenges from their very beginning. If only there would be someone there to actually take the time and listen.
The social stigma associated with mental health services prevent people from seeking help
This is, besides the political and institutional aspects, one of the greatest challenges of anyone who’s advocating for mental healthcare. The associated stigma, which is still very powerful.
Besides the financial aspects, as for many people the psychotherapy sessions are not immediately affordable, they also have to fight the associated stigma. Because the belief that someone seeing a psychotherapist is a misfit remains, despite all the mental health awareness and resources across the Internet, still powerful and common.
These are just a small part of the reasons that make mental health a political matter. Because it concerns each and every one of us. Because it could be you or someone dear to you that’s going to struggle tomorrow. Because having a safety net that’s been well-built is an incredible asset in times of extreme uncertainty. Because mental health is health. There’s no such thing as harmful as the separation between physical and mental health. They’re both essential parts of what’s called being human.
Because being an advocate for mental healthcare is one of the bravest things one can do. It takes courage and an in-depth understanding of their privilege to come and stand up for such a vulnerable matter. In the long run, though, it remains a battle that, if chosen by many, will benefit us all. But for that day to come, there’s a need for activists and advocates of the seemingly easy to understand idea that mental health is just as important as the health of our bodies.
I’m writing you this letter because I know how insecure you are, and to let you know that things will sort themselves out just fine. Not in a regular way, but in your own kind of way, and that’s part of what makes your journey awesome.
Who am I? Good question, yet funny answer: I’m your ten years older version. And I will drop here some spoilers about what this timeframe will mean for you.
You will discover what makes you happy
Yes, you will be happy. And, of course, there will be some things that will bring you happiness. You will find them early and respect them. You will build little routines around them that will work as small but effective pills for the dark times that will come.
You will like yourself more
Of course, there will still be days when you’ll feel like you’re a total failure, but, as a difference from today, you’ll be able to see your good parts as well. You will like yourself more than you do now, and, obviously, less than you will like yourself when you’ll be 35. You will also stop belittling your accomplishments and will understand that a bad day is not a bad life. And, unbelievable, you will actually get to like yourself. Sounds pretty much like a fictional character, eh? Just give yourself some time, and watch.
You will talk about the things you try to hide now
For now, you try your best to seem as normal as a teenage girl could. But in less than ten years from now on, not only that you will talk about your disease with people without feeling ashamed. You will even write about it, and you’ll see people coming to you and sharing stories of their children having the same diagnosis as you do. And this will empower you, as well as your community.
You will still have friends from your childhood by your side
And they won’t be the ones you’d think. But they will be there for you when you’ll have good news, bad news, and whenever you’ll need to be slapped with that hard to swallow truth pill. They are not that many as you’d hope, but they will be there, and that’s what makes them living wonders.
You’ll make peace with your body
And this will be a game-changer. You’ll get thinner, you’ll learn about what kind of aesthetic you match best with, and will allow yourself to finally be happy in your own body, not in a future, perfect version of it. You will learn to stop postponing goodness for later, and that will help you a lot. Even so, you still won’t be able to see yourself as a beautiful woman, but you will only get to care less about this aspect.
You’re gonna do things your way
Maybe things won’t make that much sense seen from the exterior, but you will remain faithful to your values and your determination of walking on that one path, instead of the easier ones, will often seem like stubbornness at first. But it will also be the one thing that will bring you other people’s respect- the fact that you will never quit on something just because it’s hard.
You will keep your priorities aligned
This means you will put on hold anything that won’t give you the chance to grow, learn, or be yourself. You will keep learning on various domains, will keep writing, and will become a volunteer.
Volunteering will help you learn about how to be useful to others while not emptying your own cup of well-being. You will learn that you can give to others and receive at the same time, and the moments you’ve made those children smile will remain some of your most precious memories.
But this also means that you will cut people out of your life just because they don’t allow you to grow your way. And you won’t be sorry for doing so.
You will become your own kind of woman
It’s not very clear how will that woman be, for now, but I only can tell you that you’d love her if you’d met her. She’s funny, passionate, smart, relaxed, and smart. But I can tell you that she won’t be the kind of woman your family hopes you’ll become. She won’t care this much about how other people see her. She will have learned, by now, to put herself first. Do you know those lists with personality traits from the drawer? She checks them all and adds some more bullet points.
You will learn to say no
And you’re gonna love it! You will reach that point where you will learn that saying no is not an insult, but a proof of self-respect, and you will act like it. You will start to say no to whatever you feel like it doesn’t suit yourself: people, opportunities, everything that feels off.
You might not always know what you want, but you will always have a clear sight of what you don’t want, and that will do just fine in the long run.
You’ll bring magic up to your life
Not only that you will learn how to work with magic, but you will also learn to trust your inner voice, not other’s opinions about how you should be doing this or that. And every time you will listen to that inner voice, you’ll win. But it will be some hard to learn part of the journey, even for you. You will, as time goes by, discover that you are stronger than you’ve thought you could possibly be. And the thing that you can find happiness in the smallest things is one of the traits that root that power of yours.
These are only a small, small part of what your journey will be like. A teaser, if you want to. Because, by the way, you will be a pro at teasing people, too. Even if now it does not really sound like you, it will. Just be patient.
I think this will be any teenage girl that will trust her personal journey more than other people’s opinions about how her life should be, but today is not only about them, it’s especially about you. Because one of the most important lessons that you’ll be learning during this decade is the fact that a woman will only succeed if she will help other women, too. You will be empowered and inspired in your journey by wonderful, astonishing women, and you will find the power to give the same gift back to the young girls.
Because, if it’s anything that you are certain of, by now, is the fact that it needs a whole community to raise a woman who is unapologetically herself, capable to share and put boundaries as well. But, in the end, it is always worth it.
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.