When I returned to boarding school in the fall of my junior year, I brought with me not just duffel bags of clothes, athletic equipment, and sheets and towels, but also an eating disorder. Up until a few weeks before school was set to begin, I’d never had a comprehension of what a calorie was, or of whether I was heavy or thin; body image simply wasn’t in my realm of self-perception. I’d never had issues with weight as a kid, nor had I ever had an emotional relationship with food. I ate when I was hungry, stopped when I was full, and thought nothing more of it. The entire world of rules and regulations—calorie-counting, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, numbers and measurements— had never infested my mind. My sense of self was completely unattached to the size and shape of my body.
Things changed, however, when I returned from a long trip near the end of the summer and was made aware that I’d gained some weight. With the flip of a switch, I suddenly became hyper-aware of my physical presence, and it became the central focus of my life. Almost instantaneously, I’d become convinced that my bodily appearance was a direct reflection of who I was, of my entire identity. I thought I’d discovered the missing piece of my puzzle. Finally, a tangible way to define myself! I no longer needed to ruminate in the far recesses of my mind, trapped amidst abstract and invisible thoughts and feelings, to sort out my ‘self’. I could use my body as a tool to sculpt my identity. Logically, the smaller and more compact I became, the more successful and worthy I could feel.
In the first few months of the school year, I dropped almost thirty pounds. The sicker I became physically, the more secure in myself I was convinced I felt. I was taken to an endocrinologist, who informed me that my body was behaving as though it were going through menopause, and that I’d need to go on hormone supplements immediately. When I got back to school, I put the pills aside and never thought of them again. I finally felt like I had a true purpose, and I wasn’t going to let a doctor tell me otherwise.
As my eating disorder took on full force, so did my academic perfectionism. My diligence in schoolwork was completely obsessive in nature. I’d essentially become a reincarnate of the girl I’d attempted to run away from a year earlier—the girl who defined herself by external measures like appearance, grades, and performance. I’d taken a few steps towards living in the middle of the road my sophomore year and decided it wasn’t for me. Being average—being normal—filled me with a feeling so unbelievably intolerable that I swung myself as far out to the edge as I possibly could. For it was only on the edges, only at the utmost extremes, where I felt I had any semblance of self. A pendulum at rest in the middle, to me, meant failure; equilibrium meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Whatever illusions I had in my mind about being able to stay indefinitely on the side of restriction and rules were soon shattered when my emotions began to break through my once meticulously maintained and disciplined exterior. In my attempts to repress physical hunger, I’d given birth to an emotional hunger that was insatiable. I was constantly searching, grasping for an amorphous, indefinable thing that I couldn’t wrap my mind around but that embodied everything I wasn’t. It no longer seemed possible to sit with myself without turning to things outside of me to change how I felt. From food (by this point I’d begun to swing between phases of restriction and over-eating), to relationships, to alcohol and drugs, I was evolving into a self-medicating machine, constantly in a state of altering myself through external means. The only sources that never entered my mind as options at this point were psychiatric medications.
By senior year, I’d created an internal void that seemed to never be filled. Pleasure began to recede into the distance, and I was left feeling either entirely empty or filled to the brim by profound sadness. I felt like I was going through the motions of life without actually living, like I was sitting in the passenger seat of someone else’s car, moving towards a destination I wasn’t sure of. Miraculously, as I’d been able to do during my ninth grade year, I continued to do well academically and athletically, though I was emotionally disconnected from my accomplishments and felt as though I was going to a job every day. I continued to go on adventures with friends, though less often, but the moments of bliss and contentment that I’d felt my sophomore year were few and far between. I found myself feeling connected to others only when conversing about nihilistic frustrations with existence. These moments were often fueled by illicit substances, which allowed me to temporarily feel a warm fullness, comfort, and a sense that all could be right with the world.
I spent most evenings in bed early, having finished all my homework well before curfew, writing poetry fueled mostly by loneliness. I wrote about feeling like I was in a detached bubble, watching the rest of the world go on around me without feeling like a part of it. I wrote about yearning for something I wasn’t sure of, wanting desperately to be somewhere I wasn’t, feeling numb and cold and unsure of how to feel alive. I read Sylvia Plath. I listened to Radiohead. I raged against myself and against the world.
Up until this point, I’d mostly forgotten the language of mental illness I’d begun to learn before going away to boarding school. I now found myself needing an answer, an explanation, or a reason for everything I was going through. I began to think of myself not just as depressed, but as officially having a diagnosis of major depression. The kettle I’d put on the back burner, left to simmer for two years when I left my psychiatric diagnosis and medications behind in Greenwich, had started to boil again, pushing its way steadily towards the front of my mind once more. I had come to a point where I gained a sort of comfort in the belief that I fit into a category—bipolar disorder was still out of the question in my mind, however—and having major depression allowed me to feel like I belonged somewhere. Maybe I was sick of feeling alone, maybe I was confused, or maybe I yearned for an identity. Whatever it was, it was strong enough that I embraced the diagnosis of major depression with open arms, feeling like I’d come home to myself and could release some of the burden I’d been carrying on my shoulders.
Though I remained off of medications and out of regular therapy, I had taken a significant step closer towards the realm of the DSM. I had chosen to make sense of the experiences I was having as being ‘symptoms’ of a disease—the increasing isolation, the ruminative thoughts, the lack of self worth, the self-destructive behaviors—and suddenly I felt like I understood myself better. I had begun to coat myself in the paint of psychiatric language, suffocating the raw, pure experience of adolescent angst, both painful and numbing beyond belief but fundamentally human, beneath the first of what was to be many layers of pathologization.
I had thrown myself into a tidal wave of distortion that was to wash away any vestige of an unlabeled or un-medicalized identity and leave behind an entirely warped concept of self. I would arrive for my first year at Harvard that fall as an eighteen-year old girl unsure of anything about herself save that she had a serious case of major depression, still holding out from psychiatric medications but reaching a point of desperation.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.