7 (Totally Wrong) Reasons I Didn’t Think I Had An Eating Disorder

When I was diagnosed with an eating disorder, there was one question I just couldn’t get out of my head: “How did I miss this?”

Coming out of denial has been such a terrifying process. It’s like discovering that I’d fallen asleep at the wheel, and, eyes open now, I’m forced to assess the damage I can’t even remember causing.

One minute, I swear, I was on the road — the next, there are wires attached to my chest, and I’m getting an EKG and wondering how the hell I got there.

The shock comes in waves, and some triggers feel more sensitive than others. My stomach drops every time I hear my dietician say the word “refeeding.” I cringe when a doctor says “starvation.” They feel like heavy words, too grim, and the gravity hasn’t set in for me just yet.

I can’t decide what scares me more — the fact that I’m so malnourished that I have to reintroduce my body to food, as though we’re strangers to one another, or that my fear of food still, at times, outweighs my fear of destroying my own body.

How could I have fallen this far down the rabbit hole and not noticed?

I want to share what I’ve realized about my own denial, not just to get it off my chest, but because I think it speaks to the larger issue of how eating disorders are characterized.

Because as I began to unpack the reasons why I missed the signs, one thing became obvious: It’s not that I missed it.

It’s that our culture never gave me the tools to recognize an eating disorder in the first place.

1. My eating disorder wasn’t as ‘obvious’ as I thought it would be.

My eating disorder didn’t present in what I considered the “typical” way.

I wasn’t obsessively weighing myself, I wasn’t counting every calorie that I consumed, and I hated exercise. I didn’t cry if I ate a slice of pizza or have a deep-seated fear of butter. I didn’t fit the stereotype, which made the denial much easier to cling to.

My relationship to food and my body, though, was still dysfunctional.

Food caused me so much anxiety — the decisions involved, the binary of “good” and “bad” foods, having “too much” of something and “too little” of something else, and all the pressure of making the “right” choice.

Even with all of that anxiety, I pointed to the fact that I wasn’t trying to lose weight as “proof” I didn’t have an ED. I just wanted to stay exactly the same — which I insisted wasn’t about my body image or a fear of fat.

If I was always just a little hungry, I reasoned, I could prevent my body from ever changing. No one told me that an obsession with size, even if it’s not about getting smaller, is still an obsession rooted in a fear of fat.

Basic things like cooking or even looking in the pantry could send me spiraling. That anxiety led to cycles of restricting, in which I would eat very little, just to avoid the obsessive, overwhelming thoughts that emerged each and every time I had to make a decision around food.

It escalated, too, to the point of being unable to feed my own cats, for fear of making the “wrong choice” for them.

My partner is still solely responsible for determining what our cats eat and giving them food, because the panic I felt about their diets became too unmanageable for me.

My eating disorder also wasn’t as static as I expected. I had periods of time that I ate more, but as my life stressors increased, my restricting did, too. I thought eating disorders had to be constant and consistent, and mine wasn’t. I figured that let me off the hook, because it was “just stress.”

All of this is still dysfunctional, but in my mind, I could only picture the stereotypes that I had heard. I could eat pizza and ice cream! I could eat takeout! I wasn’t vomiting!

I was quick to point to the things that normalized my behavior, but eager to deny the things that were clearly disordered.

2. My body didn’t ‘look’ sick.

The one thing that still boggles my mind about eating disorders is that they truly have a mind of their own.

I knew, logically, that eating disorders can impact anyone of any body size. But I still denied having a problem, because the body that I saw in the mirror didn’t look emaciated.

Where was my terrifying “before” picture? And even if I tried to get help, who would believe me if I wasn’t “thin enough”?

But eating disorders don’t describe a type of body — they describe a specific relationship to food and to our bodies that causes psychological distress.

It took a long time before I was willing to accept that my body didn’t reflect whether or not I had an eating disorder; my state of mind did.

3. Everyone around me had disordered eating.

Disordered eating is everywhere. Skipping meals, weight loss resolutions, detoxes and fasts, even smoothies that replace meals are totally ubiquitous and, at times, inescapable.

When you’re immersed in diet culture, recognizing that you have an eating disorder can be impossible when everyone around you is validating your mentality, however unintentionally.

Being transgender especially, it’s normal for people to struggle with their bodies, and to push themselves to change as quickly as possible, no matter what it takes. And while gender dysphoria is a very serious struggle, I often used mine as an excuse to dig deeper into my eating disorder.

“It’s not an eating disorder,” I’d tell myself. “It’s just dysphoria.” But these aren’t mutually exclusive — in fact, this is why transgender people are at such an extraordinarily high risk for eating disorders.

How could I know that what was happening to me was dangerous if everywhere I looked, it was presented to me as normal and even desirable behavior?

4. My justifications for restricting seemed totally reasonable.

My eating disorder was really good at pointing fingers. For every disordered behavior or thought I had, I could always come up with a hundred excuses for why I engaged with food that way.

I went vegan for ethical reasons. I just hate cooking, okay? The kitchen is too messy. I’m saving money by skipping lunch. I don’t really have any food in the house. I’m a picky eater. I’m just lazy. I’m not good at meal planning. I’ve been so busy. I’m just saving room for dessert. I just prefer snacking throughout the day. I don’t need that. That doesn’t have vegetables. I’ll eat later.

I think a lot of people imagine that an eating disorder is a deliberate and conscious decision like a structured diet that spun out of control, but in reality, it’s a lot sneakier for many of us with EDs.

I didn’t wake up one morning and decide that I was going to stop eating. Rather, these little excuses that popped into my head enabled my restricting one meal at a time. And before I knew it? I had a much bigger problem.

My eating disorder wore down my defenses a little bit at a time — look how much creamer I put in my coffee! That’s practically breakfast! — which allowed it to escalate in an insidious, practically unrecognizable way.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in the doctor’s office, trying to explain what I was eating on a typical day (“Trail mix,” I explained, “and then I eat ice cream if I think I might faint”), that it finally hit me that I’d been duped.

5. It became my ‘new normal.’

Eating disorders are built on a house of lies, but if it’s the only house you’ve ever lived in, you just won’t see it that way.

One of the things that’s been most jarring about eating disorder recovery is realizing how skewed and even broken my barometer was around food.

I don’t remember what it’s like to feel “full” because I’ve spent so long being hungry. Things that I considered “a lot of food” turned out to be very little food to everyone else. I didn’t understand the difference between a meal and a snack.

I was convinced that hunger wasn’t a prompt that our bodies give us to eat, but rather, something that I had to fight to suppress by calculating the minimal amount of food I would need to manage. In other words, to me, hunger wasn’t natural — it was an ailment or a problem to “fix.”

When you have a relationship like this to food and to your body for a long time, it becomes the only reality that you know.

It’s like when my dietician asked me to have a nutritional shake and trail mix for breakfast, and I blurted out, “In the same sitting?” Hearing myself say that made me realize that, all along, I’d constructed rules that were strictly define by my fears, rather than the reality of what my body needed.

Recovery, for me, has been about completely dismantling that house of lies. It’s learning to be skeptical of everything you believed to be normal, and rather than allowing your eating disorder to dictate what “normal” is, it’s letting your body guide you to create an entirely new paradigm.

That paradigm is one that doesn’t react to hunger from a place of fear and trauma (fight or flight), but rather, from a place of body trust.

6. Having an eating disorder didn’t feel the way I thought it would.

I genuinely believed that if I had an eating disorder, I would have felt miserable all the time.

I was supposed to be angry, volatile, depressed! Instead, even in the midst of my disorder, I didn’t have the extreme despair that I assumed would accompany something as serious as an eating disorder.

But the reality is, eating disorders don’t always co-occur with a mood disorder. Mine didn’t — I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, not depression.

So if you’re expecting yourself to be constantly depressed? That may not be how EDs show up for you specifically.

You might actually feel “fine” — but it doesn’t mean that you are.

Mood swings can be part of it (and I certainly had my fair share), but some of us are more likely to experience emotional numbness, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, or even euphoria, rather than depression.

There is so much happening chemically in the midst of an eating disorder, it can be hard to predict how our emotions will respond, except to say that they can be super unpredictable.

Eating disorders are coping mechanisms, and as such, there really is no way you are “supposed” to feel in order for your eating disorder to be valid.

Truthfully, I felt the most depressed and despondent in recovery, when I first tried to start eating again. When I had to actually sit with my fear and discomfort instead of restricting, that’s when my mood absolutely crashed.

The misery that I felt when I started in recovery made it even harder to believe I had a problem, too. I kept thinking, “If this is treatment, shouldn’t it be making things better?”

But I promise you, that’s normal! Sometimes it does get worse before it gets better — and that’s just part of the process.

7. I thought I ‘knew better.’

I wrote about this in my last blog but it bears repeating: Anyone, even mental health advocates who write about this shit for a living, can have an eating disorder.

One of my gorgeous friends in recovery said to me recently, “Sam, you’re talking about eating disorders as though they aren’t mental illnesses.”

And that was the crux of the issue, really — I believed that if I had the right attitude, the right meal plan, or shared enough body positive Instagram posts, I could worm my way out of having an eating disorder.

But eating disorders are mental illnesses and they have to be treated as such. Reading a book or taking a selfie in a crop top can be empowering, and it can open the door to recovery, but eating disorders require more than positive thinking.

I needed help.

Eating disorders are so much bigger than an attitude adjustment. It’s asking you to create an entirely new relationship to your body, to your food, and to the world around you. That is a lifelong process — but a worthwhile one, too.

I’ve had an eating disorder most of my life, and yet it was unrecognizable to me.

And I can’t help but feel that, in a culture that was simply more informed about what eating disorders are and the diverse ways they show up, we’d all be much quicker to recognize them in ourselves and our loved ones.

That’s ultimately why I’m sharing my experiences so openly. I want each one of us to be able to embrace recovery, knowing that our struggles are valid regardless of how they compare to anyone else’s.

Please know: If you’re struggling with food for any reason — if it scares you, makes you angry, overwhelms you, whatever it is — there’s no harm in reaching out and talking to someone.

I’d recommend getting in touch with the National Eating Disorder Association, where you can chat with folks who are the experts in recognizing these complex disorders.

You deserve whatever support and affirmation you need to have a safe relationship with your body and with food.

And I hope that someday, we’ll live in a world where those relationships are modeled for us, so that we never have to question what that looks like.

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Want more real talk about recovery?

The conversation continues over on Patreon, where I film weekly videos talking about mental health, recovery, self-care, and more. This week’s video dives deeper into how social media can perpetuate denial in recovery — go check it out!

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

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I preached body positivity — and sunk deeper into my eating disorder at the same time.

I don’t usually write about my mental health when things are “fresh.”

Not in the last couple years, anyway. I prefer to let things marinate, and to make sure that the words I choose are empowering, uplifting, and most importantly, resolved.

I prefer to give advice when I’m on the other side of something — largely because I know I have a responsibility to my readers, to make sure I’m nudging them in the right direction. I know this blog can be a lifeline for folks who need something hopeful. I try to remember that.

But sometimes, when I perfectly package that hope for an audience, I can delude myself into thinking that I’ve cracked the code and, therefore, can tidily leave a struggle in the past. The perfect conclusion to the chapter, as it were.

“I know better now,” I think to myself. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

If you were to Google “transgender body positivity,” I’m fairly sure more than a few things I’ve written will come up. I’ve been interviewed for podcasts and articles, and hoisted up as an example of a trans person who — in a simple shift in perspective and following the right insta accounts — came to redefine his relationship to food and to his body.

Three articles that appeared in a Google search for "transgender body positivity," all written by Sam.
I wrote all three of theseDelightful.

That version of events is one that I love, because it’s so simple and comforting. One shiny, bright epiphany, and I emerge victorious, having evolved beyond any worldly, frivolous concerns about my stretch marks or eating ice cream for breakfast.

“Fuck you, diet culture!” I jubilantly exclaim. “I know better now. I’ve learned my lesson.

When you are a mental health advocate and writer, especially in such a public way, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that you have all the answers to your own problems. But that illusion of control and self-awareness is exactly that — an illusion, and a deceitful one at that.

It’s easy to point to the years I’ve spent in this space, and everything I’ve published about this exact thing, and insist I’ve got things under control. It’s not my first rodeo, pal. Or second. Third. Fourth. (I’ve got experience on my side.)

If I can support others through their recovery, surely I can navigate my own. Even as I write that, I know it’s patently ridiculous — giving good advice is much easier than applying it to yourself, especially where mental illness is concerned.

But the version of me that I prefer is the one that said in this interview, as recently as last June, “When you get to the other side of whatever you’re struggling with, you’ll see that not taking those chances — living only half the life you could’ve been living — is a lot scarier than any disaster you imagined would come from eating that slice of cake or whatever it was.”

Says the person who is, really and truly, living in that fear in a life half-lived right at this very moment.

Body positivity has felt like a relationship I dove into at such a young age, long before I knew myself or even my eating disorder. And once I was in too deep, having positioned myself as triumphant, I didn’t know how to step back enough to ask for help.

I wanted to believe it was like an incantation I could say in front of the mirror several times — “all bodies are good bodies! all bodies are good bodies! all bodies are good bodies!” — and POOF! I was absolved of any guilt, shame, or fear I felt around food or my body.

I could say all the right things, like a script that I’d rehearsed, and love the idea and the image of myself when I peered through those rosy-colored lenses.

But where eating disorder recovery is concerned, a script — even when memorized — is not a substitute for the work.

And no amount of Instagram memes and photos of belly fat could touch on the old, painful wounds that had positioned food as my enemy, and my body as the site of a war.

Which is all to say, I am not recovered. The work hadn’t even begun. In fact, I used my proximity to body positive spaces to disregard the very idea that I needed help — and I’m paying the price physically, mentally, and emotionally now.

I wore body positivity like an accessory, to project the image of myself that I wanted to be, and my eating disorder reveled in the idea that I could suspend the reality of my illness simply by curating my social media accordingly.

My understanding of body positivity — and by extension, its roots in fat acceptance and liberation — was shallow at best, but only because my eating disorder thrived so long as I sustained the illusion that I knew better. This was yet another way of convincing myself that I was in control, that I was smarter than my ED.

My disorder had a vested interest in lulling me into a false sense of security. I couldn’t have an eating disorder, I thought — disordered eating, maybe, but who doesn’t? I couldn’t because I was evolved. As if mental illness ever gives a fuck about the books you’ve read.

Eating disorders have a way of sneaking up on you. That realization is a new one for me — not because I didn’t logically understand that, but because I’ve only come to accept it in the context of my own lived experience in the last few days.

And I wish I could say that this epiphany came to me on my own, inspiring me to reclaim my life, but there’s no such heroism here. It came to the surface only because my doctor asked the right questions during a routine checkup, and my bloodwork revealed what I feared to be true — my body was coming undone in the absence of adequate, much less nutritious, food.

“I don’t understand how people decide when to eat,” I confessed to my therapist. His eyes widened with deep concern.

“They eat when they’re hungry, Sam,” he said gently.

At some point or another, I had utterly forgotten that simple, basic fact. There is a mechanism in the body, intended to guide me, and I’d cut all ties to it completely.

I don’t share this as a criticism of myself, but rather, as a very simple truth: Many of us who are lauded as faces of recovery are still, in many ways, right in the thick of it along with you.

Sometimes what you’re seeing is not a portrait of success, but rather, a small piece of a more elaborate, messy puzzle that we’re frantically trying to assemble behind the scenes, so that no one notices that we’re in pieces.

My eating disorder recovery is, in truth, in its very infancy. I’ve only recently stopped using “disordered eating” to obscure the reality, and this morning, finally spoke to a dietician that specializes in EDs.

This morning.

Today is, in actuality, the first real day of recovery. That’s three years after, by the way, I wrote these words: “No more justifications. No more excuses. Not another day . . . this is not control.”

I know there are readers who might have looked at my work in body positivity, and absorbed the misguided notion that eating disorders (or any kind of body negativity or food aversion) are simply mazes that we think (or in my case, write) ourselves out of.

If that were true, I wouldn’t be sitting here, sharing with you a very uncomfortable truth about recovery: There are no shortcuts, no mantras, and no quick fixes.

And as we glamorize the idea of an easily attainable self-love — as though it’s just one perfect crop top away — we miss the deeper work that must be done within ourselves, that no amount of sparkly, inspirational quotes we retweet can replace.

Trauma is not on the surface, and to strike the heart of it, we have to go deeper.

This is an awful and uncomfortable truth that I am coming to grips with — mainstream, watered-down body positivity can open the door and invite us in, but it’s up to us to do the real work of recovery.

And that begins not externally, but within us. Recovery is an ongoing commitment that we must choose every single day, deliberately and courageously, with as much rigorous honesty with ourselves and our support systems as humanly possible.

No matter how we curate our social media to remind us of where we’d like to be, the aspirational vision we create is never a substitute for the reality that we’re living in.

As is so often the case with eating disorders, I’m realizing, the aspiration — that “what could be” — so often becomes a compulsive, maddening drive, where we live in a future that we never arrive at.

And unless we commit ourselves to being grounded firmly in the present, even (and especially) when it’s uncomfortable to be here, we relinquish our power and fall under its spell.

My ED loved the naïveté of Insta-friendly body positivity, leveraging that illusion of safety to delude me into thinking I was in control, that I was better than all this.

And I can’t say I’m surprised by it — EDs seem to take many of the things we love (ice cream, yoga, fashion) and turn them against us in some way or another.

I don’t have all the answers, except to say this: We are works in progress, all of us, even those that you look up to. A pedestal is a lonely place to be, and loneliness, I think, is where eating disorders (and many mental illnesses) often thrive. I’ve been up here for too long, silently waiting to fall or for it to crumble underneath me — whichever came first.

As I make my descent, slowly climbing down from the pedestal and stepping into the light of my recovery, I’m going to embrace the truth that every one of us needs to remember: It is okay not to be okay.

It’s okay to not have all the answers, even if the rest of the world expects you to, even if you expect yourself to.

I am not, as some people have described me, “the face of transgender body positivity.” If I am, I don’t want to be — I don’t want any of us to be if that means we’re not allowed to be human.

I want you to scrub that image from your mind and, instead, know where I really was yesterday: Clinging onto a nutritional shake for dear life (literally — it’s kept me alive these last few months), having not showered for three days, while texting the words “I think I need help.”

So many of the advocates you look up to have had equally unromantic but profoundly brave moments just like that.

We do every single day, whether we have a selfie to prove it happened or not. (Some of us have group texts, and trust me, we are all on the Hot Mess Express together. Promise.)

If you’ve felt like you’re not allowed to “fail” (or rather, have an imperfect, messy, even fucked up recovery), I want to give you permission to live that truth, with every bit of honesty and vulnerability that you need.

It’s okay to let go of performing recovery. And trust me, I know how big of an ask that is, because that performance has been my security blanket (and the source of my denial) for so, so long.

You can surrender to the doubt, the fear, and the discomfort that comes with doing the work, and give yourself permission to be human. You can let go of that control and — I’m told, anyway — it will all be okay.

And this amazing community of recovery warriors that we’ve created with our memes, our inspirational quotes, and our crop tops? We will be right here, waiting to support you.

I can’t say that I know this for certain (hello, Day One), but I have a strong suspicion that this kind of honesty is where the real growth happens. And wherever there’s growth, I’ve found, that’s where the healing truly begins.

And that’s what we deserve, every one of us. Not the aspirational kind of healing, but the deeper stuff.

I want that for me. I want that for all of us.

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Struggling with food? Body stuff? Or just need someone to talk to? The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is a wonderful place to start. They’ve been an incredible resource for me — and I hope they’ll be for you as well.

Before you go…

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This blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

If your ‘suicide prevention’ isn’t talking about the mental health system, you’re missing the point.

As both a suicide attempt and loss survivor, I need to climb up onto my soapbox for a minute.

Suicide attempts, from a “preventative” standpoint, are rarely, if ever, as easily prevented as calling a hotline or a loved one. “Reaching out” — while incredibly important — is not the be-all-end-all of preventative strategies.

Especially considering the fact that many of us have a history of asking for help, and not getting the care that we needed.

I understand the impulse to ask, “Didn’t they know they could call me?” I asked myself that many times when I lost one of my best friends earlier this year. But this shows a very big misunderstanding of the emotional experience that many suicide attempt survivors have described.

Speaking from my own experience, when you are in a very acute amount of emotional distress, your thought process is not as linear or composed as you might assume.

The pain in that moment can eclipse everything else — past, present, future. It’s a sort of tunnel vision in which the pain becomes too great; in those moments, I’m cognitively incapable of stepping back to get the kind of perspective I might otherwise have.

This is why I always try to remind folks that suicide attempts don’t necessarily reflect a person’s overall state, as much as it does their level of pain in that particular moment.

To put it as a metaphor, suicide attempts remind me quite a bit of heart attacks, in the emotional sense.

After a certain point, the body’s resources can no longer fend off a very acute and painful event. It is so pronounced that your brain’s reaction is to scramble and do whatever is necessary to combat that pain, as immediately as possible.

We have some autonomy when we’re in that kind of pain. But so many of our actions are ultimately driven by the visceral agony we’re in. Our systems are flooded and overwhelmed, made worse by the adrenaline, the stress hormones, and for many of us, whatever substances we might be abusing — like alcohol — in a misguided attempt to cope.

But more often than not, unlike a heart attack, it’s also a pain that’s been building for weeks, months, or even years.

When we talk about “suicide prevention,” we focus too much on trying to understand the actual attempt, and not enough on accessibility of care.

We don’t do much to ensure that the pain doesn’t become that acute in the first place. We don’t focus enough on quality of life afterward. And most importantly, we rarely interrogate the systems in place that have failed to support them long before they reached this place.

It’s as though we’ve seen someone having a heart attack, but we start asking what they had for dinner the night before, or kicking ourselves for not offering them aspirin that morning.

When we talk about addressing heart disease, we’re not just trying to intervene in the mere moments before they happen — we know that isn’t enough, which seems like common sense in this context.

We talk about the whole person, and all of the ways in which their wellbeing needs to be prioritized well before they reach a crisis point.

But suicidality is still not viewed this way. We treat suicide attempts as very deliberate choices, rather than complex reactions that we know are better addressed sooner, not just puzzled over later.

The problem is, our mental health system isn’t set up to intervene at the moment when it’s needed.

Therapists and psychiatrists are still wildly inaccessible. And if you can find one that has availability and is covered by your insurance (assuming you have insurance), it often takes weeks, even months before you can actually see them.

If that clinician isn’t competent or a good fit? That’s additional weeks, months, and even years until you find someone who meets your needs. Which doesn’t include the months it takes for those treatments to start yielding real results.

I recently wrote a reported piece about a veteran with PTSD, for whom the nearest mental health provider that took his insurance was a staggering four hours away by car. And if he hadn’t had access to a vehicle? I’m not sure he would still be alive right now.

And all this assumes that mental health care isn’t so stigmatized in your community that you feel empowered to get help sooner rather than later, which is simply not the culture we live in.

This bureaucratic nightmare, combined with stigma, is why many people with mental health struggles often don’t seek help for nearly a decade (or more) after their symptoms set in, if they seek help at all.

And that’s why I bristle at the questions I so often hear after a suicide attempt. “Why didn’t they ask for help?” is the wrong question to ask. “What were they thinking?” is the wrong question to ask.

“What did WE do to help them, as a society?” is the question here. And more specifically, what were WE thinking, when we set up our mental health system to be so inaccessible?

I want to challenge us to think about what we’re doing to change this on a substantive, systemic level. This isn’t about reaching out. This is a call-to-action.

My own suicide note years ago simply read, “I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore.”

Not, “I don’t want to do this.”

Not, “I don’t have any other options.”

Not, “I don’t care about my loved ones.”

I simply said, “I just can’t.” I had reached a point at which I truly believed that I could no longer physically withstand the pain that I was in.

This led me to the emergency room and, even there, I saw people desperately trying to harm themselves by any means they could, being stopped only because they were restrained by hospital staff.

And this was not because they didn’t have “help” or “options.” It wasn’t even because they weren’t asking for support. They were in the hospital — they were surrounded by people who, in theory anyway, wanted to help them.

But their pain was that unbearable, that all-consuming.

How do you bring someone back from that? And more importantly, how do you make sure they don’t return to that place?

Beyond preventing the act of attempting suicide, I want to know how we can assure them that the life they’re returning to is one in which they are truly supported.

No one should ever get to a point of experiencing that much pain. And if they do, there should be no question of what resources are in place to guide them through recovery. But our system isn’t built to intervene sooner rather than later. Our system isn’t built to create a reliable, consistent safety net afterward.

It’s certainly not interested in establishing any real quality of life, so much as it focuses on simply preventing death.

We have a “worst case scenario” mental health system, and it’s failing. Its efficacy is a game of luck at best, a roll of the dice.

If you have insurance; access to transportation; the right combination of clinicians, inpatient or outpatient programs, and/or medications; the time to commit to recovery; the persistence to keep following up with providers; the support system around you to help you when this becomes overwhelming; and the sheer energy to navigate the system that is already overburdened — maybe, just maybe you’ll survive.

No one’s livelihood or quality of life should be left to chance.

I’m not trying to paint a bleak picture. People can and do thrive, and I’m absolutely an example of that.

But not because our system is actually successful at what it does — it’s because I am one of the lucky ones that eventually, after many years, found my way through it.

I can tell you why I attempted suicide years ago, and it’s simple: the amount of time it took to “recover” exceeded the amount of resources I had to cope.

It took eight years to get the proper diagnoses for my mental health conditions from the time I started therapy at age 17.

Which means it took eight years to find the right medications to treat my OCD, PTSD, and ADHD. And it took eight years to find a therapist that specialized in those areas — a therapist that I had to pay out-of-pocket for, because my insurance wasn’t taken by any therapists in the area who had openings for new clients.

I’m less interested in preventing the act of suicide itself, and more interested in knowing why our system is doing such a terrible job of caring for people who are struggling before, during, and after.

When we know earlier and more compassionate interventions are so critical, and when we know quality of life is exceedingly more important than simply keeping someone alive, we need to start asking why our system is set up the way it is.

We need to start demanding that something change — because our lives depend on it.

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Hey there, friend. Before you go, I want to share some resources with you.

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If you’re suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

This isn’t just a generic “here are some numbers” plug, I promise. This is a “I want you to stay, we need you here, please don’t go just yet” plea.

Are you a loved one that wants to reach out to someone you think is struggling? Incredible. You totally should.

I have a guide here for how you can offer support in concrete ways.

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One more thing: I created this resource totally for free, but your donations help keep this labor of love going.

This blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

 

Some credits & gratitude go to… Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash. Artwork by Jessica Krcmarik.

10 Ways to ‘Reach Out’ When You’re Struggling With Your Mental Health

I’m a mental health writer and advocate, and a suicide attempt survivor. I’ve told people on this blog many times, “Keep reaching out.” I’ve written multiple articles preaching the importance of vulnerability, defying stigma, and owning your struggles.

This is my whole thing, okay? This is what I do.

So when one of my closest friends died by suicide a few weeks ago, I wasn’t just shocked — I was completely gutted.

I thought there was never a question of whether or not my loved ones could reach out to me. But the very person who I’d talked to so often about mental health… didn’t call me.

Not even to say goodbye.

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The last night I spent with them.

In the weeks following their suicide, my grief took me to dark places. I soon began having my own suicidal thoughts. And even then, when it was my turn to “reach out”? Even after losing my friend? I began to withdraw, too.

I watched, with painful awareness, as I did much of what my friend seemed to do leading up to their suicide. I wrote myself off as a burden. I isolated myself. I got lost in my own head. And despite knowing the danger of where I found myself, I said nothing.

After an especially scary night, I realized something: No one ever explained to me how to ask for help. No one told me what “reaching out” even meant.

As my grief began to snowball, I hesitated to tell anyone I was struggling, largely because I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what to ask for, and without knowing what to ask for, it felt too complicated and futile to ask.

“Why didn’t they tell me?” is such a common refrain when we talk about suicide or mental health challenges in general. It’s easy to make this remark, because “tell someone” seems like a simple request. But in truth, it’s vague at best.

“Reaching out” is this skill we’re somehow expected to know, yet it’s never taught and rarely modeled for us.

It’s this vague, hopeful sentiment that people throw around, without ever really defining it. What are we asking people to do or say? It’s not exactly clear.

So I want to get more specific. We need to be more specific.

I don’t know if an article like this could’ve saved my friend. But what I do know is that we need to normalize asking for help and talk about what that might look like, rather than pretending it’s a simple and intuitive thing to do.

Maybe then, we can reach people sooner. We can meet them more compassionately. And we can find better ways to support them.

So if you’re struggling but you don’t know what to say? I get it.

Let’s talk about it.

1. “I’m (depressed/anxious/suicidal). I’m not sure what to ask for, but I don’t want to be alone right now.”

Sometimes we don’t know exactly what we need, or we’re unsure of what someone can offer. That’s okay; that shouldn’t discourage us from reaching out. It’s perfectly fine if you have no idea what you need or want — especially when all you can think about is how much you’re hurting.

Let someone know how you’re feeling. You might be surprised by the ways they offer to support you. And if they aren’t helpful? Keep asking until you find someone who is, or seek out a hotline (I know it can be weird to talk to a stranger, but there are some awesome hotlines out there).

2. “I’m struggling with my mental health and what I’ve been trying isn’t working. Can we (meet up/Skype/etc) on (date) and come up with a better plan?”

Feeling helpless or exhausted is part and parcel for dealing with a broken mental health system. But a team approach can make it a little more manageable. Sometimes we need a cheerleader/researcher that helps us explore our options, especially when we’re having trouble believing that we have any.

One thing you’ll also notice is that, for almost everything on this list, I suggest setting a time.

This is important for a couple reasons. The first being that it helps the person you’re talking to understand the urgency behind your ask. It can also be helpful to know that there’s an event in the near future when you can expect to receive some support. This can help us hang in there when things get bleak.

3. “I don’t feel safe by myself right now. Can you stay on the phone with me/come over until I calm down?”

I know this is a hard one to say. Because we often fear telling someone just how much we’re struggling, and admitting that we don’t feel safe? That’s a biggie. Obviously you can replace the word “safe” if it’s not working for you, but I always encourage people to be direct, because it’s the surest route to getting exactly what we need.

Asking someone to be present might feel especially vulnerable. It might not even feel like, in the moment, it’ll make that much of a difference. But you’re more likely to feel better with support than without any.

And remember, from everything we know about mental illness, depression is more likely to be a liar than a truth-teller (I talk about that a bunch in this blog post).

4. “I’m in a bad place, but I’m not ready to talk about it. Can you help me distract myself?”

You do not have to talk about what’s bothering you if you’re not ready.

Opening up a whole can of worms might not be the safest or best thing for you in that particular moment. And guess what? You can still reach out for help.

Sometimes we just need someone to shoot the shit with, so we aren’t stuck in our heads, making ourselves a little crazy. This is a valid and healthy thing to ask for! And it’s a subtle way of making folks aware that you’re having a rough time, without needing to go into detail.

The sooner the folks around you are aware that you’re having a hard time, the quicker they can show up to help you through it.

Early interventions are so critical for our mental health. In other words: Don’t wait for your whole basement to flood before you fix a leaky pipe — fix the pipe when you notice the problem has started.

5. “Can you check in with me (on date/every day), just to make sure I’m alright?”

I cannot say it enough — do not underestimate the value of asking for a check-in. I am such a huge fan of this as a coping skill, especially because it can be super helpful for everyone involved.

If you take nothing else away from this article, it should be this: Please ask people to check in with you. It’s such a small thing to ask for in the age of texting, but it can help us stay connected, which is freaking critical for our mental health.

(If you’ve played The Sims before, remember the social bar? That’s you. You need to fill it. Humans need to connect with other humans. It’s not just about wanting to, it’s that we actually require it to survive.)

And this can happen in so many smart ways. A few of my favorites:

  • “I haven’t been doing well. Can you text me every morning to make sure I’m okay? It would really help me.”
  • “Hey friend. I’ve been kind of sad lately — do you maybe want to Snapchat/send selfies to each other before bed every night, just to check in? It’d be nice to see your face.”
  • “I’m in a funk right now. Do you want to be self-care buddies? Like text each other once a day something that we did to care for ourselves?”
  • “I’ve been isolating myself a little lately. Can you check in with me every so often, just to make sure I didn’t fall off the face of the earth?”

Add emojis wherever fitting if you want it to feel more casual (but really, you don’t need to, there’s nothing wrong with asking for what you need!).

Asking for people to check in with you when you’re struggling is just like buckling your seatbelt when you get in a car. It’s just one extra safety measure in case things get rough.

Both can actually save lives, too. Consider this a PSA.

6. “I’m having a hard time taking care of myself. I need extra support right now around (task). Can you help?”

Maybe you need help getting to an appointment or the grocery store. Maybe you need a cheerleader to make sure you took your meds, or someone to send a selfie to to prove you got out of bed that morning. Are your dishes piling up in the sink? Do you need a study buddy? It doesn’t hurt to ask for support around tasks like these.

Sometimes these things add up when we’re struggling with our mental health. But we forget that it’s okay to ask for a hand, especially at those times when it could really make a difference.

Being an adult is already challenging. If you’re going through a rough time? It’s even harder. We all hit a point when we need some extra support. Don’t be afraid to let folks know directly how they could support you.

7. “I’ve been feeling so low. Can you remind me about what I mean to you or share a favorite memory? It would really help me.”

I used to think that asking for something like this meant I was “fishing for compliments.” And what a lousy way of looking at it…

Sometimes we need reminders that we matter! Sometimes we can’t recall the good times, and need someone to help us remember them. This is true of every single human being on the planet.

It’s such a simple request, too. If you’re the kind of person that feels nervous about making a big ask (again, I’d encourage you to challenge that assumption — it’s okay to ask for help!), this can be a small step in the right direction.

8. “I’m struggling right now and I’m afraid I’m reaching my limit. Can I give you a call tonight?”

To be honest, it wasn’t until my friend died that I finally found these words in particular.

Up until that point, I’d never been sure exactly how to raise the alarm. You know, that moment when you’re not at the end of your rope, but you’re getting there? It’s a crucial moment.

Yes, you can and you absolutely should reach out then, even if you aren’t sure if it might make a difference (spoiler alert, people might actually surprise you). I think about how much pain I could’ve avoided if I’d saw that moment for the opportunity it really was.

Listen to that little voice in the back of your mind, the one that’s trying to tell you that you’re a little too close to the edge for comfort. Listen to that nagging feeling that tells you you’re in over your head. That’s your survival instinct — and it’s an instinct you should trust.

9. “I know we don’t talk much, but I’m going through a tough time and I feel like you’re someone I can trust. Are you free to talk (day/time)?”

I wanted to include this because I realize that not all of us have people we’re close to that we confide in.

When I was a teenager, everything changed for me when I reached out to a teacher at my high school that I barely knew. She had always been incredibly kind to me, and I had a gut feeling that she would “get it.” And she did!

To this day, I still believe that she saved my life at a time when I had no one else to turn to. She connected me with a social worker, who was then able to help me access the resources I needed to recover.

While it’s important to be respectful of people’s capacities and boundaries (and be prepared, of course, if someone can’t be there for you or isn’t helpful — it’s not personal!), you might be surprised by the responses that you get.

10. “I’m suicidal. I need help right now.”

Raise the alarm.

Raise the damn alarm, friends, and be as direct as you need to be. An emergency is an emergency, whether it’s a heart attack or a self-harm risk. Harm to you in any form is reason enough to ask for help.

I promise you, there’s someone in this world — an old friend or a future one, a family member, a therapist, even a volunteer on a hotline — who wants you to stay.

Find that person (or people), even if it takes time. Even if you have to keep asking.

Give people the chance to help you. It’s a chance that my friend deserved, and it’s a chance that you deserve.

(And if all else fails, I have this resource about going to the emergency room when you’re suicidal. I’ve personally been hospitalized twice, and while it’s not a ritzy vacation, it’s the reason I’m here today.)

Pick something from this list. Write it down, even if it’s on your hand or a sticky note. Reach out — because now you know how.

Hell, bookmark this article while you’re at it. I know I’m going to, because there are times when I need this advice, too.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, let me remind you that it’s never too soon or too late to let someone know.

And it’s never, ever too heavy, too messy, or too much to ask — even if you asked fifty times the day before.

I’d have rather had my friend “bother me” every day for the rest of my life than have to lose them forever. Their life was that precious.

And yes, so is yours.

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Hey there, friend. Before you go, I want to share some resources with you.

If you’re suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

You can also go to the emergency room. If you’re not sure if you should or how to prepare for something like that, I’ve got an article for that, too.

This isn’t just a generic “here are some numbers” plug, this is a “I want you to stay, we need you here, please don’t go just yet” plea.

 

Screenshot 2018-03-03 at 10.35.49 AMAnd lastly…

There’s a memorial fundraiser in honor of my dear friend, Cris Alvaro. The funds raised will go to organizations that support trans mental health and racial justice.

This article is, of course, dedicated to them.

Topher, you’re still the brightest star in my galaxy. We couldn’t keep you safe. But I will never stop fighting for a world that could have.

 

Feature photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash.

15 Mental Health Resolutions For The New Year

2017 was pretty momentous, as far as mental health and recovery goes.

I was finally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which was one of the most important realizations I’ve ever had. It’s also the year I finally said goodbye to alcohol and hello to online therapy (both A+ decisions). As far as personal growth goes, it was kind of a banner year for me.

It wasn’t easy, though. 2017 was also an important reminder that healing takes hard work. The combination of political and personal turmoil landed me in the hospital last January, and a series of unchecked compulsions finally led me to seek professional help for my OCD after it tore through my life like a relentless tornado.

That’s because, my dear internet pals, healing isn’t linear. When you think you’ve got a plan in place, the universe often laughs in response.

So why make resolutions at all? Well, I believe it’s powerful to begin a new year by saying, “I’m choosing me.” 

Every year for the past few years, I’ve shared my resolutions with the internet with the hopes of inspiring folks to choose themselves, and to be thoughtful about how they’ll care for themselves in the new year.

These resolutions are affirming our right to commit to and prioritize our wholeness; they’re the map that reminds us that to give to others, we have to first nourish ourselves.

These are fifteen resolutions that I have for 2018. I hope that you’ll steal them, throw them up on your vision board, tattoo them on your body, whatever — if you feel inspired, I hope you’ll carry them with you as you navigate the new year.

1. I will stop looking for permission to be happy.

I’ve noticed that I shy away from things that make me happy in favor of the things that make… literally everyone but me happy. I’m a people-pleaser by nature, but in 2018, I want to start unapologetically seeking out things that bring me joy, even if I’m the only one enjoying it.

2. I’ll think twice before I do something out of a sense of obligation.

I have a very difficult time saying “no,” especially as someone with a strong sense of empathy and loyalty. In the new year, though, I want to reconsider just how often I’m doing things because I feel obligated to — especially from people who could be taking advantage of my generosity.

3. I’ll focus less on what my life “should” look like.

Instead of living a life that looks good on paper, 2018 is going to be the year that I focus on self-reflection and building a life that makes me happy, regardless of how it compares to anybody else. Because sure, there are people in their late twenties that are traveling the world or working themselves to the point of exhaustion. But neither of those things actually appeal to me — so why should I measure myself against them?

4. I’ll commit five minutes to doing things that make me anxious.

I’m a chronic procrastinator. One of the antidotes I’ve read about is setting aside five minutes to Do The Thing, and giving yourself permission to stop after that if you don’t want to continue. Why? Because getting started is the difficult part, and it’s easier to commit to doing something for five minutes than trying to tackle the entire task. So this coming year? I’m going to do my best to commit five minutes to the stuff I’m dreading.

5. I’ll embrace being “too much.”

I’ve worried a lot about loving too hard or having too many feelings, or otherwise being “too much” for people. But what I’m realizing is that my intensity and depth of emotion are an intrinsic part of who I am. It’s a part of me that doesn’t need to change.

6. I’ll set boundaries even if it’s difficult for me or the other person involved.

I’m a pushover. I’ll admit it. When people demand my time or energy, I often cave immediately. And when I try to set limits, the faintest sign of disappointment or resentment will send me into a tailspin. But this next year, I’m setting boundaries and sticking to them. My heart is worthy of protection.

7. I’ll savor the time I spend alone.

This past year, I talked about how difficult I found it to be alone. But more recently, I’ve started to really enjoy it. In the new year, I want to take myself on more dates, embrace long walks for daydreaming, and give myself the space and time to reflect without interruption.

8. I’ll try to ruminate less on what I could be doing and enjoy what I’m actually doing.

How often do I worry about what I could or should be doing instead of just being present? Easier said than done, but rather than feeling guilty for how many hours of Netflix I’ve watched, I want to get in the habit of simply asking myself, “Is there something wrong with what I’m doing now?” And if there isn’t, maybe I can just freaking enjoy it for once.

9. I’ll let myself tap out if I feel like I can’t support someone emotionally.

There are people I’d literally fall onto a sword for. That doesn’t mean that I should, though. And if I find myself depleted, I want to make sure I’m taking care of myself instead of burning out.

10. I’ll give myself permission to ask “ridiculous” questions.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how often I don’t understand something or pretend to know what people are talking about, just because I’m afraid of looking uncool or clueless. But what would happen if I just asked more questions? In 2018, I guess I’m going to find out.

11. I’ll practice naming exactly what I need from the people that I love.

I’m pretty sure this has been a resolution for me three years in a row now. But that’s because it’s so, so important. I want to keep practicing being direct when I need support. It’s the best way for folks to know what to offer me when I’m struggling.

12. I’ll curate my social media more intentionally.

I’ve started spending most of my online time on Instagram now. Why? Because I (purposefully) follow accounts that are positive and affirming, so it’s basically my only safe haven at this point. I highly recommend being thoughtful about who you follow and what you expose yourself to. It’s important to be informed, but it’s also important to take care of your mental health, too. (I talk a bit more about this in this blog.) Next year, I want to continue curating all of my social media accounts to be more balanced.

13. I’ll pause sometimes and make sure I’m doing what I actually want to be doing.

How often did I go along with someone else’s plan just because they were more assertive than me? How frequently did I default just because it was easier to? While it’s totally fine to go with the flow, every so often, I want to check in with myself and make sure I’m spending my time in ways that feel fulfilling for me, too.

14. I’ll ask the folks I care about what makes them feel loved.

I want to get in the habit of asking the people that I love what makes them feel appreciated. It’s different for everyone, right? Some people want to be showered with encouraging words. Some folks want physical touch or a thoughtful gift. So why not ask the people that are meaningful to me what makes them feel cared for?

15. I’ll resist letting shame control me.

Remember when I mentioned being diagnosed with OCD earlier? It took this long because I was so ashamed of my intrusive thoughts and bizarre rituals that I kept it to myself. Not anymore, though. This next year, I’m not going to let shame discourage me from getting the support I need. Often times, the things that make us feel like monsters or weirdos are actually common and very human experiences. No more shame.

So, readers, here’s to a brand new year.

After what was a difficult year for many of us, I hope these resolutions inspire you to invest more deeply in your own mental health and happiness. A year of honesty, authenticity, and self-care — in other words, the year that each and every one of us deserves.

You’ve got this!

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Appreciate the blog? Please consider becoming a patron! A dollar a month might seem small, but it helps keep this labor of love going.

Need a therapist? If you follow this nifty link, you can get $50 off your first month of therapy with Talkspace. Not a bad deal! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Read more about online therapy with Talkspace here.

Looking for some extra resources to make 2018 a better year?

I’ve got a few to recommend!

If you need to get organized: ADHD Survival Guide: How I Stopped Procrastinating and Got My Sh!t Together

If you’re thinking of getting some extra support: 7 Signs That Online Therapy Might Be Right For You

If you’re looking to incorporate more self-care into your life: 5 Awesome, Immediate Self-Care Resources For When You Feel Like Actual Garbage

Happy New Year!

Photo by Inna Lesyk on Unsplash

For The Mentally Ill Folks Who Didn’t Think They’d Make It This Year

The year had only just begun when I heard my psychiatrist, his voice quiet on the other end of the phone, telling me to go to the emergency room. “Will you go?” he asked me.

And I remember in that moment feeling like my cells were crawling and clawing in my body. The mere state of “being” was painful. I wanted to ask that doctor if he knew what he was asking me to do. How could he ask me to stay when everything hurt this much?

Last January, I couldn’t think of one good reason not to jump in front of the next train.

It’s December.

There were a million reasons not to.

Here’s what I would have missed: Trying my first veggie burger at Burger King. Learning I had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Eating sushi for the first time. Getting the first job that I’ve ever loved. Finding the best therapist I’ve ever had. Adopting a cat named Pancake that makes my heart so much fuller. Discovering how much I love yoga and learning more about astrology.

Buying the best pair of boots I’ve ever owned. Listening to Lorde’s best album and witnessing Kesha’s… everything.

Holding a dear friend’s hand while they waited for an ambulance. Crying with my partner when their father died. Learning a best friend’s new name. Trying out the word “no” for the first time. Looking in the mirror at my body and feeling gender euphoria for the first time. Figuring out (finally) that I actually am an introvert. Remembering what it feels like to believe in magic (and making a little magic of my own).

All the times I picked up the phone when someone needed me. All the times I said the right thing to someone that needed to hear it. All the times my being here made someone else feel like they should stay. All the times I said “I love you” and had the honor of hearing back, “I love you, too.”

All of the many, many moments this year when I woke up and thought, “I’m so glad I’m still here.”

It wasn’t easy. I relapsed spectacularly. I had to leave (what I thought was) my dream job. I almost lost my apartment along with it, and came within inch of losing everything else. I had to watch Trump celebrate his inauguration on a flickering screen in a psych ward, next to a poster from 1995 with “stress-busting” tips like, “Stop worrying so much.”

I was in that hospital for a week. In the last two days, it rained so hard that my ceiling leaked, drenching my group therapy handouts on the shelf below. You know, the handouts that were supposed to teach me how to be well again. And for a moment, I remember being flustered, thinking that maybe I should just throw them away.

I laid them out carefully to dry.

When I was discharged, I brought them home with me. And I started to rebuild, day by day.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say it wasn’t easy for you this year, either. I won’t presume to know why and I won’t tell you how to feel. But from one survivor to another, there were a couple things I wanted to shout out into the big internet void, hoping maybe the right person will read them.

Because you and I? We got through it. And the mere act of being here is a tremendous thing.

1. You are remarkably strong.

How do I know that? I guess I don’t exactly. But I have a hunch. Because it takes real strength to keep yourself alive, especially when your brain isn’t cooperating. You’ve had years now to throw in the towel, and yet, here we both are.

And yes, I suspect there were setbacks and close calls and tantrums, even, and all of that is valid. There was rage and grief, because if life is anything, it’s definitely not fair. I don’t doubt that it took everything in you, maybe even things you aren’t proud of, to keep going. And looking at where you are now, you may feel scared that you don’t have what it takes to rebuild.

But you’re here. Holy shit. You’re still here. And of all the jobs you have, staying alive is the most important one. You had the guts and resilience it took to survive this year. That was you.

Sometimes it was recklessly running into battle because, fuck it, what do I have to lose? Sometimes it was having an impulse, and choosing the less destructive one instead. And sometimes it was swallowing the pills you didn’t want to take, dragging yourself out of the bed you didn’t want to leave, or slowly sipping that nutritional shake to make sure your body had something, anything to sustain itself.

Whatever you had to do, you did it. And you should be so, so proud of that.

2. You belong here.

There have been more moments than I can count when I wondered if I ever should’ve been born. If there was really a place for me in this world. If someone like me could exist someplace like this.

That’s been an open wound from the moment I realized I wasn’t like most people (though, to be truthful, I have to wonder if there was ever a time I didn’t feel that way). I was queer, I was transgender, I was traumatized, I was sensitive, and by most accounts, I was crazy.

I certainly wasn’t the kid my parents were expecting. And I was never going to be the kind of person this world was built for.

I was lucky to find people, though, who taught me that while this world wasn’t built for us, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for us here.

And we might be a little rough around the edges. We might be a little wild, a little unsteady, and a little weird. But we find ways to grow no matter where we’re planted. Some of us make art, create zines, speak in poems. Some of us throw our bodies on the line for shit that matters. We speak truth to power, we stare down our fears and our demons, we exist despite everything that tells us we should not.

We show up for one another. We take up space. And we keep trying, knowing that there are kids like us growing up in the world that are going to need us to look up to.

We keep trying for them, the way we wished someone had been there for us.

…one of them was probably born, just now. (Let’s hope they find themselves a little faster than it took for us to find ourselves.)

This is the legacy we’re here to build, the legacy we’ll someday hand down to them.

3. Please be gentle with yourself.

Be gentle. Be soft.

There is an inner child within all of us, I think. Someone who’s doing their best in a scary world they were never prepared to enter. Someone who, every day, is hanging on tight as life does what it does best — changes.

And just when we think it’s settled, it changes some more. Sometimes for the best, but often for the hell of it, and almost never in the ways that we expect.

You are allowed to make mistakes. You are allowed to be messy, emotional, unsure. You are allowed to be afraid (in fact, I’d be surprised if you weren’t). And being human in all of these ways? That doesn’t make you “too much,” no matter what anyone else says.

You deserve compassion. You deserve patience, understanding. You deserve all the space and support you require to grow.

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It’s easy to ruminate on what you wish you’d done, or the ways in which you disappointed yourself or someone else. That’s a feeling I know all too well; I think everyone, especially folks with mental health struggles, knows how that feels (which isn’t exactly comforting, but hey, at least you’re in good company).

I hope that when you find yourself going there, you remember what I’m telling you now: You are worthy of kindness and care. And whenever you can, I hope you’ll give yourself permission to receive it.

4. You aren’t alone.

I don’t say this to you as an empty platitude or promise. I say this because it’s the truth.

Mental illness and trauma can so easily cut us off from our connection to the outside world, making everything and everyone feel like it’s a million miles away.

But feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. And I can almost guarantee you that someone out there has walked in those same shoes before — or at least wears the same size.

This year, I was finally diagnosed with “pure obsessional,” a very difficult form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I spent a lot of years with painful and confusing obsessions that I couldn’t control — and it convinced me that I was some kind of monster, the sort of monster that no one could ever understand.

When I got my diagnosis, a whole new world slowly opened up to me. I started to learn just how many people in the world were a lot like me, even people that I knew and talked to every day.

Shame and stigma are like a fog sometimes. We can see ourselves and our struggles so clearly, but it’s difficult to see anybody else. But that doesn’t mean other folks aren’t out there.

And if you keep searching, keep reaching out, the figures in the distance will become clearer. There is someone that’s been waiting for your story.

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I know it’s terrifying to venture out into that fog, not knowing who’s out there. I know it’s scary to be vulnerable, to ask for help, or to share a piece of yourself with someone else. More than once, I’ve wished I could gather up the words I just said and shove them all back into my mouth.

But then someone says those words — “I thought I was the only one,” “You feel that way, too?” or my personal favorite, “YES!” with a bunch of frantic hand motions or snapping — and it suddenly feels worth it. Or at the very least, it gives us just enough courage to keep venturing out.

So here’s to this year and everything it took for us to survive it.

And the next one, too, whatever it may bring. Here’s to another year of stumbling through the fog. Here’s to all the people who waved their flashlights, giving us something to follow; here’s to all the shoulders we cried on, and the right words that came at the right time.

For what it’s worth — and I really hope it’s worth something — some very tender boy in California (hello, that’s me!) sends his love. You survived. And I, for one, am so glad that you did.

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You can care about social justice and care about your own happiness, too.

It feels strange to write a headline like this.

On the one hand, maybe it should be obvious — we all deserve to have joy, pursue meaningful connections and experiences, and invest in our own mental health. But somewhere along the way, I think I forgot what it meant to be happy just for the sake of it. And based on the burnout I’ve seen, I don’t think I’m the only one.

I was talking to my online therapist recently about how (yet again) a post about sexual assault on my Facebook feed had triggered my obsessive-compulsive disorder. When he gently suggested I take a deeper look at my social media usage, the conversation that ensued drudged up a lot of intense realizations about how I view happiness and self-care.

Namely, that I wasn’t giving myself permission to unplug, because I viewed that as betraying my values.

I realized through this process that very rarely do I do much of anything just for my own happiness. Blogging was an opportunity to support folks in my community. Self-care was a chance to “fix” my mental health so I could do more work. Most of my correspondences online had become me trying to support folks through crises or trauma. My social media was an endless stream of injustice and calls to action.

Every single thing that I did — what I read, what I watched, what I said, what I wrote — became an endless pursuit of doing better, doing more. 

If it wasn’t in service of other people, it simply didn’t have much value, and I didn’t prioritize it.

Last year, I noticed a number of things about myself. For one, I was lonely and burnt out. When I wasn’t working my day job at Everyday Feminism (which involved deep dives into the trauma of marginalized folks), I was either consumed by the news cycle, writing about social issues, opening my own wounds to educate others, or working really f*cking hard to support other folks in the community who were burning out for all the same reasons.

For a while, it was a running joke that I didn’t know how to have fun. “What’s fun?” I used to laugh.

Because when you understand the full extent of injustice in a system like this, fun can feel selfish, trivial, useless. It never seemed important enough. Meanwhile, I bounced in and out of intensive psychiatric programs, with my clinicians shouting after me, “Wait! Slow down? Maybe take more time?”

Even as I write this, I’m riddled with guilt. How many folks get the privilege of uplifting folks in their community on this kind of scale? How many folks get the chance to devote themselves to world-changing work? And most importantly, as an editor, I’ve had the privilege of holding space for so many experiences, stories, traumas… how could I take that for granted?

To be clear, I’ve found so much joy, meaning, and fulfillment in the work. But I have to wonder: When did I decide that my own happiness and wholeness — just for the sake of it, and just for myself — was too self-involved? When did I decide that taking care of myself was not just selfish, but unnecessary?

I’ve shared the “self-care isn’t selfish” memes countless times, and yet here I am, struggling to give myself permission to be happy.

After my second psychiatric hospitalization in the beginning of 2017, it became clear that my time working at Everyday Feminism was done. Walking away from that work was gut-wrenching. I had a lot of late night conversations with my partner, wondering how I could’ve “ruined” an opportunity like that.

Rather than listening to my body — which had been telling me for months, unequivocally, that the work wasn’t sustainable — I spiraled. I began questioning my dedication, questioning my investment, questioning my values. What kind of person has an opportunity to do such important work and, instead, loses their mind, drinks to excess, winds up institutionalized, and then walks away?

For a long time, I thought that my breakdown was my own fault, some kind of indication that I was ungrateful or selfish or incompetent, or that I wasn’t committed enough to my activism.

Here I had an opportunity to make an impact and I’d come undone. It was a dedication issue, I thought, I’m just not trying hard enough.

There’s a larger conversation to be had about the ways in which we fail to support folks doing this work. Structurally, so much social justice activism in underfunded, underpaid. And things like call-out culture can skirt the line, at times, between being necessary vehicles for accountability and being outright dehumanizing. This is all made worse with harassment and doxxing for those of us who primarily do this work online.

All of that makes it challenging to do this work and remain whole, to say the least.

But it also comes down to a very prevalent idea: that we must dedicate ourselves to this work at all times, and that joy is an afterthought, certainly not a priority.

There’s a level of perfectionism in the work that can be toxic. The reality is, there will always be more to do. There will always be more to read. There will always be more pain, more work, more need. And caring deeply about everything and everyone, you can get caught up in this unhealthy cycle of prioritizing everyone else at the expense of yourself.

This year it finally reached a point where I felt like digital activism was the only thing I really knew how to do. It eclipsed my entire identity, my entire self.

And when you determine that your only value is in what you can provide other people, you lose yourself.

After my hospitalization, I had to begin rebuilding my life. I started to wonder who I was in the absence of the work. What did I like? What did I enjoy? What interested me, excited me, energized me?

I have to wonder, how many of us working towards social justice don’t actually have answers to those questions outside of activism? Because my answers before would’ve all circled back to one thing: helping people. But if everything I do is for someone else, it can only be sustained for so long.

So I changed careers and found an unexpected joy in telling a different kind of story. I blogged when I felt called to, about what felt meaningful in the moment, instead of repeatedly opening my own wounds every week. I let myself blog about things that made me happy, too. I enlisted some help in managing my growing Facebook community, and gave myself permission to unplug.

And I started doing a heck of a lot of therapy. Because when we confuse total self-sacrifice for social justice, that’s a wound we immediately need to tend to.

I’ve started going outside. Drinking coffee. Laughing. Reading books. Letting myself get lost in articles about interior design and street style. I got a cat (he’s perfect). I meditate sometimes. I’ve started picking up the phone and calling friends. I completely overhauled my social media (I’ll write about how next week, if you’re wondering) to be a lot less triggering.

Through this process, I’ve realized that by abandoning my own happiness, I had also destroyed my capacity to meaningfully support others.

The reality is, social justice isn’t an all-or-nothing equation of either being committed or complicit, informed or uninformed. It’s all a process, and one that we can invest in while also investing in ourselves.

And if there’s no room for joy? It simply isn’t just. We all deserve to be well, to be whole. And if we don’t protect our own heart when we do this work, we deny ourselves the very thing we’re fighting for.

There are very good reasons to be angry. There are very good reasons to be furious, devastated, even unhinged in light of the world that we live in. But that makes it all the more pertinent, I think, to take care of ourselves, and to ensure that we’re prioritizing joy.

We can’t let injustice consume us to the point where we’ve lost everything that makes life meaningful and worth living.

Being joyful in the face of injustice is not a betrayal to the movement or to those who are struggling. It’s a loyalty to yourself, affirming your right — and by extension, everyone’s right — to wholeness.

Human beings need connection, fulfillment, and joy. So I ask you very sincerely: When’s the last time you gave that to yourself?

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