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Out of Body, Out of Mind

Opinion | April 23, 2018

*Content Warning: mentions of disordered eating, panic disorder

I have three pairs of the same style of jeans. The first pair I wore ambling into freshman year—these jeans saw me through homesickness and too many slices of Carm apple pie and desperate attempts to make friends. The second pair I bought after drastically losing weight while I was diagnosed with panic disorder my sophomore year. The third pair I wear now, the product of over a year of being on anti-depressants. They all sit next to one another in my top dresser drawer, crammed in amongst socks and underwear and sweatpants. I can’t seem to give any of them away.

Food and my mental illness have been connected from the very beginning. I had my first panic attack at Posto in Davis in the midst of enjoying a meal that my visiting father had paid for, the type of upscale Italian food I often craved but would never seek out myself. I had been looking forward to the meal—and my dad’s visit—for weeks, but suddenly, after the last bites of bruschetta had been cleared away, my heart started racing, the world began spinning, and my throat seemed to close in on itself. “I feel really weird,” I told my dad, not knowing how else to describe it. A bowl of spaghetti carbonara was deposited gracefully in front of me, the raw egg quivering on top, and suddenly I couldn’t even bear to look at it. I boxed it up and took the whole thing home.

I am fortunate and privileged to have never experienced anxiety or panic before I turned 20 (an age that, as extensive WebMD-ing has told me, is about the time when many mental illnesses rear their heads). I didn’t even know at the time that what had happened was a panic attack: I chalked it up to dehydration and over-caffeination. I sent my dad back to his hotel and dug into the carbonara once safely back at my Wren suite. But when I sat down at my desk the next morning to study for my history midterm and my heart stuttered and sped up, and the walls of my room started caving in, I knew something was really wrong.

The week that followed was one of doctor’s visits, EKGs, sleepless nights, body-wracking sobs, and, finally, an appointment at mental health services. In a moment of sick irony, I sat down in the lobby of CMHS and checked off boxes indicating I was “happy,” “loved my friends,” had “a great home life,” and was also “spontaneously weeping.” Through hysterical tears, I struggled to communicate to my therapist how bizarre it was to feel that my body had hijacked me, that everyone who knows me well would describe me as “even-keeled,” how I had never turned down seconds at dinner and now couldn’t even finish firsts, how my heart was always beating at a rate that felt like I was poised on the edge of a cliff and anticipating the moment I would be pushed off. The onset of my panic disorder meant a lot of changes in my life. I could barely make it through a class period without sweating and shaking and thinking about every way I could exit the room without drawing attention to myself. I didn’t go out on weekends and started avoiding seeing people other than my suitemates. I felt constantly off-balance, out of whack, and like my vision was distorted or fuzzy. I was convinced I had a brain tumor. And I stopped eating.

It wasn’t that I wanted to stop eating. At first, it was mostly that I wanted to avoid dining halls. Suddenly Carm seemed inexplicably daunting, with its fluorescent lighting and crush of people and rows of food that made my disorientation and disassociation somehow worse. My mom came up to visit me with batches of homemade food that my roommate and I ate in our room during dinner time, allowing me to leave my dorm as little as possible. But quickly, my perpetual state of panic and anxiety prevented me from being able to even stand the sight of food, much less eat it. No matter what I put on my plate—pasta, French fries, ice cream, pizza, falafel—I had as much desire to eat it as I did a cup of dirt. Every bite seemed to increase this twisting feeling in my gut, and I spent more time organizing my plates to be pleasing to the eye than I did eating anything. I spent a lot of lunches feeling my roommate’s eyes nervously on me as she watched me slide my fork from one end of the plate to another without bringing it to my mouth. One day, when I hadn’t eaten anything more than an apple for lunch, I spoke to a professor after class about an extension I received on my exam and she stopped me to ask if I was okay. “You look really sick,” she told me, adding she hoped I wasn’t catching the flu.

When I first stepped on a scale, two weeks after my first panic attack, the numbers swam in front of me without really processing. The amount I had lost in a mere 14 days told me how ill I really was. But it told others, who didn’t really know what was going on with me, that they suddenly had permission to comment on my body. “You lost a lot of weight, right? Good for you,” someone told me at a birthday party, one of my first social appearances since my diagnosis. I wanted to place their hand on my chest and have them feel my heart rate. “How’d you get so skinny? Tell me your secret,” a relative asked me at a family gathering. “Panic attacks and an inability to eat,” I responded. She laughed at my silly joke.

And what made me so distressed, what I thought about every time I looked in the mirror and when all of my clothes suddenly no longer fit, was how much I liked the way I looked. I had been trying to lose weight for a year in the lazy, noncommittal way that a lot of women do when their pants size is bigger than what’s in Vogue at the moment. But suddenly, the weight had just fallen off of me. Everything else in my life was coming apart: my schoolwork, my health, my center of being. But for the first time in a while, clothing fit me the way I wanted it to, my jawline was defined, I could sense people in my classes who hadn’t given me a second glance suddenly turning my way. No one seemed to notice how drastic the change was, and in how short a period of time.

The decision to go on anti-depressants was a hard one for me. I struggled to allow myself to admit that my panic disorder wasn’t something that I could fix with determination and willpower, like a group project being rescued from disaster in the eleventh hour. That it wasn’t normal to sit in Central Park during my lunch break and put my glasses on and off, trying to decide if my vision was distorted due to my failing eyesight or my dysfunctional fight-or-flight response. That I didn’t have to accept defeat to my own body, become subjugated to my own mind. That I didn’t have to feel this bad.

It was the best decision I ever made. But my mental illness has always had very physical consequences and achieving a better balance in my mental health came at a price. Over the year since I have been on medication, my heart rate has slowed, the crying has stopped, the world has righted itself, and sometimes the only reminder of my illness is the little white pill I swallow every morning. But this year my waistline has also expanded, my post-panic disorder clothes have been replaced by my freshman year wardrobe, and then exchanged again for a new set of clothes when those no longer fit. I gave up dessert. I exercised regularly for the first time in over a year. I spent a summer eating (mostly) vegan. But no matter what I tried, my weight continued to climb. I felt out of control of my body again, but in an entirely different way. I bought that third pair of jeans.

Sometimes I find myself looking back on pictures from my sophomore year and thinking perversely to myself how good I looked then. Forgetting how miserable I felt. Forgetting the cost of those turning heads, or those new profile pictures. Only remembering what it felt like to look in the mirror and like what I saw, to go to my closet and be able to wear anything I wanted, to not feel the urge to click “delete” on every photo taken of me since I’ve gone on medication. My mental and physical health have seemed perpetually out of sync the past few years, and one or the other is always teetering on the edge of breaking down again, full but fragile, like that egg yolk sitting on my carbonara.

Achieving a good state of mental health requires work for everyone, especially those diagnosed with a mental illness. And the price you pay for achieving that equilibrium is different for different people. For me, it’s meant never knowing what size I am. It means downloading calorie counting apps and then deleting them. It means ordering a scale on Amazon but not telling your housemates out of shame that you even care about your weight at all. But it also means remembering how tears pricked at the back of my eyes every time someone told me how skinny I had gotten. It means finding new delight in the bright bites of food that I savor, now that I can eat happily and easily again. It means remembering that having three pairs of the same jeans is a small price to pay for being able to get on the T without thinking about how I would escape if a panic attack came on. Those jeans are a small price to pay for getting my life back.