What Changed My Mind About Mental Illness

What Changed My Mind About Mental Illness

Padded rooms. Drooling mouths. Heads banging on walls. These are the images that come to mind when someone mentions mental disorders. We can’t help replaying Ken Kesey’s portrayal of life in a mental asylum in our heads. And who can blame us? Mental disorders are greatly misunderstood by our society. I’d like to shed some like on mental disorders by telling my story. 

Throughout my short life, I have had two different mental illnesses both of which happen to fall into the emotional disorder category. My struggles with these disorders really opened my eyes to the world of mental health. It helped me look past the name of the disorder and look at the person suffering from it. Just like every person is different, every person’s disorder is different, which helps perpetuate the struggle to understand mental disorders and mental health.

Anorexia Nervosa

In college, I developed anorexia nervosa. A quite common problem among women, this disorder is often downplayed and blamed on low self-esteem and the media’s portrayal of women. Though these things can definitely play a factor. You are oversimplifying it by claiming that’s the only thing to it. Growing up, I always scoffed at girls who struggled with their body image. I thought they could just turn it off if they put their mind to it. “If they really wanted to stop, they could”, I thought. Looking back, I now see how insensitive and ignorant I was. Every eating disorder is different but anorexia nervosa symptoms include the following

  • Inadequate food intake leading to a weight that is clearly too low.
  • Intense fear of weight gain, obsession with weight and persistent behavior to prevent weight gain.
  • Self-esteem overly related to body image.
  • Inability to appreciate the severity of the situation.
  • Binge-Eating/Purging Type involves binge eating and/or purging behaviors during the last three months.
  • Restricting Type does not involve binge eating or purging.

While in the midst of this disorder, I was obsessed and terrified. I was distrustful of my own body and my own stomach. I ultimately lived in a fantasy world where my body was out to get me unless I took matters into my own hands. It was an extremely draining time for me. Every waking second, I was thinking about my weight, my body, and what I would eat at my next meal. I was a slave to the scale and with every pound I dropped, my obsession increased. 

By the grace of God, I had friends lovingly point me to Truth and lead me out of the darkness I had gotten myself into. This was the first time I was able to put a human face on eating disorders. I was able to understand the pain, the struggle, and the recovery someone with an eating disorder has to go through. It was life changing. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

For the last year and a half I have struggled with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and for the last year I have been on daily medication for it. I never thought in a million years I would say that. But the chemicals in my brain are not cooperating with me in this season of my life. This is another disorder I was ignorant about. “Just stop worrying”, I would say. Easy enough, right? Oh man was I wrong. 

GAD

As a Christian, I know that disorders like anxiety and depression (which are closely related to each other) are very misunderstood by the church. We often look to Bible verses about prayer and anxiety as an easy fix. Just read this verse every day and your anxiety/depression will go away. Sadly, God did not create our minds to be that simple. Instead, He made us so complex that psychologists don’t understand everything that goes on in the human brain. Another ‘quick fix’ thrown into the ring is the fact that the person struggling with anxiety/depression has brought it upon themselves. Though this is sometimes the case (because sin sucks), a quick flip through the book of Job will prove this theory wrong. In the beginning of my battle with GAD, I would beat myself up thinking I was doing something wrong. I tried to white-knuckle it. But loving Christian friends of mine encouraged me to see a doctor. They explained that medication is not distrusting God and so I got put on meds. I thank God continuously for those tiny pills. 

Before medication, I couldn’t even pray because my mind would not slow down enough for me to focus. My thoughts would dart around like ping pong balls escalating to doomsday scenarios. Constant pounding heart. Constant shortness of breath. I was jumpy, I was sad. I was terrified, hopeless. It was a regular occurrence for me to be on my knees or in the fetal position crying out to God to make the thoughts stop. It was torture. I couldn’t control my own mind. It had betrayed me. I knew the truth: God loves me and has a plan for me. But my body took that truth and twisted it to make be believe all my nightmares would come true. I truly believe God uses medication for His good and His purposes. I have seen medication work in my own life. It has allowed me to actually face and work on my negative thought cycles instead of being trapped by them. I am now able to pray and to seek Christ in all of this because I can hear myself think. It’s a miracle. 

Though I still struggle with GAD, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And as terrible as this disease has been, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Why? Not only has it taught me to rely on God in the midst of struggles but it has given me a tiny glimpse of the daily battle people with depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and the many other mental disorders go through every day of their lives.  

I am excited when I see films, books, news articles, and blogs about people with mental disorders because it breaks the stigma associated with them. Like eating disorders aren’t mental disorders or that depressed people just need to get over it… to name a few. I get those stigmas because I once believed them. All we need to do is start having conversations. To see the human brain as something complex. To learn that mental illness falls on a spectrum and to stop shaming people because they struggle with stuff because at the end of the day, we all struggle with something. 

If you are interested in mental disorders and the people who have them, check out the following:

You are Remarkably Made

You are Remarkably Made

Growing up, I always had great self-esteem. I knew I was cute, smart, and well-liked. I worked as a teen model for the likes of JC Penny’s and Dillard’s and, due to being a twin, was constantly being told I was “ADORABLE”. I considered myself a contrarian, my mind firmly set against being a “normal teenager”. In fact, my Nana repeatedly tells the story of me announcing this to my family. In high school, I was a huge nerd and PROUD. I loved school and the dramatic arts and flourished in them. I was well-known (again due to being a twin) and joked about being the ‘popular nerd’. Being a late bloomer, my body really didn’t start changing until late highschool/early college (making my ‘awkward stage’ exponentially more awkward). I began to gain weight in all the normal places for women and, in the beginning, never paid it much mind. I embraced my body! I didn’t care. I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and looked down on those who counted calories and watched their figure. “How silly and vain!” I thought. Then college happened. Everyone warns about the ‘freshman 15’ but amazingly, I lost 10 pounds. This encouraged my horrible eating habits that lead to weight gain and a blatant disregard for the importance of exercise. But again, I paid it no mind. Until one day, I started noticing. I honestly couldn’t tell you what started it. Maybe it was the fact I lived on a campus located in one of the prettiest and richest cities in Dallas. Or the fact that girls at SMU wear heels to football games and sundresses to class. All I know is something happened and I started caring. I started realizing that I didn’t have the body that was in the magazines, on TV, and on campus. Why now? Why did I decide to notice this NOW? The next two events that stand out the most on my journey down a slippery slope are my parents separating and my trip to NYC. I remember flying to NYC the morning after a very traumatic family event (I’m choosing not to discuss the event so as to respect the privacy of those involved.), seeing a musical that almost exactly represented my family’s current situation (Next To Normal), and sitting at Junior’s stuffing my face with a slice of the best cheesecake I have ever had in my life. I was sitting there, eating this cake, feeling completely full and disgusted with my inability to stop eating. That moment changed my life. I wish I could tell you that it was a positive change. Perhaps, it started out that way. Unfortunately, my control freak nature combined with a lack of control of my family situation and me being slightly overweight, turned into an eating disorder. I wasn’t anorexic or bulimic, but had an unhealthy relationship with food and my body. Though I did in fact need to change my diet and start making healthier choices, I took this to the extreme. Being an impatient person, I decided to cut almost all fat from my diet. I ate iceberg lettuce with only vinegar as dressing and gave up all fried food and most kinds of meat. I said ‘no’ to dessert and started working out daily. I would go to bed hungry most nights simply because I was afraid my body was ‘faking it’ and that I was in fact just giving in to my old “eat for the sake of eating” habit. All this sounds super unhealthy, which it was, but to be honest, I felt great! I had more energy, I was losing weight, and I had something to focus my mind on. But what started as an innocent attempt to get into shape turned into an obsession with attaining the ‘ideal’ body. Despite all my hard work, I wasn’t happy with what I saw in the mirror. If I could only lose X number of pounds or fit into “insert size here” pants. If only I could weigh under X amount. I ended up losing 25 pounds within a matter of months. I think the lowest amount I weighed was 111, which by health standards was the minimum on the spectrum of a healthy weight for my height and age. I was tired all the time and constantly worried about food. I had become one of those girls I had made fun of in high school. Throughout this whole process, I didn’t think I had a problem. I figured since I never skipped meals and was making ‘healthy’ choices, I was ‘ok’. I could control this. I could CONTROL this. I wasn’t starving myself or purging. I simply was hyperfocusing on my eating. Throughout all this, my family situation was getting worse and ultimately ended with a divorce. But I was ‘ok’. Or so I thought. Thankfully, the Lord brought two people into my life who cared enough about me to ask me some tough questions. I am equally thankful that the Lord humbled me to a point where I was eager to listen. A part of me was waiting on someone to call me out. Waiting for proof that someone cared about me and my life. After the confrontation, I opened up to my small group and shared my struggles. With accountability and the determination to be healthy, I adjusted my diet to a healthy one and began to teach myself how to value my body. Not by the world’s standard but by the only standard that truly matters: my Father’s.

Growing up in church, I was constantly fed the line “God made you special”. This is fact. No bells, no whistles, no fluff. God did, in fact, make me special. But sadly, this profoundly beautiful statement has become cliché. We hear it so many times we stop believing it. So about 2 years ago, I started re-teaching myself about the beauty and wonder of God’s creation: Me. I, Alexandra Braunwyn Faith Gatewood, am like no other. I was crafted in my mother’s womb before she even knew I existed (Jeremiah 1:5). I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-16). God crafted every inch of my body with an artist’s eye and a Father’s love. He designs for a purpose. He designed my height, my weight, the length of my arms, and the color of my eyes. He added special details to make me unique, different from any other person on this planet, even my twin. But the Lord made something even more beautiful. He made my soul, my spirit and being. And no amount of dieting, exercise, or plastic surgery can alter His masterpiece.

One of my all-time favorite Bible verses is Proverbs 31:30 which says that “charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” I love this verse because it reminds me that everything is temporary, even my body. In the end, we all wrinkle, we all gain weight, and we all ultimately pass away. But the single most important thing in our lives is our relationship with the Lord. We are not here to please man, who is fickle. We are here to know the one true God.

I think the hardest part about struggling with food and exercise is the fact that, in moderation, it is necessary to live a healthy life. It’s when you find your happiness and self-worth in these things that the problems start. The Bible even addresses this in 1 Timothy 4:8 saying, “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next”. The gym will only bring me temporary happiness but my quiet times, scripture memory, and fellowship with other believers will keep me eternally ‘fit’. My body is a temple and should be treated as such (1 Corinthians 6:19). It is not to be used for my glory but for His. I mentioned before that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. I recently heard a different translation, saying ” we are remarkably and wonderfully made”. I love this translation because it is true. It it truly remarkable how we’re made. The human body is complex, intricate, fragile, resilient, and made in His image. We have the fingerprints of God on every cell in our bodies. We are a miracles by every definition. Take some time to dwell on that.

Sadly, I can’t say that I am cured. It is a daily struggle and, with the omnipresence of the media, it is nearly impossible to escape the World’s view of beauty. But I am equppied to handle attacks from all sides. I have my sword of Truth and have surrounded myself with people who know the true value of beauty, loving me for the woman God designed me to be.

So for those of you out there, men and women alike, who struggle with something like this, you are not alone. You have a Father is Heaven who loves you and has put you exactly where He wants you to be, looking exactly how you look, and with the talents you possess. And He said, “It was good”.