Remember how I said that mental health wasn’t really a solidified concept in my head until I came to college? I didn’t even begin to fathom the relationship between mental health and physical health until my junior year. I never bothered to understand the relationship until my grades started to suffer. Actually, I never bothered until I didn’t want to live anymore.
My roommates could probably tell you that living with me at home is not the same as running into me on campus or going to work with me. I always made sure that my professional and academic lives weren’t affected by my lifestyle, and I paid extra attention to how I presented myself in public. Until I started keeping track of my habits during depressive episodes, I didn’t see how greatly my mental health affected my diet and sleep. It’s common for me during a bout of depression to forget about basic hygiene because I just don’t have the energy to even take off my makeup at the end of the day.
I’ve also always had trouble with sleep and insomnia. I started listening to music as I slept to help keep my anxiety at bay. When I was sleeping, I was always haunted with vivid nightmares. I relived flashbacks of traumatic events in my dreams, so oftentimes, sleep was no solace. Other times, even though I didn’t sleep at night, I would be completely wired during the daytime. I chugged caffeine to stay awake and last through the day. My body would be exhausted but I had to stay awake, just a little bit longer, just to finish everything I told myself I would get done for the day.
That’s another thing. I drowned myself in work to compensate for my lack of self-worth; I began to realize over time that how I saw myself hinged on my productivity. That way, if I was tired, I could at least justify it. Other days, I slept for hours and hours. When there was absolutely no way I could drag myself out of bed, I would sleep for more than 15 hours a day. Even though I was sleeping more than 15 hours, I was still so weary. Instead of trying to understand why, I got angry at myself and pushed myself even harder when I was able to get out of bed. There were times when I had to come home and get back into bed before the day was halfway through. It felt like every ounce of energy had been completely drained from my body, and that the source of it had run out, too.
It’s a known fact that college students eat poorly and irregularly. I was no exception. Because I was working all the time, I never had the time to cook and I ate one meal a day, if that. More often than not, I forgot to eat. Most of the time, I was so exhausted at the end of the day I wouldn’t even want to eat. I just wanted to go back and lie in bed.
In January of my sophomore year, I tried to kill myself. I’d toyed with the idea of suicide for a long time. Mostly, it was suicidal ideation when my panic attacks would hit multiple times a day and I just wanted them to end. I had never made any active plans, but that night, something felt off. It was just a few days after I turned 20, and I was in Orange County for a rite of passage at a local temple. I remember not being able to sleep that night and wandering along the freeway at 5 a.m. in the morning. As I counted each streetlight in passing, I asked myself why. Not any particular why either, just a general WHY? And then the thoughts started to funnel, but I didn’t feel the usual panic attack start to build. I felt a chilling calm inside me.
Why do I have to keep hurting? Why am I like this? Why couldn’t I get better? Why do I have so many problems? Why can’t I be normal? Why why why why why why why WHY WHY?
The car didn’t hit me that night, even though I really did try to walk in front of it. I was left to pick up the pieces of my own thunderstorm the next morning as I sat inside my temple waiting for the service to be over. I had an organic chemistry midterm that coming week, but I didn’t even want to think about school. I dropped the class, hoping I would be able to focus on the other ones. I couldn’t.
I stopped caring about going to class because after my suicide attempt, I couldn’t even justify opening my eyes in the morning. I didn’t tell anybody either, and it burned a hole inside me for nine months until I was finally able to tell my therapist. I clung onto work; going in for my shifts was the only thing I was hanging onto for a while. If I wasn’t working, I slept for days and barely ate. When I did, food made me so anxious that I would throw up my meal.
Because I wasn’t taking care of my body, I couldn’t take care of my mind either. It was a vicious cycle that fed into itself — because I wasn’t physically healthy, I was incapable of processing my thoughts and emotions. Because I wasn’t able to process my thoughts and emotions, I didn’t have the energy to function as a human being. So over the course of that year, I began to see that the mind and body really do go hand in hand.
When everything builds up to a point where you want to end your life, it’s difficult to take a step back and find a place to start addressing everything. I started with a little at a time, setting one small goal for myself a day. Sometimes, even a small task like brushing my teeth before bed was too hard, and I felt so awful when I couldn’t even do that. But instead of calling myself ugly names, I just gave myself grace and tried again the next day.
After a while, that one task a day started to seem less monumental in my head. I started exercising more regularly again, having taken a long hiatus from climbing because I was always stuck in bed or at work. When quarantine started, I began to cook for myself. I started to engage with old friends and people I had cut off because social interaction had felt like a chore. I slowly weaned myself off sleeping pills, and I noticed that because I was eating healthier and exercising regularly, my body would look forward to sleeping at night.
It’s been a long and arduous process. I’ve only recently begun to pull my grades back up again because I’m in a better headspace to think about school and my future. Taking care of my body made me more cognizant of my mind and its thoughts. There are so many stressors everyday, and I realized that I didn’t have enough energy to give to everything I wanted to care about. So I started to prioritize what really mattered to me by figuring out what was actively within my control and what wasn’t. The things that I couldn’t control — well, they don’t make me feel less shitty, but I can’t do anything about them. I chose to focus on what was within my control, and that made me set more realistic goals for myself. I began to see that I couldn’t consistently be working over 12-hour days and schedule in time for self-care. The decisions I made required me to set boundaries with myself, and I had to learn to choose my well-being first.
As I felt my body start to heal, my mind was also kinder with its thoughts. I started having less panic attacks, and I slowly started to enjoy things I used to. Not everything, of course, but some. And that’s still something.
I still relapse a good amount of the time, but I try to see more from the big picture now. Maybe I moved forward two steps yesterday and went back three steps today. But I’ve got so much time, and in the grand scheme of things, I’m still a couple steps ahead of where I used to be a year ago. To me, that’s all that really matters.
I have a challenge for you this time around. What have you done to take care of your body today? If you haven’t, I challenge you to do something! Whether it’s a face mask, cooking your favorite meal, or just going out for a walk, I hope it brings you a brief moment of peace.
Take care until next month!
Ella Chen is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton. You can follow her @cinder_ellachen.