Overcoming My Teenage Traumas Allowed Me to Find Freedom in My Twenties
by Julia Tannenbaum
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I essentially lost my adolescence to mental illness. I was twelve when I began to dabble in dieting, thirteen when I plunged into the depths of anorexia, fourteen when I was admitted to my first psychiatric ward for suicidal ideation, and fifteen when I hit my breaking point and decided I didn’t want to be sick for the rest of my life.
Following that important revelation, I spent the rest of my teenage years traversing that infamously nonlinear road to recovery. I’d take a step forward, only to invariably stumble and fall backward. I’d have one day of decent body image, only to be plagued by crippling body dysmorphia for weeks. It was this constant back-and-forth that, at times, was so exhausting, I was tempted to give up and regress into sickness. Looking back now, I’m so glad that I didn’t.
My teenage years were anything but traditional. While most of my peers were preparing for college, learning how to drive, falling in love, and experimenting with drinking and drugs, I was fighting for my life in hospitals and treatment programs. At fifteen, I still needed round-the-clock supervision and couldn’t be trusted to eat on my own. I couldn’t even be in the classroom until I was sixteen due to my high anxiety, receiving homeschooling from a tutor instead.
Interestingly enough, at the time, it didn’t seem that bad. I’d been sick for long enough that it had become my norm. Sickness was comfortable and safe. My eating disorder gave me a seductive security, which made it a struggle to liberate myself. I couldn’t imagine not having my mental illness to fall back on whenever the world became too hard for me to handle, nor could I imagine who I would be if I wasn’t defined by my diagnoses. At that point in my life, imagining my identity beyond my disorder was terrifying.
However, I also knew I couldn’t stay sick. Not unless I wanted to end up like the women I’d seen in the adjacent adult wing of an adolescent eating disorder unit I spent a week on in tenth grade. Until then, I had never been around adults with eating disorders, and it was like I was looking at my future if I didn’t diverge from the dark path I was headed down. Seeing those women made me realize that I didn’t want that to be me in a couple of decades; I didn’t to be imprisoned to my illness for the rest of my life. Though I found the nebulousness of recovery very daunting, at that moment, as I was confronted with a harsh glimpse into what could become of me, I wanted to get better.
So I bravely embarked on that road to recovery and stayed on it no matter how many times I came close to veering off. I worked with my therapist and dietitian to conquer new challenges and face new fears. I used positive self-talk and fact-checking to combat bad body image and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) coping skills to overcome moments of high anxiety. I talked back to my disordered thoughts and took pleasure in them gradually growing quieter. In the beginning, I simply went at it one day at a time. I hoped that by doing my best every day, I would eventually achieve the freedom and independence I sought.
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Suffice to say, I did. I’ll be twenty-two in a month, and while my life now certainly isn’t perfect, it’s worlds better than it was during those dark days of being entrenched in anorexia. For starters, my life is no longer run by my eating disorder; I’m in control now. My life is also enriched with everything I previously lacked: freedom, independence, socialization, ambition, self-acceptance, and hope. In stripping away the facade I’d worn throughout my adolescence, I was able to come into the person who I believe I was always meant to be. All the parts of me that I used to hide—my creativity, my curiosity, my sensitivity, my independence, my queerness, and my outspokenness—because they made me different are now the parts I love because they make me, well, me. I’ve also realized what I want to do with my future—write—and am actively pursuing my professional goals.
For a long time, I used to mourn the years I felt I had lost. I used to wish that I could hit a Reset button and take two at being a teen. I used to get angry that while everyone else had been living, my life was stalled for years. But I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. My experiences with mental illness were undeniably horrible. In fact, as the years go by, the more I realize how very traumatic what I endured was. But those same experiences that nearly cost me my life have made me who I am today.
I’m not sure I ever would have discovered my passion for writing, had I not desperately needed a creative outlet, and I certainly wouldn’t have a published, semi-autobiographical book trilogy to show for it. I wouldn’t have realized the beauty in being different to the extent that I do today, nor would I have the strength and security to advocate for the issues I care about. I wouldn’t have developed the grit and resiliency that I’m confident will serve me well as I prepare to leave home and embark on my independent adult life. Just as there is ugliness in mental illness, there is beauty in recovering and reclaiming a balanced, authentic, and opportunistic life.
Whenever I give a book talk or speak on a panel or podcast, I always conclude with this: life truly does get better. From the age of thirteen to eighteen, I believed I’d never move on from my mental illnesses. I believed I’d be trapped forever. I believed I’d never like my body or myself. I had so many self-doubting beliefs, and none of them were actualized. I did move on. I did find freedom. I did learn to like my body and the person who I am.
I’m grateful for the perspective I’ve gained from my journey from sickness to health; it enables me to inspire hope in those who are currently struggling with mental illness and to mean every word of that little phrase: “it gets better.” It did for me, and it will for everyone who perseveres and continues to fight for their freedom. For their life. I might have lost my adolescence, but I have the rest of my life ahead of me, and I’ve never been more ready to live.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Eating Disorders, Mental Health Aloud, Mental Health First Person Essays