"You live a very happy life," said one of my coworkers, as he looked at the pictures I’d recently hung in my office. There was Chase and I on New Year’s Eve, Chase smiling widely and me planting a giant kiss on his freshly shaven cheek. There was me with a group of friends in Chicago at a Fitz and the Tantrums concert, me with college teammates, my parents, Chub-Chub, Chase again, my in-laws, me and my best friend TayLORE. I was smiling in each photo, because that’s what you do when you know your picture is about to be taken. Nobody frowns as their aunt says, “Say cheese!” Nobody scowls for the Christmas card photo, nobody cries as they hug their fiancé on New Year’s, even if that’s what they feel like doing.
No one means to take non-happy photos, which is why my pictures depicted a happy, full life. Most people do not showcase their lowest moments on Instagram or Facebook. Most people don’t even talk about how sad or lonely they feel, because admitting sadness feels a bit like failure, especially if your life seems okay to other people. How can you justify sadness when you have a good job, good friends, live in a nice, cockroach-free apartment? While it’s common to not need a reason to be happy, it’s often expected that we justify our sadness.
“I’m just sad,” I told Chase one day.
“But why? Is it your job? Is it me?"
Of course, it wasn’t him, my job, or anything tangible. Nothing that could be fixed. I could not remedy my unhappiness by picking up a new hobby, finding a new job, or finding a new boyfriend. What was making me unhappy was not external, and that is why unhappiness is so difficult to understand. I was unhappy with myself, my body, my inability to love myself or my body, and my brain’s inability to rest.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a mental disorder is “a behavioral or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning. Mental disorders are usually defined by a combination of how a person behaves, feels, perceives, or thinks.”
I'm not saying unhappiness causes a mental disorder or vice versa. Rather, I’m illustrating just how fragile mental health can be, how easily a small fixation can become all-encompassing, how difficult that can be for others to understand. I have fought an eating disorder for upwards of 10 years. My fixation was food, the shape of my body, and the feeling of lightness that came with starving myself. In addition to restricting my food intake, (Anorexia Nervosa), I occasionally purged (Bulimia), binged, abused appetite suppressants, laxatives, and diet pills. I exercised compulsively, almost manically, and could never understand why my parents, coaches, or friends would tell me I needed a break. I simply could not allow myself to take one.
When Chase and I lived near Chicago, I hurt my knee and was unable to run for a few months. This was devastating, but I knew how to work around an injury—I’d done it before. Not even the breakdown of my body could force me to rest. I joined a local gym and each day after work I would elliptical for at least an hour, take a spin class, or do both. Three times a week, I followed up the cardio session with a round of weight-lifting and core exercises. I did this each day without fail and was so regular in my schedule that the gym staff got to know me and would often comment on my workout, “I’ve never seen someone elliptical so hard!” or “Here again, huh? Well here, take some water,” or “Leg day today? How’d you like our new free weights?”
I was slightly embarrassed that my life was so predictable to what were almost complete strangers. To avoid speaking to anyone, I began wearing earbuds into and out of the gym, and even pretended to be speaking with someone on the phone if the occasion called for it, “Hi mom! Yup, just got home a bit ago, it’s been so hectic at work lately. You’ll never believe what Tina did,” *pause for a moment, “Mhmmm well she just stopped showing up and no one can get in touch with her, and then she updated her LinkedIn profile. Quite ballsy.” You get the idea.
One winter afternoon, I was doing a long interval session on an elliptical and noticed a woman on a treadmill in front of me. She was tiny, almost skeletal. Her thinning hair was pulled back in a straggly ponytail, and her pale legs were the size of a tube of wrapping paper. I noticed her initially because she had paused her run to cough violently into a towel. She had to pause multiple times over the course of her run, and I quickly recognized that she was not well. Perhaps she was sick, I thought. Although the logical side of my brain knew that it was counter-productive to exercise while sick, I understood. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a day off from exercising, and I was inexplicably proud of that fact. Working out religiously made me feel invincible—as if I were better than other people who did rest, as if I could conquer my world if I kept everything perfectly aligned. And to keep my world aligned, I must run, or swim, or bike until my lungs burned and my legs shook and the feeling of hunger I’d started the workout with faded to a dull ache in my chest.
This same woman was at the gym every day around the same time I was, and always on the treadmill. Every day she ran, paused, and coughed violently into the same ragged pink towel. I could see, anyone could see, that she was not well. I was not, however, able to see that her habits directly reflected my own, that she was also compulsively over-exercising, and that it had clearly not enhanced her happiness, or her health.
“You live a very happy life,” a man I did not know said to me. Sure, the bits I chose to show looked happy. After all, I was smiling.
P.S. If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the NEDA hotline: (800) 931-2237, seek help through a therapist, go to an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting (national listing found here), or at the very least, tell someone.