Mental Health in a Physical Health Obsessed World / by lee tilghman

I want to share with you a very personal story.

It is something that has been on my mind ever since beginning this blog, but I had not felt ready to share it, until now. I actually wrote this blog post back in August 2015. A full year ago to this month. I was not ready to post it. I felt too vulnerable speaking out about this, but I finally, finally feel ready. I feel as though it is my duty to be honest on here, and as someone who in the wellness world with a bit of a voice, if this post helps one person, then I did my job. This is a post about mental health, the most important type of health out there. 

A Bit of Background:

I grew up in a very loving family, with huge values placed upon family, friendship, and support of one another. Being healthy was (and still is) a huge part of our family roots. My family is very active, incorporating exercise, sports, and a healthy diet into their lifestyles. Up until this past January, all 4 of my grandparents were still alive and extremely active at 86 years old (and older). For this, I am eternally grateful for their lifestyle choices and recognize it as a total gift.

Fast forward to the age of 16.  I had always been extremely interested in health and wellbeing, but it wasn't until the ripe age of 16 did I start taking "health" into my own hands. At this age, my idea of health was a bit skewed since it was based off of the "facts" I'd absorb through the mass media. In 2006, we didn't have social media like we do now. The #strongnotskinny movement was not in place. In 2006, Thin was in.  In 2006, health meant rock hard abs and a zero fat, zero carb diet. We got our entertainment from Hollywood TV shows and magazines like Cosmopolitan (much to my parent's discretion).

The magazines were plastered with subtitled such as, "Get rock hard abs in 5 easy steps" "Low-fat snacks for your best body". I was overwhelmed by a plethora of misinformation about what it meant to be healthy, beautiful, and attractive. It got to the point where I was eating a fiber one bar (it was 2006 after all), diet coke, and a red bell pepper for lunch. Let’s just say, I was EXTREMELY uneducated about health and wellness and took it to the extreme. I went to the gym every single day, and would spend 1 hour or more on the elliptical until I burnt exactly 745 calories. As a 16 year old girl, I absorbed everything like a sponge, and truly thought having a perfect body would make me a better human being. Everyone in the magazine looked extremely ‘healthy’ and SO happy. I wanted that life, and I was ready to do anything to get there. 

Getting To It

Through this extreme dieting and overexercising regime, I further exaggerated my already trim, lean, and athletic body. I might have "looked" like the picturesque healthy person I saw in the magazines, but I was fooling myself. Mentally, I was stunted; I could only think about food and burning calories. Emotionally, I was extremely isolated, depressed, anxious, and had little to no self worth.

Friends and family had asked me to get help, as it was clear I was hanging on to life by a thread. I hushed their concerns with bites of ice cream and fake smiles to prove that I was just fine, only later to rid my body of that ice cream with more obsessive exercise or even going as far as making purge.

I was in complete denial.

After 2 years of living that lifestyle, I knew that I had to give it up. I was fed up with the social anxiety. I was fed up with the fear of food, the very thing that sustains us and makes life worth living. I was sick and tired of fearing life, of looking in the mirror and hating the girl I was.

One night, after my parents returned from a ski vacation (they felt hesitant to even go away during this time of serious disorder, but I kept telling them I was fine), I came to my parents and admitted that I was powerless over this illness.  With my tail between my legs, I told them that they were right, I did think I had anorexia. I told them everything, explaining all of the strange behaviors and the secret life I had been living for over 2 years. I cried for hours, apologizing for lying to them. Never before had I felt more vulnerable. My parents held me tight and gave me nothing but love, support, words of encouragement.

"We are going to get through this" my mother said to me. I believed her.

The next day, we were in a car to New York City to meet with one of the best eating disorder specialists in the country, Dr. Diane Mickley of the Wilkins Center. We ran a bunch of tests and by noon, we had decided as a family and with the help of the medical doctors at the clinic it would be best for me to seek full time professional help by way of a 9 week intensive, in patient therapy in Clearwater, Florida.

It was at that treatment center where I managed to begin the pathway to recovery. A few days later, I was on a plane down to Florida with a few clothes and a stomach full of nerves. We were not allowed to use cell phones or bring magazines (as lots of the magazines were triggering).

With my own determination and the help of some of the best doctors, internists, and counselors in the world, I managed to pull myself out of those unhealthy habits and negative mindset. It was by my deep desire to no longer fear food or say "no" to hanging out with a friend if it involved having to skip a workout that I managed to put recovery first and foremost. I was so determined. I chose life. I chose to live a life of climbing upwards, falling down, and then getting back up again. 

My road to recovery had a lot to do with living my most authentic life, since a big part of my disorder had stemmed from trying to be somebody who I was not. Through recovery and with the help of my loving and supporting family, I decided I wanted to live my life on my terms, and always ‘live my truth’.  To me, that meant (and still means) taking a stand against social wrongdoing, speaking up for myself, putting up boundaries, being mindful and giving to others, and not falling victim to society’s ideals of beauty. This means, sometimes I go weeks without shaving my body. I also have a love/hate relationship with makeup. I also try to stay body positive as much as I can. I do what I love, and try to spread love and light as much as I can while on this earth. When those around me get negative, I choose to stay positive (I get this from my mother). It is innate response. When people start to complain, I combat their complaints and try to shed light on the good things. I count my blessings.

One thing I've realized as I've grown older is that if you're outsides don't match your insides, it doesn't matter how many kale salads you eat. You can workout every day. You can eat the cleanest, most nutrient dense diet on the planet. But if your mind is not well, then it really does not count for anything. 

I now check in with myself on a daily basis and hold emotional wellness and mental health to a much higher standard than physical. I find that my emotional and mental health are the root of all goodness that could come from a fulfilling life. Only when I am feeling balanced emotionally and mentally can I put an honest and true effort into eating well and exercising. Otherwise, it's probably not coming from a place of good intentions. If my intentions are to look good because I am not happy with my body, I could eat healthy everyday for the rest of my life and still not love my body. However, if my intentions are more honest and true, such as, "I want to have more energy in the morning when I wake up so I can reach my full potential" then I truly think my goal is more easily achieved. See how when we switch the intent from physical to mental/emotional, things get better?

When I am feeling most grounded, connected, and positive about life, only then can I really focus on treating my body right with healing, high vibe foods and an active lifestyle.

Some people use healthy eating and exercising as an escape from their own minds. But when you are mentally at peace, there's no need to escape- exercise is no longer punishment, and healthy eating is no longer restrictive. When you are mentally well, exercise is fun, and healthy eating is the biggest act of self love that you could possibly do for yourself. 

So, where do we start?

I have found over the past 9 years the following to be an integral part of my emotional wellbeing. You may have your own, but these are just some things that help me achieve an overall feeling of feelin' good. 

Tips for Emotional Wellbeing

  • Solitude: Spending time alone helps me feel confident in my body and more at peace with myself. Learning how to be alone and actually enjoying that time was a huge step in becoming an independent person. Don't get me wrong, I am a very social being and I LOVE people. But, too much stimulation and I'll crave that quiet time alone. It helps me feel more available to others when I do spend time with them. I just finished the book "How to Be Alone" and it is a great place to start for those that find it hard to enjoy spending time alone. 
  • Connecting to the Community: As humans, we are social creatures who crave community and structure. Whether it be through volunteering, becoming a regular patron at my favorite local coffee shop, or getting involved with a community garden, become a part of the place where I live is extremely beneficial to my emotional health. I love connecting with my community through like minded activities, whether it be joining a run club, gardening, or starting a vegan potluck...I've done and led them all! if there are no activities in your neighborhood that interest you, why don't you organize your own? Social Media is a great way to connect with like-minded people who live near you in real life. 
  • Personal Relationships: Fostering meaningful, deep and long-lasting relationships with a select number of people (AKA having a ride or die support group) is SO IMPORTANT. It helps to give you a solid foundation to build upon and gives you an identity, purpose, and a reason for living outside yourself. I have a few close friends that are sisters to me. I can call them at any time of day and ask advice. I can be 100% myself around them without any filter. I love these people to death and would do anything for them. I am also extremely close with my family, and am so grateful I have a family that I enjoy being around and is supportive of everything I do. Also, if it's your thing, engaging in a healthy, non-co-dependent relationship is one of the most gratifying things you could do in life. Life is beautiful, and it's 10x more beautiful when you share it with someone special. This someone should be somebody who inspired you to be the best version of you possible, and who makes you feel absolutely beautiful (inside and out) because you are. 
  • Gratitude: It's so easy to get hung up on all the things we fail at, or the things we didn't do, or the things that are going wrong in our lives. Too often, we don't give ourselves enough damn credit. It's about time we stopped what we were doing and reflect for a second and count our blessings. For me, a serious part of living a mentally-well life is moderating the voice inside my head that tells me I did not do enough that day. When you count your blessings, you start quieting that voice. Maybe you are thankful for your legs, your ability to make your friends laugh, your thoughtful roommate, the breakfast you were able to eat today, the spin class you took this morning. Counting your blessings and giving gratitude makes life a lot more enjoyable and it also is a major key to happiness. Studies have shows giving gratitude elevate your levels of happiness and peace from within. So, get out that journal and start showing some gratitude! Start off my listing 5 things you are grateful for. 
  • Stress Management: At this point in my life, I know that it is imperative to use healthy coping mechanisms when it comes to stress. I definitely have a go-to list of things I can do to help me manage stress, because as we know, stress is unavoidable, no matter how we live our life! My top favorite things to do to avoid stress are:
    • write in my journal
    • take a yoga class
    • practice deep breathing
    • fix a cup of herbal tea
    • call a friend/relative
    • run a bubble bath
    • aromatherapy (lavender is my favorite)
    • get back into a routine
  • Sleep: Sleep is so important. I know we hear this all the time, about how sleep is the most important thing you can do, etc, but it won't stick with you until you truly believe it. My sleeping schedule is way up there with my other priorities such as healthy eating and a consistent exercise routine. I know for me, I need at least 7 hours and 15 minutes of sleep every night. Anything less than that and I risk feeling unrested and "off" the next day.  Anything more than 8 hours and I feel extremely groggy.  If you can make a normalized sleep schedule part of your healthcare routine, I definitely suggest it.

Sometimes it's really easy to get hung up on all the physical parts of the healthy lifestyle. With tools like social media (Instagram in particular) it's so easy to say, "oh wow, all I need to do is eat that smoothie bowl and go to the gym every day and then I will be happy and look like her" but this is just simply not true. It's very important that while it is a great tool, we realize social media glamorizes the lives of strangers and we really don't know what's going on beneath the surface.  What are your favorite tips on emotional well being and mental wellness? How do you de stress?