When I was younger, I hoped my 20s would be like the television shows 90210 or The Hills. Based on what I saw on TV, I thought I would be tall, I thought I would be confident and I thought I would find myself in a high-paying career. All the women I saw in the media had perfect hair, flawless makeup and expensive clothes – but as I got older, I was left with tangled locks, cystic-acne and thrift store finds.
I grew up aiming to be loved by men, liked by other women, and most importantly, as perfect as possible. I based my worth and happiness off how others saw me – which is what society unconsciously tells us to do. But when everything started falling apart, from my health to my education to my career to just being able to enjoy day-to-day life, I was finally forced to take a good look at what made me happy and how I could achieve it.
At 17, I saw my high school boyfriend’s bedroom walls covered in bikini models. He told me he “loved my boobs even though they were small,” and that I “would look hot with blonde hair.” Because I grew up feeling unloved, I was scared he would no longer find me attractive and lose interest in me – so I started wearing push-up bras, bleaching my hair and slathering self tanner all over my body to look like the models he got off to. When I moved into his mom’s house after I ran away from home, he was the only family I had. Like many women, I picked up on the social cue that my worth was in how much men found me attractive, and this outlook carried me into my twenties and the relationships I had with men that followed.
Soon, I was living in an apartment on student loans and working part time. But my undiagnosed mental illness was slowly starting to chip away at me. I was going to university for writing, but even though I was excited about having a career as a writer, I was having trouble getting out of bed. I started failing classes because I couldn’t concentrate on studying. I went from job to job because I kept getting fired, and the stress made my mental health worse. I drank wine on my couch in the middle of the day while listening to depressing music and writing god-awful poetry. I thought I was an artist, but I was just sick. And I kept getting worse.
I dropped out of school. I went to therapy. I tried antidepressants. I saw countless doctors. I moved to my parents’ home, then to a homeless shelter, then back. I went on welfare – and that gave me time to focus on my health. I was obsessed with trying to understand why I felt like I was dying – why I felt like a ton of bricks, why I was terrified of being around people, why I would cry for no reason or became so enraged I wanted to smash everything – why I couldn’t just live a ‘normal’ life like everyone else. I felt like my body was attacking itself, and nobody wouldn’t take me seriously.
I started feeling anxious all the time. I went to the hospital for panic attacks endlessly because the chest pains made me worry I was having a heart attack. One time I called 911 because I woke up with a migraine and thought I was having a brain aneurism. I felt feverish and was bloated and grumpy. I used alcohol, food and sex to try to cope with my ever-changing emotions. Finally, while living with my parents and after a night of drinking, I started to have delusions that they were going to hurt me. My dad would walk with his hands in his pockets, and I would think he had a needle he was going to use to stab me and bring me to the hospital. I knew the delusions weren’t real, because I’d grown up with similar dreams that once made my high school counsellor refer me to a psychologist. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was unsafe living there.
I left my parents’ home and stayed with a friend. I turned my obsession to my diet – watching documentaries and YouTube videos about how people healed their illnesses through food. I cut out gluten, diary, sugar and alcohol. I focused on eating plant based foods instead of processed ones, and swapped junk food for healthier version of snacks that I would binge eat. And although I was still trying to be perfect, and I was taking it from one extreme to another, the change in diet started to make me feel better.
I started to feel lighter and more cheerful. My skin began to clear up. I began to have more energy to get out of bed and work out. I started choosing better ways to spend my time instead of drinking and having sex – and although at first I felt incredibly isolated because all my friends hung out in bars, I was beginning to move my lifestyle into a more positive direction. I felt better about myself, more confident – happier.
And then something else happened – when I began feeling better mentally, I began changing my perspective.
I started caring less about looking sexy and more about feeling confident. Instead of a pretty dress, I would buy a warm sweater. Instead of going out to pick up someone at a bar, I would stay at home to work on freelance projects that made me feel good.
I started caring more about what I thought of other people instead of what they thought of me. When I began losing friends because they thought I wasn’t trying hard enough to keep a job or have money or attend events, I realized it was time to meet new people who were more supportive.
I started being more patient with myself when it came to my progress. Whether it was my health or my career or my relationships, I was kinder to myself when it came to how I was feeling that day, and let myself just feel instead of pushing myself to fix everything in that moment.
I went to cognitive behavioural therapy and learned how to deal with my emotions. I worked through the emotional baggage I had collected up until that point. I started to let go of the expectations and the guilt for not being where I wanted to be in life – feeling better now, getting a job now, having money now, being successful now – and focused on what I could do that day, that hour, that minute to get to where I wanted to be.
I focused on feeding myself nutritious meals, exercising daily, doing housework – and often when I couldn’t get it all done, I would have to learn to be okay with that and congratulate myself for just eating three meals a day. When I worked on worrying less about the future, my anxiety would lessen. When I worked on eating a healthy diet, my fatigue would disappear. Soon I was exercising once a week, a few times a week and finally, every day of the week. Working out gave me more energy to do the things I wanted to do – and soon I started making lists of things to do every day – often considering how I was feeling and what I could reasonably get done.
People talk a lot about toxins as a buzzword, but to me, toxins are things like stress, junk food and negative people. Getting rid of the toxins in my life truly was the antidote to my sickness. It’s not something I just did once and never had to do again – eating healthy, working out and reducing stress is just as important as medication – if I don’t do it every.single.day, I start to feel sick again. But since I changed my lifestyle, I haven’t been to the hospital for a single panic attack since.
Because of mental illness, I feel more beautiful and confident than ever before. Through getting sick I discovered the tools I need to take care of myself – which never would have happened if I had continued the way I was living. I’m grateful that I’ve had these challenges, because I learned early on that no matter how hard I tried to please others, to fit into the system, to be the woman society wanted me to be, I was miserable. I felt like I was dying. And it wasn’t until I changed everything I was brought up to believe that suddenly I began to feel like I was finally living.
So, I didn’t grow up to be like the women on 90210 or The Hills. I’m not tall, I’m still working on my confidence and I live on social assistance. But I don’t care. Now, I embrace my natural waves. I wear clothing that makes me feel comfortable. And while sometimes I wear makeup and push-up bras, I feel just as sexy braless and bare-faced. Because what really makes me feel fabulous is when I take care of my body and my mind – and nothing can take that pleasure away from me.
Follow Amanda’s column, MY PLEASURE: How to Enjoy Sex & Life on Medium.