IF THE DRESS DOESN’T FIT

@ANTIDIETRIOTCLUB

So recently I reached a tipping point. I got fed up, and I realized I didn’t want to feel how I was feeling anymore. I was tired of my constant awareness of how my body looked. Was the way I was sitting showing my stomach rolls? Is my arm pressed too firmly against my side making it look wider than it really is? Could my butt showing in these shorts? 

I was tired of feeling like if I ate a cookie or skipped the gym that I was doing something morally wrong. Tired of associating living a successful life with working out everyday and eating different variations of salads for 2 out of 3 meals, 7 days a week. 

I was tired of thinking that I couldn’t go to the beach or fall in love until my body was smaller. Tired of thinking that I could wear certain clothes, even though I love fashion. Tired of not having pictures of certain memories because I didn’t like I how I looked in photos. 

Some background

Now let me tell you about that tipping point and how I got there. 

In the winter of 2017, I had already been in a major depressive state for about a year. Exasperated by a breakup and the fallout from that relationship, and dealing with health issues and family problems I had hit rock bottom. As I have written about before, after self-harming I realized that I needed help. I took a medical leave from work and entered treatment. 

During that time I also found out that I needed my now third knee surgery and that it was going to be the most intense yet. Complications during that surgery made my recovery time even longer than it was going to be at the outset. 

Over three months later, I finally returned to work and life – still with more recovery to go. But when I got back, everyone started telling me how great I looked. Asking if I lost weight. I honestly didn’t know the answer to that question. I had been basically bedridden for three months. I didn’t have the energy to get up, or let alone weigh myself. 

Size does not equal health

It took stepping on a scale after those comments for me to realize that I had lost 30 pounds. I felt great. Like i had accomplished something while I was away. Like that was my biggest accomplishment. Not that I had gotten through a major surgery or started to come out of my depression, but that I lost weight. 

But it didn’t last long. Nine months later, I gained it back and then some. I was so frustrated with myself that I criticized and insulted myself almost everyday. What had I done wrong? I was working out, I always had a well-rounded diet…

Panic set in. In a frantic call with my mom, I was brought back to reality. She listened to my cry and talk myself down for a minute, and then interrupted me… “sweetie, you were really sick. You were depressed and not eating. You were on pain medication with no appetite.”

She was right. That weightloss was during a time I wasn’t healthy. Now, I was mentally stable and able to talk again. I was enjoying food again and taking care of my body. Now I was healthy. 

The dress fitting

Despite that realization, I was still upset. Still felt like that failed. And that all came to head at a dress fitting for a bridesmaid’s dress. 

I had had the dress hanging for a while in my closet. Unconcerned. I scooped it up one Saturday a month before the wedding and headed to Macy’s with my Spanx and strapless bra in my purse. 

I got into the dressing room, stepped into the dress, put my arms through the sleeves and proceeded to reach for the zipper. It wouldn’t zip. At that moment, with the bride in the dressing room with me, my heart dropped into my stomach faster than I let out my next breath. Then, I noticed the dress was tight around my thighs and that the lining wouldn’ t go all the way past my butt. 

“Do you expect that she’ll lose the weight?”

We walked out to the tailor and I stood up onto the pedestal in front of all the mirrors. The tailor came out and went straight for the zipper. He tried to zip me up, yanking at the dress as if no one was inside of it. “It doesn’t fit,” he said. He turned to the bride, and said as if I wasn’t right there, “do you expect that she’ll lose the weight.” 

I could feel my chest tighten and my eyes begin to fill with tears. He began to say that they usually don’t hem dresses unless they fit. Still — not talking to me. I snapped, “we’ve established that it doesn’t fit, let’s hem the dress.” 

He huffed and puffed, but got to work. I felt like I was standing there in front of the mirror for ages. Crying quietly and trying to avoid my own reflection right there in front of me. When he was done I walked as quickly as I could back into the dressing room and closed the door. I felt like I was suffocating. 

When I doubt call your MOM

I took the dress off and immediately texted my mom. After that, I emailed the bridal shop where the dress was from and inquired about ordering a new dress. I was not about to ruin one of my best friend’s wedding — the people in my life are the most important thing to me. I didn’t care about how much money I would have to spend, I just wanted it fixed and I wanted it fixed yesterday. 

It was all I could think about the next few days. And when I found out the bride was also contacting the shop I panicked. I had become a problem. An added stress. 

For the next week I cried myself to sleep. I was exhausted. I was confused how this happened. But I knew that I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. 

Freedom from Shame

The SnapChat memory

Then I had a SnapChat memory from a year ago pop up. A mirror selfie at that 30+ pounds lighter time. And then I remembered. I hated my body then when I was thin, and I hated it now. It wasn’t all about the weight. 

And it wasn’t my fault. I, just like you, have grown up in a society and culture that glorifies certain bodies and demonizes others. Now I may have a larger body, but my body at my size, and my skin color still put me in a place of privilege when it comes to the most marginalized bodies. 

Regardless, I want to be free of the constant shame I have of my body. I want to walk around not focused on how I look and eat food without thinking people are watching me. I want to take a photo and not hate how I look. 

Making new meaning

Personally, I knew I could not accomplish this all on my own. So because I have the means, I made the decision to work with a body image and intuitive eating coach. 

Julie helped me to turn that negative bridesmaids dress experience into a story in which I decided to take the power back. For me, it is no longer a story about failure or sadness. It’s a story about me deciding that enough is enough. 

I can tell you that I’ve begun to notice small changes. The day of the wedding, after alterations that cost more than the dress itself, I fit into it like a glove. I was comfortable, I got my hair done, my nails done, and I did my makeup. And not once did I have anxiety about that dress. Not once did I think about how I looked. I strut my stuff with my head high, and I was present. I ate the absolutely delicious dinner and dessert without shame. I enjoyed every moment of two of my dearest friends getting married. For one night I was free. And I hope to share the rest of this journey to freedom with you. 

Mental Illness, Stigma, and the Dangers of Not Getting Help

So I’ve been putting this one off. And even as I sit here and begin to write I feel uneasy. Even though I am very open about my mental health, I still experience internally imposed and externally received stigma. I fully believe that it is part of what makes me who I am. Yet, I know it can make people uncomfortable and cause them to trust you less. And sometimes others even dismiss you as just being, “crazy.” This is the first blog about my mental health (cue the deep breathing exercises).

I myself had a very public major depressive episode, and eventual break. I know this still colors the perceptions that those around me have of me. And I still experience blame. There are people who say it is my fault and that I could have controlled it if I wanted to. I know that much of this stems from ignorance and lack of knowledge. But what I honestly must say to those people is, “kindly, fuck you.”

In this post I argue that my expletives are warranted. I know what can happen when you ignore your mental health – when hide that you are in pain. Today I’m not going to present you with my full story. Instead I will discuss the dangers of not getting help and the hindering role stigma plays in that process.  

Stigma & Unconscious Bias

A CDC study found that 57% of adults believed that people were caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness. But, only 25% of adults suffering from mental illness believed that people were caring and sympathetic towards them. Something called the Dunning-Kruger effect could explain this gap. This is the cognitive bias where people who are incompetent at something are not able to recognize their own incompetence.

As humans, I think we would all like to say we are caring to people who have a mental illness. But unfortunately, there is a deeply ingrained, unconscious bias at play. Take the following example. In the media, people are reduced to just being, “mentally ill” far too often. Instead, they should more respectfully be referred to as a, “person with a mental illness.”

By calling someone “mentally ill, you are not acknowledging that they are a person and not just that mental illness. That is a manifestation of bias. How often have you seen a news story about a, “mentally ill” person who has committed a crime? And how often do you independently associate mental illness with other behaviors that you would identify as “bad?”

A Single Story

Photo of Chimananda Ngozi Adichie with a quote that reads, "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

Let me tell you about a concept called the “single story,” created by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She uses this term to describe the overly simplistic, often stereotypical, perceptions that we form about individuals, groups, or countries. A lot of her work serves to complicate and disrupt the single stories that many people have about Africa. I think that there are also many single stories that people have about those who live with mental illness.

Let’s do an exercise. Picture a person with depression. How would you describe them? How do you know that they’re depressed? What type of person do you think that they are?

You can keep the answers to yourself, but I hope that you see a bit of what I’m getting at. I had a single story of mental illness, and because of that story, and the stigma I saw associated with it, I did not get help for almost ten years. Let me tell you why.

I was “high functioning.” I was always an “A” student, overly-involved in extracurriculars, and friends with a wide variety of people. Out of college I had a stable job, paid my bills, and was involved in my community. But I was living all this time with almost no quality of life. Six out of seven of the days of the week having thoughts of death and self-harm. This does not mean that I did not have happy moments, but that the pain I was experiencing kept me from truly valuing those moments.

So I hid what I was going through. On the one hand, I didn’t look or act like what I thought people with depression looked like. On the other hand, I didn’t want to make the important people in my life feel unvalued because of my lack of interest and extreme pain. And being in a family in which others suffered from mental illness, I didn’t want to add to any heartbreak. At one point early on I did seek help, but continued to minimize my symptoms to my doctor and to the people I cared about. I didn’t want to put my life on hold and I didn’t want to scare anyone.

The stigma of having a mental illness and stigma of taking the necessary time to treat one kept me from doing so. I didn’t see myself as sick enough to get help and I didn’t want to change what people thought of me. Eventually, I sunk into a major depressive episode. An episode that lasted over a year and a half, and that culminated with me self-harming.

Effects of Delaying Treatment

The longer that one waits to treat their mental illness, the more complicated it becomes and the harder it becomes to treat. Various preclinical studies have shown that delaying treatment of mental illness can cause untreated disorders to become more frequent, spontaneous, severe, and resistant to treatment.

Additionally, a single disorder will most likely progress to more complex comorbid disorders that are harder to treat. You will most likely begin to experience chronic physical problems such as insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, and even chemical changes to your brain and other organs.

Outside of affecting one’s health, leaving a mental illness untreated is correlated to school and job failure and early, unstable, and sometimes violent marriages. At the extreme, some experience bankruptcy or homelessness. Further, there is an increased risk of substance abuse, incarceration, accidents, and suicide.

For those with major depressive disorder, like myself, only 35% are treated within a year of first developing symptoms. For others it can take 4 years or more. Going over a decade without treatment has left me with a lot more challenges to overcome. In addition to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I also battle PTSD, and now have been classified as having medically-resistant depression as a result of long-term chemical changes in my brain.

Creating Conversation

This isn’t meant to scare anyone, but rather underscore that both stigma and lack of conversation are detrimental to those with mental illness. By othering those who have a mental illness, we push them into a state of fear when it comes to talking about and seeking help for what they are going through. If we can make mental health a part of everyday conversation, then we will create an environment that empowers people to take care of themselves and supports them throughout that process.

Personally, I did not start to get better until I independently made the decision myself to get the real help that I needed. I sometimes think that if our culture was more open and inclusive of people with mental health issues, that I would have sought help sooner. That I would have saved myself years of being numb. But I also had to come to terms with the fact that depression was going to be a companion to me for the rest of my life. It is something that I need to work each day to address. And with that I’ve slowly started to become less ashamed. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my depression.

Irish musician Niall Breslin said something about his depression that resonates with me. Breslin said: “It’s always given me an edge, over everybody else. I truly believe it’s given me an edge, because with depression, nothing can be as bad as that day when you’re stuck in your bed and you can’t get up, and you cannot look at anybody in the eye. So that’s how it’s given me an edge.”

Getting Help

If you are struggling with any kind of emotional distress or mental illness and need to seek help, please utilize one of the resources below:

Psychology Today – Find A Therapist, Counselor – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists

National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 1-800-273-8255

National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline – 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org