My Weightloss (and Weight gain) Story.

I was 16 years old when I decided enough was enough. I was overweight and I despised myself for it. I would wear a large baggy sweatshirt to cover my lumps, even if it was 95 degrees. At lunch time, I would hide in classrooms where I could finally take off the sweatshirt to cool off. During class time, I was constantly obsessing with how fat my body felt, and how sweaty I was from the sweatshirt. I couldn’t pay attention to the material and I received poor grades. People thought I was just unintelligent (at least that is what the school bullies where telling me). 


I was sick of it. I was depressed. It was time for a major life change. I got down to serious business with my eating and exercise. I started to wake up at 5 a.m. to practice yoga. For breakfast, I would eat an apple with peanut butter and drink a coffee black. During the school day I would either skip snack time or eat celery. For lunch, I would eat one cup of nonfat plain yogurt and a handful of carrots. After school, I would run one mile around the soccer field and then do twenty minutes of weight lifting. My mother would pick me up soon after. I often complained how hungry I felt. “That’s the feeling of you losing weight.” She would tell me. 

For dinner, I allowed myself to eat whatever my parents cooked. But, under NO circumstances, would I have second helpings or dessert.

Two months later, I was down 25 pounds. I was ecstatic! I finally felt comfortable to wear fitted shirts. I threw my baggy sweatshirt away. Suddenly people who had always ignored me wanted to chat with me. Boys became interested in me. I could finally relax and pay attention in class; I was making A’s. As far as I was concerned, weight loss was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was finally a respected human again. 

                                                                
I maintained my weight loss more or less for the next six years. At the beginning of college, I gained some weight but it was mostly in muscle from cross country. I was by no means a cursed “fat person.” 

In my second year of college, I became severely depressed and I went from 135 pounds to 150 pounds. My kind-of-sort-of boyfriend at the time told me that I needed to get “control” of myself because he wanted to have sex with someone he was attracted to. A family member told me that wearing leggings was me fooling myself from the truth. 

I got back to business. I ate quinoa and lentils for meals. I worked out 90 minutes a day at high intensity. My weight went back down. But my self esteem and body image remained damaged. 

In the years to follow, I always assumed the worse about my body. I assumed that I was too fat to be respected. Too fat for someone to want to have sex with. Too fat to be loved. I was constantly testing if my negative thoughts were true. I would go on Tinder dates that I didn’t even care about, to see if the guy would like me— or really, like my body. I would stay up all night writing long stories and essays, to prove to myself that I am a hard worker (which was respectable in my book). I had romantic flings with people who were completely incompatible only because I needed proof that someone could still love me. 

All of this when I was still in what’s considered a “healthy weight range.”

My senior year of college knocked me on my ass. It was emotionally taxing, challenging, and even frightening at times. I fell into a depressive episode during the Fall semester, and went on medical leave. When I returned from medical leave, I had gained 30 pounds. I could see my friends’ faces express surprise and shock when they first saw me. My heart hurt. 

Throughout the rest of the final semester, I made a series of desperate attempts to lose weight. I would have only salad for lunch and dinner. I would ban dessert and alcohol from my diet. But these attempts never lasted more than a few weeks. 

                                                                                  
All while this was happening, I was losing motivation to exercise. I kept experiencing pain in my foot during track practice— which prevented me from logging the mileage that was expected of me. I privately blamed the pains and aches on my newfound weight. I felt so angry at myself for getting so heavy. “You’ve become a lazy fat ass, Maura! You can barely even finish the 3 mile shakeout runs.” I would think to myself. 

I felt that everyone was judging me; that I have lost the respect of my team and friends. Most importantly and unfortunately, I lost my self-respect. I quit the track team (something I would have never in a million years imagined), and I hyper-focused on my thesis. 

My thesis was and had always been a major distraction from my anxieties. In the Fall semester, I used my thesis work as a cover for my anxiety about finding a post-college job. In the Spring semester, my thesis was a distraction from my poor body image. 

When it was time to go to sleep, I would lie in bed and squeeze the fat on my stomach. How many rolls can the fat make? If I make more than two rolls, then I’m “too fat” and “disgusting.” I was so obsessed with counting rolls, I couldn’t sleep. So, to distract myself, I would get up and work on my thesis for a few more hours. Sometimes, I would wake up at 4 am because I could feel my stomach rolls or my double chin — how that bothered me! I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, so I would just work on my thesis. I barely gave attention to other classes.

I thought that receiving a good grade on my thesis would disprove my self-hatred. Being fat meant that I was lazy and stupid; that I was undisciplined. And who would hire someone like that? Who would befriend that? I sure as hell wouldn’t! 

And guess what? I received an A on my thesis. The College News wrote about me on the front page for it. The college asked to publish a report about the project on their website. I still hated myself. The hard work, the grade, and the recognition didn’t do shit for me.


After graduation, I discovered that the “body positive movement” is alive and well on Instagram. I obsessively followed these accounts. “Bopo” advocates essentially preach that weight does not equal value. Rationally, I completely agree. And yet, I still fight every day to keep the negative thoughts at bay. I am my own worst bully. 

My poor body image has significantly damaged my mental health and productivity. While I could be applying to jobs, I am instead in front of the mirror analyzing my side profile. When I could be spending quality time with my partner, I am curled up in large sweatshirt obsessively reading nutrition books. Every meal is a battle. And when it’s not mealtime, all I can think about is what I am going to chose to eat at the next mealtime. It feels like I lose every battle. 

Time and time again my partner reminds me, “It’s confidence that is attractive, not having the smallest body in the world.” 

Ah, the age old “confidence is sexy” advise. But why do I even care what he or any man finds attractive? I mean, sure, it matters that my partner is attracted to me. The others shouldn’t matter. And yet, I find myself worrying if everyone else finds me attractive? WHY?? I suspect that it has something to do with women being hyper-sexualized in our society. A woman can either be sexy or not. If she is sexy, then she has value. If she is not, then don’t waste your time. 

Nearly every commercial is a tall, thin, white woman enjoying the product in the most seductive way possible. Many of times I have talked to men, and when they found out that I have a partner– they immediately left the conversation. “Oops! Can’t sex with her. No point continuing the conversation!” 

Often, I overhear my partner’s guy friends talk about who got with who. And if a friend of theirs got with a “fat girl” then everyone makes fun of him. Her confidence, intelligence, and humor be damned. 

As I am typing this, I am realizing that so much of this revolves around a man’s opinion of a woman. As a graduate from a Seven Sister’s college, I am embarrassed to put so much weight and value on what men think. Didn’t I learn better?

I wish that I could end this essay with a clear message. The truth of the matter is that, when it comes to body image, I am quite lost. I rationally know that I am a strong-willed, intelligent, talented, and funny person. And yet, my body image pushes those strengths out of view. I am left thinking that I am just a fat girl: lazy, stupid, undisciplined, and unworthy of respect. 

If you are someone who is struggling with poor body image, maybe you can take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. To add, there are some things that have helped me alleviate the hurt and alienation:

Following body positive accounts on Instagram. I like to follow @bodyposipanda, @omgkenzieee, @sarahsapora, and @ ___halle__.

Writing down five cheerleading statements a day. My cheerleading statements today are: 1. I am an accomplished individual. 2. I feel sad and I will be okay. 3. I am in a loving and supportive relationship. 4. I am a hard worker and my degree is proof of that. 5. I will score a job that makes me happy. 

Talking it out through therapy. I recognize that a huge part of my self-hatred is based on cognitive distortions. Therapy helps me recognize which thoughts are distortions and how to reverse them. 

Exercise. I say this not as an effort to lose weight, but to gain endorphins. I have always loved exercise, no matter what size I am. A good run to get a clear head. Elliptical to go hard while jamming to music. Swimming if you’re the ambitious type. 

In conclusion, everyone’s body positive journey is different. Mine is just beginning. I don’t know the answer to finding happiness with your body, but I certainly know that my current habits, thoughts, and feelings are making me feel like shit. If anyone has any insight, please comment on the post or email me directly at maura.fitzpatrick93@gmail.com. 

<3,

Napo

Experiencing Depression and Anxiety But Got Shit to Do? Try This.

I am no stranger to symptoms of mental illness coming at the most untimely of times. In college, I would have to wake up at five in the morning, do two hours of studying, work out, eat breakfast, two more hours of studying, attend three hours of class, more studying, track practice, go to work, and then more studying. That schedule doesn’t leave much space for laying in bed, as depressed as Eeyore. But ya’ know, I have Bipolar and, unfortunately, I get depressed whether it’s convenient or not. 

Painting from a tough depressive episode in college

I’ve spent five years learning how to best prepare myself for these inevitable slumps. Am I always successful at staying productive whilst depressed? Hell no, girl. Far from it. But, I am much better at kicking ass during these episodes than I was in high school and the beginning of college. In this post, I will share my top three tips for staying focused on your goals while coping with mental illness episodes.

1.) Get professional help.

This is #1 on the list for a damn good reason. Listen, mental illness is just that — an illness. It’s not laziness. It’s not being over dramatic. It’s not being a bad or selfish person. It’s as serious as any other physical illness. If you got a kidney stone, you would seek treatment, right? Right. So, why wouldn’t you seek treatment for this illness? 

Everyone needs a different treatment cocktail. There are many options: individual therapy (CBT, DBT, etc.), psychiatry (AKA medications), group therapy, and even treatment centers. Personally, I need once a week therapy, 0.5 mg of Abilify/day, and 600 mg of Trileptal/day. Sometimes I need more therapy. Sometimes I need to change my medication. But I try to always stay on top of it. Sometimes, I will trick myself into thinking that I don’t need medication because I feel fine. I go off the medicine, things are okay for a few weeks, and then the next thing I know I’m laying in a dark closet, unable to move. 

This girl once retorted, “But medication messes with my brain.” I mean, yeah… that’s the whole point. 

Also, I recognize that treatment can be very expensive. There are ways to get discounts on medicine and free support groups exist. Even still, it can be costly and I totally get why that would make someone pause about seeking professional help. Then again, what are you without your health? 

2.) Tell your social and professional networks what you need.

For the first half of college, I refused to tell anyone that I was feeling depressed. I would stay up until 5 a.m. journaling like a mad man, and then sleep in and miss all of my classes. Repeat hundreds of times. Of course, this severely damaged my GPA. It wasn’t until I returned to college after a two year medical leave that I decided to tell my Dean, my professors, and my friends that I have Bipolar. 

Not only did I tell them that I have a mental illness, but I told them what I need from them. This is paramount. 

It’s not enough to simply tell someone that you struggle with anxiety, depression, and/or a disorder because most people are not going to understand what that means. My friends were originally very uncomfortable with the news of my diagnosis. “Does that mean that we have to go console Maura for hours when she is down?” Of course not. They, too, have busy and stressful lives. They don’t always have the emotional capital to hear me vent for an hour. I get that. If I want to ramble on and cry for an hour, I go to my therapist. 

I told my friends that there are really only two small things that I need from them when I am down: a validating comment (“I’m sorry that you are feeling really sad. That must be really hard.”) and a reminder that the episode will pass. Everything else falls on the professional help that I pay for. This is how I maintain healthy relationships with my friends when I’m in the hole.

As for college faculty and staff, I relied heavily on my Dean. I used my Dean as my advocate for whenever I was going through an episode. If a professor was not being very understanding (though most profs were), he would reach out to them and encourage them to give me an extension. Last Fall, I had to go to the hospital for a week due to a severe manic-depressive episode and my dean was able to haggle a month extension for me on my thesis deadlines. That was a life saver for my grades. It gave me the time to fully recover so that I could produce the good quality work that I know I am capable of.

Now, your employer… to tell or not to tell? That is the (seriously hard) question. I cannot really give too much advice on this. I have almost always told my employers that I have Bipolar because I am an open person, but I completely understand why you wouldn’t tell your employer. I am applying to jobs right now. In all applications, there is a section that asks if you would like to declare a disability. Bipolar is listed as a disability, and I always hesitate to declare it. Legally, the employer isn’t supposed to discriminate but… do they really turn a blind eye to that?

Outside of the obvious risks of telling your employer, there are some pros. I told my last employer that sometimes I need to take ten minute walks when I am feeling symptomatic. Occasionally, I need to take an hour to attend a therapist appointment. Very rarely, I will need days off. I always produce A-quality work, and in order to do that, I need these little breaks sometimes. They were, fortunately, very understanding and accommodating. 

3.) Chart your emotions and behaviors.

I learned this from a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) group. Essentially, you make a chart of emotions and behaviors that either help or hurt your mental wellness. Below is an example chart from a few years back. My only emotion to track at the time was sadness. Today, I include “Joy” as one of the emotions. I was also concerned about my productivity, exercise, eating, and writing. I added a notes section so I can understand a little more about that day and it might shed a little meaning behind the scores. I applied yellow highlights for exceptionally positive results, such as have “0” sadness. Whenever my sadness hit the highest score, I highlighted the day in red. These highlights allowed me to see patterns and how they correlate to my activities and behaviors.


Being aware of my day-to-day emotions helps me understand what I can do the next day to improve. For example, seeing constant 5’s for sadness, even when my exercise and eating were on point, helped me realize that I needed to break up with my boyfriend at the time. Once I did that, I suddenly was seeing streaks of yellow highlights !

If anyone is interested in setting up their own wellness and empowerment chart, I would be happy to help you ! Just shoot me an email (located at the bottom of this page). 

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In conclusion, even though you can’t help experiencing depression and anxiety, you can prepare yourself to make those bad days go a little more smoothly. These three tips have helped me recover from those inevitable slumps much more quickly. Thus, I could get back to pursuing my ambitions!
Love and Strength,

Napo

Redefining Napo’s World. 

Good morning, friends!

I originally wanted this blog to be for the “young ambitious woman,” but I realized that I am not exactly full of wisdom on that subject. I am only at the beginning of pursuing my greatest ambitions, so I don’t have much to say.
I, however, am well-versed in mental health and wellness. In fact, it is because that I am an ambitious person that mental health is an extremely pertinent issue. If you have read my writing before, you know that I have Bipolar II. I often struggle with anxiety, mood swings, and the occasional manic-depressive episode. These symptoms have proved to be major road bumps in my journey toward “success.”
I have been hospitalized three times, taken medical leave from college twice, and admitted to a residential treatment center once. I have spent thousands of dollars in medications, therapists, and psychiatrists. I have lost relationships. I have contemplated suicide. I have hurt my GPA. I’ve done it all.
And yet, I have also accomplished a great deal. I graduated from a great college. I have worked on several campaigns. I am a strong and accomplished fundraiser. I ran an entire program as an intern at a nonprofit. I wrote a senior thesis. I hosted a deliberative forum.
What I am trying to say is that despite severe symptoms of mental illness, I have still experienced success and achievement. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work. And it was done in the most ungraceful way possible. But it was still done. I will accomplish much greater than this, too.

If you are a person living with mental illness and you also have great ambition, then this blog is for you. Join me in my journey of self-love, self-care, and reaching for the stars. Because you deserve it.
I’ll try to write at least once a week. I really struggle with judging my own writing. As my friends and I used to grumble during the late nights of college: “Words on a page. Just get words on the page.” Not everything I’m going to write will be relevant for all people. Hell, it might only be relevant to one person. If it can help at least that one person feel less alone, then I’ve done my job.

Realist Woman of the Week: Annie Rogoff

Annie Rogoff, Paralegal, U.S. Department of Justice

Follow Annie on Instagram!

 

Annie Rogoff, 22, is our first Realist Woman of the Week! She graduated from Vanderbilt University with a political science bachelors degree. Annie currently lives in Washington D.C.

I visited Annie this weekend in D.C. and it was quite the blast to the past! The last time I saw Annie in person was ten years ago in an all-girls boarding school. While our experiences at boarding school were very negative, we bonded over the struggle together.

Why did I ask Annie to be the first RWoW? Well, despite experiencing some seriously rough times throughout her life, Annie has pushed the limit of “idealism” and has achieved some amazing, real things.

At Vanderbilt, Annie co-founded a nonprofit called “The Dara House.” This organization provides safe housing and treatment for women who have been sexually assaulted on college campuses. While she was a college student herself, she oversaw the daily operations of Dara House, as well as organized major fundraising events.

Annie has also worked a lot within law offices as a legal intern, paralegal specialist, and a legal assistant. Today she works for the United States Department of Justice!

Who is your role model? Why?

Annie immediately answered, “My grandparents, but particularly my grandfather.” She explained that her grandfather was a man of strong moral character. “He was a doctor and served the greater Plainfield NJ community.” He treated injured soldiers during the Korean War. Annie fondly remembered one story that highlighted the core values of her grandfather, “There were two patients. There was a higher ranked, white officer with a light cold. And there was a lower ranked, black soldier who was extremely sick. He was told to tend to the higher ranked officer first. My grandfather refused and tended to the lower ranked soldier, because he did not believe in racial hierarchies and he believed in tending to the sickest first. He was extremely humble.” She further explained that while her grandfather was extremely stoic and quiet, he had strong compassion for others.

Annie also strongly admires her grandmother. “She went to Northwestern University and Smith College to become a social worker. I never heard much about her accomplishments. She is very humble. She is someone who can walk into a room and make anyone feel better.”

Annie concluded, “Unfortunately, my grandfather passed, but my grandma is still alive. Through leading by example, both of them instilled within me the importance of helping others and being and being a kind and moral person.”

What is your biggest ambition/dream? How are you working toward it?

Annie has many goals. She asked me if I wanted her 30 year, 40 year, or 50 year goal. It old her to tell me whichever one is her most important.  “After law school I plan to work for the government. My goal at the end of the day, is to work as a constitutional law and civil rights attorney working on issues relating to mass incarceration, the war on drugs, equal rights, women’s rights, and civil rights law. I hope to do this building my legal resume enough to transfer to the ACLU or the Innocent Project. I even have hopes to run for office one day.” I asked her which office, and she said that she will run for U.S. Senator. My vote is with her!

What are you proud of about yourself?

For the first time, there was a moment of silent reflection. Soon enough, Annie continued, “I’m just proud that I’ve been able to grow as a person. I’m proud of the fact that I have been able to overcome painful experiences and use those experiences to train myself into becoming a victims advocate. This has allowed me to involve myself in issues such as violence against women, and establish a meaningful nonprofit.”

What are some things that you have been called an idealist for, and that you still did anyway?

Annie stated that a lot of people have told her that she cannot help everyone. “I’ve been called an idealist for working hard to help those going through trauma, relating to college campus sexual assault. I’ve been called an idealist for working hard to establish a nonprofit. ” I asked her if that ever stopped her. “Nuh-uh.”

Do you have any advice for other ambitious young women?

Annie had many tips:

“I think that you should not only follow your heart, but you should also follow your gut. Your heart tells you what you want and your tells you what’s right and what’s wrong.”

“Don’t hold yourself back based on an experience that you had that wasn’t positive. If you’re in an uncomfortable spot where you feel lost, that’s okay. Often times when you are in a spot that you feel lost in your career, that is the time to do some soul searching.”

She concluded her monologue with this:

“The best advice that I can give someone is to do each day 1% better than the last. If you have a goal, it’s definitely possible to achieve it as long as you know can do the hard work. There have been times in my life that I have been my biggest enemy.”

I really enjoyed spending this weekend with this Realist Woman! Thank you for all of the great words of wisdom, Annie!

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Annie and me!

 

 

 

On Starting a Blog

I have been trying to start this damn blog for weeks and weeks. I have upwards of twenty unfinished draft posts, and I am always way too afraid to post them. Why? Because I’m afraid of judgement! I am afraid that people will see the description of the blog and think, “What the hell does Maura know about ambition?”

But ya know what? Who fucking cares.

I mean, isn’t that the whole point of this blog? In today’s world- in all of history’s world- women are shamed for acting on their ambition and their dreams. There are countless times that I have pitched an idea, only to be told that I’m too “idealist.” Geez, I hate that condescending word.

But, I am going to stop the negativity there. I want my blog to be a positive space for young, ambitious women to visit when they are tired of the negativity they face on a day to day basis. This is a blog that will shamelessly celebrate and promote the major qualities of young ambitious women: strength, candor, grit, and creativity.

How will I do this?

Realist Woman of the Week


Every Monday, I will post a “Realist Woman of the Week” (RWoW). The RWoW is a woman who does things that she is surely called an idealist for. This could be someone who started her own company, to someone who traveled around the world in one year, to someone who is writing her own book. The point is to redefine what is considered “realistic.” These are women who are doing amazing, real things due to their amazing, real strengths.

Weekly Lessons


Every Friday, I will publish an essay about a lesson I learned that week. This could be about anything. For example, I will probably post a lot about lessons I have learned from job hunting– as that is something I am currently pursuing. Another example would be a lesson about organizing events or people. Pretty much anything that I have learned which has helped me advance my own ambitions.

Personal Essays


Outside of these strict post deadlines, I will occasionally post essays or articles about certain opinions or experiences that I have experienced which have transformed me into who I am today. I will also post submissions from other women writers!

Atlanta Snapshots


And finally, just for fun, I might occasionally post about cool things to do in Atlanta since this is an Atlanta-based blog. Probably full of instagram-worthy photos.

 

So, there you have it. This is the current game plan of my blog. I hope that the content is relevant to you and that you will contribute if you feel like you have something to say!

Cheers,

Napo

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Bryn Mawr and the Beast: Coping with Bipolar II in a Competitive College Environment

 

“Hey, what time did you wake up today?” Saskia asked me. It was 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. I was still in my pajamas and had just brewed my first cup of coffee for the day. I dipped my finger into a Costco-sized jar of Nutella. “You don’t want to know.” My roommate frowned. She had stopped by the room to put down her books from her morning classes, and pick up more books for the afternoon. Leaving the room, she warned, “Maura, try not to skip class today. Again.”

My stomach dropped. Class.

I had only been at Bryn Mawr for two months, and I already shuddered at the thought of class. Particularly French class. I came to college with high ambitions. I wanted to take over the French department. I wanted to get a Master’s degree along with my Bachelors. A coup du diplôme, if you will.

But instead, I found myself in my room on the second floor of Brecon, Nutella on my fingers, skipping my sixth French class in a row. I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it was that made it so easy to skip class. Perhaps it was the cold embarrassment of stuttering through a presentation. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t fall asleep before 4 a.m. and couldn’t wake up before 2 p.m. Perhaps it was because I spent 30 hours a week at a local campaign office, a place that I felt useful. Perhaps it was because I found myself manically writing books for a French boy I hadn’t seen in three years, and then in the next second—I would be sobbing on the floor of the common room at 3 a.m. There was only one reasonable explanation for this behavior.

“I’m just lazy,” I thought.

A year and a half later, I am in an evaluation room at a psychiatric hospital in Georgia. “You’re clearly Bipolar,” a woman told me apathetically. “I’m what?” I hissed. “Suicidal ideation. Highs and lows. Can’t go to class or fulfill your responsibilities. Soul-sucking…” She checked her notes, “emptiness.” The next thing I knew, I was in an open-back gown, sitting on a dirty laminate floor for 10 hours a day – praying to be released or dead.

In the summer of 2014, I was admitted to a residential treatment center in Atlanta. My assigned therapist asked me why I was here. “I’m Bipolar,” I told her. Her brow furrowed. “You have Bipolar. You’re not Bipolar.” I just stared at her with bewilderment. “Maura, you have a mental illness, but you are not your illness. Does that make sense?”

It didn’t at the time. In my personal experience, the symptoms of my mental illness often feel like they are simply character flaws. That I’m just a lazy person. A sensitive person. As my dad would often shout, a “drama queen.” Even many medical professionals view mental illness as your identity. The nurse in the evaluation room of the psychiatric hospital told me that I am Bipolar, not that I have Bipolar disorder. Another patient in the ward was crying because she was scared from her hallucinations, and a social worker told her to “shut up already.”

It took five months of treatment at possibly the best therapeutic center in the country to finally believe that I am a separate individual from my illness. After months of daily dialectical behavioral therapy sessions, I could finally look at myself in the mirror and say, “I am worthwhile. I am smart. I am a hard worker. I deserve happiness. I have Bipolar and I will be a successful adult.” I could finally return to Bryn Mawr after a two year long leave of absence.

In Fall of 2015, I moved back to Bryn Mawr’s campus. I was determined to use what I learned from the treatment center to thrive in this challenging environment. Take your meds. Go to therapy weekly. Exercise daily. Tell your professors when things are going wrong. Have your dean’s cell phone on speed dial (Thanks, Dean Heyduk).

But my biggest goal was to be open about my past. To never hide the fact that I suffer from mental illness. When I think back to my freshman year of college, I can’t help but wonder what I would have done if I talked to people who discussed the dangers of stress rather than glorify it. What if my professors reached out to me, after missing six classes in a row, and asked me if everything is alright? What if someone suggested therapy to me as a good thing, instead of something to be ashamed of?

Now, I don’t fault other people for the abyss that is Bipolar II and the damage it can do to a GPA. But I do recognize that our campus has a culture of silence about mental illness. When I find myself in a depressive episode and stuck in bed all day, I am often tempted to tell my professors that I have the flu or some other illness that is socially acceptable. When I’m walking across campus with the weight of ten million things and I’m starting to break down, I’m overwhelmed with the urgency to hide, to not be found out for being unable to gracefully handle my course load.

Furthermore, the college as a whole is not on the same page on how Bryn Mawr should view mental illness. I know professors who are very supportive and accommodating when I find myself in a manic or depressive episode. And there are professors who clearly don’t view mental illness as a reality. This past November, I was hospitalized for a week during a particularly bad manic-depressive period. When I returned to campus, one of my professors told me that, despite being in the hospital, I would still be marked down for turning in my work late by a full letter grade. “Sorry, it’s out of my hands. You can’t just turn work in late and receive no penalty.”

The week approaching that hospitalization, I called the Health Center. “Hi. I have Bipolar II and I am experiencing really bad highs and lows on a daily basis. This is an emergency. I need to see a psychiatrist.” They told me that they will get back to me. Three days later they finally called back to tell me that I could take an appointment slot in two weeks. “But this is an emergency.” They told me to hold on and hang in there.

I do reflect on what are the responsibilities of the college when it comes to mental health. Where does one draw the line in regard to level of care? This March, I convened a deliberative forum on the topic of mental health on campus. 18 students came together for two hours to discuss the central concerns in regard to mental health at Bryn Mawr and recommend changes for improvement.  All in all, there was a lot of discussion about the lack of preventative care for students. The college is quick to jump on assigning a psychiatrist or encouraging medical leave when a student is on the brink of suicide or is already self-harming. But where is the effort to reduce these instances?

Why aren’t there more full-time personnel in the counseling center? Why aren’t there more persons of color or queer persons in the counseling center? Can the self-care campaign be expanded to more strategic coping skills than just eating sweets and taking baths? Can Bryn Mawr establish more spaces for relaxation rather than studying? How can we stop glorifying stress on campus? Shouldn’t the college mandate to all professors that mental illness is an observed reality and that a student shouldn’t be penalized for experiencing the harsh symptoms of their illness? These are all questions that came up during the forum and often swirl through my mind.

I don’t know where the line is when it comes to the level of care a college should provide for students. What I do know is that Bryn Mawr’s spirit is about uplifting its students and launching them into success. It’s high time that we start including mental health care with that mission.

 

Please Love Me So I Can Love Myself.

 

“Maura, I like you a lot. However, I do not love you and I have realized that I will never love you. Though, I still really enjoy your company and I want to continue to date if you want to.” I stared out ahead into the distance, unable to meet Max’s eyes. It was a stunning first day of spring in Philadelphia. Finally, I could lounge outside without wearing a coat. Flowers were blooming everywhere making Bryn Mawr College’s campus even more beautiful. It was the perfect moment to tell my boyfriend that I love him and him to tell me that he feels the same way.

I didn’t tell Max that I loved him out on that stone patio. I told him the night before in bed. We were cuddling like usual and I could hear his breath slowing into a soft slumber. I met Max during a meteor shower the night before our colleges broke for a six-week long winter vacation. We counted shooting stars together, drank milkshakes from the college café, and talked about our lives before college. The next morning, I flew back to Georgia and he flew back to Oregon. We talked to each other every night through Skype calls. We made a to do list of fun activities for when we returned to school. Max and I were like opposites. He was rationally-minded. I was emotionally-minded. He was a science major. I was a political science major. He was from the Pacific Northwest. I was from the South Atlantic. He hated running. I ran for my college.

But Max was also a great listener. And I was a great talker. He was safe to confide in about any thought, feeling, and anxiety. I had felt very depressed and lonely all throughout my first semester, and I was so relieved to have met someone that could spend time with me, study with me, and most importantly, give me affection. Suddenly, I felt motivated to do well in the courses I had been struggling in. I felt energized to train even harder for my track team. I felt good and it was all thanks to having a boyfriend.

The semester blew by quickly. I found myself spending every night with Max. Outside of school and our sports teams, we spent most moments together. Our rare “fights” were more like scholarly debates. We never seemed to grow tired of each other. It was a honeymoon feeling that never went away and that was A-Ok with me. As summer break drew closer and closer, I started to question what that meant for our relationship. Would we do long distance? Would we break up? I thought, “Surely, we won’t break up. There are absolutely no issues with this relationship. Why would we break up?”

I began to feel self-doubt. I didn’t know how I could do without the daily affection. Before our relationship, I was alone and I felt miserable. I cried nearly every day. I skipped class constantly. I would stay awake journalling until 3 o’clock in the morning and then sleep until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I felt guilty for missing my courses but I hated myself too much to do anything about it. I was a sinking ship and the only person who had a clue was my roommate. Needlesstosay, my parents were shocked when they saw my transcripts. I had withdrawn from two courses and almost failed the other two. This was unacceptable. They warned me that if I could not raise my GPA during the second semester, I would have to return to Atlanta for a year. That was the last thing I wanted to happen.

I thought it only reasonable that I try to push my relationship to the next level with Max. That way, we would definitely survive the summer apart and I would feel confident enough in myself to withstand a summer alone. That April night, my mind scrambled on how to tell Max that I love him. I did not know how he felt about me and, to be honest, I am not sure that I really knew how I felt about him either. But I needed to do this. I needed to do this so I could be okay.

I could hear him falling into a deeper sleep and time was running out. I gave him a gentle nudge. “Max?” He gave me a warm squeeze and sleepily replied, “Mhm?” I felt stricken with a silent panic. What am I thinking? What if he doesn’t feel the same way? What if I don’t really feel this way to begin with? And then I remembered that summer was coming. Summer was coming and I was going to be alone. I had to do this. I took a deep breath and mumbled a shaky, “I love you.” Immediately I knew that it was a bad idea. I threw my hands over my face, prepared for the inevitable blow.

After a minute of reflective silence, Max gave me another squeeze. “I am really honored that you love me, but I do not feel the same way at this time.” There was another moment of silence and another squeeze, “But that doesn’t mean that I will never love you. I just need more time.” I said, “Okay” and he fell back asleep. I stayed awake cursing myself for being so juvenile.

That next afternoon, he came to Bryn Mawr to talk to me. We sat out on comfy, red lounge chairs on the stone patio of Rhodes Hall. It overlooked the duck pond, an expansive green, and blooming cherry blossom trees. The sun felt nice on the back of my neck. The dining hall was serving mexican food for lunch. It was a perfect day and I felt perfectly ashamed of myself. I wanted to throw that embarrassing moment deep into the back of my mind, never to be found again.

Max held my hand when he told me that he would never love me. I remember the words swirling around my head for a long minute before I could really grasp what he was saying. I thought to myself, “How do I react to this kind of statement? What do I think of it? How do I feel? I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know what is going to happen.” I began to cry. I tried to back peddle on my words from the night before. “When I said that I love you last night, I didn’t mean that I am in love with you. I just meant that I really care about you and love you like that. You know?” He stayed firm. “I don’t love you. I’m sorry.”

I felt confused. If he knew that he would never love me, why would he continue to date me? Why would he continue, what I considered to be, a very intimate relationship? He explained to me that love is the commitment to do anything for your lover, no matter the cost. That whomever he ends up loving one day will be someone who he feels a fiery, intense passion for and sorry, but that just wasn’t me. Honestly, I really couldn’t blame him. We had a really lovely, simpatico relationship, but he knew that there was something even better out there for him. Why settle for less?

As for me, why was I pushing love to augment a relationship that was just fine as it was? I felt that if someone else loved me, if my boyfriend loved me, I could learn to love myself. I needed someone else’s permission to love, motivate, and trust myself. I depended on the affection of others to be successful and it destroyed my academic ambitions at this college.

It took me a couple of days to get over it, but Max and I continued to date happily throughout the rest of the semester. When summer break rolled around, we agreed to discontinue our monogamous relationship but to stay close friends. I did not raise my GPA enough by my parents’ terms to return to Philadelphia. That time was followed by a tumultuous year of other codependent relationships, failed academic dreams, and growing mental health challenges. By spring time that next year, I found myself involuntarily admitted into a psychiatric hospital for five painfully long days. After discharge, I was moved into a residential treatment mental health care facility for five more months.

At the treatment center, I discovered the meaning of “self-love.” I found confidence in myself without depending on the affection of others. I began to truly understand that I am not defined by the actions or words of others, but by how I choose to perceive myself in the most challenging of situations. Instead of waiting for others to treat me with compliments and cuddles, I treat myself with delicious Vietnamese phō noodle soup, working out, drawing, and eating raw brownie batter. I celebrate every victory no matter how small. It has really made a difference in how I feel about myself and how I behave toward others now. For the first time in my life, I have been able to advocate for myself and end relationships that I know are unhealthy for me.

I am currently single and while I do enjoy to go on occasional dates, I do not need a boyfriend to feel good. I feel good on my own. Relationships are no longer a way to gain confidence, but instead an opportunity to develop a meaningful, heartfelt connection with another self-loving human being.  They do not define anything about me and it is fucking great.

These days, I sometimes choose to kick back and relax by whipping together a bowl of dark chocolate raw brownie batter (brand name because I love myself) and dig in while I read my journal entries from that week in April freshman year. I laugh at my over dramatic sentences, my poor handwriting and my longing to have sex with Jake Gyllenhaal. That is really all that I can do. That is all that I need to do.