My Pursuit of Physical Health Cost Me My Mental Health

And how I’m now learning to prioritize both.

I suppose you could say that I developed a passion for fitness as an adult. I will admit that I didn’t actually choose to break a sweat before the age of 20. Every time before that it was purely an accident.

As a child, I was much more into poetry and music and animals. When I was in school, the prospect of participating in team sports or P.E. class was positively repugnant to me. Just the furthest thing from my wheelhouse. But once I reached college, and my small-town, pretty, girl-next-door appeal was challenged by the prevalence of party school, bikini-clad sorority sisters, I started to understand the allure of exercise…or at least I saw how I could use it to get what I always wanted — Acceptance.

And it was easy to feel like I was making healthy choices at first. Where once this self-proclaimed “not a morning person” would sleep until 10am, start the day with whatever leftovers were in the fridge — pizza, chicken fingers, spaghetti — with the motivation of self-loathing new within me, I was suddenly moved to hit the cardio machines at the gym by 6:20am. I also bought a copy of “The South Beach Diet,” and made myself nauseous eating eggs and turkey bacon every morning. Now, instead of hanging out with friends my own age, I would swim laps with the math professors before classes at 5am, attend classes during the day, catch an afternoon spin class and then run laps behind the track team in the outside arena as the sun would set and the throngs of mosquitos would form little gangs in the humidity of the Florida dusk; many a bug have I eaten on an evening run. It was a pretty drastic changeup for me, the girl who was literally picked last for every single kickball game on the playground since the dawn of time. It was a lot of exercise. I felt obsessed, but like…in a good way.

And then I found alcohol and I stopped exercising pretty abruptly. Wine and tequila, mostly. Not just most days, everyday. I had found it — the thing I needed to feel okay in my skin. Or to just not feel anything at all. I compensated for my new boozy lifestyle by becoming anorexic; counting my calories and limiting myself to about 400 or 500 a day. I remember only allowing myself to eat things that came in packages so that I’d be able to track exactly how much I was eating. The goal was to make it to 5pm with less than 500 calories and then I’d eat a bag of frozen vegetables for dinner. It was effective. I lost a lot of weight. And getting a buzz was really easy with nothing else in your stomach but snacks meant for a 6-year-old’s lunchbox. Looking back, that’s when the depression really got gnarly and unmanageable. But because I was drinking daily, I didn’t really think it was anything within my control to address. It just was what it was. This was my life.

My stint with full-fledged anorexia only lasted for about a year, and then I released my grip a little — I let myself get comfortable. Still no exercise, but now fancy snacks with my wine each evening, and I graduated to a comfortable 150 pounds. I’m a pretty tall girl so that’s perfectly healthy for me, but boy did I not feel healthy. The alcohol and cheese and chocolate made me feel about as sexy as a penguin. And the depression and self-loathing were becoming exceedingly more difficult to burry underneath the indulgence. But it took me a whole ten years to choose a different route.

I quit drinking when my son was five and my daughter was three…so that made me 30. I was never the blackout, drunk-driving, party-fun type of drinker. More so, I was the bottle and a half of wine every night, eating a box of Cheez-itz in her sweatpants while watching reality tv and dreaming of having a life of her own type. Wake up the next morning hating herself even more and wondering why she couldn’t have the body she always wanted, the sex life she always wanted, the career she always wanted type. Full of anxiety. Full of anger. Full of resentment toward a world that wouldn’t give her what she wished she believed she actually deserved.

Funny enough, as soon as I put down alcohol, I went back to exercising and dieting like it was my long lost love. At night, when the craving to unwind on the couch with a glass of Chardonnay came on strong, I left my sleeping babes with my husband and hit the neighborhood gym to move some heavy weights. And then I decided I would become a bodybuilder. Like…overnight. I quit drinking and then went straight to restrictive eating and profoundly overexercising — again. Tracking all my food. I bought a food scale. And I took “progress pics” in the mirror every morning, contorting my body into postures that looked like my spine was a question mark. But once again, it seemed like the healthier thing to do at the time. I was so proud of myself for quitting drinking, and who could argue that getting “ripped” was anything but empowering. Honestly, some nights it really did the trick. But if you were to zoom out and get a broader picture of the whole thing, you might suspect that this behavior pretty clearly reeked of self-destruction. I wanted it to be all good. But boy, did it backfire.

I worked really hard toward my goal of competing in a bodybuilding show. I hired a coach, spent thousands of dollars, food-prepped and woke up early to do my fasted cardio — posing practice and stripper heels, bulking and cutting. All the while, doing my best to be a mom. Doing my best to be a sober mom, and a wife and a daughter and a friend. There were plenty of times I thought: “What are you doing, Dayna?” “Is this the life you think you deserve? Weighing every ounce of food you put in your mouth?” But I was always tempted back to that image in my mind, that moment of victory. All my hard work would pay off. I’d be recognized for being the fittest, the most ripped and all those years of being just a normal, unspecial girl-next-door who nobody wanted on their kickball team would be forgotten.

I got within 9 days of stepping on the stage and then the voice inside of me screamed at me to not follow through with it. I felt like a liar. The little girl within me, the one who once sang along with every Disney movie and always rooted for the underdog, that inner child who had some pretty epic dreams for her adult-self new that something about this wasn’t right. If I were to step on that stage, knowing the truth about how I felt about my body and my self-worth, would I be betraying that little girl? Wouldn’t I just be a big phony? Sure, I was proud of how hard I had worked, proud of how physically strong I had become, but the desperation in my heart and the disappointment on my face was impossible to ignore. At the time, I didn’t understand the depth of why I couldn’t follow through with it, but looking back, I know it was because my ‘higher self’ was looking out for me. Underneath the profound insecurity and self-loathing, I knew I deserved more than that. Or at least I knew I deserved to feel better than that about whatever it was I decided to do. No, this wouldn’t do. I needed a new approach. So I caved. I opted out. I quit. Woohoo self-love!

And then I sank into the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced. I had wanted a new way of being, one that left room for enjoyment and acceptance and rest. I wanted to do yoga and eat like a normal person and love myself no matter what my body looked like and I assumed that I just had to decide to live a new way and it would happen. I was wrong. Turns out those protective, deeply-rooted, worth-earning practices die hard. I tried yoga and Veganism. I tried ultra-running and Keto. I pretended to train for an ironman and became addicted to the chiropractor because my bones started to ache to high heaven. I became obsessed with celery juice for a few weeks. I started to experience severe bloating and headaches, vision disturbances, weight gain, weight loss, dizziness and low blood pressure, heart palpitations and flutters. And I became pretty negative in all my relationships; irritable and resentful. So I started isolating and there was a week or so when I struggled to get myself off the couch at all.

And then I started having life-altering, terror-inducing panic attacks; the kind that make you feel like you’re having a heart attack and that you can’t leave your bed or your body will start to shut down. I couldn’t eat for a month and lost nearly 20 pounds; quite a lot for my frame. My eyes were sallow in my face and my cheeks were gaunt. And there was no respite from my terror. Even sleep brought panic-inducing visions of my loved ones dying. I would close my eyes and see walls of fire so visceral, so real. I started to experience something called ‘exploding head syndrome’ which is a lovely condition in which, as you fall asleep, the sensation of a shotgun shot resounds in your head and you feel as though your skull is literally exploding for a split second. So in my starving, devastated, exhausted state, falling asleep became yet another hurdle to overcome. There was nowhere to escape to. I wanted to drink. I wanted to smoke. I wanted to feel the emptiness of my stomach — to hear it churning and to feel the acid burning. There was a week or two I felt really scared that I wouldn’t survive but it was as though I was consciously walking my way into defeat. A part of me wanted to be happy, but a bigger part of me wanted to let the flames overtake me. I convinced myself that I now understood the pain that Robin Williams felt, that Anthony Bourdain felt before they decided to leave this place. That sadness nearly annihilated me and I cried to my therapist that I needed to find a way to survive for my kids. There is so so much shame in wanting to escape when you are a mother. I knew it didn’t mean that I didn’t love my kids more than anything — they were and are my world. I just knew I didn’t love myself and it became so painful that I didn’t know how to live through it any longer.

During that time, I spent a lot of hours on the internet trying to figure out what was happening to me. I was certain it was something I could fix with my diet or fitness regimen. Maybe it was a food intolerance, or I had taken too many protein supplements and messed up my amino acid profile, altering my body’s ability to produce serotonin. I was certain that my bloodwork would show I had a major thyroid problem, or that my hormones were out to kill me. Every time I stood up my eyes would go dark and I would nearly pass out. And every time I laid down, my heart would race up over 100 beats per minute. I used a smart watch to track my heart rate variability and sleep patterns, and tried to make changes in my lifestyle to alter the stats. Nothing worked. My heart continued to race and my sleep was always insufficient and fitful.

I started therapy and saw a doctor almost weekly while I was trying to get a grip on what was happening to me. Blood tests came back normal, and while I was diagnosed with Orthostatic Hypotension, a condition that meant altered blood pressure when moving from sitting to standing too fast, there seemed to be nothing else physically wrong with me. And all I was supposed to do to manage that was to drink more water. That felt like a nothing solution. And I still felt helpless to overcome what was physically and mentally happening to me. So I was prescribed an antidepressant. And boy was that the last thing this health-nut wanted. You can only imagine the depth of my devastation that in pursuit of perfect physical health, I would be relegated to the likes of “clinically depressed” — now dependent on a pill to keep living. It felt like such defeat. I had lost. What a failure.

I imagine that is a common experience, actually — the feeling of profound defeat of accepting help in the form of a pharmaceutical solution to solve a problem of pursuit of perfect health. I imagine a lot of women, especially, have had to face this feeling. In accepting help, one must simultaneously acknowledge failure of that pursuit. It feels really bad. It feels like the wrong choice to start taking a pill — to feel dependent. But for me, it also felt I had no other choice. I couldn’t navigate my way out of that hole. And because antidepressants take many weeks to work and can increase feelings of anxiety, at first, I knew I was walking into a deeper realm of hell before I was going to be able to come through to the other side, if even there was hope to come through, at all. It required a lot of faith, at a moment when faith felt impossible to come by. I realize this was the most true form of surrender I’ve ever experienced. When I truly felt there was no other choice for me and I had to give my life to whatever idea of God I had within me. And I’ll tell you that idea was not robust. God felt non-existent to me, at that moment.

But with the help of an amazing therapist, my antidepressant and my family…and shit, maybe God, eventually, I started to feel brave enough and strong enough to take little pieces of my daily life back. I had kids who I loved deeply, a job, a house to upkeep. I did my best to focus on tasks that needed to be done, on little activities that made me feel like less of a failure. Reading a book to the kids was a big assignment at first. Put your fear down long enough to do what you should for your kids. And then I got bolder and realized I was going to be okay, for awhile, and I forced myself to do harder and harder things. And I guess the medicine started to work, but I was angry at that prospect. I still am angry about the medicine, honestly. But here I am, surrendering to the help, daily.

In writing this, I realize I am acknowledging that a major source of struggle for me in my life is my relationship with my physical body — as an extension of my sense of self-worth. And I don’t want to admit this in writing, because that means I will change the way I allow myself to engage in this relationship moving forward. Because the truth is I am still often tempted to live in restriction of food, in obsession with exercise. I still wish I could be a bodybuilder. I still wish I could be a goddess on the beach in a bikini, and that I could flex my muscles and show the world I am stronger than I often feel. It’s a complicated relationship I am struggling to navigate. Despite my best efforts, and obvious perfectionism, I must admit that it’s not always possible for me to know when my motives to move my body and feed myself healthy food are coming from an insidious place of self-loathing, or a positive place of self-empowerment. It’s not black and white and unlike with drinking, abstinence isn’t the solution. I must continue to feed myself and move my body.

Really it comes down to the motives. I’ve been told by my therapist and my tarot card reader and my astrologist and my priest and my best friend and my mother that it’s not about what you choose to do for yourself, it’s about how you feel about what you choose to do that is the real issue.

So how do I feel about fitness? Depends on the day. I try to remind myself that caring for my health should feel rewarding, not punishing. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t. I try not to judge myself when I get it wrong and remember I am human. I’m not going to tell you that when I see an unflattering reflection in the mirror that I don’t immediately panic and think of eight different ways I can change my outer self to be more acceptable and attractive. I absolutely do. But I am working on showing up to my life anyway.

And how do I feel about being on an antidepressant? Also, depends on the day. And it’s something I’m working on. My therapist says that you can’t change the way you feel just by deciding to. But, she says that you can change the way you feel by acting differently and based on experience in working through some of these issues over the last year or two, I think I agree with this notion. It seems to be working. By doing things differently, she says, you can eventually change your thoughts, which will eventually change your feelings. But it takes time. And it hasn’t been enough time, yet. But through doing things differently when I feel that I can, I am starting to see the little ways that I am proving to myself that I will be okay whether I have to be on medication forever, or whether it’s just a blip in my otherwise long, joy-filled life — just a part of my healing journey.

So yeah, I had the wrong ideas about health. I see that now. I thought that if I looked the part, I would then feel the part. Maybe this is the next step in my health journey; maybe this is how I meld the two parts of this story together. If my therapist is right, and I tend to believe that she is, it’s less about looking the part and more about taking action that supports the way I want to feel about myself. If that action is being hyper-vigilant about my food intake and exercising through exhaustion to achieve a certain body-fat percentage, that’s probably not going to result in the feeling of victory I am aiming for. Alternatively, if that action is weight-lifting to feel strong and empowered, that just might work. If it’s triathlon training to feel capable and hard-working, that’s probably a beautiful thing. If I choose to work through exhaustion because I know I deserve to stand on a podium and win a medal, if that accomplishment will feel like personal victory to me, I think it’s valid. If I choose to exemplify dysfunctional eating habits in front of my seven year old daughter for the sake of being skinnier on stage in a bikini in front of a bunch of strangers, and I’m going to feel shame and guilt later for it, I better not do that. I’m probably not going to walk away from that feeling proud of myself. And I recognize that there is no singular perception to be shared among all of us that can tell me what’s appropriate, empowering or valid. I own my own narrative because I know how I want to feel. I know that my actions must simply support that narrative.

So I am working on a personal narrative for my physical health and trying to align the actions I take to support that. What are my goals for my mental health narrative, then? Good question. Perhaps it is just to be able to tell myself that taking my nightly antidepressant is part of my self-care regimen. It’s how I show myself compassion and allow myself to be human. I’m not perfect, but I’m still allowed to feel fulfilled in my work, to eat and enjoy a delicious meal, to have sex with my husband and dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail, singing in a Broadway musical, publishing a novel. And taking half of a little pill before bed is just one part of the way I care for my mental health. I also attend therapy almost every week, try to have a good social life, participate in hobbies that feel worthwhile to me, meditate and do breathing exercises. Ultimately, when it comes to my overall health I see now that the goal can’t overtake the journey, cause what the hell does a six pack bring you if you hate yourself for having it.

Writer, Musician, Activist.

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