I am incredibly grateful for Bowdoin Counseling Service. Without their initial consultation, I never would have been referred to my current off-campus therapist. I would still be stuck in the same negative thought patterns that were not my own, that inhibited me from living the full life that I wanted to live, that placed blame for everything not perfect in my life on me alone and that comprised my disease.
However, I am disappointed with the Counseling advice run in an ad in the Orient last week. Their approach attributes poor mental health to poor self-care, and continues the stigma that mental health is something you can muscle through because “you are stronger than you think.” The hardest part of my recovery was recognizing the difference between the disease (my diseased thoughts) and myself. For so long I denied that it was a disease, that instead of changing the dysmorphic thoughts that I wasn’t good enough I could only get rid of them by getting my life in control, reaching “my perfect self” and proving them wrong.
I believe that if I had read this advice column before beginning therapy, it would have continued my dysmorphic thinking. I waited so long to go to therapy because the same thoughts that had me believing I should take up as little space as possible in the world also told me that I didn’t deserve to take up a therapist’s time. The very thoughts that I “wasn’t worth it” and “was imposing,” which I needed to address through therapy, were keeping me from getting that help that I needed. By reading the Center’s advice along with the article run about the Counseling Service grappling with increasing demand, I would have rationalized that my problems were trivial and not valid enough to seek professional help.
Equally important, reading the advice that I should “have a glass or water, get some food, put on clean clothes, stretch my legs every day or take a goddamn selfie” would have perpetuated my idea that what was wrong was not my dysmorphic outlook, but my lack of achievement in life. It would have reinforced the blame I put on myself for my depression and the voice that was not my own that repeated that I should, “grow up and take ownership in your life.” The stigma that my mental illness was my own fault kept me from reaching out for help for a long time.
The most important step I made toward recovery was finally asking for help. I truly believe I would have suffered less had I reached out earlier. When I began to deal with my mental health outside of myself, I was able to extricate my problem from my own head. My dysmorphic thoughts, ones that when said aloud seemed ridiculous, nevertheless felt entirely real and true when I thought them. It was by expressing these thoughts to someone not myself that I was clearly able to see the distinction. Of course, I did not truly think my self-worth was tied to my weight, how prepared I was for a test, how many miles I ran in a week or even my success in life, but it was very hard for me to see this when I was stuck in the thought habit of judging myself based on these criteria.
Anyone can struggle with mental health: it does not make you shameful or less successful if you do. It is very easy to get caught up in your own thoughts, and it happens to more people than you may think. When I finally admitted that I went to counseling to even my closest friends, I was shocked that, not only did they not treat me differently, but that many of them had also gotten help for their own struggles.
I do not think that the intent behind this ad was wrong; these are all good coping strategies for finals stress and ones that I have learned to institute where in the past I used my relationship with food and body image to cope. But that does not mean that those thoughts would have been fixed just by switching to an alternative coping strategy. A crucial step before I could find new ways to deal with stress was recognizing that those thoughts were not valid.
By sharing this I do not mean to bash the Counseling Service, instead, I mean to help anyone who is in my position. I don’t claim to know everything about mental health (I’m learning every day through my own journey), so if I got something wrong do not hesitate to inform me. As well, I urge you to reach out to me, your friends, your parents or to the Counseling Service if you are struggling with any problems yourself: do not attempt to “ride it out,” there is no problem too small. If I have learned anything it is that asking for help does not mean you are weak––it means you are resilient.
Charlotte Nash is a member of the Class of 2019.