It’s Not About The Destination, It’s About The Journey | My Experience With Mental Illness

My mental health journey started at a fairly young age — I began experiencing symptoms of depression as I transitioned from middle school to high school. At the time, I had no idea what I was even feeling. There would be random days when I’d lack motivation to do the most basic of tasks + when I’d avoid my friends at school because I preferred to be alone. I would wake up every morning, get ready, go to school, go to all my classes, but never actually absorb what was being taught, spend my lunch period hiding out in the library, go right to drama club after school for two hours, come home, do homework, go to bed, + repeat. After quitting soccer + track when I got to high school, then realizing drama club wasn’t for me after all, I struggled to find my place. My weekly schedule was all routine.

The symptoms worsened by mid-high school + what started as depression turned into an eating disorder when I began to seek control in my life. I was so dissatisfied with myself + so unhappy, ++ I felt so lonely. I was stuck in a huge rut + at the time, I had no idea how to get out of it. I wanted to lose weight + clean up my diet to look + feel better, but counting calories + focusing most of my energy on my diet seemed to be the only way I could establish some control in my life. It became an unhealthy obsession. I never included anything fun in my day-to-day life. I rarely saw my few friends, ++ the only things I could focus on were food + exercise.

My parents eventually noticed that something was really wrong + noticed that I was at a very low weight. That began my journey of visiting therapists + a nutritionist. I learned quickly that what people say about *shopping around* with therapists is completely true! I wasn’t thrilled with the therapist covered by our health insurance. My mom + I met with a doctor at one point at an inpatient program at a local hospital, + he ended up being incredibly mean + critical. But my high school’s counselor was wonderful + kind, ++ even my nutritionist  provided a lot of helpful advice.

One of the most important things my nutritionist told me was that I needed something else in my life besides work, school, + homework. I was doing the same mundane things every single day, not doing any of the things I enjoyed. In fact, I didn’t even know what I enjoyed doing! I had turned exercise into a chore + a punishment, I wasn’t spending quality time with the people I loved, ++ although college applications were still two years away, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

Deciding to recover at home without the help of an inpatient program was difficult + stressful, to add. But I was lucky enough to have a family that supported me + helped me with the process. My family — being primarily Italian — has always had a history of loving food + cooking. With time, I was able to discover a passion for creating meals in the kitchen. I started following different food blogs, experimenting with new ingredients + flavors, trying new foods, ++ falling in love with a plant-based diet because it helped my body feel its best. My mom + I even made a game out of how many new foods we could try!

Once I had gained enough weight, I was allowed to run + workout again, ++ finally it became fun again. Having no experience going to an actual gym besides the weight room in my high school, I used my mom’s workout DVDs from the 90’s + early 2000’s [my first experience doing yoga was with a yoga DVD I bought from Costco]. I also realized how much I loved running. I started running casually around my neighborhood, + as I got more comfortable with it I began running 5k’s. I started making more time for reading + my art, ++ realized that my love for writing was something more than a passion, but something I truly wanted to pursue.

Before I knew it, I was enrolled in the University of Iowa as an English + Creative Writing major + soon after, a member of CHAARG. I was terrified to be going so far away to college [I’m from NY!] + feared a relapse, but I had looked extensively into the resources my campus offered + knew that the university would be a good fit for me. Besides that, I quickly learned that CHAARG was exactly what I needed to aid my recovery. I began trying new workouts + running farther, realizing that fitness is truly fun if you allow it to be that way!

Flash forward to now, I am finishing up my second year as a CHAARG exec member. I have tried workouts from TITLE boxing to barre, have fallen in love with Zumba, have interned for the CHAARG blog, have grown incredibly as a leader, ++ have formed so many meaningful friendships with fellow members + exec team leaders. I’ve even started my own blog, where I share stories + pictures from my travels. I’ve run one half-marathon + two full marathons, ++ I’m about to sign up for my third!

I still consider myself an introverted person. I still have plenty of days where I feel depressed, anxious, or less than enough. Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve everything I have, that I’m not good enough for college or the opportunities I’ve found over the last three years. I have declared various majors + minors throughout my time at my university, only to decide that certain ones just aren’t right for me. However, I have learned that every part of my experience, good + bad, has been + will always be a *journey.* I’m more aware of when I begin falling into mental ruts, + I’ve learned healthy ways to pull myself out of them — going for long walks // runs, reading, spending time with close friends, drawing, visiting my favorite coffee shop for a treat. I’ve learned the importance of finding what is best + healthiest for *me*, not anyone else.

In my process of treating my depression + anxiety, healing my disordered relationship with food + my body, learning to appreciate fitness, going to an out-of-state school, declaring + dropping degree programs, ++ becoming an active member // leader of CHAARG, I’ve learned so many valuable lessons not only at the *destination* but throughout the *journey* as well. I have learned how to love myself + others, I have learned to trust + surround myself with a support network of friends + family, ++ I have learned how to create the life I truly want to live. I proud to say that I have reached out for help + that I’ve sought friends + professionals for help when I’ve needed it in college. I am not perfect. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even truly reached my *destination* yet.

But I have certainly changed for the better, + I love the person I am becoming.

— Ashleigh Monaco [@ashvm_inchaarg], #IOWACHAARG

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