Alana | The Part of Mental Health No One is Talking About

Understanding mental health

I love that we are starting to talk about mental health, especially for athletes. We are starting to realize that self-care is important.  We are prioritizing; putting ourselves first so that we can show up as the best version of ourselves.  However, we can do all the yoga, journaling, meditating, or self-care we want, but if we’re not using the best version of ourselves to give back, to be helpful to others, then we’re missing out on the most important and impactful part of mental health.

Looking back to when I was first diagnosed with my eating disorder, I’m not sure I realized that it had anything to do with my anxiety. It seems obvious now, but mental health was not discussed back then, so how could I? Plus, anxiety and eating disorders were things that didn’t happen to people like me. People who were female athletes, got good grades, who wanted to be strong and fast more than they wanted to be skinny and who had a loving and supportive home life.

There was a part of me that was excited about going to an outpatient program for anorexia because even though I had an eating disorder, I really did not know much about it. In that program, we learned about our disease. In our free time we did not have much else to do other than talk to each other. This incredible thing happened when we talked to each other; when we were fully present, no screens, just people being vulnerable with each other. We built genuine connections with each other. And it helped everyone involved. I remember realizing how fulfilling it was to help others, to be useful. That realization made me want to get into a profession that involves helping others. When I told counselors and therapists in the program this, they said, ‘great, but that I had to help myself first.’

That message made me believe that my sickness meant that I had nothing to offer. It made me feel that because I had an eating disorder, I was not good enough. It made me believe all the anxiety and thoughts that lead me there including the self-doubt, lack of confidence and thinking no one likes me.

Spirituality & mental health

I understand today that most of these thoughts were rooted in self-centered fear and things out of my control. Today, while I still have those fears, I have developed habits and practices that help me deal with them — sometimes defeat them. Some of those practices are things such as meditation, time in nature with my dog, mantras/affirmations and journaling. One of the most important practices I engage in is one that I don’t hear many people talking about in the mental health space. And that is a faith in the universe, in something greater than myself.

Hear me out. I understand this might sound out there, and I might hit some trigger points with this. If I read that when I was in the depths of my eating disorder, I would have rolled my eyes. I believed that if I could learn about eating disorders I could get over mine. Eventually, through trial and error, and then more error, I realized that I could learn all I want, but I could not fight my mental disease with knowledge and logic.

When I mention faith here, I’m not talking about religion. The two can supplement each other, but I’m referring to a spirit of the universe that connects us all. My belief and understanding of it does not have to be the same as yours. As humans, our intelligence is not enough to logically understand or explain it. But it’s there. Faith allows us to walk through fears and to push through them. And when we start to do that, we realize not only how much potential we actually have, but also that the universe is on our side

The monster convinces you that listening to it is the right thing to do. It makes you think that if you listen to it the anxiety alarms going off in my brain will stop blaring and everything will be okay.

Connection over isolation

We were given an assignment one day in the out-patient program to draw our eating disorder. I drew my disease as a monster claw with its talons wrapped around my brain. As the monster claw dug into my brain, it stopped racing. The anxiety would ease up. Or at least it made it seem that way. But as the claw dug harder and harder, and as I continued to restrict and lie about what I ate, the claw gained more and more strength. The claw was taking over who I was, my brain and my identity.

In my experience, whatever mental health monster has a grip on your brain, it wants to isolate you. It wants you all to itself. It wants you to suffer.

We are all too special and unique to give all of ourselves to one thing and one thing only, especially one thing that is so manipulative. Not only are we all special and unique, but also, we all share a human connection. Johann Hari says in his Ted Talk, “the opposite of addiction is connection.” Connection goes hand in hand with what I mentioned earlier about spirituality. We all come from the same place; we are all stardust.

My monster isolated me and had me all to itself for years. We shared many secrets. In fact, so many that I was able to make it look like I was healthy enough to go to college after that out-patient program. Although I looked better on the outside, I was lying to myself and to everyone around me. I was still under a strong grip and influence of the monster. The monster convinces you that listening to it is the right thing to do. It makes you think that if you listen to it the anxiety alarms going off in my brain will stop blaring and everything will be okay. For instance, I would wake up and tell myself I’m not going to restrict today. I would have a wholeheartedly sincere, full intention to eat everything on my meal plan. But by breakfast, the monster already had me figuring out and rationalizing why I can skip something and why it\’d be no big deal to lie about it to the people who love me most and to the people trying to help me. But our biggest secret was yet to happen.

One day in college, I did not think about food for a few consecutive hours. It was bliss, and it came in the form of a pill. That pill made it easier to concentrate on schoolwork and also quieted those anxiety alarms. Because of that, it wasn’t too hard to keep this pill a secret because my grades were good.  I even ran two marathons during this time. However, the monster and I were spiraling into a secret pattern of binging, over-exercising and drug use. Within a few months, it wasn’t just that pill. It was any other pill, drug, drink or mind-altering substance that would cause me to escape my own mind. I would take anything to not feel the discomfort I felt in my own skin because anything felt better than that. I was out-running one monster heading straight into the grip of another monster.

Eventually, drugs and alcohol took over so much that I stopped exercising. This proud, hard-working, female athlete who went from gritty, tenacious soccer player to marathon runner, stopped exercising. Being an athlete is part of my identity. But in the depths of my addiction, exercise turned it into something I did not value anymore. I did not value anything else other than getting high because getting high made me feel free not only from the monster, but from myself and my anxiety, too.

Around this time, I attended a meeting of a 12-step program. They talked about spirituality, and like I said, if I read or heard someone talk about spirituality back then I would roll my eyes. So I rolled my eyes and walked out of that meeting. I rationalized that my monster’s grip wasn’t really too strong anyway. I believed that I could learn about addiction and get over it on my own by using logic and rational thinking. Right?

Wrong.

For the next few years, my life got smaller and smaller. Plus, I did not think I could be sober and happy at the same time ever again. I did not want to drink or get high anymore, but I had no idea how to stop. The thought of stopping was terrifying. But the thought of living without them was just as scary.  Drugs and alcohol were the one thing that I still had in my life at this point. I had no friends, no job and I was becoming a shell of a human. I never wanted to stop living, but I did not want to live the way I was existing. Yet, I could not change the way I was living and I didn’t understand why or how.

Seeking happiness

I heard through the grapevine that an old friend of mine got sober.

We did not really talk anymore but we followed each other on social media. I saw her post pictures of her new, sober life, and she seemed happy. One of those pictures was at a paint and wine party. It blew my mind that she went to that event, smiled and did not drink during it. I know not to compare our insides to someone outsides, especially on social media, but in this case, doing so was giving me hope. I was wondering how on earth is she happy and living a sober life at the same time? So I reached out to her.

She suggested I go to a 12-step meeting. I already knew those weren’t for me, but I was physically and mentally sick, couldn’t even run a mile at this point, and the monster had such a grip on my brain that I had no idea who I was anymore. I had nothing left to lose at that point, and I thought I had nothing left to give either.

When I reluctantly went to another meeting, I saw that the people there were also happy and sober. I wanted that so badly. As I listened to them talk about their addictions and experiences with drugs and alcohol, I realized that my life was not that different from theirs. They knew exactly what I was going through. And I knew what they were going through. For the first time in a long time, I was starting to think that maybe I could be happy and sober at the same time, too.

During those first few weeks, I heard someone in that program say the words, “do the next right thing.” They also asked if I would help out. If I would come early and set up chairs, or make coffee for people. They understood that even though I was sick and suffering, I still had something to offer to this world because I’m human. They understood that we are all connected. And they told me that I could turn around and help the person with 1 day of sobriety the next meeting because at that point I had 2 days. Even though I was a sick person with a mental illness, I was not a bad person. I mattered.

That was the first step towards spirituality for me. I mentioned earlier that human connection and spirituality go hand in hand. When we help others, we forget about ourselves. My self-centered fear gets quieted and I feel useful. Better yet, I get that same fulfillment I got when I helped my co-patients at the out-patient program I attended as a teen.

Even if you’re not struggling with a mental disorder, but just lack confidence, one of the biggest confidence and self-esteem building tools I’ve learned is to do things and not tell anyone about them. I dare you to try it for yourself and experience what I’m talking about — even if you’re rolling your eyes at this.

Never alone

If you’re struggling right now on any level, you still have value to offer to others. You can help others no matter what, whether you are homeless, sick, depressed, jobless, going through a break-up, or anything else. You’re enough. You matter.

I’m not proud of who I was. But I am grateful for my journey because it has made me the person I am today. And I love that person. My journey to get to where I am has not been a straight path. In sobriety, when I stopped doing mind-altering substances, my anxiety came back. My eating disorder did, too. But as I continue to grow and get stronger, physically and mentally, I am able to utilize different tools and strategies to cope with my anxiety. I journal, meditate, have a healthy relationship with food and exercise. I take big doses of time in nature with my dog and spend time with people I care about.

Doing those things makes me healthy. But if I’m not sharing the healthy me with the world then I’m missing the point. It’s great that we can find ways to use social media for good, such as spreading hope. For instance, I know I’m being of service by sharing my story. But just as important as talking to the talk, is walking the walk. Am I writing this article and then going out and being a typical New Jersey driver and cutting people off? Admittedly, sometimes, yes. But no one is not perfect. But I do my best most of the time to not do things like that. I do my best to be kind and loving and helpful to all. And it’s okay when I fall short. And if you’re still reading this and are struggling, that’s okay. You still have great things to offer, even if you don’t think you do. You are enough. You matter.

Alana Asch

(she/her)

Alana grew up as a female athlete, who had to stop playing because of her mental health. She struggled with anxiety and low self-esteem as a high school athlete, and eventually that anxiety manifested into anorexia.  Alana knows that recovery is not a straight path because in college, Alana turned to drugs and alcohol to help silence both her eating disorder and anxiety. Today, Alana is in recovery from both her eating disorder and substances. She is a strength and conditioning coach. As someone who understands what it\’s like to lack confidence and self-esteem both on and off the playing fields, Alana created programs and workshops to help athletes build confidence and teach them that confidence can be trained, just like a muscle. She has her own strength and conditioning business that specializes in mindset training called The Better Coach. When Alana is not coaching, she is being the best dog mom to the best dog (Kya), lifting weights, reading, or spending time with her family and friends.