Five years old. My favorite thing to do in the winter was to climb the banks of snow that the plow had created along the quiet streets of my suburban neighborhood.
There was something inherently special to me about reaching the top of the pile and feeling a sense of accomplishment. Although the mountains of snow may have seemed small to others, they appeared enormous to my kindergarten self. The perspective of others did not matter to me; when I reached the summit, I was on top of the world.
Fifteen years old. The moment in school that I looked forward to every day was lunch. Lunch period was the time where I gave myself permission to slow down, if only for that restricted block of time. It was the few minutes when I allowed my mind to peel back from the constant worrying; the worrying about my body, about my grades, about my relationships, about the small tear in my stockings that I was sure made me look like an idiot. But at lunch, I could try to separate from all that, as I ate my carefully calorie-portioned meal, everyday – each and…everyday – It was an everyday task for her to…
But today my perfect little meal was disrupted by something. A thick piece of marble cake. The cake stood in stark contrast to the otherwise perfectly-portioned diet cheese, diet crackers, and grapes. Nothing about this cake was “diet”, not in the slightest.
The week before, we had gone to the doctor. Anxiety had taken over my life and transformed all aspects of me. It had transformed my body. My heart rate was weak, my menstrual cycle had stopped, my hair was brittle. The doctor told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I did not start eating well, more drastic action would need to be taken.
There were many steps to my recovery – therapists, medication, familial support – but one of the day-to-day actions we had decided to implement was to add treats, extra calories, to every meal. Discord was being introduced to meals that had been so carefully planned before this moment. Including that piece of marble cake.
For a few weeks, I would share my marble cake with my friends, eating only a small bit myself. I told my mother, who packed my lunches, that I had eaten the whole thing. She knew I hadn’t. But she was giving me time.
One day, as I was about to split the cake again, something inside stopped me from tearing apart that rich, chocolate and vanilla bread into five or six pieces. I just bit into it. Then I did it again, and again.
I did not know how many calories were in this cake, but for at least for this moment, I was pushing my desire to calculate them out of the way. Within a few minutes, the cake was gone.
Twenty-three years old. I still struggle some days with the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and concerns about my body. But I have learned to recall those two little girls: one with a snow pile, one with a marble cake. I focus on my small victories, and use the pride in those accomplishments to propel me further.
Like little five-year-old me climbing a two-foot tall snow bank, eating a piece of marble cake might not seem like something to warrant a sense of accomplishment. But from my perspective, it was scaling Mt. Everest.
As a psychology doctoral student and a mental health advocate, I feel that this is the most important message to spread to those with mental illness, their families, and their communities. Focus on achieving small, personal victories. Recovery is a process, but small triumphs should never be discounted. Even climbing the real Mt. Everest is done in a series of tiny steps.