Building a strong support network to overcome anxiety and an eating disorder

Struggling with anxiety and an eating disorder, a U of T student interacts with several different services including campus health services, her family doctor, and a social worker/counsellor, as she works on recovery. Her family also play a key role in connecting her with resources.

Resources Mentioned

I was always a shy and reclusive kid, but it never was a problem until I graduated high school. I went U of T’s vast downtown campus, but had difficulty making friends in classes that had hundreds to a thousand students in them. Many of my high school friends left the city, and the ones who stayed in Toronto had disappeared into their own subject matter cliques.

I attended classes, but avoided interactions with people because it would trigger blushing and sweating – which made me feel even more embarrassed, and less inclined to talk to anybody. I felt like a failure most days and knew something was wrong, but this negative feedback loop made it impossible to seek help on my own since I could barely make phone calls or ask strangers for help. One day (October), my mother brought home a book called “Painfully Shy”, a self-help book about social anxiety disorder. I recognized myself in the symptoms and suspected I had it. Yet I didn’t know what to do about getting a diagnosis from a doctor – an “official source”.

Over the next 6 months (April), I borrowed more books from the library and researched the condition, but was no closer to recovery. In those months, I had also begun developing an eating disorder. It started out as a way to “be healthier” and “improve myself”, and I finally felt a sense of accomplishment when I saw the scale move downwards. Already a lightweight, I lost another 10 lbs by limiting myself to 1200 calories per day – but I remained firmly in denial that I had an eating disorder.

Two months later (June), this came to a head when my mother confronted me at home one afternoon, in tears and pleading for me to get help. She presented me a list of symptoms for anorexia nervosa, which she found on the website from Sheena’s Place, a support centre that helps individuals with eating disorders. I could not deny the symptoms and signs – one of which was social withdrawal.

I had reached the bottom, and luckily my mother encouraged me to call our family doctor. Although I had only seen her once before, her encouraging attitude and willingness to explain what I needed to do made me feel more confident about seeking help. She advised me to get a copy of “Mind over Mood” and gave me a referral to the local hospital’s psychiatric department.

The experience of getting a formal diagnosis (August) was unpleasant. I felt the doctor was cold and unfriendly, since I had cried and she barely reacted. I was too ashamed to mention my eating disorder issue, but I later realized it was my coping mechanism for the anxiety. However, I felt empowered with this new label “social anxiety” because in my mind, it legitimized my issues. I felt justified in contacting the U of T’s counselling services to get help.

I did not seek help at U of T’s Counselling and Psychological Services until the summer before my 3rd year at U of T (following August). Although I was slowly recovering my self-esteem with my new part-time job as well as support from family and my new boyfriend, I had a frightening panic attack earlier in the year (February). I needed to dig deeper to recovery fully. I made an appointment with to see an intake doctor in April/May, and began CBT/talk therapy treatment with a social worker/counsellor later that summer – about a dozen sessions.

The best advice this counsellor gave me was to put myself in the opposite person’s shoes. Would I be critical of a friend the way I was critical of myself? No way! This helped me calm down in social situations. I resolved to get out of my comfort-zone and try new things.

Almost three years later, I was back at CAPS as a result of burnout from school. The intake process was about the same, but there were fewer sessions available for treatment this time, since I already used part of my quota during the first time in treatment. It was disheartening to learn this, but the doctor offered to give me referrals for other therapists in the community. This doctor listened to me and offered to give me a prescription for medication, which I declined. She helped me realize I was pushing myself too hard, and gave me strategies to avoid overextending myself in life and social situations.

Overall, I consider my experience to be a positive one because I had a strong support network and resources to overcome my anxiety. My wish is that others can also get the support they need, in order to recover and live their lives as they wish.


Purple crystals don’t help with sex addiction

U of T student seeks help for compulsively hooking up with people online. Goes to free counselling service at The House, targeted at youth. Feels awkward in a room decorated in purple and pink and frilly things and crystals. Struggles to explain the problem and get help. Hopes services will develop more rigorous screening processes to spot comorbid issues.

I should preface this by mentioning that it happened in 2004 and the clinic I went to is now run by a different organization. But I think the problem I ran into is likely one that a lot of guys encounter when they want to get help from mental health services: we feel like we shouldn’t be there. So hopefully this can help some other guys seeking help and maybe it can help services change so they spot larger problems that clients aren’t talking about.

I set up a counselling appointment at The House, which was a United Way funded agency at the time that offered health services for youth. I was spending all of my time online trying to find guys to hook up with or watching porn and it was interfering with my life pretty significantly. I was a student at U of T but had bad experiences with their psych services so I wanted to go off campus. But when I stepped into the counselling room at The House, I felt so awkward and anxious, I immediately regretted it.

The room was all purple and pink and there were lots of frilly fabrics and there was a purple crystal sitting on a table. For all I know, it could have just been that the counsellor used it as a paper-weight and got it on a trip home to Thunder Bay, but the moment I saw that room, all my defenses went up and I had already written-off anything the counsellor was going to say. It was hard enough to open up about what I was feeling and doing. That already felt emasculating. But now I had to do it in a bad parody of a hippie girl’s dorm room.

I was also dealing with a lot of internalized homophobia, so the only thing I wanted to do in that room was crush a beer can against my forehead, tell the counsellor there was nothing wrong, and then go and play some first-person shooter video games until I’d killed enough aliens to feel manly again. I realize this was all very unhealthy but I was very unhealthy. That’s why I went there.

So I was very defended through the conversation. It was embarrassing to explain the extent of the problem and I was embarrassed to be there. I remember not being very open with the counsellor but I did mention that guys would offer me money to hookup with them and the thing that really stuck out to me afterwards was that the counsellor said something like: “Well, why don’t you try that then?”

Throughout the conversation, the counsellor was trying to be very sex positive about everything I brought up, and I understand the importance of that, but I had a legitimate problem. I was trying to find a way out of the situations because I couldn’t control myself.

I never went back. The counsellor called to set up another appointment and I deleted the message. It was another three years before I tried therapy again. I was in a different city by then. Things had only gotten worse and the sex addiction issues turned out to only be a tiny part of other mental illnesses that overwhelmed everything. But I did finally get help and get over them.

I don’t know if things could have been different that day I went to see the counsellor. Maybe we could have avoided a lot of disasters and pain. Maybe not. My own lack of awareness and inability to articulate what I was dealing with certainly played a part in not fully describing the problem or the symptoms. My insecurities were a big barrier to getting help with issues caused by my insecurities.

But looking back, there were so many warning signs of the other mental illnesses I was dealing with. The counsellor seemed oblivious to those. I think it would have helped if there’d been a more rigorous screening process for other mental health issues. The other problems would have come up if the counsellor had done any standardized assessments on depression or anxiety disorders.

I think anybody that comes into a mental health service talking about one compulsive issue should get screened for others. There’s always others. And losing control of yourself is always going to cause anxiety and depression.

I think a clipboard with a mental illness symptom questionnaire on it–or an iPad if they’re slightly tech savvy–sitting on the table when a client walks in might be a hell of a lot more useful than a purple crystal.

And if you’re somebody that’s trying to get help, it is important to get effective, skilled help (not every therapist/counsellor is effective or skilled), but also be aware that your own insecurities can become one of the biggest barriers to getting the help you need. Talk about those insecurities and get help with them so they don’t chase you away from getting support.