“If you have a mental health condition, you’re not alone. One in 5 American adults experiences some form of mental illness in any given year. Every year people overcome the challenges of mental illness to do the things they enjoy. Through developing and following a treatment plan, you can dramatically reduce many of your symptoms. People with mental health conditions can and do pursue higher education, succeed in their careers, make friends and have relationships. Mental illness can slow us down, but we don’t need to let it stop us.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with two things in life: my weight and my mental health.
After moving from New Jersey to Florida at seven years old, I started seeing a mental health professional. I was labeled as the new girl, a title I’m not sure I’ve shed; always struggling to fit in and be accepted. That summer, my dad drove my brother and I to camp, and he had to drag me out of the car. Once I was out, I would throw myself on the ground stomping my feet on the pavement not caring who saw my temper tantrum. You could say I didn’t adjust well to the “Sunshine State.”
In third grade, I remember getting on the scale at school and seeing a three-digit number and then hearing that number repeated down the hall.
My pediatrician suggested attending his weekend fitness class. It was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do on a Saturday. I hated sweating. It was sticky, hot, smelly and uncomfortable. If working out equaled sweat, I wanted nothing to do with it. This is why physical education class and recess was a miserable experience for me. The Florida sun ensured I was always sweaty. And on top of it, I was the slowest runner and always got picked last. I become constantly worried that I would disappoint my team or the other kids would laugh at me.
At the time, I didn’t understand the pit in my stomach wasn’t just hunger—it was anxiety. I was afraid of being different. Anxious thoughts would flood my mind. “What would people say about my weight?” “How am I ever going to fit in?” “Why don’t I look more like everyone else?”
For the rest of my childhood and college years, I associated fitness with anxiety. I was also simultaneously struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. These factors led me to avoid exercise entirely. Little did I know how big of a role fitness was going to play in my battle against mental illness.
Fitness Helped Me Cope
When I was 29, I made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and work out at least four to five times a week. For me to finally reach my weight goal, I had to squash my body insecurities and reverse how I felt towards fitness. I was doing quite well with both goals up until June. That’s when the depression crept in. I was still reeling from a breakup months past. I turned 30, an age I had been dreading for the past decade. I was unemployed. Curled up in a ball, I would cry and think it would be easier for everyone if I wasn’t there. I wanted the pain to stop.
I wanted more control over my own life. No matter how many positions I applied for, I couldn’t control which companies would interview me or offer me a job. Nor could I make my former boyfriend love and care about me. But I had the power to decide if I worked out that day. So, I made a promise with myself. “Rachel, if you leave your apartment and go to a fitness class, then you can mope and feel sorry about yourself the rest of the day.”
As much as I dislike the actual act of working out, I always left the gym in a better mood. I felt accomplished in that moment and not like the “loser” I had become in my mind. In the face of adversity, I was doing something, even if it took every ounce of energy to get myself there. The endorphins kept me going during those dark days.
Now, I have a job and am grateful to have somewhere to go every day. I’m still not over my breakup and there are days where I have no idea what my purpose in life is. I’m nowhere near where I expected to be at this stage of my life, but I’m finally willing to step out of my comfort zone and try new things.
My fitness renaissance has led to me rock climbing, surfing on the Atlantic Ocean, stand-up paddle boarding on the Hudson River and doing yoga in the middle of Times Square. I’m still insecure. I still battle my mental illnesses daily. But now the gym is my haven—a place where I am a superhero—a place that saved my life.
Visit nami.org for additional treatment options and to learn how to find support in your community. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the toll-free Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 or text NAMI to 741-741.
Rachel Robins is the Manager of PR and External Relations at NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. A new resident of Washington D.C., but a Southerner at heart, you can probably find her at the local barre (class).
Disclaimer: Slight edits may have been made to original copy for grammatical corrections and/or clarity.
Surf Photo – October 2016
Hike Photo – November 2017
Infographic provided by NAMI.