I sat inside our car—protected from the biting autumn winds, eating peanut M&Ms. I did not want to leave its cocoon of warmth and make the small walk from our driveway to the house. It was October 15, 2017, and the weight of the occasion settled in as I thought about the events that had brought me here: eating M&Ms without a second thought. I had huddled in a corner of this same car exactly eight years before—about to embark on the journey that made me who I am today.
On October 15, 2009, I was admitted into the BC Children’s Hospital Eating Disorder Ward for anorexia. My fragile bones kicked and screamed as my parents carried me into the car that morning before making the long trip from Vancouver Island to the mainland. At eight years old, I did not know what “anorexia” was or why people kept saying that I needed to “get better.” I sat in the backseat, surrounded by Care bears and Webkinz, confused tears stinging my hollowed cheeks.
It took hitting rock bottom for me to bounce back.
After risking cardiac arrest three weeks following my admittance, I was faced with the choice of eating or dying. I finally chose to eat. One bite at a time, I slowly regained my strength.
As the youngest in my ward by nearly four years, the older girls became like big sisters to me. When I was too weak to find my own words, their words lifted me up, giving me comfort and encouragement so that I could begin to regain control of my life. Each day in hospital lulled into the next, every hour a countdown until our next meal. After three and a half months of highs and lows, tantrums and triumphs, I was discharged, having missed a good part of grade four.
Although deemed well enough to return home, my patterns of disordered eating and thinking were hard-wired into my brain. My anorexia was the monster in my closest—invisible to everyone but me. While other children counted sheep, I continued to count calories.
My illness was a secret held within my family. I did not want to explain or burden my friends with something that I still found difficult to understand. As I entered middle school, the secret continued to rattle inside of me. I feared that if I shared this part of my life with my peers, they would see me as my illness rather than as “Aysha.”
I was certain I would spend my entire life with an eating disorder; and to an extent, I was okay with that. Getting better meant facing my fear of eating—and my fear of not living up to the image of beauty inside my head; however, this all changed during the spring of my grade six year.
My family was stubborn, trying everything within their power to get me better. My after-school activities consisted of every therapy imaginable. I experimented with art therapy, dance therapy, sand therapy, play therapy, and group therapy. I spoke to countless counsellors, doctors, and dieticians. All of these helped me in managing my thoughts but not in letting go of them. Until one day, endless hours of research and discussions with experts from around the world came together like the pieces of a near-impossible puzzle, forming the diagnosis that changed my life.
Standing back from that puzzle, I could suddenly see the seemingly separate struggles taking shape into a bigger picture. Everything started to make sense.
My anorexia had been a symptom of PANDAS¾ pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with strep¾an illness caused by strep anti-bodies attacking the brain’s basal ganglia. This diagnosis explained the previously unexplainable: my hoarding or “keeping problem” at age five; my intense fear of germs, causing my hands to crack and bleed at age six; my set rituals and compulsive behaviors at age seven; ongoing mood swings and unexplained anxiety; and finally, the eating disorder that I had spent over one-third of my life battling.
The treatment for PANDAS involved a blood transfusion that can take up to one year to work. I was told that it had its risks. I was told that it might not work. I was told that even if it did work, my symptoms might well get much worse before getting better. I was also told it was my choice to undergo it. Making this decision was not straightforward. It meant relinquishing my fear of getting better ¾ putting at risk the sense of control that I’d developed through the habits that now defined my life; this same fear of recovery had obstructed my getting better so many times in the past. But, in the end, it was clear that I had to let go and pursue the treatment. In the end, I chose the prospect of happier thoughts. The prospect of being a kid again.
I underwent the treatment for PANDAS in the summer of 2012, when I was eleven years old. The following six months were without a doubt my very worst. I spiraled into a deep depression, isolating myself from those who showed me the love and joy I didn’t think that I deserved; however, by pushing through my negative thoughts and wrapping myself in words of hope, I gradually began to reclaim my true self. I recovered the relaxed, joyful daughter my parents had lost when I was four years old; the sister and best friend that had been stolen from my brother at the same time. By the summer of 2013, one year after my treatment, for the first time in eight years I was genuinely happy, no longer overwhelmed by what I was eating or thinking.
There is no way to tell exactly how individual ingredients combined to allow for my full recovery—including treatment, therapy, medication, and family love and support—but whatever the precise recipe, the result was a product of not giving up and continually finding hope amid days and months of despair. There is rarely a “cookie-cutter” cure for anything, especially with mental illness. Whatever path you take, it is important to keep looking for different ways to get better, or to at least manage your symptoms; because seeking recovery or better management of your illness is worth it.
I have learned that when you are struggling with mental health, things will get hard, but you can match these challenges with persistence. Persistence is accepting those parts of you that you may not be most proud of. Persistence is reclaiming as much as possible of who you are, and who you aspire to be.
Persistence is taking control, and it is within your control and the control of those who support you.
It is hard to imagine myself as the girl who once slid down hospital corridors in frog slippers, battled through meals with girls who were eight years my senior, had weekly weigh-ins, threw food across the kitchen, refused medication, and threatened to take my own life. Yet at the same time, my mental health challenges coated me in an armor of words. Hope. Courage. Resilience. Love. I use these words whenever I can—through metaphors, quotes, poems, sticky notes, white boards, and quiet moments—to stay grounded in who I am, and to inspire others, because I understand their value. My experience with mental illness has given me a platform to help support others, an appreciation for my own body and mind, and the belief that anything can be improved, if not overcome. That windswept October day back in 2017, I sat in the warmth of my family’s car, savouring each crunchy bite of my peanut M&Ms. Eventually, I stepped out from the driver’s seat and into the dusk, closing and locking the doors behind me.