How I Fought Back Against Mental Health Stigma

Christina Grasso
How I Fought Back Against Mental Health Stigma
Photo: Getty Images/STYLECASTER

On one frigid January morning last year, I landed in Milwaukee and piled into a black SUV with all my luggage, both physical and, well, not. En route, the driver commented on how “together” I looked to be headed where I was. I didn’t just chuckle to myself, I laughed out loud.

That day, I was admitted to the hospital where, hours later, a nurse threaded a tube up my nose and down my throat, not because I refused food but because my body had become physically unable to tolerate it. And that was the very moment I realized that I needed, and very much wanted, to make a change.

I vanished from my life in New York for the following three months to undergo inpatient treatment for anorexia, and did so very quietly. A close friend of mine took over my social media handles and claimed to be deworming orphans in Somalia, so nobody except for my family and close friends knew where I really went. I wanted it that way. But I didn’t secretly escape society solely out of a preference for privacy. In retrospect, I know I did so mostly out of shame and because I didn’t want people to think I was weirder than they already did.

On the outside, I was a confident, thin, blonde woman with a great job, strong network of friends, and a wonderful family. By the world’s standards, I had it all together. But beneath it all, I was battling a life-threatening mental illness that had caused my heart to slow to a near-fatal rhythm. I was quite literally dying, but was able to hide my weakened state behind my vibrant sense of humor and long list of accomplishments.

This was neither the first nor the last time I was hospitalized for an eating disorder, but it was the most significant because it was then that I realized I didn’t need my illness. I was very sick at the time, yes. But I was also a writer, a dancer, an artist, a daughter, a sister, a plant-killer, a die-hard Stevie Nicks fan, and a mischievous weirdo who, for example, was prone to exotic dancing on her IV pole. It took years for me to realize that perhaps all those things could be true, and that I didn’t need to focus all of what little energy had into maintaining a double life. Instead I needed to put all of my effort into getting well, and I’m still getting there.

But I haven’t been able to do it alone, and that’s perhaps the most difficult part. It’s taken a village of internists, cardiologists, endocrinologists, nurses, dietitians, and therapists, paired with the unwavering support of my family and friends, to help me take the necessary steps toward health and to realize that, no, Christina, subsisting on broccoli alone is not a balanced diet. I still struggle most days and may for quite a while, but ultimately I’m grateful that this whole process has given me purpose and perspective. It’s inspired me to pay forward the love and support I’ve been given: I work closely with Project HEAL, a non-profit that funds eating disorder treatment, I regularly do arts and crafts with patients on the psychiatric ward at a New York area hospital, I mentor young girls struggling with eating disorders and body image issues, and I actively block anyone on Instagram that advertises skinny tea, which is basically a full-time job in itself.

Now, I speak openly and honestly about my 15-year history with anxiety and eating disorders. In doing so, countless others have shared their own struggle with me, and none of them have fit the classic profile of what we envision mental illness to look like. It has revealed a very valuable lesson, summed up perfectly by author Glennon Doyle Melton: “People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.”

Today is World Mental Health Day.