The Awkward Years

Educating younger students on mental health and eating disorders could save lives.

Overdosing+on+laxatives+led+my+body+into+a+spiral+of+eating+disorders+and+self-hatred.

photo by Lucie Flagg

Overdosing on laxatives led my body into a spiral of eating disorders and self-hatred.

By Lucie Flagg, North Allegheny Senior High School

Often, we’re not taught how beautiful we are until it’s too late.

From the day I entered elementary school, I was taught all about my body’s physical health. I’ve completed the PACER test more times than I can count, and I know the proper form for lifting dead weights, climbing a rock wall, and swimming the backstroke. The importance of physical health has been a constant throughout my education. Mental health, on the other hand, I’ve had to teach myself.

In recent years, however, a shift in focus has begun, as schools are devoting more time and resources to topics such as teenage depression and eating disorders. Our own school does a good job in this area, but the subject is too important to reserve only for a high school education.

Of course, mental health is a complicated subject, and much of it is not appropriate for an elementary education. Nevertheless, incorporating a small measure into elementary curricula could make an enormous difference in young lives as they continue to middle and high school.

Focusing on techniques to help students learn about emotional well-being and self-respect should be considered a focal point of primary education.  After all, lessons learned in the primary grades can have have the longest lifespan —  high school is too late to begin learning about the importance of emotional well-being.

Mental health in the elementary years is particularly important because of the next step in a student’s education.  Middle school, commonly called the “awkward years,”  is the time when puberty usually begins, entailing awkward weight gains, hormone surges, and of course, the inevitable acne. Yet for all of our physical changes during puberty, the emotional side of the phase can be most difficult.

I recall that, although every student around me was going through the same pubescent phase, I felt like I was alone, and I hated everything about myself. All aspects of my life were accompanied with anxiety and self-doubt.  I had supportive friends and teachers, but my insecurities took over my life, and my “awkward years” quickly became filled with depression and self-hatred. I was aware of the ways to stay physically healthy because of what I had learned from years of gym class, but I was entirely unprepared for the hidden mental changes. I was under the impression that happiness comes from fitness, but what I was never shown the full picture.

And that’s where my trouble began.

Part of me knew that what I was doing was only hurting myself further, but a more aggressive part of me didn’t care.”

Most people hear the word “laxative” and think of the medicine in their grandmother’s cabinet. But for me, that word is accompanied with years of pain and suffering. I had developed an eating disorder and an addiction to laxatives, and as I took the pills, my body grew thinner to the size that I thought would make me happy — at the expense of my mental state.

There’s a spiraling factor that plays into eating disorders, leaving addiction in its wake. Part of me knew that what I was doing was only hurting myself further, but a more aggressive part of me didn’t care. As long as the number on the scale was less than the day prior, I felt fine. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

My mind became reliant on that single pill to get me through the day, and as the weeks and months went on, I had to increase my dosage in order to achieve the same effect. As I shed weight, it appeared that I also shed all of the troubles in my life. It was reassuring to know that I had something at home that would make me what I wanted to be — thin.

Throughout the years, I’ve been in and out of therapies, trying to reclaim the person I was before my awkward years. It has taken time to come to the realization that I am who I am today because of the pain I endured in my past. My life is still filled with the same anxieties and fears, and I’m still learning how to cope. However, I know now more than ever that I have a support system that will guide me through any damaging thoughts in my head.

Some people say that eating disorders derive from low self-esteem, but I disagree. Many factors led to my addictions and my overdoses, but I can’t help but wonder if the school system could have had a better influence on those years in my life.

Before high school, I was not properly educated on mental health. Starting those lessons when students are younger could pave the way to a healthier adolescence and even save lives.

We’re lucky to live in a school district that has abundant resources, but we must not take them for granted. And we should never stop asking if we’re doing enough for students.  Prioritizing mental health education from the outset of a student’s experiences in school can ensure that they will never be learned too late.

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If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to the National Eating Disorder Helpline. You’re not alone.

This story was originally published on The Uproar on March 31, 2020.