What I Wish I’d Known as a Teenager

April 20, 2018

I worried about grades as a teenager. I mean, I really worried.

Today, I know this was not typical anxiety about school. Looking back, I struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder and perfectionism. Among other things, I was obsessive-compulsive about never wasting time. Not. One. Second. Further, I was laser-focused on getting nothing but 100 percent of the answers right on everything.

At the time, I struggled with what OCD feels like. I remember audio recording myself reading my textbooks aloud. Then, I could listen to my textbook recordings when doing “unproductive” things like walking to class or driving to the store. Living with OCD wouldn’t allow me to talk with friends on the way to class or listen to music in my car, as these activities were a waste of time.

My roommates in college were stunned by this and my other behaviors. You’re studying, yet again, on a Saturday night? I came to terms with various behaviors, such as living with an anxiety disorder, that I knew were a problem.

Living with OCD wouldn’t allow me to talk with friends on the way to class or listen to music in my car, as these activities were a waste of time.

1. I wish I had known that this level of anxiety and isolation was a problem.

Little did I know that my grades wouldn’t matter that much in the end. If I could get all that over-studying time back, I’d put it toward what truly counts in life, like meaningful relationships. I’m not saying that learning isn’t essential. Memorizing my textbooks word for word wasn’t necessary or productive. In fact, I barely retained anything that I learned from semester to semester. Part of the reason for this memory loss has to do with my next lesson learned.

2. I wish I had known that my relationship with food and my body wasn’t normal.

I should’ve been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in college. Still, most people were too busy giving me compliments to notice that I was suffering from a mental illness with the highest mortality rate of any other. You look great. How do you stay so thin? However, my parents were worried, so I visited my college doctor, who asked one so-called diagnostic question, “Do you eat?”

Yes, I ate, and the ironic thing about my eating disorder is that it wasn’t truly about food, shape, or weight. Instead, anorexia was partly about that painful, unrelenting perfectionism. In the short turn, restricting and bingeing helped to turn down the knob on living with anxiety and mask my underlying depression.

I was malnourished. My brain wasn’t working. Back to my earlier point, this, in addition to the fact that OCD and perfectionism didn’t find sleep productive, is why I didn’t retain that information that I’d worked so hard to memorize.

3. I can’t fathom how I got by on so little sleep

I won’t mention a specific number of hours here because I don’t want to be triggering. When I speak at colleges, I have learned that today, there is an even more rampant race to see who can sleep the least. Yet, research tells us that getting enough sleep is required for optimal learning and health. I didn’t know that back then.

4. I wish my friends and I had understood the prevalence of campus sexual assault

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual violence and sexual harassment in college can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder, depression, and other trauma-related problems. What I know now: if you have to ask yourself whether sex was consensual, it wasn’t. By definition, the idea of consent means that you would know.

This is a message many of my friends, and I desperately needed to hear. If I had, when I experienced campus sexual assault with a boyfriend in my late twenties, I might have known to call it what it was. I believe that we should take the “date” off “date rape” because it seems to minimize the assault. I’d later develop PTSD as a result.

I’ll talk more about PTSD and these topics on this blog in the coming months, as I’m honored and excited to be the newest Senior Fellow of Meadows Behavioral Healthcare.

Most of all, I know now about things that trigger anxiety and OCD that I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self that you’re not alone.

Seeking Help for Emotional Trauma and Mental Health

As it turns out, joining this incredible team had nothing to do with my near-perfect college transcript. It has everything to do with how mental illness has knocked me down repeatedly, and with the support of professionals and loved ones, I’ve learned how to stand back up again each time.

Gratefully, I no longer struggle with living with OCD or PTSD. I have tools for living with anxiety that doesn’t involve dieting or bingeing. Getting plenty of sleep helps. I’ve even learned to embrace this perfectly imperfect—and what I now see as a wonderful one.

Most of all, I know now about things that trigger anxiety and OCD that I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self that you’re not alone. Mental illness is real. You didn’t choose it, but you can choose to get better. Help is available, and above all, healing happens. 

At Claudia Black Center, we see many young adults living with anxiety, emotional trauma, and mood disorders — some of whom don’t know they have a problem. Our treatment professionals are equipped to help them address those issues with healing that happens among their peers. If you or a loved one is struggling, contact us or call our admissions coordinator at (866)-286-0105

A Senior Fellow with The Meadows and advocate for its specialty eating disorders program, The Meadows Ranch, Jenni Schaefer is a bestselling author and sought-after speaker. For more information: www.JenniSchaefer.com