COLUMN: Self-love and self-care made all the difference

This has been my happiest semester at USC. In February, when my boyfriend broke up with me, my ovaries weren’t working. When my eating disorder relapsed and my anxiety was peaking, I wouldn’t have imagined this. But I look at the pictures on my bedroom wall — I’ve redecorated heavily since Jake slept in it at least three times a week — and I see a collage of incredible happiness and fulfillment and growth.

There’s a poster on my wall that says, “Let’s cozy up.” It used to hang above my bed. When Jake left me, I put a Valentine my roommate gave me on top of it. The construction paper and glitter glue watched me as I slept instead. Recently, I took the entire poster down. I needed an empty wall with all the Skype interviews I’ve been doing.

My room is a representation of my evolution, but there’s something much deeper that I’ve been celebrating this semester. My mental health is better than it has ever been since I have gained a better understanding of what mental health is.

I have been going to therapy every week for almost a year. Before that, I went on and off, but had a purging and restricting eating disorder that long went untreated. Last summer, I started nutrition classes, and have been coupling that with therapy for almost a year as well. From June to August, I was on a meal plan and kept a food log that my doctor watched over. In September, my new nutritionist in Los Angeles asked me to do the same thing, but on paper rather than an app, and I cried myself to sleep in my bed trying to write that I ate some ice cream. Now I’m on antidepressants and only go to therapy and nutrition once a month. I’m about to be fully recovered.

When I was fully recovered from cancer, I got 370 likes on my profile picture. I received letters and hugs in the immediate aftermath. But I lost myself on the road after that. When I came back to USC, I tried to have all my friends over for a party as a celebration, but only nine people showed up.

When I had cancer, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs or read a book. I couldn’t touch a doorknob for fear of getting an infection. The one time I took a flight during my illness I wore a facial mask, gloves and rode a wheelchair. Back at USC in the fall of 2015, I couldn’t sit through a test or memorize my lines for the play I was in. I got a stress fracture because my body wasn’t used to walking anymore. And I threw up everything I ate.

Because my body made itself sick, I thought my body was unforgivable. Because my mind got sick after that, I thought my mind was unforgivable.

But everyone thought I was OK again, so I tried to convince myself that was the case. Now, it’s finally true.

And despite amazing friends, some lovely partners and the constant, unwavering support of my parents, I did this myself. I excitedly told my friend recently that my eating disorder was almost gone, and she asked if I thought it was because time faded it away. I told her no. This took really hard work.

Having a positive relationship with myself has been arduous. Cancer was lonely due to the physical isolation. Mental health recovery has been lonely for other reasons. Every week, I take an Uber alone to Santa Monica and I talk about things I’ve never told anyone. Before September, I never knew I’d been abused. In December, I fought that unshakable memory as more flooded in. Now I can tell others what I’ve been through without thinking it impacts my identity.

I wish I felt as comfortable posting that I’m free of an eating disorder as I was posting about being free of cancer. I do wish more people I know could celebrate overcoming this with me, but for now, because of the stigma and my own discomfort, I will be content celebrating this for myself.

I don’t know what will come next for me in my other relationships. Come June, my friends are moving everywhere, from Berkeley to Burma. I have been seeing someone for two months who I quite like, but I’ll be away this summer. I can be comfortable with those uncertainties because I am so certain about myself. It feels beautiful to be able to sit on a bench in the middle of campus and eat a sandwich. It’s incredible to eat with friends and not constantly check everyone’s plate.

Last summer, my therapist looked me in the eyes and asked me if I wanted to get better. She gave me the choice to walk out of her room and never come back. When I left that week, I seriously considered it. I felt at home with my two-page list of rules and couldn’t stand the idea of giving up that comfort. But when I went out for a drink and bar snacks with my friends later that week, and had to leave because of the pressure of the shortened menu, I knew I wanted to give up the bad thoughts that were controlling me.

All the work since then has given me an incredible semester. And I’m so grateful.

Emma Andrews is a senior majoring in international relations. Her column, “Before & After,” ran on Fridays.