‘I was using whatever was available to cope.’: Woman overcomes eating disorder, addiction to become mental health advocate

More Stories like:

Disclaimer: This story contains details of child abuse, self-harm, suicide attempts, and addiction which may be triggering for some.

My Childhood

“Growing up, life was very dysfunctional. I was not alone though because I grew up with a twin sister. We grew up with our mom and dad being alcoholics and addicts. This also led to both of my parents being emotionally and physically abusive my entire life. Growing up was also hard because we were very poor; below poverty. Not only did I suffer from abuse in early childhood, I also almost died at the age of five from MRSA sepsis (it’s a type of antibiotic resistant staph infection that was in my blood) and I had to be hospitalized. 

At the age of six, we ended up moving because my dad had lost his job. We moved to the house in which my uncle took his own life in. He hung himself in the backyard; at the age of six I was told this. When we moved, we moved to a rural area (Phelan, California), and the abuse seemed to only get worse. Our parents would drag us by our hair and throw us outside. My dad would hit us and I would cry and beg him to just please stop. I would say, ‘If you love me, you would stop,’ but he never did. They would grab any item within reach and throw them at us. They would also grab us by the arm and throw us to the ground. My dad would push us to the ground every time we would try and get up. As a kid I just felt so powerless. 

twin girls with popsicles
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

Although the physical abuse did cause a lot of trauma, the emotional/psychological abuse was worse. They would tell us they did not want us, that they wish they never had us. They would say we were ungrateful, that since they give us food and shelter we should be thankful to them for that. My dad would tell us crying doesn’t fix anything so we shouldn’t cry. And they would tell us they wanted to send us away to boot camp. 

Since before I could speak I was getting cussed at and told I wasn’t good enough and something was wrong with me. I was always too much or never enough. My sister and I had different rooms and we made a small hole in the wall to pass notes to each other so we weren’t alone. My home life was very traumatic and so I often would rather have been at school. Unfortunately, I was also bullied throughout school. I often felt I had no safe place to go at such a young age, however at the time I wasn’t as aware of the extent of everything as I am now. Since I was always treated that way since I was born, I didn’t know any difference or that it was wrong. I was told from such a young age that I was to blame and the reason why I was treated that way. 

young girl sitting while wearing winter jacket
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

Coping Through Different Addictions

Growing up I was surrounded by addicts and alcoholics, from my parents to my grandparents. When I was in middle school, and most of high school, I was very straight edge. I was always scared to be like the rest of my family, but I now know addiction can come out in many forms, not just substances. At the age of 11, I began to self harm by cutting, which only got worse as the years went on. In high school I was going to the hospital almost every month needing stitches. Self-harm in the form of cutting also developed into an eating disorder

Growing up, my grandma was always on diets and talking about her weight. I was told from a very young age, around 9, not to worry, I would grow out of my baby fat. Hearing that as well as being bullied led me to feel as though I never grew out of my baby fat. I started to restrict my food and throw up. At the time, I also struggled with severe depression and anxiety, to the point where I tried to take my life multiple times. 

I was in marching band and then eventually became a cheerleader. Being involved in these activities helped me to hide the fact I wasn’t eating, but eventually it got to the point where I could no longer hide it. Even though I was a freshman in high school, I was spending hours exercising in my room and not eating. It never drew concern to really anyone. I was actually treated for my self-harm and suicidality first, and only because of that did anyone know about my behaviors with food. 

young group of girls at cheer practice
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

In high school, my sister tried to take her own life as well. This event led me to freak out, run away, and engage in self-harm. I was 14 years old when this happened and I was taken to the hospital, then transferred to a behavioral health unit. It was only then I ended up finding out I had an eating disorder. After this, things only got worse — not only with cutting, but with my eating disorder. 

Eventually it got to the point where I was passing out at band practice. At 16, I ended up having a kidney stone which I needed surgery to remove. After the first time I was hospitalized at 14, I ended up being required to see a therapist. Within the year of seeing this therapist, I wasn’t getting better… I was actually getting worse. I tried to take my own life to the point where I went into cardiogenic shock, then I also slit my wrist to where I needed 14 stitches. This therapist as well as my case manager decided I needed help for my eating disorder as well as my mental health because my eating disorder was making me not want to live. I also agreed I needed more help. This happened during my senior year of high school. 

high school girl in marching band uniform with trumpet
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

I ended up going into an inpatient program at first and a residential program a month later. Next it was partial hospitalization, and then finally intensive outpatient. Saying this, the entire treatment was my whole senior year of high school. When I was in partial hospitalization treatment, it meant I went during the day and went home at night. During this time, my dad ended up being put in jail for child abuse. I was 17 years old. 

As I was recovering from anorexia, I started to smoke weed. At first it was okay; I convinced myself it was good for me because it made me eat. However, I was using it as a way to cope with my feelings and my trauma because I was no longer using my eating disorder. During this time I was placed as a ward of the court but was allowed to stay with my mom because I was going to college in a couple months. Still, I had to meet with a social worker every month until I turned 18. 

When I went to college I ended up moving to Humboldt. Smoking weed was definitely normalized at this college. For many of my friends I met there, weed didn’t affect their lives, but for me, I was still using it to cope with my trauma and feelings at the time, though I did not know that. I was in complete denial, and then I decided to try other drugs, because ‘trying drugs in college is just the college experience.’ 

teen takes a mirror selfie with phone
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

I was struggling with a lot of mental health issues at the time, and during my first week of college I got a phone call that one of my best friends had died from a fire due to asthma. My already declining mental health with this left me to stop caring about my life. I was willing to try any drug to cope. I used mushrooms, LSD, Wax, Benzos, cocaine, and alcohol. I was using whatever was available to just cope, but I still didn’t believe I had a problem. I was convinced I was just living the college experience. 

At the end of my very first semester in college, I was raped. The trauma from that really affected my mental health even more. I was still occasionally using drugs like cocaine, LSD, and Shrooms, but mostly I was using benzos with alcohol. I actually had stopped smoking weed because I felt it made my anxiety so much worse to the point I didn’t want to leave my dorm. I was also really suicidal when I went back to college for the next semester. 

At the end of my first year in college, I made the decision to move back home. When I moved back home I started to go to community college. Before I got a job I was selling myself for money. I was actually doing this when I was at Humboldt as well. This however just gave me more trauma as some of these experiences were not okay. When I moved home I decided to get an actual job because of the trauma I went through and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was still drinking a lot and using benzos during this time. 

When I got a job, I ended up becoming so tired from being a full-time student and working 36 hours a week as well. I went back to cocaine and within a couple weeks, I was using cocaine every 15 minutes. During the first year of doing this I honestly didn’t even think I had a problem. It wasn’t until 2019 I realized I actually could not stop using. My best friend at the time would also tell me about his concerns and that I needed help. I still convinced myself on some level that I was okay though. I’d have moments where I’d realize I couldn’t stop, but then convince myself it wasn’t an issue in the long run. 

My best friend ended up taking his own life in March of 2019, and this is when my drug use got worse. I couldn’t cope, and I already felt so powerless to drugs I was ready to die. I tried getting help a few months later, and I kept it a secret from everyone. I would say I was going to work and school but I was actually attending an outpatient day program. Even with this program I could not stop using. I believe the most clean time I got was 30 days and then I relapsed. 

After I tried to get help and couldn’t, I just kept using cocaine more and more and eventually felt like it wasn’t even doing anything. I was just using it to get through life. So, I switched to what I thought was OxyContin. The first night I used I just kept asking for more, up until the next day. I ended up continuing to use that day and overdosed. I had to be shocked back to life on my living room floor and given an IV of narcan. My dad had to give me CPR before that until the paramedics arrived or I would have died. It’s a miracle I was saved. Most people don’t make it back from a fentanyl overdose, let alone being shocked back. That was the day my parents found out I was an addict. It was no longer a secret. Over 24 hours later, I woke up in the hospital and I got more of those pills. From that day, I started doing them more and more. Even dying couldn’t get me to stop. That’s when I knew I really needed help. 

I went to an outpatient program I went to before that didn’t work, but I decided to try again because I had no other option. I met with an addiction doctor and told him everything. He gave me medication for withdrawals but I just took all of it and the fentanyl too. Now looking back I realize why I was so sick. I told him, ‘I need to go to residential treatment because I need a higher level of care.’ He definitely agreed and so did my therapist, but he said because of my eating disorder no addiction place would take me, and no eating disorder place would take me because of my severe addiction problem. This was because my risk for a heart attack and dying was too high. Their residentials don’t want to take on that liability. 

‘No one wants to help me because I’m going to die?’ And he said, ‘Well yeah, I’m sorry. But I’ll keep trying.’ Two months passed, and every day for two months I was still using fentanyl. But a residential said they would accept me, only to find out while being there they lied about knowing anything about eating disorders and they were extremely abusive. But I was locked up and couldn’t get drugs. So, at the minimum, that’s what I needed. 

woman laying in bed with hand to nose, in pain
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

A few weeks before I was going to be discharged, my boyfriend broke up with me over the phone. He actually spoke to my case manager and told her to tell me. I was so heartbroken and lost I didn’t want to be alive anymore. He told me he thought rehab would make me 100% better and he couldn’t deal with my mental illness. I was 51/50d, but when the police and EMTS came I didn’t want to go. So they handcuffed me and I fought. I ended up kicking a hole in the wall trying to resist. I was sedated before transport. The rehab did not let me come back for treatment, so I was discharged home after 72 hours. I did not want to go without treatment, so I went back to the outpatient treatment as a step down the next day. I actually emailed my therapist on the car ride home from the hospital. I knew the more treatment I had the better chances I had at staying sober

The case manager from the rehab illegally became friends with me and vented to me about inappropriate things in her personal life. She also asked me to do things for clients who were currently there, giving me their personal information. Because she was my case manager and helped me, I felt obligated to help her. It really caused me so much stress for months as I was trying to stay sober in the real world. I ended up quickly relapsing in my eating disorder, as was expected because my whole time at rehab my therapist kept telling me I could just lose weight once I got out. In the beginning, my eating disorder therapist told me I did not meet the medical criteria to get treatment for my eating disorder. Even though I knew where I was headed and needed help. I continued my outpatient treatment five days a week for my addiction.

On March 10th, 2020, I got an infection on my face and had an allergic reaction to antibiotics. The allergic reaction was so severe it caused me to stop breathing. I had to rush to the ER. March 13th they closed everything down due to covid, even our treatment. I did weekly phone calls with my therapist, but at that point my treatment was over. 

May 2nd, my 6th month mark for sobriety, I started to use TikTok a lot more and my videos about sobriety started to go viral. I realized I could help others by sharing my story with addiction and sobriety, and also my mental health struggles. After I reached 6 months sober, I realized I had switched drugs to my eating disorder again. In May of 2020, I ended up being hospitalized for my eating disorder. I had to get refeeding, but the tube they gave me ended up being the wrong size and the wrong tube. I woke up every morning with the tube filled with blood. They gave me cancer mouthwash to try and numb my throat for all the pain. They even tried to force me to eat on top of it, but I couldn’t swallow and could hardly speak. This just further increased my fear of food.

girl in eating disorder recovery with feeding tube
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

During this time I also noticed I was sleeping all the time; this started when I was in treatment for substances. So, I ended up doing a sleep study and was diagnosed with Idiopathic Hypersomnia. This only made my anorexia worse, as I was literally sleeping all the time and didn’t eat. I also had to quit my job that I previously had. During this time I became very isolated and didn’t really talk to anyone, not even my twin sister. 

woman with testing equipment attached to her face
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

I ended up losing even more weight so I went and asked for help. It took about 5 months, but eventually I ended up going to a residential treatment center for my anorexia; this was May of 2021. I was at this treatment center from May 2021 to October 2021. During this time my chronic illness and rare sleep disorder, Idiopathic Hypersomnia, was a barrier in my recovery. I ended up doing well enough to step down from residential to a partial hospitalization program, but quickly needed a higher level of care again. 

The treatment center ended up kicking me out because I needed a higher level of care. When I was kicked out I went to a county program and was living in a type of shelter for transitional aged youth. My eating disorder was not getting better, as I needed a higher level of care. I was so angry that everyone gave up on me and I would never get better. I was at the shelter for about a month as I was trying to get into a higher level of care. From my first attempt at getting help even for my substance abuse in 2019, I felt so hopeless as I was still fighting in 2021. I thought sobriety would open up doors and my life would get better. I never got that pink cloud everyone talks about, but I still never gave up. 

girl with eating disorder sitting at table with legs up
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

I ended up getting help from Center for Discovery in November of 2021, and I ended up doing really well there. They were able to discharge me to a lower level of care within a month. Something in me was so tired of being sick and tired, even though my rare sleep disorder made me actually tired. I got sober after surviving a fentanyl overdose, but then I got a rare sleep disorder and my anorexia was back and worse than ever. My entire life was trauma and pain and I wanted things to get better. So when I realized I was still in treatment in November of 2021, I decided to eat and just do what they said. I realized I didn’t want a life still full of suffering; I mean, I already had a chronic illness. 

When I stepped down yet again to an outpatient center, I honestly was not doing great. However, this time this treatment team realized my sleep disorder and medication were the reason for me struggling, and instead of kicking me out they decided to work with me and acknowledge my situation. My recovery would look different than anyone else’s, even the insurance’s guidelines. This team played such a huge role in my actual recovery from anorexia. My recovery ended up being less about weight and more about my feelings and trauma. I graduated treatment March of 2022 and for the first time in my life I felt like I no longer was stuck living with an eating disorder or addiction. 

woman takes a selfie in her car
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

My chronic illness has affected my mental health though in a lot of ways. Every day I feel as though I haven’t slept for 24-48 hours and I’ve been through so many trials of medications for this disorder. However, today, I am on a medication that, although it doesn’t give me the quality of life I want, has actually improved my outlook on life. I no longer feel bound to using substances to cope. I now eat and I’m less concerned about my weight and looks. I still struggle with my body image and sometimes I just have to force myself to eat even when I don’t want too. I am not yet where I wish to be in life, but I also never thought I’d get to this point in my life. I am now back in school and so close to getting my bachelors, it just has taken me, and takes me, longer than most, and that’s okay. I am now getting a job and I share my story online with others to become a mental health advocate

My Message To Others

What I want others to know about my story is it has been filled with trauma every year I’ve been alive, that there were so many times where I wanted to give up and actually tried. However, I am so glad that I am still here and now I am able to add some sunshine to my story. My life doesn’t get to be all sad and then end sad too. That yes, having to fight your entire life is exhausting and seems not worth it most of the time, but eventually if you keep fighting, if you never lose hope, you can make the life you want. There will be sunshine in your story. You just have to stick around long enough to see it.

The advice I want to give to others is you are never too sick, too damaged, or too far gone to get better. You deserve a life worth living, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are worth fighting for and your existence is powerful!”

friends on the beach, one holds the other up
Courtesy of Joyce Wert
woman in recovery from addiction and eating disorder
Courtesy of Joyce Wert

If you’re thinking about hurting yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionhotline.org to live chat with someone. Help is out there. You are not alone.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Joyce Wert of Phelan, California. You can follow her journey on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories like this:

‘I am finally living.’: Child abuse survivor shares tumultuous mental health journey

‘I loved my older cousin. At 8, I learned the only way to be friends with him was to have sex with him.’: Daughter and mother in addiction recovery together after years of childhood trauma, ‘If that isn’t wonderful, I don’t know what is’

‘It was just one tiny white pill that looked like Tylenol. It felt like a warm hug taking away all my pain.’: Survivor of sexual abuse shares addiction, trauma recovery journey

‘My weight fell to that of an 8-year-old. I thought I was FAT.’: Woman battles anorexia, binge eating disorder, ‘Recovery has helped me discover myself’

Do you know someone who could benefit from this story? SHARE this story on Facebook to let others know a community of support is available.

 Share  Tweet