By Allison Lax
If an observer had been asked to describe the two people on my Zoom screen last Thursday— Chris Trondsen, a California therapist, and myself, a New York grad student—there would not have been much to report.
On one panel: a brown-haired, clean-shaven man with kind eyes in a crisp shirt and blazer. The other: a young blonde woman with a nervous smile and nap-rumpled sweater. Both, it must be said, looked remarkably ordinary.
What connects us, however, is a disease with deadly aim to convince us otherwise.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (also known as BDD) is defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America as “a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance.” While some may assume BDD to be a vanity-driven quirk, a desire to shed a few pounds after seeing an unflattering bathing-suit pic, the disorder can be life-consuming. Typically focusing on the face up, it drives sufferers to devote their entire energies into fixing appearance flaws that do not exist. Some may isolate themselves altogether, becoming housebound. Approximately one in four attempt suicide.
Eerie similarities exist between Chris and I’s experiences with the disorder. While we both exhibited symptoms in childhood and adolescence, neither was diagnosed until our early twenties. Our main obsessions include skin and hair. We consider ourselves creatives (I’m a writer; Chris moonlights as a media journalist). Both of us, at a point, were completely debilitated by our illness. BDD led us to drop out of school, hole ourselves up, and seriously consider (or in Chris’ case, attempt) suicide.
The difference? Where each of us are in recovery now.
Nearly fifteen years after a grueling journey of individual and group therapy, Chris has fully gotten his life back. Today he works as a mental health clinician, specializing in the treatment of OCD and related disorders, like BDD. He also serves as a lead advocate for the International OCD Foundation and is vice president of OCD Southern California.
The disease that once hijacked Chris’ entire being now ranks remarkably low on his list of daily struggles—a blip after L.A. traffic. He is one of my mental health heroes.
I, on the other hand, am somewhere in the middle of my journey. While I am proud to have completed five months of residential exposure-response-prevention therapy in 2018—a gold standard treatment that encourages people to sit with their anxiety without neutralizing it with compulsions—and have since graduated college, it would be a lie to say I’m in full-on recovery.
Though I now function normally from an outside perspective, I tend to resist exposing myself to daily triggers and frequently give into old compulsions (i.e., buying beauty products I don’t need and isolating from friends when I’m low) in the name of comfort.
This effort to resist turbulence, I admit, keeps sufferers like me in a holding pattern. When our appearance is “good,” we don’t want to ruin it by giving up a misguided beauty ritual. When it is “bad,” we are terrified of making it worse. This reluctance to rock the boat keeps us safe, but at a cost. It lets BDD steer our lives. The kicker is, we know this! Still, something about the idea of letting go completely—giving into the unknown—is petrifying.
Chris, who I have deemed the Yoda to my Luke Skywalker, understands this inner battle because he has lived it. Still, he insists that his clients push past their fear, emphasizing the rewards that wait on the other side. His own first Shit, maybe I’m doing something right moment came at a pool party a few years after completing treatment. Though he did not feel in the right shape or tan enough to attend, he made himself go anyway—something that once would have been impossible.
“I didn’t let my feelings dictate my behavior,” Chris explained. “I was at this party and feeling miserable, but I stuck to my guns and pushed through. Once I really leaned into the event, I would have patches where I completely forgot that I was triggered being there. I was just having a good time. After that happened, I was like, ‘Okay, that was great! What’s next?’”
Still, recovery doesn’t mean sunshine and rainbows. Slip-ups happen and optimism flags. One side effect Chris did not expect was anger. As he rebuilt his life, tacking on a job, new friends, and new experiences, the weight of all the disorder had taken from him became heavy. In his mid-twenties, he’d scroll through Facebook and see high school classmates taking off in their careers. Some were even starting families. Meanwhile Chris had barely started undergrad. He became angry and depressed that life looked nothing like he’d pictured it.
As an almost-25-year-old struggling with similar feelings of FOMO and inadequacy (though to be fair, what twenty-something doesn’t?), I asked how he got through this time.
“My mom and sister had somewhat of an intervention,” Chris said. “They just said, ‘Look, you can’t do anything about the time lost because you didn’t have a name for the diagnosis. And now you have the tools to fight and you’re doing great, but you’re choosing to be angry each day.
Then I was like, ‘OK—I have a choice. I can either kind of sit in my dirty bathwater, or I can build a life I’m so proud of that I won’t focus on the time lost anymore.’ And I really started to engage in things I cared about.
I won’t lie; most days, I still find the non-linearity of mental health recovery at best confusing, if not incredibly frustrating. However, when I take a step back, I can also appreciate the beauty of the process. Bad days happen, but so do good ones. The important thing, I am learning, is to take every opportunity possible to unstick yourself; to do your best (your real best) moving forward. Sometimes, you may even be lucky enough to get advice on the way from a master.
Allison Lax is a writer who enjoys dabbling in a broad range of genres. She is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA in Writing (Fiction) program and resides in Bronxville, New York.