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I was so stressed about climate change that I took it out on my own body

As a university student, Andrea Johancsik keenly felt the doom of an impending climate crisis. It drove her to a dark place. She describes the way she found a healthier approach without giving up her passion.

Now I see that in my illness, I forgot to have compassion for myself

A young woman holds a sign that reads "The climate is changing, so should we." She is among other protesters.

This is a First Person column by Andrea Johancsik, who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, see the FAQ.

"It is up to you," our professor said to the dozen young faces in our university seminar.

She thumped her palm on the table, agitated.

"No one else is going to fix the world's environmental problems. You're looking for the world's leaders? They're in this room."

The room fell quiet except for the sound of a classmate's habitual pencil-twirling. But in my body, my heartbeat was a deafening whoosh. Hot shame crept up my chest.

In today's world, it's impossible to escape climate discussions and everyone reacts differently to stress in their life. But my reaction went to a really dark place and it took me years to find my way out.

As a first-year student, I tried to have a social life that measured up to the photos friends posted on social media, while also studying for hours in my dorm room alone, feeling like if I failed my next exam, it would mean failing at life.

I didn't know how to cope, so I disconnected from others emotionally and ate bags of snacks and candy while studying. One afternoon, I was so disgusted with myself I made myself throw up. I felt ashamed but also some relief from the pressure I put myself under.

A woman smiles at a camera while holding up a sign that says "I promise to buy 90% of my fruits and veggies LOCAL."

When I returned for my second year, my courses were more challenging and so was the content. That's when the "eco" aspect of my anxiety added to the pressure.

For hours each day, I learned about the horrid state of our planet. I watched documentaries of self-serving CEOs running profit-hungry corporations at the expense of the world's poor. I listened to lectures on companies carelessly throwing toxic waste onto Indigenous lands. I read articles about the problem of poachers who caught and sold endangered species.

Then I tried to shake it off but pre-drinking with friends on a Friday night felt strange and self-indulgent.

Pre-drinking with friends on a Friday night felt strange and self-indulgent.

– Andrea Johancsik

I started obsessing about food to cope — it felt purposeful, and a welcome distraction to the doom and gloom. At one point, I decided to only buy produce grown locally to make a point about the food system. Eating local apples and pears reduces harmful emissions from transportation — but this challenge turned into something that was more about a false sense of control for me in the face of uncertainty than eating right.

Sometimes I was so overwhelmed with what food choices were best for the planet, I hardly ate at all.

I kept this eating disorder a secret from family, friends and classmates. If they suspected, they never said anything. Perhaps it was their own fear of being outed — even in my small program, I can think of a handful of women whose sharp, thin bodies and dark circles under their eyes suggested anorexia.

Reaching out for professional help didn't solve the issue. I saw therapists through the school's counselling office. But even though an eating disorder can be life-threatening, it was several years before anyone recommended I see a doctor. After several blood tests and electrocardiograms, I was diagnosed with bulimia and learned I had heart arrhythmia, low iron stores and enzyme imbalances.

A woman stands in a high altitude pass with hiking poles in her hands and a large backpack on her back.

My path back to a healthier lifestyle has been as much about addressing loneliness as it was about treatment.

I attended a group therapy program at the local hospital. That helped, but I felt even better when I graduated and left behind the toxic pressures of university.

I took a summer job giving tours in Alberta's badlands, living and working beside a close-knit group of peers, and then found work that felt positive and practical in the environmental field — helping community members reduce waste and their climate footprints. I think that did just as much as the therapy.

And my anxiety about the earth? It's still there. When I feel anxious, I still have the impulse to retreat. But I force myself to seek out friends and talk it through. I prioritize the activities that bring me joy, like backpacking in the mountains.

Now as wildfire smoke clouds our skies, I worry more young people might also wrestle with climate anxiety. I hope they prioritize caring for themselves, too.

When I was writing essays in university, I argued the antidote to the problems in the environment is compassion and a better connection between people and the natural environment. But now I see that in my illness, I forgot to have compassion for myself. We can't ignore climate change nor can we burn out trying to fix it. But somewhere in the middle is compassion for ourselves, for one another and for the world.


If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, here's where to get help:

Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. This piece came from a workshop held at the Village Square library in east Calgary.

Check out our workshops and sign up for the waiting list, or pitch your story directly to the national team.

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