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Mana Nakagawa

Advocate and Graduate Student

Palo Alto, CA

I have learned that leaning in is like muscle memory: after enough practice, we can wire our brains to instinctively believe we can. What a powerful natural reflex.

Seven years ago, I wrote my first “coming out” story.

As a freshman in college, I had disappeared for a few months. Without telling anyone at school except my therapist, I checked myself into an eating disorder treatment facility and fought my way through the most painful four months of my life.

The roots of my eating disorder were deeply complex. I had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa as a senior in high school, and despite months of therapy, my disorder worsened during the first semester of college. I was constantly exhausted, disappointed with myself, and officially done with being sick. I flew home across the country and told my parents that I couldn’t go back to school. I was ready to get some serious help.

Checking myself into rehab saved my life. But equally important, it profoundly changed my outlook on life, my priorities, and my definition of happiness. I came out of treatment feeling empowered and prepared to overcome anything. But I still wasn’t ready to tell others. I feared that I would be labeled the “rehab girl,” an identity I thought I couldn’t handle. All I wanted was a fresh start.

When I returned to school, I chose a new major, found new housing, and made new friends. I also got healthier, developed new ambitions, and began to love college. But something was always missing. I began to realize that I was incredibly proud of the challenges I had overcome, and I wanted my close friends to know that I was who I was because of rehab, not despite it. Without sharing my story, I felt as if I was hiding my true identity.

Very slowly, I began opening up to friends about where I had been and what I had experienced. Once I started sharing, people shared back. Almost everyone had a narrative about herself, her friends, or her family, and they all pointed to a similar theme: getting help for a mental health issue was seen as a weakness. I realized that this was the same mind-set that had kept me sick for so long. I wanted to help fight this stigma around mental health issues. I wanted others to know that getting help was an empowering process and not one to be ashamed of. But how could I do that if I was still afraid to share my own story?

I knew it was time to come out of hiding. As I began writing about my journey and the power I gained through treatment, my fears transformed into passion. When our college paper published my story as an op-ed, I received e-mails from individuals all over campus, sharing their hopes for improved mental health at our university.

After the article, I teamed up with diverse student leaders to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness. We fought for increased funding for our counseling center and launched campaigns to destigmatize seeking out mental health services.

Being open about my “coming out” story taught me that sometimes the things I’m most scared to pursue are the most important ones to act on. But after overcoming my fear to write that article, anything seems possible.

Mana Nakagawa is a doctoral student at Stanford University