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As much as rising high school junior Bela D. loves learning, she struggled with being in a school environment.

Outside of the confines of school buildings, she poured her heart into her studies, driven by her gratitude for having an education. But at school, there were questions. Conversations. People—so many people. Café food and the dreaded hour of lunch.

Though Bela prides herself on her devotion to learning, her middle school and high school environment threw a wrench in her mental health journey.

“[My mental health journey] has been very… long,” Bela said. Though there wasn’t an exact moment she could pin as the “start,” in second grade, Bela began finding day-to-day actions difficult, or sometimes even impossible.

“It was hard for me to do small things like getting into the car—I couldn’t do that,” she said. “It kind of developed into being afraid to eat, because I was afraid I would choke.”

Back then, the word “mental health” wasn’t in her lexicon—she would learn the word in middle school—but she still felt its unnamed presence in her life, hovering behind her like a shadow.

Around the age of seven, following an anxiety diagnosis, she started therapy and taking medicine. But just when she found both of those helping her manage her anxiety as she progressed into 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, everything changed. She transferred middle schools, and in the new school environment, she found herself enshrouded in clouds of insecurity and doubt.

“I became very insecure with myself, mostly how I looked,” she said. “That, along with anxiety, kind of caused me to stop eating.”

Bela limited her intake of food and over-exercised, all with the goal of losing weight. Then, after two years, she found herself in her first recovery program. But the name “recovery” was misleading: Bela only found herself getting worse.

“I pretty much lied my way through that first recovery program,” she said. “I just felt so… confused.”

She listened to the advice people gave her, but everyone was telling her different things. Mired in a sea of you

need to do this and you need to do that, she wasn’t improving. It was like being in the midst of a bustling crowd; she was jostled, pushed, and pulled in different directions until she felt lost.

“I felt like I was just a completely different person,” Bela said. “I didn’t want to be alive—I felt just so stuck and like I really could not get out of that.”

That moment was the most difficult in her mental health journey to this day. Everything veered off track: she made a decision she regretted, and, in Spring of 2020, she was put into an inpatient recovery treatment.

It was during those two months of recovery that she found SafeSpace. From SafeSpace’s active presence in her middle school, she’d already known about the organization for a while. Back then, though, although she found SafeSpace “really cool,” she never engaged further.

But this time, when she got emails from her school about SafeSpace, she joined.

“I was like, ‘okay, this is exactly what I need,’” Bela said.

At first, she didn’t think it would be anything special. She envisioned the meetings as just some “random commitment” that would pop up on her schedule every one or two weeks or so, but never feel like anything more.

She was wrong. After joining, Bela found herself compelled to get more involved in the SafeSpace community, and between the meetings, the work she did, and the people she met, SafeSpace transformed into what is now a “big part” of her life.

SafeSpace wasn’t the only change that she experienced during the earlier months of 2020. As the COVID-19 outbreak ballooned into a global pandemic, life as the world once knew it was upended—but for Bela, the pandemic had a shining silver lining.

In the isolation of her recovery program, the outside world had evaporated, and she became increasingly anxious about going back to school as the program went on. At school, there would once more be the questions. Conversations. People. Food. The nightmare would start again.

But as Bela ended the program, she realized she was entering a new reality—one with remote learning. With schools closed, her worry melted away.

“The timing was pretty amazing,” she said. “It was really helpful for me and gave me a little time to process and just ease back into reality without being forced back into it.”

Her mental health was actually better during the quarantine. At home, she carved out a place of solace and tranquility through movement. She practices yoga, meditates, and goes on walks—anything where she can shake off the world around her and focus purely on herself.

“My safe space is definitely when I’m connected to my body and my mind,” she said. “Just really putting the evil aside and putting the diet culture aside and just moving my body in ways that I feel like I need.”

Bela is at her happiest when she doesn’t need to think about mental health at all—when a whole day or more can slip by and it doesn’t cross her mind. She’s had those kinds of days this summer, and it fills her with a burgeoning sense of pride.

“I didn’t think about the actual word, or my anxiety and depression, or the food I was eating, or how I looked and stuff like that,” Bela said, “and just kind of being without actually thinking about all of that was so peaceful.”

Today, she continues to work hard and put her utmost effort into school. She loves to learn, both in and out of the classroom; like a sponge, she soaks up all she can from classes and regular day-to-day experiences alike.

From playing games to reading, hanging out with friends, phone detoxes, and ample time for relaxation, she finds enjoyment in the little moments.

Close to her heart is the importance of sharing stories: talking to other people about their experiences, sharing her own story, and helping others.

“Thinking about my lowest moment that I shared earlier, and just thinking about the hundreds and thousands and millions of people that are put in situations like that where they feel like there’s nothing they can do—I don’t want anyone to feel like that. Ever. Not even my worst enemy,” Bela said. “Helping other people get out of that and giving them tools to not get into that state is beyond important, and if I can do anything to help, I want to.”

She hopes that her openness and honesty in sharing her story can help others not feel alone and know that others, like her, have gone through it as well. As Bela put it, she wants to be a “message of hope.”

“I personally think I’m in a really good place now, and if I could talk to my younger self, I’d say, ‘listen, you will be okay one day,’” Bela said. “I want to be that person for someone else.”


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