Welcome to the home of The Bureau Briefing, our very own podcast. Each episode, we talk to a member of the Bureau of Digital community doing awesome, inspiring things. Check in each week for a new episode with your host Carl Smith. 

Be sure and find us on iTunes!


Episode 027

 Justine Arreche

Justine Arreche

DEPRESSION, ALCOHOL AND EATING DISORDERS

with Justine Arreche

Life is hard. For over 30 million people in The United States, these difficulties can manifest themselves in an eating disorder. In the web industry, it's really easy for this to go unnoticed because of the increase in distributed teams and popularity of alcohol at social events and conferences. Justine Arreche has suffered immensely with these issues and today she's speaking out to help others know they aren't alone. You can find Justine on Twitter at @SaltineJustine.

 


Full Transcript


Welcome to the Bureau Briefing. A podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:    
Hey, everybody, and welcome back to the bureau briefing. It is Carl, and with me today, I have got Justine Arreche. How's it going, Justine?

Justine Arreche:    
I'm great, how are you Carl?

Carl Smith:    
I'm great. We met at Hybrid in Berlin, earlier this year, and first of all, I truly enjoyed your talk. You gave a great talk with your partner about how devs and designers and how introverts and extroverts worked together. First of all, hilarious, informative, thank you for giving that talk.
 
Justine Arreche:    
No problem it was super fun to give. Plus a good excuse to have all of those gifts. I'm still using the Michelle Obama Muppets gift constantly.

Carl Smith:    
Exactly. I have threatened to have a no gif conference.


Justine Arreche:    
Oh wow.

Carl Smith:    
I know, and everybody told me to stop just being stupid. It's like gifts are amazing. Why are you so down on the gifts?

Justine Arreche:    
I guess unless you have epilepsy or some motion sickness disorder then you know, gifts are pretty great, but they are ablest, so ...

Carl Smith:    
People feel the same way about peanuts. 

Justine Arreche:    
Oh yeah, I had to make myself like peanuts. That's a fun fact about me.

Carl Smith:    
I was talking about the Charles Schultz comic strip.

Justine Arreche:    
(laughs) That Peanuts. I grew up watching it but I was really more of a Marmaduke kind of gal.

Carl Smith:    
Whoa, nice. Who doesn't like a big dog?

Justine Arreche:    
I like big mutts and I cannot lie. 

Carl Smith:    
I saw that shirt on a plane the other day and I was like, ma'am I know we don't know each other, but thank you. Thank you for that because I needed that. Now, later on, we were actually at an after party, and we started having a conversation and you mentioned having an eating disorder.

Justine Arreche:    
Isn't that how you make friends at after parties? You just approach strangers on the wall and say, hey fun fact. I have an eating disorder. Ask me how? 

Carl Smith:    
Well, you know what? It worked.

Justine Arreche:    
That's why I keep doing it.

Carl Smith:    
Because it was one of those things where I was like I've never met anybody who was open about where they've been, where they are, how those types of things have impacted them. That was really why I wanted to get you on the show because I know for a lot of us, especially the people that are listening, we're probably extremely ignorant to what is going on with a lot of the people that are around us.  If you would be just so wonderful, could you explain or kind of tell the story?

Justine Arreche:    
Absolutely. Yeah. First of all I just kind of want to give a disclaimer on what I'll talk about, a trigger warning if you will. I will be talking about eating disorders, depression, anxiety, some self-harm and yeah I think that about covers it. Ah, substance abuse, almost forgot that one. That one's a good one. 

Carl Smith:    
It's a very popular one.

Justine Arreche:    
Yeah, it's super popular especially in tech. Yeah, when I was 19, I was actually kind of a late eating disorder, a late adopter if you will keep the software and things going on. Yeah, I just, I can't really pinpoint where it began. I do know that I had accidentally lost a bunch of weight and realized, I think something clicked in my head that if I don't eat or that I can lose a bunch of weight.

I was always kind of a chubby kid. It never really used to bother me until at some point, I guess it did. Yeah, my parents discovered that I had been losing a bunch of weight and my dad actually is the one who discovered that i had been purging my food. If you're not familiar with what that means, it's when someone forcibly removes like weight or calories or food from their body.

They wanted me to go into an outpatient program at the Cleveland Clinic, and from there there was a six week program. I was diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, which is the less popular younger sister, kind of the, what's the middle kid from ...

Carl Smith:    
Malcolm?

Justine Arreche:    
I was going with the Brady Bunch, but we'll go with Malcolm.

Carl Smith:    
Jan?

Justine Arreche:    
Jan. That's it. Bulimia's Jan as Marcia is to Anorexia. I started the six week outpatient program and I managed to successfully complete that program. From then I've pretty much been able to live a fairly normal life without much relapse. The program, since I was so young and I hadn't been "bulimic" for that long, it was like I was kind of a good candidate to succeed in that program. Since I was getting treatment, that already meant that I was going to be more successful than people who don't receive treatment.
    
However I had my most major relapse when I was late in my 20s. It was onset by the fact that I was sexually assaulted at a tech conference. Here's the thing about eating disorders, is people think they're often just to be skinny, but in reality, it's kind of a way of controlling things, things in your environment. Maybe when things are chaotic and there is one thing that you can control and it's what your body looks like and what goes into it.
    
I fell back into my bulimic tendencies. I basically stopped eating. I lost I think 20-something pounds in a very short amount of time, about two months. I just started drinking super heavily and I just couldn't get myself out of this cycle. It was really like scary and terrible time for me. I lost my job. I got a DUI. I lost a relationship. 
    
Meanwhile I'm still speaking at conferences and there's no better place to hide an alcohol abuse issue than at tech events, because about anybody will buy you a drink, especially if you're the only woman in the room. It was just a really terrible time for me. I thought about killing myself. I was cutting again, which I hadn't done in a super long time. 
    
All the while, I did manage to get a new job at Travis CI, which is where I still work and I moved to Berlin. I thought I could get away from my problems in Ohio and I could kind of fix myself, if I just left. Well it turns out that your eating disorders and your mental health issues have no problem also getting a passport and following you abroad. That's exactly what happened and anybody who's ever been to Berlin knows that Berlin certainly isn't the city to try and hide from your issues. You'll just be like everybody else, but that doesn't mean it's a great place to kind of cope and recover.
    
It was November, almost two years ago I think. I was visiting my family in Ohio and I had decided to volunteer to cook the entire Thanksgiving meal, which I think just speaks really funny things about eating disorders and how obsessed you become with food. What the hell was I thinking? Because, wow, Thanksgiving is stressful. 
    
Just like any day, I think it was November 25th, like any normal day, I'd already binged and purged a couple of times. That's typical when I was home alone and my parents were off at work. I was making the vegetable stock from scratch because I was going to make vegan shepherd's pie, which turned out to be amazing by the way. I found myself unable to breathe, and I'd just keep trying to situate and re-situate myself onto some of the sofas or on the stairs. I tried the floor. The dogs thought it was a pretty great game, but I started getting really scared and I thought I'm going to die alone in this home. 
    
I tried to call my partner who was also visiting Ohio at the time with me, but my T-mobile super reliable phone service had no credit on it, so I couldn't make a call. I sent a desperate I-message saying please get here as soon as you can, an emergency. I called 911 because you can call 911 even if you don't have credit. All phone services will let you do that. 
    
I called 911 and had the ambulance come to my house and they took me to the hospital. They ran some tests and I had like little oxygen tube nose thingy and they had me take some potassium and stuff and they were just like, your organs are like super unhappy. You are very dehydrated and your electrolytes are super low. Want to like tell us something? I was like, oh yeah, fun fact about my eating disorder. I think it's killing me.
    
That was really kind of it clicked. Sometimes for some people they need active recovery, like treatment programs, but I was pretty already well equipped from the things that I remembered from my outpatient program and essentially I just decided I didn't want to die. It's not to say that everything was perfect sunshine and rainbows since that day, but I just, I didn't want to do it anymore because there's a lot of lying that's involved in having an eating disorder. The constant bingeing and purging cycles are incredibly expensive and just damaging on not only your wallet but like your soul. You just feel so drained all the time and you're so tired because you haven't eaten anything properly.
    
For me it was two years? Yeah. That's kind of what happened, where I just decided I can't do this anymore. Slowly I started to become a bit more open about it because I just realized nobody's really talking about it. I found that to be incredibly frustrating because there are thirty million people in the United States alone that have an eating disorder. That's a staggering amount of people. That means at an event of two hundred people, there's at least twenty people who are like me.
    
There's some solidarity in knowing that, but it's also incredibly sad and eating disorders are, they can be prevented if you catch them from an early age, right? Positive reinforcement of body image and stuff, and if we don't talk about this, if there are parents or spouses or co-workers who can help these people, then the only way they're going to know about it is if I talk about it.

Carl Smith:    
Wow. Thank you. There's so much to process there. 

Justine Arreche:    
I'm sorry.

Carl Smith:    
No, no.

Justine Arreche:    
It's a loaded testimonial.

Carl Smith:    
No, it was amazing. Powerful. Was there anybody on the inside with you? Was there anybody that knew what you were going through, that you could reach out to? The one thing that I'm thinking as I listen to your story is how alone you had to feel with what you were doing and why you were doing it and those, I'm just going to call them demons, that were just eating at you. That's horrible. That were constantly just in your head and telling you that you weren't good enough or whatever the things were that were being said. Was there anybody there that helped you or did you just finally say enough?

Justine Arreche:    
The person that I was seeing at the time knew that I was sick. I mean I lived with him, so he caught on probably as quickly as most people would. I think that was basically it. We had broken up and that was only six months of the two year relapse. Then it was just me. It is an incredibly lonely feeling. It really is a lot about the lies that will eat you up. What did you do today seems like a pretty easy question, but for someone who's lying about 50% of the way their day went, it's kind of like watching the debates. You have to not catch yourself in a lie because that's how people will find out.

The key to being successful at your eating disorder is to be deceptive. You don't want people to interfere because you are still trying to control something. I think that's just really the worst feeling.

Carl Smith:    
Now you mentioned alcohol, well you mentioned substance abuse. You didn't say alcohol specifically but you did mention at events. Alcohol at events is a huge issue. As somebody who organizes events as well as somebody who's attended them quite a lot, it is one of those places you can hide, right? 
    
I've struggled with alcohol. I had my first drink when I was 12. I stole a beer from a neighbors fridge because I'm in Florida and everybody's got a fridge outside.

Justine Arreche:    
Oh right.

Carl Smith:    
it's just like run across, dive in the bush. Oh hey, I got four beers. It's one of those things that I'm curious. Obviously alcohol, what it was for me was, it silences the voice.

Justine Arreche:    
Absolutely.

Carl Smith:    
You also probably, I mean I would imagine that ... I don't want to say that the incessant hunger becomes normal but the calories in alcohol. What was the alcohol for you?

Justine Arreche:    
It's absolutely what you said. I'm essentially going insane in my head and everything hurts and I'm hungry all the time and I'm incredibly irritable. You just, having some wine for breakfast seems like a really rational thing because you've got a stressful day ahead of you. You know you've got to face this whole day being hungry and making plans with people and dodging out of them if they involve food.
    
Even though alcohol is so high in calories, it's the main substance abused by people with eating disorders. I think that that's one super interesting thing, because as I saw it in my head, I would rather take the 700-1400 calories of one to two bottles of wine a day than eat food because I knew that alcohol would in some way make me feel better. That sounds like a really fucked up sentiment, but that's really what it was. 

Carl Smith:    
You can it's a fucked up sentiment but I think I can associate with where you were on the alcohol side. I can't associate, I would never even want to insult the situation by imagining that I could have any clue what that purging was like. In a weird way I'm attracted to the alcohol problem because it's something I can comprehend. I think you're absolutely right. It's kind of there for you. It's going to help you not worry as much. It's going to help you sleep, even if it's bad sleep. It's going to mask some of the pain that you're feeling emotionally and physically. 
    
I'm just curious on the cutting. I have somebody in my life who I found out was cutting. It was one of those things when we had the conversation that it was almost a punishment for her. That was a way that she could say okay I've punished myself. I shouldn't worry about it anymore. It was almost like a closure thing. When you've got that combined with the eating disorder and the alcohol, how did that play a role?

Justine Arreche:    
For me cutting was never really about punishing myself. I was just so hurt that I felt I needed to lash out in some kind of physical way. There's just this trauma up in my brain and my mind is screaming all the time but there's no way for me to do anything. Physically I'm not a violent person so I'm not going to lash out on someone else, but I just started to kind of lash out physically on my body and you know, just there's something about having that physical pain that mimics the mental pain that just, it made more sense to me. Fortunately these were only during super desperate evenings where I'm just, I'm exhausted and I've had enough.

Carl Smith:    
You've come out. You've been talking about this. You mentioned that you were at a conference recently. You got up on stage and you shared what you've been through and what I would imagine you'll always be dealing with. Whether you're in the middle of it or not, it's always there, I would imagine. 

Justine Arreche:    
Yeah.

Carl Smith:    
What did you share when you got up there?

Justine Arreche:    
I'm a speaking member of an organization called Prompt and what Prompt tries to do is send speakers to tech events to talk on mental health topics and we've got some speakers on depression, anxiety, but yeah I'm the only speaker on eating disorders. I wanted the talk to be informative but also a bit emotional because I feel that it was a hugely emotional time for me and I think eating disorders get kind of a weird presences in movies or TV shows or teen dramas or what not. There's the token girl who throws up her food or doesn't eat.

For me my eating disorder was just so much more than that. It really did make me the worst version of myself and I was suffering in so many ways from it. I speak a bit on that and I also give some statistics. Like I mentioned earlier there are thirty million people in the United States that have an eating disorder, and that's just the United States. We're not talking about Europe or Australia.
    
It's not as popular in third world countries where people can't even afford to eat. It's obviously a first world problem, like really. That's twenty million women and ten million men. The words for anorexia and bulimia have only been around since the late 1800s. They were developed by a doctor, a British doctor, William Gall and he had written a paper to the Royal College of Physicians. I think that was 1873 was I think when that was, but the disorders have been around for way longer than that. This was just the first time people were writing about them as they were seeing increasing amounts of patients who were exhibiting these symptoms of disordered eating.
    
I like speaking on these kinds of things because I don't want to only emotionally touch people. I want them to have more information about eating disorders before they entered that room. If people can leave with even just the tiniest bit of empathy and understanding for it, I feel like I've done my job. 
    
I think the most touching thing that has ever happened to me, after giving one of these talks was someone approached me after a talk and he told me that he had a young daughter and that he left the room with a lot more to think about in regards to her health than he had before he had attended that conference. That was really touching because this is why I do it right. I don't want to do it so people feel sorry for me or people will pity me.
    
I'm actually putting a lot on the line because if I, people do think of me differently now, right? I'm the girl who talks about eating disorders. That's okay, because if one parent, one spouse, one co-worker can even see the signs, maybe they can help somebody. 

Carl Smith:    
First of all, again, I'm sitting here thinking about people in my life. As you're speaking I'm thinking about things differently and I'm wondering have you had people also come up who thanked you because they thought they were alone and they realized that they weren't?

Justine Arreche:    
I have a few friends on the internet, people ... The internet is kind of a weird place but I don't know where I would be without it.

Carl Smith:    
Amen.

Justine Arreche:    
I actually have found a kind of mini support group with a couple of special women who have reached out to me to say, hey you basically just outlined my life and how tough it can be and I want to thank you for talking about it because they might not be in a position to do that. Maybe it's their job or their family or something. I'm in a very privileged position where I can talk about it. I do talk about it at my job and I obviously talk about it pretty publicly. My partner is incredibly supportive.
    
Being a voice for some of these women who can't otherwise speak up about it has really touched me. It's definitely been beneficial to me because if I'm having a bad day or I'm having triggering thoughts, I have some people that I can reach out to and finding other people who understand eating disorders is really tough. You don't know who they are. Not everybody wants to talk about it. I feel really fortunate that I've met these women.

Carl Smith:    
I'm glad you met them as well and it's nice to know that you've got that group now. For those of us that aren't as sensitive to it, that don't understand, what are the signs that we may see, and what should we do? If we think that somebody's got a problem, how should we approach it?

Justine Arreche:    
Very carefully is the first thing I would say. The second thing I would say is just don't assume that people who have dropped a significant amount of weight quickly have an eating disorder. I think the best thing that anyone ever did for me while I was sick was they didn't outright call me on it. I had a very supportive friend and former co-worker, Leon Gursing. He saw the signs and I had dropped an incredible amount of weight. I wasn't eating lunch with the groups anymore. Gin and tonic is not lunch, not the lime either. 
    
He kind of just sat me down and he told me, Justine, eventually this is going to come to a head and all of the lies and the exhaustion, it's all going to blow up into something. I'm going to have to eventually pay off that emotional debt is what he called it. Much like technical debt that needs to be paid off right? You have to fix that technical debt.
    
This is kind of how I see my eating disorder in a way, paying off this emotional debt, but to kind of get back to your question, it's be that Leon Gursing, that person who will give advice without making accusations because oftentimes people with eating disorders, they're just so alone and to just even have one person kind of hug you and say this will work out or offer to just be there, that's really the best thing you can do.
    
There's no way to force hospitalization on anybody who's over the age of 18. What you really need to do is just tell people that you care about them and hope that they have maybe in the United States some insurance providers will provide mental health access, therapists, psychologists, community groups. Try and find information in your community. Maybe there's like a support group and just kind of say, I'm not sure if you need this, but this is here. Non-accusational is really the best way to go about it.

Carl Smith:    
Are there any signs? I know rapid weight loss can be a lot of different things. Is there anything that you know about or that you've read about in terms of things you might notice?

Justine Arreche:    
I mean with like a lot of mental health issues, irritability and kind of distance from other things that they used to be interested in and are no longer any more. That's always kind of a clear sign of any mental health struggle. Obviously in my case I was drinking at lunch, and that's another kind of clear sign it was no longer casual with my meal drinking. It was straight double gin and tonic, please and thank you kind of drinking.
    
These are signs that you can look out for. Another type of bulimia that's not throwing up your food is excessive exercise. I have known a couple of people who have suffered from that type of bulimia. In my opinion we have to be very careful because right now we're living through an age where there's a fad diet for everything. There's the whole 30. There's paleo. There's all different kinds of ways to start restricting your food. This makes a very hard line to draw when someone's clearly suffering from disordered eating and when they're just a part of the next fad.
    
These fads in my opinion can also lead to disordered eating. When I can't have this, or this is bad for you. Eating disorders became even more popular after the '70s and '80s craze of no fat, no butter. People just started restricting that and when you start restricting your food, you no longer have a healthy relationship with what food is supposed to do for you. These are some of the things to look out for. There's really no clear sign to say this person definitely has an eating disorder.
    
You can spot an alcoholic right, but that also makes it difficult to find people and to intervene and help them. This probably also contributes to why so many people with eating disorders are unable to seek treatment. With teenagers it's easier. If you're the parent, you can put them in a program, but it's so much harder to keep an eye on adults, right? We're all living our private lives and it's just hard to tell.

Carl Smith:    
It's really hard to tell when you're part of a distributed team.

Justine Arreche:    
Yeah. Absolutely. 

Carl Smith:    
I think that, in our industry specifically, probably adds another level of loneliness and another level of being able to abuse yourself, to do different things that can make it difficult. I know I've been through that with some teammates and to a degree I've had some struggles. Nothing major, but ...

Justine Arreche:    
I think you hit the nail on the head. I'm a remote worker. During most of this time I was working remotely. You know what? That is great in some ways, because I can structure my work day in a way that worked for me, but unfortunately that also left me with a lot of time alone. I can get incredibly lonely. Even now, almost two years after like I started doing self recovery, it's just like I just get so lonely. That's when the thoughts start to come in. 
    
I think that is really hard on our industry. There's a lot of people in tech suffering from depression or social anxiety and when you remove that 9-5 with other people around you, it leaves you vulnerable for some of these things to take shape and potentially get worse. There's not really anyone around to kind of look out for you. I try and check in on my online friends. We have a mental health channel in my company slack at Travis that I started. I try and keep tabs on people there because I know what it's like to be on that other side and just feel like you're in the dark. You just want a hug, you know?

Carl Smith:    
Yes. Virtual hugs are not as good as the real thing, but it's nice to know that somebody wants to.

Justine Arreche:    
Absolutely. 

Carl Smith:    
I have to say Travis sounds like an amazing organization, amazing company. It's just wonderful that they're open and there's that mental health slack channel. All of this sounds like it's a really wonderful caring place. 

Justine Arreche:    
I'm really, really lucky. I like knowing that I've in some way helped shape the way that we are at Travis. I think that was probably the nicest compliment my CEO, Matthias Meyer has ever given me. He kind of laid it out that I've made a huge difference in the way Travis kind of deals with these sorts of things. 
    
I always encourage every company to look at some of the things that we do at Travis and see if they can put that into their organization. I have unlimited mental health days. I don't need to lie about it. I don't need to say I'm sick or anything. Much like if someone has the flu, you want them to stay home and just get better, right? To me mental health days are exactly the same thing because we all know what burnout feels like and terrible feelings can come from that. It's important for companies to look after their employees and kind of allow for these days that sure, you're not shipping something but you're also helping a human. I always say never forget that humans are behind software, a super important thing to keep in mind.

Carl Smith:    
That's a wonderful thing to keep in mind. We're almost at time and I was just wondering if anybody's listening that's having a struggle. If it's an eating disorder, if it's alcohol, if it's just depression. Just depression. If it's just depression, if you're just dealing with, whatever, just pick yourself up. It's just depression.

Justine Arreche:    
Put a smile on your face (laughs).

Carl Smith:    
If they're going through these challenges, are there any places that you would recommend? I know you mentioned look and see what you've got in your local communities but are there any places that you're aware of that are really good?

Justine Arreche:    
Let's see. I know personally that I'm not a support group kind of person. That doesn't work for me. What's actually helped me is finding other people on Twitter who have been talking about mental health. I'm lucky that I've been introduced to some of them through Prompt but if you are the kind of person who just wants to know that other people are suffering the way you're suffering and maybe they have tips, I think looking around craigslist or your local clinic might have options for support groups or people you can see.
    
Also check with your general practitioner. I think it's easy for some of us to talk to doctors because there's kind of this confidentiality thing that you know that they want to see you well. My local GP, from a very small family practice also offers a therapist. These are kind of resources that you might not be aware of in your community.

Carl Smith:    
I think it's so important to realize that a lot of us do have great resources in our own community and we just don't think about it. Anybody listening that is having struggles, take a look. There's somebody around. I think the idea of your general practitioner is a great idea, especially with that confidentiality. My dad was a psychologist. He helped a lot of people. Find somebody you can talk to, right?

Justine Arreche:    
Absolutely. I think that's the key, is just finding someone you're comfortable talking with. I mean even if that's me. If anybody's listening, you can always reach out to me on Twitter. I think that it's just important to talk to someone because you never know how relieving that can be. Talking to just one person might be the step towards getting help. I never want anyone out there to harm themselves or to hurt like I ever hurt. I can't even fathom the fact that there are at least thirty million people in this country that feel the way I feel. That's already a terrifying number.
    
Absolutely seek help, especially with eating disorders if you have the resources to do so because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness. This is serious stuff and it's very important that you seek help.

Carl Smith:    
Well, Justine, thank you so much for being on the show today and for sharing this. I think it helps everyone if you're in a good place in your life or if you're really, really struggling. It's important to keep an eye on each other and make sure we're helping each other. Thank you for helping today.

Justine Arreche:    
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate you letting me share my story.

Carl Smith:    
You're welcome. Everybody listening, we'll be back next week with another episode. Have a good one.