A 23-year-old turned the eating disorder that nearly killed her into inspiration

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Aubry McMahon started her Mental Health Support Group at Central Coffee Co. in South End to help women struggling with mental illness. Courtesy of Aubry McMahon

I am a 23-year-old native of Charlotte who can often be found running with my dog along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, nerding out to psychology documentaries, or leading my Mental Health Support Group on Sunday evenings. These are things that always help calm me down when my inner demons start to roar.

In the fall of 2013, I began my college career at Gardner-Webb University in Shelby, NC. I had every intention of graduating with my bachelor’s degree in psychology, but due to the severity of an eating disorder that I had struggled with for over six years, I was forced to medically withdraw to attend inpatient treatment.

I argued with my therapist about letting me complete the rest of the semester. She told me that, with the path I was going down, I would not be alive at the end of the semester.

I knew I was sick.

I was restricting, purging, over-exercising, and abusing laxatives. I relied solely on coffee to get me through the day. When visiting the doctor to have tests and paperwork completed before entering treatment, I learned that my blood pressure hovered around 84/53, my body temperature dropped, my heartbeat was irregular, and at 19, I weighed as much as an average 12-year-old.

Within two days, I had packed up my dorm room and was moved into a treatment center in Brevard, NC, where I spent the next four months saving my own life. My world changed the moment that I stepped foot through the front doors of the treatment center. I learned to eat and nourish my body instead of destroying it. I learned to go on walks and enjoy everything around me instead of running until I collapsed. I even learned how to own my struggles and not hide in fear because of them.

Following treatment, I continued to attend weekly therapy, dietitian, and psychiatry appointments to maintain my recovery. During this time, I welcomed a new puppy named Maggie into my family and began my life in Charlotte.

And this time, I was really living.

My therapist recommended that I seek out a local support group to attend, but after searching for a while, I wasn’t able to find one that offered complete comfort.

So I started my own.

My unwavering passion for psychology and dream of becoming a mental health therapist helped me begin to form what is now known as the Charlotte, NC Mental Health Support Group for women of all ages.

I started the group in February 2017, creating a Meetup group, and a private Facebook group for members to be added to. Now, there are over 500 members from around North Carolina online in addition to the members that meet in-person each week.

I have completed both Mental Health First Aid and QPR Suicide Prevention training through Novant Health to help me feel sound in leading the group and more prepared to contact professionals if a situation arises. I preface each meeting with the reminder to the group that I am not a therapist — I am simply someone who lives with a mental illness and dreams of becoming a therapist.

Surprisingly, many members have found comfort in this, as well as my willingness to share my own struggles. I wanted to begin this support group so that other women in the Charlotte area who are battling a mental illness could have a safe place to let their walls down and feel connected with others.

Every Sunday evening from 4-6 p.m. the group meets at Central Coffee Co. off of Camden Road. I chose this location because of its neutral, safe, and welcoming atmosphere. They also have amazing vegan zucchini bread that our group is obsessed with and gets every week. The owner has graciously allowed me to reserve a room each week — the privacy and comfort of group members is something that I always aim to protect.

Group begins with members sharing their name, age, and reason(s) as to why they have decided to come to the group, and a fun fact about themselves. I always remind the members that they are allowed to share as little or as much as they would like. I never want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or anxious.

Members have been extremely supportive and open. It isn’t unusual for there to be tears some weeks — even from me. I am open about my own struggles with anorexia nervosa — purging subtype, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and self-harm.

I am not going to be a very good leader if I pretend to be something I am not.

Aside from the weekly meetings, the group will often get together once a month for a pizza and game night, to paint pottery, or hike Crowders Mountain. Participating in these activities as a group is another way to help the women out of their habitual routines that may cause them to further isolate.

I hope to expand the Charlotte, NC Mental Health Support Group to reach more women in the area that are needing support. I feel as if group has become the “bridge” for many members that may be too nervous to seek out professional help, but are tired of living in shame and isolation. Since the group’s inception, I have been able to help several members take the next step in connecting with local therapists, psychiatrists, and dietitians to further their recoveries.

When asked about her experience attending group, one of the members explained to me: “The ladies in this group have proven to be some of the most amazing people I have met in my life. I have found lifelong friends and sisters in them, and being with them feels like being home. I found the group during a tumultuous time in my life, and the support and sisterhood it has provided has been invaluable. What a privilege it is to connect with so many wonderful people from all walks of life. I consider myself lucky to know each and every one of them and to be welcome as part of this community.”

I began this group in hopes of creating a safe and healing place for women around the Charlotte area. I wanted them to come, share their struggles with mental illness, and understand that they are not alone. I never imagined that this group would provide healing for my own mind as well. I have learned an immense amount while leading this group and I am grateful for each person that has the courage to walk through the front doors of the coffee shop to attend group for the first time.

It’s never too late to start living again.

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