Stories of Hope: An Interview with Nikki DuBose
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked writer and mental health advocate Nikki DuBose about her history of mental health issues and her current advocacy work. Here’s our interview:
DS: When did you first start becoming aware of mental health concerns and how did they affect you?
ND: My problems began at an early age, so they became ingrained in my mind that “this is the way I’ll always behave because it’s what I know and trust.”
I was abused – physically, sexually and emotionally – by a couple of people I trusted when I was a child, and I began to binge eat as a way to cope with the trauma at age eight. The eating became my world, and at ten I began to purge after I heard my mother purging in the bathroom.
By that time, I was already over-exercising and experiencing a warped perception of myself when I looked in the mirror. I didn’t realize that my behaviors were destructive until one day when I was around thirteen and my dad overheard me purging. I had tremendous shame attached to that moment, but I was unable to give up my behaviors because I was addicted to them.
I continued binging and purging and eventually in my mid twenties I developed anorexia when I was modeling. By that time I knew that I needed help – not only for my eating disorder but also for a drug and alcohol addiction, body dysmorphic disorder and sexual issues, but I was unwilling to face the truth.
My life and health kept declining. I was living a life of excess and abusing my body to the point that I really didn’t care if I died, as long as I died in glamour. When my mother passed away from her addiction in 2012, my eyes were opened and I came to terms with my past and dealt with the underlying issue, which was the abuse.
DS: You had a well-established career as a model. How did your mental health concerns impact your career and vice versa?
ND: When I was a teenager I went to a prominent modeling school and thought my life was going to change. I remember the day I had to walk down the runway in front of all of the other students. I was a bit older and my body was different than most of the girls. I also attended the classes by myself while all the other girls were with their moms. I just felt very out of place.
When my name was called, I did my best to walk down the runway but my teacher called me out and lifted my shirt up. She then patted my stomach in front of everyone and said, “Do you see how your stomach is shaped like this?” She pointed to it in the mirror. Then she demanded that I work out because I was not like everyone else. That was my earliest experience and it caused me to see myself as more of a monster.
When I finally did start modeling, I was already in my early twenties. Before I even signed my contract, I was asked to lose weight. Because of my history with abuse and my body dysmorphic disorder, I had a personality that wanted to please people. So anything my agency wanted me to do, I did it, but I over-did it. I over-exercised and abused my body just to make them happy. I never cared that I was hurting myself in the process.
I watched photographers literally slice my body in half during the editing process and laugh about it to my face. It demoralized me, yet I felt as though I couldn’t leave the business. I thought it was where I belonged because as a damaged person it was familiar to be psychologically abused.
The longer I worked, the more successful I became, but it came at a high price. I was put into situations that reflected the sexual abuse in my childhood; there was pressure to sleep with people who were high up in the industry. That pressure gave me constant negative flashbacks, and I dealt with them by engaging in disordered eating, doing drugs and drinking alcohol.
Eventually I lost so much weight in my career that I developed anorexia nervosa, but instead of showing concern, everyone around me glorified my thinness. It was a confusing time for me mentally. I was struggling with so many different issues and just trying to keep my head afloat. On the other hand, I didn’t want to put my career in jeopardy just because of my weight.
In the end, I realized that nothing was more important than my health. No amount of money or fame could ever replace my life or sanity. I stopped modeling three years ago. Since then, there has been a shift in the way the industry promotes somewhat of a healthier body and diversity. However, in the day-to-day operations of the business, I doubt much has changed.
Agents and professionals in the industry are coaching and guiding the careers of girls and boys. Yet these young people are not equipped with the knowledge of how to handle one of the primary issues which affects them: warped body image and low self-esteem that often leads to destructive behaviors such as eating disorders.
The agents are rarely educated about eating disorders and mental health issues and the models are often far away from home and under pressure to conform to certain rules about appearance with little support for their mental health. I’m not saying agents and professionals should act as therapists, but I am saying if there was more education within the industry I believe we would see positive change.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
ND: When my mother passed away from alcoholism in 2012, it was at the height of my anorexia. I had recently undergone AA (12-step program) for drinking and drugs but I was not dealing with my eating issues. Facing my mother’s death made me realize my own mortality. With the lifestyle I had been living, I understood I had no other choice but to turn my life around once and for all.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what has worked well for you?
ND: Treatment and recovery has definitely been a trial-and-error process. But it started with being honest with myself and getting to the root of my pain. I had to go to therapy and deal with all of the abuse issues. I had an experienced therapist who helped me uncover a lot of repressed memories. Therapy combined with medication for bulimia was monumental for me because I had been engaging in that behavior for most of my life.
I also went to as many 12-step meetings as I could, found my Higher Power and broke out of my isolation. The isolation was a big thing for me; I had to change everything about my lifestyle. Also, quitting the modeling industry and leaving that behind enabled me to start my life over and gain a new perspective.
For about two years while I was going through therapy, taking medication and attending the 12-step program, I didn’t work. I made my life only about getting better. It was both the most difficult time of my life and the most rewarding. I went through a complete transformation.
Also during that time I began to write and tell my story. That led to many other things such as writing not only for healing and for my blog but also as a career now, and I am honored to write for organizations such as NEDA, Eating Disorder Hope, Recovery Warriors and the Peaceful Hearts Foundation. I am also serving these organizations and helping them grow and expand.
When I first began recovery, I thought my life was over. I had tunnel vision because that’s what mental illness does – it wants us to think that we have no hope. And now look – my memoir detailing my life and recovery will be out early next year! It’s a big black eye to mental illness.
DS: How did you decide to become a mental health advocate?
ND: It’s just something that happened naturally as I began to write and tell my story. After first getting involved with NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association), we formed a team in Los Angeles for their NEDA walk called the LA Artist Initiative, which seeks to inform and raise awareness about eating disorders in the artistic and entertainment industries.
Now I am working with other organizations such as Project Heal (Southern California Chapter). They raise funds for people who need eating disorder treatment but can’t afford it. I serve on the executive board as the volunteer director and we have various events throughout the year to raise awareness.
I’m also honored to help the Peaceful Hearts Foundation expand and get the word out about their mission to support and empower children and survivors of child sexual abuse. I am as passionate about that issue as I am about eating disorders because the abuse triggered the disordered behaviors.
I’ve come across many people unfortunately who have had similar stories. Forty-two million people in America have suffered from childhood sexual abuse, so it’s another issue where we are trying to reduce the shame.
DS: How are things going for you now? What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
ND: I take my life one day at a time. I understand that although I’ve been drug and alcohol free for four years now and eating disorder free for two and a half years, it’s only by the grace of my Higher Power and it’s something I have to maintain every day. It’s so easy to fall, so I have to practice self-care constantly.
But I am in a great place in my life and happier than ever. My life is a testament that full recovery is possible and no matter what you have been through or are going through right now, hope is available and things will get better.
I never imagined I would be sharing my story and using it to help others, but life is full of wonderful surprises. I’m excited about this next chapter in my life, as my book is set to be released next year and I hope it brings comfort to many people. If it helps just one person, then I know I’ve done something worthwhile.
I’ve learned that even the darkest days have a brighter tomorrow – things will get better. I’ve also learned that our struggles shape us into strong individuals. Life is all about choices. We’re only here for a certain amount of time. What are you going to do with yours? You can either feel bad about what’s happened to you or you can look at it and say, “Ok, I’m going to use this and help someone else with my story.” That’s what I’ve chosen to do. I have no shame.
Nikki DuBose is a former model, host, and actress who has recently turned her career focus towards writing, public speaking, and mental health advocacy. Nikki grew up in Charleston, South Carolina and lives in Los Angeles. After traveling the globe as a fashion model and commercial actress, she was inspired to leave the industry to pursue writing full time. She writes, speaks and advocates for several organizations around the issues of mental health, child sexual abuse, body image and self-esteem. Nikki is also pursuing her degree in Psychology. You can connect with Nikki on her website or via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Tumblr. Nikki’s memoir, Washed Away: From Darkness to Light is now available.
Thanks so much to Nikki for sharing her inspiring story of hope!
Here’s a question: Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!