Celebrity nutritionist Jessica Sepel exclusively shares with body+soul how anxiety and PTSD stuck her down, at the height of her professional success. Here, she details the shame she felt surrounding her mental health battles, and how she is now proudly on the path to recovery with the help of her family, medication and therapy.
I suffered a terrible loss
In December, 2018, I understood the pain and devastating effects of anxiety. I lost my bestie and soul sister to suicide and my world fell apart. It was horrifically traumatic. From the moment I heard the news, I felt my brain and body explode. I will never forget the sick, dreaded feeling, which still hasn’t subsided.
The pain that followed the loss of my best friend is hard to describe. I was having traumatic nightmares and sweats. Looking back, this was definitely my mind and body experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (known as PTSD).
I travelled for work anyway
Despite my loss, I tried to carry on with my work and life. In January, 2019, I flew to NYC for my appearance on The Today Show USA. I was meant to be on TV five times in five weeks. This was my introduction to the USA market. It meant so much to have the opportunity to feature on the biggest TV show in the world. I had worked so hard for this moment that it should have been the highlight of my career.
But rather than feeling elated, I could feel my mind and body start to break down. My appetite was zapped. My heart was racing all day, every day. Some days it felt like I had a heart condition. I didn’t have the energy to do much. The pit in my stomach was just too much to manage. I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought I was having full-blown stage fright because of TV. At least that’s what my family and doctor said.
Looking back, I think it was a panic attack. What was to follow was months of debilitating anxiety. I had to cancel three of the five appearances and fly back home to be with my family. I just didn’t have the strength to keep performing. Grief and anxiety have got to be the worst emotional combination known. It was a slow breakdown and it’s been a slow recovery. That’s usually how it goes.
I was suffering from a breakdown
My doctors confirmed I was having a breakdown of some sort. They believe it was a combination of grief and a heavy workload over the last six years. They prescribed medication, but I refused to take it for two months. I was determined to fight my grief the natural way. I did everything and anything I could but sadly, I was still paralysed with anxiety.
My anxiety worsened
My anxiety manifested as Intrusive Thoughts Syndrome, which is another story altogether. It’s something I wouldn’t wish upon anyone – ever. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I finally decided to do what I needed to. The truth is that as a nutritionist, I have always believed in the use of both Western medicine and natural medicine. They work synergistically and there’s definitely a place for both in our modern lifestyle.
I was put on a bunch of medications
I was put on an anti-anxiety medication, Valium and sleeping tablets. I took six weeks off work and moved into my mum’s place. I had to let my husband, Dean, continue working – which, at the time, was from our home office. I honestly didn’t have the capability to get out of bed, let alone work.
Everyday activities were exhausting and overwhelming. I will never forget how hard it felt to put bread in the toaster. I lived on toast and cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nothing felt appetising and I lost my will to nourish myself. I couldn’t take care of myself, let alone face my JSHealth team in such a state.
I felt ashamed
I was ashamed and confused. I kept thinking, “How can this be happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?” It just felt like I had been cursed or punished. It was just that bad. I couldn’t help but feel even more ashamed as a ‘persona’ in the health industry. I do the best I can by eating well, moving my body, drinking alcohol and caffeine in moderation, practising yoga and even meditating. I’m fortunate to have a beautifully whole life. What could I possibly do more of?
This was happening at the height of my career. JSHealth had it’s most successful year as a company – and yet – none of that mattered, still doesn’t.
It doesn’t make sense
Well, after months of learning about anxiety, it doesn’t always have much to do with anything you have or do. Yes, living a healthy life can certainly support your mind and body. But to those who suffer from anxiety, you’ll understand that no amount of yoga classes or green bowls can make you feel better. In fact, practising yoga become haunting for me because my intrusive thoughts would penetrate my mind for every minute of a class. I couldn’t help but think, “This is what hell must feel like.”
As I reached this dark place, I understood my angel Carli, who had passed away, more than ever. She was the one friend I wish I could have spoken to during this time. She would have understood my pain. I missed her more than ever, and still do. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.
When I was in my worst state, I would say to my mum, “I’d give my hands and legs to have a peaceful mind’. And I meant it. Being a prisoner to your own mind disables you. I could just see everything crumbling before my eyes. How could I run my dream business in this state? How could my husband, Dean, live with me like this? But he helped me through. I thank God for him. He was there for me all the way. I am so thankful for him.
My turning point
It has been just over three months now on an anti-anxiety medication, as well as lots more rest, therapy (not psychoanalysis, which seemed to make me worse), dedication to kindness and doing what is best for my health. I am back at work, which feels good. I’ve never appreciated a normal mundane day more than I do now. I can say I am doing much better, but I am not 100% yet. I do now have the faith that I can get there. As I said, it was a slow breakdown which means it will be a slow recovery. I still have a few intrusive thoughts, but they aren’t scaring me as much as before.
I’m in therapy once a week and will continue to take my medication until I feel stronger. I am continuing to live the JSHealth life and taking my signature principles much more seriously. I’ve even had to read my latest book a couple of times to remind myself of the advice I give to others.
The support that saved me
I could not have done it without the support of my husband, friends, incredible JSHealth staff members, my loving family, the JS community and my family doctor. It’s so important that we don’t feel ashamed to reach out for support. After all, it’s what gets you through it.
Where I am today
But this experience has also been a blessing. After this, I’m not the same person as I was before. I’m a much kinder, humbler and more caring individual. Nothing, and I really mean this, matters to me except for my health and my loved ones. The only thing that matters is my peace of mind. Material possessions and money mean nothing. I know that I’d be happy without them. Peace is all I strive for.
For anyone out there struggling with anxiety, I am sending you all of my love, compassion and positive thoughts. You can and will get through this. I get you. I know that you feel alone. But you’re not. This world is not always an easy place to live in. Our days aren’t always easy, however there is a way to manage it. But it takes time, so be kind and patient with yourself. It does get better. I promise.
If you’re experiencing the symptoms of anxiety or depression, please reach out Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, or Lifeline on 13 11 14, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.