TW: This story contains discussion of disordered eating and suicidal thoughts.
Nadine Hickman, founder of PEPTALK, wanted to create a mental health resource because she has experience with what a powerful tool the mind can be – both to hurt ourselves, and to heal. She talks to Capsule about how her experience as a former competitive gymnast lead to a battle with disordered eating, the routines that keep her mentally healthy and the reality of launching a mental-health focused magazine three days before Covid-19 first hit Aotearoa.
When Nadine Hickman, former competitive gymnast and founder of PEPTALK, thinks back to her years of disordered eating, “it feels like it happened to a different person,” she says. For someone who spent years in the clutches of bulimia, that level of release is still very profound for her.
“Back when I was in that space, I couldn’t imagine ever being able to have a healthy relationship with food,” she says. “I just couldn’t comprehend how that could be possible. That’s what it’s like for people who are struggling with any sort of mental illness; it’s hard to see yourself any other way.”
From her early teens, Nadine was a national-level gymnast, competing in high-profile, high-pressure events. It meant a lot of time training and competing at the highest level, like any young athlete. But gymnastics comes with other restrictions: having to be as strong as possible, while staying as small as possible. In a growing teenage girl’s body, it’s an environment that can produce damaging results.
“One of the key things that ended up having dire consequences for me was being regularly weighed and fat tested. It lead to me becoming very obsessed with food and my weight,” she says. “I became addicted to food and then had to compensate by getting all of that food back out of my body.”
“Those beliefs become so ingrained; the belief that your weight and your worth are really connected.”
For the last two years of her gymnastics career, Nadine was bulimic and it was a behaviour pattern that continued for the next six years, even after she retired from gymnastics at age 17. “Those beliefs become so ingrained; the belief that your weight and your worth are really connected. It becomes such a habit that you can’t break that destructive cycle.”
Looking back, she says, it’s hard to believe how warped and self-destructive her thought patterns became. “A key part of my recovery was learning ways to take control of my mind, and for me, the first step was being able to step back from my mind. Learning meditation was a big part of it.”
The Power Of The Mind
It gave Nadine an appreciation for how powerful the mind could be – and that that power can be a tool to help yourself, or a weapon to hurt yourself. Initially, medication that her doctors prescribed got her out of the acute physical side of her disordered eating by reducing the compulsion to binge eat. But a rise in depression and anxiety soon followed.
“Those were my most desperate years, when I was trying to get better,” she says. It was while backpacking in Europe that she hit rock bottom and was so suicidal that she packed everything up overnight and moved back to Aotearoa to seek help.
“We just have to be aware of what we’re feeding our minds. We can’t help ourselves or anyone else by getting into a really stressed state.”
“I saw so many professionals, went to so many support groups and read so many books – and I just couldn’t stop it. I liked the term of ‘making your mind a friend,’ and I knew that I could do it. But it’s not easy, especially when you’re in such a bad way.”
Depression and anxiety are still companions in her life and it requires daily work to keep herself mentally healthy, Nadine says. But it’s work she takes seriously – and it’s work she believes in for other people.
It’s a large part of why she set up PEPTALK; a not-for-profit organisation and print magazine available throughout Aotearoa. To break down the stigma, increase gentle education and create tools for those going through hard times – and the people who love them – to help increase knowledge around protecting your mental health.
“We don’t just want to change the situation with mental illness and reduce suicide, we actually want to create a flourishing society,” she says. “And for that, people need to be mentally flourishing.”
“Anyone who’s struggling mentally knows that they’re not able to always make good decisions and be productive; it’s about going beyond the crisis of mental illness and really seeing how we can create mental wellness, and help people help themselves to do that.”
In a great Covid-19 irony, the debut issue of PEPTALK was due to come out March 2020. “Literally 2000 copies of that first issue arrived on my doorstep three days before we went into that first lockdown,” Nadine laughs. Her big marketing plan and her big launch event, including speaker Dr Lucy Hone (read our burn-out special with Dr Hone here), all had to be cancelled.
It was extremely stressful timing, Nadine says, but in hindsight, it was also excellent timing in that everyone needed mental health resources as we all faced an unprecedented challenge together. Of course, in the almost two years since, these challenges have become a lot less novel.
That daily routine of yoga, meditation and journaling has stood the test for Nadine in helping her keep her body and mind as calm as possible. “We just have to be aware of what we’re feeding our minds,” she says. “We can’t help ourselves or anyone else by getting into a really stressed state. It’s about controlling the controllable – and so much about the pandemic is out of our control.”
PEPTALK has also been used a resource for school students and their teachers, to help give mental health information in a gentle and uncomplicated way. It’s an age group that is particularly important to Nadine, because she learnt first-hand how scary and isolating mental illness can be when you’re a teenager.
But getting every generation to value their mental health alongside their physical health is key, she says. “Mental health can be so hard to understand. But if we relate it to physical health, it’s more tangible and easy to grasp. We know that if we feed our bodies unhealthy food, we end up becoming physically unwell. In the same way, if we feed our mind unhealthy thoughts, we’re going to become mentally unwell.”
For information on dealing with disordered eating, visit EDANZ or call 0800 2 EDANZ or (09) 5222679
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline – 0800 611 116