“You shouldn’t judge somebody by the way they look on the outside. Learn to accept others as they are and people will feel less ashamed about themselves.”
Thirteen-year old Gabby Koagel is a bundle of energy. She exudes joy as she bounces around her house with her laptop, trying to find the best wifi connection for our Zoom interview. Behind her brown curly hair and bright smile, one would never know about her near constant struggle with anxiety and OCD, a condition that led to her hospitalization at age 11 for an eating disorder. Gabby was diagnosed with an obsessive-compulsive disorder caused by emetophobia, the fear of vomiting. “I am scared that any food would make me throw up, so I stopped eating,” she explains. Gabby developed health problems as a result and eventually spent three months in in-patient care at Rogers Behavioral Health Treatment Center in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
“My parents at first thought it was just an eating disorder or anxiety or something. They didn’t really know a lot,” she says. “I was sent to different doctors, different types of therapists. It was hard to figure out what was wrong. Once we knew it was OCD, it was easier to go from there.” Gabby’s therapy at Rogers included first getting her to consume enough food to keep her healthy physically, and then undergoing cognitive behavior therapy to help her adapt to her fear. “At first the place was stressful and I felt very lonely. I felt defeated and anxious. I just wanted to leave, but I knew I had to work for it.”
Two years later, Gabby continues the hard work in managing her mental illness. “I sometimes relapse. My therapist says my OCD will never really go away, which is kind of annoying. It will linger around but I know what I have to do. Even if I’m afraid of eating something, I have to eat it. I have to prove to my OCD that I’m not going to throw up, and even if I do, it’s fine. I will survive it. It’s not deadly, it’s not going to kill me, it’s actually the opposite – it helps me.”
Gabby finds strength and support in her family and friends, who help her feel a little less lonely in her struggles. “At Rogers, I had a roommate and we had similar problems. We would help each other and strengthen each other. We are still best friends to this day even though we live very far apart.” Being able to talk to others and opening up to one another about mental illness gives Gabby great hope. One of her favorite books is Guts by Raina Telgemeier, which tells the story of the author’s own struggle with emetophobia as a child. At first Telgemeier is embarrassed to tell her friends that she sees a therapist, but soon learns that many of her friends see one, too. “It’s normal,” Gabby adds. “People need to be more accepting and understanding of other people’s problems. And then maybe people can help each other. I like being open about my mental illness because if I ever meet someone like me, I can help them.”
Gabby would eventually like to be a psychiatrist at Rogers, especially for kids, “because I know what they’re going through. I was surprised by how many kids were there because some adults back at home were saying that I’m too young to be stressing. There is no age limit for stress and anxiety.”