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Nancy and Dorothea Zarcadoolas

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The Jed Foundation

In their own words: A mother & daughter speak out

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As a child, Dorothea Zarcadoolas knew she struggled with her mental health—even if she didn't know how to articulate it.

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Like with so many families, the topic simply never came up. It wasn't until she hit high school, however, that she was finally diagnosed with OCD, ADHD and depression. "When I could actually recognize what I was struggling with, it was easier to make changes to help myself," says Zarcadoolas. She started seeing a therapist, began taking medication and, soon, found herself on the road to recovery.

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Except… mental illness is never quite so neat.

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While making gains with OCD and ADHD, she was also slowly sliding into an eating disorder. What began, years earlier, as occasional restricting had escalated to full-blown starvation—so much so that, in 2021, at the end of her sophomore year, she was admitted to a treatment center. "Even though it was extremely difficult, it was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my life," she says.

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Today Zarcadoolas is paying it forward, inspiring others who have similarly struggled, as a speaker for The Jed Foundation, our #VBGIVESBACK partner.

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Her greatest advice to those wrestling with a mental health crisis? Speak up. "It took a long time to gather the courage to tell my parents because I felt ashamed that I wasn’t 'normal,'" she recalls. "When I finally did, it changed everything for the better. Pretending to be okay is never going to make you okay."

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Learn more about Zarcadoolas' story below—plus, read what her mother, Nancy, has to say on how to help and support your children.

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Meet Dorothea Zarcadoolas

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Dorothea speaking at an event for The Jed Foundation in Delray Beach, Florida

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Tell us about your mental health journey…
My mental health was something that I struggled with from a very young age. I was experiencing symptoms of mental illness, but I wasn’t able to communicate that because I didn’t even know what mental illness was.

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During my freshman year of high school, I was finally diagnosed with OCD, depression and ADHD. I started seeing a therapist, taking medication and seeing improvements… But while I was getting these things in control in some respects, I started to lose control over something else: I developed an eating disorder.

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By summer I was barely eating, overexercising, and purging almost everything I did eat. I was seriously hurting my body. My hair started falling out. I couldn’t focus in school because I had no energy. I stopped having motivation for almost everything except starving myself. By the end of sophomore year, as everyone was celebrating the last day of school, I was admitted to a residential treatment center. Even though it was extremely difficult, it was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

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When did you recognize you needed help?
Once I began struggling with self-harm and suicidal thoughts, I had to tell someone because I knew, deep down, that I shouldn’t have to feel that way. It took a long time to gather the courage to tell my parents because I felt ashamed that I wasn’t “normal.” When I finally did speak up, it changed everything for the better.

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Recognizing that I needed help with my eating disorder, however, was a lot harder. The difficult thing about struggling with an eating disorder is that the sicker you get, the prouder you are with yourself. My eating disorder thoughts were so loud that I truly thought I was happy being sick.

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How did you get through that?
I surrounded myself with people who were willing and able to keep me accountable. It is important to reach out to someone you trust. Sometimes it feels easier to spill it all out to your friends [than your parents], but finding professionals who are capable of handling these situations is extremely important. It's is why groups like JED are so critical in today's world.

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“Pretending to be okay is never going to make you okay, no matter how hard you try.”

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Tell us about the JED impact…
JED is a great resource if you are having trouble with your mental health or worried about someone you love. And, for me, finding a community of people who care deeply about such an important topic has been so gratifying. Being able to share my story with JED has been incredibly helpful for me.

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What has been the most important part of your recovery?
Open communication, a willingness to recover and a good support group. The only times I have been able to make deep strides are when I have been open and honest with people.

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Pretending to be okay is never going to make you okay, no matter how hard you try. It is so critical to accept where you are in your journey and accept recovery with open arms. In the beginning, you may not be at a place to truly be willing to recover but if you stick with it, you will get there.

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Knowing what you know now, what's one piece of advice you would tell your younger self?
Open yourself up to the possibility of a better life. I never knew all that I was missing because I was so caught up in my mental illness. I had gotten so comfortable in my disordered thoughts that I was afraid of seeing what else was out there.

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Her Mom, Nancy, Opens Up

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When did you recognize your daughter needed help?
I knew that my daughter was anxious, even at a very young age. She was 12 when things became noticeable. She kept telling me she was not normal like her friends. That's when I realized I had to be proactive.

As a parent, what was the hardest part?
Recognizing the problem. I grew up not talking about mental health; it was such a taboo. Also, feeling helpless was incredibly hard. Finding the right therapist, diagnosing Dorothea and prescribing medication took time. Seeing her struggle, and not being able to help her right away, was extremely difficult.

Advice to other parents who have children who are similarly struggling?
The first step is to listen and accept. Talk about their struggles—bringing them to light is crucial for healing. Involve yourself in their recovery. Lean on therapists—knowing what to say and how to say it were invaluable tools. Treat your children with compassion. Don't take it personally—sometimes I had to separate the disease with the person. Recovery takes time but is achievable with hard work and dedication. Embrace it!!!!!

To learn tips on how you can talk to your teen about mental health, read our Parent Guide.

Nancy and Paul Zarcadoolas with their daughters, from left, Athena, Paulina and Dorothea

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If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, visit The Jed Foundation’s Mental Health Resource Center for essential information about common emotional health issues. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or engaging in suicidal behavior, seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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From now to the end of March, we will donate a portion of proceeds from every single veronicabeard.com order to the The Jed Foundation, which protects emotional health and prevents suicide for teens and young adults in the U.S. Learn more about the partnership here. #VBGIVESBACK

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