Isabel Bejarano Diez — a strong person with a naturally kind disposition that makes it hard not to like her.
The senior psychology and finance double major grew up in Medellín, Colombia with her parents and older brother. She is the president of the International Student Council and a student advisor for the Global Student Leadership Forum, but you probably recognize her from her close-up downtown, part of the UPUA initiative showing that students of all backgrounds are welcome at Penn State.
Diez’s story began long before her life at Penn State, though. It was a normal night at Café when her friend pulled her aside and revealed that he had been told he was showing signs of depression. He didn’t know how to deal with this new reality he faced, so Diez opened up to him about her life before college. He said, “It is so nice to know that someone knows what I’m feeling like.”
Diez was 13 when she had her first major depressive episode. “Depression is overlooked because it seems like everyone has it these days, but no, it is really hard,” she says. She quickly started seeing a psychologist, but lived with a feeling of hopelessness for a few years.
By age 15, Diez began a diet that would prompt those around her to compliment her looks, as Colombian culture is very focused on physical beauty. “The worst part is people reinforce it,” says Diez. She emphasizes that the culture society perpetuates is tough to break. “I remember guys bought me more drinks when I was thinner, but people have to understand that’s not going to fulfill you at all.”
The positive comments soon turned into people showing concern for her well-being. “It felt like the whole world was conspiring against me,” she says.
As Diez’s diet became increasingly restrictive, she couldn’t realize that anything was out of the ordinary, even though she regularly exhibited anorexic behaviors. “If I would go to dinner with my friends, I would tell them I ate with my parents… if I would go to dinner with my parents, I would tell them I ate with my friends,” she explains.
Hearing that she had anorexia for the first time from her psychiatrist seemed crazy to Diez. “The shock that I felt … people only think of the extreme cases, but at first it doesn’t need to be like that,” she says. “I thought ‘I am eating,’ so I didn’t know what the problem was because people think of people not eating at all is anorexia.”
She was one of the first girls in her high school to go through that experience. Her school counselor even had trouble with figuring out what to do for her. Diez now wants other people to know it does not have to be a life-changing issue before it becomes a problem. She stresses, “If I had known that obsessively restricting food groups and lying to people … if I had known maybe I would’ve noticed, maybe I would’ve come to terms.”
Knowing was the first step, accepting the problem came later. The hardest part of it all though? Gaining the weight back. “For you to be in a situation where you keep getting worse or you have to face your biggest fear, that is a very hard situation.” For so long gaining the weight back was her biggest fear in life, but as Diez put it, “There is simply no third option.”
After hearing her mom say that she didn’t want to lose her daughter through tears and sadness, she wanted to move through the toughest part of her life for her mom and for herself. In her words, “I had to stop being my own worst enemy.”
There have been bad days in the midst of many good ones, but Diez says the best way to spend the bad days is with friends and, most importantly, a positive mentality. The book “Intuitive Eating“ also helped her tremendously. She beams as she states, “Now, I want to exercise because I want to be healthy and I eat healthy because I want to be healthy, it isn’t just about looking good.”
Diez says that the biggest lesson she learned was that the people who cared about her kept caring about her through it all. She tries to treat everyone as kindly as she can because you never know what people are going through, just as not many knew what she was going through.
Diez wants others to know that they are not alone, just like she told her friend that confided in her that night at Café.
“It all took my life away from me for so long,” she says. “Just because it is a mental thing doesn’t mean it’s not real, so I just want people that feel alone and misunderstood to know that they are not.”