- Functional Medicine -

Shifting Focus: Sahar Aker’s Success Story

Sahar Aker

How cognitive behavioral therapy gave one woman the tools to work through depression and start a social-media movement.

I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life, though I didn’t realize it for a long time. When my mother died in 1997, I learned that she and some of her family had also suffered from the illness, and I think part of me knew then that I wasn’t immune to it.

I grieved deeply after losing my mother. A few months later, a friend who also suffered from depression told me that she’d seen some of the signs in me. That motivated me to seek therapy, which gave me the tools to process my mother’s death.

At the time, I was working as a health reporter for a local TV station. My job was my passion: I thrived in the spotlight. I was able to produce segments on topics that interested me, and I loved exploring my community and sharing information that could help others.

Despite my busy schedule, I still made time for myself. I exercised and connected often with friends; I thought I had created a good life balance.

But in 2004 my boyfriend, Paul, took a job in Seattle. Nine months later, we married and I joined him and picked up some freelance work. Three years after that, we moved to Columbus, Ohio.

Leaving everything behind and starting over was difficult. Since I worked from home, it was tough to meet new people, and when the recession hit, my contract work dried up. In 2009 Paul enrolled in law school and immersed himself in his studies. Suddenly, I felt even more isolated.

That year, I learned that the endometriosis I’d been battling most of my life had spread to my ovaries, bladder, and colon. I’d already had four surgeries to control it, each more -emotionally draining than the last. My fifth surgery triggered a case of lichen planus, a rash on my legs, arms, and torso. I felt hideous and insisted on wearing long sleeves anytime I left the house. I felt betrayed by my own body — like it was failing me.

Downward Spiral

Lichen planus takes 18 months to run its course, and it taxed my immune system. In 2011 I struggled through sinus infections, hip bursitis, migraines, and extreme vertigo.

I hated what my body was doing to me. Most days, I couldn’t get out of bed; I wished that I could just sleep for a few months to escape the pain.

Paul was still in school, so we didn’t have much time together. I had made some new friends, but I couldn’t talk about my depression — I worried that I would wear out my welcome.

Thankfully, I’d continued attending fitness classes when I could. After reading one of my instructor’s blog posts about how therapy had been helping her, I realized I once again needed to dig my way out. I asked for her therapist’s name and made an appointment.

A New Approach

The first question I asked my new therapist was whether my physical illnesses could be related to my depression. His answer was yes.

I had always known that mind and body are connected, but having someone tell me that it wasn’t in my head helped me internalize that connection. I felt comforted, knowing I had someone to help me heal. I started seeing him once a week.

Soon after, he introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy and I felt that old health-reporter spark igniting inside me. I loved learning how you can change the negative pathways in your brain by reframing your thoughts.

This strategy has helped me become more self-aware. It wasn’t easy — for a long time, I was taking one step forward and two steps back. But eventually I was able to challenge my internal monologue. If I thought, Nobody cares what I have to say, I could reframe that to reflect reality: Some people might not care, but it’s not true that nobody cares.

After 18 months in therapy, I’d developed skills to help me cope with my depression. But winter was around the corner, and it was always the hardest time of year for me.

Out of the Shadows

In November 2013 my therapist shared some positive psychology research with me, explaining that people who try to notice beauty tend to find more joy in daily life. He suggested that I focus on something beautiful each day to help me get through the winter. Depression makes you prone to seeing the dark; this was a strategy for finding the light.

I wanted to give it a try. I’ve always been a very visual thinker, and I liked the idea of seeing all my pictures in one feed on Instagram — that’s how #IChooseBeauty was born.

On the first day I took a photo of a bush covered in snow. I loved the way the light reflected off the ice crystals and how the bush was still alive beneath the cover of winter. I started seeing that there was so much beauty that I’d overlooked before — even in the middle of a dreary season.

My mindset had shifted. I wasn’t cured, but I was noticing new things,  even in my own backyard, on a path I walked every day.

Now I’m in the habit of looking for things to admire, no matter how small they are. Some days, it’s really easy. There are also days when it’s difficult, and I struggle to see the world through my new lens. On those days, I’ve learned to create my own beauty by doing something I love.

When I hit the one-year mark with #IChooseBeauty, I wrote an anniversary post. To my surprise, a handful of people thanked me for sharing. That’s when I realized my posts weren’t just a life preserver for me — they were helping others, too.

Since then, I’ve heard from a lot of people about how #IChooseBeauty has helped them get through difficult times. I never expected that this project would expand my social network — or revive the part of me that loves sharing stories that help others.

When I recall where I was, I’m so grateful that I found a way out of it. I still have dark days, but #IChooseBeauty helps me remember that even in the midst of a lot of bad, there’s always something good.