“What’s wrong with me?” I remember thinking when I was 12. It would be the first of many times. And the answer I gave myself was usually, “You’re fat. If only you were thin, then people would actually like you.”

Being a teenage girl in the 90s was hard. It was a time before body-positivity and plus-sized models. So like many people, I internalized the message that my worth depended on how many pounds I weighed. I would spend most of my teenage years yo-yo dieting. By high school graduation I had tried diet pills, starving myself, and throwing up all in the name of weight loss.

By 19 I'd gotten wiser. I realized that appearances weren’t everything. I picked up a book on "how to never get sick again" and decided overnight I needed to become healthy to really fix myself. I went on a raw vegan diet, I started running daily, and I read everything I could about nutrition and natural health. I was super proud of myself.

However, this phase mimicked the previous. My dieting and exercising were obsessive and unsustainable. After losing 30 pounds in three months, I tried to stay healthy with my diet and routine, but by the following year I'd put on more weight than I'd lost.

This continued for the next several years. Each time I entered a diet I felt like I was on top of the world and thought that this time it would be different. If only I could prevent myself from ruining it.

It was around this time I noticed my self-esteem and moods went in cycles. I'd go through 3-4 months of excitement and bliss (this was when the dieting happened), followed by 3-4 more months of insecurity and depression. This was a helpful realization, but I didn't think I could do anything to control it.

At the age of 26 I was still very much convinced that physical health was the way to happiness. I went on the keto diet and started swimming regularly. It was the healthiest I’d felt since I was 19.

But at the same time I started experiencing panic attacks. This was new.  Usually I thought something was wrong with me because I was overweight or unhealthy. Now for the first time in my life I felt scared, like something might actually be wrong with me.

Serendipitously, I was seeing more in the press about mental health, self-care, and gratitude. It made me wonder if this was the elixir I needed. Something more potent than another diet.

So I decided to keep a virtual gratitude diary. The first few days were easy enough. But like all the diets I'd ever taken on, after a few weeks I quit. The disappointment was just like that of falling off a diet, but more depressing, because practicing gratitude was supposed to be easier than fighting sugar cravings.

The panic attacks were getting worse, more frequent. I went to see my regular doctor who prescribed me an anti-anxiety medicine. The medicine helped a little.

At one point that year I came up with the idea for a 30 day guided gratitude journal. I decided it was going to solve my self-discipline problem. By that point I'd realized that the dieting and mood cycles I experienced were preventing me from cultivating long-term discipline. My solution was to create and use a highly curated, minimalist, guided journal where I couldn't not succeed.

But things didn't go quite as intended. I experienced rebound from the anti-anxiety medicine, causing worsened anxiety. My panic attacks were frequent, and I had practically become non-functional.

The only solution I could come up with was to see a therapist. After all, wasn't this what people with panic attacks did?

I enjoyed therapy. It became my safe space. While thinking aloud about my anxieties and life problems, I slowly grew tired of self improvement. Don't get me wrong, I still saw the appeal (mostly because I continued to feel like something was wrong with me). But for a period of time I let go of it.

Over the year, I continued to see my therapist weekly. I was out of work, and felt worthless on most days. Eventually I would get into self-help books and sometimes I felt inspired to change. But for the most part, I lived with nagging depression and bouts of anxiety. The only difference from pre-therapy and post-therapy, was that now I knew improving my physical health wouldn’t magically fix everything.

When I was 27 my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and within three months he was gone. So quickly my life turned upside-down. I found myself obsessing over death and later that year scrambling for some sort of meaning or guidance.

It was during that time I remembered the guided gratitude journal. It was a good idea, after all, I thought to myself. And so, to help pull myself out of my existential grief, I started to work on the first version of the journal. I thought that this journal was going to finally give me a path forward.

But life is always more complicated than you predict. I started developing symptoms of tachycardia and breathlessness. Often I would also get myalgia and almost daily I was fatigued. For those several years that my illness was untreated, I found it really hard to get out of bed each day, let alone be grateful for anything. So although I’d created the gratitude journal to motivate myself and become happier, I was now too depressed to want to use it.

I continued to go to therapy. There I talked through my problems and eventually learned to advocate for my own healthcare. I talked about my issues with shame and fear and anxiety. After avoiding dentists for nearly a decade I finally got a (much needed) root canal. I eventually learned to observe myself without judgment, just like my therapist seemed to. And the less I judged, the quicker I learned.

I noticed how I went through periods of high energy, when I wanted to accomplish something or improve myself, followed by periods of depression, when I felt discouraged and unmotivated. These were the weight loss cycles I observed before. But for the first time I thought, maybe I need to accept these waves and stop fighting their existence.

It was a slow process. I wish I could say this was something I realized overnight — it sounds more glamorous. But it wasn't. And perhaps it's fitting that the antidote for my need to fix myself was not the easy, quick fix that I'd been searching for.

When I first came up with the idea for Elevator 63 in 2016, I thought I was creating a company for self-improvement. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my real motivation was life-improvement.

It was then that I realized nothing was ever wrong with me. I had always tried to "fix" myself in order to prove that I was worthy of love. But every time I started with self-love, I ended up fixing my perception of myself, thus creating space for self-growth. 

Self-growth has become one of the driving forces of my life. It inspires me to wake up and become someone I'm proud to be. And a part of my vision has become enabling others to learn who they are and to grow.

Today, I strive to create journals that allow others to discover this brilliant truth about themselves. That each and every one of us are complete, interesting human beings worth understanding and loving. And that caring for ourselves means self-compassion as much as it means self-growth. It means creating more room for our own thoughts and feelings as much as it means making space for connections, care, and love.

Journaling is a way to open ourselves to expanding perspectives and see the endless, beautiful, and joyous possibilities in life.

 - Milena