Student battles mental illness, creates Nightingale Project to inspire others

Nina Schubert, a freshman early childhood education major, poses for a portrait in the Student Center Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Schubert is the founder of Nightingale Project, a student organization with the goal of help end the stigmas associated with mental illness.

Kelsey Meszaros

“I remember one day I hadn’t eaten, and my friend brought in homemade fluffy oreos,” Nina Schubert said.

“Nina, you’re not going to eat one?” her friend asked.

“No, I’ll eat one,” Nina replied.

And so she did.

“Not even two minutes after eating it, I excused myself to the bathroom and purged it,” she said.

By the age of 15, Nina, who is now a freshman early childhood education major, became very skilled at hiding her illnesses from the world. That year she was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and bulimia, which caused her to develop bradycardia, a condition in which an adult’s heart rate drops below 60 beats per minute and can lead to heart attacks and other issues. During high school, she was in and out of treatment centers after she began having suicidal thoughts and turned to self-harm. She feared the thought of telling someone that she was suffering.

Upon being accepted to Kent State, Nina’s mentality changed completely and acted as a turning point in her life.

The change in mentality was one of the motivating factors behind Nina creating the Nightingale Project this semester, an on-campus student group aimed to end the stigmas around mental illness.

Nina first experienced signs of bulimia at 13, but at just 10 years old, Nina started comparing her body to others. Constantly looking in the mirror, she tried to understand why she wasn’t skinnier.

Nina’s mom, Jane Thornburgh, saw Nina change from a healthy girl to someone miserable and sick.

“When she was in middle school, she was bullied a lot, which could have impacted it,” Thornburgh said. “You have the peer pressure of friends. You want your body to look like a celebrity, and you’re still not happy with it.”

How it began

Nina was born in Vladivostok, Russia. At just 10 months old, Jane and Michael Schubert adopted her and brought her back to their home in Mentor, Ohio, where Nina also gained an older sister, Haley.

The Schubert family was happy and close-knit. Nina adored her family, and her family adored her back.

But at 9 years old, Nina’s father lost his battle to liver cancer. His death dealt a powerful blow to Nina, who thought the world of her dad. Memories the two shared linger with her forever.  

“My dad and I were in the kitchen and he was making his meat sauce and pasta,” Nina said. “I loved watching him cook. We had the radio playing in the house, and so while the meat was cooking, I put my feet on his and we danced around. That was an amazing time that I’ll never forget.”

After her dad passed, Nina found it impossible to handle all her emotions.

“I just put up a wall because I was 9,” Nina said. “I didn’t know how to deal with death, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. I understood my dad had passed away, but I didn’t really focus on how sick he was.”

As she got older, Nina realized blocking those memories painful to her at such a young age triggered the start of her depression.

“No one really knew what was going on, and I didn’t really want to admit to myself what was going on,” she said. “I told myself, ‘Nothing is wrong, I’m fine, people have it worse than me. I’m not sick enough; I can’t have an eating disorder.’ That’s what I would tell myself every time. Part of me was kind of like, ‘Maybe you do have a problem.’”

The thought of telling anyone about what was going on in her head terrified her, but after encouragement from her friends, Nina started seeing the school psychologist at Hawken School for her depression when she was in eighth grade. 

However, Nina hid her growing problems from the therapist. She adopted a phrase to escape therapy: “Fake it till you make it.”

“I didn’t want to get better, if that makes any sense,” she said. “I was at a place where I was like, ‘This isn’t serious enough.’”

Although pretending nothing was wrong worked for a bit, her life came crashing down.

“Since I wasn’t getting the help I needed and I was keeping it all to myself, it was just building up over time,” Nina said. “So when the end of ninth grade came, that was when my eating disorder was really in full swing.”

Nina’s behaviors started to get more serious as time went on.

“I was fainting at school, I was purging every day, I was self-harming if I did eat,” Nina said.

According to the CDC’s body mass index percentile calculator, Nina was in the 35th percentile for girls’ weight at age 15 at 5’6″ and weighing 117 pounds. This ultimately means that Nina weighed more than only 35% of girls her age.

Nina’s poor health finally peaked to the point where it was fully visible. Nina’s best friend at the time, Bailey Hagedorn, noticed Nina’s eating disorder she desperately tried to hide.

“We both worked at a summer camp and I remember she had this app on her phone that tracks what you eat, how much you exercise, your calories and stuff like that,” Hagedorn said. “I remember at that age being like, ‘I didn’t know people my age did that,’ and then I noticed that most kids my age didn’t do that.”

Nina’s self-destruction got to the point where she struggled to make it up the stairs at school. Nina’s bradycardia was the ultimate source of her dizziness, but it also put her at risk for heart failure and cardiac arrest.

“I felt like I had this control, when in reality, it was the disorder’s control,” Nina said.

In early October 2014, Hagedorn decided she couldn’t watch Nina suffer any longer. Hagedorn pulled her aside in the hallway at school and gave her an ultimatum: either Nina tells an adult or she would.

“All I cared about was making that number on the scale smaller and smaller,” Nina said. “All my behaviors were revolved around this need to be skinnier and this need to be perfect.”

Hagedorn’s ultimatum made Nina realize she needed to tell somebody before things got worse.

“Her giving me that ultimatum probably saved my life,” Nina said.

A journey toward treatment

Nina went to the only teacher at school she trusted. She danced around her issues, but her teacher knew immediately Nina was suffering.

Hawken’s principal and school psychologist became involved and forced Nina to tell her mother about her issues.

“(Her sister and) I were pretty upset about it, and we just immediately determined where we could go to find somebody who could help her,” Thornburgh said. “I was surprised that I wasn’t aware of it before she told me because I’m pretty in tune with what she’s doing. She would come home from school and go in her room and close her door, (so) sometimes it was hard to know what she was doing.”

During family dinners and holiday gatherings when sneaking away was not as easy, Nina developed new methods to thwart watching eyes.

“Over the years, I would either restrict or overeat and then purge,” Nina said.

Nina and her mom set off to the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders where Nina was diagnosed and admitted into the Emily Program, a facility that helps those with eating disorders rebuild their relationship with food.

At age 15, Nina left high school to start this intensive program five days a week to treat her eating disorder. Her mother sat with her through the treatments every day.

“The first day was a mess,” Nina said. “I got there and, terrified, go into this room where all these people are who have been there for awhile.”

During this program, Nina was on “supervision,” meaning she was banned from privacy. She had to eat meals with her mom and was not allowed to use the bathroom or shower without someone there.

Despite the program’s rigidity, Nina made friends at the program, including a 14-year-old girl named Cely Ayala. Together, they went through group therapy sessions and encouraged each other to finish their meals.

“(When Nina) first came to the program, she was really closed off and didn’t like talking about herself,” Ayala said. “Eventually, the more we got comfortable with each other, me and a couple other girls would tell her that she can trust us.”

Nina’s treatment time eventually decreased to where she returned to school four and a half months later. Nina’s life was finally getting back on track until she had to get corrective jaw surgery one year after starting treatment.

Her doctors instructed her to gain weight before the surgery due to the imminent weight loss following the surgery when her jaw would be wired shut for one month of recovery. Her liquid diet resulted in the expected weight loss.

“I had lost a good amount of weight, which kind of led to not an intense relapse, but a relapse. I had lost weight, which fed the eating disorder voice,” Nina said.

She decided to return to treatment, but because she was being watched for self-harm and purging, she felt the need to rebel. Nina turned to alcohol.

“I was home alone one night and I kind of stopped caring and, in a sense, really self-harmed with alcohol that night,” Nina said. “When I saw the consequences, I was like, ‘I need to stop doing this.'”

After that night, Nina knew she had to change her behavior if she wanted to move forward and recover.

“I was leading myself down a destructive-behavior path again, and the big change was getting my college acceptance letter from Kent,” Nina said.

That was when she knew she needed to take her recovery more seriously. In November, during her senior year of high school, Nina took another month off school to go to Timberline Knolls, a residential treatment facility outside of Chicago.

“I went into treatment wanting to do it for myself, and that’s why I think I went through the program probably quicker than others,” Nina said. “I really focused during that month, and I focused how to properly take care of myself.”

Life in college

Going to college was Nina’s greatest test. She went from constant supervision and support to independence and personal responsibility.  

“The end of high school and first couple weeks of college definitely tested me because there are parties (and) alcohol, but honestly, now looking at it, I’ve gotten this far with it; why would I throw that away?” Nina said.

However, Nina is not alone while she is away at college. Her service dog, Aimee, an 11-year-old beagle-Labrador mix, lives with her in her Tri-Towers dorm for emotional support.

“I not only take care of myself, but I have to take care of something else,” Nina said. “I have to get out of bed in the morning and get out the door; who is going to take care of her if I don’t?”

Aimee sleeps at her feet during class and comforts Nina by nudging her with her nose when she notices her heightened anxiety.

Now that Nina is in college and in a much better place, she has decided to take her experience and help others dealing with mental illnesses. She posts encouraging messages on her social media regularly, especially on Instagram, and has had responses from people as far as Australia telling her what her messages mean to them.

“I got a response from a kid at my old school and he was like, ‘I’m about to start taking medication for my illnesses and I was really nervous, but hearing you talk about how it helped you makes me less nervous,’” Nina said.

Nina continues to share her story with the hope that she can help as many people as possible.

“I can’t even put it into words how meaningful that was to hear that from somebody, that me sharing my story was able to help them,” Nina said.

Not all responses she received were positive. She has been told her posts were for attempts at getting attention, and some even suggested that she should kill herself.

“It’s been hard because I’ve struggled with wanting to self-harm, wanting to commit suicide and so hearing things like that were definitely hard,” Nina said.  “I just kept reminding myself, ‘Don’t think about the people who are negative.'”

The impact she made through her posts on Instagram led her to creating the Nightingale Project this semester.

“I wanted to help end the stigma so the more people we can get talking about it, the more normalized it’s going to be, the less jokes there will be about mental illness, the less blindness toward it,” Nina said.

The project has only had one meeting, but Nina has many plans for the group, including teaching coping skills, fundraising for other causes and even a pen pal program. She wants to use her experiences and journey to help others realize their worth and importance.

“Your mental health is just as important because you deserve to be happy going through this college experience,” Nina said. “You deserve to feel the joy and the ups of it, not just the downs.”

Kelsey Meszaros is the student affairs reporter. Contact her at [email protected]