Saturday, 29 August 2015

Hope and hopelessness

As I try to dig myself out of the trenches, I am discovering what an unfathomably murky place the mind is. Recovery is inexact and inexplicable. I've heard it described as 'soul healing', and that feels right to me. The trouble is, there are no tangible markers for any of this soul business - you can't gauge progress by sandwiches eaten or by body mass index. I think it's a very difficult concept to grasp, especially in our western culture of definitives. So in the spirit of all things esoteric and vague, I've turned to poetry. The first poem shows the way up and out of this illness, the second is about things that keep me stuck and sick. 

a clear space, marked
in earth freshly turned  
pungent and raw
but true
new roots, nourished:
fed, watered and warmed
light incites 
and unfurls

love sprouts
nurtured, cherished
curling tendrils tickle and spring
buds cluster, closely
sheltered, united
first hugs
then a bloom

a creation
a secret revealed
a wish
and a whisper,
unfettered, far reaching
survived long neglected
drew strength from the dark
colourful, vital

growth abounds
in bedrock supported
flowers open, 

alight, a sight
to be seen 
a bow to the breeze 
a search for the sun,
together, one

gag it, deny it, stop it, hide it
don't feel so much
don't think so much
be less
of you

look well
not hard
don't admit, omit
chin up, cheer up
paint a smile
the audience waits, impatient

we'll help but
just eat but
don't stray, don't question
stick to the lines

you decided so
flick the switch
still imaginations
bleach bloodied stage floor
to reassure


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

You have got to be kidding me

I've got the best news! I heard it today: You can never be too skinny or too rich.


Someone I barely know commented on my body this morning when I dropped the kids at school, and this was their summation. Might as well scrap the blog, ditch the treatment, and just go for it! No need for all the blubbering and whining.

Why do women spout poison like this to each other????

It floors me every time.


Friday, 21 August 2015

Eating Disorder: Rounds 1 & 2

I was nineteen when I first developed an eating disorder. It was a very intense, traumatic experience, that had a huge impact on my life, but I have barely spoken about it. It was never treated, so there was no 'recovery'. Instead, I just buried it, and though the pain of it muted over time, I never found peace or understanding. I'm still dogged by a need to make it real, both for me and for the people who were close to me. Today I'm going to name it, number it and colour it black and white, so that this hazy part of my history is made solid. To help mark out the shape my illness took, I'm going to include some specifics about my behaviour and experience. I won't mince words, because I just need to get it out. If you have had an eating disorder and are easily triggered, maybe give this post a miss.

It began when I was at University. I had not long left the family home, and was living in a rental with three of my girlfriends. A few months earlier, I had broken up with my boyfriend - my first love - and I was still tangled up over it. I remember the stew of messy emotions: insecurity, confusion and hurt. The pain was significant, though I can no longer recall exactly what was going on. I spent my days at university, where I studied art. Engrossed in my painting, I would lose track of time and forget to eat, so to begin, I lost weight unintentionally. As is usually the way, the weight loss was accompanied by an influx of compliments. I liked the feeling, and it wasn't long before I began restricting my food on purpose.

Without much of a clue, I fell into disordered eating. I was responsible only for myself, and there was no-one constant in my life to witness what was going on. My autonomy allowed me to slip easily into starvation, and my strange behaviour went largely unnoticed. It was the 90's, and my eating disorder developed and operated a little differently than it does now. Finding out the calorie content of a particular food meant a trip to the library, there were no App's to enable, and 'thinspo' wasn't a thing. Now I look back on it, I can see what it quickly became. I used it as a tool to express my self loathing, and as a voice to scream out my hurt when I didn't have the skills or the courage to speak.

My calorific intake was woeful. I aimed for between one and two hundred calories a day. Much more than that I considered to be a disaster. Some days, I'd have just the toothpaste that I would fret over as I brushed my teeth, and three pieces of low calorie chewing gum. I made all sorts of excuses when it came to eating with others. I hid and then threw out food that my flatmates cooked for me at night. My fear of fat nipped at my heels and I moved quickly around campus, in a race to expend the energy from anything I consumed. I was jittery and high, and there was a sharp, constant burn in my belly. I dropped weight rapidly, my period stopped, and I was left curled in a shivering heap in front of my heater. I was in trouble.

Lucky for me, someone was able to help. They saw and then spoke: clearly, directly and with compassion. Their hand reached into the thick viscose bubble I was hiding in, and I grabbed it. This acknowledgment and support turned me around.

My ascent out of the eating disorder was chaotic and unguided by any professional. I had no idea what was happening to my body and had few skills to deal with the emotion of it. I just blundered through, grasping at whatever I could. I suddenly went vegan (I remember eating nothing but raisins for three days). I read about and adopted some feminist body politics - I felt defiant, and that drove me forward. I remember extreme hunger, awful mood swings and depression. The weight gain felt terrible, but in some ways I think my ignorance at the time made it easier to progress. I swept all the hard emotions under various mats, and I 'got on'.

Things continued smoothly enough for a while. I rekindled my relationship with my boyfriend and moved back home. But after several months of good health, I was walloped with a brutal blow of betrayal. It sent me reeling backwards, top over tail and back into the arms of my eating disorder. Though I didn't attach the word to it at the time, it was a relapse. I dived straight into the extreme end of my behaviour, and lost weight quickly.

The descent was sharp but relatively short. Despite my illness, 'fun' started to bubble around me. There was a new boy, new friends, and I was making plans for a big overseas trip. It alleviated the pain, and the emotional fire that fuelled my eating disorder started to die down. The problem was, I was locked into anorexic behaviours and I didn't know how to get out.

I looked for medical help, but found virtually none. My memories are vague - it was such a strange time, but I remember seeing a counsellor who sat cold and silent like a stone, his arms folded across his chest. I tried to talk to him, but he remained unmoved. I felt lost and confused, and after a few visits, I gave up. I called an eating disorder clinic and the woman I spoke to asked me my weight. She didn't ask about my state of mind or my behaviour, and didn't want to know how tall I was. Maybe the Body Mass Index hadn't quite reach the South Island of New Zealand at that point, I'm not sure, but she said she could only help people that were x kilos or below. I was at a clinically anorexic weight for my height, but I'm tall, so I wasn't quite 'low enough'. That was the extent of the medical help I had. From then on, I flapped out furiously on my own. My insatiable hunger drove me to binge, and then I'd purge as I tried desperately to contain my emotion. I was riding a roller coaster in secret, and it was truly awful. Eventually though, my behaviour became less extreme. The good in my life came to outweigh the bad, and the illness subsided.

When I look back on it now, I can hardly believe I managed to get out. I was so very alone in it, and completely clueless. At least the second time around, I was living at home with my parents. I know they were worried, but aside from a few restrained, brief comments, we never really spoke about. My eating disorder was a scream I needed them to hear, but I never felt like it reached them. So this chapter never closed for me.

I wonder about why things were this way. I think people often don't know what to say or how to deal with eating disorders. It's a really difficult illness to understand, and there's so much shame attached. It's a body thing too, and in my home, I never felt like bodies could be discussed. Owning a body - particularly a female one - was not something I associated with anything positive. Bodily functions, puberty and sexuality were very hush, hush - so much so, that when I was young, they registered in me as bad. This story of body shame belonged to generations gone by, but it resided in my family home, and played out in me as I tried to get rid of my body.

Although I came out the other side of this illness back then, nothing was learned. I had no real understanding of why I became ill, how the disorder functioned, and what it was that needed unpicking. What happened and didn't happen at that time is the reason the eating disorder has come back to haunt me. Though I developed ways of managing as an adult, and coped on the surface, I didn't have sufficient skills to deal with the punishing circumstances I faced.

For twenty years the illness skulked in the shadows, subdued and usually quiet, but fully intact. Last March, utterly depleted, I had only to glance in its direction, and it roared into vigorous life. Before I had lost even one kilo and my body was very healthy, my brain belonged to anorexia. Round 3 began with a singular thought, though the voice wasn't mine: I am going to ravage my body.

So this time, I'm doing things differently - I'm going to recover and recover properly. I'm immersing myself fully in the process of learning, understanding and redefining myself. There's no button to push, no magic pill to take and no fix-it-quick recipe. I can't will myself into ignorance and bury it like I did before. There is immense pressure to hurry up and move on, but it would be an act, not a recovery, and ultimately no good would come of it. I need to do this slow, hard work to get well, and my life and the lives of my children will be infinitely better for it.


Friday, 14 August 2015

Antidepressants: It's question time again

All the signs are there: frequent weeping; hiding in corners; an urge to commit random acts of violence at the supermarket. I'm afraid of my letterbox, my inbox, and daytime (it's so unreasonably glary). I'm pretty sure I would qualify as depressed. My best idea for dealing with it is to get a large, furry blanket, cut out two tiny holes for my eyes, then set up residence underneath (I don't really want the eye holes - that's just for the kids' sake). I know there is an alternative treatment, as I've been here before. It's antidepressants.

I had planned to talk about the chemistry of depression in this next bit, so I did some research. What I found was a bunch of glorious medical terms and explanations. There were presynaptic cells, packets of serotonin molecules, acetylcholine and dendrites, dopamine and norepinephrine. These words almost jet me right out of depression by themselves, they are so deliciously exact and scientific. They have a precision that makes it sound like unbalanced brain chemistry is perfectly fixable, but it's not the case for everyone.

I know lots of people who have taken antidepressants, and they've all had different experiences - good, bad and everywhere in between. Love them or hate them, one thing is for sure: these pills are everywhere. Doctors hand them out readily, especially it seems, to me.

The problem is antidepressants annoy me. One of the drawers in my dresser is littered with the remains of half empty prescription boxes. It's the result of a Start/Switch/Stop & Repeat approach to medication. I do constant mental loops, unsatisfied and frustrated when I take the pills, but struggle with my mood when I don't. I have had two goes with antidepressants that have lasted for a significant period of time (one year or more). While they initially helped take the edge off my melancholy, after a little while it seemed as if they lost their potency. I was left feeling bound to a medication that wasn't helping me.

It's more than their apparent ineffectiveness that bugs me. My chief objection is the way they make me feel - or rather, not feel. I can't emote properly - I go all opaque and lumpish, and it drives me crazy. Considering I'm made almost entirely of emotion (brain, bones and other vital organs take up only about 2% of space), using a medicine that blunts my feeling has a major impact. Navigation becomes slow - it's like trying thread a needle with big rubber gloves on.

When I take antidepressants, and a situation comes up where I really ought to cry, I can't do it. I scrunch up my face and make the sound, but no tears come out. I can't get swept away in an exhilarating book or movie - I'm like: someone just died a slow, painful death and left behind five starving orphans but whatever I'm off to pluck my eyebrows. Is it supposed to be better for me to be like that? If I have a scream inside, it has been put there for a reason. If I can't be bothered doing anything about it because of the pills, the scream will stay trapped in me. Surely that's not good?

For a short time a few months ago, I was 'back on'. I'd been rocking and rolling all over the show with my mood, and reached for medication out of desperation. The pills were beginning to take effect. The familiar numbing sensation wrapped around and pacified me. And yes, the world seemed a little brighter. I was feeling better able to cope with day-to-day demands. But it's like looking through a false lens - the calm didn't really belong to me, and I knew it. My true emotions still lay underneath, and were quite the opposite of calm. Every day, I was growing increasingly frustrated with the progress and treatment of my eating disorder. The medication wouldn't allow me to access the feeling properly, which was annoying in itself, so I added it to the pile of things I was angry about. Well, one morning I cracked. I got so ANNOYED, that I gave the pile an almighty boot, and knocked all the fucking emotions that I couldn't fucking feel all over the fucking place. I stopped taking the antidepressants immediately (*not the proper thing to do), told the entire world to PISS OFF, and started shovelling food in my mouth. The decision to reclaim my emotions, and then feeling the energising results, was the fuel I needed to blast myself out of the hole I was in, up onto the next stage.

This sets off a whole lot of questions for me. My intense emotion was a huge motivator - would I have got the same sort of traction if I'd let the antidepressants mollify me? Or would I have gone through the same stage and it just taken longer? How can anyone tell if it's ultimately better for my recovery if I am medicated or not? Maybe I would skirt over something if my emotions are dim. If deep healing comes from wading through the hard emotions, then can the numbing effect of medication be a negative thing? Being 'depressed' is protective in a way - there's less chance of another bad thing happening if I just hide behind my curtains. Maybe it's where I need to be for awhile.

It's quite possible I'm overthinking, and I should just hush up and take the pills. I understand there is such a thing as too much crying, too much bed, and that living under a blanket is impractical.  Something to take the edge off the misery would be welcomed at times.

So I have no answers at present. And I'm not sure I'll ever be able to stop asking the questions to make room for medication to help.


Monday, 10 August 2015

A rummage through emotion

This illness is a way of coping with intense feelings. Whenever I feel a surge of emotion, or encounter a really difficult situation, my head leaps straight into eating disorder mode. I take the scorching mess in my hands, and mould it into a shape I can deal with. It's effectively a stress reliever, and it has been my Plan A for a long time. But it's a crappy plan, so I'm working on a new one.

In theory, I know what's needed. I have to let all the difficult emotions be as they are, go about my day, eat, drink, feel hideous, and find other, healthier ways to dial things down. I've always been emotional - my rational mind lags behind by a mile. I hurt easily, love deeply and have intense reactions to the bright and demanding world around me. At the moment, I'm especially raw, and like an open wound I'm vulnerable. I would think I am as full of emotion as humanly possible, but if it's true that I use the eating disorder to numb my feelings, it means there is more emotion to be had. It's a little alarming.

It got me wondering: Just how much is going on under the surface that I'm not aware of? And what is it all, exactly? I decided to do an experiment. Over the space of two days, I paid very close attention to everything I was feeling. I carried a pen and paper with me everywhere I went, and each time I felt an emotion rise to the surface, I scribbled it down. Some emotions, like the fall of tears into my bowl of watery porridge, were easy to catch. Others were sneaky and difficult to identify - perhaps registering as a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, or a sort of heat near my neck. At the end of each day, I gathered the information together, then began sketching a plan of how show it all. The diagrams I drew are proportional (more or less) - so the larger the space given, the more of that emotion I experienced in the day. I had to group some of the feelings together, because there were so very many - for example 'fascination' and 'intrigue' were scooped up under the 'interest' umbrella. Even with those simplifications done, look at the jumble I found:

Day 1 - Pretty colours for some ugly emotions

Day 2 - A marginally better day

By chance on these particular days, bad things happened, so they are not exactly glowing examples of my internal life. The swarm of emotion was constant, which was both fascinating and disturbing. There must be a phenomenal amount of processing going on within us all to moderate our emotions. That we're not exploding into tantrums every two seconds and scratching each others eyes out is a miracle. And no wonder we reach for any method we have on hand to manage it - be it reasoning, ignoring, praying, drinking, smothering, smoking, hyperventilating or starving.

To build resilience, I know I need to expose myself to the hard emotions (like anger, fear, shame and sadness), and learn to deal with them. The more I understand these feelings, the better position I will be in when I face them. It's easy just to think them as the 'bad guys', but what lies in the heart of many a villain is a kernel of goodness, or likeability, or at the very least a reason for being that we can understand. This is true of the role these emotions have had in my eating disorder - they have conjured all sorts of evil, but have also powered some life-changing good.

For me, fear is the worst of them all. I felt its icy grip take hold with the violent bucking of the Christchurch earthquakes, and in the slow creep of starvation. When intense fear is justified (as it was in these cases), it is incredibly powerful and positive. It gets you moving - and moving fast - up and out to safer ground. Fear comes in lower grades, of course, and I have it in abundance. Only through the process of writing my last post did I recognise just how significant it was, and see how it's undermining my recovery. Most of my fears aren't justified - a dot of olive oil screams DANGER! to me - but it doesn't actually pose a threat to my safety.

Anger is a whirling maelstrom that sucks up mental energy and fires it back out in all directions. It can get ugly. Sometimes my therapist has to duck out of the way, and I feel sorry for her. Anger seems to ask for action, and in the eating disorder, this action has taken the form of self harm. Inflicting the pain (of starvation) is an expression of anger aimed at myself. At other times, I have managed to use its energising action to do good. Every major step up in my recovery has been preceded by a gradual build up, then explosion of anger.

Shame is a gnarly one, and it's embedded deep in the core of this illness. Accessing it, then trying to unpick it is really hard. Shame is the heat of self loathing. It's the belief we are terribly flawed and unworthy. In an eating disorder, the feeling can be so strong we think we don't deserve a space in the world, so quite literally shrink away from it. I am a long way from coming to grips with shame, because it feels so uncomfortable to question these beliefs. But I'm making a start. I'm planting seeds mostly: putting up boundaries for myself in relationships when I've set none before, asking to be heard, and reminding myself I am allowed a small spot simply because I'm a human, and that's enough of a reason. One of the best things I have done to tackle it, I think, is to set up this blog. I'm hollowing out a bit of room in cyberspace, where I tell my story. It doesn't matter if it's only me reading it either. The point is I'm saying what I want to about my experience and it is evidence of a bud of self worth. Speaking up defies shame.

If there is one hard emotion that I think I do okay with, it's sadness. It's a grey drifting cloud that's been hanging over me for a good, long while. Sometimes it swells and darkens, then spills rain all over me. When that happens, I generally don't run and hide - I sit and wait for it to end, then watch the cloud diminish. The eating disorder wouldn't exist without sadness. It works easily alongside the 'control' and 'calm' of restriction. But wonderful things have come in the midst of sadness too. Even in the deepest of lows, when I am certain everything good in me has gone, creativity stirs and tells me otherwise. Between sobs, a flicker of a thought will appear. It quickly fills out and becomes an idea, and I pay attention. My tears dry up and I begin to draw or write. Before I know it I am carried away out from under the cloud.

Navigating my way through all this feeling is not easy, but avoiding it will get me nowhere. I'll stay stuck and hungry. It's really interesting learning about emotions, and pulling them apart. I know vast amounts more than I did one year ago. I know that fear keeps me safe, but also traps me. Anger is motivating, but I need to learn to steer it in the right direction. I understand shame is a feeling that stems from beliefs that can be changed, rather than something I have no agency over. I know that creativity can flourish in the presence of sadness, and that, in turn, breeds hope. And hope, my friends, is my ticket out of here.


Sunday, 2 August 2015

What's up with the scales?

Twice this week, I have evaded the scales. I was booked in to see the doctor at the clinic so I could be weighed and I didn't go. Then I bailed on my psychotherapy appointment, because I knew we'd have to talk about it. I did see my regular doctor - he asked me to step on the scales, and I refused. Like an errant teenager, I'm being flaky and problematic. It's so unlike me. I'm constitutionally nerdy and like rules. I dot my i's and cross my t's because that's what you're supposed to do, and I don't want to cause any trouble. So why the dogged resistance to being weighed? What does weight mean to me, and why am I avoiding it? I'm going to see if I can come up with some answers and give the little rebel in me something to think about.

The doctors need to keep a check on my weight for good reason. My weight loss had put my health in danger, and my disordered eating behaviours mean weight still needs to be monitored. They are responsible for my care. But they can't catch me. I've told them if they try and make me, I'll just run, and then jump up and down on the scales so they can't read it (yes, that's correct, I AM 42 YEARS OLD).

It's not that I don't know my weight - I do. Though I have given up daily weigh-in's, the scales still rule my world. I step on just often enough to keep it 'under control', but only when all the planets are aligned correctly. It has to be done before I have had any food or water, at least a couple days clear of a binge day, in my birthday suit and not a day directly after strenuous exercise. Once I have that sorted, I'm good to go. When I make an appointment with the doctors in advance, there is no way I can anticipate what my circumstances will be. What if I've just eaten a boat load of food by accident? What if I've timed my washing cycle poorly and have only heavy socks to wear that day? What if it rains and the drops fall on my hair and make it wet and weighty? Well, I can tell you would happen folks: the number on the scale would be *GASP* horrifically inaccurate. So far, the people at the clinic have been understanding, but I suspect they'll need me to go through with it soon.

Water. Just because.

Lack of control isn't the only thing I'm anxious about. I'm also resisting because I don't want other people to see my weight. I fear their judgement. There's no logic to my worries - doctors only require my weight as a means to help keep me safe and judgement is not part of the equation. They know better than anyone that you can't tell if someone is better of not by their weight. Still, my mind is abuzz with questions: If I weigh more, will they think I'm a fraud or a failure? Will they think I'm fat? If I'm the same weight, will they get annoyed that I'm taking so long and kick me out the door? In my mind, their judgement would be this: You've failed at anorexia, now you're failing at getting better. This is boring. You're not even sick, dumbo, so would you just hurry up and get out?. Even if I was just 200 grams heavier, I would think this, so the idea is completely repellent. Weight gain comes with a world of expectation: chin up, cheer up, get a job, get on with life. And that is terrifying because my head is a mess and I only just manage with what I have in front of me right now.

I can tell my thoughts are a bit off - I see the illness in the mental. I have attached a bunch of values to weight that don't belong, and it's keeping me stuck. Fat isn't inherently bad or good, its just a physiological substance. Age, culture and life circumstances all influence the value we attach to it. Likewise, weight is just a number. It means different things for different people and at different times of their lives.

It's no secret the values our culture has around weight. Big means bad - it's all dreary and sad and lumpy. If we can't control our weight and look a certain way, we are not acceptable, worthy of love, likely to be successful, and have less value. Slimness, on the other hand, is bright and breezy - it means laughter and fun with friends, and it's so very nice. Control over physical appearance and weight is depicted as virtuous and implies success. It's not my experience - for me, thin has been profoundly lonely and painful. I have never felt less successful. The body is temporary, and forever changing. It isn't who you are and doesn't say anything about your worth as a human, yet our culture tells us it does. The message is broadcasted relentlessly from every available outpost, and it's almost impossible not to be affected by it.

To shelter from all this false advertising, you need a really robust belief system that keeps physical appearance in perspective. Mostly, these beliefs are home grown, instilled in you from birth by your parents. Unfortunately, the things I learned about weight and size when I was growing up didn't counter balance the wider cultural message. The world of body image is a malignant soup and we're all swimming in it, so I don't blame anyone, but I do wish I'd learnt differently. What I came to understand, was that small and thin was better (not with regard to health, but for its own sake), and self deprecation was part of being a woman. Although not remotely overweight, I was the biggest build of my sisters, and super sensitive. Those messages seeped into my bones. I grew up harbouring a secret knowledge - that I was fundamentally and irrevocably wrong.

My rational, adult brain rejected these skewed body image values wholeheartedly, and that kept me healthy most of the time. But when the proverbial shit hit the fan and my rationality wasn't in charge anymore, I fell back on deeply embedded beliefs to help me operate. That belief system is flawed and now I have to go in and dislodge the bad bits and I don't know how.

I have one last fear to talk about, but unlike the others, this one is based in reality and might actually help me go through with being weighed. I felt it a little while ago, when my physical and mental health were plummeting. I got scared I wouldn't be able to care for my children, and that they might eventually be left without a mother. It motivated me to seek treatment and ultimately stay alive. This fear is the bottom line, and trumps all of the others put together. Sometimes I forget about it, and I let the bundle of anxieties that are based on untruths govern my behaviour. I need to remember.

If I am going to get to the other side of this eating disorder, I'll have to face it all eventually - the fear of loss of control, of failure, judgement and weight gain, even though it will feel absolutely terrible. Letting them weigh me would be a very small step in that direction, and it would give those problematic beliefs a quick jab in the eye.

This is what I know, now let's see if I can act on it.