Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Do what I do. Hold tight and pretend it's a plan!"

Blog title is quoted from Doctor Who, season 7
I found out last Sunday night that I was accepted to Eastern Washington University's Masters of Fine Arts program in creative nonfiction. I'm still waiting on financial aid and other financial assistance, i.e. a teaching position, but I feel hopeful that this will work out. Classes start in September, which means moving back to Washington at the end of the summer. Moving is a big enough deal, but moving back to Eastern Washington is a REALLY BIG DEAL. Washington state is like a lot of states and the U.S. generally where there are urban, liberal areas and rural, conservative areas, and Eastern Washington is the more rural conservative part of the state. Actually, outside of Seattle but still on the western side is a lot of small logging communities that are not all that liberal either, and where I grew up, Pullman, is a college town and somewhat liberal compared to other parts of Eastern Washington, but I digress. I haven't lived in that area since I was eighteen, which in case you are wondering, was 25 years ago. I never in a million years thought I would move back there, so just the idea that I will probably be living in Spokane by the end of this year is mind-boggling. For me. And most people who know me. Like I can hardly wrap my mind around it.

There's the, I have a lot of tattoos and I'm a liberal weirdo who is completely unremarkable in Los Angeles but probably not going to blend into the Spokane culture, aspect of this, and then there's the moving from the second largest city in the United States to a city that is 3% that size. Even Seattle is almost 20 times larger than Spokane. It's hard for me to imagine, and I was born and raised in a town that is 20 times smaller than Spokane. Small towns or cities are different in so many ways from large urban areas, too many to list. So I'm expecting a significant degree of culture shock. At the same time, I feel like I'm getting a do-over. Even better than a do-over, because I have the benefit of years of experience, having lived my life in a completely different way than I would have imagined before I went to business school. Now I'm going back to what I always believed was my calling in life, to be a writer. I go back to writing with a skill (accounting) that most writers don't have, and a bunch of related skills that I developed while working in accounting, like training and managing people. Then I have what I learned in business school, including the art of faking it until you make it, or bullshitting your way through, if you want to say it in a less generous way. This is a skill that some people learn as they are growing up. If you are moderately privileged, you might assume that you will be successful in life and in the projects you undertake, including school and careers and relationships, and setbacks can be overcome, so if you don't totally know what you're doing it's fine, you'll pick it up. Or, like me, you might have grown up expecting to die in a gutter somewhere, but were lucky enough to gradually learn that you could accomplish your goals like other people, even if inside you felt undeserving and fraudulent most of the time.

Ironically, some of us pursue goals that seem purposely difficult, while maintaining a belief that we are losers even as we work harder and do better than those around us. Plus, those goals that we work so hard at proving we can do despite ourselves tend to not reflect what we really want, rather what we think is expected of us or what is safe. As much as I genuinely like accounting and the feeling of accomplishment it gives me, I chose it as a career because it seemed safer than to do what I wanted, be a writer. A professional, full-time writer. I thought it was easier to get into business school, get hired by one of the five top audit firms, pass the CPA exam, and work in a fairly technical, complicated, and specialized field that is super-conservative and has a culture that doesn't reflect me at all than do what I have know I was born to do from the time I was able to write words. I was so afraid of failing at something that defines me that I succeeded at something that was only hard for me because I didn't believe in myself. But I get to try again, realizing now that I didn't exactly make it easy on myself while I was trying to make it easy on myself. Turns out denying who you are is hard work, and not a satisfying goal to accomplish. Regardless, I am still alive, which means this game isn't over.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Returning to the scene of the crime

In the last two weeks, I've been working on my application to an MFA program in eastern Washington, for creative non-fiction. I've been looking at the MFA rankings in Poets & Writers for the last three years, and location had been a very important criterion until I looked at the 2014 magazine and saw that this program's deadline hadn't passed and I liked what I read about the program. Suddenly, I don’t care where I move as long as it’s for an MFA program. Going back to Washington is appealing, but moving back to eastern Washington is not something I'd considered before. The university is in Spokane, and Spokane is less than two hours away from where I grew up. That would mean I could visit my brother's grave any time I wanted to, but in recent history, when I've gone to the cemetery I've gotten the hell out of there as soon as possible. Strangely, I now have no anxiety about the idea of moving there. Not only does it seem plausible, it seems perfectly natural. Which is weird. Really weird.

Also weird- going through my blog to find posts to include in my writing sample. There is a lot in there I forgot I wrote, forgot happened, or forgot thinking about. My favorite post is still "My Heart" from February 2006. It's about my brother's death, and every time I read it, I cry. I just did some light editing of it in my writing sample and had to take a break afterwards because it made me so emotional. I don't know if it affects anyone else who reads it, but it says everything about how I feel about Jeff's suicide. It is everything about why it’s been so hard since he died.

I picked nine blog posts for the sample, but I re-read most of what I wrote for the last ten years, and I noticed some patterns.

1. I am sick a lot. It's kind of discouraging to read just how often I'm sick, but I'm not surprised. Stress ravages your immune system, and I really wonder if my immune system even developed properly. I have been under massive amounts of stress since I was a little kid.

2. This recovery thing is a difficult, long slog and I am really trying so hard. I keep chiding myself for not being dedicated enough, but I really am trying and it is hard work. Plus, I'm constantly sick. I'm making progress, and that is easier to see when I review the last ten years. But the day to day reality is that it feels like one step forward, three quarters of a step back, over and over and over with no end in sight.

3. I keep getting boyfriends that I think are so supportive and understanding, and I'm so lucky to have them, and then they turn out to be not what I thought. To be fair (to me), it's happened four times in ten years, so it's not like I'm going through boyfriends like Kleenex. The thing that strikes me is that the way I describe them when things are going well is so similar, and I’m soooo grateful that someone is accepting of me because I’m soooo awful to be with. Even though I haven't written about the breakups very much because I don't feel right about making my complaints public, the breakups have been very similar as well. This tells me that there is something specific I'm looking for in a romantic relationship, something I don’t seem to think I deserve, and I keep mistaking it in similar people. That I can see that actually seems encouraging, because maybe I can figure out why these relationships are so appealing, and find a way to fulfill those needs some other way.

This blog, on the other hand, never disappoints me. What an amazing gift to myself that I have documented the last ten years (more in some years than others) and can look back and see my progress, my patterns and my obstacles. In the next ten years I can make exponentially more progress and be somewhere I can't even imagine right now. Hopefully I will be in a place where I'm not always sick.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

To My Well-Meaning Friends and Acquaintances, or Manifesto of an Uncomfortable Blogger

My writing companion
Since I was bullied out of my job, my biggest desire has been to get back to my blog, even though it may be construed that this blog is what lost me my job. Blogging has never been easy for me, and I’ve never been na├»ve to the dangers of sharing the intimate details of my life. I spent thirty years keeping quiet, and I had to overcome a lot of my own fear and embarrassment. Before I started blogging I though, this is a stupid idea that will make everyone think you’re a freak, and besides, confessional writing is usually awful. The only thing that got me past the first couple of months was telling myself that no one was reading it. So when I was “outed” at work and treated like a freak, it wasn’t like I was completely flabbergasted. What I was less prepared for is the well-meaning acquaintances who said things like, “I could have told you this would happen” and “You shouldn’t be putting this kind of stuff on the internet; keep it in your support group.” Well. There are reasons why started this blog, and why it is public and not private. This blog is far more beneficial to me than harmful. It is the single most effective way that I’ve found for dealing with my trauma.

I grew up equating silence with survival, and there is a powerful part of me that wants to avoid anything that might put me in a vulnerable situation. My biggest priority growing up was to survive my family, and I developed emotionally and socially around that necessity. Much of, if not all of my adult life is influenced by the belief that I need to keep my focus on the basics of survival. When I’m scared or just don’t know how to judge a situation, the reaction to clam-up is instinctual and automatic. I do value and respect that part of me, even though it exerts almost tyrannical control over my life. It’s what powered me through, regardless of how depressed or suicidal I was. No matter how much I hated myself and hated my life, that part of me could not be dissuaded from doing whatever it took to keep going. When my therapist marvels that I’m not addicted to drugs or dead, that part of me is why. The challenge is to get past that singular focus, to have goals and aspirations that are greater than just survival. It feels natural to defer to that part of me, and the coping mechanisms that accompany it are so automatically and immediate that it takes consistent effort and self-awareness to stop them from taking over. It is so determined and sure of itself, and is hard to counter when it’s the first one there with a really compelling argument for all situations- “If you don’t do what I think is best, your life is in danger.”

The definition of danger is not just physical. When you’re a child, you’re dependent on adults to care for you, including emotionally. Children need to be loved. I was in danger with my parents from as far back as I remember. My dad was violent and routinely threatened to kill me, and my mom was emotionally, sometimes physically absent. She was depressed, and her inability to bond with me made my survival precarious. They were both verbally and emotionally abusive. You can’t help loving and depending on your parents when you’re a child, and I learned how to love and depend on people that mistreated me. I learned to tolerate and accept people that were unreliable, emotionally absent, unpredictable, and cruel, and to look to them to meet my emotional needs. You can probably see where this is going. If I follow the script I learned as a child, I think I’m taking care of myself in dysfunctional relationships. This is one of the areas where, if I don’t challenge my survival self, I accept familiar but emotionally frustrating and unfulfilling relationships instead of expecting something better. I also struggle to connect with people because of my reluctance to be open with my feelings, because it feels too dangerous. It feels too dangerous to be open with myself about my feelings, especially when I feel threatened.

Paradoxically, child abuse also potentially sets you up to be overly dependent. Children learn how to take care of themselves by imitating their caregivers, in ways that most people are not even conscious of. For example, when a baby cries and an adult comes to comfort them, their brain is actually learning what it feels like to be comforted and calmed. They are able to use that feedback to learn how to self-soothe when they get upset and an adult isn’t there. The stability of your caregivers creates stability in yourself, and that leads to self-reliance and independence. So if you don’t learn self-care as a child, you either need other people to help you regulate your emotions, learn to live with a heighted sense of fear and instability, or numb yourself out so you’re not overwhelmed. Either that, or you try to learn how to manage your feelings as an adult, which involves letting go of your coping mechanisms and allowing yourself to feel out of control until you learn other ways of dealing with yourself.

I did have a relationship that was an exception to my norm, the one with my brother. As much as I understand what he was dealing with and don’t judge him for taking his life, it felt like a huge betrayal. His death took away the only relationship I felt I could count on. It was also terrifying because I struggle so much with being suicidal, and having someone close to me act on it made it feel a lot more possible for me. That is the other side of me that grew strong off the misery of my childhood, my depression. That’s what I’m really terrified will get a foothold, and the part of me that is so hell-bent on survival is what I’ve relied on to keep that part of me that doesn’t want to be alive from rising to the forefront. More than anything, the threat to my survival as an adult is my own depression.

It’s this battle between the two parts of me that were fed and nurtured for most of my life that continues to suck up my emotional resources. To move beyond the limits of that existence, I need to make room in my head for something else. When I got to the point in my life that I felt both unbearably numb and unbearably depressed, realized I didn’t feel close to anyone because I’d locked myself down so completely and couldn’t reveal any of myself, was incapable of talking about my brother at all because my grief was so intense and was only getting worse, felt trapped in a prison of my own making and couldn’t even comprehend a future for myself, I decided to take radical steps. I did the thing I was the most afraid of; I started sharing my feelings.

It has been total hell. I feel lost and out of control a lot of the time. I am both exhausted and painfully awake, and feel like I’ve peeled off my own skin and am just raw to the world. I have so much grief, so much suppressed emotion, so much trauma to work though, and it’s the hardest work I can imagine. I try to moderate the time and energy I spend with it because it can totally take over, but I’m also fighting the urge to push it back down and try to forget about it. The thing that has been the most effective at keeping me moving forward is blogging. It is an act of total rebellion against the self that clings to silence and denial. I want to go back to putting up a front and hiding it all, go back to that comfort. My mind is more powerful than drugs or alcohol at numbing the pain. It takes conscious effort to keep pushing forward, and I lose my way when I stop blogging. I have to keep pulling myself back. It has not gotten easier. If anything, it just gets harder. My survival instinct runs on such an unconscious level that I don’t even know where the resistance is coming from. The unconscious is a vast ocean that can easily throw a tiny boat of conscious intention off course.

So I keep trying to write about it. I try to make it as raw and uncomfortable as possible. I counteract my desire be invisible by dredging up the feelings I am the most reluctant to be aware of or share with anyone else. Once I put it on my blog, I can’t hide it anymore. It’s out there. It’s more effective than thinking about it, or writing about it but keeping it to myself, or sharing it in a support group. It reminds me of writing a poem. It takes shape in your brain, and you write it, and then obsess over it, and rewrite it, and edit it, and rewrite it again, and hopefully you get to a point where you decide it’s as finished as you can make it, and you let it go out into the world. It is your creation, but it’s no longer yours. Creative work becomes something outside of you when you put it out there. As confessional and messy and hard to control as this blog is, it is still my creative work, and I feel like I am letting go and making space for myself.

If you think I shouldn’t be writing like this in a public space, that I’m over-sharing and needlessly exposing myself, and that I’m making my life more difficult, you, 1. Have no idea how painful it’s been to keep this all inside, 2. Don’t know me. At all. This is the most real I can get, and there is nothing that can happen that would be worse than the emptiness I felt when I was too fearful to reveal anything about myself. What I don’t understand is why anyone would read my blog in the first place if they think it’s inappropriate, but I have received that feedback. If it makes you feel icky, don’t read it. One of the reasons this works for me is that I know I’m not forcing anyone to hear about my crap if they don’t want to. If you look down on me for revealing these things about myself, that’s your issue, not mine. I’m not here to fulfill other people’s standards of how trauma victims should act or feel or talk about themselves. In real life, people don’t go through trauma, get it processed and packaged up all pretty so everyone can say, oh, she’s so brave and strong and look how amazing she is but now she can move on with her “life” and we can go back to pretending that child abuse is so rare we can ignore it, rape is not a big deal and has no lasting affects, people who commit suicide don’t mean anything to anyone, and when bad things happen to people it’s because they brought it on themselves.

If you think I don’t understand the consequences of what I’m doing, believe me, I do. I know things you put online will always be out there for people to find. I’m actually fairly internet savvy, and not naively wandering into computerland and thinking, hey, this is so cool! I can post selfies and talk about myself! Please stop with the warnings and advice. I actually didn’t lose my job because of my blog. I lost my job because of office politics and they just choose a particularly nasty way to take me down. Next time you feel the need to let me know the downsides of writing what I’m writing and posting it online, take a breath, restrain yourself, and remember, I got this. I’ve got bigger downsides that I’m dealing with. Okay? Okay. I’m glad we had this talk. Thank you for your support.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Valley of Untenable Vamps

I listened to a podcast called "Lexicon Valley", and they interviewed Peter Sokolowski from Merriam-Webster, Katherine Martin from Oxford University Press, and Jane Solomon from Dictionary.com on their publications' choices for Word of the Year- culture, vape, and exposure, respectively. (The name of the podcast is "Exposure to Vape Culture". Until I listened to the podcast, I saw the title and thought vape was some vampire reference, and wondered if I had missed something since I thought the height of vampire obsession happened at least five years ago. Actually, it's a reference to electronic cigarettes.) The criteria used to select the words are, interestingly, completely different. Merriam-Webster chose culture because it was the most looked-up word on their website, especially when school starts. (As to why that is, you'll have to listen to the podcast.) Vape is more of a "of the moment" word; a word used in a subculture that rocketed into popular usage in 2014. (Obviously not used by me.) Exposure is reflective of the events of 2014, such as the ebola outbreak and hackers infiltrating businesses and stealing photos. Lastly, they talked to the Erin McKean, the founder of Reverb and Wordnik, about why crowning a Word of the Year is limiting and unnecessary. In that spirit, they suggested listeners could suggest their own Words of the Year.

It was a challenge to come up with a word to represent my entire 2014, not because so much happened, but because I have blocked out most of it. I really racked my brain for a good half hour until I came up with the perfect word: untenable. Untenable: not able to be occupied or defended against attack or criticism, unsustainable, unjustifiable, weak. I think of it as selecting a place to set up camp, then looking up from your site preparation and realizing there's no way you can stay there, and you can either pull up camp now and look for a better place or decide you've already pitched your tent there, you don't want to move, and hold on until you can't anymore. Or I think of a critical battle in a war, watching your position slip away and your troops inching back, and being in the moment where you're wondering if you should turn and run or fight it out knowing you'll get torn apart. It seems like one of those big fancy words, but it isn't.

I could hardly have a conversation with a friend this past year without untenable popping into my head to describe my situation. It is a word I was aware of but hardly used before this year. I could probably come up with a sociopolitical argument for how perfect it was for the last year. Really, how many situations, even ones that while not positive seemed to be under control, blew up in our faces in 2014? Iraq went from slowly disintegrating to a monumental, unfathomable shitstorm. Ukraine's president fled the country and Vladimir Putin went from problematic but tolerated to an almost cartoonish villain. Ebola went from a horrific but rare and isolated disease to one that aid groups were begging the world to pay attention to, and then it spread outside of Africa and the rest of the world started paying attention. Ferguson, Missouri became the flashpoint for the treatment of people of color by law enforcement. All of these things were problems before 2014, but they all hit a tipping point and became unavoidable. How many people do you know who say they don't pay attention to the news because it's too depressing? It would be hard to find even a news-averse person who hasn't heard about the news in 2014. That's the thing about an untenable situation, you either find a way to get out of it or it gets you. Sometimes you eat the bar...

There were a couple of high points, but my personal year was mostly suffering through a rapidly imploding marriage that didn't so much blow up as make me feel like I was in a two-year hostage situation. To survive it, I returned to coping strategies that I learned a long time ago and thought I was past needing anymore, like numbing and retreating into myself. I used to consider myself an extrovert. Now I don't. For the first time since I moved to Los Angeles, I am homesick for Seattle. Home is the operative word. I don't feel like I belong here. My breaking point has been the weather, something that is usually cited as an advantage L.A. has over Seattle. The summer was hot, and it sucked the energy out of me, but this winter has been more of a winter than I've ever experienced in L.A. It's rained so much that I used my rain jacket for the first time, and loved it. It got so cold I wore my big furry coat. The weather was Seattle but nothing else is; I write as I can hear people arguing in the alley behind my apartment building, a regular occurrence. Two days ago a "sniper" (later downgraded to a guy who shot into the air and then ran into an apartment building and shot his gun some more so they knew exactly where he was) was in a standoff with police one block, and by one block I mean literally one block, up the street. A helicopter was flying directly overhead all night. Thankfully no one was hurt, even the gunman. (Guess what race he is? I'll give you a hint. He's not black.) I go by accidents on the freeway multiple times a week, two last week with ambulances and fire trucks screaming by. We all have to face mortality, but I notice death walking next to me more than I did when I was a goth kid who wore only black. I can't even listen to my music without starting to cry because it reminds me of the person I used to be that I feel so removed from. This is why it's such a struggle to write, which is the most intolerable thing of all. So weather isn't the only reason, it is just the overcast icing on the cake. I truly am only happy when it rains. Who knew?

I've already decided on my word for 2015: clean.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bodies

In the little over a year that I went to ASCA (Adult Survivors of Child Abuse) meetings every week, the biggest thing that struck me was how similar I was to the other people in the group. I had no idea how much of my life had been impacted by the way I grew up. There were so many things about my personality, my way of dealing with people, work, conflict and stress, and the patterns in my life that were eerily similar to these people who I didn't necessarily have a lot of other things in common with besides that we were abused as children. One of the things that kept coming up was that women who had been sexually abused had problems with food. We either had a hard time eating or ate too much for reasons besides hunger. Some women, like me, fluctuated between the two. The ASCA meetings were the first time in my life I ever talked about being bulimic. It was amazing since I've been talking openly about a lot of things for the last eight years that I never talked about before. I've just had a lot of practice keeping things hidden, even from myself, and I still moderate how much I share, even subconsciously. It wasn't like I just flipped a switch and a completely dark room became illuminated. It's more like I lit a torch in a forest with a lot of winding paths going in many directions, and I've been exploring them ever since. One reason I didn't deal with my issues with eating was that it wasn't a priority at the time. I had a lot more pressing things to deal with. But when I heard other people talking about it in relation to being abused as a child, it felt safe for me to talk about it. Outside of the ASCA group, talking about having an eating disorder felt like I was bringing up yet another unrelated problem out of nowhere, but in the group, it fit naturally into the other symptoms and outgrowths of the abuse.

It started with my parents telling me that they fed me and put a roof over my head, so what more did I want from them? It was the alternate reality that was drummed into me from childhood- this is all normal, you deserve to be threatened, yelled at, and hit; this is your fault; we are good parents. Part of the rituals of "we are a good family" is that we ate dinner together every night and everyone was expected to play the parts of normal family members. When I got to middle and high school, this charade became more and more intolerable. It was torturous to look my parents in the face, let alone talk to them about mundane things as if I wasn't going to be fighting for my life a couple hours later. I tried bringing books to the kitchen table, since they were my escape. That got me in a lot of trouble. I hid in baggy clothing. I slouched down in my chair. Then I started refusing to eat in front of them. It was a hunger strike. They couldn't make me eat, and they couldn't say they were feeding me if I wasn't eating. They couldn't have their precious normal dinners if I wasn't eating. It made sense from a physical standpoint as well. I was trying to disappear in clothes and under black hair and make-up. The thinner I was the more I wasn't there. During soccer season, I had practice after school and came home after dinner anyways. I went straight to my room without eating. In the off-season, I came home from school when no one else was home. My brother was still at school, my dad was at work, and my mom had started going to school. That was when I started bingeing on pasta and bread. I was so hungry, and I felt relaxed after I ate. I liked eating in secret. It felt like I had something my parents couldn't control. All the sharp edges and emptiness of the day was gone when my stomach was full. I was satisfied. My weight fluctuated wildly between soccer season and the off-season, but I was the only one who knew because my clothes were so loose.

When I started drinking I discovered throwing-up. It was like smoking because at first it felt awful, and then it felt good. I felt purified after I threw-up. Not only did it get all the alcohol and anything churning in my stomach out, but also it felt like all the black feelings in my body came out, like an exorcism. I had a rush of warmth to my head and felt light and floaty. For a couple seconds, I was free from the confusion and anger and self-hatred and feeling like I had so much pain inside me I couldn't keep it all down and it would come flying out of me, cracking my skull open and bursting my heart and guts into a bloody mess. Throwing up sounds like a gross way to deal with bad feelings, but considering that some of the other options I saw around me were heroin addiction and suicide, it seemed pretty mild. Eating disorders can have a lot of different reasons and messing with your food is always available. It's easier to do than getting drugs and usually less addictive, and less final than suicide. I thought it was a lot less dangerous than other options, although I've realized that's not always true. There are very serious and life-threatening immediate and long-term dangers to eating disorders that can hit at any time or wear away at you over time. In our diet-heavy culture, we consider anyone the slightest bit over "normal" weight unhealthy, and assume anyone who is skinny is healthy (we even call it "healthy" weight). We are largely unaware of how unhealthy it is to deprive your body of the nutrients it needs, which compounds over time. In treatment, I met teenagers with the beginnings of osteoporosis because their bodies were so desperate for calcium that it was being leached out of their bones. When you're not eating enough to fuel the basic functioning of your body, your body eats away at itself. Starvation is not healthy. I myself have erosive esophagitis, which can be reversed, but if it isn't, it could lead to cancer.

Sexual abused really complicates your relationship with your body. At the time, I disassociated so I could mentally and emotionally get through what was happening to me physically. That agony, I don't know how else to describe it, had nowhere to go and lived buried in my body and my subconscious. It causes discord inside me, and the more its confined in my body the more I blame my body for the pain I'm still in. I wonder if there's something about my body that makes abuse happen to me, and I want to change that part of myself. I want to get far away from the body that experienced the abuse, either by changing myself physically, disconnecting from my body, punishing my body, or some combination of those. At the same time, my body is mine, one of the few areas I do have some control. So much of abuse was to have control taken away from me, to take my body from me, to treat me like a doll with a consciousness trapped inside. The abuse completely messed up my ability to develop into an adult who felt agency over my body and my life. I grew up not feeling in control of my body, and not even feeling like I was in my body a lot of the time, which didn't make me feel like I had control. To heal, you really have to go the opposite way, and connect with yourself, but that's a long process. I'm a lot more aware of myself than I used to be, and more connected to my body.

I used to disassociate with just about any stress, which meant my body went numb, my mind went blank, and my feelings disappeared. It was frustrating because situations that I could potentially handle I wasn't able to because my survival response had took over and I wasn't emotionally there  to respond. But I'm still very blunted, so that I'm doing a lot of emotional work to put together what's going on with myself. I have instincts, but I really have to tease out my own feelings, and even things that are going on in my body. The thing is, emotions aren't just in the mind. They are so much a physical experience, and I really struggle to feel present in my own body. It sounds strange, even to myself that I don't feel in my body. I do feel my body, but it gets away from me, and especially the physical manifestations of feelings don't seem to make it to my brain. My consciousness is chronically under-informed. The eating disorder was actually an imperfect way to get some control of the situation and my body. It was the shortcut and what I could manage with my body at the time. It is also still easy for me to get back to that place, even now. PTSD keeps those defense mechanisms close by. When I felt physically threatened with the rape talk at work, the terror over my body put me back there. You can't work on healing when you don't feel safe. I was desperate to find some safety and nothing felt safe. The eating disorder gave me a little bit of a safe feeling. Without real, dependable safety, the eating disorder still has a purpose.





Monday, January 06, 2014

A waltz with discomfort

This last year was all about dealing with my health. I had a whole range- the more conventional and sudden (having my appendix removed in September), a resurgence of an old problem (bulimia, with more than three months of near full-time treatment), external (gaining a lot of weight), internal (bacterial overgrowth in my lower intestine), hormonal (started having my period every two weeks in October, which remains a mystery), and pharmaceutical (stopped taking all my medications in July and went through a very nasty withdrawal period from one which I would never take again, went back on two, added two more). Primarily I'm just dealing with the constant in my life for as long as I can remember, my companion, my curse, my friend, my foe, the terms and conditions of my life, my PTSD. It has been my biggest struggle over this last year, and the year before. It was something that I kept compartmentalized and separate, as much as I could and as much as I imagined I could, from the rest of my life. Now the goal is to live with it, be integrated, fit the pieces of myself together and present a united front. Not that I'm at that point. I've really been shell-shocked since I stopped working.  Of course, shell-shocked is just another term for PTSD, so how do you stop being shell-shocked about the fact that you're in a lifelong state of shell shock? I know that in some cases PTSD can be overcome, but I went through trauma so early in my life, for such a sustained period, and reinforced by multiple major events. It will be with me for life and the best I can do is work to lessen and manage the symptoms. I'm not being negative. I just know my illness by now.

My therapist once said that she didn't "think of me as mentally ill" because anyone that grew up the way I did would have PTSD. I thought that was strange, first because she's a therapist and I would think a therapist would consider PTSD just as much a mental illness as any other mental illness. Besides, what difference does it make that the conditions were so extreme that there was no chance of me surviving without developing PTSD? Does that mean that someone who theoretically "could" have survived without developing a mental illness is "more" mentally ill than someone who had no chance? It plays right into the derogatory belief that people with mental illnesses are weak and if they were stronger they would be able to overcome or avoid getting ill altogether. This is a widespread, ridiculous idea that makes it that much harder to live with a mental illness.

Imagine the pressure you'd feel if you had an illness that permeates every aspect of your life, where you go through periods where you isolate yourself from other people because you are so sick even though that's the time you need people the most. You find it hard make and/or maintain relationships because your health is so up and down. You go through periods where you are close to death but to people who don't understand what it's like to be suicidal it's "all in your head". You work twice as hard to maintain a career or get through school and need to take breaks, even start over, repeatedly, and find the motivation to pick yourself up again and again. You have doctors and medication, but dosages are always being adjusted and medications just stop working, or the side effects get too disruptive to live with. You try other drugs but every change comes the risk of taking a nosedive or having truly terrible side effects instead of merely onerous ones. The medicines don't cure you anyway. Hopefully they alleviate crippling depression or anxiety so you can function without interfering with your personality to the point where you don't know who you are anymore. Besides the side effects, there are usually other medical problems, like digestive difficulties, sleep issues, hormone imbalances, thyroid issues, and back problems. All the while you're trying to maintain as much of a normal exterior as possible because in most workplaces and social circles, no matter how open-minded, people knowing you have a mental illness is going to hurt your social standing and credibility. So you put a lot, a lot, of energy and effort into managing your anxiety and fighting off depression and stabilizing your emotions. It's exhausting. I do it every day just to get through.

But if I was stronger, I'd be able to just stop being ill. If there was any chance I could do that, since I'm pretty smart and driven, I'd be putting all that effort and more into being free from this huge stone around my neck. The reality is that people who live with mental illnesses are some of the strongest people out there. It is a constant struggle that most people have no idea is going on. What is really weak is when just hearing about mental illness is intolerably uncomfortable, making the effort to be open-minded and consider the experience of someone different from you is too hard, and having compassion and empathy rather than judgment and distain is too much effort. Maybe they genuinely believe in a tough love approach. "If you are socially isolated and treated like a freak for decades, you will suddenly have an epiphany into how you can be magically cured of your moral failings as a person!" Or maybe they really believe it's contagious and they might get the "crazies" if they don't distance themselves.

I read about the Lines Project online, which is the picture above. For a week in December, you draw 6 lines with a Sharpie on your left wrist if you self-harm and/or are depressed, and on your right wrist to show support. I participated, and I think it is a really brilliant idea because of how invisible people's suffering usually is. Suicide and self-harm is especially hard for people who haven't experienced it to understand, and is often seen as something you are choosing to do rather than a symptom of an illness. I have no desire to go back in the closet with my mental illness or my, gasp, loose talk about things we don't acknowledge lest someone think we brought it on ourselves, so I don't care about drawing bright lines on my wrist and posting pictures. If you look closely you can still see the lines I put on my wrists permanently. For me, they will always be there, whether other people can see them or not.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How long have I been here?

It’s hard to keep the days straight around here. This truly is Hotel California. Speaking of, the real Hotel California is near here. It is an insane asylum in the desert. People don’t leave because there is no where to go but desert. Normally, I would call something like that a mental facility or something like that, but it really looks more like a place to get people out of the way rather than a treatment center. Not that where I am is really an asylum, but it is hard not to feel a little like I am locked up since I am under more strict controls that I ever have been. Last night I got yelled at a little for going to the bathroom without finding a staff member to come with me, and I had to really work it to find a time to take a shower when I wasn’t on observation. I should probably go outside more often, but I’ve been spending most of my free time lying on the heating pad. I’ve been asking for Tylenol, which helps my back. It was hard to sleep last night because of the backache and I had a bad headache too. This morning the headache is better but I am bloated. One of the staff talked to me about how to pick my meals to reduce the bloating. I don’t want to eat meat, but some of the meat substitutes are not sitting well with me. The fruit here is really good but the rest of the food I really don’t want any part of. We are supposed to drink two glasses of water or a glass of water and tea (except lunch is just water) with each meal and snack. Even that is hard because of the bloating and because I don’t want to have to pee and go through the whole thing of getting someone to go with me. I’m pretty fixated on how I feel physically because it is hard to ignore right now.

I am also taken with a panic of what I am missing while I’m here. Last night my co-ed hockey team had a play-off game, and my women’s hockey team played my bestie’s team on Friday night. They started their season three weeks ago and I won’t be able to come back for at least a month. I cried last night because I was so upset I couldn’t be there. I am worried about my pets and that my husband will stop loving me. I’ve been super-crabby lately and I worry he will decide he is happier without me. I felt like I was withdrawing from people for the last year, and I’m not sure if I will be able to come back into a social life, or heal enough to do that, or if I do, if my friends will let me.

This morning I noticed two references to lightning rods. I was reading the music review section in the Los Angeles Time. Amanda Shires album “Down Fell the Doves” is on Lightning Rod Records, and a review for Public Image Ltd.’s first album “First Issue” says:

“The primal scream of the post-punk era, John Lydon’s first post-Sex Pistols project is, in retrospect, as influential as his work as a lightning rod punk singer in a cartoon shock-punk band.”