Being Seen

I never realized how important it is for me to feel seen until the last few years. I began to realize how much it mattered to me to be heard and validated in my last relationship, which lasted over two years and ended over a year ago. We worked a lot on our communication and relationship, and that was something we identified was of great importance to me feeling secure and loved. Having my side and experience heard and validated, whether in an argument or in a decision, was often the difference between me lashing out or breaking down and us moving forwards. For most of my life before that, I was unsure why I felt so insecure when instances came up where I felt ignored or cast aside, or even when I just wasn’t explicitly told I had done something right. It just seemed that I was high-maintenance, or that I over-reacted a lot — or this is what I was often told. In reality, I had certain needs that weren’t being met and that rocked the little bit of stability I had at my core and put me on uneven ground. 

It took me a long time to believe that naming and finding ways to meet your needs wasn’t being “too much,” it was a necessary act of survival. We all have needs, and when those needs aren’t met we begin to decline. Abraham Maslow studied these needs and devised his theory on human motivation with a basis in the hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy is drawn as a pyramid, with the idea that higher needs cannot be well-met if the lower, foundational needs aren’t being satisfied due to a lack of foundation to build up from.

The lower needs are more basic survival needs, with physiological and safety needs at the very bottom. Physiological needs consist of things that are vital to life, such as nourishment and hydration, air to breath and shelter to sleep in. Right above that are safety needs, which consist of literal safety and security, but also stretches to things like health, a job, personal security, and other resources required to be secure in life.

It is easy to understand how lacking in this area would make it very difficult to focus on anything but trying to become secure — if you have no food, you will have a hard time prioritizing your health; if you have no job, you will have a hard time focusing on building strong relationships. Thus, each lower level must be fulfilled to a certain degree of stability for one to be able to move up the hierarchy and focus on higher levels of needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Plateresca / Getty Images

Next come psychological needs. Once basic survival and security is met, the next needs deal with love/belonging and esteem. This is why it is not enough to just give a child a home — rather, you must love and include them while reinforcing their capabilities and autonomy for them to develop normally and healthily. When these things are missing, psychological problems and mental distress develops.

Love and belonging refers to intimate relationships and your support circle — friends, family, intimacy, and a sense of connection. I always felt I had these but in reality never felt I belonged due to an inherent lack of deep connection within my relationships. This is where being seen comes in — belonging and connection requires others to know you on a deep and intimate level, and doing so requires that they see you for who you truly are and validate that. And then that they love you regardless. Without this, one can’t build esteem, which consists of self-respect, respect for others, strength and freedom, among other things. Without love, belonging, connection, and being seen, you can’t build yourself up and believe in your worth. You becomes stuck in a belief system that puts you at the bottom and reinforces the idea that you are not enough to deserve being seen, being loved, or belonging.

This has been my largest deficit throughout my life, an inability to believe in my inherent worth. To believe I am enough. Instead, I have always believed I was too much. And this was reinforced by my intimate relationships, especially my family. I was often labeled as dramatic, overreacting, high-maintenance — many terms that reinforced the idea that what I was feeling was wrong and made me unlovable. I couldn’t belong because I wasn’t like everyone else. In reality, I have always been sensitive and felt big. I was never making my expression or my feelings into more than it was — I really felt everything that I was saying I did. But instead of being validated for that, which would allow me to deal with what I was feeling and be heard for my suffering, I was made to feel that the way I inherently am was bad.

This was never anyone’s intention. My family didn’t set out to invalidate me, they set out to normalize me. They didn’t feel the way I did, and my emotions scared and frustrated them. As I have grown older and embraced who I am, rather than trying to push it down and stifle it while simultaneously feeling constantly crazy, I have realized that though I feel big, if I am heard and my needs are seen, I can meet them quite easily. And that there is nothing wrong with needing things.

Everyone has different needs, and so many of them, like mine, are based in deficiencies from their childhoods. Needs that were discounted or never met, and as a result are all the more important in adulthood. And just because someone else’s needs are different from yours does not make their needs invalid, bad, or wrong. It just makes them different. And if you love someone and want them in your life, then trying to meet those needs is a part of maintaining the relationship just as much as recognizing your own needs and asking for what will meet them is a part of caring for yourself.

When I was 18, I tried to kill myself in front of my parents. Things had not been good. I had been hospitalized earlier in the year, and my parents had treated it like a one-and-done-check-meagan’s-crazy-off-the-‘to-fix’-list kind of thing. I was hospitalized for 10 days, and finally had felt like the suffering I was experiencing day in and day out was being seen. I was put on a ton of meds, I was depressed, I was struggling.  The day after I got out my parents insisted I return to school so as not to get behind. I was so drugged up my mom had to dress me. I slept through my classes for the first time in my life. My schedule was changed so that I could leave school everyday at noon and go to therapy. 

In my parent’s eyes, I was supposed to be better. I went to the hospital, got medicine and treatment, and got discharged — thus, *ding*ding*ding* all better. I was drowning in my sorrow which had had a medicated band aid placed over it, and everyone had moved on but me. My visibility was gone. Again, I was not seen.

So I made the decision, after another argument with my parents about how much I was suffering and how they wouldn’t send me to the hospital because ‘what about school?!’, to down a bottle of klonopin in front of them. I have never seen so much terror on my mom’s face. My dad yelled at me something to the effect of what have you done. I ran upstairs, threw up the pills, and then walked out the front door and kept walking. 

At this point, I do not believe I really wanted to die. If I had, I would have kept down the pills. Rather, I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to take me seriously when I said I AM SUFFERING. I NEED HELP. And I still struggle with that. I have had to fight for the treatment I have been given. I had to fight for breaks when things were too much and I was suicidal and afraid for my safety. I had to fight for treatment for my eating disorder. I have had to fight for what I am going through to be seen. I have had to fight for my needs to be validated and met.

I do not write this to villainize my parents. My parents did the best they could. We sometimes forget that in these situations, the mentally ill person is not the only one having a hard time. It is so incredibly distressing to have someone you love be so sick, especially when you have never felt the way they describe and you have no frame of reference from which to understand it. People can only be there in the capacity that they can, and that is entirely based on their level of education and experience with the issue at hand. My mom didn’t know how to help her suicidal daughter anymore than I would know how to help a 10-year old who’s father just died in the Vietnam War, something she dealt with in her childhood and would be much more equipped to help another with now.

Everyone’s parent’s fuck them up no matter how hard they try not to. Unfortunately, it is impossible to cover all the variables that can lead to distress later in life. I was so well cared for growing up. But because I was different, I felt invalidated. So now, I fight to be seen.

The reason I am writing on this topic now is because of a painting I made over this past weekend that so succinctly speaks to this feeling. I have fought to be seen for so long, I thought it wasn’t an issue anymore. But it is. It keeps coming up in therapy. The need to have my struggles validated. The need to have my trauma be recognized as real. The need to be heard without someone trying to alter my story. The need to own my life, own my trauma, own my story.

See Me
acrylic on 18×24 canvas paper

I just began EMDR again, and I think perhaps that is where this need is stemming from, at least partially. I had my first session last week, and since I’ve had one or two memory flashes, but mostly I’ve just had a lot of feelings come up. Feelings of being at fault for the bad things that have happened to me. Feelings of being inherently not innocent, of welcoming bad into my life. Feelings of being complicit. Feelings which have come up at other times in other ways, especially in feeling responsible for my own mental illness and what it has done to my life. Feelings of shame and guilt, most of which is not my shame and guilt but others’. The deep dark root of the void is beginning to show itself, which I suppose is the point. That is why I am diving into this part of my treatment. But it’s like all of these shitty feelings and beliefs about myself are my foundation — they are at the bottom of my pyramid of self and have interfered with my ability to move up the hierarchy of needs. Like a parasite that has infested the foundation of my safety and inhibited the grounding and rooting necessary to thrive. Instead of love being rooted, a lack of belonging has. Instead of understanding, a belief of being simultaneously too much and not enough has festered there. How can you grow towards self-actualization, towards becoming the most you can be, when you are so deeply rooted in a belief that you are nothing?

I feel as though I am beginning to uproot this parasite, these weeds that have hindered the growth of the good. But like when you pull a weed from a flower patch, the earth becomes torn and unsettled before it can be patted down and grown into, I feel like my insides are being torn up little by little. This general sense of unease has permeated my being, something I am describing succinctly as ‘bad weird’.

I am afraid of being uprooted. All I have ever known is weeds. I do not know what will be taken from me and my life as those weeds are removed. Even though I know it will be replaced with good, it is terrifying and I feel sick. I suppose this is probably what the weeds feel like when they are torn from the ground and left to wither and die so that the flowers may grow.

The Positivity Paradigm

When existence has been characterized by suffering for so long, it can be difficult to comprehend what life without it could look like. The concept of a positive, happy, well-adjusted person who lives a fulfilling and happy life seems so foreign to almost be unreal. Impossible. It seems as though life is always hard, will always be hard, and any claim of a different narrative is idealistic drivel.

Suffering likes us to buy into this narrative because it means that we won’t cling to the hope that it is possible to be free. And when there is no hope for freedom, you accept the hardships life and disorder puts on you as ‘as good as it gets.’

But the reality is that existence beyond suffering is real. People exist who are well-adjusted, securely attached, who lack trauma and suffering. Who are happy – actually happy – the majority of the time. Now one way to view this is to take a victim mentality and ask why. ‘Why them, and not me?’ Why do I have to suffer, to have trauma, to have dealt with abuse or disorder or suffering. This can be a very self defeating narrative, one in which you allow circumstance to trap you into an existence of being broken.

But another way to view this, and the way I choose to view it, is that the existence of these people is infinitely empowering. They represent hope. They represent freedom. And they are proof that life can exist in a paradigm so foreign to those who suffer that it seems a fairytale. 

This means that we don’t have to accept our suffering at face value. We don’t have to be a victim to circumstance. We can strive for happiness and not settle for less, regardless of what life throws at us.

I believe in the power of agency. Of the ability for us to choose how we react and are effected by the things that happen to us and around us. This is how I have been resolving my world-shattering realization that ‘full recovery’ may not amount to what I have always dreamed it to be. I have no control over what the outcome of recovery looks like — if full recovery consists of maintenance and tolerance of symptoms, then there is nothing I can do to change that. But I know I want my life to mean something. And I have constructed the goals and values that make my life meaningful. Thus, regardless of the outcome of recovery, I can choose to live that meaningful life. I can choose to believe in myself and my own ability to cope with whatever life throws at me, because I am more than my existence.

I wrote this post a few weeks ago, but had difficulty completing it. It felt too short to actually publish, but I didn’t have any more to write. The realizations in it had made me feel limitless, something I had always wanted to be. But sadly, as the experience that inspired these realizations ended and I returned to real life, everything started to tank. My health, my mind, my recovery — it all went back to the struggling state I was in prior to this experience. The hard truth that my limits are real and tangible hit me again like a ton of bricks and destroyed the positivity I had been feeling.

Now, nearly two weeks later, I realize that the reality is it isn’t one or the other — limitless or hopeless. There are aspects of both. I am far more limitless than I was 5 years ago. Or 1 year ago. Or even 6 months ago. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am dealing with some hard things. Some of us are dealt a difficult hand, and it’s not something we chose or can control. It just is. And that sucks. It sucks to have limits put on you that you never asked for. It sucks for every day to be hard when for some it is easy. It sucks that your normal doesn’t necessarily get to be like other’s. But that doesn’t mean we have to resign to our illness or our struggles.

In the last year I have realized that I am so much more capable than my illness and my hardships have ever let me believe I could be. And I have begun to identify the potentiality of a life worth living that I fight for everyday. So, it is okay that it is hard now. It is okay that I am not limitless. It is okay that breaking from my structure and routine throws me off for a while. It is okay that I am not better. Because I am still trying. I am still fighting. And I will continue to do so. Possibly forever. But I refuse to accept misery. Ever. Full stop. We deserve more than that, my Warriors. We deserve lives we want to live. And I believe with my entire being that we can achieve that. We may have to fight forever. But isn’t that worth it when you consider the alternative?

I am restructuring my recovery right now with all these insights at mind. I have decided to focus on the root of my issues rather than the symptoms. Yes, my friends — on the root of trauma. I am terrified of this. It’s scary to decide to face what you have forever buried so deep so you never have to look at it. Trauma can mean a lot of things. And I think its at the root of so many of our problems and behaviors. So I have decided to start to tackle mine. Because it limits me so much more than anything else. And I am okay with getting worse for a while. With the fight being harder and the battle feeling unwinnable. I am okay with cutting back on parts of the life I have built to make more room for recovery. I am okay with all of this because no matter what I believe that life can be better than it is.

I suppose, after re-reading the first half of this post, that I came to the same conclusions a second time. And this, in my opinion, simply strengthens the concept that we are more than our suffering. Whether things are going great or terribly, there is always more that we can reach for if we believe that we deserve it — and we do deserve it. So believe in yourself. I do.

The Invisible War – The reality of the daily fight for recovery

I often wonder what life would be like without my mental illness. What it would feel like to wake up in the morning without already being exhausted. What it would be like to care for and nourish myself without effort. To think of food when you are hungry, and then to just eat like its no big deal. To have a stressful day and go home and take a hot bath and pet my cat and that be enough to be better. What would life be like without this invisible war I fight every single day? This fight is transparent to me; it blends with existence. Fighting is simply like breathing – It has to be when you are chronically mentally ill. If survival didn’t become a reflex you would simply parish. 

So you learn. You learn how to battle through the daily drag of human existence in order to achieve a sense of functionality, even though every act of normalcy takes tremendous effort – taking out the trash, doing the dishes, taking a shower. You work hard to maintain the routine that for others is, if annoying, effortless. You plan your day around how far you can stretch yourself while still being able to bounce back for tomorrow. Sometimes that means just doing one thing in a day. “Tomorrow I will clean my house.” “Tomorrow I will do the laundry.” “Tomorrow I will see a friend.” Statements that, for those with the privilege of sanity, seem innocuous. Benign. Stops on a to-do list for a single day, and then some. But for the chronically mentally ill, doing that one thing can be exhausting. Because its not just the one thing. Its that one thing, on top of living. On top of hygiene and nourishment and hydration and taking out the trash and getting up in the morning and… Every one of those things takes effort. And maintaining the functionality of life is a fight.

I can now do two, sometimes three things in a day. Or do something and then go home and do homework. Or paint. Or write. This feels like such a huge accomplishment, and yet it’s such a basic level of functionality.

I feel like normative people tend not to realize this. They take for granted the effort required to maintain basic functionality. They don’t realize the effort and the strength it takes to maintain that each day. So when things get hard, and we start to slip on our ability to maintain those basic markers of functionality, they see it as a huge slip. Or worse, when the struggle really sets in, and we go from less functional to non-functional — from a messy house to behaviors popping up to no longer being able to force ourselves to eat, let alone keep up with our responsibilities. Our job, school, social lives. Suddenly, people are paying attention. “What happened?” They ask worriedly. All they see is a sudden surge of illness. A sudden relapse. They don’t understand when you explain you are so tired of fighting. They say but the fight has just begun! The rally around you, trying to help pull you up as you fall. That is when they see us as ill. That is when it finally clicks.

 But in reality, we are just so exhausted from fighting day in and day out just to maintain what comes so naturally to them. We have been falling for months. But they can’t see that. Because it is easier to see us as normal and healthy as long as we are able to maintain functionality. So they only see the illness when we fall. When it can no longer be ignored. When it is making things messy.

The illness is always there, folks. We never stop fighting it. We never stop struggling. Every day is hard. Every. Day. Every stressor makes it more difficult. Everything is being added on top of the exhaustion that simply comes from living with chronic mental illness. It’s not this sudden drop. It’s not that the illness is ‘suddenly back’. It’s always been there. We just don’t talk about it. Because if we explained what a fight it is to work through every single day, you would see us as sick. We would have to make you feel better about it, help you cope with how hard our lives are. Because it’s not pretty, and it’s not nice. 

We want those who are sick to get better. Period. Full stop. And sometimes they may relapse, but then they fight again. And then, again, they’re better. Better. Fin. The End.

What is better? What is recovery? I have spent a lot of time pondering this idea the last few weeks. I always thought that recovery meant ‘Better. Period. Full stop.’ It meant the illness was gone, and I would be done fighting. That I finally would be free. I have been fighting for freedom my entire life. 

But apparently, that’s not what recovery is. All those I’ve asked have said recovery is defined by the sustainable management and tolerance of symptoms. But to me, all I hear in that statement is recovery means fighting forever. Fighting the invisible fight, with my struggle only being seen when I fuck up and fail. 

How is that a worthwhile existence? To forever be in an invisible battle between my mind and my life? It seems an incredibly intolerable outcome. It feels like being trapped in a game I can’t win and I’m not good at. 

My motivation for recovery is waning because I don’t know if what I am fighting for is enough anymore. 

I wish I had a nice way to wrap up this post. I wish that there were easy answers in this battle. That this blog could show you a glimpse of suffering and then wipe it away with an accolade of relatable drivel to remind us that this is a war that can be won if we just keep our heads up. But that isn’t reality. The reality of recovery is ugly. It is painful and cutting and difficult to come to terms with. The truth is you don’t just enter recovery and then travel a linear path to the top of the mountain where you can bestow your sage advice on ‘better’ to those struggling beneath you. Recovery isn’t linear. It isn’t something finite. It isn’t something you may ever be able to concretely hold on to. And it will never be something you can control.

So I am falling. This is me falling. This is my darkness. This is my reality. This is the reality of the struggle for ‘better’. Everyday. Not just when it is bad enough for all to see. Everyday, we fight this war. Everyday we are Warriors.

I will continue to show the darkness. And I will continue to fight for the light.

Drowning in Calm Waters – The Stress of the War for Worth

Stress feels inevitable in our fast paced world. And what do we expect when we live in a culture that prioritizes production? Our world wants us to constantly do more to prove our value. And if we fail to do so? We are less than. Those of us plagued with perfectionism know this story all too well. It is one of Ed’s favorite stories to tell us – that we can never be enough because we never do enough, and even if we are doing everything we aren’t doing it well enough. There is always a higher expectation to meet in order to be enough. To be worthwhile. So we take on too much, and then we begin to fall apart, and we use that as evidence that something is wrong with us. Not that something is wrong with our workload, or our expectations, or our beliefs about ourselves. With us. We are the problem. We are what’s wrong. We are why we will never be good enough.

I have been drowning in this story lately. This semester has hit me hard. I am taking more credits than I have in the past, am in harder classes, and am trying to do countless things on the side. I have been justifying it all with the ‘fact’ that I must do these things to achieve my goals, I must do them because I want to do them and I should be able to do them. Because I’m supposed to be in recovery, and doing well, and living the life I was denied for so long due to my sickness. So, need to get a perfect score on the GRE to beef up my grad applications? I’ll add that on. Independent research will look good, so lets add that too. And writing a blog. Learning to cook. Playing the fucking ukulele. Developing my artistic voice. Overcoming codependency. Doing trauma work. Learning Python and R. Reading 50 books this year. And painting everyday. And building my daily meditation practice. And maintain a healthy social life. And…

And suddenly, I am drowning. But these are all things I want to do. These are all things that are meant to help me – help me progress in my recovery, help me pursue my dreams and goals, help me develop into my authentic self. These are all so important. So how can I possibly give any one of them up?

It has been two weeks since classes started. I am sick. My body is angry with me about the stress I have put myself under and is fighting back. I am feeling the full weight of my neuroses. I am already behind in my school work because I am so overwhelmed it is hard to get things done. I am angry with myself for not being good enough to do what I need to do. For falling apart as soon as things get hard. For doubting myself. For struggling. For wanting to give up when things are just getting started.

Every one of my friends from treatment have relapsed. Many are back in treatment, at high levels of care. The only reason I have not returned to treatment is that I have been able to see my team as often as I need. Last semester it was 5-6 times a week. This semester, its down to 3. Everyone is relapsing and I feel like I’m next. I hear Ed’s voice creeping in, using my overpacked, perfectionist schedule to convince me how bad I am. How little I am capable of doing. How much I ruin everything. How much I don’t deserve the things I have. That I am just delaying the inevitable. That I am fighting an unwinnable fight. 

‘If you can’t win, at least you could be thin.’ he whispers in my ear.

Ed is so good at finding your cracks. He loves to feel you out and find any little place he can sink his teeth into. You don’t even realize he’s there, rooting himself anywhere he can. Lulling you into his trance. Ready to bring you down and drown you as soon as he has his grip.

I don’t want to drown. I don’t want to relapse. I want to live. But I so often miss the ingrained habits that lead me back to Ed. Straddling the line between underscheduling in fear of too much making you sick, and overscheduling in an effort to prove you are beyond the sickness. Either way you are trying to prove the validity of an identity crafted by him. You handicap yourself in fear of your eating disorder and of your mental illness, or you drown yourself in an effort to prove you are above it.

What is the middle ground and how do we find it? Are we Warriors doomed to constantly flip back and forth, from one extreme to the other, in a desperate attempt to take back control of our lives from his grips? How is that any different than simply being in them?

I keep trying. I keep fighting. I keep drowning. I try so hard to convince myself that I don’t need to prove my worth. That I don’t have to validate myself. That I am already valid. That I am enough. That I deserve to be. Because I do. I know that. But unfortunately knowing and believing are two very different things.

I want to be more than my eating disorder, than my illness. I don’t want him to own any part of my identity. I have had glimpses of who I truly am at my core these past few months, and I love that person. I love who I am, untainted by the grips of this disease. I am awesome. I am a bad bitch. And I want to be her — to be me — 100% of the time. No need for validation. No need to question my worth. Owning my life, and living it – for me and no one else.

I think the most difficult part of recovery so far has been finding my true self inside me, getting to be myself, and not being able to be that person all of the time. To feel trapped inside the shell of this sickness, only able to bob for air through the sea of sickness every so often instead of getting to experience all of life as myself all the time. I know what it feels like to be free now. And that makes drowning so much harder. I never would have thought that getting better would make being sick so much harder. But that is the reality of this fight.

I don’t have the solution. Every time I act in defiance of Ed it seems he finds a way to use it to his advantage. All I can do is keep trying. And that is incredibly difficult when life is putting you down at the same time. I am trying to remember that I don’t have to try to be someone worthwhile. That what I do and am able to do is enough. That I am good. That I am kind. And that I matter. All I can do is look for another opportunity to bob for air, and hope that maybe I will be free a little longer this time than last. Believe that one day I will live above the surface. That all this struggle will have been worth it. Because I survived.

I will survive.

Uncertainty, Anxiety, and the Present Moment

Why is it always so difficult to do what is good for yourself during the times when you need it most? As the new semester approaches, I can feel the overwhelm sinking in. I have yet to step foot back on campus, but I am already intimidated by my classes, the few syllabi I have access to, and my entire life as I see it playing out throughout this semester. It is so easy for completely natural anxiety about something new to snowball into a comatose hibernation. Why is that? 

I think a big part of falling into the abyss of catastrophic anxiety stems from an inability to stay in the now. Whether we like to admit it or not, we have no control over the past or the future. Rather, all we can control is the moment we are in.

If I were to allow this wave of anxiety to go unchecked, it could drown me. I could be too anxious to do my homework, which would make me afraid to go to class, tanking my grades and tearing down my confidence. Depression would set in, keeping me from going out or spending time with friends, thus worsening my mental state until I fall apart. Then, 15 weeks from now, I would be a wreck. I would have to drop out, move to another city, grow a beard and rename myself Cindy so I could start a new life as a cocktail waitress with a mysterious past. 

This is the narrative my Anxiety Monster is fond of telling me, something psychology likes to call catastrophic thinking. It’s the worst case scenario your brain goes to when anxiety starts to rear its ugly head in earnest. But what starts with a simple and reasonable worry about doing well in a new semester snowballs into the end of life as I know it. And suddenly, even though these predictions play out literal months from this moment, they have become the truth and nothing but the truth within the confines of my psyche. In some ways, preparing for the worst is a safety plan – its your mind trying to protect you from anything that might go wrong by focusing obsessively on everything that could go wrong. But in reality, it simply cripples you from wanting to do anything for fear that whatever you choose might be the wrong choice, ending in disaster.

However, this isn’t the only future narrative that can occur. Some days, Miss Perfectionism likes to take over, helping us plan out every second from now until death so that she and I can be in precise control of every part of our lives. There is safety in certainty, and Perfectionism wants to provide that for us. Unfortunately, life is unpredictable, and as soon as things don’t go according to plan we are struck with yet another bout of anxiety and feel compelled to obsessively re-plan out this perfect future in order to regain our sense of control. And on it goes, an obsessive cycle of attempting to make order out of the chaos of reality. And even if life doesn’t knock us off track, the sheer pressure of trying to live perfectly and do every little thing according to plan is enough to give you an ulcer (or at the very least, an eating disorder).

This is the danger of living in a fictional future, as anxiety likes to do. Trying to plan out everything that will happen, whether catastrophically or with perfection, is a recipe for insanity. But it feels so safe! Sadly, this safety is a facade, just like when ED tries to rope us in and hook us with his promises. Because no matter how much we plan, we have no control over anything except our thoughts and our actions in this precise moment. Not the one that just passed. Not the one that is about to happen. Only this one.

Man, does that suck. The worst thing to tell someone who is constantly struggling is that there is no way for them to regain control, no way for them to guarantee a future without pain. But that is the truth. We can’t protect ourselves from uncertainty or pain, not absolutely. And trying to avoid it or mask it or control it won’t make that fact go away.

The only way to deal is to accept it. To accept that we don’t have the control we crave, and we never will. Accept that pain is a part of existence, and that nothing can protect us from it forever. That life is inherently uncertain, and we will never know exactly what is coming next. We will never be perfectly prepared.

In reality though, who would want to be? A year ago I could literally have never imagined what life would be like now. What I would be capable of feeling and experiencing. What I would be able to handle and tolerate. The (positive!) beliefs I could hold about myself and my body and the world. The hope I could feel in my heart, and the happiness I could get to experience from time to time. The relationships I would have, not as a facade but as the real, authentic me that I have come to appreciate and love. The dreams and aspirations I would hold. The support I have received from my family and friends, and even strangers. The pain I have felt, and overcome, and learned, and grown from. The pain that is still to come, that I feel ready for. That I know I can get through because of what I have already done.

I never in my life could have imagined even one of these things. If I had had complete control, the absolute ability to predict and plan my future, my life would be miserable. What I thought I wanted and needed when I was sick was so so small in comparison to what I have now, let alone what my life will grow to in the future. I would be trapped in ED’s sick vision of an ideal future, in which I was cornered and broken and literally starving for life. 

Who would want to confine themselves to the limited vision of their “safety goggles” when in distress. Of the future our sickness tells us will be perfect. The uncertainty of life is a gift, not a death sentence. It allows for everyday to be a clean slate. Everyday we can choose to be who we are, act how we choose, and follow whatever path we feel drawn to. Yes, this means that everyday we have the potential to get worse. To take steps towards sickness, or unhappiness, or pain. To stray from our dreams and our values. To push away others and console in ED. But it also means that everyday we have the option to choose life. To choose to love ourselves and pursue our dreams and bake cakes and pet puppies and to read and paint and sing. That is the nature of uncertainty. And that is power. Realizing that we don’t have to control every variable of life. We just have to be in this moment, take the next step, and make the next choice.

Sometimes choosing what is good for us is hard. In fact, I dare to say MOST of the time it is hard. It is easier to fall into the momentum of what is around you than it is to push yourself in your own direction, particularly when life just won’t stop throwing curveballs your way and you are struggling to breath let alone to define your path. But the fact of the matter is, everyday we get to choose. And push. And fight. And try. And that is all we can do.

My dad always used to tell me this, and it would piss me off to no end. When he would tell me I get to choose, all I would hear is that I had chosen that which had happened to me. That I had chosen my eating disorder, my mental illness, all the trauma that has happened in my life. That I was somehow responsible for all the pain I had ever encountered. That it was my fault. But after literal years of therapy (and family therapy) and a lot of reflection on my part, I have come to understand his meaning.

He told me I have a choice not because he was putting the blame on me for what life had thrown at me. But rather, he as highlighting the fact that I wasn’t just helpless to the shitty whims of reality. That I had a choice in how I reacted. In how I lived my life, the actions I chose to do, the thoughts and narratives I chose to subscribe to, the people I chose to include in my world, and the path that I chose to aim for. Not that any of this could prevent life from dealing me a hard hand, or keep me from ever feeling pain. But that I had power. He was showing me that even if the hand was shit, I held all the cards. And I got to decide how to play them.

Now-a-days I try to remember this when I feel helpless, as Anxiety Monster and ED both like to make me feel. That doesn’t mean I am always up to the task of choosing, or that I always see the options to choose from. But to remember that I have an inherent power over myself and this moment that no one, and no circumstance, can take away from me is – well, empowering.

I have spent the last four or five days letting the pull of the ocean of anxiety and depression move me where it may. I felt paralyzed, unable to alter my path. I couldn’t use any of my oh-so-well planned skills because I didn’t have the energy or capacity to implement them. It’s as though I’ve had boulders tied to my waist and ankles, pulling me down slow and steady into the cold dark abyss. I still feel like I am fighting for air. I am terrified of my classes, of not being good enough or not being able to do enough or not being enough or… The snowball threatens to turn into an avalanche and bury me in it.

All I can do is try to stay in this moment. Try to remember what moments like this have felt like in the past, and how they have panned out (a useful way to use the past to influence the present to keep from freaking out about the future). I think about how I often feel this sense of paralyzing overwhelm and not good enough at the beginning of the semester, or really any new thing. I try to remember how those other semesters panned out okay, even though I felt this way early on. But, you are doing so much MORE now, my Anxiety Monster screams. There is no WAY you are good enough for that! I breath. Remind myself that I can’t predict the future, that I don’t know how this will pan out. That all I can do is try my best. But if you don’t DO good enough, you won’t be able to get into grad school! How can you ever change the world if you can’t even get into school! ‘All I can do is my best, and that will lead me where I am supposed to go,’ I tell my monster. ‘And anyways, grad school is still a ways away. Can’t we wait until then to have a panic attack?’ BUT… 

This is what the fight looks like sometimes. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all we can do is pop an anti-anxiety pill and try to sleep it off. To reset in the night, and try again the next day. Sometimes we try something else to help, like a hot bath or a good meal. And sometimes, yes, we plan. Sometimes we make, or write, or read. And sometimes this helps.This is what the fight looks like sometimes. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all we can do is pop an anti-anxiety and try to sleep it off, reset in the night, and try again the next day. Sometimes we try something else to help, like a hot bath or a good meal. And sometimes, yes, we plan. Sometimes we make, or write, or read. And sometimes this helps. But the truth is, there are no guarantees. There are no automatic wins, foolproof do-this-and-you-will-never-be-anxious-again-s. There is no certainty. We just have to keep trying, and try to remember why we’re doing it.

I fight because I deserve to live. So tomorrow, I will try. And the next day. And the next. Because when it comes down to it, there just isn’t any other option. I choose to live.

How ED Gets in Your Head

ED is a pervasive little bugger. He loves to make you feel bad, and then make you feel bad about feeling bad. He loves to break you down and make you feel overwhelmed and worthless so that you will believe what he says and do what he wants. And what does he want? He wants you to suffer.

Every relationship with ED is an abusive one. And just like any abusive relationship, ED is controlling, he is jealous, he sweeps you off your feet and makes you feel like everything and nothing simultaneously. He pretends he is protecting you when really he is dictating and manipulating your every thought and feeling and movement. He becomes angry when you don’t follow his rules, punishing you and making you feel like you deserve it for disobeying. He distances you from your supports and the things that you love. He makes your entire life about him.

Recovery is a long term journey just like any break off from an abusive relationship. It takes time to separate. To teach yourself not to go back. To ignore his lies and counter them with your own truths. To feel empowered and to believe in your own worth. To reverse his narrative and start to see the world clearly, apart from the lens he has forced over your eyes and the rules he has cemented into your mind.

And sometimes you slip. Sometimes you don’t even realize that he has perked up, started whispering sweet nothings in your ear. He adapts as you recover. Once he realizes one narrative won’t work, he adjusts it until he finds one that hooks you. Because he knows, no matter how small the hook, once he has some grounding he can begin to creep back into your life without you even realizing he is there — until its too late. Until he is beginning to consume you, and you are so far past your window of tolerance that suddenly his reprieves seem like the only option. 

Often times, when recovering from an abusive relationship, your friends are your best weapons against him. This is for a few reasons. One, they keep you accountable. They are outside you, and aren’t vulnerable to his manipulation of the narrative of reality. So when you start to slip towards him, and your reasonings become skewed, and your sense of reality becomes fuzzy, they can see what you can’t. Two, they are supports! They are there to help shoulder your emotional burden. To pick you up when you can barely stand. To encourage you and remind you that you are worthy when you begin to forget. To help you stay on this path you so desperately want. They can help you keep distance from him. They can help you stay safe.

This is why your team is so important. In ED recovery, your team is your accountability, noticing and pointing out when ED’s voice begins to creep into your narrative. When your sense of reality begins to warp, and suddenly ED begins making sense. They are there to knock his lens off your eyes and pull you back to reality. To remind you of how far you have come and how hard you have worked. Of the things you can accomplish and of all that you are. They are there to help you pull away from him when he starts to lure you in. To help counteract his attempts at hooking you in whatever way he can.

This is also why your supports are so important. Though they don’t have the clinical defenses your team is equipped with due to their training as professionals, your supports (your family, friends, partner, ED recovery groups, online support systems, pets, etc) are there to help you stay in the real world. To help you connect with yourself and remember you are loved and cherished and that you matter. To help counteract what ED whispers to you in the dead of night, to help pull you out of bed and get you outside and remind you why life is worth living. Why you are fighting so hard.

But often, when ED begins to get his footing again, you retreat from these things. He encourages you too, to wallow in your misery, in order to prove to you how much you need him. When in reality, you need your team and your supports and your hobbies and your life. He lulls you into this false belief that everything isn’t okay, will never be, and its so safe and warm and easy in his arms if you would just stay a while. And at first, you believe it. You don’t even realize its his whispers you are listening to. It just sounds like you, being pulled towards things that are less hard than every day seems to be. I’ll just stay in bed today. I’m not feeling well. I don’t need to go out. I’ll just cancel that hang out. I need some time, and then I’ll feel better. I’ll clean the kitchen tomorrow. Do laundry later. Feed myself another day. 

Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. That is the siren song of ED. He pushes away your responsibilities first, making you feel like you are just taking a break. You ignore the depression creeping up. You believe his lies. This will make me feel better. But before you know it, you have lost a week. Suddenly you are feeling bad about yourself. You are feeling incapable of coming back, of checking back in. You feel like its your fault – you were lazy, indulgent, bad. You deserve where you are at. And more so, you don’t know how to get out of it. So you wallow. And you feel guilt. Another week passes. You are drowning. Another week passes. You can’t speak. You feel so guilty and shameful, and you don’t want anyone to know. I should have known better. I am supposed to be better than this. ‘They will judge you’, you think (another whisper from ED). You feel alone. More and more alone each day. You just want to feel better. A month passes. You are locked in a hole with ED and you can’t see the light anymore. He is urging you to use behaviors. Promising it’ll make you feel better. It begins to look enticing. This scares you. You want to wake up. You are drowning.

This is how it always goes for me. Somehow, without even realizing it, I’ve let ED back in my life. By staying silent. By staying perfect. By trying not to worry anyone. By keeping it to myself, struggling by myself. But silence is like a weapon. Or rather, like ammo — for ED. Silence is where he festers. Where he grows and feeds. Because even though you hate it, you need your supports, your team. You need them to know what is really going on. To be a part of the struggle. To be vulnerable and authentic with your struggle. Because you are not recovered. You are in recovery. And no matter how badly you want to be able to check off that box and be done, be better, that isn’t how this works.

My first warning signs are when I start isolating. First, I stop running errands. I spend days inside, on the couch, with the cat. I often have valid rationalizations, like feeling poorly, getting my period, or just needing a day off. But once a day turns into three, and suddenly it starts feeling like I can’t go out anymore. It begins to feel more and more difficult, like I am being weighted down to the safety of the home. Like the door itself has a physical tension to it, something looming and scary and forbidden.

Next, I cut myself off from others. I take every miscommunication, unreplied text, lack of likes on social media as a sign that no one likes me. No one cares. I don’t matter. I am alone. I will always be alone. (Note that always — a total red flag for ED seeping in. Always/never. Absolutes = RED FLAG).

I begin to get depressed. I’m feeling down. I try to reach out, usually to my mom about it, or my roommate. Those who are always in my proximity. I say I’m down, I don’t know why. They are concerned. I immediately brush it off, I’m fine, I can handle it. I will be okay. I don’t want them to worry. I don’t want to be a bother. All I want is for them to worry anyways, to care. But I always win. My dismissals are reassuring.

I reach out to my team. I’m feeling down. Use your skills, they say. As though I haven’t been. I only reach out when skills are no longer working, or I feel like they are inaccessible. I’m using all I can. Though some feel cut off to me.

Making. Expressing. These cut off first. These are the most important, the most effective. And yet, they feel the least accessible in times like these. I feel silenced. How can I make? How can I express? When everything inside of me has been pushed down so far. When I’ve silenced my suffering, to keep others from worrying. To keep myself functional. I can’t access it. I can’t express it. A total catch-22. I need to express to feel better, but I can’t express because I feel so bad.

Then I begin to feel hopeless. I begin to wallow. I escape in whatever acceptable means I can. No behaviors. But distraction. Mega-distraction. Comatose, on the couch, eventually the bed, watching films, tv shows on repeat, consuming media like I’m starving. Recently, reading. Listening to audio books. Anything to escape my reality. To live in theirs. Anything to pass the time. To make the minutes move forwards as painlessly as possible. To disconnect. To not have to feel. To numb. Until I can sleep.

Sleep becomes a respite at this time. When I can exist without the effort of breathing and eating and doing. When I can just go along for the ride. The next red flag: It begins to become more and more difficult to wake up. I lay there, trying desperately to stay asleep, to stay in my dream, long after my body has pushed to waken me. At first its just a few minutes at a time. Eventually its an hour. Nearly two. I just lay there, concentrating, desperately reaching for continued sleep that alludes me. On borrowed time.

I begin to awaken later and later. 10 am. 11. 12pm. 2. If I can’t sleep in the morning, I take a nap shortly after waking, after taking my meds and eating like I am supposed to. I meet my minimal requirements of functioning. Getting my work done. So I can say I am. But I long for sleep.

Then urges begin in earnest. This is when I realize something is wrong. And I don’t know what to do. I reach out to my team, my supports. They are surprised. But you were doing so well — what happened? I was hiding, can’t you see? I need help. Bring me back. Make it better. But now the fight is hard. It takes time and energy and effort to come back. It’s a trap. I see it now. It was a trap the whole time, and I fell for it again.

After I bounce back, I try to plan. Plan for the next time. Plan for ways to see the red flags sooner. To better deal with them when they show up. I get encouragement from my team, from my supports. They are all at ease again. I will be good, I think. And the cycle starts again.

I do not know how to stifle this cycle. I believe writing is one way. Expression. Even though it feels impossible when I’m in the depths of depression, I think that is ED’s lens making it look so. I think a lot of it is that. The looming forbiddenness of the outside world. The belief that no one likes me, that I am a burden. The draw to sleep rather than improving my reality. That reality can’t be fixed. The hopelessness. It is all ED.

I like to convince myself I am better, because I use behaviors so little now compared to a year ago. And in some ways that is true, that is a marker of ameliorating this disease. But that does not mean I am better. ED still has its holds. He is still constantly adjusting his plan of attack. And he gets me all the time. Being miserable is not living. And I so desperately want to live.

A part of me wants to conclude this with a paragraph about maybe. Maybe I can focus on building my supports, on reaching out more, on making myself speak up when I begin to feel bad, on making more, on making myself make more, on… That is the next stage of the cycle, right? Get it all out there, show I’m working on it. Getting better. Better prepared for the next time.

All better.

The truth is, I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what will make it better. I’m just going to keep fighting. And to hope that it will get easier in time. Because when you get down to it, beyond all the skills and check ins and everything, that’s all you can do. Keep trying.

Battleground: Holiday Edition – the Importance of Preparing for the Holidays in Recovery

The holidays are a battleground. Stressors rain down like bullets from a jet, and triggers line the ground like a minefield. Everywhere you look there is overwhelming people, events, words, and actions that add to the dysregulation building in your soul. How will we ever make it through?

Just like any battle, the key to success is preparation. Fortunately, you have some things on your side if you start early enough. You have your generals (your team) who will help plan attack strategies (preparing for triggers and planning coping mechanisms), you have your ammo (your skills and resources) and hopefully a few men on the inside (familial supports or maybe even a pup). Starting early and preparing for the holidays by analyzing how you may be triggered, what the circumstances will bring, and how you can get through makes a HUGE difference in terms of how dysregulating holidays can be. Holidays are stressful even for normative people, and adding on the ED triggers surrounding food and diet culture talk can be even more overwhelming. But a good plan can keep you in your window of tolerance even with all that coming at you.

I did not plan enough with my team this year. I had been doing so well with ED stuff, feeling so stable, that I thought whole-heartedly I would be fine. I was thriving! What could bring me down? But the holidays are a beast that should not be underestimated, and they did bring me down. Hard.

I had made some preparations. I made sure to have food options that felt safe, ordering in some Daily Harvest smoothies to my parents house ahead of time so I knew I would have solid meal options in a pinch. I discussed my needs with my mom and we made plans to shop as soon as I got there for food for me so I didn’t succumb to and be triggered by a scarcity mindset. I knew I had my team if I needed them. I was really looking forward to seeing my family. I felt like I would be fine. 

Two days in we had to put my beloved childhood dog down. She was nearly 13 and it was necessary, but it was hard. Fortunately it was an emotional burden shared by the three of us, and that made it a little easier. Then I found out my Daily Harvest was delayed. Suddenly my safety net of meal replacements was gone. By the weekend I was beginning to feel anxious, and this was amplified by everyone else arriving. Six people in the house, buzzing with activity, was more than I was used to and was super overwhelming. But I was happy to see everyone and was really enjoying my time with them. Then my period hit me like a on of bricks, filling my body with pain so severe I was stuck on the couch for two straight days glued to a heating pad. I started having GI issues, probably due to the increased anxiety, and all around wasn’t feeling good. I could feel my anxiety increasing and depression seeping in, but I just wanted to enjoy time with my family. By the end of my 10 days I was a mess, and had had the worst panic attack I have had in years on the floor of my parent’s kitchen after a very bad experience at a restaurant. I had been so depressed I couldn’t help but sob to my mom at the breakfast table. But most of all, I was angry.

I was angry that I couldn’t just enjoy my time with my family, which I so so wanted. I was angry that my disorder and my mental illness was keeping me from being able to connect and celebrate and be with my family. Disordered thoughts came into my head. Why do I not get to just have a good holiday? Why do I have to fall apart, like I always do? I just want to be happy. I just want to enjoy myself. Why do I not deserve that? These questions come from a desperate place of longing for normalcy. Of wishing my stability wasn’t so fragile as to keep me from the experiences I crave. 

Unfortunately, even though I am doing so much better and I experience long periods of stability within the confines of my carefully constructed and excessively supported life at home, Holidays are hard. They are stressful. They are full of triggers you don’t even realize consciously are there, affecting you, until you are so far gone you are falling apart. For me, that was the fact that a year ago I celebrated the holidays at my parent’s right before going to treatment, in a much smaller body, with my then partner of two years, and using behaviors multiple times a day, every single day. I never even considered this would affect me the way it did, but that plus everything else was just too much.

And sometimes, thats how recovery works. You want so badly to be able to be the person you know you can be so you can live and enjoy the life you know you deserve. But you can’t – yet. You aren’t there and that is okay. I so desperately wanted to be okay this holiday, to be able to enjoy my time with my family and to not fall apart the way I did. But I’m just not there yet. And that is okay. It was still better than last year — I fought with my family less, I was healthier, I wasn’t using behaviors, and I had so many skills to deal with what was coming up. That is worth celebrating. 

Sometimes we want something to be a certain way so badly we are blinded to the progress we have made. I may not yet be able to get through a holiday without a panic attack. But I did get through without a behavior. With less fighting. With enjoying every second even though it was hard and painful. We have to remember to celebrate our progress, even if it isn’t where we want it to be. Especially if it isn’t where we want it to be. Because that recognition is so validating, and it is the fuel for the journey towards the next step.

Next year I will prepare more thoroughly with my generals. I will have had the experience from this year’s battle to season me, and I will fight the good fight even better than I did this year. And even if it is hard again, I will relish in the little victories. Because recovery is not a linear path. And because I am a warrior.