Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Avoiding life

This is my best friend Jessica's Project Semicolon story, published with her permission.

The first time I thought it would just be easier to die was when I was fourteen.  My parents were away, as my mother was receiving cancer treatment, almost three hours away from home.  My Mawmaw lived with my sister and me during this time.  I cannot recall the reason I was so upset that day, but perhaps it was a culmination of hormones, the overwhelming aspects of Freshman year of High School, my mother not being there for me to talk to about boys, or even having my Dad around to make comments about how my grades could always be better and to practice guitar more. 

My father kept a rope in the garage.  One that I ran my fingers down that day, wandering how easy it would be to not exist. It was an oddly dry brown, rough to the touch, and I cut myself on it as I pet it.  Nothing ever came of that urge that day, and strangely enough, the rope disappeared and I’ve never seen it again.

They say that genetics load the gun, as it were, and that environment pulls the trigger.  For me, food became my ammunition. 

My mother decided to do the South Beach Diet, and asked me to join in.  This would begin a few different diets that I tried.  However, I began to walk a delicate line around the age of sixteen as I began to set rules for myself.  No soda, potato products, or sweets.  Then eventually no carbohydrates, no food after 7 p.m., and I would spend hours at the gym. 

This immense feeling of undeserving came over me, and all I wanted to do was to feel worthy –of what- I wasn’t sure, but it drove me to dangerous lengths to become what I thought would make me “more.”  It was easy to channel my absolute need to achieve into developing a full blown eating disorder.  Not that I would have admitted it at the time, or would admit for years. 

I began to have panic attacks at the sight of baked potatoes, bathing suits, and any type of social situation where I’d have to be around food.  Sleeping was all that felt good to me during these times, because I was caught in a ceaseless cycle of restriction and purging.  So little nutrition stayed in me that my hair thinned and my periods were inconstant.

Attending college made it worse in some ways, there was no set meal time that my parents would enforce.  No one limiting the amount of time I could stay at the gym, and my boyfriend at the time would only sing the words from Silverchair’s “Ana’s Song,” to me, instead of trying to encourage me to get help.  Insomnia set in. 

Four years after my first purge I finally sought help.  Anxiety Disorder.  Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Insomnia. So many titles for the achiever I was, and in some sick part of my mind I was proud.  Therapy helped, but I remained insistent that I really could get better at any time.  I would periodically stop taking my medication, just to prove a point.
“How do I know if I love you, or if I love the medication,” he asked me.

It was an accidental pregnancy that showed me how hard it is to live.  An ectopic pregnancy, one where I was bleeding internally for almost three days before finally going to the doctor.  Emergency surgery and I was back in a pit of wanting to escape.  It would have been easier than to live with the embarrassment of my family finding out I was sexually active by way of accidental pregnancy.  Easier than to live with what it did to my boyfriend.  Easier than to live with what it made me feel; like it was all my fault.

I’ve spiraled in and out of my eating disorder, but it was just two years ago when it finally came to a head.  My best friend and I attended a concert for one of our favorite bands.  I don’t remember much past the opening act.  This night hurt two of the people I loved the most.  My rock-sister-best friend walked almost four miles home in the dark by the highway because she couldn’t find me.  Two kind strangers apparently stayed with me until my boyfriend could come to find me, when I was unable to articulate much of what was happening.

I had been abusing diuretics, skipping my medication, and purging almost every morsel that went past my lips – save for wine.  It was so easy to feel nothing when I was empty.

The next day I came clean.  I went and sat with my best friend, who was also my roommate, and confessed what had been going on.  I hate what it did to her, when she felt guilty for not seeing it.  It wasn’t her fault, after all these years it was easy to hide it.  My boyfriend watched me as I flushed every last diuretic pill down the toilet.  He searched through my medicine drawer because he no longer trusted me.

My body revolted that day.  Pancreatitis gripped me and pulled me down, doubled over, and I was even unable to stay at my cousin’s wedding. I decided it was time.  I scheduled a consultation at an Eating Disorder Recovery Center.

I no longer consider the option of non-existence, and while I struggle, I am proud of everything I’ve been able to accomplish in the last fifteen years. I have my family, my wonderful friends, and the Renfrew Center to thank for that.

My tattoo is simple, but poignant.  The symbol of the National Eating Disorder Association tied with the semicolon, representing that my fight is not over.  My fight is something I push through every day, but it is part of my story.  And my story isn’t over yet. 

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” -- Virginia Woolf

Self-propelled flowers

This is my submission to Project Semicolon's 'Share Your Story' initiative. I decided to share it because of the bravery of one of my friends in sharing her own story yesterday, and because I've been rather quiet on social media lately and this is why. I'm still struggling with some anxiety issues and retreating from social media has helped me some, for whatever reason. My story may end up being published in the Project's upcoming book but, if not, it'll be on here and if it might help even one person feel less alone then that's worth it. Please remember your story isn't over.

Getting this far has been a long journey, and it was only really over the last two years that I actually faced the crippling anxiety that would plague my day-to-day existence. Sitting at work one day, I realized my heart rate was above 120 bpm, that I could barely take a breath, and that without me realizing it someone had clearly sneaked into my office and placed a large boulder on my chest, making it impossible to breathe deeply and slow my heart down. Despite years of cyclical Depression and experience with some acute panic attacks, I for some reason decided I must have some terrible heart disease and that I needed to see a doctor before my chest exploded.

My chest didn't ever explode. I was diagnosed with chronic panic attacks (anxiety attacks that result in chest pain, shallow breathing, and a sense of asphyxiation over a prolonged period - sometimes for days at a time), and Panic Disorder. My doctor referred me to a fantastic psychiatrist, who in turn connected me with a wonderful therapist. Between some minimal medical intervention and a year's worth of therapy, I started to be able to face and live with 'Brian' - the misspelling of 'brain' I so frequently typed when chatting online with my best friend about the compulsive thoughts that attacked my mind whenever I wasn't consciously thinking about what a pointless person I was. Brian became shorthand for 'my brain is telling me lies and making me anxious', and between innumerable conversations with my closest friends and guidance from my therapist, Brian became someone I was no longer afraid to get to know.

My story hasn't ever really been told in its entirety, and I don't think it's actually possible to make accurate causal links between everything that could have led to me one day being unable to breathe while sat behind a desk doing nothing out of the ordinary. Genetics certainly could have predisposed me to struggling with mental health issues. I would guess that my early experiences and exposure would also play a part. I've been treated for Depression on and off since I was 17, but never for anxiety until recently. In 2011, I emigrated from England to the USA to be with a man who, not even two years later, broke my heart so thoroughly I thought I would never recover. And then the severe panic set in, the constant search for confirmation of what it is about me that is clearly so lacking, so repugnant, so unworthy.

But somehow all of that didn't destroy me. I stayed in the States. There were days that I couldn't face getting out of bed and weeks when the mere act of walking towards my office building where I had to pretend to be okay for eight hours straight had me in tears. While I never made any serious plans to hurt myself, the fact that driving my car into the lake by my house seemed more appealing than continuing to exist on more than one occasion certainly wasn't the thought of a mentally healthy person. I bawled. I raged. I forgot what it felt like to really laugh. I didn't care for myself. I collapsed from the sheer weight of the pain, literally and figuratively.

I remember the precise moment when I remembered I could laugh. I was sat with my best friend, who eventually became my roommate, and remains like a sister to me today. She and I had shared and been through so much - her story is not mine to tell, but it is connected to this one, and we got our tattoos together! - and there is no one that I trust more to know what it is like to have a Brian living in your head, and who will put up with the level of anxiety-fueled disordered rambling I tend towards, and somehow love me through it regardless. We had purchased giant wine glasses à la the TV show 'Cougar Town' (so essentially vases that we filled with wine), and as we were sat chatting at the dining table, she tipped hers up to take a sip. Her face, distorted by the bottom of the rounded vase and sloshing around in the wine, struck me as the funniest thing I had seen, and I began to uncontrollably ugly-donkey-guffaw laugh until my face was equally distorted in mirth. It took me a full half hour to calm down, because every time either of us picked up a glass, it started me off again. It was WONDERFUL to just laugh.

It was a silly moment, but it gave me hope. I am so lucky that my family and friends (in the USA and back home) have always given me and encouraged me to look for hope. My story was never over because of them. My psychiatrist tells me that that's because of me - that I have to take credit for surviving because however incredible my passengers are, I'm still the one driving. I love the metaphor, but I'm pretty sure that having people you can trust to drive when you can't made all the difference for me.

So why a butterfly with my semicolon? Why this butterfly? My parents, with the help of my sneaky best friend, paid me a surprise visit last August. While walking through a parking lot to the restaurant where we planned to have lunch, both Mum and Dad stopped suddenly at some small bushes, covered in Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. We stayed there for probably five whole minutes, admiring how beautiful they were, and taking photos. My boyfriend was highly amused because of how similar the three of us are, and it was in this moment that I consciously acknowledged all the things I was and am *as well as* my anxiety. I am their daughter. I am loved - so very loved, so very lucky. I am enough. And my story is not over.

"Butterflies are self-propelled flowers." -- Robert A. Heinlein