mental health

Depression and Me: A Conversation Told Through Email

From: Me

Subject: Just checking in

Hey,

Hope you’re doing well. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, what with the eight million things I’ve already given you to worry about. So don’t take this as me rushing you. If we can’t condense the timeline, we can’t, and that’s that.

I just wanted to check in and see if you had a timeline for when you were planning to head out.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having you around.

Well, “love” might be a strong word. “Gotten used to” might be more accurate. But I’m trying to be polite. I hope you can see that. I’m really trying.

It’s just that I’ve got a few things to take care of this weekend, so if you could just let me know what your plans are, I’ll plan accordingly.

Let me know either way.

I really appreciate it.


From: Depression

Subject: (No subject)

Cute.

I’m not a train. I don’t come on schedule.

Try again tomorrow.


From: Me

Subject: Hey, I’m serious

Maybe I wasn’t being clear. Sorry about that. I’ll try to be more direct — sorry if this comes off abrupt. I really do apologize. But I don’t know how else to make you listen.

Fuck off, OK?

I’ve got to go to work tomorrow. I’ve got a short story that needs writing. I need to clean the bathroom, put gas in my car, come up with a good Mother’s Day present.

I’d love to entertain you, but you’re heavy. You’re dense as a neutron star, solid as a ship’s anchor, and when you sit like that on my chest, you make my ribs ache. I’ve told you before how brittle my bones are, but I’m not sure you heard.

Oh, and I’m tired. 


From: Depression

Subject: Kid, please

You can stick it out. Be nice. I came all this way to be with you. The least you can do is make me up a bed on the couch. Maybe cook dinner. Paella sounds good. I don’t have anywhere else to go.


From: Me

Subject: What the ever-loving fuck

This isn’t what we agreed on, you fucker. You’re not in the running for the National Book Award. Keep the plot twists to yourself.

I don’t have the energy for you right now. There’s enough going on without this. Without the cramps twisting my stomach, the weak feeling in my knees after every muscle in my legs tensed past breaking while I was driving home on I-55. I don’t have the energy for these nightmares.

And I sure as shit don’t have the energy to worry about how much I weigh on top of all of this. I refuse to let you guilt-trip me for skipping the gym because I had a panic attack on the way there.

That is not. How. This. Works.


From: Depression

Subject: Yes it is

That’s exactly how this works. You know the drill.

Settle in, hombre. It’s gonna be a long night.


From: Me

Subject: Listen up

Here’s what you’re not getting. I’m gonna break it down for you. Listen good. I’m only gonna say this once.

My body is my sanctuary.

It is my temple.

It is the one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment decorated with pages from my favorite books, paintings of owls looking quizzically in the distance as owls are wont to fucking do, my favorite de-stress playlist drifting through the hallways from my speakers.

It is my home, and you do not get to come in here uninvited.

So consider this your eviction notice. I’ll give you one night to get your things together. I’ll lend you some duct tape to shut up the boxes.

But I’m heading off to sleep tonight, and when I wake up in the morning, I want you fucking gone.

Am I clear?


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Thoughts on Vulnerability

SCULPTURE & ART (1)“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.”

At least according to professional pseudoscientist Sigmund Freud, who is maybe not the best person to turn to for proverbial wisdom.

Freud, I call bullshit.

Just as I call bullshit on your theory of hysteria and your theory of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as a scientific case study, though the whole field of modern psychology is more or less behind me on those.

On this one, I feel like I stand more alone.

We work hard to transform vulnerability into a virtue. Knowing your feelings. Being open. Letting others know the real you. Having honest, two-way relationships with people who know you and care about you.

That’s one thing, but it’s not the kind of vulnerability I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the vulnerability of sitting alone at your kitchen table late on a Sunday night, wondering whether you should take a shower or let yourself have a 45-minute cry, because both of those things need to get done before you go to sleep.

It’s not a question of “if,” but “which first.”

This openness wins you no friends. It gains you no applause in therapy or treatment programs. Dr. Phil does not celebrate sitting alone in your bedroom admitting to yourself that the reason you still haven’t done your dinner dishes yet is that the thought of standing up and turning on the sink just makes you crushingly sad.

I mean, true, if Dr. Phil celebrates something, that’s one of the best reasons in the world you can find for doing exactly the opposite. But I digress.

Sitting with this openness to feeling, I do not sense strength.

Out of my vulnerability comes fear.

The kind of fear takes one misstep and magnifies it into a colossal moral failing.

That looks at a week’s worth of thoughts and actions and reactions and levels a stringent, damning judgment.

That transforms a bag of candy corn purchased at the grocery store into Original Sin itself.

That spends the day dreaming about returning to bed, because at least the world cannot point out my failures from beneath the covers.

Sitting with my feelings means I ruminate about the worst events of the day — not Greek tragedies by any stretch of the imagination, but in this state, too much. I sit and reminisce about a botched customer service phone call, a terse rejection letter, catching someone talking about me behind my back. I mix these memories well, shake them into a highball glass, and nurse a sharp cocktail of self-doubt until morning.

I write in metaphors because that is easier than writing the honest truth.

Playing with words is easier than admitting the dull pressure-pain over my ribs is not because I am getting over a cold. It is because I am afraid of never being a better person than I am tonight, and spending the day being disappointed in the person I am.

That kind of vulnerability does not feel strong. It feels like saying that of course there are happy people in the world, this is the kind of world that requires happiness, but I will never be one of those people.

I can tell myself hundreds of times that I don’t believe this.

I’m not always sure that I don’t believe it.

Some nights, I cannot believe anything else.

Do I feel stronger, having admitted my vulnerability? Honestly, no. But sometimes pouring the words onto the screen gets them out of my head. I can look at them, move commas around, delete passive construction, dissect them under a microscope until they present the distilled version of the pain in my chest.

Like a scientist examining a virus, I may not know the cure, but I know the arrangement of the proteins, the reproductive strategies.

(Do viruses have proteins? A question from your friendly neighborhood English major.)

And like a scientist, I cling to whatever knowledge I grasp, hoping someday to find a use for it.

Maybe from vulnerability comes knowledge. And knowledge is strength, or so a slightly twisted proverb tells me.

As far as proverbs go, I will take what I can get.

The Art of Not Thinking About It

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Ask me three years ago what recovery looked like, and I’d have painted you a fairy tale story that would have made the Brothers Grimm shake their heads and mutter about “suspension of disbelief.”

I simultaneously wanted a world where food was delicious and abundant and unrestrained, yet in control and socially acceptable and restrained and guilt-free.

I wanted a life where my body and my fears didn’t hold me back, and yet I never wanted to let go “too much.”

If you’d offered me a bag of magic beans to go along with it, God knows I’d have taken you up on that offer.

Well, here I am now, summer of 2015. Out of college, full-time employed in corporate America, wielding my English degree like a weapon. Suddenly I’m worrying more about figuring out health insurance than the homoromantic subtext of Twelfth Night. (Although let’s be clear here: I still think about that a lot. Sebastian and Antonio are a love story for the ages. I just also need new glasses.)

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about my recovery, it’s that 98% of the journey is an exercise in “not thinking about it.”

Yes, I still wish Starbucks would stop posting calorie counts on their menus so I could get a damn latte in peace. And I wish I could learn the art of short runs, instead of waking up far too early before my 8 a.m. shift starts so I can get my workout in on its designated days.

But those moments used to dominate my long- and short-term planning. Now, they’re occasional nuisances.

No, not quite that. They’re like a fan you turn on before you go to sleep. The longer you lay there, the more used to the sound you get, until eventually you forget it’s there at all — except for those weird moments you jolt awake at 3 a.m. and snarl at the wall, “Has that fan always been so goddamned loud?”

But gradually — gradually — you start to notice you’re sleeping through the night.

That one of your best friends comes up to visit and you’re in the living room eating gelato out of the container while watching Voyage of the Mimiand you genuinely aren’t nervous.

That you go for a walk not because you’re anxious about burning calories, but because your legs got antsy after sitting at a desk for hours, and going for a walk is a great chance to listen to the latest episode of Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars.

That you sit down in front of your computer and start to write, not about your eating disorder, but about what would happen if the Fates started accidentally bringing people back to life instead of killing them, and how Zeus would feel about that. (This is a half-apology for my less-than-stellar posting schedule, for those playing along at home.)

That those painful, infuriating, scream-inducing moments drift back at the worst possible times, and while it hurts like a mother in the moment, you know it’ll be better in the morning, or in a couple mornings, because you’ve felt this before, and it does get better.

That you’re genuinely angry sometimes about the years you spent studiously avoiding broccoli cheddar soup, because broccoli cheddar soup, guys. There is no way I’d have made through this frozen hellscape of a winter without broccoli cheddar soup.

That you still feel the nagging urge to ask family members, when they visit, “Do I look different to you than I did at Christmas?” but you catch yourself, sometimes, most times, because what would the answer matter anyway?

That I’m reading articles submitted to us over at Adios Barbie, my Internet home-away-from-home, and I no longer have to pass ED-related pieces to my co-editor every time, because I will not always be triggered.

And that I know and trust myself enough to ask for help when the opposite is true.

This is not a one-size-fits-all recovery blueprint. Your mileage and experience will vary.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on anything but my own life, and even that feels like a poorly dubbed foreign film nine times out of 10.

But I’m gradually getting better at the art of not thinking about it.

And for what it’s worth, most of the time “not thinking about it” is a pretty comfortable place to be.

The Myth of the “Perfect Recovery”

Want to know a secret?

I run a recovery blog. I bring conversations about sexism and gender equity to places they aren’t wanted, from my fiction writing workshops (“Are you really sure ‘attractive’ is the only adjective you need?”) to the movie theater (“Seriously, why is Kiera Knightley’s role always to stand around in a corset and look confused?”). The constant fat-shaming in Game of Thrones is about to give me a tiny heart attack.

Basically, what I’m driving at is that body positivity isn’t a throwaway for me. It’s a big deal.

And this evening, I’m sitting on my couch, looking at the wall of my apartment and wondering Why the hell can’t I just lose XXX pounds? I’d be happy then. And tonight isn’t the only night recently this has happened.

Some days I’m desperate to change my body. My wonderful, badass body. The one I put through so much in college when recovery was a project for after finals, or after I passed physics, or after I got just thismuch skinnier. The body that got me through a half marathon in September, and a full marathon of all four seasons of Blackadder two weeks ago.

That body. Sometimes I still hate that body.

Part of me thinks this makes me a fraud. A failure. The voice in the back of my mind, the one that sounds eerily like Lord Tywin Lannister (in the film version of my life, my eating disorder will be played by Charles Dance), that voice always has something to say.

Aren’t you the one supporting others?

Aren’t you supposed to know better?

Fraud.

Stop pretending you know what you’re talking about.

If you read that to yourself in Charles Dance’s voice and aren’t at least a bit intimidated, you’re braver than I am.

Am I allowed to call myself within spitting distance of recovered and still occasionally wonder if I shouldn’t go on a three-day cleanse to make my old pants fit like new pants?

Of course. Of course. It’s okay.

The whole point of body positivity is taking outside standards about how you should present yourself for a nice long walk off a short pier. That includes any bullshit notions of perfectionism or infallibility. That means being okay with yourself, just as you are, right this minute. Triggers and doubts and days almost-seriously-considering diets and emotional experiences with your jeans and all.

Recovery and life after would fail any “walk this straight line” DUI test. It’s a nonlinear cycle that doubles back on yourself when you least expect it. There’s no such thing as a “perfect recovery,” and mine is no exception. Progress isn’t when bad days stop happening  — as far as I’m concerned, they might not ever stop completely. But when the good days start outweighing the bad, and when life begins to revolve around something other than what / when / how to eat …

That’s still something to celebrate.

But coming to terms with a perfectly imperfect body-positive life — without the guilt of “failure” — is easier said than done. Here are three things I’m trying to make it through the rough patches, and back into the light.

1. Check Out Those Dark Shadowy Places

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(You knew this was coming. If a day ever comes for an obvious opportunity to quote The Lion King and I don’t take it, send help. I’ve probably fallen and I can’t get up.)

There are certain situations I know will still spark my inner negative monologue. Pants shopping, for instance. Or eating a meal at a different time than usual. Although I know, logically, that there’s nothing at all wrong with eating a bigger lunch one day, that doesn’t always make the residual discomfort go away. But leaning on logic gives a reliable handhold to turn back to.

Figuring out the root cause of an ED-related reaction — and eight times out of ten, that cause has nothing to do with food — is a crucial step for regaining a sense of understanding and power.

There’s a world of difference between “I hate my body because it’s ugly / gross / terrible” and “I’m feeling uncomfortable about how I look because the people in the cubicle next to me are talking about their 30-day cleanse / I have a big presentation tomorrow I’m nervous about / final exams are coming up and I don’t feel adequate / I didn’t sleep enough last night.” One places the blame on your body; the other shifts focus back to where it belongs. One feels dispiriting and impossible; the other makes sense. And recovery is making sense out of the chaos, and putting anxiety and discomfort in their place.

That place, by the way, is way the hell off on the sidelines.

So get up there on Pride Rock the next time the voices start. Everything the light touches is your recovery journey. Once you figure out what’s really going on in those dark shadowy places, it might not be as overwhelming and confusing as it seemed.

2. Catastrophize for a Reason

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Fat is not a feeling” as a rallying cry before. And while it can be tough to take that statement at face value when you’re absolutely sure you’re feeling fat right then and there, grammatically it’s just fact. “Fat” is a noun, describing the necessary collection of cells and tissue that protect our organs and let our bodies move through the world.

Would you argue that on a bad day you feel “muscle” or “cartilage”? Because that’s what I’m hearing when you say you feel fat.

But “fat” is also an adjective describing a certain body type. The fat acceptance movement is rightfully returning this word to its original meaning, removing the moral and value judgments society put on it and calling it for what it is. For the record, even though fat is a body type, that still doesn’t make it a viable feeling. You can’t feel “blonde” or “high cheekbones” emotionally. That’s not how emotions work.

I keep this as a kind of mantra for when weight panic sets in. It cuts the anxiety out of ruminating on weight, little by little, step by step.

I feel fat I’m so fat I’m gaining so much weight I’m so fat —

Okay. So. Maybe. What’s the worst that could happen if I was fat?

Am I going to hate or love my job any more? Are my friends going to care about me any less, and will I care about them differently? Is the sunrise on my commute down 55 going to look any less beautiful? Are nachos going to be any less delicious? Is the sexism on Netflix’s Marco Polo going to make me want to punch a hole through my wall any less?

Nope. Literally the only thing that changes is that I would be fat.

Any other negative consequences that might arise are a direct result of society’s fatphobic underpinnings, which my panic about weight gain is (albeit unwillingly and painfully) perpetuating.

Will this knock off the thoughts once and for all? Almost certainly not. But it helps stop you in your tracks for at least a moment to see the larger picture.

And the big picture is almost never as scary as the close-up, particularly when the close-up is that distorted.

3. Lower Your Expectations

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Ah, Amy Poehler. Speaking the truth my soul needs.

I’m not saying “don’t expect recovery.” I’m not saying “don’t expect you’ll ever feel completely happy and in control of your life ever again.” Of course I’m not saying that. I believe it’s possible. I’ve seen people do it. It’s what’s keeping me going. Recovery is possible, and we can do it.

But no one expects you to have it all together all at once. And telling yourself any differently reveals a whole different problem that has nothing at all to do with your weight.

If you haven’t read this article by the amazing s.e. smith about impostor syndrome yet, go read it. It’s cool. I’ll wait.

For the click-averse, impostor syndrome is the feeling that, despite all evidence to the contrary, you are inherently less-than. You’re not living up to others’ expectations of you. You don’t deserve to be where you are. You aren’t qualified. You’re just faking it, and everyone around you already knows it. Even when you know, objectively. 0% of this is true, that doesn’t help.

This summed up so much about my life, both personally and professionally, when I read it that I needed to take a step back and reframe. No one expects me to have it all together. No one is scandalized and horrified when I make a mistake at work, or when I have a lousy body image day and call my support system to vent and yell a little. No one, that is, but me. I’m holding myself to standards that I’d never impose on anyone else.

It’s not fair. It’s doing me way more harm than good. And it’s not easy to stop.

But I’m working on it. I’m cutting myself some slack. Lowering my expectations, so to speak. I’m trying not to feel totally deflated when something goes badly, because things go badly for everyone all the time, every day. Even the most active body image activists need support, help, self-care, and a little slack now and then.

That Amy. So wise. One more piece of wisdom for the road:

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And so we keep on. I’ll keep trying. And on the bad days, I’ll take a shower at a weird time, curl up in bed with a book, and wake up in the morning to try again.

And again.

And again.

Until, maybe next week, maybe in fifteen years, one day I wake up and never need to think about trying again.

But today is not that day.

Today, I’ll keep working.

Mental Relapse… That’s A Thing, Right?

Sometimes we've got to be our own calming manatees.

Sometimes we’ve got to be our own calming manatees.

Happy eating disorders awareness week, folks! Although really, for anyone who has, has had, or knows someone with an eating disorder, the idea of there being a week at any time in which we just weren’t aware of eating disorders is kind of nonsense. But it’s great to see resources, support, statistics, and awareness pouring out onto the interwebs this week. For those of you who were able to join me in the #AdiosED Twitter party on Monday evening, thanks for your support. It was a huge success, and we couldn’t have done it without you.

NEDAwareness week came at an oddly ironic time for me this year. Yes, I know it’s the same week every year, but it landed straight in the middle of a… well, I’m not really sure what to call it.

What exactly do you term a sudden preoccupation with your weight and the amount of food you eat, if you’re determinedly not weighing yourself and you’re eating maybe even a little bit more than you ordinarily do? Can it still be considered a relapse if to the outside observer, you’re doing totally fine, but inside you feel like everything’s falling apart?

Disclaimer: I am fully aware that outside stressors in my life are taking their toll on my mental health, and they are doing that in the way they have decided to do since my mid-teens. At the moment, I am working two jobs, taking a full load of university courses, trying to raise almost $1500 to publish a literary magazine, navigating at least three university bureaucracies, trying to figure out how to spell bureaucracy, learning how to do basic html code, and finish a 335-page senior thesis in the next three weeks. Oh, and find out what to do with the rest of my life post-graduation. I recognize that my inherent inability to say “no” to anything is beginning to wear on me, and I’m coping with it as I usually do. But knowing that this is the case doesn’t make it any easier.

Instead of going back down the eating disorder path physically, I feel as if I’ve been taking the opposite road. I cannot actually motivate myself to do anything besides my (not-insignificant) walk to class and to work every day. The gym? Forget about it. Healthy eating? Okay, but once I’m through with dinner I’m going to barrel through that ice cream, because I’m stressed, okay, and sugar makes me feel better.

Briefly. Until I realize that I’ve felt this way before, during the early stages of recovery, when I was rapidly gaining weight like nobody’s business. It’s the same feeling of fear. Of being out of control. Of disgust and shame and wanting to talk to anybody about it but not being able to because I’m supposed to be better.

I had to stop and look at this image for at least five minutes when I first saw it. This is actually scary accurate. That's why it gets included in this post, and you get a bonus image. Puts things in a really visual perspective.

I had to stop and look at this image for at least five minutes when I first saw it. This is actually scary accurate. That’s why it gets included in this post, and you get a bonus image. Puts things in a really visual perspective.

Is this a rant-post? Partially. But I also think that there should be more attention paid to relapses that don’t involve resorting to behaviors. I haven’t stepped on the scale in over two weeks, admittedly partly because I’m afraid to but also because I can’t see what good that would do. I haven’t skipped a meal in months – in fact, I just came from a snack. To all intents and purposes, these are the fluctuations in the eating patterns and exercise habits of a recovered person. Vegetables and time logged on the treadmill take a back seat during the final semester of university, when there’s more things to be done than there are hours in a day. Maybe that’s normal. But I don’t feel recovered. I feel just as out-of-control and afraid as I did months and months ago.

And yet, because physically I’m healthy and functional and not losing weight, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who would treat this as a relapse. I don’t need to go speak to a medical professional. I don’t need intervention. What I need, most people would tell me, is a nice long nap and a dose of perspective. But that’s not helpful in the midst of this.

Those are some of the complications of recovery that I never thought about until I experienced them. People expect you to be “better” once and for all. Particularly in my position, when I spend so much time writing about eating disorders, talking about recovery, organizing recovery-based events, and what all. People assume that once you’re “recovered,” you no longer need support and your mental state will take care of itself. This is not always the case.

During #AdiosED, one tweet particularly stood out to me, and I bring it back for you here because it’s the most honest thing I’ve read in a long time.

True facts. But the need for a hug doesn’t stop after you’ve been labeled (or have labeled yourself) recovered. Hard times still show up. There are still days when it’s hard to think about inhabiting your body, or look at it, or move around in it in certain ways. I had hoped that there wouldn’t be, but sometimes there are.

If you have a friend in recovery, and you’re comfortable talking with them, ask them how they’re doing from time to time. Be prepared for celebrations if they’re invited, but also be prepared for an honest, open discussion about how sometimes things are still hard.

And if you’re in recovery, and you’re feeling like you’re having a rough time, either mentally or physically, don’t lose hope. This will pass. It won’t go on forever. Because you are stronger than your eating disorder. It puts up a hell of a fight, but you don’t have to take it. Even though it’s hard at the moment, I don’t plan on taking it.