Tag Archives: recovery

There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

*

Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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Rosey (On Being Better)

The first time I met Rosey, I almost didn’t meet Rosey. I had been warned that she was having health issues, so I assumed the worst when no dog met me at the door. She was recovering from cancer. Had she died? I wandered room to room through the new to me apartment, calling her name. No response. So I called our office:
“Rosey isn’t here.”
“What do you mean not there?”
I poked my head into the last room. “Not here, not here. Nowhere in sight.” I heard a quiet woof then, shortly followed by a big golden retriever with a white face shimmying out from under the bed. “Aaaaaand never mind,” I added, saying my goodbyes and hanging up.
I stretched my hand out, and Rosey came to sniff it, tail wagging. After some getting to know each other routine, we went into the kitchen and I got a few milkbones for our walk. She promptly stole them from my hand before I could even consider slipping them into my pocket. They were, after all, hers. We set out into the winter March air, crossing the street to Washington Square Park for a good sniff fest of the grass. Rosey was slow. Any other dog would have lapped the park at least twice. Rosey only made it a quarter of the way before we had to turn around. I didn’t mind though. It was relaxing, and she was such a presence that she truly deserved my time.

Rosey taught me a lot about recovery. I don’t think I realized how stagnant I was in my life  and moving on in my identity as a survivor until I walked Rosey at the same time every day, seven days a week; I got to watch her recover and grow. Things were hard for me for a long time. Harder than I let people know. I imagined it was the same for Rosey, that she didn’t want to show people pain and instead gave all the best pieces of herself. Rape survivors are four times more likely to attempt suicide than people who have not been the victims of crime. I’m not that person. I like being alive. I’m the sort of person who needed things to do. All the things. When I sat still, when I did nothing, the largeness of all the things would overtake me. Like Rosey, I took steps. One, two. Three. Always forward. I had to find ways to connect and people to connect to. It was most important to just let myself live.

Rosey got stronger every day. It almost seemed like she was a puppy again. We met another dog in the park, a little black and gray French bulldog named Charlie. Normally Rosey wouldn’t have gone for that sort of thing, but on that particular day she wagged her tail and solicited attention from the much younger pup. They were a blaze of fur, Rosey’s golden locks tumbling around Charlie as he tried to jump up and grab her head sumo wrestler style. A few weeks later, we were stopped by a blogger who interviewed Rosey for his site. She gave him what for, barking until he gave her a milkbone. Milkbones were like doggy crack to Rosey; they were the only treat she could eat. Ever since her cancer, too much protein made her sick. But Rosey made do. Milkbones were her favorite. She learned quickly how to be okay with, and even take advantage of, her experiences.

I think that being okay is relative. I think that we have to work to attain that status. We have to push ourselves. Someone I will always respect from the bottom of my heart once told me, “I think that only you can decide what will help you. No one else can say that for you. It is, like everything else in your life, your choice.” I had to choose to be better than what my attacker made me. I had to choose to move forward, to embrace life, to embrace my gifts and use them. For me, that meant learning how to tell my story and tell it well. Better.

The last time I walked Rosey as her primary walker, she greeted me at the door with a red and white dish towel in her mouth, the whites and grays of her formerly golden face painting her snout into a perpetual smile. Her tail swung back and forth frenetically as she waited for me to try and take her gift; when my hand closed around the fabric, she gave it to me without a fight. I was careful to keep my dislike of dog drool all over my hand off of my face so I didn’t hurt her feelings. “Thank you, Princess,” I told her. I grabbed her harness from the table next to the piano and draped the main part around her neck. Rosey gave me her left paw without being asked so I could fasten the other section of the harness around her middle. She dragged me to the front door practically the second the harness was fastened, prancing from paw to paw and woofing at me the entire way. The entire elevator ride she could barely contain herself; when we arrived on the ground from the 17th floor, she exploded from the elevator and hauled me out of the lobby and across the street to the park–a fireball of energy. A different dog from the one I had first met that walked so slowly I would never jaywalk for fear of us getting killed.

This morning I received an email that today was Rosey’s last day, that she would be crossing the Rainbow Bridge. I was offered the opportunity, as were all of her walkers, to say goodbye. So I did. I sat on the floor in the hallway with her and her dad and spoke to her and whisper sang her favorite song from Shrek. She was completely paralyzed; it was time. Rosey knew I was there with her though, at the end. Her eyes rolled back to meet mine, and I could tell she was happy we were letting go. She had a good life. I know she’d want me to remember the good and not the bad. Rosey was better than her bad experiences, than the cancer that took her after seventeen years. And I know, from getting to be with her for even a small piece of her seventeen years, that I am better too.

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When Sometimes We Fail

My grandma bred in me a spirit of giving; volunteering is a thing I have always done and like to think I will always do. Over the last year, I’ve become pretty well versed in the land of dog via my job and my volunteer time. The volunteer dogs were supposed to be the fun ones–using the knowledge I’d learned on redirection and body language and the intricate way in which dogs think was going to be the new way that I gave back. I had training skills, I told myself. Why not use them? My friend and coworker S found this great organization, and we decided to do just that.

Enter G, a great big lovable smart goofball of a pitbull mix with a food motivated heart of gold and a tendency toward mischievous naughty acts. No one else can handle him, I was told. He was just for me. We clicked instantly. After all, I came with a pouch of treats and two hands to give plentiful pets. We were a match made in heaven. I became G’s personal vending machine.

G, I was told, got bored at adoption drives. He had an incident where he lunged at a passerby, and after that he wasn’t allowed to come out for almost a year. Having never seen the foster farm where he lived, I pictured the worst. I decided that I would be the one to fix him, and I set to work during adoption drives teaching him skills like sit, stay, wait. G and I quickly moved on to more fun commands like paw, crawl, switch, and perch on a stool like a circus animal. He looked utterly ridiculous yet still adorable–an easily 80 pound pitbull standing on a tiny plastic stool, but it was his favorite trick. People loved him, even though he only loved them if they had treats. I loved him. I like to think he loved me too. We had a connection; we understood each other.

It wasn’t until I started writing my thesis that I realized how my love of dog training and my status as a rape survivor went hand in hand. Because I was raped, I have a fear of many things (some weirder than you might expect). Because of the things that happened in the pasts of the dogs I’ve worked with, they are afraid too. The dogs I work with are weird and wonderful and wacky, but for all the fun, they’re hard a lot of the time. T, one of my favorite pitbull mixes, was left alone in her former home for much longer than dogs should be ever left alone; as a result, she was never properly socialized with other dogs and thinks they are the absolute worst. M, a little Boston terrier I walked until recently, was attacked in an elevator and subsequently feared not only the elevator but all other dogs ever. MV, an 80 pound plotthound mix, was not only attacked in the dog park this year, but was also attacked while we were out walking by a homeless man and a shopping cart. She’s afraid of everything now. I like to think that, by training them, I’m helping them. But G was different. He always was for me. I didn’t know where he came from; I didn’t know what he’d seen. I tried the best I could to help him.

Today was a busy Saturday. G seemed super overstimulated when I took him from the van. We got to the drive; he got his lunch. There was a little brown haired boy in a blue coat walking a touch too close, pointing a finger at G. I was instantly leery, because G hated kids. I pulled back on the leash, holding tight, and followed the boy with my eyes as he walked to safety beside his parents. I was so focused on him, I never saw the little girl in the pink coat come up behind me. G was on her and had her on the ground before I even knew what happened. We left the drive and looped the city before coming back to give the family time to leave. G was put on no pets restriction. He was fine until a crowd came. There was so many people that another little girl got just a little too close; G went in for a bite, but I had him on such a short leash that he only got her coat. We left the drive. I was told he would never be allowed back. We looped the neighborhood for a long time, and I pondered what I could have done differently. Rationally, I knew I handled the situation as best I could. I knew that anyone else may not have been as equipped as me; I knew those kids could have been seriously hurt if it wasn’t for my quick thinking. But it didn’t make it easier to know the sad fact that I would never see G again. At the van, he went into his crate, and I watched the door close on him eating vanilla ice cream out of a dirty styrofoam cup.

One year together, countless Saturday’s, enough hours to fully earn my CPDT certification, and I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t get a chance to.

I feel like I let him down.

When I was raped, the people close to me in life didn’t give up on me. They could have, sure. I was a super bitch for a while there. But it wasn’t because I’m that way by nature. I had been hurt. I lashed out where I could. They didn’t dismiss me. They tried their best to understand. To help me through it. I’m a better person for that, for the strength and the will of the people around me. I’m a strong and wonderful independent woman now. It may seem like a strange correlation, but I work with dogs because I understand them; my experiences have given me this gift that I am only just now beginning to comprehend. Totally different circumstances and species, but I wanted to be for G what people were for me. And I wasn’t that. I stopped coming out as much. I stopped really showing up for him. And, what I think happened, is that G stopped showing up for me.

You can say he’s just a dog. But dogs feel just like people. They hurt just like people. I know he always knew me when those vans doors opened. There was a glimmer, a light, in his eyes the moment he spotted me. Now he won’t know me, and I will no longer know him. That’s hard and feels weird, because I keep telling myself I could have should have done more. He’s just a dog, yes. But he was more than that to me. All of the dogs I work with are. My heart still believes I could fix him. My mind isn’t sure that’s true.

I’m standing on a C train platform right now, waiting for the next train, and when I shove my hand into my pocket it comes out coated in crumbs from G’s treats. I’ll have to give these to another dog, and that’s weird too. I bought the bulk bag–I thought I’d see him next week. I won’t. I know what it’s like to be rejected. I didn’t want to be that person, but I have to be. I was supposed to be this great handler, the best of the best, but there’s this one dog I couldn’t help. One dog that I failed.

A lot of dogs I didn’t.

I smile a little as I finger the treats, even though I’m crying, again (ridiculous, over a dog), and I realize that rather than a failing, I should try to think of my experience with G as an opportunity to learn how to be better. Right now it hurts and it’s sad, and I feel at fault. But I’m not, not really, and I know that. Whether I believe it or not, I need to tell myself this is a learning in order to feel better. I won’t fail next time if I learn from this.

So until I’m allowed to visit you, or until you miraculously get adopted, here’s to everything I learned from you, G. May you have all the ice cream and the hot dogs and the meatballs that you could ever want, and may your dreams be filled with Biljacs chicken and liver treats.

Goodbye.

 

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Shauna

We sprawled out on the floor between the beds, squeezed hands, and then rolled over so we could scoot underneath our respective mattresses. The light from the hallway flooded the otherwise darkroom. Each of us had a single crayon clutched in a fist; mine was red, Shauna’s was purple. 

“What should we write?” I stared up at the bottom of my mattress, squinting in the low light.

“Ourselves,” she replied simply. “Shauna. Was,” she dictated as she wrote each word. “Here.”

I raised the crayon above me in the small space and pressed it down against the white fabric. It seemed to me, in that moment, like the words I would write were very important. They would be there forever, while I would most certainly not be.

Slowly, carefully, I began to write.

*

Shauna was one of those cute preppy girls I would never have been friends with outside the eating disorder treatment center. On that first day, I sat sullenly on my bed, resenting her mere existence in what had been a single room for me for two whole days. She sat on her bed, staring at me, her feet dangling over the edge and swinging back and forth in a way that made her entire body bounce—all the way to her curly blonde cheerleader ponytail.

“Hi.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“I’m Shauna.”

“I figured.” I pulled my book back out from under my pillow and started reading.

“That’s rude,” she informed me, flopping back across her mattress. 

I didn’t respond. 

“What do we do for fun here?”

I blinked in her direction, slowly. “We aren’t here for fun…” I let my voice trail off in a way that indicated my feelings on how ridiculous she was.

Shauna sat up, leaning on one arm, and glared at me. “I’m going back out where the couches are,” she informed me before flouncing off.

This continued for a few days; after meals, I would read on my bed and she would loiter in the couch area, talking to anybody and everybody but me. Which was fine with me. I preferred my space solo. I talked to people when I had to, but I avoided it as often as I could. When they took us to the cafeteria for our three meals a day, I stuck to the back of the line and I sat by myself. Because I could. Because it felt right.

Or maybe not right, so much as appeasing. Maybe I was just afraid.

After we had been roommates for a week or so, Shauna stood in the doorframe one day and folded her arms in front of her chest. 

“So, I mean, obviously. No one wants to be here and all. But you could at least try and have fun once in a while. Get out. Do things other than read.”

I laid my book down across my lap, still open. “Why would I want to do that?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She rolled her eyes. “To maybe get out of here at some point?”

“I don’t see how my hanging out on a bunch of couches is going to get me out of here any faster than sitting on my bed reading a book is.”

“It shows initiative.” She sat down on her bed, staring at me. When I didn’t answer she asked, “What are you reading?”

I picked the book up and turned it so she could see the cover. 

Speak. Good book.”

I nodded, wishing she would let me get back to it.

“That’s it!” She got back up, snatched the book out of my hand, and tossed it back on my bed.

“Hey!”

“Hey what?”

“Come on.” She tugged on my shirt sleeve.

“What? Where?” This was the most words I had said to any one person the entire duration of my stay.

“Out. About. Be here.”

I reluctantly got up and followed Shauna out to the bay of couches, where we perched in front of the television that was playing some crazy cartoon show I had never seen before. I folded into a corner, holding a pillow to my chest and staring at the television while the other girls stared at me. Shauna was talking to everyone, and I admired her for it. The easy way that she could just float in and out of the conversation. I wanted to be like that. Better. 

On the third day Shauna pulled me out into the bay of couches, I didn’t put up a fight. I even put down the pillow and attempted conversation.

Sometimes all it takes to get the ball rolling is a little push.

*

Sliding back out from under our mattresses, we crawled up into our beds and pulled the covers around us. 

“Good night,” I told her, staring out the window through the bars at the stars beyond.

“Good night,” Shauna replied.

When I got up the next morning, she had left for her therapy appointment. She never came back; I never got to say goodbye, and I never saw her again. That’s the way it is with some people, I think. They flit in and out of your lives so quickly it is almost like they were never there, but they leave a change behind that is permanent. I knew Shauna a short time, but she changed me.

The words I had written on the underside of my mattress the night before echoed through my head that entire day, and for many afterwards.

I am here, and I will love myself today, tomorrow, and forever.

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“Eating Disorder Recovered”

My nemesis is small.  Gray.  With a tiny display.  I could smash it into the ground and break it into smithereens.  I could beat it easily.  And yet it beats me, time and time again.

Slowly the numbers creep up.  Higher.  Higher.  I don’t like where they are going.

I told E that I wouldn’t do this.  I wouldn’t come home and get on the scale.  But even as I said it, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop myself.  I knew I would do it.  Nobody wants to hear they’re fat.  I needed to know.

“Have you gained weight?” he asks me.  “You’re looking fatter.”

I open and close my mouth.  I don’t know how to respond.  I know full well how dangerous this statement is for me.  I know that I need to have an answer.  But there isn’t one.  I haven’t seen this man in two months, but I’m fairly certain I haven’t gained weight—I’ve lost it.  I think. 

“You should weigh yourself.  Start keeping track.”

The numbers stop.  I blink once.  Twice.  I get off the scale and then back on.  The numbers tick up quickly this time, because I know where they will land.  They are higher than I would like.  This is why I do not often allow myself to look.  This is why I have not looked in almost a year.

*

The first time I took my measurements and weighed myself after being pregnant was for a dress fitting shortly after Carter died.  When I was “eating disorder recovered.”

I tried dress after dress, trying to force my body to be the body it had been before.  But I couldn’t go back.  I couldn’t erase what had happened to me.  They whispered about me—the salespeople and my friends.  That I had lost a baby.  That I didn’t know how to adjust to the weight.  They acknowledged that I was grieving.

I only heard how fat I was.  Baby fat goes away when you nurse.  I wouldn’t nurse.  I didn’t have a baby.  Just fat.  Their words echoed, banged around inside my brain.

Fat.  You.  Are.  Fat.

I cried.  I was afraid to come out of the dressing room.

Words are that powerful.

*

I have often tried to psychologize my eating disorder, with little success.  In her book Wasted, which I read and reread and highlighted incessantly, Marya Hornbacher writes, “We turn skeletons into goddesses and look to them as if they might teach us how not to need.”  This is a perfect summation of society and the way that people are viewed.  Our self-worth as woman is based upon the size of our ass, not the size of our brain.  It’s based on the way we look on the outside, not on what we legitimately contribute to society, our real worth.  I think of the eating disorder, in a way, as a denial of my own self worth.  A refusal to see that I am as good as people say I am.  Food is a basic need.  In order for the body to function, it must be fed.  Denying the body that basic need is like saying that the body, and therefore the person, is not worth enough to warrant even something as minor as food.  So when I don’t eat, I am telling myself I am not worth enough; that I don’t have needs.  That I will be worth something when I am, as Hornbacher puts it, a skeleton.  I hate that.  I hate that part of myself.  I prefer “eating disorder recovered.”

“Have you gained weight?”

The phrase echoes in my head.  I step on and off the damn scale again.

“You’re looker fatter.”

I think of a ton of responses.

“Fatter isn’t even a real word.”

“You’re an asshat.”

“Just who exactly do you think you are?”

But it’s too late to say anything to him.  The moment when we are sitting together, conversing, has passed.  I let him say these things and didn’t stick up for myself.  What does that say about me?  It is easier to let the world tell me I am worth nothing than it is to accept the things that have happened to me; it is easier to say that these things are my fault over admitting that things happen.  It is easier to dismiss myself rather than dismiss others.

“You should weigh yourself.  Start keeping track.”

It is easier for me to listen to the word of a man who knows nothing and wants to control me than to my own self who knows so much better.

*

When life was overwhelming last semester, I heard those words in everything again.  That it was my fault.  That I deserved what happened to me.  That I was a horrible person.  That I was not good enough.

The answer was simple to the old me; not good enough, don’t eat.

But unlike in my marriage, I had more important things in my life.  More worth.  “Eating disorder recovered.”

I was more.  Worth fighting for.

*

People shouldn’t say things like this.  They shouldn’t make ignorant comments.  They don’t know who they’re talking to.  They don’t know people’s past, or the battles they have fought.  They don’t know where they are in life.  There is a sensitivity that some people severely lack.

I have fought through many things and won.  But this is something I can’t triumph over, not fully.  This is something that will not go away.  It is hard.  I know that I will run on the elliptical tonight while I watch the next episode of Orphan Black.  I know this like I know that two and two make four.  I want to eat and be okay with myself, so I will take care of myself in the only way I know how.  I will run him away.  I will run his obnoxious comments away.

I told E I wouldn’t do this, that I wouldn’t get on the scale, but I did it anyway.  And though I’m precisely where I thought I was in terms of weight, I am afraid of the number that I saw there.  I know that it’s okay.  But I don’t want to know it.  I also know I will not keep track.  I will not weigh myself again, because it will break me.  If I keep track, I will do whatever I can to make sure the number is lower each time I write it down.  I can’t do that.  I won’t do that.  I will not allow myself to do that.

It won’t be like when I said I wouldn’t get on the scale.

I want to be rational about this.  I want to know that he is full of shit, that I don’t need to freak out.  I want to not cry at the number I saw, at his words.  I want to know that they mean nothing.

I want them to not hurt.

Because I am “eating disorder recovered.”

As I sit here and eat a donut, I tell myself that I am okay.  That I am worth it.

That I am enough.

This fight, this weakness to certain words, to certain actions, is what it means to be “eating disorder recovered.”

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Endings

Another semester has ended, and with it, a part of my life.  But a new segment of my life is beginning.  A new part of the journey.  Me moving forward, hopefully into grad school.

I came up with an end segment for my memoir this week.  Here’s a portion of it:

This memoir has been the story of a recovery.  Of a hike.  But more than that, of a life lived and people met along the way.  

If nothing else, for me as I am now, what happened to me doesn’t matter in the same way that it used to.  Yes, it’s still there.  And yes, it still hurts.  But it hurts in a different way, because I am different.    I don’t want to spend my life behind a pane of glass.  I want to experience all of the things that the world has to offer.  I want to be confident that I can handle life’s occurrences, even though it’s hard.  

I want to know the things that other people already recognize.

Life on the other side is hard and bright and loud.  But it’s also fun and enriching and educating and a million other things.  I want to cross the threshold and experience life beyond the wall that I’ve constructed around myself.

This has been the story of my journey.  All of the pieces of this journey and the people within it add up to the place where I am now.  Because I have survived these things, I know that I can survive anything.  N told me recently that when, not if, I get in to graduate school, I will become my best self, even better than I am now, because I will be around writers and I will be writing.  What makes me strong is my words, and they’ll be with me wherever I go.  

Like I said in the beginning, this story isn’t pretty.  It isn’t magical flowers and rainbows; it doesn’t feature a unicorn.  But it does belong to me.  I have struggled for a long time regarding how to end this.  But now I know that there is no ending.  To end would be to stop growing, and I don’t ever want to stop.  I always want to grow.  I want to continue to be better than my past, to be better than the holes.  I want to hold on to what I have and take it and use it and be better.  

I want, more than anything, to keep this journey moving to the other side.

These people will be with me forever, because they are part of my story.

These words will be with me forever.

This life will be mine.  Forever.

I’ve been worried lately about endings.  The end of my undergraduate career.  The end of my life in Wisconsin.  The end of my time with the wonderful people I have met and been blessed with the opportunity to learn from.  I have had amazing mentors within the college I go to who have given me the opportunity to learn more about life and myself and everything than I ever thought possible.  I have made real friends that will be around for a long time.  Many times, I think about how scared I am to leave this place, to end this time of my life.  But the end of this semester and my subsequent reflections upon life have shown me that I’m thinking about this all wrong.  Instead of thinking about endings, I should be thinking about beginnings—like that saying about one door closing and another opening.  Every ending in my life has actually been a beginning.  The end of my son was the beginning of the dissolution of my marriage.  The end of my marriage was the beginning of my college career.  The end of my college career will be the beginning of my new life and, hopefully, a graduate school career.  Each time something in my life has ended, as sad as it has been, it has pushed me into a new place.  I am learning to handle my life, bit by bit.  I am making allowances, taking care of myself and doing the things that I need to do to be okay.  I’m learning that it’s okay to not always be okay, that it’s okay to be broken sometimes.  But, in turn, I’m also learning that just because I break occasionally does not mean that I am forever damaged.  I am not damaged.  I have been hurt, but it does not define me.  I am healing, slowly but surely.  And this ending is a new beginning.

Endings are sad, but they aren’t as sad when we reverse them.  When we make them beginnings.  The word beginning implies an opportunity to grow.  My words make me strong, and they will always be with me.  I will take myself and lay everything out; I will learn and grow from my experiences and the knowledge and support of the people around me.  And because I am giving myself opportunities to grow and become my own person, I will be my best self.

I have been worried about leaving, about the end.  But there is no end.  There is only growth.  And I will never, ever, stop growing.

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The Painting

“That is the funny thing about paint.  At the first cold splash of reality it washes away.  And the surface you are trying cover is as ugly as ever.”  —Jodi Picoult

 

In layman’s terms, a cognitive distortion is an extremely exaggerated or irrational thought pattern that perpetuates several different psychological disorders.  It is commonly assumed that these distortions are at the heart of eating disorders.  Personally, I disagree.  Having an eating disorder, to me, is like painting over a picture that has already been created.  The picture on the underside, the thing that is in the past, is ugly, but it’s covered up the incessant need to be “beautiful.”  “Good enough.”  “Thin.”  Take away the paint, and that thing is still there.  It hasn’t been dealt with; it hasn’t been destroyed.  It still hurts.  Festers.

It is always there when you look in the mirror.  

A large portion of people who experience some type of eating disorder are perfectionists.  Perfectionism is shown to be a fairly significant risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, and the levels of perfectionism tend to improve slightly when the person is in “recovery.”  An article I read recently by Anna Bardone-Cone, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, stated that a fully recovered group of people largely resembled a non eating-disordered control group in terms of their perfectionism, while the partially recovered group more resembled those still in the full throes of their disorder. 

This perfectionism can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, from always having to do things right the first time to needing to earn straight A’s, to having to order your clothes a certain way.  But the disorder isn’t about being perfect. It’s not about being thin. It’s about knowing that there is one thing left in your life that still belongs to you, one thing that you can still control. It’s about having the power to slowly disappear.  

That is the only power you still wield. 

*

Last semester, I took an amazing class in writing creative nonfiction.  One of the last in class journals that we did was about body mapping.  I was not thrilled with the assignment or the world itself that day, so I drew my “body” in the somewhat shape of a gingerbread character.  Lumpy.  Out of proportion.  I’m fairly certain that the first thing people notice about me is how fat I am, I wrote.  It’s certainly the first thing I notice about me—every day.  I had a baby, but didn’t get to bring him home.  I only brought home the fat.  

I remember the first time I realized I was fat.  I was eight and I was in the school lunchroom.  I had a pink Barbie lunch-bag, and the Barbie had that skinny body and perfect yellow blonde hair that can only exist in Barbie-land.  I had a sandwich and a banana.  And maybe some sort of dessert.  I don’t remember.  But there was another girl at the lunch table who looked in my bag and said “You’re going to eat all that?”  Rather than defy her, I walked to the trash bin and threw my entire lunch away.  

Looking back now, I can see that the little girl in the lunchroom that day was jealous of my lunch box.  That’s why she said the things she said.  But it wasn’t so easy to see then.  I lost myself in the mirror, in the desire to fade away.  I remember a quote from the movie “Girl, Interrupted” based on the memoir by Susanna Kaysem, said by a girl with an eating disorder during expressive group therapy:  “I don’t want to be a fucking tree.  I want to be a bush!”  I get her.  All she wanted was to fade away, to disappear.  Into the mirror.

*

I own a small panda bento box.  I went on this weird tangent last year where I was coming up with weird stuff to put in it.  For instance, one time I made spicy peanut noodles.  Another time, I made japanese rice balls.  It was a fun thing I did to keep myself entertained on really long days.  

This semester, I haven’t brought it to school.  I claim to be busy, that I have a meal plan, that I’m this, that I’m that.  I wonder if I’m making excuses.  If I’m slipping.  I wonder.  Do I have to wonder?  Am I forgetting because I’m busy?  Or am I forgetting because it’s the one thing I can remember to do?  What does it mean?  I notice I’ve been getting a large amount of food from my friends, and I wonder what they see.  Do they see me?  Or do they see the me in the mirror?  Is it okay that I sometimes eat and sometimes don’t?  This question seems important right now, and I’m not sure why.  I feel like I’m forgetting.  I worry that I’m lost.

*

I was a bit of a bitch in the throes of the disorder.  I remember one particular conversation with my therapist in high school where she asked me to describe what an apple would taste like.  I refused.  “I don’t eat apples,” I informed her.  “I don’t like the way they get stuck in my teeth.”

“Correction—you don’t eat anything.”  

She offered me a choice then.  Sour cream and onion chips, an apple, and a container of strawberry Yoplait yogurt.  “Pick one,” she commanded.  “You can’t until you do.”

“No.”  I folded my arms stubbornly across my chest and met her gaze dead on.

She folded her own arms and leaned back in a replication of my position.  “That’s fine.  I can wait.”

That was a lie.  She had other appointments; I was not her only patient.  I got up off the couch I was settled on and snatched up the apple.  “How do you know I won’t throw it out the first chance I get?”  I was trying to be as big of a smart-ass as possible.  Trying to save myself.  Trying to hide how sorry I was that I let her down.  I was certain I could live off of caffeine and potato chips alone.  

*

I ask myself often whether I want victory, or I want escape.  And are the two interchangeable?  If my victory is graduating, then that is also when I will escape.  But if my victory is simply surviving…my escape could come whenever.  Does losing everything that I am mean giving up dreams too, as a side effect?  I’m still here.  Does that mean anything at all?

I am reinventing.

I spend my days pondering grad school, wondering if I’m good enough.  Wondering if I will get in.  Wondering if I can get them to like me.  Wondering if I make myself the right fit.  I sit in N’s office and eat candied orange peels and worry that I’m messing up my life.  My GPA.  These things I’ve graded that we’re working on.  I’m terrified that I am wrong, always.  That I will fail.  That I am not the right fit for anything. Someone very wise told me that there is no right fit; I could be horrible and they won’t take me, but I could also be awesome and they still won’t take me.  There’s no perfect formula for this, no solution.  No easy way.  I am juggling too many things, and it feels crushing sometimes.  It’s devastating that I can’t be perfect all the time.

I am always apologizing. 

I live off caffeine.

I run from the past things that I don’t think I can deal with.

I dream of that moment of victory, of escape.  

I am always doing these things, everything I can possibly do, but I worry that they aren’t enough.  I worry that I’m lost.  I worry that I am trying to paint over the picture that is me; that I’m trying to cover up.  Hide.  

Is it okay to dream if you can never reach the dream?  If the dream is way above you?  Do we morph or evolve to fit our dreams?  Or does life just happen; does it just destroy us?  I believe that we make choices, when we are scared.  And these choices are not always the right ones.  Marya Hornbacher writes, “Never, never underestimate the power of desire.  If you want to live badly enough, you can live.  The great question, at least for me, was:  How do I decide I want to live?”

How?  That really is the ultimate question.

Disappearing into the mirror means a long road back and a painting I can’t afford to pay for.

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I Am

When I think of adjectives to describe myself, confident, articulate, and skilled are not the first things that pop into my head.  That’s not my tape; that’s not the dialogue that plays.  So when I hear it, I don’t always know how to respond.  True or not, it isn’t the norm.  

I am ugly.

Inarticulate.

Today, I cried.  So many reasons.

I am stupid.

I was sitting in my literature class today taking a reading quiz.  I got done early, because I always do.  My mind was wandering, and as I looked around the classroom my eyes came to rest on the bulletin board three feet to my left.  There were several posters.  Two of them were out of date.  But one was new and had never been there before.  “If you’ve ever been the victim of sexual assault, family violence, or a violent crime, there is help.”  And then it listed all sort of hotlines.  

I understand the measure, I really do.  Some people need these things; some people would write this information down and even use it.  But I already have this information, because I have used it.  At the first opportunity, I snuck over to the bulletin board and turned the poster around before tacking it back up.  I stared at the blank side for the rest of class, because I remembered the words from the other side.  

Sexual assault.  Rape.  

Shit.

I am broken.

There is something wrong with me.  

I met with my advisor yesterday about the classes I was planning to take.  We discovered that I only need three classes to graduate.  Among the three classes I had put into my enrollment shopping cart was my advisor’s Shakespeare course.  I’ve been wanting to take this class since I was in my first year of undergrad.  I have always liked Shakespeare, and I’ve already read quite a bit of him.  This class has interested me not only for that element, but also because I have only been able to take my advisor for a lower level course.  I would love to have her as a professor for an upper level; she’s brilliant, I adore her, and I really want to get a solid A on a paper for her.”

“I need to be honest with you,” she said when I told her all these things, the reasons why I wanted to take her class.

“I’m going to shoot myself in the head taking this at the same time as Senior Seminar?”  

“No.”  She leaned back in her chair.  “There’s a lot of work that deals with sexual assault.  Graphic scenes of rape, and we will be discussing these things in class.”

I twitched at the mention of the word rape.  

“Spousal abuse.  Titus.  The Taming of the Shrew.  And I’m not sure this is the course for you.”

I looked out the window.  I had been excited minutes before and suddenly found myself sad in a way I didn’t know how to deal with.  Because it was still interfering.  Always interfering.  I wanted to cry.

“Why don’t you take Eco-crit instead?”

Because I wanted this.  Because I wanted Shakespeare.  Because I wanted to be normal, just once.  Just one time.

I am never going to be normal.

Never going to measure up.

Never going to be okay.

In psychology today, the professor greeted us before opening with “So, how many of you are parents?”  She followed this up with “How many of you aren’t parents?”  After this, she asked “Why have you chosen to not have children?”  And she called on me, of all people.  Me.  I walked out of class before I started to cry.  I leaned against the wall outside the classroom that led to the courtyard, debating going outside but recognizing the fact that it was much too cold.  I sat down on the floor in between the two sets of doors and I watched the trees blowing back and forth and the sun shining and I let tears fall.  

I am a failure.

Murderer.

It’s hard to lose someone you love.  It’s even harder to lose everything at the same time.  And that’s what happened to me.  I lost it all.  The hardest part for me has been the not knowing why my son died.  Why my marriage broke.  What I did to deserve the acid rain that made my entire life disintegrate for so long.  It is in my nature to blame myself.  That’s the tape; that’s what I have been told my entire life.  

I am not good enough.

I am always amazed to learn what other people actually think of me.  In that over the edge moment today, at just the right time, I read beautiful words that someone I deeply respect had written about me.  And my brain had a moment in which it clicked.

I am not broken.  I am not a failure.  I am not lost.  

I cried again.  But because for that moment, that awesomely wonderful, fantastic and beautiful moment, I could see what this person saw.  

I am strong and powerful and awesome, and not just on the days where I feel good.  Every day.  I am these things even when I don’t remember.  I am these things, because other people see them in me.  Other people see me.  

I am.

Image

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Landscapes (A Piece of the Puzzle)

A landscape.  Perfect and flowing and green.  Yellow and purple and oranges and pink blossoms are abundant.  The sun is shining through the clouds and the trees are perfect, like the kind you might have climbed in as a child.  It is the ideal life.  Take one piece out of the puzzle however, one thing in the middle, and you leave a hole.  Without that piece, the picture is never what it was.

*

As I take my first steps into daylight, I am hesitant to even breathe.  I am struck with the realization that when I came in it was night, and now the sun is shining.  The world is different than the one that I left behind.  It is louder, brighter.  I can see the car.  I can see where I’m supposed to go.  But I want nothing more than to walk, to venture, to get lost.  My life is misshapen.  It’s broken, irrevocably altered.  I am a puzzle piece that no longer fits into the landscape.  This is the point in my life at which I will turn, this is blatantly apparent.  I will go one way or another.  I will break, or I will stay together.  But nothing will be the way that it was.  It isn’t possible.

How do you come back from an experience that changes you forever?  How do connect to a world that you don’t trust to hold your secrets?  How do you move forward when it feels like time is stuck?  Answer—you don’t.  You just don’t.  You curl up into a ball and you don’t come out again.  You wear your favorite pajamas and you wrap up in a fluffy blanket and you deny that the rest of the world exists.  Because to you, it doesn’t.  It doesn’t.  It never will.

I reach out, feel the air through my fingers.  Breathe in the winter surrounding me.  Breathe in life.  I need to take what I can get; I’m not sure if I’m living anymore, and  I need confirmation.  I need to make myself feel something.  Anything but him.  He is all I feel and there is nothing else.  I imagine that a wall surrounds me, a bubble.  I am isolated from the rest of the world and living in my own time.  My own space.  

He has the power.  I have none.

*

In the land of Foucault, my favorite theorist, discourse and knowledge and power intertwine and blend together.  Discourse brings power and knowledge together, and when someone is allowed to have their own thoughts and ideas they gain knowledge.  With that knowledge comes power.  Nobody gives them the power and they don’t take the power.  It’s tied to the knowledge.  Until a person who is abused knows their options and knows that they are their own person, they lack the knowledge that necessitates power.  One of the things that disempowers the abused is silence—that we don’t talk about it or that we talk about it quietly.  It’s all about keeping things quiet. 

*

It can be hard to separate from something when you’re in the moment, in the thick of it.  With time comes perspective.  Trying to take power from me was a way of making up for his own lack.  I didn’t know any better, I put power onto him that he didn’t have or deserve by keeping quiet.  I know better now.  I’m older.  I have distance.  I think that that’s the most important thing.  We have to confront our demons in order to be stronger people, and confronting our demons means naming them.  

You don’t come back.  You only go forward.  

You connect to the world in new, different ways.  You find different places in which to fit instead of cramming yourself into places no longer for you.

You move forward by putting one foot in front of the other.  One step at a time.  One thing at a time.  One day at a time.  

Some days I break, and I need to keep telling myself that that’s okay.  It’s okay to sometimes not be okay.  It’s okay to be scared when a guy comes up behind me and places hands on my shoulders.  Justifiable, even.  It doesn’t make me bad, or wrong, or abnormal.  It makes me human.  It means that I’m feeling.  And in feeling, I’m accepting.  

I’m tired of talking about things quietly.  I’m tired of hiding.  I need to find a way to use my experience.  I’ve realized that I’m stronger than I know.  And I figured it out.

For real.  I need to publish the damn book.  And then I need to let it go, or it will break me.

“How wild it was, to let it be.”

*

A landscape.  Flowing and wild.  Colored blossoms and animals are abundant.  The sun is shining through the clouds and the trees reach for the sky.  It is life, but not ideal.  It’s real.  Take one piece out of the puzzle however, one thing in the middle, and you leave a hole.  Without that piece, the picture is never what it was.

So you take a crayon and you color in the hole.  You make a new picture.  You rebuild.  And you make it okay.

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You Are Worth It

“Never, never underestimate the power of desire.  If you want to live badly enough, you can live.  The great question, at least for me, was:  How do I decide I want to live?”  –Marya Hornbacher

 

How do you decide you want to live?

It’s about being careful.

It’s about stopping yourself from those thoughts, thoughts like “I can’t eat that” or “I’m fat.”

Most importantly, and also simply, it’s about just doing it.

A large portion of people who experience some type of eating disorder are perfectionists.  Perfectionism is shown to be a fairly significant risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, and the levels of perfectionism tend to improve slightly when the person is in “recovery.”  A study done by Anna Bardone-Cone, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found that a fully recovered group largely resembled a non eating-disordered control group in terms of their perfectionism, while the partially recovered group more resembled those still in the full throes of their disorder.  Perfectionism lingers even in recovery.

This perfectionism can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, from always having to do things right the first time to needing to earn straight A’s, to having to order your clothes a certain way.  But the disorder isn’t about being perfect. It’s not about being thin. It’s about knowing that there is one thing left in your life that still belongs to you, one thing that you can still control. It’s about having the power to slowly disappear.  

That is the only power you still wield. 

The eating disorder fills a hole; it provides something to hold on to where there was previously only empty space.  For a lot of people, and for you, it is about being numb.  It is about creating your own despair before someone else can create it for you.  Where people can always take things from you no matter how hard you fight back, this is something that you can take from yourself.  The key to staying alive is finding other ways to fill the hole.  Because the thing is, real power does not come with the choice to disappear.  Rather, it comes with the choice to live.  And that choice is not small at all.  

It begins with the decision to eat one thing, however small, and then it snowballs.  First one thing, then another, then another.  Until you wake up one morning and eat your Cheerios just like everybody else, without a second thought.  But some things don’t change.  You can go for days eating the same thing.  You go out to restaurants and know what you will order before you get there.  You make eating into routines.  On Mondays, you can eat certain things.  Tuesdays, other things.  On and on and on.  In this way, you have accepted your decision to live but still maintain some modicum of control.  The eating disorder lies dormant.  You are “better,” but it does not go away.  Not completely.  You wonder when it will come back.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much.  

A loss.

A hurt.

A night in the back of a car.

You are that little girl again, the one with the pink lunch box with yellow handles.  The one that everyone made fun of, teased, tormented.  Your fingers graze over the Barbie picture that is raised from the fabric.  You want to empty your lunch box, just like she did, so you eat your banana and nothing more.  You can not handle life.  This act of withholding is all you can do.

You remember that it is easier to deal with this than it is to deal with what has happened, and you realize that maybe you aren’t “better” after all.  Maybe you’re still the same as you always were.  Maybe you have to decide to live all over again.

The decision is about remembering what you are here for.  It comes from the faces of the students who look up to you.  From the friends you have made.  From the people who have supported you.  From the things you have to draw on that you never had before.  From realizing that you too, like all of us, have a purpose.

From integrating your experiences and accepting them as a part of yourself, and then letting them go.

The desire to live requires constantly making the decision to do so.  But you need to be careful, because you are well aware that it can always, always, come back.  So you must always know that you are better than it.  You are more.  You are worth it.

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