Month: January 2013

La terreur de la mort

La mort.

The words roll off my tongue slowly as I whisper out loud.

The emotion that follows is strange to observe as it ripples through my body, giving me the tiniest of goosebumps. It is different than anything I’ve ever experienced. It brings with it layers of crippling sadness, uselessness, worthlessness. It holds a peculiar sense of hope.

Suddenly I am keenly aware of every part of me. My heartbeat is steady and regular, and I feel warm rushes of blood pulsing down my arms and legs. I curl my fingers and toes, letting the stretch overwhelm my nerves. I swallow, noticing it effect on the rest of my body. More than ever before, I feel the very essence of my humanity. The system that holds me together. End the system, end me.

Disappear. God, what would that be like? I remember being very young and sitting at the dinner table with my parents, a rush of panic enveloping my tiny body as my trembling voice avowed that I would never die. My father laughed; my mother looked at me with sadness and wisdom in her eyes as she told me that I didn’t have a choice. Everybody died, sooner or later.

Later, I was on a road trip with my family, driving through someplace flat in the midwest. I can’t tell you where we were going. It was sunny and warm and I sat comfortably in the back seat of the minivan, letting the rays of light glow on my smiling face. We were listening to a CD I had just gotten from a friend – I think it was Martina McBride. The song that reverberated from the speakers was a cheerful mix of strings and drums and twangy vocals, and I was humming along as my father tapped the beat on the steering wheel. And suddenly I felt it again. My heartbeat quickened and crescendoed until it overpowered the music; my skin became hot and itchy and I was suffocated by anxiety once more. This was it. I was trapped inside this human body, and one day this human body would grow old and die and disintegrate – and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I was a pretty fatalistic kid, I suppose.

I kept thinking about it from time to time as I grew older, always accidentally. I would be lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, when I was jarred awake by the fleeting thought of my demise. Sometimes I would roll over and try to ignore it; other times I would simply get out of bed and pace around my room a few times until my nervous system stopped going haywire. But the thoughts, however short-lived, always brought with them the kind of fear that only death could bring me, a painful and anesthesizing feeling that left me cold and out of breath and paralyzed. It was torture.

My parents are very religious people, so the few times I tried to talk to them about my preoccupation with the macabre they brought in God. They told me about how even though my body would eventually cease to exist, my soul would live on in heaven with Jesus. It was such a nice thought. I remember daydreaming about what heaven would be like if it was just a bunch of souls without bodies. How would we recognize people? What did a soul look like separate from its body? Do souls not take up space like bodies do – and if they do, how big is heaven that it can fit every person that’s ever lived and died?

I wanted to believe my parents were right. After all, every kid wants to be able to trust their parents implicitly. But my hope that maybe they could be was overwhelmed by the fear that they were not.

Sometimes, I would forcefully shove thoughts of death out of my head the second they arrived, but they always came back with a vengeance. Other times I would actively try to convince myself that I believed in the afterlife and everything would end happily, but doubts always set in soon after. Still other times I would simply allow myself to feel the panic coursing rougly through my veins, taking over my bodily processes, until it passed on its own – only to return a little later.

Nothing has ever terrified me like the unavoidability of death.

I’m going to have to face my mortality sooner or later.

I close my eyes and inhale deeply, feeling the spindly fingers of oxygen reaching into the furthest corners of my body. Breathing feels good. There is comfort in the gentle in and out. I am safe.

For now.

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A Farewell to Boost™

Photo on 1-25-13 at 11.09 AM

My dearest Boost™ Complete Nutritional Drink,

It is with great pleasure that I announce our official break-up.

We’ve traveled a long road together, you and I. Our relationship was complicated, but you were always reliable. Every day between the hours of 10:30 and 11:30 am, I would reach into the refrigerator and grip your chilled, ergonomic bottle in my hand, feeling reassured by your unwavering presence. I would peel the crackly label from your cap, almost always ripping part of your nutrition label (which was okay, because I pretty much had it memorized anyway). I would shake you firmly and unscrew your tight crimson cap, watching as the thin layer of froth bubbled down. I would go through the agonizing process of trying to make one of my many colorful straws rest inside you without it floating to the surface, splashing me with liquid, and plummeting from your stagnant mouth. Each day the process repeated itself with comforting accuracy. We had a rhythm, supported by weeks of experience, and it was beautiful.

But I don’t need you anymore.

Look, it was nice while it lasted. I recognize that, and I’m grateful for everything you’ve been able to do for me. But I think it’s time we both move on.

You see, I’ve grown pretty used to your thick, chocolatey, plastic-ey flavor, and every once in a while I might think back to you fondly. But you carry much more than that when you glide over my tongue. You taste like being sick, like failing; you taste like giving up. You remind me of the bitter disappointment of noncompliance and the frustration of refeeding. You are a punishment. My relationship with you has been nothing but a rebound from the terrible abuse I inflicted upon myself. Sure, that’s not your fault. You simply exist, and what you have come to mean to me is a result of my own experiences, not your purpose. But I know that with you in my life, constantly reminding me of the ways I’ve let myself down, I cannot move forward. So as I rinse the dregs from the inside of your curvy 8 oz. bottle and toss you into the recycle bin for the last time, I feel a sense of beautiful release.

I’m replacing you with a slice of pumpkin bread or a Pop-tart, an apple and peanut butter or a Luna bar. I don’t know what exactly it’s going to be; it will probably be different every day. All I know is that I don’t need you to be there for me anymore. I’ve got relationships in my life far more important than ours, and it’s time I allow them to become healthy and strong. Your chapter in my story has ended and I owe it to myself to start a new one.

Goodbye, Boost™. May our only encounters be glances stolen across the grocery store aisle, until I am old and toothless and need you once again.

Lots of love,

Gwen

The Ghost

I’m not sure what she is. She might be a ghost. Her eyes are sunken and fragile, as if anything she sees might cause her to shatter into a thousand jagged-edged pieces.

My dreams seem to be her vessel. She drifts through them soundlessly, staring at me desperately with those hollow eyes. She is everywhere I go; everywhere I am. Sometimes she opens her mouth as if to speak, but I do not think she has a voice. Perhaps she lost her breath long ago.

She has the appearance of one who was once very lovely. Her features are mapped out delicately upon her gaunt, drawn face. Her mouth curves ever so slightly upward at the corners, suggesting that she could wear a smile well, if only her eyes were not so tired.

At times when I see her silent, worn frame from the corner of my eye, I envy her. She floats so effortlessly, so inconspicuously, so passively. Without a voice, she never says the wrong thing. Without a spirit, she never pushes too hard. Without strength, she never struggles.

Each time we encounter each other, she seems closer and closer to disappearing. The curves of her delicate bones become more prominent, her smooth skin grows cold and colorless. She cannot follow me like she used to. Her eyelids droop slowly over her empty eyes. When curiosity draws me close to her, she whispers faintly, “I have given up.”

I do not see her again.

One night I dream that I am floating in an expanse of cold, solid black. The stale air fills my lungs and I choke silently on my hopelessness. At once I am filled with the fatalistic knowledge that I have no choice but to let the blackness slowly erase me. My eyes begin to flutter shut. A jolt of panic and I awaken, shuddering, feeling the chill of my evaporating sweat. I tiptoe to the bathroom and arouse my senses with a splash of icy water. As slowly tilt my face upward to wipe the tiny beads from my forehead, I stop short –

There she is once more. And yet she is different. There is a rosy undertone that spreads beneath her still-defined cheekbones. Her eyes, though sunken, hold a microscopic spark that lights up the corners of her slightly upturned mouth.

I reach out wonderingly to touch her, but my fingers brush cold glass.

I smile at her. She smiles back.

I chose not to give up.

A single glassy tear shines in her eye. It tells me more than words ever could.

Faith

When I try to explain what the process of recovery is like for me, I’m not sure I ever really know what I’m saying. I don’t want to make it so complicated that no one can understand what I’m talking about, but I don’t want to simplify it so much that I’m making less of it than what it is. It’s a very confusing process, and it’s one that I’m slowly getting better at. Very slowly.

But this morning as I sat in yoga class, twisted up like a pretzel, the thought came to me. All of a sudden I knew exactly how to describe it using a comparison that almost anyone could understand! I mean, granted, having that realization meant that I wasn’t exactly practicing successful yoga, since I wasn’t fully present and mindful of the moment. I feel as though my yoga teacher would not be thrilled to hear that her class is where my revelation occurred…but in any case, this is what I discovered:

Recovery is like learning to drive stick.

Now, I realize that is not the most graceful of metaphors, nor is it one that has probably been used very often. But it’s so very accurate for me that I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. It perfectly sums up all of my fears, insecurities, hopes, and experiences. And I don’t mean in a silly, cliché way that’s like, “Driving down Recovery Road” or something like that. No, this is the real nitty-gritty, emotional center of my experience of recovery. Of course this comparison simplifies it – it is impossible to fully understand the depth of it unless you have personally been through it – but it is my hope that I can shed some light into this process for all those who feel in the dark.

To fully understand where I’m coming from, first let me explain what it was like for me to learn to drive stick. Some people find it very simple, and for them this comparison would not work at all. For me, however, it was one of the most emotionally exhausting things I have ever tried to do. If you were to ask my father about it, he would probably get a good laugh out of telling you the story (so, Dad, if you’re reading this, I hope I do justice to the comedy of the experience). I will start out by saying that I am already a fairly high-strung and anxious individual with perfectionistic tendencies, and that is probably an understatement. So maybe you can start to see where this is going.

When I first sat down in the driver’s seat, my father began by trying to explain to me how a manual transmission differs from an automatic transmission. Now, I love my father dearly and I appreciate that he is so intelligent and mechanical-minded, but I felt a little bit like he was speaking a sort of Norwegian-Russian hybrid language. No matter how hard he tries, bless his soul, I will never care how things work, hence the reason why I am not an engineer. However, he did succeed in making me even more stressed out because I was trying to understand all the words he was speaking. By the time he was ready for me to back out of the driveway, my mind had spiraled out of control into a whirlpool of “what if”s.

What if I stall the car and everybody starts honking at me?
What if I accidentally switch the car into reverse while I’m driving?
What if I roll backwards down a hill and cause a huge pile-up and everybody hates me?

So, naturally, my solution was to refuse flat-out to step on the gas pedal. It makes so much sense, right? I just pushed in the clutch and let myself roll, painfully slowly, backward out into the street. That’s a pretty short-term solution, though, because eventually the car just sort of comes to a stop. And then you’re stuck.

At this point I wasn’t going anywhere at all. I was stopped at this awkward diagonal angle in the street that would have been a huge inconvenience for any other drivers. And yet my feet were stretching forward, pressing firmly on the clutch and the brake, not taking any steps toward solving the new problem – that I was blatantly blocking traffic. My dad was clearly starting to get impatient with my irrationality, which only succeeded in making me more stubborn. So we finished for the day. He pulled the car back into the driveway with great ease, and I cried.

The next day I decided it was finally time to try actually driving the car. With practice, I began to feel comfortable engaging the clutch and getting the car moving, however slowly. My father tried very hard to be patient with me, instructing me calmly when I needed to change gears or stop and start over again. We spent hours driving in circles around the cul-de-sac, which I’m sure greatly entertained the neighbors. And of course, like any true mental case, I was in tears for at least half of the time I was sitting in that driver’s seat.

When my dad looked over at me and told me he thought I was ready to try the main roads, my blood pressure skyrocketed. Well, actually, I don’t know that for sure, but I feel like if anything were to cause my blood pressure to spike, it would have been this experience. Me, ready for the main roads? Fat chance. I was still cautious and slow starting out because I was so terrified of stalling. The thought of having to make a hill start made me want to throw up. How could I possibly be ready for something that scared me to a level of physical discomfort?

“If you wait until you feel ready, Gwen, you’ll never do it.”

So I did it.

It did not go terribly smoothly. I refused to shift into anything above third gear, and I stalled five times in a row at a stop sign before I realized that I was actually still in third gear (not the greatest way to try to get moving). And the one time I had to stop on a hill, I threw a fit of hysterics and refused to take my foot off the brake, even though that meant I couldn’t go anywhere. Thank goodness my dad took pity on me and used the handbrake to help me out, otherwise I’m convinced I would be at that stop sign to this very day. When I’d finally had enough emotional torture, we headed back home. And that’s when he asked me.

“Why are you freaking out like this? What are you so afraid of?”

A whole score of things ran through my head. Well obviously, I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to put the clutch in and stall and everyone will think I’m a terrible driver. I’m also afraid that I’m going to stall the car someplace really dangerous like a highway and there’s going to be a huge accident and it will be all my fault. And I’m afraid that I’ll roll back too far when I’m starting on a hill and hit the cars behind me instead of going forward and everyone will think I’m an idiot and the price of insurance will go up and you’ll never trust me to drive again.

As I watched my fears rush past my field of vision, I decided to take a second look. Alright, all of those things were possible. I would probably stall the car at some point and maybe make a couple of other drivers angry. But the more I practiced, the less often it would happen. And I most likely would not stall the car on a highway, since there isn’t really a lot of shifting going on when there’s a straight shot and a steady pace.

But hill starts…the bane of my existence. I hated that terrifying jolt of panic that pierced through my veins when I felt the car rolling ever so slightly backward; those awful few moments when my feet were half pressing the clutch, half pressing the gas, as I prayed for the engine to engage before I felt the sickening “thud” of metal on metal. It made me queasy just thinking about it. I tried to think rationally, to stick to the facts of the situation, but it seemed impossible. I reluctantly accepted that this was one fear I would simply never be able to conquer.

So how is it that just last week I successfully pulled out of an intersection on a hill?

The answer is complicated, and yet it is not. It can be summed up in a single word, but that word holds more meaning than it should. That word is “faith.”

For me, in those moments, faith was about hope and trust. It was about believing that even though I felt like I was moving backward, I would eventually change direction. It was about trusting that in the moment when I felt the most doubtful and scared, the engine would engage and things would turn around. It was about hoping for the best possible outcome instead of expecting the worst.

Alright, so that was my experience of learning to drive stick. Now what about recovery? I’m sure you have some idea of where this is going.

When I first went into treatment, I was scared out of my mind. It felt like I had to learn a whole new skill set just to go back to living a normal life, and my head was once again full of “what if”s. What if I can’t recover? What if I try really hard and still fail at it? What if I do recover and I’m not any happier? What if I can never fix the damage I’ve done to my mind and my body?

So at first I refused. I went through the motions, I did what I was supposed to do, but I was still too scared to really let myself move forward. When I finally did start taking steps, I did so very slowly until I got very comfortable at my level of care. And then at the thought of stepping down, I panicked. But my case manager echoed the very words my father had spoken before I took that leap onto the main roads. “If you want until you feel ready, you’ll never do it.”

I stepped down. And just like that first foray into real driving, it did not go smoothly. I was dishonest; I sunk into old ways of thinking and went through rough periods of time where I came dangerously close to relapsing. I still had a team of people ready to help me with the handbrake if I needed it, but it was time to try as hard as I could to lift myself up on my own.

I look at the fears I have about recovery and I understand that they, too, are irrational. Recovery is not a linear path, and there is no such thing as “failing” at it as long as you learn from your mistakes. And in reality, I cannot be any less happy than I was in the midst of my eating disorder – unless there’s something below rock bottom that no one’s informed me of.

Most importantly, I am allowing myself to have faith in the process. Even though sometimes I feel like I’m giving in to old habits and taking steps back in my recovery, I believe that I am still making progress every day. In the moments when I experience my deepest fears and sadness, I trust that something in me will allow me to turn it around. I work tirelessly to focus on all the great things that could come out of recovery instead of the remote possibility that things could get worse. I trust myself, and I hold onto hope.

Now, when I feel that pulse of terror as the car starts to roll backwards, I am reminded of the nonlinearity of life. Ultimately, I will be moving forward. And if I have to lose a little bit of ground to do that? The outcome will be worth it. In that I have utter and absolute faith.

A Return to the Self

She knew that this transition was not about becoming someone better, but about finally allowing herself to become what she’d always been.

I came across this quote on Pinterest the other day (oh my word, Pinterest has become an addiction once more) and it reminded me of why I started a blog in the first place – to get back to writing, because that’s such a huge part of who I am. And then I remembered that I hadn’t written in this blog since before I went into treatment, which was October.

This transitional period in my life, when I’m not in school anymore and not working and trying to focus on myself and my health, is really difficult. And I keep putting a lot of pressure on myself to get better. After all, I certainly don’t want to live my life in the in-between forever. But I guess I’m beginning to see that it’s not really about getting “better” than I was. It’s about returning to the person I was before all this happened, even though that person seems really far away.

I feel like I’m slowly getting in touch with that person again. She’s pretty elusive right now, hiding behind this massive bully that’s been living in my head for far too long. But I have hope that someday I’ll be able to find her and trust her and let her trust me again. For too long I’ve been forcing my old self into hiding for fear that she wouldn’t be accepted or loved. For too long I’ve been perpetuating the idea that my real self is the enemy and that only by punishing her can I make sense of my world. For too long I have been living a life guided solely by my fears and insecurities.

So I’m going to try this whole blogging thing once more, see if anything comes of it. I can’t promise that I’ll update it terribly regularly or that everything I write will be literary genius. It will only be me, living out my growing pains and trying to make sense of everything that’s happening in my life.

Cheers.