Month: August 2013

The In-Betweens

I like to play the grey areas in life – that’s the most uncomfortable place to be. Nobody likes to be in that in-between state where they don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of tension in that, and a lot of stuff to play with – where it’s uncomfortable and awkward and sad and scary.

– Melanie Lynskey

In the past year, I’ve lived a lot of in-betweens. First I was stuck knowing I needed help, but not wanting it. Then all of a sudden I was balancing precariously on the tightrope between life and death. And now, going through the recovery process has caused a huge amount of back-and-forth pulling. Sometimes I feel like I’m skating forward no problem, ready to take on the world, and other times I look at my ugly past with rose-colored glasses and realize how easy it would be to slip back into starvation and isolation.

I’m even physically in between. I’m home now, after spending my summer in classes, and will return to start again very soon. I’m at a point where I’ve been cleared for exercise but don’t have the strength or stamina to actually do much of anything yet. Most of my clothes from last summer and fall are too small, but my clothes from my sophomore year are all too big. And I’m in between the age where it’s okay to have no idea what I want to do with my life and the age where I’m supposed to be sure.

I’m not good at handling grey areas. And that may be the understatement of the century. I’m infamous among the members of my treatment team for my extremely black-and-white thinking – either I’m perfect, or I’ve failed. I truly went about my entire school-age life believing that if I didn’t get 100% on every test I was a stupid, moronic failure. I struggled to place everything into a category. Things were either good or bad. Answers were either right or wrong. People were either best friends or nemeses. I was either sure or I had no idea. There was no “maybe” or “okay” or “sort of” in my book. It was one or the other, end of story.

Naturally, recovery requires you to start thinking of everything on a spectrum. Because there’s not really a box for being “recovered.” There’s just recovery, as a journey, in which things unfold and you accept them the way they are and you make choices that bring you a little bit closer to happiness every day. If I were still thinking in such all-or-nothing terms, every time I skipped a snack or left out an exchange at breakfast would mean I’d relapsed, and I am perfectly able to recognize how silly that would be. The problem comes when I try to apply that same reasoning to the other areas of my life.

I hate the in-betweens. I hate not knowing where I am or what’s going to happen next. It is every bit as uncomfortable and awkward and sad and scary as Lynskey says it is. I never learned how to figure things out as I went, because I always made sure I had an idea of where I was going. And I did that because I absolutely hated feeling uncomfortable and awkward and sad and scared. They’re not pleasant emotions. They drive me crazy and cause me to fall into a near-psychotic pattern of over-analysis. The in-betweens bring out the worst aspects of my anxiety and perfectionism until I can’t stand to be inside my own head anymore.

I think, though, that if you don’t let yourself experience things in shades of gray, you can never be sure of what makes you happy. You can never be happy. Living the in-betweens teaches you more about yourself than you ever thought you could know. It is only in the in-betweens that you can truly figure out who you are and what you want.

They only last so long. The in-betweens. The grey areas. Eventually something will happen, whether you’re expecting it or not. And more often than not, the discomfort and the awkwardness and the terror push you one way or the other. When I was deciding whether to continue on my path to self-destruction or seek help, it took hitting a terrifying rock bottom to finally propel me toward recovery. Today, as we speak, I’m dealing with the maddening semi-relationship area where I don’t have any idea what is possibly going to happen next, but I will say that the more I accept the scariness and the sadness and the uncertainty, the more I am able to realize what I want.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to say that I like the grey areas in life. After all, nobody likes the in-betweens. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. You can’t fit everything nicely into a perfect little box. Sometimes you really do just have to accept every moment without judgment, and decide how you want to go forward. You can’t always make the right choice, but if you’re allowing yourself to let go of control for even a split second and stop trying to change the way things are, you can’t be wrong, either.

There’s something special about not knowing. There’s a realm of infinite possibility. The in-betweens are a blessing.

Run, ED, Run!

Post-workout selfie!

Post-workout selfie!

When I was in treatment, my case manager and the rest of my team liked to play a super fun game called “When Will Gwen Hit Monitored Walk?” I’d been in residential for almost a month, enduring meal plan increase after meal plan increase, and my BMI had risen a whopping one point, not enough to be considered “medically stable” by my insurance company. In order to go on a slow, mindful, 20-minute walk around the hospital grounds, your BMI had to be at a solid 18.5; to put it mildly, I was a bit shy of that mark.

When I was stepped down to partial, I was still pretty much couch-ridden. Until the scale reached that magic number, if I did anything more exhaustive than walking from my bedroom to the kitchen and bathroom, I was required to drink an extra Boost (my all-time favorite plasticky liquid nutritional supplement). I’d drive around town in my Subaru, chowing down on Luna bars and watching enviously as “normal” people all around me went for their afternoon run. I was quite literally being fattened up, Hansel-and-Gretel-style. God, I hated every second of it. I desperately wanted to go sledding and ice skating and all the other things people do in the winter, but even doing my Christmas shopping at the mall required me to drink an extra 64 ounces of Gatorade.

It made sense. At my worst, I had been eating far less than a thousand calories a day and still running between 5 and 10 miles every morning. The physical exertion was causing my body to start digesting its own muscle, including my heart, and I could have gone into cardiac arrest without a single warning. But as various systems in my body began to regularize, I began longing to join my mom for her morning power walk and compete in the local road races. I missed the feeling of my muscles working together to do something extraordinary. I missed running.

Fortunately, I have been able to maintain a relatively stable, healthy weight for the majority of the summer. Both of my doctors, at school and at home, have begrudgingly cleared me for exercise. And today, while I was out for my afternoon walk in the gorgeous August sun, I decided to do something terrifying. I picked an endpoint about five hundred feet in front of me, pushed off, and ran.

Damn. It was harder than I remembered. I mean, granted, I couldn’t get much of a rhythm going in 500 feet, but I can only describe what happened as semi-coordinated tripping. Exhausting, semi-coordinated tripping that left me with a stitch in my side and a frightening tightness in my chest. It took a couple blocks of walking to recover from that son of a bitch. I guess I’d forgotten that running was hard. That it hadn’t come naturally to me the first time, and that it wouldn’t this time either.

Hard or not, however, it reminded me of something. It reminded me of how powerful my body can be. Sure, right now it’s pretty worn out from trying to repair all the damage I’ve done. But I remember breaking a seven-minute mile and passing the seven-mile mark – before everything started unraveling. I remember what it feels like to be proud and strong. It was fleeting, but I remember it. The moments when I was too tired to hear ED screaming about what a failure I was and took just a fraction of a second to appreciate what I was finally able to do.

Running became, eventually, about the number of calories I was able to burn. But it didn’t start out like that. It started out as a quiet morning energy-booster. A way to experience the world before anyone else was awake. A way to release the stress and frustration I’d inevitably built up over the previous few days. Feeling the pounding of my feet on the pavement forced my body to create a pattern of movement that was steady and strong and synchronized, like every part of me was governed by my heartbeat.

I’ve decided I deserve to feel that again. In the past ten months, I have become stronger mentally than I ever thought possible. I have grown in so many ways; I’ve learned to appreciate moments and people and experiences. I figured out that the size of the fight I’ve got inside is bigger than anybody realized, including me. I’ve pretty much decided that I can do damn well anything I please, and ED can go fuck himself. Pardon my French. And I want to display my strength. I want my body to be as strong now as my mind is. I deserve to have an outside that accurately reflects the soul within.

So bring on the weight gain. I’m fully prepared to eat lots of extra peanut butter and banana sandwiches and drink protein shakes. I’m ready to lift barbells and look stupid doing squats at the gym. I’m even looking forward to the moments when my legs give out and I can’t do the last push-up, because you know what? that means I’m trying. On my worst days, I’m trying. And every time I put on muscle mass, I’ll be one step closer to squashing ED altogether.

I’m empowering myself, not my eating disorder. And that feels pretty amazing.

Backward Motion

Ever since I was really little, I’ve loved sitting backward on trains. When my parents would take us to our grandparents’ place on the South Shore or to New York City on the commuter rail, I always chose a seat that faced the direction opposite the train’s motion. There was something exhilarating about not being able to see where I was going, like I could all of a sudden just end up in Wonderland without realizing it. Kids gotta get their kicks somewhere, I guess. I liked mystery and apprehension and being able to get off the train and marvel at the sights I never saw coming.

I’m actually writing this sitting backward on a train, something I’m fairly sure I haven’t done in at least ten or twelve years. Usually when I ride the MBTA or the el or the subway, I always make sure I sit facing forward. At this point it’s force of habit. I’m used to the feeling of moving forward – on planes, in cars, on my feet, in boats – it is rare that I am not facing what’s ahead and acutely aware of it. I watch the stops or the clouds or the signs fly past me and I feel the motion driving me into the future, releasing me from all that lies behind.

There is an unfamiliarity surrounding backward travel. Sensation is different when your internal organs are leading rather than following the rest of your body. And while you have a perfect 180-degree view of where you’ve just been, you’re totally blind to where you’re going. It takes trust to ride this way. It takes faith. It takes processing all the places you’ve seen and believing that based on those experiences, you have become something more than you were. Those are the moments when you’re sure the place you’re going is where you’re supposed to be.

Pieces of Me

It’s been about a month now since I made my blog available for public consumption. The fervor around it has died down, partly because I’ve been slacking off in the writing department in favor of actually passing my classes. My “Vignettes” have all been published, my Facebook friends have gotten used to the image of me with a bottle of Boost in my hand, and I’ve received several powerful and moving responses from people I never would have expected to hear from. It’s been a smooth transition, I think, and I am grateful that I was blessed with the gift of such beautiful and supportive followers.

It was scary. It still is. All of a sudden a thousand little pieces of me became searchable codes of binary. Google my name and you’ll know more about me than some of my best friends do. Browse through pages of my thoughts and you’ll know what I’m feeling before I do. Most of the time I don’t think about the implications of my writing, but when it hits me, sometimes I get scared that I’ve let too much slip out. Overshared. I get this horrible feeling that everyone is going to think I’m stupid for baring my soul to the ether. After all, what kind of nut job would publicly admit to being crazy?

My roommate once jokingly told me that I should keep my blog far away from potential suitors. Another friend warned me about what might happen if it were discovered by a potential employer. “Do you really want your boss to know that you have a history of mental illness?” she asked me skeptically. “Or that you cry a lot when you’re drunk?”

She made excellent points. My roommate, too, who is never too shy to point out that my “poor future husband” is going to have his hands full with all my baggage, is partially right. These might not be the parts of me that are the most marketable or make the best first impression. I understand that showcasing my roughest edges is a risky thing to do.

The thing is, they’re just pieces.

Everything on the internet can be broken down into a completely abstract code that is read and reassembled by individual computers. Those candid little paragraphs in which I wrote my darkest dreams are nothing but a series of 0’s and 1’s traveling through cyberspace. But me? I cannot be quantified in base-2 or base-10 or base-30 million. I am not a simple sum or product of numbers. I am a person, a person so complex that no amount of neuroscience or psychology can explain exactly who I am.

So I have a history of mental illness. I walk through each day with that knowledge. I rely on the help of a supportive treatment team, an incredible group of family and friends, and psychoactive drugs to live the life I want, and deserve, to live. Should I be ashamed of that? Does it mean that I work any less diligently to achieve my goals? Does it mean that I am a less intelligent, responsible, creative person? Does it mean that I am worth less than anyone else?

I’m human. Not every day is sunshine and rainbows. I have a nasty habit of being too hard on myself. I get jealous, insecure, and nervous. Sometimes I do things that aren’t totally responsible. I have conflicts, I fall in love, I watch embarrassingly stupid TV shows way too often.

I also think that if anyone asked me to identify the most important thing I’ve gained from my struggles, it would be this: I know myself. I know what I do well, I know what I do badly. I know what I want. I know what I’m scared of. I’ve spent enough time fighting my inner demons that I think I have a much more solid grasp on life than a lot of college seniors. And I’m not saying that to be self-righteous, I’m saying it because I know myself. I know what I’ve been through and what I’ve learned.

I’ve learned that I can’t fight who I am. I can’t try to constrain my imagination in a box of logic and I can’t make myself into a leggy 5’11” supermodel. What I can do, however, is discover all the missing pieces of me – the ones I shut out by trying to conform to unrealistic expectations. They’re a part of my story, too, but I won’t share all of them. I will hold some of my broken fragments up to the light because I’m proud of the way my scars are healing. Others I will keep as mementos, close to my heart.

I am more than my eating disorder. I am more than my self-doubt. I am more than my experiences. I am more than my writing. Those are just pieces. The rest of me is in this moment hoping and planning and dreaming and loving in a million ways that cannot, and will not, be expressed in words. But I’m not hiding. The thing is, everybody’s a little bit broken. If you search hard enough, everybody has things they wrestle with and parts that aren’t pretty.

But those are just pieces.

Vignettes of an Eating Disorder, Part 10

The first time my mom came to visit was a Friday. The wind was trying to blow the door closed as I struggled to hold it for her, and when I finally let go, the slam reverberated through the ground floor. She looked at me through the eyes that were also mine and she saw all the brokenness deep under my skin and our eyes, mirror images, welled with the tears that told us both what we had to do.