anxiety

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s kind of funny how hard it is to write when I’m not going through some kind of crisis. In some ways, I feel like happiness is boring; like now that I’ve grown closer to accepting the way things are, I’ve sacrificed some of the things that made me interesting. I worry that without the struggles that defined me when I started this blog, I have nothing worth saying.

I hope that’s not true. I don’t want it to be true. I think “interesting” is the greatest compliment I could ever get, and I couldn’t bear it if someone told me I was boring.

I’m worried that you guys, my readers, my crazy huge number of followers, are only here because of the hard stuff. Because there’s something about my journey through several levels of hell that struck you, or inspired you, or made you feel like you weren’t alone. Believe me, it has been unbelievable to be able to share my experiences with all of you. It has been a dream come true to be able to give some glimmer of hope to people who are struggling. This blog has been everything I ever could have hoped for and more.

The thing is, I’m doing well now. My life is pretty mundane. I’m a normal college student, taking a full courseload and working a part-time job. I spend my weekends marathoning TV shows and Netflix or spending time with my wonderful friends. I worry about normal college things, like graduating and getting good grades and finding a job. And being broke. And lamenting the fact that I’m still single. I’ve got a lot of worries, sure, but my health is no longer one of them.

As silly as it is, I wonder why any of you would care anymore. I’m nothing but average now, with nothing remarkable to show for my daily activities. It’s a blessing to be normal, to feel like I belong in the college culture, but as a blogger? Who wants to read about the life of a college math major? Besides the challenges I’ve worked to overcome, what makes me a worthwhile contributor to the WordPress world?

I am terrified that somehow, because I’m “normal,” my life has lost its meaning. That the things I’ve shared are the only things I’ll ever share. That I’ve reached my peak and nothing I do from this point on matters. All I’ll be is that blogger that used to be really insightful but now only talks about her job and her nights out on the town, losing followers left and right because she’s nothing special anymore. (Not that followers define me, but you know what I mean.)

I guess all I can say is that I’m still here. I’m still alive, which is something I never take for granted. I’m living outside of my URL, spending every day pushing toward the next phase of my life, hoping that something I do will matter someday. I still write 1000 words in my journal every day. I still think and wonder and love and cry and everything else humans do. I just don’t know how to say those things to all of you without losing my air of wisdom and courage. Without losing you.

Que sera, sera. What will be, will be. The only thing I can do is live the best way I know how, and I hope that I can take some of you with me along the way. Because God only knows what I’d do without you.

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The Empty Journal

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A year ago, I bought this journal at a craft store. I laughed out loud when I saw it, because it was just so incredibly perfect. “The creeping sense of impending disaster and the all-encompassing fears both specified and vague that colonize my mind, body, and soul” – that’s pretty much my everyday life, right? (And in case you can’t read the fine print at the bottom, it says “even though optimism may be unself-aware and ill-placed, I know I’ll be happier as a blind fool than as a clairvoyant apocalyptic.”)

Now if there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I have an uncanny ability to fill a journal. I’m constantly buying new ones because I can never quite keep up with the pace of my own writing. So it is seriously weird that I’ve had this awesome journal for a whole year and only filled five pages.

Here’s my problem…it’s prompted.

The beginning of every page begins with “What I’m hanging hope on today:” and that seems unfair. Because hope is a nice idea and all, but when a page starts off with a heading like that, all of a sudden I feel guilty writing down anything negative. Because how can I finish that sentence? “What I’m hanging hope on today: my body image really sucks”? Or “What I’m hanging hope on today: my roommates and I just had explosive diarrhea simultaneously and we only have one bathroom”? And I can’t just ignore the prompt, because it’s sitting right there staring at me and making me feel worse about feeling bad.

Every time I write in that journal, I say I’m going to do it more often. That I’m going to suck it up and write what I want, prompt be damned. But I never do. Although I am a person who generally craves order and organization, when it comes to writing, I think the best thing I can have in front of me at any given moment is a blank page. No prompts. That way I can write in poetry or metaphor or prose or even draw, and there’s nobody looking down their nose and telling me I can’t. So many times I want to write about things other than hope. I want to write about fear and loneliness and vulnerability and how it feels to fall in love with someone from thousands of miles away. I want to write about my family and how beautiful they are and how much they truly love each other. I want to write about the way I feel when I have too much to drink and the emotions spill out of me like running water and I’m left face-to-face with something ugly and scary. It doesn’t give me hope. It gives me life. It means I’m living. And living is oh so very painful. To quote William Goldman, anyone who says differently is selling something.

I’ve moved on to other journals since I started this one. In fact, I’ve completely finished at least two since the last time I wrote in it. Still, I keep it. The cover makes me laugh, and the sometimes funny/sometimes inspirational quotes inside are fun to look at.

Perhaps my inner optimist is disappointed in me. I doubt it. I usually find some way to see the bright side of a situation, even when nobody asks me to. And maybe I’ll find use for such a book someday, when my thoughts bleed out loud rather than on paper. Until then, well, whatever happens, it’s gonna be okay.

I’m Good At Being Afraid

There are butterflies in my stomach, but not the nice kind; they seem to be trying desperately to escape at the expense of my internal organs. I can’t keep food down, can barely swallow. My heart runs a marathon through my chest, the echo of its thick, rapid beats reverberating through my veins. The constriction of my chest muscles freezes my body in its tracks; I hyperventilate. My brain jolts, sizzles, runs haywire like a fuse that is about to explode; my vision blurs and my entire frame trembles. I have already lost control. I cannot hear you talking to me; you cannot help. The only thing you can do is sit with me until this stops, until I can focus again.

Fear. It’s a word I’ve been hearing for a long time, from the first day I went to the doctor and told them I couldn’t breathe. The doctor looked at my mother and said, “Your daughter may have an anxiety disorder.”

What does that mean to an eleven-year-old? It meant that sometimes I couldn’t sleep because I was too afraid that my heart would stop beating in the middle of the night, and that when I saw a piece of glass on the road I was terrified that I would swallow it. Irrational, unexplainable fears. It was as the doctor described: I had a keen awareness and anticipation of danger that caused me frequent panic attacks as a result of seemingly insignificant triggers. Some spells were worse than others, but I was always able to handle it on my own. As early as the fifth grade, I knew how to get through an anxiety attack in school without the teacher ever noticing. By seventh grade, although I was not able to eat more than a few bites of any meal for over three months, I seemed like an expertly adjusted individual. And at the end of sophomore year of high school, I taught myself how to do things as complicated as math problems in the midst of a full-blown panic.

I’m used to fear. Even when I go months without the irrationality and terror of the true disorder, I still get scared. I’m afraid of being in front of people and saying the wrong thing and dealing with my emotions. I’m terrified of how people perceive me and how I perceive myself. And every day, I turn down the things that I really want because I’m too frightened to face the unknown. Sometimes those facts discourage me, but mostly I just know I have some more growing to do. Maybe it’s true that I have a pretty long-term anxiety disorder, and right now I might let fear rule a lot of things. But I have already conquered so much of it on my own. I am capable of so much more.

Where’s My Story?

As long as I can remember, I’ve never been at a loss for a story.

Before I learned to read, I would pluck books from the bookshelves in my house and make up an elaborate tale about the characters in the pictures. If the book didn’t have pictures, well, that just meant my imagination could run even wilder. And if there were no books to my liking on the shelf, I would grab a catalog from the mail stack and use that instead. Catalogs, full of pictures, were perfect fodder for my creative brain. I would name the models, give them personalities and motivations and adventures, and fall in love with their spirits. They were little pieces of me, and they got to do all the things I never could.

In high school, I took a “writing for college” class that was supposed to help us with our college essays. I didn’t have very many I needed to write, but during the semester I spent in that room I must have written at least thirty personal statements. For no reason. I was just happy to be telling a story, my story.

And somehow, after all those years of always finding something to write about, I am dry.

Posting every day is a challenge unlike any I’ve undertaken before. My days are mundane, filled with calculus problems and long treks to buildings across campus. I always have between three and five papers I should be writing for my religion class. And every time I sit down at my computer, ready to write something hilarious or moving that will cure the monotonous boredom of my life – crickets. Nothing. Empty.

It is times like these when I wonder if I can really be a writer at all. Writers can’t write without a story.

 

Failing a Midterm, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Me, when I saw my grade.

Yeah, this week I failed a midterm.

There’s more to the story than that, though. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be publicly proclaiming my stupidity to all of the internet. Probably.

I sat down on Tuesday morning to take that test after having studied for three days straight. I mean, I’d slept, but pretty much every waking moment was spent reviewing definitions and distributions and rules of integration. My brain was full of information. I thought that was enough.

Unfortunately, I opened the exam to find that it very well might have been written in Aramaic for how little I understood what was going on. The words themselves weren’t that hard (“What is the distribution of the random variable X, where X is the number of tries it takes to put the right key in your apartment door?”) but the meaning behind them was essentially gibberish. I hadn’t the foggiest clue what I was supposed to do.

During those awful 55 minutes, I wrote down some equations (but didn’t use them), set up integrals (but didn’t solve them), and took some pretty wild guesses (is the integral of -2exp(-y+4)/arctan(y) just y? Well, I’m going to say it is). I left that testing room with a shattered ego and the sense that my brain had just been repeatedly run over by an eighteen-wheeler. Oof.

And then grades went up. And I got a 55. Which, to be honest, is pretty impressive considering I wouldn’t have been shocked by a 25. Or a 0. (Thank God for partial credit, amirite?)

My world kind of ended for a second when I refreshed the website and saw the number plastered in huge font on my screen. 55/100. Yikes. That’s not a good number. Not a good number at all. I’ve never failed anything this big before. Ego still shattered. Brain still sore. I felt a sudden urge to yell lots of really fun, loud expletives, but decided my napping roommate might not appreciate it too much.

And then I saw the tiny (SERIOUSLY, WHO DECIDED ON THIS SCALE) number to the right of my big bad one. Mean score: 51.25. Slowly, my world started again.

Lessons learned:

  1. I’m not stupid. I’m good at math. Hence, it’s my major. I should have predicted that my struggle with this exam probably meant a lot of other people struggled too.
  2. It was silly for me to be so upset about a number that was just floating around in midair without an anchor. I’m always jumping to conclusions and making mountains out of molehills, and I usually turn out to be dead wrong.
  3. I should probably start studying for the final, like, right now, because I’m f!@ked.

How soon do I graduate again?

A Letter from the Past

Today I had two job interviews, and I have to study for a midterm tomorrow. My brain is fried. So instead of writing something new for Day 11 of NaBloPoMo, I’m going to share an email that I got today. I wrote it on November 11, 2012, and set it to be delivered in my inbox one year later. That’s today.

I read it, and I cried.

This letter reminds me of all the hardships I’ve endured, how far I’ve come, and how special I am. I needed this so much after my waves of self-doubt yesterday. How did I know that I would need these words so much? Thank goodness for Futureme.org. I will be writing many more of these in the years to come.

Dear Me (in the future),

Remember when you were in treatment at Walden? Yeah, me too. In fact, I’m there right now. And as a Gwen who is fully nourished and motivated and positive, I am BEGGING you not to go back to your eating disorder.

Here’s the thing. You learned a lot while you were here. And you changed a lot, too. Remember what Carol said to you about your being a completely different person at the beginning and end of your time in resi? That’s so true. Just in the most basic ways, too. For example, when you were in your eating disorder and when you first came into treatment, you were sluggish and anxious. Everything you did had to be meticulously planned out or you would be nasty and irritable. You were rude to the people around you and thought completely irrationally – and you couldn’t focus or concentrate on anything at all. You have to know that isn’t you. That’s so foreign to the person I know you truly are. You’re so much better than that! Remember what people said about you at your rock ceremony? You’re smart, funny, infectiously positive, driven, inspiring, friendly, and welcoming. You put people at ease, make them laugh, and give them hope. And you have a LOT of energy! That person – the person you are when you’re eating your meal plan and challenging your eating disorder – is a beautiful person inside and out.

Remember why you decided you wanted to find recovery? You can never be perfect, so if that’s what you’re striving for, you’ll only be disappointed. There is always a way you could be skinnier or get better grades or be more organized. When are you going to realize that all the amazing things you can do are good enough for you to be happy? That’s why you and I want recovery. So we can finally allow ourselves to be happy. Please don’t forget that. Even when it feels tempting to head back down Perfection Boulevard. You are good enough exactly as you are right now. You deserve happiness exactly as you are.

Here’s the thing. You don’t want to go back to your eating disorder, you really don’t. It may feel like it sometimes, but that’s just your eating disorder tricking you. There are so many more reasons for recovery than relapse. You have so many things you want to accomplish in your life – finishing school, making a career, traveling, falling in love, raising a family, building a home. And there are lots of other things I know you have wanted to try too – like ballroom dancing and playing the harmonica. These things, even the silly ones, require you to be healthy in order to do and enjoy them the way you should.

Remember your coping skills and all the lessons and groups you attended? Those weren’t for nothing. Those are tools and resources that you have to help you fight this. Challenge your irrational thoughts and core beliefs. Use your frozen orange or a stress ball or a candle or a hot shower to manage your stress. Try opposite action – watching a happy movie when you’re sad and meditating when your mind is racing. There are so many alternatives to your eating disorder. If none of them work, call your therapist or a friend and talk about it. Ultimately, choosing the eating disorder over a healthy coping skill is less helpful and more destructive.

You don’t want to die. Remember how scared you were when your heart slowed down and your hair fell out? Remember how miserable you felt when you blacked out in the shower or the hallway? Remember how awful it felt to be so cold all the time no matter what the temperature was? All of those were signs that you were harming your body by failing to nourish it properly. No matter what you think right now, you know deep down that being healthy is important to you. Like I said, you don’t want to die.

Remember how many people care about you? There are people worrying about you all over the country right now. You have garnered a following through the years, even in treatment. Remember when you left resi and Carly cried? Even the counselors, who saw tons of patients, cared about you. Everywhere you go, you impact people. You are important. And you are loved.

I hope that when you struggle, you will be able to remind yourself (with my help, of course) of why you want recovery so much more than you want your eating disorder – and why you deserve recovery so much more than you deserve your eating disorder. You are so much more than that damn eating disorder.

Remember: your future depends on many things, but mostly on you. Make me proud.

Opening Night

Black Tie Guide

Tonight is opening night.

Not for me. For my little brother, who is running the lighting board at Penn State’s production of Guys and Dolls. And for my beautiful friend Rachel, who is starring as Miss Adelaide.

I miss opening night. The butterflies that used to flit around my stomach in a frenzy all day long. The chaotic two hours before the house opened, when the crew was desperately trying to finish painting the scenery and the cast members were trying (usually in vain) not to get pizza sauce on their costumes. There was a kind of energy backstage that I never saw or felt anywhere else, an energy that manifested itself in the excited chatter of the chorus members and the frantic yelling of the stage manager. We were all experiencing the same deliriously happy anxiety that meant the curtain was about to open on a brand new show.

In high school, I went through sixteen amazing opening nights. I was lucky enough to perform alongside extremely talented, hardworking actors and take direction from creative professionals I consider myself fortunate to have known. Every performance of every show is different, but there’s something about opening night that’s different-er than the rest. It’s pure, unadulterated magic.

As someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, I don’t often think of anxiety as a positive emotion. And yet I miss that particular anxiety more than I can say. Even writing about it, I’m feeling its shadows, and yearning to be engulfed by it again. The quickening heart, the twisting stomach, the bursts of energy that make my blood feel warm and my ears buzz…it’s a high unlike any other.

It makes me smile to think about Rachel tonight, backstage with her close friends, ready for my brother to shine light on her as she belts her songs and dances her heart out. Two people I love, and they have chosen that life. The life of a thousand opening nights. They will get to feel the deliciousness of those nights for as long as they live.

I don’t regret leaving the theater behind. I learned early in my career as a performer that I wasn’t meant to travel that road forever; for me it was merely a leg of the journey. Others stay. I move on.

Tonight is opening night. So for tonight, I remember what I once loved. Tomorrow I let it go.

Recovery Self-Check: Writing Edition

Today I’m going to share my favorite writing prompt from treatment. It’s supposed to be a way of affirming your recovery process by honoring small victories; marking even the smallest changes as signs that you’re moving forward. I think I did this about once a month while I was there and it changed DRASTICALLY every time. I’m doing this for me, but who knows? Maybe it will inspire someone else, too.

  1. Lately, I’ve been more willing to…
  2. Something I see differently now is…
  3. …had a powerful effect on me.
  4. One of the ways I’m changing is…
  5. It is getting easier for me…
  6. I realize I can choose…
  7. A year from now I…
  8. I am grateful for…

Lately, I’ve been more willing to question my own beliefs. It’s atrociously difficult and feels awful 99% of the time, but the only way I’m ever going to change the way I think is by admitting that maybe some of the core beliefs I hold most dear, well, might be wrong. That’s a really hard thing to accept. But at least I’m letting myself listen to some of the arguments on the other side. Baby steps.

Something I see differently now is my perfectionism. I used to think that was what made me special – that I was always supposed to be great at everything I did. But I’m really starting to see all the ways it robbed me of my time, my happiness, and my health. I cannot and will not sacrifice anything else for the sake of some lofty, unattainable goal.

My family had, has, and will continue to have a powerful effect on me. I am a seriously lucky girl. I mean, I’m not exactly the world’s easiest child, but my parents have been nothing but loving, generous, and supportive. Plus I won the little brother lottery. I’m pretty sure family can’t get any better than mine.

One of the ways I’m changing is in regard to my relationship with money. I’ve always been a very frugal person, and spending, no matter what for, has always given me huge amounts of anxiety. Slowly, I’m teaching myself that there are things worth investing in; worth spending money on. Like my health and happiness. And I deserve to have those things, even if it means my account balance is a little bit lower.

It is getting easier for me to admit when I can’t do something on my own. Knowing that I need help may not be quite as effective as actually asking for it, but I will never be able to ask if I can’t recognize the times when I need it most. Again, baby steps.

I realize I can choose what matters to me. I’ve spent so much of my life basing my self-worth on other people’s standards, and that’s not fair to me. While there is no way of escaping the flood of expectations placed on me by the media or my professors or anyone else, there is a way to stop myself from drowning in it: by deciding what is really important, and ignoring the rest as best I can. How? Eh…I’ll get back to you on that one.

A year from now I will be strong. There’s no way to know where I’ll be next November – still in school, back at home, somewhere exotic, who knows? – but I am positive that wherever I am, I’ll be hauling ass and taking names. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself in the past year, it’s that I am a fighter. And nothing can keep me down long enough to break me. HA!

I am grateful for my life. I am grateful that no matter how many horrible things I’ve done to my body, my heart still beats and my legs still walk and my brain still dreams. Every day is a gift, and I’m grateful for all of them.

This Is Your Brain on OCD

Acesabe

I marched my little feet down the road, ready to catch the bus to school. I was five years old, probably dressed in one of those terrible 90′s outfits my mom seemed to love so much, probably angry because I’d had to stop reading whatever book my nose was currently stuck in. I don’t remember a lot about being five, but I do remember that day. The beginning of the war in my brain.

There was a broken beer bottle lying on the ground, shards of glass decorating the pavement, light reflecting from the warm brown bits that were strewn through the neighbors’ grass. It was mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop staring, and I didn’t know why.

And then suddenly, I knew. The terror I would come to know so well began to bubble in my stomach, closing my throat and stopping my breath in its tracks. It felt like my esophagus had been slashed in half. I pressed my hand to my chest in disbelief, the image of the shattered glass dancing across my vision. Tears blurred the already unfocused picture. This was it. I was going to pick up one of those jagged-edged shards, and I was going to swallow it. And I was going to die.

It sounds so silly, looking back on it now. Clearly, I was aware that swallowing broken glass was a dangerous thing to do. I knew exactly what would happen if I did, and those consequences were unbelievably undesirable. But I was so sure that I was going to do it. Video clips of that very incident played loudly in my head, over and over, mocking my fear with their vivid and terrifying pictures.

My parents didn’t understand. Neither did my friends. It would be fifteen years before a psychologist would actually tell me what it was, why I was plagued with such terrifying thoughts and visions. Years of having to close my eyes in cars because I was so afraid I would open the door and launch myself onto the highway. Years of being too scared to pick up a knife because I was certain I would purposely slice open my own arm. Years of the unspeakable things I was terrified I would do to the people I loved.

Sometimes, OCD does have to do with washing your hands a lot or keeping things perfectly organized. Those are manifestations of the disorder, and they are valid and serious. But there are so many dark thoughts and emotions that the common vernacular seems to gloss over, so much time spent hating yourself for the peace your brain will never let you have. Every day is a battle, and the hardest part is that you have to wake up and fight yourself.

 

Confessions from Chaos

Hi, I’m Gwen, and I don’t have my shit together.

The past month since I’ve been back at school has been a roller coaster of extreme highs and devastating lows. There have been moments when the world seemed to open up in front of me, like anything and everything was suddenly possible. There have been moments when it was everything I could do just to pull myself out from under the blankets. In less than 30 days, I had my heart broken and my hopes defeated, but I also had meaningful conversations and laughing fits that lasted for hours.

I don’t understand how I can be so sure of things one minute and so overwhelmed the next. Nothing ever registers as just “okay”; it’s either a day where I feel motivated and incredible and confident or a day where I wish I could melt into the floor. It seems that every aspect of my world is rewinding back into the silent-film era when everything was black and white.

Being a senior in college is hard for everyone. We’re bombarded on all sides by career fairs and grad school applications and incredibly challenging courses, all the while trying to enjoy the last taste of college life before we enter the real world. It’s exhausting, and it’s scary. And I’m doing all of those things while also trying to keep a whole slew of mental illnesses in check. It’s like running a marathon and making lasagna while also juggling a bunch of really breakable plates. If I take my eyes off the plates for one second, any one of them could hit the ground and shatter.

That’s kind of why I haven’t written in a while. This is a blog which I have dedicated tirelessly to my recovery, and it’s hard for me to write things that are meaningful when my moods are so unpredictable and my behaviors so erratic. I’m being slowly eroded by the effects of the insomnia that comes with my compulsions and the lethargy that comes with my depression, and I’ve been avoiding self-reflection because it hurts too much to look inside.

I dropped a class because I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t get any of the jobs I applied for. I tried to have a fun night out with my friends and ended up in the hospital with a nearly lethal BAC. I’m not going to be able to graduate on time. I spent two entire days in bed. I grew out of my favorite pair of jeans.

There, I said it. I admit it.

I don’t have my shit together.

But I’ve fought before, and I’ll fight again.