Crippled at Camp: A Love(?) Story

The first time I was wounded at summer camp, I was eleven years old. It was my fault, of course. I was on a sailboat with a couple of other kids, being as obnoxious as you might expect a kid on a sailboat to be, when the swinging boom whacked me full-force on the side of the head.

I don’t remember this event very well, probably as a result of minor head trauma and major embarrassment. I do recall a very panicked teenager who scooped me up in her arms and sprinted to the infirmary. And that the nurse gave me three blue freeze pops while I waited to see if I was going to die.

The summer I was fourteen, I came down with a disgusting stomach flu the night before we were going on an awesome overnight trip. I spent two days in the infirmary that time, watching really terrible movies on a very small TV instead of making s’mores in the woods with my friends. I secretly hoped someone else would get the flu so I would at least have some company. It didn’t work out.

My luck only worsened once I started working there. When I was sixteen and training to be a counselor, I wound up with head lice and a staph infection that had pretty much eroded my flesh from the knees down. When I was seventeen, I got stung by an entire hive of bees. And at nineteen I spent too long standing on the hot sand during lifeguard training and suffered from massive, horrible second-degree burns on the bottoms of my feet. Alright, that one wasn’t all bad; it did necessitate my supervisor literally carrying me wherever I needed to go, which amused the campers a great deal and made me feel like a princess.

In 2012, when I was finally on the leadership staff, I shared this story with my coworkers. We were gathered inside one of the boys senior end tents late at night, watching the candlelight dance on the canvas flaps and talking about what camp meant to us. Our stories were supposed to be meaningful. Mine was about getting maimed.

But they understood what I meant. My story was about strange and improbable injuries, sure, but it was also about deciding that getting hurt wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to camp summer after summer. It was about the knowledge that no matter how tough it got, no matter how many legitimate reasons I had to run away, it was always worth it to stay.

That summer, 2012, had its own share of misfortunes. During the three months I was there, I was caught in a violent downward spiral of anorexia that wreaked havoc on my physical and mental health. And it took me so long to recover from that nosedive that I couldn’t even consider the possibility of going back in 2013.

Three weeks ago, I submitted an application. Today, I called the camp office for an interview. Even after the personal hell I experienced a year and a half ago, I’m going back.

My parents are baffled. And worried. A lot of people are worried. You know what? I’m worried, too. But every year that I’ve been knocked down, I’ve come back stronger. I’m a champion for a cause I love more than anything. Something about it will always be tough, and I might not always come out on top. But as we who have worked there know, it is always, always worth it to stay.

The Old Year, The New Year, and a 30-Second Dance Party

my 2012 resolutions

my 2012 resolutions

There are less than eight hours left in 2013.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past few days (and weeks, and months) worrying about what I’m going to do in the future. How I will continue to move toward a healthy lifestyle and a full recovery. How I will repair the damage I’ve done to my relationships. How I will push myself to conquer that which I simultaneously crave and fear. How I will manage to complete my college degree in a way that is meaningful to me. Constantly running forward, trying desperately to keep up with all the things I feel like I should be handling. 2013 has been, in short, a year of constant motion – working toward recovery, getting reinstated in school, entering and exiting a brief but significant relationship, earning (and being proud of) my first college B – without a lot of stagnancy.

I was talking to a friend about this yesterday at an old favorite coffee shop, while my unintentional tears dripped slowly into my too-hot mug of tea. She smiled at me. “Gwen, you need to give yourself a break. Stop for a minute, look around at all the things you’ve accomplished. Be proud of yourself. Have a 30-second dance party.”

I, of course, had no idea that she was referencing a Grey’s Anatomy clip, which you can watch here if you’re curious. Basically, a surgeon manages to do a difficult repair, and before she takes the final steps toward finishing the surgery, she makes her dumbstruck interns join her in a “30-second dance party.” I think I would be kind of mad if a surgeon were to do that while I was lying wide open on an operating table, but that’s not the point.

Like most people, I don’t take a lot of time to celebrate the small victories I accomplish on the way to my larger ones. There’s always something else I feel like I could be improving; a new task to work on. I stitched the heart, now time to close the chest and move on to the next surgery. No time to waste being proud of myself when I was just doing my job, right? I ate dinner today, big deal, everyone eats dinner. Why should I be proud of that?

I always enter the new year with a list of resolutions I want to tackle, and the list is always too long. More often than not, it gets me into trouble. I get discouraged when I’m unsuccessful, or I get so focused on one goal that I forget about all the other important things in my life. Balance is hard for me, and it’s hard to achieve balance when you’re never satisfied with the way things are.

So this year I have just one resolution, and it is this: have more 30-second dance parties. I want to celebrate when I do something I’m proud of, even if it’s for a short amount of time. I want to say, “You know what? It was really hard to let myself enjoy that piece of pumpkin pie, but I did, so I’m awesome.” I want to stop sometimes and look around at my apartment and be proud that a person who wasn’t allowed to flush her own toilet in October of 2012 cooks and cleans for herself in October of 2013. For 30 seconds, I don’t want to be thinking about all the ways I could still be a better person. For 30 seconds, I just want to see that I already am one.

Bring it on, 2014. My dance moves are ready.

My Next Grand Jété

2013-09-13 15.06.41

Remember very recently when I started off a post with the exact words “I am not a dancer”?

Guess what? I changed my mind.

Lately, I’ve been starting to work my way back to a normal exercise regimen. I swim twice a week, have begun strength training (I lift at the gym – eeee!), and do a lot of yoga. Like, a lot of yoga. Probably more yoga than a human being should do. I just love the feeling of being all stretched out and pretzel-y.

The thing is, maintaining a healthy relationship with food is only part of recovering from an eating disorder like mine. That comes first, of course, but a healthy relationship with exercise is also important. After all, there’s a reason doctors recommend 30 minutes of aerobic activity five times a week – it’s healthy. And ultimately, recovering from my eating disorder means having a lifestyle that is balanced and healthy in every way.

So, with the blessing of both of my wonderful doctors, who are finally happy with my vital signs (HALLELUJAH), here I am.

When I was sick, I had a terrible relationship with exercise. I ran miles and miles every day before I would allow myself to eat anything at all. I was brutalizing my body, expecting it to continue performing at extremely high levels without stretching, resting, or fueling. Every time I laced up my running shoes, it was about the calories I was going to burn. Nothing more.

This time I’m being really careful. I’m taking everything I do slowly and deliberately and paying attention to its effects on my body. I stop when I’m tired, regardless of how much I feel like I “should” be able to do. I eat more when I’m hungry and shaky after a long swim. And I’m not going to pretend like I can lift anything more than a ten-pound dumbbell. Have you seen the sticks that are attached to my upper body? I’m lucky I even can lift my math textbooks.

Oh, and I’m not running. For now. Until I can be positive that it won’t be a trigger, I’m just steering clear. I think that’s probably for the best.

But most importantly, I’m not measuring the quality of my physical activity by any aspect of my appearance. I don’t weigh myself anymore. I don’t body check my stomach or my thighs in the mirror whenever I have a spare moment. I don’t get that gleeful feeling of satisfaction when I have to punch a new hole in my belt, or that horrible self-loathing when my clothes fit slightly tighter.

Instead, I’m taking the time to appreciate all the awesome things my body can already do, like swim a technically perfect crawl stroke and sit comfortably in a Turkish Twist. And when I find myself pushing during a workout, it’s not because I want to burn more calories or lose more weight. It’s because I’m consistently amazed by the tricks this seemingly inadequate body can pull out of nowhere.

I mean, I started doing yoga to relieve stress. Gentle yoga. Like, stretching. And I had a really hard time with it. I couldn’t touch my toes or sit up straight with my legs extended, which was pretty embarrassing because all the 60+-year-old women in the class definitely could. But just by going to class twice a week, I am now able to say with great pride that not only can I touch my toes (standing or sitting) but I can also put my foot behind my head. Which is pretty freakin’ cool.

On a whim, two days ago, I enrolled in a beginner adult ballet class. It’s been in the back of my mind as “something cool to try one day” since high school, but then it hit me – why not now? So I registered, ordered myself a leotard and a pair of ballet slippers, and asked my roommate to help me figure out how to get my super-short hair into a bun (I expect a struggle is coming).

It’s something new. It’s something I’ve never done before, unless you count the ballet/tap/jazz class I took when I was five, which I don’t. It’s something that I know I’m not very good at, and I’m doing it by myself, which is pretty terrifying. But it’s also another way to learn to appreciate and strengthen my body, and I’m lucky to be given the opportunity to do that.

So I may not be a dancer. But I’m going to dance my way through recovery whether ED likes it or not.

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.

I’m Afraid of What I Want

Man, is it easy to be lazy. I’m writing this blog post from my bed, where I have been for the past two hours. What have I done during those two hours? Nothing. Except read some trashy blogs and poke around Facebook for awhile. My brother is across the room watching YouTube videos on his phone – I think he’s been stagnant even longer than I have. We are such a fun bunch, huh?

I set a goal for myself this morning that during my free time this afternoon I was going to spend real time thinking about what I want. Like, what kind of life I want to be living, what kinds of people and things I want around me, what I want to be doing…the big “what do I want”s.

And yet, I have done nothing but click through page after page of the internet.

I don’t know why it’s been so hard for me to think in terms of the bigger picture lately. I think I’m scared of it, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Every time I make a decision, I question whether I really want to follow through – and ultimately I never answer my own question. Instead, I distract myself until the decision stresses me out, and then I make up my mind in a state of panic and refuse to let myself back out of whatever choice I’ve made.

I think that’s the way I’ve always been with school. The only reason I decided to go to the school I chose was because it was the “best” school that would have me. It was a decision based on panic and disappointment rather than logic. But once I had made my choice, even in the darkest of times, I never really let myself consider the possibility of changing my mind. Sure, I thought and talked about transferring a few times, but I always knew in the core of my being that I wasn’t going to follow through. I made my bed when I accepted that offer in 2010, and I would forever lie in it. Even though I began to question that decision every single day.

It’s the same now. I’ve made the decision to go back, and I’m throwing myself into it 100%, but I am riddled with doubt and panic. It may be that it’s simply a normal part of life, or it may be that I’m not trusting myself. But I can’t help but think that once again, I am making a choice solely based on fear. Fear of change. Fear of moving in an unfamiliar direction. Fear of disappointment.

I’m afraid of everything. Of realizing my potential, of not realizing my potential. Of changing, of remaining the same. Of people, of being alone. One paradox after another. I’m too afraid to die, but I’m too afraid to really live, either.

Ultimately, I’m afraid of what I want. What if what I want doesn’t line up with what I “should” (GODDAMN THOSE SHOULDS) be doing? What if what I want is unattainable? What if I realize that what I want scares me more than not knowing what I want?

My bigger picture has ugly erase marks all over it where I’ve tried to start over, but I always just redraw the lines exactly where they were because it’s easier. I don’t want to draw new lines and have those be wrong too and have to erase again.

My bigger picture is more petrifying than anything else in my life.

But it’s so important.

Next time I’m going to shelve the digital tools and pick up a pen and paper. I’m going to put on my headphones. I’m not going to let myself get distracted by blogs or wall posts or iTunes. I’m going to force myself to draw my bigger picture. On a clean sheet of paper. No erase marks. Just me. Just what I want.

And right now I’m going to get out of bed and go see a beautifully technical piece of theater with my brother and geek out over the lighting design. Because right now that sounds pretty good.

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

What should I be doing right now? Probably a lot of things. For instance, I have a list full of to-dos that really should have been checked off two days ago, but for some reason no matter how long I stare at those items they aren’t actually being completed. Funny how that works.

Or maybe I should be packing for my trip to Penn State this weekend. Or maybe I should be doing the dishes from dinner so my parents don’t have to do them when they get home from church. Or maybe I should be responding to the numerous text messages that I’ve read today without bothering to reply.

The fact is, if I think about it enough, there’s ALWAYS something I should be doing that I’m not. That’s true for everyone; we’re hit with “should”s from all around us every day. There’s some new finding in the news that says we should stop eating red meat or disable certain services on our computer or exercise more or watch this new TV show…it’s exhausting. And in a world like this, it’s so easy to constantly “should” all over yourself.

“Should” statements are one of the cognitive distortions associated with CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Basically, some people get into a pattern of thinking in terms of what they “should” be doing or thinking rather than what is actually beneficial to them. Often these statements are based on external triggers – for example, the idea that a person should look a certain way in order to be attractive – but they can also stem from internal pressures that may not have any logical cause. I’m not an expert in CBT by any means, so the best example I can give is one I have personally struggled with, which is an eating disorder thought. Eating disorders love “should” statements because they have a unique way of making you feel guilty if you disobey. Once that sneaky little voice comes into your head and says, “You shouldn’t be eating that, it’ll make you fat,” every bite you take is riddled with shame. “You should skip lunch today” carries the same unpleasant emotions. Eventually, to avoid the constant feeling of guilt and inadequacy, it gets easier to let the “should”s make decisions for you.

While I was in treatment, one of the counselors noticed that when I spoke with her I used the word “should” as a part of almost every thought. She challenged me to carry my notebook around with me for 24 hours and write down every “should” statement as soon as it formulated in my brain. And let me tell you, I only did it for eight hours, because by that point the list was already 3.5 pages long and I was tired of writing. It was certainly sufficient for the counselor to make her point – I spend a whole lot of my time worrying about what I should and shouldn’t be doing, feeling, thinking, eating, saying, writing, literally anything. If I started to notice that I was feeling angry, for example, I might tell myself I shouldn’t be angry right now. Okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m angry, and now in addition to that anger I feel guilty, so I’ve pretty much just exacerbated the problem. Or maybe if I was feeling okay during a meal that was particularly challenging for others at the table, I might think, This should have been harder for me. I shouldn’t have been okay with that meal. I mean, seriously, what? Logically, these statements are totally irrational and unhelpful. Why the hell can’t I be okay with eating a meatball sub? Technically, isn’t it a GOOD thing that I got through it without crying?

So what’s the lesson I learned here? Well, when I showed my list to the counselor (who, I might add, laughed out loud at some of the more ridiculous items), she told me I had already done the hardest part – recognizing that the overwhelming number of times the word “should” floated through my brain was not ideal. We went through each item one by one, discussing how every statement could be reality-checked and/or whittled down into a much less extreme statement. For example, I shouldn’t be angry right now might become I’m feeling angry right now, and I’m not sure why. Amazingly, that simple edit manages to delete all the associated guilt and shame associated with the statement. I am no longer doing anything wrong. In fact, I am in tune with my emotions, which will allow me to properly experience and regulate them. Which is a good thing! Instead of feeling like I’m doing something wrong, now I’m doing something inarguably RIGHT!

Of course, it is ridiculous to think that all my problems were solved that day. Reframing a thought on paper is certainly not the same thing as reorganizing the way you think it, and beyond anything else that kind of thing takes a whole lot of practice. But it’s a start. And every day I have plenty of opportunities to teach myself how to think differently.

What about things like the fact that I SHOULD turn off the lights when I leave a room or the fact that I SHOULD do the dishes after I cook? Yes, there are certainly some “should”s that are not inherently evil, because not every “should” is distorted. Generally, though, it’s pretty easy to tell when you encounter a legitimate “should.” The questions I tend to ask myself are:

  1. Is this statement supported by concrete evidence? (ex. “You should drink three glasses of milk a day because it builds strong bones.”)
  2. Will doing this bring me closer to my goals and values? (ex. “You should graduate from college,” since I value education)
  3. Will it bring happiness to other people? (ex. “You should be kind to your supermarket cashier.”)
  4. Will I feel good (like really, heart-of-hearts good) during/after I do this? (ex. “You should go for a walk because it’ll clear your mind and you’ll be happier.”)
  5. When I look back on this, will I ever regret doing it? (ex. “You should punch him in the face” is probably not legitimate, because you might feel bad later.)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be flabbergasted by the amount of doors that open when you stop “should”ing on yourself. All of a sudden, you’re free to ask yourself what you WANT to do (which was a concept quite foreign to me). What did I want to do with my life aside from what I thought I “should” be doing? Well, I “should” have a practical major and go right into a high-paying job, but honestly, writing makes me happier than anything in the world, so you know what? I’m keeping it on the table. A year ago, I never would have given it a passing thought.

Back to the question. What should I be doing?

I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that word.

This is it.

I have decided to write a book.

Yes, by the end of the year 2013, I am going to have a 50,000-word novel. It might be good, it might be okay, it might be utter crap. Whatever it is, it’ll be mine. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone besides me ever reads it – although I probably will share it – I’m just doing this for me.

I’ve only ever tried to write in a linear fashion, just putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and going until I can’t go any further. But seeing as the most I’ve ever written that way has been a measly two or three pages in Microsoft Word, I’m trying a technique called The Snowflake Method. Basically, I started with one sentence that told my entire story, and I’m slowly filling in from there. It’s interesting, because it’s giving me a chance to really get to know my characters before I immortalize them in the plot. I’m already very attached to my protagonist and excited about the wonderful people that are going to enter her life during the course of these 50,000 words.

I’ll probably be expressing some of my joys and frustrations here during the writing process, because I’ll need someplace to dump them all and document my own adventures. Hopefully this is just another step in the creation of the new, empowered, passionate me. But even if it isn’t, it’ll give me something else to write about, right?

Here’s my first insight into the writing process. It’s a haiku.

I’m way too obsessed –
This must be the honeymoon
Get me off this couch

Wish me luck!