letting go

Goodbye, Little Growing Pains

Dear friends, family, readers, and supporters,

I’ll cut to the chase: I am retiring this blog.

That’s right — retiring. Everything will still be available, but I will not be posting any new content. I will be releasing my domain name, transitioning this blog back to its original host (littlegrowingpains.wordpress.com) where it will live untouched for the rest of time. I don’t know who will buy littlegrowingpains.com in the future. I hope they use it well.

The decision to discontinue my investment in this project is not an easy one, but it does feel like the right one. I no longer feel like this blog is the right way for me to share my writing with the world. I am proud of all I accomplished — entering contests, making friends, building a huge network of supporters, and raising awareness for the mental illnesses with which I was struggling — and I will forever be grateful to each and every one of you for the way you stood by me while I was discovering myself.

So here’s to the next journey. Here’s to the full recovery from anorexia I made while I owned this little piece of the Internet. Here’s to Yeah Write and NaBloPoMo and all the other communities I found, here’s to fodder for the MFA applications I didn’t finish and all the less-than-stellar posts I wrote. Here’s to all of you. I wish you all the best things life has to offer, and I hope your little growing pains lead you to something better than you could have ever imagined. I know mine did.

Love and thirty-second dance parties all around,

Gwen

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5 Things That Didn’t Happen When I Gained Weight

To someone struggling with an eating disorder, the idea of weight gain is one of the scariest things in the world. I still panic sometimes when I have to step on a scale, even though I actively choose not to look at the number. The words “weight restoration” send shivers of dread down my spine, and on days when I eat “too much” I imagine myself looking like a beached whale. The funny thing is, though, all the reasons I’ve ever had for being so terrified of a few extra pounds are slowly becoming non-reasons, because they simply aren’t realistic. Here are five of my favorite things that didn’t happen when I spent a year and a half gaining weight.

1. I didn’t grow out of all my clothes. I’ve grown out of one pair of pants, and that’s it. Almost everything else I own, I still wear on a regular basis.

2. I didn’t suddenly become obese. I don’t mean to skim over obesity, because I know it’s a real issue that a lot of people struggle with. But gaining enough weight to actually be classified as overweight or obese would be extremely difficult, especially for someone who began by barely eating anything at all. Besides, my nutritionist is looking out for my health – she wouldn’t push me somewhere just as dangerous as the place I started.

3. I didn’t lose control of my life. I thought that by moving toward intuitive eating, I would sacrifice my agency. That by giving up rigid, restrictive behaviors and obsessive self-monitoring, my life would spiral out of control and there would be nothing I could do about it. But I wasn’t in charge back then – my eating disorder was. Intuitive eating, weight restoration, and self-care are things that are 100% under my control.

4. I didn’t hate my appearance any more than I already did. I thought that when I gained weight I would be even more disgusted with the way I looked. But in the depths of my eating disorder, even when I was emaciated, I thought I was the most hideous person in the entire world. To be honest, I still struggle a lot with my appearance, but weight restoration is slowly making it better, not worse.

5. People didn’t like me any less. If anything, I’ve become a more social person, a much better friend, and a lot more fun to be around. The people that care about me don’t give a shit if I weigh 110 pounds or 160 pounds, as long as I’m confident and happy.

So my fears were unfounded. And you know what? When I gained weight, I also gained a lot of other wonderful things. Things I never thought I’d be able to attribute to something so scary. I gained confidence, control, energy, and optimism. I rediscovered my love for writing and decided to use my story to inspire others. I learned to take ownership of my life instead of always playing the victim. I laugh more and take more chances and worry less and less about what other people think.

A lot of things didn’t happen when I gained weight. But one thing did. I gained myself. And that’s worth every pound.

The End, In Three Parts

I.

She was always the first one to notice.

“You’re bleeding again!” she’d yelp as she dug through her backpack for a Band-Aid. No matter how many times I drew blood, I never learned to carry them around with me. When she was there, I never had to.

She learned to solve a Rubik’s cube somehow. I was too impatient to figure it out on my own, so she taught me too. “It’ll give you something to do with your hands,” she said. “So you won’t destroy your fingers.”

My history teacher took it away because I wasn’t paying attention. She handed me a Band-Aid, marched up to the teacher, and got it back. “You need this,” she whispered as she slid it across my desk. I spent the rest of class quietly spinning the faces of the cube under the table. I didn’t need the Band-Aid, but it was nice to have it, anyway.

I thought, “this is what it’s like to have somebody you can count on.”

II.

She slept three nights at my house during the Great Ice Storm of 2008.

The days we spent together were full of jokes and musicals and molasses cookies. Then at some point after dark, unexpectedly, she’d slip. Her face would suddenly be devoid of emotion, her voice high-pitched and soft. She’d curl herself up into a ball at the foot of the bed and just lie there, unmoving, until whatever it was had passed.

“Is there something I can do?” I asked once, helplessly, desperate to fix her somehow.

She was quiet for a moment, and I heard her breath hitch before she spoke. “No. There isn’t.”

When she was like this, she never looked at me. She responded to questions sometimes, if I was lucky. But she wouldn’t turn around. I didn’t get to see her face.

I was there, but that wasn’t enough. I turned out the lights and tried to sleep while she kept drowning two feet away.

III.

She made me a card for our high school graduation.

“Don’t forget about me, okay?” it read. “I’m nothing without you.”

I didn’t make her a card. I didn’t even say thank you. I was never good at that sort of thing, and I figured she knew how I felt already. She was my best friend. She’d always be my best friend. Isn’t that how it works?

I took her for granted. I forgot.

And she wasn’t nothing. She was something more.

NEDAwareness 2014: Breaking Up With ED

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been in a relationship.

(Big apologies to my tenth grade “boyfriend” for this statement. No offense, you’re a great guy, but I don’t think you quite count.)

I can’t pretend I know exactly what it’s like to go through a breakup, although I think the experience is different for everyone. I’ve watched friends go through them. I’ve watched my little brother go through them. I’ve watched overly dramatic television characters go through them. They’re sort of inevitable. Most relationships end. But they don’t all end the same way. Sometimes things deteriorate of their own accord, when two people realize they’re just not as compatible as they thought they were. Sometimes someone falls in love with somebody else. Most of the time someone gets hurt.

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which ends tomorrow, I’m going to share the closest thing I’ve ever had to a breakup. I’m going to talk about ending my relationship with my eating disorder.

My ED (which I not-so-affectionately personify as “Ed”) was manipulative and charming. He wasn’t smart, but he was clever. He made me completely dependent on him and used that mercilessly to prey on every ounce of confidence I had. It was a tumultuous, violent, and abusive relationship, and the worst part was that he wasn’t some separate entity. He was a part of me. Leaving him was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

I loved him, even when he was horrible to me. I loved him when I decided I had to let him go. I still love him. I think I always will.

I think about going back to him sometimes. When my life gets too difficult and I feel like there’s no one else I can rely on, all I want is to lean back and have him catch me. How sick is that? I know that all of his words are empty air and that he lives with the sole purpose of destroying me, but I still feel better when he’s there.

Does that sound familiar? I think it might. It’s a breakup. Not a romantic one, but a breakup all the same. When I’m drunk and sad, I’m in danger of “texting my ex,” except for me, that means giving in and using disordered behaviors. Sometimes all I want to do is call him and I need my friends to come over and talk me out of it. I have a box of stuff that reminds me of him – too-small t-shirts, diet cookbooks, running wristbands – shoved under my bed where I won’t be tempted to look for it. It’s been a year, and I’m still not over him.

More and more, I’m realizing that’s okay. Maybe I’ll never be over it. Or maybe in another year, I’ll laugh at the fact that I just said that. I don’t know. What I do know is that we have every experience for a reason: to learn something. Relationships end, but each one teaches you something about yourself you didn’t know before. Every mistake leads the way to better mistakes, and every bad relationship leads the way to great ones. If anything, you learn not to stand for anything less.

I’m not going back to Ed, because I know I deserve better. But I wouldn’t have figured that out if I hadn’t let him break me. Being knocked down was the only way I figured out how to stand on my own.

Break up with Ed. Get out of there. Love him, miss him, yeah, that’s life. Just don’t go back. Something better waits for you on the other side.

Objects In Mirror Are More Beautiful Than They Appear

I have a hate-hate relationship with mirrors.

First of all, I can never be sure that I can trust a mirror. After all, the world is full of unreliable ones, mirrors that make you look shorter or thinner or tanner than you actually are. Sometimes I think I look good in a mirror, but then someone else’s face comes into view and I see that their nose looks ridiculously crooked, and I think, great, that must be how crooked my nose looks in real life. But of course, I can never really know, so I’m left uncertain of the tier of unattractiveness I’m currently occupying.

Second of all, mirrors seem to do a really great job of overemphasizing the most unsatisfactory aspects of my appearance. If I have even the slightest zit on my face, all of a sudden I look like I’ve come down with a ghastly bout of hives. If I’m having a weird hair day, I immediately look like I’ve just been electrocuted. Anything and everything I could possibly be self-conscious about is exaggerated tenfold when I look into a mirror.

The only mirror in my apartment, besides the one in my roommate’s bedroom, is in the bathroom, and let me tell you, the lighting in there is seriously terrible. With the overhead light on, it’s still too dark to be able to really see yourself correctly. But if you turn the mirror light on, every flaw you’ve ever tried to hide is exposed in a harsh, unforgiving solar burst. Bags under your eyes. That weirdly shaped mole on the side of your face. The upper lip hair you apparently failed to bleach away. Oh, yeah. That’s the kind of thing that really makes you feel like you’re ready to conquer the day.

Honestly, sometimes I’d just rather not look. There are mornings when I get up, run a comb through my hair, put on an outfit I’m pretty sure matches, and walk out the door without so much as a glance in the mirror. I know I’m going to find something unacceptable about my appearance, but I don’t have the energy to fix it, so why bother?

Today was one of those mornings. I used the mirror for about 3.5 seconds while I put my contacts in, but other than that, I just wasn’t interested in knowing how I looked. I did everything else I had to do – went to class, turned in my quiz, ate my lunch, went to work – but I had no concept of what I looked like while doing it. I could have had a cowlick or a giant forehead pimple, for all I knew. And with my luck, I probably did.

The thing is, what I see in the mirror doesn’t actually have anything to do with the success of my day. Today, when I could very well have been walking around with some unbearably tragic blemish, I still had a super helpful math class and managed to write a post for the first time in two weeks. And even more importantly, knowing I had a gargantuan zit on my chin wouldn’t have made it go away. I am what I am, and apart from basic hygiene (with which I would argue I am quite skilled), there’s nothing I can do to change that. Especially not while antagonizing myself in front of a mirror.

Anaïs Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” And maybe that’s true. It’s impossible to see myself the way I’m perceived by professors in class or neighbors on the street. Mirrors are reflections; we see ourselves in them through our own eyes. I don’t get the opportunity to see me, only to see the way light bounces my image off of a thin sheet of glass. We do not have the pleasure of observing our true selves.

We must have faith that there is beauty, even when we cannot see it.

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.

Your Best Friend

When you first meet your best friend, it’s like the answer to a prayer. Maybe you’re two, four, ten, thirteen. But when you meet them, things start to make sense to you. You are no longer forced to sit alone in the cafeteria or bounce through friend groups faster than you can learn your times tables. You know that when you’re having a bad day, your best friend is there to make you feel better. When you’re bored, you can pick up the phone and she’ll be there as fast as she possibly can. You go on adventures, conquering imaginary beasts and braving dark, scary forests. You can tell her anything at all and she’ll listen. She throws you surprise parties and bakes you an elaborate cake on your birthday. Eventually, people start to mix up your names or roll their eyes when you say things simultaneously.

When your best friend has big secrets to tell, you’re the first person she runs to. Even when it’s hard, she knows she can trust you. So you trust her too. You are the only person who understands her, who doesn’t judge her for being the way she is. You aren’t afraid to be yourself around her, to express the most embarrassing thoughts or emotions. You are each other’s better half; neither of you fully exist unless you are together. When she goes through the darkest times of her life, you are there to listen and to beg her to keep going; that it’s worth it. You give her confidence; she returns the favor.

It seems perfect when you’re young. It makes sense. But you change. Sometimes you find out that when she told you the biggest secrets, she was lying. Sometimes the trust that you thought you had turns out to be false. Sometimes you get angry. It’s not perfect because she’s not perfect, you think. You hold a grudge for as long as you possibly can. You don’t tell her how you really feel because you don’t want to ruin the friendship, so you pretend that nothing happened. Then other things start to bother you. The way she acts, the person she’s become. But you never say anything. Maybe you start to take it out on her because you’re so angry with yourself for keeping it all in. You wait years, always apologizing after fights because you just want to get it over with, even though it compromises your true opinions. You wait so long that maybe it’s too late. She’s made a lot of mistakes that she’s never apologized for, and then you realize that you’ve made a lot of mistakes too, and two imperfect and stubborn people don’t compromise easily. So maybe you stop trying because it’s easier that way, because that way you don’t have to fight. So that way it doesn’t hurt all the time. And maybe that’s not fair to her. But you don’t know if you could try without losing yourself in the process.

When you lose your best friend, it’s the most painful feeling in the world. There are pieces of you that never recover from that; the awkward interactions wound you every time. And those wounds are where she lives. You never forget or stop caring, just pretend that you do. You watch her live her life from the sidelines as she takes center stage. You know that even though things have changed, you are with her just as much as she is with you. You are still proud when she succeeds and disappointed when she fails. Maybe someday you will be able to work things out. Maybe you won’t. Maybe she can never again be your best friend. But for a long time, she was. She saved you when you were falling apart. She was your best friend, and she matters.

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.

Leeches: A Love Story

I was sitting at the picnic table in the sun, carefully organizing swim cards by cabin, when one of my staff members ran over to me with a look of terror and urgency.

My mind immediately started running through every horrifying possibility. Did a kid drown? Did we lose one somehow? Did somebody get a spinal injury? What was going on?

But it was even worse than that.

One of the campers had a leech stuck on his arm.

Now, I am a tad bit sadistic when it comes to leeches. I love killing them. It gives me a strange satisfaction to watch them writhe in pain until they stop moving altogether. But children do not see them as potential prey, rather as predators who will probably suck the life out of them within the minute. Children don’t understand how easy it is to kill them. And the second one kid comes out of the water with a leech, that’s it – none of them step even a toe in the lake for the rest of the week.

Those damn little buggers. I was the head of the swimming department and it was my job to make sure the campers got the swimming lessons their parents were promised, but leeches did a really excellent job of making my duties significantly harder.

I ran to the swim box and grabbed my trusty salt shaker. “Take me to him,” I ordered the counselor firmly. By the time we ran across the beach to where the victim sat frozen, wide-eyed, with his leeched arm thrust high into the air, I knew it was too late to save my swim lessons. Those kids were never going back in the water.

“NO!” the boy yelped as I reached toward his arm. He swung it away from me. “AAAHHH! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME?!”

The other campers began to form a circle around their screaming, hollering friend. I shook nearly the entire supply of salt into the sand while trying desperately to get at least some of it on the bloodsucking creature that was ruining my life. But even after it was handicapped enough for the still-frantic victim to shake it loose, everyone on the beach was completely out of their minds. Kids were yelling obscenities and running toward the tree line, far away from the water. Counselors were sprinting after the ones who thought they’d make a clean escape under the rope lines. Chaos. My department was lost in utter and absolute chaos.

As I looked at the scene unfolding around me, I was overwhelmed by my sheer lack of control. I had no power to stop that kid from attracting a leech. I had no authority over the gut reactions of a bunch of 8-year-olds. I had no way of calming them down, and no idea of how to convince them that swimming lessons were still a good idea. I was standing in the eye of a hurricane, with no way of directing the wind.

Suddenly, I started to laugh. Fear wasn’t doing me any good. Guilt wasn’t doing me any good. This was a moment of madness, a moment that would one day make a hilarious story (barring some strange turn of events where something legitimately terrible happened). My lack of control meant that it wasn’t my fault. And so, free of the weight of blame, I laughed.

I managed, with the help of my staff, to wrangle all sixty or so kids into some semblance of an orderly line so they could tag out of the swim section. After they returned to their cabins, I performed my normal cleanup routine, picking up lost towels and discarded sand pails. Everything was sane again.

As I plucked the empty salt shaker from the sand where it had landed, I couldn’t help but smile. Oh, tomorrow was going to be hard, I knew that, but today had reminded me of the unpredictability of life. And that was a beautiful thing.

When I Knew You Wouldn’t Love Me

This is a really hard post for me to publish. But if this blog is all about baring my soul, then it needs to be said. 

To the person about whom this was written: if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.

I met you at a coffee shop when I was eighteen. You were shy and kind of awkward and so was I. You walked me back to my dorm even though it was out of your way and told me it was nice that we finally got to meet. I smiled because I already kind of knew that one day I could love you.

You used to come into the gym while I was working and even though you always had a workout to do, you would stop and stand by the lifeguard chair, sometimes for my whole half-hour shift, and make me laugh. You told me crazy stories about your time spent abroad in exciting places, and listened while I made bad jokes about my own boring life. For months I thought about telling you how easy it was to talk to you and how much I looked forward to the Monday night shifts when I knew you would be there, but I never did.

You left my life, but you were always there. You ran through my mind when I least expected it. I thought about your big goofy smile and the way your arms moved kind of funny when you were doing the crawl stroke. I watched enviously as you went on adventure after adventure, never afraid of anything, eager to take chances. I thought about you and how scared I was and how much I wished I could borrow some of your bravery. I hoped maybe one day you’d be able to show me how to be fearless.

In those moments, I knew you could never love me. You were so far beyond anyone I’d ever comprehended before. I had nothing to offer someone who already had the world.

But then you came speeding back into my world like a roller coaster and you stopped to let me on and I didn’t even bother buckling my seat belt. I was more afraid than ever, but you were there and you were so close and I thought maybe it was finally time for my adventure.

You said all the right things. I heard you and I believed you and I tricked myself into thinking that maybe one day you could love me after all. And every minute of time I let myself be with you made everything feel less scary.

One day you were sitting sideways on your bed, plucking your guitar strings with your fingers and talking enthusiastically about your mythology book, when it hit me. I could love you. I didn’t right then, not yet. But I thought about the way you elbowed me in the ribs after you told a bad joke and the way your eyes lit up when you explained to me why sugar cubes spark when you hit them with a hammer, and I knew for sure that it would be incredibly easy for me to fall in love with you.

And I knew you wouldn’t love me. Maybe you thought someday you might be able to, just like I had, but I knew better. I knew you would love someone who gave you that same “Oh, shit” realization I’d just had. I knew you would love someone whose wanderlust was on par with your own, who thrived off of passion and adventure just like you. Someone whose hand you wouldn’t have to hold every time she was afraid.

I could love you, I thought, because with you I am falling in love with myself. You make me feel stronger and braver and wiser and more beautiful. You’ve helped me break down a lot of walls that were holding me back.

But I never did anything for you.

And the second I realized I could love you, I decided you could never know. Because I knew you wouldn’t love me, and you had to realize that on your own.