Please note: as I explore these thoughts, feelings and share my past, these entries may contain writing that is potentially triggering to anyone who is or has been affected by bipolar disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and the like. It is my goal to share my own experience in an open and honest manner, but wish no one harm in the process.
The most difficult part of sharing my story is the act itself: the truth of the matter is we are about to embark on a journey to explore places I have never publicly shared, to open up in the ways I have always wanted to. To convey an idea of difficulty, these are things I have barely shared with my own husband, who has been a huge anchor of support in my life. With both my mother’s and father’s sides as examples, one can definitely construe that I come from a long line of mentally, emotionally, generally strong women. It has been a point of pride of sorts for me, perhaps to my own detriment. My entire life I was the one to lean on: the listening ear to friends with boy troubles (which I never had, really, but that’s another story.) The one who is healthy and happy and does well in school. The one who is okay.
The truth was that I was not okay.
The signs of bipolar disorder set in but none of us knew what they were at the time; I remember being told I was essentially a dramatic, hormonal teenager, that it was normal, that I was fine. Deep down I knew something was bigger, something was wrong; a ‘normal’ seventeen year old girl doesn’t fear the darkness of her bedroom. She doesn’t fear that as darkness falls and she lays alone she will cry and cry for absolutely no reason at all other than that it feels as though her body, her heart, her very being is an empty void of heavy nothingness. Sometimes in the cool silence of night, when the shadows begin to close in, the feeling returns in the pit of my stomach. The tears no longer come, but the memory is still clear.
Some memories stay luminous as the moment they occurred, so fresh and so near that I can practically feel the unforgiving finished cement floor under my knees, the cool kiss of porcelain on my cheek. The whirring din of the overhead fan of the unisex bathroom had drowned out my sorrowful song, the echo of it in the empty bathroom loud upon my ears. All day I had been a bundle of nerves, a complete wreck; a coworker even told me that I looked green. I caved. Before I knew it, the unisex bathroom door was locked behind me and I was on my knees. It was there, face pressed to the rim of the toilet, staring at my sticky, spit-laden fingers that I promised myself it was the last time. That this was no life, this was not living, that being controlled by numbers, mirrors, calories, bathroom locations, meals, anxiety and general disarray was not a lasting formula. That I was ready to give everything and anything to fight and win.
There I was, face first in the toilet the day before we embarked on the first annual Ragnar Relay Napa Valley, and it was there that I made the decision to live.
Every year, my workplace puts on a company challenge: this last year’s was Tough Mudder, in years past it has been century rides and triathalons. When the challenge for 2011 was announced as Ragnar Relay and I learned what it was – running, no cycling or swimming – I lit up. For the first time in my history of being employed, I was finally feeling able bodied enough to say yes, I want to participate and actually see it through. I had finally talked to my husband, told him I had a problem, that I needed help. Had my regular family doctor not been so overwhelmingly supportive, I highly doubt I would have continued on my mission for health. While the psychiatrist I was referred to was sadly little help whatsoever – admittedly he was easy to lie to about my eating disordered ways, despite my having gone to him with a bulimic diagnosis – as he focused instead on trying to get my bipolar disorder under medication lockdown.
My story isn’t exactly what one may expect or want to hear, but this is how it went down for my person, and I must say, I feel quite fortunate in the results. We struggled, the doctor and I, and in the end I bid him adieu and went my own way. After years and years of destroying myself, from meeting diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa to bulimia nervosa and every EDNOS space in between, I wanted to live. I was finally asking for professional help, yet I found more knowledge, support and encouragement from a place that had once helped keep me ill: online communities. The men, women, teenage boys and girls I met there knew my plight first hand and sent up a rallying cry: that I could beat this, that one day at a time was okay, that I was inspiring them. Inspiring them. The day I got an email from a gal saying she had talked to her parents and was leaving for treatment I cried tears of joy: not only was I working hard to save myself, I was helping others too. There was no looking back. Ragnar Relay became my proving ground, my goal to show myself that I was indeed going to recover, no matter how long it took or how hard it was. It was during training that I began to really, truly fall in love with running. Sweat therapy was empowering and cleansing. It was just what I needed to fall in love with the amazing body that was indeed my own. My body gave me a second chance at treating it right, one I may never get again. It was time to heal and grow.
My daily prescription was clouds of dirt kicked up on the trail or miles of pavement under my soles. Stretching and hydration took the place of peering in mirrors and weighing; food become craved fuel, a source of joy and nutrition. It may sound small to some, but finally being able to walk through every aisle of the grocery store sans the fear that foodstuffs were going to jump off the shelves and attack me was huge. I began to smile more. To laugh more. Some days of course were a struggle, where all I could think about was how many grams of sugar were in the protein bar I just ate, or where I couldn’t go near mirrors because I was so sure I’d gained loads of weight by simply eating regularly again, but no road to recovery is without it’s bumps, potholes and alternative routes. The finish line of the Ragnar Relay was in my mind’s eye and there was nothing that was going to stop me.
Fast forward to the wee morning hours of September 15, 2011. There we two teams from work stood in front of our respective painted vans and shivered in excitement together. We were briefed, we showed we knew how to wear our safety gear; the butterflies became flying beetles in my stomach, crashing about in a flurry. All of my training, every mile I had pushed myself through mentally when my legs begged me to stop, every small victory I had celebrated along the way had lead to this: the gun rang out in the velveteen sky and my teammates were off and running.
What occurred over the next twenty four hours I feel I cannot properly form into words. Kudos had been given to me as I was passed; in turn I passed this encouragement on to others in my wake. We may have been many teams running against one another, but as individuals on the course, many of us were really running together: the quiet pact of runners, who in the end, are simply happy to share something they all love. A gent and I joked as we pulled into the home stretch of our third and final leg – how wonderful a cold beer would taste, would there be pizza, oh so much pizza – and I cracked a manic smile as he started striding towards the finish. “I’m coming for you!” I happily yelled as I kicked out my own stride; I heard him laugh as he pushed a bit harder. Through the last exchange, this man whom I had barely even met and I, raced through the fluttering plastic tape chute to hand off our batons (reflective slap bracelets.) It must’ve been a sight, a solid six-foot-something man running like a big dog chased by little yappy me. As we both hunched into heaps afterwards, we high-fived. I told him the first beer would be on me.
As I sat in the dry hundred-plus degree heat at the finish, only partially shaded from the overhead sun with my teammates, I swilled red wine from my finisher glass and smiled. As the rush of it all settled, my heart sang. Exhausted, ready for a real meal after a day of bars, nuts and other lighter fare. I was covered in dirt and sweat and probably a touch of blood in my socks. Some blisters and blackened toes teamed with my hefty bottle-opener as badges of honor. I had made it. I had run each of my three legs at a pace nearly two minutes faster than anticipated; I had been fueled by cheers from strangers in the middle of the night as I ran alone, covered in reflective and lights; I had bonded with seven coworkers and spent the best dollar of my life to sleep on the hard floor of a high school gym for a few hours.
Out there on the road, my whole life had changed. I was going to live. I was going to thrive.
Originally posted on 3.06.2013 on a since-retired blog. All writing is my own.