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.
To read part I, click here.
If made to choose one experience in recovery I was least prepared for, it was learning how to live again.
Television commercials, while conveying a good message, make light of this process: you can learn to ___ without a cigarette; quit smoking. It shows the new former-smoker getting into the backseat of the car, then the passenger side before finally making it to the proper driver’s seat and pulling away. One might laugh and say, “Oh how dumb is that? It’s not like you’re learning to drive without an arm, it’s just without a cigarette. Get over it.”
Well, I can certainly say that as I learned to move throughout my daily life without the rigid rules and restrictions of my disorder, I very well was the driver sitting in the center of the back seat of the car, confused and whispering, “But I just wanted to go for a drive; why is this so hard?” I may as well have been trying to re-learn things without a limb. When so much of your time has been consumed for so long, when an obsession has grown to proportions such that it has taken on a life of it’s own with you as the vehicle, seemingly simple tasks such as getting up and getting dressed can take on epic proportions. Figuring out which pair of jeans makes you feel the least disgusting could take five to ten different try-ons of the exact same pair of pants, followed by another fifteen to twenty minutes of trying on top after top, switching out the underlayer on top for another one, no, the over layer on the top, no back to the other one, only to find oneself crumpled in a ready-to-cry heap that matches the pile of rejected clothing on the floor. Then it’s the dance downstairs in the kitchen, trying to figure out how to make it look as though you took some snacks and food for yourself but knowing you’ll never eat them; you’ll hide them, give them away, pick at them, forget them and ultimately thrown them away.
Recently, a friend asked me what mania is like. The onslaught of mania brought on by bipolar disorder for me is much like the constant whirr of being consumed by eating disorder. The battle may be outwardly shown as though it is against the scale, the mirror, the numeric label on the inside of one’s jeans, but truly the battle is completely and totally within. For me, eating disorder slowly and steadily consumed me: social me, the me in a relationship, the me who was a supportive friend and sister, the me who was her own person, her own self. As disorder consumed me, I had no time for anything outside my obsessing. Little by little, as I slid into the grips of anorexia, all other parts of me were consumed. My illness progressed; I began to identify as EDNOS, or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, the kind way of saying “not black and white anorectic or bulimic.” I sank deeper and deeper into obsessive thoughts and behaviors, letting it consume every waking minute of my days. This progressed till the day I finally had enough and outed myself. But till then, every single day was a grind.
Wake up, grab at hip bones. Feel anything new? Anything puffy? Not enough ribs to hook your fingers into? Yes, the shadow cast by your underwear, suspended over your hipbones was definitely more prevalent yesterday. Go to the bathroom. Weigh self. Weigh self at least two more times. Unhappy with it? Weigh self again. Stare angrily into the mirror and decide if it’s a good day or a bad day, a healthy breakfast day or a binge-purge day, based on this number and what your reflection screams at you. Do the unhappy clothing dance. Do the facade of feeding dance. Imagine it is now seven am and you have just arrived at work completely exhausted from this tireless routine, fueled only by obsessive, dizzying thoughts and the tiny splash of non-dairy milk you allowed yourself in your coffee for “being good” and not eating breakfast. Imagine you have to do this obsessive dance, with more and more required steps, every day while maintaining the exhausting facade that you are fine, that everything is fine, that losing handfuls of hair in the shower and passing out when standing up too quickly is fine. And this all happens daily before nine AM, the remaining hours no easier.
Then one day the routines are playing out without you, completely against your will. Suddenly you are trapped within yourself, fueled by a whirring motor that will not relent, watching as your hands destroy, as your body decays in the mirror. Helpless. As though standing outside yourself, watching as you slowly but surely begin to drain the very life out of your being. Screaming in silence, thrashing and writhing within your own skin, seemingly unable to summon help to rescue you from your own hands. You can see your cracked and yellowing skin, the sickly sunken look in your eyes, how your skin hangs like crepe paper stretched over your xylophone ribs, yet you think you don’t look the part yet, you’re not walking dead, so clearly, of course you don’t have a real problem, you couldn’t have a real problem; you’re but a wannabe. Not yet good enough. Not yet disordered enough to be believable.
Now image suddenly – *poof* – that constant television white noise of obsession in your head is turned down, the roaring din fading slowly and slowly till suddenly where there was once a chaotic noisy battle of fifteen headstrong voices berating at once, there is now nothing. Near silence. Somewhere in the catacombs of the dark, emptied mind, a brave little voice wavers as it calls out, “Today should be a good day, right?”
That tiny little voice was the warrior woman within me. She had never truly left me; had she not been there, I never would have been able to fight. The fight to live, to win against my own demons, against the moldings of society and brainwashing I’d been subjected to – it was in my all along, untapped, laying in wait. As I regained strength – relearned how to feel hunger and how to snack, learned to fear mirrors not, that I didn’t need validation from the scale – the warrior woman within me grew stronger too. Slowly I held myself taller. Laughed more. Learned how to be playful with my then fiancee, now husband. To be in the moment, to enjoy, to live life and not be a prisoner of my own head. Every day has it’s own challenges but I am now a strong enough sailor to weather these seas.
Here, eighteen months down the line, the hiccups are fewer. The bad days and moments when The Thoughts seem to be creeping back in are lesser. All the time formerly occupied with keeping myself ill may have been filled my seemingly mundane things – laundry, workouts, cooking with my husband, playing with our dogs – but these things are in truth huge, things four-years-ago me could not and would not have approached the same way. Just this Saturday, I was at a workshop at my gym about “Good Practices,” and as soon as a woman raised her hand and began to speak about a “diet” I felt my heart rate raise. My palms began to sweat. Her words were triggering, unknowingly ignorant – they made me want to burst out in a scolding tone, “Just stop right there. No one should diet. Diets are dangerous. I went from thinking I would diet down a bit to lose excess weight to being a full-blown, out of control bulimic! 1200 isn’t a magic number! You have to eat to lose!” My rant was stifled by a trainer, who I could tell had also tensed up. Thankfully he calmed me as well as he managed to keep his tone level and calm, stating the good facts: that the ‘diet’ she had described was for her friend, not for her. That every body is different. That no change should be measured, be it boot camp or intake change, until at last 90 days had passed. And most importantly that we should not be seeking out diets: if anything, we should be seeking out lasting lifestyle changes.
I know I was likely sitting in a very different position than most other attendees on Saturday, not needing to learn how to eat healthy to remove weight or break plateaus. However, I do hope that the reassurance I took away from it helped someone else, helped someone on the brink of obsessive disorder.
Truly, while I love my family, have incredible love for my husband, great hope for our future and our life together, in the end when I chose to recover, I had to do it for myself. Re-learning how to live again, how to grow and thrive, has proven a difficult and worthwhile process that I would not give up for the world – and I hope that in sharing my story, I can in turn help someone else find the fight within themselves to choose to thrive, and to win.
Fight the good fight. You’re not alone. Together, we will win.
Originally posted on 3.25.2013 on a since-retired blog. All writing is my own.