October 30, 2012
I didn’t actually come up with the title of my blog. Being somewhat technologically challenged, a friend of mine set it up for me a number of years ago. Knowing me as she did, and being rather witty, she thought “how I survived myself” would be the perfect title to a blog dedicated to my adventures backpacking through the spider and snake-infested wilds of Australia and Asia. I’m not sure if she knew at the time just how appropriate the name she gave it really was.
In fact, I think I’m going to get a t-shirt printed with the words “I survived myself”.
I’m going to wear it every day, so that every time I look in the mirror or see myself in a photograph, I will remember what it takes to be a survivor.
Survival, as defined by dictionary.com, is “the act or fact of continuing to remain in existence, especially under adverse or unusual circumstances.” A survivor is then said to be “a person or thing that survives.” Or “a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.”
In this sense, we are all survivors. I’m fairly certain, that there isn’t a human being alive that hasn’t faced some sort of hardship. Some of us have survived earthquakes and storms. Some of us have survived divorce, illnesses, and war.
I have, and continue to, survive myself.
At this point you’re likely thinking “umm…ok?”. You may wonder how I can possibly put my survival skills on the same level as someone who has survived such adverse circumstances as war. And I get it-I may very well have no idea what it takes to survive anything other than the war I’ve waged against myself. But I also know, that whether my hardships were real or a figment of my own creation, the threat I posed to my own survival was as deadly as any raging storm.
The first time I remember looking for a way out of the adverse circumstance called “my life”, I was four years old.
My mother tells a story of me as a young girl; I am standing at the top of the stairs. In the heat of an argument, I have grabbed a knife from the kitchen, pointed it towards my stomach and told her that I am going back to Heaven. And that she’ll be sorry.
When she tells this story, I want to believe it isn’t true. I want to believe that four year old me didn’t have the kind of pain and anger and sadness that could scare her mother like that. But I remember the steel blade of the knife in my hands.
This was, as far as I can recall, my earliest brush with suicide. I did once, when undergoing hypnotherapy, experience a memory of being a fetus forced against my will to enter the world. While it reinforced my inclination at the time that I should never have been born, I cannot say whether the event actually occurred.
What I can be sure of, is that for as far back as my memory serves I have struggled with some form of depression or anxiety. At 16, I began flirting with disordered eating. Ten years later, it would lead me, once again, to the edge of my own existence.
Except this time, my mother wouldn’t be there to calmly take the knife from my hands and coax me down from the ledge.
A year ago, in the middle of a September night, I sat on the curb crying to a stranger on the other end of the suicide hotline I had somehow worked up the courage to call. And somewhere during the course of that conversation, I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to go on living. It was, that if I had any hope of surviving myself, I couldn’t keep on living with the fear, guilt and shame of my secret mental illness.
Growing up in a somewhat chaotic household, I found my refuge on the stage. As a teenager in a performing arts company, I was not unfamiliar with the notion of eating disorders. I just didn’t think that occasionally throwing up after a meal meant I had one. I admired with envy the commitment of girls who could make it through the day on lettuce alone, but I didn’t have the willpower. And besides, a rush of food followed by the relief of its release put my teenage angst at bay. Looking back, I realize that this was the beginning of my disordered thinking.
Later, as an acting student in college I was told that my job was “to make the invisible, visible.” As an artist, it was my responsibility to share the story of the character’s journey by revealing their hidden thoughts through movement and text. Because, more often than not, it is what is said between the lines, that creates breath-taking and powerful theatre. As an actor, I was required to access the dark, messy place within the human experience; the place where secrets lie. But though I knew my success depended on it, I couldn’t go there. I didn’t want anyone to see what a fraud I was. That while on the outside I might seem to have it all together, beneath the surface I was more fucked up than any character I’d ever have to play.
Two years after graduating, having not taken any real steps towards a career, I made a deal with myself. I would be ready to begin working as a professional actor when my outward appearance overshadowed the crippling doubt and fear I was navigating on the inside. I set my goal at 105 pounds. At the time I was hovering around the 110 mark, so I didn’t have that far to go. I was certain that to the world I was doing a great job playing the role of a goal-oriented, thin, healthy, and happy young woman. I didn’t mention that the role required extreme dieting, compulsive exercise, and frequent trips to the restroom after meals.
Three years later, at 95 pounds, no closer to any sort of career, and having nearly destroyed not only the walls of my esophagus, but all of my relationships-I knew I had two choices. I could choose to die (whether quickly or prolonged), or I could choose to live. And if I chose life, it meant that I couldn’t keep my secret, a secret any longer. Because something told me, that if I was going to survive, I was going to need some help.
And so, on that September night, between choking sobs, I told a stranger what for so long I couldn’t even tell myself, “I think I have an eating disorder”.
And she didn’t hang up on me. Or tell me I was crazy. She stayed on the line and gave me the name of the one organization she could find for a woman of my age in my area.
Over the course of the next few weeks I discovered that the resources available for people over 25 suffering from disordered eating are limited to say the least. While there are a handful of counselors who deal with eating disorders, in a city of over a million people, there is only one specialist that is covered by healthcare. The wait? At least six months to a year.
In Canada, a diagnosis of an eating disorder is more likely to be fatal than a diagnosis of breast cancer. 1 in 5 of those diagnosed will die as a result of complications brought on by their eating disorder.
I am lucky. I have had the means and the support necessary to fight for my survival. After a year of treatment, I now know on a rational level that being jealous of someone with a serious illness isn’t exactly a sign of mental clarity. But even today I struggle to remind myself that having an extra bite of my Pad Thai doesn’t mean I’m worthless.
Survival is a promise I have to make to myself every day. I make it every time I take a breath, with every bite of food, every downward dog, every step forward, every step back. I make it every time I look in the mirror and choose to love the image I see. After a year of treatment, I know rationally that being jealous of someone with a serious illness isn’t exactly a sign of mental clarity. But even today I struggle to remind myself that having an extra bite of my Pad Thai doesn’t mean I’m worthless.
Survival may have begun with me, but it has taken an entire community. It has taken the help of my physicians and counselors, the understanding of my friends and family, and courage of other survivors who have shared their stories and given me hope.
That’s why I’m going to make the t-shirt and why I will keep on wearing it until every person that is struggling with disordered eating and mental illness can proudly say, “I am a survivor”, too.
May 28, 2012
This is the hardest part. Rising from the ashes. The particles of dust move to form skin and bones and limbs again. Learning to walk again; one foot in front of the other. And then, again. New lungs stretch their muscles searching for the memory of breath. Blood courses through a map of veins moving outward from the heart. It beats against the cage of rib bones like it wants to be let out.
Being dead was easy. It was like slowly freezing to death in a cold sea. Floating and numb, I could feel nothing.
This, aliveness, this living and breathing, this existing, is the hard part.
The waiting room is living up to its name. My appointment was scheduled for 2pm. It is now almost three. I sit, uncomfortably, as I have had to use the washroom for approximately 20 minutes. I am afraid if I leave my seat, I will miss my name being called. And if I miss this chance, I am afraid it will be like a drowning man missing the life preserver being thrown down to him as he fights with the rising seas.
So I wait, for my chance at survival. It arrives an hour later, wearing a long white lab coat over khakis and a green and blue checked shirt. Dr. B extends a hand and a warm smile. He apologizes for the delay as he leads me to the examination room. He motions to a chair and I sit down. He pulls out a clipboard and looks up over the rims of his glasses as I hold my breath.
“So,” He begins kindly, “What brings you here?”
I freeze. I start to say the words, but my throat closes up and my eyes burn as I hold back what I know are tears.
Dr. B specializes in treating eating disorders. I have done my research. Teenage girls have eating disorders, ballet dancers have eating disorders, rail thin models on the covers of magazines have eating disorders. I cannot have an eating disorder. He will think I’m here for attention. He’ll think I’m too fat to possibly have a problem. He’ll think I’m lying.
“This is hard, isn’t it?” His face is filled with what I can only describe as compassion, and so I release my clenched teeth and I begin to tell the truth.
I am twenty five years old and I have no idea how I ended up in this office.
Growing up, I was taught to love myself. I was told I was beautiful. I was told I was smart, and talented, and that I could have and be whatever I dreamed.
I have been places, and done things, and there have been moments where I almost believed it was true.
I had dreams. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be a vessel with which to share the stories of this world. I thought if I wore a character, I could escape what it meant to be me. When I went to school I discovered that the best actors don’t put on a mask, they take it off. I decided that before I could be one, I would need to be perfect in every way. I did not want to remove the costume if I didn’t think the audience would like what lay beneath.
So I began by taking off weight. I started to eliminate anything that I deemed “bad”. Under the guise of “eating healthy” I said goodbye to meat and sugar. Having always had a sensitive stomach, no one questioned me when I said I was allergic to wheat and dairy. Being a lactose-intolerant-celiac-vegetarian made me a rather difficult dinner guest. It also made it easy to explain the empty spaces on my plate.
I made myself a deal. I would get an agent when I weighed 105 pounds. I shed 10 pounds quickly, but I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t perfect yet. I needed to lose 4 more pounds to make it 101. I’ve always liked palindromes. Eating in the presence of others became difficult. I would see my naturally thin sister guiltlessly savouring a slice of pizza and I would want to rip it from her hands and devour it whole. I swore the candy bars in the aisles of grocery stores were whispering my name. I would go for runs to distract myself from raiding the cupboards. I would go to hot yoga classes and imagine that each bead of sweat that hit my mat was one step closer to perfection.
When I made it to 101 pounds I would stand, naked, in front of the mirror. I would wave my arms and watch the flesh jiggle in slow motion. I would suck in my stomach, but no matter how much air I exhaled, it was not enough to make me disappear.
The more control I gained over my diet, the more my life began to unravel. I ended my relationship of five years. I moved back in with my parents. I couldn’t bare the sight of his ghost on every street so I quit the job I loved and moved away. I thought, in a new city, I could reinvent myself. I discovered that the problem with running away is that no matter how far you go, you can’t escape your own mind. And the perfect city, with the perfect apartment, could not change the fact that I was still not perfect. But now, I could run every day of the year, I lived a block from the yoga studio, and if I wanted to pay rent, I couldn’t afford to eat, so I lived off yogurt and vegetable broth. Until I met a man. And injured myself in a new years’s eve dance off fiasco and could no longer run and do yoga. Even though our relationship was made up entirely of late night phone conversations and bi-monthly visits, he fell hard for me. And I reveled in the attention. From 1000 miles away, he couldn’t tell how fucked up I really was. And I could pretend that I was just as wonderful as he thought I was. After a few months, he came to visit. I knew I had let myself go since the last (and only) time we’d seen each other, so I’d mentioned it before we reunited. You weren’t kidding, he laughed as he put his hands around my waist. Better not gain any more or I’ll have to break up with you. I wasn’t sure he was joking.
I couldn’t see the point of carrying on a long distance relationship with no end in sight. So I attempted to end things. He didn’t agree with me, so instead of creating conflict, I decided I wanted to go back to school. In my hometown. Where he just so happened to live. I was still fat and broke, so I didn’t have much hope of making it in Vancouver as an actor anyways.
The relationship didn’t last, but I had already decided to go back to school, so I packed up and moved back to the prairies. I felt like a stranger in my own home. And I was. A stranger to everyone that loved me. A stranger to myself. I dove headfirst into my studies. I spent every spare moment studying. I used the endless pile of readings to avoid everything and everyone. I especially used them to avoid food. If I was to engrossed in my work I could ignore the gnawing pain in my gut. Where once I might have been called a “drama queen” I now was a monster. Minor setbacks, like a B- on a paper turned me into a volatile beast. I would reach for food to help numb the feeling of inferiority only to feel crushing guilt the moment I took the first bite. So I made rules. I could have three bites of an apple, but then I had to throw it out. If I slipped and took an extra bite, it meant I was a failure. I had to rid myself of that fourth bite. I began to check the scale obsessively. Before meals. After meals. If it went up, I would run turn on the faucet to cover the gagging noises I would inadvertently make as I rid myself of dinner.
For all my efforts, I seemed to hover around 95 pounds. But it was not good enough. I wouldn’t rest until I disappeared. I wouldn’t rest until I died.
I am telling all of this to Dr. B as he jots my words down on his clipboard. He doesn’t look shocked or appalled. He doesn’t accuse me of lying or ask me to come back when I lose another 10 pounds. In fact, from the way he nods his head and interjects at points and asks nonchalantly whether I use two fingers or one, it almost seems like he has heard my story before.
And for the first time in what feels like forever, I don’t feel like I’m the only one in the world that’s losing her mind. As I sit there in his office, he tosses me a lifeline, and for the first time in forever, I know that I am going to be alright.