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.