Fat or dead? How I broke the ED cycle (Part 2)

How do you go from this…

… to this…

… and survive the kinds of words and thoughts that may even be going through your own mind (don’t feel bad, we’re all conditioned to judge) as you look at those photos?

That was the central question that dominated the recovery phase of my eating disorder. How can I stand not only the horrible attitudes and comments that support my eating disorder from others, but way more so, the ones that come from my own mind?

The two photos above document so much about eating disorders that demonstrate not what is wrong with eating disorders, but what is wrong with us – with people, with the culture that continues to glorify them even as we create token campaign after token campaign of how much we DON’T glorify them (yeah fucking right). Even when I was almost too weak to stand, pale and near fainting with malnutrition, I was forever getting compliments on my physique. One girl I knew said she was getting compliments right up to the day she checked into a hospital.

There is nothing wrong with the bottom picture, except that it could never be used to sell anything. There is everything wrong with the top picture. The top picture represents someone (according to the young woman herself, Mischa Barton) drowning in the midst of a mental health crisis. The bottom picture is a normal human female leaving a store with a beverage. Except suddenly, when you put it next to the top picture,  it isn’t just that is it? It’s failure. It’s worse. It’s fat. It’s older/uglier/pastier and, in short, REALER than the top one. And no one wants to see that. “Real” is a hard sell.

In this way, comparison weaves itself into our cultural psyche and ingrained behaviours, subtle and insidious, until it’s everywhere – until the “better than” part does not even have to exist in order for us to hate the “worse than” part. How many times have you been down on yourself for not being more like something (or someone) that doesn’t even actually exist? Maybe you even consciously know such a thing doesn’t exist (i.e. a thinner or younger you). But you STILL compare yourself to it.

But what if the two pictures above were not the only options for someone dealing with an ED? What if there was a third picture to look at?

Baby-Kissing-on-Mirror

Maybe it’s just because I personally find babies cuter than Mischa, but that’s my favourite picture of the three.

Both of my miserable outlooks regarding my eating/body depended on punishing myself to some degree: either with starvation or with self-loathing. It took me a rather embarrassing amount of time (try almost 20 years) to realize that self-compassion was the only way out of the miserable dichotomy I’d fallen into.

Self-compassion meant focusing on how I felt rather than how I looked. It meant accepting the fact that my body and I are in this together for the long haul – not for the next month or year – and how I treat it will eventually catch up with me. It meant realizing that even when there are plenty of reasons to dislike myself, I  can’t afford to crumble and give in to them – because who’s going to be able to hold me up if I’m not even in one piece?

So I let go of the cycle and focused on self-compassion instead. Eating what I wanted/needed, whenever I wanted/needed it. To say it was excruciating is an understatement. An anorexic’s worst nightmare: for three years, I gained weight regardless of how healthily I ate. My naturally quick metabolism was shot – I doubt I’ll ever fully get it back. But when I consider the decade of abuse I put my body through, it’s kind of a miracle that it ONLY took three years to satisfy itself that yes, I was done starving, and yes, it could stop clinging to every calorie I gave it.

This period (as demonstrated above in the pictures of Mischa Barton) is a necessary and unavoidable (not to mention ironic, of course) part of ED recovery. Many never commit to recovery because they can’t stomach (no dark pun intended) the idea of this part of the process – and it took me a few tries to really “commit” to gaining all the weight. Like so many aspects of mental illness, trust becomes key. Trusting in recovery, trusting in hope, trusting yourself.

Over the course of my slow recovery from anorexia, my BMI rose 10 points in three years. If you’d told me that prior to the experience, I would have been flat-out dead sure I could never, ever survive that – surely I’d go mad, kill myself, hurt myself, fall back into old patterns, etc. etc.

But – oddly enough – I didn’t.

In this way, I really do cherish my ED experience. I know that sounds weird. But it gave me some idea of what mental health (versus mental illness) looks like. It gave me some hope that just because I believe something – even when I’m so certain of it that I feel it as a “truth” deep in my gut – does not mean it is true or has to be true forever.

Now, although I struggle on a daily basis with BPD, I don’t consider anorexia to be a part of that struggle any longer. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to have at least one aspect of this multi-facted demon ‘crossed off the list,’ so to speak.

And did all my hope and trusting myself pay off? Yes. Today I am back at a BMI of 20 with a new appreciation for food (EVERYTHING tastes good when you know what starvation tastes like!) and exercise (feeling strong beats feeling skinny by about a billion miles). My metabolism is quick enough that even when I go a little nuts at the holidays or on vacation, I don’t gain weight. My body knows that I won’t deprive it again so it’s stopped craving calorie-rich, unhealthy foods and/or holding on to every pound for dear life.

If you’re struggling with the daunting task of weight gain as you let go of an ED, know that it will get better. Focus on how you feel and I promise your body will thank you for it – even if it takes years to become apparent. Are you willing to cultivate patience in order to give yourself a better life, a better body, a happier soul?

Cat xxxxx

p.s. This post is, as usual, enormous so I don’t want to weigh it down (GOD, I’m full of these horrendous puns today) even more with specifics but if you have any questions or would like any further information about diet/exercise tips for ED recovery, I have quite a bit of experience by now so please feel free to message or email me. 🙂

Fat or dead? How I broke the ED cycle (Part 1)

Continuing with the theme of Eating Disorder Awareness month, I just want to talk a bit about how unbelievably stupid EDs are. Like, seriously, completely, 100% stupid. It’s shocking how many people who could otherwise be called just about every version of smart can fall prey to the insidiously backwards logic of EDs. I know because I had one for over 10 years, and I am truly fortunate to be able to say that I don’t have one anymore. I have never visited a treatment facility or had any actual/medical treatment for my ED, so I think it’s a story worth sharing.

It began with a compliment. I know that seems odd, as most people seem to set off in a quest for thinness because they are made to feel ashamed of their bodies. Not me, I like to stick to what I’m already good at, guaranteed to succeed.

When I was 13, another girl made a comment in the gym class changing rooms: “Whoa – you are sooooo skinny.” She made the mistake of saying it in a tone that conveyed nothing but admiration and respect. And as many of the girls in the room began nodding their heads in agreement, I felt like a door opened up to something I’d always wanted and never found: acceptance. Here it was. Years of being bullied for my personality and behaviour made me absolutely ravenous for that sense of acceptance which is already so important to any kid that age.

I was really skinny, there was no denying it. I come from a uniformly skinny family. But I’d never realized that some people found that admirable – attractive even – wtf???  OK, I figured: If skinny was what made me admirable, then I’d get even skinnier.

It’s incredible the ways you adapt, the subtle implications that humans use to navigate each other. I quickly noticed that being skinny seemed to convey some kind of appealing vulnerability – it made me, literally, little. And “little” brought out a protectiveness in people that I could fool myself into thinking of as caring about me personally. Being skinny also made me physically frail, weak, tragic, victimised – all the things I already felt internally but didn’t know how to express. Well now I could express them. And I could do it in a way that actually made other girls envious of me. Win-win all around!

Except not, of course.

90% of the time that I was restricting my calories, I was struck by how easy it was. I’d imagined it being so much harder based on how women always talk about the horrors of dieting. I was delighted by my self-discipline – until that other 10% kicked in.

That 10% was, of course, my body’s survival mechanisms, firing on all cylinders, making me have insane cravings, dreams about eating, obsessive thoughts about food that make you feel like you’re going nuts.

Just so no one is under the impression that there’s anything remotely glamourous about anorexia (despite what willowy celebrities and their fashionable rehab trips would have you believe), here’s what it’s like to be a functioning anorexic.

In those uncontrollable 10%-of-the-time states, I became, quite literally, like a starving animal. Almost all rational, higher thinking shut down and I would be unable to stop myself from eating. I kid you not, at times, I walked by unfinished plates in the school cafeteria and was unable to resist grabbing the food from them, running to the washroom to eat the crusts that other students had left. I have heard accounts of how when people get hungry enough, cannibalism becomes possible because the parts of the brain that register emotions (disgust, namely) about what you’re doing basically shut off until you get nutrients. As an ex-anorexic, I can say that does not surprise me at all.

Your emotions go haywire in ways that you refuse to associate with your basic need for food. Everything set me off. Everything was hurtful, personal, insensitive (this was ON TOP of the BPD – yikes). Everything made me want to scream and cry, or even have to cut. In this way, the self-harm and the anorexia went hand-in-hand for me: the less I ate, the less emotionally stable I was (= cut), but the more I DID eat, the more I’d punish myself by cutting. The whole thing came down to a lot of cutting, basically (a lot of which, however, had nothing to do with anorexia). Even now my arms are a patchwork of scars that I hate, although they do fade with each passing year.

You hate your body and your body hates you right back. You’re constantly cold, exhausted, beaten down by the simple movements of a sedentary day. You sleep endlessly and never feel rested. You take a crap once a week, tops, and become chronically constipated (sexy, right?). In your quest to be “attractive” (i.e. thin), ironically, your hair, skin, nails, and even your eyes are sacrificed – they all look awful: pale, dry, papery, dead.

This is your face on anorexia.

But the worst part is the mental cycle you’re trapped in – the well-documented struggle anorexics face in both loathing and obsessing about the same thing. And of course, unlike drugs or other self-harming behaviours, you know that you can never just cut food out of your life. No matter how anorexic you get, you need to eat something – you know that sooner or later, you will have to to swallow the thing you hate. In this way, it’s a perpetually miserable situation that only has one outcome: lower and lower self-worth, deeper and deeper self-hatred.

When all you’re measuring yourself, your happiness, your value by is how much you eat, you begin to realize that you only have two options: get fat (i.e. get better or at least subsist), or die (i.e. “succeed” according to your inner anorexic voices).

Get fat or die. Get fat or die. Get fat or die. The choice circled my mind endlessly. The only answer was despair, in either case.

From an incredible ad series created for the the Anorexi/Bulimi-contact society in 2007.

Like most long-term functional anorexics, I found myself trapped in a cycle that demonstrated those two choices in less extreme versions. I’d starve until I came close to literally collapsing or otherwise being ‘found out’ (BMI of around 14 was my ideal range), then have a ‘relapse’ into having to eat, gaining 10 pounds or so until I was disgusted with myself all over again… and plunged right back into the cycle.

This went on for 12 years. 12 fucking years (GOD, it depresses me to think of that). Sometimes, in my “it’s okay to eat for a while” phases, I’d think it was all behind me. But sooner or later, the weight would always creep back on and I’d have to resort to losing it the only way I knew how. And after all, it’s not like I was alone in thinking this way: it seems that to this day, plenty of prominent magazines, media moguls, celebrities and models rely on deprivation as the only possible weapon against getting “fat” and ugly. Ugh.

The truth is, deprivation never works. Not really. If you’ve ever dieted in any way at all, you know exactly how long and how well it “works.”

No, the key to breaking the “starve and die OR eat and hate my(fat)self” cycle was a third option that I’d never even heard of.

To be continued in Part 2… (it’s a much happier post – please don’t only read this part!!!)

Cat xxxx

I like screaming

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At some point, I became someone that really likes screaming. Which makes sense given that I felt too repressed and pressured as a child to ever really throw tantrums. All the behaviour that most people get out of them as 2-year-olds or maybe teenagers, I never did. 

All the coping mechanisms I learned for the first decade or so of my disorder (roughly age 8-18) were about hiding, sneaking, suppressing, containing, smothering. A very introverted form of borderline.

Suddenly, in my 20s, in the context of an over-the-top love/hate romance and a social life filled with drugs/drinking, I developed new, more dramatic coping mechanisms. And they felt really, really good. Throwing things. Breaking things. Hurting people. Lashing out in every sense. 

Now I oscillate between the two types of BPD behaviour, and I honestly can’t say which is worse. One shuts people out, and the other drives them away – hard. One makes you feel like a perpetual victim, one makes you feel like a perpetual monster. Both punish me more than they punish anyone else. 

But I’m kind of hesitant to think of my transformation into the typical crazy/angry/difficult borderline as a bad thing overall. Because anything that breaks the crushing silence, the suppressed roar of emotions, is better than invalidating them. Most therapists agree that emotionally reacting (of course, NOT at other people, is the goal) is the first step to recovery.

Feeling, validating, and expressing your own emotions are such simple core human behaviours – and yet so many borderlines don’t know the first thing about any of them. We’ve learned all kinds of beliefs about what we are “allowed” to feel, or “supposed” to feel. We spend most of our lives invalidating our own feelings as weak, pathetic, embarrassing, immature, overly sensitive. We don’t know how to express our emotions because chances are, we don’t even know what healthy emotional expression looks like.

And so, in an effort to release some of the steam constantly boiling under my surface, I’ve taken to driving around screaming most evenings. Yes, it looks (and feels) fucking crazy. But it’s also quite revealing when you try it. When was the last time you heard yourself screaming? Like, full-on screaming in pain or anger? It took me a long time to get used to the sound of it. At first I was just talking angrily. Even then, it made me really uncomfortable to hear the words that I actually wanted to say. More often, I’d just drive around at night, ruminating endlessly over the things I wanted to scream at people, the things that had hurt me, the things I couldn’t change. My hands and stomach and jaw clenched, my chest tight, my heart and head pounding, my whole body suffering the effects of suppressed agony and rage. 

I needed to give myself permission to get the emotion OUT of my body. My body doesn’t know my mind is just playing on a fucking loop. It’s reacting with all the anxiety, fury or sadness of those mental plot lines.

When I get home after a nutso shrieking session in the car (I only ever go at night, or when/where the roads are totally empty), I feel drained, exhausted, and I’m usually hoarse. But I feel better, because the words that I wanted to say have been said. A lot of the time, I no longer feel the need to scream them at someone else – because I heard them, I validated them, I dealt with the biggest aspect of the emotion myself. What’s left is almost always a lot more manageable and something I can bring to another person without our confrontation simply turning into my own personal venting session. 

In the same vein, I’m also strongly considering getting a punching bag…. just the thought of wailing on it after a rough day is satisfying already!

Cat xxxx

Medications: the nitty-gritty

At one point, someone emailed me regarding a topic that I was shocked to realize I actually read/write very little about even though it can be massively important to the treatment of mental illness: meds!

russian_roulette_with_birth_defect_meds
Maybe it’s me not looking hard enough (in fact I’m sure it is) but I really don’t know a whole lot about the BPD community’s general stance on medication for this disorder. Perhaps that’s for the simple and valid reason that there is no consensus at this point – not among doctors, patients, or anyone else – that BPD should be treated with medication, and, if so, with which medication.

So here are my personal medication stats and story:

Firstly, I was EXTREMELY resistant to the idea of meds. I mean I know that’s probably most people: “What if it changes me? What if I become reliant on it? What if it has horrible side effects?” All totally valid and I am still far from the world’s biggest pill-happy medication advocate. I think there is a lot more to be learned about the way anti-depressants and anti-psychotics work (which no one still really gets) and, especially, why the same medications can have the exact opposite effect in some patients.  I completely get the vague fear that medication is an “outside” force that will dilute your “inside” self, and it’s important to acknowledge that fear. For those reasons, I remain conflicted.

However.

I ultimately decided to give meds a try because my concerns did not outweigh the possible benefits. For example:

“What if it changes me?”
Realistically, and as much as part of me fights it sometimes, I want to change – a lot. It’s not diluting yourself when you eat protein to make you stronger. It’s not diluting yourself when you take a tylenol to deal with a temporary headache or some menstrual cramps. And if I do notice the drug changing me for the worse, I will stop taking it.
“What if I become reliant on it?”
I’m already completely reliant on self-harm, alcohol, terrible relationships, illegal drugs and dangerous activities: I’m kidding myself if I think I’d be giving up any level of free will by taking a couple prescribed pills a day instead.

So I put myself in the hands of the doctors assigned to me and, sadly, was quite disappointed. At least for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time. First it was an anti-depressant called Ciprilex and some antipsychotics (unfortunately, I can’t remember the names of those…). The former made me feel a whopping 0% better and made me gain a bit of weight. The latter made me feel numb, out-of-it and paranoid.

My second run was with another anti-depressant called Cymbalta. No terrible side effects that I could detect, but it didn’t do any good either.

The third try (this was over a year into trying stuff, as you have to give all meds time to work) was an anti-depressant called Wellbutrin. I hate that it’s such a trial process to find a medicine that actually works/does what it’s formulated to do, but such is apparently the world of mental health medicine. :S

The Wellbutrin works for me. No, it’s not a BPD treatment in and of itself (nothing is, as of yet), but it’s worked for my depression and I really believe that when you’re under the weight of full-blown, brain-chemistry-skewing depression, it’s hard for anything else to get through at all.  So feeling that lessen a bit was crucial to being able to approach the BPD problem as a whole.  Taking my average/normal mood from “Can’t possibly get out of bed” up to “This sucks and I hate everything but I can function” was essential. Wellbutrin is not associated with weight gain and I haven’t noticed any side effects, though of course that can vary depending on the person.

Last week, I saw my family doctor and related the events of Christmas (i.e. horrendous emotional blowouts with friends/family, and lots of suicidal impulses). So he added Abilify (an anti-psychotic, often used in higher doses for bi-polar and schizophrenia) to my regimen. So now I take 300mg Wellbutrin and 2mg Abilify every day. Combined, they are supposed to even out mood swings and bring my overall energy levels up. We’ll see how that works in the long run – so far the Abilify makes me VERY drowsy, but it’s early days yet so perhaps that will go away.

Finally, however, I think the most important use for medication I have found in my BPD is my “worst case scenario” stash. I now have an emergency stash of fairly low-dose lorazepam (i.e. Ativan). I feel kind of disappointed in myself when I admit that, but there you go. It got to a point where I really could not trust myself to do the right thing (or the remotely healthy thing) when I was at my worst.

Rather than wait for that to happen and end up in the hospital or a holding cell or some similarly terrible/dramatic situation that I knew would only make things worse for me, I asked my doctor to prescribe a very small number of tranquilizers/anti-anxiety-type pills that I could have on hand in case things got totally out of control. But not enough that I could (if I went full-on BPD nuts) take them to “make a point” to myself or others. Just enough that if I really couldn’t deal or find a way to calm down, I could take something to lower the intensity a bit and/or sleep some of it off.

It is not an exaggeration to say those emergency Ativan probably saved my life over the Christmas holidays.

Anyone else care to share their thoughts/experiences with meds? Since BPD is, as I said, technically without any specific medical treatment, I’m curious to know what others have tried.

Cat xxxx

The weight of the world

Do you ever feel like all the pain in the world is yours, and yours alone, to bear? 

Besides rage/anger issues, I would say the strongest hold BPD has on me is my addiction to suffering. I don’t know what else to call it. It’s an addiction in the sense that I can’t picture life without it, I don’t know who or what I would be without the portion of pain I keep hanging onto, and I don’t know the first thing about getting rid of it. I don’t even think it can be ‘gotten rid of.’

It’s as if the grief of every parent who has lost a child is deep in your gut; the broken heart of every desolate lover flooding your chest; the pain of every tortured lab animal pulling your nerves to breaking; the shame and self-hatred of every rapist and abuser eating its way out of your stomach. 

I think of Moses and the Egyptians, luring them into the ocean to drown as God closed it behind them. I often feel like a tiny spot has been cleared of water for me in the midst of the Pacific; the agony of existence in this world is the ocean all around me. I can feel the damp, cool threat of the water, hear the rush of it, know that at some point, it will crash down and swallow me without a trace.

I used to wonder if everyone felt that way. Was I the only one that couldn’t handle it?

My therapist says (there’s a blog title right there…) that people with BPD have a poor sense of self and no boundaries, so the walls that should be there to protect us from others’ suffering are not. We take on the burdens, the worries, the pain, the memories, the traumas of other human beings the way other people pick up style tips. 

I’m not sure I buy that. I’m sure that I do have boundary issues and my mental/emotional walls need to be better defined. But I can’t help but weep for griefs that are not my own – even though sometimes they are all tangled up with mine, almost as if it’s only “okay” for me to cry for myself as a side note to someone else’s pain.

Long ago I stopped crying for the pain. It’s only within the last year or so that I could start again. It feels like trying to empty said ocean with a teaspoon. I don’t really know how to feel about the truth that I know in my gut: Life is pain. There’s no exorcising it, no releasing it for good, no total healing, no ultimate catharsis, no leaving it behind. Not really. Our choices are to live with it or to not live. That choice is a lot to bear sometimes.

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February: Eating Disorder Awareness Month

Happy Eating Disorder Awareness Month!

Not a very common greeting card.

I must admit, I have my reservations about “awareness” as a catch-all concept. Mental health awareness. BPD awareness. Gay right awareness. Bullying awareness. It all seems well and good and I’ll obviously never be ANTI-awareness. But is it actually helpful? I’m just not sure. And my own personal journey with an eating disorder is one of the main reasons I feel this way.

Nowadays, the whole concept of eating disorders is as common, familiar and even (sadly) popular as braces: we all know many, many, MANY people who had (or have) them and most of us either had them at one point or kind of toyed with the idea of getting them. 10 to 15 years ago, when I was a teenager, things were very different. Eating disorders definitely existed but they were not nearly as common and there was a basic understanding that taking things too far was NOT okay.

Now bring in the awareness movement. Everyone listen up! Eating disorders exist! They are NOT okay!

Huh. Well. We all knew they weren’t okay. And it’s not harmful to clarify that or raise the topic to give some people affected by it a sense of community.

However. Awareness is a double-edged sword. The more you spread the word… the more the word spreads. Suddenly, what had once been the domain of a few was no longer a secret at all. Suddenly, the “secret” went from being a strictly dark one to one that was getting A LOT of light and attention. Website after website sprung up promoting “thinspo” (fucked up pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia propaganda). Celebrities gave tearful confessions in droves – and for every sob story they told of being so anorexic they made themselves cold on purpose to increase calories burned, you can guarantee 100 girls only heard one part of the message: “Extra cold means burning extra calories.” I know that the more I learned/heard about anorexia, the more anorexic I got. The more tricks I learned, the more I internalized the lesson “This is what gives me my identity, this is what gets me noticed.”

Do you see what I’m getting at? While I have no problem at all with awareness campaigns in the sense they are meant to be taken, it must be acknowledged that there is always another way of taking them. Bringing awareness to a topic puts it in people’s minds. That’s the point. But depending on the topic, that is not always a positive thing.

Consider the following:

The National Eating Disorders Association started in 2001 as an amalgamation of two existing eating-disorder awareness societies. Basically, in the late 90s, EDs started to get big-time serious attention because people felt eating disorders were becoming dangerously prevalent and should be addressed. Now let’s look at some pop culture female icons of the 1990s:

Anyone remember these ladies?

Clueless_3

Or these gals? (side note: marry me please, Joss Whedon)

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Or this famous dynamic duo? (side note: godDAMN, Xena is a fox)
Xena_Gabrielle

Now flash forward to the pop culture icons of millions of teenaged girls today:

twilight_breaking_dawn_bella_swan_171011736

Huh.

animaatjes-the-vampire-diaries-80185

Oh dear.

Gossip-Girls-gossip-girl-23788233-1280-1024

Well, thank GOD we became aware of the problem before the idea of skinny = pretty completely took over the media, eh? Oh wait… yikes.

Our current approach to ED awareness is clearly not working.

I’m not saying the answer is shut up about it already. But unlike cancer or MS or many of the other diseases with big ‘awareness’ campaigns, mental diseases are often adopted as coping mechanisms for extremely difficult circumstances. So they only cloud the water, so to speak, and often fuck up an already fucked-up situation by taking attention AWAY from the actual problem. What are the odds those problems would be better addressed by focusing on them rather than on the coping mechanisms people develop for them?

Specifically, eating disorders aren’t about eating (duh). They’re not about bodies either. They’re not about weight, measurements or calories. They are about inner self-loathing and an unmet need to be accepted/loved. The body is simply an outlet for the actual problems inside. Obviously. So why exactly are we putting so much effort and attention into the outward signs of what is actually a deep-seated and extensive societal problem affecting us all?

The core problem is self-hatred. The core problem is feeling afraid, of feeling like life is scary and beyond your control. The core problem is isolation, feeling cut off from others and any sense of community. The core problem is “I will do anything to stop this feeling.” It can be stopped in a billion ways: drugs, drinking, OCD, eating/body image disorders, anger issues, etc. etc. etc.

We’ve wasted decades already focusing on the wrong problems altogether. I just think we need to be doing a lot more to address the actual human needs and fears – as uniting factors that affect us ALL – rather than putting so much time, energy and money into addressing each little specific branch of a massively fucked-up tree. Know what I mean?

Cat xxxx