First Love

Here’s another poem I wrote along the lines of the one I wrote yesterday. It’s a little depressing, but then, eating disorders are depressing. No point in glossing over that or pretending my past didn’t happen. As depressing as parts of it have been, it’s also made me who I am, and for that I’m grateful. Which I guess is all to say, don’t feel sorry for me — Ed may have been my first love (now Ex-love), but he certainly won’t be my last.

First Love

My pen hovers aimlessly over the page

College ruled, like we used in

high school, a time for first loves and

first kisses.

The empty page stares back at me,

taunting.

“Don’t you have anything worth writing about?”

I hear

laughter, glasses clinking, joints passed around

at parties I missed.

More important things to do

I thought

Didn’t like those people anyway

with their Abercrombie jeans and Victoria Secret panties

ripped off in the heat of the moment

or at least that’s how it is on TV.

I wouldn’t know,

I missed that too.

Too much going on, Too much to take care of, Too much

Too much,

Too much.

Empty Life

I’m taking a poetry class right now, and I’m finding I don’t have many powerful events from my life to write about. Sadly, much of my life has been consumed by an eating disorder, which I guess is a powerful event all its own. Understandably, much of my poetry focuses on it, the feelings its brought up, and its effect on me and my life. Here is one of those poems.

The Dance

Music blares from the unseen speakers,

Some artist I don’t know

Screaming words I can’t understand.

I have a feeling I’ve been here before

In a dream, perhaps

naked

Like I feel now

eyes piercing my sallow skin

stares I read like Tarot cards.

The track stops. Conversations don’t.

The speakers slow

to realize there’s no need to shout.

Secrets no longer secret

Camouflage destroyed.

Someone starts it up again

but too late.

The damage is done.

They know

They all know.

Ed asks me to dance

and I gladly oblige.

The Folly of “Awareness Weeks”

It’s that time of year again — Eating Disorder Awareness Week begins today and runs through this coming Saturday. The theme this year is again “I had no idea,” alluding to the fact that so many people know so little about eating disorders and the truth behind them.

While this is true, and I would absolutely LOVE it if everyone truly understood what eating disorders were like and what they were caused by, I’m not sure that’s a reasonable goal. Should more people be aware of the signs of eating disorders so they can be caught sooner before progressing to chronicity? Of course. Should children be taught better coping skills so they don’t feel the NEED to begin habits that will lead to something like an eating disorder? Most definitely. But is an awareness week really going to accomplish any of that? I doubt it. Sure, a few more people will come away with a better understanding, but from what I can tell, most of the publicity spread during this week concerns body image and the portrayal of thinness in the media. Both of which are important topics, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with the nitty gritty facts about eating disorders. The only benefit I can see to something like an eating disorder awareness week is that it might put these horrible illnesses higher up on the public’s radar and eventually lead to more funding for research into more effective treatments, as well as better funding so sufferers can actually AFFORD those treatments. Other than that, I think it’s pretty pointless and might actually spread more MIS-information than clear up any confusion.

So what do I propose?

Well, here’s a novel idea. How about we all just accept that not everyone has to completely understand everything? It’s simply not reasonable to expect everyone to understand every single mental or physical illness that could befall someone. I, for one, don’t fully understand what it’s like to have breast cancer. I know it must be horrible and scary, but I’ve never been through it, so I don’t really know what it’s like. I also don’t fully comprehend why someone would want to cut themselves or otherwise self-harm. I kind of get the reasoning behind it, but I still can’t imagine doing it or even wanting to. I also don’t really get what it means to have bi-polar disorder. I’ve seen movies and read things, but I still don’t really get it. But just because I don’t fully understand these things doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re important issues that deserve our attention. I also don’t think any one of them is more deserving of our attention than others.

So what DO I think?

I think people should respect people simply because they’re people. I think we should care for one another simply because we’re human, and I think there shouldn’t be an hierarchy of illnesses where some are regarded as more important, more devastating or more worthy of our time, attention and money. We’re all on this earth together; each of us are fighting our own tough battles; and the least we can do is support one another along the way. It’s not awareness we need. It’s love and acceptance.

So this year I won’t be posting daily about eating disorders. Instead I’m going to try and post something along the lines of love and acceptance. Stories, examples and inspiration for how to encourage those qualities in your own life. Today, I’m going to start with myself and build on the big step forward I made yesterday in my eating disorder recovery. I hope you’ll do some loving and accepting today of your own. If you do, please let me know about it in the comments!

Facing the Music

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t been writing as much lately. I don’t really have a good reason for that except that I’ve been feeling pretty shitty.

I tend to go through little ups and downs like everyone else, but lately, my downs have been more frequent and more lasting. I’ve felt depressed, hopeless and overall just pretty disinterested in life. It’s a rough place to be, and when I’m in that place, the last thing I want to do is talk to other people about it. Think about it: when is the last time you went on Facebook to update your status to “I feel shitty” or “Life sucks right now” ? I’m thinking never. It’s just not something we go around broadcasting to one another. So it goes without saying that I wasn’t exactly feeling any motivation to write.

Well, I’m back. And as much as I hate to admit it, my latest funk taught me an important lesson: that I don’t have to feel shitty. I have the ability to fight back. True, sometimes it can be helpful to allow yourself to feel shitty — to mope around a little bit and grant yourself some down time. But never for very long. That’s where I went wrong. I felt it, and then I let it compound each day until I was just wallowing in one big pile of shit. It stunk.

Last night, however, I decided I didn’t want to feel shitty anymore. I decided that the next day — today — I was going to take some action. And you know what? It worked. I feel much better today, yet the only thing different is that I DECIDED to feel different. I had been sitting around waiting for things to just magically get better on their own, when the power to change things lay within me all along.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post. What I realized last night and this morning is that I’ve been doing the exact same thing with my eating disorder/anxiety/depression as I did with my latest funk — waiting around for things to magically get better on their own. Now, clearly I do not want to have an eating disorder. Clearly I do not want to feel anxious. And I certainly do not want to feel depressed. But wanting something doesn’t make it so. That requires action. And that’s what I’ve been sorely missing. I’ve been waiting around for my fears to diminish. I’ve been sitting here, thinking that one of these days I’ll wake up and all of a sudden eating will be easy, and I won’t encounter any anxiety and I’ll just be happy and chirpy and feel fucking fantastic. Well, NEWSFLASH Jennifer: NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

Recovering from an eating disorder is fucking hard. Getting to the point where anxiety doesn’t cripple you is hard. Overcoming depression is hard. Y’all, what I’m trying to say is, THIS SHIT IS HARD. There’s simply no way around it. Doing the things that will be required of me to live a more healthy, balanced life is going to be the most difficult thing I will ever do. It’s going to provoke anxiety. It’s going to make me feel really crappy at times. But that’s okay. I know now that to get to the other side of this journey, I have to go THROUGH all that stuff. I can’t just hop on a magic carpet and bypass the tough stuff. But I’m okay with that, because at least now I’m in control. I’d rather be driving through a rainstorm with my hands on the wheel than careening around a lovely meadow in a car without a driver. So while my goal before today was to avoid anxiety at all costs, my goal now is to walk through the anxiety at all costs. Not to shy away, or wait until tomorrow, or use one of my million excuses. I’m going to go on record right now and say there ARE no more excuses. I’m done with that. I’m ready to face the music. I know I’m about to embark on the most difficult journey in my life, but I’m ready. I know it’s going to be hard, and I’m ready for that too. I’m tired of waiting on the sidelines. I want to play in the game. I may get banged up and bruised, but you know what? I’m not afraid. Because I know what’s waiting for me at the finish line, and it’s a hell of a lot better than what’s lurking in the bleachers.

Drifting Without an Anchor

I’ve been feeling rather aimless lately. Largely because my apartment lease ran out at the end of June and I still haven’t found a new place to live. I suppose I should be grateful that I have family that doesn’t mind me staying with them  until I find something, but because my family lives in another state from where I’d been living, I feel like my life is essentially on hold. I don’t have any roots in this state. No real friends to speak of, no job, nothing. Granted, I hadn’t firmly planted roots in the other state either, but I at least felt like I was beginning to. As it stands now, I’m not really sure what to do. Just wait? In case you haven’t picked up on it in my other posts, I’m not exactly good at waiting. Patience is not one of my strong suits. I like to move. I like to know where I’m going. So just about everything about my current situation is uncomfortable.

As all of this was running through my head this morning, I began to draw a connection between my current living situation and the stage I’m in of recovery: Not exactly ‘sick,’ but not exactly ‘recovered’ either. I suppose people call this stage ‘in recovery,’ but to me, ‘no man’s land’ seems like a better term. Without a foot firmly planted in either place, a person begins to feel like they’re floating around, with nothing concrete to hold on to. In a lot of ways, recovering from an eating disorder, or any kind of addiction, is very much a leap of faith. You decide the old ways are no longer working, so you let go of that raft and jump across the abyss to another one that you can’t exactly see yet, but you’re pretty sure it’s there. Somewhere…

Until you find it, though, hidden somewhere in that scary darkness, you’re left treading water in what can seem like shark-infested waters. You don’t have your old weapons to fight the sharks with, but you don’t really have any new ones to hold on to either. Or if you do, you haven’t really mastered how to wield them effectively yet.

Anyway, I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this wandering, prolonged analogy, but it just kind of tumbled out of me as I started to type so I’m going to roll with it. If anything, perhaps this post’s aimlessness will help convey my current state of mind more clearly than my limited vocabulary.

If not, here’s a poem I wrote back on New Year’s Eve of 2010. Maybe it will do the trick.

Darkness presses in

I find it hard to see.

I watch those around me,

but no one ever watches me.

I look for an escape route

but all looks just the same

How to flee these feelings?

How to stop the pain?

I want to curl up in a ball,

pass winter with the bears,

numb the empty heartache,

cut out all my fears.

But the knife I had is gone —

I’ve tossed it in the trash.

Searching for a new way

to cope with living’s wrath.

It’s hard without my feather —

my wicked magic wand

that curious little spell I cast

on its way to being gone.

Now I’m left with a blank canvas–

a virgin page to fill

Looking at it’s blinding

I’m afraid I never will…

 

(To be continued….?)

 

Cleaning Out the Toolbox

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I have a tendency to get anxious.

A LOT.

For NO REASON WHATSOEVER.

And I know I’m not alone.

I hesitate to speak for everyone, because it seems there’s always an exception to the rule, but I would venture so far as to say that we ALL get stressed out from time to time. We get anxious, unsettled and uncomfortable. And unless we’re masochists, we HATE it. As soon as those feelings creep into our awareness, we do whatever we can to get rid of them. QUICKLY.

Some of us zone out in front of the TV or computer, others of us exercise. Some of us eat, others of us don’t. Some of us curl up in a ball and go to sleep, others of us work until we drop. Suffice it to say, our coping mechanisms run the gamut. (If you’re sitting here reading this wondering what the heck I’m talking about, then you’re coping mechanism is probably denial ;)). Some of our coping mechanisms are quite effective, while some of them actually end up causing MORE problems than the very problems we use them to escape.

I was thinking about this earlier today as I puzzled (for the gazillionth time in my life) over why, after twenty plus years, I continue to hold on to the destructive habit of rigidly controlling my food intake despite being perfectly aware of how very destructive it is. For some reason, despite years of treatment, therapy and oodles and oodles of facts and statistics, I continue to engage in behavior that is not at all conducive to the kind of life I want to live.

WHY? What the fuck kind of sense does that make?

On the surface: none. None at all.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you begin to see it makes perfect sense. Since I was twelve years old, I’ve used food and exercise to manage difficult emotions. In the beginning, it worked magnificently. As time went on, it lost its oomph. But by the time I realized what I was doing and how harmful it was, it was too late. It was habit. Try doing something for twenty years, all the while telling yourself how great it is and how awesome it makes you feel, and then suddenly stopping. Yeah. Not so easy. Even if you don’t have personal experience with an eating disorder, you likely can relate on some level. Just look at how many people in the world struggle with obesity and you begin to see what I mean.

So here I am, thirty something years old, and basically the only tools I have in my toolbox to deal with anxiety are food and exercise.

Until I take them out.

You see, I actually have been acquiring some other tools over the years to deal with difficult emotions. They don’t come as easily, and they’re not quite as effective, but they’re a heck of a lot better for me. I have mindfulness, communication, medication… I don’t HAVE to hold on to the dangerous tools I’ve been grasping for so long.

Yeah, I know. It seems terribly obvious and perhaps I should have had this realization much sooner, but when it occurred to me this morning, it hit me with astounding clarity. I was wondering why I continued to reach for the eating disorder when anxiety struck, when what I should have been wondering was why I still kept the eating disorder in the toolbox in the first place. It’s like sticking a kid in a room full of healthy food and telling them not to eat the box of cookies in the middle. Not gonna work. But take the cookies out, and that other food starts to look pretty tasty.

It will take a while to make these new tools as strong as my old ones were in the beginning, but I have a feeling they’ll be much more durable and effective. Besides, who doesn’t like new things? I can’t wait to try them out!

What tools in your toolbox are you neglecting? Which ones could stand to be tossed out? Join me today in a little late spring cleaning 🙂

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Friend or Foe?

I made a note to myself to write this post a long time ago, because as both a long-time diagnos-ee (what, I can’t make words up?) as well as a once upon a time would-be diagnos-er (yeah, I used to think I wanted to be a social worker…), the DSM is something I’ve become relatively familiar with. And I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s those complicated feelings, not to mention the complexity of the topic (I mean, does anyone really know what they’re talking about when they try to discuss the 500 pound gospel of mental health?), that have kept me from attempting it until now. After an interesting conversation with my psychiatrist yesterday, however, I think perhaps it’s time to take it on. But first, a disclaimer: I am not an expert. I am not AT ALL an expert. I could make this post all heavy on research and facts, but that would be hard. And I don’t feel like doing any research. So I’m going to focus on what I know from first hand experience — what I’ve witnessed as the pluses and minuses of having a tome like the DSM. (side note: I did at least google around a little bit before writing this, and apparently there’s A LOT of discussion out there about the DSM and its downfalls. And it does seem to have quite a few downfalls. Case in point: I also discovered that homosexuality was recognized as a mental illness until 1973…)

To set the stage, a little background: At the age of 12, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Back then, the doctors I was seeing were using the DSM-IV (it’s recently been ‘upgraded’ to the DSM-V), so on every receipt I received for mental health services, I saw the code 307.1. That number and its accompanying diagnosis came to define me, and as I’m just now realizing, has played a significant role in how I’ve viewed myself for much of my life. So imagine my surprise when about a year ago, a doctor somewhat casually mentioned that I may not actually have anorexia after all. We didn’t really get into it, though, and I got my scrip for Prozac and left. I pondered it a bit afterward, but the more I did, the more I didn’t really give a shit. They could call it whatever the hell they wanted — It was ruining my life no matter what number you wanted to slap on it, and that’s all I cared about. So I didn’t really think any more of it.

Until yesterday.

Once again, this doctor brings up the fact that anorexia may not be the correct diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with. Apparently the fact that I do not have a distorted body image or fear of gaining weight makes me “ineligible” for that label. (Funny that no one has ever told me that before….) According to this doctor, my symptoms may in fact be a result of untreated anxiety and depression, with perhaps a dab of OCD mixed in, which would in fact be much easier to treat. Now that got my attention. I’m all about easy to treat. So at my next appointment, we’re going to do some more investigating, maybe some über fun psychological testing, and figure this shit out.

My reaction to this new development has surprised me for several reason, one being that I was convinced I was over the whole label thing. I thought I didn’t care what I “had” as long as I could kick its ass. But all of a sudden I feel relieved. Like maybe I don’t have a death sentence hanging over my head after all. Maybe I will, after years and years of struggling, finally achieve full recovery. It’s strange to notice thoughts like these moving through my head because I didn’t realize I’d given up hope. To be fair, I’m still not so sure that I had, but two decades of fighting an illness that lives in both your brain and your body is tiring. It’s worn me down and after this long of a struggle without much to show for it, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that my hope got chipped away a little bit. So yes, this new development has reignited that old spark. This is something new. It’s not the same old, same old I’ve been getting from doctors for twenty years. That’s refreshing.

But anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about that bitch of a book’s whole role in this. First, the glaring fact that out of the many, many, MANY doctors I have seen over the years, this is the first one to point out that I don’t meet one of the key criteria for the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. In the past when I’ve told doctors (and therapists) that I don’t have a distorted body image, they’ve either A. thought I was lying, or B. thought I was unaware of it. I think the DSM is partly to blame for this, because when you walk into an office with a particular diagnosis, the treating professional (and I use that term loosely here) makes all sorts of assumptions about you. They assume you’re like every other person with that diagnosis and they forget to look at you as an INDIVIDUAL. They neglect to listen to anything you have to say that goes against what they’ve learned about said diagnosis. To be fair, I’m sure not every doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, what have you is this way, but in my experience, a hell of a lot of them are. So that’s my main beef with the book, and with labels in general, for that matter. If it were treated as a loose guide that would be one thing, but in my experience it’s not.

Another thing I witnessed while in inpatient treatment is the way insurance companies often require an official diagnosis before they agree to provide coverage. Many of the young men and women I encountered were turned away from getting the care they needed just because they didn’t meet one or two criteria defined by the DSM. Or they were discharged after just a few days (um, not enough time to recover from an eating disorder..)  Not only does this serve to deny people the treatment their lives quite literally depend on, but in many cases, it also reinforces in their minds that “they’re not sick after all” or they’re “not sick enough.” They may even use it as fuel to dive deeper into their disorders because after all, the pros say they don’t even have a problem. On the flip side, sometimes being given a diagnosis can make people feel helpless. They’re no longer individuals in charge of their own lives but pawns of a ‘disorder’ they can’t control.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, limited as it is to my own personal experience. As I mentioned earlier, run a quick google search if you’re hungry for more. Granted, the DSM no doubt has its value. I’m certainly not suggesting it be banned or that we all host huge bonfire parties. I’m merely suggesting that it be used with care and urging professionals to maintain an open mind at all times. While a diagnosis can certainly help guide treatment, the DSM is a double edged sword and should be wielded with caution.

So, in summation:

Pros:

1. Diagnoses can help patients receive insurance coverage for treatment more easily.

2. Much like medical diagnoses, mental health diagnoses can help doctors and other helping professionals determine the best line of treatment

3. Having an illness recognized by the DSM can help to legitimize it as a real problem.

4. Yeah. Sorry. I can’t think of any more..

Cons:

1. NOT having a diagnosis can make it more difficult to receive insurance coverage for treatment.

2. Having a diagnosis can put you in a box. Just because your illness been given a particular label, professionals seem to assume you’re like every other person they’ve seen or read about with that label.

3. If your illness doesn’t fit the criteria defined by the DSM, your problems may not be treated as seriously. (see number 3 above; flip it around)

4. On the other hand, having a diagnosed mental illness can make you feel doomed or helpless.

5. I’m sure there are tons more.

I’d love to hear what others think. What have your experiences been, either as a patient or as a caregiver? Do you love the DSM or hate it? Have you ever been misdiagnosed and how did that affect you? Leave your opinion in the comments.