Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bulimia

In the little over a year that I went to ASCA (Adult Survivors of Child Abuse) meetings every week, the biggest thing that struck me was how similar I was to the other people in the group. I had no idea how much of my life had been impacted by the way I grew up. There were so many things about my personality, my way of dealing with people, work, conflict and stress, and the patterns in my life that were eerily similar to these people who I didn't necessarily have a lot of other things in common with besides that we were abused as children. One of the things that kept coming up was that women who had been sexually abused had problems with food. We either had a hard time eating or ate too much for reasons besides hunger. Some women, like me, fluctuated between the two. The ASCA meetings were the first time in my life I ever talked about being bulimic. It was amazing since I've been talking openly about a lot of things for the last eight years that I never talked about before. I've just had a lot of practice keeping things hidden, even from myself, and I still moderate how much I share, even subconsciously. It wasn't like I just flipped a switch and a completely dark room became illuminated. It's more like I lit a torch in a forest with a lot of winding paths going in many directions, and I've been exploring them ever since. One reason I didn't deal with my issues with eating was that it wasn't a priority at the time. I had a lot more pressing things to deal with. But when I heard other people talking about it in relation to being abused as a child, it felt safe for me to talk about it. Outside of the ASCA group, talking about having an eating disorder felt like I was bringing up yet another unrelated problem out of nowhere, but in the group, it fit naturally into the other symptoms and outgrowths of the abuse.

It started with my parents telling me that they fed me and put a roof over my head, so what more did I want from them? It was the alternate reality that was drummed into me from childhood- this is all normal, you deserve to be threatened, yelled at, and hit; this is your fault; we are good parents. Part of the rituals of "we are a good family" is that we ate dinner together every night and everyone was expected to play the parts of normal family members. When I got to middle and high school, this charade became more and more intolerable. It was torturous to look my parents in the face, let alone talk to them about mundane things as if I wasn't going to be fighting for my life a couple hours later. I tried bringing books to the kitchen table, since they were my escape. That got me in a lot of trouble. I hid in baggy clothing. I slouched down in my chair. Then I started refusing to eat in front of them. It was a hunger strike. They couldn't make me eat, and they couldn't say they were feeding me if I wasn't eating. They couldn't have their precious normal dinners if I wasn't eating. It made sense from a physical standpoint as well. I was trying to disappear in clothes and under black hair and make-up. The thinner I was the more I wasn't there. During soccer season, I had practice after school and came home after dinner anyways. I went straight to my room without eating. In the off-season, I came home from school when no one else was home. My brother was still at school, my dad was at work, and my mom had started going to school. That was when I started bingeing on pasta and bread. I was so hungry, and I felt relaxed after I ate. I liked eating in secret. It felt like I had something my parents couldn't control. All the sharp edges and emptiness of the day was gone when my stomach was full. I was satisfied. My weight fluctuated wildly between soccer season and the off-season, but I was the only one who knew because my clothes were so loose.

When I started drinking I discovered throwing-up. It was like smoking because at first it felt awful, and then it felt good. I felt purified after I threw-up. Not only did it get all the alcohol and anything churning in my stomach out, but also it felt like all the black feelings in my body came out, like an exorcism. I had a rush of warmth to my head and felt light and floaty. For a couple seconds, I was free from the confusion and anger and self-hatred and feeling like I had so much pain inside me I couldn't keep it all down and it would come flying out of me, cracking my skull open and bursting my heart and guts into a bloody mess. Throwing up sounds like a gross way to deal with bad feelings, but considering that some of the other options I saw around me were heroin addiction and suicide, it seemed pretty mild. Eating disorders can have a lot of different reasons and messing with your food is always available. It's easier to do than getting drugs and usually less addictive, and less final than suicide. I thought it was a lot less dangerous than other options, although I've realized that's not always true. There are very serious and life-threatening immediate and long-term dangers to eating disorders that can hit at any time or wear away at you over time. In our diet-heavy culture, we consider anyone the slightest bit over "normal" weight unhealthy, and assume anyone who is skinny is healthy (we even call it "healthy" weight). We are largely unaware of how unhealthy it is to deprive your body of the nutrients it needs, which compounds over time. In treatment, I met teenagers with the beginnings of osteoporosis because their bodies were so desperate for calcium that it was being leached out of their bones. When you're not eating enough to fuel the basic functioning of your body, your body eats away at itself. Starvation is not healthy. I myself have erosive esophagitis, which can be reversed, but if it isn't, it could lead to cancer.

Sexual abused really complicates your relationship with your body. At the time, I disassociated so I could mentally and emotionally get through what was happening to me physically. That agony, I don't know how else to describe it, had nowhere to go and lived buried in my body and my subconscious. It causes discord inside me, and the more its confined in my body the more I blame my body for the pain I'm still in. I wonder if there's something about my body that makes abuse happen to me, and I want to change that part of myself. I want to get far away from the body that experienced the abuse, either by changing myself physically, disconnecting from my body, punishing my body, or some combination of those. At the same time, my body is mine, one of the few areas I do have some control. So much of abuse was to have control taken away from me, to take my body from me, to treat me like a doll with a consciousness trapped inside. The abuse completely messed up my ability to develop into an adult who felt agency over my body and my life. I grew up not feeling in control of my body, and not even feeling like I was in my body a lot of the time, which didn't make me feel like I had control. To heal, you really have to go the opposite way, and connect with yourself, but that's a long process. I'm a lot more aware of myself than I used to be, and more connected to my body.

I used to disassociate with just about any stress, which meant my body went numb, my mind went blank, and my feelings disappeared. It was frustrating because situations that I could potentially handle I wasn't able to because my survival response had took over and I wasn't emotionally there  to respond. But I'm still very blunted, so that I'm doing a lot of emotional work to put together what's going on with myself. I have instincts, but I really have to tease out my own feelings, and even things that are going on in my body. The thing is, emotions aren't just in the mind. They are so much a physical experience, and I really struggle to feel present in my own body. It sounds strange, even to myself that I don't feel in my body. I do feel my body, but it gets away from me, and especially the physical manifestations of feelings don't seem to make it to my brain. My consciousness is chronically under-informed. The eating disorder was actually an imperfect way to get some control of the situation and my body. It was the shortcut and what I could manage with my body at the time. It is also still easy for me to get back to that place, even now. PTSD keeps those defense mechanisms close by. When I felt physically threatened with the rape talk at work, the terror over my body put me back there. You can't work on healing when you don't feel safe. I was desperate to find some safety and nothing felt safe. The eating disorder gave me a little bit of a safe feeling. Without real, dependable safety, the eating disorder still has a purpose.





Monday, January 06, 2014

A waltz with discomfort

This last year was all about dealing with my health. I had a whole range- the more conventional and sudden (having my appendix removed in September), a resurgence of an old problem (bulimia, with more than three months of near full-time treatment), external (gaining a lot of weight), internal (bacterial overgrowth in my lower intestine), hormonal (started having my period every two weeks in October, which remains a mystery), and pharmaceutical (stopped taking all my medications in July and went through a very nasty withdrawal period from one which I would never take again, went back on two, added two more). Primarily I'm just dealing with the constant in my life for as long as I can remember, my companion, my curse, my friend, my foe, the terms and conditions of my life, my PTSD. It has been my biggest struggle over this last year, and the year before. It was something that I kept compartmentalized and separate, as much as I could and as much as I imagined I could, from the rest of my life. Now the goal is to live with it, be integrated, fit the pieces of myself together and present a united front. Not that I'm at that point. I've really been shell-shocked since I stopped working.  Of course, shell-shocked is just another term for PTSD, so how do you stop being shell-shocked about the fact that you're in a lifelong state of shell shock? I know that in some cases PTSD can be overcome, but I went through trauma so early in my life, for such a sustained period, and reinforced by multiple major events. It will be with me for life and the best I can do is work to lessen and manage the symptoms. I'm not being negative. I just know my illness by now.

My therapist once said that she didn't "think of me as mentally ill" because anyone that grew up the way I did would have PTSD. I thought that was strange, first because she's a therapist and I would think a therapist would consider PTSD just as much a mental illness as any other mental illness. Besides, what difference does it make that the conditions were so extreme that there was no chance of me surviving without developing PTSD? Does that mean that someone who theoretically "could" have survived without developing a mental illness is "more" mentally ill than someone who had no chance? It plays right into the derogatory belief that people with mental illnesses are weak and if they were stronger they would be able to overcome or avoid getting ill altogether. This is a widespread, ridiculous idea that makes it that much harder to live with a mental illness.

Imagine the pressure you'd feel if you had an illness that permeates every aspect of your life, where you go through periods where you isolate yourself from other people because you are so sick even though that's the time you need people the most. You find it hard make and/or maintain relationships because your health is so up and down. You go through periods where you are close to death but to people who don't understand what it's like to be suicidal it's "all in your head". You work twice as hard to maintain a career or get through school and need to take breaks, even start over, repeatedly, and find the motivation to pick yourself up again and again. You have doctors and medication, but dosages are always being adjusted and medications just stop working, or the side effects get too disruptive to live with. You try other drugs but every change comes the risk of taking a nosedive or having truly terrible side effects instead of merely onerous ones. The medicines don't cure you anyway. Hopefully they alleviate crippling depression or anxiety so you can function without interfering with your personality to the point where you don't know who you are anymore. Besides the side effects, there are usually other medical problems, like digestive difficulties, sleep issues, hormone imbalances, thyroid issues, and back problems. All the while you're trying to maintain as much of a normal exterior as possible because in most workplaces and social circles, no matter how open-minded, people knowing you have a mental illness is going to hurt your social standing and credibility. So you put a lot, a lot, of energy and effort into managing your anxiety and fighting off depression and stabilizing your emotions. It's exhausting. I do it every day just to get through.

But if I was stronger, I'd be able to just stop being ill. If there was any chance I could do that, since I'm pretty smart and driven, I'd be putting all that effort and more into being free from this huge stone around my neck. The reality is that people who live with mental illnesses are some of the strongest people out there. It is a constant struggle that most people have no idea is going on. What is really weak is when just hearing about mental illness is intolerably uncomfortable, making the effort to be open-minded and consider the experience of someone different from you is too hard, and having compassion and empathy rather than judgment and distain is too much effort. Maybe they genuinely believe in a tough love approach. "If you are socially isolated and treated like a freak for decades, you will suddenly have an epiphany into how you can be magically cured of your moral failings as a person!" Or maybe they really believe it's contagious and they might get the "crazies" if they don't distance themselves.

I read about the Lines Project online, which is the picture above. For a week in December, you draw 6 lines with a Sharpie on your left wrist if you self-harm and/or are depressed, and on your right wrist to show support. I participated, and I think it is a really brilliant idea because of how invisible people's suffering usually is. Suicide and self-harm is especially hard for people who haven't experienced it to understand, and is often seen as something you are choosing to do rather than a symptom of an illness. I have no desire to go back in the closet with my mental illness or my, gasp, loose talk about things we don't acknowledge lest someone think we brought it on ourselves, so I don't care about drawing bright lines on my wrist and posting pictures. If you look closely you can still see the lines I put on my wrists permanently. For me, they will always be there, whether other people can see them or not.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How long have I been here?

It’s hard to keep the days straight around here. This truly is Hotel California. Speaking of, the real Hotel California is near here. It is an insane asylum in the desert. People don’t leave because there is no where to go but desert. Normally, I would call something like that a mental facility or something like that, but it really looks more like a place to get people out of the way rather than a treatment center. Not that where I am is really an asylum, but it is hard not to feel a little like I am locked up since I am under more strict controls that I ever have been. Last night I got yelled at a little for going to the bathroom without finding a staff member to come with me, and I had to really work it to find a time to take a shower when I wasn’t on observation. I should probably go outside more often, but I’ve been spending most of my free time lying on the heating pad. I’ve been asking for Tylenol, which helps my back. It was hard to sleep last night because of the backache and I had a bad headache too. This morning the headache is better but I am bloated. One of the staff talked to me about how to pick my meals to reduce the bloating. I don’t want to eat meat, but some of the meat substitutes are not sitting well with me. The fruit here is really good but the rest of the food I really don’t want any part of. We are supposed to drink two glasses of water or a glass of water and tea (except lunch is just water) with each meal and snack. Even that is hard because of the bloating and because I don’t want to have to pee and go through the whole thing of getting someone to go with me. I’m pretty fixated on how I feel physically because it is hard to ignore right now.

I am also taken with a panic of what I am missing while I’m here. Last night my co-ed hockey team had a play-off game, and my women’s hockey team played my bestie’s team on Friday night. They started their season three weeks ago and I won’t be able to come back for at least a month. I cried last night because I was so upset I couldn’t be there. I am worried about my pets and that my husband will stop loving me. I’ve been super-crabby lately and I worry he will decide he is happier without me. I felt like I was withdrawing from people for the last year, and I’m not sure if I will be able to come back into a social life, or heal enough to do that, or if I do, if my friends will let me.

This morning I noticed two references to lightning rods. I was reading the music review section in the Los Angeles Time. Amanda Shires album “Down Fell the Doves” is on Lightning Rod Records, and a review for Public Image Ltd.’s first album “First Issue” says:

“The primal scream of the post-punk era, John Lydon’s first post-Sex Pistols project is, in retrospect, as influential as his work as a lightning rod punk singer in a cartoon shock-punk band.”

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sh*t just got weird

Today is my second day in eating disorder jail. Ha, ha, treatment. I did do this to myself. I started acknowledging my eating disorder behavior in my ASCA group after other women talked about it, and decided to pursue treatment 2 or 3 months ago, and now I’m in a residential program. The biggest change is how structured it is. We eat three meals and three snacks, and the time is all structured, even the free time. I have to be on it for the free time, because the last couple of times I tried to do something, suddenly it was time for something else. I spent most of my time today lying on a heating pad because my lower back is really pissed off about something and the muscles are spasming. It started yesterday, and I didn’t sleep well because of it, so I am exhausted. Plus, it was strange to be sleeping someplace different, and I have a roommate. Every time I shifted around I was afraid I was waking her up. I miss my husband and pets intensely, and just being at home, and my hockey teams. I was in Chicago last week and I’ve been away from my women’s hockey team for the whole season. The other big thing to get used to is that two hours after eating I’m under observation, so someone has to come with me when I go to the bathroom. They wait outside the door and I count so they know I’m not up to something. It is so irritating that my biggest pleasure, after talking to my husband on the phone, is to go to the bathroom during the small window (30 minutes, usually) that is two hours after eating and before eating again. Also, it is just a lot of eating and drinking water, so I feel bloated for most of the time too. Finally, my last complaint for now, they took my cell phone and computer away, and there is a 20 minute time limit on the public computer. So I have to stop writing soon. I have a journal to write in, and I have so much to say. But I also have a sore back that wants the heating pad back. So I will stop for now.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Shrine space

Me in the Akhu shrine (blessed dead). Seshat is to my right.
It is now a new year, the year of Heru-sa-Aset (Horus). We've kissed the face of Ra, turned the dangers of the year, ate a feast of offerings, danced pseudo-belly-dancing to, get this, "Walk Like An Egyptian", had auctions, took various group photos, and ate another ton of food at a buffet. I do feel better than I did yesterday, especially after a coffee run. My hair is extra-bright today for some reason. I added stars for two people to the Akhu shrine wall to honor people who have passed to the unseen world- my friend's brother who committed suicide last year, and David Rakoff, a writer who was on NPR a lot who died of cancer. Of course my brother has a star up on the wall. I felt his presence yesterday when I was in the room. I enjoy spending time with the shrine. It includes Seshat, who is not usually considered a funerary goddess, but is triple-aspected with Nit (creatrix goddess) and Nebt-het (Nephthys). Nebt-het is the Egyptian goddess who appears when you're dying. So Nit, Seshat, and Nebt-het are like the three fates- Nit is there at the beginning of your life, Seshat measures out your life, and Nebt-het is there at the end. I am a spiritual child of Seshat, who is also the goddess of accounting and measuring the foundations of buildings, educating the king, and keeping the Kings List, which is how Ancient Egyptians recorded their history.

Tomorrow we are having the healing baths. I was also hoping to get some Reiki from one of the women here, but I think we'll run out of time. Hopefully she can work on me after the baths. The baths are amazing. I didn't do them the first time I came to retreat. They are an extra, and some people leave early and skip them. So this will be my third. The hardest decision to make with regards to the bath has to do with the Serqet (or Serket) bath. By the way, I'm usually using the translated Egyptian name for the gods and goddesses, and including the Greek/Roman version of the name in parenthesis. Serqet is an Egyptian goddess who wears a scorpion on her head and protects against poison. In her bath, you have to chose between the reductive bath, which washes away trauma, and the additive bath, which gives you extra sight. People swear by the powers of the additive bath, and the reductive bath is another tear-jerker since trauma passes through you as it is washed out. Yet, when you've had a bad year, or decade, or life, being able to wash some of that away is huge. The first year I did the reductive bath since I've had trauma for as long as I can remember. The next year I tried the additive bath, because who doesn't want clairvoyant sight. This year, I'm going back to the reductive bath. I need a serious cleanse. My lip is still just as bad, by the way. This new year hasn't fixed that.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Hellllllo, butt crack of dawn!

Egyptian Calendar with Nut and Geb
Tomorrow we are getting up before dawn, so we can be ready at dawn to celebrate the new year starting tomorrow. It will be a fun day. We will great the new year, clear out the energies from the old year, make music, make offerings, and have a big breakfast feast together. Later will be an auction and raffle. We usually laugh our way through the auction. It can be a competitive crowd, so some of the bidding gets fierce, and the fierceness is entertaining. I probably won't do a lot of bidding, since I have no money. I did make some sales of my own though, so maybe I'll look for bargains. I have some books from previous years that went for very affordable prices. Tonight we can hear fireworks. I don't know why there would be fireworks tonight, but it is appropriate for us since it is New Years Eve.

Today I bawled like a baby in the ritual. I don't usually cry that much, but it is completely normal for people to have big emotional releases. Often I'm jealous because I imagine they feel a big cathartic release and they are getting to a higher level of connection. Having lost my composure, I most feel tired right now. It might feel better later. I might feel like I can let more go. I got more acknowledgement today that it was a hard year, and that this coming year will not be so difficult for me. I know that is a relief, but I don't feel it yet. It was such a difficult year that I still feel exhausted by everything that happened. Maybe tomorrow I'll start to feel the hopefulness and joy of a new, better year. Maybe I will feel it when things start to happen in my life that make me feel more in control of my life, and that I can move on from the intense disappointment I still feel at being forced out of a job I worked so hard for and put so much of myself into, the disappointment of being bullied in hockey and in ASCA and not getting the support I thought I should have, and the constant drumbeat of social and political events in this country that highlighted the injustice we live with and perpetuate. This last year it's felt like I couldn't accomplish anything, move forward with anything, change anything. I'm hoping this year I'll see the support I have more clearly, and that will give me the courage to go back into battle. Onward!

Even if I don't feel better tomorrow, I see it coming. I developed a cold sore on my lip last night, and it keeps getting big despite the time I'm spending trying to be at a higher level of consciousness that the level that cold sores live on. The timing is interesting. I keep having intensifications of the physical discomforts I'm having like dizziness, headaches, sore throat, muscle cramping, nausea, followed by a dramatic alleviation of the symptoms. Then they return. The cold sore hurts! A lot! My left ankle has felt all day like I twisted it, but I don't remember doing anything to it. I've been poring "special" purified water on my lip, and we have the Sekhmet healing baths on Sunday, but I have a feeling my detox period will be longer than a few days of retreat.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The best defense is a good offense.

Sekhmet, Eye of Ra
I got some good messages today. It's been a great retreat week because the doors seem to open. I was told to be fierce! I was told to keep fighting. I was also told my brother is doing well but misses me. We, the general retreat audience, were told to fight for justice. I like it! Just what I am ready for. I am ready to get out of my head. Tomorrow should be a good day too.

It's been a little difficult to write because I have too much to write about and I'm having a hard time focusing. It's better than having writer's block though. I have writer's overwhelm. Then, when I sit down to write, I'm flitting around and not settling down on what I'm talking about specifically, so I'm also afraid I'm not being clear. So maybe I should say, in the interest of clarity, I'm at a religious retreat, and we are doing rituals and workshops. Today we made Sekhmet healing amulets. We had a lecture. Then we had a ceremony. In between, we talk, eat, and have a marketplace. I brought jewelry and scarves to sell. I've made some money to help pay for the hotel bill, and I also traded for some cool things that I didn't have to money to buy. I was actually just talking to someone here about her doing some reiki on me, which I really need. Tomorrow, we have a long ritual. It's about 6 hours. I should go to bed soon. My roommate is asleep already, and our friend is in here re-beading her necklace. I'm in my pajamas and chilling on my bed. We have a mellow, go to bed early room. We're chatting but we'll go to bed soon.