<trigger warning for graphic descriptions of self harm and eating disorder>
I’ve been thinking a lot about the “firsts” of my mental illnesses. We all have memories of the first time we did certain things or had certain experiences, but for people who have chronic mental health struggles over a number of years, not all “firsts” are positive memories to celebrate.
When I was experiencing my “firsts” of mental illness I was a teenager. I was 15-17 years old and I didn’t have any idea that my experiences were those of specific mental illness, let alone what those mental illnesses might be. I thought that I was going crazy. I thought I was the only one. I was afraid to tell others what I was experiencing internally. Until I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 20 years old, most of my “firsts” made little sense to me.
The first time I experienced what would become anorexia I was about 16 years old. I’ve written about it in another blog post. I was physically sick and hadn’t eaten for a few days. I felt mostly better and wanted to go to school. I remember my mother telling me I had to eat something if I was going to school. I took a granola bar and started walking down the street to meet my boyfriend at the time and to catch the bus. I remember feeling light, empty and powerful. I remember feeling the sense of white, blank emptiness that I now associate with disassociation. I felt like I could take on the world. I felt like I could survive without food and that I’d actually be more powerful. I loved that feeling and I chased after it in various forms for the next 20 years. I believe this moment is the one I chose anorexia as a coping technique for the sexual and emotional abuse I was living with. At that time I wouldn’t have identified it as an eating disorder, nor would I have identified my relationship as sexually and emotionally abusive. It was just a feeling I had, of realizing that disassociation was more comfortable than pain.
I remember the first and one of the few times I tried (unsuccessfully) to purge after panicking about eating. This I described in another blog post. I remember crying and sitting shaking on the floor of the downtown public library. My crime? Eating a whole cookie rather than half of one. I remember I had been reading books about eating disorders, secretly, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.
I remember my first panic attack. I was in Grade 12, 17 years old and extremely ill from anorexia. I was attending school despite the fact that my weight was well under 100 pounds at close to 5’9″. I remember feeling driven. I remember feeling an intensity of moving forward that wouldn’t allow me to slow down or calm down. I had to keep “doing” and trying to be perfect at everything. I had to follow all my rules or something terrible would happen. I remember there was one day I had a math test. I believe it was Grade 12 Calculus or some other horrible subject. I had been doing well in school despite my illness. But that day somehow my brain just wouldn’t work. I remember sitting in the classroom, the desks were arranged in rows, one in front of the other with the blackboard at the front. I remember all the numbers and letters swimming around on the paper. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think of how to solve the problems because everything was spinning and I felt like I was being crushed. I felt nauseous and I realized that I was about to cry. I remember bolting out of the room and into a stall in the girls bathroom. I remember sitting there crying, shaking and feeling terribly upset that I couldn’t do the test. My thoughts were racing around and I just wanted to go home. I remember another student from the class coming in to check on me (it was a male teacher). I remember being somehow glad she was there even though I was embarrassed. I made up some excuse about being sick and not being able to write the test. I think I went home. I wouldn’t have known at the time that it was a panic attack, but it was and it was probably related to extreme lack of nutrition and just pushing myself too hard on no fuel.
I remember the first time I cut myself as a coping technique for stress. I was about 18 years old. I had just started taking SSRI medication for depression and anxiety after about 2 years of fighting with my parents and my doctors. I never wanted to take medication. I think deeply and instinctively I must have known that my mental health problems were situational, but that knowledge was too terrifying to face, so I blocked it out. The first time I engaged in cutting I used a pair of scissors that I kept in my bedroom. I used to make just one small cut. I would do it once a week in the exact same place, just under where the band of my watch lay. So I could hide it carefully. It was ritualistic, very controlled. I don’t remember exactly why I started doing this. It became part of my routine as I gained weight and somewhat normalized my eating behaviour. I needed something else to help block out the memories of the abuse.
I remember the first time I considered suicide. I was probably about 17 years old, but I might have been 18. I remember being at a party at a friend’s house. Radiohead OKComputer was playing in the background. Music I always associate with the “saddest of the sad” times. It was raining outside. I remember sitting on the couch looking out the back sliding door. It was dark outside, evening. The rain was falling really hard and there was thunder and lighting. I felt like I was in a trance. Looking back I realize this was also an example of disassociation. I remember feeling incredibly alone and disconnected. I was AT the party but not part of it. I remember being at home that evening. My bathroom had green tiles. Small square tiles with white grout. I remember just sitting there staring at my razor. Thinking about cutting myself, thinking about dying and ending my life by opening up my veins. I just sat there for a long time thinking about it. The images of the green tiles and the emptiness of that moment are burned into my memory.
I remember my first flashback. I was 18.5 and with my first love, my first real connection after the abuse and the severe anorexia. I remember we were in my bedroom and we were kissing. It was consensual and I wanted to do it. He was lying on top of me. I think he might have been about to unbutton a piece of my clothing or something like that. Suddenly I was crying and shaking and it wasn’t him there. It was my ex boyfriend, who had so many times taken off or unbuttoned my clothing when I’d clearly said now. It was him on top of me and I was afraid. I had no idea what a flashback was, I didn’t know I had PTSD. I just had an intense physical reaction to what was happening. My boyfriend stopped immediately. I remember him leaving the room briefly to give me space. I remember feeling scared and embarrassed. I don’t really remember the explanation I gave to him. Some of my memories are less clear, but I think over time I had told him that my last relationship had been difficult. I don’t think I fully understood myself at that time that it had been abusive, and that this type of reaction was a normal one for survivors.
I remember the first time I cut myself deeply enough to need stitches. I was 20. I was at university. I remember buying the craft knife at the university book store. I remember walking home. There was a bridge on the campus and for months I thought about jumping off it every day. I knew that I was going to cut deeply. It was planned and premeditated. I remember disassociating and thinking only about the injuring. I remember wanted to make sure it was deep enough to need stitches. I remember walking to the hospital which was on the campus. I walked across a field to get there. It was May or June. I remember the doctor stitching up the wound. It was a medical student and I remember feeling afraid. I remember the resident coming to check the work and commenting that the stitches were incorrectly done. I remember wondering why the resident didn’t fix them, but I assumed that because the wound was self inflicted they thought I didn’t care about scars. In the end that wound healed badly and caused me chronic pain until it was fixed about 7 years later by a plastic surgeon at that same hospital. I remember feeling nothing. I remember feeling nothing about the injury and having no emotional or physical reaction until the day I went to the health clinic to have the stitches removed. I fainted when the doctor took them out. My body felt the trauma suddenly and all at once the disassociate wasn’t there. From then on I always took my own stitches out so I could control the process and do it in a way that I would not feel as much pain. The ritual of the whole thing was an important part of the process of disassociation for me.
It’s a sad list. Really sad. Because some of these firsts are clearly in my mind that pleasant memories I would like to remember. The way that PTSD stores traumatic memories and erases positive ones is deeply frustrating. Because the long term consequence of disassociation is memory loss, and rarely losing the memories I wish would disappear.
Picture was drawn in September 1999