You need a lot of energy to be sick.

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Another stereotype or stigma that I’d like to debunk right now is that people living with disability or chronic illness are lazy.  That they have SO much free time and can “do whatever they want” because they are unemployed.  We’ve all heard versions of this abelist stereotype.

It’s just not true.  People living with chronic health issues are as varied and different as people who are well, healthy, neurotypical or able bodied.  They are not lazy.  Being disabled is not a lifestyle choice.  Some people with disabilities are able work/volunteer/attend school and some are not.  Some have varying abilities depending on symptoms on different days.  Some people (like me) are “high functioning” (I HATE this term) and work full time, parent, take care of a house all while living with a high level of chronic pain and various chronic symptoms of mental illness.

But whether you are working or not, raising kids or not, volunteering or not, on social assistance or disability payments or not…I can say with 100% certain that being chronically ill is a lot of work.  I’d even say that it’s a full time job.  So we aren’t lazy, we are warriors.   Our work just isn’t valued by society, and a lot of it is invisible labor just to survive.

Please don’t perpetuate this stigma.  And please trust that each individual person knows what they can and cannot do.  If someone with a chronic illness is not working/volunteering/attending school it’s probably because their symptoms are too severe and they are not currently able.  Or maybe their workplace/school is not accessible for someone with their particular health issue.

It’s NOT because they a) don’t want to, b) aren’t trying hard enough, or c) are lazy.

Tonight, I have almost no spoons.  I drifted through the day, feeling foggy and having trouble concentrating.  I crashed on the couch and struggled to get up again.  I feel mentally and physically exhausted.   I didn’t run a marathon today, I didn’t work out…but I DID expend a great deal of energy coping with my health.

Before work I had a doctors appointment.  It was a new doctor, so there was stress and anxiety last night and this morning.  I got test results that weren’t what I was hoping.  I got requisitions for blood work.  I booked two follow up appointments.

Then I went to work.  Tried to focus, tried to get things done.  Took a break, got the blood work completed.  Went back to work for another hour.  Left at 3:30pm for a counseling appointment.

I see my counselor every 2-3 weeks.  I’d like to see her more often but it’s difficult to fit in around my other appointments, my work schedule, my kids, kids activities and kids medical appointments.  Again, as I mentioned, people with chronic illnesses aren’t lazy.  We often have numerous medical appointments that need to be juggled and fit in around already busy schedules.

Counseling is work.

If you are a survivor of trauma, and your counselor is pushing you, even gently, in the direction of healing, counseling can be exhausting work.   At the end of the hour I feel incapable of more than curling up in the fetal position on her couch and crying.  But instead I drive home and carry on with my day.

My counselor has been fairly patient with me.  She’s realistic about the fact that I have a LOT of current external stress in my life and she’s let me talk about that.  But in the past 6 months she’s begun to push me to talk about my past, my childhood, my core beliefs, and my trauma.  She’s also started to call me out when I disassociate in the session as a way of coping with feelings, memories and flashbacks.

I like disassociating to cope with feelings, memories and flashbacks.

It’s kinda my thing.

Most people don’t even realize I’m doing it.  Even fewer people would point it out.  Nobody else would purposefully try to stop me from using it as a way of coping.  I’ve always thought of disassociating as a self preservation, self protection mechanism.  I always thought I was coping if I zoned out to make a flashback less intense or make it stop.  I was coping.  It helped me survive, but maybe now there are other options…

My counselor wants me to stay present.  She wants me to TALK ABOUT what’s happening for me.  She wants me to describe it.  Or at least she wants me to stay with her in the room while it’s happening.  It’s very uncomfortable.   “But I LIKE disassociating!”  I whine…  “But it works!” I attempt to convince her.

She reminds me that I’m not alone.  That she is there to help me out of the feelings, body  memories and sensations.  That I don’t need disassociation and that maybe by zoning out I’m not actually allowing myself the space I need to heal.  Maybe I’m just stuck in a constant space of just surviving.  Maybe disassociating is actually taking up an intense amount of spoons to maintain.  Maybe zoning out is zapping my energy.

Chronic complex PTSD is exhausting.  Chronic pain is exhausting.

But maybe, just maybe doing the work of counseling and trusting the process might help restore my energy in the long run.  It’s draining work at the moment just trying to convince myself to TRY to approach my healing without disassociation.

I might have many flaws, I know I am not lazy.   Neither are you.  Keep fighting that stigma and keep surviving and thriving.

 

 

Justice.

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I took this photograph today.   I lived in this city most of my life and I’ve never been drawn to look at this sculpture before.

Justice.

This statue embodies exactly how my life feels at this moment.

Grey. Solemn.  Frozen in time.  An unknown, robed figure holds a sword over me, about to make decisions that will alter the course of my life and the lives of my family members.

I feel like one wrong move and the sword will pierce my heart and all will be lost.  I’m walking on a tight rope, on egg shells, on the edge of where the ocean meets the land, on a wire at a circus…fill in the metaphor or analogy of your choosing.  I’m barely breathing.

Justice for who?  How is this justice?  Years of my life spent trying to prove things that seem self evident.  Years of him being believed and me seen as crazy, or potentially crazy.  Years of my privacy being breached and shattered to the point I’m hardly sure what privacy means anymore, except to trust no one.  Is this justice?

Interpersonal violence doesn’t end the moment she walks out the door.

Domestic violence doesn’t end when she leaves.

Family violence doesn’t stop when the relationship is over.

She might be physically safe now, but she still looks over her shoulder.  She still watches herself.  She still fears that anything she says or does might get her or her children into trouble.  She lives in fear of SOMETHING happening, even though she doesn’t always know what that vague threat might be.  She rarely sees him, but he impacts almost every aspect of her life.  He calls her crazy.  He tells her kids she is crazy.  He tells anyone who will listen that she is crazy.

But if she is crazy, than every survivor is crazy.

I don’t think we are crazy.  I think the entire system is broken and set up for us to fail.  We don’t have a justice system, we have a legal system.

Wake up.  Justice doesn’t exist for women like me.

I’m reclaiming “crazy.”

I’m so tired of crazy being used as an abelist, stigmatizing slur against me by my ex-husband.  I’m fed up of being called crazy as an insult, as an excuse for his abusive behaviour.  I’m tired of gaslighting which blames my PTSD for the sexual violence he perpetrated.  I’m tired of being seen as less than, being labelled with things that don’t apply to me.  I’m tired of the implicit assumption that having a mental illness is a terrible thing, something I should be horribly ashamed of.  It’s problematic on so many levels.  He accuses me of having borderline personality disorder (which I don’t have) but even if I DID have it, so what?  Would I be “crazy?”   Would this warrant being mistreated and shunned and ignored?  Would it mean everything I say and do is suspect?

I reject all this.  I want to reclaim crazy.  I want to fight mental health stigma.  I don’t want to be ashamed that I’m not neuro-typical.

I’d like my ex-husband to stop spreading awful rumours about me in the community, but I don’t have control over that!

Things I would like to stop hearing as I reclaim crazy:

-Be more neutral

-You are too emotional

-You are too sensitive

-Tone down your feminism

-Your past is impacting your parenting

-That was a long time ago, why don’t you get over it

-Just relax

-Calm down

-Don’t worry so much

-You are over-reacting

-Why didn’t you just say no?

-Don’t you know how to defend yourself?

-Why didn’t you just fight back?

-She’s crazy (from anyone unless they are also reclaiming the word)

I celebrate being crazy in a positive way, because it means that I’m NOT neutral.  It means that I am an advocate, a social justice warrior, an ally and a support worker.  I’ve harnessed some of the energy of the bad things I’ve survived and I’m using it to help others, to fight injustice and to try to leave the world a better place than I found it.    I’m proud of my feminism.  I’m proud of my anti-oppression principles and the way I strive to unlearn and learn in my daily life.  I don’t want to calm down.  My feminism gives me energy and it keeps me alive.

And if that makes me crazy, then I embrace it.  But let me define crazy.

Nevertheless she persisted.

 

Medication Fog.

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For whatever reason, my migraines have been out of control the past few weeks.  It’s been incredibly frustrating and painful.  I started seeing a neurologist about 9 months ago and have been getting nerve block injections which had been significantly reducing my number of severe pain days per month.  I was really pleased.  The neurologist is a great doctor, he believes me, doesn’t treat me like a drug seeking addict, and the treatment he offered was helping.  A rare positive medical experience for me.

This month the pain came back with a vengeance.  Last Monday, I came home from work and cried for over an hour.  I took my emergency codeine pill to take the edge off the pain for a few hours and it made me feel a pleasant sort of relaxed high.  Taking any type of medication is always risky for me, because what will relax me one day could agitate me another day.  Anything that has the potential to be psychoactive can cause unwanted adverse effects.  I don’t like feeling high and I if I use substances it’s in an attempt to feel normal.

Tuesday by the end of the work day I wasn’t feeling well.  The pain was terrible, my heart was racing, I felt weak and dizzy and dehydrated.  I had pain at the base of my neck which was new for me.  Normally my migraines are around the supra orbital nerve and focused behind my right eye, blurring the vision there and causing visual distortions.  To be honest, I was a bit scared I might be having a stroke.  Often by the 3-5 day mark of a severe migraine I begin to worry that something is really wrong, it seems hard to believe that SO much pain and so many strange symptoms are caused by “just” a migraine.

I was afraid and a bit desperate for the pain to stop so I drove myself to the ER.  I have a lot of trauma around the medical system (see earlier posts in this blog) and I was pretty reluctant to seek care at the hospital.  At triage my file was marked as emergent (I think they were worried about stroke too!), and I didn’t wait too long before seeing a doctor.  Luckily, the doctor reassured me that there wasn’t likely anything more serious going on, “just” a bad migraine.  He offered some IV medication and IV fluids because my heart rate was really too high.  I was relieved.  He believed me.  He didn’t treat me badly.    The nurse came to start the IV and I figured things would be pretty much okay from there.

I was wrong.

About 5 minutes after the IV medication ran through, I got suddenly hot.  I had an intense sense of panic and agitation and I knew I had to leave.  I couldn’t really think clearly.  My IV was attached to the ceiling and I couldn’t walk around.  I knew intellectually I could ring the bell and a nurse would come and probably unhook the IV or move it onto an IV pole so I could walk around.  But in my panicked mind, I became triggered to times I had been held against my will in hospital.  I started thinking that maybe the nurse wouldn’t let me leave, or that she’d make me wait for the doctor and that I’d flip out.  Then she’d know I was completely panicky and wouldn’t allow me to leave.  I was afraid.  I pulled out the IV and I ran away.  I fled.  I just left the ER and didn’t look back.

That was a rough night.  I was scared they would send the police after me so I got a friend to call the ER to explain that I’d left due to a panic attack.  It took a full day for all the anxiety symptoms to resolve.

And the migraine was back within 3 hours!

Two days later I saw my neurologist for another nerve block.  He told me that severe anxiety and agitation is a side effect of one of the IV medications in about 2% of people.  He told me not to take that medication again.  No shit!  I was angry that the doctor at the hospital hadn’t informed me that there could be potential psychoactive side effects. I would not have consented to the treatment as I know that I’m extremely sensitive to this type of adverse effect.  I’ve experienced versions of the same from SSRIs and from anti-anxiety medications.

My neurologist wants me back on another medication that can control migraines.  It’s called topamax and it’s one I’ve taken before.  I reluctantly agreed because it can also help with some of the other chronic pain I have which might be fibromyalgia.  The only problem with this medication is that it causes a lot of side effects, especially at the beginning.

My body feels like a toxic soup of drugs.  I have a hard time processing it all.  And I still have a headache.

The side effects when starting medications that cross into the brain can be triggering for me.  Not only do I feel dizzy, nauseous, off balance, foggy and exhausted, it also brings me back to times in my life when I was taking high doses of psychiatric meds.  It brings me back to times I overdosed on them.  It brings me back to the nights where I was sexually assaulted.  When I woke up, drugged, half asleep to find him touching me.  Fighting to stay awake, but the drugs dragging me back into sleep.  The feelings of confusion between my nightmares and what was really happening to me.  I don’t like that feeling.

So the side effects and adverse effects aren’t just unpleasant.  They aren’t just an annoyance.  They don’t just impact my ability to function smoothly at work.   They are frightening and they remind me of being completely unable to control being abused.  Being helpless, frozen, confused and afraid. They remind me of not having control over my body and not having the capacity to consent.

So if I’m complaining about adjusting to this medication or if I seem not quite myself.  It’s more than just a bit of dizziness.  It’s a lot of vulnerability and processing not feeling in control of my own body, both the pain in the present and the abuse in the past.   It’s all interconnected.

What the parent of a trans child really needs to hear…

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There’s something I haven’t shared very much about in this blog.  I’ve debated for a year about whether or not to write about my children.  I have mixed feelings, even though my blog is anonymous, I want to protect their privacy.  I’ve decided not to write many specifics about them, but I do talk about parenting issues in general, including parenting through mental illness.  I do this because I want to break the isolation I have felt as a parent with a mental illness.  I know other parents out there have felt the way I have, judgment, fears of being judged, fears of not being enough, fears of relapse and more…

But I’m living with a different type of parenting challenge.

I’m raising a transgender daughter.

I wanted to write a post with a few tips on what to say and what NOT to say to the parent of a transgender child.  As I write this post, I want to clearly state that I don’t speak for all parents of transgender children, nor do I speak for trans folks themselves.  I’m speaking for myself, a queer, white, femme but not quite binary person, living with mental illness and raising a trans female daughter.

Things that I don’t need to hear:

  1. You are so brave! I don’t know if I could do it!  I don’t want to be put on a pedestal.  I’m not doing anything superhuman.  I’m parenting my child.  Supporting my child in her social transitioning wasn’t even something I debated.  I knew very early on that I could have a dead “son” or a happy, healthy daughter.  This was a no-brainer.  I’d like to think you would make the same choice, if it came to saving the life of your own child.  I’m not brave or special.  I’m just a regular mom, taking care of a slightly extraordinary girl.
  2. How do you know it’s not just a phase?  What if she grows out of it?  Maybe she’ll just be gay.  Please stop.  Don’t say any of these things.  First, it’s not your business.  Second, my child knows herself best and I guarantee I know her better than you do.  Even if it is a phase, which I highly doubt, she will have a chance to explore it and she will know I support her unconditionally.   These comments also irk me because they are laced with veiled transphobia.   They imply that being trans is something undesirable, that being cis-gender is normal and being trans is something deviant.  I reject this.  Gender exists on a spectrum.  We all have gender identity and gender expression.  Trans folks are no different.  Being cis gender is not inherently better.   I don’t wish my child would “just be gay.”  My child is herself, and I celebrate that.
  3. It’s so difficult for me/us to accommodate this.  This is something I heard from my child’s school.  It made me feel physically ill.  Grown adults saying that creating a universal, gender neutral washroom was SO difficult and using my child’s chosen name was so stressful for the staff.   I’m sorry, but this isn’t about you.  Using a person’s pronouns and chosen name is basic respect.  Mis-gendering a trans person is violent and aggressive.  It’s much more difficult for my child to go into school every day, worry about using the bathroom safely, worry about people respecting her, than it is for adults to adjust to using a name, or change a sign on a bathroom.  This is also another form of veiled transphobia.
  4. I understand.  Please use this phrase with caution.  Unless you have parented a trans child, or you are a trans identified person, please don’t say this to me.  If you don’t have lived experience you don’t really understand what my family is living.  An alternative to this could be to say “I hear you” or “I believe you.”

What I would like to hear as I parent my trans child:

  1. How are things going?  Would you like to go for coffee?  Do you want some company?   Parenting is isolating.  Any parent knows this.  Being a single parent is very isolating.  Being a single parent, with a mental illness, parenting a child who has some unique and special needs is extremely isolating.  Please continue to invite me to do things.  Ask me out for coffee.  Come over to my house and chat.  Let me vent about my fears, worries and struggles.  Be there to hear about our successes.  Because I need these things in the same way that any parent does.  I need a sense of community and so does my child.
  2. You are a good mother.  You are doing the right thing by supporting your child.  Sometimes I need reassurance, especially when I doubt myself or am overwhelmed with fears for the future.  Don’t jump in and give advice (unless asked for), don’t tell me my worries are irrational, don’t shut me down.  Just let me talk.  Believe me, validate me and hold space for the unique challenges my family faces.
  3.  Pretty much ANYTHING coming from other parents of trans children or other trans folks.  Its helps me and my child immensely to know that we are not alone. Hearing about the lived experiences of others and being part of an amazing community of LGBTTQ+ folks in our city has been nothing short of life saving.   If you are parenting a trans child, my one piece of advice would be to seek out a source of community.  Community is different than medical care/counseling, though your child may benefit from that as well.  Community includes online support groups, facebook groups, playgroups, youth groups, parenting groups, pride celebrations, camps etc…reach out and find one in your area.  If you live in Canada, you can contact me and I’ll help you get started. I guarantee you won’t be sorry and you’ll meet some of the most amazing people imaginable.

Best of all, if this is new to you, there are so many resources available.  Educate yourself.  Read.  Learn.  Because trans kids and youth are out there and they need our love and support.  And so do their parents!

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What does “fully recovered” mean?

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I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be “fully recovered” from an eating disorder.

The best books I’ve read on this subject are “Life Without Ed” and “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me” by Jenni Schaefer.   These books promote the message that it is possible to be “fully recovered” from an eating disorder.  They give me hope that anorexia isn’t something I will have to struggle with for the rest of my life.   I’ve read the books at various times when I’ve felt overwhelmed or hopeless and they have always helped me stay positive.  I truly admire the author’s dedication to having a life free from ED, or in my case Ana.

But if I’m 100% honest with you, I’ve never even TRIED to be fully recovered.

I’ve been in imperfect recovery for years.  At times this has meant being at a healthy weight, but still struggling with unhealthy thoughts and habits related to food and restricting food.  At times, this has meant slipping back into controlling my body,  purposefully eating less and obsessing about taking up less space.  I know how imperfect recovery works.  It keeps me “functional” and sometimes even “looking healthy,” but inside I am never truly free.  The thing with imperfect recovery is that Ana still controls my life to varying degrees, depending on how much I’m struggling.

It’s not possible to tell by looking at a person whether or not they have an eating disorder.  Being at a “healthy” or “normal” weight means nothing.  Being at a “healthy” weight doesn’t even mean a person is medically stable or in recovery.   In my current situation, my weight is higher than it’s been in  years, but my eating disorder is causing me MORE trouble, not less.  I feel exhausted mentally and physically most of the time.

I’ve been in hospital treatment programs in the past.  Inpatient programs where I was “forced” to eat large quantities of food.  I was supervised after eating, a staff member watched me to make sure I ate all of my meals and snacks.  I followed the rules because I had to, even though I was there voluntarily, I was able to comply because it was required.

But let’s be honest.  I never attempted to be fully recovered.  I have never, in 20 years, been even willing to CONSIDER giving up Ana as a coping technique.  I’ve used it to varying degrees at various times, but I’ve never committed to letting Ana go.

I stayed in treatment until I was functionally recovered.  Until I could eat without panic and physical discomfort, until I could have the energy to get through a day, until I could think more clearly and re-engage in life.  Then I discharged myself every time.  I wanted to be healthy and eat, but I didn’t want to gain too much weight or give up my obsessive compulsive thoughts and habits.  I wanted to be in control, even of the recovery process.  I told myself I could do it by myself, I could do it my own way, I didn’t NEED the program.

I was told again and again that I needed to follow a meal plan and eat mechanically for at LEAST a year before trying things on my own.  I was told again and again that I needed to gain to my goal weight and maintain it for a year in order to recover.  I was told again and again that I needed to stop controlling food and my body in order to heal.  But what did I do?  I poured out my juice when nobody was looking.  When I got out of treatment I stopped drinking juice altogether because it was unnecessary!  I cheated in a million little ways.

When I was younger, I thought I knew better.  I thought I could do it on my own.  I thought I could let go of the horrible life threatening aspects of Ana, but hold onto the comforting habits that kept me slim.  I thought I would be happy about 10-15 pounds below my “goal weight” and that I would be medically stable.  I thought Ana and I could dance together this way forever.  I thought I could have Ana on my terms, not hers.

But I’m not a teenager anymore.  I’m pretty close to my “goal weight” now, but I feel worse physically than I have in years.  I can’t push my body the way I used to.  I get migraines, physical body pain, exhaustion and lack of patience.  I don’t dance with Ana anymore…instead we are plodding, dragging through life, in a way that has very little meaning to me.

Because I have never embraced “fully recovered,”  I have instead remained sick.  Because let’s be honest about this too, if Ana is driving, I’m sick regardless of my weight.

For a long time, imperfect recover was enough for me.  It was such an improvement, I was proud of myself.  People stopped bugging me about gaining weight.  I was able to eat most things without panic.  I was able to eat around other people.  I was able to attend social events.  I was more relaxed.

But even at the BEST of times, there were always rules, calculations.  I always felt that I deserved to eat only as much as I needed to survive each day.  Never more.  I wasn’t starving myself literally, but I was starving my soul.  I was depriving myself of more than food, I was depriving myself of joy, connection and abundance.

Recently the stress in my life has been almost more than I can bear.  I’ve been waiting for 5 months for the outcome of a year long family law trial.  I’m waiting for a stranger to decide the future of my children.   Many important aspects of my life are quite literally out of my control.

I struggle daily to accept my body at this weight.  I struggle daily feeling like I am too big, seeing parts of my body as fat, living with body distortions and hating myself.

I struggle daily with the lack of control and the waiting.

And quite honestly, I CHOSE to let Ana start driving again.  I saw it as a necessary evil, to help me keep functioning and keep moving forward through each day.  I opened the door and let Ana right back in.  I welcomed her. I almost felt happy that I had a way of modulating and distracting from the unbearable stress.

I changed a few things here, a few things there.  Nothing drastic, but small changes.  I felt okay about it.   Maybe I could lose just a few pounds.  But it isn’t really about the weight, though I might say that it is.  It’s all about feeling in control of my body and thus, my life.

Irrational.  Magical thinking.  Self-destructive.  Self-punishing.  Illogical.

But even though I’ve let Ana drive many times before, always with varying degrees of disastrous results, I STILL believe deep down inside, that she is my friend who will NEVER leave me.  I love Ana for getting me through years of sexual and emotional abuse.  I love Ana for never letting me down, for always being there.

But Ana is an abusive partner.  She isolates me.  She makes me say no to eating dinner with friends because she makes me ashamed and afraid to eat in public.  She makes me tired from restricting food.  She makes me impatient and she makes me struggle to connect with those around me.  She helps me to disassociate by numbing out through the physiological effects of semi-starvation.  Ana is abusive even when I let the door open a crack.  Ana is abusive even when I’m not emaciated.  Ana is abusive even when you see me eating.  Ana is abusive right now.

Ana tells me that I don’t deserve to eat.  That I don’t deserve to take up space.  That I’m bad or weak for needing food to survive.  Ana tells me that the high of restricting food means I’m strong.

Ana lies.  She lies like any abusive partner.  She gaslights me.  She lulls me into thinking she is caring for me while she is trying to destroy me.

Today, I am at the stage of contemplating full recovery.

When Ana drives, I eventually feel like life is not worth living.  I can’t imagine living another 20 years this way.  Half living, half dying.  I’m tired.

To me, full recovery means more than changing my eating habits.

Full recovery means letting go of giving meaning to food.  Letting go of believing my food intake or weight has anything to do with my worth.  Letting go of trying to control my body as a means to feel safe in this world.  Letting go of believing that being thin will protect me from being raped again.  Letting go of trying to disappear to stay safe or avoid hurting anyone.

Fully recovered means eating when I’m  hungry and stopping when I’m full.  Fully recovered means going out to dinner with friends, even if I ate lunch.  Fully recovered means eating lunch daily. Fully recovered means eating 3 cookies.  Fully recovered means breaking all my food rules, even drinking juice!  Measuring nothing, counting nothing, giving food no value other than nutritional.  Fully recovered means not cheating, by holding on to “just one or two habits.”   Fully recovered means committing to staying alive until my natural death.  Fully recovered means learning to like myself, then learning to love myself.  Fully recovered means reconnecting with the world, trusting myself and opening myself up to others.  Fully recovered means healing from years of abuse, by self compassion rather than self hatred. Fully recovered means accepting my natural body shape, no matter what size that turns out to be.

Fully recovered means letting go of fear.

I hope fully recovered means living with joy.  I hope that one day I will experience fully recovered and it will be wonderful.

Today, I still feel lost and stuck in survival mode. If you have tips for finding “fully recovered” please share them in the comment section below.

Celebrating One Year of Hopeforsanity Blog!

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It’s been one year since I started writing this blog.  If you are a new reader I encourage you to go back and read the first few posts of this blog.  To all of you who are reading, following, liking, sharing and commenting: THANK YOU!  I’m writing this blog for the dual purpose of expressing myself and connecting with others who are struggling, letting them know they are not alone.  You are not alone.   Though this blog has dealt with graphic and dark topics, I aim for the overall message to be one of hope and resilience.

Twenty one years ago tomorrow (April 12, 1996) the entire course of my life changed.  I was 15 years old and I entered into an abusive relationship that altered my relationship to myself, my friends, my family and my body.  I went from a relatively happy, self assured, popular 15 year old girl, to an anorexic, withdrawn, self-hating, 16 year old young woman.

I believe Ana was born at this time.  It’s no coincidence that Ana is 15 years old.  Ana is my traumatized child self personified.   Ana is angry in ways my younger self could not be.  Ana is all the fear, shame, guilt and hopelessness personified into a rebellious teenager who only wants to hurt me and say a giant F U to the rules of the world.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d never dated X.  If I’d never tried to befriend him.  If I’d never believed that I could help him feel better about himself.

I also wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been taught as a child that it’s okay not to be “nice” to someone who is hurting you.  I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been less concerned with being “perfect” and more concerned with protecting myself.  I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d realized that saving myself was even an option.  I was an easy target for perpetrators of abuse.  I played the role of rescuer, helper, caretaker and I never wanted to let anyone down or disappoint anyone.

People who don’t understand normal coping reactions to sexual violence have asked me:  Why didn’t you just scream?  Why didn’t you tell someone?  Why didn’t you push him and run away?

All I can say is that the answer is so complicated.  The answer lies in the social conditioning of some women living in a patriarchal, rape culture.  The answer lies in being taught to be “good” rather than to be true to oneself.  The answer lies in physiological responses which caused me to freeze and disassociate rather than fighting or fleeing.   Those physiological responses were not random, but were connected to the socialization of being a “good girl.”

My 15 year old self never would have considered screaming or fighting back.  Because she was ashamed, blamed herself and never wanted to make a scene.  My 15 year old self was confused and inexperienced and it took her a while to figure out that she didn’t like the sexual experiences that were being forced on her.  It took her a while to figure out that she wasn’t really choosing.  By the time she realized it wasn’t right, she was already coping by disassociating to lessen the impact of the abuse.  By the time she started firmly saying no, the pattern of abuse and the cycle of violence was already firmly established.   And because she was not naturally an assertive child and had not been taught to fight back in self defense, when her no wasn’t listened to, she began to shut down even further, withdraw further and develop other ingenious coping techniques such as anorexia, self harm and disassociating completely.

These reactions weren’t accidental.  They were conditioned from a young age.  Adults have to teach children to fight back.  Adults have to teach children that being nice can stop when someone crosses a boundary.  Adults have to teach children to fight like hell to escape a dangerous situation.  And even if a child learns all these things, it is still possible that in a violent situation freezing can be the only available option.   Many people being abused feel that fighting back would only result in further violence and physical injuries.

In my case, what kept me frozen was guilt and shame.  I thought I was doing something shameful by being sexual.  I thought that his family and my family would judge me.  I thought that my friends would judge me for neglecting them (as I was being socially isolated by the abuser).   Self blame kept me frozen and not fighting back.

Even as an adult, 21 years later, I still cope with conflict and stress by freezing or disassociating.  I’m still not skilled at saying no.  I also have difficulty saying yes or asking for what I need.

I think for a person who has experienced sexual violence it is difficult to say no.  Because in the abusive situation no was ignored and pushed past.  So staying silent feels less painful than having no not respected.  If I never really say no, I can’t be abused again.  It’s warped logic.  It is not productive or helpful, and it also prevents me from comfortably saying yes.

For someone whose boundaries have been consistently violated, setting boundaries can become a life long struggle.  A skill that must be learned or relearned gradually and with patience and self compassion.

Quite simply, I survived in abusive relationships for many years because I literally felt I had no other option.  I didn’t even feel like I deserved to be respected and I was gaslighted into believing the abuse was my own fault.

It’s never helpful to ask a survivor “Why didn’t  you just leave?”

Keep those thoughts to yourself.

They would have left if they could have.  And if they did leave, they are successful.  It doesn’t matter how long it took.  It took as long as it needed and not a moment longer.  Celebrate the reality, don’t question why it didn’t happen sooner.  “Why didn’t you just leave?” is a type of victim blaming statement.   If you don’t understand how someone could be trapped into an abusive relationship, educate yourself.  Don’t ask the survivor to educate you on their own painful lived experiences.  Survivors need to feel believed and validated, not questioned into justifying their existence.

Every year on April 12, I count another year of my life that has been impacted by sexual violence.  It is a grim reminder that for many survivors, myself including,  that the abuse was not “a long time ago” and we can’t “just get over it”  or “just move on.”  For people living with PTSD, time is a slippery beast.  Ana is still 15 years old.  Ana is me, she’s a part of me.  A part of me that never really grew up.  A part of me that needs parenting.

I’ve never parented a teenager before. I have no experience.  But I guess I’ll have to start somewhere.  And starting with acknowledging she is here, and she has unmet needs, is as good a place as any!

 

The Voice.

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I’ve been feeling very young recently.  I feel like Ana is around more than I am.

There is a book (which I haven’t yet read) which talks about structural disassociation and describes the experience of having an “apparently normal part” and one or more “traumatized child parts.”    My apparently normal part seems to be quiet this past few weeks and Ana, my traumatized teenage part is very loud.

Sometimes when Ana is around I do things that don’t make a lot of sense to my apparently normal part.  And my apparently normal part doesn’t make sense to Ana.

I was trying to figure out if there were any particular triggers, anniversaries or memories surfacing for me recently, ones that would bring Ana to the forefront.

Next week will be the anniversary of when I first started being abused.  It will also mark the one year anniversary of this blog!

I started reading through an old journal from 2001:  the year I first was hospitalized, the year I tried to kill myself multiple times and the year I began cutting daily, sometimes multiple times a day.

Reading the journal, my 2001 apparently normal self seems extremely young.  But even at that time, I clearly identified having  a traumatized child part.  Back then I called it healthy me and little girl me.  I also called it “the voice.”  I’ve found multiple segments where I speak about “the voice”  and I recognize what she is saying as Ana.

February 21, 2001

The sensation of hunger is not an easy one for me.  It is frightening.  Like I feel afraid of losing control of myself. And yet I know that the E.D is out of control.  It is a part of me that often deceives and betrays me.  I know that in the end, though it feels comfortable, it cannot be trusted.  The voice which tells me not to eat, tells me to cut my skin, to smash my head against a wall, to step out in front of traffic, all sorts of dangerous and hurtful things.  It speaks to me in persuasive ways.  It is a part of me and yet foreign.  My ally and my enemy.  My strength and my destruction.  But after so many years it is the way I know.  A method of ridding myself of unwanted feelings…I feel like a stranger in my own life.

I don’t know what to do to help my traumatized child part heal.  What does Ana need?

The answer that comes to my mind is love.

She needs love.  She needs acceptance.  She needs to be believed.  She needs to feel safe. She needs to be forgiven for all the years of self abuse.  She needs to forgive her own body.

But I rail against it.  My apparently normal adult self doesn’t feel capable of parenting an angry teenager.  Ultimately, she is me…both the apparently normal adult self and the traumatized child parts are me.

Even in 2001, I can read in my journal signs of this inner battle.  The battle between health and self destruction, between hope and despair.  I’ve been fighting for a long time.

I can read myself trying desperately to convince myself that my engagement was a good idea.  That I loved my partner.  That my own PTSD and issues were the root of the stress in our relationship.

March 18, 2001

I miss having him around me and yet I’m also afraid of our intimacy.  He is at the same time my motivation to get well and my trigger to feel upset.  The strong emotions I have toward him complicate and simplify my life

I can read my younger self trying to convince herself that things would be okay.  I can read between the lines that a deeper part of her knew the relationship was wrong and unhealthy.  I can read how I desperately continued hurting myself, longing to be SEEN. Truly SEEN and accepted for who I was.  I can read my self blame, self hatred and confusion.

And a good part of this fight has been internal, between parts of myself that can’t seem to make peace, forgive and start again.

South Street.

Photo credits to the London Health Sciences Centre website documenting the decommissioning and destruction of South Street Hospital.

I’ve been thinking about South Street.   It’s been completely demolished now, destroyed and decommissioned but it’s still alive in my memory.

I haven’t written many posts about being in the hospital since I started this blog almost a year ago now.  Those were first posts, the first thoughts on my mind which I wanted to share.

I think people who have never spent time on a psych ward often have a dark curiosity about what they might be like.  I find myself filled with the same morbid curiosity as I search through pictures of the abandoned South Street hospital online.  How can a place where I survived so much just be demolished?  On one hand I’m glad it is gone.  It was a horrible place!  On the other hand, I feel like it should have stood there forever as a monument to the suffering and the intensity I felt there.

What were days like as a patient at South Street?

The days varied slightly depending on which unit I was on.  There was something comforting about the meals being delivered on neatly organized trays.  In the morning you could select your choices for the following day, marking them off on a paper slip.  The selection for vegetarians was rather poor.  The food in general was awful, but they would bring me a peanut butter and jam sandwich for lunch.  I wrote in my request beside the offered choices.   In the morning there were little boxes of cereal and tiny muffins.  Breakfast was always my favourite meal.   For your first day or two, your meals are delivered directly to your room.  After that you were encouraged to eat with the other patients in a small dining room which was unlocked at meal times for this purpose. I never ate there.  I carried my tray carefully back to my room where I ate alone.  The meals arrived like clockwork at 8AM, 12PM and 5PM.  You could order ginger ale as a snack or a treat, it arrived in a paper bag with your name.   I used to order Colt diet ginger ale, but I’d use the edge of the can to hurt myself, I never drank the pop.   Dinner was the worst meal.  There were a selection of about 4 different vegan dinners that came in plastic trays, preheated.   I would peel the plastic wrap off and sample them, sometimes eating very little.   The arrival of the trays marked the passage of time through the day and the long hours after dinner stretched out, especially if you didn’t have a visitor.

Medication times were another way to tell the time.  At first my nurse would come to my room to give me the selection of pills (at one time I was taking more than 11 pills a day).  After settling in, patients reported to the nursing station at set times to receive their pills.  Each pill came in a tiny sealed plastic bag, labelled with my name and patient number (I still have it memorized!).  The nurse would check my wristband carefully against the name on the plastic bags.  Then the nurse would rip them open carefully and tip the pills out into a small paper cup or into my hand.  I would get another small cup with water and the nurse would watch me swallow the pills.  Night time medication was always greatly anticipated as it marked the end of the day and the time at which it was acceptable to go to sleep for the night.  Realistically, on high doses of anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medication I often slept during the day as well.   Floating in between high levels of anxiety and thoughts of self harm and suicide, and drugged, sluggish, words slurred together medication induced slumber.

There were no cell phones at that time, difficult to imagine!  There was a Bell payphone at the end of the hall in the TV lounge area.  There was a black leather chair you could sit in while you were on a call.  There was another payphone halfway down the hall, at the edge between the Y and Middlesex portions of the 7th floor (older and comparatively newer parts of the wing).  Talking on the phone to friends and family members was one way to pass the time.  Some patients also sat in the TV room watching whatever was on. I rarely sat there, preferring to stay in my room or in the room of a co-patient I had befriended.

If you were upset, you could ask to speak one on one with your nurse.  There was a small room attached to the nursing station where we could sit.   Sometimes the nurses would speak to me in my room.   The psychiatrist would visit once every few days.  These visits were highly anticipated.  Sometimes I would wait around the floor for hours, figuring that my Dr might check in on me.   Visits from the psychiatrist meant changes in medication, changes in privilege levels, and often discharge from the hospital.  The doctor generally just spoke to me in my room, even when the room was shared with 1-3 other people.  The level of privacy on the psych ward was very low, unless you were lucky enough to be moved to a private room.

Private rooms were highly coveted.  On the psych ward private rooms had nothing to do with the insurance coverage you had and everything to do with privileges.   When I arrived on the 7th floor I was generally in a ward room, 4 beds separated with curtains.  I didn’t mind this as long as I had one of the two beds by the window rather than one of the two beds by the door.   Patients who just arrived on the unit were placed in the ward rooms closer to the nursing station.  Aggressive or self destructive patients were placed in these rooms.  If I stayed longer, I would often be allowed to move further down the hall, further from the nursing station and closer to the exit (both literally and symbolically).   I loved the single rooms which had their own washrooms.  All the rooms had these chain link grills over the windows, but some of them did open a crack.   There were also double rooms, some of which did not have washrooms.  There was a shared shower room.  It had space for 3 people to shower or bathe at the same time, but the showers were separated by curtains.   Rumors circulated that people had completed suicide in these shower rooms and all the patients believed them.  There was also a laundry room where longer staying patients could wash their clothes.

The best part of staying at South Street was that I was generally allowed to come and go for brief periods on my own.  Sometimes I was allowed only on hospital ground, in which case I would go down to the patio at the back of the building.  This was a place where smokers could smoke and psych patients who were not allowed to leave could get some fresh air.  I would go down there with fellow patients sometimes and it was almost like an outing.  Smokers looked forward to the scheduled times we were allowed to leave the unit.

Other times I was allowed to go for short walks around the neighbourhood.   I used to walk down to the river by the hospital.  I’d walk around the streets in the area.  Sometimes I’d walk to Tim Horton’s and buy a piece of caramel coffee cake.  There was a walking path along the river to a small waterfall.  I know we sometimes though of jumping into it.  There were ducks which could be fed if you ordered extra bread with your meal.  Sometimes I walked alone, sometimes with visitors and sometimes with other patients.   I made some friends at South Street.  A few of them I still stay in touch with today.

Ironically enough, many of the patients were allowed to basically come and go as they pleased.  At night the door was locked and you needed permission from your psychiatrist to have a pass home for the evening or overnight.  Sometimes I had accompanied passes which meant my boyfriend had to sign me in and out.  Other times he would just drop me at the front entrance.   Ironically, though I was often admitted to the hospital for self harm and suicidal thoughts or attempts, I was still allowed freedom to leave the floor unaccompanied.   In reality I could have harmed myself pretty much anytime I wanted, even when in the hospital.  Sometimes I did, but other times I didn’t.

I often wonder exactly what made the hospital safer than being at home.   I think it was the thought, or the hope, or the desperate idea that it was safer which kept bringing me back there.  I was almost hypomanic and highly impulsive about self harm while I was taking anti-depressants.  I felt unsafe, I thought I’d be safer in the hospital, admitted myself then realized I felt trapped.  I was generally a voluntary patient, so I soon discharged myself and the cycle began again.  I never really felt safe anywhere.

Sometimes the hospital was a comfort.  The routines, the quiet, the break from real life.

Sometimes the hospital was terrifying, like when one of my roommates was cutting and snorting cocaine in our shared washroom.  Leaving blood and white powder traces for me to find.   Like when a patient who dressed in black and openly worshiped Satan was restrained by multiple security guards and wheeled down the hall on a gurney screaming.   Like when an old man came up behind me in the hall and placed his hands around my neck, whispering that he would kill me.  Like the blood stains on the 7th floor carpet, from where a man had been seriously injured trying to escape.

There was  tenuous grasp on order there, and we all knew it.   Sometimes people think of the psych ward as being filled with crazy people.   But in reality, I was neither more nor less crazy than the other people there.  I wasn’t psychotic, like some of them were, but I was destructive and depressed.  Everyone was there because they weren’t safe.  Our reasons were different, but the result was the same.  We all lined up for our pills.  We all ate our meals off plastic trays.  Some of us were allowed real cutlery and others only plastic.   The lines were drawn in terms of privileges, delineating various levels of “crazy.”  But in the end we were all there together.  We were all psych patients.  I see myself as being no different from the others.

Even today, over a decade later, there is a part of me that still holds that identity.  The identity of being on a psych ward, of being hospitalized against my will.  It did change me and it did shape me.  But it no longer defines me.

 

 

Meet Ana.

These pictures are of a cartoon girl called Emily Strange.  If I could draw a comic book version of Ana, she would look something like Emily Strange.

Ana isn’t just my eating disorder personified.   Ana isn’t just a nickname for anorexia.  Ana is another part of me.  I experience Ana as an angry teenage girl.  She isn’t just me as a teenager.  She has long straight black hair and very pale white skin.  She has dark eyes which are usually downcast.   Her fists clench when she is angry.  She wears hoodies, dark clothes, army boots and skirts.  She is slim and looks like she could sneak around very easily, light on her feet and quiet.  She is filled with anger and yet she doesn’t take up much obvious space.   Ana is my inner child.  Ana is my alter ego.  Ana is my eating disorder.  Ana is self harm and suicidal thoughts.  Because Ana is a scared, teenage girl.

Ana is the part of me that doesn’t trust you.

Ana is the part of me that wants everything or nothing at all.  Complete loyalty, or no friendship.

Ana is the part of me that feels like nobody believes me.   Ana doesn’t feel heard and when she is angry, she hurts me rather than expressing herself assertively.

Ana acts out, but that’s because she’s  young.  She’s probably only 14 or 15 years old.  She doesn’t have life skills.  Her anger is a mask for fears she is too afraid to share.  Her prickly exterior is a mask hiding deep vulnerability and shame.

Ana feels worthless.  Ana feels helpless.  Ana feels like punishing me is the only solution to these feelings.

Ana acts like a complete spoiled, controlling brat, when she really wants to be rescued.   She makes unreasonable rules rather than admitting she is afraid.

Ana craves safety, yet acts like she does not need protection.

Ana blames herself for being abused.   Ana feels responsible and wants to protect me by keeping me alone.  Ana tries to push people away with self harm, suicidal thoughts and eating disorder behaviours.  Ana thinks if we are smaller and take up less space we will be safer.

Ana is me.  At least she is a part of me, but I don’t know how to make peace with her, forgive her, accept her and come to a truce.  I don’t know how to integrate her, so that we become just one adult person again.  I’m not sure how to soothe this angry child inside of me.  We lack compassion for each other and for our younger selves.

I hope one day I can truly feel that Ana deserves forgiveness for hurting me.  And that she can forgive me for not protecting her.