Mental illness can evolve and change throughout a person's entire life. Often, new symptoms can appear or worsen.
This is her story.
Growing up, one of my best friends struggled with her family life.
Her father is a bipolar schizophrenic who has attempted suicide several times. After the divorce her mother struggled with drugs. My friend is an bright, intelligent, driven, talented young lady, but this post isn't about her, really. I love her dearly, but one of the biggest roles she's played in my life is opening my eyes to how difficult life can be for those who love individuals with psychological health issues.
I'm bipolar with the added bonus of recovering from bulimia and anxiety. I found out when I was 19. I'm 22 now, almost 23. I managed to get my college degree and now I have my dream job. I moved to a new city. I'm living on my own, proving I "can do it."
Except, the "crazy" is changing.
Where once self-awareness and self-care were enough to keep me fairly stable through my ups and downs, I think I'm hitting that place where my disorder matures into what it will be for the rest of my adulthood. I was warned this might happen, that I might hit a groove and become "stable" for some time, but that my brain wasn't fully matured and therefore my chemical imbalances might change.
My cycle is off.
My emotions are...something.
I don't really have words for what life is like.
The objective part of my brain says, "Things are going pretty well." I have friends, in my new city and back home, and in other places, that show me often and profoundly how loved and valued I am in ways small and large. I have the job that every recent college graduate dreams of, the one that blends my passions with my skills into an amazing sort of this-is-meant-for-me thing.
I found a church that I absolutely love, full of loving, welcoming people who legitimately care about me. I have volunteer projects I adore, that help remind me how fortunate I am. I've even lost weight! Thirty pounds, actually. Five more pounds and I'll have lost all of the weight I gained during my collegiate battle with bulimia. (And, it's been lost the right way...the healthy way.)
Things are good.
Except my brain isn't good. My brain is awful, actually.
For the last two, almost three years, I've had the relief of being unmedicated. I made the choice to go the "sheer willpower and stubbornness" route of mental health because I had two years of my life go down the drain when we couldn't find the medical cocktail that worked for me. I either felt too much, was spending too much time at one end of the bipolar spectrum or the other, or I was feeling nothing at all. I even got addicted to a particular fast-acting anxiety medication that stole several months of my life.
I knew I'd eventually have to try the route of medication again someday, but knowing it might happen doesn't mentally prepare you for the day it actually comes. I'll be talking about this with my therapist at our next appointment.
While not every day is good, there's good in every day. Life unmedicated hasn't been unkind to me.
I don't think this is an option anymore, though. I'm reminded of what a lifelong diagnosis of bipolar disorder can be.
I feel fear.
Not anxiety, not stress.
Fear, legitimate FEAR. I'm 22, I'm young. I want to meet someone, get married, maybe even someday have a family. I want to move out to the country, have a ragtag pack of dogs, maybe some horses and a few cows.
I want to live my dreams and fulfill my goals.
I think back to the stories I heard about my friend's dad. He was bright, passionate, engaged, popular, a pillar of his community, until he began exhibiting symptoms. Then, over a multi-year period, he became the person I knew.
All those terms are ones that have been applied to me. Is this the start of the avalanche? Is this where a lifetime of being a burden, being someone else's inconvenient responsibility and source of heartache, begins?
Most days, I'm very, very good at finding the silver lining.
I'm an optimist by nature, even when I'm on the low end. But, these last few days, it's all replaced by the turmoil of emotions I can't control, and fear. Fear of the future and what I'll become, and fear of whether or not medications will work or if this is really the earnest start of my troubles.
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. Do you have life lessons that would have helped you through a difficult time?
Share those with The Band as you write a letter to your younger self.
Put down that beer right now. It's caused you enough grief already and if you stop drinking now, it will save you a lot of grief in the future. You do not need it. It just makes you seem silly and makes you a target for abuse.
Now, call your Mom back and tell her you'll be changing your major even though she thinks you won';t be able to succeed. Dancing is her dream, not yours. You want to be seen AND heard.
Unfortunately, your life has been based on how you appear to others and it has made you very insecure. You will never measure up to the incredible standards you have created for yourself. So, just do it. Change your major from dance to psychology.
Here comes the difficult part.
You are not crazy.
You are right.
The drinking, the eating disorder and the incredibly low self-esteem are connected. I know you have been searching with all of your might, trying to find the missing piece, trying to make it make sense. I know you do not want to drink or count potato chips. You want to walk into a room and confidently say "Hello."
The missing piece is a lost memory. You suppressed it because it was too much for your developing brain to handle. I'm not sure your brain can handle it now, but I do know you'll waste less time if you know now.
If you need to leave school, do it.
If you need to stop talking to your mom and sister, do it.
If you need to join the Peace Corps, do it.
Whatever it takes to begin your journey of healing, do it now.
All else will take care of itself.
No need to worry about getting too old to dance. You won't be a famous dancer. Dance for fun.
If you want to be famous, head towards that little room in the basement of the university next to the sports equipment storage - the computer lab. That's where the money is. And yes, you are smart enough to do it.
Work on your voice. Write. Laugh. Go for a walk and write some more.
No, I'm not kidding.
That journal writing you have been doing is good stuff. It really, really is. And don't throw away any of them. You'll want all of your writing, even the stuff you wrote when you were eight.
People will hear you.
You will be heard.
It will get very lonely sometimes. But it will pass. It all does. Everything does. Darkness turns to light, sadness to joy, and vice versa.
Yes, there will be darkness.
When it is especially difficult, look in the mirror and say, "I love you."
Look at me, right now, saying "It wasn't your fault.
You will get through this.
You have survived the worst of it.
There will be light.
And I will be here with you always.
I have never been particularly fond of myself, so my self-esteem has always been relatively low. So, I believed too much, was too trusting, and too naïve to know any better. In other words, I believed what people told me I was; I trusted that everybody was my friend, and was too naïve to know that I was worth more.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when I was sexually assaulted that I believed everything those guys told me.
“You’re not pretty enough. You’re not good enough. You’re worth nothing.”
These words repeated over and over again in my head, never shutting up or slowing down. The Game of Comparisons started, and I lost. Every time.
She’s pretty; you’re not pretty enough. She’s skinny; you’re not skinny enough.
Soon I became so full of self-hatred I was virtually incapable of feeling anything else. Every laugh, every smile, every tear was forced. I felt dead - a human devoid of emotion is no human at all.
In order to feel something, anything at all, I began to cut myself. And every time I cut myself open with the razor of hate, you’re worth nothing echoed in my mind. This routine continued day in and day out for six months. Eventually, cutting wasn’t enough anymore. So I stopped eating.
Well, okay. Technically, that’s not entirely true.
I stopped filling myself up. I started eating less and less, only eating enough to stop my stomach from rumbling. Sometimes, if I completely hated myself, I would skip a meal here and there. The cutting, not eating, and the voices continued for another year and a half. Until one day, I couldn’t take it anymore.
I wanted to die.
And I almost did. But there was a quiet voice in the back of my head whispering, you are good enough. That tiny voice was enough to give me hope that things could get better.
Over time, I stopped cutting. But I didn’t start eating again. It got worse. The summer before Senior year, I went two weeks without eating anything but a few crackers every day. Senior year I didn’t eat lunch, partly because I was taking too many classes to have a lunch period, mostly because I couldn’t stand the thought of people watching me put food in my mouth.
If I didn’t like myself, how could I expect anybody else to like me enough to want me to eat?
Graduation came and went, and for the first time in a long time, I almost, kind of, maybe a little, liked myself. I started eating a little bit more than I had before, and was pretty much excited for college.
Until I went to college, that is.
College is much like high school, at least my high school. There are the same groups of people - the popular kids, the athletes, the music nerds, the nerds. At a College like Roberts, where the number of girls heavily outweighs the number of boys, I found many more people to compare myself to.
When I walked in on the first day of classes, I was terrified by the number of people sitting there, talking in their groups. I saw many beautiful people and I wasn’t one of them.
Sitting alone at a table the first day, I was overcome with feelings I hadn’t really felt in a few months. So I retreated to the library; I felt comfortable there among the books. Nobody cared how much food I ate or didn’t eat. Nobody cared that I sat alone, procrastinating important things while scribbling away in my notebook.
But the Game of Comparisons continued, and I lost every round, even the ones I didn’t participate in. Only this time, it was different; the voice wasn’t saying “you’re not.” The voice was saying, “I’m not.”
I’m not good enough. I’m not pretty enough. I’m not skinny enough. I’m not ‘insert adjective here’ enough.
And trust me when I say that telling yourself you’re not good enough is a whole lot worse than having someone else tell you. It’s true, you know. You are your own worst critic.
Every day I would look in the mirror, hate what I saw, and compensated by being someone I’m not. It was physically and mentally exhausting. Between the not eating and the not being, I was having a really tough time.
But when you spend all your time in the library, among the books and the silence, you have a lot of time for soul-searching. Towards the end of November, I was sitting quietly sitting at my table, trying to study when the quiet voice was back.
Then it hit me.
I wanted to stand on my chair and tell the world, “I am having some major epiphanies going on up in here.” But I didn’t. I was in a library, and shouting in the library is highly frowned upon.
So I went in the bathroom and cried.
Three things hit me that day.
I am capable of so much more. In the battle between Who I Think I Am and Who I Could Be, Who I think I am won every time, because that’s what I let get a hold of me. That’s what fed off my energy. It doesn’t have to be that way.
We are all capable of doing something great. I am, you are, we all are. But we all have something holding us back.
Every mirror tells me something different. I can tell myself that I’m beautiful until I’m blue in the face but my brain that refuses to let me believe it. Even though deep in my soul I know I’m capable of greatness, there is something holding me back. And until I figure out what it is, until I figure out how to overcome it, I am destined to live in my own shadow.
I have figured out what mine is: fear and self-doubt.
I decided I shouldn’t spend so much time in the library, because it was making me all emotional (but that will never happen because I love books too much).
Even though I have figured this out, it’s still a struggle. I’m only "fine" 20% of the time, which is good but not great. But it’s a whole heck of a lot better than 10%, which is how I felt before. There are still many days when I don’t want to eat (which is more than I’d like to admit). Oftentimes I can eat a little bit every meal but some days I don’t like myself enough to force myself to eat.
Sometimes, when I’m sad, hate myself, and don’t want to eat, I look at the lines on my hands. They remind me that I have been stitched together by the master sewer, and I’ve learned that sometimes, that is enough.
Dear 14-Year-Old Me,
Right now, you are a in a lot of pain; you are confused and your life appears to have been dismantled as you helplessly looked on.
You are about to deal with your fear and confusion by becoming angry. You will rationalise this in later years as 'taking control of your life' but I am telling you now, that this anger is driven by fear.
You will not accept or understand this for 35 years, unless you listen to me now.
If I was standing in front of you now, I would like to take you in my arms and talk to you about how you feel and explain a few things. Why have you always felt that you are a loner? Why has your family looked different from others, with you never seeing any affection between Mum and Dad, the constant rows, the underlying tension?
You should know that it is not okay to be hit and humiliated. It is not okay to see the same thing happen to your brother. It is not okay to see it happen to your mother. You should accept that your father is a very scary man. But to do this means that you will have to accept that your family is abnormal and you can't stand the stigma.
It has been drilled into you that things are "okay."
I should tell you that your mother will show you all the love that she can but that she is not capable of proper parental nurture. You will feel loved by her one minute and humiliated by her the next. She only sees you as a reflection of herself and will control everything that you do in order to feed her own needs. This will not stop, even in your adult life but you can't accept this because you are terrified of losing her because you already sense that she has abandoned you.
Your fear means that you will reject anything that confirms your subconscious terror.
I might be able to get through to you if I could explain that Mum and Dad had real, genuine problems. However, the terms Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder had not been coined then. Any suggestion that your parents or you were suffering for a reason will be rejected as pathetic and weak. And you must not be weak. However, you have inherited and learned elements of the same problem.
By now, you have defences. From an early age you have cycled alone for miles, for no apparent reason. You have cut yourself, developed OCD type rituals for every aspect of your daily living and have had a tic. In the past two years, you have started to run obsessively and coupled this with anorexia.
But, Little Me, you have never asked yourself, why the fuck has nobody noticed that you have a problem? It is because they are all too immersed in their own drama and handicapped by their own sickness?
You are there as a part of that and there is no help coming.
You have just been told that your mother has left home with another man. You have just seen your father break down and you have now been sent back to boarding school. In addition, you are just about to learn in a very violent way that your brother is actually your half-brother and that your mother has been persistently unfaithful. To add icing to the cake, within 4 years both your parents re-marry partners with NPD.
The only recognition at school from your house master is when you say that your fortnightly grades were down because you had had a hard week, he replied "I will accept that this time but I never want to hear that excuse again." He never did. From that day on you never cry, you never complain. You cope.
As a new (and probably) ultimate defence mechanism, you are on the cusp of throwing yourself into study. You decide to study medicine despite everyone telling you that you won't make it. Well, you say, "fuck them." I wish that I could make you see that you are doing this to ease the pain, to hit back at your Dad (a doctor) and to go for the hardest thing you can, to gain some self -esteem.
Guess what? You succeed. Everyone looks on in amazement as you transform from a lost academic second rater to a top-stream player.
You have never worked so hard and you don't stop for years.
I am sorry to tell you that this anger and fear will blight your relationships, especially with women and especially with your sons. You should know that it has taken the failure of your second marriage to force you to confront these issues and begin a process of recovery.
You will look on me with scorn, because you think that to acknowledge the suffering that has occurred is weak but I am only trying to spare you pain.
Together, you and I must stop this cycle of behaviour, because you will enact much of your parents behaviour. You must see that if you don't deal with your pain, you will pass it on. I am dealing with it now and it's very hard.
In truth, I'm a little pissed off with you!
By the way, you will have your heart badly broken by your first love and make no connection to our mother.
So, Little Me, I find it hard to see what I can do to help you. I can see what is going to happen but I know that your determination and defences will stop me getting through to you. Nevertheless, here are some gems of advice and if you can, please heed them.
- Please try to understand that all of this is not your fault. Also, it is not your job to make it all right.
- 99.9% of your suffering belongs to others, mainly the adults. You have been and still are a child. Hand this pain back to them and make them be responsible for it, if you can. Let them know how you feel, try to make yourself heard.
- People do care about you. Please, please let them in. Open up to them. Your running coach will approach you in a few weeks and ask you what is wrong, tell him, he is a good man.
A girl who you are chasing after at university will turn to you and tell you that you are great but she can't get close to you, listen to her and open up. Andy and Ian are the best friends you will ever have, they love you and care about you, don't leave it 35 years to let them see you for who you are.
- Know that you are a good person, you are quite clever, you are not bad looking, you are not, never have been and never will be fat.
- Cutting is not the only way that you self-harm. Over-exercising, over-working and eating "control" are just different faces of the same thing.
- When your defences are overwhelmed, you will rage and scare people. This is unacceptable. The earlier you can accept why this happens, the less damage you will cause to yourself and others you love.
I am not sure how this will get delivered to you.
Perhaps in a dream, from which you will wake up from in the morning. If that is the case, that residual "I have had a dream" echo should leave you with the feeling that there are some hard times ahead but that we will have the courage to accept the past and to walk the hard, challenging but wonderful and enlightening path of recovery.
I hope that you will start your day in the confidence that someday you will make sense of the madness and show that the hideous cycle of dysfunctional behaviour does not have to happen. This will be a gift to your children and theirs and you will be proud.
I wish that I could walk with you now, as you walk with me always.
Your 49-Year Old Self
Such a simple word with such a variety of implications, not a one of them simple.
In November, the Band focused upon recovery - from anything. Part of getting through the traumas, the addictions, the mental illnesses is to focus on the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel and focus upon new coping mechanisms, new ways of life, and recovery.
So, The Band, how are YOU recovering? What are you recovering from? How are some ways you cope while recovering?
I was always a curvy girl. I was only eight when my mom had to quit buying the style of jeans she'd always bought for me. My butt wouldn't fit in them anymore.
When I was in high school, I was riding around in a car with my first boyfriend and his friends. The song "Baby Got Back" came on the radio. As we were all singing along, I realized from the way the guys were singing and looking at each other that I had been the subject of conversation in regards to that song.
This was pre-J-Lo and pre-Beyonce. Curvy was not the generally accepted look for girls at the time. But I recognized that regardless of what mainstream beauty trends were, Marilyn Monroe was stunning. She was my idol, and I was flattered to be considered a curvy girl.
I got married at 21. I look back on those wedding pictures and I'm amazed at just how little I was back then. By the time he and I had been married four years, I had put on maybe 15 pounds. I still looked great. I felt attractive and sexy and beautiful.
And then I found out he was cheating on me.
For six more years, I stayed with him. I found comfort in food. While he was out with his girlfriends at night, I ate anything I could get my hands on. For Christmas that first year, my husband bought me two new pairs of jeans. They fit me perfectly. By February, I couldn't zip them up anymore.
The more he cheated, the more I ate and the bigger I got. It wasn't long before I was eating portions at meals that matched the portion sizes of my defensive lineman teenage step-son. I gained 50 pounds in those six years.
Through the years, I made efforts to take the weight off. I'd tried diet shakes, low-carb diets, and went to the gym. If I managed to take off any weight with those, I would put it right back on. I joined Curves and followed their program religiously. My weigh-ins always stumped the manager because I kept putting weight ON. I found out a few years later that stress is a HUGE factor in weight gain. When your body is in a constant state of anxiety, it goes into Fight-Or-Flight mode. Then, it won't let go of ANYTHING.
Two weeks before our tenth wedding anniversary, my husband left me for his girlfriend of three years.
I stopped eating. And sleeping.
For two months, if I ate anything at all, it would be a small cup of yogurt that I would snack on while sitting on the bench in my front yard at 2:00 in the morning. I lost eleven pounds on the "Infidelity Diet".
Once I got past the depression over our upcoming divorce, I decided to take those eleven pounds and run with them. I was determined to take off the 50 pounds the stress of my first marriage put on me.
I was down 30 pounds by the time I met the man of my dreams. I looked and felt amazing. By now, society was acknowledging that curvy was beautiful, and I felt like I was in my prime.
Then my sister died.
Less than two months later, my very active boyfriend broke his back in a dirt-bike accident. I took care of him during the next couple of months while he was highly medicated and entirely inactive. We were still in the early phase of our relationship when all you want to do is be with each other. So while he sat, I sat. I got out of the habit of exercising every day, like I had been.
We got married. I got pregnant. Then I lost it. Meanwhile, I still loved food, but wasn't exercising. The weight started creeping back up. I got pregnant again. My baby was born healthy, but the hospital experience was very stressful for me. I took off the baby weight, but couldn't get more than that. Just before my son's first birthday, I was pregnant again. I lost that baby as well. Financial stresses and two hectic moves have taken their toll.
My son will be two in less than three weeks. I currently weigh as much as I did the day he was born.
I want to be healthy again. I want to be strong. I want to feel good about myself again. I want to look in the mirror and like what I see.
I'm making my health a priority again. They say it takes a month to create a habit. I'm determined to get past the challenge of the first month of exercising regularly so I can make it a habit. I'm only on week two, but I'm already feeling better about myself. My posture is better and I'm making better choices about what I eat. Two weeks leads to three weeks, which leads to a month.
I can do this.
I WILL find myself again.
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