The Book That Ruined My Life

I love to read. I love all sorts of books, I love to savour every word, every syllable like a sweet morsel to dangle off my tongue. I love adding new words to my extensive repertoire, words like surreptitious, superfluous, vernacular, kintsukuroi, and petrichor – all of which are very real, very beautiful words you should look up the definitions for immediately. I love to caress the covers of new novels, and old ones too, and the smell of the pages being turned, and losing track of time in bookshops and spending money I don’t have on books I don’t need because the best books are never found in libraries.

When I was ten, I read a book that ruined my life. This book gave me ideas that would contribute to me developing anorexia. I’m not going to share its title, but if my description of it sounds familiar and you or anyone you know have any sort of predisposition to disordered eating or currently suffer from an eating disorder, then I am pleading with you to avoid it at all costs.

Even before I turned the pages of this book, the cover itself sparked a wave of anxiety. It is a cover emblazoned with the words “you ate too much you fat pig”, with a picture of an apple core. My sister sardonically pointed it out to me, when I was ten years old, and said “this sounds like you”.

Sorry sis, but that was a terrible, terrible idea.

I read this book, and it gave me ideas, which is ordinarily a very positive outcome for a book to have, but not this book. This is how my eating disorder started: it started with the sit ups, and the push ups. It started with measuring, and label checking, and calorie counting, and offhanded comments by people who didn’t intend to damage me. It started with social isolation, with an exercise addiction, and with dietary restriction. With cutting out entire food groups, and with weighing myself every day, multiple times a day.

Exactly as this book described.

This book was not intended to be one which sparked eating disorders amongst its readership. In fact, it’s a semi-fictional semi-biographical novel written by a girl recovered from anorexia, and her experience of inpatient treatment. It was probably intended as a warning.

Yet somehow, this was the book that ruined my life.

 

Bible Quotes That Deeply Resonate with My Depression (and other illnesses too)

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those crushed in spirit” – Psalm 34:18

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” – Galatians 6:2

“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” – Psalm 9:9

“Pray without ceasing” – Thessalonians 5:17

“Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” – 1 Corinthians 8:13

“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” – Romans 5:8

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and our hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love to us has been poured into our hearts through the holy spirit” – Romans 5:3-5

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” – John 1:4-5

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” – Jeremiah 29:11

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me” – Psalms 30:2 

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” – Romans 12:21

 

 

Chronic Depression, My Old Friend

When I was younger, before all the bad shit happened (read: anorexia followed by years of intense bullying which only reaffirmed that if I was just thinner, things would be better) I thought depression was purely episodic. I thought it only occurred during grief after a death, that it was a really intense sadness that hung around for a couple weeks and then disappeared.

Seven years later, and I’m still depressed. Because depression can be chronic too.

Earlier this year, I think I experienced my first manic episode. Not irritability or hypomania, true mania. I was buzzing. I couldn’t sleep and didn’t need to, I was planning and fantasising wildly, I spent two weeks pay in five days (as a normally frugal person who spends half of every pay on therapy), I was over-committing to everything: I was go go go, fast fast fast. Talking and thinking faster and louder. I’ve never been formally diagnosed as bipolar, and although I recognise patterns of mania in myself, I definitely identify more with borderline personality disorder. I’m also not a psychiatrist, no matter how often I read the DSM, and like to believe I mostly know what I’m talking about. Something to know about me: I try to keep my intelligence kinda hidden because it’s gotten me into trouble before, and at the risk of sounding like a total dick, I am pretty fucking smart, and pretty fucking confident I know a decent amount about mental health.

Anyway, prior to that weird little manic week, for the first time in those seven years, I actually felt content. I can’t use the H-adjective, because that word alone always seems to trigger another wave of numbness for whatever reason, but it was like my mind just wanted to tease me with the possibility of a depression free life. I was satisfied with work, with my savings, with a few tentative plans for the future. I felt at ease, not anxious, not stressed, not fearful. I wasn’t overly focused on my eating disorder, and I was actually sticking to meal plan. I had come up with a vague sort of self-soothing routine which involved touching leaves on every tree I passed on my walk to the park, and stopping to meditate and practice yoga before returning home. It was a very mindful couple of days.

Then the mania hit.

Then the anxiety peaked.

And now the sadness has returned.

For some reason, I’m welcoming it back into my life. It’s an old friend, safe and familiar. Even when I am a danger to myself, at least it’s familiar. But this happiness thing? That’s foreign territory. And I don’t like it. I don’t like the mania, I don’t like the anxiety, and I definitely don’t like the BPD emotion surges.

Depression is my friend. It keeps me from feeling all of my feelings, in the same way my eating disorder helps me avoid things that need avoiding. Depression also keeps me from having nice things, like recovery. It keeps the metaphorical marble rolling down the same metaphorical ruts, the same neural pathways strengthening, the same core beliefs coursing through my mind every moment of every day – I’m worthless. I’m undeserving of life and love. I let everybody down. Killing myself will release the burden I put on other people. I’m fat, and ugly, and stupid, and useless. I’m never going to get better. I never make any progress.

I cling to these thoughts because I don’t know any different. I’ve never found lasting comfort in any of the suggested places. Yes I’ve tried yoga, and mindfulness, and art therapy, and writing, and regular therapy, and inpatient treatment, and day treatment, and medications. They don’t work for me.

Intuitively, I know that none of these beliefs are the truth – just as I know that according to my BMI I am not overweight. But even when my BMI fell to 14 and I was on the verge of involuntary hospital admission I thought I was fat. So why should a stranger telling me to smile lift my mood? Why should someone saying I look upset, make me any less upset?

Chronic depression, in fact, any depression, is not just sadness that passes. It’s sadness that stays. That fills my entire being with darkness and despair. It whispers harsh words in my ear, and ways to escape. It twists every object in my house into something I could use to hurt myself. I become dangerous. I become bitter. I hate my depression. I hate everything it’s done to me. But for some reason, I cherish it too.

Bringing Clarity To My Eating Disorder(s)

This is my safe space, where I do whatever the fuck I want. Sometimes, I write eloquently and in full sentences, and sometimes my writing becomes a pure stream of consciousness, which can be identified by the increased use of swear words and italics. Because this is my space where I do whatever the fuck I want, today I’m choosing to map my disorder for you. It bothers me to have bits and pieces of the story spread around the place, so I’m choosing to collate it here. Rest assured, the rambling poetics guarantee the story will continue to be spread here, there, and everywhere, but this makes me feel good for now.

When I was eleven, I developed anorexia. It started with the sit ups, the push ups. Eliminating carbs, fat, sugar. Exercising, and then not eating again until I was hungry and exhausted. Fasting to be extra sure I was still able to feel hungry. I stopped drinking tea between meals. I stopped eating between meals. I started checking labels, counting calories, and spreading a lot of lies. I weighed myself every day, multiple times a day, and this ritual dictated my mood. If the number had gone down, I was ecstatic, and continued to follow my highly ritualised daily routine. If it had stayed the same, I was disappointed, and disheartened, but not wrecked, and vowed to do better, be hungrier, eat less. If it had gone up, I was extremely distressed. I would not eat. I would exercise to the point of exhaustion, a point further away than usual.

And all of that meant I lost a lot of weight, very quickly.

DSC_0493

I noticed a voice appear. I called her Ana. She berated me when I was bad, and congratulated me when I was good. She kept me stuck. She felt entirely separate to me, even though I knew it was really me, it was just the disordered part of me.

The proudest moment I can remember from my childhood is watching my hip bones creep to the edge of my shorts. The same shorts growing baggy, and eventually falling off, no matter how tight I tied them. My eating disorder gave me a sense of purpose, achievement and fulfilment while around me it seemed that I was constantly invalidated and ignored, a feeling which was only compounded when I was severely bullied during school, conveniently prolonging the severity of my anorexia. I was never quite good enough. Never worthy. Never smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, kind enough, or perfect enough. 

Here are a few stats to make things a little clearer:

  • SW: 40-ish kg, BMI ? Pre-high school.
  • LW: 33.8 kg, BMI 14. 2013-2014. This is when I was at my sickest.
  • HW: 66.5 kg, BMI 27. Late 2017
  • CW: 60.5 kg, BMI 24. Early 2018
  • BW: 46.0 kg, BMI 18. Late 2015-2016. I’m electing to call this my “best weight” because I was really happy with my body at this point. I was doing a lot of strength training and yoga, my muscles had returned, and in all honesty, I had the chest and abs of a boy. But I really liked it. I was also probably still a little underweight, which I’m going to ignore. How do I know this? My periods were still all over the place, I could still see bones, and the smallest clothes were sometimes still loose.
  • GW: probably not something I should even be “aiming for” but as my body continues to readjust and finally has the opportunity to organise itself now that it’s no longer being hijacked by starvation syndrome, I expect I will lose a little more. That’s what happens when you eventually stop binge eating, and something I’m trying to convince my treatment team of, who remain concerned about the “downward weight trend” because I am still tackling my exercise addiction. I’m also following meal plan – mostly. The most I probably ever have.

Once I reached my lowest weight, I stayed there for nearly two years. I stayed there until I looked up from the scales, and into the mirror, and was terrified by what I saw. I stayed there until I had a friend murmur to me that I looked like I was dying, until I finally listened to the concern of those constantly asking why I looked so pale, so sickly, so gaunt, on the verge of fainting or collapse or death. I started to hate the bones. I started to hate the yellow skin, the lunago, the constant cold and exhaustion. I hated that I physically couldn’t run because my body consumed my muscles for energy. I hated that I had practically stopped socialising altogether since my disorder began, because any interruptions to my strict regime were banned. I was threatened with hospital, and I hated the burden I would become to my family if I was admitted to the nearest facility 500 kilometres away.

I started to hate Ana.  But it took me a long time to start fighting her.

Once my weight was just restored, just within the healthy range for my height and age, I thought I had recovered completely. I thought that’s how it worked. I was sixteen.

Then 2017 began, I moved out of home, and things got really fucked up. I was binging every day. I could no longer starve myself. My body had been underweight for so long, it was now clinging to every calorie I provided it with. It was never satisfied. And there was no perceived control anymore. I was actually, really, truly out of control. At eighteen, my perception of self and preoccupation with food was worse than ever. It was just masked by a weight that didn’t make me appear sick, and shameful secrecy that allowed me to maintain a facade of normalcy, until my sleeve slipped and showed scars, or I refused to eat around friends yet again, fasted for another day, skipped another meal.

I started and completed my first eating disorder specific treatment in late 2017 / early 2018. My weight has finally stabilised, although at a slightly higher number than I – and my disorder – approve of. I’m still struggling. But I’m learning to fight back. Slowly, finally, I’m struggling a little less.

Eating Disorder Nostalgia

Sometimes, I wish I had died. I look back at photos from my thinnest, from my sickest, most obsessive, frame of mind and wish I had died. I was close. I can recall moments where I was terrified that I was in fact, about to die, and also the words of friends, who indeed did think that I was dying.

Retrospectively, from the time when I was underweight and struggling with anorexia most, death wasn’t an end goal, although I did want to just fade away, which I suppose was a strange, sad sort of suicidality manifesting. There are times I wished it would all just stop – the bullying, the battle, the internal and external fight for existence. More recently, there are times I wish I hadn’t attempted weight restoration on my own, and I wish that I hadn’t let Ana go. I wish I could go back to that desolate, soulless place, and I wish I could be thin again. Like most distorted thoughts, my wise mind can see the irrational side to this, it can see the bones in old photos as a sign of how I neglected to nourish myself, and the starving body hidden beneath baggy clothes, and bitter sarcasm. But Ana? Well. She whispers to me how stupid I am, how dumb it was to let her fade. How she would give me everything I wanted – safety, purpose, fulfilment, success, love, self-worth – if only I would just listen. And it makes me want to be sick again. It was awful. But I still want it.

Apparently, this is common enough. It’s been termed eating disorder nostalgia.

I don’t think nostalgia is the right word for it. A better word is solastagia – the type of nostalgia experienced when you haven’t gone anywhere, and the existential distress this feeling generates. Because I haven’t left my body, although sometimes I hope to. I have left a different body behind, a thinner one, a sicker one. I’ve found a healthier one, a happier one. Yet I remain hopelessly solastagic for that which I’ve left behind. I exist on a spectrum of disordered thoughts and behaviours produced by my depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorder. Disordered thoughts and behaviours – maladaptive coping mechanisms – are what keep me company at my darkest moments. I clutch them tightly to my chest, like half-unwanted and vicious keepsakes which I cherish nonetheless. But it’s not only behaviours and thoughts that are distorted, memories can be distorted too.

My memories of anorexia are tainted. It wasn’t good. I didn’t feel better. But that is what she makes me believe, what she wants me to believe. If Ana can convince me to go back, then she will be in control again, and that’s her ultimate goal. That’s how I know I’m still sick.

A sick, solastagic human being, seeking comfort in syllables.

My Brain Hurts Tonight

There is darkness in me.

It hurts. It pushes against my skull, a visceral pulse of mental pain. I feel it inside my chest and throat, where bugs dance against my flesh, and trapped insects crawl up and down. Under my skin, there’s a creeping sensation. Inside my heart, a deafening beat. There’s depression disguised as exhaustion, and anxiety disguised as agitation. I attempt to exhaust all stores of physical energy to hide the mental energy I’m expiring to resist engaging in compulsions – to check, to exercise, to tap, to run. So racing thoughts are expressed as racing words, and fast-paced actions, and shaking to relieve the tension. And I start tapping, because I can’t resist. Does tapping burn calories? They say fidgeting burns calories but is it enough?

I used to be so healthy. I used to be so good.

I wish I could run with a broken wrist. I wish I could feel my bones, see my bones, count my bones.

I need to run. Running keeps me thin.

Worthlessness directed at myself is disguised as sarcasm directed at others. Suicidal ideation disguised as jokes to disappear, jokes that “I’m ready for death”. They laugh, but I could die tonight. I’m not strong enough to see it through, and so the worthlessness only compounds. Why are you so stupid. Why can’t you do anything right. Why can’t you lose weight. Why can’t you be thin again. If you were thinner people would notice you. If you were thinner people would be pleased with you. If you were thinner, you would be closer to death. If you could just do better, just be thinner, then maybe this time you would die. Just kill yourself. Just do it already. Just do it.

Ana feeds me these words, and I know these words are lies. But in this moment, they consume me. This is the moment when I hurt myself, to relieve this agitation that I’m using to disguise the anxiety, but agitation makes others confused and angry and hurt, and their reactions hurt me, because I don’t know how to relate to people, not really. I just pretend to. I’ve learned how people work. But I don’t understand it, not really. I’m a chameleon of more than emotions, I’m acclimatised to a variety of personas. I will make you see what you want to see. I will be who you want me to be.

My brain hurts tonight. It hurts from holding in all these thoughts, and fears, and feelings, the waves of sadness and anger and despair. I worked so hard to build walls when I was younger, but now the walls are crumbling, and I wished I’d built them stronger. I built them well, at first. Now they lay shattered around me. It’s because I’ve let people in, and in return, only been let down. It feels like it’s because I let people break me instead. Break me down. Beat me down. Berate me. Bully me. Hurt me. Abuse me. Shout. Scream. Sever ties.

It hurts. Physically, in the places where I bleed, it hurts. But inwardly, the scars I gather tenderly to my chest – they hurt too. Irreparable tears in my personality leak out pain and anger, and then this pain and anger needs to be suppressed (so I don’t eat), or relieved (so I cut).

I’m hurting tonight.

I’m hurting.

This hurts.

Why Mindfulness Isn’t Always A Solution

When I started seeing a therapist consistently for the first time ever, he identified the borderline personality traits wrecking havoc in my life and relationships. The first DBT skill he taught me was mindfulness. And it is a skill, a very powerful one at that.

But it’s not a solution. I try working at it, diligently. I practise, daily.

And here’s my hypothesis: it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because being aware of my emotions does nothing to change them, it can’t soothe my damaged soul, it can’t repair past trauma, it can’t repair ruined relationships and it certainly doesn’t stop me from self harming. Being aware of my emotions is not the same as being able to regulate them.

I am trying to work out why it doesn’t work for me, why it’s not the saving grace many claim. I think it has something to do with this core belief I identified recently: I don’t deserve nice things. Nice things like recovery. Now I’ve already resigned myself (smartly or stupidly I’m not sure) to the fact that my depression is chronic, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recover from it. Just as it’s not impossible to recover form anxiety, bulimia, anorexia and self harm, and learn to live a fulfilled life as “a borderline”. Recovery is possible, but it’s not something I deserve. And it’s certainly not something that an increased awareness gained through practising mindfulness is going to solve.

I don’t deserve nice things. Nice things like recovery.

Being aware of my emotions is good; it’s something I used to struggle with daily – feeling everything, nothing, or something unknown somewhere in between. I can recognise emotions now, and yes, mindfulness has helped with that. But what it hasn’t helped with is the depression itself, or the self harm. These are not things that a simple awareness will fix. In fact, I think it actually compounds their effects. If I notice that I’m having thoughts of self harm, trying to exist with the urges without engaging with them does nothing. It only makes the urge more difficult to resist.

I’m not being negative. I’m being honest, brutally so, as is my usual. Mindfulness has helped me in ways that you might not expect, but it has not fixed me or my problems. It helps me recognise emotions, and urges, and develop breathing patterns to instantly calm me down, reduced suicidality and helped me through panic attacks. But it has not – and I do not think it will ever – completely eliminated these things.

So next time I tell you I self harm, or suffer from depression, or am recovering from close to a decade of disordered eating, do not suggest mindfulness. Because my response may be to mindfully punch you in the face.