Celebration Letter: I’m Graduating!

When I came through Magnolia Creek’s red door, I was lost and overwhelmed. In my first therapy and dietetic sessions, I told the team, “I’m here to get rid of my eating disorder.” I had no idea how much more I would accomplish over the next four months.

At first, I was determined to keep my secrets. While I had no problems talking about how my life was crumbling at the hands of my eating disorder and self-harm, I refused to acknowledge the impact trauma was having on me. But as I watched the strong women who surrounded me share their stories, I began to open up. It was painful, scary, but I did it, and it helped. On the days I insisted I was to blame for everything that had happened to me, there were people to lift me up and help me carry my burden. Gradually, those days waned, and I was able to ease the burdens of others.

I remember telling Christa (my therapist), “I’m not a perfectionist. I never do anything right,” and I remember her smirk as she invited me to challenge that statement. As it happens, I am a huge perfectionist, or at least, I was. One of the biggest challenges to my perfectionism was the idea that recovery is not linear. It’s loopy, swirly, and sometimes scary. But after the initial shock that comes with the realization that I can be truly healthy and happy, recovery is joy. It is growth and change; it is getting my life back and learning to love it.

Cooking Group was always the highlight of my week here. One particular group I remember was the day we made brisket. I shared how this traditional Jewish dish was tied to so many happy Hanukkah memories, and John (the Creek’s chef) shared this bit of wisdom with me. “Eating is a celebration.” At first, I took this to mean that food brings people together, which it does. But now, I also know that when I eat, I am celebrating the body God has given me. I am celebrating all the ways it keeps me healthy and all the things it lets me do. I do not believe that I have the authority to hate something made in God’s image, nor do I want to live that way.

When I came to the Creek, I was a shadow of the woman I am today. These past four months have made me stronger, healthier, and happier. As I head home and start the next chapter of my life, I am confident in my ability to write it. Thank you to all the amazing women who guided and supported me on this journey. I am proud to say that today I am happy, healthy, and hydrated.

The Sea of Jake

This is the story of how Jake pulled me out of the water in the middle of the night, as though I was baby Moses floating helplessly down the River Nile and he was Pharaoh’s daughter, young, beautiful, and seemingly willing to take care of me. But my dreamy, midnight perceptions are never accurate. If it wasn’t for Jake, I might have drowned, or I might have been forced to find my own way out of the water.

***

I met Jake on move-in day at Eckerd College, and we became friends almost out of necessity. We sat next to each other at Eckerd’s Ceremony of Lights, during which the figurative “lamp of learning” was lit, and everyone wondered who smelled like pot in the back of the auditorium. Jake told me I had a pretty singing voice, and I asked him if he was high. He said no, but I had my doubts. We parted ways after the ceremony, but kept bumping into each other around campus. Eventually, we exchanged phone numbers, and that was that– we were friends. We started spending more time together, and eventually we started to talk less, kiss more, and smoke as much pot and as many cigarettes as our bodies could handle.

I came to like Jake with the same sort of terrified compulsion I had felt for Zach the previous year. But Jake wasn’t at all like Zach. He was funny (in a perma-stoned sort of way), he was nice (whatever that meant), and he had great music taste. Jake played the guitar. He chain-smoked Camels while I burned my way through pack after pack of Marlboros. He always had pot.  Logically, it made sense for me to like him, but I found myself wishing he were a Jane, not a Jake, and willing myself to be “normal.” I’m still learning that love and logic do not exactly go hand-in-hand (although I do not claim to love Jake). I have a habit of convincing myself I like someone. A second date wouldn’t be so bad, right? I guess he’s kind of cute, in a way. Sure, all his jokes were totally sexist, but they would have been funny if I weren’t so uptight. No, it’s not weird that he brought a knife on a date. And the most prevalent of all: He’s probably as good as it gets for someone as fucked up as I am. I should consider myself lucky.

I was lucky to have Jake. He introduced me to his friends, and we became a homogeneous group. We were on the campus radio station together. We traversed campus, our pockets stuffed with cigarettes and the white Bic mini lighter we shared, and together we found the only two ashtrays on campus. When he kissed me, I pretended I was somewhere else. He said I tasted like cigarettes. I was lucky to have Jake.

***

The white lighter became a point of contention between the two of us. I was always in the cycle of quitting smoking, then starting again, then quitting, only to find myself at the drugstore at 2:00 AM in my pajamas buying three packs of cigarettes. It seemed perverse to throw cigarettes or lighters away, but I knew if I hung onto them, I would start smoking once more. So, I gave them to Jake, who was happy to take them.

Smoking was not as simple as a bad habit for me. I felt a deep sense of shame with every drag, every pack, every butt I kicked under some dirt. I am self-destructive by nature, though I am also cautious. I like to toy with mild addictions. At least I’m not a crackhead, I thought as I puffed away. At least this is helping me lessen self-harm. At least I’m not an alcoholic. At least I’m not a sex addict. I took another drag. At least I have most of my life under control, even if I can’t control this.

My parents, who I look to as examples of how to lead a healthy, successful life, were never smokers, as far as I know. As my dad put it in a stern lecture I received upon my unplanned arrival back home, “There are no positive benefits to cigarettes.” My brother helped me do that math: I was spending 15% of my meager weekly paycheck on cigarettes. Every time I flicked the lighter, the sense that I was nothing but a disappointment flickered in me.

So, as I was boxing up all my clothes, pictures, and books to take back home with me, I gave Jake my white lighter. “Throw it away,” I said. “Use it to light your bowl; I don’t care. I just can’t take it home with me.” I chomped on a piece of Nicorette, spit flying everywhere.

“I’m going to hang onto it. I’ll give it back to you,” he said from his place on my bed where he was staring at his phone.

“I don’t want it.”

“Yeah you do.”

He was probably right.

***

Eckerd College is on the Tampa Bay and has its own beach and waterfront, complete with paddle boards, kayaks, and sailboats available at no charge to students. Jake and I spent a lot of our time there, soaking in the beauty that is the Sunshine State. “Does the waterfront ever close?” I asked the sophomore working behind the boat-checkout counter.

“No, not really,” he said. “I mean, all the boats have to be back at 8:00, but you can swim whenever.”

“Literally whenever?” Jake asked. “Like anytime? Like, even at night?”

“Yeah, anytime,” the sophomore said, bending down to tie his shoe.

Jake and I walked out of the enclosure, to the picnic tables where we both lit up. “Dude, we should go night swimming,” he said.

I agreed enthusiastically, thinking this was just one of the many advantages of the lack of parental supervision for which college campuses are notorious. It was settled, we would part ways to finish our homework and eat dinner, and we would rendezvous at 11:00 PM by the waterfront. I had passed the swim test. I thought I was prepared.

***

In the water, fish brushed against our legs, and our feet were entwined. “Was that your foot?” We asked each other over and over. Sometimes the answer was yes, but often, it was no. The water was tepid, and the night air was thick.

I swam away from Jake and contemplated my own private oceans. The water is full of boys who cannot swim, boys who claim to be too broken to do anything other than cling to me for support. They often push my head under the water in an effort to breathe for themselves. I let them. I pretend I can absorb oxygen through osmosis, by clinging to their feet, their hair, their swim trunks. I am wearing swim trunks myself, partly as a nod to my aspirations of androgyny, but mostly to cover up the days-old razor slashes that sting faintly in the salt. In the dark, none of them can see the damage I’ve inflicted on myself. I am the perfect girl: sweet, quiet, sexy, obedient. I’m drowning.

***

The time comes for Jake and me to leave the water. Because we jumped in, we didn’t realize that there is no ladder in sight. We tried to walk up the algae-covered, rocky slope where the kayaks are tethered, but our feet couldn’t tolerate the sharp pains. We swam back to the ladderless dock and tried to pull ourselves up. Jake was successful, but I was still treading water, imprisoned by my lack of upper-body strength. Laughing, Jake pulled me out of the water, and we laid on our backs trying to catch our breath and looking up at the stars. Dazzled by the myriad constellations, I imagined myself somewhere else, lying next to my perfect Jane, content with her and with myself. Jake stood up and walked to the picnic table where we had left our keys, phones, lighter and cigarettes. Within moments, we were looking at each other through smoke, and it was like I’d never left the water at all.

Body Appreciation Letter

Dear Body,

I’ve put you through a lot, and I want to apologize for that. Thank you for sticking by me even when I said I hated you. Thank you for doing your best to heal me when I cut you and starved you. Thank you for not giving out on me all those afternoons I spent hunched over the toilet. Thank you for keeping me alive even though I did everything to destroy you.

I love your hands. Not only are they beautiful and delicate, but they are skilled at typing, and help me get stories and poems out of my head as quickly as I think of them. That’s no easy task. I know sometimes your hands shake with anxiety, but that’s okay. You have choir girl lungs to help you take a deep breath and calm down.

I’m grateful for your legs, and I’m sorry for covering them with scars. I’ll do my best not to let it happen again. I love how they’re strong enough to help me ride a bike across campus and stand tall during choir practice. You have my mom’s legs, which are as beautiful as they are powerful. Thanks for helping me take walks through the woods at the Creek, and through my neighborhood with my dogs. Thanks for helping me stand during long periods of time at work, and making it easy to pass the swim test at Eckerd, and for looking great in almost any pair of jeans. Thanks for getting me where I need to go.

Body, you have a beautiful face, and I love how your eyes crinkle up when I smile genuinely. Even your big Jewish nose is beautiful. It fits your face.

Your tummy us cute. You were not meant to have a flat stomach, but that’s okay because your tummy holds so many healthy organs, which keep me feeling good. And you also look cute in a bathing suit, even your little pink polka-dot bikini. I promise to take you to the beach this summer and get sand all over your beautiful curves, and enjoy a real lunch–not just just the diet energy drinks that make you feel sick and wired. Sorry about how I subjected you to not one, but two unsuccessful bellybutton piercings, but I appreciate the little purple scar you bear. I think it’s kind of cute.

I love your strong arms and how they have the faintest hint of a bicep from pulling my weight forward on the swing set. I promise not to call you fat anymore. I love how your arms let me hold my baby cousin, carry lots of groceries to people’s cars, and open doors for people who can’t do it themselves. Thanks for helping me steer blind customers’ carts through the store without them bumping into things.

Thanks for having a cute butt that doesn’t hurt to sit on anymore. Thanks for looking good in your clothes that finally fit you properly. Thanks for your curves and all the soft parts of you. Thanks for always being there for me. I look forward to many more adventures to come.

Love always,
Katherine

I Am Not Special

The ugly truth is this: even though I was only in college for three weeks, I was sexually assaulted while I was on campus. I was on drugs, which made it easier for my attacker to take advantage of me, and I was devastated after the assault. Instead of keeping it a secret like my attacker instructed me to do, I called friend after friend leaving vague voicemails, “Please call me… I’m really upset… something bad happened… I need to talk to someone… Hope you’re okay… Bye,” until someone picked up. I told my RA and my school counselor, and called the RAINN hotline. I got the validation and support I needed from some of these conversations. These are the ones I can’t remember. The ones that stuck with me were the bad ones. My counselor, who was concerned about my perceived “substance abuse,” asked me to walk her through the events of that awful night and point out every instance I could have done something to change the night’s outcome, and lectured me on the pitfalls of drugs. After I had returned home, I went to my synagogue and talked to my rabbi. That was the worst conversation of all. I had trouble even forming the words, and I finally told him, “I was sexually assaulted.” For him, assault equaled violence, and he asked me over and over, in different ways, “Did he hit you? Did hold you down? Did you have bruises? Did he choke you?”

That wasn’t how it happened.

The night comes back to me in bits and pieces. We are smoking pot by my school’s waterfront. I am trying to dance, but am too stoned to be coordinated. Jake wants to go to sleep and leaves me alone with a stranger. I’m under a pavilion by the senior dorms. No, I’m in my car. I’m falling asleep and can barely walk. He carries me. I’m naked. It hurts.

I told my rabbi, “He didn’t hit me. He carried me.”

When Rabbi answered, “Well, that sounds like a supportive thing to do,” I stopped talking. I listened to him as he recounted the “real” assaults he experienced as an abused child. His father hit him when he was young. I said I was sorry. I seemed to be apologizing a lot back then; I was sorry for disappointing my parents by taking drugs, I was sorry for having to come home from school, I was sorry for all the bad decisions I’d made. I was sorry for appropriating a term that was reserved for people who had had truly awful experiences, not the drug-induced mistakes I’d made. I left the synagogue feeling defeated. Maybe it was all my fault. I shouldn’t have been taking drugs. I shouldn’t have been getting high with a stranger.

It’s been five months since the assault, and sometimes it feels like it’s still the day after. I still wonder if it really happened or if I made the whole thing up for attention. “Sexual assault,” is a vague term, but Arabelle Sicardi‘s article for Rookie Magazine sums up how I feel. “If you have been in a sexual situation where you were too scared to say no, or incapable of saying no, that was assault.” I was in no way capable of saying no that night. As my tired head lolled against my attacker’s chest, I did not know what was going on. I did not know who he was or what I was doing. All I knew was that I wanted it to stop, but I was too drugged to figure out how to make that happen.

I have been asked over and over if I would blame someone else who was in my situation, and of course, I say no. I am not so special that I deserve an exception, nor am I so special that people have the right to violate me. As I write this, I want to slam the laptop shut, curl up in a ball, and tell myself, “It was my fault. I deserved it. It was my fault…” But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to be the friend I needed then and tell myself that I will be okay. If anyone came to me and said they’d been sexually assaulted, I would not question them. I would not blame them. I would not say they deserved it. I do not get an exception. It was not my fault. No matter what drug I take, no one has the right to harm me. The universe does not dole out cruel punishments like a strict parent. What happened to me was unfair. It was wrong. It was not my fault.

Yesterday was my 19th birthday

A night full of smoke, my white Bic lighter was the frailest flame, flaring up for a few seconds, just in time to flicker out. (One time, a girl loaned me her gold lighter, and I didn’t know how to use it, and she laughed at me.) The night was heavy and still except for us stirring it around. We were lighters ourselves: tiny spots of light in a dark infinity, like all the glitter spilled on the carpet in my second grade classroom. (I used to crawl on the floor with tape on my hands and pick up the glitter. Looking back, I retrospectively imagine galaxies on my tiny, pink palms. Memories clutter my head like so much trash on the beach.)

The drugs were acrid.
The smoke was thin.
The pills were white as my virgin skin.

We staggered past our dorms where our friends were sleeping. We were awake like bad children. I didn’t know much about biology, and he drew a diagram for me in the window. I have more scars than my car, but just barely. He tried his best to consume me, but I was rotten on the inside. I am the only one allowed to know my souring parts, and I will scrape them out with a spoon and rearrange them into a balance that only makes sense to me. I dared him to hurt me knowing that I am the only one who’s mastered that art, and in the end, I will be the dominator, and I will demonstrate how to smoke my body like a cheap cigarette. We thought we were adults the moment we were old enough to buy tobacco, but all the clergy tell us we have never been younger. I let the numbers float away from me like the smoke that seeps into my fingers. I can’t completely rid myself of the scent. Maybe next year I will come clean.

Where Have You Been?

I haven’t posted here in a while, and honestly that’s because there have been other things on my mind besides recovery. That’s not exactly how things should be here in treatment. The team has been pushing me to open up more and “go deeper,” but I’m not exactly sure what it is that I need to be sharing.

Meanwhile, a lot has happened in the past few weeks since I last wrote.

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Every Saturday, the Creek takes us on an outing. A few weeks ago, we went to Painted By You, a pottery studio, and I painted this funky little mug. I keep it at the apartment and drink my morning (decaf) coffee out of it.

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Since I’m eating regular meals and drinking water, I have more energy and more creativity! I’m back to drawing comics and writing more short stories. This is a character from a comic I’m working on about a potato and a flower who fall in love.

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One day, it warmed up enough for me to wear my jelly shoes and new dress! About a month ago, I went shopping at Urban Outfitters with some friends from the Creek, and I feel a lot more confident in my new clothes. Weight gain is a really hard part of recovery, but getting clothes that fit my healthy body helps me accept it.

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I also got a pair of combat boots that I’m obsessed with. I just really like taking pictures of my feet, okay??

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It’s been a real struggle to follow my meal plan when I’m on my own for dinners, breakfasts, and evening snacks at the apartment, but when I do it, I do it well! This is French toast and turkey bacon I made one morning I woke up early and had extra time.

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I devised a recipe for avocado rice, and it’s my new favorite dish!

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I dyed my hair blue, but it’s faded to a gross green color. My dad just got elected as a circuit judge and has an investiture in January, and I assured my parents I would dye it back to brown before that.

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We went back to Painted By You last weekend, and I painted this little cow.

We got three new clients this week, so that’s been exciting and challenging. I’ve been here so long that the techs ask me to help with meal preparation and fill the new clients in on the meal guidelines. I’m looking forward to getting to know the new people, but I miss the women who were here when I first came in.

I’ll actually be home soon! It’s just temporary, but I’m going home on a pass so I can celebrate Hanukkah with my family. I’m really excited to see my parents and brother, as well as the rest of my family, and Colette, my neighbor. I’m hoping that being home will give me the chance to put recovery into practice and see where else I still need work.

Quick Update

I have been having a serious case of writer’s block lately, which explains the dearth of recovery-oriented essays on this blog. I’m still in treatment, though I’ve been stepped down to their partial hospitalization program (PHP). I’m living in an apartment with two other women from the Creek, and next week I get to start making my own dinners, so I’ll have some recipes to share.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do when I leave treatment. It’s recommended that I find an IOP program, which is what I’ll probably end up doing. I’m not too excited about potentially spending another four to six months in IOP like I did last time. But I also know that when I signed myself out of IOP last year, I was feeling similarly fed up with treatment and ended up in relapse, so I guess I’d better stick with it.

While I’m back home in IOP, I want to find a new job that doesn’t involve food. I currently work as a cashier in a grocery store, and it’s an alright job, but I’d like to do something else. I’m going to apply at the three newspapers in my town and see if I could actually be paid for my writing. I’m hoping that I’ll be done with IOP before next fall when I go back to Eckerd, because what I really dream of doing is WWOOFing. WWOOF, or WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a program where volunteer work is exchanged for room and board. I read Anna McConnell‘s essay for Rookie about her time on communes during my junior or senior year of high school and fell in love with the idea. My parents are hesitant but supportive, and there are a lot of farms in Florida, so I wouldn’t be too far from home. This is something I feel passionate about, and I’ve already started emailing farms in my area. I have a year off from college, something I really wanted before I started applying, and I want to make the most of it. I want to recover and get better, but I also want to have an adventure.

Letters to God

My experiences at college are comparable to day and night. In the daylight, I was studious, intelligent, reserved, and sensible. I never skipped class; I always budgeted time to do my homework; I kept my dorm clean; I was on good terms with my roommate. I might have had a cigarette (or ten–let’s be real, I chain-smoked.) during the day. I probably consumed more caffeine than calories between breakfast time and dinnertime, but overall, I was on my best behavior.

Nights were a different story. After dark, I had a tendency to wander campus alone and barefoot, a cigarette between my lips and plenty more in my pocket, dizzy with hunger and dehydration. I had a favorite swing where I would sit and listen to music, letting my depression overtake me. Under cover of darkness, no one could see how red my  eyes were after my friends and I got high. We would smoke outside and then amble through campus, jumping and skipping like children. It was nighttime when Jake and I laid in a hammock, arms around each other, inhaling each other’s pot breath as we exchanged kisses. We saw a shooting star. It was a good night. The next time we got high we smoked with a stranger, and it was not so good.

Sexual assault is not easy to talk about. It was not easy to experience. It has not been easy to work through in treatment. Instead of blaming my assailant, I blamed myself. I shouldn’t have been on drugs. I should have known better than to get high with a virtual stranger. I should have listened to Jake and my other friends who were telling me I’d had enough. I should have picked up on how he was touching me before we were alone. In the days after the assault, a constant chorus of, “My fault… my fault… my fault… my…” played in my head. It made sense: I had been irresponsible and careless by taking drugs, therefore the assault was punishment for my behavior. Just as God warned Lot and his family not to look back, my parents, teachers, and society had warned me not to take drugs; and just as Lot’s wife disobeyed God’s instructions and was turned into a pillar of salt, I disobeyed what I had been taught and was punished. So I thought.

It was this kind of black-and-white thinking that led me to bang my head into a tree out of frustration just a few days ago. I felt like my world was crumbling and falling apart because I had realized that I can’t keep blaming myself for other people’s actions forever. I had been crying on and off all day, wrestling with my ideas of God and what it means to be Jewish. By blaming myself for the assault, I had the world neatly explained and organized. I believed that a sort of karmic justice permeated the universe, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. As I beat my forehead against the tree, I did not experience clarity. Sobbing, I sank to the ground and wiped a trickle of blood away from my eyes. Nothing made sense. If the assault wasn’t my fault, then I wasn’t being punished. If it wasn’t a punishment, then how could I explain it?

As one of my friends from treatment reminded me, God gave us all free will. I had a choice about how to handle my emotions as I walked through the woods crying. God didn’t make me bang my head into that tree, and God didn’t make that boy assault me. We chose to do what we did. I believe that God feels my pain and wants me to turn to Him–not self-harm–for comfort.

It is hard for me to let go of my karmic fantasy. I wish the world were as simple as rewards and punishment, and when I think about the fact that the world is random, chaotic, and dangerous, I get scared. I thought I could beat the fear out of my psyche if I just hit my head hard enough. Today, I choose to appreciate the mysterious ways God works instead. It is hard for me to have faith. In my disorder, I turned away from God for a few years, labeling myself as an atheist, and ignoring any spiritual connection. As I made progress in my recovery, I returned to synagogue and felt close to God through music. Still, I am trying to trust. I am too small to see the awesome and wondrous pattern that runs through the universe. The world is intricate and in constant motion; each individual is like a single spot of paint in an impressionistic painting. When I look around, I see no pattern, only chaos. I simply have to trust that God is a master artist who can see the whole design.

40 Reasons to Recover

I was asked to write a list of forty reasons to recover. Add your own in the comments!

  1. To have a healthy body
  2. To be able to work through trauma
  3. To find out who I really am
  4. To be fully present in my life
  5. Because I can have fun without drugs
  6. To make healthy friendships
  7. To honor and glorify God
  8. To be a better singer
  9. Because there are more things to write about than misery and mental illness
  10. To wholeheartedly enjoy my parents’ cooking
  11. To not be too wrapped up in myself to care about others
  12. To master the art of happy poems
  13. To write stories that have no basis in my life
  14. To finally go on Jon’s and my road trip
  15. To be able to focus in class
  16. Because I am outgoing and friendly when I don’t hate myself
  17. Because God didn’t make me so I could hate His creation
  18. To have enough insight to finish my novel
  19. To go back to Eckerd
  20. To become an ordained cantor
  21. Because I deserve to love myself
  22. Because trauma doesn’t define me
  23. Because I am strong enough to fight
  24. Because I don’t want to die
  25. Because I am talented
  26. Because life is too short to feel guilty over Mom’s famous chocolate cake
  27. To be able to live independently
  28. Because the light of God is within me
  29. Because I am loved
  30. Because I am beautiful as I am
  31. Because I need a healthy functioning brain to write well
  32. To make my parents proud of me
  33. To make decisions I can feel good about
  34. Because my weight has nothing to do with my character
  35. To experience a range of emotions without fear
  36. To be proud of myself
  37. Because I’ve wasted enough time being sick, sad, and miserable
  38. To be a positive role model
  39. Because it’s time to let go
  40. Because I’m worth it