Highs and Lows

Overall, things are good. Really, really good.

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Katherine’s Guide for Holding onto Your Fraying Sanity

Sometimes, I feel like I’m walking a knife’s edge, constantly on the verge of falling back into psychosis. Last night when my magical amulet/lightbulb broke, I was hysterical. For about five minutes. As soon as the shock wore off, I realized I was fine. Why is it so hard to stay grounded in reality? I have no idea.

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Came to Believe

Why did God abandon me? Where is God? I thought as I cried during church yesterday morning.

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A Safe Haven

I joined Alcoholics Anonymous when I was nineteen or twenty. I was, as the Big Book puts it, “Hardly more than a potential alcoholic,” but I felt I needed help.

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The Trauma Crutch

I’ve been through some shit. If you know me, or have been following this blog for a while, you know the history of my sexual and substance abuse. I group them together this way because they are closely intertwined.

During my senior year of high school, I “dated” a boy, A, who used to hit me, demean me, and force me to do degrading sexual acts for him because I thought this was acceptable, and because I wanted attention. No one knew what was going on, though my parents and therapist might have known he wasn’t good for me, I didn’t tell anyone the extent of how bad things were. We parted ways towards the end of senior year because his other girlfriend, who he doted on, took on expensive dates, and took to the prom, was getting suspicious of me, the side chick, and A valued his relationship with her more than whatever we might’ve had going on.

Throughout this relationship, my eating disorder was at an all-time low. A would call me fat, and compare me to his other anorexic girlfriend, C, and constantly remind me how much thinner and sexier she was, and that she would willingly be sexual with him. He didn’t “have to” force her like he did with me. I was purging multiple times a day, and constantly self-harming. Anything to numb the pain of the dysfunction that had become my life.

After I graduated high school and went away to Eckerd College, A was far from my life, but close in my thoughts. I felt like I deserved all the horrible things he’d done to me. I felt like I must have looked disgusting at my weight because I wasn’t nearly as thin as the skeletal memories of C.

I was anxious about being in a relationship. I met a boy named Jake, who was shorter than I am and always had pot. I had a car and we shared the same taste in music, so it was a match made of convenience. We’d drive to fast food joints, get munchies supplies, and get stoned out of our minds. I soon discovered that being high helped me relax around Jake and other people, and stop thinking about the bad memories from high school.

But Jake wasn’t always around. He had his own issues, and wasn’t sure if he wanted a girlfriend, while I was fairly certain I was a lesbian, and was tired of dating boys with whom I didn’t really click. So, I turned to prescription sedatives. I didn’t know the first thing about drugs. I thought all drugs besides cocaine and IV drugs were like pot: that they weren’t dangerous, and that I could stop anytime I wanted.

Pretty soon, I was taking Xanax “just in case” I got anxious. Still, I was anxious all the time. Eventually, I ran out of Xanax, and I didn’t know how to refill my prescription. I’d had a bad experience on marijuana that resulted in another sexual assault, and had no interest in smoking it anymore, but I didn’t know how to cope without my pills. I threw up a lot, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. I trembled with anxiety in class, and couldn’t force myself to eat. It was as if A had never left my side.

Finally, my physical body went back to normal, but I had a lot of healing to do on the inside. You all know the story of how I dropped out and went to treatment, and then switched schools. Let’s fast-forward.

At the end of 2016, I was dating Tim, the 40-year-old meth addict who was every parent’s worst nightmare. I was going to AA, but still struggling to stay sober. I’d get blackout drunk once or twice every few months. Tim’s friends tried to turn me onto cocaine, and Tim joked about turning me onto meth, but thank God, I wasn’t that easily swayed.

In December 2016, Tim raped me, and my life fell apart. I went back to drinking and back to treatment, this time for PTSD. I didn’t know how or if I’d ever heal, but I did.

I’ve heard a lot of people at newcomer’s AA meetings say, “If you had the life I do, you’d drink like I do too,” and I used to feel the same way. I used to want to scream at the men who told me to pray for Tim and A and my other abusers, “If you’d been violently raped and hit and choked like I had, you wouldn’t say that. You’d be angry, and you’d drink that anger away, so go #$*^! yourself!”

I never did pray for those men. I am still very, very angry at them for what they did to me and the happiness they stole from me. But at some point, I had to stop using my trauma as a crutch. When I was drinking and drugging over A, I hadn’t seen him in a year or two. He wasn’t buying me beer. He wasn’t forcing the pills down my throat or packing my bowls for me. Tim never handed me a razor and said, “Tear yourself up. You deserve it.” I did all of those things to myself.

I did not choose to have the traumatic formative experiences that led me to these men in my adolescent and adult life. I did not choose to be abused, hit, screamed at, demeaned, or raped. I did not choose to become an addict or an alcoholic. But I took the first steps towards my own undoing, and I have to own up to that. Long after these men were no longer part of my life, I was still writing them into my story, breathing them in with every cigarette, and inscribing them on my body with every cut of the razor.

If your life sucks because of something that happened to you, but isn’t happening anymore, take a look at your surroundings, your actions, your day-to-day. What are you doing that’s holding you back? In what ways do you still need to heal? Where do you still hurt? Let the pain end, and have some compassion for yourself, but don’t allow your mind to be your own doormat. It took a lot of soul-searching for me to stop saying, “I’m like this because I was raped,” and to start saying, “I’m like this because I refuse to change.”

I’m not saying this cured my eating disorder, allowed me to never self-harm again, and that now every day is sunshine and unicorns. However, this attitude did allow me to start the healing process. When I admitted that “It’s not them,” a common AA saying, and realized the problem was me, my maladaptive coping skills, my drinking, my self-harm, my eating disorder, and my desire to cling to it, I was able to make the necessary changes.

There’s a part in the “How it Works” chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous that describes a director trying to arrange dancers who won’t cooperate. As the director tries harder and harder to bend others to his will, his life gets more and more out of control. Sometimes I just have to let people do their thing. This doesn’t mean that I should tolerate abuse, but if someone is mad at me, if I hate my classes or position at work, if my group partners in a group project aren’t doing their part, I can’t change that. The only thing I can control is my reaction to life. Life is going to keep coming at me–nothing can change that. But I can control how I handle life’s ups and downs.

It took me a long time to learn that my emotions are not facts. In actuality, my feelings are often wildly uninformed. After Tim raped me, I didn’t want to press charges because I felt protective of him. I had no reason to feel that way because he didn’t even protect me from his own desires and violence, but I felt that way nonetheless. I wish I had listened to my mom and done everything I could to ensure that he rotted in prison instead of still seeing him around campus and wanting to disappear into the sidewalk. I wish I hadn’t surrendered what little control I had left in that situation.

It used to be hard for me to swallow my pride and say that my feelings were wrong, or admit that I couldn’t make somebody do something, but these things come easily to me now. I am so grateful that I have a spiritual program to work that helps me deal with my day-to-day life. The Twelve Steps are about so much more than substance abuse recovery. They are a design for living that have allowed me to reclaim my life and love who I am today.

Victory Is Mine: The importance of a good dietitian in ED recovery

Last semester, I took a Human Nutrition course that had a big effect on me. It was taught by Professor Zach Cordell, a young, no-nonsense professor who wears his hair long and a bow tie every day. The class opened my eyes to a lot of the lies that the food industry tries to sell people. For instance: is there a difference between fruit snacks and gummy bears? No, not really. But parents give their kids fruit snacks a lot more often than gummy bears because fruit snacks are next to the granola bars and dried cherries in the grocery store, and gummy bears are on aisle four next to the M&M’s.

I was not in a good place with my eating disorder when I took the class. It was actually the second time I’d taken the class because I’d failed it previously due to some severe slacking and one of my signature mental breakdowns, so I knew a lot of the information, and I was familiar with Professor Cordell’s teaching style. However, for someone in eating disorder relapse, a class that heavily emphasizes weight management isn’t necessarily the best idea.

Now, before I go any further, let me tell you a little something about my feelings on dietitians. I hate them. They think they know everything about food; they think they know what I should eat better than I do, and they have the AUDACITY to tell me how and what I should eat. As someone with SERIOUS control issues, this has never sat well with me. When I was in IOP during my senior year of high school, the program required that I see one of their in-house dietitians. I cycled through pretty much all of them before I found myself in the program director’s office,  being told that I needed to avoid caloric beverages (???), and finally, I proved myself so ornery that she made an exception for me and said I could continue the program without any dietary instruction.

Luckily for me, this all changed last semester. I was doing the work in therapy, but I needed more support with food and meal planning. I switched to a new therapist about six months ago, and while she has a much more compatible therapy style for me, and a better understanding of the trauma I’ve been through, she doesn’t take my eating disorder as seriously as my old therapist (who specializes in eating disorders) because she is less educated about them, and I don’t “look sick.” I was doing a lot of important healing from trauma with the new therapist, but I was also getting away with a lot of disordered eating.

I asked Professor Cordell if he offered private nutritional counseling, and he said that while he does, he wouldn’t have been a good fit for me, and he passed me along to a wonderful woman named Trish Kellogg.

I was a little leery of Trish at first. She’s overly smiley, extremely positive, kindhearted as can be, and very pretty. Clearly there was a catch. I figured she probably ate puppies for breakfast.

Fortunately for me, puppies are not part of a meal plan, and are only for petting. Working with Trish has helped me so much, and I anticipate rocketing even further into recovery as I continue to work with her. At first, we worked out a basic eating plan that included three meals and one snack. Because I hate the exchange system (a common system of meal planning used among people with eating disorders that avoids measuring food and counting calories), Trish outlined the macronutrients I need to be eating and said I could plug them into any meal and snack I wanted, so long as I got all of them in by the end of the day and didn’t eat all protein at breakfast, all carbs at lunch, etc.

This plan was a little to vague for me, so Trish broke it down further. She said I needed to have a certain number of proteins, grains, fats, dairy, and fruits/vegetables at every meal and snack. Initially, it seemed like a lot of food. It was a struggle to fit it all in during the day, and I wasn’t hungry for most of it. Trish challenged me to push through it, to eat within an hour of waking up, and consistently reminded me that coffee is not a meal–no matter how much cream I put in it.

Once we got past the basics of meal planning, we started working on some of the more difficult aspects of my eating disorder. Trish challenged me to start eating “fear foods,” foods I’m irrationally afraid of eating, either because I’ve had bad experiences with them, or because I’m afraid they’ll cause extreme weight gain. One of these foods is peanut butter. The first time I was in treatment, I was fifteen years old. Since the center was for school-age children and teenagers, the dietitians there had us eat a lot of sandwiches and wraps for lunch–similar to what we would have brought with us to school to eat during the lunch period. One day, the entire room got peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. I didn’t know a whole lot about nutrition at the time; I was afraid of food, I wanted to be skinny, and that was that. But as I watched all of the other patients cry and have meltdowns over having to eat peanut butter on white bread, I felt a wave of panic wash over me, and I felt there was no way I was ever going to eat peanut butter again.

Looking back, I see now that a few people’s anxieties fueled a huge meltdown, but the irrational fear of peanut butter and other similar spreads (cream cheese, other nut butters, jelly, apple butter, regular butter, Nutella… don’t get me started on Nutella…) stayed with me. When I related this to Trish, she said something had to be done.

I didn’t think these fear foods were really such a big deal. It’s not like I was afraid of all bread, all meat, or all caloric beverages. I could live without ever eating a nut butter again. But Trish told me that no food should have power over me. It’s safe to eat all foods in moderation, and it’s okay to enjoy them. Pretty soon, I was eating peanut butter, Nutella, and even cream cheese on bagels and sandwiches.

Another huge victory I’ve had is with cooking. I moved out of my parents’ house in December, and have since been learning how to cook by trial and error, the advice of my coworker Barbie who is in charge of cooking the free samples at the grocery store where we work, and of course, my mom who has received many a phone call asking, “Mom, how do I defrost chicken in the microwave?” or “Mom, what do we do when the stove catches fire?” My mom is an excellent, self-taught cook, and if I can be half the cook she is, I’ll be in good shape.

Last night, my girlfriend Rebecca was over, so I cooked dinner for her, my roommate Colette, and myself. One of my favorite things to cook is Asian food, and I’ve been tweaking a recipe for traditional Japanese ramen noodle soup I found on Pinterest. The recipe calls for bok choy, which is not something I’d even recognize in the grocery store, so I substituted some leftover kale I’d cooked the night before in an attempt to bulk Colette and myself up in the vegetables department (an area in which we are both severely lacking), and substituted sweet chili sauce for soy sauce because the soy sauce was on vacation and nowhere to be found in our fridge which looks like an archaeological dig site (minus the actual dirt, of course. Hi, Mom!) It came out delicious, if I do say so myself.

Rebecca, Colette, and I all have very different eating styles. I can only imagine what Colette is going through with her eating, and I don’t have much insight into it, so I won’t guess. I do know that she eats very little, and says she doesn’t like to eat. It’s hard to watch. I don’t want to see my best friend suffer in eating disorder hell–if that IS what’s going on, and I don’t know how to help beyond my Jewish grandmotherly role of “Eat, bubbelah, eat,” which I know from experience is NOT helpful. Rebecca, on the other hand, is an avid dessert eater. She eats what she’s hungry for, and with enthusiasm, which I really admire. It’s very inspiring to me to see someone who wholeheartedly loves food, loves too cook, and loves to eat. When I eat with her, I’m not as conscious of my internal ED voice, and I’m able to enjoy food more. By eating with both of them, I’m learning to focus on my own hunger/fullness cues and enjoying my own food rather than obsessing.

It was this newfound focus that allowed me to break three major eating disorder rules last night. Because the recipe doesn’t yield very much, I’d only taken a small portion to make sure there was enough for everyone. After we were done eating, I was still hungry, and I saw that there was some ramen left, so I decided to have seconds, something my eating disorder NEVER used to allow me to do. After that, Rebecca decided she wanted ice cream and a bagel (her two favorite foods), and I was okay eating the ice cream, even though dessert is typically against the rules.

Every week, Trish gives me a challenge, and this week’s challenge was to get food on my hands. I touch food all the time when I’m eating finger food or cooking, but I hate it. I have an irrational fear that I’m going to absorb calories through my hands, which I KNOW is not possible, but it still freaks me out. It makes me feel gross and messy; it’s overwhelming, and I just! Don’t! Like! It! But I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, so Rebecca and I split the bagel, and I spread Nutella on it with my finger. It was a little unnerving, and I felt stupid for being freaked out over something that seems so trivial to a non-eating disordered person, but I’m also learning not to judge my emotions, so I sat with the discomfort, licked the tasty Nutella off my finger, and moved on.

Just recently, I was speaking to another woman in recovery from an eating disorder about why it’s vital to see a dietitian. She was just beginning her recovery journey, and wanted to be her own dietitian. We were speaking in the context of a therapist-led support group, and the other women shared their resoundingly positive experiences of working with dietitians on their paths to recovery. The biggest reason to work with a dietitian is so that you’ll have someone with more experience and knowledge about food than you do. A dietitian knows exactly what your body needs and how to supply it. Trying to be your own dietitian is a tricky path, even if you don’t have an eating disorder. There is so much misinformation about food and nutrition out there, and EVERYONE is trying to sell you something. Dietitians are unbiased, and on your side–not your eating disorder’s.

I am so grateful to have crossed paths with Trish. I’ve made so much progress in conquering my eating disorder, and gotten a better understanding of the things I still need to work on. I’ve come incredibly far in just a few short months, and I’m learning to value my accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem to an outsider. Today I stand tall. Today I am proud of myself.

 

Psychosis and the Holidays

In the unfamiliar house, the walls are lined with demons. A locked closet is a sure sign of death to come. “Kill the dog! Kill the dog! Kill the dog!” Two men holding a puppy in a framed photograph in my temporary bedroom, the one on the right has red-eye (something about film photography, my darkroom days. Sometimes I am still a person.) and he is a demon watching me. I imagine information bouncing off the walls, and my hands are a key part of this exchange, only they’re trembling and scarred from picking at my own skin. Sand pouring through fingers. Benzodiazapine-induced sleeps, the best sleep I’ve gotten this month. I hope my roommate remembers to feed my cat. “Kill the dog… Kill the dog… Kill the dog.

***

Mental illness doesn’t take a break for the holidays. I’ve known this from my own experiences for about nine years now. My family knows this. I’m incredibly blessed to have an extremely supportive family, and they don’t give me a hard time if I have to hide in my old bedroom during celebrations, or if I choose journaling by myself over watching A Christmas Story for the forty thousandth time with them.

Still, there’s that nagging idea in the back of my mind that if I even so much as waver during the holidays, then I’ll have singlehandedly ruined them. I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect (all the time, but especially now), that I invariably end up doing something “wrong,” and feeling like a failure.

I’m with my parents visiting my brother in South Carolina for Christmas as I write this. I don’t like to travel. It makes me extremely paranoid and anxious to be away from home. None of these fears are reality-based. It’s not like I’m afraid that I left the oven on before leaving, or forgot to change my cat’s litter box.

My mom found a vacation rental-by-owner in Columbia where we’re staying. There is a locked closet in my bedroom, a vintage photo of two men holding an old dog, and some books about Jesus (among other things). Ordinary items.

***

The one person who might actually have any insight into this mind isn’t answering my messages. He’s dead and it’s my fault. The demons got him. He hates me and never wants to speak to me again. He never even existed in the first place.

“Kill the dog.”

Six years old in the Winne-the-Pooh nightgown. (Don’t think about it.) He took what wasn’t his to take. (Don’t think about it.) “He told me not to tell.” (Shut up!)

Selfish. Self-centered. Narcissistic of you, really. Thinking about yourself when there are little girls being raped by the Bad Men.

It’s my fault.
It’s my fault.
It’s my fault.

(Don’t think about it.)

You can save them.
You can save them.
You can save them.

Powerless.

It hurts too much to think about.

***

Somewhere in the back of my mind there are things called “coping skills,” things I’m supposed to do in times of distress to soothe or distract myself. When I really need them, I can’t think of a single one. It seems like there’s nothing to do but ride these awful waves of paranoia out to the bitter end. The more I indulge my own delusions, the more elaborate they become until I can’t differentiate between reality and fiction.

I wanted to write something beautiful and haunting about being away from home during the holidays with psychosis, but I’m spent. In past years, I’ve obsessed about calories and clothing sizes, as most holidays center around food. My eating disorder isn’t completely in remission, but it’s gotten a lot better. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing a macabre game of whack-a-mole with my mental illnesses. One gets better, and another gets significantly worse. I can’t win.

When I was initially diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, I looked at it as a death sentence. I will probably be on medication for the rest of my life. Unless there is a major medical breakthrough and a cure for schizophrenic spectrum disorders is found, I will probably always have some degree of disconnect from reality, always hear voices from time to time, always at least partially believe my delusions, always have episodes of paranoia, always see things that aren’t there.

I’m not going to say that these things “make me who I am,” or “keep life interesting.” They make my life hell. They inhibit my ability to do basic things like work and go to school. They make me distrustful of others and of myself. There is no resolution to this illness. Just periods of remission and stability followed by extreme lows.

***

Snake inside your body snake inside your body snake inside your body.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Save the children. You have to save the children. Children are dying because of you. Little girls are being raped because you’re evil and filthy, and if you set yourself on fire, all the pain will stop, everyone will be safe. They’ll all be safe. You can save them.

(I couldn’t save myself when I was small. Nobody could. And now I have a snake inside my body who hates me because I didn’t want to run away from a treatment center and eat a dead deer in 2014.)

Someday, I will find a resolution. I may not be able to save every child, but someday, I will be a mother and a teacher, and I can touch the lives of a few children. Maybe I already have.