Friday, March 27, 2020

Bad Darn Day

Man, this stuff is rough.

I got up at 6:30 this morning, did my usual stumble to the kitchen followed by the caffeine-addict clutching of my moka pot, checked the internet while it bubbled away. I went through the typical motions, wrapped up in my Harry Potter bathrobe (Slytherin green, of course) and tucked under the beautifully crocheted blanket given me by my mother in law. I did everything in order - Facebook first, then twitter, then tumblr. It's been like any other morning, nothing remarkable about it.

But, you know, the world is on fire.

I'm feeling "hung over" this morning. I got triggered by something I watched last night and had an hour long meltdown, of which I am not particularly proud. Crying used to be a lot more common when I drank - now I can go weeks without getting to that level of upset. So perhaps I've formed some sort of association: if I cry at night, my body and mind think I've been drinking.

Thank God I'm not. Everything would be so much worse.

Anyway, I feel horrible. I know I'm not the only one. I've seen a lot online from other people dealing with PTSD - this social distancing, plus the feeling of impending doom, feels a lot like trauma. It is trauma, really; the world is falling apart. We're forced into a posture of grief.

I keep thinking about the role of our leaders - cough, Trump, cough - and how I feel particularly powerless. The people who are supposed to care for us simply aren't, they don't, and that's pretty damned familiar. So every day ends up feeling like - like we're back there. In the unsafe place. Our political "father figure" is... a person too well-known.

I spend a lot of time feeling as if there is poison inside of me, a toxicity planted there against my will but staining my insides all the same. I'm a carrier of this thing, the sick thing - gosh, that sounds a little like what's going on now, doesn't it? And most days I carry it with a sort of pride, a strength, or at least I try to; I make different choices, choices to love and care and preserve, and I recognize the beauty in those acts of compassion and grace. Humanity.

But right now I feel the poison in me. I wonder if I'm already carrying the virus, and I wonder if, in moments when my mental health suffers, I'll spread a different kind of sickness. I wonder if I'll hurt other people, my greatest fear. I wonder if I'm capable of love, even though the proof is there - marriage, family, friendship. I don't feel like a person. I feel like a pandemic.

This stuff is hard for everyone. No matter how well we're handling it, this is a huge change in our lives. We probably all have morning routines - coffee or showers or hitting the snooze button - and we're probably doing our best to stick to those routines. We've got Zoom meetings and happy hours, and phone calls, and texting. We exercise if we can. We adjust; we are adaptable. And heck, maybe we're doing more creative cooking, or journaling a bit more, making little bits of progress we didn't have time for before.

But I think I can safely say that there are some parts of us, even if they're little parts, which are suffering. I watched an episode of one of my favorite shows - something I've seen, what, maybe six times before? - and had an emotional flashback from hell. The day before I woke up from a nap and smelled the place where I grew up, and I was terrified. Every day I worry that all of that will arise from within me and harm the people I love. Typhoid Alice.

I meant to write about something else today - still on this topic but with a more optimistic spin. I wanted to write about the idea that trauma is an explanation for behavior but not an excuse, about the anger I have to accept and then release, about the hard work that I'm happy to do to be so easily kind and sweet and responsible. And of course I am those things, I'm just...

I'm really struggling today. I've got a hangover from a virus I can't control and a childhood I wish I could forget. I see the president's face and it looks like someone else's. And other days will be better, no doubt; other days may be worse, but I sure as hell hope not.

I do have friends and family at the other end of the telephone, and I've got pretty much the best husband in the entire universe; I've got Star Trek and Miss Fisher and Kushiel's Dart and so much glittery eye shadow, I swear to God. Music played at maximum volume. Chocolate and Cheetos. Pajamas and lingerie. Perfume. Bodices. Corsets. Hot baths with coconut oil.

I'm just, right this minute, a bit of a mess. I need to accept that, give myself the compassion and understanding that I'm always giving to others. I need to write even if it's an act of processing rather than creation, and I need to keep eating even if it's junk, sometimes. I need to convince myself that the sickness I feel inside was not my fault and that I am not in any way giving it to others.

But man, this stuff is rough. It is probably going to be rough for months. Me and my coffee and the routines which keep me grounded. Keep me safe.

I'm doing my best.       


Friday, March 13, 2020

Constitutionally Capable

I haven't seen 3:00 AM in years.

There's a particular type of quiet which exists in the early hours of the morning. Some might call that time peaceful - a calming solitude - but I've always known different. 3:00 in the morning is not when you're alone but when you're alone with yourself, and that self might be a scary person.

I've filled those hours with prayers and I've filled them with erotic fiction - with music, with wildness. I've seen so many of those mornings and I've seen the hours pass; in my first year of college I'd wait, shaking and wiped clean, until the grocery store down the street opened at 6:00. I'd gather ingredients for a gourmet dinner to be cooked and served for my then-boyfriend, acting out a particular fantasy of bohemia and housewifery.

I was so young and already so exhausted. I wanted to be myself; I wanted to be someone else.

Later, 3:00 was around the time I'd be watching some tragic or artsy film - usually, "Brokeback Mountain," or, "Henry and June" - and I was alone with deep and enduring heartbreak. Secrets and lovemaking and doomed affairs and me, happily partnered, crying, feeling the after-effects of people and events I could barely remember.

And then came a different sort of 3:00 - the hangover which arrived too soon.

I knew true exhaustion, then. I knew an unquenchable thirst, standing in front of the fridge and sucking down whatever cold liquid existed therein, praying, yet again, to a God which might not be listening or might not be there at all. I promise, I'd mumble, desperate - I promise I won't do this again. 

Just let me live through the night. Tomorrow, I will do better.

I never did.

It's kind of funny, telling people that I'm a recovering alcoholic at my relatively young age. I've actually gotten some incredulous responses - how could you know, I've been asked, young as you are? I'll tell you, 3:00 in the morning let me know for sure. I've been drunk in the early hours since I was sixteen or so, and I was probably seventeen when I knew I had a problem. Then I really was young, staring in the mirror at my wine-blue lips, and I'd think, ah, the hell with it. I flirted with my mortality, bating it like a bear on a chain.

When I first got sober, I was pretty scared to admit publicly that I was an alcoholic. I lived with that secret for such a long time - nobody knew. Fifteen years of steady drinking - my tolerance ridiculously high since splitting pitchers of martinis when I was a teenager - meant that I didn't black out. I rarely got sick. No one was with me at 3:00; that time was my own. It was between me and God.

I never drank before or during work, and I never got in the car if I had been drinking. The idea of being around children while intoxicated was so repulsive to me, for some pretty obvious reasons, so I was sober and effective and safe. I don't say this to brag, or to say I was some sort of "good" alcoholic. Actually, I think it's another layer of this disorder - the rules we make as alcoholics which keep us from the truth.

But 4:30 in the afternoon always came - or whenever I returned home after work - and despite my 3:00 promises I found myself mixing one of my killer cocktails. I hated myself and hated myself and when I looked in the mirror I didn't see wine-blue lips anymore - I saw the person who introduced me to this life, and I hated myself all the more.

The only person who is responsible for taking a drink is me. I know that to be true. I also know that 3:00 in the morning is a shared time of shame, passed down, communicable. It's erotica, and sad movies, and things you can't remember - it's re-enactment.

I haven't seen that time in years, and I am beyond grateful. Sobriety is the best gift I've ever given myself and the people around me. I'm alive. Ha, I am so alive! I don't blur my edges anymore; I've had to learn to live with them. Life can be such a pain in the tush, but it is so, so much easier to heal that pain when I allow it to exist. I don't swallow it, pressing it down in layers of anger and despair and rye whiskey. I don't hide from it, and I don't hide it from others.

It's taken me a while to be okay with saying these words. I do feel a sort of responsibility, now, because I have some sense of what it feels like to be an active alcoholic, secretive and ashamed - I think my honesty might be important for someone else. Even if it's helpful for one person, just one, I've done something good. My honesty is a form of amends, I guess. I hid in the shadows. I've got to let the light in.

I could talk a little bit about the stigma against addicts, but I bet you know all about that already. I'll bet that, even if you're compassionate and open-minded, you have some notions of "weak will" and "self control." I'm not saying that to be mean, but non-addicts will never truly know what this feels like. It's not about taking a drink. It's not about the drink feeling good, because eventually it really doesn't. It's not about parties or happy hours or champagne toasts at weddings. If you are capable of putting a glass down then you just don't have this perspective. Count yourself lucky. I hope you'll be kind to those of us who have to put every glass down forever for the rest of our lives.

Some of us can't be open about this because of the stigma. Some don't want to. And that's okay, it's a personal choice, but maybe, reader, you should think about what you say and how you say it. We hear you.

I don't regret being an alcoholic - I think that's part of how I can speak so openly here - but I do regret the years I spent hiding. I regret feeling like I needed to have a drink in order to live. I regret the dishonesty. I regret the damage I did to my body. But I am so thrilled that I get to experience sobriety and that I get to know what it means. I'm not sad. I rejoice.

At 3:00 in the morning, I am asleep. I'm snuggled up next to my husband - and the next day, dinner will still get made, and I'll be that bohemian housewife. I'll read and write racy stories. I'll watch sad movies at appropriate times. I will be me, and I won't be anyone else. Now, I look at my reflection and marvel at this person in focus - this person un-blurred. I'll be in recovery every single day, and every day will hold this promise, this strength not of will but of love. Self-love. Love for everyone around me.     

I am an alcoholic. I'm in recovery, and that work will never end.

But now, I sleep just fine.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Deep Breaths

Christ on a cracker.

(Well, if you went to the same kind of churches as I did growing up, Christ was a cracker.)

I'm definitely unsettled at the moment, to put it mildly. I don't know what your process is as we consume news about covid-19, but I've found myself refreshing twitter and double-checking Facebook far more than I ever have before. I think that that's what a therapist might call unhealthy mental hygiene - they would be right.  

I am prone to anxiety. That's just a fact of life. Before I was diagnosed with C-PTSD, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder - both names for a constant state of hyper-arousal (fight, flight, freeze) which can lead to some pretty epic meltdowns. I've been that way my whole life; my anxiety seemed to arrive in bouts of intense, terrifying nausea when I was a child, and after my grandfather's illness when I was nearing 20 years old, I developed some truly un-fun medical anxiety. I can't stand to be around a man yelling - my husband, frustrated while putting in the storm windows, learned that the hard way - and going to the doctor is an exercise in trying not to run away.

Which I kind of still do, whenever there's a needle involved.

Both of those have subsided in the past year or so since I began separating myself from toxic situations and committing to the hard work of therapy. But anxiety is a part of the way my brain works - the function of my dysfunction. My brain is literally, physically different than other people's brains. Does that make me lesser, or broken? Not a bit. But it means I have to learn to cope with things which other people might shrug off.

Enter the coronavirus.

Christ, I repeat, on a cracker.

I think we all have some anxieties in life. Maybe you get nervous talking to large groups, or get a bit of jitters on a first date; maybe you feel a spike in your blood pressure when you go to the doctor's office, or perhaps you worry when someone doesn't answer your call. These are all pretty typical things, acceptable things - oh yeah, a friend might say, I feel that way too. And those anxieties might ebb and flow over the course of your life. If you've endured a stressful event, you might feel them more; if life is going well, you might feel them less.

But what do we, as a society, do when there is a tangible public health emergency? And how do we approach those of us who might experience a serious surge of their anxieties?

I'm not sure if it's possible to convey what this feels like. I've seen some writers joke that they're more prepared for mass anxiety because they deal with their own personal anxiety every day. I've also seen commentary on how covid-19 - and the reminders for frequent hand-washing - is making OCD symptoms and behaviors a hell of a lot worse. PTSD and hyper-arousal - ready to run, ready to fight, ready to hide - feels rather more urgent given the threat of lock down or sickness or death. And, an added bonus as an alcoholic, I've got my face rubbed in all of the people not-really-joking, time to hit the liquor store!

And we're told to practice social distancing - creating isolation for ourselves - and some of us have gotten pretty good at that already. But, at the same time, isolation can make anxiety echo, because we are living not in the world but in our own minds. All I want to do is reach out and get big hugs from my friends, right now, but I've gotta keep a six foot distance.

I know I'm not alone in worrying, and I don't want to downplay the worries of neurotypical people who might be facing intense anxiety for the first time. We're all dealing with this in our own ways. It is, I should mention, much more difficult to cope with when we know we can't trust our own government - and the coronavirus is just the cherry on top of that particular sundae. Many of us have been anxious since 2016, I can tell you that.

So it sucks all around.

My brain works differently. My brain never really learned what it meant to feel secure. My brain has patterns, grooves of trauma and maladaptive reactions, and my brain got used to using alcohol to numb those reactions. I am just better at worrying than I am at not. Again, does that mean there's something wrong with me as a person? Hell no. I think I've got a bit of an edge, actually, because when I feel anxiety I know what it is. I forgive myself - I care for myself.

I hope you will, too. I hope that if you're worried right now, you will give yourself the space to be worried. Some people might laugh or tease or make fun - but it is totally rational to be scared of scary things. We are totally reasonable when we practice social distancing and we are totally understandable if we need that hot bath with epsom salts. Hell, I did hit the liquor store for my non-alcoholic Cabernet and I will be having a glass this evening (disclaimer: please don't do this if it would be too difficult in your recovery).

We need to take care of our mental health just as we preserve our physical health. We need to eat healthy food and we need to be kind to ourselves as we nibble on chocolate. We need water, we need a bit of sunlight, we need to laugh, we need to have a good cry if it would help.  

We need to give understanding and compassion to ourselves - and always to each other.

Worry is a part of life. I'm basically a pro, but we've all been there, I think. As we cope with this rapidly evolving situation, I hope that we can take any chance possible to share ourselves - calls, texts, messages, whatever - and say, hey, I'm here. I'm feeling this too.

Being anxious is normal - so let's get through this anxiety together.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Soundtrack of the Self

Our lives are told and written and bound in art.

I wake up every morning with music in my head. While I was teaching, it was, "I'm a Little Teapot," and, "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," just as often as it was, "Five Years," by David Bowie. Now that I'm out of the preschool world, my musical repertoire has expanded again, and I spend those first few moments - waiting for the coffee to brew - haunted by melody, chord progression, the odd lyric or two. Music never leaves my head. Sometimes I need to turn on the radio just to get some peace.

It can be loud and irritating, or it can be soft and seductive, my heartbeat counting out the measures of notes half-recalled. Music is in me every day, and it would be easy to say that that quality comes from my family - musicians all - but I think it comes from somewhere else.

We all interact with music.

Recently, on Facebook, I posed a question regarding how my friends might listen to music. Did they listen to a whole album as one piece of art, or as individual songs, or some combination of both? I was wondering how the state of music today - digital, downloadable, streamed according to curated playlists - might affect the way we perceive music. Growing up, I listened to albums and memorized them all, the order of the songs, the way a story was told. Now, totally addicted to Spotify, I've created playlists for every mood, David Bowie lined up next to Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel and Fiona Apple and Frank Sinatra.

My playlists are a part of my identity. They tell the story of me.

Most of the respondents to my question said that they listened to both albums and individual songs. I'd wager that if my friend group skewed younger, most of the responses would be option B - we don't even buy CDs anymore, let alone LPs, so I think we've grown accustomed to grabbing songs one by one. Liner notes are gone; those hours I spent scanning tiny printed lyrics are obsolete.

So the way we interact with music may be changing - or it may reflect the way we've always been. We might have always chosen to experience whole albums as long stories as well as buzzing with the thrill of that one song which really seemed to get who we are inside. What is undoubtedly unchanged is that music is a constant.

I'm a big fan of the idea that music is accessible to all of us. It's available to all of us. We experience music in mundane moments - commercials, the grocery store, the doctor's office - and we experience it in profound ways, even if we don't notice it. Movies and television shows couldn't exist without music, even if we only perceive that subconsciously. The story-telling world of visual media is endlessly enriched by scores and soundtracks. Hans Zimmer is just as much an artist as Beethoven. Peter Gabriel's cover of David Bowie's, "Heroes," defines the urgent and chilling mood of Netflix's, "Stranger Things."

But so often - too, too often - music is seen as the purview of only a few. Of only the "talented." The same goes for theatre, for visual art, for dance. We've made a society which limits us because not every child can perform, innately. And it's patently ridiculous.

Music is emotion, music is a lodestone. It doesn't matter if you can name chords or identify instruments in a symphony - it doesn't matter if you had piano lessons or played in your elementary school band - music is where our souls rest. Where we rejoice - where we are truly alive. Maybe the only way you hear music is in jingles or pop songs played low on the radio - it doesn't matter. Music is a part of us.

I'm lucky because I grew up with so much music around me. Choral music at church, and pop with my mom in the car; jazz on long golden afternoons, rock and roll with my dad. I had Ravel coming out of my fingers and I had Johnny Cash cocooning me in the wet heat of Baltimore summers. It was never something I questioned; it was a given. So yeah, I have that innate thing, the genetic predisposition, but mostly I was raised in music. I was nurtured. But so many kids aren't. So many kids aren't allowed to participate in music because they can't quite carry a tune.

It drives me absolutely bonkers. It's the same with Shakespeare, for me - an art form that is so easily accessed when it is taught early. Art is how we are human beings, and we are all human beings; we share in emotion, and art gives us the language to express that. It's plain old snotty to say that some people deserve that and some people don't.

I don't expect that everyone in the whole world will choose to be a musician as their profession. But I do think that we are all musicians in our own ways. I got a lot of responses to my Facebook question - and none of them were, I hate music. None of those responses indicated that music wasn't something which had value. Whether we listen to a whole album or a handful of songs - whether we see our identities reflected in our playlists or just enjoy dancing around the kitchen - we are all a part of music, and music is a part of us. It belongs to all of us.

Snobbery has no place, there. Exclusion is useless and cruel. Shoddy education is injustice. We don't have to like everything, or be good at everything, or be comfortable singing anywhere other than the shower. But no child, no adult, should feel like they can't make music their own form of speech. Of self-knowledge. A soundtrack of our selves, living. 

We should argue passionately with each other with the percussion of symphonic metal, and we should flirt with the wailing of Janis Joplin; we should mourn with requiems, we should confess our deepest truths with Jacques Brel. Whatever our music of choice - whatever's got us buzzing - we should remember that we all speak this language. We should silence no one. We should welcome all.

I wake up with music in my head, and it annoys me to no end. Music won't leave me alone. But I turn on a playlist, or an album, or the radio, and I cram new music in there, and I breathe into it. I make the coffee, I write the words, I take a bath, I put on makeup, and the music keeps going. Here, I think - here is how we are commonly human.

Here is the story of our lives.         

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Ink and Ownership

I like scars.

When I was in fourth grade, I got some sort of injury on my right calf. I made a decision - spurred on by the toughness of my hero, Xena: Warrior Princess - to pick at the injury repeatedly, giving myself a shiny new scar. Here I am, I thought - damaged, but living. I have a faint scar on my left thigh from where I rolled over onto a broken Christmas ornament; I have one little mark below my eyebrow from the time I ran face first into a teacher at lunch, smacked over my eye by a bowl of mashed potatoes (go ahead and laugh). In high school, I cut my right hipbone, and there remains a white line, pillowed and soft seventeen years later.

I have outside scars and I have inside scars, and the inside scars are harder to live with. I think often about that nine year old girl and her quest to leave a mark on pale, fresh skin. What was I saying with that desire to permanently injure myself? I felt like I had been through so many battles; I wanted proof. 

I have new scars, now - scars which I put there. Scars which, like the mark on my calf, ground me in my body and give evidence of my strength.  

On the inside of my right forearm I have a tattoo - four words in script, "Turn on with me," a quotation from a David Bowie song. On the inside of my left bicep I have another - a red carnation, the twin of the same on my sister's arm, denoting our connection and love for each other. And along the surface of my back I have a gigantic tattoo, almost from my hips to my neck, stretching across my shoulders, and I've been planning that art since I was fifteen years old. 

That tattoo took about ten hours of work over two sessions. The first session was just the black outlines, the structure, and the second was color and shading. Yes, it hurt. It cost money. It required weeks of healing and inconvenience, my husband washing and applying lotion to the areas I couldn't reach. 

All of these have been completed since May of last year - if you're counting, that's three tattoos in about nine months. Lest there be any doubt, I love getting tattoos, and I intend to get more. I'm not sure, exactly, what other designs I want. But yes, I anticipate many more hours in the tattoo artist's chair.    

These new scars have set me free.

I've wanted tattoos my whole life and I've been downright terrified to get them. I'm not sure if I was worried about the pain - whatever happened to that little girl who made her own wounds? - but I was for sure scared of going against the values of my family. I always have been, even as I have vehemently, though internally, disagreed. Sometimes it felt like my family's ethos was the word of God, unimpeachable and irrefutable. I didn't want their judgment, ever - I didn't want them to stop loving me. But in May of last year, I woke up, got in my car, drove into Baltimore, walked into the Tattoo Museum in Fells Point, and started a new phase of my life. 

It was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Tattoos are productive scars. They don't just show pain but a creative determination. I have sat in the chair for nearly twelve hours, now; no one else did it for me. Artists did the work, but I made the choice. I yielded so that I might survive in a new way - survive visibly, undeniably. That process can never be taken away from me. 

There's a sense of camouflage which comes with assenting to things you don't agree with. It's dishonest to make yourself so invisible - it's a covering of who you are to try to only please others. That, I think, leaves a deeper mark than needle and ink ever can. For so many years I lied to myself, pretending that everything was okay, pretending I should or even could be what other people wanted me to be. It was a silent cutting, a hidden bloodletting. As I refrained from pursuing this interest - tattooing - I also refrained from being myself on a broader scale. This little thing was a part of a much bigger thing.

From the moment that first needle pierced my skin, I knew I was making a personal choice that was both visible and irreversible. And it was deeply personal - it wasn't really an act of rebellion but an act of the self, declared. It was a huge relief, a burden lifted. And once I got that tattoo, I found it easier to build boundaries, to believe in my self-worth. I shook myself free of the familial word of God.

And there's a bigger picture, much bigger than the dialogue between family members and myself. I mentioned internal scars - a lot of those scars derive from bad things which have happened to my body. And as a woman, my body has been harmed by our society, too; I am an object, sometimes, more than I am a person. My body is gazed upon and legislated and measured and weighed. The worth of my body is lessened with age - it was seen as more valuable when it was immature. My body was coveted, regarded hungrily by strangers since I was twelve; my body, grown larger, was derided. My body has been political. On some days, my body belonged to everyone but myself.

But now it bears my marks. 

I'm so much happier now. 

I can't honestly say that's all down to my tattoos, of course. I've been doing a tremendous amount of work - going to therapy, writing thousands of words, making new friends. I've been teaching myself how to say no. But I do have these new scars to be worn with pride. Scars that will never be hidden. Here I am - willfully and beautifully damaged, but living.

Do I love my family less? Of course not! Do I prioritize my own happiness? You bet your butt! Am I still a part of a society which strives to own me? Unfortunately, yes, sometimes even more so now that I'm thin again. It's complicated. And, I'll tell you, people have just as many opinions about tattoos as they do the ratio of my hips to waist. But somehow, in getting these colorful markings, I care a heck of a lot less. My pain is my choice; my endurance is my apotheosis.           

I was nine years old when I made a scar on purpose. I still have that scar; I don't like it as much as I thought I would. I thought I knew, then, how strong I could be - how strong I had to be. I've had to be much stronger. I've been small and large, externally and internally; I've been possessed, I've been captive. But I think about the Alice who felt like a hardened warrior princess, and I think about what she might think of me, now. If she'd look at these new scars and see them as I do - proof. Evidence. 

Freedom. 

So get ready, world, because I'm not finished. Not finished talking, or writing, or inking my skin. If I've got to carry these internal scars, then you've got to witness the external ones. I will never cover up. Look away if you want to -

But the scars remain.

And these, I put there.

Monday, March 2, 2020

A Rose is a Rose

Grandpere shared a lot with me in the year before his passing - stories of family, of friends, of his fatherhood. He taught me how to balance a checkbook and helped me sort through photographs. Up on the third floor of that Victorian row home, Grandpere cracked open his life for me. 

I remember so many of those stories - mostly brief and fragmented, now, but he was my grandpere, and I listened. One of the little bits - hardly a story - that he conveyed was the way that some people whispered, never spoke aloud, the word, cancer. As if it were a secret, a hidden shame, uncouth and unacceptable. As if the thing growing in him were more frightening in the naming than in the living.  

I was angered by that. It seemed disgusting and foolish, an antiquated superstition surrounding a common biological experience. To whisper a thing - it revealed more about the whisperer than about the word. Cancer isn't unknown, isn't too terribly rare. Sometimes it's due to processes beyond our control; sometimes it arrives as a consequence of our actions. Either way, an illness is an illness. To be ill, to be mortal, is to be human. How could that be shameful?

How could we look away?

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I remember trying to talk to Grandpere about it, trying to come up with some metaphor, some explanation as to how I felt. The closest I got was this: being diagnosed and medicated was like waking up and realizing that my life had been so damned hard because I'd been missing a limb and didn't know it. And the medication, the therapy, they were like being fitted with a mobility device so that I could function unimpeded for the first time. I had an illness, a disability, but I was finally getting help.  

Bipolar disorder didn't have to be whispered, any more than cancer did. 

We would never blame a cancer patient for naming their illness and asking for help. Who among us would understand it if a person sick with cancer hid their illness and resigned themselves, out of shame, to a painful decline and death? Cancer requires openness, fast reactions, treatment, resolve - community, support, expertise. We cannot treat that mutation of our cells in silence and isolation.

Nor can we treat mental illness that way.

I've got a whole bucket of words that people don't want to say. I've written about them, most recently in my previous blog post about disordered eating. Mental illnesses tend to go together, too - the comorbidity of bipolar disorder, anxiety, C-PTSD, ED, addiction is statistically significant, to say the least. I deal with a checklist of things which lead to other things; sometimes it's difficult to know what is an illness versus a symptom. 

Anyway, I deal with them all, and I do pretty well, and I actually like who I am, and most days I'm incredibly grateful. My illnesses are a suit of armor, a mantle of strength. But it - it rankles me, on an emotional and intellectual level, that there remains a sense that who I am is something which cannot be said out loud. It's insulting and it's counterproductive. 

Because, just like a physical illness, we have to talk about these things if we wish to heal. We have to get help. We have to be open and honest. We have to advocate for ourselves. Therapy is our radiation, medication is our chemo - our families and friends are necessary, and they simply cannot be ashamed. If our community is ashamed of us - how do they think that makes us feel? As I said, I like the heck out of who I am, but it can be hard to hold on to that when I feel like, due to my challenges, I shouldn't. 

We see stories online of moms, dads, colleagues, friends, shaving their heads in support of their loved ones going through cancer treatment. Reading those stories makes us feel good - we are witness to that very human thing, compassion, companionship, a refusal to let someone struggle alone. We see that as brave. I wish we had some sort of similar advocacy for those of us with mental illnesses. An act of visibility, of being understood in some small way.

But I know that, for so many people, my illnesses mark me as other and as wrong. When I talk about it here, it might be seen as - I don't know. I can't really understand it. I don't judge myself for my biology, or for what happened to me. I don't think I have a right to shut up about it, either. If I don't want others to be ashamed of me, I absolutely cannot be ashamed of myself. And that means saying words out loud. 

It would be an act of self-harm to hide. It could kill me.

I think it is difficult, since mental illnesses are so judged, to convey how happy I am while also being chronically ill. We look down on mental illness, whisper the words - how, then, could I be healthy and happy in so many ways? But I am. I am happy precisely because I talk about my illnesses and receive assistance.

I'm challenged by the legacy of disordered eating - but I don't hate myself for that challenge, and so I get better every day. I cope with addiction - but I'm honest about it, no longer giving in to the alcoholic tendency to hide my problems, and that's how I stay sober. 

I have highs and lows and I medicate them and use them to fuel my work. I worry and worry, and I talked to my therapist, and she's gotten me to start meditating. I have emotional flashbacks but now I know what they are, thank God, and so I ride them out, expressing myself, forgiving myself, figuring out where those emotions came from. I identify through therapeutic dialogue people and situations which hurt me, which trigger flashbacks or anxiety or mood disturbance or what-the-heck-ever, and I avoid them, and I care for myself. 

All of these things make me healthier, not sicker. I have a wonderful opportunity to look at the ways that my illnesses make me tough as hell. And I name them. I own them. They are a badge of honor. Sometimes I have bad darn days. Some days are so much better than "normal" people could ever understand. 

A cancer patient is never cured, but victorious in remission. That survivor needn't ever be ashamed; that survivor kicks serious butt.  

And that's where I stand. Kicking butt and claiming names - never whispered but right out loud. 

So how could I be anything other than proud?            

 

Saturday, February 29, 2020

All Is(n't) Vanity

Content warning: this post is about disordered eating/body image and weight issues. If this is triggering for you, please proceed carefully or refrain from reading at all.




I weigh myself pretty much every morning.

Scratch that - I weigh myself in the morning and in the afternoon. And sometimes right before lunch. And sometimes right before bed, to see if I can face the number when I wake up.

I have two scales - one which usually shows my weight as two pounds heavier, and another which syncs to my phone, which I only step on if I like the weight on the first scale. I know the second scale is more accurate based on various trips to the doctor where they, for some reason, weigh me every darn time.

I didn't know sinus infections demanded a weight check. What the heck.

If this sounds disordered, well, it is. When I was in middle school, I used to weigh myself on the old scale in my grandparents' bathroom. It was one of those slide scales, and I'd balance it carefully, heart in my throat, hoping to get down to a particular number. I won't post my various numbers here - listing weights is pretty triggering for those who have lived with eating disorders - but as I have mentioned before, I never dipped below what was considered "healthy" on the BMI chart. Somehow, despite the restrictions, the rules I made, the foods I refused to eat, I never qualified for the diagnosis - I was never anorexic.

Ha.

And I'm definitely not anorexic now - gosh, how I love food. I eat, for the most part, whatever I want; smaller portions, now, but I do go to town on Cheetos and Reese's Cups and enjoy the heck out of them. I need a good steak every couple of weeks, and last night I made a French toast casserole topped with bacon (great choices, Alice). So I am considerably less disordered than I was twenty years ago, without a doubt.

But disordered eating - disordered thinking - sticks with you. It doesn't matter how much you weigh, what you eat, your dress size, your waist measurement. It doesn't matter if you love going out and getting creme brulee at any and all opportunities, or if you grab a box full of pastries on vacation, or if you dive into a bag of Cheetos with unreserved glee. Once you hear the seductive call of disordered eating, it will never be silenced.

Three years ago, I was quite a bit heavier than I am now, and I was still disordered. Having a history of anorexia and bulimia (yeah, I'm going to claim those words, and the heck with the DSM) plus alcohol abuse meant that when my inhibitions were lowered I ate a lot of (and drank so many) calories.

And then, over the course of my biological father's illness and death, I leaned into my disorder, resurrecting a teenage Alice, controlling my stress and pain through the oldest and most familiar method I knew. I watched the number drop on the scale - yeah, I bought a scale to bring with me down to South Carolina, again measuring myself in my grandmother's home. It felt so good. It felt better than facing down cancer and losing. It felt so much better than longing to receive amends and knowing I would never get them. And as that number got lower and lower, I was spurred on, invigorated even as I was so profoundly fatigued.

Disordered eating is a drug. A drug I embraced in my recovery from alcoholism. A new - and old - addiction to lose myself in. 

I'm three and a half years sober, just about, and I've basically maintained my weight for a year and a half. I fit into my high school clothes. And this morning, I weighed myself, and I was .2 pounds under my "goal weight," and the first thing I thought was, hmm, I bet I could get down to the next multiple of ten. What I weighed as a high school freshman, rather than as a senior. 'Cause goodness knows, I want to relive those years (uh, not).

It's not about vanity. I wish it were. If it were about my looks, I'd have kept on five to ten pounds, retaining a plumpness to my face which filled out my emerging fine lines. A little more heft to my tush, my bust. Eating disorders don't make you pretty. They don't make you feel pretty. I have to look at pictures of myself to know what I look like at all. If I gave in to my inclination to lose a few more pounds, I would start to disappear.

And that is, after all, the goal. To be unseen. To hide. To escape the pains and chaos of life by becoming insubstantial.

You can't hurt me if I'm not here.

Oh, that sentence, in and of itself, hurts a lot.

So, no more weight loss. Another addiction to kick. Keep on maintaining, keep on eating, keep the weight off and keep the weight on. Get compliments and try not to think about them, where they come from, why people prioritize thinness. Go to the doctor and get weighed and choose not to care. Don't give in, but do, maybe - eat a lot sometimes, and a little other times. Accept the waist measurement which is slightly larger than it was when I was eighteen; consider doing crunches again, because building muscle is good, right? Be happy about a larger bust; be thrilled at the disappearing tush.

Hate yourself, love yourself, worship at the altar of addiction and recovery. Prioritize family and friendships. Make the food, eat the food. Get enough red meat. Take a vitamin. Maintain. Maintain. Maintain.       

It never goes away.

Yeah.

I'm happy with my body, truly. That's the funny thing about where I am right now - I don't think I need to be thinner, not for health reasons, certainly, and not for my appearance. I feel pretty great. But man, thirteen year old Alice is kicking me around the block. Because it's not about how I look; it's about how it feels to lose weight. My body is secondary. Disordered eating is about the mind. But I'm in recovery, always - from alcoholism and from (what doesn't qualify as, how stupid) anorexia. And recovery does feel so much better than being trapped in addiction. I'm motivated to be well. I don't want to live in my illnesses anymore.

But if you have an opportunity, dear reader, to give a hug to someone who has struggled with disordered eating - even and especially if that person is you - give that hug unreservedly. Because we are fighting a lifelong battle. And for once, we need to be seen.