Category Archives: recovery

Inside the experience

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about mental health – my recovery process in particular. I think that is because my tendency towards perfectionism (be the perfect child, be the perfect friend, be the perfect employee) has meant I have also wanted to be perfect in my recovery. However, that is not the case.

Writing is a therapeutic tool for me and though what I am sharing in today’s post is a deeply vulnerable topic for me, I feel it is important to share. I know many of my followers and readers are people who struggle with similar mental health challenges and, like me, when you look to the online community for articles and stories to help you, they are few and far between. So I write this post not just for me, but for you too.


I recently got refitted for a bra and was politely informed my boobs had shrunk a full cup size. For a “barely B” you can imagine how horrified I was at the realization my body was reverting back to its preteen years. I mean seriously guys, MY BOOBS ARE SHRINKING. The same day, I reached my lowest weight of 114 lbs and though I didn’t make the connection at the time, it’s fairly obvious the shrinking boob epidemic is the result of losing weight.

More disturbingly, I failed to recognize that my weight was even an issue. The recommended weight for someone of my height is 120-155 lbs. From all outward appearances, I look normal and healthy even though the scale shows I am underweight. But if there is anything I’ve learned in working with my therapist over the last month on the whole ‘WHY AM I DOING THIS TO MY BODY’ thing, it’s that appearances can be deceiving, especially for people who struggle with disordered eating and eating disorders.

There were two frightening moments I encountered recently that made me pause and question my behavior and one revelation that prompted me to open up to my therapist about the extent of my disordered eating.

One of the frightening moments happened a few weeks ago when I weighed myself and saw the scale jump from 114 lbs to 117 lbs (the result of indulging in Irish food and Guinness). I had gained 3 lbs. You would have thought the world was ending. I was disgusted with myself and immediately put into action a plan to lose the weight, despite the fact I was still below the recommended weight range.

The second frightening moment happened just the other day when I got home from a three-hour workout and refused to eat because I had two cookies earlier in the day (it didn’t matter I had just burned 700 calories). My body was starving and screaming at me I NEED FOOD, I NEED FOOD yet I ignored those cries for nourishment and took a sleeping pill, hoping to sleep off the hunger.

At this moment, I knew my behavior and thinking was irrational. I was obsessively counting calories, restricting my diet, and over exercising. I kept telling myself to just stop it. Yet, I couldn’t. It was around that time I also began noticing that I was picking out my eyebrows more frequently – a habit I engage in when I feel anxious. It’s a disorder called trichotillomania, which leaves bald patches in my eyebrows. I’ve had it since I was about 14 years old and despite therapy it hasn’t ever gone away. With years of experience in dealing with the disorder, I know that when I engage in this behavior it’s a way of me dealing with stress. Having that understanding often makes me step back and look at why I’m anxious. And, this is where the big revelation occurred.

The source of my anxiety – and thus the eyebrow picking – was food.

It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing on my mind before I go to sleep. During the day, I count down the hours and minutes until the next “snack” because I can’t eat a minute sooner. Every night, I plan out my meals for the following day, record the calories, and determine how much I need to exercise to stay at just 900 calories a day. I take in 1200-1300 calories and burn between 500-700 calories. Any deviation from that plan immediately makes me anxious.

For example, on my coworker’s last day in the office we went to our favorite burger joint. I couldn’t not go so I made a deal with myself. I would order a cheeseburger but I would absolutely not eat the bun AND I would work out an extra 30 minutes on the elliptical that evening. To counteract the fries I would eat, I decided I would only have vegetables for dinner that way I could still remain within my daily caloric goal. The entire time I ate, I only thought of the calories I was putting into my mouth. I didn’t even savor the food. I stuck to my end of the deal, though, and my anxiety quickly subsided.

I described similar scenarios to my therapist (like the fact I skipped out on a happy hour last week because I knew I would drink a beer full of empty calories) and all I wanted to know is WHY the hell my mind was thinking this way. She drew me this:

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Food is my trigger. When I have to eat, my anxiety skyrockets. The eating disorder yells at me and says things like, “What are you doing!? You’re going to get fat if you eat that!” or, “That’s disgusting! Stop eating!” So, I make a deal with the eating disorder. If I eat this cookie, I will do XX amount of additional exercise. Or, if I eat this burger I won’t eat dinner. The eating disorder says OK and my anxiety plummets. Thus, “the deal” becomes a powerful reinforcer for the eating disorder to continue. It’s the coping mechanism for my anxiety.

I have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Partly because the primary diagnostic tool used is whether or not your period has gone away. I have an IUD, which means I don’t have my period at all. But I do have disordered eating, which is dangerous because it can easily lead into an eating disorder – whether that’s anorexia or bulimia. Not everyone who has disordered eating will develop an eating disorder, but everyone who has had an eating disorder started with disordered eating. This scares me and I do not want that to happen.

The most important thing to me right now is recognizing I need help and getting it before it gets out of control. I am going in for weekly metabolic screenings. I have scheduled more frequent therapy visits. I’m working with my psychiatrist to re-address my medications. We’ve made goals to incrementally decrease the amount of exercise I do and increase my calories to at least 1500 a day. I know it won’t be easy, especially since I’m already fighting it.

To the family and friends I have talked about this struggle with, it’s difficult to grasp. As they say, I’m the sanest person they know and when I feel that kind of anxiety, it doesn’t visibly show to them. They don’t know I need help because I hide it well. Though I may look healthy on the outside, my thinking and behavior to maintain that image is not.

Of course, there are deeper seated issues behind the behavior besides anxiety. As my therapist pointed out, the emotional and mental abuse I went through in the last four years by the hands of someone else seems to have been replaced with emotional and mental abuse at my own hands. I have a lot to work through still. Thus is the wild ride of recovery for me.

 

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Filed under anxiety, depression, eating disorder, Food, health, mental health, mental illness, pefectionism, recovery, therapy, vulnerability

Lessons learned from dealing with depression

The first time I experienced hypomania and depression was at the age of 14 when I experienced death for the first time. My grandfather had passed away and I was devastated. His death triggered something inside me and I started engaging in reckless and impulsive behavior. I stole my parent’s car on multiple occasions for joy rides around town. The fact I didn’t know how to drive and could barely touch the pedals didn’t phase me one bit. It looked easy enough; anyone could do it. Not surprisingly, I was caught and taken to kid jail. I escaped relatively unscathed as my punishment by the courts was to write a paper on the dangers of under age driving. And though you think spending time in court, being told I could go to juvenile detention, and realizing I could have very well killed someone would put me in my place, it didn’t. I didn’t feel guilty at all. There was a certain kind of thrill in breaking the rules. It made me feel alive. So I kept testing the waters.

In the weeks that followed I snuck out and met neighborhood friends (the ones deemed bad influences) to try cigarettes and beer. We broke into empty houses being built and practiced picking locks. And, if you remember when instant message chat rooms were popular, I became addicted. I couldn’t sleep so I would stay up all night and talk back and forth with people around the world, mostly guys because I liked the attention. Looking back and knowing what I know now it’s probable some of them were pedophiles. That gives me the heebie jeebies.

To most people it seems like all of this was just me acting out. What makes these series of events a hypomanic episode is that all of it was entirely out of character for me. I wasn’t reckless or impulsive. I never got in trouble. I was the perfect child, never talking back and always doing as I was told. I never complained. Following this series of events my Dad said, “You’re not so much the angel we thought you were, are you?”

Depression came crashing into my life not long afterwards. It was as if a storm cloud had descended over me. I began spending all my time in my room in the pitch dark, not wanting to come out. I cried a lot, usually for no reason at all. It was the first time I began having suicidal thoughts. It was when I first started self-harming – in the form of picking out my hair for the pricks of pain it caused and which I continue to do to this day (aka trichotillomania). It was the first time my mom sent me to a psychologist. And, just like I did in the years that followed, I pretended like my mom was making it all up. “Dude, I’m fine. Mom is over reacting. I am totally normal.” I succeeded. I tricked the psychologist into thinking everything was fine  and he sent me on my merry way. My mom’s instincts were right but with the stamp of approval from the psychologist what else could she do.

While grief after death is normal, the mood swings I went through were not. Episodes, whether hypomanic or depressive, come and go on their own. When you experience hypomania, you crash and depression follows. Eventually the cloud of depression lifts and you have a period of normality between the next cycle. Sometimes those quiet periods can last for years but eventually it rears its ugly head. Thus, it begins again.

Every one of us has been depressed at some point in our lives. After all, grief and sorrow are normal reactions to loss. The difference between that and someone with major depression though is that major depression enters your life with or without reason and it stays there, hovering and tormenting you, for long periods of time.

I had just one other hypomanic episode but many major depressive episodes over the next 13 years. What is different about bipolar I and bipolar II is the severity of your mania and the episode you spend most of your time in. With bipolar II you spend more time in a constant state of depression than you do in the highs. Through those depressive episodes I’ve learned many lessons, which I am only now able to articulate given the medication I take to stabilize my mood. This list isn’t by any means exhaustive but which stick out to me the most.


Everyone’s experience is different
When I first started writing and publishing personal essays about what having bipolar II felt like and what it was like to be in a psychiatric ward, I didn’t imagine anyone would ever question the truthfulness of those stories or write negative comments about my experience. People commented on those articles with things like, “I call bullshit,” and “There are many flaws in this story,” and “She is making it up. That would never happen.” I make it a rule not to read any comments on my articles but inevitably someone I know reads them and asks, “Did you see what they wrote!? Those fuckers.” My curiosity peaks and I end up reading them.

Reading those kinds of comments do hurt and it makes me angry that someone would judge my experience or others’ experiences when they themselves have probably never been in my shoes. To say such a personal story is untrue is dismissive and wrong. Hospitals and psychiatric wards don’t look the same across the nation. Yet the beliefs we hold about how hospitals are run and how people are treated creates an image that we are all the same when in reality we are not. Even in the support group I attend with women who have exactly what I have, none of our stories perfectly align. Yet I believe every word of their story. When people share such intimate details of a painful time in their lives, that takes courage. We should be applauding those who speak out to bring awareness and attention to the issue, not condemn them for showing their insecurities. To do so is unkind and shows no compassion for the human condition.


It’s just as hard to articulate how depression affects me as it is for those around me to understand it
I have found major depression to be incredibly difficult to describe. In an effort to understand my diagnosis my family has asked me a lot of questions. I know early on my Dad struggled with why I couldn’t just snap out of it or perk up. He had always said you have one day to be sad and depressed. On day two you better get out of bed and get going because life doesn’t stop. Now that we have open communication about what I feel and he’s read endless books about depression to understand, I’m not sure he will ever truly get it. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t been diagnosed with what I have will truly get it. When I talk to someone who wants to know about my story and they tell me they know what it’s like to feel depressed, it tends to irritate me. Though everyone experiences a case of the blues, it is far removed from what major depression feels like. But, just as it is difficult for me to describe, it’s probably equally difficult for others to fully grasp. I really shouldn’t get upset when people say that because at the most basic level they’re just trying to show me I’m not alone. They’re trying to offer up compassion and love. That is all I can really expect and I give them major kudos for trying.

There is no magical pill to fix pain
Though medication is incredibly helpful in stabilizing your mood, it doesn’t make the pain or despair you felt miraculously go away. A lot of times you feel ashamed when you come out of the episode. You ask yourself how you could have possibly thought the things you thought or did the things you did (self-harm, attempted suicides, negative self-talk). Long term healing takes a considerable amount of work and it takes time as well. You don’t take a pill and everything becomes hunky dory. People often say that time heals all wounds but I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. Time just  makes enduring pain and separating it from the events that happened in our lives easier. You never believe you’ll survive the pain, but you do survive it. Your life does go on and you continue living it to the best of your ability – day by day.


To make it out, you have to try.
The support and assistance I received from my family and friends after my breakdown was endless. It still is. It made me realize, if even just for them, I needed to embark on a path to recovery. Despite how much it helps to have them lending a hand and having my therapist, psychiatrist, and support group to talk to, I was never going to make progress until I started wanting to get better for myself. No one could walk my path to recovery except me. Though recovery doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes you think you won’t make it, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Things do get better. You get better.

May is mental health awareness month. Do you have a story to share? Feel free to comment below!

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Filed under bipolar II, depression, lessons learned, life lessons, mental health, mental illness, recovery

Finding faith in recovery

Throughout my healing process I have been drawn to the Buddhist religion, finding comfort in Buddha’s teachings on sorrow and how to live a life full of gratitude, compassion, and love. I was in awe of one of my friends who has a strong, unwavering faith in God. I asked him, “Why is it in our deepest sorrows we seek comfort in a higher power and when everything is joyous we shy away from it? Does my sudden interest in faith make me a hypocrite? Am I unworthy of holiness after such a long absence?” He reminded me that spiritual strength grows over time and that it often rears its beautiful head during difficult times because it is a complement to our healing process. Whoever or whatever you believe in, you will be guided.

I have been particularly drawn to the Tae Te Ching which says that for every 10,000 joys there are 10,000 sorrows. In this teaching Buddha defines compassion as “the enduring emotion of pathos” or enduring the emotions of life, whether it’s from joy or sorrow. He teaches that when we embrace the joy and sorrow of living it becomes our greatest strength because it is the “surest way to divine Oneness and to healing.”

I find solace in these teachings because it provides meaning and purpose to the difficulties we face. Buddha didn’t deny that there is happiness in life, but he pointed out it does not last forever. Eventually everyone meets with some kind of suffering.

There is happiness in life,
happiness in friendship,
happiness of a family,
happiness in a healthy body and mind,
…but when one loses them, there is suffering.

I have found that the greatest challenge in practicing my faith is being able to find gratitude in the difficult things – my diagnosis, a friend’s hurtful comments, a devastating heartbreak – but somehow making an intentional effort to practice gratitude towards those situations has brought a kind of grace and love to my life. For every difficult situation you face it will inevitably teach you something about yourself. Now, even if I’m not feeling particularly grateful, I will offer up thanks.

For example, the other day I was irritable and angry with a friend for the insensitive, hurtful comments he made about my diagnosis. I stewed on it all day only making myself more angry. On the quiet drive home, I reminded myself of Buddha’s teachings on cultivating compassion and gratitude. So I said out loud, “[name of friend], I am grateful to you for being a jackass because I have learned I cannot give more than I can sanely give right now.” Obviously, my use of the word jackass and the need to repeatedly say those words shows my practice needs some work, but the very act of offering up gratitude instantly brought a sense of calm to my demeanor. I felt my heart opening up with compassion. We both deserved to heal and recover without bringing the other into our own pit of darkness. The kindest thing to do for both of us was to part ways. I understood what my limitations were. I understood what his were. In that moment I learned in every situation there is the potential to meet Buddha or God or whoever/whatever you believe in. You only have to open your heart to the possibility.

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Filed under buddha, buddhism, compassion, faith, healing, mental health, recovery, sorrow

6 ways to support a friend or family member with a mental illness

Friends and family play an important role in my recovery. For the most part, people want to help but may find that starting a conversation with me about my mental illness is hard to do. They may feel uncomfortable or unsure of what to do or say, which is normal. Over the last couple of months I’ve had a lot of interactions with friends and family related to my mental health and what I’ve learned is that it’s often the small things you do or say that make the biggest difference. Based on my own experiences, I’ve compiled six ways you can help a friend or family member with a mental illness (including me!):

Reach out and take the lead. Include them in everyday plans like going to the movies, dinner, or on a hike. If they resist ask again or offer to pick them up. When suffering from depression, I am more likely to isolate and alienate myself from friends. I end up spending more time alone than I do around other people. However, being around people and engaged in activities is important to recovery. Sometimes we just need a little push to get out the door.

Don’t just talk about their illness. Mental health is only one part of their life. Don’t define them by their illness by only talking about this one subject. Talk to them like you’ve always talked to them. While I need to talk about my mental health I also need to talk about everyday things like work, school, a funny story I heard, or the boy I like.

Educate yourself. If you feel awkward or uncomfortable or have no idea what to say, the best thing you can do is read about the mental illness. Not just medical information but books and articles by people who live with that mental illness. Doing so will provide understanding and insight and perhaps make you feel more comfortable talking about it to them. Two books that have helped me are The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon and Crazy by Amy Reed.

Don’t avoid the issue. If they come to talk to you about their mental health, don’t change the subject. If you ask someone how they are feeling the response may not always be “Good” or “Fine”. Sometimes it may be deeply depressing to listen to but doing just that, listening, can make them feel better. This is particularly true if they are in self-harm or crisis mode. In moments where I’ve been overwhelmed and tempted to self-harm again I’ve called or texted my friend Jesse to distract me. I know I can be honest with him and that he won’t avoid the issue, which helps me be open in the first place.

Be mindful about the comments you make as they can come off as insensitive,  particularly if they are in a vulnerable state of mind. A few comments that have hurt me are: “We all go through times like these,” and “You were depressing to be around; it brought me down,” and “I wish you would have told me so I didn’t feel alone,” and “My situation is more dire and important than yours.” It would have been more helpful to hear, “I may not fully understand how you’re feeling but I am here for you and I want to help,” or “I’m glad you’re getting the treatment you need,” or “You’re important to me. I love you. I’m here for you.” Some people may be in a more dire situation than others but everyone’s difficulties are relevant. Be careful not to belittle their situation.

Show support but don’t be intrusive. Ask what you can do to help them right now. This could be cooking meals, doing an activity together, or just letting them know you’re there to talk. Be patient if they don’t respond right away. If they want to talk they will. Sending a card or email to let them know you are thinking about them every once in a while is a gentle reminder you are there for them if they ever need you. Sometimes just knowing is enough.

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Filed under advice, bipolar II, mental health, mental illness, mindfulness, recovery