Who am I, if I’m not who I wanted to be?

I created this little space for myself in my bedroom.  I bought a comfy chair and a bookshelf and piled in all of the things that make me feel comfortable and safe.  Some of my favorite books, my journals and a few pens, a diffuser and some relaxing oils, hand lotion, a calm jar, a little house plant, fidget toys, a heating pad, and my weighted blanket.  This has truly become my safe place.  I spend a lot of time here every day, sometimes writing, watching TED talks, meditating, or just curling up for a nap.  I love this little space.

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Tonight I’m sitting in my space and allowing myself to feel the sadness I haven’t really let break through the surface in a while.  Note to self: add tissues to the bookshelf.  It sort of hit me today while I was at work, this lingering sadness.  I love my job and I’ve loved learning something entirely new and meeting new, fun people.  It’s been so good for me.  I’m percolating a whole new post about it (see what I did there??), so I’ll save the details for later, but what is important is that overall, this coffee shop job has literally been life-saving for me.  Today, though, I felt slow and sluggish and, well, sad.

Over the weekend, some acquaintances of mine from my undergrad years and their family came into the store and I made them coffee.  It was nice to see them, we exchanged pleasantries, and went on our way.  But the experience has stuck with me.  While I was enjoying talking to them, I was also feeling something else burning in the pit of my stomach: shame.  I was suddenly embarrassed.  It was a sudden wave of unmet expectations, unfulfilled dreams, uselessness, and regret.  I felt old.

I don’t really know what happened to the last decade.  The last time I checked, I was 23.  Now, suddenly, I’m going to be 35 and I feel like I lost the last ten years of my life.  True, some of it was the eating disorder and crippling anxiety.  That’s a thing and I accept that.  But what happens to the dreams we have as kids, as young adults?  The carseats in the back seat, the bedroom furniture, the comfortable, successful careers?  All the things I’d always imagined for myself?  Have I let the world down?  Have I let MYSELF down?

I don’t necessarily think that my sadness is based on comparison to other people’s lives and accomplishments, though I’m sure that factors in– I do live in this society, after all.  No, what I feel crushing me is the weight of all the potential I had.  Or have been told I had.  I was one of those kids who was told over and over again “you are so smart!” “you are so creative!” “you’re a fantastic musician!” “you have so much talent!” “you can do ANYTHING you want to do!” “the sky is the limit!”  And oh, I tried.  I poured my heart and soul into everything I’ve ever done.  I graduated in the top 10% of my high school class, I got a scholarship for undergrad, I graduated cum laude, I worked and worked and worked to be a good bassoon player.  I gave 110% to teaching my aural skills classes.  To top it all off, I chiseled my body down to a size zero.  I tried so. hard.

And yet, here I am.  I’m almost 35.  My two year masters’ degree will take me three and a half years to complete.  I’ve been sent away for eating disorder treatment three times in the last two years.  I couldn’t make it in the conservatory at IU.  I’ve dabbled in a career as a paralegal, but that pressure was ultimately too much, too, even though I was good at it.  I don’t have any carseats in my car.  I used to feel like I was behind, that I had to hurry to catch up, that I COULD catch up if only I tried harder.  Now, I feel like I’ve missed the boat altogether.  Like it’s over before I really got to get started.

Mostly, I’m sad that I haven’t left my mark on the world like I thought I would.  I never wanted to be famous or “known,” whatever that means, but I feel like I’ve let the world down and myself down because I have turned into only a shadow of the person I could have become.  I’m sad about what could have been.  I’m sad because I’m in the middle of my life now and I don’t know who I am or what I want.  I’ve always wanted to be a helper, an encourager, to be strong for other people, to be an example.  I feel like I haven’t done that at all.

Yes, I know, this is really focusing on the negative.  But I feel it and it’s real and tonight, I’m letting myself feel it.  I’m letting the tears come because I’ve learned that if I ignore them and push them down, everything goes to hell.  And let’s be honest– I love Denver, but I am NEVER going back there unless it’s for fun and my own choice (hi Jordan!).  So, let the tears fall.

Part of acknowledging the negative is allowing myself to feel it and then to return my focus to what is going well, what I’m grateful for.  I have a husband who I love to the moon and back and who reminds me that he still chooses me, every single day.  I have a wonderful family and a nephew that I love so incredibly much.  I have had so many incredible experiences that have made me into who I am, even if it’s not the person I always thought I would be.  I have friends who have stood by me during these last few hard years with unwavering love and patience and have welcomed me back so lovingly.  I get to work with professionals who I care about so deeply and who I absolutely know have my back, even when they piss me off.  I’ve had students who made teaching the love of my life.  I have my writing and drawing and painting and the business I plan to get started.  I have a new job and coworkers that are slowly giving me reason to keep myself healthy so that I can continue to learn the ropes.  I have pets that I adore, plants to water, and a bookshelf that I have been trying to get the paint off to stain for the last three weeks.  I have this unbelievably cozy little corner in my bedroom to snuggle into.

Deep down I know that my life really isn’t based on what I do or don’t achieve.  It’s about the people I share my experiences with and the joy I can find in the simple, every day things.  I’m learning this more and more all the time.  My gratitude is starting to become a constant dialogue in my head between me and the universe.  I’m starting to feel more whole all the time.

This is all a process, for me and for everybody.  I know this.  And it’s ok.  Tonight was down.  Who knows what tomorrow will be.  Maybe I really won’t ever be the person I have always wanted to be.  I guess I’ll learn to find my peace with that, too.  The only thing that I know for sure is that emotions come and go and I don’t have to be swept away by them.  I can feel emotions and have experiences without becoming them.  I am solidly me, whoever that is, and whoever she ends up being.  And for tonight, that’s enough.

 

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ERC, take two

It has been such a long time since I’ve written here.  Eight months?  Can that really be?  That feels neglectful, like a cop-out.  Really, though, writing and sharing hasn’t been easy for me lately.  I haven’t really even written in my personal journal much.  I’ve felt so stuck and angry and embarrassed of where I am that the words just didn’t come.  I feel the need to write again, though I’m not really sure where to start.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable for me to just copy and paste the whole last year of my life and, poof, there’s your update.  But I guess the truth is that it’s not that simple.  It’s never that simple, is it?

The truth is, I’ve really been struggling lately.  For those of you who don’t know, I had to go back out to Eating Recovery Center in Denver for another round of treatment.  I made it through most of the semester, loving being back in school and around my friends, playing my bassoon, and teaching, but I had to leave one paper, one final, and one jury short of finishing the semester.  I felt like a failure all over again.  It was a crushing weight.  I really wanted to finish and I think I could have, but my team really pushed me to just go.  So I did.

I spent a few days in the hospital in Atlanta while I waited for a spot to open at ERC.  It was a surreal experience.  Sure, I was tired.  I’ve been tired for years.  Aren’t all adults tired?  Isn’t that what it means to “adult?”  Keep pushing until you can’t anymore?  I just could not quite wrap my mind around it.  I sat there in the hospital with IVs, oxygen, telemetry, and another damn feeding tube and wrote the final for my undergrad music theory class.  I entered grades.  I had a few amazing friends help out with my class when I couldn’t physically be in the classroom even though I wanted to be.  I kept going like this was all some big mistake, even though I was so weak I had trouble walking to and from the bathroom and the PT people at the hospital had me up using a gait belt, which let me tell you, was a humbling experience.  I am still confused about how my brain can be screaming I’M FINE I’M FINE I’M FINE when clearly, all evidence is to the contrary.   In my mind, I genuinely was (am) fine.

Eating Disorders are lying little shits.

I flew out to Denver shortly after I got out of the hospital.  The last time I was at ERC, I was afraid and unsure, but even though the anxiety of being away from home there was an underlying feeling of calm, of finally being able to let go of the reigns and breathe.  There was no such feeling this time.  I flew by myself and had a full-blown panic attack in the airport when we arrived.  I couldn’t figure out which direction to take the airport train and I got hot and dizzy, I couldn’t get my breath, and ended up throwing up my coffee in a terminal trash can.  That was the high point of the day.  I arrived at ERC and panicked again.  I refused to sign the paperwork and begged to leave until they let me go back downstairs to the lobby with the unlocked doors to outside.  I couldn’t bring myself to go in the doors again.  Several hours later, they convinced me to just stay the night, just to give it a try, and I was so exhausted I agreed.  I ended up staying, but it was very touch and go for the first two weeks.  I never unpacked my suitcase.  I wanted to be ready to run the second I felt I needed to.  My intense level of anxiety never let down this time.  I was never able to relax into it.  I was tense and angry the whole time.  The refeeding and weight gain happened so fast it made my head spin.  I felt like a crazed, rabid animal and when cornered, I lashed out.  It was like not even being in my body sometimes.  I slammed doors, threw things, yelled, refused to eat.  I had never seen myself like this before.  Who is this scared, rabid girl?  I cried for weeks.

Eventually I settled into the routine, and though it was never comfortable or really enjoyable, I began to trust my team, just a little.  They kept saying “just a little more time, we’re almost there” long enough to extend that “just a little more time” to ten weeks and three days.  I unclenched enough to enjoy some fun times with some lovely fellow patients in the evenings, but the food part and feeling confined never got easier.  This time at ERC wrecked me.  It saved my life, again, to be sure, but it also changed something inside me.  I can’t name it yet, but I feel different.  Altered.

Coming home has been so hard for me.  I wanted nothing more than to leave every single one of those 73 days, and while I’m so glad to be back to my husband and family and animals, I still feel different.  I’ve been home a month now and I’ve not yet wanted to see anyone.  Well, I wanted to, but I haven’t let myself.  I am so ashamed of what I let them do to my body that I just want to stay inside and hide.  I feel like I’m wearing a Mrs. Doubtfire suit and I can’t get it off.  I feel claustrophobic inside my own body.  It doesn’t move like I’m used to it moving, doesn’t feel the same way when I sleep or curl up and watch tv, when I walk.  I try and keep my eyes closed when I take a shower.  None of my clothes fit the same, even my “healthy” clothes.  When I left, I was wearing jeans I bought from the kids section at Target.  Now I have a closet full of clothes I’m terrified to try on, but I’m even more afraid of having to go buy new, bigger sizes.  It feels like such a crushing failure.

And yet, at the same time, I know that’s not true.  I know I was never supposed to be wearing kids clothes.  Heck, I didn’t wear kids sized clothes when I WAS a kid.  My body couldn’t function where it was and it almost died– again.  I felt okay in my body, though, and to me that’s all that mattered.  I felt small and safe enough to really enjoy what I was doing.  Except, when your body slowly shuts down, you don’t really get to enjoy those things to the fullest (or so I’ve been told, anyway).  It’s still very confusing to me.  Retrospectively, it feels like I was fully present and living my dream life– finishing my degree, playing bassoon, teaching, spending time with friends.  I have a very hard time remembering now what it was like to be in that place.  Was I really not present?  Did I really have to sit out of ensemble because I was so dizzy and weak I couldn’t play?  Was that real?  Did I really compromise my whole life just so I could feel comfortable in my body?  Apparently, yes.  (By the way, please note that there is a difference in wanting my body to *look* a certain way and wanting it to *feel* a certain way).  It is so sad for me to write that, and I feel ashamed, too.  Looking back at some pictures from that time, I can see that perhaps I don’t look my best.  My eyes don’t have any depth to them.  How did it feel so ok at the time?  It’s so confusing, you guys, I can’t even explain it.

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Late November to March. This makes me happy and also achingly sad.

The difference is pretty clear, but it doesn’t make me ache any less for the smaller body I felt so comfortable in.  I’m working every day to find positives about this change, but it’s still really hard.  I’m uncomfortable and angry and ashamed.  You’ll have to work with me while I figure out how to navigate the world wearing something I feel so distanced from.  It’s a genuinely disconcerting feeling.  I wasn’t kidding when I said I felt like an avocado with a grape stuck on top.  It’s a humorous picture, but it feels rough.  I feel like my face is too round for my glasses now.  Just let it go, Kristen.  What you see isn’t real.  

So that’s basically the last eight months.  I’m home now, doing on IOP program in Atlanta a few evenings a week.  I’m attempting to let them help me, though goodness knows I don’t like being told what to do.  I’m working on some projects that I’ve been wanting to do for a while and easing myself back into my life.  I’m optimistic that even though this is so, so hard, that the hard means I’m doing the work.  What the “work” actually is is hard to figure out sometimes, but I guess the more miserable I’m making myself, the more I’m challenging myself to question old, unhelpful beliefs and doing things I’m not comfortable with.  So, maybe it’s ok after all.  I’m looking forward to being strong enough to finish my degree in the fall and to start my ETSY store with my watercolors and drawings, soon.  I’m aiming for a starting a little stationery store.

Things are moving.  I’m getting there.  Reminding myself that life is a process for everyone, and this just happens to be mine.  I don’t judge people based on how they look, so why would they judge me?  I am not worth less because I take up more physical space than I did.  Logically I know this.  Logically, I understand all of it.  Moving it from my head to my heart is where my challenge lies.

Have patience with me, friends.  I want to see you and I want to do all of the things.  It’s just hard right now.  It will get better, I know.  So, invite me, ask me, and please don’t give up on me.  I don’t give up and I don’t do anything less than 110%.  This is no exception.  It just might take a little while longer than I was hoping.

 

Life is

Life is

Wake up.
Go to sleep.

Wake up.
Do something that makes my heart calm and happy.
Go to sleep.

Wake up.
Do something that makes my heart calm and happy.
Connection. Gratitude. Learning. Tradition. Nature. Play. Calm.
Go to sleep.

Wake up.
Do something that makes my heart calm and happy.
Connection. Gratitude. Learning. Tradition. Nature. Play. Calm.

Hot coffee with hazelnut.
Sit quietly, feel energy of appreciation.
Send a text just because.
Read a book.
Make the bed.
Sit outside while the dog plays.
Do a puzzle.
Light a candle.
Hug my love.
Go to sleep.

Wake up.
Turn off alarm, yawn into morning.
Do something that makes my heart calm and happy.
Connection. Gratitude. Learning. Tradition. Nature. Play. Calm.
Hot coffee with hazelnut.
Planner spread before me, appointments, to-dos.
Sit quietly, feel energy of appreciation.
Emails need returning, tasks call.
Send a text just because.
Errands, groceries, fill the car with gas.
Scrub the bathroom, fold the towels.
Read a book.
Put casserole in the oven, clean the coffee pot, set for tomorrow.
Make the bed, smooth covers with a gentle hand.
Gas bill, phone bill, car insurance. Credit card.
Sit outside while the dog plays.
Muddy paw prints on the kitchen floor.
Dinner on the table, warm food for the soul, family together.
Load the dishwasher, leftovers in the fridge.
Do a puzzle.
Light a candle.
Curl into the couch, dim the lights, warm blanket.
Hug my love.
Set the alarm.
Go to sleep.

Wake up.
Do something that makes my heart calm and happy.
Connection. Gratitude. Learning. Tradition. Nature. Play. Calm.
Hot coffee with hazelnut.
Sit quietly, feel energy of appreciation.
Send a text just because.
Read a book.
Make the bed.
Sit outside while the dog plays.
Do a puzzle.
Light a candle.
Hug my love.
Go to sleep.

Wake up.
Do something that makes my heart calm and happy.
Connection. Gratitude. Learning. Tradition. Nature. Play. Calm.
Go to sleep.

Wake up.
Choose my focus, the frame upon which to hang my life.
Connection. Gratitude. Learning. Tradition. Nature. Play. Calm.
Go to sleep.

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More questions than answers, i.e., Recovery (or just Life, I suppose)

To me, today, the idea of Recovery really boils down to two separate issues.  One, the huge and seemingly insurmountable, is body image.  I need to do more exploring here, obviously, and I will continue to read and research.  I think it’s really more of a cultural issue than I’ve let myself believe.  I have said time and time again that the magazines and billboards and tv commercials, celebrities and movie stars, none of that influenced me.  I’ve genuinely never really cared for pop-culture, fashion, never kept up with the latest music or movies.  I have spent most of my time with a book in my hand, building things, making things, learning things, making some sort of music with some sort of instrument.  (Fun Fact:  As a 4th grader, I tried to teach myself to read and write Swedish, just for fun!) . But what if these cultural standards really did have an influence on me, despite my lack of attention to them?  I remember envying even the immature small bodies of some of my peers in elementary school.  Why can’t I be pretty like they are?  What did I do to deserve to be so big?  Why am I so bad? Why don’t I fit in?  By middle school, I was keeping a folder of photos of appropriately thin-enough girls from Delia’s catalogues I didn’t even order clothes from, just so I could look back and remind myself what I was aiming for.  Same with pictures from Girl’s Life and American Girl magazines.  I’d read about their grand adventures and how girls could do anything!  Be anything!  We were unstoppable!  And then I cut out pictures to remind me how small I should be.  Where did this desire to be small come from, if not from the messages and images that I observed and heard as a child?  Back to the same old idea—I may not have created these conditions, but it’s up to me to rise above them.  I did not choose to take on the standards of the thin ideal, but I did nonetheless.  Now, I can choose to change my mind. I feel a strong urge to become an advocate for Health at Every Size, to stand in opposition to Diet Culture, but my first order of business is how to change my own standards for myself and learn to accept my own body.  Easier said than done.

The other main issue is something that was brought up to me yesterday during a conversation with someone I trust and look up to.  I had heard it before (many times), but I don’t know that I really understood before.  I have no real idea of what my own expectations are, what really motivates me.  I have simply relied on other people’s expectations to define my own since I was a child.  How do I begin to untangle my own expectations from everyone else’s that I’ve been assuming were my own for so many years?  You’re so smart!  You’re so talented!  You can do anything!  So I tried.  Really hard, for years and years.  If I was smart, why *wouldn’t* I get A’s?  If I was talented, why *wouldn’t* I make All-State, get into the Jacob’s School of Music?  Do the hardest things possible to make good use of the smarts and talents I’d been told so often that I had?  Despite these constant reminders that I Could Do Anything! why did I feel so overall lousy?  Like I wasn’t working hard enough, wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t exceptional enough?  Why was I so ashamed of myself that I was shrinking away from life, literally and figuratively?  Maybe it’s like she told me yesterday.  Maybe it’s because I’ve never really figured out how it is that *I* really want to spend my life.  I had never thought of it that way before.  If those aren’t my goals and desires, then what do I actually want?  How do I deal with the perceived failures might arise if I do things differently, according to what I discover my own dreams and desire might be?  How do I change my idea that failure in anything (and by failure, I mean anything less than perfection) automatically means I’m worthless and undeserving and everyone will know how shameful I am?  There’s lots to ponder here, too.  I seem to be coming up with many more questions than I have answers, lately.

Aside:  I’m sitting here at Jittery Joe’s and I just ate a blueberry scone.  These blueberry scones are among my very favorite treats in the whole world.  Paired with a hazelnut coffee?  That combination by itself makes for a phenomenal day.  I so enjoyed them.  I feel calm of and settled, like I have everything I need in the world.  I sat here, and I enjoyed them.  I tasted them.  I let myself be aware of the consistency, the flavor.  This morning I had exactly 124 calories of an egg white omelet with kale and kimchi, which I measured precisely with measuring cups and a food scale.  It was pretty good actually, and I enjoyed it enough.  But if I’m being completely honest, it’s not what I wanted and the main reason my brain convinced me that I enjoyed it was because I knew it was an absurdly low calorie count for a whole meal.  So now I’m trying to convince myself that obliterating the low-calorie, low-carb breakfast with my decidedly not low-calorie or low-carb blueberry scone is really ok.  I wanted one, so I had one.  That’s normal eating.  Normal eating is ok.  Encouraged.  It does not make me weak or worthless.  The scale was down a few pounds this morning (but wait, I don’t want to ruin it! Damn you, scone! Ugh, fine, never mind.  The scone was ok. I think.), most likely due to the same ridiculous low-calorie, low-carb foods I’ve been eating the last few days.  (But the low calorie stuff has allowed me to eat three meals a day!  Success!  See?  I’m following my meal plan!  That’s bullshit, Kristen, and you know it.) There is even a disgusting looking bag in my pantry of some sort of white sludge-like liquid-packed “Miracle Noodles” that claim to have zero calories and zero carbs (to which I can’t help but ask, then what the heck is it??). I even found myself searching Instagram yesterday for super low-calorie meals, the whole time thinking I don’t even believe in diets or “lifestyle changes,” I know they don’t work, I know they’re harmful to your mind and body, I hate diet culture with a passion, I don’t want to perpetuate this nonsense, this is just straight up stupid, what am I even doing??  Oh, but I can be down to XXX by the time school starts!  Think of how confident I could be! Well, yeah, I could, but then I’d probably end up sick again, having to leave school, back in Colorado with my life on pause and a tube up my nose.  Let me tell you, as pretty as Denver is, I can only imagine how lovely it would be if I could do more than admire those mountains from the fifth-floor window of a treatment center.  And NG tubes hurt like a mofo.  So yeah, right now, in this moment, despite all the other thoughts swirling around in my head, I enjoyed that scone.

I’d love to know, what is your experience with these kinds of questions?  What is your middle like?  I genuinely want to know.

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The Messy Middle

Exactly ten months yesterday I admitted to Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado.  It has been ten months of fighting (with staff, with doctors, with therapists, with just about everybody, including myself) to allow myself to recover from this eating disorder.  Ten months of living out of a suitcase and being mostly away from my husband.  It started with a medical hospitalization here in Athens, then fifteen weeks of inpatient treatment at ERC, several months of Partial Hospitalization (PHP) and then Intensive Outpatient (IOP) at Renfrew, then back to PHP, back to Inpatient at ERC, and again back to Renfrew for PHP.  I’ve lost count of where I’ve been when.  Now it’s near the end of June and I’ve just stepped down once more to IOP at Renfrew in Atlanta.  When I was admitted to the hospital last August, I told school I’d be back in three weeks.  Never in a million years did I see this coming, that the majority of the 33rd year of my life would be so strange and so scary.  I did not, and honestly still don’t, understand how sick I had actually gotten– It’s hard to conceptualize when you think you feel okay (I’ve been told I actually didn’t feel well, but I didn’t know it).  I am overwhelmingly grateful for the people that I’ve met along the way.  I realize this is (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime chance to dig deep and have a chance at lasting recovery.  I can’t say enough good things about my treatment teams at both the facilities where I’ve been and my amazing “dream team” of professionals here at home.  I care deeply about all of these people, and, though I do not understand why they believe so adamantly in me, I am so overwhelmingly thankful that they do.

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I’ve been loving working with watercolor and learning to do some hand lettering.

I did not know what I was getting into, what this would really be like.  I think part of the problem is that nobody ever tells you what the middle is like.  The people who talk about their recovery, at one point, were sick, dying, numb.  They’ve been where I am, their lives crumbling, the pain intolerable.  The hurt swallowing them as they refused another bite, sip, or slip away to purge, praying this one time, this time it will make everything ok again.  But they recover!  They get better.  They do the work and then they are alive again, living their lives fully, enjoying little moments in every day, truly appreciating themselves despite their flaws.  They realize that they are worthy just because they exist.  A peace descends, and slowly but surely, they relax into their new vibrations.  They want to share their story, their newfound hope and joy.  And they do, oh, they do, and it is wonderful.  I’ve read their books.  I’ve heard them on podcasts.  They’ve even come to speak to me and my fellow patients while we are in the throes of treatment, tubes up our noses and scars on our hearts.  Their stories come to us when we are lying on the ground, bruised and beaten, too tired to lift our heads just one more time.

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My altered book has been a great source of comfort and creativity lately. Who knew I could paint and draw?

And I believe them.  I believe what they tell me.  Recovery is worth it.  There is life on the other side of this, even if I don’t know what that looks like yet.  I can see the glow about them, the light in their eyes, the exuberance they radiate as they assure us that, yes, this life is for us as well.  They don’t pretend everything is perfect.  They’re real, genuine.  They tell us that life still happens, hurt still comes, yet throughout the good and bad, there is a mutual trust between them and their bodies.  They know emotions will end, that they will not be swallowed, that they are safe.  They have learned to weather the waves that everyone rides during their lifetime.  But now, you see, their response is different.  A bad day does not illicit the same self-hatred and sting of unworthiness that it used to.  They are not either all good or all bad.  They are simply having a human experience, and their worthiness no longer lies in achievements or outcomes.  They have worked hard, very hard, and they have learned these things.  Still, though, they don’t always remember in the heat of the moment.  Nobody is perfect, nobody handles life beautifully every time.  But the truths they have uncovered are there, and they can return to them.  At the end of the day, they are ok.  Maybe hurt or disappointed or embarrassed or grieving, but they are ok.  Their foundation is stronger, and they trust it will hold when they struggle.  There is nothing more to prove.

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I don’t remember exactly when I wrote this, but I come back to it again and again.

I believe in recovery, I genuinely do.  But… how did they get there?  How did you get there?  I know the feeling of the pain and the struggle so tightly bound to your soul, and I can clearly see that the shadow of this illness no longer looks out through your eyes.  Even so, I do not understand how you get from one to the other, from the ground back to your feet.  I am trying so hard.  I work every single day to apply what I’m learning, to change how my brain works.  I understand now that it is literal re-wiring that has to happen.  My eating disorder thoughts and behaviors are well-worn super-highways through my brain, and healing means hacking my way through a thicket of unknown places, attempting to create even the smallest of new pathways.  And then I have to walk them over and over again, as uneven and foreign and unnatural as they are, hoping that they become bigger and stronger and that the super-highway becomes even the tiniest bit less appealing.  I choose to hope that every time I challenge a thought, eat when I don’t want to, pack away another pair of size 0 shorts, that this will be worth it in the “end.”  It’s exhausting, and I hate it.  I want to stop doing it and to just get back on the damn familiar highway where I can shift into cruise control and move easily through my life.  Just for a little while, just so I can have a rest from this work, from this constant back-and-forth in my head, to not fight so ferociously about every little thing…

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Tiny little “mixed-media” I did at ERC, round 2.

How did you do this?  How did you wade through this part?  How did you finally pick a side for which to fight?  How long did it take?  What did a normal day look like for you? How did you move this understanding from your head to your heart?  I could write you a well-written and fully cited dissertation on eating disorders with all the research I’ve done. But how do you actually, you know, do recovery?  How did you deal with looking in the mirror and despising the figure looking back at you, the one with the round face, curves in places where there used to be edges?  Did you believe people when they said that what you see isn’t real?  Are you academic, relatively intelligent, like me, and wonder how the brain that has brought you this far could be lying to you now, so well and so often?  Lying so convincingly that you literally see something that’s not real when you look in the mirror?  When were you able to trust those around you instead of what you see with your own eyes?  Were you as confused as I am?  Did you struggle this much?  Did you cry yourself to sleep because you can’t stand being trapped in this body but you also couldn’t fathom surviving another day of being so thirsty you literally saw stars when you stood up?

This is the part I want to hear about, but I can’t seem to find it.  I have lived (am living?) the beginning, and I believe in the goal, but there’s a big, gaping hole where that messy middle happens.  There are many parts of this for me to work through—my totally distorted body image, my raging perfectionism, my inability to see myself as worthwhile without a report card or chair placement.  As Brene Brown would say, I have somehow bought into the ideas of “exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.”

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I am working my way through unwinding all these maddening (and yet seemingly safe) places and trying to replace them with better ways to live and experience my own life.  I’m trying to change how I think, how I eat, how I think about eating.  This challenge is really only getting started for me.  I didn’t know how hard it would be, how long it would take, how much would need to change.  But it does, and I’m doing it, albeit slowly and in a very non-linear progression.  And if I’m going to do it, I’m going to make this about something bigger than me.  I’m going to write about the hurt and struggle, and hopefully the joys and excitement as I see little changes begin to take hold.  It’s not going to be pretty, that I can assure you.  I’m probably going to continue to be angry and manipulative and fighting everyone who is trying to help me and hating my body and changing my mind about whether or not I actually want recovery in the first place about a thousand times a day.  I’m probably going to continue hiding crackers in my sleeves sometimes and cover uneaten things on my plate with orange peels.  And I’ll be pissed at you when you call me out.  Just so you know.  That’s still where I’m safe.

But you know what?  In the midst of all this crap, I’m determined to be “that person” for someone else out there that is struggling.  I want to say that I used to be there, and now I’m here, it’s not fun, it’s not pretty, but I believe in where I’m going.  I’m not going to get there today, but I choose to hope I will someday.  Come with me.  You don’t have to do it alone, either.  I will not let my story and my journey, this deep digging and soul-searching and generally shitty time, be for nothing.  I want someday to be able to say I am worth all of this fight.  Even now, though, I know that this is not for me alone.  This is for something much bigger than me.  I’m going to share my truth, despite my fear of your judgment, in hopes that it really does make a difference to someone, somewhere.

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Please be understanding with me, friends.  I am not used to being so vulnerable, even with a computer screen to protect me.  I can guarantee I’ll try to hide behind some pretty snarky sarcasm and humor.  I’m really good at it.  You all are my friends, my professors, my elementary, middle, and high school teachers, the people I’ve looked up to, parents of the students I’ve taught, students from my classes at UGA…  I like hiding behind my “I’m easily good at everything and I get good grades and play bassoon well and keep a perfect house” façade.  But I’m not perfect, I’m scared a lot, I work really freaking hard to do well in school, I judge myself harshly, and I actually hate cleaning up the kitchen.  I also detest brushing my teeth (but don’t worry, I do it anyway).  It’s scary to put this stuff out in the universe.  But it needs to be out there.

This will be the story of my messy middle.  It’s time this part of the journey is shared.

 

2017 – The year of All The Things

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve written anything here.  I’ll admit, I feel some guilt over not having written a post to my dad on the fourth anniversary of his death.  It’s the first year I haven’t written to him.  The day did not go unnoticed, but I did not write.  This year was a complicated amalgamation of different experiences, emotions, and milestones.  Looking back, I can’t believe that they all fit into one short calendar year.  I’ve had a little space from them now, and although I am just beginning my own personal processing of the year, I wanted to share a few things with all of you that I feel need to be said.

This time last year, I began the second semester of my first year of grad school at UGA.  Oh, how I love being in school again.  I love learning, being a part of a community of like-minded, creative people, being able to be my nerdy, musical self, and above all I loved teaching.  I taught freshman level Aural Skills and fell in love with my students and with music theory (I know, who EVER would have thought??).  Deepening my love, commitment, and progress (albeit with frustration!) with the bassoon and teaching my students was the homecoming that I didn’t realize my heart had been waiting for.

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Fellow aural skills TAs after the Christmas Concert.

In July, I had to say goodbye to my beloved car Rhonda the Honda in a serious accident.  To say I was shaken up would be an understatement.  I was lucky beyond words to climb out of my car with nothing more than cuts and bruises, but the accident was a physical and emotional battering.

In December, I got to meet my first nephew, Noah Kenneth, who has nestled his way into my heart in a way I couldn’t have imagined.  A new little person, a person who shares my DNA, who is the child of my brother and precious sister-in-law, who I will know for his entire life.  I held this new little person and I fell even more in love with my family than I knew was possible.  I am so excited to spend the rest of my life as Aunt Kristen.

That brings us to now, this time THIS year, and although I would give anything to be back in the orchestra and the classroom, I’m not.  I’m taking my second semester off to continue giving my body and mind space to heal from the Eating Disorder that crept back into my life despite all the wonderful things that were happening.  Life is life, after all, and there is no specifically “good” or “bad” time.  Life is complicated and multifaceted and for me, this is just my natural inclination to deal with stress.

I haven’t advertised my experience with the ED over the last year with flashing lights to everyone I come in contact with, but neither do I want it to be a shameful secret.  The truth is, save for the last 5-6 years where I’ve experienced pretty solid recovery, some sort of disordered eating has been a part of my life since I was in elementary school.  The back story here is not my main goal with this post, either, however, so I will let that be for now.

By August, it was fairly clear that I was going to need some additional help and support to deal with the eating disorder that was beginning to take a serious toll on my health and well-being.  It was also clear that school would not be an immediate option for the fall.  I was devastated.  Reluctantly, after a short hospital stay in Athens, and with the support of my amazing treatment team, Sam and I decided that it would be best if I flew out to Denver, CO to Eating Recovery Center to start the process of getting back on track.  You guys, this was legit the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.  Had I known exactly what to expect, I probably would not have gone.

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It was this moment, this post-run exhaustion and desperation when I knew that I needed more help, that it was time. This is as raw and as vulnerable as it gets, folks.

Eating Disorder treatment is no joke.  You lose your privacy, your ability to make your own decisions.  They take away what you have considered to be your lifeline to safety in life.  I could tell you about the “flush checks,” the meal plans, the ng tubes, the 15 minute fresh air breaks you earn only if you finish your meals and snacks, the not-quite-opaque gowns you are weighed in every single morning after peeing in a cup, the “team rounds” that resemble being sent to the principal’s office (which, really I can only imagine because I’ve never actually experienced that)… I could go on.

But for now, I’m not going to.  Not that my experiences aren’t worth talking about or explaining or remembering– they are.  (If you want to know more, please ask.  I’ll be happy to tell you all about it).  But what I wanted to highlight with this post is what I gained in exchange for all of the things I felt like I “lost.” In all reality, ERC saved my life.  My doctor told me that had I not gone to treatment, I had about two weeks to live.  I had no concept of this (it’s still hard to take in).  I did not feel that bad.  How could it be that bad?  But once I arrived at ERC, scared and numb, I found nothing but acceptance, gentleness, and a group of people ready to help me save myself from this insidious disease.  From the incredible nurses to the amazing BHCs (behavioral health counselors), every single person met me with compassion, a “no bullshit” attitude, and an unwavering stance that we were worth more than a life of pain and starvation for goals we will never meet.  I had never been in an environment where I felt truly understood and supported, and where everyone was rallying around each other to stamp out the nasty ED voices in our heads.  My therapist told me before I left for Denver that I was going to ERC to “let someone else fight my eating disorder for me until I was strong enough to do it myself.”   That is exactly what I found.  Those precious souls, the BHCs and nurses, those people who have now left permanent imprints on my life, fought tooth an nail against my eating disorder (and sometimes against me) to breathe life back into the shell of who I had become.

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First time allowed outside after 5 weeks. The view was incredible. Denver is beautiful.

Do not misunderstand, though– this was no easy process.  This IS no easy process.  The game isn’t over.  This isn’t a happy ending story because it’s still ongoing.  That’s just how life works.  It is a fight every single day, every hour, sometimes every minute.  It is not fun and I pretty much hate every bit of it.  It is a literal rewiring of thought processes, changing behaviors through “opposite action,” and beginning to learn who I really am as opposed to who I have trained myself to be to fit into the box everyone else’s expectations.  You guys, it’s a process.  Sometimes a shitty one.

My time at ERC also allowed me to cross paths with some of the most amazing people in this world.  My fellow patients made this experience what it was– one of laughing and tears, growth, new friendships, new insight, understanding, and unparalleled compassion.  I will not mention any names, but you all know who you are.  You have changed me.  I would not trade this experience, the tears, the anger, the gut-wrenching moments, none of it, as that would mean that I would not have met you.  You have touched me and you have changed me.

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On my way to healthy again.

So here I am, back at home after 15 weeks of inpatient eating disorder treatment.  I’m not done with my process, but I’m not dying anymore.  I’m moving forward (and some back and up and down, but forward).  What I want you to take from this, dear reader, is that sometimes life is wonderful and that sometimes it is really, really hard.  Sometimes those things co-exist at the same time.  We all have our demons to fight.  If you need help with yours, ask.  You know what I did not find, in any of my experiences over the last few months?  Shame.  I felt shame, but nobody brought that to me, nobody encouraged it.  Everyone from my professors, to my friends and family, to the incredible people at ERC and my amazing team here at home has been nothing but supportive of me during this time.  I have been floored.  I have felt overwhelmingly lifted up and held.  People will be supportive of you, too.  There are a million ways to escape when life gets hard– video games, alcohol, working too hard, drugs, shopping, eating disorders.  None of it is worth shame.  But you deserve better, just like I do.  Reach out.  To me, to anyone.  I promise that there is SOMEONE out there that is ready to offer to you what I have so graciously been offered.  Asking for help is hard, and accepting the help is even harder, don’t I know it.  Just know that it is possible.  Whatever it is you’re struggling with (because everyone has something– we are human, after all) there is hope.

**If you have any questions about anything I’ve written or said, please ask.  I am not going to share the raw or intimate experiences or anything that may violate HIPPA on social media, but I also do not want to be closed and ashamed of my experiences.

 

Dear Dad: It’s been three years

Dear Dad,

November 21.

I guess that date will never again slide by unnoticed, just a day leading up to Thanksgiving, just a Monday, or a Tuesday, maybe a Wednesday.  November 21.  That’s the day my dad died.  How strange.  It still feels strange.

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Goofing around

For some reason, the days leading up to the day are the hardest for me.  I think back and think, this time three years ago my dad had a week to live and nobody knew.  This time three years ago, my dad would be gone in four days and we didn’t know.  This time three years ago, my dad was going to sleep and he was never going to wake up again.  I probably shouldn’t think about it like that, but it’s hard not to.  It wasn’t planned.  We didn’t know.  I went to work that morning, worked all day, and it wasn’t a big deal.  I also checked my credit score.  It’s funny the things you remember.

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I still can’t believe we wore these sweatshirts.  They had bells on them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that evening that we found out, mom and I.  I haven’t really gone through the events that happened, that horrible night, in a sequential timeline.  I remember flashes of it at a time.  We were at the Dillard’s at Atlantic Station where we had met after work and we were in the dressing room trying on dresses.  I remember that there was an Australian woman in there as well, and she told me that she liked my accent.  I thought that was so odd but I liked it.  I don’t know why I remember that detail.  I don’t remember what happened to her, or if she was still around when the call came in.  Matthew called Mom while we were together, and she was so excited to get a call from him.  I was standing next to her, and she got so upset, she was saying over and over, getting more and more hysterical “He died?!  He died?!  How?  When?”  I didn’t know who, I couldn’t get her to tell me who, but I could tell from her reaction that it was bad.  “Mom, who died, WHO DIED” I kept saying, getting more panicked every time I didn’t get an answer.  Finally she said your name, that it was you, that you were gone, and the entire planet shifted.  I’ll never forget how she said you name.  I ran out of the dressing room, not for any reason other than I had to move, I had to move, I couldn’t stand still.  The floor would crumble underneath me.  Oh my god my dad is dead my dad is dead my daddy died no no no no no.  I remember the first sensation I felt when she said your name was a burning, frantic, panicked desperation to tell you all the things that I never told you, all the things I would ever want to tell you, anything and everything, that I loved you, but I couldn’t I never could again.  I could never tell you anything again.  I wanted to call you and tell you my dad died that something really horrible had happened, that horrible thing that only happens to other people, and I needed you.  Except it WAS you.  It was you I needed but it was you who was gone.  What on earth do I do with that?  That was probably just the first five seconds.

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After my senior bassoon recital at UGA

I called Sam and he left his full cart in Kroger and came to get us.  Maria and Triss were on the way to us, too.  Matthew called them before he called us.  Everybody was coming.  The nice ladies at the department store brought us bottles of water, boxes of tissues, and cleared the rest of the people out.  We sat on the floor together, not sure what to do or where to go.  I heard crying and I guess it must have been us, but it sounded so far away.  Somehow we got out of the dresses and back into our own clothes, though I don’t remember that part.  I think the ladies who worked there helped us.  Sam and Triss and Maria came and got us, met us in the dressing room, hugged us, and we all cried and cried.  My sleeves were wet from tears.  I remember at one point seeing my face in the mirror and I didn’t even recognize myself.  Were those my eyes?  I guess that’s who I am now, I thought.  Then I called your sister and I had to tell her that her brother was dead.  Sam told me to use the word “dead” because when you talk to people who are in shock, you have to use hard words or they can’t understand, they don’t want to understand.  I told her you died.  She called me back a few minutes later and asked, Kristen, did you really just tell me Greig died?  Yes, he died.  He’s gone.  I guess even when you use hard words sometimes it’s still hard to take in.

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Christmas 2007 at Stone Mountain Park

Somehow we got back to my apartment and so many people were already there, straightening up, with dinner and breakfast for the next morning.  Someone folded the clean towels on the couch and I remember finding it peculiar that I didn’t care if they thought I was messy for not having all my laundry folded and put away.  I let them do it for me.  Emily and Barbara had come, Erin, Jane, Pete was already driving from Birmingham.  It was the most vulnerable I had ever been, but our dear friends didn’t even give us the chance to fall.  They were under us, supporting us, providing for us, taking care of us before we even knew what we needed.  We sat on the couch for a long time.  I remember we passed through several cycles of intense tears followed by some relief and breathing and some light laughter, then I would remember and the wave would pull me down again.

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You guys loved coming to the football games.

Somehow the next few days happened and we waited while they brought you home from Colorado.  I’m not sure of the details of how you got here, though I remember one gut-wrenching moment when I realized I didn’t know who would meet you at the airport.  The day of your funeral was so cold and I think it was raining.  I didn’t have a warm enough coat but someone let me borrow one.  I don’t remember who.

But now, looking back on that time, three years later, what stands out to me most is not the pain and shock, though I still feel that, too, but the love and kindness.  From the strangers in the department store to our dear friends and family, we were overwhelmed with people wanting to help us, to make something easier when even breathing was difficult.  Friends brought food and folded my laundry, they sent cards and flowers, they came to your funeral and held our hands.  They put plates of food in our lap and encouraged us to eat.  Sam turned down the bed and had my clothes picked out in the morning so I wouldn’t even have to think about how to get dressed. My co-workers took on my workload and left me with not a single thing to do upon returning to work after Thanksgiving.  Emily brought me some yarn, knitting needles, and a pattern to keep my mind busy, but simple enough to where I didn’t have to think.  Sam’s family welcomed me for my first Thanksgiving with them and talked openly about my dad so I wouldn’t have to pretend nothing happened, and they didn’t recoil when tears came out of nowhere.

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Brunch at Cafe Intermezzo.  This was the last time we were all together.

I miss you terribly, Dad, but I wouldn’t want to give up what I have learned in the last few years. What matters is sharing a human connection.  I think every day that I want to make someone feel as loved and worthy as those beautiful souls made us feel when you died, Dad.  And I don’t want to wait until they experience a great loss or trauma.  I want to treat people like they matter right now.  Even if it’s just a smile in the hallway, talking to a student after class, making someone laugh when they’re having a crappy day, or remembering something they’ve said to me earlier and asking about it again.  I want to let people know that I see them, that I can see their importance in the whole of the universe.  I want to be an instrument of peace and a light to those around me.  I still get stressed and overwhelmed and forget, but I try.  I really try.  I’m a work in progress, too.  We can’t avoid pain in life, Dad, even the life-altering kind that divides the world into before and after.  I can’t know for sure that nothing will ever hurt me again.  What I am sure of, though, is that can I leave everyone I come in contact with a little better than I found them.  Thank you for helping me find my truth in life, Dad.  Be love and light.

I love you and I miss you.

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