suicidepreventiondayYesterday was World Suicide Prevention Day, and it has me thinking about the people who have been driven to suicide by the monsters of anorexia and bulimia.  How many of the 3000 suicides per day are committed by those who see no other alternative to life with an eating disorder?  How many take their own life because they know no other way to end the relentless torture of anorexia and bulimia?  How many of them had access to treatment?  And of those who hadn’t, how many would have made a different choice if they had?

Sad Sillhouette The way that eating disorders can – and so often do – lead individuals to such terrible measures is absolutely horrifying.  But anyone who’s met the merciless anorexic or bulimic demon that so insidiously seduces and consumes the mind knows the parallel agonies it demands: starving life away, binging into comatose oblivion, purging until the whole world seems inside-out… One can easily imagine how a quick and easy end would seem preferable.  The time comes where it’s impossible to stop restricting, binging and purging, and all that’s left is to die or await a miracle.

Jumping Off Place In many circles, this is called “the jumping off place”, because at that point, people either jump off a building… or into recovery.  With nothing left to lose, those that choose the latter often find themselves much more open to whatever lengths it takes to get well.  Those that choose the former… we can only mourn the tragedy and their worlds laid waste.  Often I wonder what determines the outcome in that critical moment, what makes the difference, what saves the survivors and escapes the dead.  The answer is impossible to know.

What I do know is that there is a solution.  Recovery from anorexia and bulimia is possible, and suicide isn’t the only way out.  And the more of us that make it, the more hope there is to offer those who still suffer.  There have been many nights where I dreaded opening my eyes on another day with my captor, but thankfully never a day where I didn’t want to live.  Now, I hope my life in recovery can somehow bear witness to those seeking even a glimpse of light.  I hope one day the survivors outnumber the dead.

Over the first four years of my recovery, I was hospitalized five times.

hospital-hallway

Believe me, I’m not proud of that statement.  Each time I was confined to the same pediatric ward for atIV drip least three months (my longest stay was close to five or six), and each time I started pretty much at Ground Zero.  Five times I returned to a routine of 4am blood pressure checks, nightly heart monitors, twice-weekly weigh-ins, locked bathrooms, urine measurements, supervised baths (not showers), regular bloodwork and ultrasounds, dry and ruthless air conditioning, mechanical refeeding, cups of coloured pills, and sterile grey lifeOver and over again – borderline insanity by definition!

Don’t get me wrong – I needed to be there, and I can’t thank the people who put up with me enough.  But life in hospital sucks.  I can definitely relate to Grey Thinking’s post about the dark side of inpatient treatment.

hospital hallway bwHowever, while the hospital routine never really changed much, the people –  namely, patients – did, and as a direct result, so did my overall experience.  Yes, during one of my stays I was surrounded by GT’s worst idea of “the sickest of the sick” -  girls who were uninterested in treatment, and even went so far as competing with each other in self-sabotage.  It was hell, and it made the already excruciating process of recovery even more unbearable.

But on other visits, things were different.  The treatment atmosphere on the ward was, at times, unexpectedly positive, my fellow inpatients miraculously dedicated to (even if not always enthusiastic about) recovery.  Life wasn’t only “out there” to look forward to, but also right there in our shared room, as we each in turn dropped our guards and showed some personality.  The truth was, we all knew how to have an eating disorder, we had nothing to prove – except that we had much better things to do than waste away in hospital.

daffodil pairOne girl had an extraordinary talent for sketching, and she drew an incredibly  realistic portrait of me that to this day sits framed on my mantelpiece.  The same girl spent an hour plucking my sheepdog eyebrows while we watched  yet another episode of Prison Break.

Another of about 25 showed the rest of us how to decoupage a pair of shoes – high heels, in her case – or any other fashion accessory.  She brought in all sorts of amazing art supplies with which we passed the times of boredom.

One time, when I panicked because I’d ran out of the apples that were a mandatory part of my mealplan, the quietest of all the girls smiled shyly and gave me hers because she was “ready to challenge a banana anyway”.

daffodil right I remember being completely blown away by one girl who confided in me that her motivation for recovery was driven most by the fear of infertility; she wanted more than anything to be a mom.  She was 12 or 13 at the time.

Yes, there definitely can be a dark side to inpatient treatment – and GT’s argument that it can make patients worse is understandable – but not every treatment situation is the same.  It would be unbelievably ungrateful and downright dissentient of me to forget or deny the times that hospitalization, and those involved, reawakened me to life, rather than taking more of it from me.

moderation banner

Moderation seems to be one of the hardest concepts for us to grasp – as humans in general, perhaps, but definitely as anorexics and bulimics.

And yet, the word is tossed about with maddening ease as the simple solution for health and happiness. 

As a chronic anorexic in recovery, I find the idea of moderation absolutely  howmybrainworks - moderationbaffling.  My disease is one of extremes, of obsession and black-and-white thinking: when it comes to food, exercise, weight, and everything related, moderation is a complete mystery.  It’s all or nothing – I’ve got to be completely full or completely empty; exercise is grueling or not worth doing; it’s so much easier to not eat at all than to face the fear of eating even just a little.  If something feels good, I take all I can possibly get; if it’s uncomfortable, I avoid it at all costs.

orange-man-pencil One summer, I turned orange.  A very unflattering, fake-tan orange, at that.  A yellowy-orange that tinged my fingertips and stained my limbs like Orange Crush on a light-coloured shirt.

Why?  Because moderation had flown right out the window, once again – this time with carrots.

Carrots are a great source of vitamin A, beta-carotene, and fibre.  They’re juicy and sweet, delightfully crunchy, and delicious even when unpeeled.  Plus, they’re a filling, low-calorie vegetable.  For all these reasons, carrots became my favourite safe food.

bunch_o_carrotsEven though I was eating a variety of other foods in recovery, carrots took up a significant percentage of my diet.  They appeared in large quantities alongside – and in between – lunches and dinners.  They took up an inordinate amount of space in the grocery cart and the fridge – until I decided it was less embarrassing to swing by the market every couple of days instead.  Their baby-cut counterparts accompanied me to class, work, and even parties.  Carrots were my go-to hunger-crunchers.

clipart_carrotAt first, I didn’t believe it when people told me I was orange.  The light was always bad, or I was just getting over a cold, or my genes were finally expressing my mother’s South African toffee-coloured skin.  But then my doctor, a woman who had somehow always seen through my anorexic antics,  called me on it.  Apparently carotenemia, or the discolouration of the skin caused by excess beta carotene in the blood, is a diagnosable condition – but it’s more often seen in infants who are fed too much pureed squash, yams, and carrots.  My doctor told me it wasn’t a serious health issue per se, but it was reason enough to reconsider my carrot craze.  I crawled away from my doctor’s office in shame, forced to admit another defeat at the hands of my tricky, extremist disease.

orange man Overall, orange might seem like a better state than emaciated, exhausted, bloated, or starving.  But it’s still a clear sign that moderation is beyond me.  The experience reminded me yet again that I still need to rely on sources outside my irrational, fanatic self for a realistic sense of balance.  I need to stay mindful and aware, to keep things in perspective instead of taking things too far.  I guess orange is just another trap I fall into when I forget that I’m crazy!

PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death and God from Frank Warren on Vimeo.

Is your eating disorder your deepest secret?  You’re not alone.

PostSecret imposter Post Secret happier

Post Secret wish Post Secret still bulimic

But if keeping that incredibly painful burden under wraps is finally burning you out – if you’re tired of avoiding life for fear of exposing it – if that feeling of intense loneliness is at last too much to bear – maybe it’s time to open up.  Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Isolation and secrecy is what keeps us sick.  Eating disorders thrive on shame and shadows, while true life (and recovery) grows from honesty and openness.  The choice is essentially one of life or death.
  • Truth often begets truth.  Your honesty could open up a door for someone else that may otherwise have remained eternally shut.  You never know how your experience can benefit others.
  • A trustworthy ear can miraculously lift a whole lot of weight from your shoulders.  The truth told to even the most unlikely stranger has greater power than you can imagine.  You just might feel better!
  • We cannot beat this alone. With our bodies and minds hard-wired for eating disordered cycles, we have no defense against the lies and impulses characteristic of our disease.  We need outside help.
  • We get it.  Maybe your friends and family have no way of grasping the enormity of your battle – but there are a great number of us who can relate to your story.  In circles like Anorexics & Bulimics Anonymous, no confession is too shocking, because we’ve been there, too.

You can find the courage to open up, like the folks in the PostSecret film.  It’s worth it – help is waiting for you to ask for it.  So let it out. 

Chances are, someone who loves you knows your secret already.

PostSecret anorexia

… seems like the most beautiful way to honour oneself as one’s best friend!

Do You, Child of the Universe, creature of finite butterflyexistence yet infinite possibility, take Yourself, to be your closest and most cherished partner in life,

To live together as friend and mate,

To love and respect as equal and precious,

Sharing in joy as well as sorrow, triumph as well as defeat?

Will you vow to do everything in your power to make your love for yourself a growing part of your life?

Will You continue to strengthen it, from day to day, ribbon heart week to week, with your best resources?

You and Yourself have the opportunity to go forward from this day to create a faithful, kind, and tender relationship.

Will You take Yourself as a lifelong compatriot, loving Yourself now and as as you grow and develop into all that you were made to be?

To have and to hold from this day forward,butterfly

For better or worse,

For richer or poorer,

In sickness and in health,

In times of peace and of turmoil, of rest and of toil, of strength and weakness?

Will You pledge to be honest and open with Yourself, to honour your dreams and work to fulfill them, to listen to your innermost thoughts and desires, and to be considerate and gentle in your care of Yourself?

I Do.ribbon heart

Then let it be pronounced that You and Yourself are now united as best friends for life.

Let all others everywhere recognize and respect this sacred union.

Those that love has joined together, let nothing put assunder.

 TheDailyBreadcrumb-Logo1 copy If you’re looking for little tidbits of cheer that still acknowledge the enormity of  life’s crazy truths, Sunni Chapman’s adorable website is your motherlode.  The Daily Breadcrumb is an expression of a life that evolved from a place of immeasurable pain (and yes, an eating disorder) into something miraculously positive, optimistic, and giving.  In her “Short & Sweet Version” bio, she describes her site as “a little bit of love for your whole-self, and for this whole  SunniChapman-italy1 copy mad-wonderful-mess we call ‘the human experience’”; her humble goal as offering “not only inspiration, but real tools for transformation”.  Couldn’t we all use a LOT of that!

Visitors to her site are greeted first by an example of her handmade illustration and papercraft, serving as a backdrop to the beginnings of her Story.  The image is of a red-headed, mittened girl bundled in a hooded grey coat, laying “a trail of breadcrumbs from the universe”. As the story goes, it was by finding and trusting such transcendental clues that Sunni finally found the true happiness and fulfillment that she now strives to pass on and give back.  Her vision she beautifully writes, draws, and prints into being through her book, greeting cards, papercrafts, music, poetry, and blog – all of which you can find on her website, thedailybreadcrumb.com.

LoveYourEveryMoment-big We especially love her poem about stillness and the “quiet commune”, her “Love Every Moment” card, and her blog posts on topics like “How to be Held” and “Understanding: the Place Between Heart and Mind”.  Definitely in tune with our own perspective on life and love.  Give her site a look-see – you might even find the beginnings of your own trail from the universe…

Campus-LIfe1  There’s been quite a bit of literature written lately about how university and college campuses are a breeding ground for eating disorders; how university and college life and pressures have proven to be contributing factors in many cases of eating disorder development.  Is it any real surprise, what with all that talk of “the Freshman 15”, the significant lifestyle changes students often experience in college or university, the pressure to achieve and even compete for formidable academic success, and the increased sense of independence? 

university Not really.  Those of us who entered post-secondary education having already identified ourselves as anorexics, bulimics, compulsive eaters, etc were especially aware of these environmental hazards.  We almost immediately experienced a heightened awareness of our triggers and subsequent compulsions, our bodies and minds like acute barometers of stress and anxiety.  College and university are clearly challenging for the best of us – but for those of us with eating disorders, the pressures can seem positively overwhelming, posing serious threats to our health and stability.  With a little support and organization, however, we can survive the experience.  Here are some tips for pulling through freshman year, even with an eating disorder as a roommate:

  • Leave the scale at home.  Or even better, at the doctor’s office.  With our tendency to obsess over weight, it’s all too easy to become seduced by the scale when the pressure’s on.  Too easily do our homework and study disciplines give way to restless ruminations over irrelevant numbers and measurements.  Let a doctor or another trusted individual monitor your weight, and trust him or her to tell you if there’s a problem

 

  • Tell a trusted few.  At the start of freshman year, everyone wants to be (or acts like they are) friends with everyone else – but speechbubblethis doesn’t mean personal life should be made public.  On the other hand, it helps to get honest with a few trustworthy people.  It’s much easier to get vulnerable early on and tell the truth than to try and hide your struggles all year, especially when it comes to roommates who might otherwise engage in conversation and activities that you find triggering.  You may be surprised by how such deep honesty begets further honesty, even in the newest of relationships.

 

  • Seek out support.  Find the help you need, whether it be a dietician, therapist, counselor, support group, psychiatrist, sponsor, or telephone hotline – and use it often, even when things are going well.  Visit the campus health centre and make use of what they offer.  Don’t be afraid to reach out and get what you need – if it’s expensive, seek out the aid that most campuses offer for such situations; if it’s time-consuming or time-restrictive, do your best to work your schedule around those vital appointments.  Remember that your health is the top priority.

 

  • Let go of perfectionism.  Speaking of top priorities, scoring 100% Gradsevery  time can’t be one of them.  So many of us set such high standards for ourselves, usually because under normal circumstances, we can achieve them and more.  But between the enormous changes that university or college bring, and the immense challenge of coping with an eating disorder, something’s gotta give – and given the choice between well-being and “perfect” performance, there can be only one sustainable answer.

 

  • Make it social.  Eating disorders thrive on isolation and shame.  We act on our compulsions when we’re alone because we’re ashamed of ourselves, or we don’t want others intruding on our rituals.  So get out of the dark and into the safety of trusted company.  Include friends in your routine: plan meals with friends (whether they know about your eating disorder or not), join a class or a sports team for a bit of safe recreation, study with company or in a public place when possible.  Students do these things all the time as a great way to meet new people, and we need the companionship just as much (if not more).

86528000

  • Plan ahead.  Choosing what to eat, when to eat it, and how is much easier when it’s determined in advance.  (Some of us also find ourselves less prone to the guilty feelings or shame that can follow a meal if we’ve committed to a mealplan ahead of time)  With the help of a dietician or another guide wherever necessary, create a plan for the week that works for you and meets your needs (maybe dinner is the only meal that’s difficult, maybe it’s lunch, maybe every meal needs structure) and stick to it.  It’s not as hard as you think to plan meals on a student’s budget.  You can even include roommates in the process, if you share cooking responsibilities.  Shop accordingly at the beginning of the week, making use of the bulk section and seasonal produce.  It gets easier with practice.

 

  • meditateRest and relax.  Get lots of sleep, because everything (especially coping  with an eating disorder) is harder when you’re tired.  Make time for leisure and self-care, and respect it.  Maybe even make it a social commitment – a bi-weekly game of Risk, an assembly around each new episode of a favourite TV show, a book club, coffee dates, etc.  Give yourself a chance to unwind and recharge, because recovery alone is exhausting!

 

  • Get out there.  Try new things, take advantage of student services and opportunities, explore campus amenities, join clubs and teams, enjoy student life.  Too often we’re bogged down by our schoolwork and pulled into the endless cycle of our disordered thinking.  Freshman year shouldn’t just be about grinding though “higher learning” or maintaining a strict regimen.  Get out of your head and into life!

Life can be challenging for the best of us, at the best of times, and there are lots of great resources for advice and support.  But for an anorexic or bulimic in recovery, those challenges seem even greater – and it seems near impossible to translate those resources into something applicable to our situation.

Hence, “Surviving LIFE” – a series that focuses on overcoming daily hurdles from the perspective of someone who knows how an eating disorder can complicate things further.  Writing only from my own experience and understanding (though perhaps borrowing from others in recovery), I hope these entries might be useful to others in similar situations.  Please don’t hesitate to send me your thoughts and suggestions!

The Office Job.

Desk Job Stress at the Desk

From early on, I always knew the office job wasn’t the one for me.  The idea of sedentary routine, of hours spent hunched in a cramped office chair, of submitting to the hypnotic brain-drain of computer screens and paperwork, was completely unpalatable.  And yet, I pursued a career as a freelance writer – how paradoxical can one get??

The reality is, certain jobs will inevitably land us behind a desk, in a chair, with physically inactive work.  Maybe we’re interning in pursuit of a different position entirely.  Maybe we’re covering reception during a colleague’s maternity leave.  Or maybe, as in my case, we’re just walking the necessary paces of our careers.  Whatever the case may be, the Office Job can drive us recovering anorexics and bulimics crazy as our obsessions start to reel.

Well, we may be facing time in a cubicle, but there are lots of ways we can ease our agitation – at least, enough to survive the experience.  Here are a few that I found helpful:

  • At the Desk Take your breaks.  All of them.  You may think you’re impressing your employer by working that nose raw on the grindstone, but you’ll be much more productive when you’re refreshed.  Breaks don’t have to revolve around food or small talk around the water cooler – that’s one misconception I fell prey to.  Get some air, go window shopping, find a quiet place to meditate, read a book, whatever gets your mind out of the grind.
  • Find a simple way to get some activity in, before and/or after your work day – and stick to it.  Make it part of your routine.  That way, there’s less space for contention or obsession.  Walk or cycle to (or part way to) the office, do some yoga when you get up or before bed, take the dog for a walk, whatever makes you feel good.  Focus on relieving your body of stress and tension, rather than on exercising for exercise’s sake.
  • Pack a lunch.  Even if it’s exactly the same thing each day.  If structure helps, then go with it.  Sandwiches are a simple and easy way to build a balanced lunch, as are soups and hearty salads.  Include snacks if you can; they don’t have to be big but it really helps to keep blood sugars stable.  Make a habit of planning ahead and shopping for what you need.
  • Stay hydrated.  It’s been said over and over, but it’s true – drinking water or other clear fluids helps sustain productivity and energy levels.  At the very least, trips to the bathroom will get you out of that chair and into a change of scenery.
  • buzz-lightyear-action-figure1 Make yourself at home.  Sure, it’s a desk – but it’s YOUR desk.  Surround yourself with things that make you feel good, like fresh flowers, photos, action figures, notable quotes, music, wallpaper samples, a cool lamp, cushions, etc.  On a bad day, you could even bring a little friend (mine’s a little plush giraffe) along with you to cheer you up.
  • Create a detailed task list that includes break times.  In addition to staying organized, it helps to stay motivated if you can enjoy crossing off items as you progress.  Reward yourself for your work – but don’t beat yourself up for anything unfinished or unplanned.  The day rarely goes exactly as we expect.
  • Enjoy moments of interaction.  It sounds pretty basic, but exchanges between coworkers, especially if they include conversations about life outside the office, are perfect opportunities to get outside your head and lighten things up.  Try to make a point of delivering messages in person, if possible, rather than sending an internal e-mail or instant message.  Greet others in the hallway and make a point of saying goodbye at the end of the day.Sleep
  • Get a good night’s sleep.  Trying to think through a cloud of fatigue or work with a team when you’re grouchy is never fun.  Why make things harder than necessary?  Go to bed and get up at the same time each day if you can; this will help your body settle in for sleep a lot quicker.  Find a way to slow down at the end of the day to prepare for rest.
  • Let go of your perfectionism.  Not easy for us anorexics and bulimics to do, but essential for surviving life.  If we continue to believe it’s up to us to get things done right, or we have to complete everything to the highest standard at all times, we wear ourselves out with unnecessary stress.  We also endanger our sense of reality and equality in the workplace.  Learn to identify and distinguish the times when detail is critical from when a task just needs to get done.  Your very best is all that matters.

The Office

Remember, these strategies take practice.  Very few of them feel natural or even comfortable the first time, but if you can make a routine of it, life gets easier.  Hey, you never know – you might even come to love your office job!

I wonder what my former self, completely possessed by anorexia, would say to the person I am today.

woman-in-a-mirror1

What would she say about my divorce from the scale?  About my refusal to monitor my weight?question-mark

What would she say about my moderate activity?  Would she scorn my departure from gym-trolling and nightly sit-ups?  Would she balk at my deliberate leisure, and my gentleness with the body that carries me?

What would she say or do if she saw how I cook with olive oil, cheese, even cream?  How I enjoy the subsequent meal without engaging in question-marktorturous rituals, paralyzing fear, or plans to work it off later?

What would she think about my friends, none of whom are overly preoccupied with food, body weight, or shape – and all of whom eat without inhibition or obsession?

What would she say if she saw me enjoy fresh gelato on a hot summer’s day, grill corn on the cob with butter to sweet golden perfectioquestion-markn, share delightfully stringy pizza hot from the delivery box with friends at a party?

Because all those things are a part of my life now, while she has faded far away.  I wonder what she thinks about that.

I have to wonder, you see, because the person I am now is so different from who I was back then.  The retrospect is an intriguing experience – for a moment, I sense a shadow of my disease inside, as if the reflection is an invitation for it to speak its mind and bully me again. But more present is the inspiration and drive to keep on moving forward. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.

The scale can tell you ONE THING, and ONE THING ONLY.

BathroomScale

It can tell you the numerical value of your relationship with gravity.

Its reading is nothing more than a physical expression of the amount of matter in a body – a measure of a body’s resistance to changes in velocity, and the force that gravitation exerts upon a body.

A quantity. A number. Simple, black-and-white finite dataNOTHING MORE.

The scale CANNOT tell you ANYTHING about VALUE

In our distorted thinking, we place value on that finite, otherwise irrelevant number, and tie to it our sense of self-worth.

The scale CANNOT possibly measure those things infinite, abstract, and boundless that are of true value in the world.

Beauty.

Talent.

Purpose.

Intelligence.

Generosity.

Strength.

Courage.

Inspiration.

Love.

Hope.

Life.

In fact, these things are, in their purest forms, immeasurable.

Let us never confuse the finite with the infinite when it comes to our sense of value.  It’s our abstract spirits that truly count.

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