Monday, December 12, 2011


I am one of the lucky college graduates who managed to get a full-time job with benefits within a few months of walking across the stage. In some ways, it was an easy transition—I work at the same place I worked while I was in school, but have gradually taken on more responsibilities and hours.

At the same time, the last few months have been nothing but a huge transition. My fiancée has returned from Afghanistan, I’ve taken on a few more financial responsibilities, and I experienced the strange phenomenon of not having to do any back-to-school shopping. But truthfully, I’m not even close to being done with the transitions. Walter is moving to Seattle in a couple of days, which is exciting but also terrifying. I have my own health insurance now, and have worked out plans with my parents to take on the rest of the bills that they still handle, but sometimes I wonder if I can do it. Once Walter is finished with active duty in February he won’t have a job or health insurance. In May, we’re getting married. And at the moment, we aren’t very clear on where we’ll live after the wedding or where we’ll even be past September.

I work at the Center for Change in Transition Services, a state-needs project funded by the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (yes, that’s a mouthful). The Center works with students in special education who are between the ages of 16-21. In the special education world, these are the ages of transition for young adults, during which schools are legally required to provide specialized instruction that prepares them for the postsecondary world—college, vocational training, employment, or whatever else comes next. The problem is, most young adults don’t know what is coming next. The addition of a disability only complicates matters.

The irony isn’t lost on me. Much of the work I do is to help young adults a few years younger than myself transition into the big scary grown-up world, when half the time I don’t know if I can handle it myself. Many of the students are in special education because they have mental health issues like the ones I have.

Growing up is scary enough for a healthy young adult, but if you throw in the intensity of anxiety, depression, obsession, addiction, etc., it can seem unbearable. To make it worse, many young adults suffer in silence because of the stigma around mental illness or the failure of the adults around them to recognize their distress. And the cherry on top? About three quarters of lifetime mental health issues begin by age 24.

I work with students with disabilities, but the truth is that everyone my age is in transition right now, and transitions are stressful. The post-graduate world is a bit of a grim place, and how are you supposed to figure out what you really want to do anyway? Besides, no matter how many people we have supporting us, what ultimately defines our lives are the choices we make. That's a lot of responsibility.

Scared? You're not alone.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Diplomas ...and other pieces of paper

Five years ago I walked across the stage of my high school graduation. I clanged like a mountain goat as I walked to the front with four medals around my neck, three of which were academic departmental awards. I wore my National Honors Society Pin (I was the president) and delivered a valedictorian speech.

By the end of the summer, I was in the hospital being treated for an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Five weeks ago I walked across the stage of my graduation from Seattle University. I didn’t wear a single medal or pin. I did wear an honors hood, but it was for a Magna Cum Laude GPA rather than Summa Cum Laude. My name was listed in the program for the two years I had spent in the Honors Program, but I stayed firmly in my seat while the student address was given. I hadn’t won any awards.

But that morning I had eaten breakfast. I hadn’t had a panic attack in months. I didn’t remotely want to hurt myself. In other words, I was graduating from college the healthiest I had been in years.

It bothered me, at first, standing outside KeyArena while some of the other students clanged like mountain goats. My neck felt bare, and I remonstrated myself for not working hard enough. If only I had studied a little more, or worked a little harder, or maybe if I was smarter, I could have been one of the students dripping with awards.

But then I thought about how hard I had worked. I thought about the Honors classes that challenged me more than I thought possible, or the late nights spent researching for papers I thought might kill me. I thought about the way my intellectual world had expanded and my interactions with the world had deepened. And while I spent a lot of time studying, I had also done a lot of other meaningful things. I had been in three full-length plays and two one-acts, taken voice lessons, spent a brief time on a kayak team, been a member of a peer health team on campus, and worked regularly during junior and senior year. I had also pursued my own passions, and built important relationships with friends. Every quarter had its own unique challenges, and sometimes, just getting through to the next one was the biggest victory. There were the long nights I wasn’t sure I could survive, the disappointments and setbacks and personal tragedies that I sometimes thought might drown me. There was last spring, when I found myself checking into the hospital, unsure of whether I could keep myself safe through the week much less graduate.

Not all accomplishments show up in gilt letters on diplomas or are announced during ceremonies. A medal isn’t proof of the mettle it takes to deal with the world. The things I am proudest of don’t have anything to do with my GPA or my class standing. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who have worked for their accomplishments, but I also know that there are lots of amazing, talented young people who weren’t lucky enough to have the support that I did or get help when they needed it. The piece of paper I earned after four years is an accomplishment, but the bigger one is being alive, healthy, and full of hope for the future.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Is In The Air

Yes, folk, it’s spring. For a lot of people this means allergies, unpredictable weather, lighter clothes, and nature show segments acted out in the back yard. If you’re Christian, Christ is resurrected. If you’re a prankster, you plan an elaborate hoax for April 1. If you like the outdoors, it’s time to polish up the boat or get out the hiking boots.

For me, spring involves some of those things but it also tends to mean a time of year that is particularly difficult. Spring is when my worst mental health episodes tend to develop, for reasons I do not really understand clearly. It may have something to do with the traditional school calendar, in which the culmination of the year brings the most stress. It may have something to do with a lack of vitamin D in the winter months. It may also have to do with unpredictable weather and a sense of a loss of control. Whatever it is, my springs have tended to involve medication changes, increased medical visits or even hospital stays, self-destructive behaviors, shame, and exhaustion.

I recognized this pattern fully last year when a particularly rough winter/spring transition landed me in the hospital briefly. I was able to check out again in a week and continue classes, with understanding from my professors, but the whole experience reminded me again how fragile my mental health can be sometimes. If I tell someone about my struggles with mental health, the response is usually something like, “Wow, that’s really awful. But you’re okay now, right?”

And I usually assure them I am, because that’s what we both want to hear. The truth is, though, that I deal with the reality of my mental health on a daily basis. There are days when I have to make a conscious decision to eat regular meals. I have to talk myself out of self-destructive behaviors. Sometimes I still give in, and then I have to be careful not to beat myself up for it too much.

So, I anticipated the arrival of spring this year with some trepidation, but also with renewed determination. For one, I really, really want to graduate. I want to be healthy enough to spend my spring doing things I enjoy with friends and other people important to me, rather than trying to pull myself out of a downward spiral or decide whether I should check into a treatment program. Also, I want to be safe and strong for my fiancé, currently serving in Afghanistan.

This spring started off a little rough. I had a wonderful trip in Europe with Walter, but coming back home to school a week late was an unpleasant adjustment. I slipped back into an old habit, and then perpetuated the cycle by punishing myself for giving in. Using the excuse of a fairly major paper that I couldn’t seem to get going on, I isolated myself a bit socially. I used sleep to escape, and then only proceeded to get angrier with myself as deadlines drew nearer.

I finished the paper, and instantly felt relief. I spent lots of time with my friends and had a great weekend. However, after a few days I realized that the paper had only been the focus of my anxiety, rather than the root of it, and sooner or later the next stressor would come along.

Unless you live under a rock in Siberia (in which case you wouldn’t be reading my blog) you know that Osama bin Laden was killed this weekend. I heard about it as my ride picked me up from the airport after a lovely weekend trip to Arizona. I suppose my thoughts had the same trajectory as most Americans: Was it really true? How did we know it was actually him? How did it happen? What did this really mean for the world? What did this mean for me and those I love?

The last question is the one I have lingered on the most. As someone who has declared her intent to marry a service member, however, the question was inevitably wrapped up with the concerns of a military significant other. I usually make a point not to watch the news, particularly anything that has to do with Afghanistan, but I like to listen to NPR when I wake up and I spent a fair amount of time online, so it’s hard to ignore it completely. Lately I have been hearing more than usual: the large jailbreak in the south, the announcement of the spring offensive, insurgents’ warning to civilians, and now bin Laden’s death and all the speculation about the kind of retribution his supporters will take.

And so, while the rest of the world was processing the news, I couldn’t stop thinking about what this might mean for Walter, who will be in the thick of it for another five months or so. There has been a lot of debate about the moral validity of celebrating bin Laden’s death, but I honestly can’t say how I feel about it other than deeply frightened. Right now, it is impossible for me to disentangle the reality of a life ended from what the consequences for someone else’s life may be. And so, unable to face the anxiety I was feeling, I went to bed and stayed there until my phone calendar alerted me to an appointment with my therapist that I had rescheduled and forgotten about. As I tried to explain the crippling fear I was feeling and the terrible sense that something bad would happen and I would fall apart. After all, it was spring and it had happened before.

I asked her what I should do, and she answered with something along the lines of, “Just keep going.”

It may not have been the most satisfying thing to hear at the time, but I knew she was right. I needed to eat, take a shower, go to class, do my homework, keep myself safe, take my dog on a walk, no matter how overwhelming those things sounded. I started by going home and eating lunch, and moved forward a bit shakily from there to a shower, class, and homework. My anxiety hasn’t exactly evaporated and it probably will not any time soon, but at least I am functioning—baby steps, as Bob would say. 

Part of living with mental health issues is accepting the reality that not every day is a good day, but a bad day doesn't indicate a breakdown. Even though I have had difficult seasons in the past, I know more about myself now than I ever did, and I am so fortunate to have the amazing support of family and friends. Someday I hope that I can look forward to spring for the flowers without fearing what else it might hold; but until then, I'm doing what it takes to move forward.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Perfectionism Monster

I haven’t written a blog for awhile, and for that I would like to apologize. After a few not-so-subtle suggestions from my fiancé and family members, I have decided to break the ice and jump back in. I was trying to decide why it has taken me so long to come back to the blog after the craziness of my vacation, and I think the answer came tonight in a conversation with my aunt and uncle.

“Is it because you don’t want to do it anymore?” my aunt asked. “Because you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

But that’s not it. I have really enjoyed my foray into blogging, and have even mulled about things to write about since I’ve been home…but I thought that first, I should write up some of the travel stories I had collected while in Europe. I had started one of them, a longer post, but kept feeling like it wasn’t quite good enough…and so I couldn’t finish it.

Uh oh. That sounds an awful lot like the perfectionism monster sneaking in again.

The point of this blog in the first place was to let my writing be read, even if it was just by my family and friends. I wanted to write short, imperfect posts around a coherent theme that were well thought-out but somewhat spontaneous. And then, before the perfectionism monster could start whispering little words of doubt in my ear, I would simply press the button to post it.

And somewhere that got lost. I mean, sure, I would like to write insightful and precisely-worded pieces all the time, but if I can’t ever let it go beyond my own keyboard, then what’s the point? (See my Emily Dickinson post for more on this topic.) And even though my fiancé seems convinced that each post I write is “the best one yet” I know that is probably not true…much as I would like it to be.

And so, even though I have been back for a couple of weeks now, I kept making excuses. Some of them were quite valid. I have been busy trying to catch up on homework, go back to work, clean my house, do laundry, get groceries, buy dog food, etc, plus go out of town for a conference the first weekend I was back and spend time with friends… Yes, all this is true. But before I felt I could post another blog about things that were happening right now I thought I needed to finish the post I had started. After all, I promised you travel stories.

But my aunt hit it on the head. When I protested that I did want to keep working on the blog but I just couldn’t quite post yet because I wasn’t happy with it she asked, “Do you think maybe you’re setting your expectations a little too high?”

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the perfectionism monster. She’s a bit of a shape shifter, and the form she takes depends on the situation, but she usually looks a lot like my fears. If I am feeling body-conscious, she takes the shape of a gamine, statuesque, waif-like woman who wears pencil skirts that encapsulate her narrow thighs, expensive silk tops, sky-high stilettos, and hair that is always perfect no matter the weather. If I am feeling inadequately intelligent, she takes the form of an ivy-league-educated woman wearing a power suit and holding several PhDs. If I am feeling overwhelmed by the messy state of my house (it happens often) then the perfectionism monster turns into a British aristocrat, exacting in her need for cleanliness and emphatic that a well-bred woman know how to keep a well-tended house. And if the root of my perfectionism has anything to do with an artistic pursuit, such as writing, the monster becomes the nastiest critic in the New York Times, or some other cherished publication. I imagine her pushing up over-priced horn-rimmed glasses as she drinks a cup of chamomile tea and reads my work; then, she whips out a pen with blood-red ink and scribbles some words like “dull” “cliché” “over-wrought” “predictable” “facile” or “idiotic” and throws the manuscript into a flaming pile.

This, my friends, is why it’s so hard for me to post a blog. Or get ready in the morning. Or clean my house. Or write a relatively simple literature paper for a senior synthesis class that is due next Thursday (true story). Sometimes it takes the form of procrastination, and from the outside it can look an awful lot like laziness, but lurking in the background is the perfectionism monster, eyeing me with anticipation and waiting for the moment to pounce. Sometimes I can keep her at bay, but sometimes I have a harder time of it. Right now, with graduation and a million other “endings” and transitions staring me down, I tend to feel like I better make my last shot my best one. And then, I get nothing done.

I heard a writer at a conference once talk about the way she addressed this compulsion for perfection in her own writing, by using the metaphor of a second personality—the “bitch” who worried about grammar, structure, etc. She said that for her first draft or two, she had to “lock the bitch in the closet” or she would never get anything done. Her alter-ego was useful in the revising stages, but if she didn’t give herself that initial freedom then she would never get past the first page.

Okay, perfectionism monster. Sounds like you need a little quiet time in the closet. Turn the light on, read a book, think about things, but don’t make any noise and don’t come out until I let you out.

That is, if I ever let you out.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Notes from an Anxious Traveler

First of all, I apologize for my long hiatus! I'm afraid winter quarter finals and preparations for my Spring Break trip to Europe got the best of me, and for the last week and a half I have been on said vacation with my I'm afraid the blog was neglected in the meantime.

Walter and I are currently in Venice, enjoying all of the beauty, art, music, and good food the city has to offer. We have also spent time in Arles, France and Mallorca, Spain, as well as a day in Barcelona, and I have quite a few stories to tell. I am still working on processing the experiences and I am sure that quite a few will be recounted here in the future...but for now I will simply jot down a few thoughts.

1. For the anxiety-afflicted, travel becomes a veritable minefield. Fortunately, I have a wonderful travel partner who is absolutely amazing when it comes to my nervous tendencies, but sometimes they still get the best of me. While it is not always possible to use the self-soothing techniques I might employ at home, I have narrowed in on a couple of things that consistently help no matter where I am. Focusing on the breath is a good standby, of course, and always the first thing to try. Also, a cup of tea and a pastry can cure just about anything. And sometimes, the key is simply to slow down a little. It is impossible to see everything, and taking a little nap when I get overwhelmed doesn't mean I haven't used my time well.

2. Dogs make my life better, whether I'm in Seattle or Spain. Just seeing a dog eases my anxiety level, and there are plenty of adorable dogs to be seen. In the places we have traveled, people seem to love their dogs and simply accept them as part of the environment. There are a lot of dogs off-leash but none of them are aggressive, or even particularly concerned with other people nearby. However, I might make a bit of a fool of myself when I coo at every canine that passes within sight...

3. Unexpected things happen when you travel. This is a problem for someone like me, who likes to know what is happening at all times. It especially becomes difficult with the language barrier, which really exacerbates the feeling of helplessness. However, in the end things tend to work out. Even when you lose your fiance at a train station in France and meet up with him in Spain twenty-four hours later. But more on that another time...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Guilt, Molasses, Slugs, and other Slimy Things

For those of you who have been following my blog, you will recall the mishaps involved with baking my mom’s cookies. Just in case you had become complacent in the thought that I have conquered the cookie once and for all, rest assured: my ineptitude came into play once again tonight.

One of the main ingredients in the cookies is molasses. I realized once I had started making the cookies that I was running low on molasses. Why this didn’t occur to me earlier in the day when I was at the grocery store is a question that I asked myself, but still haven’t found the answer too. However, I determined that I had enough to make one last batch.

In an effort to get every last sticky drop from the bottle of molasses, I screwed the top on, turned it upside down, put it in the microwave and punched in twenty seconds. I checked after ten seconds but decided a little more time couldn’t hurt. I shut the door, punched the start button, and went to turn on the oven. Behind me I heard a sinister crackling noise, and then a sudden boom! I spun around and opened the door, revealing a scene much like the one on CSI I was watching involving a pipe bomb. For those of you who know better than to microwave sealed bottles of molasses excessively, let me assure you: the combined aroma of caramelized sugar and carcinogenic melting plastic is not pleasant. I still have a headache.

Which brings me to the main topic of conversation: I skipped class today. Yes folks, this is a confessional. I woke up, considered showering and getting ready, and then composed an email to my professor and went back to sleep.

I don’t do this often. I have missed two other classes this quarter, once in the same class because I overslept, and once in a different class because I was sick and in the middle of tech week. Do you remember the perfect attendance chart in elementary school? Oh, how I loved those little foil stars lined up in a row. In high school, I rarely missed class even if I was sick—I was too concerned about having to make up the work or missing something important. In college, I miss a few classes a term usually due to oversleeping or illness, but even when I am sick I usually attend class (I have even been sent home by a couple of professors). However, I think I can count the number of times I have deliberately “cut” class on one hand. Maybe on a couple of fingers, like my thumb and forefinger.

Responsibility is an admirable quality. Dependability and timeliness are fantastic traits. (Okay, so maybe timeliness, especially in the morning, is not always my strongest suit, but at least I always try. Blame fashion.) However, I have found that the slimy underside for these respectable goals is a guilt-driven need to please the people I look up to. Why did I want the gold stars? So that my teacher would be proud of me. Why didn’t I want to miss class in high school, even when I was sick? I was afraid of getting a lower grade and disappointing my teachers. In college, I am afraid that if I miss class or back out of other responsibilities I will be perceived as a flaky college student who isn’t ready to deal with the real world, and my professors/advisors/boss will look down on me as such. Guilt looks a lot like fear and people-pleasing sometimes. If I miss an assignment, sleep through a class accidentally, or under-perform on a test or paper, my first reaction is to be worried about what my professor thinks. It’s the same for work or extra-curricular activities. I hold myself to a high standard—one in which I never forget anything, run late, or get too overwhelmed to handle everything. The guilt and fear that inevitable slip-ups create can simmer and build pressure, until set off by the stress of finals or some other precipitating factor. What happens then usually creates a much bigger mess than if I had simply taken the time to care for myself the way I needed—i.e., allowed the molasses bottle to empty naturally rather than overheating it.

When I called my mom this evening I explained that I had taken the day to grocery shop, clean house, do some cooking, work on homework, meet with my scene partner, and also spend time curled up in my new pajamas watching a favorite TV show and drinking tea with my puppy. And instead of berating me for my irresponsibility she said something along the lines of, “Good for you for making a choice and not beating yourself up about it afterward.” Note: the conversation did NOT include anything about me being an ungrateful or lazy daughter. Who would have thought?

One final note: after taking my dog out for her evening potty break I was scratching her belly and came upon a slug stuck in the curly fur under her arm. Slugs are not easy to extract from dog hair, and this specimen was no exception. Finally I got the little guy free and as he squirmed on my finger I delivered him outside. I’m sure I’ll spend much more time worrying about decisions or mistakes I make, but for now, my microwave is clean, my dog’s fur is slug-free, and I don’t feel guilty about skipping class.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wisdom on the Inside of a Mint Tin

“You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.”

-Mark Twain

I found this quote on the inside of my mint tin this morning. I picked the mints up recently at my neighborhood co-op, finding myself in need. They happen to be certified organic, allergen-free, and vegan, and I liked that there were only three ingredients on the back and I could pronounce all of them, but I’ll admit that the main sell was proximity to the cash register. While I still don’t know if I have found my Holy Grail of mints I am rather fond of them at the moment…perhaps more so because of the quote on the inside of the lid. Even better: it’s a literary quote. And its timely arrival in my life solved a problem.

For those of you who have not been counting down the days, this week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I had been planning to do some extra-special blogs in honor of it, but have unfortunately been reminded recently that I am still technically a full time student with a multitude of extra-curricular responsibilities approaching the end of a busy term…and thus, it is Tuesday night and I am only blogging now. I had hoped to put up a quote to kick the week off but on a Google search couldn’t find anything that satisfactorily balanced the fine line between inspirational and sappy and also stimulated my intellect. This was when the mint tin entered the picture.

The quote may not seem immediately relevant, and I’m sure that Mark Twain had no inkling of eating disorders when he penned it, but it connected to something I recognized. My experience of my eating disorder emphasized a profound disconnect between reality and perception, judgment and imagination. When I began to realize that my perception of my body, food, and the world around me was incredibly distorted, I felt as though I could no longer trust my instincts. My mom used to say that my “antennae” were receiving bad signals.

At the same time, the dreamlike imagination and creativity I had always fostered was sadly out of focus. Instead of experiencing a range of emotion, I retreated to painful extremes. Rather than conjuring new worlds and characters, I became obsessed with minute details of the (seemingly) simple routine of nourishing my body. As I starved my body and deadened my emotions, I also starved my imagination. With the decline of my dreams came the rise of despair: I began to believe that my future was hopeless, and I was never, ever going to return to a life that was bearable. Why did it matter whether I ate or not? I was only going to amount to a failure anyway. If this need for control killed me, then so be it. I didn’t think it mattered enough to prevent, and the alternative—facing my emotions and opening myself up to disappointment—was almost unimaginable.

I’m not saying the only solution to my eating disorder was rekindling my creativity—I also needed several months of intensive therapy, medication, meal plans, and full treatment team—but for me, hope and imagination are always connected, and when those are stifled I enter a very dark, bleak place that I cannot see out of. I can no longer trust my intuition, instincts, or judgment to point me in the right direction, because my internal compass has become so skewed. When I am able to dream, I am also able to discern between healthy and unhealthy behaviors.

Etymological note: The inside of my mint tin actually printed the quote with the American English misspelling "judgement" (addition of an e). Having seen this version of the word many times and being the stickler for spelling that I am, I wanted to know the distinction. It turns out that when good ol' Noah Webster reformed American spelling he was also asserting cultural independence from its colonizer. Anyone who has taken a basic sociology class will tell you about the importance of language in making meaning, and I intend to discuss it in a future post...but anyone who is as hopelessly nerdy as I am can appreciate the revelation that Webster is the reason for one of my major pet peeves: theater vs. theatre.