Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Story

This is the post that I have been avoiding. I was commenting recently to a friend how much starting this blog has felt like “coming out.” I have dealt with diagnosed mental health issues for over five years now but still find it immensely difficult to talk about, even with friends. Most of the time, I guard my diagnoses like dirty secrets, skeletons in my closet, personal flaws that I must disguise at all costs. I have been overwhelmed by shame for my “abnormalities” and fear that if those close to me found out about the crazy person I’d been hiding…well. Say goodbye to a social life.

But I also believe that the only way to combat stigma and effect change for others who may struggling is to talk about it and share honest experiences. So, here I go. 

In the spring of my senior year of high school, I was diagnosed with clinical depression by my general practitioner. I began a regimen of fairly low-level anti-depressants, and while they seemed to help at first, I was barely hanging on by summer. I began therapy, which helped, but could not combat the increasingly dark thoughts and obsessive behaviors that were beginning to control me. These behaviors mostly focused around eating and a need for physical perfection, spurred by intense anxiety, self-hatred, and fear. Things worsened throughout the summer, and by July I had begun to experiment with cutting, other methods of self harm, and thoughts of suicide. My parents discovered the self-injury and took me to the doctor again, who told us this was beyond her scope and we needed to pursue specialized treatment. We went to the Emergency Room at her suggestion, where we were told that they lacked the resources necessary to help me. Instead, they referred me to an eating disorder treatment program.

I faced an intake evaluation with a therapist the next week, and was admitted into the hospital treatment program shortly thereafter. I was still unconvinced that I had an eating disorder, but I was supposed to leave for college in a little over a month and decided that it would be best to take care of whatever minor problem there was so I could go to school. I was scared by the increasingly dark thoughts of self-harm and suicide, and had begun to suspect that my mind and body were betraying me. The program provided me with a psychiatrist, therapist, nutritionist, and group therapy. I entered the hospital ready to nip the problem in the bud and move on with my life.

It wasn’t quite that easy. The first week was excruciatingly difficult, and I began to realize that there was something seriously wrong with the way I viewed food and my body. I was seized regularly with what I now recognized as anxiety attacks—I had experienced them before but did not know what they were. I was not sleeping well, I felt physically sick most of the time, and the future seemed as flat and blank as a sheet of white paper. The effort of eating when I didn’t want to and talking for the first time about the demons that littered my thoughts exhausted me in a way I had never experienced. I was irritable, volatile, and extremely sensitive. I thought my nutritionist had it in for me, my psychiatrist wasn’t taking me seriously, and my therapist was unreasonable. By the end of my second week my therapist told me that I wasn’t going to school any time soon, and I realized she was right. It was three weeks before I was supposed to leave. The idea of dropping out of college humiliated me; all I wanted to do was climb into a warm, dark cave and never come out.

And so in August and September when all my friends were entering the fray of college life, complete with roommates, professors, and illicit substances, I was still in the hospital. I stayed there through October, until I was discharged into a different program that included weekly individual and group therapy, and saw a nutritionist and psychiatrist independently. I went through several more medication changes and regularly vacillated between progress and regress. I got a job as a bank teller, and in the spring I applied to a different college than the one I had been planning to attend for as long as I could remember. I was accepted into a competitive honors program, received a full tuition exchange scholarship, and moved onto campus in September. And so the story had a happen ending…more or less. But as I entered my freshman orientation I could not shake the fear that my new classmates would discover my secret. I found a therapist, psychiatrist, and nutritionist near campus, and began to build relationships with them. I also began to make friends and regain confidence in my academic abilities.

But I rarely, if ever, revealed the true reason I had taken a year off after high school. My stock answer was something along the lines of being really burnt out after senior year and taking some time to work and earn money. This was not exactly a lie, but it also did nothing to account for the suicidal depression, crippling anxiety, and physically, emotionally, and spiritually destructive eating disorder. And, looking around, I began to realize that I was hardly the only one struggling. I longed to reach out to other young women and men in pain, but the wall of fear seemed insurmountable.

One of the most healing things to happen during the year I spent at home was that I began to write again. I have written fiction consistently since I can remember, but the pressure of the last year had almost completely sucked away my creative impulse. I began to write about my experiences, reframed in the character of a girl who was very much like me (her name was also a near anagram of my last name). As I wrote I began to discover and process things that even therapy had not fully addressed. The story sprouted supporting characters and parallel plot lines, until a novel-length manuscript emerged. As I realized that writing was the best way I could relate my struggles, I also began to recognize it as a way that I could share my experiences in a human, relatable way. I dreamed that my writing would become a platform to open discussion about the experience of mental health and combat the stigma I feared.

It has taken me almost five years, and that dream is still strong. But first I have to be willing to share my story publicly, even if I still fear what people may think. Consider this my coming out.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Cookie Monster

On Friday night around eight o’clock I decided to make cookies. As a rule, I keep a cupboard that is well-stocked with cookie-making supplies, but the particular cookies I wanted were a vegan recipe that my mother, cursed with several food sensitivities, had adapted. They have a few unusual ingredients that I do not keep around, so I loaded up my reusable shopping bag, fired up Pandora radio on my phone, and headed to my local co-op. I get distracted easily in grocery stores (so many beautiful vegetables! And artisan breads! And organic juices!) so the expedition took a little longer than I had planned. I got home around 9:30 and began mixing up a batch of cookies while watching an episode of Law & Order on my computer. Since my computer was occupied, I read the recipe on my phone. The recipe calls for a cup of chopped nuts, and since I do not have a nifty chopper like my mother, I had to do it all by hand. I also realized partway through the process that I did not have any baking powder, so I ran to the corner store and bought some. I chopped, mixed, plopped the dough on a cookie sheet, and put them in the oven, while meanwhile the bad guy was caught and prosecuted. I felt like it was a job well done for a Friday night.

A few minutes into the baking process I got impatient and opened the oven door, only to realize with dismay that the entire batch had melted into a gooey, nutty mass across the bottom of the cookie sheet. I looked over the recipe on my phone and remembered that the recipe called for shortening, but I had used butter instead. This did not seem like a problem, but as I saw no other explanation I assumed it must be. Once again I ran to the corner store, bought a tin of shortening, then returned home to chop, mix, plop the dough on the cookie sheet, and put them in the oven, while meanwhile the police saved the little girl in the nick of time. By now it was after 11:00 and I really wanted those cookies.

I opened the oven again, only to be confronted by the same gelatinous puddle. This time, I consulted the recipe on my computer. The display on my phone had cut off the very first line: 1 cup white flour.

You ask, didn’t it occur to you that there should be some flour? Well, I had included the half cup of whole wheat flour and oats on the recipe, and while I thought it didn’t seem like much the batch only makes nine cookies. Besides, I had also been distracted by victimized children and debates about the justice system.

Tired, upset, and really craving a cookie, I skyped my fiancé in Afghanistan.

“Don’t let those cookies beat you, sweetie,” he said. “You show them who’s boss.”

And so, at 11:45, I headed back to the kitchen. This time I used my coffee grinder for the nuts (not recommended, it reduced the peanuts to powder) and included the cup of flour. I checked the oven nervously after two minutes, but everything seemed to be running smoothly. Feeling a bit smug, I reported my victory via Skype.

The buzzer rang and I opened the oven door, anticipating my warm, fresh cookies. As I removed them from the sheet, I had a cruel shock.

I had forgotten the chocolate chips.

At this point, I should probably come up with some kind of comforting moral-to-the-story. A friend even suggested that I change the ending so that the last batch came out perfect. Perfection was what I wanted, after all—it’s what I always want. I want to move through life without saying the wrong thing or forgetting to do an assignment or losing track of an appointment or making a mistake…ever. I want to be perfect. I believe that if I am, everything will be okay and I will be happy. The problem is, this drive for perfection is accompanied by overwhelming anxiety, crushing self-hatred, and dangerous self-destructive behaviors. Besides, even a five year-old knows perfection is impossible.

I ate the cookies that night, and although they didn’t have the chocolate chips they were delicious. I went to bed exhausted but satisfied, and even if everything wasn’t perfect it was okay. Last night I made another batch of the cookies, making sure to include the chocolate chips. On Law & Order, a kidnapped nun was rescued after the friendly neighborhood psychic was exposed as the culprit. Justice was served, and I enjoyed a fresh, hot cookie out of the oven. As I lay in bed that night, thinking about the day with satisfaction, I went over the recipe for the cookies in my head.

And I realized I had forgotten the vanilla.

Mom’s Cookies

Stir dry ingredients in a bowl:
• 1 C white flour
• 1⁄4 C whole wheat flour
• 1 C chopped mixed nuts (I use 1/3 almonds, 1/3 peanuts, 1/3 pecans but you can
use any mix you prefer. Walnuts are good too. Be sure to get UNsalted)
• 1⁄4 C sunflower seeds (raw and unsalted)
• 1⁄4 C old fashioned oats
• 1/3 C chocolate chips
• 1⁄2 t baking soda
• 1 t baking powder

Whip wet ingredients together in a large bowl:
• 1⁄2 C shortening (like Crisco)
• 1⁄4 C molasses  (always do shortening first then put the molasses & syrup in the
same measure cup)
• 1⁄4 C maple syrup (not imitation, the real stuff. It will be expensive.)
• 1 t vanilla

Dump the dry ingredients in the wet ingredient bowl and stir until everything is
moistened. I use a big spoon to stir and use the same spoon to put the cookies on the pan.
I make 8 big cookies out of this recipe. 

Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Emily Dickinson has to do with my blog...

Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets, and the title for this blog came from a poem by her. I think a lot of people my age find Dickinson inaccessible for her rather archaic styling and use of meter. It took me a long time and the happy convergence of some good English classes, Shakespeare directors, and writing professors before I was able to appreciate the value of meter. Dickinson wrote primarily in different hymn meters. "Amazing Grace" is a good example of a common meter, like the one she (roughly) used for "Hope is the thing with feathers." I do not consider myself foremost a poet, but I can say that the time I was assigned to write a poem in common hymn meter it came out sounding like a bad jingle. And I worked at it, I promise. So the fact that Dickinson can simultaneously use and subvert this wickedly difficult form and in the process write such unexpected and radiant poems is rather amazing to me.

And she was never recognized during her lifetime. Posthumous speculations posit that an anxiety disorder like agoraphobia may have been the cause of her eccentricities and reclusive habits, and scholars have mined her poems and letters for psychoanalytic details. I'm less interested with the precise nature of her disorder than with the brilliant glimpses of victory and struggle that emerge in her work. Her distillations of triumph, despair, love, dejection, fear, and hope ring true to me after more than a century and several changes of aesthetic taste. This metaphor of hope in particular lodged itself in my head even during times when I was about to give up. As a result, it seemed like the perfect title. Check out a beautifully illustrated anthology called My Letter to the World and Other Poems (Visions in Poetry) by Isabelle Arsenault for a haunting visual interpretation of her work.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Contest for writers interested in literary fiction

One of the blogs I have been reading for awhile now (before screwing up the courage to start my own) is holding a contest that ends tomorrow, Sunday Jan. 23.  This is the link!

Check it out and check out the great posts about literary agents!

My New Year's Un-Resolution

I love the holidays. Every year I anticipate the time with family and old friends, traditions, gift-giving, and yes, food. It wasn’t always this way, of course; there were a couple of years when food-centered holidays drove my anxiety levels up to panic and the idea of sitting around a table celebrating the bounty of harvest at the grocery store was like a scene from a bad horror movie. Maybe this had something to do with the alarming size of cutting implements used in preparing the Christmas turkey, but it probably had more to do with the fact that I was struggling with an eating disorder at the time. Since the years when I dealt with the acute symptoms of my eating disorder, holidays have become a pleasant and joyful time for me again, but every season I still have to deal with two major pet peeves that without a doubt crop up again and again in group settings.

Number One: The discussion of how much food has been consumed and how much weight will be gained as a result.

Number Two: The subsequent onset of New Years and the profusion of resolutions that involve losing said weight.

And so, over the years, I have grown to associate New Years resolutions with this never-ending cycle of dieting and guilt. I know a lot about guilt, especially the kind that is largely unfounded and emerges from the persistent sense that I am a “bad” person. For me, that kind of guilt is related to my perfectionism, and the habitual sequences of self-criticism that used to dominate my inner dialogue. Every day is a step in breaking the cycle, and while it’s not always forward motion, it’s better than stasis...or so I like to tell myself.

The root word of resolution is, naturally, resolve. To me, resolve has a stronger connotation. A resolution might be a decision that a committee makes, but a resolve is a commitment, a promise to yourself. In my thesaurus, one of the synonyms for resolve is tenacity. A writer introduced that word to me at a conference I went to years ago in high school. Her mantra was that tenacity was more important than talent. I’ve heard it many times over since then, but for whatever reason, her simple message made a huge impact on my adolescent brain.

So, Alice-like, I choose to celebrate an Un-Resolution this year. The first part involves this blog: having resisted the online media phenomenon for so long, I have some trepidation. But if I am going to live as if I believe that tenacity is more important than talent (which I do) then I have to start advocating for myself. Would I like to make a living doing what I love? Yes. Will it take a lot of hard work and more than a few disappointments along the way? Oh yes. History shows that the moment I think I have my life planned out I am thrown a curveball. So, I might as well start with the failures now.

And the second part of my New Year’s Resolve? Never, ever, ever give up.