i almost exploded into a million pieces a little over three decades ago. things happened, and the traumatic events, along with genetics, my nature, and certain environmental factors combined and together almost broke me apart. i’ve spent most of my life since then trying to contain and mitigate the damage in a variety of ways, some of them extremely negative.
i’m a stubborn person and a little strong-willed. those can be negatives, sure, but i prefer to think of them as assets since they helped me hold myself together for long periods of time. the eating disorder and cutting helped too, albeit dysfunctionally.
my eating disorder gave my life structure. it was the rebar that held all the broken bits together. it gave my mind and emotions something to focus on that wasn’t trauma. it brought a degree of order to the chaos that my mental state had become.
the problem with the eating disorder cure is that it isn’t an effective long-term solution. it’s got that whole “trying to kill you” thing going own. it makes a long-term partnership unviable. still, i’ve held onto it for years. i was never quite ready to go it alone, too afraid of what that might look like, i suppose.
ten years passed between my initial break and the requisite falling completely to pieces. i wouldn’t say they were a brilliant ten years since they encompassed smaller, incomplete breakdowns, but i made it through a decade. i did it dysfunctionally, but i was there. it was the eating disorder that gave me the focus and structure i needed, but it was also the eating disorder that led me to the precipice whereupon i gave up the fight.
it took almost two years to pull the pieces of my shattered self together the first time. i withdrew from university and lost two years of a normal life. i lost most of my friends in the post-breakdown fallout and i outed myself as someone suffering from mental illnesses to my family.
it was hard, lousy work, putting myself back together but i did it, sort of. i gathered up the pieces, glued myself back together until i was functional again, and started moving forward. back to school, into therapy, back to work, all while holding the reins tight, keeping it together enough to function in the world.
my next significant breakdown came about eight years after the first. recovery again took about two years. only two years until i could work again, make friends again, and start to participate in life again.
mental illness is hard on the sufferer, no doubt, but it’s also hard on the people around you. i’ve lost friends because of their battle fatigue. people drift away, tired of your struggle, tired of watching it and being unable to help, tired of the drama and the trauma. others i’ve lost because they simply can’t deal; the whole mental illness thing is too weird and difficult for them.
i suppose it’s best to let go of the people who can’t be there for you but it does leave you somewhat alone and isolated.
five years until i next lost control and this time almost three years of recovery. three years to stitch myself back up so i could pass as in control, as together enough for this world.
only three years ‘til the next collapse. the amount of time i was able to hold the line was growing shorter. each time i lost my grip the recovery took a little longer, and the issues recurred sooner. losses abounded with each fall. relationships failed, jobs were lost, family and friends ended up disappointed, my physical health suffered, and optimism about the future faded a little more. this is what i mean when i tell people i’m tired. the battle feels interminable.
four years ago, the shit really hit the fan. i hit suicidal for the first time in over a decade. my depression was entrenched and medication didn’t seem to be helping much. i was taking handfuls of benzodiazepines every day. my eating disorder was raging. i was in the hospital every other month for surgeries and iv antibiotic treatments to deal with the complications from my cutting behaviours. friends and family convinced me to go into a residential program before i died.
there are many ups to residential care. it removes most of your external stress. your life is easy because it’s almost completely structured. that aspect of it – following the rules and paying attention to routines and patterns is a breeze for people with eating disorders. most of us are people pleasers anyhow. so i walked the walk and talked the talk and embraced everything uncritically.
i was able to stop cutting and vomiting and starving myself while i was there because the rules made it easy to. i didn’t realize that i’d just replaced one rigid pattern of control for another. i didn’t realize what the consequences would be when i left and had neither the eating disorder imposed structure nor the structure of rehab. i didn’t realize that i would be coming up on the worst mental break of my life, the one i’d managed to postpone and mitigate since pretty much forever, the one that helped push my eating disorder into being.
the problem was, i think, that we all, the doctors and counsellors and me, misunderstood the degree to which i was using those behaviours to stabilize my mental health. yes, the behaviours were killing me but they were also keeping me from collapsing into a broken pile. take away both the supports and the anti-depressants that i was on and a total collapse was inevitable.
the bright side is that having survived this massive mental breakdown, there is no place to go but up. this time i’m trying to rebuild myself without the eating disorder scaffolding. it will take longer, i suspect.
so here i am, climbing once again. the losses from this breakdown are less. i’m older now and luckier in my choice of friends. the ones i have stuck with me. i worry about them getting tired of it all but coming to terms with the fact that their choices are out of my control has relieved some of that pressure.
friendship isn’t the only thing that mental illness steals from you, however. it takes chunks of pretty much everything.
i have few long-term friendships. childhood friends vanished. high school friends disappeared. college friends, well i barely made any. i was too busy with my fight. i’m fatiguing and i get that but friendship is definitely a casualty.
i didn’t learn as much as i would have liked to at college. i was too engaged in my eating disorder to acquire much knowledge. i showed up but my memory of what i did and what i learned is sketchy. i was not invested in my education or college experiences. i was invested in servicing my eating disorder and staying together in a fractured whole.
i’ve never had a job long-term. three years is the record. my work history is horrible. it’s hard to manage an effective career path when you regularly suffer from mental health collapses. companies don’t want to keep you on when they learn it’ll be at least a year before your back on your feet.
i work hard when i’m able, and i’ve never been anything but good at a job but that’s really irrelevant at this point in my life. that job history looks awful. companies don’t want to pay for the potential fallout.
the lousy job history also leads to no big pile of money vested in a company pension plan, and little in the way of personal retirement monies. mental illnesses steal your present and they compromise your future as well.
eating disorders, especially bulimia, empty your wallet.
intimate relationships are also challenge to maintain. i’m not terribly present a lot of the time, and historically i’ve been unwilling and unable to deviate much from my established routines. partners come to resent that, and tire of reality of living with mental illnesses. additionally, i don’t really know how to do relationships. i never picked up the skill set. during the time in my life when i should have been doing that, i was otherwise engaged.
mental illnesses also steal your time. years pass and you can’t get them back. there are no opportunities to jump back in time, there are no do-overs. you don’t get to experience school, college, and early adulthood again only this time without the added weight of mental illness. knowing that makes me incredibly angry at times. it makes me want to quit trying over the unfairness of it all, notwithstanding the fact that “fair” is not part of life’s job description.
accepting at last that i suffer from mental illness that will likely continue for decades more has been a challenge but i’m definitely getting there. accepting the losses that come with mental illness and letting go of regret is going to be harder.
january 10, 2018
photo credit: New York Times
photo credit: thinkstockphotos.ca
sculpture: rene romero schuler