Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hank Leaves the Closet

I recently realized that I have a skeleton in my closet. I don’t know how I managed to pull off such a huge surprise. I’m not usually this crafty. 

Speaking of crafts, I love Pinterest. It’s a time-sucking, soul-fulfilling web of creativity and nonsense. It makes me think I really could make a maple bourbon reduction or sew a table runner to adorn the table I will craft from old barn doors. I’m honest enough to admit that I will never cook that reduction because I don’t buy bourbon and I don’t have the patience to reduce anything. Likewise, I’m not to be trusted with a hammer or the other tools necessary for building a table. For me, Pinterest isn’t about what is as much as what could be. I want to feel better about myself, as if I have a handle on my wardrobe, a plan for exercising, and a unique gift idea for every person. 

The skeleton grew stronger. I gave him a name. When Hank’s voice was too loud to ignore, I quietly acknowledged his presence and told him to settle down. “Hank! I’m an adult, I have responsibilities, and I can’t be seen talking to a skeleton.” I pinned expensive shoes and DIY projects while his clacking bones called for my attention. I pinned motivating quotes about perseverance. I pinned nail designs that I’m incapable of replicating, smacking Hank’s hand away from the doorknob all the while. 

What does Pinterest have to do with Hank the skeleton? They both thrive on what I want, rather than what is.

Eventually I could hear Hank’s voice louder than my own, and I was helpless. I didn’t realize how out of control my life was. Instead, I realized that most of my pins were secret. I didn’t want anybody to know what kinds of things I looked at. No longer was I interested in photography pointers or funny memes. Instead, I pinned recipes that embarrassed me. They contained things like Campbell’s soup and Cheez-Its. I have a secret Pinterest board called Mayday, chock full of desperation dinners and tips on how to make your hair look like you washed it this week. The secrecy was imperative. If nobody could see my pins about The Nutritional Benefits of Pop-Tarts, they wouldn’t realize I could no longer pack lunches or remember to brush my teeth.

Disclaimer - I have not lost my mind. Please continue.

2014 was the hardest year of my life. I’ve never been so ready to kiss a year good bye. I bid it adieu using colorful language that made my dad cough uncomfortably. Now that it is over, I’m ready to let Hank see the light of day. I’m hoping he’ll get lost and I’ll be done with Fantastic Five Minute Meal pins. 

I’ve spent much of the last five months in therapy. Part of my therapy included a brief stay at a mental hospital, several weeks of partial hospitalization, and one month in a residential treatment center.

How did I get so lucky? If you’ll excuse the technical jargon, I lost my shit. Not literally, though I’m learning not to feel smug about anything. The stress and depression and covering up and dragging on and hiding and getting up just to do it all over again…my gears stopped working. I used every tool I had to fix the damage. Turns out I didn’t know what I was doing. My life outside of Pinterest was as healthy as a closet-squatting skeleton. 

As a teenager, I struggled with an eating disorder. There are parts of my physical health that will never be the same, and the damage done to my mental health was even worse. I ‘recovered’ years ago and gained back the weight plus some interest. All I had to do was stay carefully balanced in the land of the acceptably weighted. If you’re too small, people whisper and you get frequent trips to the hospital. If you’re too big, people stare and you get dieting tips. I’ve spent the last 18 years trying to stay comfortably between these two camps only to realize I hate camping. Suddenly I wanted out. 

What I realized in 2014 is that my eating disorder never left. I packed it in a box and carried it with me from house to apartment to garage. I couldn’t throw it away; what if I needed it again? It was a treasured relic from my past. Hank is my old football jersey and homecoming crown. It was a sick reminder that I once had control over something. How would I know who I was without it?

Anorexia gave way to various forms of bulimia, which turned to overeating, which led back to anorexia. It was a game of Chutes and Ladders. I made progress in one area of life to slip backwards in another. My physical health got worse, my emotional health was abysmal, and I celebrated by indulging in another familiar form of behavior. 

When I was a young child, I used to hit my legs until they went numb and I had blue and purple souvenirs. I pinched until my skin came off. I scratched until I drew blood. It was usually in an effort to keep from showing emotion. When kids at school bullied me, I refused to cry. I wouldn’t have skin on the inside of my arm for a week, but I didn’t cry. By the time I used a razor, I’d been self-harming for years. Inflicting pain on your own body is weird, I know. Would you believe that it gives temporary relief? To the person who self-harms, it feels like releasing a pressure valve. It feels as though practicing the behavior makes it possible to keep going to school, keep going to work, keep showing up at church. 

By the time it showed up on the public radar, I was an adult. It didn’t occur to me that I was part of the cutting community. Self-harm was for emotionally disrupted adolescents. Cutting was a pathetic plea for attention, not something I did with nail scissors when I got stressed. I was quirky. I just needed to process my feelings a little differently than other people. 

Wave hi to Hank, ladies and gentleman! 

This is how I have dealt with my feelings for my entire life. Both the good and bad experiences I’ve amassed are subject to these practices. I sometimes eat more in a meal than someone should in a whole day. I sometimes don’t eat for days at a time. I sometimes cut too much and have to keep my feet bandaged. Sometimes it hurts to walk because I don’t have skin where skin is supposed to be. 

2014 presented me with challenges I never thought I’d have to face. Difficult circumstances this year led me to open that damn box and take out my old friend again. Stop eating? You got it. Bruise your legs? Sounds like a good plan. Hank is my Hero! If you stare at him long enough you start to forget the other issues life throws your way.

One night last September I couldn’t stop looking at a razor. I wanted to use it in a manner not intended by the manufacturer. I didn’t want to die, I didn’t even want to hurt myself. I just wanted the hurt inside me to find its way out. I couldn’t live another second feeling the weight of the incredible pain. 

I wanted the pain to ease up, but I could hear my kids playing in their room. On the other side of the bathroom door sat my three best reasons to call for help. I didn’t have enough love for myself, but I had it for my girls. 

It was humiliating. It was hard. It was emotional. And, until now, still secret. The recovery movement has come a long way, but not far enough for my peace of mind. I can tell someone I struggled with disordered eating and self-harm in the past, but it isn’t as easy to admit I currently struggle. People stammer and clear their throat and don’t know what to say. “So, you cut your skin with nail scissors? That’s cool. I collect stamps. Maybe you should collect stamps instead. I mean, there’s the occasional paper cut, but…” *cricket cricket* Or the dreaded, “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder. You look really healthy to me, are you sure?”

We don’t know what to do with uncomfortable situations. Not as individuals, and not as a society. We want to be happy. Anyone with a choice would pick being in love, having laughter, being at peace. Nobody wants to feel sad or angry or left out. Too much of our life is spent trying to make ‘bad’ feelings go away. It’s a dangerous game to play, and you’ll find that the other player always has a better hand. 

When you deny your feelings, you end up with a secret.

‘I just need a drink to make it through dinner with my family.’ 
‘I just need a new pair of shoes so I feel pretty.’ 
‘I just need to get one more work project completed before I can come home.’ 

It’s healthier, if harder, to say that you don’t want to have dinner with your family. Maybe they treat you badly. Maybe you treat them badly. It isn’t pretty to talk about. But it’s better than an alcohol addiction. It’s easier to buy new clothes than to admit you feel ugly. It’s easier to get a new haircut than to say you don’t think your spouse likes you anymore. It’s easier, but it’s not better for you. Maybe it feels better to stay at the office than come home. Maybe home is where the hate is. Why not be a workaholic? It’s better than admitting to the world that your private life is a private hell. 

I’ve gone to great lengths to ignore my feelings. How different would my life have been if instead of taking my pain out on my skin, I’d just punched the shit out of the bully’s face? What if I’d cried and let him punch me? Instead I denied that I felt anything. I thought my hurt was the enemy, so I sought to master it by hurting myself.

Without the trip to Secret Therapy Camp, 2014 was still without question the worst year of my life. Some days I cry to the point of making myself sick. Some days I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the good life that must be around the corner. As you can see, I have it all figured out. 

I’ve stopped hurting myself even when I want to. I follow a meal plan that the therapist says will keep me from falling down the eating disorder rabbit hole. Some days I want to use the nail scissors and most days I want to step on a scale to determine how much I’m allowed to eat. It would be easier to draw a little blood and hate the way I look. 

It would be easier, but not better. 

Much like the One-Dish-Microwave-Easy-Cheeze-Tater-Tot-Hot Dog dish I most definitely did not pin on my secret Pinterest board. 


Anonymous said...

I love you.

eL. said...

I've said it before and I will say it again: I wish you could see yourself the way that the rest of us see you. Holy Jeebus, Tiff. Do you not know that there are others of us that echo these same feelings and are too afraid to admit it? You give us a voice that we are too afraid to speak for ourselves. You have more balls than any woman (or man) that I know.

Thank you for living your life so honestly, and so publicly, so that I won't feel so alone.

eL. said...

I've said it before and I will say it again: I wish you could see yourself the way that the rest of us see you. Holy Jeebus, Tiff. Do you not know that there are others of us that echo these same feelings and are too afraid to admit it? You give us a voice that we are too afraid to speak for ourselves. You have more balls than any woman (or man) that I know.

Thank you for living your life so honestly, and so publicly, so that I won't feel so alone.

Debbie McFarlin said...

I don't have many words but I do have a whole boatload of love for you! Hooray for you and getting Hank out of the closet! I wish I could have been there for you. I'm always here for you.

Leila said...

I am so proud of you, admire you, and believe you are one of the most incredible literary examples of truth telling that I know. Your life, your story, your honesty will help many! I aspire to be more like you.

Valet Vet said...

I've always admired you and your bravery. Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for showing us all how to do hard things.

Liz Patrick said...

Words fail to accurately describe how much this particular blog meant to me. I've read it several times now and am still in awe of your bravery and yet not surprised at all. I've always seen a tremendous amount of strength and vitality in you. Keep talking! It's fun to make your dad cough uncomfortably.

Maryalice said...

My experience is unique of course, it seems that every eating disorder tailors itself perfectly to be the ultimate personalized hell.... but I can relate to your story on so many levels. I did Renfew in 2013, off and on for 12 months. Knowing what I know, I want to break every bone of Hank's smarmy self at least twice, then grind his broken bits into dust then kick that dust into a stiff breeze as we dance and scream together in victory.

I've had my assortment of eds and other stuff for over 35 years, since I was a baby just like you. It was my greatest enemy and my very best friend, the only "person" I would lie and cheat for. I relapsed so many times.

For the very first time in my 38 year life, after hours and hours of intense therapy, by whole teams of specialists, Ed isn't in my head any more. He's in a pillow. :) He jumped back in awhile back when a close family member passed away, but he's back in his pillow again.

When it's that ingrained, when it's all we've known... it seems impossible to loosen the hold. I'm a living testimony it's not impossible. Your healing is possible. I'm praying for you!