This blog is a collection of a young woman's random thoughts, many tangents, and occasional
short stories and novel excerpts. Stay tuned for plenty of bull and brief moments of brilliance.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Anxiety, Body Dysmorphia, and Getting Married

I've struggled with my body image for as long as I can imagine. At times in my life, it has been all-consuming, taking up most of my day’s thoughts. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized I was suffering from body dysmorphia. I never altered my eating habits drastically, but the sight of my body in a mirror passing by would make me want to cry.

The last time it was at its worst was when I was a senior in college. I had gained some weight from a previous relationship (maybe ten pounds in total) and none of my clothes fit me anymore. In a fit of panic, I started staring at my body daily. I started to calorie count, a practice I still do today but in a healthier way, in an attempt to help me lose weight. However, if you’re in college, busy, and just starting with counting, it’s going to be sporadic so the weight was coming off very slowly. The weight was falling off but I couldn’t see it. I worked in a gym at a smoothie bar, and I would take long bathroom trips so I could run into the locker rooms and weigh myself. I would stand in front of the mirror with my shirt raised, poking and prodding at my skin.

Only once I lost the full ten pounds did my body dysmorphia calm down, though it’s never disappeared. Over the years I’ve started to eat healthier and look heathier overall as a result. Some days I’m confident, other days less so. My greatest tool to combat my obsessiveness, oddly enough, is photographs. Photographs cannot lie to you; they aren’t trying to trick your brain and they aren’t going to change each time you look. So I take pictures, not for any romantic reasons or for others, but for myself and my own confidence. And it was working for the most part.

Ever since we got engaged, I was worried my body dysmorphia would kick into hyper-drive, but for a while it wasn’t happening. I was grateful. Like anyone with anxiety, I’m more or less constantly waiting for it to flare up like a bad knee. For the most part through early engagement, I wasn’t overly stressed. My plans were all falling into place and I felt on top of everything. For once, I felt like I was going to get through a major life event without a meltdown.

Everything changed when I got c-diff in December.

When I left the hospital, Luke looked at me with a look of fear and concern. My cheeks were sunken in, my ribs were showing, and I had somehow lost ten pounds in three days. I remember his words well: “You look gaunt.” They stung.

He, the concerned and loving partner he was, went out and bought high protein shakes and powders and cookies in an attempt to get me to gain the weight back. But as anyone who has ever had stomach issues before can tell you, eating is usually the last thing on your mind because you’re constantly in pain. Each time I would get hungry, the window would last mere minutes and I would attempt to eat as much as I could keep down. My body never fully recovered each time and I relapsed with c-diff two more times. It took almost two and a half months for me to gain back five of the pounds I had lost.

After a couple days home post-hospital, I was well enough to stand up and look at myself in the mirror for the first time. I stared at my naked body and was shocked; I had never been this skinny in my life. And I liked how I looked. I spent the next couple weeks marveling at how thin my arms were, how flat my stomach was, and how much of a thigh gap I had. A small part of me loved how long it took to regain the weight, but I knew logically there was no way I could ever sustain looking like this without drastically and dangerously altering my eating habits. That I had no desire to do.

It was a weird combination of emotions, knowing being this thin somehow put my body dysmorphia on hold, knowing how fucked up that was as an overall concept, and also knowing the bigger truth: the weight would come back and I would be sad again. I had just become okay with how my body looked pre-c-diff and suddenly I had been offered a body I’d always wanted. It’s like being handed a puppy and being told you don’t get to keep it forever. Not in years had I dealt with gaining weight and I knew I would not react well to it, but something else shifted drastically in me.

Losing control of your body, for someone with at times crippling anxiety, makes you feel like you’ve lost control over your entire life. I began to obsess and fixate more than I had the entire time Luke and I had been together. He was shocked at how I was concerned with xyz when my body was more or less falling apart. Each time c-diff came back and a doctor promised me it wouldn’t again, I began to resent anyone who told me anything about my body. I got mad when Luke told me I looked beautiful because I was convinced that meant I looked like I had gained the weight back. Any compliment I received was a reminder there were more things I could obsess over. Photographs were no longer self-therapy but a dangerous weapon.

I have twelve pictures of my teeth on my phone because I thought my gums were receding.

I have four pictures on my phone of my chin because I thought it was getting large.

I have nineteen photos on my phone of my front teeth because I think there’s a gap forming.

I have ten photos of my hair on my phone because I thought my hair was thinning.

Every day for the past five, almost six months I’ve awoken in fear of what would make me upset that day. I send obsessive pictures to friends and siblings begging them to tell me I’m not crazy. Luke will find me crying randomly as I wonder if I’m losing my mind. And again, since c-diff I’ve had a hard time trusting others, so everyone who tells me I’m imagining it is instantly lying in my head. I feel trapped.

A couple weeks ago, Luke invited me downtown to grab a drink with him since he had been working late most of the week and we hadn’t spent a lot of time together. I went to the guest room where most of the laundry lays and started grabbing at shirts. After putting one on, I stared at the mirror in shock: my clothes had all shrunk. I put on another and same thing. Panicking, I feared my entire wardrobe was now ruined because of a freak dryer accident (we realized later that none of them had shrunk at all). Panic rising in my throat, I got on the train in near tears. By the time I got to Luke I could barely hold it together.

I remember my dirty martini was somehow sour but also too strong. The heavy taste of rubbing alcohol was not masked by the olive juice. He was being so sweet to me, touching my leg and telling me how beautiful I looked. The bar was packed that night and I needed to get out. Soon he suggested we go somewhere else to keep the night going, and I just shook my head as I fought back tears. My clothes were magically shrinking, the room was hot, and there were too many people everywhere.

When the train pulled into Oak Park, I sprinted off and walked quickly ahead of Luke back home. I was sobbing and felt hyper-aware of every muscle in my body. I went into my closet and looked at my veil hung up. I still have mixed feelings about the veil and while it looks great with the dress, it isn’t what I pictured myself in someday. Taking the veil out of the packaging carefully, I secured it to my head and went into our room to look in the full length mirror. The only thought in my head was, “My wedding dress is disgusting. This veil is disgusting. I’m disgusting.” I sat on the bed and sobbed. Luke came in and carefully took the veil off my head and held me.

About an hour later I felt numb and knew I needed to leave the house, even if just for a few moments. I grabbed my keys and told Luke I was leaving for a bit. He looked at me with such fear and hugged me close, breathing into my hair. With my depression, his fears were not unfounded, but I reassured him I wasn’t suicidal; I just needed some time alone. He begged me to tell him where I was going so he wouldn’t worry, and his worry only made me madder. Logically, I knew he was only trying to help, so I said, “Whole Foods.”

It was night in Oak Park and Harlem Ave was lit by streetlamps. I had the radio on but was only half listening as I sifted through the traffic-heavy road. As my focus shifted from hyper-awareness to normalcy and back again, I tuned into James Bay’s song “Let it Go" playing throughout my car.

“I used to recognize myself
It’s funny how reflections change”

I pulled into the Whole Foods parking lot and sat there, staring over my steering wheel, not sure of what to do next.

“So come on let it go
Just let it be
Why don’t you be you
And I’ll be me”

I wandered through Whole Foods aimlessly and remembered how bright and sterile the lighting felt to me in that moment. Grabbing a couple Halo Top ice creams, I paid and drove back. I sat outside of our house staring up at the lit window and saw him putzing around his music studio. The guilt that washed over me was unlike any other; there was no way I deserved this person. I messaged my brother and told him I felt like I was losing control over myself. For the next ten minutes or so, he talked me through it. I told him I felt guilty that Luke always took such good care of me, that I felt like I could never repay him no matter how many kind things I did, and that I wasn’t good enough for him.

“I’m just worried he’s gonna get sick of this shit one of these days, and realize it’s not worth it.”

Nick said many things, told me this was my anxiety talking and that yes, I was lucky to have a guy who will support me through everything, but not to worry about the future.

“Fuck that. Live in this moment. There’s nothing to worry about other than your ice cream melting.”

Finally, especially since my ice cream was melting, I went inside. I looked at Luke and said, “I love you, but I don’t want to talk about what happened right now. Just know I love you and I’m sorry.”

He smiled his adorable smile and said, “You don’t have anything to be sorry about. I love you too.”

This week he is in San Francisco with work and I miss him already. When I woke up this morning, I instinctively reached out next to me to hug him and grabbed the dog’s tail by accident instead. When I showered and dressed this morning, I started to cry when I looked at my stomach. I checked my measurements and sure enough, my waist was slowly creeping back to 26”. My chest started to heave and I felt nauseous. I have six photos on my phone this morning and I look miserable in every one of them. “No one can tell” sometimes helps me, but other days it makes me feel antsy. Today is one of those days.

I don't need people to tell me I'm thin or pretty or beautiful; I need people to reassure me I have control over my body and I'm not falling apart from the inside out.

Right now, I’m taking deep breaths and trying to focus instead of getting rid of this terrible pain in my back. I’m trying to remember if we’ve finished ordering flowers and if anything else needs to be done for the month of April on my wedding timeline. So far so good, we’re still under budget and ahead of schedule. Okay, I’m good.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, repeat.

I’m breathing, at least I’m trying to breathe. Some days I struggle to find my air in my throat, and other days I barely notice my breathing patterns. Today I’m hovering somewhere in the middle. Anxiety is a cycle for me, it comes and goes, and after it feeling like a near constant for about half a year, I’m ready for it to let up soon. In the meantime though, I will just breathe.

Maybe tomorrow I can ignore it again.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Why I Stopped Trying to Write and Started Trying to be Happy

Since I was in fourth grade and wrote an awful short story, I’ve wanted to write. What I wanted to write was pointless but I knew I wanted to create something. And since then, it’s been my one goal in life: get published and write something important.

My first story I ever wrote—that wasn’t from a writing prompt or lead by a classroom discussion—was in elementary school. It was called, “Friendy the Tree” and was about a little girl who was best friends with a tree. The tree started small but as the years went on, both the girl and the tree grew up together…and that was about it to the story. I remember there was a school talent show and since neither my singing nor my dancing skills were good enough to perform anything interesting, I decided to read my story instead.

I was elated to read this story I had written. I climbed up onto this stool in the gymnasium in front of my entire grade. I remember my legs were too short to reach the ground and how they dangled and swung out of nervousness over the edge. I read, as I still do when I’m nervous, quickly and jumbled together. Afterwards a teacher told my mom and me they would make my story into an actual book and carry it in the elementary school library. Jumping up and down, I looked at my mom with happy tears. “I’m going to be an author! I’m going to be a real author!”

The school never did that, of course. Why they promised it in the first place to a young, overly enthusiastic child is beyond me but obviously no one published my crap story. Why? It was “The Giving Tree;” even some of the words and passages were the same. So, one of two things happened: either no one noticed the exact connection but they could tell the story was awful or they didn’t want to hurt my eight year old feelings and decided not to bring it up.

As I got into middle and high school I continued to write short stories and horrible poetry, as most angst-ridden teens do. In high school I started mapping out what I thought would be my first book someday. Years later though, I abandoned the book because I realized the plot was contrived to the point that salvaging any major themes was useless. Yet even then, leaving high school I knew I wanted to be one thing: an author. I knew I wanted to go to the University of Iowa and wanted to apply someday for the Writer’s Workshop graduate program (I abandoned that dream after reading horror stories). I applied to be a part of the Writer’s Living Learning Community at Iowa my freshman year and was elated to be placed on the floor. When I started my freshman year, I had this image of writers sitting around in hallways, discussing their craft and pushing each other to produce the best pieces they could create.

I wrote very little and found a lot of drama.

As I got more involved with my major I thought I would find more like-minded people and find my closest friends within English. Instead, I learned rather quickly that I hated most English majors.

Nearly every English class that I was in had at least two people competing to see who could out-asshole the other with their wit and brilliance. Sometimes, I was that asshole. I felt like I had to prove myself constantly and even if I did, I wasn’t “English-y” enough. I hadn’t read all the books you were supposed to read to be a “real English major” and didn’t know the centuries of jargon I had somehow not been told I was required to know. It wasn’t that the hostility was in the classroom but rather self-made among the students. There was elitism among students who thought they knew the true future voice of English and how it should sound. I did well within my major, garnering an English GPA of 3.75, but I did well not because of my intelligence or my expertise in the creative field.

I did well because I’m a wonderful liar and clever bullshitter.

I spent most of my time in my English classes at Iowa figuring out how to write what the professor wanted and in what style. And damn, I was good at it. Subsequently, I felt freer in my creative writing classes, where I did most of my writing. What I wrote didn’t have to be perfect or presented in a precise manner. I could create without fear of it being inadequate or too commercial. My stories got better as the years progressed and I maxed out the number of times I could take the writing courses.

My sophomore year I applied for and was rejected from the Creative Writing Track that would have allowed me to graduate with honors in English. The story I wrote was a risk I thought the administration would like (a story written entirely in second person) but I was devastatingly wrong. The response was, in so many words, “We liked your story but it isn’t our style.” I got the news while I was traveling around Europe on my semester abroad, almost five years ago to be exact. Sitting in a cafĂ© in Paris, I wore dark sunglasses and let dramatic art film tears roll down my face.

I told myself I didn’t need the track to make myself a great writer and focused more heavily on my short stories. I tried a class on performing autobiography (loved it) and even playwriting (hated it). Before I graduated, I told myself, I’d figure out what I was going to write someday and make a vague plan. But as my senior year came and went, my thoughts turned to more pressing issues: food and shelter and money. I started working as a waitress before eventually moving to Illinois where I would add bank teller to my list.

When I got to Illinois, I stumbled into a freelance writing gig for a website and did so for almost a year. I loved it. There was talk about me becoming some sort of social media mind behind things and potentially running the site and I got swept up in the dream. I wasn’t writing fiction at the moment and this was my answer. After about six months though, the money stopped coming in. I kept writing for them because I told myself: if you’re writing, you’re not a failure. After about a dozen pleas to be paid and being owed almost $500, I left.

I spiraled shortly after—though if I’m honest with myself, I had been spiraling for a while—into a deep suicidal depression for many reasons. One of the biggest reasons though was that I felt that every moment I wasn’t creating, writing, or reading that I was letting the world down somehow. I didn’t understand why yet but I knew I was a disappointment if I didn’t do what I had always said I was going to do since I was a child. No one tells you that you have to fulfill your childhood dreams, but I’m a stubborn sonofabitch. My not being a successful writer immediately meant that all of that bullshit I had spewed for years had been for nought. If I wasn’t a writer what was I? What was the point to any of this?

The worst part is since graduating, people ask me about writing constantly.
“Are you writing?”
“Written anything good lately?”
“Are you still working on that book?”
“Have you finished your book?”
“Are you getting published soon?”
“Are you still writing?”


Somehow many years ago when I was young, when I struggled with friendships and felt alone in the world, I told myself: you’re something if you write. When I was depressed as a kid I told myself I was fine as long as I wrote or created. After reading Harry Potter, I thought if I could make something like this then people would love me. As a suicidal thirteen year old I thought, “What is the point of going on? What is the point to any of this?” Different answers got me through the days. And when I would come out of depression bouts my answer was always the same: write.

I think part of me thought that if I wrote some amazing book or created an earth-shattering YA trilogy I would be…something other than sad. I wouldn’t be teetering on the edge between sane and breaking apart. Creating meaningful works would make my life worthwhile and make the pain worthwhile. And that translated, in some way, to contentment. Peace, or reasonably resembling it, would emerge if I could just quiet myself and do something fucking important.

After my most recent bout of suicidal depression, my answer remained the same: create and you will find calm. I busied myself with cross-stitching an entire wall of art and tried blogging more. I read more last summer and it was all, in my mind, some sort of preparation for writing. If anyone asked me about writing, I would say I was getting ready.

Sometime late last summer though I realized I didn’t feel like writing. The truth was I hadn’t felt like writing for years. Writing fits for me have always come on sporadically and without warning. They could last for weeks or for hours. But a genuine desire to write fiction had not been with me since I was around twenty two, and maybe even longer than that. Were those genuine desires or rather stressful answers to class assignment deadlines?

Since then I’ve been trying to tell myself it’s okay if I don’t want to write. I know I still enjoy writing, but it’s more stream of consciousness blogging and personal essays. Maybe someday I’ll publish a series of essays on the monolith that is my embarrassing childhood (if anyone knows me, you know there is plenty of source material). Even just this I churned out in a matter of an hour. So somewhere inside of me exists the desire to write and create, but the necessity of it is something I’ve been fighting to force for almost two decades.

Toward the end of December, everyone starts to think about their New Year’s Resolutions. This past year I was still in a haze of c diff recovery and newly out of the hospital. But somewhere between all the supplements, I settled on my goal for the year. And it wasn’t just going to be my goal for the year, but for my life as a whole.

My new goal in life is to be happy.

There are no other strings attached to that statement; the goal is happiness. Now, that may sound like some millennial narcissistic bullshit, but it really is all I want out of this life. Even a couple times in the past few months when I’ve been sitting with people and we talk about our goals in life, I’ve made an effort to say this instead,

“My goal is to get at least one thing published, yes, but honestly I just want to be happy.”

Changing my goals has given me the room to breathe and focus on my own mental health and wellness. Your happiness is never not important and it’s crucial to remember this. As long as I’m feeling generally fulfilled in my life, it’s okay if my after work or weekend activities are mindless; not everything needs to be driving toward some divine purpose. It is okay for happiness to be the journey, the goal, and the ultimate destination.

When you suffer from clinical depression and anxiety that isn’t going to go away, it’s important to remember that happiness is a worthwhile goal. It may not get me any Ted Talk deals or movie rights, but it’s okay if your goal in life is to be right with yourself. I will never reach a point where I am 100% happy all the time or even all day. Some days feel like one step forward and thirty back. But I’m learning to live for the days where I can make it two steps forward and only one step backwards.

So far, I must say, I’m doing an alright job. And for the first time since graduating, this past year I feel like I’m finally reaching my goals.