School Running(-Around-Like-A-Headless-Chicken)

The school year has begun. The boys have both been doing brilliantly so far, and I’ve been doing pretty well, considering this time three months ago I was terrified of taking my kids to school.

Was I concerned they wouldn’t do so well? Not really. The little one was very confident and excited to don his uniform and go learn some stuff. The big one was excited he got new stationary supplies and a new backpack with hidden pockets. They were both ready. But I was not.

Rewind to just a few months ago, I found it hard to get out of bed until nine-o-clock or later. I couldn’t do mornings. I could hardly do anything. Knowing that school runs were going to be a drastic change of pace, I had to do something to make sure I was awake before the boys were, to make sure they ate breakfast, to make sure they both had clean and ironed uniforms to wear, and to drive the eldest to the school three miles away, in enough time to travel another three-and-a-half miles to the little one’s school, brave the playground, and walk him to the door.

Maybe the above sounds pretty routine or simple to some. It is not simple to me. It’s a big, fat, huge deal.

So, in preparation, I picked up an exercise regime and cleanse-type nutrition program. I needed it for several reasons, but most importantly it would force me to wake up earlier as part of the routine. It worked. I was up at six or six-thirty, exercising bright and early. I lost about ten pounds, and was feeling amazing. I even took up running which is something I’ve only ever done in daydreams. I made a very big effort (considering this is me I’m talking about) to make friends with some mums from my little one’s school, which is something I’ve never managed to do before a school year has started (or at any point, really). I was, shall we say, “on fiyaa!”

The school year started in two separate stages: my eldest son’s first, then the little one’s. And it was both harder and easier than I’d thought. Traffic is nuts around there. The big one’s school is huge. So many cars, roundabouts making things ridiculous… but I was doing it! I was up every morning, they both had breakfast and ironed uniforms, and the playground was not an awkward hell for me. What an accomplishment!

But just as I was rejoicing that I was successfully ‘adulting,’ I accidentally got my eldest to school late. In turn, they gave him a detention. I was confused about the time he was supposed to be there anyway, thought I’d left early, went the worst possible way I could have gone, and bam, he was tardy. Good gracious they were harsh about it! Talk about knocking the wind out of my sails, this really kicked me down. And it probably wasn’t even a big deal. But to me, it was huge. Why did he get the detention? It wasn’t his fault! I felt severely discouraged.

Fast forward to today, he had an appointment. I was concerned about what the school would say because last time they gave me a scary absence slip to sign and threatened him with detention even though it was to get stitches out of his foot for an injury that happened at the school!

So I called today, having missed the voicemail that said to send a note with him yesterday. I was going to send a note today, but my mood is slipping and I’m starting to feel like I’m drowning again, so it was a struggle just to get out of bed.

The woman on the other end of the phone knows none of this. She knows I’m a parent, and that’s basically it. She tells me to try and remember to tell him next time, because they have so many students that they need people to be as self-reliant as possible (or something like that). Instead of this, which seems simple written down, I hear a tone in her voice that says I’m being a pain and I need to get my act together, and to stop thinking I deserve any kind of special treatment or understanding. (I don’t even know if I imagined it.)

I try to explain that I really did mean to, but I’m doing this on my own, I’ve got the two kids in two different schools, and just getting them out the door and to where they need to be on time is overwhelming in itself. She tells me she knows how I feel because she has three kids but it’s just one of those things you have to remember to do.

But I don’t think you do, lady. You’ve got a job. That means you’re fit to work. I am not fit to work.

If only you knew, lady, how much I wanted to remember. How much I tried. How much my head was so full of “I don’t want to do this today” and “Come on, self, you really need to get dressed, why are you crying?” that I honestly spaced writing the note and telling my son to make sure he’s at the front of the school at the time I need to pick him up.

If you knew, lady, how difficult it was to drag myself out of bed today, how much work I have put into clawing my way out of the depression hole to get to the point where I can even take my kids to school in the first place, would you soften your tone?

Of course, I said none of these things. I just remembered how mental health issues are invisible and the general public has no way of knowing what you’re struggling with unless you tell them. And today, I didn’t feel like giving her my list of diagnoses just so she wouldn’t think of me as a failure, negligent mother, or lazy person. If, in fact, she thought any of those things at all. (My anxiety says she thinks the worst.)

Once my son eventually got to his appointment (five minutes late because he’d started walking instead of going to the office) I had a few meltdown moments in the car. I wish I had the privilege of an ‘excused absence’ on days like this, but I don’t get any.

Truth is, I don’t want sympathy or special treatment, I actually want to just be able to do these simple things, no problem. I want the molehills to stay molehills. I want to run for fun and exercise with my new friends in my bright pink tights instead of running around like a headless chicken in the mornings.

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But I do wish I could have telepathically conveyed a little perspective when I was (I’m pretty sure) getting told off this morning. It would have spared me a few tears in public places.

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Success, Excellence, Money, Happiness and Reality

Today I’m not feeling so great. If you can imagine a panic attack like in Being Grounded where it’s the hyperventilating and heart-racing stuff, I’d call that kind the “hot and heavy” variety. What I’ve been experiencing for a few days now, I would describe as the “low and slow” variety. Like cooking a roast for several hours at a low heat as opposed to a high one. Both cook the thing, just depends on how tender you want it. Through it all I’m trying to get through the things I want to accomplish one at a time, and also trying to make sense of everything as I go along. The Hurricane is a pretty good description of the inside of my head right now.

I’d like to share with you one of the essays I wrote, the way I intended it to be read (meaning, minus the last line someone put on there that was not part of my original writing), for the A.C.E. Award competition in 2006. I share it because it shows another little bit of who I am, specifically who I was at age eighteen. A.C.E. stands for Accepting the Challenge of Excellence. My first high school motto was “Committed to Excellence.” I have always wanted to be not average, or mediocre, but excellent.

But first I’d like to tell you, I came from virtually nothing. I grew up in the oldest, most beaten down house on the block. Prior to that was government housing. Prior to that was the battered women’s shelter. Like my short intro to Being Poor and the content in the reblogged post it contains (most of which is a pretty accurate depiction of the structure of my childhood), lack of money has been a constant issue in my life. And it still is. This blog may look fancy and I may have wi-fi but does that mean I’ve finally made it? No.

In fact, a man came out to the house about two weeks ago, from the Office of National Statistics. I tried to opt out but he really wanted to come in and fill out his little forms. I had to explain to him why I didn’t want him in my house. Because you’re a man and I don’t know you and you’ve shown up unannounced to come and interrogate my finances which I feel embarrassed about and the kids have their toys everywhere and I was about to start dinner and I don’t like your slithery personality! I told him something about how the statistics would be skewed because they want data on what people spend and I’ve been so skint I had literally spent nothing in the previous two weeks, which is atypical of a month for me.

Eventually he wormed his way into garnering an appointment for another day, trying to flatter me so I could be another number on his list. I’m sure he gets paid per interview. Like most Brits do, he asked me where my accent’s from. Why am I here. Do I plan on staying for a long time. Then it got a little uncomfortable, because then he asked if I have a lot of friends. Do I get out much. What do I do for a living. I sound educated, he said. Surely I must have a degree.

I’m from Montana, I guess. I wasn’t born there but I suppose that’s where my accent’s from. It’s now muddled with British English and Brits still think I sound very American and Americans are starting to tell me I sound British. Why am I here? Basically, it was because of a misunderstanding during a phone call and subsequent panic. I married a British guy. We’re still married, but separated. Do I plan on staying a long time? Well, honestly, that totally depends on circumstances. That’s all a big fat catch twenty-two. Right now I’m a bit stuck but thanks for the reminder. Do I have a lot of friends? Oh, dear.

You readers will probably see from my Letter that friendship is difficult for me. I’ve met a modest amount of people. How many can I call friends? I don’t know. You have to work at friendship, which is something I can only do when I’m feeling good. Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD ruin a lot of things like that for me.

Not really a lot of friends, no. Do I get out much? Not really, I’ve got two kids and when I was working sixty-seventy hours a week I was barely making ends meet and had no time. In the time I haven’t been working I haven’t had money to go do anything. Educated? I graduated high school. I attended a semester of “uni.” No degree. Of course I’d like one, but again that all comes right back down to money.

Then the man said, “You know what they say, ‘money doesn’t buy happiness.’” And this is where I just smiled politely and mumbled something about how ‘they’ obviously didn’t know what they were talking about. I was really thinking:

Really? are you sure about that? Because I’m pretty sure that money could buy me an awful lot of happiness right about now. And I’m pretty sure that, had money been as abundant in my childhood as it had been for my peers, and almost certainly for you, man, there would have been a whole different base on which I could’ve stood to attain my own personal successes without the interference of at least a half of my lifetime full of depression.

I can look back on so many instances beginning very early on, wherein a tragedy occurred, directly linked to my current state of mental health, that could have been prevented or severely altered had there been even a modest amount of more money. But the ones who are strangers to poverty don’t see that. They want to stand from afar and put their labels on you. They want to ask about your career assuming you have one. They repeat these nonsensical idioms which are only true for people on their side of the struggle. They ask their questions to make small talk, while assessing you as something along the lines of: Success? Failure? Nobody? Somebody?

Success is subjective. Failure is subjective. When I was eighteen and about to enter higher education, I had big plans for my life. This following essay is the one I wrote back then about “How can we, as citizens, make a better tomorrow?”

Success, by definition, is a favorable outcome, an accomplishment with direction, or a person or thing that turned out well. As young adults, we hear from our parents and mentors that they hope we will become successful individuals as we grow up. But how may we become a success without someone there guide, teach, and support us?
Things happen in life that cannot be prevented or changed. Unfortunately, these events can be quite crippling. Though you might not expect it, your life could change in a split second and direct you into a completely different path, one that you never would have imagined.

So many young adults or teenagers have been thrown into a new struggle by no fault of their own. They are told by ignorant people that they are failures. Without money or resources or a supportive role model, they will have no choice but to join the vicious cycle of poverty.

It is my hope to become a caring figure in the life of even one person in need, to lend support or to offer advice or resources that will help others succeed in their individual aspirations. I feel compelled to help others, struggling in a cycle that seems to have no end, so in turn, they can become productive citizens.

Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders. If we help them to succeed, our community will prosper and flourish. Then we, in turn, can look back at our world and say that it has become a “thing that has turned out well.”
A success.

Like the people I spoke of in this essay, I was told by a lot of ignorant people just how big of a failure I was going to be. One teacher I thought the world of, came up to me when I was pregnant at fifteen and said, “It’s such a shame that now us taxpayers will have to be paying for this.” As if he immediately assumed I’d be on welfare forever after. Since then I’ve done a whole lot of trying to prove him wrong. I don’t want to be considered a failure.

Would I call myself a success right now? I’m not sure. That’s hard for me to judge. I’m doing a lot of coping. I’m trying to fill my time with worthwhile endeavours and not feel like a total waste of space. When I read this essay I wrote back when I had a lot less emotional baggage, I can see that despite no degree, and virtually no money, I have done a lot of what I said I wanted to do. I have certainly done my best to help anyone and everyone I could, no matter the cost to me. And I’ve paid the price for it, believe me.

Despite a lot of really bad circumstances, I’m still alive. I’m still breathing. And so are my kids. They have clothes, shoes, and toys. So according to some definitions, I’d say I haven’t exactly failed. I hear I’m a good mom. I definitely try very hard to do my best at the motherhood thing.

Am I ‘excellent’ though? Well you know, I’m not where I’d hoped to be by now. I just turned twenty-seven. It’s strange to think I’m in the latter half of my twenties and there is so much I don’t know and so much I haven’t yet accomplished. I don’t feel excellent. If I were excellent, you’d think I’d be out of this poverty malarkey by now. But I’m not. I am living day to day, week to week. And if I’m honest, I’m exhausted from it all. I want to scream, “WHEN DOES THIS GET EASIER?” I happen to make some excellent stuff, and that’s cool or whatever, but to excel, to me, would be breaking out of this damned cage and starting to fly.

Am I happy? …No. I’m not happy. Some days, no matter how funny the comedian is, or how silly the kids are being, I can’t even laugh. This is the low and slow I spoke about before. The background heat, ever-so-gently breaking me to pieces.

I went camping this weekend and it should have been fun. But it felt like an out-of-body experience and like I wasn’t in my own head. I took the beta-blockers the doc gave me for extra-anxious days and I don’t know what difference they made exactly but the panic was still there, in the background, low and slow. I don’t think I know what fun is anymore.

My idea of where I would be by now and the reality of where I am are so drastically different. I’m looking for that light at the end of this tunnel, that says someday the struggle will end and I’ll begin to thrive, not just survive. I’m trying to look back and take stock of what I have done, not what I haven’t, and find that solid ground where getting back up to the top of the hill isn’t fraught with mudslides back down to the bottom, like some evil chutes and ladders game.

In reality, there are days when I have to work really hard to be optimistic, where I have to work really hard to keep calm. My definition of success right now is getting through a day without hyperventilating and crying. There is very little happiness. Striving for excellence seems like a goal to reach for later, because right now just doing anything is enough of a battle in itself. It would be a lot easier without the criticisms of everyone else, who lack perspective on the situation, and whose words add to the negative dialogue.

I say these things for me, to remind myself that I’m not just another statistic for someone’s data collection. My definition of success and failure have been adjusted from what they once were, and are probably very different from the next person’s. My reality has been very real and quite difficult, but both my kids tell me I’m excellent. Most days I’d say they’re happy. And I can start with that, stand on that, take the next step up the hill.

And money, while it wouldn’t be able to fix everything at this point, is directly correlated to happiness in a lot of ways, in my experience. Money would eliminate about half or more of my reasons for panic attacks, straight away. And I say that, to highlight that ‘what they say’ sometimes doesn’t mean a thing. Money can sometimes be all the difference. The reality is that it can mean solutions, freedom, happiness. But success and excellence work on a sliding scale. Happiness sometimes does too, but only on days when my perspective can afford it.

Why I Chose to Speak Out

Chances are good you found this blog either from Freshly Pressed or my post “A Letter of Regret From Your Anxious and Depressed Friend” was making its rounds somewhere on a social media site. While the letter was many things, it was not fiction or hyperbole. Many people can relate to parts of it but few will relate to all of it. That’s because, naturally, it was created from my own experience. I am so glad it’s helped in whatever way to so many people, and that’s why I posted it publicly. In fact, most of this blog is dedicated to helping open eyes in one way or another, but what it isn’t dedicated to doing is garnering sympathy for myself. That is the last thing I want.

No, I am not suicidal. I speak more about this in “My Conversation With the Un-Dead” and “Keep Going (My Conversation With the Un-Dead Part 2)” where I state, “sometimes we have our reasons for either continuing to fight or giving up the fight.” I have two very good reasons to continue to fight: my children. This does not mean my mind doesn’t jump to scenarios in which I think, how would this look differently if I weren’t here? And, I wish I didn’t have to do this anymore. For a long time, I thought those feelings were completely normal. But there are people who never imagine how much easier it would be to take a quick exit, and I think those people are very fortunate. But I am also fortunate.

My two beautiful reasons to keep fighting I just mentioned, are a privilege. Many people do not have this privilege. Do I want to be a mediocre mother who cares more about her own pain than her kids’ futures? Hell no. I didn’t work so hard to be a mother for the past eleven-and-a-half years, forfeiting what many people thought would be a “better life” than being a mother at age fifteen, to suddenly quit because the going got tough. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD have definitely changed me, but I’m a stubborn little shit and refuse to accept defeat.

Throughout school I was bullied intensely. There was not a day that someone didn’t have something to say about my appearance, clothing, religion, participation in class, family, what have you. (I’ll give details of this in a story later.) My things were stolen and vandalised, I was not allowed one day of peace. At home I wish I could say at least it was peachy there, but it wasn’t. My mother was a single mom of two (stubborn little shits) and while I believe she did her best, and believe that she believed she did her best, she had her own issues that created an environment that could sometimes be equally, if not more, destructive. We were alone in Montana, far away from family, and we had little. The budget of everything- money, patience, time, etc., was stretched a bit too far. Although things evened out a bit when this incident happened, and my sister left home, I was soon left with a new set of challenges that ultimately became unbearable and I felt I had no other option than to start afresh somewhere far away, in Utah.

So while I did leave home at sixteen, I did not give up on school. As I told in this story, getting re-enrolled and graduating was a whole lot of work. What I didn’t include in the story was that I also worked part-time jobs, starting a couple of months after my eldest was born, because I had to in order to make ends meet. My sister and her boyfriend watched my eldest son for me while I was at school and work my senior year. Had it not been for them, it would not have been possible. They continued to watch him as I began attending Westminster College full-time (and still worked full-time) until the day my son called my sister “Mom.” Because I was already struggling to pay the rent due to my hours spent in class, beating myself up that my grades weren’t doing as well as I’d hoped, and popping caffeine pills to keep awake to do all these things (to the point where I had a residual twitch in my eye), this one word was the wakeup call that it was no longer worth it. My son meant more to me than a degree. But I have never quite been able to release the guilt that came with it.

Part of getting into college/uni was getting scholarships, because Westminster is expensive. One of these scholarships was based on two essays, one about my greatest achievement, and one about how we can make a better future. I can only guess my essays were good because I won out of all applicants in the nation that year, which came as a huge shock. I have always found it difficult to believe something I did deserves any kind of award, but nevertheless, I was extremely honoured. They were so kind. And while accepting the award in front of the attendees of their convention, I gave a speech:

“To say that I am grateful for this award is not enough. Instead, I would like to tell you all why I am here. I did not get this award because I was good at sports or because I had a perfect 4.0 average, or some rare, coveted talent. I got this award because I happened to be presented with an opportunity to share with others my ambitions and values… I offer my deepest gratitude, and also my word that I will never let this award go to waste. It is an investment in a life that is going to impact others’ lives tenfold.”

Pretty big words for an eighteen-year-old girl with no crystal ball. But my passion was genuine. I meant every word. So as I grew older and saw how all my friends were still in school and on course to graduate and I was not, I felt like a liar and a failure.

During the time I would have still been working for a degree, many things happened in my life. I got into a relationship that turned out to be abusive, got pregnant, left my job, became an agoraphobic, lost my house and got news about The Accident while eight months pregnant, lost my sister, parted with the baby (the only daughter I ever had… read about that in Dear Lucy), and many other things… then ended up in the UK, married and about to have my youngest child.

I’ve been here for five years and while the original intention was to have a large family of in-laws around and do the “mom thing,” I found myself in the circus of a master narcissist. Although I’ve chosen not to be involved with them any longer, the lasting damage they caused added itself to the pile. I am an outsider here, and yes it’s hard to make friends when the British Way is so different than the American Way, including but not limited to, talking about pain.

Not talking about pain may make you more likely to be accepted in the superficial friend circles, but I have never been popular. Because I have never been popular, I don’t care if I’m not popular. In fact, it kind of scares me if ever I find myself in such a position. But the flipside of this is that yes, it is a lonely existence. I have been through so much that I can’t stand small-talk. That ability to hold small-talk conversations left me when my sister was in the hospital. After that I’d have panic attacks where I got overwhelming waves of emotion leaving me feeling like I was never going to be okay again. There are times when I feel fine, but occasionally a trigger happens that sends me into a despair, a depressive state for a while, unable to have normal conversations because the depression is overwhelming.

The past several months while experiencing one of these depressive states, I had to withdraw from humanity. I spent a lot of time with my kids, and when they went to bed I’d often weep. I’m going through some kind of stage of grief and I’d cry with a sense that my eyeballs would pop out of my head and my stomach was being clenched. I went through months of zero appetite, and months of too much appetite (you can read about this here) and felt I was shutting down, dying, one piece at a time. I’m not working right now, because I can’t. My symptoms and conditions are affecting my life in all aspects. And I hate this.

I have come through all these things and been okay, I thought, until the panic attacks started coming on a near-daily basis. Having the work ethic I do, I can’t help but feel like that much more of a failure. It’s humiliating to be in this position for someone like me who has been so independent for so long. And it would be easy to accept that this is where it ends, this is what’s become of me. Let go of the reins. Give up the fight.

On May 31st, 2015 I had this moment. I was silently sobbing in bed, trying not to wake the kids. It was a sort of panic attack, but no hyperventilation. Just sobbing, weeping, crying. Feeling worthless, hopeless, stupid… all the undesirable titles anyone has ever thrust upon me and more, because when you’re conditioned enough, the abusers don’t even need to do any of the work, as you’ll walk into the cage all by yourself (like in this story) and do the harm without any of their help.

I’d written “A Letter of Regret” three weeks prior and submitted it to an online publication because I thought it was worth being seen and distributed. They hadn’t responded. I had about five days left to wait for any word, but on this night where I was up until three in the morning crying and wondering what in the heck I was doing wasting my life waiting for something to come along and make a change, make me feel like it was all worth it up until this point, I got angry. Not angry at the publication for their lack of response, but angry with everything.

I REFUSE TO GIVE UP. I REFUSE TO BE A STATISTIC. I REFUSE TO BE DEFEATED. I REFUSE TO DIE LYING DOWN.

I can’t have the same kinds of jobs I used to have. My nerves can no longer handle the extreme stress of the industry. And I have a lot of talents, but I’m a terrible salesperson. I’ve been telling myself “I need to start writing again” for years. People have told me to write a book, mediums have told me I’m going to write a book (think what you want about that), but the only thing I’d written in about a decade was one story which I’ve yet to release. So in my little moment, I decided it was time to just do The Thing. Get back up.

The first day of June I started this blog. I wrote the About page. I wrote a few more posts, put up that letter, and shared them on some Facebook pages. Suddenly the letter got a whole lot of attention, and the comments of support were overwhelming. Then came Freshly Pressed, which kept me awake until three in the morning again, but for a different reason. It reminded me that while I am not profiting from any of this in a monetary sense, my contributions have value. In turn, my life full of hardship and struggling, peppered with the odd triumph, has had value. I have a unique perspective, combined with a love for words and a firm grasp of the English language. I may not know how to get a book published, but I’m not going to let that stop me from telling my stories.

I refuse to accept that my life has been for nothing. There are too many unexplained coincidences and blessings for me to think I’m meant to hold a run-of-the-mill job, which I’ve now learned I’m not fit to do. I am a wonderful kind of weird and I feel like I was given an extraordinary gift of resilience and an ability to communicate it in a way that can teach. And I refuse to allow what feels like the breaking of my spirit (the anxiety, the panic attacks, the depression, the PTSD) to be the final chapter of the book of my life. Excuse my language, but… Fuck. That.

Someone, somewhere, needed to hear one or all of these things. And that one person, maybe that person is you, whom my words have helped, you are why I chose to speak out.

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It’s Still Self-Harm

I suffer from generalised anxiety disorder, depression, and PTSD, that I know of. As much as these diagnoses say “mental illness” or “mental health issues,” for me they are also very physically related. Not only do I feel like I’m being zapped with volts upon volts of electricity as I shake, sweat profusely and get clammy palms at the thought of confrontation, but I am constantly worried about my body. And not in a way most people would think.

When I started doing these blog posts and looking through my hard drives for photos I thought would be appropriate, I saw my body in the various sizes it has been in the past five years. In 2010 I weighed about sixteen and a half stone. By the end of 2011 I was ten stone. That’s about ninety pounds’ difference, over forty kilos. Since that time I’ve put on ten pounds here, twenty pounds there, then freaked out and made resolutions and worked it back off again. When I see the pictures of how big I was, I feel disgusted that I could’ve let myself get that big. When I see the ones of me smaller, I think how good I looked, how I wish I could be that size again, but also how I remember still feeling huge and disgusting at the time. Over the past six months I’ve put on weight at a rate so much higher than ever before, and am now a good thirty pounds heavier than a weight I’m comfortable being. Except I’m only comfortable with being any weight in hindsight, because no matter what size I may be, I still feel uncomfortable. This got me thinking… what is my problem?

I see these people running around outside in their spandex and neon shoes and even when they’re three hundred pounds heavy, I envy them. I envy that they have the courage to get out there and sweat, running around alone in public, because I would hate for people to be looking at me doing that, regardless of size. I hear of consistent runners and exercise-doers and I am in admiration of how these people can keep these routines in place. I envy myself when I look at my pictures, for being able to get in shape all those times. Sometimes I have no idea where that discipline came from, but I want to find it again.

When I moan about my weight to those I know, thinking how annoying I must sound that I’m even talking about it, I hear generally encouraging things. Some people tell me I’m not too big at all, that I still look great, but thanks to anxiety I don’t accept this as truth. I’m not fishing for compliments from them, but in my head they’re looking at me and seeing all the things I see when I look at me, which is this bulge and that ripple and that flappy bit and this crease, and I feel the need to excuse myself for how I am. I feel they hate me for whining about it, but I can’t stop. They waste their words reassuring me about something which will only stop being an issue when I stop using it to hurt myself.

As I went through another bout of deep depression and started gaining a little bit of weight this year, I felt not only angry with myself for getting carried away with my eating habits, but a masochistic sense of relief and a compulsion to keep getting bigger. I stopped caring about how much butter I put in this, or how much sugar was in that, and completely threw out my own philosophies on eating properly. I was beating myself up constantly that I was only compounding my own problem and making more work for myself. I knew that if I didn’t hold back the portions, my clothes would no longer fit and I’d have to buy more, which I couldn’t afford. But then I’d buy another tub of ice cream, and go to the scale and feel worthless and stupid for gaining another three pounds in one week.

After thinking heavily about it, I’ve come to understand why I do this. I don’t harm myself in the traditional sorts of ways most people would think of when they hear “self-harm” but this is a cycle of anguish that never seems to end. It’s still self-harm even though there’s no blood or bruises.

When I’m feeling better and more motivated, I can look in the mirror and appreciate my stretch marks as “mommy stripes” and my returned layers of fat as “womanly curves” and “proof I’m eating,” which is good in a way because I’ve experienced loss of appetite for weeks at a time and starvation due to poverty alike. But within a matter of days or even minutes I’m saying all kinds of mean things to myself and going to the cupboards to find something high in fat, salt and carbs. It doesn’t feel the same as “emotional eating” where people binge when they’re either happy or sad. It is deliberate sabotage of what I know in my conscious self to be healthy and good for me.

When I’m bigger that means I’ve also stopped doing any kind of real exercise which equates to weaker muscles. When my core is weak I can have excruciating and debilitating back spasms. When I have that extra layer I experience the cutting off of circulation and numb limbs when I’m on the floor playing with the kids. I’m slower. I have less energy. I increase my risk of developing diabetes, which runs in my family. I stop going out of the house. I stop seeing friends. I feel ashamed when I see people who knew me when I was smaller and this can trigger panic attacks. I create more pain of the physical, emotional, and psychological varieties. I tell myself I’d be so much healthier and happier if only I were smaller like I used to be, while simultaneously feeling fear of being that size again.

The fear of being healthier is attached to the incidences in the past in which I was sexually and non-sexually harassed or assaulted by others. When I’m smaller I get a lot more attention for the way I look while loathing the ‘lookers’ for being so shallow. In addition to more serious incidences of abuse, there have been times in the past when I’ve been followed through town at 5:30am by a large man making kissy noises at me, been touched inappropriately in the workplace, been disregarded as an intellectual based on stereotypes of pretty girls (so much wrong with that), been asked to flirt to earn the company free work, been whistled at, hollered at, objectified and singled out for being attractive. I’ve faced competitive attitudes from co-workers, hatred, animosity, and bullying from other women, threats to my well-being, and general negativity.

But those things are in the past, and it’s the anxiety and PTSD telling me to be afraid of what I should be doing for the sake of my health because if I do it, I might get hurt. It’s nonsense, but that’s the difference between one who suffers from these conditions and one who doesn’t; the privilege of rational thinking.

I know that if I exercise and eat appropriately I’ll slim down and my nicer clothes will fit, my release of endorphins will increase, I’ll feel more confident, have more energy, a more consistent heart rate, possibly a reduced rate of panic attacks, and so many more benefits. I know that if I just put my workout clothes and shoes on, turn on my fitness DVD (because there is no way on this earth you’ll find me jiggling, panting and sweating in front of strangers), I will be done in about thirty minutes and feel really accomplished. I know this, but in the straightjacket of depression I can hardly bring myself to do what is needed to get it done.

These are three invisible illnesses among many. Their ability to manifest in a physical form can include literally preventing a person from doing or saying something they know they should, and compelling them to say or do something they know they shouldn’t. It hurts to know these things have any power over me, despite all my stubbornness and shows of determination and willpower in my former years. And it hurts even more that even though I accomplished so many amazing things before, I can be prevented from doing a few silly crunches and lunges.

So as I’ve been writing about strength and putting one foot in front of another, I thought it time that I get back up and try again to take my own advice… and I’ve done two workouts in three days. It’s no big deal on paper but any victory over self-harm for someone battling it feels like a gold medal.

…and if this sounds like you, reader, you’re not alone.

Get back up off the floor and keep going, keep fighting.

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Photo and design of papercut: credit Lucy Jerwood http://www.facebook.com/twinklecuts?refid=12 (Thank you Lucy!) Artwork created for the Always Keep Fighting Campaign (see here).

Finally He Claimed Me

I always wondered where most of my looks came from, because I don’t look that much like my mom.

I’d heard all kinds of stories about him, and used to imagine what it would be like if he were around. His head was so big they had to special order his hat at the mine, my mother would tell me, they used to call him ‘buffalo head’ and he was a black belt in karate.

He never remembered my birthday, except once when I turned eight and got a card in the mail from him. Well, he almost remembered. The date he’d written in the card was three days late. His memory must’ve been really bad, because he always forgot to pay the child support, too. Ten long years and not a penny.

The last time I’d seen him I was two years old and eating peach flavoured yogurt. He and my mother were embroiled in a brawl that landed her with two black eyes and a broken ankle. She said she was leaving. He made my sister and I sit on his knee and choose with which parent we wanted to live. I was never able to stomach peach yogurt again.

As the years passed I learned why I was so afraid of Chucky from Child’s Play; he thought it was funny to put my head in the dark attic and tell me “Chucky’s gonna getcha!” I learned my feet looked just like his. I learned he used to work in the mines as an engineer and hated when my mom put a jumpy snake in his lunchbox. He was rumoured to be the best piano player in cowboy boots anybody had ever seen. I learned he always broke his word, that we shouldn’t get our hopes up for those “daddy promises.”

My mom told me stories of the things he used to do to her and how convinced she was that he had once plotted her murder. He was thwarted by a passing hiker. I believed her at first but then wondered if she was just angry because he wasn’t the husband he should’ve been. You were supposed to be a twin, she’d say. None of his brothers pay child support. They all do this. Maybe he wasn’t paying, to punish my sister and I for choosing to live with Mom. He had two new children now, maybe they were more important. What did he need us for, anyway?

At the age of fifteen I finally got to meet this man, the myth, the legend. He really did have a buffalo head. He really did wear cowboy boots. He looked so much like me. I wondered how many of the other things were true.

One of the first things he said to me after thirteen years of being a stranger, was “I should’ve killed your mom when I had the chance.” I was stunned. We ate pancakes at IHOP and went to the mall. He spent money on me. He saw I had a three-month-old baby, yet he pinched my sides and said, “You need to lose that weight.”

After enduring rants about how my mom just wanted to mooch off him and the government, and diatribes of how amazing he was and how much better my life would’ve been if only I’d got to live with him all these years instead, still I agreed to keep in contact with him. He was a smart man, and some of the things he said could be pretty convincing. But so many other things were so critical.

He said he’d pay for a landline phone so he could have a number to reach me. He said he’d call, but after the first week he never did. He emailed me for a while but his emails were like conversing with Jekyll and Hyde. I never knew what to expect.

Finally I said I couldn’t take it anymore, that there were two sides to every story and then the truth. I was sick of being in the middle of the tug-of-war between his accusations and my mother’s defence, and my mother’s accusations and his angry backlash.

He called me a “whore” and a “slut” for having a child so young. I was “going to be a welfare slob just like [my] mom” and he wanted nothing to do with me.

A year passed, I moved to Utah to live with my sister. He promised to help support me and my son, saying how glad he was I was finally getting away from my mom. “I guess you’re kind of my responsibility too,” he’d said. But it was another daddy promise. And after an argument where I’d defended my sister’s boyfriend (who is a good man) he told my sister he wanted her, “but not bozo and not bitch.”

I tried to enrol myself in high school there to finish my junior year. Without a custodial parent to sign papers, I’d be charged $5,000 to be able to finish. “You’re telling me, a teenage mother who is trying to defy the odds against her, that I need to be wealthy just to get a high school diploma? Where do you think I’m going to get five thousand dollars?” The one thing I wanted, to beat the statistics, shot down in one phone call.

One week into the new school year, I tried a new approach. The don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach. I called a different high school. They told me yes, come down today, it’s already started… in fact, you’re a week late. Bring a parent to sign the forms. I told my dad, “You’ve done nothing for me my entire life. If you do nothing else, please just come and pretend you have custody of me and just sign these papers so I can finish school. Please.” He said I didn’t need a diploma, I could just do what he did and get a GED and a scholarship for the mining program at the U of U. I insisted I just wanted to finish high school. He told me I was stupid, but he went with me and signed the papers anyway.

A few weeks into it they called me to the office. They’d found out I was living with my sister and my baby. They knew I didn’t really have a parent there with me. I thought I would be in trouble, but they had nothing but respect for me and wanted to offer some support. This came in the form of a mentor and a few phone calls to my old school. My old school sent revised transcripts to show what grades I would have had when I left three-quarters of the way through my junior year, and together the new counsellor and I calculated how many more credits I needed to graduate. If I failed even one, I’d miss out on that diploma.

In the time I’d been pregnant my freshman year, given birth in my sophomore year, and been a mother my junior year, I’d worked so hard to get the best grades I could. During the second year I taught myself my lessons at home. I had to omit some extra “elective” classes which took out that room for error. Now even with college-level Pre-calculus and Physics on the roster, I had to keep that ball rolling. It wasn’t about just finishing for me, it was about finishing with flying colours. I had something to prove.

The end of the year came. I’d scored 26 out of 36 on the national Aptitude Competency Test. I’d achieved a 3.8 out of 4.0 Grade Point Average. I’d written two essays and won the Accepting the Challenge of Excellence award on the national level from the National Exchange Club. With that scholarship and some founder’s scholarships I earned by my ACT and GPA scores, I was accepted to Westminster College, my college of choice, due to start that fall.

But now it was graduation day. And all I wanted was that picture everyone gets to have at the end of the ceremony, smiling with their family and their diploma in hand, adorned in their cap and gown. My reward to myself for making it to the finish line despite every challenge set before me, a sunny picture of me and my son together with the piece of paper that said YOUR STATISTICS CAN SHOVE IT in my grasp.

My son to came to the ceremony with me; I had asked my friend if she would watch him. I begged my dad to come. He insisted he had more important things to do. I pleaded, I told him it was important to me. He reluctantly agreed. Thinking it would be better than to force my young friend to keep this toddler quiet during the ceremony, I asked my dad to sit with him instead. He did, or at least he said he did.

The ceremony ended and there were all the graduates with their families taking places on the lawn and getting out their cameras. I trekked up one hill and down the next, around the front and then around the back. I couldn’t see my son or my dad anywhere. I called to find out where he was so we could get that picture; He said he’d seen me cross the stage and then he left. I was devastated. I’d worked so hard for several years with this exact moment, this treasure, in mind. I trusted him, and he let me down. I should’ve known better. Just another daddy promise.

A short time after, his mother came to town for a visit. I was invited to dinner to meet this woman for the first time. She was cold and I didn’t like her. He was extra jolly, but maybe that was just another twenty-one ounce glass of straight whiskey taking hold. He bragged about his cooking skills, bragged about his more important kids and their piano lessons, and then put his arm around me.

“Guess what my daughter did? My daughter got into Westminster just like you, Ma. She gets those brains from her dad.”

Finally he claimed me, and it was nothing like I’d ever hoped or imagined. I hated it. I hated him. I hated all the things he’d ever promised and failed to produce, his daddy promises, and all the words he’d ever said, and his arm around me.

This was my accomplishment, and he was using it to pat himself on the back.

I was angry at him for a long time. But instead of being angry, I choose to be thankful; It helped make me who I am and realise how much I don’t need his acceptance…

I claim me. And because of this man, I claim the son of this slut that much more. I am there for every performance. I am there for every graduation. And I’ll take photos of every. damn. one.

At one point I thought his greatest gift to me was signing the papers to get me back into school, but now I think his greatest gift was showing me how not to be a parent person. I have wisdom and resolve and determination far beyond my years. And I don’t have to wonder where I got that, because for this, there is no question.

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