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.

235

All in Time

There was a time
when I thought love happened
like in the movies.
I don’t believe in love like that
anymore.

There was a time
when all the little girls at school
got boyfriends
who brought them flowers
on Valentine’s Day
But I don’t believe in Valentine’s Day
anymore.

There was a time
I experienced something
but it wasn’t love.
Not even close.

There was a time
a long time
I looked for love
in every smile
in every glance
I don’t look for love
anymore.

If there was a time
when I knew love
and love knew me…
I didn’t remember that time
anymore.

But there was a time
a kind time
where love found me
and followed me
into the depths
of great loneliness
and the love was great
but the world was not
and the love was taken
and did not breathe
anymore.

Then there was a time
a short time
where love found me
and followed me
into the depths
of great despair
and the love was great
but I was not
and I knew this love
needed more.

There was a time
a long time
I yearned for love
because it was not known
because I’d kept it
from myself
I refuse to do that
anymore.

Maybe one time
I’ll come to find
the kind of love
they show in the movies
they write in the songs
the encompassing
consuming
propelling
sweeping
legendary
love.
But I won’t wait for a thing like that
anymore.

For there were times
when love was born
with tiny hands
and tiny feet
when I least expected it
and when I most expected it
and I was not lonely
anymore.

But after some time
a long time
I felt the void
of my old nemesis
the stranger
the foreigner
for the void was great
and the bridge was not.
I knew my soul
needed more.

At this time
love is still a stranger
ever-elusive
not-to-be-trusted
and there are times
when I don’t want it
anymore.

So until the time
when both my little boys at home
become boyfriends
who bring girls flowers
on Valentine’s Day
I will show them love
every day
and forever,
and more.

-Kirsten Young

The Woman I Am

I have my father’s head, the buffalo head. Hats never fit. Disproportionate to my body.

I have my mother’s thick hair, enough for ten people. Hairclips never fit. So heavy it gives me headaches.

I have a wide set of shoulders, like a football player. Blouses never fit. Not very feminine.

I have really long arms, monkey arms. Sleeves never fit. Wrists always exposed.

I have large hands, as big as a man. Gloves never fit. Handshakes with women feel awkward.

I have an extra long torso, too long for your height. Shirts never fit. Legs too short to match.

I have very muscular legs, like a body builder. Jeans never fit. Thighs too thick for the waist.

I have big feet, like flippers. Women’s shoes rarely fit. I have to buy men’s.

Yes, my skull is big. It must be because I have a large brain full of thoughts and cares. This brain helps me to understand so many things and imagine even more.

Yes, I have a ton of hair. It must be because of all the stress I’ve had and the hairs I’ve shed, for after all of that I’m still not bald. This hair has kept me warm when I’ve given my coat to the person who needed it more.

Yes, my shoulders are extra wide. It must be because I’ve been given so many responsibilities I needed the extra space to support the weight. These shoulders have carried people over obstacles who could not keep going on their own.

Yes, I have long arms. It must be because I needed the extra length to reach higher, and to have room to give more hugs. These arms have embraced the most beautiful babies and lifted up so many.

Yes, my hands are large. It must be because I was meant to create so many things. These hands are skilled, nimble, strong and capable, and have produced the most beautiful works.

Yes, my torso is almost freakishly long. It must be because the greatest loves of my life were to grow there and they needed extra leg room. This torso has helped me to stand tall and defend what mattered most.

Yes, I have muscular legs. It must be because I needed them to be strong so I could get back up again, and again. These legs have helped me to make long journeys up steep hills.

Yes, my feet are massive. It must be because I needed to be able to trudge through deep muck and still maintain my balance. These feet have helped me to keep from falling over and to travel for miles without wearing out.

I’ve always wished I could feel like I fit, but I’m so thankful for my head. I’m so thankful for my hair. I’m so thankful for my shoulders, and my arms, and my hands, torso, legs, and feet. I love them, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

I love my body because it fits the woman I’ve become.

The Woman I Am.

081

The Hurricane

It’s all hitting at once.

Storm crashing, like tides against the beach

I’m okay, I will be okay, I have to be okay.

Everything I want, barely outside my reach

Everything I had, slipped through my fingers like sand.

Leaning on a rock, rushing toward a hard place.

Casting a net, the catch is a double deuce.

Buried to the neck amidst the sandcastles

I can, I will, I am! I was… I think.

Hurricane swept, swallowed me whole.

Staring blankly at the placid dangerous calm

Bracing for the second act.

Wind blowing, flattening shelters.

Whistling tunes of destruction and riot

Giving cause to rebuild, renew, re-live.

Rework. Rewind. Rethink.

It’s haunted in the sunshine.

Ready for exorcism.

-Kirsten Young

Keep Going (My Conversation With the Un-Dead Part 2)

He said he’d left me a note. He was going to leave me his car. He thought the world would be better off without him and he would be doing at least a bit of good this way.

I told him I didn’t want his car. What am I going to do with that? Look at it every day and think of you? Think of how angry I am that you did this?

Because yeah, I was angry. For as much as he claimed he loved his mother he was about to do the unthinkable and I could see in my mind how she would react. She’s a good woman. She’s been hurt by so many people in her life. She doesn’t need it from her son, her last remaining child. Heck, I didn’t need it either. He shared a birthdate with my other friend whom I mentioned in My Conversation With the Un-Dead who did succeed in taking his life. Both of them had a special role in my life for a time. Both I cared about. I’m tired of grieving one thing or another.

I explained to him that the car wouldn’t be helpful to me at all, it would be like salt in the wounds. Either it would be a constant reminder of pain, or it would be a chore and a load of paperwork to get rid of it, which I hate. In my angst I said he could take his car and shove it, I’d rather see him alive and driving the thing himself.

It was late November. He didn’t want to live anymore, he said. He was mid-thirties, no wife, no kids, no real accomplishments. He missed his sister who he’d lost to a terminal illness. They used to spend loads of time together. Now his Christmases were empty reminders of how they used to have fun together, but she was gone and that part of life was over. His grief left him in depressive states frequently. My hunch is that he was also bipolar, given his manic, Hyena personality and reclusive, Mole personality.

He had tried to seek counselling, but the systems can be slow and he was still waiting for an appointment. Every day he woke up alone, went to work alone, came home alone, ate his dinner alone, went to bed alone. That’s difficult when spirits are high, even more so when they’re low. He was dissatisfied with the general status quo of his life.

It seems to me that this failed attempt is a pretty good opportunity.

“For what?”

To do a one-eighty and change all the things you hate.

One way to look at it is this: When the world around you has you tearing your hair out, crying your eyes out, feeling powerless and worthless, that is the moment you can put your big-kid boots on and say, I’M NOT HAVING THIS ANY LONGER. But rather than a destructive way, how about a transformative way?

Where I grew up we had a saying: “Either sh** or get off the pot.” To me, this means that if I’m going to sit there complaining about something, I’m wasting my time. Instead of sitting there, lamenting over this or that, I have to get up and do something about it, or it’s never going to change. And would I rather give happiness a go than death? Yes. It’s worth a shot if I can get there and finally begin to thrive.

Our sadness is a symptom of a problem. It intensifies the more we stare at it. The key is to shift the focus, and start working on the things you can change. If everything around you has you dissatisfied, maybe you’ve outgrown it. Start a list, and one by one change the things you can.

Don’t set up camp where you don’t want to live.

If your current state of mind is sad all the time, don’t set up camp there. Don’t say to yourself, “Well, this is it. This is where it ends.” Don’t unpack all your hopes and dreams and set them to permanently rest on the shelves of your current state of despair. Because it’s there that they will die. And in one way or another, so will parts of you.

Consider the AA prayer, regardless of your belief in a deity:

God,

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

Some things can’t be changed. He could never bring his sister back from the dead. (And I totally understand that, because I wish I could bring my sister back, too.) But he felt his existence held no value. So, I suggested he give it value. He was always saying he wanted to volunteer for the homeless. Why not start there?

Once, I set myself a challenge of losing a bunch of weight. But the more I stared at the scale and what it said to me, the less it moved in the direction I wanted. It kept going up instead. So I changed my approach. I realised I couldn’t focus on the weight I lost, because that’s not where I have control. The only real way to change my problem was to start doing some work. I learned that by doing the work, the numbers took care of themselves. I had to constantly remind myself “It’s not about the weight you lose, it’s about the work you do.”

Similarly, we don’t own magic wands where we can suddenly change everything. We have to take it one step at a time, one day at a time, one brick at a time, one word at a time, whatever. It takes time, but it’s always more worth it to try than to give up.

What is in your power? Do that. Do as much as you can every day, and in three months see if you feel the same as you do today. Then do it for three months longer. Then six months. Keep going until this day is a distant memory.

He didn’t like his job, either. I told him to look for another one. In threatening to write a book about him, I told him that if he didn’t at least try to fix the things he didn’t like first, I’d tell the world how he gave up before he even started trying. I’d say he was a quitter. A coward. Is that what you want the world to remember of you? The legacy you want to leave behind? No? Then do something about it.

I don’t mean to tell people considering suicide that they’re cowards and quitters. This one situation is not every situation and I’m not judging you, readers. But as I said here, I was grasping at straws with him. And I do know what it feels like to not want to keep going. But I also know there is a lot of value in picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, taking a big breath, and putting one foot in front of the other in the direction of a better life. You can learn a lot about yourself, amaze yourself, and find strength you didn’t know you had.

Keep going.

If you’re struggling, please remember that if you reach out, your call is likely to be answered. If nothing else, there are hotlines to help. In the UK, the Samaritans are there on the end of the line to be an ear (08457 90 90 90 fees apply). In the US, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “We are here for people struggling through any sort of situation – you do not have to be feeling suicidal to call. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7/365.”

“Try to remember, that you can’t forget
Down with history, up with your head
For sweet tomorrow, she never fell from grace
We might still know sorrow but we got better days”

-Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Better Days