A Chance to Live
Inside every human being is a drive. Sometimes the drive is clear cut: he or she wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, a wife, a mother, a husband, a father, or something else entirely. Sometimes the drive is muddy, murky and hard to understand. Sometimes that drive, the very thing that is supposed to motivate us to become something special in this world, can become the one thing that can turn on us and lead us down the path of self-destruction. Once on that path, a host of questions, fears and doubts besiege us. How do we protect ourselves against rejection, prejudice, risk, pain and judgment? How do we breathe through this dark cloud, let alone survive in this world?
From the time I was very small I knew I was different. I was more sensitive to people’s emotions and I always wanted to belong. Yet, somehow, I was never quite good enough. I spent the majority of my youth trying to fix myself; trying somehow to make myself worthy of this life, this world. When I was eight years old, I discovered the world of anorexia and bulimia. I thought I had discovered the Holy Grail. I finally had a way to make myself something I was not. I could discipline myself to be better, stronger, and more than average. While other people were focusing on age appropriate issues, I was too busy swallowing the biggest lie of our society. The lie that says “swallow the blue pill (i.e. lose weight and be thin) and all of your life will be perfect.” (I wonder why the diet pill industry never shows you eating out of trash cans and being homeless – only standing next to your fancy car, pretty house, handsome spouse and beautiful children). For a while, I think the lie even worked.
One year progressed to two years, two years to four years, and the cycle continued. As those years evolved, I delved deeper and deeper into the nightmare of my eating disorder. While engrossed in the disease, I survived abuse, rape, being molested by a therapist, the deaths of several people I held dear and many more tragedies. Though one would think that would wake me from my self-imposed prison, each event only served to push me further and further into the darkness. With the darkness came the insanity; the spiraling whirlwind of self-injury, medical complications, hallucinations, self doubt, horrific evil voices in my mind and ever present terror. Smaller and smaller became my body and smaller and smaller became my world.
Finally, entangled in this nightmare of anorexia and bulimia, held tighter than a fly caught in a spider web, I reached for suicide. At that point I honestly felt I had no hope of recovery; no hope of a real life. I was tired of pretending to be something I was not: the perfect wife, the perfect friend, the perfect worker, colleague, daughter, sister, etc. I no longer even knew what perfect was. My magic pill had failed. I only knew that I was hopelessly, irrevocably lost.
I failed in my attempt to die and, because of what I had done; I nearly lost the only people who had ever truly believed in me. I punished myself by delving deeper into the anorexia and bulimia, adding overt and covert methods of self-injury as punishment for my failure and for my life. This only served to bring the nightmare closer to my heart and helped to corrupt my soul to the point of darkness. I couldn’t work, I could barely stand. I decided that if death would not have me, than I would make myself dead inside. It hurt to breath, it hurt to see, it hurt to simply live. In and out of treatment I went, like a carousel with crazy horses whirling by me. I could not trust them to help me, I could not trust myself. My fragile mind became weaker and weaker while my nightmare became stronger and stronger.
At the time books were scarce for survivors, scarcer still for those with eating disorders and books on self-injury were virtually impossible to find. Faces of survivors and recovery were nowhere to be found. None of my friends from treatment really believed recovery was possible. Even some of my treatment teams told me I would never get better. At this point the best they could offer me was hope for maintenance. What kind of inspirational reality was that? In and out of hospitals, in and out of doctor’s offices, in and out of therapist’s rooms, round and round on the merry-go-round.
In the end, it was death that almost claimed me and it was I who said to death “You cannot have me.” As I laid on my couch and listened to the strongest hallucination of my life: the sound of nails being pounded into my coffin, and felt the strongest sense of suffocation as the dirt piled high onto my grave; I knew. I knew it was the end. The question that I asked myself at that moment was simple: Why?
Why was this “way of life” so preferable to me. Was it less frightening than facing the truths about my past and my experiences? If I was going to die anyway, would I not be better off to die in reality rather than in the darkness of illusion and fear? Why did I never hear a survivor speak? Why had I never met anyone who had recovered? Was it because they were not there or because I simply was not listening?
It wasn’t sunshine and roses from that moment on. I had to fight hard to get up off that couch. I had to scratch and claw my way into one more treatment center, this time a place of my choosing, not my insurance company’s. I had to leave my family behind and go so far away that my past couldn’t see me, though I could see it. It was a hell in itself; a different kind of terror. I was alone in a strange state, a strange city and a strange place.
I entered that last treatment center on my 26th birthday. I told myself I was giving myself my own birthday present, my last chance at life. I forced myself out of the wheelchair that my muscle loss had imprisoned me in and I walked into the doors of the facility. I looked my “nightmare man” in the face and said “you are finished.” I wasn’t at my lowest weight, I wasn’t at my sickest point, I wasn’t all those things my eating disorder said I had to be in order to deserve help. I was simply determined to do something I had never seen done. I was determined to live. What I learned was the most powerful lesson I had ever been given; a weapon against the voices in my head. I learned that I was a person before my eating disorder and I would be a person again when those voices were gone. I learned that the illness could be killed and I would still survive.
In some ways I think the eating disorder was easier to let go of than the self-injury. Giving up the self-injury, which to me was a form of punishment akin to my eating disorder, meant accepting that I did not deserve to be punished for being who I was. That was the hardest thing to believe. My mind would play tricks on me. “You can do this and no one would know.” “They will think it was an accident.” Oh, the whispers in my head. I used every skill in my arsenal and I held my ground.
People are always asking me if I miss the eating disorder and the self-injury. Do I miss being numb and not having to feel pain, loss and suffering? My answer is a resounding “NO.” When I have the chance to sit with someone and listen to the horror they live with every day, I remember my own. When I hear someone tell me they were raped for the first time, I know the fear and terror he or she had to face to even force those words past his or her lips and I feel such a sense of privilege to be trusted with something that blatantly personal, because they know I have been there and I will not judge. I like to think I am now something that I never had. I am a light at the end of the tunnel. If tomorrow my life should be over, I think I can honestly stand before my maker and say I left this world a better place. I helped at least one person. I can say, in all honestly, I not only survived but that I LIVED.
I “live” without being perfect, without looking like a fashion model, without a fancy house and expensive car. I “live” messily, openly and sometimes still with a lot of fear of messing up. But I LIVE.
To those who wonder is recovery possible from an eating disorder? Can you give up the self-injury and never go back? My answer is a resounding YES and YES . As I sit here fifteen years stronger and wiser on my journey I want people to know that when I say “You CAN do this” I say it with every confidence of one who is not afraid to fly in the face of the societal implications, stereotypical convictions and media influence. I say it with the confidence that when one of us survives, the bridge between those who suffer and those who recover gets stronger, wider and more easily accessible every day.
LIVE with me and know that you are not alone. You CAN do this.
McWhorter-Finney, W. (2013). A Chance to Live. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 13, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/a-chance-to-live/