On days like today, I feel like I’m just not cut out to be a mother. I know that’s not true, and tomorrow will be better, but today is one of those days in the trenches of motherhood for me. I know many mothers feel this way from time to time, especially with small children or teenagers. Do you? I could really use some honest mommy commiseration.
I still wore make-up off and on. Still restricted, but not as severely. The eating disorder still lived in me, but no longer controlled me. I stopped trying to win the unobtainable prize.
A few months after I graduated the outpatient program, I went off of the antidepressant. I got a job that I enjoyed, started dating, and regained most of my privileges. I generally liked my life. A while later I got an internship in my dream career with my target company and took off across the country. Finally, I moved on with My Life, whatever that was.
The internship required a lot of hard physical labor, so naturally my appetite matched my activity level. So I ate. And ate, and ate, and ate. I savored every bite without giving my figure much thought. Food was fuel, and I needed lots of it to work. It was the healthiest time of my life, physically and spiritually. I found a local church and attended regularly. I joined prayer groups, faithfully did devotions, and served the poor. And God began to touch me, teach me, heal me. When the internship ended, I returned home a new woman. Though I still experienced unhealthy thought processes, I lived out a healthy relationship with food and exercise for the first time in my life. Since then I have had a couple of relapses, but nothing close to a full-blown disorder. Right now I’m in a pretty good place and have been for about a decade. I try to eat a reasonably healthy diet, but I allow myself treats sometimes and don’t feel bad about them. I still have an occasional slip-up. Eating disorders are kind of like alcoholism; I will always be “recovering” and will have to remain vigilant for the rest of my life.
The greatest healing came only a few years ago when I got pregnant. For the first time, I loved my body. I felt like I looked “normal” for the first time. I had a perfect little bump, and all the wonders of pregnancy gave me a whole new perspective on my body. I had already landed a husband, and while he found me attractive he certainly didn’t marry me for my looks. I had a beautiful birthing experience and my self-worth, self-respect, and respect for my body skyrocketed. I felt like a rock star. Now, I have saggy, stretch-marked breasts; a saggy, stretch-marked stomach; and stretch marks in places I never even knew one could have them. After subsequent pregnancies, even my stretch marks have stretch marks! And I love them. I love my body. It made the most amazing little people, and it STILL turns my husband on. Through my wonderful husband and the way I see my own children, God gives me glimpses of how He sees me. How He loves me. Through counseling, adulthood, my marriage and motherhood, I have begun to learn about real emotions. My children are allowed to feel whatever they feel and to express those emotions appropriately (ie, in non-violent ways). I still have great difficulty expressing my own needs and emotions, but parenting my children is helping me to learn.
Calmly. I saw what you did.
“I know. I’m sorry.” I’m dead inside. Please, punish me. Just let it happen.
“Sorry does not even BEGIN to cover it! Do you KNOW what you’ve DONE?! All the work, all the progress, you’ve UN-done?! JUST so YOU could feel GOOD for a minute?! Well how does it feel NOW, wretch?! Failure! UNWORTHY! YOU’LL NEVER BE WORTH ANYTHING!”
“I know. I’m sorry.” It’s all true.
“No. Sorry doesn’t fix this. I don’t even know if you CAN fix this, you filthy burdensome rodent!”
BUT I. CAN. I. AM. BIGGER. YOU CAN TRUST IN ME. THERE’S NOTHING I CAN’T FIX!
A seed of hope…
“Don’t listen to Him. He’s nothing. He doesn’t care about you. NO ONE cares about you, and they never will! How COULD they when you’re so bad and disgusting?! YOU don’t even care for you, and why would you? Why should you? You don’t matter anyway.”
It stings. It’s true. But Hope. Hope. I can still hear His whisper. Hope. Can I trust Him? I don’t believe everything He says, but I know it’s true. I know it’s true. But I don’t believe it.
FATHER, FORGIVE ME!
And light. Blessed, blessed silence. Freedom. Cautious hope. Light. She’s gone, and I am free. For now.
In my house, we lived out an emotional script. Sometimes there were limited choices, other times there was only one permissible emotion. If we expressed an inappropriate emotion, sometimes we were simply told not to feel that way, to feel this way instead. Other times we were instructed to express the prescribed emotion, and punished if we failed to comply.
I don’t remember being happy very much as a young child, but I know I was at least sometimes. In middle childhood, happiness rarely happened for me. I often felt confused, sad, frustrated, or angry. If I expressed those feelings at an unacceptable time, even non-verbally, I was ignored, belittled, or corrected. My emotional state defaulted to numbness. As I grew, the numbness grew. Eventually I stopped feeling happy almost entirely. I stopped feeling much of anything most of the time. Since I didn’t feel sad all the time, and people didn’t talk about depression, I had no idea that I had lived with clinical depression for most of my life.
I suffer from a disorder that causes my joints to dislocate extremely easily, sometimes in ridiculous ways. Like dislocating a shoulder while putting on a loose t-shirt. It happened that first semester of college, a few weeks in. I hadn’t even gotten my head to the neck hole, my arm got stuck in the air. When the triage nurse at the ER took my medical history and asked if I had a history of depression, naturally I said no. The ER doctor prescribed me Percocet, which apparently mixes poorly with mood disorders. I experienced massive mood swings while taking it. Lying in bed, I thought Well, I guess it’s time. I did not question what that meant, even though I hadn’t been contemplating suicide or self-harm. I just took every pill in my possession. I have no idea what happened in my brain, just that I had unknowingly been depressed for a long time and that, mixed with Percocet, almost killed me. I got back into bed with a smile on my face, feeling serene, high, sick… and I waited. Then, darkness crept into the edges of my vision and slowly closed in.
The counselor was a petite woman dressed very conservatively, but I remember the color of her shirt really brought out her eyes. She had frizzy hair and wore no make up, but was attractive nonetheless. Every once in a while, you meet a person who you can practically feel love and compassion radiating from, filling the room like exquisite perfume. This woman was like that. She just shone. And she had such concern in her eyes. It was beautiful, and it terrified me, because I knew that there was nothing I could hide from someone like her. The Holy Spirit’s presence is so strong with people like this, if you can manage to lie to them it breaks your heart while you are doing it and the guilt eats away at you. You feel as if you’ve defiled something pure. They are just so filled with love and genuine goodwill towards you, and their sincerity is completely disarming. She asked me a few questions, gently, kindly. I answered honestly, heart pounding and sweating, without making eye contact. We set up the time for our first session.
In the days leading up to our session, my inner monologue changed from very controlled and demanding to one of great fear. I desperately wanted to cancel and just disappear, pretend it never happened. But I knew the memory of the counselor’s overwhelming care for me, a total stranger, would haunt me. And I knew I had to get better or die, but I wasn’t ready to relinquish my perceived world where I was DOING something, making a real difference in something. I was accomplishing something real in my body, and I liked the euphoric feelings I got after a “good” work out, or when I’d pushed my body to the limit and begin to black out. I was addicted to starvation. I didn’t know myself without it, or how I would fill my time. It was what I was best at, and hiding it gave me as much of a high as doing it. And I was terrified of getting fat, being seen, having to participate in society. People were cruel, and I wanted nothing to do with them. People let you down, but my highly structured routines and rules remained a constant for me.
The morning of our session, I woke up in a near-panic attack. I gripped my phone, staring at it, willing myself to call and cancel. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I cried. And then, a strange sense of acceptance washed over me. I went through my morning routine with a small remnant of anxiety, wondering when it would change, how many more times I would go through these same motions, and what my mornings would be like after, if I survived. I waited until the last possible moment to walk out of my dorm room, and slowly walked through the cool Autumn air to the health center.
My anxiety increased with each step. I walked in, signed in on the clipboard, and sat down to wait. My heart was pounding. I wanted to leave. And then, out she came with a folder in hand. She smiled, we shook hands and walked back to her office.
She showed me to a very small room. One wall disappeared behind two floor-to-ceiling bookcases, each stuffed with books. Her desk chair, when she pulled it out, sat inches away from the shelves, and my chair was close to her desk, right up against the back wall. Thankfully the room had two large windows (covered with sheer curtains for some privacy) to help keep the space from feeling so claustrophobic. The windows made it kind of cozy.
We spent the first session just getting to know each other. She told me a little bit about herself and her background. I liked her more with each thing she told me, and against my will began to trust, just a sliver. She had some dry questions for me just to get a feel for where I was right then, I’m sure they were partly to determine if she could treat me or if I needed medicinal aid from a psychiatrist, or even hospitalization. She asked about some behaviors and thought patterns, the severity, and the duration. Some of the questions were difficult, but they were really just facts. We didn’t really get into “the hard stuff” that day. I left somewhat relieved, appalled at the things I’d revealed, anxious about the repercussions, yet with a small sense of freedom that the first part was over.
The second session was kind of transitional. We did some clarification and filled in some details based on the results of the first session, but we also started to get into the roots of some of my thought patterns and behaviors. Slowly, my eyes began to open. I learned things about myself and my background that day, shocking things. I left the session in a daze with a lot to process. I walked around in an introspective haze that week, and entered our third session with curiosity. I only felt anxious about what I might learn about myself and my past.
After several sessions, I began to live with a small sense of liberation. I was able to enjoy some small parts of life and truly see and experience them for the first time, or at least the first time in a long time. I gained some tools to deal with some of the thoughts and patterns. Some of the disordered behaviors began to loosen their grip. But then, something went horribly wrong.
Every crumb that entered my body consumed me. Every morsel occupied my entire mind before it entered my mouth. Every calorie crowded out the important and the mundane. Every bite required atonement. To live was death. To think about anything real was pain. So I stayed hungry and focused on that. I thought about what I could see and touch: my legs, my stomach, muscle definition and hair and what I could pinch and where and how much. I believed somewhere deep inside that if I could just shrink down small enough, I’d be invisible. And if they couldn’t see me, they couldn’t hurt me. If nobody saw me they couldn’t punish me for crashing through glass walls. Not my parents, not my peers. If only they couldn’t see me, they would just leave me be.
Clinical anxiety is largely misunderstood by those who have never experienced it. An undercurrent of anxiety ran through my consciousness every waking moment. When I had nothing to worry about, my brain would find something. As I went through puberty, the changes in my body became an easy target. I was an early bloomer, and so went from a socially awkward child to a socially awkward adolescent who stood a head above her peers and whose developing breasts were, therefore, at eye level for her pubescent male peers. I went from being a target who could hide behind her books and stay out of the way, to a giant target with acne and frizzy hair with nowhere to hide except in giant tee shirts and hoodies.
I obsessed about my weight and measurements. I weighed first thing in the morning, then over and over again throughout the day, before and after anything I thought might affect my weight by even an ounce. I measured various parts of my body morning and night, and replaced my tape measure frequently in case it stretched out with use. I studied nutrition, gleaning everything I could about what nutrients we require to live and what different ones did. When I ate, I ate things that I thought would not make me gain weight (this was of course the most important criteria), that would help me not starve myself into blindness or hair loss, things that were supposed to be good for my skin and nails and kidney function. I had an extremely strict, very limited diet and all kinds of tricks to stick to it without being found out. I had a trove of tricks for staving off hunger as long as possible and distracting myself from the pangs.
I tried to induce vomiting a handful of times, but no matter what I tried I physically could not do it. I’d gag and gag, but never could get anything to come up. So I gave up on that traditional method of purging and turned to over-exercising instead. I’d sneak in reps of different exercises throughout the day whenever I could get away with it, in addition to my regular after school session and my more private, secret hour-long session before bed. I researched the most effective ways to burn calories and fat. Towards the end of middle school and entering high school when I had been suffering from this disease for several years already, I got careless. I was finally making some friends, and some of them began to suspect and to worry. So I had to reevaluate some of my strategies. If I was making friends and spending time with them outside of school or church, that left me with less time to sneak in exercise and more encounters with food to navigate my way through. But I found that as I began to make some real friends, missed sets and reps bothered me less.
I would read about actresses and supermodels who were taller and thinner than me and think dammit, why can’t I get below x weight and y body fat? I’m just not working hard enough. I don’t have enough self-control. I’m not a REAL anorexic. But I realize now, I just am not built to get that thin. I have hips and broad shoulders, and no amount of diet or exercise will change your bone structure. But even when I could feel my bones, even when some of my unrealistic, unhealthy goals were met, it never satiated. It was a competition, I was losing, and that was unacceptable.
Those friends I mentioned earlier, the ones who began to worry and suspect, they accepted me and liked me for who I was. They were real friends, my first. God used them, among other things, to begin to rebuild my shattered self esteem. Through those friendships, He began to show me His love. Some of the goals, preoccupations, and lies began to slip away, just a little bit at a time. When I went away to college, the health center offered free counseling. I’d known for about a year that I needed help, but I had no way to get it. In college, away from the stresses of home, I found the courage to finally begin the healing process.
My mother worked with children for over 30 years. She describes her disciplinary style as “nurturing but strict.” Between my dad’s strong personality, high intelligence, and his parents’ neglect, he found a lot of creative ways to keep himself occupied as a child. So anything we even thought about doing, he had either done or thought about doing. I think many parents probably believe this of themselves, but I digress. Of the three, Nancy stands out as the most reasonable and effective disciplinarian. Nearly as strict as mother, creative like father, but she bested them both in consistency and structure. During the first several years that Nancy lived with us, she left us with little time to get into trouble. She came up with appropriate punishments and applied them consistently to any child in the family. She made reasonable rules, and if she made changes, they made sense and did not apply retroactively.
My parents strongly believed in the punishment fitting the crime, but often disagreed on the details when it came to living out that philosophy. The rules of the house and the consequences of breaking them changed frequently. Sometimes a rule seemingly erupted from nowhere, with additional consequences for not inherently knowing how to behave. They enforced most rules sporadically. If one parent disagreed with another’s discipline, they simply overrode it with their own harsher or more lenient punishment, or disregarded it. Like most children of the eighties, we got time outs. We lost toys and privileges. We occasionally got spanked. I think this one may be more of a cultural thing than an era thing, but we occasionally got “whupped” with a “switch,” or a long, thin hickory twig stripped of its leaves. For the worst infractions, we had to select the switch ourselves. It had to be just the right thickness, color, and length. Then we had to strip the leaves from it ourselves. Occasionally, the entire punishment consisted of the mental anguish and anticipation involved in choosing and preparing the switch. Dad still kept that switch handy for a few days to help us remember not to repeat the infraction. When we got “a whoopin,” he aimed to leave marks and make it painful for us to sit the next day as a reminder of our wrongdoing, without breaking the skin. And he never did break the skin. I say he because although mother might occasionally prescribe the switch, she never implemented it herself. That task belonged to father. Mother preferred a wooden spoon.
My teen years brought many changes. My parents were trying to learn how to function as a stable married couple, and we all had to learn how to operate as a family unit without Nancy and Ellie (we still saw them most days, but it’s different when you live in different houses). My dad was adjusting to life without drugs, learning how to be a full-time father and husband, trying to get to know this God who pulled him from the very brink of death, and rebuilding himself and his entire life. My mother was living with some serious health problems and had to take a prolonged leave of absence from work. And, there were three teenagers living under one roof.
Grounding became the punishment of choice. Grounding ranged from simply being confined to the house for a few days to losing everything in our rooms, including furniture, except for bare essentials, then being confined to our room for up to a month with no phone privileges, no visitors. This is where the inconsistent discipline really blossomed. Whatever level of grounding we originally received never stood. Within a day, the length of the grounding got extended or shortened, and might change again several times before someone decided we had learned our lesson and earned our privileges back. The severity also fluctuated from day to day and from child to child. My brother always received preferential treatment, but after Nancy and Ellie moved out in junior high, the favoritism exploded. He got away with things “us girls” never could, and when he did get in trouble he got off a lot easier than either of us. My sister and I felt like either she or I might receive favor while the other sister sunk to the status of “the bad one.” These roles usually lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before reversing.
We may have gotten jealous from time to time, but we never resented my brother for his position in the family. He did nothing to try to earn or gain special treatment, it was simply bestowed upon him. And whichever of us was on good terms with our parents always tried to help the other one out if we could without jeopardizing our own favor. We had kind of an understanding about that. On rare occasions, neither of us were favored and we just walked on eggshells together until they either decided one of us was worse or better than the other again, thus giving one of us the coveted position of Favorite Daughter.
When I was three years old, my mother needed to raise three babies with no job, no family nearby, and a transient husband. She also suffered from a slew of medical issues. She needed help. Right around this time, a family friend’s sister lost her husband. She had nowhere to go. We had a spare room. Our family friend wisely put us together, and her sister and three-year-old niece moved in with us. So now our family consisted of two mothers, sometimes a father, and four children under the age of four.
Ellie fit in seamlessly with my siblings and I, and we grew up as a close-knit sibling group of four. We did everything together: vacations, family portraits, holiday celebrations, the works. And Ellie’s mother, Nancy, became fast friends with my mother and like an aunt to us kids. She and my mom shared the load equally whenever my dad left, each acting as a parent to all four of us. When Daddy lived at home, he treated Ellie as one of his own and she called him Daddy. Family meetings and discipline included all four children.
At some point, we decided we needed a special term to describe our relationships because, in our limited experience, there just didn’t seem to be a fitting term. “Oh, so you and your sister have different dads?” “Yeah, and different moms too. But nobody’s adopted, and we all live together.” Those discussions drew a lot of confused looks. So we coined the phrase “heart sisters” and “heart aunt,” terms of endearment we still use as adults. But mostly, we’re just a family, no modifiers needed.