As previously mentioned, I have my fair share of mental illnesses. Primary diagnosis of OCD but with a major dollop of depression and some sprinkles of anxiety disorder, too. The anxiety may be more of a dollop now that I have three kids under three.
Anyway, all of this first came to light nearly 20 years ago, during my freshman year of college. My parents were recently divorced and then my father, who I had chosen to live with after the split for my final year of high school, was diagnosed with cancer. The only person living with him at the time was my 15-year-old brother.
My dad didn’t actually tell me about his diagnosis right away. So I unknowingly spent my first month or so at Grinnell gallavanting around to keggers with new friends and kissing boys.
I remember everything about the phone call when he finally told me: what I was wearing, how loud I yelled before bursting into tears and then dropping, or more accurately, throwing the phone down, before picking it up to insist I come home immediately.
“No,” my father told me, again and again, “no.” “You need to stay, for me, I want you to stay.”
And so I stayed. And I stopped eating.
While I didn’t make the connection at the time, looking back it makes some (sort of terrible) sense. My life felt out of control. My father, the most important man in my life, was thousands of miles away being driven to chemo at a hospital two hours from home, through snowstorms, by my baby brother. It should have been me. I should have been there to take care of both of them. But I wasn’t and I couldn’t be and so I forced myself to sacrifice what I could–my body. Slowly but surely I whittled away at my frame in penance and as a means to show the world (and myself) that I could control at least this one thing.
By the end of freshman year, I was a shell of my former myself. Obsessed with my grades, food and exercise, and my boyfriend. I had no friends. I didn’t have time for that. I needed to run stairs and study. And then run some more.
I tried moving home for the summer, but I was too sad and broken to stay long. Watching my dad continue to work full-time, then come home and immediately fall asleep on the couch, chemo stent peaking out from his shirt sleeve, broke my heart. All this time I had been dying to come home to help and now that I saw what was happening I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t stay.
Plus, I could tell it was killing my parents to watch me slowly kill myself and so I left and moved in with a childhood friend in Portland.
Left to my own devices, things did not improve. My body finally began to rebel against the lack of nourishment and I started to binge and purge. My hair was falling out and my heart beat erratically. Finally, I got so scared that I called my boyfriend from a pay phone at the public library. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” I repeated over and over again. Sorry for not being there, for not being enough, for being broken, for being me.
Fortunately, my boyfriend was an incredibly loving, sensitive person who was brave enough to call me on my shit and persuade me to get help. It was the beginning of the end of our relationship, but I will always be thankful to him for holding my broken parts together until they mended enough that I could hold them together myself.
I started therapy. I took a medical leave of absence from school and then decided to leave Grinnell and transfer to a school closer to home the following year. Slowly, I got better.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not still sick. When things get scary, food is one of the first things I focus on. My need to control and to make myself as small as possible can be overwhelming.
I am better at recognizing the behavior now and that helps (some) to reign it in. Plus I want to set a good example for my children, especially my daughter. God knows she will be getting enough bad messaging about her body from other sources.
So I eat, sometimes even when I really don’t want to. And I exercise, but within reason. And I try to find other healthy outlets for everything that scares me, like this blog. And I’m lucky to have people in my life who love me and know my history and do their best to protect me from myself. It takes a village, and I am so thankful for mine.