Opposite Action

For every action there is a reaction, for every mistake there are repercussions, and every emotion has it’s antithesis. Too often we listen to our hearts and end up burned, and too often do our immediate responses to a situation cause more trouble than we had in the first place. A burst of anger, a wave of sadness, or a surge of excitement can string us up like marionettes and and make us dance for them. That is why, in times of doubt, I practice opposite action.

One of the folders in the divider on my desk is labeled “Opposite to action guide”. Inside is a packet of six papers filled front and back with step-by-step instructions for how to curb your ineffective or unhelpful emotional impulses and turn them into something productive.

The concept of opposite action is simple: instead of doing that destructive thing your emotional brain wants you to, instead counteract that by doing something that part of you really doesn’t want to do right now. When you’re experiencing a powerful emotion, stop and examine whether or not it is reasonable, and then determine what it is that emotion wants you to do about it. If your feelings aren’t appropriate for the situation, and/or what that feeling makes you want to do isn’t effective, then do the opposite.

Often , the coping mechanisms we instinctively revert to simply serve to perpetuate the negative emotion. If we are afraid of something, we want to avoid it, and by avoiding it we only increase our fear of it. When we intentionally ignore those instincts and do the thing we least want to do, we are neutralizing the emotion and producing a better result for ourselves.

My handy packet begins with a flow chart that helps you determine when an opposite action is appropriate. First, we have to ask ourselves if the emotion fits the facts of the situation. Is your anxiety or anger justified? Do you have a legitimate, observable reason to be overwhelmed with sadness right now? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Either way, the next question you need to consider is whether or not acting on that emotion would be effective. Would running away, yelling at your coworker, or staying home from a social event to cry and eat ice cream accomplish anything good? If not, then an opposite action would likely be a good approach.

The rest of the packet deals with specific emotions: in what instances they could be considered justified, and if they’re not, what actions you can take to negate your unhelpful action urge. For example, if you are afraid, is there a threat to the life, health, or well-being of you or someone you care about? If so, that fear makes sense, and you should be mindful of it and respond appropriately.

If, however, your fear is not a rational response to a real threat- say you’re afraid to go to a party or to call in sick- then an opposite action can help. Your fear tells you to run away, avoid, and diminish yourself. Instead, confront the task head on. Do the thing you are dreading, be aware of the trigger but remain unflinching, posture up, be confident, and take slow, deep breaths. All these things are exactly what your body doesn’t want you to do, and so they are the exact thing that you should do when your body’s response is illogical.

In total there are nine emotions in my handout that are explored, each with a list of opposite actions to consider taking in the face of their unwanted occurrence. Some of the solutions for anger are to be kind, gently avoid rather than attacking, and to relax and unclench tensed muscles. When you’re feeling unwarranted sadness, it can help to get active, do things that make you feel competent and confident, seek out more pleasant experiences, and try to keep an upbeat tone or maybe a half-smile. Shame can be rendered powerless by sharing your experience with a trusted audience, stopping yourself from apologizing where it is unneeded, keeping your head held high and your voice steady, and maintaining eye contact.

If this all sounds hard, that’s because it is. It is by no means easy to defy your own wishes and behave in a way that is completely counterintuitive to how you feel. But the more you practice opposite actions the more you will notice positive outcomes from situations that previously made you feel helpless or out of control.

Personally, this little trick has helped me most with my anxiety and depression. I used to be the supreme monarch of avoidance and procrastination; when I was afraid or didn’t feel up to doing something, it wouldn’t get done. Now, however, I can often kick my anxiety to the curb by diving head first into the pool of my fears and resisting the urge to falter or look back. I combat my melancholy and inactivity by setting goals for myself that keep me off the couch and engaged with the world around me.

The best thing we can do for ourselves is to take control of our own actions, and learn to recognize when what we are doing isn’t working. Life is about adapting to circumstances in order to overcome them. When we try, try again and get no results, it may be time to look in the opposite direction and take the road less traveled. Otherwise, how can we expect to get anywhere we haven’t already been?

Note: The packet I mention in this post is a very real and very useful tool of mine. If anyone would like a copy of it, I would be more than happy to share.

Tattoos Tell Stories

Yesterday afternoon, I got my sixth tattoo, and my husband got his first. No, they weren’t matching, not exactly. We got each other’s mascots on our forearms.

The story is that while spending a week at a music festival last summer, my husband bought two small carved animal figurines. You know the ones- they’re made of stone, about an inch or two high, and you can find them in most gift shops, especially if the gift shop also sells crystals. He bought an owl, because he calls me his owl for my big eyes, and a bear, because I call him my bear for his strength.

He’s always wanted a tattoo, but at age 32 he still hadn’t had any ideas that he cared enough to commit to his skin forever. When we got engaged, however, he said he’d like to get a tattoo that represented me. When he came home with those little figurines, we decided that they would be our mascots for each other, and yesterday we got them tattooed onto our arms. I now have a little black bear, and he has a red-brown owl.

This of course is not my first tattoo, although it is definitely my favorite. I got my first tattoo when I was sixteen years old, in a rather shady apartment, from a man who did work under the table for extra cash on the side.

Before you get too concerned, my mother and my sister both accompanied me. My parents were unusually okay with me getting inked so young- they agreed that for my sixteenth birthday, they would give me their permission to get a tattoo, if I paid for it myself.

Surprisingly, I don’t regret my choice. I got a bird swooping down in front of a sun on the back of my shoulder. The sun represented my childhood pet name, sunshine, and the bird stood for my free spirit. Cheesy, yes, but I was sixteen, and despite the hasty and rather reckless decision I still love my first tattoo.

Two years later I got my second, this time on my ribs. This one I drew myself, and despite being very proud of it at the time, I’ve since grown as an artist and will admit to a little bit of embarrassment about the design. Still, I love the message. It’s a very simplistic flame, meant to represent my passionate streak and often fiery personality. A little over a year later, when I was diagnosed as bipolar, my psychiatrist suggested to me the book Touched With Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison, which examined the link between manic-depressive illness and the creative mind. That book added some extra, more clearly defined symbolism to my flame tattoo.

When I was nineteen and a freshman in college, I got my third tattoo. Like my last one, it would serve a dual purpose. It’s the word “learn”written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, the strange letters you see next to a word in the dictionary telling you how to pronounce it. I placed it on my wrist, right next to a burn scar that I had given myself during a nasty mental breakdown. I tell everyone that it is a reminder to myself to always stay committed to my passion for learning and education, but it also serves privately to remind me to learn from the mistake of harming myself. Unfortunately, it took me a few more mistakes before that lesson really stuck.

One year later I went with my dad to get tattoos together. I had given him the idea (and a little persuasion) to get his first ever tattoo, that symbolizes his lifelong passion. I, on the other hand (literally), got another word on my opposite wrist. “Create”. This was to remind me permanently that while I am devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and traditional academics, I also have a creative side that I need to not neglect. It’s in a typewriter font, to symbolize that writing is my true creative passion.

Another year after that, when I was 21, I got a fifth tattoo during a bit of a manic episode. I was visiting with family out of state, and my bipolar kicked into high gear out of nowhere. While my psychiatrist sent emergency meds over the phone to the nearest pharmacy, I whirled about in a frenzy of impulsive decisions, extreme hyperactivity, and bouts of intense, irrational irritability. One of my impulsive decisions was another tattoo, which again, I don’t regret. I drew it myself- five Guatemalan worry dolls, each colored in a way that signified to me each of my biggest worries: mental illness, relationships, death, sexuality, and money. My parents had gotten me worry dolls when I was little and had trouble getting to sleep. You are supposed to tell them your worries, place them under your pillow, and let them carry your burdens throughout the night so that you can enjoy restful sleep. I got the dolls on my wrist, below “create”, so that when I put my hand underneath my pillow at night I have my own permanent set of worry dolls to whisk my troubles away.

Now I have six tattoos in total: one that symbolizes my childhood personality, one portraying my drive and my mental illness, one expressing my love for learning and one my love of writing, another to take my worries away, and finally one that represents the love of my life and our beautiful relationship. I could not be happier with the work of art that my body has become, a canvas that displays and will continue to accumulate all of the important pieces of me.

I currently have plans for two more tattoos. One will be a floral arrangement designed to look like my wedding bouquet, that will cover the scars on my arm that spell the word “LOVE”. I put those scars there in a dark time, when I thought that love would always mean pain. By covering that message with the flowers I carried with me down the aisle, I intend to replace it with the message that love is, in fact, beautiful.

The last tattoo that I have in mind will be of an axolotl. I recently became somewhat obsessed with the cute, peculiar creatures for two very different reasons. One is that they have the remarkable ability to regrow nearly any part of their body- including their brain. But more importantly, the image of a baby axolotl that first peaked my interest came to represent to me the unborn child that I lost. When I see a tiny little salamander with feathery frills, I think of my baby- the tiny little precious life that was mine only briefly and I never got to know.

Tattoos mean different things to different people. Some tattoos are purely aesthetic, and I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. I love to admire other people’s tattoos, and hearing their stories is always a fascinating and earnest glimpse into who they are as a person. My tattoos will always serve as a special reminder of who I was, who I am, and what is important to me.

Pulling Back the Curtains of Anorexia

Sometimes, in order to understand our problems we need to visit the true roots of our behavior. Our actions are the surface of a stormy sea, and beneath lie the emotions, distortions, and mantras that secretly generate the waves. At times like these I force myself to stop and ask: Why am I doing this? Where are these feelings originating from? What is really going wrong underneath all my distress?

I have a wonderful book that my former therapist recommended to me called 8 Keys to Recovery From An Eating Disorder: Effective Strategies From Therapeutic Practice and Personal Experience, by Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb. When I was first working very seriously on my recovery from anorexia, this book helped me dig deeper into the mysteries of my illness through comprehensive lists, anecdotes, and helpful writing exercises.

Yesterday, I was browsing my bookshelf for something to read (it was on my to-do list for the day), when I came across this book. I’ll be honest, a large part of me is currently uninterested in changing my behavior, but the part of me that doesn’t want to see my life crash and burn again picked up the book and started skimming.

Nothing about the book has changed; it’s a book. It’s static, what it has said once it will say again and again until it rots away or burns up in a fire. I felt disconnected from most of the material, understanding but unenthused by the material that had once helped pull me out of a dark hole.

Halfway through my lazy revisiting, one section leapt off the page, grabbed me by the collar and shoved my face into it. It was titled “Real Issues”, and it listed 14 reasons other than eating and weight control that lie at the root of an eating disorder. A few of those 14 felt like personal attacks. I felt affronted, and then guilty, like I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar. My deepest insecurities had been predicted like a poorly written soap opera character; my thoughts were not uniquely my own. It felt like an invasion of privacy.

Fill Up Emptiness, it said, as if it knew that the hole my baby left in me was being filled with obsessive thoughts and compulsions. Drive for Perfection. Poor Self-Esteem. Need to be in Control. Desire for Power Over Self, Others, Family, Life. But what truly hurt were the two most embarrassing reasons of all: Desire to be Special/Unique, and Desire for Respect and Admiration.

How shallow of me, to care so much about what others think. How deeply flawed my priorities were. I was so desperate for others to see me how I wanted to see myself: a special snowflake, a fragile flower, an object of beauty and envy. When I look in the mirror I see none of those things, but validation from strangers fuels the hope that I could become them. Compliments, likes, and public stares tell me that maybe, just maybe, I am worthy of the attention.

I hate that I care about how others see my body more than how they view my personality sometimes. It’s not always this way. When I socialize with friends more, when I’m feeling proud of my accomplishments, or when I am making someone laugh, I care infinitely more that they like me than my looks. But when I find myself feeling empty, worthless, and in constant need of reassurance, I take to the laziest route to flattery: thinness, nice clothes, makeup, and highly orchestrated selfies posted on social media.

How desperate I must seem. Even a self-help book can see through my facade. Sure, my followers on Instagram may applaud from a distance, but what about what my husband thinks, or my parents, or my friends? They know to worry when I begin to obsess over my appearance. How do the people I love look at me when I cannot look away from a mirror? Have I retained any dignity at all?

I feel immature, like somehow I have gone back in time to when I was 23 and tight dresses were my drug of choice. I don’t feel like a real adult when I behave this way… and I don’t feel like a mother.

Recognizing these things about myself, posing these questions and facing the truth of my vanity has made me reevaluate my recent slip in recovery. It’s not too late for me to pull out, to shift my focus to school and hobbies and my relationships.

I am not a lost cause, and these flaws do not make me a bad person. I am simply struggling right now. I am grieving, and lost, and feeling powerless. Those things may be behind my choices and my actions as of late, but they do not define me. They are not truly reflective of my character.

I think that today I will make a list of some of things I feel are admirable about me that do not fall under the umbrella of appearances. It is time I remind myself of my worth, and set back to the difficult task of rebuilding my self-esteem and my relationship with my body.

Someday I will grow old and shriveled, and what I do and say will be all that people notice about me. I don’t want to have nothing left to offer them in my final years. I want to be full of stories, and laughter, and light. I want to make my grandkids smile and my husband never regret marrying me. I want to be someone to look up to, a life to strive for, a story that could fill a book.

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

J. R. R. Tolkien

On Being Yourself and Making Good Choices

Just because you are one thing does not mean you are not another. We are complex beings with a range of thoughts and emotions that can often contradict each other- but that does not mean they are not all equally valid. This the central idea of my favorite type of therapy- DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.

In my residential program all of the groups were DBT based, and I think there is a lot to be learned from it. I know not everybody gets the chance to go through therapy, let alone DBT, so I’d like to share a few of the most helpful things I learned from my experience with this method. Whether you are struggling with mental illness or simply want to gain better insight into your emotions and make wiser decisions, DBT poses a few core concepts that can guide you on your path.

The root of DBT is the D: Dialectical. A dialectic, to quote from the dictionary, is the inquiry into metaphysical contradictions and their solutions, or the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions. To put it more plainly, it means examining conflicting ideas and discerning the best way to move forward.

Say you’ve just lost your job, and you’re understandably upset. You’ve lost your source of income, and maybe you really liked your work or the people there. On the other hand, you can’t help but be excited by the opportunity to start fresh with a new company, or maybe even explore a whole new career. Anger, disappointment, sadness, excitement, and optimism may seem like they contradict each other, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t feeling them all or that any one of those feelings needs to be ignored or suppressed.

When we acknowledge the full range of our emotions, no matter how confusing or conflicted they may seem, we gain a better view of our whole self.

The next step towards the goal of taking responsible action is radical acceptance. This means giving yourself permission to have all of those thoughts, feelings, and opinions, and not denying or negating their existence. In order to make choices that you can fully embrace, you must first radically accept every part of your experience and thought process, so that nothing gets set aside or pushed under the rug.

It is also important, however, to take a step back from those feelings and examine the situation through a more logical, objective lens. Separate, if you can, your gut reactions from what you know the facts of the matter to be. What kind of financial support do you have until you find a new job? Who are your dependents? If you are considering a change in career, what are the prospects of someone entering that field for the first time?

The final and perhaps most important concept in DBT is using your wise mind. Wise mind is the intersection of your emotional and rational brain; it is where how you feel and what you think collide. A truly wise decision does not come from one place or the other, it comes from both. You must learn to balance the realities of a situation, its observable truths, with how they make you feel.

If you were to make a choice using only your logical reasoning, you would run the risk of neglecting your emotional well-being and may end up damaging your chances for success by setting yourself up for unhappiness. If you act impulsively on your emotions, however, you can easily damage yourself or others in very realistic ways that will bring unwanted consequences. In order to proceed mindfully, you need to consider all of the sound arguments without ignoring your emotional needs.

If you can balance these two concepts and find a way to move forward intelligently without swallowing your true feelings, then you are more likely to be both successful and happy in your decision.

It is never easy to apply these concepts in real life, but with practice it does come more naturally. Since integrating DBT skills into my decision making process, whether that involves deciding whether or not to go back to school or simply choosing how best to react to something my husband has said, I have found myself filled with fewer regrets.

Of course, I have to clarify here that I am not a therapist- the descriptions and explanations I have given are based solely off of my understanding of the material I was given. Consider this a student’s book report on a DBT manual.

I do hope, however, that my summary of what I have taken away from this method can be helpful to anyone at all in their pursuit of health, wealth, and wisdom.

Control

If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.

Latin Proverb

Having control over one’s circumstances is a vital part of feeling secure and developing a sense of purpose. When we feel like we have no say in what happens to us, it is easy to succumb to a sense of hopelessness and depression. At least, this is what I have come to realize about myself.

In my darkest days I feel like I have no control over my own actions. My life is governed by the chemicals in my brain, and by the rut of poor habits I have worn out for myself in my search for shelter from distressing thoughts and feelings. When depression strikes, I feel as though I have been swept away in a riptide, dragged under and drowning. And why would I try to fight it when every piece of my being is telling me that there is nothing I can do?

Regaining a sense of control has been vital to my recovery. On the day I stopped blaming everything I did on my illnesses and my poor, “broken” brain, I took back the power in my relationship with my inner self. I stopped letting the winds of unhealthy coping skills shepherd me along and picked up my oars. To my surprise, I found that with enough effort they could take me where I needed to go.

When tragedy struck and I lost the baby I was carrying, I felt as if I were spinning out on a busy highway. Life was still happening all around me, but I was left reeling and had no idea which way to turn the wheel. In a numb haze of grief, I reached out for some sort of grip, and when I found it I refused to let go. Oddly enough I found that grip in something as simple as a daily planner.

I began to make lists of things that needed to get done each day, and with them written out in front of me they became harder to ignore. The sense of accomplishment and relief that I got when I checked off one box was enough to keep me going through the next task. I began adding more and more chores to my list, things that I used to consider unimportant, such as keeping the dining room table clear or organizing the spare room.

Eventually, I started adding things that I wanted to accomplish- writing, reading, and small art projects. I blocked off time for self care as well, listing such items as “take a nap”( when I hadn’t gotten enough sleep), “go to the gym”, or “play your video game”. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I occasionally put down a reminder to take a shower, as that is often something I neglect when my mood is low.

This planner has been a blessing. It helped me take back control first of my schedule, then my surroundings, and then even my mental and physical health. But like all good things, this refortified sense of control has come at a certain price.

For one, my need to accomplish more and more with each passing day developed into something of a compulsion. I began losing sleep, consumed by a fear that if I stopped moving and doing that I wouldn’t be able to start myself back up again. This is something I have since been able to reign in a bit, but there are still nights that I stress out over a to-do list for the next day that feels too empty.

The other issue with my renewed appetite for command lies with my eating disorder. For those who may not know, anorexia is all about control. It’s about controlling what you eat, how much you weigh, what you look like, and how you feel. As I built up more and more self-control, I began to revert to an old way of thinking surrounding my weight and appearance. I began checking the scale several times a day again, and when the number went down I enjoyed the same rush that I got when I checked off a box on my planner list.

I have come to realize that control, like all things, is best in moderation. Too little and we can feel lost and impotent- too much and we can become rigid and obsessive. As I continue to play with this new lifestyle, I will need to exercise my newfound authority over myself and give permission to loosen my grip and let go.

When the wind serves, set down the oars and let yourself rest.

What It Is About Eating

My father first explained to me what anorexia was when he spoke of one of his favorite singers, Karen Carpenter, passing away due to complications of the disease in the 80s. The very idea of it baffled me.

“She died because she didn’t eat,” my father told me.

“Why didn’t she eat?” I asked.

“Because she was sick. In her head she thought she was too fat, so she stopped eating enough and it killed her.”

Why on Earth would anyone just… choose not to eat? The food is right there, you need it to live- it seems like such a simple equation. So what if she thought she was fat? Being alive is more important than not being fat… Isn’t it?

A decade later my fiance would find himself begging those very questions of me as I stoutly refused the meal he had cooked me. He would often come to me, tears in his eyes, telling me he didn’t understand. He needed me, he said. Why was I choosing to endanger my life, and risk him losing me forever? It was selfish and cruel that I would opt out of the life I had promised to him based on some abstract fear.

In truth, there was so much more behind my sealed lips than fear. There was a sense of helplessness, a thirst for control. An addiction to the thrill of making it one more minute, one more hour, one more day without food, to watching the numbers on the scale dip lower and lower every time I stepped on.

In my mind, I was a broken and shriveled thing. I had been beaten down by life, chewed up and spat out, and my wounded soul ached to share my bruises and scars with the world. When I didn’t eat, when I let myself waste away until my cheeks were hollow and my eyes were sunken, people looked at me and they knew something was wrong. They knew I was sick, injured- dying, even. I drew comfort in knowing that others could see me for what I truly was.

These days I don’t feel so damaged. I have grown and flourished in many ways, and I believe myself more capable and more worthy every day. But that doesn’t mean that my eating disorder has left me entirely. Sometimes it lies dormant, and I almost forget that it’s there. At other times it swells up inside me and grasps for control. On those days I catch myself looking in the mirror more often, picking at spare fat and loose skin, and second-guessing the food I put in my mouth.

For a long time after my last run through intensive outpatient, my husband had sole access to the scale. I wasn’t allowed to see how much I weighed, in case that triggered my obsession again. Recently, however, I convinced him to let me see it. I had been doing so well, I assured him- I just wanted to know where I was at.

I kept the scale after that. I know he noticed, but he hasn’t bothered me about it. He believes in my recovery, and my dedication to staying healthy. I’m beginning to think maybe he trusts me too much.

I weigh myself every day now. That first number I got was disappointing, and I wanted to do better than that. So I ate a little less the next day, and the next. I watched the number drop every day after that, sometimes by an ounce or two and sometimes by nearly half a pound. It excites me, gives me something to work for, something to focus on, to aim for and achieve. The thrill of getting to check my weight gets me out of bed in the mornings.

This probably is not a good path to be on. I talk a lot about being so much better now, and in so many ways I am. But I am still sick. The voice lives on inside me, even though I have ignored it for so long now. Suddenly I am finding it a little bit louder again, and, to my shame, I am listening.

I know that I should tell someone, my husband maybe or my therapist, but I don’t want this to end. Not yet. Just a few more pounds- let me get down to my ideal weight within the healthy range for my height and then I will give it up. I look at pictures of me back when I was the sickest, and I no longer want to look like that. I don’t want to be dizzy and out of breath every time I move, and I don’t want to live in a haze of foggy, malnourished thinking. But yes, there is some small part of me that missed this.

I hope to bring better news the next time I update my progress. I feel as though I am letting people down. Mental illness is not a choice, and sometimes it takes over, but that is no excuse. I hope that very soon I will be able to snap myself out of this and take charge of my body again.

Until then, I refuse to allay my responsibility for my own actions. It is I who am choosing not to eat enough, and I am the one who is continuing to practice behaviors that I know very well to be detrimental to my well-being. While I may be making a big mistake, I blame no one but myself. I know that that attitude will serve as my leg up when I am able to find my footing again. When I chalk up all my bad decisions to my illness, then it has won. I am conceding its power over me. When I own up to my behavior, I can feel the weight of the guilt and of my duty to take care of myself on my back, and I use that weight to resist the pull of my disordered thoughts and urges.

Life with anorexia is a constant battle, and some days, some weeks, or some months, I may lose- but I by no means intend to give up the fight. I know that in the end I will win.

Courage, Dear Heart

I spent about three weeks in a residential treatment facility when I was 22 years old. In many ways it was one of the worst things I ever experienced, but in much more important ways it was the best.

The first week there was pure agony. I was so miserable, so disoriented, so desperate to leave that I hardly interacted with anyone or anything around me. I cried all day, and when I didn’t cry I slept. My heart raced and my hands shook every second of every day. I had curled up inside my shell like an injured turtle, and I had no desire to return to the world until I was on the outside of those walls.

I can’t recall the exact point when my attitude changed- it started out very subtle and gradual, but within a few days I had done a complete 180. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my isolation, I had made the choice to pursue something better. My life as it was was clearly not satisfactory, or I would have never been admitted in the first place. If I wanted to achieve something more than the broken husk of an existence that I had been occupying up until that moment, I would need to put on my big girl pants and truly confront the problem for the first time in my life.

I began participating in groups. I socialized with other patients more, and even formed a few tentative friendships. I threw myself into the heady business of trying to understand my own head. Packets on emotional regulation, mindfulness, and distress tolerance accumulated in my binder. I filled out worksheets, asked questions, and began journaling in my spare time.

I learned a lot about myself and how I could better cope with my illness during those few weeks- too much to list right here and now. But being in that facility was a turning point for me. When I got out I left a toxic relationship, quit my stressful job, and started about reinventing myself.

There are three words, however, that in that place became stamped onto my psyche, inextricable from the rejuvenating sense of hope and strength that they flooded me with the first time I read them.

I was in the day room, working in a little journal that my boyfriend at the time had bought me to fill out in my downtime. It was full of prompts such as “What really motivates you?” and “If you could change one thing about your present day, what what would it be?”. It also had many lovely illustrations and inspirational quotes. It was at the bottom of one of the pages of that journal that I first spied the quote from C.S. Lewis.

Courage, dear heart.

I stared. What a sweet, simple sentiment. What an oddly stirring, empowering, yet gentle, encouragement.

Have courage, it said. Nothing more. No cheesy analogies or cute rhyming sayings. It whispered kindly to me, it did not try to impose. Courage, it said. Times are scary, life can be hard, but have courage. That is all you can do, and it is enough.

My dear heart, it spoke to. And how dear to me my heart is, filling me with life and love and all the things that make me human. Dear heart, it spoke lovingly, addressing my emotional being with the tenderness, forgiveness, and care that it has always needed yet rarely received. How warm it made me feel to speak to my heart and tell it that it was dear.

Courage, dear heart.

I swallowed up those words and internalized them, made them a part of my morning when I looked in the mirror, part of my bedtime routine as I calmed my mind in preparation for sleep. I painted those words on a small canvas during art therapy, and I hung it up next to the bed in the room I shared with three other women. When I saw it I would take a deep breath, steady myself, whisper the words under my breath and feel them embrace me and fortify my will. Those words carried me through the rest of my stay and onward, filling me up with their soft, simple message of endurance and compassion.

Now, as I type this story in the little office I carved out for myself, in the home I share with my husband, I can glance up at the cork board in front of me and see that quote pinned there, front and center. Those three words take me gently by the shoulder, embrace me, and send me off to face the perils of life with a kiss and a reassuring note pinned to my lapel. I journey on, now safely clad in a suit of armor that is both as light as a feather and as hard as diamond- and in my dear heart, there is courage.

What I Always Have Been

When trying to recount a life, especially a life that has been touched by mental illness, it can be hard to paint a broad enough picture. It’s difficult to document a story full of soaring highs and earth shattering lows in a way that does not give the reader whiplash. How can one possibly encapsulate the true essence, the underlying theme, of a tale that has gone in so many different directions at so many different times?

For the sake of creating a baseline to build from, and a general understanding of who I am and why I choose to share these stories, I will have to try to achieve such a thing. Because my life has thus far been so full of trial and error, success and loss, calm and calamity, the best I can do is to give you a series of small glimpses into the places I have been on the road to where I am today.

When I was six years old, I found myself in detention nearly every day for talking too much and being a distraction to my peers. I excelled in my schoolwork, but I exhausted my teacher with my constant, unrelenting energy.

When I was eight years old, my teacher pulled me aside during lunch period and taught me the word “lethargic”. She had noticed a sudden change in personality, from a bubbling, hyperactive classroom participant to a slow-moving, disinterested loner. She asked if there was anything going on at home that I needed to talk about.

When I was twelve years old, I was frequently sent to run laps around the building, so that I could burn off my excess energy and give the teacher and my classmates a break from my incessant, impulsive interjections.

At age fifteen I experienced a sexual assault, and my behavioral issues intensified. I grew angry and combative, skipping classes daily and maintaining the seats in the Dean’s office waiting room a cozy, 98.6 degrees warm.

When I was seventeen, I graduated from high school a year early with straight A’s in a double load of courses. I spent that summer as an exchange student in Spain.

Nineteen was when everything changed. I was living in an apartment at school, and I became somewhat entangled in a world of drugs. I went through some sort of breakdown that I still don’t entirely understand, and was sent via ambulance to a psych ward, where I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type I and an eating disorder.

By the age of 23, I had been through two intensive outpatient programs, five inpatient hospital stays, and one three-week stint at a residential mental health facility. I struggled fruitlessly with my bipolar, anorexia, anxiety, and ADD. I had dropped out of school, couldn’t hold down a job, and relied on my parents for nearly everything.

At the age of 24 I was out of my parents’ home and living with my fiance, and things were looking up. I attended intensive outpatient one more time for my eating disorder, and have yet to see the inside of a psychiatric hospital since.

With 25 years under my belt now, I am married to the most supportive and loving man I could have ever hoped to meet. We experienced a miscarriage very early on in the marriage, which was devastating to us both, but in the end it served to make us stronger. I am unapologetically and unflinchingly happy in my relationships, and I am currently enrolled in community college to finally finish what I started all those years ago. While I still take several medications and I still struggle with panic attacks, occasional manic and depressive episodes, and periods of minor relapse, I have found new vigor in overcoming each obstacle that life, and my own brain, can create for me.

Through writing about my experiences, I hope to impart some of the wisdom I have gained, share some tricks of the trade I have picked up over time, and to lend a voice to mental illness and the message that life goes on. But just as importantly, I want to use this space to express without shame the often ugly realities of lives that are touched by disorders of this kind. There is no easy way out, only through, and it can get messy. I floundered too long in the dark, and now that I have found some light in my life I want only to cast it onto the wretched shadows that suffocated me, exposing them for what they are. Silence is our downfall, but when we find our voice, we lift up not only ourselves but also any who have the ears to hear it.

I hope that this post finds you in good health, and that, if it does not, my story can lend to you some comfort. I would like to march side by side with you into the wild and unmappable future, heads held high and eyes fixed only on the journey ahead.

What I’m All About

Thank you for visiting my page. This post serves as a brief explanation of who I am, and why I have chosen to share this blog with you.

My name is Avery, and I am 25 years young. I have been living with Bipolar Disorder, Anorexia, Generalized Anxiety, and ADD for as long as I can remember. Since my diagnosis at age nineteen I have been on a path of self discovery, learning through trial and error how to cope and even thrive while living with mental illness.

So why blog about it?

I may not have it all figured out yet, but I am learning and growing every day. I want to share my life stories, loftiest dreams, and daily struggles, in the hopes that someone might take something positive away from them. I mean less to lead by example than to give a voice to the many people who fight this fight alongside me every day. I want this page to be a place that someone who is just trying to survive can come to feel validated and understood, and that someone who just wants to understand what the mentally ill experience is really like can come to catch a glimpse of a reality that may not be so different from theirs as they thought.

I invite you to read on, and join me on the roller coaster that ironically is the search for stability.

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