The Smiling Girl In The Picture

Look at that girl in the picture. She is participating in a fourth of July talent show at summer camp with her bunkmates. Her slinky textured hair is combed back into a tight bun on top of her head, hidden by a multicolored hat. Oh, and her bunk will win, and she will jump up and down feigning excitement because really she doesn’t care about stupid drama competitions and would rather be kicking around a soccer ball. She’s kind of a secret rebel like that. She is young and seems happy based on that wide smile cementing the lower half of her face. But her teeth are a giveaway, impressionable aligned with braces, like her soul. She is molding into the person she thinks she should be—but who exactly is that? No one would know she is hurting, but she is. This young third grader is struggling with anorexia. This young girl is the surprising embodiment of mental illness. This girl was a younger version of me.

It began on the first day of sleepaway camp. I was beyond consoling and wanted only to be back home. I missed my parents and wasn’t sure who I was at camp without them. But I didn’t know how to tell anyone, to express my emotions. How would I find comfort without my mommy and daddy? At dinner, my wide brown eyes scanned the food stations and opted for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of the mac and cheese, meatloaf, hamburgers, hotdogs, and baked beans. It just all turned me off, which was odd, because I had never felt that way about food before. After the first day, I panicked in the face of all of the food choices and became known as a picky eater.

 

There was no deviation and that would impact me by the end of the summer.

I woke up to a crowd of kids and counselors surrounding me, my eyes blinking a few times before coming to. I wasn’t in the comfort of my bed at home. No! I was flat on my back on the hard floor of the camp basketball court, staring into a blinding sun in a big blue sky. Oh shit! After a short trip to the infirmary, it was decided that I needed to go to the hospital to get an IV. I was mortified that my parents would have to take a three-hour car ride to make sure I was okay. I wanted to tell them they didn’t have to—that I was fine— but I had no say in the matter. What if they figured out what caused me to end up in this state?

Three days left of camp, my first summer away–I had fainted. That little girl in the picture wasn’t just very active like the doctor’s said. She was starving. Truth was, she was always hungry, but needed her patterns and rituals much more than she believed she needed food, and her body couldn’t keep up. That girl in the picture didn’t have curves, or really think she was fat—yet. She just couldn’t eat, because that’s how she dealt with her anxiety, but no one could see her pain. They could only see the smiling girl in the picture and that was enough to mask her eating disorder for many years.

So warning, the next time you look at a picture of someone on social media, know it is just a snap shot of a moment in time. Maybe they look happy in that instant, but there could be more going on. There always is more than a picture can capture. Don’t be blind to the glossy game of make-believe that is social media. Peal away the glitz, before you look in from the outside thinking the perfect exists on the screen you are browsing. A Picture is just that-a picture. Though, of course, there are many moments and pictures of genuine happiness, that just isn’t my point. Mental illness is easily masked with a smile like the smiling girl in the picture. So no, I don’t believe the idiom a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s harder to fake words. Our generation needs to dig deeper. So let’s start digging and using more words.

This Is Not A Choice

“Why can’t you just eat?” Such a simple question with such a complex answer.

Trust me, when I was at my lowest weight and struggling with anorexia, I knew I looked sickly. I just couldn’t get myself to eat. It wasn’t that easy. That is the biggest misconception about anorexia; that if you just eat, you will get better. Great, if it was just that easy! Eating is against everything you believe, especially when it is ingrained into your DNA not to.

Similarly when I was trying to recover through the Maudsley approach, family based treatment; I couldn’t help but slip with laxatives a couple of times. It was like a force was pulling me towards them like I was in some kind of magical trance. My parents didn’t understand. One time it got really bad. I didn’t respond well—we all didn’t respond well.

I was about halfway through my Maudsley refeeding at twenty-six—I know, it was rough-when my mom found natural laxatives I’d bought in one of the drawers in the computer room at my parents house. I was staying there for a couple of months to avoid inpatient treatment, while working with an eating disorder therapist, and other experts. I had compartmentalized the laxatives as not being a problem. I mean I was gaining weight, eating, doing everything else right. Can’t I be getting better but still abusing laxatives at the same time? I wondered. I know the answer to that now, but just humor me for a moment.

I had tried to justify them to myself when I sneakily bought them because they were “natural” laxatives. Natural meant they were acceptable in my mind—wrong! My mom called my dad when we were on the way home from work and angrily told him what she discovered. He yelled at me for being deceitful.

“All you do is lie to me. I can’t trust you! How could you lie to me?” he roared, his lower teeth overtaking his upper lip like a shih tzu, which was intimidating as fuck—not like the cute little teacup shih tzus I was familiar with.

“I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to—” I said biting my lip hard, tears forming in my shameful eyes.

“You mean, you didn’t mean to get caught! Your mother and I have been busting our assess trying to get you better, and this is how you repay us. You are so ungrateful.”

I swear he had such force in his voice that the car shook with its booming vibrato. He never knew how to handle his emotions, especially over things he couldn’t control. He wanted to scare the shit out of me, scare the anorexia and bulimia out of me, so I wouldn’t do it again. Though that wasn’t going to help. He didn’t understand how powerful this addiction was. He didn’t understand that the last thing I wanted to do was lie to him, to my mom. It wasn’t about trust. I had a problem. I was an addict.

I cried all the way home as he expressed his disappointment in me as a person, even more hurtful, as his daughter. We got home, and as we pulled in, I saw the outline of my mom at the door peering out: her long brown locks, medium-height lanky body, and long skinny arms. How would I get around her without talking to her? My dad’s screams were all blending together as the intensity seemed to decrease, and all I could hear were the same words over and over again “disappointment” and “unappreciative.”

I opened the car door and slithered out like a rattlesnake making its escape, slammed the door shut behind me, and ran past my mom up the back stairs and hid. Yes, you read that correctly, I hid. I didn’t want them to belittle me anymore. I couldn’t take it. Through the vents, I could hear them talking, but only in murmurs. Then they shouted for me: “Dani! Dani!” I stayed in my hiding spot, paralyzed. I felt like a little girl hiding from her spanking.

I hid in a closet in my room under hanging clothes, squishing old shoes with my butt and legs for what seemed like a long time. I whimpered but tried to stay as quiet as possible. It was hot and dark with a little light peeking through the bottom. I saw the backs of dresses from when I was younger. One was dark maroon. I recognized it as the dress I wore to my bat mitzvah. I placed my fingers on it and felt the texture; it felt hard, almost stale. I looked at a suitcase above me where I used to hide laxatives, now I was hiding for them. I was hiding because I was so addicted to them, to my habits, that I couldn’t stop myself from using them. I’d reached a new low. I was sitting in my childhood closet hiding from the world.

I heard my mom calling in echoes. “Dani, Dani! Is this a joke? Where are you?” I heard her faint footsteps far away.

My dad chiming in: “Did she leave the house?”

I heard the front door open and slam close.

Tucked quietly away, I let them panic for a bit. I let them squirm the way I had been squirming these past couple of months, tiptoeing around them, trying everything to please them, following their every order so I wouldn’t be hospitalized. Somehow, in this moment, this felt so much worse than the worst punishment I could think of. I wanted to get even with them in a way. I resented my dad’s reaction; I resented my mom for busting me the way she did. She could have just waited until we both got home, instead of making me get stuck in a car with someone who saw this as the ultimate betrayal.

“You are going to be in big trouble whenever you come out!” I heard my dad scream. Not exactly motivation for me to move. I closed my eyes and tried to slow my breathing, hoping the walls from the closet would close in and suffocate me, end it all right now, right here . . .

“Dani, please, we are not mad at you,” my mom countered his lunacy. Her panicked voice made me feel a little bad.

About ten minutes in hiding, I opened the closet door from the inside, revealing myself. I picked myself up slowly, gaining balance on my two feet and feeling weak and defeated as I shouted, “I’m here, I’m here.” I realized that my voice was in a whisper and not the shout I intended it to be. “I’m here. I am coming!” I screamed again, and this time it was actually louder.

I walked down the front stairs and found them both in the kitchen.

When I saw their faces, I apologized through broken whimpers and tears. My parents both embraced me. I snuggled into my dad’s chest, hiding my face and tears in the warmth of his body. I cried for my parents. I cried for myself. I cried because I didn’t think I could do this anymore. I just cried.

I wish all of us had responded differently. There were a lot of emotions. It was one of the hardest times in all of our lives. My dad didn’t know anything from eating disorders. He thought I chose not to eat. He never heard of anyone being addicted to something like laxatives. But now every year at the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) walk, my dad stands right by my side listening to the speakers; his unblinking eyes release tears that roll along the contour of his chin and down his neck. Now, he is my biggest advocate and understands how difficult this illness is. He is proud of me, of all the people that beat this. He knows this is not a choice.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or refer to the resources page

 

 

 

What Turning Thirty Means To Me After Beating Mental Illness

Only a thin white gown covered my body as I shivered ferociously, despite the plush white blanket my mother had brought from home. I couldn’t move, not even to make eye contact with my mother, who, flanked by doctors and nurses, peered over me.

“What happened to me?” I wanted to ask, but I was too confused to form words. I knew one thing for sure—my head hurt. I closed my eyes again to relieve the pain and blurriness. I could hear the piercing wails of the ambulance, so loud yet ever fading as I went in and out of consciousness.

“Danielle, can you hear me?” the EMT asked with such command, it scared me into answering him. But what came out of my mouth was only gibberish, like playing a record backward in slow motion. The one thing in English I could say became my mother’s saving grace as she squeezed my hand in terror: “I don’t want to die.” Her saving grace, because for far too long I had done everything in my power to die.

My abuse of laxatives had been going on for a good ten years, and I was finally paying the price. I swore I could feel my body breaking down the night before, and I was right. I had known something bad was going to happen, and it did. Like I had a crystal ball, I’d predicted it, and I was lucky I’d asked for help and wasn’t alone. Now, what was going to happen to me?

                                                                                             ***

It’s hard to believe this was four years ago when my body broke down and had a seizure. Now I am going to be thirty—the big 3-0. I didn’t believe I was going to make it to twenty-six, I was going to die of anorexia. But, lo and behold– here I am and a shit load has changed. I have learned so many lessons and I am here to tell you what thirty and being in recovery feels like. So listen up:

1). My soul feels so much older than thirty so turning thirty actually seems young to me believe it or not.

Growing up with mental illness I took on a lot being the perfectionist, type-A, OCD girl I was. While my middle school, high school and college peers were talking about parties and each other, I was worried about everything from my grades, the state of my family’s happiness, to homeless youth on the street (seriously). I felt like it was my responsibility to make everything in the world perfect. With that superman-like responsibility, I had to mature a lot quicker than most.

To recover from mental illness, you also go through a lot of self-reflection and discovery that makes you feel way beyond your years. This is why turning thirty is a piece of cake. I actually am excited to have a whole decade ahead of me, the first sick-free decade I will ever have.

2). I have perspective from being sick and appreciate things a little more

I appreciate the small things like going out for dinner and being able to eat. I appreciate the fact that I have the strength to carry my daughter in the Baby Bjorn for a couple of hours or at least until my back feels like it is going to give out. I appreciate being able to watch Stranger Things on Netflix and not feeling guilty for being unproductive or not having my own demogorgon in my mind telling me how lazy and fat I am.

3). My possibilities are endless in recovery

It’s amazing what your brain can do when you are in recovery. You have so much more room for creativity when you’re not constantly counting calories. You have more time to have an actual life. Without anorexia, I was able to meet a great guy and now have a beautiful baby girl. He was not my cure-all, by any means, and I am not saying that a ring and a wedding cured my eating disorder or made me well, because it didn’t. What I am saying is that because I was happy and healthy enough, mentally and physically, to let myself be vulnerable, the conditions for true connection were set. Without anorexia, nothing is holding you back. You can do whatever you set your mind to. There is a whole world out there, with endless possibilities.

4). I know who my real friends are

When you go through mental illness you realize who your true friends are and who you have been keeping around as filler. And you know what? Fillings can stick to the cavities in my mouth, thank you very much. I don’t have time for filler-friends of any kind. The number of friends I have dwindled, but the quality has gotten more like that authentic Chanel bag then the fake knock-off on the street.

The facilitator for a webinar I took through the National Eating Disorder Association summed it up perfectly with these words: “Surround yourself with positive people. It is easier to feel good about yourself and your body when you are around others who are supportive and who recognize the importance of liking yourself just as you naturally are.”

At thirty, I finally feel deserving of surrounding myself with these kinds of people because I am kind enough to myself to accept them. I don’t have anything to hide from them anymore or push them away now that I am in recovery. I am finally embracing my flaws, so I have to believe that other people will as well, and if they don’t, well . . . fuck ’em.

5). I have learned how to say no to the bullshit.

This person cancelled plans on me for the fifth time with no excuse. That person has me waiting over thirty minutes. I am going to leave. Your priorities change too much to care about the bullshit. I have a baby too, and way too much going on. If you aren’t here for the right reasons, bye Felicia!

6). Me time, is more than okay

This is hard to fit in as a mama of a nine month old, but I deserve it and need it. For the longest time I did everything for everyone else and was people pleasing up the wazoo that I forgot about myself. Now I make sure to have some time at the end of the day to write, watch television, and do whatever I need to unwind.

I don’t abuse my body and push it to the limit. I listen to it and let it guide me. It’s like in the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The controversy stems from whether the relationship between the main characters, a tree and a boy, could be interpreted as positive (i.e., the tree gives the boy selfless love) or as negative (i.e., the boy and the tree have an abusive relationship). I looked at it more on a positive, with the tree being like a mother figure to the boy, content just to make the boy happy. However, if it were multiple people just taking, taking, taking from the tree, the tree would wind up with nothing, and maybe no one would care. The boy appreciated the tree as a stump, but some people wouldn’t.

I almost wound up being a stump because I gave too much of myself and never gave myself anything or took anything in return. You can’t give, give, and give until there is nothing left of you. You have to find a balance. I am learning that. I refuse to be a stump ever again.

7). I finally feel found.

I know who I am. I know my beliefs. I am not wishy-washy on them like I was in my twenties. I used to be insecure and wouldn’t voice my feelings; scared I wouldn’t be accepted or liked-the horror! Now I am not affected by what others think. I don’t need to be liked by everyone as long as I know I am a good person. If they don’t like me, so be it. Yes, I doubt myself at times, but far less than I used to.

8). I am finally comfortable in my body

Gosh, this one seems like it took forever to achieve, but I am finally here and yes at dirty thirty. Wahoo for that! After I had my baby I realized how amazing my body is and what it can do. I mean it created my little girl so it can’t be all that bad. I am more than my body and when it came down to it my anorexia wasn’t even really about my body to begin with.

9). I accept my flaws and even like them believe it or not

Part of my recovery was realizing that no one is perfect, and that is actually the most beautiful and life-changing realization I ever had. The people who have to pretend to be flawless are the ones I now feel sorry for. I want to shake all those people who are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves and scream loudly in their ears so it registers in their brains: “Snap out of it! It’s okay to be imperfect! Your flaws set you apart in a great way. You will be so much more happy once you embrace them!” Because now that’s really how I feel. And it’s true. I am happier now that I have embraced and even love my flaws.

10). I eat what I want and don’t feel bad about it.

I don’t have good or bad foods anymore. I don’t believe in diets and have a really healthy eating lifestyle with moderation for whatever I am in the mood for. If I want a slice of pizza, I am going to have it, dammit! Now that I am eating normally (compared to disordered) I listen to my body’s hunger cues and enjoy what I am eating. It takes time to get to this place of enjoyment with food, for me it was probably a solid three years into recovery, but once you get there it is amazing

I never was actually aware of the concept of mindful eating until I was recovered and realized that I was practicing it all along—while I kept on getting better and better. I was slowly letting myself become more aware of my feelings and why I was restricting or bingeing—turning to food to cope. This way I am never tempted to over eat or under eat again. I listen to my body.

So this year when my family sings the Happy Birthday song and I blow out the candles on my birthday cake, I will be feeling happy, even grateful to be here. I feel like I have a second chance and am so lucky that I have a beautiful family to celebrate with. So thirty bring it on, I am ready for you!

dirty_thirty

Yoo-hoo Invisible Teeth, Where are you?

Teething. Three words: Shit. It. Sucks.

“Da, da, ahhhhh,” then tears–non-stop tears out of her dark baby brown eyes.

“What’s wrong?” I say, rocking her up and down, shushing while simultaneously doing squats. It weirdly helps and as a nice bonus, is also good for my inner-thighs and booty. When that doesn’t help, I try the bottle or bah bah. She pushes it away like it’s the worst thing ever or in her eyes, naptime. Then, when all else fails, I am left with the realization— she must be teething.

The worst part about it is that it has been two months of on-and-off pain, this past week being a very on week, with no teeth in sight. I call them the imaginary teeth.

I tell my husband, “I am going to give Viv Tylenol for her imaginary teeth,” as I squirt some into her mouth. Vivienne usually plays hard-to-get with the syringe, but actually enjoys the sweet cherry flavor.

I find myself massaging her gums, letting her nibble my fingers; to make the imaginary teeth feel better. I am giving her frozen teethers on the daily hoping they are laced with magical whiskey to really make her feel better. Kidding, but I think my parents may have done that to me, which may explain a couple of things…

We are waiting for those first few teeth to come in because we are told after they come in it gets better. Plus she is almost nine months and most babies sprout their first tooth between four and seven months.

The interesting thing about imaginary teeth or not visible teeth is that there is nothing to justify the pain. Invisible pain is exactly what mental illness is. Mental illness you are hurting terribly but an outsider can’t see your pain. It’s not a broken limb and the person doesn’t look sick. It’s kind of like your soul is sprouting its first tooth, teething non-stop, but like Viv’s current gum situation, everything on the outside looks unchanged.

I think it makes people feel better when something is visible. Like, if Vivienne’s teeth started coming in, we would feel better, because it would be actual proof to why she was acting moody, cranky, waking up every two hours. Now, we can only suspect and go by her moods because there is nothing that meets the eye.

That’s the same thing with eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia. Because anorexia has a physical component people take it more seriously than bulimia while both are deadly eating disorders. This also applies to people with EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified). The person can suffer from anorexia but not meet the weight criteria and therefore not be qualified for treatment. Just because they look healthy doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeper going on. I suffered with EDNOS for most of high school, but because I gained weight people thought I must be healthy, until I lost the weight. And then some.

I remember thinking this was so ironic, and it is, in a totally Alanis Morissette way. When I was making myself sick with laxatives every night and Jabba-the-Hutt fat (as I called myself at my weight peak), no one said anything about my eating, but when I was skinny, that was considered unhealthy and a cause for concern? I never really understood that. In my mind, even though I was too skinny, I wasn’t abusing laxatives so I was healthier. Either way, I wasn’t the pinnacle of health, but I digress. That’s the crazy thing about invisible pain—no one knows about it except for you.

Now Viv unfortunately doesn’t speak a lot of English yet, but I go by her moods. I know she is in pain and can’t let her suffer. Soon her teeth will come in and her pain will be gone. It’s not that easy for people with mental illness. Viv speaks her pain with tears and that’s the only way I know. If you have mental illness don’t be afraid to speak your pain. People care, will listen, and you can get better. In the meantime, all I can say is teething. Three words: Shit. It. Sucks.

Don’t Handle The Holidays Like Tickle-Me-Elmo

I gazed over at the table set-up buffet style in the kitchen examining what I was going to eat at this break-the-fast feast. There was a brown basket filled to the brim with bagels: two cinnamon raisin, four everything, the rest plain–at least that’s what I made out from my view. Cream cheese, whitefish salad, egg salad, tuna salad, all in perfect circular scoops, rested on a long plate beside the carb filled basket. There was a tray, to the right of that, filled with kugel and blintzes. Wow, so much food.

Not too long ago, it would have made me literarily shake, hands vibrating like an out of control Tickle-Me-Elmo doll, and want to plan my exit. I know I would be great at Escape the Room, because no one has perfected the escape better than me. Now, the food was actually beautiful in its arrangements, smells, and colors. How poetic, right?

“Vivie look at the pretty colors,” I said, giving my baby girl a tour around the table from my arms.

Vivienne stared and started smiling, even clapping her hands–then she tried to reach for a bagel. I hope she always has this attitude towards food. She loves it.

Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday in terms of dinner food, and no, not because it’s the one-day I get to fast without people asking questions. I could eat breakfast for dinner everyday and be happy. I can’t say that wasn’t the reason a couple of years back though…

             ***

Holidays are the worst when you have an active eating disorder. Everyone is there, analyzing what you look like and what you put in your mouth. It is neither relaxing nor fun to be around all that food, especially when people are talking about their dieting resolutions while stuffing their faces. Enraging! They’d be commenting on how all the food on the table was “fattening” before eating it, while simultaneously talking about putting on their “fat pants.” Then they’d expect me to eat all that fattening food after that. Yeah, right. Triggers anyone?

 People who really meant well would piss me off with insulting my intelligence by trying to entice me to eat. “Mmmm, Dan, you have to try these mashed potatoes; they are so delicious.” Don’t shove it in my face that you can eat it, you fool! It’s not going to make me want it more! I wanted to pat them on the back and say, “Good for you.”

I would feel uncomfortable and bad about myself with each bite everyone else took, with each bite I took, with each moment where I felt abnormal. I couldn’t go. I couldn’t handle any of it, and it was no one’s fault but my own. That’s why I would tell them I was too sick to make it or my eyes were burning, as I had corneal erosions from malnutrition at the time—anything to get out of it.

***

The holidays for me now represent recovery. In recovery I can get together with my family, loved ones, and really enjoy myself. I don’t have to worry about eating in any capacity and can catch up with my family.

However, I do think it’s important for family members to not make triggering comments that can set a loved one in recovery back. Avoid trying to get someone to eat by shoving it in their face, making comments about their size, drawing attention to their problem, demanding they eat etc.—it won’t work and will most likely be detrimental. Pick a time when you can speak to the person in private, then explain why you’re concerned. At a holiday meal, is not the time.

Anyway, the point is that the holidays, once a time I avoided, now is a time where I can embrace my FULL—being FULLy in recovery and being okay with the satisfied FULL feeling. How are you going to embrace your FULL this holiday season?