Resilience and Mental Illness

Content notice: eating disorders, suicidality, self harm

The last couple of months have been trying for me in ways that would be challenging even to the most even keeled and mentally healthy of human beings. Today, my mother told me to remember that I am resilient. I am holding up well.

I have lived through some fairly horrific things. So much so that when I think back on the worst times in my life, I feel completely disconnected from them. Someone else must have done them, because I do not understand how anyone could have done what I did. For some reason I’ve been thinking about college lately. At the time, I hardly thought that anything I did was impressive. I didn’t change the world, I didn’t start my own club or create an initiative, travel abroad, or do anything particularly outstanding, as far as I was aware.

In college, with little variation, I did not eat more than once every two days. There were periods (up to a month or so) during which I ate once a week, supplemented by coffee with milk. In the picture above, I hadn’t eaten in days. My body was remarkably resilient. I could feel it falling apart under me. I was weak and tired, and found my heart and lungs struggling. But every doctor told me that there was nothing wrong, my blood work was good, I could still run and swim and bike and climb. I kept going.

One summer, I took two classes over the course of a month and a half. I could count the number of times I ate during that time on one hand. I walked away with A’s. I don’t understand how I did it, and when I think back on the time, it feels like it must be someone else who did it. That was too much, too painful, too cruel. I could not have done those things. How did I do those things? How did my mind follow a single sentence, much less Kant and Aristotle, Nietszche and Mill? When it was happening, it hardly seemed extraordinary. But now? No one could survive that.

But I did survive. I put one foot in front of the other. I held down a job, and I took my classes, and I graduated, and years later, I finally started to eat again. I became healthy. I felt joy again. I felt like I was giving up, over and over again. My body kept moving but I felt no purpose. I’m not sure if that constitutes resilience. I know that I could not live through it again, even as I know that nothing I experience now could ever feel as awful as spending years of my life actively suicidal every moment of every day. Is it resilience if you only keep going because you know you can? Because you know you’ve been through worse? I don’t understand how I did it, but it is hard evidence that I can survive nearly anything.

I suppose it doesn’t matter why as long as you keep going. Your boss tells you your work isn’t quite up to par and it feels awful, but you keep going. You haven’t seen your friends in weeks and you know you should, but you just keep going. Is this resilience? Because if I’m honest, it feels awful.

I don’t particularly want to keep going anymore. I want to collapse on the couch and eat tubs of ice cream. I want to drink a bottle of wine in one sitting. I want to stop picking up my phone and disappear from work. Perhaps that’s the secret of resilience: knowing how to be miserable for days and weeks and months on end. Not knowing if it will end, but moving forward nonetheless. I’ve found that most traits that keep you healthy feel awful in the moment. I suppose mental health is no different.

So I guess that I will keep feeling hideous and broken. That’s how it’s supposed to feel right now. In a year or two years I will look back and wonder “how did I survive?”¬†And then I will continue to live through the seemingly unlivable parts of life. It is mundane how much pain there is in a single life, even as living that pain is an experience that is full of awe and fear. I think on the enormity of living in starvation for years, and how simple it seemed at the time. How normal. The juxtoposition with how overwhelming this feels is stark. I can feel my feelings now. But I will hold on to the resilience I had when I was cold and sick and broken. It is one of the few lessons that my eating disorder has given me.

Just pick up one foot and put it in front of the other. Repeat.

 

Grief is a Kaleidoscope

Anger is one of the stages of grief, or at least that’s what literally every self help book says. This week I’ve been angry. Easy enough, right? I know that my temper will be shorter than usual, and I’ll be mad at people who don’t deserve it. I’ll take my emotions with a grain of salt, and try not to put myself in stressful situations. There’s ways to deal with this.

Except that anger doesn’t always come out in those clear, straightforward ways you expect. It distorts things. It makes harsh lines and colors where the world is really soft and confused. I have been numb to politics and injustice for months now, too drawn up in my personal anxieties and sadnesses to expand my empathy beyond immediate family and friends. Yet suddenly, I am strident, passionate, full of declamations about mental illness and President Trump and self harm. Somehow grief has turned into this righteous anger at the state of the world.

And then there was the funeral, and suddenly the anger was turned to religion, and it felt righteous, and I know that it was just sadness. Anger seeped away, and my throat went tight. I haven’t been able to swallow properly in days, the tightness in my shoulders edging upwards until it feels like I’m going to puke out emotion.

Yesterday I had to admit to myself the hard truth. Grief is turning to my familiar friend depression. I’m beginning to lose joy again. It’s the first thing that goes when depression appears. It’s the empty sucking hole of inert disinterest. Why bother to go on living? It barely feels like anything anyway. The books tell me that depression is a stage of grief too, but perhaps that’s easier to bear when you haven’t lived for years under the weight of depression. Any return feels like an ending. Fear overwhelms the depression, and I begin to panic, wondering if the reprieve of the last two years was a blip in the larger flatline of my life.

What’s hard to explain is the way that the grief turns things. I thought I knew anger, I thought I could predict the path of healing. But it splinters your life in ways you don’t expect. I find myself sitting at work, reading the same line over and over again. I’ve never done that before. I get home, and my head hurts, my body aches, my chest feels hollowed out. I have no energy. I have always been active, but not today. Grief is not the same as the depression that is so familiar. Depression is a dark lens, but a predictable one. Grief is a kaleidoscope, turning some things bright and some things distorted and breaking others into a thousand pieces. It is the essence of unpredictable.

I am splintered and scooped out and empty inside. And where yesterday was righteous anger, today I can’t write a word about impeachments or intelligence leaks, all I can write is this emo bullshit that does nothing but lets it out and lets you in.

I’m grieving, and waiting for acceptance.

 

Life and Death Muddled Up

Last week, my fiance’s father died.

I don’t know what to write after that. It’s less than two months until our wedding. Later this summer, fiance’s older brother is moving away to complete a pastoral program. In the fall, there’s a new nibling on its way. Fiance’s family packs a lot of life into six months.

I live in the future and in the past. My therapists inform me that this is not the best way to live if you’re looking to minimize suffering. The present can only contain so much suffering, but the past and future are infinite you know. But here we are, which means that my mind is already two, four, six months into the future, imagining vows and journeys and births.

And I’m looking at a dead body.

I don’t do well with contradictions. It turns out that one of the traits of autism is black and white thinking (whodathunk), and for me that is particularly acute when it comes to emotions. I live my life in themes. I remember moods and underlying concepts. High school was anxiety and driven perfectionism. College was exhaustion and depression. Graduation was confusion and exploration. And now? Now I am all things, and I cannot understand any of them.

I never imagined that executive functioning might be the reason I struggle to parse my emotions into manageable pieces. I feel them as wholes, overwhelming waves of SOMETHING that is indescribable and undefinable. They cannot be chopped into reasons and elements and components. They just exist. But it turns out that emotions aren’t actually incomprehensible, unreasoning beasts. It turns out that there is a rhyme and reason to them, and with the right skills you can break them down in ways that make sense. And there’s the rub: my brain’s particular foibles make this mess of allthethingsthatlifecanhold not only overwhelming, but incomprehensible. How can I feel joy and excitement, then cry five minutes later?

Life doesn’t actually happen in clear, delineated pieces that allow you to process each one separately. The whole process of planning my wedding has been intermingled with fear, anxiety, and sadness at father in law’s diagnosis and decline. One month after we were engaged, he was diagnosed. And now, just over a month before we are to be married, he’s gone. Even in its chaos, life gives me some shapes and patterns to hold on to. Patterns are the only way that I know how to cope. Rituals, routines, comfort. 3 comes after 2, and it’s easy to rely on orders that don’t change.

My mantra these days is that events are separate. They feel mixed in and mushed together, but despite the fact that this death will affect my wedding, my wedding is still a separate event, fully contained, with its own joys and anxieties. I am allowed to feel all of on its own terms, without guilt. He is dead and I am making happy, exciting promises to my future husband. He is dead and there is a baby coming. Life doesn’t exist in “but”s, it exists in “and”s.

Rather than exchanging rings, my fiance and I have decided to get ampersand tattoos (no comments on the wisdom of wedding tattoos please). The symbol feels more fitting now. We aren’t removing the part of the sentence that was his father. We are adding to it. I hope that would have made him happy.

 

Picture thanks to Kaitlin Mackenzie Photography.

Housekeeping and Updates

Hello all! It’s been quite some time since I posted, and I am so so sorry that I haven’t been keeping up. Life has been throwing a lot of curveballs my way, from a death in the family, to some wedding planning panic, to being short staffed at work during our two largest events of the year. But I’m back and plan to keep up my regular posting schedule of one post a week from here on out!

With that said, I’d love to hear some feedback from you! I’ve been writing this blog for over three years now, and in that time I’ve covered a lot of ground. There aren’t quite as many things burning in my fingers to get out on the page. Do you have ideas for what you’d like to hear me write about? Send them to me at oliviajames27@gmail.com. Thanks buds, can’t wait to get writing again.