As originally published in Live Out Loud, The Sisterhood Folios
I was nineteen when I received my official diagnosis, but of course by then I had already been suffering in silence for years. Anorexia. Bulimia. Major Depression. Generalized Anxiety. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Suicidal ideation. And self-harm (which means there are scars on my body that I put there).
In other words: broken.
Every doctor I saw, every specialist I consulted all agreed; I was broken. And they were right, because when you’re told over and over again by very smart people with lots of letters after their names that you are broken, well…. eventually you begin to believe them.
I wasn’t born broken.
In fact, according to the great Aristotle, one of my favourite philosophers (yes, I have a favorite philosopher because I’m nerdy like that), we are born perfect; blank slates upon which life inscribes her Journey. Tabula Rasa, which literally means “blank slate” means that no one is born broken so, I could not have been born broken, no one could. Even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Growing up I didn’t feel broken.
In fact, I had what I considered to be a very normal upbringing and spent my childhood doing the usual childhood things. I had plenty of friends, I did well in school and I had the usual childhood experiences including first crushes, chickenpox, dance classes, and sleepovers. And yet, as time went on the pain got worse, the fear got bigger, and my body began to crack under the pressure.
My earliest memories are of hospitals. When I was two years old I was diagnosed with a rare kind of heart murmur, the kind that makes even doctors scratch their heads and ask, “What is PDA?” Patent Ductus Arteriosus is a benign condition in which one of the arteries near the heart remains open after birth allowing blood and vital oxygen to bypass the lungs. Nowadays this can be easily corrected with day surgery, but back in the early 1980’s, this type of murmur was rare, and the surgery to correct it had only been performed a handful of times in Canada. Because the murmur was so loud, the doctors were having a hard time deciding if it was just PDA, or if there was a defect inside the heart as well. Consequently, I spent weeks in the hospital, both before and after my surgery, undergoing tests and scans and, finally, a nine-hour surgery and recovery. You would expect that I would have been upset being away from home, away from my family. But I loved it. I loved the attention; I loved the quiet. I loved having my own TV that I could watch, and my own dinner that was just for me. Being so young you’d think I wouldn’t remember any of it, but I do. I remember more than most.
From a very young age I also remember hating myself. Fast forward a bit and I’m five years old, playing in my room, and I remember digging my fingernails into my thigh; punishing myself for doing something wrong and knowing, with certainty, that I deserved it. The pain was still quiet; still easy to avoid, but the pressure was building.
I’ve often wondered, over the years, where such intense self-loathing came from. Where does a five-year old learn to hate herself so much that she feels the need to cause herself physical pain? In examining this question I have had to face some hard truths about my childhood, truths that, to this day, I am still attempting to reconcile.
From the outside my family was loving and supportive; a little nuts, perhaps, but always there for each other. Or so I thought. It’s amazing what you can find hidden in the shadows, and, unfortunately, the closer I looked the more I could see. While outwardly everything was wonderful, behind closed doors a different story emerged. A sister who couldn’t love me. A mother who put her own needs first. Words portrayed as soothing caused scars deeper than you can imagine, and, just because they are invisible, make no mistake, they can still bleed.
Things really began to get bad as I neared my final days of high school. From the outside, everything seemed great! My GPA was 4.0, I had my pick of universities, and an incredible circle of friends. I find myself appreciating and loving these relationships more and more, the older I get. I think they saved me, actually, even if they don’t know it. But no matter what I did, or how successful I was, the pain got worse and the fear got bigger.
Have you ever felt something wasn’t right but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it? In astronomy there’s actually a name for this (hey, I told you I was a nerd). Averted vision is a well-known scientific phenomenon that states when viewing fainter stars with the naked eye you need to look just to the side rather than directly at the star in order to really see it. Biologically, this is because of the disbursement of light-detecting cells in the retina of our eyes. And like a shadow seen only out of the corner of your eye, I, too, found the harder I tried to look at the cause of my pain, the less I was able to see.
And so I began to break.
The first time I began to notice the cracks was right before my high school prom. It’s so cliché isn’t it? And I hate that I’m a cliché, but I really did want to transform myself that night and have everyone notice me. Notice me and say, “Wow, look how beautiful she is.” It was one week away from prom and my mom and I were at the dress shop for a final fitting to ensure the alterations were done correctly. I was in love with my dress. I had picked out a beautiful, soft yellow, chiffon gown, and I was so excited to wear it. But when I went to try it on we found it was a little snugger than it was supposed to be – they had taken it in too much. And instead of saying, “Oh, nuts, they botched the alteration,” my mom asked me instead, “Did you gain weight?” And in that moment something snapped inside me. It was an innocent enough comment, but like the straw that broke the camel’s back, in that moment I decided that I would fit into that dress. No. Matter. What. And in making that decision I stepped through the looking glass and into the world of eating disorders.
That summer I starved myself down over 40 pounds existing on a diet of pills and a mere 300 calories a day. My own friends barely recognized me. And still the pain got deeper and the fear got bigger.
People tend to think eating disorders are just about weight, or getting attention. This certainly plays a part, but consider this: an anorexic uses their conscious willpower to override their body’s own built-in self-preservation mechanism. It is a slow suicide; death by a thousand paper cuts.
It is about fear and control.
It is about self-loathing and shame.
Anorexia is born of a profound and persistent desire to destroy and obliterate the Self, to literally disappear from existence. Trust me when I tell you that the level of pain and shame that is required to literally starve yourself to death is not the result of not having a flat tummy or wanting to be a size 2. It comes from a much deeper, much darker place. I know. I’ve been there.
I’ve always been what you would call an over-achiever. I am the one who is always prepared, always organized, and always growing. In high school I was on the honor roll; in university I was top of my class. Whatever I do, I do it well, and I put my heart and soul into it. Which is what made my eating disorder all the more devastating. But it wasn’t until I got my ‘official diagnosis’ that I really thought I was broken.
I remember sitting with my mom in the waiting room of a prominent psychologist in the suburbs of Toronto that summer. The walls were a god-awful shade of pink; the kind of pink usually reserved for nursing home carpets, or funeral homes. I was scared. After months of vicious anxiety, crushing sadness, and the loss of a significant amount of weight, I knew something was wrong but I just couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t stop. My arms bore the scars of my pain, deep cuts made by my own hand in an attempt to reconcile the depths of agony I was experiencing. I remember asking myself often, “Am I crazy? I must be crazy. But do crazy people question their sanity? In which case the fact that I’m asking if I’m crazy must mean that I’m not crazy.” I would play these questions over and over in my mind. I remember hoping that the doctor would recommend I be admitted to the psych ward because all I wanted was for the pain to end. The only way I could think that could ever happen was if I was medicated into a stupor. Upon hearing the diagnosis my mom was furious, and I never went back to that horrid pink office again. But the diagnosis followed me out the door.
Through all of it I still managed to graduate high school with honors, attend university, and make the Dean’s list. But with each passing day the pressure continued to build; the pain became unbearable and the fear consumed me.
I finally broke.
The day started off surprisingly well. I was feeling good. I had seen my therapist earlier that day and things were going quite nicely, all things considered. After months and months of adjusting my medication we had finally found a mix that was working and didn’t send me into a manic state. I hadn’t hurt myself in nearly a week, which was a new record, and I had systematically gone through, and come clean about all my stashes of sharp objects. I had thrown them all away, removing all temptation; something my therapist had recommended. It was the weekend and I was in my first year of university and working on a research project for my philosophy class. I remember that I had gone looking for a paperclip, which always ended up at the bottom of my drawer. And as I was looking and moving things around in the drawer I noticed something sharp that I had not yet disposed of, and so I gave it to my parents to throw away.
And then I lost. My. Shit.
Suddenly the reality of my situation came crashing down on me – I had nothing left to hurt myself with, and the thought of that sent me spiraling into a breakdown of epic proportions. I was hysterical and I couldn’t get control back. Have you ever seen the scene in Greys Anatomy where Cristina breaks down and can’t stop crying? It was like that – only it wasn’t happening to a character in a show. It was happening to me. My parents tried frantically to calm me down but nothing was working. No matter what I did I just couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t stop crying. That’s when we decided it was time for me to go to the hospital.
I remember very little about the rest of that night. Memories come to me in flashes; little snippets of a movie that I know I’ve seen but the details are a blur. I remember sitting under one of those old TVs they used to have screwed into a corner on the wall (these were the days before flat screens) and I remember wishing it would fall on me so the pain would stop.
I remember meeting with the on-call psychologist, a weenie little guy with a receding hairline and a bowtie (a frickin’ bow tie!).
I remember the scratchy feel of the hospital gown against my body and how I kind of liked it and found it comforting.
I remember my dad going out to a local donut shop at 3 a.m. and bringing back a batch of fresh-from-the-oven cheddar biscuits.
And I remember Dwayne, an incredible soul who was part of the hospital’s Crisis Team (a team I would meet many more times over the coming years). He was the first person to acknowledge me. To notice me, not just my pain. And he was the first person who told me I was not broken.
It would take me another 13 years of pain and darkness and fighting to finally understand his message.
In Japan, there exists a beautiful art form known as Kintsukuroi (keen-tsoo-koo-roy), which means literally ‘to repair with gold’. It is the art of repairing pottery with molten gold or silver, in essence highlighting the scars of the break. Rather than attempt to hide the injury or pretend it never happened, the Japanese understand that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken and healed.
You see, life is a process of change and re-birth. The old systems and ways break down to make way for new learnings and realizations. It is beautiful and painful and poetic. It is simultaneously wonderful and horrible.
Change is inevitable, and yet we hold on to the old ways so tight that it is not the change itself that hurts, only our reluctance to embrace a new way. I never really understood the idea of surrendering, but after drowning in my pain for over a decade it became very clear. Learning to surrender is about learning to let go even when every fibre in your being wants to cling tight. Letting go is harder, but it will hurt less once you surrender.
No one is ever broken because we were never whole to begin with. We are in a constant state of change, of breaking down and building back up. Each time learning more. Each time becoming stronger. A broken bone is known to heal stronger than before the injury. A broken limb will never lose the scar of its journey but it is stronger for having healed, and can never break the same way again. It is unbroken.
Just as our bones break and heal stronger, so, too, do our minds. And so the goal is not to be whole, for that is just an illusion. Aim, instead to be stronger. Wiser. Unbroken.
It has been six years since I walked away from my eating disorder and began my journey back to health. And like all big decisions, this, too, came as an epiphany. It was a definite decision that took me down to the darkness, and a decision that brought me back out. The power of our decisions is astounding. In a split second – bam! – you can decide to do something different and completely change your reality. And while we all have this ability all of the time, it is typically only during periods of extreme turmoil that we actually choose to tune in to this ability and change our lives.
My moment of clarity came a year after losing my father to liver disease. In the wake of my grief my eating disorder had worsened. I spent my days planning my binges, and then purging everything I had eaten. I was in constant pain and I knew that I couldn’t continue on. So I made a decision. I knew what would happen if I continued on the same path. I had already lost several friends to eating disorders and, regardless of what society thinks, those of us who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are acutely aware of the damage we are doing to our bodies. I knew that if I continued at that pace, it was only a matter of time before my body gave out. And so I decided to choose a different pain, the pain of recovery. Because even though it was equally as painful (if not, more so), at least it was a pain fueled by hope. And so back out of the looking glass I went.
The only way out is through. This was my mantra and this is what I clung to as I moved through the pain of recovery (and make no mistake – recovering from an eating disorder is incredibly painful - physically and emotionally). After years of denying my body nourishment I had to learn again how to eat, how to notice my hunger and how to take care of myself. It has been a hard road and yet, it has not been as hard as I thought. Because once you make the decision to change, everything after that is just details.
Today I am fully recovered, medication free, and thriving. I am blessed to have met and married my best friend, Brian, and his love and support these past 13 years have meant more to me than any words could ever express. In 2014 I made the decision to start my own business and am now honored to help guide others on their path to recovery, using the tools that helped me to help them heal through the pain of depression, anxiety and childhood trauma. Every client who finds their way to me brings me new learnings as well, and helps me heal at deeper levels. I am so grateful to all the amazing souls I have met on this Journey.
Live Life Unbroken. It’s just three little words, but they have had such a profound impact on my life.
I hear so many people say that they are broken; that their problems are insurmountable. That they cannot be fixed. It hurts when I hear this, not just because it is awful to see a beautiful soul in pain, but because I have been there. And my message of hope remains: No one is ever broken.
Kathleen A Watson
11/6/2018 12:55:49 pm
Is financial assistance available. This 30 year old boy is on disability. He is so lost
27/5/2023 05:56:52 am
Greatt read thank you
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After years of dealing with frustration and blame from the medical community, I finally chose to take control of my own health journey; a path which has led me to where I am today.