What I Wish I Could Say

Preface: I’ve been trying to write these thoughts down for a while now, but often times the hardest part of being a writer is trying to figure out how to best tell the story. And I don’t know if this is the best way to tell this story; I don’t know that there ever is a “best way” because, in the search for perfection, we all fall short. I’m telling it anyway because I have to. It’s a compulsion of mine: I want to be heard, and maybe with being heard I can give a voice to those who feel like they don’t have one. Depression, anxiety, and mental illnesses in general steal so much, and sometimes they steal our voices. And I refuse to let them steal mine. What is below are bits and pieces from conversations I have had with my therapist over the last few weeks, clipped together in a way that’s orderly and coherent–unlike what’s going on in my head, unlike my conversations with her. Therapy is wonderful on so many levels: it’s made me more observant of my own behaviors, allowed space for me to be self-reflective, to ask the tough questions. But it’s also made me feel worse because now I’m talking about what I’m feeling and the thoughts in my head instead of just ignoring them. And maybe, by sharing this, it will help someone else.

I went out and looked at the stars last night: climbing out of bed at one in the morning, a blanket wrapped around me as tightly as possible, tiptoeing down the stairs, trying to avoid the squeaky spots, opening and closing the kitchen door as quietly as possible to avoid detection. I do this a lot: look at the stars, especially when I’m panicky, anxious, on edge. There’s a beauty about them, illuminating the sky to make it appears as though it’s 50 different shades of grey as they dance around the wispy clouds. Unfortunately, there’s too much light pollution where I live to get the full effect of their beauty, but it’s enough.

I do a lot of the other thing too: tiptoeing around, walking as close to walls as possible to avoid detection, making myself smaller–hoping to take up less space both physically and metaphorically. Maybe if I pretend I’m invisible, I’ll actually become invisible; invalidating myself and my feelings to hopefully leave fewer footprints behind.

It’s not that I don’t want to make an impact on the world. I do. But there’s this constant fear in the back of my head that I won’t make it out of this cycle; I’ve been down this spiral so many times, and maybe this is the time I won’t make it back up. So, maybe, if I pull away, stop talking to people, stop letting people in, they won’t be affected by my absence as much. Erasing myself from their lives because it’s harder to miss someone if they never existed in the first place.

I feel like people have given up on me–we can’t fix what’s going on, so we might as well not bother doing anything. Even though there are so many things people can do if they just ask the right question: what do you need?

But maybe it’s not other people who have given up on me; maybe it’s me who has given up on myself.

I’ve been broken for so long, been trying to pick up the pieces, and I keep dropping them. Maybe I think there’s no hope left for me because I’ve felt hopeless for so long. Because the anxiety and the depression keep coming back, and every time they come back, they become harder and harder to beat. And I’ve written so many suicide notes over the last four months, I’ve lost track. And I’m trying my hardest to stay alive; I’m doing all I can–going to the store, having coffee with friends, writing as much as I can, leaving my house, going to the gym–but this unbridled panic won’t go away. I can’t leave my house without my anxiety shooting sky high, can’t go to the gym or the store without having a panic attack, can’t have a panic attack without it being accompanied by suicidal urges.

But the point is that you’re trying to stay alive. Your sense of self-preservation is kicking in. 

But what if my self-preservation isn’t enough to stop the thoughts in my head from taking over? Like I can eat food and not self-harm and go to the gym, but what’s the point if I can barely make it through a workout without feeling like the world’s going to collapse around me? What’s the point if I don’t feel safe anywhere, not even in my own home or my own head? If I feel this hopeless right now when I’m doing everything right, what happens when something goes wrong?

You handle that when you get to that. One step at a time. 

My favorite mixed idiom to use is: I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it. My brain has always raced to the finish, trying to think up every possible “what if” that could ever happen, trying to solve problems that probably won’t ever happen. I talk myself out of doing more things than I talk myself into doing. But the point is: I don’t feel safe. And maybe I should have given up a long time ago.

But you didn’t. You reached out. You got help. You checked yourself into the ER the last time you felt suicidal.

It wasn’t the last time. It wasn’t even the worst time recently. I’ve thought about checking myself in again. There have been nights, many nights, where I’ve thought I wouldn’t make it through, where I should’ve asked for help, and I didn’t. I don’t want to inconvenience anybody, be a burden to anybody, which goes back to the walking as close to the walls as possible, not making eye contact. I don’t want them to see me the way I see myself.

How do you see yourself?

I feel like the worst person in the world. Even though I know it’s not true. I’m afraid to let people in, to tell them what’s going on in my life, the thoughts in my head because I don’t want them to hate me the way I hate myself. Which is ridiculous because I know that what’s going on in my head are lies and that if I keep things to myself, they will eat me alive. But I’m afraid people will give up on me because “I’m too far gone, too broken, not worth enough.”

I think those things about myself all the time, feeding off the lies told to me by the people who broke me. And I feel shame and guilt for thinking those things, for feeling like I deserved what happened to me, that it’s all my fault. Some of the time, I still feel shame and guilt for what happened to me.

I know it’s not my fault, and that nothing gone in my head is rational, but I don’t know how to tell people what I feel without sounding crazy. Maybe I am.

But maybe it’s the world that’s crazy, maybe it’s the world that’s broken, and maybe I just feel that chaos and brokenness more because I’m more sensitive: I feel what people around me feel. So not only do I feel what I’m feeling and my own hurt, but I feel what they’re feeling and carry their hurts with me. And that’s a lot of hurt for one person.

It is a lot of hurt for one person. So how do you deal?

 I don’t deal, not always. I used to block out what I was feeling until I became numb, and then I would self-harm to feel something, anything. Physical pain is easier to fix than emotional pain. And now I write, and sometimes I still self-harm. But I’m learning to deal.

After my dad left the ER, one of the other patients came and sat with me as I slept, not in a creepy way, but in a “We’re all in this together. Pretty girls with sad eyes shouldn’t be alone here.”

But maybe it’s more than pretty girls with sad eyes who shouldn’t be alone. Maybe none of us should be alone. We should know that we have people in our court supporting and encouraging us, praying for us and loving us.

And right now, I’m drowning. Trying to tread water as I keep my head above the waves, but I’m oh so tired. I’m oh so weak.

But you’re recognizing your weaknesses, and you’ve given a name to them.

That’s all any of us can do, really. And right now, I’m having panic attacks and suicidal urges, and I’m feeling hopeless and like I can’t find my way out, and that’s ok. It’s ok to feel these things, to admit that I’m struggling, to admit that my life isn’t perfect. And the only thing I can do is what I’m currently doing: trying to stay alive despite what the thoughts in my head are telling me, despite what I’m feeling.

Because sometimes, when my soul is heavy, when the depression and anxiety are too much, I look at the stars. The same God who painted the night sky in all of its shining glory created me, and that is enough.

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You of Little Faith

I have a hard time getting out of bed. To a point, I think all of us have days like that: days when it’s rainy and damp and chilly; days when we’re so tired because sleep didn’t come easily, if at all. And I don’t want to diminish those days because I never want to invalidate anyone else’s feelings, invalidate other people’s bad days.

My “hard to get out of bed” days are my every day. Every day it’s hard for me to get out bed: the weight of the world and the weight of my pain are too heavy; the fear of “if I get out of bed, I will die” is too high.

One of these feelings is new, relatively speaking. The other one has been my lifelong companion, a friend I didn’t ask for. One that’s moved in, crashed on my couch, invaded my personal space, crowded me out, made me feel like a stranger in my own home. This is anxiety: the constant feeling that I’m going to be late for an appointment I didn’t even make, the impending due date for a major project for a class I’m not even taking, hearing the Imperial March but never running into Darth Vader, discovering a bomb and hearing the beeping get faster and faster and faster but it never exploding. All the time. 24/7.

I’ve always felt this way. I never realized that it was abnormal. I always thought everybody felt this way: so unsure of themselves, feeling like they were going to throw up every time they opened their mouth to speak in class, unable to make eye contact whenever talking to someone, never wanting to meet someone new because “what if they get to know me and then they discover that they don’t like me?,” wanting to find the nearest exit every time they are in a room with more than five people.

I don’t want to say that my anxiety controlled my life when I was younger. But, it did. I was so unsure of myself that I didn’t want to take up people’s time. So, I didn’t talk to people, didn’t ask family members to play games with me, tried to make myself as invisible as I possibly could. And, on the days when I was super stressed, when I had actual tests and was afraid to go to school because of the bullies, I would pick at scabs until they bled. Scarring my body before I even knew what self-harm was.

Growing up in the church, I was always told that God was an all-knowing, ever-loving God. He so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son and so on and so forth. He formed us in our mothers’ wombs; He knows the number of hairs on our head; He knows us inside and out, and He has a plan for our lives.

I was also told that He would never give us more than we can bear. And if we read our Bibles enough, pray enough, are a good enough Christian, He’ll protect us from the bad. Bad things happen to bad people; good things happen to good people. If I really, truly loved Him with my whole heart, if I surrendered everything over to Him, He would protect me from the evil in the world.

And I believed it.

Then one day when I was in eighth grade, I was raped in a school bathroom. When you’re 13 years old and already so unsure of yourself, what they tell you becomes what you believe: slut, worthless, unlovable, ugly. Those four words have been on repeat in my head, and sometimes, at the worst moments, I relive those 15 minutes over and over and over again.

And because of the anxiety I had carried with me for years, I didn’t tell anyone: I was scared, didn’t want to be blamed, just wanted desperately to be loved, didn’t want anyone to know that I was now dirty. I cleaned myself off, went to my locker, grabbed my backpack, climbed into my dad’s car, and kept silent for a year of running into them in the hallways every day, having one of them breathe down my neck as they sat behind me in class, having my stomach do somersaults everytime they smirked at me.

And sometime in that year, I met a new companion: Depression. He moved in and with him, the doubt came too.

Was I not a good enough Christian? Did I not love God enough? Did God not love me enough? Was there even a God? Because if there is a God, how can He allow things like this to happen?

Sometimes depression is sadness. Sometimes it’s anger or despair or hopelessness. Sometimes it’s complete numbness. And that’s what I was: numb. For three or four years, I felt nothing. Yes, there were occasional moments of happiness and laughter, sadness and tears. But that’s all they were: moments, beautiful but fleeting.

And because I wasn’t feeling anything, I started self-harming. Physical pain was better than emotional numbness. And then, when that wasn’t enough, I stopped eating. We all want to feel in control of our lives, and I could control the number of calories I ate. So I did. I restriced and restriced and restriced because I wasn’t deserving. I didn’t deserve to eat.

I tried to erase the parts of myself I didn’t like, tried to erase the feeling of their hands on my body. I tried to make myself someone worthy of love despite the continual fighting off the demons in my head who were telling me otherwise.

And then one February night during my Sophomore Year of High School, I stopped fighting. For one second, I stopped fighting the voices in my head. I was oh so tired.

I could use a million metaphors to describe what happened next, but this isn’t Star Wars: there’s no “metaphors be with you” to lessen what I’m about to say:

That was the night I attempted suicide. I wrote a note, swallowed pills, laid in bed, and then watched the snow falling outside my window sparkle in the moonlight. When I think back to this night, there’s a disconnect in my brain: because on one hand, it was beautiful: the fluffy snow sparkling in the moonlight. But, on the other hand, there’s nothing beautiful about feeling like there’s no hope, there’s no way out.

In the next moment, as I’m able to quiet my racing thoughts, there was a still quiet voice in my ear, “You’ll be ok.” 

And that was enough. In that moment, that was all I needed.

I found that suicide note a few years ago, tucked away in a polka dot notebook I forgot I had. I would like to say that after reading it, ripping it up, and throwing it out the window as I drove down the expressway, I never wrote another one, but that would be a lie.

I’ve written more than I can count. In the last three months alone, I’ve written at least 15 on the nights that I’m not sure I’ll make it through the storm. But, after the storm subsides, when the winds calm down, and the waters recede, I delete them from my phone, erasing the words I’m so ashamed of writing.

Being raped shattered me, as it would anyone. And nine years later, I’m still trying to pick up the pieces. Nine years later, I’m still trying to rewrite the definition they gave me.

 

I’m 23 years old now, but not much has changed: I’m still so unsure of myself; I invalidate my own feelings to make room for other people’s; I don’t want to take up people’s time;  I’m still learning how to ask for help.

Somedays I still self-harm. I have flashbacks and panic attacks, mostly at the gym because there are too many guys that I don’t trust, and not enough people that I do. Two months ago, I almost drove into a tree. On purpose. Because sometimes I’m still convinced I don’t deserve to be here. One month ago, I drove myself to the ER because instead of writing a manual on using Skype for Business, the only words on the screen in front of me were: I want to die. I need to die. 

Somedays, I use up all my faith when I get out of bed and trust that the floor won’t collapse beneath my feet.

And I want you guys to know two things: 1. There’s a difference between what I feel and what I know: most days, I feel like I want to die. But, I know that I actually do not want to die. And 2. that you can’t fix this. There’s nothing you can do to take all this pain away. But, if you rephrase the question “What can I do (to fix this)?” to “What do you need?,” the number of things you can do skyrockets from zero to so many: I need a hug. I need prayer and support and encouragement and love. I need people to sit there with me as I’m trying to work through what I’m feeling in that moment. I need people to listen to what’s going on in my head. I need people to let me feel what I’m feeling and not get frustrated. Because, trust me, no one’s more frustrated than me.

I’m frustrated because I should be better. It’s been nine years, and in those nine years, I’ve felt nothing; I’ve felt anger; I’ve forgiven, and I’ve tried to move on. I’ve been hurt and harassed and there are stories that I’m not ready to tell. I went to Guatemala and led a young girl to a God that I wasn’t even sure I believed in at the time.

And why haven’t I left? Why haven’t I walked away? The truth is, I have. For so long I was angry at God for letting this happen to me. For abandoning me. For leaving me for a younger, prettier, less broken model.

But, here’s the thing: so many times over the years I have been reminded of God’s grace, of His goodness, of the love He has for me. On the night I attempted suicide, He whispered, “You’ll be ok.” He snapped me out of it as my car was heading for a tree. He gave me the strength to ask for help, to drive to the ER even though I was terrified, because I was terrified.

Right now, I’m oh so weak. But God, He’s strong enough for the both of us. He’s carried me through things I wouldn’t have made it through on my own.

And even though I have so many questions: Why did this happen? Why did I survive when so many people do not? What on earth kind of plan do you have for my life? Does beauty really come from ashes?, I know that there are things that my finite brain can’t even begin to comprehend.

Sometimes, all we can do is give a name to the darkest parts of ourselves, and turn the rest over.

My name’s Kaleigh, and I have Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Major Depression, PTSD, and Suicidal thoughts,  and I’m letting God do the rest.

Because that’s all I can do–all any of us can do. Because I can’t fix this. You can’t fix this. Medication and therapy can’t fix this. They can make it more manageable, but that’s it.

Only God can fix this. And I’ve come to accept the fact that maybe it won’t fix this in the way I want Him to. Maybe depression and anxiety and the memories will always be a part of my life. He knows what He’s doing and the plans He has for my life. I still struggle with guilt and shame and the feeling that everything that’s happened in my life is somehow my fault. But, sometimes, every once in a while, He’ll fill me with this sense of peace, a reminder that He’s got this, even when I have no faith, when I feel hopeless, when I’ve lost sight of the light.

Last Sunday, I woke up and my anxiety was through the roof. I felt out of place, uncomfortable, a stranger in my own body. I got up, went to Sunday School, and went to Church, trying to maintain normalcy when all I wanted to do was die. As the last song was ending and the closing prayer was started, I collapsed in my pew and started sobbing. And then, somehow, I don’t quite remember how, I ended up at the prayer rail, still sobbing because God reminded me in that moment that He’s taken my guilt and shame; He reminded me that I’m worthy; there’s no one too broken or dirty. And when I finally stopped crying, when I finally found the strength to stand up and turn around, there were a whole bunch of people surrounding me with open arms and tears in their eyes, reminding me that I’m not alone in this. None of us are alone in life.

So, yes, somedays are hard. Most days are hard. But on those days where I can’t get out of bed, where my faith seems too small, where I’m afraid that despite my best attempts at self-preservation, my suicidal thoughts will win out, where the depression and anxiety seem like too much to bear; on those days, I look at the lines on my hand.

They remind me that the same God who created the stars in the sky, the falling snow, the sunrises and sunsets, the rainbows, and the color-changing leaves of autumn stitched me together piece by piece.

And sometimes, that is enough.

Flashbacks of Memories

We like to go through life pretending we’re fine, that everything’s all good and dandy. I do, too. When people ask me how I’m doing, I quickly reply “Fine” because I hope they won’t poke and prod at the facade that I’ve spent so long trying to build. I mean, sure, I’ll make a Facebook post about something I’m struggling with, or whatever, but that’s nothing: I’m still hiding behind this persona of someone who likes to pretend she has it all together.

The truth is, I don’t. The truth is that on Friday I had THE worst panic attack/flashback I’ve ever had in my life. The truth is that it’s still going on, and I don’t know how to make it stop. Because the thing about adulthood is that I can’t just curl up into a ball, wrap a blanket tight around me, and stay in bed all day. I have to go to work. I have to carpe diem and all that jazz.

And it hurts. It hurts so much. It hurts because I don’t want to feel broken. It hurts because all I want to do is be happy and smiley and be someone that people fall in love with. Who could ever love someone who’s broken?

But right now, all I want to do die, not like actually, but I just.. I have this feeling. This uncontrollable panic, this unappeasable dread. I wrote a blog post a few months ago in which I describe my rape. I’m going to tell it again in part here (you can read the full version here). I’m going to tell it again because this is what I felt happening on Friday. This is why I’m still feeling the lingering effects, why my heart is still trying to escape through my ears, and why my stomach is stuck in my throat.

The first time it happened was a Monday at 4pm in a school bathroom. The second time it happened was a Friday at 6:45 in a college workout room. The first time it happened, I was just leaving the bathroom stall and had expected my locker to be slammed shut not two minutes before. The second time it happened, I was just about to finish my workout, trying to convince myself that I could stick it out a little while longer.

I was already on edge.

The first time it happened, I hadn’t seen them walk in. I heard the door open, but I thought it was just a teacher. The second time it happened, I saw them walk in. I heard the door click after they swiped their IDs, and I could see them when they walked in.

The first time it happened, I was standing at the bathroom sink, washing my hands, when they snuck up behind me and grabbed me, putting a hand over my mouth before I could even muffle out a “No.” The second time it happened, I was lying on an exercise mat, doing my ab workout, when it started to sneak up on me, wrapping me in my past before I could ground myself in the present.

The first time it happened, I wanted to be anywhere but there, so the drip drip drip of the bathroom sink that I didn’t have time to turn off became the ocean waves, and the nose plugging until I opened my mouth to gasp for air–which is what they wanted, an open mouth–became me drowning. The second time it happened, I wanted to be anywhere but there, but I powered through. I hopped on the treadmill and tried to outrun the memories that were closing in faster, which is what they wanted anyway–for me to remember forever.

The first time it happened, there were 10 hands, 5 tongues, too many teeth, and 5 I-didn’t-want-them-anywhere-near-me. The second time it happened, it was just me, alone in the hall, surrounded by echoes of memories.

The first time it happened, I was 13, almost 14. The second time it happened, I was 23, just barely 23.

I can tell you so many things about the first time it happened: who they were, what I was wearing, what they smelled like, how long it lasted.

  1. It doesn’t matter who they were, but I’ve learned to say their names.
  2. A hoodie and a pair of jeans.
  3. They smelled like sweat and sawdust and orange juice.
  4. It lasted 15 minutes, but it felt like an eternity.

I can tell you so many things about the second time (because that’s what it feels like. It feels like it happened a second time, and I wish I knew why): who I was, what I was wearing, what it smelled like, how long it lasted:

  1. It doesn’t matter who I was, but it matters who I am right now, even if I don’t know who I am. Maybe they were right when they told me I was a bitch, a slut, and called me worthless.  I’m hurting, and I wish I wasn’t.
  2. Workout leggings, a sports bra, and a smelly tank top.
  3. I smelled like sweat and sawdust and peaches.
  4. It lasted an hour and a half, but the first 20 minutes felt like 20 seconds. And I guess, technically, it’s still going. 

I can tell you that the first one ended with me getting off the bathroom floor, cleaning myself off, and not telling anyone for a year. I can tell you that the second one ended with me collapsing onto a bench, pacing back and forth, and finally telling someone about half an hour in.

I can tell you that the first one lead to self-harm and an eating disorder. I can tell you that the second one lead to finger-nail shaped crescents in my right arm and this feeling of nausea that won’t subside.

I can tell you that for all the things I remember about the first one, there are some I don’t remember. I hope I never do.

I can tell you that the panic attack/flashback I had was full of the worst possible I can’t remembers.

I can tell you that on Friday, I’m so glad I ran into a friend who was willing to walk with me to the locker room, willing to sit with me and talk with me until I was calm enough to go home.

Because I can tell you that on Friday just walking down the hall towards the locker room that reminds me of a bathroom was enough for me to feel like I was going to throw up and pass out.

The last blog post ended with me talking about forgiveness, and healing, and how God loves me, and I’m beautiful and strong and worthy of being loved.

I can tell you that this one does not. This one ends with me being unsure if I am actually healing. This one ends with me still feeling nauseous and panicky, and maybe I can’t forgive them quite yet, and maybe I’m not beautiful or strong or worthy of being loved. Because I definitely don’t feel very strong right now, and I must definitely don’t love myself. This ends with me feeling oh-so-very weak.

But maybe that’s ok. Maybe it is.

Right now, all I can take are baby steps. Yesterday, I spent the same amount of time at the gym as I normally do, except I spent 45 minutes trying to convince myself that I could walk up those stairs I felt closing in on me on Friday; I spent 10 minutes working out before it all became too much, and then I spent 20 more minutes convincing myself I could walk back to the locker room.

Tonight, I did the same thing over again: except I only spent 30 minutes trying to convince myself; I spent 20 minutes working out, and I spent 20 minutes sitting in the rain, hoping there would be a rainbow.

And I waited and waited and waited, and there was a rainbow.

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And then I cried, because I’m in a tough spot right now: the thunderstorms are coming in, and they’re bringing an overwhelming flood.

But God. God creates rainbows.

I don’t have a rainbow right now. But I do have baby-steps. And I hope to the God who loves me and has provided me with the best friends, that that is enough.

 

Letter to the One Who Attempted Suicide

Dear (Friend),

To be honest, I’ve thought about what I was going to say in this letter for a while now, and I’m still not quite sure that I have the right words. But that’s the thing about words: context is everything; you take them out of a context they were meant for and place them in another, and they make no sense, or they change the meaning of the new context. If you do this enough times, the words become useless—displacing and relocating until the original meaning is lost. Right now, you’re probably hearing a lot of words from family and friends, some you may be even saying to yourself. Don’t take these words out of context. Your friends and family are probably telling you that they love you. Don’t turn these words into an “I love you but….”

You may be feeling a lot of feelings right along with these words: anger, sadness, shame, maybe even some guilt.

Everything you are feeling right now is valid. Every emotion you have and don’t have is valid. Somedays you might be feeling everything at once, and some days you might be feeling nothing at all—you might not know which one is worse, neither do I.

I don’t know your story. I don’t know what led you to attempt suicide. I don’t know if it was a genetic predisposition, or a single event, or a series of events that culminated in this one cataclysmic moment in your life. Whatever happened, your past is valid. Don’t let anybody tell you different. Don’t let anybody take the pain you might be feeling away from you to assign it to themselves. You are grieving. You are hurting. They, too, may be grieving and hurting, but this is not about them. This is about you. To take the focus away from you is to invalidate the pain you are feeling. Let the emotions roll over you like waves, take them as they come, one at a time. That’s all we can do: focus on one moment at a time.

I’m writing this letter; I’m telling you all of this because I understand. I understand what it’s like to be on the front lines of this very real battle. I understand what it’s like to feel as though giving up is your only option. I understand because seven years ago, I, too, tried to kill myself.

Seven years later, I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of my life. I’m still trying to recover. I’m still wrestling with tough feelings and intrusive thoughts that won’t go away. Sometimes I still wonder why I survived when so many others do not, maybe you’re wondering that too. Maybe you’re wondering what you did to deserve all this pain. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, for every answer I don’t have, I have a million more questions.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned in the last seven years, time goes on. Time goes on, but I still live my life in terms of anniversaries: I focus on how long it’s been since the events in my past because that way I don’t have to focus on the future. The future terrifies me simply because it’s unknown. I live in terms of anniversaries because they’re set in stone. I know what’s happened in my life, but I don’t know what’s going to. And that terrifies me.

I look to the past because it helps me gauge how far I’ve come: I’ve survived x,y,z, and today I did a,b,c.

I don’t know where you are in your healing journey, or even if you have begun healing yet. I am going to tell you that the journey ahead of you is going to be long and hard. I tell you this not to scare you, but to remind you that you are a survivor. You are strong. You can do this. And you need to have faith in something—I don’t know if it’s God, or if you wonder if God’s abandon you. I wondered that too for a long time. For me, the only thing I could believe in for a long time was gravity. I had faith that the ground would stand firm beneath my feet, holding me up when I was too weak to stand. Then, only then, was I able to reclaim my faith in a higher power.

Believe in something. It’s the only way you’re going to get through this.

I’m not going to say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem because to do so would be to deny the truth that sometimes this pain doesn’t go away. I’m also not going to tell you to stay here because there are people that love you. If love were enough, the world would be different.

I’m telling you that depression will come in cycles—high tides and low tides. Somedays it’ll feel like you’re floating on air, like you’re weightless, you can do anything. Somedays it’ll feel like your chest is collapsing because the weight of the world is too much to bear. Have faith that this too shall pass.

Somedays it might seem that you’re living in at the South Pole, where the sun doesn’t rise for months at a time. But, even there, there are months where the sun doesn’t set. Have faith that in the darkest times, there will be light again. If you ever need to be reminded of this, look outside at the darkest night. Sometimes the only way to see stars is to have darkness.

I am telling you to stay here because right now you are walking through a valley, but when you start climbing up the other side, when you reach the top of the mountain, the view is so beautiful.

I’m telling you to live for the little things. Find what makes you happy and do it. Read, write, dance in the rain, pet every animal you come across, listen to that music, eat that cupcake, go see that animated movie. Sometimes we are so focused on the road ahead of us we forget to live in the moment. Sometimes we are so focused on the here and now we forget that it’s not forever.

I don’t know if this letter has helped or hurt or really if it’s made any sense at all. But I’m going to end with this personal story:

The summer after my freshman year at college, I went to Guatemala with a group of students. One day, we went to a multi-story mall. A smaller group of students and I, while exploring, went to one of the upper levels of the parking garage. As I went and stood next to the barrier and looked around and over to the ground, I thought that I was going to feel the urge to jump. I always had before, which is why I tend to avoid heights. But in that moment, as the sun was beginning to set and the horizon was turning to hazy dusk, I felt this sense of calm and peace rush over me, if only for a moment. That’s how I know I was beginning to heal.

A few days later, we were serving dinner in the Guatemala City dump. A teammate and I climbed onto the top of the bus and looked around. As I looked over the dilapidated, rundown metal shanties in front of me, I caught sight of the mountains in the distance. In that moment, I was reminded that beauty and brokenness can live right alongside each other. Out of brokenness comes beauty.

 

You are beautiful.

Love, your friend,

Kaleigh

 

 

 

Black Holes and the Light That Escapes

There’s this idea about Suicide: that it’s a choice; that it’s selfish. I’ve never seen it that way.

We all make choices every day. We choose what clothes to wear; what to eat for breakfast; what route to take to work (depending on if we’re late or not); what to have for dinner; what to fill our evening spare time with; what time to go to bed.

Our body’s natural instinct is life–it fights like hell to keep us alive. It’s the Fight or Flight Response in dangerous situations. It’s why you can’t manually strangle yourself because as soon as you pass out, your lungs will start breathing again.  It’s why our lungs burn after holding our breath for too long as we dive down to the bottom of the pool.

In people like me, who suffer from Depression, or in those who suffer from similar mental illnesses, there is sometimes a disconnect between our body and our minds. Our bodies work so hard to keep us alive while our minds are trying to convince us that death is better.

Depression is like a black hole–so thick and dense and gravity filled that no light, no anything can escape. I have days like that: days when it’s easier to lie in bed, when the weight of the expectations placed on me by myself and others is so heavy I feel like it’s compressing my chest, when the gravity of my past is heavier than my hopes for the future. On days like that, my mind is playing a tug-of-war game with my body. My mind wins for a while, but then my body kicks in–helping me put one foot in front of the other, shoveling food into my mouth, even though I tell myself I don’t deserve it; helping me get dressed, pulling one arm through my shirt and then the other; helping me get out of the house; making me exercise, because even though I don’t want to do it, it’ll help me in the long run; helping me do all the things I enjoy because maybe they’ll make me happy again.

Our bodies try so hard to keep us alive. But on those days where my body is doing all the work and my mind is working so hard against it, I feel like a zombie, like I’m going through the motions. I’m physically present, but not all there–like a stranger me watching myself on TV. My body does all the work while my mind is dead weight.

On the night I attempted suicide, my body was on auto-pilot. It’s like it was tired from fighting my mind every day, it just gave up. The time between going to bed and throwing the pills up is almost a complete blur. I remember bits and pieces: writing the note, swallowing the pills, the voice whispering, “You’ll be ok.” but it’s like I wasn’t in control. I was like a zombie being sucked in by a black hole, doomed to never escape, to be sucked in and pulled apart atom by atom. But then something–God, my inner instinct to survive, whatever you want to call it–kicked in.

Scientists don’t know a lot about black holes.Theoretical physicists posit that they may be able to be used for time travel–that if you can travel through one fast enough that you may be able to travel to the past or maybe even the future.

Some nights when the darkness is bad, I find myself being transported back to that school bathroom. I’m transported back to when I was raped–feeling them touch my body all over again, hearing the words they whispered into my ear Slut, bitch, worthless.  Sometimes I’m transported back, and I’m watching it unfold like it’s not happening to me, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it, which is worse.

The mornings after these dark nights, I look in the mirror and the dark circles under my hollowed out eyes remind me of someone else, who I was years ago when I was too far gone to ask for help.

Dark holes are too dark to be physically seen, but scientists know where they are by the way they affect the space around them.

I know that depression and mental illness is real because of the way it makes me feel: empty, alone, worthless.

On the good days, the intrusive thoughts are hypotheticals: what if I? What if I drove into a tree? What if I jumped from this balcony? What if I swallowed all these pills that fell into my hand? What if I cut myself using this razor? These are the at least I’m still alive days.

On the bad days, the intrusive thoughts are commands: do this. Sometimes they’re dares. Drive into a tree (you won’t). Jump (you won’t). Swallow these pills (it’ll be fun). Cut yourself (it’ll feel good). These are the zombie days.

On the really good days, there are no intrusive thoughts. On the really good days, I am productive and happy and free. These are the few and far between days.

For every one thing scientists know about black holes, there are a million things they don’t know.

My biggest question is: do they end? Or do they just go on forever, ad infinitum, to inifinity and beyond?

I like to imagine that at some point instead of being all black and dense and gravity filled, that they change to light and sparse and zero gravity. And instead of being sucked in and ripped apart, you float and are put back together. Order to the chaos. Restortation to the destruction. Yang to the Yin.

Even if the possibility of that is slim to none, I like to believe it’s true because I know that darkness isn’t all there is.

Because I used to think that my fear of heights was because I was afraid of falling. Then one day I realized it’s because I am afraid of jumping.

And when the intrusive thoughts come back, and I’m tempted to just jump, I’m reminded of the time I went to the mall in Guatemala, and as I looked down from the sixth floor parking structure, I realized that I didn’t want to jump. I live for that feeling again.

I stopped swimming and taking baths because I was afraid of drowning, but I now trust my body to keep me alive.

I know that darkness is just the absence of light, and on my darkest days I look at the stars, because on the darkest, clearest of days, a single candle can be spotted 30 miles away (if the earth was flat).

I have hope that on the other side of black holes, flashes the most spectacular light.

To Dan and Brock Turner

To Dan and Brock Turner:

Here’s the thing: I’m not a parent, so I don’t know what it’s like to want to protect your child, to want to defend them when they are a victim, to want to soften the blow when they do something wrong. I don’t know what it feels like to raise a child and watch them make mistakes, watch them do terrible things. But I do know this: I know that sometimes the best way to protect your child from future harm is by letting them face the consequences of their actions today.

Humans are not perfect, nor we should we pretend to be. We all do terrible things, and we all face punishment for our wrongdoings, or at least we should—it’s how we learn, how we become better humans, how we become more sympathetic to someone else’s plight. As a child, I was punished if I did something wrong, even if the only person hurt by my actions was me. If I hurt someone else by my actions, my punishment was more severe. As it should be. That’s how I learned not to hurt people, to respect them.

We all hurt people; it’s just a part of life. The question is: do we learn from the hurt we cause, or do we continue to allow it to happen? By defending your son in the way that you did, I don’t know if he has learned anything.

But I know who has: future victims—the young people who have watched this case unfold. The young girls have learned that if they’re raped, which approximately 1 in 4 will be, they’re better off not saying anything. They’re better off not pressing charges, because even if there is evidence, their attacker will get off lightly. It’s better to suffer quietly than to be publicly attacked, to have your name dragged through the mud, to have every decision you make questioned because society needs to justify what happened. Girls who are raped can be as brave as they want, but in this culture, bravery is not enough.

The young boys have learned that if they are white, middle-class and above, athletic, smart, and have a “bright future ahead of them,” they can rape someone and have consequences that do not match their actions. But if you’re a black man who’s wrongly accused of rape, good luck, dude. No one’s on your side either.

I hope I’m wrong about both of the above. 

I also know this: your son is not the victim here. You wrote in your letter to the judge about how your son used to be compared to how he is now. As you put it:

As it stands now, Brock’s life has been deeply altered forever by the events of Jan 17th and 18th. He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile. His every waking moment is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his loss of appetite.

That, dear sir, is what guilt looks like. I’ve seen it before. I’ve felt it before, usually in the twilight period between doing something wrong and confessing, the period where I’m sick-to-my-stomach terrified that I’m going to get caught. The only thing your son is a victim of is what he did to himself. He made a choice that night, and I know you and he blame it on the alcohol, but the alcohol is not the problem. It’s not a drinking problem; it’s a societal problem. Rape can happen alcohol or not, “promiscuous behavior” or not; rape can happen, as it did for me, in a Middle School bathroom; a place where I, arguably, should have been the safest, besides my own home.

A murderer can still get the maximum sentence even if the murderer only took “20 minutes.” A rape is still a rape even if it was only “20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Mine took less than 15 minutes, but it took more than 15 minutes for me to heal. There is no timeline on healing. 8 years later, and I’m still not fully healed. But I’m getting there, and your victim will, too.

I read her letter. All 12 heart-breaking, gut-wrenching pages of it. It took me three days, a new record. And I read it again and again, letting the words wash over me as my heart broke, as memories resurfaced. I read it first as a sign of solidarity: “I’ve been through this too, and I want to support you the only way I know how.” I read it again because I was amazed at the strength your victim showed as she faced you in court, publicly sharing her letter. I read it again and again because I see something in her I recognize—the sleepless nights, the wanting to leave your body behind, the strength it takes to get out of bed every day–and even though I’m farther along on this journey than she is, I am amazed at how far she’s come.

I don’t know the kind of person she was before you raped her; I’ve only gotten glimpses by the words she’s shared, but I do know who she is now: she is someone who’s walked through one of the toughest things imaginable and has come out on the other side stronger than she was before. I do know who she’ll be: she’ll be amazing; she’ll be shining bright; she’ll be someone who touches the life of everybody she has come in contact with. She’s touched mine, and I’ve only read her letter.

You had a bright future ahead of you. So does your victim. All of us victims do. You were great at swimming. She is great at something, too. I was great at school, until I was raped, and then just thinking about school made it hard for me to breathe.

And, yet, here we both stand: she and I, on the other side, each telling our own story about the same thing. And I’m angry—not about what happened to me—but that it keeps happening, that we have to keep saying the same things over and over and over again.

As for who you were before you decided to rape her: it doesn’t matter. You chose your fate. You were a swimmer, now you’re a registered sex offender and a convicted rapist. The only thing that matters now is where you go from here. How do you learn from this? Can you own up to the choice you made without blaming it on the alcohol?  Can people learn from you? Can you teach others, not about the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity, or about binge drinking and its unfortunate results, but about what rape is and how not to rape others?

John Steinbeck wrote, ““I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

You’ve already done ill.

I hope you choose to do well. Because that means there’s hope that good can triumph over evil.

And if there’s one thing we could use more of in this world, it’s hope.

This Same God

“Look me in the eyes. I’ve always liked your eyes.”

His words echoed in my ears as I relived those minutes and over again.

They don’t tell you how much it’s going to affect you if it happens to you. Nobody tells you how you’ll start to see hollowed out memories, a broken down shell of a body, a ghost of the person you used to be. They don’t tell you how it will affect everything about you—the way you move, the way you talk, the way you act, the way you are, who you are (you never really liked yourself anyway, so really it’s a blessing, because it gives you an actual physical reason to change who you are).

Nobody tells you any of this, but they do tell you how to prevent it, though. Thank goodness for that because 1 in 5 women will be raped in their life, so clearly teaching women how not to get raped is clearly working.

“Look me in the eyes. I’ve always liked your eyes.” Trust me when I say that’s the last thing you want to do when you are being violated in the worst way.

His words echoed in my ears as I relived those minutes over and over again—a reminder of one more thing I’d have to change about myself to try and forget, to try and stop it from ever happening again.

It wouldn’t be that hard. The depression had already taken the sparkle out of my eyes. All I had to do was hide them behind glasses I didn’t need and not make eye contact with anyone. Ever.

He sat behind me in English class, which became the class I began to dread. Every day he touched my hair, said he loved the way it smelled.

When we were in that bathroom on that day in the middle of May, he couldn’t stop touching it, smelling it. So I cut it. And when it got long, I cut it again.

His locker was next to mine. He stood at his every day, waiting for me to open mine. Slamming it shut, his hand would briefly touch mine. “Your skin’s so soft,” he would say.

On that day, he couldn’t stop touching me. His fingers leaving bruises behind on my skin as he moved from my neck down. (I couldn’t wear turtlenecks or scarves for the longest time). He made me touch him, and four of his closest friends.

….

I don’t know how you get over that, how you get rid of those memories. So I shut down, became numb. I started cutting in places I was touched to create new sensations (because the sharp pain was better than the memory of a touch of a finger, scars were better than bruises). My legs, stomach, and wrist became a garden of crisscrossed lines marking the way back from where I’d been.

I started starving myself, not because I cared how I looked, but because I didn’t. I didn’t mind the dark circles under my sunken eyes, the cold skin, the way I lost my sparkle. I wanted there to be less of me that remembered what it felt like to not have control over my own body.

I ceased to exist in the way I used to, and I didn’t know how to find my way back to who I used to be. So I thought it would be better if I just ceased to exist entirely, if I ceased to be.

Six years later, I’m still here. And if the question is, “why did you get a second chance when so many others do not?” the answer is, I don’t know. Life is made up of too many questions and not enough answers.

But here’s what I do know.

I do know that I am healing.

I’ve started eating again. I’ve gained the weight back, and then some. But that’s ok, because I’ve come to learn I’m beautiful.

(Almost) six years after cutting for the last time, the crisscrossed lines are almost gone. Only a faint few remain, reminding me of where I’ve been, how strong I am.

Eight years after being raped, the memories of what happened to me is still enough to tie my stomachs up in knots, but I don’t panic when I see him anymore. I don’t run away. I don’t hide.

I’ve started wearing my hair long(er) again. I love wearing scarves. I’m learning to look people in the eyes again.  Speaking of eyes, I’ve begun to notice the sparkle returning to my eyes. And when I see it, I take a picture because I need to be reminded of the beauty in life.

And I’ve relearned about the cleansing power of blood, how I’ve been washed clean, not by the blood that poured from my skin as I cut myself open, but by the blood spilled from the Man who died so I could live, the Man who became “ugly” so I could be beautiful.

So, I don’t know why I was raped, but I do know that I am thankful.

I’m thankful not for the act done for me, but thankful for what I’ve learned along the way. I’m thankful for how much stronger I am now.

But most of all, I’m thankful for the way God has brought people into my life to encourage me and support me, and for the way he has provided me with people and opportunities I can do the same with.

Because, yes, some days are hard, some days it’s hard to breathe; it’s hard to get out of bed. But everyday God reminds me of how beautiful this life is, and when I look at the lines on my palm, I am reminded that the same God who created nature, took the time to hand-stitch me together, and that is enough to get me through the day.

There’s a Light

Darkness has surrounded me recently. Depression has shrouded me in a cloak of insecurity and doubt so thick, so heavy I’ve forgotten what it’s like to breathe normally, without this heaviness in my chest. It’s like I’m walking through a maze, and the deeper I go, the darker it gets, the closer the walls seem to be. And to top it all off, it’s raining in this maze. It’s been raining long and hard for days, and the maze has standing water–not enough for normal people to be concerned with, but enough that I’m starting to feel anxious.

And I know that probably none of this makes sense, but hear me out.

My two biggest phobias in life are small spaces and drowning, but they didn’t use to be. Once upon a time, the bottom of the pool was my best friend, and I could play hide and seek in the closet for hours. Once upon a time, I was more scared of heights than anything, but I’m not afraid of jumping anymore (at least not most of the time). As we grow up, we change, and I hope one day I will grow out of these two fears, out of the memories they bring. Right now, they’re things I carry with me.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and I can tell you the exact moment this all became luggage on my life trip.

It was a school bathroom, late afternoon, one day in the middle of May, almost eight years ago. I was alone, until I wasn’t. There were suddenly too many people, too many hands, too many demands. As the room started to close in, I felt too big, too small, too everything at once. And I wish I didn’t remember what happened next. I wish I could tell you I don’t remember any of it, but I remember most of it.(As I’m sitting here writing this, it’s playing over and over and over in my head. I wish it would stop, but I know the only way to make that happen is to keep writing, get the words out.)  And if you haven’t experienced this, I hope you never do. My world became so much smaller that day. They were everywhere. If they weren’t, they could’ve been around the next corner, or the next one, or the next one.

So, no. I don’t like closed spaces–they remind me of that time when the room I was in suddenly became too small for the memories it carries.

But what does water have to do with anything? It has to do with everything. I can still hear the drip, drip, drip of the bathroom sink I didn’t have time to shut all the way off. (Good thing I didn’t because when it was all done, I cleaned myself up that much faster. Ironic, right?) And I know you’re thinking, “What about the drowning?” So am I. This is a more of a “fill-in-the-blank association” than a direct correlation.

You know how people get you to open your mouth when you don’t want to? They pinch your nose closed.

And I tried, I tried so hard to keep breathing with my mouth closed and my nose pinched. But things started swirling and spinning and fading, and my lungs were begging for air. So, I opened my mouth and started gasping for air, which is exactly what they wanted. (But this isn’t really the time to discuss that.)

So my brain did the math and concluded that “gasping for air” plus “struggling” plus “water dripping” must be what drowning feels like. I became a fish out of water: the Little Mermaid never wanting to go back in the sea, never wanting to feel that feeling again. Even though I know it’s irrational because a) I wasn’t drowning and b) I’m a good swimmer. But, hey, there’s nothing rational about any of this.

I’ve tried so hard to not let my past define me, become me, influence me, but it’s so hard when so much in your life since that day has been directly or indirectly affected by it. It’s so hard to cut ties with the thing that is pulling you down on your bad days when it’s also the thing that allows you to fly on your good days. Because on my bad days, the pain in my chest, my racing heart when I remember this day remind me I’m still alive.

I know none of this makes sense. But I also know that none of this is permanent: this pain, this life, these memories.

I went on a road trip this weekend. And twelve hours in the car gives you a lot of time to look out the window and think. It also gives you a lot of time to compare unfamiliar places in the dark and in the light.

Unfamiliar places are a lot less creepy during the day, they’re a lot more beautiful. But there’s also something about the night that is just as beautiful. 12983928_10209209651944281_5671617332364340475_o

I took this photo as we were driving over the Ohio River, the lights of some city in Pennsylvania can be seen clearly.

This is what is so beautiful about the dark: it’s the light that can be seen shining through at a distance.

I may be in a dark place now, but this is not unfamiliar territory. I’ve walked this road before; I’ve sailed these seas; I’ve made my way out of this maze too many times to count.

I can see the light up ahead, and with God’s help, I’ll make it through this.

 

Towers and Earthquakes

Here’s the thing: we spend so much of our lives building an identity–a tower of self that is our foundation, what we base our whole life on–that when life begins to chip away at it, we begin to feel lost and confused.

I remember being younger and building my identity around people in my life, mostly friends, sometimes family. The problem with building your identity around others is that it’s permeable–there are cracks in the foundation, allowing water to get in, eroding away the tower brick by brick, piece by piece.

I left Elementary school with a reasonably adequate sense of self. I thought I knew who I was, what I was doing because when you’re one of the big kids in the school, you think you’re unstoppable, and maybe you are.

But then you’re not. You go from being the kid who’s gone around the block a few times to being the new kid in school. And it’s not the moving up of schools that bothers you because you’ve accepted that growing up and getting older is a part of life.

The problem is that you’re now a small fish in a big sea–you don’t know where you fit, where you belong, who your friends are. Something happens to people in Middle School–everybody is trying to find themselves, figure out who they are, and figure out where they fit. And everybody starts doing this at the same time, creating an upset in the social balance, causing hierarchies to form.

The massive upheaval of self-identity causes bullying to start. You try not to let it get to you. You try not to let the names they call you, the things they say to you influence your life. But they do.

And they did for me, too.

They began to chip away at my tower of identity bit by bit; it began to crumble, but because of the foundation, no matter how shaky it was, I wasn’t really scared of it falling.

But then it did.

When I was in eighth grade, I was raped. And it changed everything. It took everything. It took away the foundation I had spent 13 years building. It took away everything I thought I was. It took away my ability to say “No.” because if one guy asked me out, I rejected him, and this happened, what’s to stop it from happening again.

Being raped was like an earthquake–you’ve all seen the images: the violent tremors, the collapsing buildings, the swirling dust, the weakening skeletons still standing.

Being raped was a lot like that: quick and violent, and when the dust settled, all that was left was a shell of who I once was, who I wanted to be.

When it was all over, I was depressed and broken, lost and confused. I felt as though God had abandoned me.And I didn’t tell anybody. When it was all over, I cleaned myself up, covered the bruises as best I could, and carried on with my life as if nothing had happened.

The pain I was feeling was too intense; it hurt too much–I shut down. Becoming numb was easier than feeling, especially when the voices started, repeating over and over and over the events of that day, the words said I wanted so badly to forget: Slut. Bitch. No one will ever love you. You’re worthless.

I was depressed for so long, so numb that I had forgotten how to feel anything at all. That was when the cutting started. I wanted to feel something, anything. The pain reminded me I was alive, and it became addicting. Even that soon became not enough.Soon the self-harm escalated to self-loathing, subtly over time. One day, I woke up and couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten a full meal. The roaring of my stomach quickly drowned out the voices in my head.

I needed to grasp on to something, so I grasped on to the thought that maybe this would end someday, because even the idea of death is better than grasping on nothing.

Then, one day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was tired; boy, was I tired. I let my guard down, stopped trying to shut out the voices in my head. I just wanted peace.

I don’t remember swallowing the pills, but I remember throwing them up. It came after a moment of peace and a whisper: You’ll be ok.

And I was, but not right away. Because I didn’t get help, because, I know this doesn’t make any sense, but I didn’t want to be seen as weak. So I pretended nothing had happened.

Then I broke down. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was so tired of feeling alone, so I started telling people my story. I got help. And it’s been a long, long process.

I don’t know where it ends, or who I will be when I get there, but I know it will be beautiful.

Where I am right now is beautiful.

I’ve started rebuilding myself piece by piece, bit by bit. And here I am today. My foundation is stronger now because it’s built on the assurance that I am a child of God, no matter how angry I once was at Him, He never left my side. He brought me back. He rescued me from me.

My identity is no longer founded on others, and I’m stronger now.

I am beautiful now.

 

 

 

 

Anorexia: The Long Walk Back

This past week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I wasn’t afraid to share my story. But there was a time when I was afraid to admit that I had an eating disorder. There was a time when I denied vehemently that there was anything wrong. There was a time when I’d rather suffer in silence, waste away quietly than admit to battling a demon with so much stigma attached. There was a time when the greatest compliment I could receive was, “You look so skinny!” There was a time when I ate nothing but a few crackers a day for weeks on end. There was a time when my roaring stomach threatened to eat me alive.

There was a time when I gave up. There was a time that my whole life came crashing down—like, if my life were a chain of dominoes, I could have labeled each one: Sexual Assault, Depression, Self-harm, Anorexia. One domino fell, causing a chain reaction that caused each subsequent domino to fall, completing the circuit, illuminating the sign: ANOREXIA.

But then something changed, subtle at first. There wasn’t some lightbulb “AHA” moment. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Today’s the day I get my life back together.” It was gradual, so slow and quiet that I can’t even definitively tell you when I began the journey toward recovery.

But I can tell you the day I ate three full meals again: September 24, 2013.

Since that day, it’s been a long, slow walk back to healthy, maybe even a crawl.

It’s been all about finding Happy Mediums, and learning how to deal with the lasting effects (the stretch marks, the cold hands, the extra dietary supplements, the heart that sometimes beats too fast).

When I first started eating again, it didn’t take long for me to gain the weight back I had lost. It also didn’t take me long to gain the “and then some” people like to warn you about.

During my battle with Anorexia, I cared too much about how I looked that didn’t care how I lost the weight. During my first stages of recovery, I didn’t care enough so I gained more weight than I should have. Now, I’m left figuring out where the middle is: how much caring is too much and how much is not enough? How do I lose the weight I need to lose in order to be my best self without letting it—my appearance—consume my life?

I don’t really have the answer, but I think I may have a solution that might work best for me.

I have found that I prefer to recover the same way I enter a pool: easing in.

Some people like jumping right into a freezing cold pool and sending their body into shock. I don’t. I prefer sticking my toes in, then my foot, then my leg, then slowly climbing down the ladder until I’m up to my shoulders, and then finally, an hour later, putting my head under the water, maybe.

If I’m going to reach my goals of being happy and healthy, I have to ease in. Starting with my worst relationship to date: food.

I have to ease into a healthy diet, starting to eat better a little bit at a time, until it becomes second nature. Then after I maintain that, then I can add in the exercise a little bit at a time until that becomes second nature.

And I know this doesn’t work for everybody, and it’s not supposed to–recovery is different for every person.

But I know me. I know that the analogy of dominoes may have worked once upon a time, and it may work sometimes if I want to make my story simple.

Unfortunately, life isn’t simple. There’s nothing simple about Eating disorders and Mental Illness. Because eating disorders are as just as much mental as they are physical. So in reality, there are no cascading dominoes. Instead, it’s a tangled web of events, interweaving in and out of each other until each string is indistinguishable from the next.

My identity is somewhere in that web.

Recovery is untangling that web, trying to find who I really am and who I want to be.

It’s about learning to listen to the voices around you from those who love you, instead of the ones inside you trying to beat you down.

It’s knowing that you’ll fail sometimes and choosing to get up anyway.

The road from Anorexia to Recovery is long and hard. I have fallen down many times, and I know I will probably fall down a few more along the way.

And that’s ok.

Because the journey is a slow walk, and I haven’t walked as far as I would have liked to 2 ½ years into it.

And sometimes I get impatient because I know that at the end of this journey, beauty is waiting.

But where I am now, that’s beautiful, too.