The Trauma Tree

I thought being baptized would solve the problem. I thought that if I publicly declared that I was “giving it all over to God,” I’d stop wanting to drive into trees.

But the thing about trauma that makes it dangerous, that makes it so hard to work through, is that sometimes the only way to get past it all is to let it destroy you.

Trauma is pervasive and a darn good liar. It gets into your head, rolls around a little, and then sets up roots in the center of the belief that you don’t deserve to be alive, you deserved everything that happened, you’ll never be more than what was done to you.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned over the last 7 months as I’ve aggressively worked through everything: in order to get past the past, in order to start living in the present for the future, you have to actively work through the trauma, digging down deep to pull the trauma tree up from the core of your identity by its roots. And I’ve found that the deeper I dig, the deeper the roots extend–the more damage they’ve done. It’s not just a single event that happened ten years ago; it’s a lifetime worth of things I’ve pushed aside, little things I’ve ignored, big things I’ve blocked.

And each time a new root is discovered, each time a core “belief” I’ve thought about myself is challenged, the more my foundation is shaken. Trauma takes away a person’s identity. We start to define ourselves by the trauma. And as we work through it all, we become more lost, more confused.

At least I have.

At the moment, I have no idea who I am.

And that’s ok. That’s ok because there’s one thing I’m sure of: I am a Child if God.

As I work through dismantling the foundation on which I built my life–the bricks that told me the world would be better off without me, that I wasn’t important, the from the age of 4 told me how I felt would never be important–as I work through all of that, I’m learning how to validate the 4-year-old girl who wanted to shrink herself into oblivion, how to validate the 13-year-old who wanted to be anywhere else but that bathroom. I’m learning how to validate the parts of myself that I’ve invalidated for so long.

Trauma has taught me how to live in a world of disconnect; I can separate my feelings from my existence and live in numbness. Until I can’t, until the weight of all the emotions I haven’t felt come crashing down around me, and I want to drive into trees for no other reason than my head telling me “you need to,” and the deepest hurt telling you that “that’s the only way to make this heaviness disappear.”

I feel alone in groups of people because I don’t feel real, like I’m watching my life play out before me, like I exist slightly to the left. I can’t connect my emotions to my trauma. I know what happened to me, logically. But there’s this disjoint: my emotional connection to what happened is misplaced. I can talk about being raped without getting emotional, but then the smallest thing happens–a guy makes a creepy comment, I do something embarrassing, some one criticizes me a little bit–and I become suicidal: displaced emotions, delayed response, a rush of feelings amidst the numbness of existence.

It’s this emotional disconnect, this traumatic disjointness that has my therapist most worried; that has him scheduling 2 or 3 appointments at a time, not just one. If I can make it this long…

It’s the suicidal ideation that’s always been present. But it’s hard to talk about because “what 4-year-old wants to die?”

It’s a chemical imbalance exacerbated by trauma. A trauma that has defined so much of my life.

And I’m working on it. Because I don’t want it to define my life. I don’t want to be sitting at my desk and all of a sudden think “I should drive into a tree” because even if I’m not thinking about my trauma consciously, I’m thinking about it emotionally.

My emotions are playing catch-up. Because for years I lived in numbness. Not allowing myself to feel was the only way to deal.

But now, I have to feel in order to heal.

And I’m feeling it all: pain, shame, hurt, sadness, anger, humiliation. And it’s making me panic–making me operate at a constant level of anxiety that I didn’t know was possible.

There’s a tension in my head, and it’s all valid.

I’m valid.

And this wasn’t the post I wanted to write. I had another one planned. But I started typing, and these are the words that came out.

Trauma and humor go hand in hand. I use humor to relieve tension (real or made up). And there’s this tension inside me all the time: the battle between the traumatized “you’re worth nothing side,” and the rational “you have value side. And it’s this battle, this constant never ending war that makes the healing difficult. The more I uncover, the stronger the traumatized side gets, and the more energy I have to put into the rational side of me.

Because the fact is: I do have value. I deserve to be here. And one day, I’ll discover my purpose for existing.

I have to reconcile the two parts of myself: the traumatized part and the part that wants to move forward. Because right now, my brain is still protecting me from the past even though the past is not currently happening.

I’m learning how to exist in a world where my past doesn’t define me, learning to live in the overlap of pain and hope.

I don’t just want to exist. I want to thrive.

This tree is heavy and digging it up is painful and dirty and it’s leaving me open and vulnerable.

But sometimes the only way to move forward is by clawing your way out, fighting tooth and nail to ignore the voices in your head, yelling at them: “you may be loud, but I am stronger.”

Because sometimes, the quietness of hope is the loudest thing of all.

And sometimes you find out the tree that was protecting you from pain was actually blocking you from growing.

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We Don’t Talk About PTSD, But I Need To.

“You have PTSD, Kaleigh. You’ve probably had it for a while, but being sexually harassed every day over the summer definitely made it worse, brought the trauma of being raped back to the forefront of your mind. And now you have to process all these things that you’ve repressed for so long.” That’s basically what my therapist told me yesterday, as I sat crying in his office after replaying for him the harassment I faced every day this summer (I’m not going to replay that here; I’ve written blog posts about it.

My first thought was: I can’t have PTSD. I’ve never been to war. Other people have it worse.

But then, as I texted two of my very best friends, they said what I knew all along: We’ve known for a while.

I’ve known for a while. When I went to the Psych ER, the Psychiatrist who saw me before I was discharged said: I think you have it, but I don’t know you well enough to make an official diagnosis.

Well, yesterday, I got the official diagnosis. And my world turned upside down, or, actually, right-side up because now my whole life, especially the last 8 months make so much sense.

You see, back in July, I had a flashback at the gym. One minute, I was on the treadmill; the next minute, I was back in eighth grade in the school bathroom, pleading with five guys to get off me.

And it spiraled from there: multiple calls to the suicide hotline, trying to drive into trees, panic attacks at work or at the gym, nightmares and flashbacks.

It got to the point where I couldn’t go to the gym alone without having a panic attack so bad, I became actively suicidal. (Which, apparently, is another symptom of PTSD.) Most times, they were so bad, I had to sit on the bench in the hall because I knew if I got behind the wheel, I’d drive full speed into a tree.

I had to protect myself from myself.

One night, back in late October, I got so suicidal while at the gym, that I disassociated–some how I lost two hours, but it felt like 15 minutes.

And lately, it’s gotten worse.

Lately, my anxiety’s been so high, and I’m on high alert 24/7. I’m triggered more often than I’m not (I know that “triggered” means different things to different people, but let me tell you what it means in the mental health world: it means something that reminds me of my trauma. Sometimes, it’s little things: cologne or a sound. But, it’s also other things: some guy looked at me for too long in the store the other day and all of a sudden, I was suicidal. It explains why I freak out any tome someone walks up behind me. And it may sound ridiculous–and I mean, it sort of does. But here’s the thing: I’m traumatized.)

I’m traumatized more than I let myself believe. And now I have to validate my trauma. I have to say “yes, maybe some people have been through worse, but I’ve been through shit, too. And it’s affected me in profound and deep ways. I can’t invalidate myself anymore.”

I can’t invalidate myself anymore. I can’t just hold everything back. I can’t pretend to be ok. Because I’m not.

I’m not ok, and yesterday, my world was shattered. Because I now have a label, a diagnosis. But also, everything makes sense:

Now I know why being around certain people strikes fear in my heart. I know why sometimes I can’t sleep at night. I understand the Major Depression, the increased Generalized Anxiety, the increased suicidal desires when I have bad panic attacks.

I understand.

But what does this mean?

It means more intense therapy more often. It means I have to do individual therapy every week instead of every two (that’s coupled with the group therapy every week). It means learning what triggers me, what causes me to flashback (even on some unconscious level) to my trauma: certain voices, certain personalities, certain noises.

Also, it means that right now, I cant go to the gym. My friend started going with me a few months back because my panic attacks were so bad. But the fear of being around a lot of guys is way too much for my fragile mind to handle.

Besides, since I can’t cut off contact from humans completely, I have to limit the bad, which means I nix the gym.

Because it’s not just at the gym: it’s at Wegmans. It’s at work. It’s watching certain TV shows.

Some guy stood by the desk for a while having a conversation with one of the Pastors, and I started having a panic attack–something about him reminded me of something I’d rather forget. And I couldn’t handle that.

I can’t stop things like that from happening. I can’t stop myself from panicking every time a dad takes a pick-up-their-child ticket from my outstretched hand. I can’t stop myself from going to Wegmans.

But I can stop going to the gym.

And I’m trying to control what I can. Heal what I can. Feel what I can.

Because right now, I’m feeling so many things, which I suppose is better than feeling nothing.

But right now, 99% of the time, I want to die.

And I’m working through it. Little by little. Trying to take it one step at a time, one breathe at a time, one hour at a time.

I have PTSD, and it sucks, and I’m really really struggling right now.

But there’s so much more to me than 4 little letters.

And there are a whole lot of people out there who have said “hey, we love you and support you, and we’ll help you in any way we can.”

Because right now those 4 letters feel so heavy, but my community makes me strong.

The Monster Under the Covers: PTSD

You look traumatized, my therapist said to me as we walked into his office this afternoon. What happened?

There was this guy on the phone behind me in the waiting room, and his voice–the timbre, the vibrato, the words he used–reminded me of someone I’d much rather forget. And I had a flashback and now I’m panicky, which isn’t anything new recently because I’ve been panicked for three weeks straight practically, I answered not at all calmly.

Why?

I finally opened up about being sexually harassed every day for three months this summer. Oh, yeah, you won’t find that in Kerry’s notes, I interjected as he flipped through the notes he inherited from my former therapist who’s on maternity leave. I never told her, and I only told her about being raped because it was in the notes she inherited from the psychiatrist who saw me when I went to the ER.

He responded: I’ve noticed that you’re more willing to open up in our sessions, and in Kerry’s notes she continually mentions that you’re “holding something back.” And you keep mentioning that the people who feel safest with, the people you share the most with, are, for the most part, male. Why don’t you open up as much to females?

Because, I replied, they’re the ones who bullied me growing up. And even though I was traumatized by guys, the emotional pain of being bullied, for some reason is too much for me to open up to girls as easily. The trauma of what guys have done is physical, emotional, and mental, but physical pain is easier to deal with than emotional pain, which is why I started self-harming.

– – –

Can we talk about the sexual harassment? Because everything you’re telling me right now, explains a lot. 

I sat in silence for a while, as tears started streaming down my face, and the panic started to return.

I was terrified all the time, every time I walked into that warehouse, I started to feel nauseous, knowing that they were out there, behind piles of exhibits, driving around forklifts, watching me. They would watch me walk up the stairs to the print shop, leer at me with their eyes. They would smirk at me every time we passed them each other in the all-too-narrow hall. They’d sneak up behind me, which they knew I didn’t like, touch me on my shoulder, smell my hair (I cut six inches off my hair in August for precisely this reason). They would look me up and down, starting at the top, working their way down, slowly taking in every part of me, and then they’d say, “Nice,” as they licked their lips. And they made crude comments, and told me the same joke every day: “What did the bosses say when the intern told them she was raped by the warehouse guys? Nothing, they didn’t believe her.”

And they made very specific threats about being raped and about nobody knowing or caring. Then, one of my last weeks there, I spent most of the week at their other warehouse in the city, and the workers there didn’t know I spoke Spanish, so they were more brazen, more bold, more specific, and I remember everything they said, every threat, every joke. And then I remember one day being alone in the office with one of the warehouse guys, and as I came out of the bathroom, as I was still out of view of the one security camera trained on the office area, he exposed himself to me, smirking as he said, “I’ve never disappointed a slut.”

And I can’t tell you how many days I had panic attacks at work, where one of the would sneak up on me, and then I would go to the bathroom where I would hear guys’ voices in the hall outside, and I would have flashbacks to that school bathroom in eighth grade when those five guys raped me, and literally, right there, in that bathroom during the middle of the workday, I’d want to kill myself: my suicidal urges soared out of control.

This is where I stopped because I saw the look on his face: I’ve seen it many times–sadness and pain.

And he said, Kaleigh, you have PTSD.

It’s not new information, not really. I mean, I thought maybe I did. Some of my friends thought I did. It was hinted around by the Psychiatrist in the ER, but to have someone actually say it was like a slap in the face.

You’re traumatized. I see it in your face during group every time one of the maintenance guys drops something. I see the panic in your eyes anytime someone walks behind you, and when there are people sitting behind you in group–especially guys, you keep looking directly at the door, as if you want to bolt out of there. And now it all makes sense: why this past week at group you were more comfortable and open–1. There were no guys there, and 2. no one was behind you. It makes sense why your suicidal urges rise when your anxiety is high.

He’s right you know, which I suppose is why I’m going to therapy in the first place: I’m traumatized. And I’ve accepted what’s happened in my life, but now I’m trying to deal with it, heal from it, move past it.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to be this way. I don’t want to kill myself everytime a guy looks at me wrong in the store. I don’t want to panic when I go to the gym by myself. I don’t want to keep being triggered by certain brands of cologne, certain voices, certain personalities, and I certainly don’t want to be triggered by the President of the United States and the news.

But, right now, I am. And my anxiety is high, but more than that, my panic is high, and with the panic and the triggers comes suicidal urges that I’m trying so hard to keep in check, to maintain control of.

Because I want to be in control: I want to be able to say “Yes, this guy touched my hand when he took the pick-up-your-child ticket from me, but it’s ok. You don’t have to panic, and the terror you feel is not going to kill you.”

Because right now, I’m struggling to be in control, and sometimes the terror I feel is so great that I’m actually afraid it’s going to kill me. I couldn’t even sit in the waiting room before therapy today without freaking out because some guy I didn’t know was talking on the phone.

But, here I am, and I’m trying to do my best, trying to carpe the diem: panic and all because, yes, I’m hurting and overall, I’m not doing well at all, but I’m not going to let any of that stop me from living my life.

As I left his office today, my therapist told me: I admire the way you keep facing your fears, running headlong into life because so many people would retreat if they were in your shoes.

I used to, I replied. I used to. I used to hide within myself, keeping my pain to myself because someone else always had it worse, but then one day, after I texted someone that I had a panic attack at work, he came and sat next to me on the bench at the gym that evening, and he softly said, “Kaleigh, are you ok?”

And I found the strength to say no, I found the strength to be honest.  And I haven’t stopped since.

Life Beyond: the Psych ER and My Faith

Those of you who have read my blog over the past few months, or even the past few years, know that this is a place where I am open and honest because sometimes I have a hard time doing that in real-life. But lately, I’ve tried this new approach where I’m open and honest, telling people my real truths–the truths I tried for so long to hide–engaging in the tough conversations where I’m raw, exposing my broken and hurting soul to those around me.

You see, four months ago, I ended up driving myself to the Psych ER because all I wanted to do was die. I saw the exit sign on the road directly in front of me, blinking green as in “GO.” And I wanted so badly to take it: the road not taken.

I didn’t take the road not taken, and that has made all the difference. Instead, I took the road that lead me to get help–a road that has been filled with panic attacks and flashbacks and broken relationships and great new ones. It’s a road that took me to the parking garage of the hospital I was born in, where I promptly had a 25-minute long panic attack in my car and then stood looking out over the concrete wall, trying to convince myself not to jump five floors down.

It’s a road that has lead me to where I am now: trying my best.

I’m trying my best. I’m going to group therapy once a week and individual therapy every 10-14 days. I was put on medication for the depression and the anxiety and the panic and the suicidal thoughts, and when the first medication made me too tired during the day to function if taken at night and too nauseous to eat if taken in the morning, I got put on another, and I haven’t really slept in a week, so I have a medication for that, too–and if I have a panic attack, it helps with those also–it’s a kill two birds with one stone type of deal. Which is helpful because I’m big on multitasking.

But the medication and the double therapy and the heart-to-heart raw moments haven’t fixed me. If anything, it’s made me more aware of my pain and the demons I battle. It has to hurt before it gets better. And I am trying my best to get better, or at least make all of this more manageable.

But, I have to be honest, friends, there are days when I wake up, and the first thought that comes screaming into my head with a screeching halt is: Are you kidding me with this? I woke up again? I have to keep living? And then I instantly feel ashamed for thinking that thought because there are so many people out there who didn’t get a second chance, and I should be grateful for this life I’ve been given.

I am. I am. I am. I am grateful. But I’m also living with depression and anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and sometimes I’m at the gym and sit on a bench for longer than I actually worked out because my thoughts are so bad, I don’t trust myself to drive. And sometimes, I think to myself I wish someone would just shoot me. Or, I wish someone would come up behind me and slit my throat. Because then I could die without being blamed.

I wish I knew how to explain to all of you that I don’t actually want to die, I just want relief: relief from the voices screaming in my head that I am not good enough; relief from the pain and the tears and the sleepless nights; relief from the panic that sets in; relief from what’s going on inside my head. Because mental illnesses are so exhausting, and I’m so very tired.

. . .

I got an email yesterday from someone who was referred to my blog by a friend of theirs asking me how I can still believe in a loving God despite all that’s happened to me.

I responded: for the longest time, I didn’t. All the way through high school and into college, I doubted. But, if anything, these last six months have made my faith stronger. You see, if God wasn’t real, I wouldn’t be here right now. The night I attempted suicide, He saved me from myself. I never ever would have found the strength to ask for help, to be so honest and open and raw and real about what’s been going on in my life these last few months if I didn’t have faith. Believing in hope when all seems hopeless takes tremendous faith. I believe in God because He’s strong when I am weak. I believe in God because He helps me through the days when I can stand. He holds it together when I feel like I’m going to fall apart.

That’s why I believe–why I still believe that God is good–despite, or maybe in spite of, my brokenness.

I believe because I have no choice. And honestly, I’m not sure I’d be a Christian today if it weren’t for the battles I’ve faced. My doubt has made my faith stronger. My struggles have made hope that much more beautiful.

You see, I’m not sure I’d be a Christian today if it weren’t for what I’ve been through–if I wasn’t raped, if I didn’t develop an eating disorder and start to self-harm, if I didn’t live with depression and anxiety and suicidal thoughts. (But don’t you dare quote “Everything happens for a reason” to me because I will not let you diminish how terrible and hurtful what happened to me was.)

You see, I was hurt by the church and Christianity in general. I don’t think it was on purpose, or that they even knew they were doing it. But I grew up being told, and subsequently believing, that good Christians lead good lives. Good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people. If I prayed, God would grant me what I asked.

So when bad things happened, I believed it was my fault. I wondered what I did wrong? Was I a bad Christian? Did I not pray enough, read my Bible enough, love God enough? Did God not love me enough?

Being raped shattered me, and when I tried to pick up the pieces, I had nothing to hold them together with. If I didn’t have God, I didn’t have anything. So, I entered into a relationship I definitely should not have been in–one that was emotionally abusive (probably on both sides), one that gave me panic attacks over and over and over again because I just didn’t want to be touched, ok? Didn’t want to be poked in the sides, and definitely didn’t want to be snuck up on from behind. And because I no longer believed God loved me, I tried to frame my identity around those around me–putting all my eggs in very holey baskets, instead of the Holy Basket. For so long, I had no idea who I was.

Sometimes, I still don’t. But I’m trying my best to figure it out. I’m learning to deal with my thoughts and feelings, not push them aside. Because for so long, I kept everything pushed down and bottled up, not letting myself feel the hurt and the pain, not allowing myself to feel, deal, and heal. Until six months ago when I reached my breaking point, culminating in a flashback at the gym (Notice how everything happens at the gym? Maybe I should stop going).

I’m going to be honest, guys. These last few months have been the toughest of my life–filled with panic attacks and sleepless nights and countless thoughts of ending it all.

But, here’s the thing: I’ve also cracked more jokes in the last few months than I have in my entire life. Sometimes I may not feel like there’s a lot of hope, but I know there is as long as I’m still laughing.

If you can’t laugh at where you are in life, it’s like you’ve admitted that there’s no hope of anything getting better. And I refuse to believe that life won’t get better.

I’ll never be normal. I’ll probably never not struggle with Major Depression, General Anxiety, Social Anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts. But I have hope. So much hope.

Because life is about embracing the crazy, embracing your weakness, giving a name to the darkest parts of yourself. I’ve done that, and I’m letting God–with the help of therapy and medication–help me manage the rest.

Because my faith is stronger now than it ever was, than it ever has been. It has to be if I want to keep living. And I do. I do want to keep living. Because life is so beautiful and laughter is so precious and there are so many wonderful conversations out there to have.

And I want to see a Christianity where we can have the tough conversations. I want to see a Church where we can share our stories, shed light on our dark, dreary places because things left in the dark dreary places tend to be ruined. And I don’t want people to feel ruined.

Because sometimes I do. Somedays I feel ruined. Somedays I feel like there’s no hope. But I want everybody to know that there is always that whisper in the back of my head, the whisper that comes on my hardest nights, that carries me through the tough places: You are my Child, and you’ll be ok. I’ve got this.

I want a Christianity that isn’t perfect because life isn’t perfect. I want a Church that isn’t afraid to be real and raw and honest. Because I have to be in order to carpe each diem. I have to be to survive.

And I think we all occasionally need to be reminded that there are people out there who understand our dark places. We need those willing to help us shed some light: to feel, to deal, to heal.

Afraid in Love

When I was in first grade, I was told that if a guy was mean to me, he liked me. I would go tell the teacher that Billy stole the ball I was playing with, and he wouldn’t give it back.

“Kaleigh,” I was told, “He likes you.”

“Sam pulled my hair.”

“He likes you.”

7 years later, I’m lying on a school bathroom floor, and I’m wondering if these guys are showing me they love me. And now I’m walking on egg shells around every guy I meet, not wanting to be loved again, because if this is how a guy tells a girl he loves her, I’d much rather be single forever.

I was taught in school how to protect myself from rape. Don’t walk alone. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t go out at night. Keep your body hidden. Don’t give them a reason.

If the reason was turning him down when he asked me out, because he was a jerk, then yes, I gave him a reason.  Maybe I gave him a reason because I was too quiet all the time, and too loud at the wrong times. And apparently, his friends decided I was the worst and decided to punish me too. And now I’m stuck keeping it a secret because I don’t want the blaming questions.

“Why were you alone?”

“What were you wearing?”

It’s been 8 years, and I’m still getting told by some people to praise God I don’t remember it all. Let me tell you, I remember it enough to know I don’t want to remember it all.

It’s been 8 years, and sometimes unexpected contact is still the worse, and sometimes it burns as if I’m holding the sun in my hands.

It’s been 8 years, and sometimes I still have to defend myself against judging glances. Because, apparently, as someone who has been blessed with two x chromosomes, instead of one, the only job I have in life is to not let myself get raped.

Hold up, let me tell you something.

My job as a female is to do whatever the heck I want to do. I am not part of the “weaker sex.” And I may not be able to bench press as much as you men, but I know how to be strong. I may have wider hips, but I have a fighter’s stance.

And I don’t want to hear these excuses about men having a voracious appetite for sex. The word appetite should only be used when talking about food. I am not food.

Sometimes my thoughts threaten to eat me alive.

But, I will not be silenced. I am a statistic, but that doesn’t define me.

Because one day in my first week of college, somebody said, “If someone hates himself so much they want to die, they’re better off dead.” And then,  “If someone gets raped, they probably deserved it.” So I told my story, and then he had the audacity to defend the other guys’ actions.

I’m pretty sure the “Bros Before Hoes,” part of the Bro Code does not apply in this situation. Because he wasn’t justified, and I didn’t provoke. I was in the wrong place in the wrong time surrounded by the wrong people. And their touch is woven into the deepest part of my skin, and 8 years later, I still get shivers down my spine. I was told no one would love me, and I believed them, until I realized I have the most amazing friends.

I was told not to get raped. They were not told how not to rape.

Guys tell one another, “You throw like a girl!” Since when is being a girl an insult? Some of the strongest people I know are women. Being a girl is not an insult.

I am not an insult. You are not an insult. I will tell my daughter she is not an insult.

I may be a girl, but I know how to fight. And so will my daughters. My sons will learn the meaning of “no.”

“No” is not “maybe.” “No” is not “convince me.”

And I will teach them both the two best things I’ve ever learned: How to love myself, despite everything. And how to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again.

Because repetition forms habits.

I’ve found my voice again. So yes, I may be ‘beautiful’ or whatever, but I am so much more.

I am woman.

I am a fighter.

I am a survivor.

And I will teach my children to be the same.

I will teach my Children what love is, and what it’s not. Because you shouldn’t be afraid of love.

I’m not afraid anymore.

I Didn’t Attempt Suicide Today

“What are you going to do after you graduate? Are you going to go back to school?”

“Yeah. I’ll probably get a Masters, and then maybe even a Doctorate.”

“In what?”

“Sleeping, probably.”

I’ve never seen my grandfather laugh so hard; but, I wasn’t joking.

I was as serious as depression, which, coincidentally, was the reason I was going to get a doctorate in sleeping.

Depression is fickle, oxymoronic, persistent, and sneaky, boy, is it sneaky. It’s the best Con Artist, the Great Persuader, the Silent Terror. It cuddles up next to you in the middle of the night, convincing you that it’s your best friend, that it has your best interests at heart. It would never hurt you. It feeds you lies when you’re too weak from starving yourself to refuse, and as you’re wasting away, it feeds on your weakness. It convinces you that it can teach you to fly, and after you’ve already jumped off the cliff, you realize the wings it gave you aren’t really wings at all. It doesn’t bother to help pick you up off the rocky ground at the bottom.

All you want to do is sleep; it won’t let you do that either, but it will make it impossible to get out of bed. It’s silent in the way that it sneaks up on you when you least expect it: you’re happy and giggly one moment and silent and moody in the next. But it’s oh so loud in the way that it rings in your ears over and over not-good-enough, not-good-enough, not-enough, and in the way it causes your heart to feel like it’s going to beat out of your chest in thesuddenly-called-on-in-class-but-weren’t-paying-attention anxious sort of way.

It’s a deep ache, a heaviness that starts in the deep recesses of your soul and then settles somewhere around your heart (sort of like a sore muscle that you wake up with). You can go about your daily life, but you muddle through it, compensating for the hurt.

We all compensate in different ways: some turn to drugs, some, like me, turn to self-harm and starvation, some turn to writing (I got there eventually). But most all of us stay quiet, trying not to draw attention to ourselves or our situation.


I’ve always been quiet. Being the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side and the oldest granddaughter on my father’s, I never really had to say much to get what I wanted. As I got older and younger sisters, and then younger cousins, came along, I never really grew out of my shell. I was content to stay on the sidelines, to wait to be asked if I wanted something (to set up a game on my grandparent’s table and wait and wait and wait until someone asked me if I wanted to play).

A few years ago, my mother told a family member that on the first day of kindergarden, my teacher called home to ask if I “had an attitude problem” because I wouldn’t say hello.

No, she’s just quiet. They said. She doesn’t talk. (Eventually, after the first week, I said hello back and got to join my peers in Center Play).

As I went on in my schooling, speech therapy and, eventually,counseling became weekly occurrences. Speech therapy, because despite knowing how to read before entering kindergarden, my tongue refused to pronounce certain letters and words correctly — namely, r and any word with an r and l in quick succession, like world or shoulder or soldier. Counseling because, despite what I thought, talking to people is necessary for friendships.

The counseling helped with the making of friends. But my report cards still said Pleasure to have in class, but needs to participate in class discussions.

If my post-schooling life had report cards, they’d say the same thing: Pleasure to do life with, but needs to participate in discussions more.

I’m working on it. But the years of speech therapy did not help with my mumbling, which I am acutely aware of because everytime I talk, my father asks if I’m speaking Russian. I mumble because I get nervous — social anxiety, I think (self-diagnosed) — and not just nervous but like, heart-pounding-acutely aware of everyone looking at me nervous.

Which is why I choose to stay quiet, only choosing to speak if I have something pressingly important to add.


I didn’t think my depression was important enough to mention. My depression told me that, and it told me a lot of other not-so-nice things about myself.

Those closest to me knew I had it, but they didn’t know the severity of it, and I guess neither did I.

Until the night I attempted suicide.

It took swallowing pills to realize that depression is more than sadness. It’s more than self-harm and starvation. It’s life-threatening. And it needs to be talked about, without the taboo and stigma. Because it’s not an attitude problem. Those of us who are struggling can be as smiley and optimistic as those who aren’t suffering, but we can still feel like we just got punched in the gut. We can still want to die.

But with the right resources, we can stave off death for a little while longer.


I didn’t attempt suicide today. Or yesterday, or any day in the past 2,398 days.

2,399 days ago, I did.

But 6 years, 6 months, and 26 days ago, I was a different person. I’m stronger now. I have the right resources and support systems in place to live with depression.

I can talk about my past and what I’ve been through — my rape, my eating disorder, my suicide attempt. I’m not scared to look my past in the face and to show the beauty that has come from it. I’m not afraid to use my story to help others.

I have attempted a lot of things in the past 2,398 days:

I graduated from High school.

I started college.

I went to Guatemala on a Missions Trip.

I have started writing a book (many, many times).

I graduated college.

But perhaps most importantly, I’ve begun to find the pieces of me that I lost. I’m becoming reacquanted with the parts of me that were strangers for far too long: my laughter, my confidence, my body.

I’ve given a voice to the darkest part of myself, knowing it’s ok to talk about hard things. I’ve given names to my depression and intrusive thoughts: André is my depression; Fred is the out-going one who likes to be the center of attention, and Gertrude is the quiet one, who comes out when I’m home alone.

Intrusive thoughts are a lot less scary when you can have conversations with them: No, Fred. I will NOT drive headfirst into this tree. No, the fireworks would not be cool because it’s a burning car on fire, not the fourth of July. And, Shut up, Gertrude. I know there are about 20 Advil in my hand right now, but I only need two. I have a bad shoulder today, not a bad life.

And when the depression gets too bad, and I’m tempted to start to pursue my doctorate in sleeping right then and there, I can say to myself: I know André is bad today, but you’ve beat him before, and you can beat him again. You’ve seen the darkness, and you came out on the otherside.

And the world today is so beautiful.

(originally posted on Medium)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Biggest Bully

This letter has been a long time coming—forgiveness has been a long time coming. And it’s not like I haven’t tried to forgive; I have.

I’ve forgiven others.

I’ve forgiven my rapists for what they did to me, for the years of pain and anguish they caused me, for changing the trajectory of my life.

I’ve forgiven God for the injustices I perceived He let happen to me, even though He did absolutely nothing wrong. But when you’re hurting, you need someone to blame.

I’ve forgiven the friends who walked away when I needed them the most, even though they had every right to, because when you’re depressed, you tend to sabotage relationships.

I’ve forgiven those who bullied me throughout Middle School and High School because someone has to. And in order to move forward, I have to step out of the past, even if that means never going to a High school reunion.

I’ve forgiven those who have caused me harm, who have hurt me mentally and physically. But I haven’t been able to forgive you, yet.

Until now.

I had forgiven everybody else, but I hadn’t been able to forgive my biggest bully: me.

I forgive you—I mean, me. And I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for allowing the opinions of others to become the way I defined you. I’m sorry for the way my voice began to echo and mirror what other’s said about you. It’s hard enough to ignore being called ugly, fat, unworthy if it’s someone else’s voice doing the calling, but when it’s your own voice that suddenly becomes your biggest nightmare, it’s next to impossible.

I’m sorry for silencing you. I’m sorry for making you feel like you couldn’t say anything, you couldn’t speak up about what you were going through and struggling with because every time you looked in the mirror, you said something mean about yourself. It’s hard to speak up when every though that sprints (and then trips and hangs around for a while) in your mind is harsh and cruel. You believe in Thumper’s mantra: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all. And you couldn’t, so you didn’t, even if speaking up could’ve saved your life.

I’m sorry for making you hate your reflection. I’m sorry for making you feel unloved and unworthy and how all of that unworthiness translated into not eating. Now you’re stuck learning how to do all of that again, because once upon a time you ate too little, then too much, and now you have to learn how to find the perfect middle. Learning how to love yourself again is so hard, but I promise it will be so worth it.

I’m sorry for making you believe that your whole identity and lovability was definied by your attractiveness.

I’m sorry for allowing you to become some numb and full of hate that the only relief was found in a knife (or a razor, or scissors. Whatever was convenient).

I’m sorry for making you believe that you weren’t beautiful the way you were, and are, and will continue to be.

I’m sorry for becoming your worst enemy when you needed me to be your biggest advocate. I’m sorry for abandoning you, for causing you to lose yourself when you really needed to be found.

I’m sorry for the tears cried, the blood shed, the scars gained, the pounds lost. I’m sorry for trying to die.

I’m sorry for all of it.

But mostly I’m sorry for taking so long to realize how much I hurt you. I’m sorry for taking so long to apologize. I’m sorry for taking so long to forgive you.

It’s hard to forgive others, and it’s even harder to forgive yourself.

But I’m ready now. I’m ready to say: I forgive you. (I forgive myself.)

Most of all, I’m ready to accept your apology. (I’m ready to accept my own apology.)

I’m ready to step into the future together: past me and present me. I’m ready to combine the two to prepare for future me. I’m ready to learn from my past mistakes and apply them to what I will encounter down the road on the journey ahead.

Because I don’t know where this future leads, but I am ready to take that journey—together.

Recovery: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

(a continuation of my last blog post, “Bear Hugs From God”)

One of the biggest problems I have as both a reader and a writer is romanticizing things that should not be romanticized. I write poetry and use metaphors to try and make sense of my feelings, without actually acknowledging my feelings. It’s not really even that, though. What it really is, is that I’ve written about my past so many times—I’ve tried to lessen the pain by using metaphors—that I’ve forgotten to write about my present and my future.

My past isn’t beautiful. What I’ve been through isn’t beautiful.

There’s nothing beautiful about rape, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide attempts.

What’s beautiful is the fact that I’m still here. I’m still fighting. What’s beautiful is God’s grace—his mercy.

But, if you know me and my story, you already know all of that.

What’s beautiful is where I am now, and where I will tomorrow and 5, 10, 15 years from now.

What’s beautiful is recovery and healing, but even those aren’t always beautiful.

Sometimes recovery means hospital stays and feeding tubes and uncomfortable conversations.

Sometimes recovery means mending bridges you burned, going back to the people you’ve hurt with your tail between your legs to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s knowing that while you were hurting, you may have hurt others, too.

Sometimes recovery is learning that total healing doesn’t always come on this side of life. It’s having to be ok with that.

Sometimes recovery is being angry, and then sad, and then angry again. It’s about learning to use those feelings to motivate you to live every day, not just survive every day.

Sometimes recovery means grasping for straws, hoping that you can find one to hold on to. If you can find one reason to stay alive, no matter how small, it makes day-to-day life so much easier.

Sometimes recovery means doing things you don’t want to do. It’s like my sister talking about the Super Bowl: “If the Patriots and Panthers both make it, I’ll cheer for the Panthers, but I won’t be happy about it.”

I’ll ask for help if I need it, but I won’t be happy about it.

Sometimes recovery means not being afraid to fail and having faith that God knows what he’s doing. You know like Peter. “Ok, God. You called me out upon the waters, but I sunk. Now what?” And God replies, “Have some faith.” Oh.

Sometimes recovery is a bear hug from God, but often times it’s more like Him carrying you while you’re kicking and screaming, “But I want to.” You know like how a parents tells a child not to touch the stove because it will burn them, but the child does it anyway? And then they get burned. Or how a child throws a tantrum in a store because mom won’t buy them candy, and then when they get home, they’re put in time-out. It’s sort of like that—learning from your mistakes.

Like you’re standing on a bridge, and God says, “Don’t you dare jump.” But you do anyway. And then of course you hurt yourself. And God picks you up, wraps your ankle, and says, “What did I tell you? This time you just sprained your ankle, but next time, it could be worse. Don’t do that again.” But of course you do it again, just to make sure gravity works. And God keeps saving you over and over and over again. He doesn’t have to, but He does.

Sometimes recovery means remembering how great God’s love, grace, and mercy are. It means being grateful because you are so unworthy of any of it.

Sometimes recovery is trying so hard not to revert to old habits. Repeat after me: “I will eat today. I will not pick up that razor. I am beautiful.”

Last night, I was angry—don’t ask me why because I have no idea—and I was being mean to myself. I knew that if I went to bed with those feelings, it would lead to a terrible today, and a possible relapse. So, I went to my happy corner: the corner of my room, under my bed, next to my desk, in front of my bookcase where I have blankets and stuffed animals. And I curled up there, and I wrote for a while, and then read Edgar Allan Poe for a while.

After about an hour of this, God and I had a conversation. The exact details don’t really matter. But it played out like a parent talking to a child:

“Do you know why I put you in time-out?”

“Yes. I was angry and being mean.”

“Correct. And you’re not angry anymore?”

“No, I’m not.”

“And you promise not to be mean?”

“I’ll try my best.”

“That’s all I ask. You can get up now.”

Sometimes recovery is about learning how to keep bad feelings in yesterday to make for a better today and tomorrow.

Yesterday, I was angry.

Today, I am content. Today, I am “Carpe Diem”ing. Today, I will do my best to prepare for a better tomorrow.