eating disorders: take 2

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(This is part 2 of some ongoing reflections on my ED. In part 1 I described my ED and some of the things that didn’t help.)

While my ED was certainly partly about food, it was about other things too. I was trying to stuff the pain of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and spiritual abuse. Not eating is addicting because you start to feel less. Your brain doesn’t have enough energy to function, so everything becomes muted. I couldn’t stand to feel everything, so muting was preferable. We went through a major church change, the stillbirth of my brother, and my mom finding out about my dad’s pornography–plus me telling them about the sexual abuse, which happened when I was 5–in a period of two years. I had a lot I didn’t want to feel.

Eating disorders are also often about control, and mine certainly was. I couldn’t control many things, but I could control what I ate. By exercising amazing self-control over every bite that went into my mouth, I felt like there was one thing in my life that I had charge of. In reality, I was out of control with my ED as well, but I didn’t see it that way. Any spare bite that I had not planned into my day threw me into a tailspin. I couldn’t handle changes well, and our daily schedule at the time never looked the same one day to the next. I desperately needed structure, but had none of it.

I started cutting when I was about 15, and that helped me numb more. I cut in places that no one would see, and with my obsession for covering up and dressing “modestly,” no one ever did see them. An enduring testament to the chaos and craziness in my head, two large scars on my upper arms will always remind me of a time when the pain got so bad I couldn’t drown it out, despite my desperate tries.

When I was 18 I spent a week and a half in the psych ward after attempting suicide. I couldn’t effectively numb anymore, and I was terrified of feeling. Given my temporary (though I didn’t know it) feelings, I tried to make a permanent decision, and I failed. I don’t know if I have felt many things as discouraging as waking up the morning after a suicide attempt. I mean, you have basically failed at everything at that point.

At this point, it was clear I needed help. My parents eventually made the decision to send me to rehab. I was 18, so technically I had a choice, but since the choice went something like “If you don’t go to rehab, you have t move out,” it didn’t feel that way.

I refused to talk about my ED in rehab. It was too much of giving up control, too much of letting people into my life. Besides, I reasoned, this was not a Christian treatment center, so they would not understand what I was going through. Not that I did either, but I was sure non-Christians couldn’t help me. And so, stuck at this impasse, I stayed: frightened, scared, dying inside, and unable to get or simply receive help.

eating disorders: take 1

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A friend recently asked me if I had written anything about my eating disorder. I am sure I have, because at that time in my life writing was my main form of escape, but I can’t find it. I probably didn’t blog about it and instead wrote it in one of the many half-finished journals I have lying around.

This will, I am sure, be something I will add to in the coming days, because…well, I just have so many thoughts about eating disorders (ED, for short). I am lucky/blessed/grateful/a combination of the three to be in recovery from it, and mostly just to still be alive.

Eating disorders…hmmm. Anorexia ruled my life from about 12-19, so for seven years. It only got really bad from 15-19, though. I lost a lot of weight, and I exercised obsessively. All the freaking time. I ran every day in the below freezing winter wearing just my short shorts and a light t-shirt and windbreaker. I would work out for hours every day. I counted every calorie against what I burned, only counting it a successful day if I managed to be “in the negative,” i.e. eat less calories than I burned off. I got very pick with what I would eat, and when. I refused to eat certain categories of foods, having good and bad foods. I would “binge” on maybe 600 calories–in other words, what a normal meal for me should have been. I had no context of what was healthy or not. I started to lose my hair and I was constantly tired, cold, and miserable. My parents told me about talking to a nutritionist who told them about a client who had to have a feeding tube because they would not eat, and even though they meant it to implore me to change, all I could think was, “Then I would not have to be responsible for eating anything.” And with where my head was, that sounded preferable.

My parents tried to help, putting me in counseling at 17 and taking me to a nutritionist. Unfortunately, my counselor…well, there’s a whole story right there. She was a biblical counselor, without credentials, who should not have been practicing. She had an ED that she overshared about and also claimed she was in recovery from. Actually, she was still in the middle of it–hyper-controlling of her food and obsessive about working out. I started to pick up some of those habits from her. Her methods of trying to help were at once overstepping boundaries and also not doing enough. All in all, that experience only complicated my ED.

My mom worried that I’d lose my ability to have kids. At my lowest point, both my parents worried that I would not make it. They threatened to take away my workout privileges and tried to force me to eat. They took me to counseling and to nutritionists, and threatened me with hospitalization. They were scared, and so was I They tried really hard to love me back to health, but in the end there was just too much pain for what they said or did to fill up the hole in my heart.

labels and boxes

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Last night, at my school’s LGBT support group meeting, someone asked me if I was lesbian. It’s a question I should have expected, in a conversation about having a discussion about my not-straight-ness with my parents, but it’s also a question I avoid. Mostly, because I really don’t know.

Among all the categories of gender and sexuality and attraction, I find that I sometimes fluctuate, or at least have wishful thinking that causes me to think I’m fluctuating. When I first left fundamentalism some of my friends had strong suspicions that I was gay because I never found male actors hot or sexy or whatever like they did. I knew I had never been attracted to guys, and still never have been. I think kissing is gross–who would want to stick their tongues in someone else’s mouth?–and honestly don’t feel a great desire to have THE SEX either. Honestly, while I love cuddling with people–mostly girls, though a few guys, as well–I don’t look at someone and think, “They’re so sexy! I wish I could have the sex with them!” Perhaps no one does this, and I’m making this up in my head, but even people that I have “crushes” on are just people I’d like to have a cup of tea with, laugh and share and debate interesting topics with, and snuggle up next to at the end of the day. Sex is honestly not that big of a deal in my life. Most of the time, I pretty much hate the physically female parts of my body, while other times I am just “meh” about them. All in all, I’d probably fall closer to asexual but bi-romantic than most anything else.

I answered the question from the person in the group with my standard answer: “I’m not straight, but I’m not particularly sure what I am. And I’m ok with that.” (Which is the truth, despite two years of reparative therapy and countless efforts to get me to “come back to Jesus” by family and friends.)

When I first started learning about sexual and gender minorities, I realized I had an intense need to label people. I needed to find what box they fit in and put them there. I needed to know if they were genetically male, genetically female, whom they were attracted to, what that meant…I wanted all the information. As I listened to other queer folks, I realized that sexuality was a spectrum. I first was introduced to this concept over at Sam Killerman’s It’s Pronounced Metrosexual.

The whole idea is that attraction, identity, biology, and expression are on a continuum with infinite possibilities. (Less so with biology, but it still can be.) This was frightening for me. If everything was a continuum, and a certain orientation didn’t mean a certain attraction or expression, I couldn’t fit people into stereotypes. It wasn’t that I realized I was doing this consciously, I just was so used to having categories that I had naturally been able to do it. It felt like an odd sense of control when I was able to categorize my world.

Gradually, I had to start letting go of that. Reading memoirs, anthologies, blogs, and other literature opened my eyes to the amazing intricacy of gender and expression, and while it was at first scary, it was ultimately freeing. Not needing to fit other people in boxes meant I didn’t need to fit myself in a box. I know what I’m not (straight), but knowing what I am is harder. I don’t have to figure it out today, though. There isn’t a rush, or a reason for me to have everything sorted out. I am unique, changing, questioning, growing, learning–and my own thoughts and expressions and feelings and uncertainty don’t make me less of a person than my straight and queer friends who know where they fit. It simply means that I am experiencing the reality of an incredibly complex system affected by hundreds of internal and external factors.

Ultimately, I realized that I didn’t need labels and boxes because I know myself pretty well. When I wasn’t internalizing other people’s messages about purity, or self-worth, or who they thought I was or wasn’t, I knew that I was ok with being rather fluid. I no longer had to identify other people, and I didn’t have to identify myself–and I definitely didn’t have to identify myself for other people. I will know if something feels right in my gut if I am ever in a relationship, and I can go with that. I don’t have to worry about whether or not it fits in my box.

And that is amazingly freeing.

A Sister, Not a Parent

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Here’s my re:siblings story that went up on Homeschoolers Anonymous today. I am honored that they published it. 

I absolutely love being a big sister. In the darkest times of my life, thinking of my siblings kept me going. I would do anything in the world for them, and they know it. However, my relationship with my siblings is also complicated.

When, as a kid, I expressed concern that I didn’t get to hang out with kids my own age and wouldn’t know how to do that when I went to college, my mom quickly told me that “if you can get along with your siblings, you can get along with anyone.” Naively believing this, I struggled with the guilt of wishing I had perfect, loving relationships with my siblings (“Making Brothers and Sisters Best Friends,” anyone?) and the reality that we just didn’t get along all the time, even though we loved each other fiercely.

As the oldest of eight siblings—a small family by the standards of the church I grew up in—I grew up with mega responsibility. Early on, I learned that my role was to take care of younger siblings. I babysat, cooked, sewed, cleaned, taught, and filled dozens of other parental roles. My younger siblings would accidentally call me mom, something that landed me in the middle of a fury storm as my mom raged at me for usurping her place before retreating back to her room to try to deal with the depression she refused to seek help for.  I was proud that I could run the household. Luckily, schoolwork was incredibly easy for me (even though the material was comparable to a standard traditional school education), so I managed to get a great education even though my time was full with chores and housework. I would often get installed in the kitchen, doing schoolwork at the table while I watched several of the youngest children so my mom could teach the middle ones. From the age of seven, I took on making breakfast and lunch every day—by the time I was nine, I was making dinner as well. I have a knack for involving kids in whatever activity I happened to be doing, something that was honed in my years at home. Some of my happiest sibling memories involve making meals in the kitchen. My mom never had much patience with them, but I loved nothing better than to find something for them to do and have some company while I worked.

Our bond was not always nurtured under such happy circumstances, though. My mom had anger issues and could flare up at short notice. My dad’s way of dealing with it was to ignore it, leaving for work early and coming home late. We had an unspoken rule of covering for each other as much as we could. Any animosity we felt was laid aside in the event of an anger outburst. Walking on eggshells is the best way to describe what our life felt like. When my mom was fine, our normal sibling arguments and jealousies sprang up. We loved each other, and we also fought; this was when life felt the most normal. When my mom was angry, though, we worked like a well-oiled machine. Each older child took a younger one under their wing, and even the babies seemed to realize they needed to be quiet and keep sweet. We came to look forward to when my mom would leave the house for hours or days on end—although we never knew if she was ok or not, we were able to have fun. We didn’t have to worry that any laughter would be shushed and any argument would incur violent punishment. We’d clean the house, make meals, and care for our younger siblings under and unspoken agreement that delegated certain jobs to each of us. It worked, and it provided the most security and schedule we ever had. Sure, we were acting more like adults than kids, but we also got to tease each other and come up with goofy rituals that made the chores seem easier. For example, my next older siblings and I often cleaned up dinner together. We split the jobs into three main parts and each took one. While we cleaned, we’d tell jokes, sing songs, have arm wrestling matches, and talk about our days. When my mom was home, however, we were expected to do our work in silence.

It was easier with my younger siblings. I left home for college out of state when they were still fairly young. While it tore my heart apart to leave them, since I was their surrogate mom, it was the best thing for me and them. I still have good relationships with them—I feel more like I’m their aunt than their big sister. When I’m at home, we will do activities, go out to eat, and have fun. My parents have loosened up some with them, and I am no longer afraid of my parents, so things go much better. Even though I still have a lot of anxiety about leaving them and feel more responsibility than most older siblings probably do, I know that I am no longer responsible for them.

I also know that I don’t have to get along with any of my siblings perfectly. In fact, socialization is an entirely different thing altogether. My older siblings still believe a great deal of the fundamentalist teachings we grew up with, but they are also all still living at home. When I’m at home, I walk the fine line of not disagreeing with my parents’ worldview, principles, and positions in front of my siblings while simultaneously believing that their attitudes are often dangerous and harmful. If I want to continue to interact with my siblings, I have to keep up this balancing act. At the same time, as my siblings get older, I hope that they see me as a safe person who will accept them for whoever they are and whatever they believe. Gradually, perhaps, they will see that the girls have other options than being wives and mothers, although that is perfectly fine if that is what they truly want. They may see that women and men are inherently equal, and that neither needs to conform to traditional expectations of gender from any source.

I will always love being a big sister. For most of my life, though, I did not know what being a sister meant. Today, I am truly a sister, not a parent. And I love it.

confusion

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I haven’t blogged lately. It’s not been a super conscious decision, it’s just happened. Life got crazy (and still is) as I’ve been trying to handle full time school and full time work and self-care. But to be honest, it’s been more than being busy. Both in public and private forums, I have watched from the sidelines as scenes of betrayal and backlash have played out on different fronts. Personally, someone I thought I could trust turned out to be a predator. Publicly, two people in the “progressive Christianity” movement whom I thought were trustworthy, different, safe, advocates for victims have engaged in behaviors that are disturbing, even if they fall short of outright harboring abuse.

I’m confused and hurt. I feel like every time I try to trust, try to give Christianity a chance, try to give people a chance, let go of my cynicism and anger and hurt–I get bashed again. I can’t escape. So what is the answer?

People say that I can’t give up on God just because of people. That’s not technically true; I can do whatever I want. And giving up on God…I don’t know. I know that the language of God is triggering and difficult for me. I have tried, again and again, to believe, to go back, to trust again. And it’s been shattered. Do I believe in God? Well, definitely not the evangelical concept of God that I see in their sermons and writing. Perhaps I believe in something supernatural. I’m not sure. It’s not cut and dried. I’m not a label. I will never fit neatly in someone else’s box.

I have trouble writing when I can’t come to a conclusion. I write to work things out, because my head gets really messy sometimes. When I can’t understand something, I write about it, and usually I can sort it out. I can’t with this. I can’t fit all the words and thoughts and ideas and feelings onto a page, or into a post. It’s too…nebulous, and feeling, and scary, and conflicting.

Part of my process is accepting the not knowing. I don’t have to have an answer for every part of my worldview. Some of my beliefs are help simply because I feel like it is the right thing, not because I actually have a reason. And that’s ok. I can express what I think and then change it, change my mind, decide if I’m going to believe that today, or next week, or next year. I can live with the contradictions. I can defend the contradictions by saying that I don’t have to defend them–I owe no one an answer to what I believe or what I don’t.

So I’ll try to keep writing.

torn

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Nothing’s fine, I’m torn

I’m all out of faith
This is how I feel
I’m cold and I am shamed
Lying naked on the floor

Illusion never changed
Into something real
I’m wide awake and I can see
The perfect sky is torn
You’re a little late, I’m already torn

My grandparents are still in my old church; they, however, are in slightly more liberal branches of the denomination. A few days ago, my grandfather passed away and I went out to my old church for his funeral. Funerals in my old church are huge affairs–my grandpa was not a super wealthy man, and he was extremely soft-spoken, but somehow everyone in the community seemed to know him, and over 300 people came to the funeral. The funeral was at the church, so I had to sit through a sermon and talk to hundreds of people that I don’t really know but who know me as one of my dad’s kids who left the church. They’re really sweet people, but it’s an awkward situation all the same.

My old church is almost Amish or Mennonite in many ways. They wear head coverings, never let women speak in church, have strong family and church ties, often farm (it’s considered the most holy occupation…although not said in so many words), adhere to strict gender roles, eschew LGBT* folks and secular therapy. Baseball games and movies are forbidden, along with, in many cases, Facebook and internet. There is no music except ancient hymns, and any kind of musical instruments are forbidden in church. Marriages are arranged and things like a “holy kiss of greeting” are pulled from passages in the Bible with no regard to context or anything.

And yet, they’re really good at some things. They came together and brought food for my grandma and my family all week. They left work and school on a Thursday morning to attend a funeral and make a huge meal at the church to feed everyone who came. People in the church can travel across the US and find others in the church who will welcome them into their homes for the night without a second thought, even though they may have never met them. There’s a sense of community unmatched in what I’ve found outside of the church. Everyone knows what they are supposed to do, and you know your salvation is safe if you follow the rules (and repent after every sin). You don’t have to make many guesses because you just follow what you’re supposed to do. And they care for the elderly really well. I work as a nurse tech in a nursing home and I know how rare this is.

It’s not been easy leaving. There’s really great days, yes. Days I love. I am making plans and dreaming of a life I’d never have gotten to have in the church. But sometimes it’s overwhelming. After being back in my old church this weekend for just a few hours, all my insecurities and questions and that feeling of being utterly, completely, totally lost in a foreign country I don’t understand came rushing back. I almost couldn’t breathe. It was so strong. Part of me wants to go back. I know there’s problems, and I know I could never fully agree with them on many things, but I could fake it through the entrance process and then I’d have that security and unambiguity that I long for. Change has never been easy for me, even if the status quo was miserable. And the thing is, I keep telling myself that maybe the misery would be worth the benefits. I could probably settle down into being a wife and mom. I practically raised my seven siblings, and I can keep a house with the best of them. I could pretend to be ok with that, and get by. I could settle down and quiet my fears and anxieties and be reasonably happy.

But deep down, I don’t know if this would ever work. And I know I would probably regret some of it for the rest of my life. Being that fake to myself would be hard. It would get easier, but it would kill a tiny part of me too. I know I’m probably romanticizing it a lot, because…I know there’s issues there too. It’s so hard, so lonely, sometimes. I want to curl up in a ball and cry. Can I really make it? Am I strong enough to walk away from the cult and build a new life outside of it? I don’t know. Some days, I just don’t know.

people

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i see now

there was so much that i wanted

that i reached for it all and my heart broke

in the reaching, as my arms extended,

i found myself unable to defend myself.

they touched parts i

could not protect.

oh god

why did you choose to use

people

why did you make us so

vulnerable

why do you let others

stand in your shapes

speak as your voice

why do they have that power?

from Stumbling Toward Faith, Renee Altson