I have always been a very curious person.Read More
My hands are blue. So is my hair. My parents are going to be thrilled. Luckily for them, the dye will come out in one wash.Read More
Things rarely go as planned for me. I’m in my third year of a two-year program at my college. I’m not even at the college I intended to go to. I’ve lost an astounding amount of friends in the past year, and Jon, my best friend from summer camp, lives an ocean away, and I haven’t seen him since high school, despite our haphazard efforts at arranging a reunion. Meanwhile, my body has ballooned instead of shrinking like I always wanted. I don’t grab a couple of drinks at Hamburger Mary’s with a couple of gal-pals like I always thought I would before I turned twenty-one.
These could all be construed as negatives, but it’s really just a matter of perception. Spending more time at Daytona State instead of a traditional college has given me more time to make sure my major is right for me. The main reason I am so far behind my peers in my education is because I was hospitalized almost every semester for mental health reasons. A community college like DSC gives me the flexibility to retake classes, withdraw late from courses I won’t be able to finish, and establish a rapport with my instructors so I can let them know what’s going on with me.
As for losing friends, well, I’ve drifted apart from the clubs I was once involved with at school, partly because of other commitments like work and synagogue (It seems like EVERY event is on a Friday night!), and partly because I’ve grown and changed a lot, and I just don’t vibe with some of the people who used to be my friends. It’s important for me to explore various types of friendships with a multitude of people so that I can determine what does and doesn’t work. Am I a little lonely at school? Yeah, sure. But this pushes me to get outside of my comfort zone, talk to the people in my classes, and it challenges me to be my authentic self, regardless of whether or not people like that.
Jon and I will always be best friends. He stood by me through anorexia hell, multiple rounds of treatment, and even the time I got unhealthily obsessed with a crush for a solid six months and drove him nuts asking questions about the mystery of the male mind. We email each other all the time, just to share anecdotes about our lives and our plans for the future. Jon is one of those special friends who will always be in my life. He’ll be in my wedding, either as the groom or as my maid of honor. He’ll look so pretty in a dress!
My body? Forget weighing 98 pounds. I’d rather be able to keep up with my kindergarteners, walk across campus, and eat some freaking fries when I want to!
And as far as not going out for drinks with friends on the weekends? That’s my choice. I can decide to start drinking whenever I want to. I don’t know what would happen if I did, and that’s why I choose not to drink.
I went back to school towards the end of March, and I’m taking a very easy class called Managing Your Success. The intention of the class is to teach students how to thrive in college, how to manage time and money, etc. It’s really basic stuff, but sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. My professor recently included the quote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” in one of his slides. Curious, I Googled the quote, and found the poem “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley.
I realized I’d heard the poem before and scoffed at it, but my take on it was different this time. One of the key lessons I learned when I was in treatment at Magnolia Creek was that no one can “make” you feel anything; rather, your reactions are a choice.
I had trouble with this concept at first. I thought it was normal and natural to feel bad about being abused, for example. I thought that “bad” things happened to me, and I had a right to feel ashamed, dirty, depressed, and helpless. In short, I was being a victim. I wanted to feel that way. I thought my abuse “didn’t count” unless I tortured myself emotionally over it.
It’s not my job to decide if the things that happen to me are “good” or “bad.” I can perceive them however I want, but I am only human, thus I have a finite perception of the events and course of my life. Labeling things that happen to me is another example of the myriad ways I try to play God in my life. I’m pretty sure God has this whole “running the universe” thing covered. I don’t think He needs my help with that. I am probably not the literal “master of my fate.” I think that probably falls under God’s jurisdiction. However, I do believe that I have a choice when it comes to how I feel and what I do. No, it’s not my fault that I have anorexia. However, every time I engage in an eating disordered behavior, I’m making a conscious choice to act on that impulse, just as when I overcome a relapse or an ED thought, I’m taking charge of my own mind. If we are responsible for our successes in recovery, we are also responsible for our failures. I certainly don’t want to admit that it’s my fault when I weave an elaborate web of lies about why there are bloodstains on my sleeves and razors hidden in the bathroom. I don’t want to take responsibility when my breath smells like vomit after meals and I’m losing weight. However, I want all the credit when I pick up another milestone chip at AA, when I listen to my hunger cues and eat a snack even though it’s against anorexia’s rules, or when I end an unhealthy relationship.
After a traumatic event as recent as December, I resorted to purging to deal with my feelings of shame and depression. It was symbolic for me; kneeling in front of the toilet represented apologizing to God, the universe, or the person who hurt me for whatever I’d done to “deserve” what happened, while the act of vomiting represented “purging” the painful memories out of my mind. At first, I told myself I’d “just purge once.” Then it became purging once a day. Pretty soon, I was purging as often as I could and eating as little as possible in the meantime. I knew something was wrong when I found myself in the employee bathroom at work while I was supposed to be taking out the trash, heaving up whatever low-calorie morsels I’d had for dinner on my break. Mid-barf, I was being paged over the intercom because the front had gotten busy and my supervisor needed an extra cashier. I had no choice but to finish vomiting, clean myself up as quickly as I could, and drag my shaky, pale, embarrassed self to a register.
It’s not my fault that this is how my brain taught itself to deal with stress. It’s not my fault that I was the victim of a crime prior to this and it caused a great deal of stress in my life. However, it was my responsibility to be good to myself (and to fulfill a duty to my employer), to make healthy choices, and to my best to resist these self-destructive impulses. The ex-boyfriend who violated me was neither directly nor indirectly responsible for what I did that night. Yes, his actions were inappropriate and wrong, but so were the ways I chose to react to them. He wasn’t “making” me purge. I was doing it to myself.
These days, I have faith in a God that has granted me an “unconquerable soul.” I will never say I am grateful for the abuse I went through. Many people, even a few therapists have told me that I should be grateful to be a victim of childhood sexual abuse, dating violence, and rape because it’s made me so much stronger, and I will be able to use these experiences to help other people going through the same thing. While I am grateful for the outcomes of the traumatic events I’ve experienced, I am not grateful for the road I had to take to get here. However, I am the captain of my soul, and I choose not to dwell on what brought me to this place. Rather, I will look forward and see what the future holds.
I’ve been self-harming a lot lately. It’s not something I talk about much because it tends to get me in trouble, but more than that, I’m ashamed of the adolescent habit that’s followed me into adulthood and turned my life upside down. My bed sheets are covered with blood; I’ve gone through three packs of razors in the past two weeks, as they keep getting taken away by the people who love me. How do I return that love? I go and get more razors, angry at those people for having the nerve to care about me when I don’t even care about myself.
I don’t have a good reason for continuing to cut myself. I don’t think there is a “good reason” that would justify the countless nights spent in the bathroom waiting for the bleeding to let up enough to put on a pair of dark sweatpants that won’t show bloodstains.
Having my body covered in scars, bandages, and cuts is just a way to reflect how I feel on the inside, cliche as that may sound. I feel unworthy of basic care and affection, even when it pours out of those around me. I simply don’t understand why people treat me with the love that I receive, and I don’t know why I can’t wrap my head around their kindness and love. Cutting myself is a physical manifestation of the negative self-talk that constantly beats me down.
I take most of my bad feelings out on my thighs, which are now covered in scars and fresh cuts from years and years of abuse. So today, I decided to do something different with that part of my body. Today, I got my first tattoo.
The tattoo is partly a tribute to the Orlando shooting victims because my friends and I easily could have been among them. The aftermath of the shooting was an incredibly spiritual experience for me, strange though that may be. Not long after, I started working the Twelve Steps and solidified my connection with God. I believe I was made in God’s divine image, made with care, divine love, and cosmic magic. Who am I to hate something that was made by a perfect Creator? Talk about playing God. Today, I will practice humility and not suppose that I am so great that I can see God’s mistakes. Today, I will practice self-love and take care of my body. Today, I will honor my story of survival and strength by being proud of who I am and loving myself. It’s about damn time.
I am fifteen, and the tech rudely asks me “How did you start self-harming?” as I sit huddled in a chair in the adolescent psychiatric hospital. She is looking at the healed scratches on my legs and arms that I made with a thumbtack weeks before. I don’t answer her, and she cranes her neck trying to make eye contact with me as I stare at the floor. “I have a daughter about your age. I don’t want her to start. Did you read about it? See it on TV?”
“No. I just did it,” I mumble.
“But what made you? Were your friends doing it?”
She gives up and walks over to another patient, leaving me to trace the pink and white lines on my skin with my bitten-down fingernails. I know I will do it again.
I started self-harming just before I turned fourteen. I was being bullied in school, and not being treated for depression, which I didn’t know I had. I remember the night clearly: I was in the shower, and I scratched my chest and wrists until they bled. It was the beginning of an addiction that would follow me for the next five years. I graduated to needles, thumbtacks, nails, knives, and finally, razors. I hoarded band-aids, gauze pads, medical tape. My rituals were obsessive and painstaking. My bathroom became a sanctuary. It was easy to clean up the copious amounts of blood if I cut in the shower; I was already naked, so I didn’t have to worry about getting blood on my clothes, and I could flush the band-aid wrappers down the toilet so as not to leave evidence in the wastebasket. I started cutting on a daily basis, and soon, my life revolved around self-injury.
I defended my habit profusely, ignoring the fact that it was detracting from my life. I missed out on pool parties, beach dates, being outside in the summer, tank tops, shorts, sex… It wasn’t that bad, right? I’d just wear a cardigan in the ninety degree weather. I’d replace my bloodstained clothes. I’d skip that date, just in case there was intimacy. I was fine.
“I’ve been bleeding for three days,” I tell the therapist running the women’s eating disorder support group. “Do you think I need stitches?”
“Yes,” she says. “You need to go to an emergency clinic as soon as you can.”
The bleeding stops, and I don’t go. I slice up the opposite leg the next weekend. I’m fine.
“I’m six months self-harm free!” I announce, and the small room bursts into applause. My IOP is proud of me, but I’m not proud of myself. It’s just a matter of time until I cut again. I still have razors stashed in my dresser, a few gauze pads in the bathroom, and half a roll of medical tape. They ask me how I did it, and one girl rolls her eyes when I tell her my secret is chain-smoking.
A boy hits me.
I quit smoking.
I cut again.
It hasn’t been six months, but two weeks is still something to celebrate. Today, I threw out the bloody razors in my bathroom cabinet. I dumped the gauze pads, the tape, the band-aids, everything into a trash bag and took it out to the garage. I want to eradicate self-harm from my life. Cutting has brought me nothing but pain, literally and figuratively, and it’s time to give it up. My body is not a war zone–it is a vehicle for life. My scars are a road map that show me where I’ve been, and yes, they show me where I could go. Every day, I make the choice not to return to self-harm. Today, I am balanced, healthy, and safe. These are my scars. Although my body tells a story of pain, I am love, I am life, I am joy.
This is the story of how Jake pulled me out of the water in the middle of the night, as though I was baby Moses floating helplessly down the River Nile and he was Pharaoh’s daughter, young, beautiful, and seemingly willing to take care of me. But my dreamy, midnight perceptions are never accurate. If it wasn’t for Jake, I might have drowned, or I might have been forced to find my own way out of the water.
I met Jake on move-in day at Eckerd College, and we became friends almost out of necessity. We sat next to each other at Eckerd’s Ceremony of Lights, during which the figurative “lamp of learning” was lit, and everyone wondered who smelled like pot in the back of the auditorium. Jake told me I had a pretty singing voice, and I asked him if he was high. He said no, but I had my doubts. We parted ways after the ceremony, but kept bumping into each other around campus. Eventually, we exchanged phone numbers, and that was that– we were friends. We started spending more time together, and eventually we started to talk less, kiss more, and smoke as much pot and as many cigarettes as our bodies could handle.
I came to like Jake with the same sort of terrified compulsion I had felt for Zach the previous year. But Jake wasn’t at all like Zach. He was funny (in a perma-stoned sort of way), he was nice (whatever that meant), and he had great music taste. Jake played the guitar. He chain-smoked Camels while I burned my way through pack after pack of Marlboros. He always had pot. Logically, it made sense for me to like him, but I found myself wishing he were a Jane, not a Jake, and willing myself to be “normal.” I’m still learning that love and logic do not exactly go hand-in-hand (although I do not claim to love Jake). I have a habit of convincing myself I like someone. A second date wouldn’t be so bad, right? I guess he’s kind of cute, in a way. Sure, all his jokes were totally sexist, but they would have been funny if I weren’t so uptight. No, it’s not weird that he brought a knife on a date. And the most prevalent of all: He’s probably as good as it gets for someone as fucked up as I am. I should consider myself lucky.
I was lucky to have Jake. He introduced me to his friends, and we became a homogeneous group. We were on the campus radio station together. We traversed campus, our pockets stuffed with cigarettes and the white Bic mini lighter we shared, and together we found the only two ashtrays on campus. When he kissed me, I pretended I was somewhere else. He said I tasted like cigarettes. I was lucky to have Jake.
The white lighter became a point of contention between the two of us. I was always in the cycle of quitting smoking, then starting again, then quitting, only to find myself at the drugstore at 2:00 AM in my pajamas buying three packs of cigarettes. It seemed perverse to throw cigarettes or lighters away, but I knew if I hung onto them, I would start smoking once more. So, I gave them to Jake, who was happy to take them.
Smoking was not as simple as a bad habit for me. I felt a deep sense of shame with every drag, every pack, every butt I kicked under some dirt. I am self-destructive by nature, though I am also cautious. I like to toy with mild addictions. At least I’m not a crackhead, I thought as I puffed away. At least this is helping me lessen self-harm. At least I’m not an alcoholic. At least I’m not a sex addict. I took another drag. At least I have most of my life under control, even if I can’t control this.
My parents, who I look to as examples of how to lead a healthy, successful life, were never smokers, as far as I know. As my dad put it in a stern lecture I received upon my unplanned arrival back home, “There are no positive benefits to cigarettes.” My brother helped me do that math: I was spending 15% of my meager weekly paycheck on cigarettes. Every time I flicked the lighter, the sense that I was nothing but a disappointment flickered in me.
So, as I was boxing up all my clothes, pictures, and books to take back home with me, I gave Jake my white lighter. “Throw it away,” I said. “Use it to light your bowl; I don’t care. I just can’t take it home with me.” I chomped on a piece of Nicorette, spit flying everywhere.
“I’m going to hang onto it. I’ll give it back to you,” he said from his place on my bed where he was staring at his phone.
“I don’t want it.”
“Yeah you do.”
He was probably right.
Eckerd College is on the Tampa Bay and has its own beach and waterfront, complete with paddle boards, kayaks, and sailboats available at no charge to students. Jake and I spent a lot of our time there, soaking in the beauty that is the Sunshine State. “Does the waterfront ever close?” I asked the sophomore working behind the boat-checkout counter.
“No, not really,” he said. “I mean, all the boats have to be back at 8:00, but you can swim whenever.”
“Literally whenever?” Jake asked. “Like anytime? Like, even at night?”
“Yeah, anytime,” the sophomore said, bending down to tie his shoe.
Jake and I walked out of the enclosure, to the picnic tables where we both lit up. “Dude, we should go night swimming,” he said.
I agreed enthusiastically, thinking this was just one of the many advantages of the lack of parental supervision for which college campuses are notorious. It was settled, we would part ways to finish our homework and eat dinner, and we would rendezvous at 11:00 PM by the waterfront. I had passed the swim test. I thought I was prepared.
In the water, fish brushed against our legs, and our feet were entwined. “Was that your foot?” We asked each other over and over. Sometimes the answer was yes, but often, it was no. The water was tepid, and the night air was thick.
I swam away from Jake and contemplated my own private oceans. The water is full of boys who cannot swim, boys who claim to be too broken to do anything other than cling to me for support. They often push my head under the water in an effort to breathe for themselves. I let them. I pretend I can absorb oxygen through osmosis, by clinging to their feet, their hair, their swim trunks. I am wearing swim trunks myself, partly as a nod to my aspirations of androgyny, but mostly to cover up the days-old razor slashes that sting faintly in the salt. In the dark, none of them can see the damage I’ve inflicted on myself. I am the perfect girl: sweet, quiet, sexy, obedient. I’m drowning.
The time comes for Jake and me to leave the water. Because we jumped in, we didn’t realize that there is no ladder in sight. We tried to walk up the algae-covered, rocky slope where the kayaks are tethered, but our feet couldn’t tolerate the sharp pains. We swam back to the ladderless dock and tried to pull ourselves up. Jake was successful, but I was still treading water, imprisoned by my lack of upper-body strength. Laughing, Jake pulled me out of the water, and we laid on our backs trying to catch our breath and looking up at the stars. Dazzled by the myriad constellations, I imagined myself somewhere else, lying next to my perfect Jane, content with her and with myself. Jake stood up and walked to the picnic table where we had left our keys, phones, lighter and cigarettes. Within moments, we were looking at each other through smoke, and it was like I’d never left the water at all.
My experiences at college are comparable to day and night. In the daylight, I was studious, intelligent, reserved, and sensible. I never skipped class; I always budgeted time to do my homework; I kept my dorm clean; I was on good terms with my roommate. I might have had a cigarette (or ten–let’s be real, I chain-smoked.) during the day. I probably consumed more caffeine than calories between breakfast time and dinnertime, but overall, I was on my best behavior.
Nights were a different story. After dark, I had a tendency to wander campus alone and barefoot, a cigarette between my lips and plenty more in my pocket, dizzy with hunger and dehydration. I had a favorite swing where I would sit and listen to music, letting my depression overtake me. Under cover of darkness, no one could see how red my eyes were after my friends and I got high. We would smoke outside and then amble through campus, jumping and skipping like children. It was nighttime when Jake and I laid in a hammock, arms around each other, inhaling each other’s pot breath as we exchanged kisses. We saw a shooting star. It was a good night. The next time we got high we smoked with a stranger, and it was not so good.
Sexual assault is not easy to talk about. It was not easy to experience. It has not been easy to work through in treatment. Instead of blaming my assailant, I blamed myself. I shouldn’t have been on drugs. I should have known better than to get high with a virtual stranger. I should have listened to Jake and my other friends who were telling me I’d had enough. I should have picked up on how he was touching me before we were alone. In the days after the assault, a constant chorus of, “My fault… my fault… my fault… my…” played in my head. It made sense: I had been irresponsible and careless by taking drugs, therefore the assault was punishment for my behavior. Just as God warned Lot and his family not to look back, my parents, teachers, and society had warned me not to take drugs; and just as Lot’s wife disobeyed God’s instructions and was turned into a pillar of salt, I disobeyed what I had been taught and was punished. So I thought.
It was this kind of black-and-white thinking that led me to bang my head into a tree out of frustration just a few days ago. I felt like my world was crumbling and falling apart because I had realized that I can’t keep blaming myself for other people’s actions forever. I had been crying on and off all day, wrestling with my ideas of God and what it means to be Jewish. By blaming myself for the assault, I had the world neatly explained and organized. I believed that a sort of karmic justice permeated the universe, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. As I beat my forehead against the tree, I did not experience clarity. Sobbing, I sank to the ground and wiped a trickle of blood away from my eyes. Nothing made sense. If the assault wasn’t my fault, then I wasn’t being punished. If it wasn’t a punishment, then how could I explain it?
As one of my friends from treatment reminded me, God gave us all free will. I had a choice about how to handle my emotions as I walked through the woods crying. God didn’t make me bang my head into that tree, and God didn’t make that boy assault me. We chose to do what we did. I believe that God feels my pain and wants me to turn to Him–not self-harm–for comfort.
It is hard for me to let go of my karmic fantasy. I wish the world were as simple as rewards and punishment, and when I think about the fact that the world is random, chaotic, and dangerous, I get scared. I thought I could beat the fear out of my psyche if I just hit my head hard enough. Today, I choose to appreciate the mysterious ways God works instead. It is hard for me to have faith. In my disorder, I turned away from God for a few years, labeling myself as an atheist, and ignoring any spiritual connection. As I made progress in my recovery, I returned to synagogue and felt close to God through music. Still, I am trying to trust. I am too small to see the awesome and wondrous pattern that runs through the universe. The world is intricate and in constant motion; each individual is like a single spot of paint in an impressionistic painting. When I look around, I see no pattern, only chaos. I simply have to trust that God is a master artist who can see the whole design.