I’ve been called vain for having an eating disorder. I’ve been called immoral for struggling with alcohol abuse. I’ve been called selfish for having depression. I’ve been called unfriendly during periods of anxiety so severe it was difficult to follow a conversation. I’ve been told it’s my fault that I was sexually abused and raped. I’ve been told I’m playing the victim and “telling a big story” for having PTSD.
And, by well-meaning people, I’ve been told that all of these experiences are sins.
I know what too many people think about people like me. And I struggle with believing these things too, about myself—things I would never say to another person who shares these struggles.
It’s hard to speak compassionately to myself, so much have I internalized these stigmatized attitudes. I call myself “batshit crazy” on the regular. And I really struggle with feelings that all of this is my own fault, and that I am deeply flawed and irreparably broken in some way. That I am unlike “the humans,” who I so want to be a part of.
My eating disorder as refusal to accept the atonement
I was nineteen and had had yet another sleepless night, bent over the toilet and searching for newly uncovered bones in front of the mirror instead of studying for midterms, when I called my mom at five a.m. from a pay phone outside near my dormitory, my phone broken, and sobbed to her that I thought I had an eating disorder.
“I thought you were getting too thin,” she said.
She listened. She told me she loved me. She said all the things a mom should. She told me that “that Mary Kate girl went to a place.” That same week, she found a place for me to go inpatient to receive the treatment I desperately needed to save me from myself. My vitals were unstable. I’d been passing out. Three years into my eating disorder, I’d lost thirty pounds and grown two inches. My skin was pale, and I was covered in blue bruises. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I couldn’t care for myself. I couldn’t function.
My father visited right away. He was furious. Tuition had been paid. “Dropping out of school is the easy thing to do,” he said sternly, “but years from now, you’ll regret taking the easy way out.”
I had thought that his anger came down to tuition. But really, it came down to sin.
He took me to the bishop’s office at our church where he explained, “It seems my daughter is having a crisis.” He choked up as he said these words. It hurt to see my father wrecked with emotion because of my poor choices.
He explained to the bishop that I was a perfectionist, that I had an eating disorder because I wanted to be perfect. That was his understanding. Not incorrect; but it was so much more complicated than that.
The bishop listened carefully before concluding, “Only Jesus is perfect. If you are trying to be better than Jesus, then you have not accepted the atonement. You need to accept the atonement in order to get well.”
That was not all he had to say. He explained to me that eating disorders were selfish. He explained to me that I was sinning by disobeying the Word of Wisdom. He suggested I volunteer more (more than the hundreds of hours I’d already put in at the bird rehab, was now putting in in the aquarium classroom?), that I should join a team sport (even though I was already torturing myself daily on the elliptical at my university’s brand-new, multistory gym).
My father and the bishop that day anointed my head with oil, lay their hands upon my head, and gave me a blessing. They prayed (demanded?) that I would accept the atonement and accept that I did not need to be perfect, because Jesus Christ had already done that for me.
I held back sobs through the blessing. I saved them for when I was at last back in my dormitory, alone.
Perhaps they assumed I was so moved by the Spirit that I was brought to tears.
But it was not the blessing I wanted. I did not receive my father’s blessing to go away to treatment.
With my mom’s help, right away I took a medical leave and went away to inpatient anyway, where I cried my way through meals for sixteen weeks as the weight came back on.
My mother and father took turns driving across the country to be with me during “family weeks.” When my father came, we did an exercise where we “traded” families, and we inpatients were each paired with someone else’s family. We were to tell each other what we really wished we could say to our own families, but had been holding back.
My dad and sister were paired with Callie. Callie was nineteen, like me, and we had the same unruly curly hair—hers blond, and mine brown. She had a big heart and a generous smile. My dad told her that if only she would stop behaving so selfishly, she would not have an eating disorder.
Seven years later, at the age of 26, Callie died of heart failure, leaving her husband and two beautiful blond sons behind.
It kills me that the words he’d really meant for me, he’d shared with her instead. I hope those words did not haunt her as they still do me.
I should add that the LDS church has since educated its leaders on mental health, and last year published a beautiful issue in The Ensign on body image and eating disorders to create more awareness.
My anxiety as lacking a sense of humor
After inpatient, it was time to find a job. I found one as a Pet Care Specialist at Petsmart.
During training, I was struggling with my concentration. I have always struggled with taking jokes literally (is it because autism also runs in my family?). I was new, and I was nervous. I remember we were in the dog food aisle. My manager made a joke that I did not understand. As I tried to turn the wheels in my head, he said, “You’re such a stick-in-the-mud.”
My alcoholism as moral failing
When I finally walked away from a seven-year abusive relationship in California, I traded my anorexia for alcohol overnight. I traded my “good girl” problem for a “bad” one.
Some years later in New York, I was looked over for a promotion in a man’s industry. I hated my new boss for about a week before we began to become close friends. He’d “stolen” my job, hadn’t he? As soon as he became my manager, I trained him up, gave away my most skilled duties, and, in my pride and disappointment, quit. Or rather, I applied for a better job in psychology textbooks and took a promotion as an Associate Editor outside my department.
But, it turned out, he wasn’t so bad. He even later agreed that that job should have been mine.
Actually, he was pretty cool. He was smart, insightful, and had a spirituality I admired. He was always there for me. We shared a lot together. We’d meet for dinner followed by fancy coffee and talk about our lives, our careers, shiba inus, and our latest nonfiction paperback reads. He even put up with my discussion of feminism. He started a Buddhist book club, and invited me. I learned a lot from him. He was there for every tearful call, and for many laughs, too. He was one of the few men I was able to trust.
There was a time, I like to think, that I was always there for him, too.
But as the years passed, my “always there” eventually became also always drunk. I carried a flask of vodka everywhere and took swigs in the bathroom, beginning in the morning, until I at last I could open a huge bottle in the privacy of my roach-infested studio apartment at night and drink straight from it. I hurt him badly, as he watched me lose weight and drink myself into destruction. He couldn’t handle my crises anymore. He was so often close to calling 9-1-1. I was leeching off him; I was draining. And as my addiction worsened, I became no longer a trusted friend, but a toxic one. For these harms I take full responsibility.
Fresh out of rehab and three months sober, he told me what perhaps he thought I’d been too fragile to hear earlier: what he really thought of people like me, alcoholics like me.
He told me that alcoholics were bad people. That they were selfish and destructive and didn’t care who they hurt. He said he had no sympathy for alcoholics—none, he emphasized. It was a choice, he said. He said that I didn’t deserve any compassion. But that he stuck around because he believed in me.
I let him down one too many times, when my second sponsor said I had to cancel our fancy dinner plans where we were to celebrate my 100th day sober. I was in a tight spot, as loyal to my sponsor as I was, and he couldn’t take it anymore. And I couldn’t blame him.
I still hope to make amends with him.
But I can’t help but wonder if he was right about me. Am I nothing but a bad, destructive, selfish addict undeserving of any compassion? Certainly I ache and feel deep remorse about the people I have hurt. And certainly I made poor decisions. But also—certainly I did not know what disaster I was getting myself into until after I was already trapped in my addiction, my brain’s reward system hijacked by alcohol, my only solace during flashbacks and tears. Did my addiction make me as worthless as I felt? I was afraid it did.
My depression as self-centeredness
Depression runs in my family. So do eating disorders, anxiety, addiction, and autism. There is a strong genetic component to each of these diseases. “Genes load the gun; environment pulls the trigger,” so they say.
After I started my job at Banana Republic, I shared good news with that second sponsor of mine. I confided in her what I could not admit in the months prior; that I had been feeling suicidal, but that I now no longer was. I wanted her to be happy for me. I was being “vigorously honest,” wasn’t I? And this was good news, wasn’t it?
She reamed me. I quietly cried on the phone, and with great effort did not betray those tears in my voice.
“That’s self-centered bullcrap!” she admonished me. She told me I was ungrateful. She told me I thought too much of myself. She said something about ego. Something about terminal uniqueness. She said I needed to pick up the phone whenever I felt that way, practice gratitude, and get over myself.
I quietly accepted her words and agreed. I ended the conversation as quickly as possible. I accepted her “direction,” as they say in AA.
I didn’t tell her how much I hated myself, already blamed myself. That I had been surviving on daily gratitude lists and hours of calls to my best friends, whom I could never hurt so profoundly as by taking my own life. That, despite my greatest efforts, I could not dispel the thoughts of self-annihilation, so intrusive were they.
My trauma as promiscuity and weak character
This one is hardest. I’m not ready to talk about the details.
My family doesn’t want me to write, to “tell a big story,” to tell any story. But I cannot help it; I must write. The words are in me, and I must write them out.
I’ve been called “experienced.” When I objected that “rape” and “sex” are not the same thing, my friend said, “Okay…?”
I’ve been asked why I didn’t leave sooner.
I’ve been told I wear too many dresses; that they make me stand out.
A dispatcher once told me I was wasting the police department’s time, after my friend pressured me to report an assault. “What do you expect us to do?” she asked.
I’ve been asked why I didn’t say no, and when I objected that I did say no, over and over I cried no, I had to concede that I eventually gave up, that I “let” bad things happen to me.
And I worry that they are right.
But, what would I say to a friend?
It’s not your fault. I’ve been there. Don’t listen to what they say; they are so, so wrong.
I love you. I’ll always be here for you. As adults, yes it is our responsibility to recover and seek professional help now, but we did not choose these experiences. I would never wish them on anyone, not on an enemy, not even on my abusers. You are so, so valuable. You are precious to me.
I know you feel alone, that these experiences are so isolating, personal, and devastating. But you are not alone. I am here when you want to problem-solve, and I am here when you just want to be listened to. We can come up with answers together, or we can simply “shoot the shit.”
What can I say to myself, in kindness?
My amazing therapist in rehab gave me an assignment: to write a daily affirmation in my journal, a different one each day. This proved difficult: to find statements I could get behind. Then she asked for more: she gave me a pad of sticky notes, and asked me to put up the most important ones on my mirror. To read them each day.
Over time, they have become easier to write. I now practice this at home, in my large, sunny, pest-free apartment.
Yesterday, in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we were assigned homework: to write a letter from our future selves to our current selves. This is tough. It’s hard to give myself compassion. It’s hard to believe in my future. It’s hard to believe in myself. But I will never give up.
I know you are hurting right now, sometimes more than you can express. But you have come so far, and there is no reason why you will not go even farther. Please be strong; please remember you are loved; please remember you are valuable. Just as an infant has value simply for existing as a tiny miracle, without having walked or spoken yet, you are valuable because you, too, are alive. Your life has so much value. I know that sometimes you can’t see a way forward, but there is always a light at your feet, showing you just one step ahead. You don’t need to be able to see the next five steps or even the next two, as long as you can see just that one. Take that next step. Be brave. Do the next right thing—always do the next right thing. There will be slips and falls, maybe even relapses, but you’ve always gotten back up again and dusted yourself off and stood even taller. Continue to stand up, continue to stand tall. You’re okay. You’re going to be okay. You have resources, and so many people are cheering for you. I hope that you can cheer for yourself, too. For every person who doesn’t understand, there are close friends and family who love you and do understand.
Love and compassion from,
Your future self
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”Psalm 119:105, KJV