When I was 24, nearly 25, I was severely ill. I lived in London in a carpeted apartment with J. He was my partner but also in some senses my caretaker; I am not sure if those outside of the community can fully comprehend the comfort that can be derived from a person who is always there, who is aware of all habits and rituals and routines, of all medications, of all symptoms and illnesses and episodes and variations of episodes, and the proper response to each. I do not mean to suggest that dependence is the natural state of a person who, like myself, suffers from emotional disturbances, or that we are entitled to this level of care. I only mean to suggest that he remains the only person to give so generously and acquire so much knowledge purely out of affection and concern. At one point in Ottawa, he took a class with others who had relatives or loved ones with severe depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, and so on. He learned techniques and spoke to me about them. He had information sheets he highlighted, and made notes in the margins.
To make a simple comparison, when I passed copies of these sheets to my parents I found them later abandoned in the recycling bin. My parents are not bad people. This is simply a difference in character, or approach.
Every day I would attempt to shower. This was a challenge akin to climbing a very tall flight of stairs. My symptoms would be more or less severe, usually more. At the time the body dysmorphia was crippling me. In every mirror and reflective surface I saw tiny lifeless eyes, aggressive eyebrows, an obscenely fat jaw, chubby cheeks, bad skin, and deep lines around my eyes and mouth; to my own eyes I was sullen-looking and grotesque, soulless and charmless as a sewer rat. J. disagreed, of course. We hung towels over the mirrors in the bathroom. We watched a lot of Law and Order: SVU. He sat at the dining room table doing his readings and writing his papers as the theme music played, interrupting his own study to wipe the tears from under my eyes, tell me I was a beautiful girl, make me instant hot chocolate or cut-up apple pieces with peanut butter, as the symptoms waxed and waned.
When he was on campus, I cleaned the apartment: I vacuumed the couch (half of which now belonged to the dog) and our carpeted living room. My social worker had given me information sheets on an approach to cleaning that was feasible for depressives with very little energy or motivation; the gist of it was to devote 10 minutes of every day to small cleaning tasks, so that the chores never piled up and overwhelmed you. Despite my dread and self-hatred and heavy bones, I showered and dressed and did laundry. I walked the dog and took her to the dog park. Sometimes I walked to the grocery store. I liked doing the groceries, picking out the particular things we liked to eat (turkey pepperoni, apples, berries, banana chips, Tostitos and salsa, curry sauce for our rice, frozen fish) and placing them in my cart, listening to the music playing on the overhead speakers (I remember our store played a lot of 50’s rock ‘n roll, my father’s favourite sort of music). I liked going through the quiet checkout lines and seeing the cashiers, arranging the bags in my hands so they were evenly weighted, walking home through the snow with my ears protected from the cold by a pink woolen headband. If J. and I did groceries together we took the dog with us, and one of us held her outside while the other went into the store. I remember she was always anxious when J. did the shopping (and I can only assume it was the same the other way around), looking to where he’d disappeared, afraid that he wouldn’t come back. If I tried to take her to the video store next door (the clerks let her wander the aisles with me and eat the old popcorn from under the shelving), she would be reluctant at first, as though we were abandoning him, as though our departure naturally meant we would never see him again. When (inevitably) the one who had departed did return, she would greet us with joy and relief.
As J. went to classes during the day and had such a volume of work outside them, I had to take some responsibility for the care of the dog. I walked the dog in the heat of the early fall, in the chill of the winter. Walking the dog was the closest thing I had to a daily purpose; I couldn’t lie on the couch and ignore her restlessness, her energy, her occasional anxiety. Despite my considerable flaws, I could not manage this sort of dismissal. It is no accomplishment: it is behaviour that should be expected from any responsible pet-owner, but I am so glad that even on my worst days she was not punished for my own failings (or, if you like, the failings of my own brain—perhaps it is a combination of the two).
She whined when I cried because she didn’t know what was happening, only that something was wrong, and she felt helpless and confused. She came up to me (usually I was sitting on the floor or the couch) and stuck her face in mine, whimpering, shaking her stubby little tail, trying to kiss me on the mouth; in other words, she was making me comfort her. (Even after I left J. told me she reacted to my voice on the phone, and when I visited she bounded to me as though even with my long absences from her life I remained somehow precious and memorable, my arrival an exhilarating event.)
I had a social worker in London, a psychologist and, later on, a psychiatrist, the latter at Victoria Hospital. Both doctors had studied and worked with BDD specifically (an astonishing rarity, as I knew then and know even better now). I left London too soon to know if the counselling would have been beneficial in the long-term, but she was enormously knowledgeable and personable. She told me she had never correctly guessed the subject of the anxiety of a patient with BDD, whether it was their skin or hair or eyes or bone structure, their weight or their hairline, their nose. The features we considered our greatest flaws, that made us monstrous and repellent, evident (as we thought) to anyone with eyes to see them, she had never correctly divined simply by looking at a face. She never knew. She always had to be told. I went to her not knowing how to fix these obsessions or even how to lessen them, how to be strong and content, not how to feel pretty (I did not have such a lofty goal and still don’t) but how to feel okay, like The Face could not hurt me, like my face, my expressions, my smile, could be sort of pleasant in certain lights and someone could look at me and think, that’s a nice face.
This culminated in my brief stay at Victoria Hospital, the staff of which were ill-prepared for the volume of mentally ill people asking them for help. I went there asking for help. I was frightened. They committed me and searched my bag for instruments I could use to harm myself and gave me a bunk in ER, and I remember I was so grateful, so relieved. That relief made my first hours easier, the first day and night I stayed in the ER while waiting for a bed in psych, sitting in my little hospital cot in my blue cotton gown and my blue cotton pants, listening to the nurses murmuring at the desk in the middle of the night. J. was there when he could be. I had my little bunk and a curtain that closed around me (that lovely curtain made all the difference) and darkness at night to sleep, and I was relieved and didn’t mind waiting for a room, for a doctor, for assistance, for the emotional equivalent of cool hands on my forehead. But when the ER became overcrowded they shunted me into a hallway where I stayed in a hospital cot fender-to-fender with other young people in other hospital cots who had sought similar types of help and who had similarly been banished to this empty hospital corridor because they knew we were all too scared to protest too much. I slept under a fluorescent light that never turned off. There were no partitions, no privacy. My head hurt. I felt terrified and I cried and became so genuinely distraught and overwhelmed that J. and I almost attempted an illegal escape from Victoria hospital. When the psychiatrist came to see me the following day, I had spent the night in cold terror under a buzzing perpetual brightness and quickly lied to him and told him I was feeling much better.
We took a bus from the hospital and debarked at one of our usual stops near the grocery store and the video store. We went to get groceries. This first evening I spent out of the hospital, I remember the snow was falling. My arms were full of grocery bags and J. walked beside me. There is not a lot of beauty to be found in this scene, perhaps – a rather shabby London neighbourhood and an unstable girl who has just been released from hospital having lied her way out – but I remember it differently. My symptoms had not exactly lessened. I did not experience a miracle. But it was better to be here with the cold on my cheeks and the snow in my hair, ears covered by my headband, free and able to walk around, to look up and see the sky (however dark and obscured by snow it was), to no longer be a prisoner of fluorescent lighting. It was easier, it was sweeter. I was no longer contained, and the falling snow protected me the way the doctors could not. It snowed quite a bit that November in London, and I remember often thinking I’d like to make a snow angel but not having anywhere I could do it without being looked at.
I never went back to the hospital, in London or any other city in Ontario, no matter how desperate I felt.