I am not my mother

This is most likely going to be a different post than would traditionally be expected from the title. I am very lucky that I do not need to defiantly declare that I am different from my mother, that I have refused to let her unfavourable characteristics grow in myself. Of course, we are different, very different, but it is not that sort of post. I am not defiant. I am in awe.

My mother is a force of energy, purpose, creation. My mother is currently downstairs preparing every tiny detail and arranging the house immaculately for my grandmother’s 90th birthday party (held later today). My mother is strong in ways I am not, ways I most likely will never be. This is not meant to dissolve into a discussion of mental health, because people have a lot of differing and incendiary opinions about what a person who is mentally ill “should” be able to do, what, in fact, everyone “should” be able to do. That sort of argument can occupy another post, and I would in fact need more than evidence of my own illnesses to create a convincing argument that mental illness robs you of the abilities, energy, desires, and motivations of people who are emotionally or mentally healthy (which is to say, biologically their brains are chemically balanced and their moods are not extreme) –  which is what, in fact, I do believe.

This is not what this post is about. It is hard to untangle what is your character and what is your mental illness, like pulling the wool out of a sweater, figuring out which parts are your own failings and weaknesses and which parts are your illnesses taking things away from you. (In order words, which parts are your fault?) Where do you put understanding and self-compassion, and where do you put the need to take personal responsibility?

I believe both of these factors differentiate me from my mother. This beautiful woman has given birth to four children, cared for and lost an infant child in a hospital crib, a remarkable little baby with ginger-blonde hair who could have been everything my mother is now. She has cared for her ailing father (who had deteriorating dementia), lost her mother and the only other mother-figure she had ever known in quick succession, been through chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer- and that same woman has been exhaustively cleaning the house, organizing the furniture, setting the immaculate table settings, arranging tablecloths, chairs, decorations for DAYS. All of this for her mother-in-law. I have spent the last few days enduring rather severe physical symptoms that are a result of my psychiatrist disappearing and my having to go several days without my normal medications. This was genuine, not faked, but also impossible to communicate to family. Unless you give them visual evidence, they will not think of you as suffering.  Yesterday the only thing I could manage to do was go to the dollar store (and my father had to drive me) to pick up decorations. My mother worked exhaustively all day, and continues to do so this morning. I hear her downstairs and I want to tell her that her strength is immense, energetic, remarkable, her resiliency, her bright face continuing to do whatever needs to be done. I would like to apologize for having illnesses she cannot understand, that make me seem, perhaps, spoiled or lazy or entitled because I cannot (through personal failings or mental illnesses), so easily complete the tasks that she does, tasks that both my parents are capable of doing so easily, almost without thought. Of course we’ll do this, they think. It needs to be done. 

I’m sorry you could not pass this beauty onto me, the beauty that is strength, the strength to do whatever needs to be done. I will not put all of my failings on mental health, although that is certainly still a chaotic mess I cannot completely understand, and I am still looking for answers, reasons, an explanation. I am sorry I failed, but I want you to know I do feel ashamed that I cannot at the moment reach the heights of your energy and work ethic, your tenacity, your large eyes looking up and still managing to smile at my father or gently punch him on the arm when he is being a dick.

 

The BDD before I knew what it was

I won’t write what I became afraid of in the summer and fall of 2011, what parts of me I considered repugnant, but I will say I did not see a way out. Before they started me on Seroquel, I could not stop crying. It wasn’t mournful crying, it wasn’t grief, it wasn’t a thousand emotions I didn’t understand; in other words, it wasn’t the way the sirens made me feel. It was hysterical crying, pure panic like an animal that has been shot. It frightened J. and my parents. I wished desperately, hatefully, to be pretty, not to be ugly anymore, not to be ugly anymore, and I was reminded every time I looked in a mirror, accidentally or on purpose, every time I even contemplated my own face without looking at it, contemplated my body, that I was. Disgusting was my thought, and repulsive, and my heart started racing when I could not think of an argument to counter this. Monstrous. Too monstrous to even share with my doctors, except in broad strokes. The BDD is what made me think I would have to kill myself.

The funny thing is, the BDD quieted. After the Seroquel, it was only intermittent, painful but manageable, sometimes even dormant. A few years later, it came back, raging like a fever, and I think this is the period of time I came closest to suicide. In my mind, there really was no other alternative. Every day I fought, every day I survived was simply the postponement of the inevitable. This is why I am so aggravated by the philosophy that happiness is a decision. At 20, I was braiding my hair in a crown around my head before going to work my shift as a grocery store cashier, singing to myself in the mirror, thinking myself sweetly pretty; at 24 I was caving in, despairing, crying in that way that is almost shouting. I was so scared of death, terrified of nothingness, terrified of blankness, a void, but in my own mind, I knew I could not live. I knew I was an aberration. I think this is what inspired the most desperate and unrelenting of the crying jags, lasting hours, days, the knowledge that my “only option” (as I saw it) was terrifying, and I wished so fervently it didn’t have to be like this.

When daydreams are your solace

What happens when a fantasy life is more compelling to you than your own present or even potential future? I’m not talking about visualizing your future – seeing yourself financially and emotionally stable, for instance. Of course that is more compelling. Of course you would long for that and dream of the day it could become reality. I’m talking about when your depression has so thoroughly overtaken you that the only way out is complete separation from self: the imagining of oneself as someone entirely other, entirely different. These sorts of fierce and often episodic daydreams rely on the dreamer’s complete acceptance of the impossibility of said dream: in order to become lost in the beautiful details of the day-to-day life of an Irish ballerina with two different-coloured eyes and long spiraling yellow curls (to cite one of my own), we must first inevitably accept that this can never be. (In high school, I got around this necessity by convincing myself of the possibility of reincarnation.) But now I’m 26 and can’t convince myself that things must be real just because I feel in the deepest cavity of my chest that I need them to be.

Once the impossibility has been accepted (though nothing will mute the physical longing to make it otherwise), characters and dialogue, physical sensations, even previously unfamiliar feelings, grow like wild blueberries. Suddenly you are a child, binging yourself on these sweets, standing barefoot and purple-fingered beside the blueberry bushes. I was enchanted, happy, free, believing (and seeing evidence of) my own prettiness in the exhaustive details of an imagined face (freckles, rosebud lips, large eyes shifting in colour and meaning). What was biting would become gorgeous, tender, symphonic. I could be Christine Daaé, Lizzie Bennett, Elizabeth Swann, Kitty Shcherbatsky, Bathsheba Everdene, Valentine Wannop. I could be a young girl with long black eyelashes and an unspeakably beautiful face, and I could be loved with the ferocity of a Heathcliff or a Rochester, a Vronsky or a Maxim de Winter.

This is the part where anyone else would warn you about the dangers of becoming too consumed by these daydreams, these rich almost literary fantasies. But I can’t, because I don’t know a suitable (or even efficacious) alternative, nor have I ever turned from them entirely. When life (your life) offers you gifts, gifts based in reality, stark, plain, real, you wake up momentarily, you engage, you touch, you feel. Sweet faces and snowfalls and lovers with brown eyes. But when the gifts are taken away again, you close your eyes and you pretend.

Suicidal ideation (trigger warning)

Suicidal ideation is more complex a concept than suicide. It is defined as “the contemplation of ending one’s own life” that can “vary greatly from fleeting thoughts to preoccupation to detailed planning” (from A Site on The Internet). This is one of the reasons it’s so fascinating: a person can possess whole internal narratives in which they prepare their suicide, perhaps write notes, live their final moments and experience their own death, without ever actually acting on these thoughts or bringing them into concrete existence. On the other side of this, a person can have the most fleeting thought of suicide and in an impulsive moment act on it.

A lot of fantasies of suicide remain just that, fantasies. It’s been seven years since I could honestly answer the question “do you have thoughts of suicide?” with the word “no.” These thoughts can be inspired by desperation, helplessness, anguish, a seeming total lack of other options, or they can stem from exhaustion, a longing for quiet, or poetic ideas of being remembered in death. I have imagined that I might look almost pretty lying in a coffin with my eyelids closed. I have waited patiently for my skin to clear and my hair to lengthen before beginning to plan seriously and with intent. I once planned my suicide via freezing to death in the snow because I thought it was aesthetically pleasing. Even in death I am vain and terrified of ugliness, as desperate to capture prettiness as a wounded animal is to avoid the jaws of a predator.

I have told myself repeatedly that it will be necessary to perform the act of suicide within the next ten or fifteen years, before my looks deteriorate even further. (I am not crying for help, I am simply explaining the contents of my own suicidal ideation; a lot of it is and has been related to the body dysmorphia). This is my customary state of mind; oftentimes, especially lately, it gets worse and I start thinking in the short-term (not even thinking, really; it is a horrible, amorphous and awkwardly heavy sensation like being smothered in your sleep or having your limbs chained with weights).

Today I’m trapped. To be perfectly frank about it, I know I need inpatient or residential treatment but it’s out of my reach. The mental health system in Ontario is failing a lot of people, and I’m no one special, I’m no one who deserves preferential treatment. I do know this. But when I look in the mirror I see a disgusting creature, not a woman. When I sit through the minutes of each day and count my heartbeats or recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary (the repetition of memorized words seems more effective than benzos, these days) I feel terrified, out of my own control. People sometimes say they feel they have a “void” in their life, that something is missing. In those moments I feel I AM the void, I am the absence of meaning. Suicidal ideation is perhaps my brain trying to rectify that, to correct the aberration that I feel is my own face, my own form, my own internal substance (or, as I perceive it, lack thereof). I feel I am trying to right a wrong, correct a mistake.

 

It could be worse

Someone at the next table is doing math problems with a tutor. I remember when I had to do math problems with a tutor. I am grateful that today I am NOT the one doing math problems with a tutor. (My long list of former counselors would be so proud of me, listing the things I’m grateful for). Let’s try a few more. I am NOT bleeding uncontrollably from a major artery NOR do I have gangrene.

I feel like this is not quite what they had in mind. They had in mind a lovely little list of everything I HAVE that I’m grateful for, like sunny days and kittens, not a list of every horrible thing that is not currently happening to me. But I feel like sometimes you have to remind yourself that it could always be worse. You COULD be suffering MORE. That doesn’t make you lucky, or mean you are obligated to be grateful. It’s just there, like a tiny life-raft.

Today, I am thinking, it HAS been worse. It has been MUCH worse. I have been that little moon-faced forgettable in a hospital bed, asking for updates on how long the doctor will be. Today I am not that little girl, shivering and terrified, anonymous with all the other young people in blue cotton dresses eating food from a tray. (Unfortunately for me, Ontario hospitals are worse than nothing. They actively made things worse.)

So I steer clear of them now, and keep my thoughts to myself, and wait and bide my time and fix my eyes on a certain point in the future at which potentially there will be help, genuine help. And today I think, it could be worse.

 

 

 

I am depression’s bitch.

I’m at the public library in T.’s hometown. It’s near the pier and the water, which is definitely the town’s best angle. There are long windows in the library and I can see a huge stretch of sky, blue but thickly clouded, oppressive angry clouds. There’s a weeping willow outside the window closest to me.

I’m definitely beginning to experience that phenomenon they describe in self-help books of being able to run away but not being able to “escape from yourself”. As much as I hate that phrasing and all similar clichés of the self-help industry (being your “best self” for instance, or “finding” yourself as though you are a lost child in a grocery store), I’ve been a whining, cringing, hand-wringing, inactive, indecisive, uncertain mess for the past week and even here, with the boats (white, shiny boats, rich people boats) and the distant shoreline and the books and the quiet voices (the quality of the light, too, is beautiful, despite the humidity) I feel terrified, anxious, tremulous. I feel ugly (more than ugly, so thoroughly plain, nothing there, nothing to see). There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe complex and antagonistic emotions, because “sad” and “depressed” won’t do it. The depression feels like someone is trying to perform dangerous surgery on my body without my permission. Or rather, it feels like they did perform it, and it went very badly (so much internal bleeding, and I think they left a watch or a wedding ring in my brain before they stitched me up). Inside my head, I hear a small, sharp scream like the shriek of a microphone’s feedback and it won’t let up or lessen. I don’t want to write about this on Facebook because describing mental illness can sound so much like complaining, and the inability to communicate this rampage of feeling and thought makes me ashamed.

Today isn’t beautiful

I’m not sure how to effectively communicate the desperation with which I wish for a different face, the desperation with which I despise my own. Anyone who has suffered from BDD will understand, but honestly, I am not sure how many of us there are. I have never communicated with anyone else with the disorder. I feel like I would find a great deal of relief in such a conversation.

Today it is eyes (so small! no beautiful girl has small eyes, I say again and again) and lines (there are so many lines on my face, cutting it in pieces, separating it from itself, deep creases that cannot be erased). This is what I see. I am willing to grant that it MAY not be the truth. My “insight” is “fair”. That’s what the doctors would say.

The Face is a monster in waking life which I must confront over and over again. It hasn’t killed me, but it has made me believe my lifespan is – must be – shortened. The Face is not something that can be endured over decades.

IMG_0199I drew this in art therapy in 2017. The Face takes on different forms and this one is still fairly accurate, only now the creases around the eyes and mouth are deeper, longer, more prominent, more glaring.

My blog is new and I’m under no illusions that it is being widely read but if you have your own Face that you fear and that makes you question your ability to survive (my own Face makes me believe I cannot survive, that, in fact, if I am correct in my perceptions, I should not), reach out to me and share your own stories. I would love to hear from others with this disorder.

When it started…

drowning girl

You could definitely trace it back farther, in little details and habits, (when I was in high school I refused to look in the mirror and instead contrived to blindly believe I was a pretty girl without any evidence of it), but when I was 19, the sirens began to sing in earnest. I was in my first year of my BA at the University of Ottawa and still shockingly naive and inexperienced; I was knobby-kneed, messy-haired, and overly compulsive (I kept a notebook recording all of the interesting things I said to ensure that I was proving myself as a beautiful and worthy companion to the sweet, older boy I had started to date). I don’t remember what day it was, though I remember it was night and I was sitting on the floor of J.’s bachelor apartment (he lived over the bridge in Hull with his fat white kitty) clutching my knees. The sirens began to sing and their voices were unlike anything I had heard before; they seemed to communicate such terrible things so beautifully, so hypnotically. I didn’t understand; I didn’t understand because I had never heard voices like these before, I didn’t know you were meant to lash yourself to the mast to avoid crashing into the rocks. As the pressure built and the violent emotions flooded my body like adrenaline or radiation, mental illness did not even occur to me, not as a concrete concept. Nothing occurred to me except that my body was not under my own control and I wept because there was nothing else to do; the human body has very few passive ways to release feelings as dangerous and strong and ungovernable as these were. I wept uncontrollably and frightened myself and when it kept happening, when I would be sitting normally reading a book or studying my class notes, and the sirens would start to sing and five minutes later I would be crying raggedly on the floor without the ability to be soothed or calmed, we realized something must be wrong.

Body dysmorphia

Let’s be frank – I have never been beautiful. We all know the beautiful girls and I am not one of them. In reality I am probably sweet-looking yet plain, homely with flickers of prettiness like a hand mirror reflecting the sun, a spot of light dancing on the walls.

But if you asked me most days, I would say I am ugly. I would say I am hideous. I would say I am monstrous, mean- and stupid-looking, my features completely without charm or redemption. I would tell you I appear moronic or dull-witted: my eyes are tiny and without light, my cheeks and jaw are obscenely fat, my skin is severely lined and covered in glaring imperfections.

I would tell you I have a doll of whom I am jealous.

I wish I was even a quarter as beautiful as Iris Rose. Even if I could not move my features or assume expressions, a beautiful face would be a gift of quiet. Every disorder has its monsters and dysmorphia has The Face. Any face is better. Even one that does not blink or smile, does not bat its eyelashes or screw up its mouth to cry. A frozen prettiness is better than The Face.

“Love” defined by sacrifice

In the original story, the little mermaid doesn’t only sacrifice her voice. In exchange for bodily grace, she consents to constant searing pain in her legs. When she dances, her movements are lovely and delicate, but she feels as though her legs are being slashed with knives.

If you think of yourself in these terms, what did you sacrifice for the prince? Could you retrieve it afterwards or was it irretrievable? In this case, the little mermaid is hoping to exchange her muteness and pain for a human soul and a man’s devotion. What were you hoping for? When you visited the witch and agreed to her terms and left your family and your home and the beautifully constructed world around you, what did you want? What did you need?