[TW: Abuse, self harm, eating disorders]
By Sheila Stark
Making sense of my life has taken years, I am now 43 and only now know my truth.
My early years were dominated by abuse, anxiety, panic attacks, depression and mood swings. I cannot remember a life without a negative voice in my head, a horrible monster telling me that I was useless, worthless and no good for anything. I never questioned it; it was part of me. I was a very anxious child and tried to keep quiet and not be noticed. I didn’t show emotions at all either positive or negative. I shut down. I was profoundly depressed, any smiles were not real, they were a mask. I also thought a lot about death, not in the way I would do later but in an abstract way. In bed I would wonder if I could be someone else, another young girl. Could I leave my body and inhabit another, but still be me?
I started to experience large mood swings. The highs were better as I felt that I could relate better to others, when I was depressed I felt different to everyone else and would try to hide it. I felt very disconnected from others. My anorexia started when I was 11. At first it appeared slowly and unconsciously but then in a more determined manner. I don’t remember how it started but I know that it had nothing to do with size, it was control. It worsened as the years passes. It was too easy. It was completely ignored by my parents despite my skeletal state, permanent blue fingers and lips and frequent fainting episodes.
My anxiety, panic and depression were crippling. I struggled to maintain friendships and would often just keep to myself. I would watch from afar; I couldn’t relate to other’s lives. I did get a clue but I paid it little attention; I was buying a dress for our end of school dance. I did not look good, there was no way to hide my size and my brain said “take that dad, I look terrible”. Just as I don’t know how my anorexia started I don’t know how it ended. I think that my growing independence simply allowed me to let go and eat, though I never fully recovered or ate normally.
My university years are mostly a blur, all I really remember are the worst mood swings of my life and a lot of alcohol. I drank to try and control my moods and block out my emotions. It didn’t work, it just made me worse and I became increasingly out of control.
After university I had my first mental breakdown. I had no idea what was happening, I was terrified. It got worse and worse. I became terrified of going out and when I did I felt distant as if I was looking down on myself from above. Eventually my inability to function made me visit my doctor, where I was diagnosed with severe depression. I was prescribed an antidepressant which didn’t seem to do anything other than make me gain a lot of weight and sweat a lot. I sought refuge in the worst possible place: my parents.
Slowly I rebuilt a life and had a few years of relatively stability: the anxiety, mood swings and depression remained but were manageable. It was after my second breakdown that things really unraveled. The antidepressant I was given triggered a full on manic episode; finally I had an explanation for the state of my mind. I have bipolar disorder and could finally get the help I needed. My psychiatrist referred me to a psychologist where I spent 6 months discussing everything but the real problem, I still had no idea why was struggling. I could say I was in denial but it is more accurate to say that my brain was hiding the truth from me; it was protecting me from my reality.
When it went wrong it did so spectacularly: I had nightmares and flashbacks reliving the physical sensations of what I had experienced. I had been abused by my father mentally, physically, and sexually. This was why everything had been so difficult, this was why I had never felt comfortable around my family. This was the source of my pain and suffering.
To say my world imploded is a massive understatement, everything changed. My anorexia re-emerged and I became very sick quickly; my body already knew how to do this. My bipolar was out of control, I was dangerously suicidal, self-harming; the only option was hospital. Over the last few years I have been hospitalized 6 times and for short periods my mood has improved as well as my weight. I have relapsed every time. None of this is surprising as the triggers, mainly my volatile relationship with my family and my resulting guilt and sense of blame were still there. In the end after years of suffering I cut all ties with them, the hardest and most painful thing I have ever done.
So is there a fairy tale ending? No. I am just out of my sixth hospitalization, so what is the end of my journey? My truth is that my life has been dominated by abuse and its after effects. I have bipolar, I get depressed, manic and suicidal. I have a chronic eating disorder. Yet with knowledge comes freedom, yes life is hard but I enjoy it more than I ever have. I laugh and smile for real. I make the most of the good times and I have people around me who I love. Life could be a lot worse and I am determined to recover from anorexia and live a full life.