Starving

I was starving.

There wasn’t any food left in the dorm. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have the physical ability to walk a mile to the nearest grocery store and back. Even if I did, I didn’t have any money. And I certainly didn’t have the social strength to hand my ID card to the lady in the dining hall so she could swipe for proof of my wasted food plan only to sit alone at a random table. I lied on the hard, carpeted floor and closed my eyes, imagining a room full of food like in A Little Princess. It was almost finals week and I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive.

I thought back to high school. Senior year. I’m sitting at a table in the middle of the school cafeteria, my best friend sitting across from me. M is staring at my tray of half-eaten food, pushing me to finish eating. The school district had a policy that stated that we had to have a certain amount of food on our trays before we checked out (unless we ordered a-la-carte), so I always had a few extra pieces of food on my tray at the end of lunch time.

“You need to eat,” M ordered, pushing my tray towards me. She added a comment about how I was too skinny. I had always been skinny, not as skinny as I had been when I was a child, but “skinny.” And it wasn’t due to my eating habits.

I pushed the tray back towards her, infuriated. I knew what she was implying, “I’m not anorexic!” Oops. I knew immediately I had responded too loudly. A few random pairs of eyes landed on us. I caught sight of S peering curiously at the scene from another table and lowered my voice, nearly growling, “I’m not built like you.” I tried to explain without sounding too mean, “My stomach can’t fit as much food as yours.” I knew it still sounded mean anyway. There was no good way to put it. My friends weren’t built like me. They weren’t fat, but they weren’t exactly… as small as me.

I guess I wasn’t making too much sense, because M grew a little angry as well, “You don’t eat enough.”

My mind returned to the dorm room. “I’m not anorexic,” I muttered to myself. I’d eaten nothing but popcorn for a week… but I wasn’t anorexic. It wasn’t like I was purposefully not eating.

This time my mind takes me to my junior high cafeteria. I’m sitting with a bunch of the other eighth grade band kids, my friends among them. I was self-conscious about people watching me eat. Every bite was small, minuscule… careful not to leave any sort of mess or make any sort of unappreciative noise. I lift my napkin to my lips for the thousandth time over the course of a minute, dabbing at nothing.

Then my brain takes me back even further… to one of my elementary school’s cafeterias. I’m being laughed at, but it doesn’t bother me too much. The school had served my favorite meal: Soft pretzels. I always ripped those into a million pieces as if that’s all I planned to do with them until I would dip the tiny portions in cheese prior to consumption. It was the only way to minimize the potential mess… or the potential sounds of loud, unflattering gulping or chewing. I did the same with bread rolls.

“I’m not anorexic,” I whispered, my brain returning to December 2014. The university dining hall had closed by then… it was past seven. I’d missed my window. I closed my eyes, listening to the far away sounds of the other girls who lived on the same hall. They were murmuring to each other, laughing, telling jokes, sharing secrets… they had all made friends. It was the end of my first semester of college… and I had made zero friends hiding out in my dorm room or at my parents’ house.

This particular university was clique-y, so it was difficult to maneuver one’s way into a crowd following the first week of school. At one point in the middle of the semester I had been invited to a chicken nugget party in the dormitory’s lobby and, although I love chicken nuggets, instead I turned out the lights, locked the door, and hid underneath my bed. I’m sure I thought about that night as I lied on the floor of my dorm nearing the end of the semester. My stomach sure could have used those chicken nuggets.

Later that week, I’m sitting in my intermediate algebra class, the final test sitting on the table in front of me. My head hurt. I was dizzy. I hadn’t eaten in at least three days. In fact, I was very worried I would make some sort of scene as I inevitably passed out. But I didn’t. I finished the test, a test I most definitely failed, and walked out of the classroom.

I moved out of the dorms that day. My dad helped me haul my stuff back to my parents’ house. Maybe then I’d eat more. Maybe then I’d feel better.

Projecting Hate

“I hate you,” I said at the end of a downward laugh, trying to slip it in as casually as I could. It wasn’t the first time I’d said it. I knew my friend, L, was slipping away from me. I could feel it. She didn’t seem to like me much anymore. I was no longer the shiny new kid.

L spent an increasingly long amount of time with A, who would later become one of my friends in junior high (2008-2010). I used to be invited to hang out at L’s house all the time, but suddenly it seemed her and A were best friends. I’m not sure what caused the shift in fifth grade (2006-2007). Maybe it was because I was friends with the new girl, M, at the beginning of the year. L never believed a word M said. Or maybe it was because of my crush on T, the troublemaker with ADHD. L most definitely hated him. Or maybe it had little to do with me or them at all.

I begged her to invite me over again like she used to. She was an only child (sort of) which means she had a karaoke machine and an endless supply of Polly Pockets. I always had fun at her house and it was that type of friendship that I prayed to find in high school (2010). Except, that friendship was suddenly dwindling. And I didn’t know why.

I convinced her to invite me over once more, but I don’t recall if that was before or after she confronted me in a very grown-up fashion, “I don’t like it when you…” It sounded like a phrase you learn in either kindergarten, health class, or therapy, but she handled it with a sense of maturity. It shocked me, really. They say not to poke the bear because he’ll do more than poke back. Even though her voice was semi-calm, my repetitive, “I hate you,” mantra had finally evoked a reaction. It was a reaction I hadn’t realized I didn’t want until halfway through her lecture, “It makes me feel…”

My body shook. It didn’t matter if someone was literally yelling at me or not. All they had to do was chastise or scold me with a certain level of seriousness in order to provoke the onslaught of tears getting ready to steal the show. It was my fault, really. I brought this upon myself.

When I visited her house for the last time her mother was surprised, “Why don’t I see you around anymore?” I glanced at L and suddenly felt guilty as if I had conned or stolen something from her. I guess I no longer belonged. So I never asked to come back again.

There’s an interesting psychological phenomenon or defense tactic called, “Projecting.” It’s probably the most commonly recognized defense mechanism next to sarcasm and denial. On the surface, I hated L for her rejection. I do that. When people start to leave my life I start to hate them. How dare they not like me anymore? My logic? Hate them back as soon as possible, as if it is some travesty to suddenly not want to be friends with me. Oh, I’m not likable anymore? To the dungeon!

I suspect it wasn’t really L whom I hated. After all, projection is a level of defense. Her foreseeable rejection was a threat to me… it spoke ill of my nature. It suggested I was “bad” in some way, shape, or form and it had led me to wonder if that truly was a depiction of my existence. That idea was what I truly hated. I am “bad” and “unlikable.” But surely, that cannot be. So to avoid these thoughts, I turned them back around on L… “I hate you.” Instead of L pushing me away, it was suddenly the other way around. I was pushing her away.

Out of Many, One

We tell our own truths. Our truths are never representative of the whole. In no instance can we guarantee one hundred percent. Which is why I write this with the intention of open-ended clarity.

My experience with Selective Mutism does not equal everyone else’s experience. We were all born with traits that make us unique. We were all born or adopted or under the care of families who held different ideals. Some of us blend into society better than others. Some of us have certain childhood or life traumas that others do not have. Some of us have speech impediments. Some of us speak more than others. Some of us can handle crowds. Some of us can’t leave the house. Some of us drink or do drugs. Some of us are adults, others are children. Some of us don’t appear to have a chronic case and will get better over time. Some of us get worse (perhaps before we get better). Some of us aren’t officially diagnosed. Some of us have multiple diagnoses. Some of us survive and unfortunately, some of us don’t. But I hope one day all of us will survive.

If you’re a mental health professional, you may not see us in your office. You might either for other reasons and/or when we have reached a certain level of desperation. You might see children more than adults due to concerned parents and teachers. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you see us all the time.

I’ve almost returned to therapy several times. My parents sent me the first time and never thought I needed to go back. Now I’m an adult who has no one to force me to go and who certainly can’t afford it anyway. I’m one of the few who now lives on my own and holds down a full-time job. I’m one of the few who thrives on a stage or on a mic, but who has rarely, if ever, successfully performed in front of a crowd of over thirty people. I am one of the many who are over-sensitive to rejection or criticism. I am one of the many who writes so much more eloquently than I speak.

I am reminded of a quote from the Rescue Heroes (2003) animated movie, “Out of many, one.” While the quote was referring to a single case of lightning strikes, I want to make one thing clear. Whatever makes us unique as individuals, makes us the one out of many. We all possess an exception to a seemingly uptight rule. And that exception (or exceptions) makes us different – a good different. It makes us who we are.

“My disorder ‘shouldn’t’ allow me to (fill in the blank), but here I am (filling in the blank).” Even if that blank is a small thing, maybe one day that small thing will turn into a big thing. Sometimes we just have to be patient. Out of many tries… one will prevail.

I live for those moments.

And for the possibility of more moments.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t want to be defined by that I cannot do, only by what I can.

Sharing Knives in the Dark

“I’m a hypocrite, but it’s not my fault,” I half-joked on multiple occasions in high school (2010-2014). I said this only because my best friend, M, and I had spurred an interest in advocacy and I was angry at others for not contributing to positive change even though I was acting just like they were. I “couldn’t” do what I was asking others to do. It’s probably why I got into advocacy in the first place. Because that was all that I felt I could do. I wasn’t social and was terrible communicating with strangers. But man, I reveled in the daydreams of one day speaking in front of crowds – speaking words of importance. But they were just words. I didn’t have any actions to go with them.

“Why don’t more people care?” I would complain. Their apathy felt almost personal. If they didn’t care about those who were struggling, then they didn’t care about me. This had me feeling more angry than sad.

Our advocacy plans focused more on suicide awareness than anything else. Our school hadn’t lost anyone to suicide. In fact, I don’t think either of us knew anyone who had succeeded in taking the ultimate plunge. But we had both stared at knives in the dark. Other area schools lost people during our final year or so (2013-2014), all boys, but girls across the nation and Canada had been making headlines since the 2000s. However, most of their cases stemmed from bullying; specifically, cyber-bullying. This trend was probably why movies like Odd Girl Out (2005) and Cyberbully (2011) came out.

I never really considered myself bullied. My sister was bullied far more than I ever was. Most people only whispered about me. To this day I’m still a little paranoid when I hear lowered voices.

I liked those movies, but I didn’t necessarily relate to them. Not until The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) came out. I had read the book in the fall of 2012 during my junior year of high school and bought the DVD with the money my dad gave me to spend over Spring Break. I remember only getting through the first five or ten minutes of the movie before bursting into tears. The movie hadn’t even reached the emotional parts yet, but I knew what was coming. Looking back, I’m not really sure how my story really connected with Charlie’s. He was quiet and awkward and intuitive. He saw things in his friends they didn’t expect. He was an excellent gift-giver. People whispered about him behind his back (he was bullied more to his face). He didn’t raise his hand in class when he knew the answer. He had a fear of “getting bad again.” There were other details affiliated solely with either the movie or the book… but everything else about Charlie’s story was different from my own. It displayed another life mine fearfully but also jealously had the potential to live if only my past had been slightly different. But still, somehow, it felt he shared my story. And I was angry that many others around me felt the same way.

I had a problem with sharing. And I don’t mean the obvious kind of sharing – verbal sharing of secrets and information. Or the kind of sharing that little kids learn to do with their toys. I mean, sharing as in having things in common with people. I liked to feel special and unique and usually didn’t like it when others imposed on that feeling. Perhaps this was simply another tactic I had developed (and carried around since childhood) to further isolate myself. Whatever the reason, I hated meeting people (especially those I wasn’t friends with but knew) who shared interests or habits or crushes. I would suddenly feel like we were in some sort of competition and I didn’t want them to win… to be better than me. In the fifth grade (2006-2007) it was as simple as having the same sparkly pens as somebody else, but in high school it grew into someone also describing themselves as “awkward” or “socially anxious.” I hated it. No one was supposed to be like me. We weren’t the same. How was I supposed to stand out if it turned out I was just like everybody else?

“We put together a band last night,” J eagerly mentioned three years later (2016), “We call ourselves ‘Social Anxiety.'” I rolled my eyes. We all knew nobody was more socially anxious than I. I had made that very clear. This was prior to any suggestion that I may have Selective Mutism, so it seemed unfathomable to me that all these people could share the same diagnosis when we were nowhere near the same level of anxiety and associated behavior. I had only played the “who’s worse” game once and it hadn’t exactly ended well. It was against my friend, M, over Facebook Messenger, in our earlier years of college (2015). We spat our overly-dramatized experiences at each other until we eventually gave up. I wasn’t about to start another round with anybody else any time soon.

I quit doing advocacy work around that time. I’m sure M continued. She had the heart to stay in it and the empathy levels to actually be helpful to others. She wanted to be an art therapist. I hope she continued to follow that dream.

I did one speech on suicide awareness my freshman year of college (2014). I mentioned earlier that our high school hadn’t had any suicides, but six months after our graduation, two girls ended their lives and a boy ended his two year later (2017). It was our brothers’ high school at that point, but these were losses felt by the masses. Our school was bleeding…

Suicide awareness spiked in the mid-2010s and only grew after the release of the television series, 13 Reasons Why (2017).

And I think it killed us.

U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (Click this link to chat online or for Spanish or Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Assistance)

Crisis Services Canada (Click this link to learn more about Canada’s Suicide Prevention Services and connect with responders now)

To Be A Captive

This post is a continuation of “Talking to Volleyballs

I always figured a mental illness wasn’t severe enough until it landed its captive in the hospital. At least, that’s what it seemed like. You had to be hospitalized to receive a diagnosis… like those with Bipolar I Disorder or Schizophrenia. You know, the more “obvious” disorders. In fact, my friend, T, had been sent to the hospital on multiple occasions due to suicide attempts. Later my cousins, G and J, would also seemingly have an on-and-off relationship with hospitals and inpatient care centers in their teenage years. But I wasn’t “bad enough.” My disorder was built on isolation and fear… suffering in silence. How could I communicate my suffering without adding to the fear? Besides, I would hate the attention it brought me… all the worry that would seep into the air and choke me. I hated doctors and needles and pills and who know what else. I could fight this. I mean, it was only a dark cloud spewing dangerous lies that I was fighting. How hard could it be?

In January 2011 (9th grade) my mom had taken me to urgent care because, as it turned out, an abscess was growing underneath my tonsils, threatening to close my airways. It was difficult and painful to swallow or open my mouth more than a few centimeters. I only bring this up because the doctor or nurse or whoever she was seemed to be heavily concerned with my behavior… behavior that wasn’t strange to my mother. At fifteen I was adamant that I not be poked or prodded, leading to a very dramatic scene in which five healthcare professionals had to pin me down so they could swab my throat.

“Are you sure?” the lady asked my mother for the millionth time, trying to be sure she wasn’t missing that something else may be wrong with me. When she had first asked the question, I had opened my mouth, but glanced over at my mother and shut it, shaking my head vigorously. It would have appeared we were hiding something, despite that not necessarily being the case.

I don’t know if it was my age or if the late 2000s into the 2010s brought on a sudden wave of mental health awareness, but whatever the case, medical professionals suddenly tried to screen me for more dangerous mental health symptoms – Depression and suicidal thoughts. Okay, so that failure was on me. I had lied on some paperwork eight months prior to this in an ill-attempt at self-preservation. And honestly, by 2011, the voice had left me, so my only fear was that it would find its way back.

I almost died that week, probably on my brother’s eleventh birthday. Not by choice, no no. The doctor was kind of mad when we walked into the ER (emergency room) the day after the walk-in clinic. Apparently I was only a day away from death and he wasn’t happy with whatever medication the clinic had prescribed to me. I didn’t feel like I was dying though. In fact, I knew I wasn’t going to die. It just didn’t seem plausible that a peritonsillar abscess would lead me to my demise. My mother, apparently, was not as easily convinced. “I thought you were going to die,” she told me later, chills running down her spine. She wasn’t the only one. When I returned to my church’s youth group three days later one of the older girls practically cried with relief when she saw me, “You’re alive!”

It was strange for me. All these people were suddenly very fearful of my life’s end, but for once I had not been. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. In fact, I was out of the hospital in time to celebrate my brother and cousin J’s birthdays that night. I gulped down a whole plate of mac-a-roo ‘n cheese from Outback Steakhouse, my communication very animated. In fact, in the hospital, doped up on medication, that was how I acted – talkative and content. But it also made my Selective Mutism very obvious in hindsight. My parents laughed because I would be talking and joking one minute and then suddenly stop when a nurse or doctor stepped into the room. It was funny to them. Even then I knew better than they did. Hear my silence, I’d think, what does it tell you?

My battle with the darkness had reached its climax in May 2010, almost exactly eight months before the whole “almost dying” fiasco. By that point, I was fearful of the kitchen. One of my chores, a chore I would be yelled at for neglecting, was to wash the dishes. It seems simple enough, but for fourteen-year-old me, the task was as dangerous as the dark alleys in Kansas City’s high-crime neighborhoods. Both experiences had the potential to end with a knife through the gut. It would have been an impulsive decision… anything to shut up the darkness.

The last day of eighth grade was the day the darkness seemed to slam into me full-force. I could almost see it, it was so thick and dense, the voice nearly booming like thunder. Here was the storm, coming for me, no longer lurking in the corners of my thoughts. I sat at a table in the junior high commons (cafeteria), having been separated alphabetically from my friends. The voice laughed evilly, knowing it had captured my full attention, “Nobody cares about you. They’ve left you all alone. You don’t have any real friends.”

“You’re lying,” I argued back in my head, but he continued to shout the lies and soon tears began to stain my face.

“It’s rude to stare,” a girl, H, chastised her friend. And then I continued my battle.

Mrs. H pronounced my name correctly during roll call not too long afterwards, “See! I told you I would get it right on the last day!”

I didn’t react and a boy, L, nudged me, but I couldn’t break my concentration.

I wouldn’t see these people again, whether I won against the darkness or not. I was transferring to a different high school.

I had several signatures in my yearbook that were signed that day and when I read them years later, I was amazed at how blind the darkness had made me.

And then there was N. Somehow the news of my transfer hadn’t reached him until the last minute and so he was adamant in staying near me in the afternoon. I’m not sure I remember how many times he hugged me goodbye, but honestly, it was the highlight of my day. Even for just a second, I forgot about the darkness.

The darkness stayed with me a week longer and then left rather abruptly. It was only a dream, but I had died after saving a church daycare center whilst escaping from a serial killer. I had run out into the backyard of my parents’ house, only a few yards away from the lake I had considered drowning in, and found myself amidst a makeshift street-fighting ring, full of my brother’s friends. I took on the first opponent and the second… until I couldn’t take much more. Then I died. A vigil at the end of the street brought my soul back and when I awoke from the dream, the darkness was gone. Only light remained. It was like there was a battle for my soul and the good guys had won.

U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (Click this link to chat online or for Spanish or Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Assistance)

Crisis Services Canada (Click this link to learn more about Canada’s Suicide Prevention Services and connect with responders now)

 

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