Monday, November 23, 2015

My Story, Part 9

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 8, click here.

I will take a brief hiatus from the nitty gritty of pain and suffering and angst and struggle that sometimes seemed to be my life and tell a fun, fun story. I tell this story because this is really what came next. I also tell it because, next to my meeting Jesus, meeting this person was the most significant event of my life. And I tell this because, as God arranges things for fun some times, I met this person 29 years ago today, November 23, 1986.

I moved to Asheville, NC in June 1986, right out of college, to take my first job as a dietitian at the local hospital. It was my first time out on my own and I didn't know a soul in town. Asheville was not then the hopping hipsterville haven of young adults it is now. I was lonely.

I had attended a weekly meeting of Christian singles for a while but found it hard to connect. Perhaps due to my growing up in the private school community of Chattanooga, I was socially and culturally limited in experience. The people I met at the group seemed in awe that I had gone to, and actually finished, college The guys stared at me like I was a bug in a jar, excited for a new specimen to hit the market, and the girls...well...I was the new competition. I actually had a few dates with guys in their mid-30s. One of them invited me to dinner in his singlewide. I had never even known anybody who lived in a singlewide, so sheltered I was in my upper middle class upbringing. It was all a bit disorienting. Nowhere in sight was the handsome Christian Yuppie I hoped to marry.

One Saturday in November I met a neighbor who invited me to visit his church. They had just started a single adults Sunday School class. I had visited there once before and wanted to give it another shot.

So Sunday morning I walked into the room. My attire was part professional and part little old lady with my blue Pendleton wool suit, black pumps, and satin bow in my hair (looking, Matt says, like my mother had dressed me). There was a crowd of people milling around and a nice guy walked up to me and handed me a penny for one of those introduction games.

His name was Matt Barker and he and I had a lot in common. He had attended Covenant College, outside of Chattanooga, and had even spent many years of his childhood there, playing with kids I knew in high school.

After church a large group of us went out to lunch. Matt says I talked too much. I think I was just so thrilled to be around people that I connected with. As they were leaving the restaurant, Matt's roommate, Gregg, asked him what he thought of me. Matt replied that I seemed nice but talked too much. He asked Gregg what he thought of me and Gregg replied, "She's lovely. Marry her."

I cannot say that it was love at first sight, because it wasn't. I was lonely. He was a bit lonely himself. But I had my vision of who I was going to marry and Matt, well, he had a four figure income, drove a 1974 brown VW bus we called the Rolling Turd, and dressed in nothing but cross country race T-shirts and blue jeans. (For the record, I was not the artsy, fartsy girl of his dreams, either.) But we clung together and over the next few months played endless games of Trivial Pursuit while listening to the Weather Channel and soon discovered that we had become fast friends.

He moved to Atlanta for a job and two months later I followed him. Over the next several months we dated and broke up and dated and broke up and the only difference between whether we were dating or not was if we were dating, we kissed. If we weren't, we didn't. He became the only person, and perhaps the first person, that I truly trusted.

It wasn't all fun and games. It was easy at times for him to worry about my insecurities. It was easy for me to fear desertion. But one day a friend and wise counselor pushed him off the fence and he proposed. We were married May 7, 1988.

As I said before, there is nothing outside of my relationship with God that compares to the significance of this relationship. I say this not only as a wife but as a person who has struggled with mental illness all her life.

On so many occasions over the years has has said these most beautiful words to me:

"You might hurt. But at least you do not have to hurt alone."
Those words are worth more than gold.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My Story, Part 8

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 7, click here.

For years my story stopped right there. Girl meets Jesus and isn't that grand. It is true that that was the turning point in my life. But just as God rarely brings diabetes or thyroid disease to a halt when somebody comes to know him in a new way, neither does he wave his magic wand and send mental illness out the window.

There are an astonishingly large number of people out there who believe that mental illness is just a spiritual condition. I will refrain from using nasty words right now and just say that I disagree. I believe that humans are way too complex. That answers are rarely so simple.

The psychologists tend to have the nature vs. nurture debate. Is it genetic or is it environmental? Or both? But they often leave out a spiritual dimension. The churches (not all, but many at least within the church) have held that it is a spiritual issue. But they often ignore the contribution of biology and life experience, laying the burden of recovery on the patient "getting right with Jesus."

I believe that it is all of the above. You cannot ignore any dimension. Sure, my wiring, my biology predispose me to a variety of physical and mental health issues. Sure, my life experience affects how I perceive myself and life and respond to situations. Sure, my soul is not at peace unless connected the One who created it.

It can take years and years of work and experience to tease out what is being which part of which struggle in your life. It did for me. And often they were so inextricably linked teasing them out was impossible. They all need to be acknowledged and addressed.

That said, life did pick up for me after I gave my life to God in August 1981. There were still plenty of struggles at home, but God provided the excellent psychiatrist and a wonderful registered dietitian to help with my fear of eating. In fact, I was so impressed I chose to major in nutrition in college in hopes of one day doing the same.

But none of this was the end of my struggles. I had plenty of bouts of anxiety and depression (along with years of learning not to be afraid of food) throughout college. Some years were harder. Some years were good.

My Story, Part 7

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 6, click here.

Some time in late July, 1981, I was admitted into the local hospital. It was from my hospital bed that I watched the Royal Wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. A welcome diversion.
But I had lost hope.

Through all of this I felt that, at some point, I would have to hit rock bottom. That time came. And God was there at the bottom waiting for me.

I had grown up in the church. I believed in God but I had not clue of him working in my life in any way. I wanted him to fix me but didn't know how to connect with him, this distant and mysterious Being. One day, in desperation, I opened a Bible I had brought with me. I looked down. I read. (This technique is commonly called Bible Bingo and is not a recommended means for biblical understanding but, in my case, God used it anyway.) It practically screamed at me.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28
For the first time I actually had hope. If God could use all this hell I had been through...all the crap...all the heartache for good....I was blown away. I kept reading. Somewhere along the line, over the next few days, I began to more clearly understand the gospel. My need. God's provision. The wonderful gift of grace. That I didn't have to jump through hoops and earn God's love or care or direction. It all made sense now.
Anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. Romans 10:13
Next to that verse, I wrote the date. August 13, 1981.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

My Story, Part 6

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 5, click here.

From there things pretty much went to hell in a handbasket. I  missed most of the last 2 months of my junior year in high school. At this point I was considered a freak, or so it seemed, and I felt like one.

My mother, having struggled with anxiety and depression much of her own life, had never recovered emotionally from my parents' divorce and the stress of my situation brought everything crashing down. Those close to my mother began blaming me for everything wrong. I was responsible for her breakdowns. Her hysteria. Her depression. Amazingly enough, one person suggested it was my fault that she had an abscess tooth. And I must be doing it all on purpose.

The one saving grace during this period was my psychiatrist. After the trip through the nuthouse I had switched to a different one. He met with me. He met with my mother. And then he did something he said he had never done before. He gave me his home phone number in case I needed him. Being the good girl that I was I never violated that boundary and called him at home. But I had never encountered somebody who cared about me like that.

By July of that year, in spite of the work with my new psychiatrist, I was in a bad place again. Even though I had perhaps gained 4-5 lbs. since my exit from the nuthouse, I was losing it again and losing hope. There comes a time when, due to lack of adequate nourishment, no amount of mental health care will make sense any more. My Internal Medicine doctor said hospitalization was the next step. I was too close to the edge.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Story, Part 5

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 4, click here.

I don't know exactly what I expected of my experience at a psychiatric hospital, but whatever it was, it was not what I got. Of course, the people there had no idea what to do with me. Eating disorders had just come over the horizon, understanding was limited, and there was almost no successful track record for treatment.

The first few days were spent settling in, talking to lots of different people, and participating in yet more psychological testing. Because I was 17 I was eventually put on the adolescent program, which was me and about half a dozen juvenile delinquents. We were put on a rewards system for good behavior and I racked up points like gangbusters. This was all well and good but I wasn't improving. If anything, I was continuing to lose weight. Enter: Behavior Modification.

Here was the idea. They would put me in a room by myself at the end of the hall with a view of a brick wall. They would take away everything I had, except clothing and my toothbrush. And then every time I gained half a pound, they would give me something back. Half a pound and I get back my hairdryer. Half a pound and I get back my brush. Half a pound and I get to eat in the dining room. But I couldn't do it. I was so far gone mentally, emotionally, physically, that the program offered no hope. I couldn't see how I would ever get out. It was prison.

After 3 weeks in the psychiatric hospital, I was worse off than before, my weight bottoming out at 82 lbs. Why, oh, why, oh, why couldn't I figure out why I was such a mess? Why was I so broken that not even the experts could fix me?

My mother decided that it was not working either and withdrew me, against medical advice. I was thrilled and convinced that now everything would get better.

Monday, November 9, 2015

My Story, Part 4

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 3, click here.

My plan was working. Finally, I was doing something right. I did quit drinking. That right there allowed me to shave 5-7 lbs. off of my pudgy-to-me figure. And I did start studying. Well, at least I opened the books. And then I started to lose weight in earnest. And I got good at it. For the very first time in my life I was actually good at something. But no matter what I weighed, I wanted to weigh just a little bit less, just to have that buffer. Just to be safe.

By the fall of my junior year in high school I was down to about 95 lbs. I knew I had a problem. And so in October of 1980, exactly 5 years from my first visit to the psychologist, I went back.

This was 1980, however. The understanding of eating disorders was severely limited. This time I saw a psychiatrist. To be honest I cannot remember a single thing about it my appointments with him.

 I can hardly remember a single thing about that entire year, which is a bummer because I made the best grades of my life. I had isolated myself socially and, considering I never ate, really didn't have the energy to do much anyway. It was the year that I learned all that Spanish vocabulary that I will never be able to recall. All that work for nothing, it seems.

One thing I do remember is how terribly I wanted to not be what I was. I didn't want to have Anorexia Nervosa. I didn't want to spend my days and hours and minutes worried about food and calories and pounds. I didn't want to be so alone and isolated and hollow. I didn't want the terror that I felt inside all the damn time.

One day, in English class, we watched a slide show of Dante's Inferno. There was a slide of a woodcut illustration. It was skeletons drowning in a lake of fire. And I saw those skeletons. And I saw me. But still, I couldn't stop.

Then came the day that Ronald Reagan was shot. I won't forget it. I walked in the door from school. There was all the hubbub on TV while my mother told me that I wouldn't be going to school the next day. I would be going to a psychiatric hospital.

My Story, Part 3

For Part 1, click here
For Part 2, click here.

The rest of my 8th grade year in school is a bit of a blur. Lots of dieting and trying to fit in. Lots of eating more than I wanted. Lots of longing to be beautiful and therefore loved.

By 9th grade I was ready to come out of my good girl shell. I hated life and found that if I drank, it felt good for a while. My grades plummeted but I didn't care. Guys liked "dumb" girls, so I thought. Drinking became an every weekend activity. 

New Year's Eve 1978, I fell in love. This guy told me he loved me, too. We would drink together and I would cry. After a month of my affections, he moved on to greener pastures. I was devestated. 

Anybody who has ever had a broken teen heart knows the drama. I cried for months on end and wrote lots of really bad teenage-esque poetry. I had become somebody I didn't want to be but had no idea who I really was. On top of that, I had gained weight. Not a ton of weight, but more than I wanted and more than was deemed culturally appropriate by the going standards. In my eyes I was fat, depressed, and dumb.

I was never as popular as my sisters. My oldest sister was a cheerleader and homecoming queen. My other sister was also a cheerleader and on the homecoming queen court. My dream was to become a cheerleader, too. That would mean I was of value. I failed. Two years in a row I tried out and failed. In fact, I failed at just about everything I tried for. I felt worthless.

Toward the end of my sophomore year in high school I was disgusted by my life and decided to make a change.  So I quit drinking, I started studying, and I decided to lose weight.

My Story, Part 2

For Part 1, click here.

I grew up in a culture obsessed with thinness. I cannot remember a time when being thin was not the goal of my mother and every other female I knew. Being thin was the very definition of beauty. My mother herself had so much shame surrounding her body. I would watch as she did her exercises, which included slapping furiously at the adipose tissue on her thighs, as if she could beat it away by shear disgust.

Life had gone relatively smoothly for me since I had gotten off of the antidepressant at the end of 6th grade. I had grown 6 inches taller and come out of my pathetically shy shell a bit. I even had a boyfriend for a few months. But the glory days didn't last long.

The fall of 1977 started the long downhill into the pathetic years of adolescence. In October, just before my 14th birthday, I got the Grill of Shame, AKA braces. If I didn't feel ugly before, this did the trick.

A couple of weeks later my mother informed me that she and my father were divorcing after 31 years of marriage. At the time it didn't really phase me. I knew he had been gone a lot. I knew he had been unfaithful. And I never had had a close relationship with him. He had always frightened me.

Over the next few weeks I noticed various pieces of furniture from the house being moved to the garage. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving my sister and I drove into the driveway after school and the garage was empty. My father was gone.

There are times now that I cannot shake that awful sense of abandonment that I felt at that moment. Two days later, on Thanksgiving, my mother fell apart. She screamed and wept and fell to the floor as she realized that the life that she had with my father was over. He had left her for a much younger (and supposedly more beautiful) woman.  Being the youngest of the four children, I just stood there helpless. Watching my world crumble.

The next day I started my first diet.

My Story, Part 1

I was always an incredibly sensitive and anxious kid. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t afraid and certain that something bad was going to happen. Images I saw on television were scorched into my mind. The quicksand on the Tarzan movie was waiting to suck me down when I hopped out of bed. The disease that took the girl in the song on the radio was just around the corner. I had all the symptoms. I didn’t know what they were, but I had them.

Then in the spring of 1975, I saw it. The last portion of a bad TV movie about a ship in the hands of the devil. Dead people came back to life possessed by Satan himself. I was terrified. Over the next few months I couldn’t get that out of my mind. Any sense of peace and safety that I had ever had (which was not much to begin with) was gone. It was up to me to keep myself safe and I really wasn’t up to the task.

I tried, though. I made up rules for my life. Rituals to protect me. Turn the light on and off 6 times and the devil would get me, but 7 times and I was safe. Certain numbers scared me to death. Every shadow meant I was toast.

I ceased to function and was finally sent to a psychologist. I never told anybody my fears. I didn’t know how to verbalize my horror. They did all sorts of testing and determined I was a mess because I was gifted but couldn’t function under stress and told the teacher to go easy on me. Then they put me on an antidepressant.

I suppose that I had a diagnosis. Depression? Anxiety? I have recently read that OCD was not even an official diagnosis back then and I doubt the professionals even knew of the mental gyrations and games I played to keep myself safe. (Interestingly enough, I have read that the average age of onset is 11 years old. I met with the psychologist the week before my 12th birthday.)

The antidepressant worked and, after about 6 months, it seemed like I had grown out of my “problems.” If only…..