Welcome to my new blog series within LivingFreeC: The Shoulder Series. I've talked briefly before about my struggles with chronic pain but as my surgery inches closer (exactly 3 weeks away!), I thought it would be time to explore this a little bit more on here. Seeing as I will be in a sling for 2 months this summer recovering from my shoulder surgery, I thought it would be important to blog about my process to healing both physically and mentally. I truly believe there are unique intersections between physical illness or injury and mental health, and I'm excited to document my progress here.
I truly believe that mental health and physical health are so interrelated because you can't truly be "healthy" without considering mental health, and I've started to see first-hand how much physical health can impact upon mental health, too.
I've been struggling with chronic pain since April 9th, 2009. I remember that date clearly because I had to fill it out on every single form for the first couple of years, and the numbers just kind of stuck. That means I have been dealing with this injury for 9 years this spring. I'm only 22.
I was in the water from as early on as I can remember--swim lessons turned into a local YMCA swim team, which turned into years of competitive swimming. I loved it. It was truly where I found the most peace and was something that I was so happy doing. On that day in April I was in 8th grade at swim practice. I remember feeling some kind of popping or clicking in my shoulder and then being in severe pain the rest of the night. Two weeks of R&R went by with no relief, so I went to the first (of many) doctors. They thought it may have been a strain, and I had my first MRI (which would ultimately be 1 of 3!) Physical therapy came and went and was ultimately unsuccessful.
I started high school and decided to swim on their team as well as continuing on with my club team. My shoulder was still not acting the way it should, and eventually by my junior year we had gone back to several other orthopedic specialists in the area who again were not totally sure what was going on with my shoulder, cue the 2nd MRI with rather unremarkable results. I was growing frustrated as I loved swimming so much but my only other option for pain relief looked like quitting the thing I loved most. I was ultimately able to finish out my senior year on my high school team which was a HUGE win for me, as I was in pain or taped up the entire season.
To make a long 9-year story short, I tried swimming in college but couldn't do it because of the pain. I tried to ignore it and accept this constant, nagging, sharp pain as a part of my life until this past summer before my first year of graduate school. Everything with my shoulder has been SO bad that I couldn't take it anymore. I recognized that by trying to ignore the pain it was severely impacting my quality of life (parallels to mental health avoidance, anyone?). We finally got answers this past August. I have a labral tear and a partial dislocation in my shoulder, both of which can be fixed and will hopefully provide me tremendous relief this May.
It is incredible the impact that this injury and chronic pain have had on me over the past 9 years. I can't sleep on my left side, I can barely lift and carry things, and I've felt really depressed about living with chronic pain for the majority of my adult life. There have been times I've been completely crushed, and felt totally helpless because I couldn't carry my groceries or struggled to bring my laundry home from down the street. This type of long-term, unrelenting pain truly does a number on your brain because our bodies are wired to respond to pain, always, because it's a threat to the body. This chronic low-grade stress has left me weary, frustrated, and ultimately pretty miserable over the last 9 years.
I'm so hopeful that my surgery will bring relief, even just the smallest amount. I am hopeful that writing and sharing my experiences will help me (and others!) bridge the gap between chronic pain and mental health. I'm excited, hopeful, and slightly terrified but know that this summer will bring a much needed change to my life, no matter what the outcome. Stay tuned!
Hear me out here. My mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder) are incredibly hard. I have been through some of the lowest lows. I have experienced thoughts and feelings I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
I am extremely grateful for everything that approaching my mental illnesses head on has brought me.
Yes, there has been pain. And there’s also been an end to the suffering as I’ve started to work through some of my most painful feelings and experiences, instead of avoiding and ignoring them.
Yes, it has been hard. And it’s shown me how strong I am and how I can conquer anything.
Yes, there have been days where I’ve wanted to just give up and give in to every urge and behavior because it would have been “easier”. And each of the times I persevered showed me how brave I am in the face of adversity.
Yes, there have been relationships loved and lost due to people not getting it or not wanting to. And I have also been introduced to incredible souls that I would have missed out on if I hadn’t begun recovery.
Yes, there have been experiences and opportunities taken away from me because I was sick. And deciding to recover has given me so many more chances at greatness that I never would have had otherwise.
Yes, I get frustrated and disappointed and feel so low and hopeless I could scream. And I can also recognize the wonderful gifts that having mental illnesses have brought me. I can hold them together, as a dialectic, and realize they can both exist in the same space.
It is so easy to resent the things I can’t change–my brain chemistry, your genes, the environment… whatever it is that could have caused the onset of the mental illnesses I am struggling with. And it’s certainly easy to feel like everything is unfair, the “why me?!” kind of attitude towards the current situation.
And it’s also important to try not to stay too stuck in that mindset. The best way I’ve clawed myself out of hopelessness and the dark places has been to try to acknowledge the positive. The more I’ve done this, the better I’ve felt, even if it’s only temporary.
And so, yes, I would say that I am grateful for my situation, especially when it’s the hardest. I can confidently say that I have grown and changed for the better in the process of recovery. My life is certainly different than it was pre-mental illness or pre-recovery, and for that I am grateful.
I am strong, brave, and dedicated to creating a change, not just in my life but in the lives of others. I am no longer afraid of hard times or the painful stuff. I have become a better person and I couldn’t be more thankful for the long, windy path that has brought me to exactly where I am today.
A couple months ago I was in session and having a tough time explaining how I was feeling in relation to my eating disorder. I kept getting angry at it, because well, it's illogical and wants to ruin lives, and I didn't know how best to explain it. My therapist then suggested that I think about my eating disorder as if it were Donald Trump and we spent the rest of the session cracking up at how insanely accurate this was. If you're still having a hard time understanding an eating disorder, look no further, he's our lovely Commander in Chief.
Here are 5 reasons that my eating disorder is secretly Donald Trump:
1. My eating disorder is just charming enough to have snuck in before I knew how manipulative it could be, and a couple times after I knew just how bad it was for me.
2. My eating disorder is a pathological liar, and nothing it ever says to me is based in any fact in any way. Sound familiar?
3. Not only is my eating disorder a liar, it's also dangerous to listen to. It tells me things like recovery is a bad idea, that I should stay in my relapse, and that the only thing that matters is being thin and giving my life away to the eating disorder.
4. My eating disorder, much like our wonderful president, has a constant stream of chatter and bullshit. If we listen to every single thing that comes out of his mouth (or from his Twitter), we'd drive ourselves crazy. Of course, there are times that we have to pay attention to what he's saying and keep ourselves out of danger. But we have to realize that we have to block out the majority of what he says to keep our sanity.
5. Finally, there is absolutely no reasoning with my eating disorder. It's ED's way or the highway. There is no "recovery" for ED, it's all about getting sicker and devoting all of my time to ED. Oh, I have other relationships that I want to attend to? Doesn't matter to ED! There is no logic, rhyme or reason with my eating disorder around. Some could argue the same for our current leadership.
Most importantly, beyond being hilarious (I think) and amusing my therapist and I in sessions, thinking of my ED as Donald Trump is really helpful for my recovery. It gives me a way to relate the dictator in my head to something in real life, and makes me like my eating disorder even less. There are days where I want to revert to the eating disorder and go back to times where life was "easier". My therapist will check the facts on me and ask if it's Charlotte telling me that, or if it's Donald Trump. It's also a lot easier to tell Donald Trump to shut up when he's taking over my mind!
(This post was not intended to offend anyone, just entertain me. If you can't poke fun in between all the dark, heavy shit, then what can you do?)
I'm at a point in my recovery where I feel no shame saying that I have an eating disorder. I feel like I can talk about it until I'm blue in the face--especially because so much of the last 3 months for me have been eating disorder focused while I've been in treatment. It's harder for me to talk about my other diagnoses.
I have persistent depressive disorder, as well as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
And I feel so much shame in admitting that. I have been much more comfortable talking about my eating disorder and my anxiety, because to me they feel "safer" to talk about. In reality, I have a clinical team of 5 professionals who not only help take care of me, they know if I was ever "unsafe" I would have help right away. They're good at what they do, and I feel totally supported and protected by them.
Depression is common. Over 100 million people worldwide and 6 million people in the U.S. have had at least one depressive episode in their lifetimes. Eating disorders and depression go hand-in-hand, and research has revealed that eating disorders are diagnosed with other mood disorders in up to 80% of individuals with EDs. These are most commonly depression and anxiety disorders, and personality disorders. So it makes a lot of sense that I have a nice trifecta with my eating disorder, anxiety, and depression.
I truly believe that a major part of my relapse came from my attempts to avoid dealing with my depression. I had never even spoken the words with regard to myself until I moved to New York City in August. I had been to therapy and ED treatment for over two years and I never once spoke about it. And yet, as I found myself in a brand new city, trying to adapt to grad school and the post-college life, it was all I could think about. I was doing "alright" in my recovery at this point, and found myself with a new therapist who was wonderful and I felt comfortable enough to really open up to. When I began speaking about my experiences, it felt more natural and comfortable in a couple of weeks than I did in 2 years with my college therapist.
And so, eventually, I opened up about my depression. I had never put any words behind it before and the reason I was comfortable to even say it out loud was because I had creeped on my medical records over the summer after I found that I had access to them online. Of course, I was curious and was scrolling when I found the diagnoses "positive depression screening" and "depressed mood". It was the first time I had thought I could identify with this label, and the name began to fit the facts of how I had been struggling beneath the surface leading up to this past summer.
Not so spoiler alert: using my eating disorder behaviors in order to avoid feeling and expressing my depression did not work. The less I nourished myself, the more the symptoms of depression increased in severity. I got to a place where I was extremely depressed, relapsing, and at the same time trying to avoid the feelings and the stigma of having depression. My eating disorder behaviors were so out of control that my sessions began to shift from doing the hard work I wanted to avoid to getting me to eat again and to admit to a higher level of care. My avoidance only made things worse.
The problem is, we have all these pre-conceived notions about what depression is supposed to look like. Society depicts someone struggling as being stuck in their beds all day, unable to function or take care of themselves or their responsibilities. And in some cases, that's true. My therapist calls my depression more "high functioning" or that I come off as being "apparently competent". And I was still really struggling anyway and not taking care of myself by engaging in ED behaviors. We need to break the stigma of what a depressed person "looks" or "acts" like and recognize that many more of us are struggling than we may want to believe.
In October, I got the semicolon tattooed onto my wrist. This is part of the semicolon project, which represents the semicolon in writing; the author has the chance to continue the sentence when they could have ended it. It’s a reminder that you are the author of your story, and you have the choice to keep going, even when it feels too hard.
I look at this every day as a reminder that my thoughts and my depression are not in control of me. I don't have to be ashamed of having depression, or of any of my mental illnesses. And I will be here.
I just bought a new camera. It's really nice--a Sony A6000. And maybe that might not seem like a huge deal to someone else, but to me, it's another indication of just how far I've come.
Having a new camera means I'm going to devote time to going out and finding beautiful things, things that I want to take pictures of. It means that I'm going to take the time to learn a new skill, and that I'll have a new way to express myself creatively. Getting into photography means that I'm getting one step further away from the eating disorder that has consumed me for so long.
Re-discovering my creativity has been one of the biggest, and least expected things that has happened to me so far in recovery. As a kid, I wrote novels, went to performing arts camps, and sang for all-city choir in middle school. I was a creative type, to put it lightly. And it felt like I was always going to be that way, until life got in the way and it felt like the only performances I would have to put on would be those related to school, career, and ultimately, my body and how far I could push myself.
There's this saying in the recovery community that when you recover from an eating disorder, you're not recovering back to where you started. You simply cannot return to the life that was so controlled by the eating disorder, because you ultimately got lost in all of the madness. Recovery is about re-discovering who you can be, and who you want to be.
And that's fucking terrifying.
You enter treatment and you have all these different ways in which you carry and define yourself. You're a great student, a kickass friend, a hard worker, a perfectionist. And yet, many of these things are also intertwined with the illness, leading you to value being a perfectionist over having a knack for painting or being creative.
So you get to this point. Treatment is working, you can see that bright as day. And that's amazing and so scary, because that means you're at a place where you can decide what from the past you're going to keep, what's served you, and then decide what you're going to look like on the other side. Will you be more creative, start a blog and submit pieces to be published? Will you take up a hobby, a really hobby, and start taking beautiful photos? Will you simply have more time to appreciate life when you're not constantly being controlled by the eating disorder?
My eating disorder wants me to remind you all that I'm still struggling. The fight's not over yet. And I agree. I've come a long way, and I still have a ways to go. But if I think about the values pies that I made a couple months back, the eating disorder is getting edged out. I WANT to be creative, and I WANT to enjoy life. These are things I simply would never have had the time or energy for when I was engaging in behaviors. You don't really have a lot of free brain space when your life is consumed by food, exercise, and body.
And so, I guess I'm at a strange turning point. I'm almost 23, and I'm reinventing myself, right now. I finally for the first time in forever have the power and the freedom to decide what I want to do and who I want to be. I don't think there's anything more freeing than that.
Hi, I'm Charlotte! I'm a 24 year old navigating life in NYC and mental health recovery. I am passionate about public health and eliminating stigma.