After 3 months in Denver, I am returning to New York on Tuesday.
To say I'm feeling conflicted about it would be an understatement. The majority of me is SO excited to be back with my team, my friends, boyfriend, and Tubs. I'm excited to return to a routine, with appointments, classes, and my internship. I also miss NYC like crazy.
I was reflecting today on how insane the past year was. I graduated from college last May, had a whirlwind summer, then moved to NYC and started graduate school right away. If I mapped it out, I was in a full blown relapse in my eating disorder from about October-January. And it got really bad.
I spent my entire first semester of grad school sick and engaging in my eating disorder. I didn't have a lot of hope and it felt like the only constant and sure thing in my life.
I spent my entire second semester of grad school in an intensive level of care, working to return my mind and body to stability and health. I had such an amazing level of support, both with meals, and my emotional wellbeing, that I felt like I could conquer everything and relapse was not an option.
I spent my entire summer at home, recovering from major shoulder surgery. I've been out of my element, so to speak, but also surrounded by family who have helped me so much with a difficult recovery. Being around my family has made it easier to abstain from my eating disorder behaviors; when they make breakfast, I eat it. When everyone sits down together for dinner, I join them. The decision making process isn't there for me. So a lot of the anxiety is removed.
So I'm conflicted. I've spent the last year either very sick, in treatment, or surrounded by people who have helped take away a lot of the power of the ED voice by making decisions for me.
Once I go back to New York, I'm starting over again. I'm going to be in a similar situation that I was in last fall, receiving outpatient treatment, and having to work really hard to shut the ED voice down and not relapse again.
I know that I have a much stronger level of recovery now than I did last year at this time. I have a solid support team who communicates with each other regularly, and who work tirelessly to ensure that I stay in recovery.
And yet, I'm terrified.
My eating disorder thrives off of "excuses" and change and freedom are two big triggers for this. It loves to lie to me and tell me that once I'm the one making decisions for my meals again, ED will be back in charge. It loves to give me false excuses of why I can't do the right thing: "You don't have enough time to eat", "You can't eat in class," "It's too expensive to eat out, you'll eat when you get home." All of these excuses trigger restriction and eventual relapse for me. Every single time.
So I'm scared. I'm worried about being back to being more independent and having to tell ED to shut the fuck up whenever he tells me to skip breakfast or forgo buying a snack when I'm out and about. I know that I'm strong enough to make it through the rocky parts of recovery, but I can't help but listen when ED tells me that I wasn't strong enough then, what's the difference now? He likes to remind me that I relapsed once, and therefore it can happen again.
It's going to be a power struggle, that's for sure. And some days it will be easier. I will eat all my meals and feel little guilt, and I'll be okay. And some days it'll be harder and I have to learn to be easy on myself. Struggle is part of the recovery process. No one ever made a full recovery from an eating disorder and said it was easy.
I guess what I'm trying to figure out is what my new "normal" will be. I don't even know what that word means anymore. And I know it can take a while to establish a new routine, a new sense of being in recovery and actually doing it.
I don't know what the next couple of months are going to look like, but one thing is for sure, I'm not letting ED win. I'm going to keep fighting.
I won't lie, recovery from a mental illness is exhausting. This is especially true this summer, as I've been struggling being away from my friends, boyfriend, and support team in NYC for this long while simultaneously recovering from major shoulder surgery and not being able to do things that I used to be able to.
Recovery is hard as hell, and somedays there is nothing I want to do more than quit--just give up and listen to the voice that screams at me all the time with the hope that if I just listened and relapsed, it'd finally quit talking so loud.
I'm tired of my eating disorder and body image getting in the way of me being able to enjoy much-needed time with my boyfriend when he visited.
I'm tired of the cruel and ridiculous things that come into my mind when I eat something like tortilla chips. They're "not safe" so my brain ridicules me and makes me feel like shit for having them.
I'm tired of the paralyzing anxiety that creeps up on me out of nowhere, making me worry endlessly about things out of my control, telling me that I will be unsuccessful in the future, and physically wrecking my body.
I'm tired of the depression leaving me without energy, keeping me in bed all day, and telling me that I'm worthless and a burden to others.
Let's face it. Mental illness sucks. It's not glamorous, or fun, or "quirky". They're complex diseases that can affect someone's entire life.
And sometimes, like this afternoon where my stomach is in horrible pain due to me having an "unsafe" food, and my brain is running a million miles an hour about how I won't get an internship for the fall, I have to ask:
"Why can't I just be normal?!"
But, as DBT says, fighting against reality and acceptance causes suffering.
The truth, and the facts are, that I have mental illnesses. I may not like them, they may make me miserable a lot of the time, but they're there. And I can't really change them by getting angry, asking "why me?!" and wishing that I had been born with a brain that fired more "normally".
So, even though it's tough, and frustrating, I have to keep going. I have to keep fighting, taking my meds, engaging in self care, working on the tough stuff in therapy, and knowing that the best course of action for myself is one where I'm living in recovery.
I think it's kind of a misconception that recovery means everything will just be better all the time. That's not what it is, though.
Recovery means a life that's worth living. A life that doesn't get rid of the mental illnesses, but makes them more manageable and easier to cope with. It means that you don't let these completely control you, but they simply become something that's part of your life.
So while it's frustrating and I wish I could say that the bad days ended once I went through treatment, that's just not true. That's not how life works.
Life is messy, and hard, and wonderful and amazing. And so is recovery.
It's times like these where I remind myself of where I've been and where I want to go. I know that if I had not accepted these illnesses for what they are and committed myself to recovery I could NEVER be doing the things that I do. I would not be steps closer to living the life I want, and more than anything, I would be unhealthy, and unhappy.
So when I ask, "Why can't I be normal?!" I recognize that there would not have been the growth and change that I've had from being the way I am. I guess I have to choose the messy and hard and amazing and wonderful that is recovery and deciding not to fight against the fact that I have these illnesses, but fighting for the life I want.
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.
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.