Life, Death, and Pizza

Poem by Nayyirah Waheed


Tonight I ate pizza for dinner.

It isn’t often, but whenever I do, I remember this girl that I was in eating disorder treatment with. She was there for anorexia and bulimia, and she discharged halfway through my stay. She seemed to be in a really good place.

I found out later through mutual friends that two weeks after she discharged, she attempted suicide.

She slit her wrists after eating three pieces of pizza.

Notice I didn’t say “because” she ate the pizza. She didn’t try to kill herself over that. If you’ll forgive the metaphor, the pizza was just the trigger on an already loaded gun- a girl with a deadly psychiatric disease in a crisis state.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. At 20%,  that means 1 in 5 of us die. Many of those deaths are suicides. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, and eating disorders “not otherwise specified” (aka OSFED) are all deadly, cunning, terrifyingly insidious diseases that need comprehensive treatment to combat. A custom combination of physical medicine, psychiatric medicine, nutritional care, psychological counseling, life skills, and spiritual care (among other treatment options) is essential for helping people get into solid, lasting recovery. With proper treatment, that mortality rate drops to 4%.

As I ate pizza for dinner tonight, I reflected on a time when dying because I ate too much of the “wrong” food seemed reasonable. I remembered a time when that girl’s decision made some sense to me.

And I thanked God for the fact that it no longer does. 

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 

Matthew 6:25

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Ripping Down the Walls: Our Stories Are What Heal Us (Part 3)

The walls we build around us to keep out sadness, also keeps out joy

In my final post, I’d like to address my fellow sufferers of mental illness and chronic physical illness.

So to begin with, it sucks being a patient, and knowing that you have to be one for the foreseeable future– and let’s be real, for most of us it will be the rest of our lives– that just. Plain. Sucks.

It is, however, what it is. So I decided to accept the reality of my life– the fact that there are certain things I will not be able to do, and certain things I will need have help to do, and certain things I will have to do to maintain stability that other people don’t– and not be bitter about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t get pissed off and frustrated at times with the limitations my mental and physical illnesses place on my life. It just means I don’t live there.

Also, it’s not all limitations. My illnesses grant me certain skills and abilities other people do not have, too. I have a depth of compassion for people that I would not if I didn’t deal with these issues. I have an extraordinary level of creativity and intelligence, and when I write I have a deep well of emotional experience to draw from. I will be a better nurse because I’ve been a patient and a better priest because of the deep spiritual work I’ve done to heal and the faith that sustains me through these trials. I will be able to spot mental illness in my patients that come in for physical problems before other nurses. These are all useful and valuable things.

I inherited bipolar from my father, who inherited it from his mother. It’s a family legacy. It became a crisis when I was fourteen. At that point I had my first major depressive episode. By fifteen I was cutting myself every day, my anorexia, which had begun at age nine, and my bulimia, which had just started, were in full bloom, and I was abusing prescription drugs (that I got from my father, actually. He was a surgeon.) The day I had planned to commit suicide a teacher found my sliced up arms, informed my mother, and I was admitted to my first psychiatric unit. It was the first of many. My bipolar was not correctly diagnosed until I was twenty-one, which is typical; it takes on average six years for bipolar to be correctly identified and treated. Due to other co-morbid issues– the complex PTSD, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, etc– it took another six years before I was stable on medication.

I have been on some type of psychiatric medication non-stop since I was fourteen. Times when I have tried to go off of it have resulted in suicidal depression, panic, mania, and even psychosis. Going off of medication is simply not an option for me; my brain needs it to function. I am absolutely willing to put up with taking twenty pills a day, dealing with side effects, and seeing a psychiatrist 2-4 times a year if it means I stay functional and sane. Without question and without hesitation. Even though this is one reason that I can never be pregnant. I value my sanity that much.

It’s a terrible thing to be afraid of your own mind, but I have been, and I don’t want to be again. So I will do whatever I have to to remain stable.

Medication alone is not a cure. It is a tool that works in combination with therapy, good nutrition, enough sleep, healthy social interaction, and other forms of self-care; it’s an individual process depending on your illness and your needs. Do not let anyone tell you that “medication is toxic” or it will hurt you or convince you to get off of it because it makes them uncomfortable. Fuck that noise. This is your life and if it works for you, then use it. At the same time, don’t let anyone force meds on you if you feel they don’t work for you. They’re not for everyone. Again, it depends on your diagnosis. Don’t let your diagnostic labels become who you are. You are not bipolar or depression. You have bipolar or depression. You are a person separate from your illness. Don’t get too comfortable in inpatient treatment, ever. It too, is just a tool. If you take meds, I suggest you get a medication organizer and fill it once a week to keep you on track. It may also be helpful to keep a journal to track your symptoms. When you see your doctor, go over it with him/her. Have a list of people to call when you need help for specific things; I have a list that’s like, “when I need a pep talk,” “when I need a listening ear,” “when I need unconditional love,” “when I needs spiritual support,” “when I need immediate help.” I have those people and their phone numbers in my cell phone in a special file. And for God’s sake: if you are feeling suicidal, do not mess around. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Counselors are available there twenty-four hours a day to help you if you are in crisis. (Also available at National Suicide Prevention Lifeline where you can chat online with counselors.)

Mental illness does not have to run your life. As long as you take care of yourself, it can be manageable.

Physical chronic illness is similar. It takes diligent self-care to manage. I’m doing so much better in this area thanks to being on Plexus. My pain levels have gone dramatically down and my energy has gone dramatically up. I’m able to focus to get things done. A lot of the side effects I had from my psychiatric medication– bloating, constipation, brain fog, etc– have been completely resolved by the Plexus products I take. It’s really remarkable and like nothing else I’ve ever found. So if you have an autoimmune disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, or are trying to manage the side effects of psychiatric medication, I highly recommend you give Plexus a try or at least check it out. (You can do so here.)

This isn’t a Plexus ad, however, so let me say that managing chronic illness also involves making sure, like with everything else, that you are well-nourished, well-hydrated, well-rested, and taking all prescribed medications. Taking care of your stress is a huge factor for managing chronic physical illness as well. Get therapy or pastoral counseling. Have a spiritual practice that you do regularly. Have distractions available for when you have bad pain days; for me that means cuddling with my cat and watching netflix, cuddling with my cat and reading a novel, cuddling with my cat and doing a crossword, and maybe cuddling with my cat. If you need to and it’s possible to, take a day to stay home and rest. Never feel guilty about saying “no.” You only have this one body, and your body has some special needs. It has limits that you needs to respect, or you’ll end up paying for it by getting sick or being in extra pain. It’s easier to prevent pain/illness than to treat it later so keep that in mind, and really weigh what the cost is to your health before you make a commitment to a certain activity. I have often over-committed myself and then needed to scale back. It’s a learning process. But no one will respect your health boundaries if you don’t respect them yourself first. So make sure you do.

I hope this series has been helpful to some of you. I hope I’ve been able to impart some wisdom from my experiences and give some hope to people dealing with the same issues I have. Have compassion for yourselves and each other. Healing is possible.

 

The Lord protects and preserves them—
The Lord sustains them on their sickbed
    and restores them from their bed of illness.

 I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord;
    heal me!”

Psalm 41:2-4

 

Forgiveness: Defining and Deciding

Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Incest

When victims of violence, particularly sexual violence, are on their healing journeys, the topic of forgiveness often comes up– and it can be a very touchy subject.

Forgiveness means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, it means the total absolution of any wrongdoing on the part of the person who hurt them. For some, it goes so far as reconciliation with one’s assailant. For some, it has absolutely nothing to do with the other person, and it’s solely focused on the victim; forgiveness simply means letting go of the guilt, shame, pain and other feelings associated with the trauma. For some forgiveness simply means moving on. I know a lot of people who have been told, to their detriment, that they cannot “move past” their trauma until they “forgive.” Most of these comments come from people of a religious persuasion. Don’t get me wrong, I am a woman of deep faith and forgiveness has been part of my healing journey. However, I do not believe that it needs to be part of everyone’s journey, or that it is necessary in order for someone to heal and move past their trauma. Deciding whether or not to approach forgiveness is a very personal choice, and no one should be forced into it based on other people’s beliefs.

For me, forgiveness was definitely a spiritual process, and one that had nothing really to do with my father or other perpetrators. It had everything to do with me and my own healing. And I never really made a conscious decision to approach this; it honestly felt more like God led me down this path and I had to try to keep up.

It began with praying. I began praying for my father, for the man that raped me when I was sixteen, for all the people who had hurt me. I wasn’t ready to pray for anything good for them, so I started out praying for one thing only: that I would be their last victim. That they would never hurt anyone else.

It was a start.

After a while I was able to pray that their hearts would be turned to Christ and they would repent of their actions. I prayed that Jesus would forgive them (because I wouldn’t.)

Things really began to shift in June of 2016. When the shootings occurred in that Orlando nightclub, my priest Beth+ preached an incredible sermon. She said that it’s easy for us to be Christ-like towards the victims of mass shootings like this. It’s easy for us to be Christ-like to the families. It is not easy to be Christ-like, to love as we love ourselves, the perpetrators of these mass shootings. But what if, at some point in their lives, someone had been Christ-like towards them? Someone had loved them, helped them, supported them, taught them, the way Christ did? Would these events have occurred then?

As Beth+ was asking these questions, I found myself sobbing in the pew. At first I didn’t know why I was crying and then I realized: I was feeling empathy. Empathy for my perpetrators. For my father. For the man who raped me. For all of them. Because somewhere in their lives, they had been broken. They had been lost. Somewhere in their lives, they became gripped by sin and death. How horrible a life they must have led, to have ended up people that would commit such evil acts. How much pain they must be in.

And I didn’t know what in the hell to do with that.

I was terribly confused by this feeling of empathy. Normally, I would have gone to Katie+, the priest I had been seeing for pastoral counseling on and off for the past two years. However, she had just left for a new parish, and I was kind of feeling at loose ends. God works, though, because a priest from our sister church came to visit St. Mary’s in Katie’s+ absence. And just a few weeks later, when these feelings arose, I called on him.

Now, why did I call on a virtual stranger to help me with this? Um…good question. I still have very little information on that. All I know is that I felt God nudging me. So I heeded that, and tried not to wonder about it too much.

Going to him turned out to be an excellent decision. Through a few months of counseling with him I managed to do a huge amount of spiritual work, not just around my father, but around my grief over my infertility and my trauma in general. I accepted things that I had never accepted before, certain memories I had kept secret, even from myself; shoved into a back corner, unacknowledged, deemed unnecessary to my narrative. What I discovered is that it’s those unacknowledged things that end up controlling the narrative until you give them exposure, and dispel the shame.

As for the forgiveness part, what I had to do was really develop not only empathy, but compassion. First, compassion for myself. For myself as a child, as a teenager, for everything I endured and everything I did to survive what I endured. I completely forgave myself for everything I did to survive, everyone I hurt or lied to during my eating disorders, my self-harm, my drug abuse. I recognized the fact that those things wouldn’t have even existed had it not been for the trauma. I take responsibility for my actions, but I refuse to blame myself for developing those conditions.

Then, I developed compassion for my perpetrators, especially my father. I had to find the reasons why he did what he did. I’ll never understand (who can?) but I can gain enough insight to feel compassion. My father was also abused as a child. He was sexually abused by his mother, and physically and verbally abused by his father. He had mental illnesses, clinically diagnosed with bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder (aka sociopathy), and substance abuse. (Please note: none of these things are excuses for his behavior, and it is highly unusual for victims of sexual abuse to become perpetrators themselves, or for people with mental illness to become violent.) Even his own history of abuse and mental illness did not explain to me what he did though. Because I can’t quite explain it, but what I saw in his eyes when his face was above mine and he was sexually assaulting me, his own daughter, was evil. Just evil.

I don’t really believe in Satan, as in the cloven-hooved personification of evil who lives in hell, etc. But I do believe in evil as an entity itself, because I have seen it. I saw it in my father: in his dead soulless eyes, in his voice as he growled unrepeatably cruel and disgusting words in my ear, as he did unspeakably violent and dehumanizing things to my little girl body. I experienced evil in a way that no one should ever experience it, up close and extremely personal. And I carried with me a fear I didn’t even know until the priest I was working with said it out loud to me: that this evil was somehow inherent to him, and because I was his daughter, it was somehow inherent in me too.

What I eventually discovered as invited God into these traumas is that, unlike I had previously thought, He was always there, protecting me. Not in the ways I imagined, but He was there. He protected my mind and my spirit. He kept me sane and kept my soul from being touched by the evil inches away from me. He sheltered those parts of me until I was out from under that tyranny, and it was safe for them to come out again.

I also eventually discovered something else, that was maybe the most important thing in the whole process: that I had to stop mythologizing my father. I had always called him things like monster, viper, etc. But he wasn’t. He was simply a man. A human being, weakened by abuse, illness, and a lack of any spiritual beliefs or morality or conscience, which left him vulnerable to the evil entity that took over. When I saw him like that– as a  weak, pathetic person overcome by evil– I had compassion. I had compassion for the little boy that was abused, and the man who suffered from mental illness, who had no one to teach him about God or bring him to Christ. And when that happened, all my shame, guilt, and anger fell away.

When this happened, my priest said something revolutionary to me: “You now know that this evil was not inherent to your father. So it’s not inherent to you. So now you can stop hating and fearing yourself for being your father’s daughter.”

Whoa.

He also told me this: “You faced down a demon as a child. One who looked you in the eye and told you you were unlovable, unworthy even to live. And you survived and grew into a place where you know you are loved and worthy. That makes you a total badass.”

He said a lot of cool stuff.

When my priest and I ended our time in counseling, I wrote down all of the terrible things I wanted to give to God, as well as all of the things I wanted for my future, on magician’s flash paper, and burned them on the Paschal candle in the nave. Then he anointed me for healing.

I can’t say that I have never struggled since then, because I still do. What I will say is that going through the process of finding empathy, compassion, and ultimately what my personal definition of forgiveness is for my father (end everyone else, though I didn’t focus on my process with them) was a giant step in my healing and finding peace and acceptance with what happened. And I will also say that it changed the tenor of my struggle; when my PTSD does flare up, it feels less chaotic, less out-of-control frightening than it used to. Maybe because I know that no matter what, I am anchored in God, in hope. I have a peace that passes understanding in Christ Jesus and all things are possible through Him who gives me strength. So though I struggle, I am held.

This is the story of my process, and my process only. I hope it is helpful to someone in explaining how a victim might end up forgiving, because there have been some that have said to me that they can’t understand how I could. This is how. Maybe it will show other victims that it’s possible. I just want every victim to approach the idea of forgiveness carefully and thoughtfully, and with support. Because it may be helpful, or it may not be. It’s totally up to you.

 

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Luke 6:27, 36-37

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

For Mental Health Awareness Month

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This photo was taken when I was 20 years old. I look pale, sick, and miserable because I was. At this point I was diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, bipolar disorder with psychotic features, dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, and complex posttraumatic stress disorder. I was being treated as an outpatient, the last time I was in inpatient treatment being a monumental failure. I was severely underweight at this time, severely malnourished, sleep-deprived. I had flashbacks, nightmares, and sometimes hallucinations. I starved myself during the day and often binged and purged at night. I cut myself with razor blades. My medications did not work well because my brain was so starved, and I was resisting the idea of inpatient treatment again.

This is what mental illness looked like for me at one of the worst points.

I was extremely fortunate though. I was one of the lucky ones who had the resources to go to inpatient treatment another two times. But really, I healed and recovered afterward, with a great therapist, clergy, family, and friends. With God’s grace, I am stable today.

To help someone with mental health issues or to learn more, please visit these websites:
National Mental Health Alliance
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Trauma Institute at JRI

Introduction

This blog is simply a place for me to expound on topics that are too long for Facebook posts, and maybe for some of my poetry. I am a woman on a journey of faith, healing, discovery, and recovery. Currently I am in school, seeking my Associate’s of Science. I plan to use that as a bridge to finish my Bachelor’s of Nursing at the University of Texas Health Science Center (if I’m lucky enough to get in!) Ultimately, though, I feel called to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. What that looks like yet, I don’t know. My feeling is the priesthood, but it could be something else. Once my Bachelor’s is complete, I will apply to seminary.  Right now, I’m simply in prayer and discernment, taking things one step at a time. I have plenty of time and wonderful clerical guidance in my life to discern God’s plan for my place in the church, if indeed that is where He wants me.

I currently serve on several ministries at my home church, St. Mary’s, including Eucharistic minister, worship leader, and arranging altar flowers. I recently completed my postulancy to become a member of the order of the Daughters of the King. When I say this is my home church, I mean that in the truest sense of the word. There is nowhere in the world that I feel more comfortable or safe than the nave at St. Mary’s. The people there are my family. I feel loved, cherished, needed, and wanted there. Through the pastoral counseling I received there I’ve found so much healing, hope, compassion, and peace.

Despite all of the healing I’ve done, I still struggle with many things. Most of my issues now are with grief. I grew up in violence and chaos. I was physically, verbally, and emotionally abused, and sexually tortured. I am a child of domestic violence, a victim of rape and incest. Most of these things were committed by my father. I was also raped again as a teenager by a stranger, sexually harassed by my gymnastics coach and a college professor, nearly date-raped by a guy, and sexually assaulted by another college professor. Classic re-victimization; it happens. I had a major surgical trauma at 23, when I developed a rare pneumonia and was forced to have my chest cracked open to have part of my lung removed. I briefly coded on the table during surgery (read: died for minute) and was in a coma for several days. It took me nearly a year to fully heal from that surgery. I have some trauma from several car wrecks, as well as the sudden death of my young cousin, Tyler. Basically, I’m a walking case of Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Along with those things, I have struggled and nearly died a few times from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, bipolar disorder, and self-harm (cutting myself mostly, hitting myself with blunt objects, at times until I broke bones, and rarely burning myself). I’ve had some issues with prescription pills at times.

You would, too.

I’m thirty three now, and I’ve been in therapy since I was fifteen. Basically, I’ve spent the second two thirds of my life trying to recover from the first. At the present I am also dealing with chronic illness: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Celiac disease, inflammatory arthritis, fibromyalgia, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and a number of gastrointestinal issues that need not be detailed. (To be noted: there has been resent research into the link between childhood trauma and the development of autoimmune disease later in life “Childhood trauma leads to lifelong chronic illness”). Last year, I found out that I am infertile, and unable to have my own biological children. (That has been brutal.) I take about twenty pills each day, which keep me stable, but have a number of really not-fun side effects.

So what’s the upshot of all of this? It sounds like a lot, right? It is. The only way I can claim any sanity in it all is God. I give all credit to Him. I am not just saved by Jesus through the waters of Baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Cross. Jesus saves me every day, in little ways, when I don’t have the strength to cope, to get out of bed, to tolerate the pain, the fatigue, the grief, the stress.  Jesus saves me. He gives me a peace that passes understanding. He sends me rescuers in the form of family, friends, my beautiful little Godson, trashy novels, Netflix binges, my cat Sophie, white chocolate mochas, thunderstorms or perfect sunny days, poetry and prayer, my church, my clergy, and scripture. He resurrects me from the ashes and reminds me that I am more than what was done to me, more than my failing health, more than the scars that cover my body.

Jesus had scars, too. And they were reminders, not just of the wounds inflicted, but of victory over the pain and death. I like to see my scars that way, too.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. At times it may be difficult, but I hope you see what I see: the beauty from the ashes.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me

because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations…
 Instead of your shame

    you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
    you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
    and everlasting joy will be yours.

 “For I, the Lord, love justice;
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
    and make an everlasting covenant with them…

I delight greatly in the Lord;
    my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation.

Isaiah 61