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Reflections: Really Looking at Myself in the Mirror

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

Over this past week, I have been experiencing both ups and downs. In some ways, it feels like I am caught in a cross-over series starring both depression and mania. My psychiatrist says I may be experiencing a mixed episode; and this is something I have never experienced before. It is usually black and white for me – up or down. All in all, it is very confusing and in truth, pretty exhausting. How can I explain it – well, think of being really happy and really sad at the exact same second, does that make sense? Maybe not, what about being really hyper while crying? Anyways, I am still on average sleeping between 2 to 4 hours each night. Yet, strangely enough, when I wake up I feel an overwhelming rush of energy entwined with exhaustion coming out of other pockets of my body. I am still very social, but I feel that certain little things that ‘left the house’ for the last two weeks, have slowly started to return. I am feeling more anxious again for work meetings. I feel less attached to my phone. I do not look at the existence of messages with the same excitement and laser, sharp focus that I did, probably at the height of the swing. My focus on other actual things is much better. I am feeling pockets of sadness again.

For example, a single comment triggered me on Friday at work, and I let it consume me until later the next day. I took a break from thinking about it for a few hours on Friday while with friends, but once I came home, I broke down in tears again (from earlier) and experienced a long sob. The next morning, I felt like I was in a deep depression again. I tried to run, and I basically ran west along the downtown core to High Park – blubbering the entire way. I was a mess. Honestly, sometimes I wish that the upswing would last a lot longer than a few weeks. I know of people who experience upswings for months. Now, I just wait in nervous anticipation of depression. I know it is coming back. It is just the way it is. I am hoping though that the up lasts until the end of summer, and then I can hibernate again through winter and be maybe somewhat okay with that.

Anyways, for once, today's post is not about abandonment. Today's post is about a coping mechanism I have used to battle anxiety and depression throughout my childhood into adulthood - but not in the positive way that I am making it sound out to be. In my previous posts I alluded to using my eating habits over the years as coping mechanisms. I only recently came to become honest about how I viewed these eating habits (earlier this year) with my psychiatrist.  I always knew there were things wrong with me, but I would always look past and ignore them, especially since I was basically a child. Now, with actual context to come, I can say with honesty that I had an on-and-off eating disorder for years. It is okay, and it is not okay, but the point is that I can admit it and watch out for its symptoms as part of my general coping strategy for life in general going forward.

For the most part, I was a skinny child with no real desire for food. I always left rice behind in the bowl, which I was lectured on consistently re: waste. But, as I already described in the post about my mom, I experienced a lot of anxiety with performing well and succeeding, so at some point during elementary school, I started to eat a lot in order to cope. Everyone likes to blame me becoming bigger on this one trip to Hong Kong where I ate a lot - but at the end of the day, it was about the repressed anxiety. I knew alone that it was about the repressed anxiety, even though as a child, it was just nervousness and fear then. Anyhow, I ate anything and everything in large quantities (for ex. 2 cans of canned pasta or 2 to 3 bowls of rice), and I gradually got bigger and bigger. People (childhood friends, family) who have known me will say that they did not notice this too (too) much, but standing at about less than 5 feet, the most I have ever weighed was 140 lbs. I felt, and still believe, this was a lot for a young girl especially since I am 5"2 now and weigh less than 100.

So, gradually over time, I became self-conscious, especially in comparison to other girls my age who were slim. I especially felt self-conscious compared to the tall, slim girls in my ballet class, and the pretty blond girls in my elementary school (esp. one who was my boyfriend-at-the-time’s ex; I compared myself to her a lot). These girls felt like goddesses, and I was the garbage that stood next to them in class pictures. I felt that being overweight, in conjunction with wearing glasses and having braces, made me so inferior - "gross" even. I am actually surprised at how kind elementary school was for me – I never really was bullied. When I look back at pictures, I feel like I would have been the prime target for bullying. I am thankful in this case for 'gifted' classes, and the other oddballs and outsiders that came with it. I think this was only the reason I was saved. I think the worst I ever got was actually from my siblings, who called me “butterball”.

In the beginning, I coped with my “being big” issues by actually eating more, as strange as it sounds. It is like my brain did not process that I had to move downwards versus upwards. I was just so used to coping with being sad or scared by piling more food into my mouth. At one point, I strangely ended up eating only one type of food – circular-shaped Chinese raisin bread. It was all that I craved. I ate all three meals of this without my parents really noticing, surprisingly even my mom. Not surprisingly, we did not really eat dinners together all that much, especially in high school, so I got away with a lot. I am not sure what happened (given it was carbs), but I suddenly lost a little bit of weight.

After this, I became consumed with my weight; with the old, olive-coloured scale in my parent's bathroom; and especially with the mirror, specifically the mirror in my parent’s bedroom that nobody really used after school. I would look at my body; sadly sometimes for a really long period if I could spare the time. Sometimes I would cry and actually hit myself repeatedly for being "so ugly and big". At this point, I wanted to become progressively slimmer and lose the belly. It was an obsession, and an obsession that I tried very carefully to keep from my family and friends (nobody knew until many years later - doctors and JH). I knew I could not always get away with skipping meals, so I thought about purging.

The only serial purging I ever did was in high school (though it returned for a little in university), but I remember it as if it was yesterday. I remember the first time I tried to purge; I could not get it to work. I became frustrated, so I ate like a monster instead until I naturally threw up from stomach sickness. It was disgusting. I knew that tactic was not going to be sustainable (like any of it could be sustainable), so I continued to try my fingers until I could get myself to vomit. It took a long time, but it seemed that once I tried and the "perfect position" worked, I could do it almost successfully each time going forwards. This became a pattern; I would eat a lot, feel guilty, and then want to throw up. I hated being out because I would not want to kneel or squat on the floor to purge, but I remember one time eating out with my family at a Swiss Chalet of all places, and holding the sides of the bathroom walls very carefully to keep myself from falling over when throwing up. Thank goodness I had a ponytail. I think partially because of this, I became so good at squatting later when camping / travelling. But, for the rest of the time, I would hold my obsession to get home so I could hug my own toilet bowl. It honestly would depend on how sick the obsession was at the time.

Sometimes, when I lay over the toilet after throwing up, I would feel myself crying. The crying would turn into sobbing, especially if I did not end up losing weight. In some ways, I think these were some of the worst cries I ever had, almost akin to the amount of pain I felt close to suicide. It was a sick psychological pattern, and it came with consequences and effects. I felt mixtures of stomach sickness, lightheadedness, sore throats and headaches each time afterwards. It’s like I drank a lot of alcohol way before my time. This went on-and-off for a few years. After a while, I miraculously made myself stop, only because logically I became frustrated. Purging did not actually make me lose a lot of weight, and I could still see the weight around my face, hips, arms, waist and stomach. I stalked the scale for every single pound. Every time it did not move, I felt my entire world crashing down. Even though I did not know it then I was depressed, and at that time, probably needed a lot of professional help. I analyzed myself for long periods of time, and I decided there had to be another way.

For some parts of high school and into university, I lost weight by skipping meals. In high school, this resulted in low blood pressure, so sometimes I fainted in the street. It freaked my parents out, and they made me see the family doctor. But, I was never honest about what I was doing so I never received the professional help that I probably needed.  I was in such self-denial that I never thought that what I was doing was wrong. The first time I ever self-admitted what I was doing was to my psychiatrist 20 years later. But, all throughout my life, I had body and image issues that affected how I viewed every meal and how I viewed myself (even now given I love food so much). Basically, I had low self-esteem since I was 5 that was then aggravated by relationship issues. By university, I had moved away from home, so eating was supplemented by a lot of exercise at least. Every time I ate though, I felt compelled to work out obsessively so that I would not feel guilty by what I ate - 'exercise bulimia' apparently. But, I would always just end up binge eating anyways. Basically, I never knew how to control myself when I came to food, yet I had this constant demon looking over my shoulder telling me that I looked disgusting.

So, throughout high school, university and even until today, I still had/have some body image issues. I feel the best way to describe it is looking in the mirror, and having a psychological monster multiply your weight by some ridiculously unimaginable  multiple. To this day, I still sometimes look in the mirror and feel unhappy. I step on a weight and I feel disappointed. It is a psychological nightmare. After my parent’s divorce and after the breakup from last story, I was depressed each time, so after every several-hour cry session, I would binge eat. Every so often, I would revert back to my old self in high school and purge. I would not do it every day, but the simultaneous action of eating and vomiting felt soothing to my depression. It felt almost like a hug, in the sickest of ways. It was a bit horrifying the way I felt and behaved sometimes.

Beyond this, I was incredibly obsessed with how thin I looked, and how many “small” pieces of clothes I could fit into. I judged myself constantly, and beat myself up psychologically over and over if I felt I was not enough. If it was a “4”, I needed be a “0”. It was a sick obsession, and I created wild unnecessary thoughts because of it. I never felt I was good enough for a person unless I was a “0”. Maybe if I was a “0”, people would stop walking away from me (mom included). I seemed to forget that people had liked and loved me even when I was an “8” or a “10”, or beyond. I forgot about my personality and achievements at some point. I seemed to think it was okay that my ribs were showing; that’s how skinny I became (140 lbs down to about 85). But my head was messed. It was always really messed, and I had a disjointed perception of myself and who I should be. That's why, in a recent re-diagnosis, my psychiatrist has talked about the fact that there are facets of personality disorder mixed into my bi-polar diagnosis. I do not disagree.

Time has passed, I think I am slightly better now. I still do not eat breakfast often, and I count coffee and snacks as lunch. But, I have tried more so to use diet and sometimes aggressive exercise to achieve what I could not before. I stay away from carbs and sweets except when I go out, and I run every day. But, even now, whenever I have depression, I will forget that I am staying away from carbs and sweets, and will just binge. I will find my inner “big self”, and just lose myself in food. It definitely helps to soothe the tears and the sadness. But now, I will stop caring about the effects of bingeing. I will not vomit. I will just run the next day. This is partially why I started long-distance running (albeit sucking at it) in the first place - because of this messed up part of my story. And in some ways, I will just accept myself now. Though, I think a part of me will always be the psychologically messed up 10-year old version of myself. I think once you decide not to like yourself, you cannot fully like yourself ever again. It is just how it is. At least, that is how it will be for me.


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