7 (Totally Wrong) Reasons I Didn’t Think I Had An Eating Disorder

When I was diagnosed with an eating disorder, there was one question I just couldn’t get out of my head: “How did I miss this?”

Coming out of denial has been such a terrifying process. It’s like discovering that I’d fallen asleep at the wheel, and, eyes open now, I’m forced to assess the damage I can’t even remember causing.

One minute, I swear, I was on the road — the next, there are wires attached to my chest, and I’m getting an EKG and wondering how the hell I got there.

The shock comes in waves, and some triggers feel more sensitive than others. My stomach drops every time I hear my dietician say the word “refeeding.” I cringe when a doctor says “starvation.” They feel like heavy words, too grim, and the gravity hasn’t set in for me just yet.

I can’t decide what scares me more — the fact that I’m so malnourished that I have to reintroduce my body to food, as though we’re strangers to one another, or that my fear of food still, at times, outweighs my fear of destroying my own body.

How could I have fallen this far down the rabbit hole and not noticed?

I want to share what I’ve realized about my own denial, not just to get it off my chest, but because I think it speaks to the larger issue of how eating disorders are characterized.

Because as I began to unpack the reasons why I missed the signs, one thing became obvious: It’s not that I missed it.

It’s that our culture never gave me the tools to recognize an eating disorder in the first place.

1. My eating disorder wasn’t as ‘obvious’ as I thought it would be.

My eating disorder didn’t present in what I considered the “typical” way.

I wasn’t obsessively weighing myself, I wasn’t counting every calorie that I consumed, and I hated exercise. I didn’t cry if I ate a slice of pizza or have a deep-seated fear of butter. I didn’t fit the stereotype, which made the denial much easier to cling to.

My relationship to food and my body, though, was still dysfunctional.

Food caused me so much anxiety — the decisions involved, the binary of “good” and “bad” foods, having “too much” of something and “too little” of something else, and all the pressure of making the “right” choice.

Even with all of that anxiety, I pointed to the fact that I wasn’t trying to lose weight as “proof” I didn’t have an ED. I just wanted to stay exactly the same — which I insisted wasn’t about my body image or a fear of fat.

If I was always just a little hungry, I reasoned, I could prevent my body from ever changing. No one told me that an obsession with size, even if it’s not about getting smaller, is still an obsession rooted in a fear of fat.

Basic things like cooking or even looking in the pantry could send me spiraling. That anxiety led to cycles of restricting, in which I would eat very little, just to avoid the obsessive, overwhelming thoughts that emerged each and every time I had to make a decision around food.

It escalated, too, to the point of being unable to feed my own cats, for fear of making the “wrong choice” for them.

My partner is still solely responsible for determining what our cats eat and giving them food, because the panic I felt about their diets became too unmanageable for me.

My eating disorder also wasn’t as static as I expected. I had periods of time that I ate more, but as my life stressors increased, my restricting did, too. I thought eating disorders had to be constant and consistent, and mine wasn’t. I figured that let me off the hook, because it was “just stress.”

All of this is still dysfunctional, but in my mind, I could only picture the stereotypes that I had heard. I could eat pizza and ice cream! I could eat takeout! I wasn’t vomiting!

I was quick to point to the things that normalized my behavior, but eager to deny the things that were clearly disordered.

2. My body didn’t ‘look’ sick.

The one thing that still boggles my mind about eating disorders is that they truly have a mind of their own.

I knew, logically, that eating disorders can impact anyone of any body size. But I still denied having a problem, because the body that I saw in the mirror didn’t look emaciated.

Where was my terrifying “before” picture? And even if I tried to get help, who would believe me if I wasn’t “thin enough”?

But eating disorders don’t describe a type of body — they describe a specific relationship to food and to our bodies that causes psychological distress.

It took a long time before I was willing to accept that my body didn’t reflect whether or not I had an eating disorder; my state of mind did.

3. Everyone around me had disordered eating.

Disordered eating is everywhere. Skipping meals, weight loss resolutions, detoxes and fasts, even smoothies that replace meals are totally ubiquitous and, at times, inescapable.

When you’re immersed in diet culture, recognizing that you have an eating disorder can be impossible when everyone around you is validating your mentality, however unintentionally.

Being transgender especially, it’s normal for people to struggle with their bodies, and to push themselves to change as quickly as possible, no matter what it takes. And while gender dysphoria is a very serious struggle, I often used mine as an excuse to dig deeper into my eating disorder.

“It’s not an eating disorder,” I’d tell myself. “It’s just dysphoria.” But these aren’t mutually exclusive — in fact, this is why transgender people are at such an extraordinarily high risk for eating disorders.

How could I know that what was happening to me was dangerous if everywhere I looked, it was presented to me as normal and even desirable behavior?

4. My justifications for restricting seemed totally reasonable.

My eating disorder was really good at pointing fingers. For every disordered behavior or thought I had, I could always come up with a hundred excuses for why I engaged with food that way.

I went vegan for ethical reasons. I just hate cooking, okay? The kitchen is too messy. I’m saving money by skipping lunch. I don’t really have any food in the house. I’m a picky eater. I’m just lazy. I’m not good at meal planning. I’ve been so busy. I’m just saving room for dessert. I just prefer snacking throughout the day. I don’t need that. That doesn’t have vegetables. I’ll eat later.

I think a lot of people imagine that an eating disorder is a deliberate and conscious decision like a structured diet that spun out of control, but in reality, it’s a lot sneakier for many of us with EDs.

I didn’t wake up one morning and decide that I was going to stop eating. Rather, these little excuses that popped into my head enabled my restricting one meal at a time. And before I knew it? I had a much bigger problem.

My eating disorder wore down my defenses a little bit at a time — look how much creamer I put in my coffee! That’s practically breakfast! — which allowed it to escalate in an insidious, practically unrecognizable way.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in the doctor’s office, trying to explain what I was eating on a typical day (“Trail mix,” I explained, “and then I eat ice cream if I think I might faint”), that it finally hit me that I’d been duped.

5. It became my ‘new normal.’

Eating disorders are built on a house of lies, but if it’s the only house you’ve ever lived in, you just won’t see it that way.

One of the things that’s been most jarring about eating disorder recovery is realizing how skewed and even broken my barometer was around food.

I don’t remember what it’s like to feel “full” because I’ve spent so long being hungry. Things that I considered “a lot of food” turned out to be very little food to everyone else. I didn’t understand the difference between a meal and a snack.

I was convinced that hunger wasn’t a prompt that our bodies give us to eat, but rather, something that I had to fight to suppress by calculating the minimal amount of food I would need to manage. In other words, to me, hunger wasn’t natural — it was an ailment or a problem to “fix.”

When you have a relationship like this to food and to your body for a long time, it becomes the only reality that you know.

It’s like when my dietician asked me to have a nutritional shake and trail mix for breakfast, and I blurted out, “In the same sitting?” Hearing myself say that made me realize that, all along, I’d constructed rules that were strictly define by my fears, rather than the reality of what my body needed.

Recovery, for me, has been about completely dismantling that house of lies. It’s learning to be skeptical of everything you believed to be normal, and rather than allowing your eating disorder to dictate what “normal” is, it’s letting your body guide you to create an entirely new paradigm.

That paradigm is one that doesn’t react to hunger from a place of fear and trauma (fight or flight), but rather, from a place of body trust.

6. Having an eating disorder didn’t feel the way I thought it would.

I genuinely believed that if I had an eating disorder, I would have felt miserable all the time.

I was supposed to be angry, volatile, depressed! Instead, even in the midst of my disorder, I didn’t have the extreme despair that I assumed would accompany something as serious as an eating disorder.

But the reality is, eating disorders don’t always co-occur with a mood disorder. Mine didn’t — I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, not depression.

So if you’re expecting yourself to be constantly depressed? That may not be how EDs show up for you specifically.

You might actually feel “fine” — but it doesn’t mean that you are.

Mood swings can be part of it (and I certainly had my fair share), but some of us are more likely to experience emotional numbness, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, or even euphoria, rather than depression.

There is so much happening chemically in the midst of an eating disorder, it can be hard to predict how our emotions will respond, except to say that they can be super unpredictable.

Eating disorders are coping mechanisms, and as such, there really is no way you are “supposed” to feel in order for your eating disorder to be valid.

Truthfully, I felt the most depressed and despondent in recovery, when I first tried to start eating again. When I had to actually sit with my fear and discomfort instead of restricting, that’s when my mood absolutely crashed.

The misery that I felt when I started in recovery made it even harder to believe I had a problem, too. I kept thinking, “If this is treatment, shouldn’t it be making things better?”

But I promise you, that’s normal! Sometimes it does get worse before it gets better — and that’s just part of the process.

7. I thought I ‘knew better.’

I wrote about this in my last blog but it bears repeating: Anyone, even mental health advocates who write about this shit for a living, can have an eating disorder.

One of my gorgeous friends in recovery said to me recently, “Sam, you’re talking about eating disorders as though they aren’t mental illnesses.”

And that was the crux of the issue, really — I believed that if I had the right attitude, the right meal plan, or shared enough body positive Instagram posts, I could worm my way out of having an eating disorder.

But eating disorders are mental illnesses and they have to be treated as such. Reading a book or taking a selfie in a crop top can be empowering, and it can open the door to recovery, but eating disorders require more than positive thinking.

I needed help.

Eating disorders are so much bigger than an attitude adjustment. It’s asking you to create an entirely new relationship to your body, to your food, and to the world around you. That is a lifelong process — but a worthwhile one, too.

I’ve had an eating disorder most of my life, and yet it was unrecognizable to me.

And I can’t help but feel that, in a culture that was simply more informed about what eating disorders are and the diverse ways they show up, we’d all be much quicker to recognize them in ourselves and our loved ones.

That’s ultimately why I’m sharing my experiences so openly. I want each one of us to be able to embrace recovery, knowing that our struggles are valid regardless of how they compare to anyone else’s.

Please know: If you’re struggling with food for any reason — if it scares you, makes you angry, overwhelms you, whatever it is — there’s no harm in reaching out and talking to someone.

I’d recommend getting in touch with the National Eating Disorder Association, where you can chat with folks who are the experts in recognizing these complex disorders.

You deserve whatever support and affirmation you need to have a safe relationship with your body and with food.

And I hope that someday, we’ll live in a world where those relationships are modeled for us, so that we never have to question what that looks like.

signature

Want more real talk about recovery?

The conversation continues over on Patreon, where I film weekly videos talking about mental health, recovery, self-care, and more. This week’s video dives deeper into how social media can perpetuate denial in recovery — go check it out!

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

I’m Not Settling For ‘Good Enough,’ And Your Psychiatrist Shouldn’t Either

Crazy Talk is a mental health advice column, getting real about life with a mental illness. While I’m not a medical doctor, I’m living the good life with depression, OCD, and complex trauma, unapologetically owning my “crazy.” We’re talking all things mental health — trauma, happy pills, mood episodes, and whatever else you tweet me about! Check out last week’s column here.

Recently, I wrote a Twitter thread about what it’s been like to finally find the right medications. “Finally getting the right psychiatric medications,” I wrote, “was like realizing I’d been playing my life on ‘expert’ mode with a broken controller.” 

The response? Overwhelming. And one question that popped up a lot in that thread and in my inbox was something to the effect of, “Is ‘good enough’ with my mental health a good place to settle? Or should I not be settling at all?”

To answer this question, we have to dive into my history a little bit.

In 2016, I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and outpatient programs. For years, I was misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder, which meant I was put on countless medications that weren’t very effective for what I was actually dealing with. Back then, my philosophy had always been, “If I’m not suicidal, I’m fine.”

This resulted in a pretty well-established pattern. I’d struggle for a while, I’d coast. My medications sedated me, but a lot of my symptoms were always beneath the surface. I wasn’t totally miserable, but I was never truly happy.

Then something would trigger me — next thing I knew, I’d be flung into a complete crisis.

After one too many breakdowns, I found my current psychiatrist. He took one look at the seven or eight medications I was on and said to me, “Something isn’t right.” I explained to him that despite all the pills, I was never really more than just okay. And he was the first doctor I’d ever met that told me that “just okay” isn’t actually okay.

Let me repeat that: “Just okay” isn’t actually okay, especially if it doesn’t last.

Thus began the long process of reassessing all of my diagnoses and completely transforming my medication regimen. The process was so involved, I had to be hospitalized so I could be closely monitored while coming off of four medications quickly and simultaneously. And while it wasn’t exactly fun, it was the beginning of getting my life back.

Because with a real advocate in my corner, the goal was no longer survival. The goal was recovery. The goal was becoming my best self. The goal was finally living.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve been depressed and anxious for your whole life like me, you may not actually know what it feels like to be mentally healthy. This makes it easy to settle. This makes it easy to say, “If I don’t want to kill myself every second of every day, this is probably fine.”

The bar is set so low, we accept a quality of life that doesn’t have a whole lot of “quality” to it at all.

And our clinicians don’t always help in this regard. If we’re willing to settle, sometimes they are, too. I once saw a psychiatrist who said to me, “If your grades in school are fine, I don’t know what you need from me.” (Spoiler alert: I needed antidepressants, Doc.)

Sometimes when we aspire to be “okay” or “functional” — get decent grades, hold down a job, be able to shower and comb our hair — we forget that there’s more to life than just being okay.

There’s being able to appreciate a piping hot cup of coffee in the morning. There’s doing work or finding a hobby that’s meaningful to us. There’s enjoying the company of our friends. There’s having passion, ambition, and investment in something more, something bigger. It’s a good thing to be able to survive, and it’s important, too. But I’d like to believe we all deserve more than that.

Do you remember the last time you laughed deeply, maybe even until you cried? Do you remember the last time something good happened, and you couldn’t wait to call your friend and blather on about it? Do you remember the last time you actually gave a fuck about your life? Felt excited? Felt interested? Felt curious?

I spent most of my life going through the motions. I may not have always felt empty, but it took a long time to ever feel full. And while surviving is your top priority, I don’t want to live in a world where mentally ill people give up on thriving, with clinicians that enable us to.

Sometimes we do need to coast. Pace is everything, and this mental illness thing is a long freakin’ haul. But coasting should be a pit stop, not a final destination. This is especially important to remember, because too often while we’re coasting, we miss some of the warning signs (like boredom, for example) that can evolve into full-blown depression.

While it’s not reasonable to expect a dramatic shift overnight, it’s not unreasonable to say, “Actually, I want to be more than just okay. I want to be well.”

You deserve to be well. And you deserve a clinician who believes that you can be.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

Crazy Talk: My Anxiety Makes Me Give Up Too Easily

Crazy Talk is an advice column powered by your donations on Patreon, written by Sam Dylan Finch (that’s me!), and hosted by your fave queer blog, Let’s Queer Things Up! While I’m not medical doctor, I am a card-carrying member of Club Crazy, living the good life with a mood disorder, anxiety, and complex PTSD (gotta catch ’em all!). We’re talking all things mental health — trauma, happy pills, mood episodes, and whatever else you tweet me about. I’m kicking the stigma where it hurts, one question at a time. Check out last week’s column here.

Hey Sam,

For my whole life, I’ve been the kind of person that, if I’m anxious that I’m not good at something, I give up almost immediately. When I was a kid, I quit piano lessons after just two weeks because I got frustrated that I wasn’t good at it. As an adult, I find it difficult to do my work because I get discouraged very quickly, which leads me to procrastinate, blow deadlines, and flake out. I’m tired of being so hard on myself. What do I do?

I’m going to kick off this column the way that I often do: with a story.

Recently, I had the opportunity of a lifetime come up. A job opportunity, in fact, that I wanted so badly I couldn’t see straight. My first interview went better than I could’ve hoped for. And then I was asked to complete a written test, to show off different skills that would prove I could do the job.

When that test appeared in my email inbox, I froze. It was lengthy, involved, intense. And I only had a few hours to do it.

Immediately, I thought to myself, “I can’t do this. I better find a way to email back and graciously decline.” I started drafting that email in my brain, despairing about how such a perfect opportunity was slipping out of my grasp.

And then I stopped. “Old Sam would’ve given up on this because he was afraid to fail,” I told myself. “But what is New Sam going to do?” 

I’ll tell you what “New Sam” did. He opened up that test and took it a tiny step at a time. He accepted that it might not be perfect, but that this was an opportunity worth fighting for. He used all of the productivity apps and strategies that he knew of, reminding himself that “New Sam” came prepared for this. He held his nose and worked through it. He turned in that test.

Not even twenty minutes later, he– well, I, had a second interview lined up.

A few days later? I got the job.

I keep thinking about what might have happened if I’d listened to my gut and backed out before I’d even tried. And I have to wonder how many amazing opportunities I’ve let slip away because I was too afraid of being imperfect.

But lately? I’ve been more scared of not reaching my true potential than I am of making mistakes. Yes, I still hear that voice trying to steer me off-course, but I’ve crafted an alter ego to talk back to it. Whenever I hear that self-doubt echoing in my brain, I repeat to myself, “Yeah? That’s what I used to think. But that’s not what I believe now. I believe that this is something worth doing.”

Beyond finding concrete tools to help me deal with procrastination (which, I can’t emphasize enough, is really important), I needed to shift my perspective. Doing something imperfectly has way more opportunities for self-insight and happiness than just throwing in the towel. Embracing that has really helped me push through a lot of my doubts.

I’ve found a new kind of joy in the process, even if things get messy, because I know these are experiences that have real value and potential.

And building on each success — Doing The Thing, whatever it is — has helped my confidence grow. Because now, when I encounter moments in which I want to give up, I remember landing that job, or that cool thing I published, or that project I was so proud of, and I’m reminded that life is so much more exciting when you give yourself permission to participate, however imperfectly.

As the incomparable Jenni Berrett pointed out in this article, this isn’t about you being lazy or incapable — you, my dear reader, are just scared. And knowing that this is about fear, you can approach this like any monster under the bed. You can grab your flashlight (i.e., get whatever tools you need), take a deep breath (short inhale, long exhale), and look under the bed (or at least, take some small step in the right direction). You have to realize that there’s nothing to be scared of.

(And yes, sometimes we need to call a friend and ask them to remind us.)

Prove to yourself that this Horrible Scary Thing that will happen if you’re not perfect isn’t actually real. Prove to yourself that there are risks worth taking, even if it’s scary at first. Prove to yourself that you can do this so that, the next time you feel doubtful, you can remember the truth: There are no monsters under that damn bed.

You’ve got this.

signature

Essential readings to pair with this advice: 

ADHD Survival Guide: How I Stopped Procrastinating and Got My Sh!t Together

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

ADHD Survival Guide: How I Stopped Procrastinating and Got My Sh!t Together

For much of my adult life, trying to get organized felt like a code I couldn’t crack, no matter how many fancy planners I bought. I struggled to do work that I knew I was capable of, missed appointments and blew deadlines, and my self-esteem plummeted as I wondered, “Am I just really bad at being an adult?

I fell into a serious slump. Just the idea of having to get something done made me anxious, making it even more difficult to focus, and that anxiety fueled my procrastination. After years of struggling with depression and lack of concentration, I was finally diagnosed with ADHD. But rather than looking for solutions, I initially took that diagnosis to mean, “I’m never going to be effective and productive like everyone else.”

ADHD, for me, has been a frantic, real life Tetris game. Desperately trying to get everything to fit together, watching your tasks stack up until it starts to feel out of control. Take your eyes off the prize for one minute, and suddenly, the whole thing comes undone. I had the responsibilities and challenges of a twenty-five-year-old, but the focus, patience, and concentration of someone twenty years younger.

The frustrating thing is, I knew I was smart. I knew that I was capable of so much more. But I kept coming up against a wall, and no matter what I did to try to scale it, I was never able to get to the other side. Knowing that you’ve got potential, but being thwarted in every attempt to realize it, is its own kind of hell. ADHD, for me, has been a slow burn in that personal hell for as long as I can remember.

I finally hit a breaking point last year, when my life became so unmanageable, I stopped working. My fear of failure, my lack of concentration, and my anxiety had made it nearly impossible to be effective at any job — even jobs that, by all accounts, I was more than qualified to do. At every moment, I was overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. That’s when I knew: I didn’t want to live like this anymore.

So I started researching and reflecting. I compiled a list of all the things that stressed me out and brainstormed possible solutions. I was methodical and determined. I focused on apps in particular, seeing as I spend so much time on my phone. I figured, if boring dudes in suits can use these apps, why can’t I use them to make my work and my life more accessible to me?

First, I had to rethink ‘productivity.’

Instead of looking at these strategies as a way to become more “productive” in a capitalistic society, I reframed it — my new objective was to become more effective in accomplishing whatever goals I set for myself, however small they might be.

From all my research, it quickly became evident that ADHD thrives on a lack of structure. This article, then, is a guide that talks about how I created a sort of structure in my life that helps me to become more effective.  

“Structure,” meaning a system of organization that helps me both set and meet my goals. And “effective,” meaning that whatever I put in place is helping me to reach the goals that I set — based on whatever standard makes sense to me. Society often defines “productivity” as completing as many tasks as possible; I define “productivity” as creating the circumstances (and structures) that allow you to be effective and balanced as you do the work.

I think reframing these words can be really helpful for folks with ADHD. Rather than creating structures that serve the work (i.e. I have to work quickly to please my boss), it’s better to create structures that serve us (i.e. I want to feel effective and meet my personal goals). Paradoxically, when we set goals that serve us rather than the work, we’re usually better at getting the work done anyway. Who would’ve thought? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So this is a really, really long guide…

As someone with concentration issues, I get that lengthy articles are intimidating. That in mind, I highly suggest bookmarking this, and tackling these suggestions on a timetable that makes sense for you! I’ve also broken the piece down with headings and formatting that will help make it more readable.

Lastly, this guide was made possible with donations via Patreon! None of the products or apps I mention here have sponsored this post in any way — which means it’s 100% paid for by my readers, rather than by the companies that developed these apps. With your help, I was able to take the time to thoroughly research everything that you see here, and write it in a way that’s (hopefully) very useful to you. If you appreciate the work I’ve done here, please consider becoming a patron so I can keep creating content like this!

If you’re struggling with ADD/ADHD, I want you to know that it’s not impossible to create the kind of external structure you need to be effective in your life. I’m going to share with you the steps I’ve taken — including every single app that helped me get there — that’s made a significant difference in my life, with the hopes of inspiring you to take some steps of your own.

Ready? Let’s do it!

1. I Created a Project Management System (I’m a Nerd, I Know…)

I think most adults — not just folks with ADHD — know the feeling of juggling a million things at once, hoping that you won’t end up dropping the ball. Without a real system, I held a lot of my to-do list in my head, and this created a lot of unnecessary stress; it practically guaranteed that I was going to mess something up (and I often did, yikes).

And then one day, I got super fed up. I reached out to my friends with ADHD, and I asked them what apps or systems they use to keep all their tasks straight. And one really stood out to me: Todoist.

Friends described this app as having a “second brain,” which was exactly what I needed. I needed another brain to hold all my various tasks, projects, and events in one place. So I downloaded the free app and browser extension, read practically everything I could on the Todoist blog, and started creating a system that worked for me.

Todoist, in a nutshell, is a productivity app that manages tasks for you. It has a priority feature that lets me flag which tasks are most important, a scheduler that gives tasks a due date (static or recurring), projects that can hold different types of tasks, and all sorts of ways to customize it to suit whatever my needs are.

How did I organize my Todoist system?

I customized a system that could manage basically… every aspect of my life. Because I clearly have a lot going on.

I have a Self-Care tab to make sure I’m prioritizing mental health, including seeing friends. I have a Work project, which includes pitch ideas (articles I eventually want to write), Events & Interviews, Waiting/In Progress (this is where I keep track of what articles are currently in progress), and Consulting (I coach people sometimes, this is where I list the clients I’m currently working with!).

I have my Adulting tab, where I schedule any of my appointments and errands that I need to do. I also have a housework and bills section that I share with my partner, and a Daydreams tab, where I list out things that I want to eventually buy and a bucket list of things I want to do. And lastly, I have a Personal Brand section, where I manage anything related to my blog and social media.

My system literally holds every freakin’ part of my life, which works really well for me. But everyone can decide how to use it best for their own needs. I have a chronically ill friend that organizes it by “spoons” which I think is really interesting (a project for things that take a lot of energy, a medium amount of energy, and low amount of energy, and based on how she feels when she wakes up, she’ll decide how many spoons to use from each project).

Don’t be afraid to customize it!

The cool thing about Todoist is that they have templates you can download and try, if you aren’t really sure how to organize it. And Todoist has a really awesome blog, including an article about someone who uses Todoist and has ADHD!

The ultimate goal of creating a system like this is to build up a structure that helps you organize the tasks floating around in your brain. Folks with ADHD often don’t have the internal organizing they need, so it’s helpful to create that externally. There are other systems available for this too (like Asana and Trello), but Todoist has been my favorite by far.

What I love about Todoist in particular is that it has a “smart scheduling” feature, in which it recommends what day to schedule something on based on your productivity habits, how busy your week looks, and the research the platform has done. I know that I’m not always the best judge of when I should set a due date, so this feature has been life-saving in teaching me to set more realistic goals for myself.

The key here is to read these blogs, try out different systems, and see what works best for you. It takes a little bit of work upfront, but it’s been totally worth it for me. Two brains are definitely better than one.

2. I Tackled the Nightmare That Was My Email Inbox

One of my biggest sources of stress was my email inbox. I had over 7000 unread emails, and thousands upon thousands of emails that I’d never got around to archiving… going years back.

I kept telling myself, “Maybe I need to set aside a weekend to go through and take care of it.” Dreading the hours that I’d spend archiving and digging myself out of that very deep hole, I eventually conceded that I may never have that coveted Inbox Zero.

The theory behind “Inbox Zero” suggests that because people are using their email inboxes as a to-do list, their inboxes become unmanageable, and it’s easy to get sucked into them and waste time. But once I created an actual system to hold my tasks with Todoist, I realized I was in the best possible position to clear out my email inbox and start using it as the communication channel it’s intended to be.

How did I get to Inbox Zero?

That’s when I discovered the app Chuck. Chuck is designed to help you get to Inbox Zero by automatically sorting your emails and helping you to mass archive them as necessary. And it’s no joke, friends: In less than an hour, I had archived over 100,000 messages.

Chuck can sort your emails by person, by time, or by subject. In my case, I started out by sorting it by time, which allowed me to mass archive any emails that I received prior to 2017. Boom. Thousands upon thousands of emails, all archived at once. I then organized it by sender, and archived any emails that were sent to me by folks I no longer needed to be in contact with (newsletters included).

How did I keep my inbox clean afterward?

Once my inbox was mostly cleared out, I downloaded an app called Spark to help keep my inbox manageable for the future and clean up what remained. It’s a “smart” inbox that organizes your mail for you, floating the most essential emails to the top of your inbox and then categorically sorting the rest. With an ADHD brain, it can be easy to get distracted by the stuff that’s less important, so it’s amazing to have a system that organizes things for you.

In the process, I started creating folders in my gmail, so that, as I found emails that I needed to save, I had a place to put them! This included things like “finances,” “freelance,” and “job hunt” (for saving contracts, correspondences with editors, and job opportunities respectively). Spark also allows me to “snooze” emails so that they are resent to my inbox after a certain amount of time — lifesaving for emails you know you need to get to, but aren’t immediately critical.

Taking control of my inbox was a huge weight off of my shoulders. I no longer dread signing into my email, knowing that there’s only a few emails in there, and they’ll be sorted quickly and effectively. It’s an awesome feeling.

(If you have Android, Chuck and Spark aren’t available to you — but you can always research these inbox zero apps to find one that is best for you!)

3. I Started a Productivity Diary (Let Me Show You How!)

One thing that came up continually in my research on productivity is the importance of being self-aware as you set goals and to celebrate your victories. A lot of people talked about bullet journals being super great for this, but I much prefer to have something I can just keep on my phone.

griddiaryGrid Diary became my saving grace for this. Grid Diary is almost like a quiz colliding with a journal. It offers you prompts to answer, a mood tracker, and a weather tracker as well (to help you remember the day a little better).

I specifically tailored mine to give me four questions that I answer at the start of my day, and four questions that I answer at the end of my day.

In the morning, I ask myself:

  • What’s the plan for today? What do I hope to accomplish? I usually write about three goals, and then I hop over to my Todoist app to add them and prioritize them.
  • What are some strategies I can use to be effective today? This encourages me to reflect on how I’m actually going to get shit done. This helps me feel more motivated to get started.
  • What’s one way I can support my mental health today? To make sure I stay balanced, I set a self-care intention right at the beginning of my day.
  • What’s one thing I’m excited about? This gives me something to look forward to!

At the end of the day, I ask myself:

  • How did my day go? How is my mood? Reflecting on my day encourages me to celebrate my successes and reflect. Naming my mood helps me keep track of my mental health, and keep an eye out for any red flags I might need to address (useful especially because I deal with depression and anxiety).
  • Name 3 things that I’m grateful for. There’s a lot of research that backs up the value of a gratitude practice!
  • Am I worried about anything? Let’s make a list. Sometimes we have so many anxieties floating around in our head, it can keep us up at night. One strategy for combating this is to make a list of what’s bothering us, and if necessary, commit to revisiting it the next day when we’re able to act.
  • What are some goals I have for tomorrow? Instead of staying up all night thinking about what I need to do tomorrow, I find it best to write it down and look at it again in the morning.

When starting up a productivity diary, it’s good to assess what you hope to get out of it. For me, I wanted to work on goal-setting, self-care, gratitude, and stress management. I knew that focusing on these things would help me with my overarching goals of becoming more focused and effective.

I’ve shared my questions here because I think they’re really useful prompts! You can choose to write it out or find a diary app to help you keep track of it. Grid Diary is my absolute favorite (so much so that I eventually caved and bought the premium/paid version) because the interface is so lovely, but you really can’t go wrong. The point is to get writing!

4. I Got a Pomodoro Timer And I Actually Use It

The “Pomodoro Technique” is all the rage — many of my friends with ADHD insisted that I try it, but I was initially reluctant. The idea is breaking up your work day into intervals (usually 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a short break, repeated four times until you then take a longer break).

I finally caved and downloaded Tide. Tide is multipurpose — it’s a timer that helps you measure your pomodoros and your break time, AND it’s a white noise generator that gives you different background sounds to choose from to boost your focus. It also keeps track of how often you use it and for how long, which can be really motivating!

One of my biggest pitfalls in my work was not having structured break time, which led me to become super distracted and waste a lot of time. But since pomodoros are essentially “work sprints,” it was much more effective (not to mention, easier) to commit to working for 25 minutes, knowing that there would be a break at the end of it.

Did it work? (Spoiler alert: It did. Beautifully.)

And I was… blown away… with how tweaking my workflow with this app helped me focus and get more done. It also allows you to customize how much time you spend working and breaking, so if pomodoros aren’t your thing, you can experiment with the timing to find what works for you.

Most people will tell you that the hardest part of getting work done is the “getting started” part. I found that committing to 25 minutes was a lot less daunting than telling myself to just sit down and work until five (to someone with ADHD, it’s pretty impossible when you think about it).

Don’t like all the bells and whistles of an app like Tide? There’s a simple pomodoro timer that is web-based here.

5. I Downloaded Every Guided Meditation App On Earth, Basically

The idea of sitting still and not doing anything sounded awful to me. But lots of folks I knew raved about how meditation had helped them, blah blah blah — even if that meditation was just five minutes when they first woke up. Apparently, the research backs this up, too: Meditation is proven to increase mental focus. Hm. Intriguing.

But as someone whose mind is moving a thousand miles a minute, sitting in silence was a no-go for me. So I was really excited to discover that there are actually some guided meditation apps, many of which have specific meditations geared towards boosting productivity and focus! Sitting and listening to someone walk me through a meditation was much easier to swing with my ADHD brain than the alternative.

One of my favorites for this purpose is Headspace (bonus: on their blog, they have an excellent article on ADHD and mindfulness, if you’re curious). I’ve also really enjoyed using Simple Habit (which has different meditations based on different life situations, including work stress, boosting focus, and improving sleep).

I’ve already noticed that my ADHD is more manageable when I set aside the time to meditate, especially when I’m feeling overwhelmed or wired. It might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s definitely worth a try.

6. I Started Scheduling a Planning Hour

With ADHD, planning ahead is not my natural impulse. I’m the sort of person who always had a cloud of chaos swirling around them. But every Friday afternoon, I set aside half an hour (sometimes more, sometimes less) to open up my Todoist app, look at my next seven days, and plan out what I need to get done and how I’m going to do it.

Doing this accomplishes two things for me. Firstly, it ensures I’m not wide awake Sunday night, worrying about the week ahead. And secondly, it forces me to slow down and consider what’s on my plate. My tendency is to avoid, avoid, avoid — because thinking about everything I have to do makes me anxious. But the only real way to address that anxiety is to tackle my schedule head-on, so I create a dedicated time to do so every week.

In this planning hour, these are the things I try to get done:

  • Go through my email inbox (see #2 if the thought of this freaks you out!) and grab any lingering “tasks” and plug them into Todoist (or whatever task system you have set up — remember, your email inbox shouldn’t also be your to-do list!).
  • While I’m in my inbox, I choose any emails that need to be responded to that I can’t or shouldn’t reply to immediately, and I “snooze” them to be resent to me at a more appropriate time. (For example: If I need to touch base with someone about an event in two weeks, I “snooze” that email so that it comes back to me in two weeks.)
  • I look at my tasks for the next week and flag which ones are high priority. I schedule them accordingly. (For example: There should never be a day with more than three high priority tasks — if there is, I know I have to reschedule or delegate.)
  • For every high priority task, I schedule one small step I can take to get started (more on this in #7).

My planning hour isn’t about creating the exact schedule that I’ll follow. No doubt, it’ll change throughout the week as new things come up! The point is to get organized and make your Monday morning less of a headache. Being overwhelmed is the arch nemesis of ADHD and of procrastination generally, so this helps minimize that as much as possible.

7. I Took Up Eating Frogs and Elephants

Of all the advice I found, the cheesiest bits of advice also seemed to hold most true. I wanted to include it in this guide because as cliche as it is, it’s been very helpful to me.

“Sometimes you’ve got to just eat the frog first.”

The idea of eating the frog is basically starting with the task that you’re dreading most, and getting it out of the way at the start of your day. Sometimes you have to hold your nose and just do it. There’s an entire article here on why it’s such an effective way to get stuff done, which I found incredibly helpful.

The basic theory is that we procrastinate most often when we’re dreading something (it’s an avoidance behavior, after all) — but if we can eliminate the thing that we’re most anxious about, we’ll have a big victory at the start of our day, and less anxiety to fuel our avoidance. We’re also less likely to get pulled into other projects and distractions that would delay us further if we do it first.

Having trouble motivating yourself to start? That’s why you need to…

“Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

I honestly don’t know why both of these sayings involve eating critters, but ANYWAY. Eating the elephant one bite at a time is another way of saying, “To tackle something big, you have to start small.” You may have also heard this as “one step at a time,” which is the same idea, more or less.

There are two tried and true methods to eating the elephant, which are:

  • Commit to just five minutes. It helps to remember that motivation sometimes comes AFTER you start something, not before. Set a timer for five minutes. You don’t need to do any more than that if you don’t want to, but getting started is often the more difficult part, and that motivation you need to continue often kicks in after you’ve started.
  • Start with the smallest possible bite. It can be hard to start something if the task in front of us is just too daunting. If that’s the case, break it down! For example, “write an entire ADHD survival guide” is a huuuge undertaking… but “download a to-do app” is not. If your tasks aren’t “bite-size,” this could be adding stress that you don’t really need.

For folks with ADHD especially, making our tasks smaller and more manageable allows us to accumulate little “victories” that keep us on track, rather than allowing us to become overwhelmed and unfocused. This advice, while it seems really simple, takes a lot of practice — but it can make a huge difference.

 8. I Started Procrastinating ‘Productively’

We always procrastinate for a reason. Unstuck, which includes a free web-based app (bookmark it, seriously!), helps us figure out where we’re stuck and what we can do about it. And it’s basically the best thing ever.

You tell Unstuck what you’re feeling, and the app will guide you through some problem-solving exercises and prompts. Whenever I found myself stressed and not knowing what to do, I opted for procrastinating “productively” — meaning that I used tools like Unstuck to step back from the work, rather than away from the work.

Screenshot 2017-07-22 at 4.00.10 PM

Unstuck is designed to help you “fight procrastination, stop negative thinking, boost productivity, and get more creative.” The whole idea is that every “stuck” moment is an opportunity to get creative and do some effective problem-solving. And the whole interface is kind of fun, so it never feels tedious. It’s a great approach to thinking through whatever emotions and issues might be coming up for you when you lose your focus or motivation.

9. I Started Reading ADHD & Productivity Blogs

My favorites include ADDitude Mag and Todoist Blog. Productivity blogs sometimes fall into the more traditional, capitalistic ideas of what productivity is (here’s what “successful” people do, you peasant!), but the key here is to take what’s useful to you and leave the rest.

Trying new apps and learning new tricks has been a particularly fun part of this journey for me, so much so that “productivity” has become something of a geeky hobby for me! Figuring out how my brain works has been exciting, and crowdsourcing that knowledge with other geeky people? Even better.

leslie

(Oh god, It’s really happening… I’m turning into Leslie Knope…)

10. I Assembled An Awesome Support Team

ADD/ADHD is not a battle I’d recommend that anyone take on alone. To finish off this resource, I wanted to offer some suggestions on folks that you could consider bringing onto your “team” to help you meet your goals!

  • Pomodoro Buddy: We talked about pomodoros at #4 on this list. One way to boost the efficacy of your pomodoros is to find a pomodoro buddy — someone that you synchronize your pomodoros with! You work at the same time, and then text or message during your break to share what you’ve accomplished, cheer each other on, and brainstorm next steps with! The lovely Elizabeth Cooper first introduced me to this idea, and it’s great for those of us who find we work best with a little encouragement and accountability.
  • Therapist or Life Coach: Enlisting the help of a trained professional to support you in this process is never a bad idea. While this guide can be a great starting place, a therapist or life coach that’s familiar with your particular circumstances can help craft a system and schedule that’s unique to you.
  • Psychiatrist: Getting a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD can be crucial, especially since a lack of mental focus can be attributed to so many different mental health issues. Knowledge is power! Medication can also be a useful tool for folks struggling with concentration (this includes folks with ADD/ADHD, but also issues like anxiety and depression as well). I personally take an antidepressant called Wellbutrin, which addresses both my depression and my ADHD, but there are lots of options that a clinician can help you sort through.

So listen…

This world? It’s not exactly made for people with ADHD. I learned pretty early on that if I didn’t start creating a system that worked for me, I’d never be able to hold down a job or feel balanced in my life. Nonstop anxiety, procrastination, and stress used to be the norm for me. And for many people with ADHD, that’s all they’ve ever known.

That’s why I’m a big fan of taking these tools and reclaiming them for neurodiverse folks like us: I want us to lead more effective lives, adapt to jobs that are otherwise not accessible to us, and achieve our personal goals.

And while these tools weren’t necessarily made with us in mind, we can use them to get back in the driver’s seat of our lives. I hope this has given you a place to start. Because honestly? My only regret is that I didn’t realize sooner that my life didn’t have to be so hard.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

Let’s Talk About Self-Sabotage.

Confession: When I’m happy, I freak out.

A blog-reader-turned-bestie (yes, sometimes I befriend y’all in real life because you are lovely human beings) and I were recently talking about this over milkshakes. Being happy is terrifying when you aren’t quite used to it.

You know, that dreaded sense that the other shoe will fall? Yeah. That. It’s the worst.

The pressure of trying to sustain something that we’re not used to can create a lot of stress for us. And we might feel the impulse to self-sabotage, especially when we don’t have the support we need to cope.

Sometimes I even have suicidal thoughts when I’m happy. Do you?

The idea that I’ve peaked, and that I might as well die now while things are still good. It seems like the perfect time. Then I fall down the rabbit hole of, “Am I actually happy if I’m having thoughts like these?” (Save yourself the time: Yes. Suicidal thoughts aren’t exclusively the domain of depression.)

And of course, I don’t know how to explain this to the folks I love – that joy is triggering, because I am so used to that joy being taken away from me.

Mental illness has taught me that happiness is inherently unstable and temporary, that I shouldn’t trust it. That mistrust is the product of repeated trauma. It can make me impulsive, hypersensitive, and fearful. It makes it difficult to be grounded.

And worst of all? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I start to act out because of that fear, which reinforces the fear itself.

I thought it was just me, until I started talking about it. I actually found that lots of people with mental illness or experiences of trauma have this same mistrust of joy. It can lead us to making some lousy choices – in an attempt to regain control and cope with the fear, we make some misguided decisions and push away the very happiness we’ve so desperately wanted for ourselves.

Sound familiar?

Being happy makes me a little crazy. And if you’ve ever thought you were the only one, I assure you – it’s actually a really common thing.

When you’ve spent years associating happiness with the calm before the storm, it’s no surprise that you might associate joy with a lack of safety. In fact, maybe you find depression or anxiety to be a little safer – because it’s more predictable, something more known to you.

I’m here to tell you, friend, that this is totally understandable. Brains are very malleable things – and trauma can lead us to develop some pretty maladaptive impulses, including the impulse to self-sabotage.

I am the Prince of Self-Sabotage. Happiness absolutely terrifies me. It terrifies me because  it feels like it’s only ever betrayed me. Just when I think that I’ve gotten into a good rhythm, life throws me a curveball and I’m not only depressed again, but also grieving the loss of the stability I thought I’d finally had.

Has happiness betrayed you? If so, it’s no surprise that your first instinct is to push it away.

Recently, I’ve gotten to a good place again. Courtesy of Wellbutrin (quickly becoming a favorite of mine), the most sarcastic/excellent psychiatrist on the planet, the love and support of community, new job prospects that leave me totally ecstatic about what’s to come, and personal growth that surprises and delights me every day.

And of course, cue the terrible thoughts like, “Okay, what gives? When does the other shoe drop?” and even, “I kind of feel like taking a chainsaw and splitting myself in half” (to which my psychiatrist asks me, “Um, do you have access to a chainsaw?” Fear not, Doc. No, I do not).

What’s a kid to do? Well, in my opinion, it starts with just acknowledging that happiness is scary, and that’s 100% okay.

Sounds deceptively simple. But you and I both know this is easier said than done. I have to remind myself of this fifty times a day – that there isn’t a disaster waiting for me around every corner. I have to remind myself that I’ve been conditioned overtime to believe that happiness isn’t safe, but that doesn’t make it true.

It’s also good to check in with myself about how I’m dealing with that stress. Am I reaching out for support from a therapist and/or friend? Am I talking about my fears or ignoring them? Am I staying busy? Am I taking care of myself?

I’m a big fan lately of guided meditation when I’m not feeling so grounded. More specifically, there’s this app that I can’t shut up about called Stop, Breathe & Think, which recommends a few meditations (and even yoga videos!) based on your emotions (imagine, like, a self-care mood ring).

You tell it how you’re feeling, and it makes custom recommendations for you. When I find myself freaking out – like my skin is crawling or I’m claustrophobic in my own body – it’s the perfect thing. (Nope, they didn’t ask for the plug – I just love and appreciate them that much.)

A lot of people believe that self-care is only crucial when you’re in a bad place. But I’ve found that self-care is absolutely critical when I’m happy – because the moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m actually most vulnerable.

Let me repeat that, because it’s super important: The moment I’ve stopped prioritizing my mental health is when I’m most vulnerable.

Got it?

I know it might seem counterintuitive to reach out for help when you’re happy, of all things, but it can be very necessary if your happiness is a stressor.

And this is a process, of course, one that I know will be ongoing throughout my life. But it helps to know that I’m not alone. And I hope that this reminder can be helpful to you, too.

When we start seeing happiness as a completely understandable trigger and learn to be gentle with ourselves, instead of letting trauma dictate how we should respond, we can start to do the really important work of recovery and healing – which is absolutely something each and every one of us deserves. Yourself included.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

To Anyone Who’s Ever Shamed a Teenager For Being ‘Attention Seeking’

A note on labels: Like many people with mental health struggles, I’ve experienced my fair share of misdiagnoses. Since writing this piece, I’ve finally been correctly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and complex PTSD, which have been life-changing realizations for me. That said, I hope that the resources I created in the past can still be helpful. (Jan 2019)

Content Note: self-harm, suicide

The scars I have from cutting myself as a teenager have faded. If you looked at my body today, you would never know the hell that I put it through all those years ago.

But the wounds from people labeling me “attention-seeking” or “emo” or “dramatic” are still wide open, ten years later.

You could say that I have a bone to pick. And you would be correct.

When I was a teenager, all I understood about what I was going through was that I was depressed and detached from myself. Set adrift in my pain, I fell apart. I didn’t know why, let alone what resources were available to me or how to ask for help.

In a society which does not openly discuss mental health, it should come as no surprise that a fourteen-year-old kid didn’t know what to do when he was suicidal.

A decade later, I still don’t know what to do half the time. But I’m grateful to that teenager for doing what he needed to do to keep himself alive. I wouldn’t be here without him.

I can’t tell you the number of times that people saw me suffering – desperate, hopeless, lost – and, instead of validating my struggles, they wrote them off by saying, “He’s just looking for attention.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I hurt myself, only to hear someone say to me, “Quit being so dramatic.”

And to this day, I hear the word “emo” and a part of me cringes because I remember the way that word was used to completely invalidate my pain.

To set the record straight, if I was looking for attention, it’s because I needed it. If I was being dramatic, it’s because I couldn’t contain the depth of my own turbulent emotions. And if “emo” is just another word for mentally ill, then yes, I was certifiably insane but you were too busy laughing at my eyeliner to give a fuck.

Sure, I’m emo. I’m emotional. It’s called bipolar disorder, and maybe I would’ve gotten a diagnosis sooner if someone had paused to consider that maybe I wasn’t faking it.

Call me bitter, but I can’t help but wonder how my life would be different if someone had had the courage to intervene instead of the cowardice to mock me.

Yes, this one’s personal.

Yesterday – ten years after I heard the word “emo” for the first time, ten years after my so-called friend said I was pretending to be sad, ten years after a high school counselor told me my cuts weren’t deep enough – I needed help.

A depressive episode hit me so hard, I lost my balance and I hit rock-bottom. I wasn’t in my right mind.

But instead of asking my friends for support, I felt that gut instinct that’s been ingrained in me since I was a teenager – the one that tells me not to be a burden, not to be dramatic, not to bother anyone.

Suffice to say, I ended up drunk off my ass a block away from the train station contemplating thoughts I can’t let myself say out loud just yet.

Take it from a real-life “emo” kid: When you tell us that we’re just looking for attention, what you’re really saying is that we don’t deserve to be seen.

When you tell us that we’re faking it, what you’re really saying is that our pain doesn’t matter, that WE don’t matter.

When you tell us that we’re emo, as if it’s funny to you, what you’re really saying is that our suffering is a joke.

You tell us that we don’t need help. You tell us that we don’t deserve help.

And you create the kind of world where people who are struggling feel like they have no other option but to end their own lives.

You create the kind of world where people who have a mental illness won’t find out until ten years or more after the age of onset, if they’re ever diagnosed at all. That’s a statistical fucking reality and it’s the reality I’ve been living in for a long time.

You create the kind of world where young people learn to bottle up their emotions, to lie about their pain, and to go it alone until they wind up in hospital beds, on train tracks, on concrete, in graves.

And you know what? I’ll take an attention-seeking teenager over a dead one any day of the week.

I want teenagers to shout it from the rooftop. I want teenagers to write it all over the internet. I want teenagers to make their pain known in every damn way they can.

Because guess what? That’s how you survive.

And I don’t know about you, but I want a world in which teenagers who are struggling with their mental health can get attention if and when they need it. Because every one of us deserves to have our pain seen, validated, and affirmed. 

And if that makes me “dramatic”? So be it.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

To The Friends That Knew I Couldn’t Do This ‘Mental Illness Thing’ Alone

When I hear your footsteps approaching me in the dark, what you don’t know is that I’m quietly muttering under my breath, “Please, please don’t be angry.”

I hide the bite marks on my hand. I keep my face hidden under the hood of my coat. I try to will myself into disappearance.

I fucked everything up.

I’m bracing myself for impact.

I didn’t want to hurt anyone.

You don’t remind me what I should or shouldn’t have done. You don’t remark on the inconvenience of it all. You don’t tell me, through clenched teeth, that I should know better by now.

You both sit down next to me – someone asks me if I’m okay, someone else puts an arm around me. And while I don’t move or respond to that touch, it takes everything in me not to.

In that moment, I am afraid for you to know how much I need you.

/

When I was young, I tried to do it all by myself. I didn’t know who to talk to – so I talked to no one.

For the first two years, I sobbed into my pillow so no one could hear me at night. I left cuts and bruises where no one would see them. I ran off into cold, Michigan winters and laid in the snow until I couldn’t feel my body.

No one looked for me then.

There came a day when the weeping stopped. When it took so much energy to scream that I ceased making noise altogether.

I hid in my closet and pondered how many minutes I could cut off my own breathing without dying.

No one asked about me then.

I thought that I was protecting people. I thought that if they knew about the darkness, the darkness would trap them, too. I thought that I would rather endure the pain alone than inflict it on someone else.

I thought I was being benevolent.

I didn’t yet call it “dying.”

/

The first time I ever loved someone, ever trusted someone with the darkness, it swallowed him whole.

I still remember late at night, curled in a blanket on his couch, when suddenly shadows were falling out of the ceiling and crawling across the room.

In my paranoia, I was convinced that the shadows had come for me.

I was screaming, and seizing, and I couldn’t form words – and the next thing I know, my head is hitting the fireplace, someone is holding me down against my will, and I hear him yelling the numbers, “911.”

Those numbers will always be burned into my mind, a looming threat, a weapon to be wielded.

Six months later, dialed in, the phone waving in front of my face as I stutter, as I weep, standing in a cookie-cutter Midwestern suburb, begging, “Please, please don’t be angry.”

He says, “You shouldn’t have run away.”

I say, “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

He says, “If you don’t come with me, they’re going to take you away.”

In my desperation, I lunge at him, grabbing the phone and breaking it on the ground.

And I run.

Because all I knew to do back then was run.

/

You tell me that we’re going back to your apartment. I keep my eyes closed for the entire drive because if we’re going to the hospital, I don’t want to know until we’re there.

It wouldn’t be the first time that I woke up in a hospital parking lot.

The first time was after a film – a film which spoke candidly about suicide, which I later realized must have set me off – when I have a panic attack so bad that I think I am dying.

In the chaos of his screaming and mine, I start hitting my head on the car window.

I black out.

I wake up to someone shaking my shoulder. I try to make sense of where I am when I see the words “EMERGENCY ROOM” in bright lights. I start to scream again. He tells me he had no choice.

I don’t know what is happening, but I know that I’m not safe here.

I run out of the car and towards the street. He catches me, grabbing me by the shirt, telling me that I either go willingly or the police will find me.

911.

I tell him he doesn’t love me. I tell him he wants to ruin my life. I tell him that he’s not helping. I tell him that no one will believe him. His grip loosens on my shirt, his eyes softening.

He begins to cry.

I see my opportunity.

I don’t console him – I break free from his grasp, running into a lane of oncoming traffic, the sound of car horns and screeching tires piercing my eardrums.

/

We don’t go to the hospital.

Like you promised, we are back at the apartment.

When I step out of the car, I am stunned that no one has grabbed me or is forcing me in. No one is fighting me.

And I’m not running.

I was not tricked into an emergency room. I was not carried away in handcuffs. I was not screaming and neither were you.

No one is angry.

I am still hiding inside a jacket that is two sizes too big (maybe more). Someone asks me if I have everything I need to stay the night. And someone else puts an arm around me again, and an unexpected emotion overtakes me.

It’s hard enough to understand that I am allowed to walk up to that house on my own. It’s even harder to understand that someone is now holding me.

Why isn’t anyone angry? Why isn’t anyone yelling?

I want to cry but I’m afraid of being vulnerable. I’m afraid, still, that you’d know that I failed to take care of my shit, that I couldn’t do this by myself.

So I sit as still as possible and I desperately hope that my stillness doesn’t make it seem like I don’t want to be touched.

I do want to be touched.

I won’t tell you that.

I don’t remember what we talked about but I remember the calmness in everyone’s voices. I remember waiting for a lecture that I never received. I remember conversations about pop culture and I would expect nothing less from you both.

I remember laughing and how good it felt to laugh.

I remember being told, gently, that we would go to the crisis center the next day – I would be picked up in the morning, and my friends would be there, and my partner would be there, and I wouldn’t be alone.

There was no trickery.

And I remember being surprised that no one was trying to trick me.

/

Three years ago, my therapist asks me why my eyes well up so often but I never cry.

“I can’t cry,” I tell her.

“Why not?”

“It’s just not something that I do.”

She pauses, waiting for me to say more. In these pauses, I always tell myself that she’s doing it because she knows I’ll fill the empty space, and that I should stop obliging her.

Even when I tell myself not to, the silence between us is compelling.

I always oblige.

“I’m afraid that if I start crying, I’ll lose control.”

“Would that be so bad?”

I remember this conversation when you are both looking for food for me to eat in the kitchen.

I know that if I start crying, I won’t stop. I know that if I don’t stop, I’ll start screaming.

And I know that if I scream, you will know a part of me that only two people in this world have ever known – the part of me that is profoundly broken, the part of me that breaks hearts – and you will never see me the same way again.

One day, I will let my guard down and you will know what it’s like to hear something so painful come out of me that your heart collapses like a trapdoor.

But I am not ready to break your hearts.

Yet.

/

You let me sleep in your bed that night. You replace your ex’s water cup with mine, which strikes me in that moment as really meaningful. We watch television and I laugh at your running commentary, which is so perfect and makes me smile, even when I don’t want to.

Sometimes you touch my arm and I don’t have the words to tell you what it means to me when you do.

Just then, I am reminded of all the nights I spent alone as a teenager.

When I was too afraid to call anyone, when I was too afraid to tell the truth, when I was too afraid to break hearts.

I am reminded of how close I came to dying because I was never brave enough to say, “I need help.”

Tonight, I will not die. I will sleep next to you. I will wake up occasionally, look over at you, and feel relieved that you’re still there.

I will remember all the nights that I rejected the people I cared about, thinking I was some sort of protector, some sort of martyr. Thinking that these walls I built were so tremendous, that I had done the world a favor.

When I hear you breathing next to me in the middle of the night, I will wonder why I ever thought I was so noble for going it alone.

I wasn’t noble.

I was just scared.

/

“What happens if I’m hospitalized?”

“It will be okay.”

“And what about my parents?”

“They will be okay.”

Quietly:

“And me?”

“You will be okay.”

/

When I leave your house in the morning, you say – in your very particular way of saying things – that today is going to be an adventure.

I stop in my tracks, looking back at you.

“An adventure?” I repeat back.

When you tell me that everything will be okay, I believe you. I’m learning to believe in you.

Everything you said yesterday was true, too – when you promised that no one was plotting against me; when you promised I could take a nap and not wake up somewhere else; when you promised that if I told you where I was, we would make things right.

I don’t know what you mean by an adventure, but I believe you when you say it.

/

The psychologist at the crisis center has assessed my responses.

“Rapid cycling,” he says, “Brought on by the hormone fluctuations when you ran out of testosterone. It set off your bipolar disorder.”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

“You mention here,” he says, looking at the dozens of papers that I filled out, “That you were experiencing some bouts of suicidality.”

“Yes,” I say quietly.

“What kept you from acting on your impulses?”

I think about it for a moment.

“My friends.”

He pauses, in the way I guess all therapists do, in the way that makes me feel like I need to fill in the spaces.

But this time, I don’t fill the space.

signature

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!