MFT Intern Elie El Habr works with at-risk youth in South Central Los Angeles and shares about his successes and failures in trying to reach kids who either want help or are court mandated, as he tries to keep them from going into juvenile hall or foster Elie recommends all parents read the book The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel.
The Attics Are Already Full
“Are you going to eat all that yourself?“
The delivery guy’s expression was incredulous as he handed me my order–an order, which, I’d used illegal means of obtaining, so desperate and pathological the means of my destruction had devolved.
I paused, immediately conjured a plausible lie, dismissed it and admitted, “Yes.”
“Whaaat?” He assessed my frame in disbelief. “But…how?”
I had no energy for shame or mortification.
“I’m going to throw it all up when I’m done.”
Caught off guard by my candidness, his speech faltered, “Oh! OhmyGod. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your problem.” I pause. “Only, if you don’t ask your customers so many personal questions, you might not have to deal with so many personal answers.”
He nodded, reaching for the signed receipt.
Now, he is finally walking away, and I think he is going to let me be.
Still, not put off, he’s got one more for me.
“So…you’re like, Anorexic or somethin’”?
Yeah, buddy. Or somethin’.
They don’t understand. It isn’t gluttony. And isn’t hedonism.
This is not about pleasure. This is all about pain.
Near or distant, it’s likely that nearly every family has at least one “mad” relation. You know who I’m talking about; the one who’s responsible for the legendary tales of insane behavior, collective embarrassment, and general familial strife? Chances are if you’re reading this essay, you either love a “mad” person or are one of them. Well, you’re in good company my friend.
As late as the 1970’s, those “affected” were institutionalized in barbaric versions of asylums and hospitals, a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Strides made in modern medicine and mental health care ought to reduce the destructive ripple effect these individuals wield upon their respective families, but, in my estimation, it hasn’t done much to help.
At best, positive changes have been minimal; mental illness poisons entire families. The reality of mental illness is that there is no cure, only strategies of maintenance and coping. The management of mood disorders is largely guesswork: trial and error requiring time, patience, resources and information.
And step one is diagnosis.
Correct diagnosis, that is.
From childhood into my early 30’s, I’ve been the unwilling passenger of a perpetual rollercoaster, with violent emotional waves dictating my behavior, decisions and interactions.
I felt (and still feel) so wrong in the head, not understanding the constant intensity of emotion, the internal turmoil always clutching at my insides.
I’ve been confused by the behavior of those around me. Everyone else seems so relaxed, so unaffected, so very, very even.
When I was younger, in elementary, middle and even high school, it frustrated me to no end that, when I was in a manic rage or sobbing desperately, my parents didn’t seem to take me seriously, dammit. In fact, they often appeared amused.
Outrageous! How dare you! This is life and death we are talking about here!
I was quite indignant.
Talking to my dad about it now, he tells me: “I didn’t realize anything was really wrong. I just assumed the fighting with your mother, the emotional outbursts, the dramatics…that it was all part of being a girl.”
Sexist, maybe. Understandable? Absolutely.
Most of the time, I covered up the illness. I desperately wanted (and still want) to fit in, be accepted, appear normal, be liked and admired.
And still, to this day, I seek external validation. My 20+ years of Anorexia and Bulimia can certainly attest to that.
But of course, an Eating Disorder is not ever about just one thing. Yes, a significant part of me wants to appear attractive, controlled, on top of things, and strong (ha ha…ha), BUT the main role of my Anorexia and Bulimia has been a homemade mood stabilizer, only I never realized its true function until 2014, when I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.
For years, family, doctors, psychologists, and therapists attempted to treat only the presenting symptoms: the starving, bingeing, purging, over-exercising, self-harming behaviors.
All the while, not seeing the forest from the trees.
At my sickest, I felt angry at them. Patronized.
My problems were chalked up to the trivial pursuit of beauty. Thinness. Perfection. Attaining the unattainable, blah, blah, blah.
My parents theorized it was a preoccupation with vanity; a hyperbolic representation of societal standards for the aesthetic ideal.
The times when I veered toward the danger zone, more dead than alive, they realized it had become an obsession over which I’d lost control; a set of destructive behaviors so addictive and necessary that I was willing to die for them.
And I may, still.
My parents tried to understand, but they did not have all the information.
Wanting very much to keep me alive, they’ve attempted all conceivable ways to help: spending tens of thousands of dollars on treatment, hospitals, rehab, therapists, doctors and dentists. Arguing with insurance companies on my behalf, fighting for more comprehensive care. Seeing me through divorce and bankruptcy. Moving me back home and opening their own homes to me, all the while providing financial and emotional support. Straining their own relationships, prioritizing my needs at the expense of my siblings.
I am a living, breathing investment.
Then, the true and full extent of my family’s unconditional love, support and patience was tested when I had my first psychotic manic episode. I had initially not been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder because, for years, doctors, psychologists, therapists, and counselors had been focused on the presenting symptoms of my eating disorder. Forest…trees…you get it.
Around the time of my divorce, my family had helped moved me back home, at their time and expense, I might add, but I’d already been relapsing into Anorexia once again. Historically my anorexia has always manifested as sub-type 2: purging type. What this means is, that I primarily restrict my calorie intake, but if I do binge, or even eat normal portion sizes, I will purge through vomiting. During anorectic relapses, this behavior is always accompanied by excessive exercise. I normally run 45 minutes to an hour, but during a relapse, a two to three hour workout would be about average for me. OCD behaviors always intensify during these times as well.
Having refused to go to inpatient eating disorder treatment during this relapse, I was seeing both a medical doctor and an outpatient therapist regularly, at my family’s behest. The doctor, in an attempt to treat my “depression and anxiety” prescribed me anti-depressants, which promptly sent me into full blown mania.
Starvation-and not in the hyperbolic sense, mind you-combined with, well, basically speed for Bipolar people, made me a fucking lunatic.
Compounding that, a Bipolar person, having a mixed-manic episode, I was readily and enthusiastically putting myself in peril. There’s that impulsive, risky element that’s so magnetically attractive in this state; even suicidal thoughts are idealized and appealing.
When mania verged into psychosis, the following behavior ensued for the next several months non-stop: compulsive shoplifting of food in mass quantities and back-to-back occurrences despite consequences (repeated arrests and jail time). I became divorced from reality during this time. My mind and reasoning were gone.
I am a convicted felon three times over because of this compulsion. During various mixed/manic episodes, I would run around town, a psychotic, starving skeleton, and steal cartloads of food from grocery stores to either hoard and not eat (Anorectic features) or to binge/purge on it (Bulimic features).
A normal, non-eating disordered person will read this and not understand. They will view this as disgusting, and, in some ways, it is.
A normal, non-mentally affected person will read this and not understand; they will view this as an excuse, and, in some ways, it is.
A normal, non-addict will read this and not understand; they will view this as a weakness, and, in some ways, it is.
Unfortunately, I’m an eating disordered, mentally affected, addict and, when I have relapsed, consequences don’t matter. At that moment, my eating disorder is my drug of choice, and, it is the one making the choices.
My family was able to provide legal representation the first time I got into trouble, but it just kept happening. There was nothing they could do. Like I said, I am a convicted felon three times over because of this compulsion. I’ve not been able to work for the past two years.
I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics, an M.B.A. in Finance, and 7 years experience working in the Banking and Finance industry that’s all worthless per the legal consequences of my unmanaged illness.
That, and I’ve still not been able to get my mood swings under control, even with a heavy medication protocol. I’m either in bed for days or awake all week. Regardless, I am no longer suited to work in a traditional business due to the realities of mental illness. Period.
I often find myself wondering if an early childhood intervention would have helped me; if just getting me into a doctor’s office under the pretense to treat my Obsessive Compulsive Behaviors, my Magical Games, the refusal to get under my own comforter and actually feel comfort, the acute vexation with asymmetry, the doctor could have either ruled out or acknowledged the OCD diagnosis and POSSIBLY connected the dots on the Bipolar disorder diagnosis much sooner.
Maybe, if my parents and I knew what we were dealing with–Bipolar I, Anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder–earlier on, things would be different.
Or maybe they would be very much the same. My brain chemistry would be exactly the same, so it’s anyone’s guess. In my private writings; my secret letters that I never mail, I demand to know why my parents did not take my childhood instability more seriously and, thus, look into professional help for me sooner; my words; my yelling, angry language marching across papers; accusatory, defiant, unquestionably imbalanced.
Would it be better or worse to show my parents in words, rather than in skeletal illustration, why I feel badly, act strangely and impulsively, treat others cruelly, and consistently, predictably, invariably let the whole damn world down?
Present day, I am not better. My body tells a lie; it’s a facade of repair, of restoration, of health.
I am still quite “mad”. Borderline. Bipolar. Rapid-cycling, mood-switching. Manic. Depressed. Anxious. Compulsive. Impulsive.
I’m told I’m a danger to myself.
When you’re Bipolar I, and just climbing out of depression, it seems there is a limited window of opportunity to capitalize on any talent, intellect, or ability. It vanishes into the terrible blackness that surrounds you like a death shroud more often than not.
Just when you’ve gotten free of it, there are so many things you want to do, and normal time is so finite. And you find yourself, running down the street at full-speed, attempting to evade the blackness. But, it’s gaining on you. You’ve got maybe a quarter of a mile head-start, so you must get things done quickly before you get sad again and your brain is put on hold once more.
The best moments are in that elevated state of hypomania (it’s below Mania but above feeling “flat”). It’s that good, creative-flow, “in-the-zone” kind of state, that fantastic-yet-fleeting, when you think you’re finally creating something brilliant, you’re led to work straight through the night, and CAN’T WAIT! to share it with the world because you finally have your brain back. Your intellect, that is. Not your sanity, of course.
The heart of the matter, the disease, the disorder, the affliction must still be addressed; managed.
The problem lies in the neurological; in the chemical.
Inflammation of the brain.
Only now, the roots of my illness are finally being dug up, exposed. There is an overwhelming amount of discussion and analysis, experimental damage control.
In Jane Austen’s time, as a more humane alternative to the institutions and asylums, the mad relation was simply locked away in the attic.
We won’t speak of them again. Brush off hands. Problem solved.
Until a workable treatment plan is found, I still rely entirely on my family’s support, siphoning resources, straining budgets and patience. When my mad behavior becomes untenable, I will be shuffled again. To another gracious family member or friend.
Because, alas, the attics are already full.
Kidding. Sort of.
Kristen Polito Bio:
The 32 year-old shares about breaking free from her mother (and their religion Christian Science) after years of her using scripture as a weapon to justify her neglectful, unempathetic and narcissistic parenting. She also shares about her history of panic attacks/fear of choking, and trichotillomania.
Paul’s support group friend shares about being raised in a Catholic Italian-American family where attention was hard to get, how her mother’s death helped her to grow and her love addiction to men and sugar.
To read the article about mental health in colleges by Catherine Savini go to http://chronicle.com/article/Are-You-Being-Rigorous-or-Just/236341
This episode is sponsored by SquareSpace. For a free trial and 10% off your first purchase go to www.squarespace.com and use the offer code MENTAL
To check out Paul’s Squarespace page go to www.paul-gilmartin.squarespace.com
The 29 year-old Vietnamese-Australian shares about being raised by his refugee, mentally-disabled (OCD & PTSD) single mother, experiencing racism, living in inner city poverty (Melbourne) and trying to be “Vietnamese enough” for the Vietnamese community.
22 year-old Melanie R. shares about living with D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder which used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder), being bullied, having a perpetrator who is female, integrating her “alters” and Sensory Integration Disorder.
Melanie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her personal blog is at loserchildhotpants.tumblr.com.
Melissa reads excerpts from her book So Sad Today, probes her turn ons, food issues, stint with polyamory, panic attacks, sexting and depression.
This episode is sponsored by the meditation app Calm. Visit www.calm.com/mentalillnesspodcast
Follow Melissa on Twitter @SoSadToday
Check out her website www.melissabroder.com
Buy her book So Sad Today on Amazon. It’s amazing!
For many years the ex-highway patrolman’s beat was the Golden Gate Bridge. He shares about the encounters he had with people who wanted to jump and how he learned to get some of them to open up and change their minds. He also shares about his PTSD, surviving cancer and struggling to be a better parent. Kevin now travels the world speaking as a suicide prevention advocate.
This episode is sponsored by the mindfulness/meditation app Calm
download it for free at www.calm.mentalillnesspodcast.com