When Normal Activities are Terrifying

Earlier this year I committed to blogging my life as a person with mental illness.  Initially it was to be out and to help those who had never experienced mental illness to have some perspective on it.  Now that I know it is largely accepted without judgment, at least within my readership, it has also become cathartic.  I’m very grateful for that – it makes it easier to continue to make good on my commitment.

I have needed to buy new long-sleeve shirts for a while now, and last night was the appointed time.  My body has changed so much this year that hardly any of my clothes fit me.  Sarah and Ashley came with and we set off for the mall.

Upon our arrival we headed for H&M (the company that recently admitted to pasting model’s heads on computer generated bodies for their ads).  My general style is fairly loose-fitting clothes.  They’re comfortable.  They’re safe.  The first pair of jeans Sarah selected was a 34″ waist, the smallest I’ve ever worn.  The pants weren’t baggy at all, but I could feel them clinging to my skin.  The shirt I tried on was a small, and it hugged every inch of my torso…

Immediately came the heavy breathing and the sweating, along with the inability to look at anything but my stomach. I see the shadows where the shirt highlights my gut hanging over my waist and become terrified to leave the fitting room.  Outside this tiny space is where everybody can look at me and be forced to mask their revulsion, so I just want to put all my baggy clothes back on and sit there for a while.  Sarah keeps prodding me to come out so she can see how the outfit looks.  Finally I do and my surroundings begin to spin, but Sarah didn’t seem to notice.  She just says I look good.  Surely she’s placating me so I don’t feel bad.

Back into the fitting room and I become aware that the hallucinations are settling in.  There’s no way I can look that fat when two hours ago I looked normal.  My arms start to tingle as though they’ve fallen asleep.  Alright, I’m panicking.  What can I do?  Trust Sarah, she wouldn’t let me go into public looking like a moron.

I try to play it cool, but Sarah starts to notice me tightening up.  She gives me a drawn out hug and tells me it will be ok.  I apologize profusely.  It’s not like I can predict when something like this will happen.  She understands, which means a lot.  I never want to be a burden, even at the times I do need help.

I eventually get through it and drop a lot of money on clothes I think could not look more hideous on me.  They are more form-fitting than anything I’ve ever worn.  They draw attention to my body instead of covering it up, and that scares the shit out of me.  During a photo shoot you can take the pictures that show you at your best, ignore the rest, and share them with just your closest friends.  But walking outside in this attire forces the world to stare at me, and that is an insufferable proposition.  When I get home I will put all of these clothes in the closet and not touch them again until I’ve lost another ten pounds.

I acknowledge that I’m having these thoughts, and I’m also aware that I am detached from reality at this moment and must trust those around me.  I generally trust myself completely, so this is not the easiest thing for me to do.  But I’m sick.  I know I’m sick.  This is how I manage it.  To trust a myself when I know my brain is malfunctioning would be extremely foolish, so the best thing I can possibly do is hand control of part of my life to someone else.  If you know you can’t be rational, you should listen to those you think can be…it’s the rational thing to do.

On the way out of the mall, I can’t help but notice that every single person in the mall is beautiful, well-dressed, and paired up with someone else super attractive.  Are these the same people who were here when I walked in?  Why didn’t I notice this then?  What am I doing here?  I don’t belong in this environment.  Sarah takes my arm, I can feel her fingers but my arms are so numb it’s like feeling them through cotton.  I feel the tears coming, but I manage to fight them back.  I’m pretty much letting Sarah guide me out of the mall because everything is whipping around.  I see food through the windows and it makes me nauseous.

I’m home now and curled up in a ball on my bed.  I’m aware that even though I will try my damndest that I’ll probably be unable to eat tomorrow.  I’m waiting to talk with Christina and Michaelyn so they can give me long-distance hugs.  I’m writing this post in the meantime and thinking about all the people out there like me who haven’t admitted to themselves that they’re ill, who continue to trust their broken mind at all times.  I’m imagining all the people who think their illness is a matter of weakness, that it’s their fault for not being better.  I’m acknowledging that there are tons of people out there staying silent and suffering instead of acquiring a support network to help them cope.  And I’m wishing there was something I could do for them.

This is what it is to live with insanity.  It’s miserable, even with a litany of coping mechanisms I have in place.  It’s hell without them.  If there is someone like this close to you, find them,  hug them, and tell them it’s going to be alright.  Salvation from hell in this life isn’t acquired through believing ludicrous things about life after death, it’s acquired through other human beings who care enough to hold you.


Update: I wrote this post before bed last night.  I am much better this morning, which shows progress.  Even in April of this year the turnaround time on an episode like that was several days.  I went to the gym this morning, kept it to 45 minutes (leaving me 15 minutes for pull ups/push ups later, so I’ll still stay under my allotted hour), and even got a 500 calorie protein shake down.  Eating will be tough today and we’ll see how it goes, but on the whole I’m much better.

 

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • embertine

    JT, I imagine these posts must be both difficult and cathartic to write but I just wanted to say that I find them beautiful and hugely informative as someone who has not battled with that type of mental illness.

    I especially like the fact that as you have good days and bad days you demonstrate that coping with your illness is an ongoing struggle. I hate how certain conditions, particularly anorexia, are often depicted in the press or on television as something that can just get better, as though a switch can be flicked in the patient’s brain and suddenly everything will be fine.

    Thanks for showing us what it’s really like living with this disease.

  • Carol Eberhard

    I will give you hugs and delicious roast turkey (dig that protein) soon…:o)

  • http://www.sbsoapbox.blogspot.com/ Susi

    you keep taking the right steps, good for you! this will bring you to where you want to be. so proud of you, jt! your courage helps you and it also inspires others! ((hugs))

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    You’re an eye opener and an inspiration, JT. Keep fighting, brother.

  • christinea

    As someone who suffered from an eating disorder myself, I know how scary it is to look at yourself in clothes that fit your body. I also know how important it is to get comfortable with that image in the mirror. At the same time, I worry that buying form-fitting clothes when you’re at below average weight will end up undermining your progress. It caused me a lot of anxiety when I gained weight and the clothes I had bought when I was underweight no longer fit. I don’t want you to go through that additional anxiety.

  • neatospiderplant

    Hugs!

  • Ladryn

    I am not ready to fully come out of my mental illness closet, so I will use a pseudonym for now.

    But I understand every one of those feelings. I have a very different illness- anxiety and depression, and now diagnosed as bipolar. But the physical representation of that mental illness is all too familar. As you were talking about your experience in the fitting room, I could feel myself slowly being consumed by that fire in the skin… For me, it starts at my stomach/chest and radiates up to my face and down to my hands. I can still feel it right now.

    The way it can take over your body. It makes me feel like a caged tiger, pacing inside a very small cage.

    I just hope that you continue to understand that you are not alone. That very many brilliant people are out there- brilliant people just like you… Who shine so bright, and hurt so deeply.

    Continue to surround yourself with people who hold you up during these times. Let yourself be vulnerable and weak. Let them be strong for you.

    There is no cure for this mental health bullshit. But there is healing, and the fact that we are on the healing path this early in life is a very good thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1583067300 alisonmeyer

    JT, you’re doing a great service to yourself as well as to everyone who reads you. As an adult with depression and ADD, I’ve had to come to terms with many of the same issues or similar ones. It’s really hard to hit that realization that you’re never going to stop taking medications, that even taking the medications isn’t going to make you all better, and that your brain is always going to be trying to get you to think in ways you don’t want to. Knowing you would never, ever kill yourself sometimes makes suicidal thoughts even more disturbing. Knowing you’re not dying, just having a panic attack, doesn’t always make the panic easier to handle. Knowing that your thoughts are not conscious or rational doesn’t make them stop coming to the forefront. However, knowing these things makes you aware that you need help, which is a good way to push you into getting it.

    Both my children inherited a subset of my problems, but the younger is the one who won’t be able to overcome them without medications. This was a big hurdle for her, and it took coming to a significant low for her to admit something had to be done. I didn’t want to medicate either of my children unless it was absolutely necessary, but in this case it was.

    Shortly after she started, I came across the video of your talk at Skepticon. My daughter wandered into the room, then sat and watched it with me. Having someone besides her mother say the same things about it being OK to be ill, OK to talk about it, and OK to manage it like any other illness with medications had a real impact. Seeing someone speak openly about his mental health in front of an audience and encourage people to seek help and be hopeful really resonated with her. So keep talking. You’ve already changed the life of one teenage girl, who has a spark of optimism that wasn’t there before.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      Thank you so much for this. *hugs to you and your daughter*

  • http://polymathicintentions.blogspot.com Amber C-F

    The research on Catharsis, with the exception of writing, shows that it doesn’t work. It actually makes people more violent if they throw plates, more angry if they yell. Writing is the exception. That being said, I feel some concern that public writing (as you do here) is more like the yelling or crashing plates. Be careful. Everyone needs a private life.

    **hug**

  • Sydney

    I just started following this blog and reading this confirms that it’s a keeper. My husband suffers from severe depression mixed with severe body issues and trouble eating. I see a lot of his struggles in your words. Thank you for your honesty and your willingness to share your struggles with strangers. I wish you continued success in your efforts to maintain your well-being.

  • Evan Clark

    As always, thanks for sharing! As someone that has never had a real understanding of mental illness, I truly appreciate your efforts to educate, and share your own struggles. Peace, Love, and Hugs from California!

  • Celeste

    I’m one of the lucky ones, one of the ones who not only doesn’t have any mental problems, but also doesn’t have anyone in my immediate family with them. Because of that, I’ve never understood the depth of the problem and I’m very thankful you’re willing to share so much of this with us. It’s eye-opening and I know someday this new knowledge you’ve given me could be very important for someone I love. Thank you for sharing, and HUGS!

  • Lana C

    I wish I had something more to say, but my normal wordiness is failing me. I just hope you feel better. I’ve sort of been there too lately, so I can’t really get much more out, but please feel better. You make such a huge difference to so many people.

  • Daniel Schealler

    *de-lurks*

    *virtual hugs*

    And seriously: Kudos on the shake.

  • http://victoria-ed.blogspot.com v1ctor1a

    I’m so glad you find this cathartic because as someone who has issues of her own, but not these particular issues, I find it very helpful to read the thoughts/experiences of someone suffering through this. Not only is it fascinating (if you don’t mind my saying so) but I also feel like should I ever end up with a friend who is struggling with similar issues, I might be better equipped to help them deal with it.

    On top of that, I feel like the portrait of anorexia in the media is not one that helps those struggling with this (though I certainly I could be wrong on that) or those who just want to understand what their friends, family, etc. are going through so that they can offer help. On the other hand, I think following your battles with this does. Thank you for being willing to share this part of you with so many people you don’t know. It’s really courageous.

  • http://www.danafredsti.com Dana

    You continue to amaze me, JT. I’m sure those new clothes look wonderful on you and those “sick” pythons of yours (SO going in the book!), but I also very much relate to body image issues and how you can look fine one moment and then suddenly view yourself as having suddenly gained 10 pounds in the next. I wrestled with bulemia for many years.

    Hugs, hugs, hugs! With a “KILL SQUAD!” tossed in there.

  • http://johnnykaje.wordpress.com Johnnykaje

    *one million hugs*

  • Besomyka

    I’m very glad to hear about this morning. I have a sister that lives with anorexia. She’s been managing it well for many year now, but it got pretty bad before she was able to find the help she needed.

    Myself, I get gender-related anxiety and your description of panic reverberates with my own experiences. Details different, of course, but quite a bit of overlap. Enough so I feel like I can sympathies not just empathize.

    For what its worth, I’m glad that you not only survived the experience with a friend, but managed to do what you had set out to do before hand. It was clearly hard, but you didn’t let it stop you completely.

    Keep on keepin’ on.

  • Janis Mattox

    How about a photo shoot in your new duds?

  • LadyBlack

    Your post made me cry. I’m going through another bad period at the moment and have asked for more counselling. I currently spend my time fantasising about self-harming stuff (can’t describe here, too graphic) and it’s all getting worse.

    But I want to say this : you ARE helping people, JT. You are talking about this. I had an insight into eating disorders from the Channel four programme “Supersize vs superskinny” which carried a sort of “Let’s look at eating discorders” as a kind of background story. I thought it was going to be voyueristic, and it actually showed me what it’s like. I wasn’t quite as bad as the “Well, you just have to eat” brigade, but my ignorance was almost as total as that. If those people hadn’t allowed themselves to be shown, I’d still know nothing about the problem, still be going, “I like food, I’m sure they’ll like it too if they just went out to eat with me”. So the more you talk, the more you educate, the better other people will understand. And come forward.

    And you make me laugh too, your post on “Christ the Saviour” was brilliant.

    Hugs to you.

  • Freemage

    JT: Thanks for sharing this. Sometimes my wife, who suffers from depression, can’t tell me when it’s hitting her the worst–that’s part of the disorder. So I have to watch for signs and cues and hints to let me know when to step up and just let her know I’m there if she needs me to be (or to encourage her to take a few moments for herself–it’s amazing sometimes how quickly she can rally if she isn’t being pressured, by herself or by the situation, to do so). Getting this look inside your head helps me know what sort of things to look for.

  • passerby

    First time reading this article: by paragraphs.

    p1-p3: Interested in blogging about a topic I know little of.

    p4: Notice the slip in description, wonder if he’s exaggerating.

    p5: Realize he isn’t exaggerating. Creeped out. Keep reading. The description makes my arm tingle a little.

    p6, p7: Wave of sympathy. Can’t figure out how he does it, even with Sarah. Want to give him a hug machine.

    p8-p10: No more sympathy. Now, a profound respect for someone who lives through torture on a regular basis, and thinks about others instead of retreating into pity. Salute.

    p11: Complete agreement.

    ————-

    After both of my deployments to the sandbox, some of the guys in our unit would go to therapy to talk about what they’d seen over in Iraq. Though most of the civilian side might not know it, the Army has had one of it’s toughest fights battling the stigma of “getting help is for the weak” that drives Soldiers away from counsellors and into drinking or drugs or worse. I never saw it as a sign of weakness. I don’t understand how knowing yourself and getting treatment for an ailment could ever be considered weak.

    Then again, I never went into therapy. Never saw the need for it, as my first time was base defense and my second time was as a 46Q. Reading this reminded me of a friend who I went to the mall with on occasion, and how after deployment he could barely function in the crowd. I didn’t understand what he was going through, why he avoided the clumps of people I never noticed, or how he’d wait until he could get a seat with a view of the doors and his back to the wall before he ate.

    I understand that PTSD and what you are going through are seperate things, but reading about your experiences reminded me of theirs, and mine, in similar situations.

    Thank you, JT.


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