Living with the Unimaginable

This is about “the suffering that is too terrible to name…” and learning to live

with The Unimaginable.”

PART 1

For all of the elaborate treatments which western medicines have tried to co-opt and create to treat mental illness and suffering, I question whether there are any that truly address bereavement in all its spiritual, social, and emotional complexities.

How do you mediate the effects of bereavement? If you ruminate, then you are wrong; if you avoid your grief, you are wrong; if you turn to coping mechanisms unproven by empirical evidence, you are again likely wrong. So how many things might be deemed “right”? What can possibly fill the hollow void left behind in the wake of a lost body and soul? The pain and emptiness that- for some- simply never seem to go away?

Who can possibly decide the right way to live with those emotions, those sensations, those perceptual states? What is most ethical, purposeful, or correct, truly? Could there ever be a right answer beyond the individual level?

I’ve gotten into trouble for asking questions such as these since I was a twelve year-old child, following the death of my father. It was as though adults around me thought that by asking such things I would become a weapon, dangerous to myself and to others. I was told not to think too hard; that was surely the problem (Rumination). Focus on other things; get a hobby or two. The pain of losing loved ones- in whatever capacity- will go away with time. Emotions are temporary.

I froze my brain as best I could; I numbed myself quietly through the false persona of a shiny happy blonde teen who tried to please everyone. I picked up as many hobbies as I was able, while I grew increasingly ill. Finding purpose and meaning as an adolescent is hard for many young people, but still I was guided towards dreams and aspirations- which my reality crushed hard. Because doing anything while living with debilitating chronic pain and fatigue- no matter the origin- is not often all that dreamy.

P2

Today, I feel that my questions remains valid. What is the danger inherent in asking who decides what is right for my mind and my body after they were shattered in childhood? Who decides my narrative- or for that matter anyone else’s? Why do so many societies seek to hide and control those of us who grieve profoundly, those of us who feel this world with our whole being?

Does we hurt to look at? Is grief painful to look at? Is it so incomprehensible for those who don’t feel such indignation in their bones every day that there are some people living in this world who just might?

Or perhaps- does bereavement bring up a painful reminder of the human condition itself? Of life’s fragility, and of how we as humans simply cannot control everything? We are mortal- we are stories with beginnings and endings, some much longer and more acclaimed than others. How do we hold that knowledge?

While this world cries out in suffering and I am alive to witness, as I watch my friends suffer- some more loudly, some silently- as I watch more lives vanish from this world, I will not apologize for my grieving. I will not apologize for getting angry. I will not apologize for not always immediately ascribing some sort of reason to all the chaos. For not ACT-DBT-CBT-ing my way through life. That is not the therapy which I believe to be my solution to pain and suffering. And I know it’s not the answer for many others, either.

 

I believe in listening, first. I believe in witnessing, first. I believe in radical compassion. I believe in contextualizing the entirety of an individual’s experience and asking someone what they make of their time here on this earth. I believe, I believe, I believe.

And as for joy and awe- sometimes even magic- and the possibility of the great beyond, yes, I believe in them, too. With all I have in me. But it’s my choice, and I believe in my way. And as others find their paths through ethical egoism and modified behavioral therapies, I respect their ways- so long as they don’t diminish the pain and lived experiences of others. Everyone deserves to find their way.

Perhaps the connectivity I imagine and yearn for won’t ever be truly captured in textbooks, journals, or research papers, even as I fervently search to better analyze it in my own research and studies surrounding the human psyche. I’ll use the DSM as I am required; I’ll work earnestly for my diplomas; but I won’t ever stop trying to plant seeds of change, of thought, wherever I go and grow.

I will continue to ask: What do we do when there are no words, when there is suffering too terrible to name?

“They are working through The Unimaginable.”

P4

Photographs from 2015-2019

 

The Burdens We Carry- NEDA 2019

“You must be a dancer.”

“Are you a ballerina?”

“You’re so tiny I could just pick you up!”

Those words stayed with me for years, and I remember them every time I look in the mirror. These were things frequently told to me while I was at my “smallest” size and weight- when I felt I took up the least physical space, and numbers on a scale and a clothing tag reflected that.

The pictures in this post were taken this past weekend as my own artistic way of reflecting upon National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and what recovery has meant to me. This is my body- it is a body not fully recovered, but no longer in pieces. It is the body I inhabit today, after years spent negotiating my relationship with my female figure and with this life.  At 24 years old, I have mostly maintained my “weight-restored” set point. I still struggle, I still survive, and often I even thrive. But I carry the weight of years gone by and pain witnessed deep in my bones. It doesn’t leave.

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So often, I want to turn my back and retreat somewhere still deeper inside myself where I can pretend that burdens don’t exist- that we don’t all carry painful stories that weigh upon our souls. I find myself desperately wanting to empty myself of that encumbering weight, to abandon it through any means necessary. I strive to be minimalist, to leave no trace; I wish to do no harm, be no one’s burden. And to never, ever be full- that old, poisonous rule still haunts me. Because to be full once meant to become a human container- to feel, and quite simply “to be” too much. Eating just felt like too much. I challenge these feelings and cognitions every day. It’s okay to take up space; it’s okay to be here. Everyone has a right to show up.

Today, I find thinking about that time to be deeply disturbing: Simply because I was “small” and appeared to fit a specific societal standard of beauty, people mistook me for being one of the strongest, most athletic kinds of performers; in reality my body was essentially falling to pieces as I slowly starved to death. My bones had grown brittle from lack of calcium, and I needed iron infusions to replenish my low blood counts. I was nowhere near capable of performing pirouettes or grand jetes. I developed a heart murmur from the stress on my heart that came with losing large amounts of weight and the purging that followed most meals, when I bothered to eat at all. And after enough time caught in a cycle of purging and restricting food, eating had grown to hurt so much that I often rationalized away my need to eat: “Why do something that causes you real, physical pain?” I would ask myself. (I later learned that painful sensation was the process of my stomach shrinking)

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But so long as I was still visually thin, young, female, white, and able-bodied- in other words, in possession of qualities the patriarchy has conditioned us to believe to be some sort of gold standard- I was both implicitly and explicitly praised by society and encouraged to maintain that very specific body type. Because any deviation from that standard is, through those patriarchal standards, implicated to be “less than”- and those toxic constructs continue to be reinforced through so many things we consume in our culture today. After all, our society usually teaches us that athletes and performers are the opposite of “less than”. They are the idols we aspire towards, they exist as our cultural symbols. So when society told me I looked like a ballerina, they were- perhaps unknowingly- praising my dying body.

I was objectified and praised for fitting into a box that created so much pressure for me to stay caught in my sick cycle, to keep hurting myself. Because if I tried to stop out of my own volition, what would the societal implication have been? My disorder always felt like a double-edged sword I had no choice but to fall down upon; my shame ran deep into my core. Eventually, it became a serious fight to survive.

By the time loved ones and medical professionals actually began to ask questions, I had become a master of deception. I was indeed performing; just not as a ballerina. I had learned to manipulate, to hide my eating, hide my purging, make up an excuse for every behavior. My disordered eating had taken over my life, my sense of morality and identity. And my disordered behaviors did affect my real performing art of choice: singing. As I continued to shed more pounds I also lost critical muscle mass, and I developed vocal dysphonia; my voice changed, and it constantly hurt to speak. As my eating disorder ate away at my voice, I felt my sense of agency slipping away with it.

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The more harm I inflicted upon my body, the more “scars” there were to heal. At my worst, I found myself scared to eat in public and, more often than not, scared to be around food at all. In my mind, almost no food was “allowed”; it was all “bad”. I felt so uncomfortable and trapped in my own skin, in my own body. I had entered a life-threatening starvation mode that depleted me of all energy, warmth, and joy. But the pain ran so much deeper than that. At the end of the day, my “disorder” was never just about how many calories I ate in a day, or if I was on the right diet and if I was being a good vegan, or even if my body conformed to social standard into which I never felt I could fit- unlike a seemingly benign dress size. It was about so much more than that.

My eating disorder had grown out of all the pain and emotions I had cast aside- the feelings I had been carrying with me for years and years and been too afraid to touch. My “disorder” was my dad dying- it was my lost friends, it was growing up as a sick kid with a disease no one could label. It was grieving over and over again and the universal emotions of loss and loneliness; it was feeling misunderstood and out of control; it was struggling to cope with all of it. Because those feelings can become so unbearably heavy if we neglect to carry them with the dignity they deserve. And sometimes we throw them into a metaphoric basket and label it “weight”.

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Emotions, the pain of the past and present- they can feel like such burdens. But we can’t allow ourselves to confuse their complex nature with physical weight and space, those things which we agree to quantify with more measurable numbers and statistics. We must accept that so often, we can’t see the burdens carried by those around us at first glance, if at all. Some things just run too deep. But we will all inevitably have our own baskets with their own unique labels, our own burdens to carry. And we are never, ever able to be encompassed through metric means and diagnostic criteria alone that can merely skim the surface of the human lifespan- of our unique human essence. I believe we would do well to remember this when considering every individual’s body and outer presentation.

I wish to make it abundantly clear at this point that eating disorders are not a choice- they are real and serious illnesses. But to an extent, we do have the option to choose recovery through our own self-determination and strength. And finding the road to recovery is different for everyone.

Recovery means doing your best to show up for yourself, if no one else, every single day- it means challenging even the smallest of things as you work to hold the good with the bad. It is frequently painful and raw, and it requires honesty. To choose recovery is to choose one of the most complicated, confusing, and scary paths one can take- that may also lead to great freedom. Recovery is healing, and it’s an ongoing process. I believe with all my heart that healing is possible. And I’m so glad, because our world has a lot of healing to do.

I’m starting with working on healing myself. How about you?

Lots of Love,

Morgan Michelle

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NEDA Resources