Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trick or Treat

When I was a kid, my favorite Halloween costume was Wonder Woman. In fact, I even had a framed picture of her over my bed, a super-heroine crucifix of sorts. Sure, there was a Saint Elizabeth medal hanging over my door, but I knew that when push came to shove, Wonder Woman would be the one to save me. After all, she had the golden lasso that could rope all evildoers into submission and the cuff bracelets that gave her superior jumping power. What did any Catholic icon have on that? And then of course, she was beautiful, with that cinched waist and mane of dark hair that curled up at the ends. And she was also smart, outwitting robbers and kidnappers and other nefarious types. So when Halloween rolled around, there was no discussion. I was Wonder Woman for several years running, always the same plastic pull-on costume and sweaty mask.

One year, I even put on my mother’s own silver cuff bracelets and, believing that I had assumed Wonder Woman’s powers merely by the force of my adoration and naïve emulation, I took a jump from the top step of my living room staircase and learned, by my broken arm, that I was merely mortal and had no super powers.

Super powers. I am in sore need of them right now. It has been a difficult week. I keep having to learn that I am still, really mortal. That IT has me falsely believing that I can conquer the ED on my own. As Christopher terms it, I, we, are in crisis mode once again as I’ve allowed the ED to take over—skipping meals whenever I can, purging whenever there’s an opportunity, and in the process, losing too much (though for IT, not enough) weight. If I were dressing up for Halloween this year, I’d have two possible costumes.

1.Ghost. Isn’t that what the anorexia-backsliding is about? Disappearing? Becoming invisible? Isn’t the ED always haunting me anyway? Always telling me I ate too much, that I’m too fat, that I’m a disgusting pig? Isn’t it always trying to scare me into submission? i.e., If you eat that apple or that slice of cheese or god forbid lick the spoon while you’re making brownies then you have committed an unpardonable sin and should die?

2.Ghoul. You know, the stringy haired, pasty-skin variety, lurching and staggering around, baring rotten teeth? That’s how I see myself after purging, like some wasted hag who scares everyone she comes in contact with, her husband and children alike.

Even though these are the costumes hanging in front of me right now, I don’t want to wear them. Ghost and Ghoul. That’s not me. Not that I expect any golden lasso to pull me out of this. “You have to give a damn,” Dr. B. said to me on Friday. “Nobody can do this for you.” Not Dr. B., not Christopher, not Wonder Woman. Is love enough to help me pull myself up from this Eating Disorder hell?

“Do you know why I’m still here?” Christopher asked me yesterday. This was right after he caught me purging an apple.

(An apple—how absurd is that? Even I know an apple has approximately zero calories. So what was the point of risking getting caught? It was the panic; an inability to sit with my discomfort after eating; my adolescent need to prove my diseased autonomy still had its say; my need to say Fuck You to food, to fullness, to health. Self-sabotage.) So really, why was Christopher still here after all these years of hell, a hell that feels so often like my own making?

He said, “Because I love you. Because I know how strong you are, stronger than IT. Because I believe you will get well.”

I said, “It hurts to hear you say you love me because I don’t believe I deserve it.”

“Tough,” he said. “I may be enraged at IT, at this disease, but I love you.”

I am trying to yield to that love. Eating and accepting food. Keeping my ass on the couch, in close proximity to him and away from all bathrooms for a good hour after meals. No running. No walking. No secret sit-ups. I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I have to gain weight again. Watch the scale creep back up instead of plummet back down. A tiny victory? I raided my son’s Halloween basket, eating a handful of Swedish fish, which may not seem like much, but when you compare that to yesterday’s decimation by apple? A victory for sure. I ate something I didn’t need but wanted. A small wonder for this woman.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mad Dash at IT

ECT Round 7 went off without a hitch, which is not to say that I wasn’t filled with anxiety. But I did it anyway, thanks to the convincing assurances from the doctor in charge that the debacle of the previous week would never happen again. Apparently, the hospital even held back-to-back meetings about me and what had gone wrong. So, it was comforting to know that I hadn’t been over-exaggerating and that my fear was both validated and addressed.

Which brings me to the larger fear—letting people know about the ECT in the first place. Part of me has been hesitant to open up about it. I imagine that most generally think of ECT as the theory of last resort. That is, they must be thinking that I really am that crazy if this is what it’s come to—electricity and seizures, anesthesia and paralysis. The backbone of many a horror film. And add to that, that there is no absolute consensus as to how ECT works? Though as Dr. B. helpfully explained, “Basically what happens is a neuron dump. All neurons fire at once. A rebooting of the brain.” So not experimentation in Frankensteination. I am still me. Not tabula rasa, but a me that rests (even if temporarily) in mood stability.

And when I do open up about going through ECT? The intrepid adventurer speaks. “Oh,” I say, “it’s not really that big of a deal. You’re out and it’s over and then you wake up and feel shitty for a few hours. But it’s absolutely making a marked difference. No suicidal thoughts. No cuts on the arms.” But doubt creeps in. Placebo effect? I know I’m good at the happy-perky-me façade. Is that what the mood stability is about? Be better by seeming to be better? All the while I’m waiting for the sky to fall?

Then there’s the ECT doctor’s confidence that I am, must be getting better. After all, in ten days he takes me off all meds. That’s right. In four weeks, going from 7 meds to zero. It feels fast. Too fast, even. After all, I’ve been on some form of psychiatric medication since I was 24, almost 15 years of relying on the line up of pills to keep things (me) balanced. What if? I want to say to him. What if the effects of ECT don’t last? What if, two months from now, I spin out of control again, only this time without the safety net of mood stabilizers? He seems to suggest that a combination of ECT and Cognitive Behavioral techniques are all I need to climb my way out of my lifelong battle with IT. That sheer force of will and logic (assuming of course, that I can be logical, that I can assess what is illogical, that I won’t simply be caught up in the whirlwind of IT) can right what has for so long been wrong.

Maybe this is just ego talking. That is, IT (and the Bipolar Disorder and the Eating Disorder and the persistent living inside of depression) has made me feel like an outsider—hovering around those who are happy and content, around those who aren’t twisted by the agonies of living with IT, around those who are “normal.” Being an outsider to happiness and contentment, while full of misery, also sets me apart—I am not like you; somehow, fate and biology have made me, well "special." In its own twisted way, contending with psychiatric illness has provided me with a fallback identity, one that is set apart from the apparently “normal.”

And yet, it seems if I follow a clinical rubric, if I chart negative thoughts and locate distorted thinking and substitute positive thoughts, coupled with ECT, all that difference disappears. My suffering is not true suffering but just the consequence of an undisciplined mind. All I need to do is to submit to ECT and self-charting and I will be reassembled into a functional machine.

It doesn’t work like that. Case in point? The ECT and its attending Cognitive Behavioral workbooking haven’t made a dent in the Eating Disorder. If anything, that voice has only gotten louder, more devious, more determined. Maybe the Eating Disorder feels cornered now that suicide is off the table, now that the cuts on my arms have healed. Maybe the Eating Disorder feels exposed and alone, isolated off from the triumvirate. Like some rabid dog backed into a corner, snarling and lunging for whatever is in its way.

Maybe what I need to remember is to be grateful for this opportunity offered by ECT—that some of the crazy pressure has been lifted from me. That my horizon has widened. That I don’t presently feel like self-annihilating. That I’m being given the grace and space to tackle IT in the form of the Eating Disorder. That I have the chance to make a run for balance and stability. Even if it feels like a mad dash.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Almost two weeks post-discharge, and Electrogirl is still feeling pretty good. That makes two weeks without any suicidal rumination, two weeks without obsessing over self-injury. Two weeks of mood stability. I am suspiciously optimistic.

Of course, this past week (since my ECT on Friday) has not been without its anxieties. There were a few bumps in the past ECT session which were fairly traumatizing. My vein blew which caused the anesthetic to seep into muscle instead of vein, which in turn, meant I was conscious but unable to move much more than my eyeballs which, in turn, flitted back and forth as fast as possible in an attempt to signal to the powers that be THAT I WAS NOT UNDER AND STILL AWAKE SO PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT START. Thankfully, my doctor was attentive and halted the procedure. But still. Complete loss of control. A small hint at what all those impending amputations, sans anesthesia, must have felt like for those injured civil war soldiers. What anticipation of pain feels like coupled with the inability to do anything about it.

I maintained the stiff –upper lip and didn’t let on that I was completely terrified and wanted to bolt from the OR, even handed over my other arm for a second try at the IV and anesthesia and ECT. Of course, I didn’t cry and insisted I was fine. I even laughed, or forced myself to laugh because I am not someone who admits fear or shows weakness.

There are consequences to that bravado. All weekend long I relived those few minutes in the OR, panicking each night in bed, unable to breathe, crying even, because I would have to do it all over again this Friday. It’s not the actual electro-convulsing that is scary. It’s the relinquishing of control, the muting of speech that is threatening. Lying immobile on the gurney, a passive body, unable to shout out STOP, having to trust that others know what they’re doing. With anesthesia, with electricity, with my brain?

It’s an analogous test, isn’t it? The part of me that doesn’t believe in coincidence, that doesn’t believe that life is merely a series of random chance happenings says, “Well, my biggest obstacle in recovery has been my inability to give up control. It’s what feeds the Eating Disorder. It’s what underlies the hours-long rumination at night. It’s what keeps me on the treadmill for miles and miles. Like a belligerent teenager, IT says, ‘No one can tell me what to do.’ Not Christopher, not Dr. B., not anyone who might be able to see a way clear for me from IT. The only voice that consequently gets heard is ITs voice. Now, the ECT procedure demands that I give up control and trust the doctors, trust their knowledge and expertise, trust that they will take care of me. If I can do this, if I can yield to this, then ITs voice might recede, too.”

Don’t get me wrong. My fear is not without basis so I’ll be certain to air my grievances before the ECT procedure on Friday, namely that they make sure I’m out, completely out before getting ready to zap me. But I’ll go through with it because ECT is holding out its hopeful hand, pulling me up through the sludge and the muck of depression. It’s giving me the chance to be grateful that I am alive.

Last night, my son lay sleeping in my bed, the king-size mattress ready to swallow him whole. How vulnerable he looked. I crawled in beside him, spooned his small body against mine. Breathed him in, kissed the top of his head, placed a hand over his beating heart. Gratitude, I realized, is not enough. I also need to be here, in body and mind, for my children. So even though going through ECT might scare the shit out of me, it is doing what it's supposed to do which means that I get to be Momma without the madness.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Call me Ishmael.

Call me Electro-girl.

I’m back, scrubbed free of thoughts of nooses and self-abuses. Once again, my desperate depths (chronicled, perhaps to some extent in the last post), landed me in the psych hospital. Once again, I went in thinking, “Oh, just a few days to get me through the crisis moment,” only to emerge, bleary-eyed but with newfound hope, almost three weeks later.

I suppose it stands to reason that when you seem to have a drug-resistant depression as I do, and you begin looking up online the best way to form a noose, or contemplate how to duct-tape a garden hose to the exhaust pipe, those in the know might have a serious concern that I might indeed, in my usual impulsivity, act on the plans. And to some extent, I did, at least in the habitual ways I hurt myself—an armful of new scars to contend with, to explain away, to cover up under long-sleeves, to hide from my kids’ persevering curiosity.

“Momma, what happened to your arm?” my daughter asked upon my return.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t remember.” Obfuscation? Abstraction? I forget that doesn’t work with a concerned 8 year old.

“No, Momma. Really. What happened? Did a dragon attack you?”

If only this could be explained away by some spontaneous, mythological attack.

“No,” I said. Because of course, in her world, a dragon would never attack a member of her family. Not when she loves both of them so much. “How about a snack?” I said. Food diversion always works with her because she is always hungry. And thankfully, the offer of the Pringles can worked.

But I know this won’t work forever. At some point, I’m going to have to explain myself. She’ll be the caterpillar smoking the hookah, with all the time and attention in the world. “Who are you?” she’ll ask. “And what are all those scars on your arm? And why do you keep going into the hospital and leaving us? And why do you have a brain disease? And why, Momma, why do you want to die?”

This time, I can say with surety, that I have left the hospital with (muted) optimism. No. I’ll go a step further and say, I feel good. How do I know this? I’ve been laughing an awful lot since my return—at myself, with the kids. And the suicidal rumination? Gone. You might ask, “How is this possible? You went into the hospital on 7 (yes, count them), 7 medications and arrived back home only on 1.” One small mood-stabilizer. Tegretol. It seems strange not to have to line up my competing armies of pills each morning and night, and stranger still that I seem to feel buoyed up without them. But there it is: laugher and stability.

Oh yes, and ECT, aka, Electroshock Therapy. I have embarked on a course of treatment by voltage and seizure and, miraculously, it seems to be working. All neurons firing at once; the brain plastic; new pathways forming? That might be the technical explanation for this week-long, sustained sense of well-being, of being glad I am alive, that I did not vacate the premises 3 weeks ago.

Is it scary? Hell, yes. Particularly the anesthesia and muscle paralytic. Because that asks me to cede all control over to a group of relative strangers and I am, as you have learned, not one to do that. It’s what the cutting and the eating disorder have at their hearts: my need to exact complete, tyrannical control over my, my, my (did I say “my”?) body. But therein is the lie because that control actually belongs to IT. “I” don’t really want to punish and torture myself, whip myself into submission before ITs implacable demands that I die. “I” want to live. I want to love and be loved. And yet. And yet. My arms and body might announce the opposite. So the practicalities involving ECT (the complete loss of self and self-control, momentarily, under anesthesia and paralysis) are unsettling.

And then there is the smaller detail of current and electrodes. I try not to think about that. I stupidly Googled “ECT” and landed at a website devoted to posting pictures of people undergoing ECT. I had to look away, at once from the wires attached, even if for only seconds, to the brain. Because those are images of utter passivity and if nothing else, I am not a passive person. As Dr. B. said a few days ago, “I don’t like to get caught up in battles of will with you.” I refuse to give in. And yet here I am, giving in already 5 times, and at least 5 more times.

Why do I do it? Because I have to. I want my life back and if this is the last option, if this is what stands between me and an early grave, then I’ll do it. For my family. For, dare I say, myself.

Which brings me to what matters most. The other night, I was snuggling with my daughter, glad to be home, glad to have my son on the other side of me already asleep in the blissful knowledge that HIS MOMMA was home, I decided to ask my daughter how she was feeling about this latest trial. Christopher had given her a rudimentary explanation of why I was back in the hospital and what ECT was—her curiosity demanded it of him and, well, she was old enough to know because the knowing might help allay some of her fears.

“So,” I said, “were you scared when Daddy told you about the procedure?” (Her word, not mine. “Procedure” a big-enough word to encapsulate the knowing and the not-knowing, a big enough word for her to assert her own sense of understanding, the word she and Christopher had settled on that offered some distance from the perhaps terrifying realties (to an 8 year old) of what was happening to me, “up there,” at the hospital.)

“A little,” she said, then hesitated. I thought she was going to cry. Instead, she surprised me and laughed. “But I think it’s kind of cool to have Frankenstein for a Momma.”

And with that--my daughter’s usual ability to surprise, with her beautiful sense of irreverence-- my newly discovered belief that I will live to see this through, that I will indeed, outlive IT, took hold. And I have not been able to shake it since. Frankenstein. Electrogirl. Still Momma. And here. And hopeful.