So, as you guys may or may not have seen, I made that lovely post about my journey with weightlifting, which was largely what sucked all my time away in 2017.
Anyways, I thought I would share some of the psychological developments that went along with it, part of which includes my concept of reality collapsing in on itself like an ill-tempered flan.
Discussion of mental illness and weight loss below. Buckle up, babes, I’m gonna get salty.
Y’all probably heard by now, but I have some brain-space friends. Namely: Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for those that don’t know and are too lazy to google).
It’s not a secret that I have a trifecta of mental illnesses, like I dropped down a well and found the world’s shittiest triforce with my goddamn face.
I’ve got this whole episodic, cyclical Zelda game happening with my thinking all the time, and it isn’t as fun as you would think. Link is running around my head for anxiety, sticking his sword in things and throwing pots full of bees so that I’m all twitchy and convinced that a swarm of murderous cuckoos are following my every move. Zelda is moping around the castle basement, Princess Depression herself, pointing out all the times where we failed to save ourselves and how nothing we do really matters, so who cares if we ever have fun or sleep or see the light of day, it’s all going to crash in a repeating cycle of despondence and chaos at some point. Then there’s Ganon, big ol’ behemoth PTSD, stomping around my brain and messing with my perceptions so that I don’t trust myself, I’m convinced I’m wrong, I’m convinced everyone I know is slowly coming to hate me or is out to get me, I’m sure that I’m messing something up at all times, and when anything bad happens it is obviously my fault. Worst of all, he’s just back there laughing maniacally the entire time and spilling more miasmic gooze all over everything.
I might have been playing too much Breath of the Wild lately.
Still, my point stands. It’s a shitty triforce, and it can make my life difficult because sometimes these pieces are working together to slow down my functionality while other times they’re all fighting each other, and I’m just caught in the crossfire.
I’ve coped, however. I lived (poorly, miserably) with the PTSD for about 5 or 6 years before I was diagnosed. It was my general physician that caught it (apparently constant, unrelenting nightmares that occur every time you sleep is not a normal thing. Go figure!), and she referred me to a therapist, who diagnosed the additional depression and anxiety. Those two were probably always there, but the PTSD came later. We theorize – “we” meaning myself and all the professionals I’ve ever seen – that the PTSD started very early when I was quite young. It wasn’t until I was in an abusive relationship that it really got powered up, however. The severity was probably exacerbated by my age – I was 17 when we started dating and just under 21 before I left him.
In any case, I got diagnosed, I got put on an assortment of medication, and I got treated. I spent 6 months in somewhat intensive therapy before it all sort of clicked together. One day I just…woke up. Having PTSD the way I did was like sleepwalking through life, as though someone had taken all of my essence and boxed it up somewhere inside me. When the therapy clicked, it opened the lid to the box, and I found myself in a life that felt incredibly foreign to me, like someone else had borrowed my body to live for a bit, handed it back with all these new shapes and situations.
Foremost of that – and more to the point of this post – was my weight. In the first year of my abusive relationship, I gained 100 pounds. After the relationship, the weight stayed around. After all, losing 100 pounds doesn’t exactly happen by accident, and I was still addled with PTSD for a large portion of it, which compounds your ability to lose weight. It would sometimes fluctuate by ten or so pounds, but never more than that.
The weight never seemed to bother me, though. After all, it never held me back from having relationships or making friends (nor did it contribute to any of the times I set those bridges I was building on fire, but that’s for another post). I didn’t feel like it stopped me from pursuing my writing career. I read a lot about body acceptance and I got to where I was at peace with my size. I can’t say that I found myself beautiful, per se, but I knew that I wasn’t ugly, and if I was ugly, it wasn’t because of the weight.
Now, fast forward about three years, and I find myself sitting on a hospital gurney in a hallway, a brace strapped around my neck and the world spinning and blurring around me. I had fallen about 30 hours prior to that point, slipping in ice. I had known that I bit the concrete hard when I went down, but I had thought I was okay…until the next day when I couldn’t type, started feeling drunk, and just barely got myself to an urgent care before I was slurring my speech. I won myself a concussion, a sprained wrist, a sprained ankle, and a sprained cervical spine, which is a terrifying thing to be told you have sprained.
After that, I spent about two months recovering. I couldn’t write much, had to avoid reading, so I just sat around and played a lot of video games that didn’t overload me with text. I thought I was fine, but I think not being able to read or write broke something in me, though I tried to deny it. It also highlighted how very little I enjoyed life without those things, even if I kept promising myself that my writing would be fine, that I would get to come back to it.
The end result of this storm of doubt and escapism was that I realized my life was full of a lot of waiting. Waiting to recover, waiting for the right time to publish my book, waiting for some random sign to descend from on high giving me permission to do all these things I wanted to do. I mean, I had a list a mile long of things I would like to be or do, but I just wasn’t taking any steps towards them. I had it in my head that somehow I wasn’t “ready”, and I was metaphorically pacing and twiddling my fingers as I waited for someone or something to tell me “it’s time”.
Turns out a concussion is a good way to snap out of that kind of bullshit.
Initially, I started my journey with weightlifting for two reasons: to use exercise to help control the symptoms of my triforce of garbage, and to gain control over my body that would allow me to do the things I wanted. You see, I like doing things. Things like going to concerts, wandering around a new city, trekking through the woods so that I can point at animals and shout their names like I’m five and discovering the world for the first time.
When I was in high school I did all sorts of active things before my abusive boyfriend came into the picture. Some of my fondest memories were from playing rugby in the park, often after dark, screaming with glee into the night air as we slammed each other into the grass with tackles that were more about clobbering ourselves than they were about getting to the ball. I was also in marching band, which doesn’t sound like much, but holding up a trombone for extended periods of time builds some decent arm muscles. I used to go hiking and fishing all the time with my dad when I was little, and regular swimming trips were a requirement until I moved to New Mexico where water is only a figment of your imagination.
The point being, I wasn’t doing a lot of things that I enjoyed doing, and part of that was because I wasn’t physically fit enough to do them. So, I started with lifting weights.
Now, again, initially this was not about weight. It was about getting stronger and giving myself more energy, it was about getting to a point where I could be the things that I wanted to be. I ignored the weight loss aspect in the beginning because I didn’t want to focus on it. Focusing on weight in the past had gotten me into unhealthy habits (‘sup, anorexia), and that was certainly not what the journey was about this time.
That attitude lasted up until the point where one day, almost out of nowhere in its suddenness, I looked in the mirror and recognized myself. Until that point, I hadn’t even realized that I didn’t recognize the shape that I had become. I mean, I was certainly used to it. It wasn’t as though the face in the mirror was unfamiliar. I saw it every day, after all.
But there was one day that I looked up in the mirror while I was brushing my teeth, and I saw a version of me that I felt a kinship with. Suddenly the image of myself that existed in my head had become physically represented. I looked into my own eyes, and I didn’t see the armor of weight that I had draped on my frame during the years of abuse. I saw the person that I felt I was underneath.
It was a bit like living for 10 years with cloudy skies, and then one day the sun breaks through and you remember that the fucking sky is blue, not grey.
This had a tremendous effect on my mood and confidence. I realized that I wasn’t happy with my weight, not because it was high, not because being fat was anything to be ashamed of or anything terrible, but because it didn’t look or feel like me. That life that someone had been living for me while I was locked in the PTSD box had included a body that just wasn’t mine, and I’d still been using it without realizing it wasn’t a good fit. Shedding the pieces of that ill-fitting suit of armor was liberating and poetic in its beauty.
I went through a period of deep and illuminating emotional discovery alongside the physical changes. I’m now more in touch with who I am and who I want to be than I’ve ever been, which is great most of the time. I would like to say that I continued getting to the size that I wanted, reached it, and lived happily ever after.
If that were true, nobody would complain about how hard it is to have mental illness. If there was really a magical happily ever after where we never had any issues with our mental problems ever again, well, it wouldn’t be so damn hard to exist.
In October of 2017 I lost someone important to me. The death was sudden, which was awful, and almost assuredly preventable if they had been at all focused on self-care, which was infuriating. In my grief, my triforce of terrible brain function reared its ugly head, and I developed a bad case of what I would later learn is body dysmorphia.
Now, I am by no means an expert on body dysmorphia. I can talk at length about depression, anxiety, and PTSD, because I’ve spent enough time with them and done enough research that they’re old friends by now. Body dysmorphia is something new to me, an unknown beast that’s camping out with the others. I didn’t even have a name for what I was going to until I had been venting to a friend about my frustrations with my self-image, and they turned to me from their position on the neighboring treadmill and said “Girl, that’s called body dysmorphia and it’s fucking normal when you lose half a person like you have.”
So, I can’t speak for everyone’s experience with this particular issue nor can I tell you what’s common or average. What I can do is talk about what I’m going through personally, and shed some light on what happens when body dysmorphia hits during weight loss.
It was about three days after my loved one’s funeral that I woke up, looked in the mirror, and was convinced that I hadn’t changed at all. According to my eyes, I was exactly the same size and shape as I had been back in April before I started lifting. I could no longer see the muscles, I became convinced that my face had rounded out once more, and I stared at my stomach like it was an alien creature attached to my waist. I was certain that any minute an evil spawn wearing my ex boyfriend’s face would burst out of my torso, cackling wildly as it taunted me for having thought I escaped all those negative thoughts and habits.
This was, naturally, quite depressing. I sank into a deep, dark hole that didn’t really have a bottom or a top. It was just rough dirt and mud in all directions, and I was drowning. The only thing that saved me, that kept me from sinking into that muck for good, was – of all the strange things – numbers.
You see, what I saw in the mirror wasn’t matching up with what I knew to be the inalienable facts of the situation. If I was back to the size I was in April, how could I still be wearing pants that were 5 sizes smaller? If I had gained it all back, how could I still be wearing all the smaller shirts? Why would the measuring tape still show a one inch loss around my stomach from the last time that I had measured?
If I hadn’t been marking my progress with these things, I might have panicked. I don’t quite know where my headspace would have led me if I didn’t have actual evidence that was contrary to what my perception was trying to tell me. I know that it wouldn’t have been good, that’s for sure.
I suffered with this depression for only a couple of days before I blurted out my frustration to my friend, largely because I had just gone through a weightlifting session and wanted to cry after each lift, for no other reason than I had to see myself in the massive, wall-length mirrors the entire time and the visual made me feel weak and horrible. I wasn’t lifting less, I was still increasing my progress on-pace with my plan, but I didn’t look good in my own gaze, and therefore hated every bit of effort exerted that day.
That’s when he mentioned body dysmorphia, and this beast in my head was given a name.
I tried for about a week to resolve the issue on my own, but my depression kept getting deeper and darker. I started having obsessive, negative thoughts. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had obsessive thoughts, but they’re quite frustrating, especially when you don’t want to hear them, and you certainly don’t intend to listen to them. It’s like I had a parrot hanging out on my shoulder, right next to my ear. It spent its time repeating the phrases that it had learned, all day long, and the person that had originally trained it fucking hated me.
Why would you ever think you could be strong or pretty? You’re hideous and you’ll never get anywhere in life because of it. Look, you’ve fallen back to where you started, because you fail at everything you do. It was downright delusional to think you had made progress in the first place. Welcome to reality, fuckup. Everyone who knows you must be so ashamed. They all doubted you and now you’ve proven them right. You’re probably terrible at writing, too. I mean, you can’t even exercise, what makes you think you could do anything else? You’re so stupid for trying. You’re stupid and your stories are stupid. You should die. You should definitely just kill yourself. You should take every pill in the house, lay down, and give up. You should drive your car off the side of a bridge. Nobody cares if you finish your stories, just forget about all of it. Just stop existing.
Yeah, that parrot was a piece of shit.
My experience with my garbage triforce is that those thoughts and feelings are always there, in the background. They never really go away. BUT. When I am handling the triforce well and coping in healthy ways, the parrot’s voice is so small that I can ignore it. I can barely hear it because I’m doing well and focused on working towards my goals. It’s like, when I’m functioning well, I get to shove a bunch of crackers in its mouth and I get some peace while it tries to talk around them. When I’m not coping well, the voice gets louder, and sometimes it will drown out everything else.
A week after giving my body dysmorphia a name, I knew that I was not coping well. I couldn’t muscle my way out of this rut on my own because the body dysmorphia and depression were gorging themselves in this big feedback loop. The more depressed I got, the worse my self-image was. The worse my self-image got, the worse the depression got. I was trapped in a circle of suck, and that parrot was fucking screaming at me from the minute I woke up to the minute I finally passed out at night.
Fuck that shit.
I did the research and found myself a therapist, after which I promptly requested (and was given) antidepressants.
This has been a lifeline, and I’m starting to see improvements even though it’s only been about a month. Therapy is helping me dig up the emotions that are at the root of this spiral, and the antidepressants are a nice supply of crackers to shove into Polly’s spiteful face. It’s not perfect – I didn’t wake up and find myself magically cured. Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see myself again and all the progress that I’ve made, and I feel amazing. Other times I can’t bring myself to be positive, and the parrot starts squawking all over again, though it’s not as obsessive. The suicidal thoughts are gone, which is nice. I never had any intention of acting on them, but when your brain is calling for death, it can certainly dampen your ability to do anything besides beg it to shut up.
I’m confident that I’ll get back to where I want to be, though. With the combined powers of therapy and antidepressants, I should be able to drive the parrot back into its cage and get control of my triforce once more. In the meantime, the steps I’ve taken keep all those problems from holding me back, so that I can still do all the cool things I want to do with my life, like writing and hiking and finally getting all those damn Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild.
But I wanted to share this aspect of my story, in case anybody else was grappling with whether or not they should go to (or go back to) therapy or get some antidepressants. I know it can be hard to know when that breaking point is; when you should throw your hand out into the darkness and ask for help. I figured out what that point was, and I’m glad I did it when I did.
Never let yourself suffer for longer than necessary. Always remember, it isn’t supposed to be that hard just to live. When it is, it’s time that you found someone to help you through it.
Get help, and tell that parrot to shut its goddamn face.