Recovery Isn't Linear, and I'm Not Straight
Recovery Isn't Linear, and I'm Not Straight
An Essay by May Bennet
A few things mental health professionals don’t talk enough about:
1. Destruction, even of the self, is not beautiful. Suffering is not artistic. It does not make you enticing or compassionate or brave. It just hurts. Remember the growing pains you felt in your calves that kept you up at night when you were eleven? Growing isn’t comfortable. Learn to feel the difference.
I tell Lydia, on the night of our first anniversary, that I don’t think we would do well living together. Maybe I’m bitter that I lost the anniversary. I know it’s not a competition, and she’s always been better at gift-giving, but, still.
I’d thought about moving in with her a dozen times before now, and I’d shied away from the idea again and again. Looking around her bedroom, I see that her underwear is folded in drawers in her closet to be worn on a rotating schedule in order to not wear out the favorites. I hear her apologize for the mess, when, at least the clothes are in the closet, the papers are on the desk, and the dishes are in the kitchen instead of spread across every flat surface, growing mold. The only mess to speak of is the pile of wrapping paper on the edge of the bed.
I know she’s beginning to picture a life with me, and I need to head that off. I cite our obvious differences. In her organization and my whimsy; her responsibility and my, well, whimsy. It is a kinder word. A softness I allow myself, to describe my chaotic nature.
2. There are people in your life who love you. And even if it’s temporary, even if you doubt them, it doesn’t mean they’re lying. There’s a balance to be struck. You need both the support system and the knowledge that you are a person. Start there. You don’t have to love yourself, but you deserve the same things any other person does. You’re a person. And there are people who love you.
She started telling me she loves me a few months ago. And, in a throwback to being sixteen, I wanted to tell her she doesn’t know me. A day each weekend for a year is only 52 dates, and by that generous estimation, we’ve only been together a month and a half and I’ve been careful to hide certain aspects of myself from her.
We don’t live together, in part, because of this: I am a stranger in my own body. Myself and I have never met. She’s in school. She needs to sleep. Study. And— sometimes, without very much provocation, I’ll go into these rages. These shouted, bleeding pleas for resolution because it’s been five years, how can it still feel like it’s happening to me?
I am rarely credited with being angry. Break a dish in the sink over nothing and clean it up before anyone sees. Tug at my hair until it comes out, and if someone notices the strands in the garbage, claim to have cleaned a brush. The most obvious threat I pose is to myself, and this is rarely seen as anger. Only a deep sadness that people think they can love out of me.
3. When you develop an eating disorder as a young teenager and temporarily stunt your growth, the goal is not to get your weight back to where it was before you stopped eating right. “Weight restoration” only applies if you were full grown. You’re half a foot taller now than you were and who you were is no longer who you are, or even who you want to be. Although sometimes you want, there is no going back.
I don’t like going to family events. Dinners, weddings, holidays. Somewhere along the way someone will comment on how I look. And my mother will lament on what a happy kid I was.
I remember every lie I ever told, except for the ones I forget. These are fixed with new lies. Growing up, my mom was generous. She allowed my lies to be called “stories.”
When I told her I wanted to be a writer, she didn’t laugh. She said I’d always been too good at remembering, I’d always been too easily wounded. Best put it to good use.
4. It takes the average person seven years of treatment to recover from an eating disorder. You have to stay. Don’t sign yourself out AMA, don’t daydream in group therapy, don’t push your mom out of your life because she’s the only one who cares about you enough to try to make you go to therapy. Seven years. By the time it is over, you are brand new. No one is the same as they were seven years ago. All your cells are new.
I had a boyfriend, long before I first talked to Lydia on tinder. Long before the coffee date we went on where we walked past one another at first because pictures don’t ever do the feeling of a woman justice. I had a boyfriend who didn’t bring crayons in his purse in case I got bored or anxious in a restaurant. Who never piped pink frosting into the shape of a breast onto lemon cupcakes. Who sometimes came up in late-sleepover conversations, or long-drive talks, or three-drinks confessions.
Everything about him is a tactile memory. Unless I am sitting on the arm of a couch, I can forget him. But the second my balance shifts, because I am no longer the gymnast I was at thirteen, and the uncomfortable weight of me tips over, I can feel him. And I push it down, push it down, push it down until it is three in the morning, or I need to go for a drive to clear my head, or Lydia’s eyeing me nervously because I’ve gotten old enough that three drinks is hitting close to a limit for my body.
She asks me things like “Why did you stay?” I could rattle off reasons, god knows I have them in me. Each a new torrent of shame for the choices I once made, for the situations I landed myself in again and again because I didn’t have the good sense to think “hey, you don’t deserve this.”
5. Your feelings on this will change, but the truth of it is, it was never your fault. Your therapist, psychiatrist, and nutritionist will say this. Not as often as you need to hear it. Some things you have to tell yourself. And it’s not “talking to yourself” if it’s affirmations in a mirror. Ask any schmuck on the psych floor.
When I was still a gymnast, when I was still thirteen, I was also a cheerleader. It kept me in shape, kept me aware of the bends of my body, allowed me to remain loose, limber, and competitive. I flew. Or, I was a flyer. The rag doll the other thirteen year olds threw into the air. The one who broke her arm if anyone missed their mark by even a hair. I loved it.
My legs, especially the backs of my thighs, had bruises from landing against the forearms of my bases. My legs also had hair. It’d started growing there recently enough. And other places. I could braid my pubic hair if the desire arose. The girl next to me in algebra giggled every time I raised my hand to answer a question in the late spring of eighth grade.
6. When you give a child a razor blade, she’s going to cut herself. Usually, it will be an accident. But, if there is no expectation for children to emulate grown women, and for grown women to look like newborns, the razor may not find its way into her hand at all.
I am so much happier as a lesbian. I’d tried to shoehorn myself into other labels, but I only ever felt like a girl when a girlfriend called me one.
Lydia doesn’t need to be taught how to talk about her feelings. I haven’t shaved my legs in over a year. When I can’t parallel park outside her house because no one in New Brunswick knows how to drive, she laughs, and I yell about how it’s not my fault, I’m a lesbian! And it’s funny, and it’s stupid, and it really shouldn’t be funny, but it is.
7. You’ve been told your whole life that there are no guarantees because there are no guarantees! It’s called a leap of faith because you have to jump. Do you know she’ll never leave you? Is there proof she’ll always love you? No! But, she makes you happy. And you love her. Would you try this hard if you knew you’d fail? If you knew you’d succeed? There are no guarantees, but there are good things.
Lydia teaches me how to make bagels like her mom, but the steps sift through the holes in my memory and she’s going to have to keep teaching me. I claim a side of her bed. We make a spotify playlists that is a compromise of her show tunes and my angsty whiteboy bands. We call it “whiplash.” We’ve built something simple together, something comfortable. A rinse and repeat as familiar as washing her hair when she’s had a bad day, even though the house she lives in only has a shower stall.
I’m awake one night after she’s gone to bed. I catalogue the items I know she has on her cork board: an invitation to her best friend’s senior show, an owl-shaped birthday card she got from her dad, an ID from her undergrad college, a mirror painted with nail polish stars, a sticker she bought at Pride with me last year, and a love-note I add to every few weeks when she leaves the room. I know I’ve been hurtling towards a finish line that only exists in my imagination. She’s not asking for my hand, she just loves me. She has a few more years of school, yet. And, besides, the white picket fence was never meant for us.
I forget, with all my anxious planning, that there was a day, not so long ago, when I was preparing for this moment. Trying to make us get to the point where we’re lying in bed together, in love and at ease and trying. As she sleeps, I stay up researching homes in New Brunswick that have bathtubs.