From madness to becoming a warrior: a personal essay

Trigger Warning: This piece contains descriptions of depression, suicidal intent and eating disorders.
In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood / For I had lost the right path.”

I remember my team losing the final of the Las Vegas Cup and driving home quietly afterwards, listening to my breathing. I felt the anger rise when I inhaled and fall when I exhaled. I loved this power I had over my emotion. I may not have been able to prevent the other team from scoring, but I could control the rise and fall of my chest. After about ten minutes, my breathing slowed to a normal pace. Physically controlling my emotion like this made my mind tired, so I popped in a Beyoncé CD and let her booming voice soothe my drained brain.

But as I waited at the stoplight turning into my neighborhood, I felt something unfamiliar rise up in me. The overwhelming need to eat something. I did a U-turn and sped to the nearest gas station. I bought a box of about twelve donuts. I got into my car and began to eat them as I drove home. I felt relieved that the immense pressure to eat just five minutes ago had vanished and was replaced with the sweet taste of gluttony. I parked in the garage and did not bother getting out. My family was inside, no doubt waiting for me to come home from the game. I’m sure they would’ve taken a few donuts off my hands, but I opted for the more selfish route. When I finished eating the last donut, I felt sick and guilty. The initial relief that chewing and swallowing brought me now turned into a dreadful anxiety. I had to get it out.

That day marked the beginning of my eating disorder that was to last nearly three years. I never questioned why I binged and purged, preferring to live in the moment and nurture the habit through self-loathing. It is not accurate to say that my eating disorder was by choice, for many others suffer similar neurological ailments that lead to eating abnormalities. However, I will concede that I lacked a strength that could have prevented the disease from consuming my life so completely—like poison ivy. In that sense, my disorder was self-inflicted, but at the same time so many forces were working against me subconsciously that any attempt to completely eradicate it would have proven futile.

One day, I felt a pain in my heart. It took my breath away as I was running on the soccer field in the middle of a game. It was raining heavily and drops of water fell into my open, gasping mouth as I leaned over. The sharp twist in my chest frightened me, and I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I stopped running but my teammates didn’t notice. The ball wasn’t near me. And just as suddenly as the pain had come, it left me. It was then I knew I needed help, for the feeling I had experienced was similar, although not as strong, as the jarring strain on my chest while purging. I had read on the Internet earlier that week that purging can result in permanent damage to breathing and blood flow to the heart. And experiencing a painful pressure in that very area of my body frightened me terribly, motivating me to seek help greater than what my inner will could provide.

The look on my mother’s face after telling her I had been throwing up for two years will never leave the contours of my memory. Stricken with despair so great, her eyes looked at me with such intense gravity that I didn’t recognize her. Instead, I saw an old, grief-stricken woman who appeared to have already experienced all of life’s pains, such that a youth’s unfiltered emotion was replaced with an elder’s stoic endurance. But she was merely forty. She finally whispered, “Why would you do that to yourself, Claire?” My heart sank. It was in that moment that I realized my afflictions could never be understood by an outsider.

I no longer have an eating disorder, which is, on one hand, a relief, because throwing up doesn’t feel good. But on the other hand, I miss everything the disease was. It was poetry, tears and feeling. When I went to school, I looked at my friends and felt stronger than them. If they were sad, it wasn’t by choice. But if I wanted to feel happy or sad, all I had to do was eat. I had the key to the golden gate of emotion. Why I say this with pride is beyond me. But I can confidently say my suffering bred a creativity that provided my life with a profound meaning that I could not have found any other way.

I’ve always been a writer because I’ve always had something to say. Internal and external struggles mold into a giant mush that my writing attempts to polarize and sort into coherent ideas that move the reader to see as I see. But the fear of losing the power to convey what I think and feel about pain, love, happiness, hate, death and life terrifies me so much that I am compelled to constantly seek out avenues to spark my creative genius to write about them. And upon closer self-reflection, that is how I found my eating disorder. Or perhaps how it found me.

They say an artist is someone who reveals their wounds to the world while eternally nursing them back to health. If my wound healed, it would seem that I would no longer be an artist.

Maybe that’s why I never completely healed. Depression slowly filled the void left by the eating disorder. In the beginning, I sensed a darkness creeping over me so stealthily that neither family and friends, nor I, had any inkling my world would soon spiral out of control until the fateful day that I was hospitalized. To those who have never experienced extreme depression, the whole disease might seem conquerable. And of course it is, but to the sufferer, the pain it brings is so unrelenting in nature, taunting its victim to believe relief will never come, and if it does, it will fade away and suffering will return. And with this foreknowledge, finding the light at the end of the tunnel becomes irrational and therefore impossible. This is why during the few hours that my depressive state eased, I wrote with a desperation similar to that of a dying man pleading to God for the gift of one more day to spend with his loved ones. Words strung together into sentences that conveyed ideas of suffering and love were the only hope I had for discovering the obscure details of life and confronting its complexities.

A common theme among women writers is that many of their careers end in suicide. This fact did not escape my attention. I had a fear that because I was born to write, I was also born to suffer and in the end, as writer Cheryl Strayed puts it, “eventually collapse in a heap of ‘I could have been than this.’” Therefore, I accepted depression as a writer’s cursed blessing that was my sweet terrible beautiful rotten fate. With this preconceived idea firmly planted in my young mind, there was no escaping depression’s toxic hold on my life.

One night, I was willing to lose to the fierce trial of depression. My bed of nails had become unbearable and I began writing a suicide note. I sat down at my desk and was determined to accomplish many things within the suicide letter: convey a strength that contrasted what I was doing, relieve my loved ones of their pain through delicate phrasing and reasoning and justify a selfish death for myself. I thought of my mother getting the fateful call, dropping to her knees, and crying while she screamed. This broke my heart, so I searched for words that might prevent this image from coming true. I settled upon frequently using the sentence “Heaven couldn’t wait for me.” My mother believed in God and although I never had, perhaps acknowledging His existence would allow her to accept my death more easily, trusting that I had found my way into the warm, embracing arms of a God who would love her lost child just as much, if not more, than she had. But an unexpected ray of light shone in as I typed the final period to seal the deal. I noticed I had only written enough to fill half a page. The rest of the page looked too white and empty for my comfort. But I had said what needed to be said. With newfound alarm, I thought, “If I have really packaged my soul’s final hymn into less than a page, then I haven’t lived long enough.” I saved the document and went to bed determined to continue plodding through life.

But this strength was fleeting and a few weeks later I was overcome with a pain so unbearable that it seemed to actually become a physical agony. I writhed in discomfort in my bed at night, crying for the oppressive force I came to know as isolation and sadness to leave. I began to think seriously of suicide as my only salvation. By this time, I was a freshman in college and playing for the women’s soccer team. One might point to my being away from home and the stresses of college as the triggers of my deep depression, but everybody goes through those changes and most come out happy, not having suffered what I did. This leads me to reason that my depression stems from much earlier influences and experiences that I subconsciously collected and suppressed. This thought caused me panic, for no solution could be sought out without understanding the causes. I distinctly remember this realization occurring to me as I sat in the school library. I then sprinted to my dorm room and frantically flipped through my journal, looking for indications of where the reasons for my depression lay. And I found nothing. Only the typical musings over boys, girls, soccer and school. I understood then that what I was fighting was invisible and could therefore never be slain.

With the foreboding reality of my situation looming in the background of my mind, I drank straight from the bottle that night. I wasn’t sure if I would kill myself the next day or not, but it didn’t matter, because I had already made up my mind that it was inevitable. My friends made me sleep over in their dorm room that night, alarmed by my erratically despondent demeanor. I fell asleep at around five in the morning and woke around three hours later, still a little drunk. I slipped out quietly. The walk back to my room was more than a struggle—it was a brutal battle. I felt so hopeless in my despair that my body nearly collapsed after each step that drew me closer to my inescapable end.

I opened the door to find my roommate sound asleep. I was ready to end my life, so I wearily sat down at my desk and opened up the document that I had saved weeks before and finished the suicide letter. Then I proceeded to go to the bathroom to brush my teeth and comb my hair. Thinking back, my interest in such unimportant details before imminent death seems rather odd, if not comical.

This shows just how out of control I was of my own body and mind at that time, manic depression having firmly taken hold of me and threatening to end my life. As I was preparing the means of my demise, a tinge of rationality overcame me and moral dilemma forced me to reconsider.

I called 911.

By the time I was processed into the psychiatric ward of the hospital, I had calmed down and anxiety was replaced with fatigue. I don’t know what time I went to my cell to sleep, because there were no windows or clocks, but I imagine it was around 7 p.m., because I was given a packaged box with a milk carton, turkey sandwich and apple, signifying dinner time. At first, I was ashamed and angry that I had to wear the blue scrubs the hospital issued me. It seemed they were trying to humiliate me for being there in the first place. But with time, I realized I was in a mental clinic, and clothes were of little importance.

When I awoke the following day, I cautiously walked through the cell hallway to the visiting room. The tiny room had only five chairs and a TV, the stereotype of a hospital’s drab environment. There was a rather large lady with silvery white hair sitting there. As soon as I sat down across from her, she croaked, “Whatcha in here for?” I didn’t care about my personal privacy anymore at that point, so with the strongest voice I could muster, I responded, “Contemplating suicide.” She nodded appreciatively and said, “Me too.” Her eyes were red and puffy from crying, just like mine. Although depression has its idiosyncrasies, this woman and I were bound to a common pool of people struggling to conquer the ominous poisons of life. Selfishly, I found relief in the idea that my pain is borne by others as well.

When I was called up to the counter where I was handed a plastic cup containing my fluoxetine pill, I thought of the scene in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” where a perfectly sane Randle McMurphy was forced by Nurse Ratched to take his medication orally, or else risk having it given “some other way.” I giggled at this recollection and asked the nurse behind the counter if she had read the book. She shook her head and said, “Open up,” to make sure I had swallowed the pill. Somewhat embarrassed that I was being treated like a psycho that I obviously was not, I sheepishly opened my mouth to appease the nurse. I was simply a very sad girl in the midst of a terrible time in her life, not like the rest of the crazies locked up in there. I was McMurphy. The sane one amongst the insane. I even listened to multiple people’s problems and gave advice. One lady told me about how her husband cheated on her with a sleazy Dorothy in their garage every Sunday night. I nodded sympathetically and told her she didn’t deserve that. A boy about my age was going through heroin withdrawals and shaking profusely. I could tell he needed a distraction so I asked him what his favorite TV show was. Soon he stopped shaking as he told me about some Indie sitcom I had no chance of ever remembering the name of. There was a tattooed man who kept repeating the Lord’s Prayer as he rocked back and forth. We never talked.

During my time in the hospital, I began to heal. It was hardly a holiday from the outside world : being surrounded by other suicide attempters and contemplators created a dreary atmosphere devoid of laughter. But the routine and the simplicity of my surroundings allowed me to focus only on getting better without the distractions of friends, family and communication. The silence was peaceful, and for the first time in many months I experienced positive thinking. Everything would be okay; I would leave this place and live my life anew. Within two days, I had made the decision that suicide was not an option.

Of course, the road to recovery from severe depression takes patience, time and self-love. But in my case as a writer, I also had to alter my dependency on misery to honesty. I could no longer write like a girl. I could no longer write with “unfiltered emotion and unrequited love.” I had to reach into the depths of my soul to say what I needed to say. Or as Cheryl Strayed puts it, “Write like a motherfucker.” With this newfound strength, I pushed away depression. I pushed away fragility. I pushed away fear. I welcomed nerve. I welcomed truth. I became a motherfucker.

My will to survive has been renewed and like Dante’s journey through the inferno, I have escaped my hell to once again behold the stars of heaven.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *