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Chapter Five: Filling the Void

Written Winter 2010

When I returned to boarding school in the fall of my junior year, I brought with me not just duffel bags of clothes, athletic equipment, and sheets and towels, but also an eating disorder. Up until a few weeks before school was set to begin, I’d never had a comprehension of what a calorie was, or of whether I was heavy or thin; body image simply wasn’t in my realm of self-perception. I’d never had issues with weight as a kid, nor had I ever had an emotional relationship with food. I ate when I was hungry, stopped when I was full, and thought nothing more of it. The entire world of rules and regulations—calorie-counting, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, numbers and measurements— had never infested my mind. My sense of self was completely unattached to the size and shape of my body.

Things changed, however, when I returned from a long trip near the end of the summer and was made aware that I’d gained some weight. With the flip of a switch, I suddenly became hyper-aware of my physical presence, and it became the central focus of my life. Almost instantaneously, I’d become convinced that my bodily appearance was a direct reflection of who I was, of my entire identity. I thought I’d discovered the missing piece of my puzzle. Finally, a tangible way to define myself! I no longer needed to ruminate in the far recesses of my mind, trapped amidst abstract and invisible thoughts and feelings, to sort out my ‘self’. I could use my body as a tool to sculpt my identity. Logically, the smaller and more compact I became, the more successful and worthy I could feel.

In the first few months of the school year, I dropped almost thirty pounds. The sicker I became physically, the more secure in myself I was convinced I felt. I was taken to an endocrinologist, who informed me that my body was behaving as though it were going through menopause, and that I’d need to go on hormone supplements immediately. When I got back to school, I put the pills aside and never thought of them again. I finally felt like I had a true purpose, and I wasn’t going to let a doctor tell me otherwise.

As my eating disorder took on full force, so did my academic perfectionism. My diligence in schoolwork was completely obsessive in nature. I’d essentially become a reincarnate of the girl I’d attempted to run away from a year earlier—the girl who defined herself by external measures like appearance, grades, and performance. I’d taken a few steps towards living in the middle of the road my sophomore year and decided it wasn’t for me. Being average—being normal—filled me with a feeling so unbelievably intolerable that I swung myself as far out to the edge as I possibly could. For it was only on the edges, only at the utmost extremes, where I felt I had any semblance of self. A pendulum at rest in the middle, to me, meant failure; equilibrium meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough.

Whatever illusions I had in my mind about being able to stay indefinitely on the side of restriction and rules were soon shattered when my emotions began to break through my once meticulously maintained and disciplined exterior. In my attempts to repress physical hunger, I’d given birth to an emotional hunger that was insatiable. I was constantly searching, grasping for an amorphous, indefinable thing that I couldn’t wrap my mind around but that embodied everything I wasn’t. It no longer seemed possible to sit with myself without turning to things outside of me to change how I felt. From food (by this point I’d begun to swing between phases of restriction and over-eating), to relationships, to alcohol and drugs, I was evolving into a self-medicating machine, constantly in a state of altering myself through external means. The only sources that never entered my mind as options at this point were psychiatric medications.

By senior year, I’d created an internal void that seemed to never be filled. Pleasure began to recede into the distance, and I was left feeling either entirely empty or filled to the brim by profound sadness. I felt like I was going through the motions of life without actually living, like I was sitting in the passenger seat of someone else’s car, moving towards a destination I wasn’t sure of. Miraculously, as I’d been able to do during my ninth grade year, I continued to do well academically and athletically, though I was emotionally disconnected from my accomplishments and felt as though I was going to a job every day. I continued to go on adventures with friends, though less often, but the moments of bliss and contentment that I’d felt my sophomore year were few and far between. I found myself feeling connected to others only when conversing about nihilistic frustrations with existence. These moments were often fueled by illicit substances, which allowed me to temporarily feel a warm fullness, comfort, and a sense that all could be right with the world.

I spent most evenings in bed early, having finished all my homework well before curfew, writing poetry fueled mostly by loneliness. I wrote about feeling like I was in a detached bubble, watching the rest of the world go on around me without feeling like a part of it. I wrote about yearning for something I wasn’t sure of, wanting desperately to be somewhere I wasn’t, feeling numb and cold and unsure of how to feel alive. I read Sylvia Plath. I listened to Radiohead. I raged against myself and against the world.

Up until this point, I’d mostly forgotten the language of mental illness I’d begun to learn before going away to boarding school. I now found myself needing an answer, an explanation, or a reason for everything I was going through. I began to think of myself not just as depressed, but as officially having a diagnosis of major depression. The kettle I’d put on the back burner, left to simmer for two years when I left my psychiatric diagnosis and medications behind in Greenwich, had started to boil again, pushing its way steadily towards the front of my mind once more. I had come to a point where I gained a sort of comfort in the belief that I fit into a category—bipolar disorder was still out of the question in my mind, however—and having major depression allowed me to feel like I belonged somewhere. Maybe I was sick of feeling alone, maybe I was confused, or maybe I yearned for an identity. Whatever it was, it was strong enough that I embraced the diagnosis of major depression with open arms, feeling like I’d come home to myself and could release some of the burden I’d been carrying on my shoulders.

Though I remained off of medications and out of regular therapy, I had taken a significant step closer towards the realm of the DSM. I had chosen to make sense of the experiences I was having as being ‘symptoms’ of a disease—the increasing isolation, the ruminative thoughts, the lack of self worth, the self-destructive behaviors—and suddenly I felt like I understood myself better. I had begun to coat myself in the paint of psychiatric language, suffocating the raw, pure experience of adolescent angst, both painful and numbing beyond belief but fundamentally human, beneath the first of what was to be many layers of pathologization.

I had thrown myself into a tidal wave of distortion that was to wash away any vestige of an unlabeled or un-medicalized identity and leave behind an entirely warped concept of self. I would arrive for my first year at Harvard that fall as an eighteen-year old girl unsure of anything about herself save that she had a serious case of major depression, still holding out from psychiatric medications but reaching a point of desperation.

Chapter Four: Eye of the Storm

Written Winter 2010

I settled into my new life in the fall of my sophomore year at a co-ed boarding school in Western Massachusetts and was convinced that my problems would quickly resolve themselves. I was sure that it was my environment, not I, that needed realigning. Because the only times I’d been told I was mentally ill in the previous year were when I was in my psychiatrist’s office back home, I no longer had to think about it on a regular basis, as I had assured my parents that it was absolutely unnecessary to continue in treatment on a long-distance basis. They consented, and the bipolar diagnosis and subsequent medicating faded into the far recesses of my mind.

This respite from the world of psychiatry did not provide me relief from my emotional struggles, however. Convinced that my perfectionism wasn’t really who I was but rather who the external forces in my life wanted me to be, I abandoned my obsession with being the ‘best’ as swiftly as I had thrown away my old hunter-green school uniform on my last day at the school I’d been at since pre-kindergarten in Greenwich– it was there and had been my identity for over a decade, and then suddenly it wasn’t, with the snap of a finger.

My thoughts raced about in a cloud of confusion and I felt in such disequilibrium that I found myself wondering whether excelling in something actually meant that I was selling my soul. I thought that lowering my standards would make me feel less artificial, less of an actor on the stage, and more of a genuine person. I began to settle for B+’s and A-’s instead of A’s and A+’s. I ignored the varsity field hockey coach’s request that we run regularly on our own and instead spent my free time in the evenings chain-smoking cigarettes with my friends at our secret spots on campus. I was consequently cut from the varsity lineup, and told myself I didn’t care.

Whenever I found myself alone, I was stuck in the realm of the cerebral, not emotionally connecting to these drastic self-imposed changes in my life but rather analyzing, intellectualizing, and rationalizing everything I was doing until I’d convinced myself things made sense. I saw my ‘self’ as a puzzle that had all its pieces present but out of order. If I shifted things around in just the right way, everything in my world would click into place and suddenly be right. I was expending all my mental energy on creating happiness for myself, and in the process ended up moving myself further and further away from my emotions and deeper and deeper into my head.

Things weren’t all dark during my first year away, however. I felt genuinely connected to my friends, and this gave me many moments in which I felt alive, integrated and even at peace. Our close-knit clan went on nightly adventures to the river that wound its way along the periphery of campus to smoke cigarettes and listen to music on our headphones, sprinting away as fast as possible when we’d see the yellow headlights of the security guard’s golf-cart on its twice hourly rounds and bursting minutes later into the student grille with cheeks flushed and hearts pumping with exhilaration. We’d scale to the top of the athletic complex to lie on the roof and look at the stars on clear nights. We hiked through the woods on Sunday afternoons and spent hours sitting in our favorite graveyard, our backs against trees and journals in hand, thinking, ‘It doesn’t get better than this’. I was able to appreciate the subtleties of life around me, pausing from the chaos of being a sophomore in high school to exist in the moment in a way I’d never known back home.

It was experiences like these that kept my inner momentum going. When I’d catch myself alone in my room after curfew, my head churning with thoughts about who I was and what I truly wanted in life, I wasn’t entirely trapped. I knew I’d have an adventure the next day to propel me out of the depths of my mind and bring me closer to the people around me. I knew I had my best friend living in the room next door, just feet away should I need someone to talk to. Connections to others kept me out of myself.

After a slight dip in grades during my sophomore fall and winter and some much-too-narrow escapes from security guards and dorm-heads after rule-breaking activities, I awakened to the realization that the numerous forms of self-sabotage I’d been engaging in on a daily basis could potentially ruin this ‘second chance’ I’d been given. I decided to get my act together and instill more self-discipline when I returned for my junior fall. I decided to re-embrace the perfectionism I’d so abruptly run away from, unaware that it would quickly swallow me whole. I had unknowingly set myself on a path that was to lead me so far back into the woods, so deep into the realm of labels, illness and pills, that I’d forget there was a way out.

Chapter Three: At War with a Diagnosis

Written Fall 2010

I fought with all my might to prevent the vocabulary of mental illness from becoming second nature to me. I refused to accept that what I was experiencing was symptomatic of bipolar disorder. Depression, maybe, but bipolar disorder, most surely not. This diagnosis and the resulting requirement that I take medications fueled my anger more. Whether it was a lack of knowledge or maybe the accumulation of false knowledge about bipolar disorder (for I was never educated about it in school and only knew about it from popular culture), I intensely stigmatized it. People with bipolar disorder were ‘crazy’, and I was not. With each passing day, and with each pill consumed, I felt further and further away from being understood. I was increasingly more alone, trapped with my thoughts and feelings but fearful of articulating them to anyone lest they be used against me to further solidify my diagnosis. I might as well have been locked up in a padded cell and shackled, for that was exactly the way I felt.

I rarely took my medication, preferring to hide the pills in a jewelry case in my closet until I had a little stockpile, which I’d then hold under hot water, thoroughly enjoying the experience of watching the plastic capsules dissolve into a gelled mass in the palm of my hand before being washed away forever down the drain. To me, those pills represented defeat and a lack of control. I felt like I’d been forced to turn over my authority. These miniscule plastic casings full of white powder were silently putting themselves in place to run my show. I’d stand in my closet and look at them, angry that they were trying to take away whatever identity I had left and put in its place something false and artificial.

I was resolved to never take them as prescribed, but I didn’t have the courage to stand up to my psychiatrist express myself. It was as though an irrevocable decision had been made for me that was not up for discussion and never would be. Open conversation was out of the picture. Science had stepped in and given its answer, and who could refute science? I continued along in therapy making it seem as though I took the pills regularly. Although I’d always been someone with a guilt complex strong enough to break through a Fort Knox of psychological will, this deceit never made me feel guilty. If anything, I felt noble. These medications were the weapons of my enemy, and I had to do what it took to maintain my independence. I truly felt as though I was in a battle for my ‘self’.

Although I somehow managed to perform well in school and sports during my ninth grade year, that time period was one of tremendous internal unraveling. The last remnants of my psychological dam, which had been deteriorating for about a year, had now been ripped away by my surging emotions, which began to express themselves externally through self-destructive behaviors. I began to break rules I’d once told myself never to break, as I was meant to be a role model and example to my peers. Teachers and friends started to notice that something wasn’t right, and I stopped caring that I was no longer the put-together girl that I’d always worked to cultivate. I left behind my tomboyish ways, putting my baseball hats away and letting my hair grow long. I wore jewelry and makeup on weekends and started caring about whether or not I was noticed by boys. I left behind the girls I used to go on adventures with in the woods for girls who smoked cigarettes behind the tennis courts. I began to drink on weekends, making sure that I had access to alcohol at whatever party I went to. My reputation, along with my appearance, transformed. I was forced to meet with the guidance counselor at my school, who delivered the message that my teachers were wondering what had happened to the ‘old Laura’.

Although I came across as fun-loving to my new group of friends, I still felt the same feelings of anger, sadness, fear, guilt and shame underneath. If anything, they were magnifying. I’d unknowingly incorporated coping mechanisms– alcohol, in particular– that were undoubtedly fueling the fire. To me, however, they were what got me through. Getting to the weekends and to whatever plans my friends and I had come up with was the motivation that kept me going through my weeks. They were the only times I could forget about how unhappy and lost I felt, how utterly disoriented and destabilized I’d become in my own life, and for a few hours be carefree and lackadaisical. I’d discovered escapism.

None of these friends knew about my bipolar diagnosis, and I was able to temporarily forget, myself, that I was supposedly ‘sick’ and ‘in treatment’. I was still in a place where I could fully compartmentalize the notion of myself as mentally ill. It wasn’t what I was, and I was never going to let it be. The diagnosis remained in the utmost regions of my peripheral self. Though I was able to accept that I might be depressed, I couldn’t overcome the stigma of having bipolar disorder. I was not ‘crazy’. I washed the idea of it down the sink with the Depakote.

My self-destructive behaviors began to accumulate and intensify, as did the guilt and shame I felt around the situations I was getting myself into. A deep-down part of me knew that if I kept fumbling down this dangerous path I’d surely lose myself, and I had the wherewithal to make the decision to apply to boarding school. I believed that the only way I could save myself would be to strip away everything familiar around me and start afresh. Unlike their reaction to my wish to move to Maine a year earlier, my parents agreed that boarding school could be a good opportunity for me. I trudged through the rest of ninth grade knowing that there was light at the end of the tunnel. I had hope. I was going to leave my town, my school, my home, my psychiatrist, and my diagnosis behind and get a second chance at my life.

Chapter Two: Opening Pandora’s Box

Written Fall 2010

Soon after awakening to my crisis of ‘self’, I was sent to my first therapist. My social circles had changed, and I’d begun to spend time with a more marginalized and less straight and narrow group of girls. I was confused, disoriented even, and I felt trapped. Trapped by my town and my school, by the social standards I’d been raised to never question, by the reputation I felt I’d had to uphold for as long as I could remember. I was a prisoner in my own skin, years and years of an identity built up around an empty core.

And now that I’d realized all of this, what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t just change and be someone else, and even if I could, I didn’t know who that would be. I frantically thought of options and decided that the only way to resolve the situation would be to move to Maine to live with my grandmother and start afresh, arriving as a stranger in a new town with no history and nothing to live up to. I sat my parents down and told them the plan. Understandably, my parents rejected this idea. I was left to sit with the chaos building in my mind.

This chaos erupted in anger. I didn’t know how to deal with it- how to allow it to move through me and take its course, how to channel it or talk about it. I feared it and hated it and simultaneously was drawn to it because it was the only emotion intense enough to capture what I was feeling. It was this, primarily, that put me in a therapist’s office one day early in the fall of eighth grade.

The woman I was sent to see was older, in her late sixties or early seventies, and as kind as anyone could be. Her office was attached to her home, which happened to be up the street from me, and I remember dreading the walk every week. Each step I took, with hands thrust deep in my pockets and head down to make sure passersby wouldn’t recognize me, reinforced the idea that I was not normal, that what I was going through was ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, and that I wasn’t doing life the way I ‘should’ be. These realizations were fundamental blows to my sense of equilibrium both within myself and in relation to the world around me. I became filled with fear, doubt, and insecurity. Most of all, I felt alone.

The solitude I’d always been able to feel as a kid, whether on adventures in the woods after school or tucked in bed reading a good book at night, evaporated that fall. It had become pure and unadulterated loneliness, and I found myself in a bind. On the one hand, it was miserable to feel so alone while mired in the chaos pulsating in my mind, but on the other hand, being around people required a tremendous amount of mental energy. It was exhausting to constantly act and pretend around others, and I was left feeling like a fake and a fraud. I was constantly in limbo, never at peace with being on my own or in the company of others.

Eventually, my therapist recommended a more intensive plan. Our sessions, which had been focused on managing my anger, were not proving productive. She thought it critical that I begin to see a psychiatrist who could prescribe medications, should they become necessary. And with that, my weekly walks up the road ceased. They’d brought me to the door of clinical psychiatry, and I was about to be led in.

I fought this decision with all my might. I believed I was in a battle for my life and for ownership of myself, whatever that was. Agreeing to see a shrink meant forfeiting, giving in, losing. The self-imposed stigma I’d placed on myself was all-encompassing and never challenged by my surrounding environment. I was told to let no one outside of my family know that I was seeing a psychiatrist. In school, girls struggling with emotional issues were labeled by many as fundamentally weak. They were never the role models, never the ones others looked up to.

While the outside world still saw me as the strong, confident, high-functioning (though now slightly rebellious) girl I’d always been, the picture was entirely different behind closed doors. My inner turbulence had started to bubble over, and I felt out of control, weak, and pathetic. Thus, I came to feel overwhelming shame for who I was, for this tremendous secret I was harboring. Each and every day, I wondered, “If they only knew…” In essence, I was living two separate lives, the former of which felt like an exhaustive performance and the latter an unmanageable reaction to constantly being on stage.

And thus, it was determined that I needed a psychiatrist with the arsenal of psychopharmacology at her side. With no choice in the matter, I went to my first session with the new doctor and explained to the best of my abilities what I was struggling with. At the end of the fifty minutes, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and written a prescription for Depakote.

With the snap of a finger, I was labeled and forever changed. I was now a case in a file, a category, a collection of symptoms. I walked out with a script in my hand, not sure of what had just happened. What I did know was that I felt even more alone. My entire life, with all of its good and bad and beautiful and confusing and bright and scary and exciting and emotional pieces I’d elaborately been putting together throughout my childhood, as every child does, was to be resolved with a pill. I was speechless. That evening, at dinner, I took my first dosage of the turquoise and white capsules I was to begin a relationship with. Pandora’s Box was opened.