How empathy for self and others makes the journey possible
"Blips and Dips in the Recovery Journey" issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 15 (2), pp. 26-28
“Every time you pick up food with your fork, your mouth opens.” This silly statement, made to me by a family member at a family function, was meant to be funny. Sarcasm, quips and dark humour were standard in my family. You laughed at the statements made about you and carried on. Everyone chuckled and that was the end of it—for everyone else.
But not for me.
Growing up as a competitive figure skater, I had a long love-hate relationship with food, the shape of my body and the process of eating. I was self-conscious about the way I looked and about the way people saw me. This has left me with digestive-system problems and a body that is, ironically, overweight. Abuse in my pre-teens and early 20s intensified my need to crawl out of the body I was in.
I was always very self-conscious about the act of eating. I was a slow eater. When I sat with friends or family, they would finish quickly and I would be left alone with my food. Comments about my slow eating made things worse. I started to take smaller servings so that I’d be able to finish eating more quickly.
In junior high, the school cafeteria provoked anxiety—almost as much as the gymnasium locker room. Eating in front of people I didn’t know very well was out of the question. I discovered that drinking a couple cans of Coke instead of eating lunch gave me enough false energy to get through the day until dinnertime. I skated several hours a day and exercised off-ice as well. When PE class was running long-distance, I could sprint out my compulsive competitiveness by racing the boys to the finish line.
But there were two main problems with my approach: I hated my body no matter what I did, and I couldn’t stop my stomach rumbles from echoing loudly in whatever class I was in, adding to the shame I already felt. In time, I developed anorexia nervosa.
Controlling how I dealt with food became symbolic of my desire to control other aspects of my life. The only times I felt completely free were when I was skating and when I was writing. Both activities let me bare my true self to the world with pride, not caring what anyone thought of me. I withheld judgement of myself until I was done, and no words could take away the freedom and wonder I had just experienced—the euphoria of being the real me.
But off the ice, and away from the written word, I felt I had no control of how I was seen by others. I felt invisible. Controlling my food intake and my body shape gave me a false sense of fitting in, a false power in a life where I felt powerless.
It took a lot of inner strength to pull myself out of those destructive eating patterns. I substituted with obsessive organizing and cleaning and, later on, drinking and pain killers. I experienced addiction and alcoholism and I lived with anxiety, depression and PTSD. It took hitting rock bottom and getting clean for me to realize that my body and my mind were both important to me, and I wanted to heal. I didn’t want to be invisible; I wanted to take how I had survived in life and share it with others. If I can help just one person in my lifetime, then everything I have gone through will be worth it. That sentence became my mantra.
In my 20s, I connected with a few friends who accepted me for the person I am, and they became the family I needed and craved. Their strength and belief in me helped me to eat better, get stronger and realize my passions in life. And I realized telling my story could do the same for others.
Being a good parent means taking care of yourself
It is one thing to struggle with mental health issues as a young, unattached adult. It is another thing to struggle with mental health issues when you become a parent.
My mental health challenges suddenly magnified when I became a mom. For a long time, I managed to mask how I was struggling—until my daughter started to show signs of her own mental health issues. My fear of what might be in store for her intensified. For many years, we battled our issues together—each triggering the other’s anxieties and pulling each other deeper into depression. I decided to homeschool my daughter for several years: a good decision in the beginning but one that became a daunting task as time went on. I became exhausted all the time, feeling useless, like I had failed my child. My daughter became increasingly anxious of the “big bad world” outside our doors, the crime in our neighbourhood that made the evening news. We switched the television off, but the sirens still told us what a scary world we lived in.
It was hard to reach out for help. When I did, the promised testing and resources never came through. I was left to my own devices. Computers became a crutch for my daughter and me, whether it was researching information or procrastinating on schoolwork or taking care of ourselves and our home. We had a hard time leaving our apartment—our Hobbit Hole, as I affectionately called it. When we hadn’t left to go anywhere except the garbage bin out back for three weeks, I knew we were in crisis. I reached out for help again, and this time I was heard. Plans were made for each of us to get counsellors and attend classes. I realized that I needed to show my daughter—and myself—that it is okay to ask for help. Our tiny world began to open up.
I still remember the feelings of emptiness, loss of control and shame when we were in crisis. It was lonely and scary because I felt like such a failure. I couldn’t give my daughter the education she needed on my own, had trouble getting us help and felt the dark pit of depression deepen as my daughter fought her own fears of failure and of letting down those she loved. Those feelings still appear periodically, but they no longer rule our lives. We have tools to work through those times, and we can help each other.
Recovery is a process
One of the most important things I’ve learned in my recovery process is that the challenges I faced earlier in life have provided me with several powerful and positive recovery tools. For example, I now know the signs of when I might be battling with my eating issues and other anxieties. And I have learned to listen to the people close to me when they take the time to point out the truth about my behaviours.
I am also able to talk frankly with my daughter about her own eating issues. Together we can work out what might be in the way of her developing healthy eating patterns and practising compassion for herself, and what she might need to discuss with a therapist. Right now, we are working with the tools we have learned. My daughter does breathing exercises to control her panic attacks, and I like guided meditation to help me release stress and concentrate on the positive aspects of all situations. If, and when, we need to see someone, we have therapists we trust. I try my best to keep communication with my daughter open so that she and I both feel comfortable discussing our emotions, our mood, our eating and body-image issues and so much more.
But recovery is not something that just happens one day and then you move on. Recovery is something that I work on every day. Some days I feel more recovered and some days I feel less so. Recovery is a lifelong process.
I have learned to listen to my own thoughts and challenge them, as well as just be there to actively listen to my daughter. It is very hard to not be in “fix it” mode when my daughter is hurting, but she is learning that she has to go through the emotions and hard times herself in order to mature and become who she is meant to be. When I forget that and give her advice, my daughter does her best to tell me not to fix it. Communication, sharing our emotions and creating a strong bond has brought us the closeness we were missing, an attachment that my daughter yearned to have. I adapt the skills I’ve learned when I work with youth who need to talk to someone they can trust, as well as with family members who need a peer who “gets it” and shows empathy without judgement.
One of the things that helps me retain a positive perspective is working with youth who are experiencing mental health and addiction issues, and their families—providing support to caregivers, young people and peers who are experiencing some of the same things that I have experienced. Being able to provide this support to someone who needs it makes me realize—in unexpected ways—how far I have come on my own recovery journey.
There isn’t a shortage of people who need a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on or a high-five for living the best day they could have lived under the circumstances. I feel blessed and deeply honoured when I can be there to give empathy to a struggling youth or a caregiver who has nothing left to give.
At the same time, when I hear the caring words I give to others, I remind myself to take my own words to heart. Anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders and other mental health challenges affect the mind, the body and spirit of those who live with them, as well as the loved ones who are part of their support system. It takes a lot of energy to fight for yourself and those you love—but while we are caring for others, we need to make sure we are also caring for ourselves.
My recovery is not just about me. My recovery is also the act of being there for those I love and care about, who may be affected by something that has taken over their life. My experiences can help others, and that makes my recovery journey worthwhile.
About the author
Samantha is Co-Chair of the Family Committee for the Adolescent Day Treatment Program (ADTP East), and is a caregiver support and peer support worker. She serves on committees at Foundry-Abbotsford and the Board of Directors of the Matsqui-Abbotsford Impact Society. She loves working with youth and families with mental health challenges