There is no excerpt because this is a protected post.
Sometimes I find it’s a shame when I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain
Gordon Lightfoot’s song was playing while I shuffled around my kitchen trying to simplify my thoughts and push down the anxiety. God Damed Anxiety is back. It puts this tight clamp on my spine where the cortisol moves in and stirs up feelings of hopelessness, lack of confidence, uselessness. All those wonderful wonderful feelings to carry like a monkey through the days.
In 1999, in postpartum after the birth of my one child, I was flung into a psychosis which turned into a straight-jacket and a rubber room experience. Haldol and all. (Locked up in D.C.). I was then, at the age of 33, diagnosed Bipolar. I had never had any symptoms prior to that. But you see, I am Military Martha. My whole family of six siblings call me that. I am the sensible one. The rule-follower. List maker (thank’s Annie). The one who solves problems. I am definitely NOT the one who ends up in a Johnny coat running for my life out the hospital doors at -20 Celsius with my undies on show. (Crazy Train 2011)
But this is mental illness folks. It takes all that you know and turns it upside down. It makes that positive side of me disappear. It makes it nearly impossible to reach out to friends and family (unless it turns into mania and then it is impossible to NOT reach out to friends and family and just about anyone else, and even at 3 in the morning).
Even the simplest of tasks cause me to turn in circles and not know where to begin. I need adult supervision. Thanks Uncle Buck. My husband of 27 years becomes the one person who knows me so well. He takes my hand and leads me along through the cloud. He will encourage me with a simple tasks to focus on and accomplish, telling me all the other stuff can wait. It’s not going to be a problem if it all just waits, he says.
Yesterday I was trying to explain the anxiety to my sister on the phone, three provinces away. It is like I know cerebrally that the task is not important but even knowing that, I feel like I am swimming in goop and am finding it hard to keep my head above it. Couple that with the feeling of a huge alligator clamp on my lower spine and that everything I look at is somehow wrong: not good enough, out of order, messy, needs fixing…AHHH! It becomes just overwhelming.
I was explaining how some things seem to help. Letting things go until a better time, cancel, reschedule, forego, cross it off the list. Listening to up and happy music. Walking in nature. Holding hands with my husband and quietly talking and walking. Simple tasks: peeling potatoes, hanging laundry, watering the garden, weeding, sweeping the floor, scraping the paint on the house with a warm sun on my back…all seem to help, if I can get out of my own way to do them.
Nothing haunts us like the things we don’t say
When my eldest sister Eva was three years old, my Dad told her to sit behind the Conductor when he put her on a 9-hour train north to Smooth Rock Falls, alone. It routed through Union Station in downtown Toronto.
‘Sit behind the Conductor,’ he said. ‘You will be fine,’ he said. Little Eva screamed, ‘No Daddy, No Daddy!’ reaching with her little chubby arms for the person who was supposed to protect her.
She was three and she had just been torn from the tight grasp of her baby sister Amy, just 10 months her junior, who was holding onto her for dear life. Both baby girls, one blond, one brunette, were crying with red cheeks. All I can think now… is that it must’ve been a completely different world back then. With so many very large families of seven children plus, perhaps this was how parents coped?
She was being sent to stay with Gramma and Grampa because baby brother had come along and with baby Amy too, one just needed to go. Gramma and Grampa didn’t drive. They never even owned a car. So, on the train went Little Eva.
In wintry Smooth Rock Falls, Eva remembers days of nothing happening. No toys. No interaction with other children or adults and an unfamiliar scent (which she can now identify as mothballs) in their home coupled with the smell from The Mill. It all made her feel terribly homesick. She was left completely to her own devices. The house was chilly, smelly and dark. Gramma was quiet and busy. Grampa was at work most of the time. The Grandfather clock ticked incessantly.
The lunch whistle would blow at the Mill and a quiet Grampa would walk home to sit at the Arbourite and chrome table where his lunch awaited him. A steaming bowl of home-made soup and a large sandwich on fresh-baked bread. It was eaten without a word of thanks while Gramma watched, hands wringing in her cotton apron beneath her large, matronly bosom. The next whistle would bring him home for supper with a nearly perfect replay of lunch time. Quiet. Expected. Ungrateful. Gramma had her job: keeping house. Grampa had his – The Mill Wright – keeping Mill.
When Eva related this troubling story to me recently, my mind wheeled back a dozen years. My son Leo and I had gone to a neighbourhood wedding for Leo’s babysitter’s Mom and step-father who were getting married. As we approached the large house on a beautiful sunny and warm afternoon, I was feeling a wee bit worried that there would be no one there to talk to and that I would stick out like a sore thumb. Leo ran over to the candy bar in glee. I lifted the full skirt of my simple grey silk dress as I descended to the deck of the pool in my pumps. Being extra careful so as to NOT make a splash of an entrance! All of the guests stood in small groups, mingling. An older man approached and welcomed me, shaking my hand gently.
‘Welcome to the wedding of Mack and Mary,’ he said, extending a large hand and a big smile. ‘I am Mack’s father, Paul Bouvier. How do you know them?’ he asked.
I responded and then asked where he had come from for the wedding. ‘Arnprior, Ontario,’ was his reply.
‘Oh,’ I said with a smile enjoying that I had something in common with this friendly stranger. ‘My Grandfather was from Arnprior.’ Grampa used to tell me of his boyhood in Arnprior. He had a crab-apple tree outside his upstairs bedroom window and he would eat them from the tree when they were ripe (bleck!!). He would go downtown to the grocers and he and his pals would press their noses to the glass looking at the bananas. The grocer would shoo them away saying, ‘Sonny-boy, sonny-boy, get away from the glass and let the sun shine on the bananes!’ Grampa was raised in the depression era when certain luxury foods were scarce.
Anyway, Mr. Bouvier asked me who my grandfather was. I told him.
His smile widened and his eyes danced as he exclaimed, ‘I worked for your Grandfather at the Mill. He was a Mill Wright. And your Dad! Your Dad was a great hockey player!’
We just looked at each other smiling and nodding. Small world. Why did the stars align allowing this conversation to take place decades later, provinces away, in my new neighbourhood￼…?
When Eva was seventeen, she began to have extreme anxiety attacks and had no ability to concentrate on her school work. She had been the top student at her Junior High School, on many teams, in many clubs, leader of the folk choir at Saint Mary’s Church￼, known and loved by all.
My eldest sister Eva, with her amazing soprano voice, her leadership and enthusiasm for music, would lead the whole congregation through folk songs like: Here We Are, and Kumbaya and Jesus is a Soul Man. She would be right up front of the pews. Her long, straight hair flicking from side to side as she would stride around motioning to the congregation to sing louder and stronger, tapping her tambourine on her leg. The guitars strumming wildly. Pride would be welling up through my little body as I sat in awe of my teenage sister. Those folk masses were powerfully spiritual and I will never forget them. Sadly, almost half a century later, my beloved sister Eva, for some unknown neurological reason, completely lost her hearing and consequently a god given talent – her ability to sing soprano. It was a bitter pill to swallow for all of us who love her but, My God, especially for her. Thankfully, a few years later, Eva was fitted with a Cochlear Implant but, she will tell you, it is not the same as hearing with your own ears and her ability to sing has been diminished almost completely. Eva has told me that her voice no longer sounds like her own. Tragic!
But, getting back to when she was seventeen… when she walked in through the front door of her new, very large high school, her vision would tunnel and it was impossible to function. She told Mom about her troubles, which were obvious because she was crying a lot. Mom took her to the hospital where she was treated cruelly and isolated from all family members. Eva escaped from the hospital and when she told Mom of the cruel methods at the hospital, Mom was furious and went there to complain and to tell them off.
Next, Eva was sent to Florida to be with Memere and Pepere, the idea being that the sunshine would be good for her. But, similar to Smooth Rock, the lack of interaction with friends and the anxiety had her feeling very badly. She went home to Barrie and was then taken to the Psych Hospital in Penetanguishene. By hook or by crook, she managed to get well enough to leave that place and then a couple years later to marry and then raise three incredible young men who had her full time and were cherished and loved dearly. Today they have children of their own who are cherished and loved and trust me, would never dream of putting a toddler on a train, alone.
Dear Reader, what do you think of this story…can you believe it is true?
(The photo was taken by Eva in Wolfville, NS in 2017)
‘ So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key’ *
In mid 2016 I started on Lithium Bicarbonate (again!) for my mental illness: Bipolar 1. If you have read my previous posts on body image and on mental illness, you will know by now that I was struggling against succumbing to meds due to the strong suspicion that taking them would cause a large weight gain.
Well, it has done just that. My body now is the stuff of my previous life’s nightmares. So, why is this post entitled Feelin’ Fine? Confused yet?
Well, I have changed folks.
It started when I hit rock bottom in May 2016. I had extreme anxiety for days and a panic attack that rocked my world and I was sure I was about to die. I could barely let go of my husband Dean’s hand. All I could do to feel better was walk, and poor Dean, suffering with a broken toe, walked with me, holding my hand. (Ya, I know. I have the best husband in the world.) If you had seen me then you would not recognize me. I was barely able to look up. I was debilitated. The cortisol buildup in my low back was like a knife jabbing me. Every thought spun out a new list of worries that multiplied. I clutched Dean’s hand and he guided me gently along through the days. I did simple tasks like pealing potatoes and hanging laundry. That’s about all I could do without making copious, confusing lists and notes.
This was the point that I finally succumbed to medication.
Since then, I decided that it is far better to have a clear mind and psyche than it is to be small and trim.
This has not been an instantaneous transformation. It has taken hours and hours of concerted effort and two years of time going by to change my thinking. I am doing this by reading books, blogs, articles, scientific studies and by listening to podcasts on this very topic…non-diet, body-neutral, non-fat phobic, Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating by podcasters like Christy Harrison on Food Psych; Meret Boxler on Life Unrestricted; Chris Sandel on Real Health Radio; Summer Innanen on Fearless Rebelle Radio. These people have helped me immeasurably. As has my husband of twenty-six years. He is truly my best, most supportive friend.
It hasn’t been exactly easy to transform my thinking one hundred and eighty degrees. From a very disordered existence of constant striving to maintain a small, lean body where in almost every waking moment over the last 35 years, I was aware, concerned, worried about eating less and moving more (it was a full-time job to maintain the energy deficit that then felt normal). I mean, I was eating low-fat while trekking in the Himalayas while simultaneously battling a bowel parasite for jeezus sakes.
I have become more peaceful by NOT doing anything to try to stay small. I eat when hungry, whatever I want. I drink when thirsty. I move when it strikes my fancy to do so. No schedule. No goals. No competitive work-out sessions. No marathon-type activity in the off-ing to compulsively train for. No $60 ++ per week of yoga classes, plus thousands of dollars for months of yoga teacher training at an ashram in the Bahamas (which in retrospect I now realize that I had done not to achieve Zen but mostly to achieve small-ness. It was like going to a Fat Farm for me. Okay, a Zen Fat Farm, if you will).
I look back on my previous life and shake my head. But it is all part of my path.
And, who cares if I am not small in size. I am still ME.
My being is still here. My me-ness.
You know me? That person who loves an adventure;
a good doubling-over belly laugh;
a deep talk solving the problems of the world, including what to do with your hair;
a carefree dance around the living room or in a random cafe to some good eighties tunes,
a pint and a good cry????
That person is still here and that person is doing okay. She’s just in a bigger, softer body and she is doing much, much better on the inside, and, thankfully, not doing those annoying hand-stands every five minutes.
One last one for the memory bank. My son took this in Prospect, Nova Scotia, Canada. The next time I asked him to take a picture of me doing a hand-stand was on the Keji Seaside beach, he goes, ‘Mom, that ship has sailed, don’t you think?’
Right on Buddy. Gotta love kids.
I would love your comments…
(The sunflower pic is from Google Images, all the rest are mine, Martha Valiquette, except the amazing Dragonfly which is by my eldest sister.)
*Excerpt from Already Gone (Eagles) Songwriters: Jack Tempchin / Robert Arnold Strandlund
Update: Fall 2020
I have now dropped several kilos of weight and it happened by accident. I learned a valuable lesson. Alcohol and lithium do not mix. I was holding a lot of water and extra weight due to consuming a daily drink of wine or beer and sometimes a bit of a liqueur in the evenings. I decided to give up alcohol because I was waking up for hours a night and feeling quite toxic – not quite right – in my skin. It was odd. I am quite in tune with how I am feeling and it wasn’t right. I just said, enough of this. I’m gonna cut some substances out. So, out went alcohol. I then peed out about 10 pounds of water seemingly overnight. I also slept much better for the first time in years. It was an epiphany. I think I am particularly sensitive to substances. I have also moved my devices to charge outside of my bedroom, have blinds on windows, don’t read or watch exciting / heart-quickening movies or books before bed. Walk more. Finally, I eat more protein and fewer carbs which seems to make my belly settle down. I also drink much more water stopping two hours before bedtime. All these measures have helped and I feel much calmer and not so bloated.
At sixteen I experimented with dieting and it led to a full-blown eating disorder…
1981 was the year my Mom morphed into a love-sick teenager right before my cringing eyes. My parents were in the midst of a break up but the first step was for them to have a trial separation while still both living in our bungalow. Mom had the basement and Dad had the upstairs. They shared the kitchen. I remember Mom writing her name on her row of eggs on the inside of the fridge door.
Before long, Mom started dating an alcoholic she met at the Legion. Good choice. I loathed the way she behaved in those months. She started wearing really tight clothing and tons of makeup. She was going out to the Legion many times a week. It infuriated and sickened me. My fifteen-year-old self was ashamed of the person I had basically worshiped prior to that. I think Mom was rebelling and bingeing on that aspect of life because she had been depraved of proper affection and love by Dad for years. It was just sad.
I used to make phone calls to my eldest sister, Eva, who was married, and tell her my woes. I would tell her how Mom and Dad were always fighting and bickering. Soon, she invited me to live with her and her family, three-hours away in London. Later that year I would come back to visit and by then, Mom had gotten a place: a 1.5-bedroom apartment above the Knights of Columbus Hall up by St Mary’s School.
My little brother Luke was living with her and while there, slipped into a shadow of his former self. He continuously watched television and became very quiet and sullen. It would break my heart to see what my little brother had become in this dysfunctional arrangement. I blamed myself for decades afterward, that I had abandoned him there. Finally a wise therapist told me to let that go. I was just a child myself at the time. It was not my fault. The other adults should have been there to help us through it, she explained softly while I wept, in her chair.
Anyway, living with my eldest sister and her family, I realized that every family has their problems and pressures. Sometimes I would wake up at night and hear them arguing with each other about money. Taking in a teen isn’t without cost.
I knew that I needed to chip in. I picked up many babysitting gigs and even braided the hair of a few ladies on the street. For a couple years, french braids were at the height of fashion and, I could braid. Layla, my red-headed friend who had moved away had taught me. I would charge $10 – $20 for a braid and that was a lot at that time. The ladies would gladly pay me because their long hair would be up and out of their way for days in a good braid and, they could go out on the town with hubby and be in style.
Always the entrepreneur, when I had a free night, especially on a weekend, I would call some parents and let them know I was free. Nine times out of ten they would call back and hire me to babysit for the night. I didn’t buy groceries or anything with my money, but, at least I didn’t need to ask for any spending money. I also paid for my driving school with that money. I was very eager to learn how to drive and I firmly believed in learning correctly. Interestingly, I later became a Transportation Officer in the Army and then a Driving School owner.
Eva took me down to enroll in the Catholic High School for grade ten. I would take the bus every day. The bus stop was only a minute away. The problem was, going to Catholic High was going to be a huge change. I had been going to St. Joe’s in Barrie with its 163 students. 2000 students went to Catholic Central High in London. It was huge. I was completely lost there. I had been a total jock at St. Joe’s. On every team. Excelling at almost all my subjects. Known by all.
At CCH it was a different story. I didn’t make the basketball team. I just could not believe it. I went to the coach and begged my way onto the team. She told me I would likely ride the bench all season. I said, ‘I don’t care. Please let me play. I will not survive here without basketball.’
Basketball practice was every morning at 7:30. I had to take the city bus for 45 minutes to downtown then run five blocks to CCH, then run for an hour of practice. Normally that would be no problem, because I had been super fit.
However, at that time, I had become anorexic. I was living on about 800 calories or less per day: a tiny breakfast of half a pita with 1 precise tablespoon of peanut butter and exactly 8 oz of skim milk that I mixed from powder into a plastic cup each morning (blech!!!); an apple for lunch and the smallest dinner I could get away with. Eva was watching and I would try not to upset her. I didn’t want her to know my secret.
I was growing and I was expending a lot of calories for basketball. I was extremely emaciated and lacked any muscle tone and had very little strength. I really don’t know how I physically carried my frame around for the day. The human body is an amazing machine.
The anorexia started innocently enough. Eva had started going to Weight Watchers to lose the baby weight from her second pregnancy. Her first born was now two. She asked me if I would like to eat the same way as her. We could do it together. But, I did not need to lose any weight. My body was an average size and quite muscular. But, I was open to trying this new thing with my sister whom I looked up to so much.
I loved doing things with Eva. We had a lot of fun together and did a whole lot of laughing together. But, as I started restricting and losing weight and then going back to Barrie for a visit, my friends made quite a big deal about how great I looked. I thought I should lose even more. I have very strong willpower when I draw on it, so restricting even more was possible.
It wasn’t at all fun, but, by this time it had become a bit of a weird addiction and a secret project which somehow gave me comfort — ridiculous, I know. I was riddled with fear. Worried that if I ate as much as I wanted, I would get very fat very fast. I was ashamed of myself for being so self-centered.
One day, I was out with Eva running errands. I was walking up to this window of this storefront. I was watching the reflection of this skeletal figure walking up to the window and I was looking to see who it was. I did not recognize myself. I was that skeletal form but, when looking at my reflection, I saw a fatter body. Dysmorphia is what they call this phenomena.
When laying down in my bed at night, my bones were pressing through my skin and it would hurt. It was quite hard to get comfortable. There was a pull chain above my bed to turn out the light. I had to will myself to raise my arm to reach the chain to turn out the light.
I continued this way for the year – holding out even though Eva would scream at me to Martha please eat!!!!. By the end of it, I was about 80 pounds and was getting sick a lot, always freezing cold, no period, short of breath, thinning hair, bad breath, coated tongue and of course, always starving and suppressing it. Anorexia is hell. It truly is. Do not go there. Please don’t.
From my research now, I have learned that Anorexia Nervosa is a mental illness. I would have several more battles with mental illness in the future, but not for nearly two decades.
I had strep throat over and over that year. My immune system was shot. Going to see Eva’s doctor, a European with blunt speech, asked me if I was losing this much weight on purpose. I remember liking how he worded that question. I opened up to him and told him the truth. Right away he organized a counselor to come and see me at home a couple of times per week. The counselor was wonderful. I really liked her. She explained to me that I needed to put more fuel into my body. I had been complaining about not having any energy (do ya think?). I liked how gently she explained these simple matters to me. She helped me to stop the behaviour.
However, I was terrified of opening the flood gates of eating. I thought I would never be able to stop once I started. I was starving but I was afraid to eat. So, then the bulimia started. I would open the flood gates. I would eat thousands of calories in cookies, chips, cake, baked goods and then I would take a large dose of laxatives. Chocolate X-lax was my purging tool because I was unable to make myself vomit.
By the middle of the night, my guts would be gurgling. But, it would do the trick. Everything would be voided explosively into the toilet. Sometimes it was quite embarrassing, depending on where I was when the void wanted to begin and, it was never funny like the time in Virginia with my friend Nancy when I was large with pregnancy and drank way too much prune-juice.
The Bulimia went on for about another year or so and by then I was living back in Barrie and attending grade eleven. For years, I would go through times of wanting to lose weight again and so would start to restrict, but, it always led to bingeing and purging again.
Joining the Army put a stop to it for a while because I simply had no time or energy to devote to body size. But, the demon returned in the form of exercise bulimia, orthorexia (obsession with finding the most nutritious foods), food rules, restriction and preoccupation. It stopped in 2017 (Read Feelin’ Fine), three and a half decades later. Now, I am able to happily refer you to the following: 8 Ways to be Free of Diet Culture 🎈
Be good to you. ☮️