What Makes Us Stronger

A few days after I lost my cat, a friend wrote something to me that really has stayed with me. She said:

“You are in my thoughts and prayers. Take it easy on yourself, grief is not logical or linear….do what you need to do to cope and don’t worry about what you “should” be doing or whether you “should” be “over” losing him!!! I love you.”

Every day since, several times a day, I have read this message and think about it. I think about how they were exactly the words I needed to hear at the time, because I was feeling like the waves of grief should be rolling back. I was feeling like I should get back to my life and doing the things important to me. I was even feeling like I should devote my energy to my dogs, who need me.

Should should should

The word “should” keeps creeping into my life.

I was bundled up in my feelings of obligation, of feeling a need to be perfect and of being strong instead of just working through my grief–instead of taking care of me. I was doing what I do when facing a challenge that I don’t know how to handle: I compartmentalize. I cut off the feelings that I struggle to manage and instead focus on something else. Maybe if I look strong on the outside, I’ll feel that way on the inside. But since I’m not dealing with my feelings and simply putting them aside, all I feel is numb. And vulnerable. And weak.

I have a tendency to crawl in my cave of sorts when I’m upset. I think part of it is that I don’t want to inflict myself on others. Who wants to be the one that drones on and on about her dead cat? And who would want to listen to that? I also feel very vulnerable reaching out to people for support, for love and for help. So, away I go.

Confession time

I’m going to call myself out on this because not talking about it makes it more powerful. I’m cringing at the thought of people reading this, but if it helps even one other person, then it’s worth it. And by not sharing this with anyone, it makes it so much larger and more powerful.

It starts off simple enough—I can’t sleep as I wake early in the morning thinking, but after a few days, that becomes habit and my gigantic busy brain is busy at work every night around 3 am circling over and over. I lose my appetite, I feel isolated and the sadness takes hold. I grasp desperately for some semblance of control, some way to take control over the rush of feelings that I have. I feel like I’m spiraling down a whirlpool and have no way to fight back the waves of depression and sadness.

My search for control leads me to stop eating. I shouldn’t want to eat when I’m this upset, and I may not be able to control many things in my life, but this is something I can control. I ignore the rumbling in my stomach, my faintness and lack of energy and eat the minimum to sustain me. What makes it worse, is that I begin to realize what I’m doing, dislike it, and instead of focusing on how I can make myself feel better by being kind to myself, I begin the harsh judgment of how I know better than this, how I can do better and that maybe this is all I deserve. Instead of sharing my feelings of powerlessness at this moment, I turn them onto something I can control. At first it’s not conscious, but then it becomes a game of control. I learned there is a word for it: restrict. I start to consciously restrict, because I may not be able to control the situation that caused me to spiral, but I can control my eating.

Deep down I know that starving myself won’t bring my cat back, nor will it make me feel better. It becomes a game—a twisted one to see just how far I can go, how much I can exert complete self-control over eating. It’s not so difficult to ignore the pangs of hunger when your brain is cycling with self-doubt and grief. I start with a furious bout of self-judgement, though I know that’s not fair to myself nor an effective way to stop the cycle I have started. I give myself a physical reason for the hollowness I feel.

Then when that’s not enough, I move onto over-exercising and use what little energy I have to punish my already tortured body, while the feelings of powerlessness, isolation and sadness continue to grow, fueled by my behavior. Fueled by people noticing that I have lost weight and telling me I look wonderful. It becomes my little secret that I don’t share with anyone, nor do I usually readily admit to myself. It’s embarrassing and I’m ashamed that in my quest for control, I have lost it. I struggle knowing that this isn’t good for me, yet have a strange sense of pride about how far I’ve taken it on occasion. Is it strange to brag about losing 30 pounds in a month? I suppose it is, and it’s certainly not healthy. Eventually a small part of my brain realizes that I’ve taken it too far: I’m hurting myself and I finally stop.

My shame always led me to not want to talk about this, though I’m learning that not talking about it makes it stronger. I’m not perfect, and I don’t need or want to be. This is a part of me, just like my brown eyes and freckles. I look in the mirror and hope someday to face myself without judgement, without criticism and with love. Sometimes I’m there, and other times, I’m still a work-in-progress.

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