Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Avoiding life

This is my best friend Jessica's Project Semicolon story, published with her permission.

The first time I thought it would just be easier to die was when I was fourteen.  My parents were away, as my mother was receiving cancer treatment, almost three hours away from home.  My Mawmaw lived with my sister and me during this time.  I cannot recall the reason I was so upset that day, but perhaps it was a culmination of hormones, the overwhelming aspects of Freshman year of High School, my mother not being there for me to talk to about boys, or even having my Dad around to make comments about how my grades could always be better and to practice guitar more. 

My father kept a rope in the garage.  One that I ran my fingers down that day, wandering how easy it would be to not exist. It was an oddly dry brown, rough to the touch, and I cut myself on it as I pet it.  Nothing ever came of that urge that day, and strangely enough, the rope disappeared and I’ve never seen it again.

They say that genetics load the gun, as it were, and that environment pulls the trigger.  For me, food became my ammunition. 

My mother decided to do the South Beach Diet, and asked me to join in.  This would begin a few different diets that I tried.  However, I began to walk a delicate line around the age of sixteen as I began to set rules for myself.  No soda, potato products, or sweets.  Then eventually no carbohydrates, no food after 7 p.m., and I would spend hours at the gym. 

This immense feeling of undeserving came over me, and all I wanted to do was to feel worthy –of what- I wasn’t sure, but it drove me to dangerous lengths to become what I thought would make me “more.”  It was easy to channel my absolute need to achieve into developing a full blown eating disorder.  Not that I would have admitted it at the time, or would admit for years. 

I began to have panic attacks at the sight of baked potatoes, bathing suits, and any type of social situation where I’d have to be around food.  Sleeping was all that felt good to me during these times, because I was caught in a ceaseless cycle of restriction and purging.  So little nutrition stayed in me that my hair thinned and my periods were inconstant.

Attending college made it worse in some ways, there was no set meal time that my parents would enforce.  No one limiting the amount of time I could stay at the gym, and my boyfriend at the time would only sing the words from Silverchair’s “Ana’s Song,” to me, instead of trying to encourage me to get help.  Insomnia set in. 

Four years after my first purge I finally sought help.  Anxiety Disorder.  Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Insomnia. So many titles for the achiever I was, and in some sick part of my mind I was proud.  Therapy helped, but I remained insistent that I really could get better at any time.  I would periodically stop taking my medication, just to prove a point.
“How do I know if I love you, or if I love the medication,” he asked me.

It was an accidental pregnancy that showed me how hard it is to live.  An ectopic pregnancy, one where I was bleeding internally for almost three days before finally going to the doctor.  Emergency surgery and I was back in a pit of wanting to escape.  It would have been easier than to live with the embarrassment of my family finding out I was sexually active by way of accidental pregnancy.  Easier than to live with what it did to my boyfriend.  Easier than to live with what it made me feel; like it was all my fault.

I’ve spiraled in and out of my eating disorder, but it was just two years ago when it finally came to a head.  My best friend and I attended a concert for one of our favorite bands.  I don’t remember much past the opening act.  This night hurt two of the people I loved the most.  My rock-sister-best friend walked almost four miles home in the dark by the highway because she couldn’t find me.  Two kind strangers apparently stayed with me until my boyfriend could come to find me, when I was unable to articulate much of what was happening.

I had been abusing diuretics, skipping my medication, and purging almost every morsel that went past my lips – save for wine.  It was so easy to feel nothing when I was empty.

The next day I came clean.  I went and sat with my best friend, who was also my roommate, and confessed what had been going on.  I hate what it did to her, when she felt guilty for not seeing it.  It wasn’t her fault, after all these years it was easy to hide it.  My boyfriend watched me as I flushed every last diuretic pill down the toilet.  He searched through my medicine drawer because he no longer trusted me.

My body revolted that day.  Pancreatitis gripped me and pulled me down, doubled over, and I was even unable to stay at my cousin’s wedding. I decided it was time.  I scheduled a consultation at an Eating Disorder Recovery Center.

I no longer consider the option of non-existence, and while I struggle, I am proud of everything I’ve been able to accomplish in the last fifteen years. I have my family, my wonderful friends, and the Renfrew Center to thank for that.

My tattoo is simple, but poignant.  The symbol of the National Eating Disorder Association tied with the semicolon, representing that my fight is not over.  My fight is something I push through every day, but it is part of my story.  And my story isn’t over yet. 

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” -- Virginia Woolf

Self-propelled flowers

This is my submission to Project Semicolon's 'Share Your Story' initiative. I decided to share it because of the bravery of one of my friends in sharing her own story yesterday, and because I've been rather quiet on social media lately and this is why. I'm still struggling with some anxiety issues and retreating from social media has helped me some, for whatever reason. My story may end up being published in the Project's upcoming book but, if not, it'll be on here and if it might help even one person feel less alone then that's worth it. Please remember your story isn't over.

Getting this far has been a long journey, and it was only really over the last two years that I actually faced the crippling anxiety that would plague my day-to-day existence. Sitting at work one day, I realized my heart rate was above 120 bpm, that I could barely take a breath, and that without me realizing it someone had clearly sneaked into my office and placed a large boulder on my chest, making it impossible to breathe deeply and slow my heart down. Despite years of cyclical Depression and experience with some acute panic attacks, I for some reason decided I must have some terrible heart disease and that I needed to see a doctor before my chest exploded.

My chest didn't ever explode. I was diagnosed with chronic panic attacks (anxiety attacks that result in chest pain, shallow breathing, and a sense of asphyxiation over a prolonged period - sometimes for days at a time), and Panic Disorder. My doctor referred me to a fantastic psychiatrist, who in turn connected me with a wonderful therapist. Between some minimal medical intervention and a year's worth of therapy, I started to be able to face and live with 'Brian' - the misspelling of 'brain' I so frequently typed when chatting online with my best friend about the compulsive thoughts that attacked my mind whenever I wasn't consciously thinking about what a pointless person I was. Brian became shorthand for 'my brain is telling me lies and making me anxious', and between innumerable conversations with my closest friends and guidance from my therapist, Brian became someone I was no longer afraid to get to know.

My story hasn't ever really been told in its entirety, and I don't think it's actually possible to make accurate causal links between everything that could have led to me one day being unable to breathe while sat behind a desk doing nothing out of the ordinary. Genetics certainly could have predisposed me to struggling with mental health issues. I would guess that my early experiences and exposure would also play a part. I've been treated for Depression on and off since I was 17, but never for anxiety until recently. In 2011, I emigrated from England to the USA to be with a man who, not even two years later, broke my heart so thoroughly I thought I would never recover. And then the severe panic set in, the constant search for confirmation of what it is about me that is clearly so lacking, so repugnant, so unworthy.

But somehow all of that didn't destroy me. I stayed in the States. There were days that I couldn't face getting out of bed and weeks when the mere act of walking towards my office building where I had to pretend to be okay for eight hours straight had me in tears. While I never made any serious plans to hurt myself, the fact that driving my car into the lake by my house seemed more appealing than continuing to exist on more than one occasion certainly wasn't the thought of a mentally healthy person. I bawled. I raged. I forgot what it felt like to really laugh. I didn't care for myself. I collapsed from the sheer weight of the pain, literally and figuratively.

I remember the precise moment when I remembered I could laugh. I was sat with my best friend, who eventually became my roommate, and remains like a sister to me today. She and I had shared and been through so much - her story is not mine to tell, but it is connected to this one, and we got our tattoos together! - and there is no one that I trust more to know what it is like to have a Brian living in your head, and who will put up with the level of anxiety-fueled disordered rambling I tend towards, and somehow love me through it regardless. We had purchased giant wine glasses à la the TV show 'Cougar Town' (so essentially vases that we filled with wine), and as we were sat chatting at the dining table, she tipped hers up to take a sip. Her face, distorted by the bottom of the rounded vase and sloshing around in the wine, struck me as the funniest thing I had seen, and I began to uncontrollably ugly-donkey-guffaw laugh until my face was equally distorted in mirth. It took me a full half hour to calm down, because every time either of us picked up a glass, it started me off again. It was WONDERFUL to just laugh.

It was a silly moment, but it gave me hope. I am so lucky that my family and friends (in the USA and back home) have always given me and encouraged me to look for hope. My story was never over because of them. My psychiatrist tells me that that's because of me - that I have to take credit for surviving because however incredible my passengers are, I'm still the one driving. I love the metaphor, but I'm pretty sure that having people you can trust to drive when you can't made all the difference for me.

So why a butterfly with my semicolon? Why this butterfly? My parents, with the help of my sneaky best friend, paid me a surprise visit last August. While walking through a parking lot to the restaurant where we planned to have lunch, both Mum and Dad stopped suddenly at some small bushes, covered in Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. We stayed there for probably five whole minutes, admiring how beautiful they were, and taking photos. My boyfriend was highly amused because of how similar the three of us are, and it was in this moment that I consciously acknowledged all the things I was and am *as well as* my anxiety. I am their daughter. I am loved - so very loved, so very lucky. I am enough. And my story is not over.

"Butterflies are self-propelled flowers." -- Robert A. Heinlein

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Have a Kit Kat

This is relevant on multiple levels...
Last month I turned 33, meaning that I'm tumbling headlong into my mid-thirties, and on top of that I realized that I have not posted on QE for four months now which, given how much has happened in that time, is both understandable and rather a shame! I'm also always a little reluctant to simply do "update" posts as it doesn't really speak to the experience of being an immigrant and I worry that it's also a bit dull or narcissistic (or both) to essentially just list the goings-on since the last time I rambled about the previous months' goings-on. That said, I am pretty sure I can make this 'Permanent Resident-relevant' as there have definitely been experiences that pertain to being a Brit out of water...

Home is where a certain man is
So, first things first I suppose: we moved house! Buddy and I bought a gorgeous little place in a cute town just north of Charlotte, and have now been moved in since the last week of November. It was a bit of a whirlwind because the process of getting to closing was somewhat arduous. I'm not one to bitch on social media, but let's just say part of the communication chain was... broken at times! Luckily we had the most amazing realtor who helped us through it all and got us the house at a great price, too. Realty in NC is totally different to back home: it can take months and months to close on a house in England (even with no chain), whereas my experience here is that it can take as little as 4 weeks to sell one house and buy another! On top of that, the realtors get a bit of a larger cut, but work incredibly hard and are extremely knowledgeable - making it worth the extra, in my view. I think we looked at close to 20 properties, but kept coming back to the one we are lucky enough to now call our home. Moving day turned into moving week, as I knew I had to empty a whole house and Buddy a whole apartment, and then on top of that we had furniture from both places, too! Family and friends were kind enough to give up their time and lend us their arms, vehicles, and driving skills, and we managed to have some semblance of normality established before the next big adventure.

Our return ride from Innsbruck to London
We'd not been in the house much more than a week before it was time to pack a bag (or two), drop the dogs off with their Auntie Jess, and head off for our almost month-long partial-surprise trip to Europe. I say "partial-surprise" because everyone but my mum, whose 60th birthday was the primary reason for the timing of our visit, knew we were coming. My dad, who is a preposterously excellent planning machine, had been organizing this birthday spectacular for over a year. We managed to pull off the whole thing without her finding out for this entire time, and Buddy, my brother Sam, his wife Wren, and I (plus some of our closest friends and family) actually rocked up in Austria, where my parents were ostensibly on a couple's weekend to celebrate Mum's birthday, knocking on their hotel room door when she was expecting room service. It was so wonderful to be able to be with Ma, and my family, as well as to be back in Europe/England for three whole weeks AND show Buddy around where I'm from. I don't want to bore you with individual anecdotes (but if you want to ask me about the beauty of Austria, the private jet, the view from The Shard, and seeing beloved humans of mine for the first time in three years, I'm more than happy to giddily ramble away about those and all the other things!), but I have uploaded a few photos from the trip on the QE Facebook page in an album here should you wish to peruse our winter break shenanigans at your own leisure.

All in all, being home was wonderful because of the people I love and the general feeling of comfort I get being around social norms I've internalized for most of my life. The outstanding feeling, though, other than joy and gratitude for such magical adventures with treasured loved ones, is knowledge that my home is definitely in North Carolina now. While I happily relaxed into amused observations of pub culture, queueing, regular sized meals, and mediocre-to-moody wait staff, I feel my home is in not in England any more. Many of the people I love are and for them, as well as my background, education, and views, I am grateful to be from England. But my home is in Charlotte.

The X-Ray of B's leg,
taken about 1.5 hours after the fall
We got back to the States, our new house, the dogs, and a semi-normal work routine (I was still on vacation as the State schools are closed during the Christmas period) a couple of days before Christmas Day. Buddy went straight back to work, and I got to get the house ready for us actually living in it. Half of our stuff was still in boxes in the garage, and we'd not exactly decorated for Christmas...! We planned on spending lunchtime on the day itself with family, and then coming back to our place for our first Christmas in our first home together.

Well, you know what they say about best laid plans... And this is where the terrible second 'break' pun comes in: as we were leaving B's mom's place on Christmas Day, carrying gifts down the front yard which was extra muddy thanks to the unseasonable and crazy amount of rain North Carolina had experienced throughout December, Buddy slipped while lifting a toolbox from the house to the car, landed awkwardly on his left leg, and everyone in the vicinity heard an unmistakable "pop" as he came to a halt, toolbox thankfully thrown to the side and not landing on top of him. We knew immediately that there was a break involved, but the hour between getting an ambulance, getting into the ambulance, arriving at the ER, and getting pain medication dispensed and X-Rays taken felt terrifyingly long (to me, to whom it hadn't directly happened!) as we weren't sure how bad the break was.

It turns out that it was both good and bad - if indeed a break can ever be good - as although Buddy had a spiral fracture of his femur, it was a clean break, and so could be pinned back together with a surgically implanted titanium rod that very afternoon. The break happened just after 3:00pm, and he was out of surgery by 10:00pm (they gave him time for food to digest and there was one urgent case ahead of him with his designated surgeon). The staff at the hospital couldn't do enough for us; I was allowed to stay in his room with him 24/7; and his care was consistent and kind. He had physiotherapy in the hospital - we stayed for three days - and had further at-home appointments scheduled for him to ensure he had adequate support and information while he healed.

He's already driving again. :) 
We are now just over five weeks on from that day, and it feels pretty weird to say that. It's been a long road, but it stretches longer still in front of us. I don't want to speak for Buddy (or his family for that matter) but, while it has been a physically and mentally extremely trying time for him, I have to say I've continued to see the amazing man he is through all the pain, frustration, stress, and anxiety an injury like this causes. He's been truly heroic. We've also been incredibly lucky to have amazing family and friends - and in the latter category, several who showed up at the hospital on Christmas Day to be with us and check in on him - who've been supporting us by changing plans to come over to see us, digging us out of the snow when that happened last weekend, sending Buddy books and games to keep him occupied, checking in with both of us via phone, email, text, or just a silly photo message to see how we're doing, cooking meals for us, forcing me to go out and take a break every so often, running errands, walking Bertie and Satine, and a million other things we won't be able to thank you all enough for. For those of you reading, please know that you are so appreciated and it has made all the difference.

So that, dear readers, is about me updated! I am sure I could do a follow-up post about how health insurance played a part in our excellent (and not totally unaffordable) care at the hospital versus how things might have gone down with the NHS, but for now I could do with a Kit Kat... ;)

Saturday, 24 October 2015

And now for something completely different

Sick day chic
This would be my post-Festival survival, post-Jamaica wedding awesomeness, mid-really-quite-poorly post that I'm finding time to write because I'm on a self-imposed quarantine weekend so that I might be able to beat the cold/acute sinusitis I've been battling for the past three weeks. It's been a riot.

But seriously, what a month! October has mostly absolutely rocked, and we've not even got to 1026 yet! I started getting sick right at the beginning of the month and just put it down to a seriously crazy work environment in advance of our 40th Annual International Festival (40 years!), plus intercontinental planning of a surprise bachelorette (hen party), travel to Jamaica, and house hunting with Buddy. I also had a job interview - which I sadly didn't get, but it was still good to push myself! - so it's been a busy few weeks. As it happens, I actually left it too long for "just a cold" (doc' says after a week of no improvement with colds you should get checked out), so despite how fit and healthy I am, 2+ weeks of mucusy grossness meant I developed sinusitis which, in my professional opinion, sucks harder than a new Dyson. I'm now on 2000mg of Amoxicillin a day, which is kicking my ass, but I seem to be on the mend with 2.5 sick days and this weekend consisting of 50% sofa time and 40% bed time (the other 10% is walking the dogs and/or bathroom breaks - not simultaneously, of course).

Going to Jamaica to see my Neldie Chris marry her lovely Ryan was magical. That's probably the only word for it. I got a great, adventurous vacation with my sister/roomie, and to see one of the most important people in my life marry the most important one in hers. Below is a selection of photos from the long weekend, because I really do lack words to do the levels of joy justice.

I also got to travel abroad as a Permanent Resident for the first time ever, and used my passport and Green Card to traverse the airports of Charlotte and Montego Bay and back. I even got to use the 'U.S.' line in Customs on my return! It was really more exciting and reassuring than I had realized it would be, so that was a really nice experience.

You can see from the photos linked at the beginning of this post that the International Festival was a roaring success. Our whole office was an absolute powerhouse in the weeks leading up to the event, and there's a definite sense of accomplishment now it's done (although we're already gearing up for International Education Week in November and then the Great Decisions series next year). It's wonderful to be part of such a committed, passionate, and inclusive team.

As for the house hunt, I'll update when there's something solid about which to update! While things are certainly happening, until we have something lock, stock, and barrel, I'll be keeping schtum about our adventures in realty.

Finally, I think I achieved a necessary #BritGoal last night, as I managed to find myself meeting John Cleese and Eric Idle. I'll say that again: I met John Cleese and Eric Idle. We actually had a conversation with them, because they're real people and really rather fantastic! (Anyone who knows me knows I hate to try to meet people after shows - especially Brits. I feel like I'm asking them to work overtime, and I get super awkward and apologetic.) Jess and I went to the 'Together Again At Last... For The Very First Time' tour when it came to Charlotte yesterday and, as well as seeing 'The Penis Song', 'Bruce's Philosophers Song', and 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' live (to name a few), we got to enjoy an evening of conversation, jokes, and banter between the two Pythons, and then were lucky enough to catch John as he did a brief autograph round on his way to the tour bus, and Eric because he snuck up behind the crowd and ended up having to "shush" Jess because she almost outed him. So, I'm pretty sure we just won at life!

And that, dear readers, brings us about up to date. I shall now return to my sickness sofa, which is currently 2/3 covered by canines, and deal with this silly illness of mine. After all, 'tis but a scratch. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015

They say love ain't fair, but I'm doing fine

I am sat at the Wine Vault, reviewing my lesson plans for the next week and doing a few other adulty things (paying property tax, checking emails, looking at mortgage rates, making sure the dog walker is booked, and other such grown-uppery), as well as some less necessary but fun stuff like looking at house listings online and reading this week's Post Secret.

I am happy. I am so very happy today. And I need to remember to write about that. Because whether it's an hour, or a day, or even (fingers crossed!) a whole week, being happy is to be celebrated and enjoyed and noted.

I've had an amazing anniversary weekend with my wonderful boyfriend. The fact that it's been a year since we decided (slash he told me he'd kind of already told a few people, ha ha ha) we were "official" is mind boggling in and of itself, as it's flown by. And yet so much has happened, changed, and been experienced, together and individually. And he really is amazing. We make the best team and I feel so lucky we found each other.

It would be possible to write more, about him and us, and about life here being as blessed as it is. But I think it's about time that I just admitted he makes me this happy. I know I'm more than fine as and by myself, just me. Crazy-anxious, energetic, anally retentive, generous, diligent, dedicated, nervous, passionate, loyal, stubborn, sensitive, caring, and resilient. All just me. But I also know that having him as a partner, him loving me, and us being us has made me joyful in a whole new way. Thank you for that, my love. You are the missing piece. Here's to many more years on our team. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Underground, overground

I am pretty sure that anyone who follows the QE Facebook page will have already seen the glee-filled photos posted earlier this week, but last weekend I got possibly the biggest and best surprise of my life: my parents showed up at my local. Just casually strolled up to the window, held up two Womble cuddly toys to it (Orinoco and Madame Cholet, if you were wondering) and waved at me with them. Because they'd "popped over" for a couple of days. As you do...!

Please enjoy a) the still chosen for this video; b) the utter shock on my face; and c) the fact that I simply hand off my things (wine, handbag)
to Buddy and Jess and RUN at my parents. Standard Rogerson greeting.
Thank you to Austin for this footage!

The cheeky sods had been planning this since April, along with Jess and then Buddy to make sure my schedule was free and that I was kept in the dark. On top of this, all my wonderful friends, as well as the entire staff of the Wine Vault, knew what was going on. I could not really get any luckier with the amazing people in my life, and I don't quite know how I'll ever thank you enough for one of the best weekends I've ever had.

Once the initial shock had worn off (and we had calmed our nerves with some much-needed bubbly), I got to spend 48 hours with my beloved Mum and Dad, and it was just absolutely wonderful. I had no time to prepare emotionally, so I was simply overjoyed. Magic.

Saturday was a the busier day of the two, but it was still very relaxed. Mum and Dad came over and we drank all of the tea (of course), and then we and Buddy headed over to NoDa for a late lunch. The afternoon was spent with our generous and lovely friends Austin and Maedchen (as well as Jess and our friend Jamie) out on Lake Norman, followed by a dinner all together in Mooresville. It was an absolutely amazing day! In particular, the lake and being on the boat was especially wonderful as it's a place I find an immense amount of peace and delight. Sharing that with Mum and Dad was very special.

No huge wonder why I love it so!

Sunday was spent in the University area, and Mum and Dad were up (and at the Wine Vault!) before Buddy and I were even out of bed. We meandered over and grabbed some food and cocktails at Bar Louie, before spending the afternoon and evening outside on the Wine Vault patio. As well as more of our amazing friends, Buddy's wonderful mom and sister joined us, and our families got to meet each other for the first time. Yay! My heart was ridiculously happy.

Family. :)

Not only that, but I was able to share the beautiful music that Jared plays at the Wine Vault every Sunday, too. I've often commented - especially to Dad, as we have a deep, long-term, and shared love of the 'Graceland' album - on how wonderful his Paul Simon medley is, and I'd also previously mentioned to Jared (who has a website - check it out!) that his playing that makes me feel a little bit closer to home when I'm missing my folks particularly badly on any given (Sun)day. He's since been kind enough to sometimes even wait for me to arrive before playing it, which is just so lovely! But this time, I could sit with Dad and listen, and dance with my Mum. Perfect Sunday - done.

I would write about how hard it was to see them leave on Monday morning, and how the wrenching in my chest continues today, but that much I think is obvious, and it will happen whenever we part ways simply because of distance and time between visits. I love my parents so very much, and being so far away from them by choice (however good of a choice for me that is!) comes with some seriously conflicting emotions. But the important thing is love, and the joy that love brings not only when we're together, but just knowing we're family. That won't ever change. This visit was an absolutely incredible surprise, and I am overjoyed having been with Ma and Pa, even just for two days. Thank you both, and thank you to everyone who made it happen. Ah! This life.

Wombling free.