Coping with my eating disorder while Hurricane Irene bears down

I am a person with anorexia nervosa who was recently hospitalized for severe malnutrition and dehydration.  When I went in I was in pretty bad shape.  I was in a medical ward for ten days and spent a few days “upstairs where I *belonged*” in the psychiatric ward, which was hell for me.  I was then released and spent eight days on the worst streak of binge eating I have ever experienced.  I went back in voluntarily, spent 24 amazing hours in the psych emergency room, where I did a lot of healing, then went “upstairs” again for a few days, and was released.

I have been pretty much okay.  I am delighted to be out.  Hearing of the storm was just another challenge for me.  In New England we’re due for something I’ve never experienced before.  I’ve seen bad rain, sure.  I think everyone living in the East has.  It can come down in pellets even in the heat of the summer.  It can be dry and hot one moment, and then, 20 seconds before the bus arrives, the sky can open up, and I’m soaked by the time I get on.  Sometimes, an umbrella is just the thing to bring on a bus trip into Boston.  Other times, an umbrella isn’t quite enough because it’s either too windy, and the umbrella turns inside-out (grrr) or the rain is so thick that nothing will protect against it.  On those days, it’s best to leave your laptop and electronics at home.  Some insist that they only need a hood to protect themselves against the rain.  I have never understood this thinking.  My little Puzzle wears one of the 17 or 18 (lost count) wool sweaters I have knit for her.  These are naturally waterproof.  Her fur isn’t.  I, in turn, wear one of her matching wool  hats and we go in style, even in the middle of summer.

But this will be different.  It’s like those winter emergencies we have all the time here in Boston, only it’s summer and we don’t get emergency weather in the summer except for a couple of days when it’s a bit hot out.  I have never been evacuated from my home.  Being a person with a psychiatric disability, that is, I do not have a mobility problem, but what some people call a “brain disorder,” I still end up spending a lot of time at home even though a physical problem isn’t what’s keeping me here.  My home is my home and because I’m here a lot, I cherish it more (I think) than someone who just finds it a place to sleep at night and store food in the fridge.  I haven’t had what folks think of as a “job” for a long, long time.  When I had “jobs,” they didn’t agree with me.  I guess when you think of things you value, “job” isn’t one of them for me.  Work is.

They say mental illness can’t be seen.  Sometimes, on public transportation (here in Boston called the “T”, which, by the way, will be closed Sunday and Monday) you see posters of smiling faces and on the poster is says, “What does autism look like?” or, “What does schizophrenia look like?”  Actually, anorexia nervosa is often a very visible illness because of the person’s extreme thinness.  But you don’t see that on the posters, just in the fashion ads in magazines.

I got online and read all the experts’ advice on how to prepare for the storm.  I’ve done what I can within reason.  Also, I have my own brand of common sense.  There are things they don’t tell you about that you just have to figure out for yourself.  They tell you to stock up on diapers, but they don’t say anything about toilet paper or “feminine” supplies.

Now is the time to think about what “things” I value most and might want to protect from harm at this time, or bring with me if Puzzle and I are evacuated.  Some things that immediately came to mind were my degree certificates, some of the best sweaters that I knitted for Puzzle (I can’t bring all of them), and a few of my old handwritten journals I have from years past (there are over 20 of these and I’m just going to have to pick a few to bring) that will be lost forever if I don’t take them with me.  As a memoirist, I find journals an important tool for writing and remembering.  I also find them useful when I want to learn about my life years ago, and about the onset of my eating disorder.  I have maybe 700 books here, some are quite expensive reference books, that would be destroyed if this place flooded.  There’s nothing I can do about that.  My friend recently gave me a wall quilt she made for me, that is quite lovely and easily packable in a suitcase.

I asked myself: If I have to go to a shelter, I won’t be able to weigh myself, what do I do…I might fly into a panic!  I dared myself to pack the scale.  No, I am not really packing, just packing mentally, but I dared myself anyway.  Instead, I took the scale off the floor, wrapped it in plastic in case this place floods later on Sunday (it’s Sunday already on the East Coast) and put it in the closet. Now, I will see how long I can leave it there, even after the storm is gone and left us, till I take it out again, step up on it, and admonish myself for not being as thin and starved as I’d like to be.

They told us to stock up on food and water.  I have water.  Food, that’s another story.  It’s a tough thing for someone with an eating disorder to deal with food, natural disaster or not.  Even when faced with a life-and-death situation, food is an issue…why?  Because eating disorders, for you idiots out there that don’t know, are fatal illnesses, that is, you can die of them.  Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all the mental illnesses including bipolar disorder and major depression, both of which carry suicide risk.  It’s not just about being skinny and it’s not about vanity.  If it was vanity, I’d toss it aside in a natural disaster.  Let’s say I’d be capable of putting it on the back burner while Irene passed through.

But I couldn’t.  I did heed the experts’ advice, though.  I bought a couple of cans of stuff.  I bought things that felt safe for me.  For the most part yesterday, I didn’t eat much.  But then I started in on the diet soda, and I couldn’t stop drinking it.  I don’t know what got into me.  I just started drinking it and drinking it.  It tasted pretty good, actually.  I drank some water and some milk, and more diet soda.  It was easily two gallons.  Suddenly, I was very, very full.  And scared.  I am not supposed to be doing this.  It’s dangerous, very dangerous.  It can screw up your electrolytes and it can screw up your kidneys.  I was scared because since I have had this disorder for a long time, my system has kind of slowed down, and I know I’m not necessarily peeing right.  I sat there with my belly sloshing around wondering why I had done this dumb thing.  Nothing was coming out.  I figured I’d either pee real soon or throw it all up.  Nothing.  So I waited around.  Nothing.  My stomach kind of hurt.  I lay down and tried to think of other things.  I thought that what I had put into myself had to come out somehow.

Yeah, it did.  A bit later, I was shitting my brains out into the toilet.  I feel much better now.  I could feel better but letting go of it felt kind of liberating.  My stomach doesn’t hurt anymore–well, it does, but I can think straight and not be distracted by it, anyway.

I am 53 years old, no longer in my 20’s.  I can’t do this at my age.  No more mucking around with dangerous stuff.  You can die of this.  You can die of anorexia nervosa.  You can die anyway but it’s stupid to do mean things to your body.  I guess that’s one essential part of eating disorders that’s hard to overcome, the self-meanness part.  It’s kind of built in.

This on the eve of Hurricane Irene’s strike on Boston.  In 12 hours, winds will exceed 30 miles per hour, maybe 40 miles per hour, and at that point, vehicle travel is just plain unsafe.  If you’re going to have a medical emergency, forget it, you’re on your own.  Or that is what I heard.  So now, of all times, is not a nice time to be mucking around with my electrolytes.  Now or anytime.  Ever.

You know something?  I’m thirsty.  I don’t understand why.  I just am.  Maybe deep down inside, I thirst for something else, and can’t put a finger on what it is, and that is why I feel so empty inside, and why life seems to have no meaning to it.  I’m going to go have a drink of water at this point because I know it won’t satisfy or fill that longing even though my physical sensation is very real, my body’s sleight of hand, I guess.

I do remember feeling this way at the onset of my illness, that I’d lost something and was desperately searching for it, and that it was so lost and so deep-seated that I had lost sight of what it in fact was or that it even existed or had existed for me.  I just felt this void, and a deep hunger.  Whatever I had had, I wanted back.  Desperately.

I don’t think you get back things you had when you were 18, or 21, when you’re in your 50’s.  It’s over 30 years later, and life doesn’t work that way.  Maybe I’m wrong.  I’m not going to find it, whatever it was, now.  Whatever I find now, though, was unreachable then, because I was only 21.  So I should consider myself fortunate that I have lived this long.

I want to wish everyone peace during this hurricane.  Just take a moment during your preparations to remember loved ones who have passed, to enjoy cherished memories, to care for your children, to feed and hold your pets nearby.

I am managing as best as I can.  Later, I will call a friend in a different time zone, zone out, and sleep I hope.  I had my modem replaced today (for free).  That’s communication, after all.  Faster.  Better.  More efficient.  Wow.  I should be writing this at lightning speed, maybe running the Marathon next year.  Since getting out of the hospital, I’ve realized that soon, National Novel Month will be approaching, and I would like to get the ball rolling on my paperback preparations and get all that done by the end of next month.  So you will have a bit of hard copy to read next year I hope.

Irene, Irene, Irene.  I think I will share a bit of my chapter, “A Forgotten Line,” from my memoir, which focuses on the character, Irene, in a coming post.  See you then.

Feedback and comments welcome!