Several years ago a friend called and asked me if I wanted to go with him to see a film called, simply, “Milk.”
I like movies in general, and this one sounded innocuous enough. So I said, “Sure!”
I left the theater sobbing.
I was furious with my friend – for inviting me, for not warning me, for reminding me of how deadly stigma and fear can be.
I was furious with the whole world – how could such a bright light be permitted to burn out just when we need bright lights the most?
I was furious, period.
I have never forgotten the movie, and I will never forget what Harvey Milk posthumously taught me.
In his San Francisco mayoral election campaign, Milk exhorted voters, saying:
Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better. [emphasis added]
In the film, he explains his strategy by saying that when someone close to you knows that you struggle with a particular type of issue, they are more inclined to vote favorably on that issue at the polls.
Their inclination has nothing to do with the issue itself, and everything to do with how much they care about you – one single person who struggles with that issue and will be helped by their vote.
In other words, when given a choice, people don’t vote for issues. People vote for people – people they know, people they care about, people they love, people they don’t want to lose.
As you may know, I suffered with anorexia and bulimia for 15 years before I started my recovery work. I suffered with severe, crippling depression and anxiety for another decade beyond that. So approximately three-quarters of my life to date has been spent battling one type of issue or another – and battling the stigma and fear surrounding it.
This has formed my belief that the specific type of issue I have, versus the specific type of issue you may have, versus the type of issue a loved one of yours may have, doesn’t really much matter.
We basically need the same building blocks to begin healing – love, empathy, an open door to share and be heard, laughter, friendship, a way to serve, a willingness to be served, and the awareness we are not – are NEVER – alone in our struggles (even if the names of those struggles may change from one person to the next).
Harvey Milk taught me this.
On that note, I have a very dear friend who struggles with bipolar illness. She is one of my oldest, closest friends, and I care for her very much.
You see, I work from home, so I don’t go out every day.
Last month we were shocked – flattened – to discover our beloved Robin Williams had taken his own life.
I blogged about it the day I found out….and I’m still very sad. I miss him.
Knowing more about the possible “whys” – he had been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s Disease; he may have been struggling with bipolar illness as well as depression; he found aging to be a ponderous and difficult process – makes his choice perhaps less mystifying.
But it doesn’t make it one bit easier to accept.
I will admit sometimes I feel like I should have been asked. “Is it okay with you if I just go now?” I would have answered him: “No. No, it is not okay with me. No one else makes me laugh quite like you. I feel like you know me – even though I know you don’t. Please stay. Promise me you will.”
Watching someone we love lose their battle with depression kindles a bit of that same capitulation in each of us.
I am definitely no exception.
In times like these, I can’t help but remember my first big suicide scare. It was in college. One night the bottom just dropped out of me. I ended up in a local ER. The nurse diagnosed me with a “runaway eating disorder” and recommended counseling.
That night was the first time I’d ever considered there was an “it” ruining my life – that it wasn’t just me screwing things up all by myself.
I felt hopeful, but also very scared. Suicide seemed, well, easier, and certainly quicker, than fixing what was wrong with me.
In fact, the “terrible twins” of cyclical anxiety and depression have stalked me nearly all my life, but I was in my early 30′s (and newly in strong recovery from the eating disorder) before I had enough energy to notice.
Many, many times in the in-between years, I continued to toy with vague notions of suicide. Usually these were couched in the form of remote philosophical queries: “I wonder – just hypothetically speaking of course – if I drove off this cliff, how long would it take before anyone noticed?”
As a traveling marketer living out of state and away from her family and friends at that time, I had many weeks and months on the road to ponder all possible answers.
Later on, as the anxious and depressive cycles widened and deepened, thoughts of suicide became more functional. Recognizing my addictive personality by this point, I was terrified to take drugs (prescription or otherwise), and yet I couldn’t make heads or tails of how to end the unbearable cycling any other way, other than the obvious.
After a long course of neurotherapy treatment, I began to experience some relief from the anxiety.
Then all of a sudden the depression worsened again. Neurotherapy didn’t help this time.
Finally, through a truly strange series of twists and turns, I began to take anti-depressants at last. This was three years ago.
I can’t help but find it oh-so interesting that, just a few days after posting my thoughts on the relative value of online quizzes, I encounter another quiz I really want to take.
Although here I feel that perhaps the deck is unfairly stacked against me.
You see, Jane Goodall, one of my heroes and mentors, happens to be the latest in a long line of luminaries to answer this particular quiz.
And Marcel Proust is the quiz’s long-passed yet still celebrated author.
I loved Goodall’s responses. For many of the questions, a simple switch of “parrots” for “chimps” and her answers could be my own.
Not that that means I could resist taking the quiz for myself.
In fact, I have decided I will take the quiz right here…..for reasons including these:
It is awfully hard to believe he is gone.
I am so very sad!!
In a recent Facebook post about his death, Williams’ friend, writer Anne Lamott, shared how sad she is, and also shared how she has always viewed laughter as “carbonated holiness.”
As a fellow depression sufferer, I too have found much-needed upliftment and release through laughter….and often through laughter at Williams’ antics.
He had that rarest of gifts – the vision to perceive exactly where the fine line lies when addressing serious subjects from a lighthearted perspective.
Two of my favorite Robin Williams movies are “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Good Will Hunting.”
But my current reigning favorite is this six-minute interview clip from 2011.
In the clip, Williams speaks about his work, his life, his kids, his childhood and young adult years, his fame, his addiction, his recovery…..and his fear.
This month has been a month of interesting contemplations …. specifically, about the costumes we wear and how we relate to ourselves and others when those costumes look different.
For instance, my brother and his wife recently added a new little one to our all-Caucasian family – a sweet, brave, chubby Chinese infant who just set foot on American soil for the first time last month.
In the same month, one of my dearest friends has returned home to Houston to build a counseling practice supporting LGBT kids, teens, and young adults.
And my personal dreams lately have been full of memories of my long journey away from anorexia and bulimia and towards fully recovered life….a journey I consider to be still “in progress.”
So when I happened across a recent article in Time that focused on the plight of transgendered persons in America, it hit me right in the heart.
As I read about how transgender, transvestite, and transsexual individuals have been mis-addressed and mis-labeled through the DSM (the Diagnostic Standards Manual – a worldwide “bible” of sorts for diagnosing and treating mental illness) it reminded me of my own struggles with how eating disorders in the DSM have been repeatedly re-labeled and often mis-labeled, and how that has affected my experience of seeking support, treatment, and recovery over the years.
One line in the Time article especially caught my attention – a comment by women’s and gender studies professor Elizabeth Reis (University of Oregon):
Most people are happy in the gender that they’re raised. They don’t wake up every day questioning if they are male or female.
The article continues with author Katy Steinmetz commenting:
For many trans people, the body they were born in is a suffocating costume they are unable to take off.”
Over the years I have talked with and met so many folks who can relate – but not because they are “trans” in some way that is specific to body parts or gender.
Some of the people I’ve met who feel trapped in a costume they didn’t order and so they want a smaller costume. Others want a larger costume. Some people want a costume that is shaped differently. Still others want a younger or older costume, or a costume that comes with a different story, life, partner, or family attached to it.
In some way, we all feel “different” – oh so very different – inside our “costumes.”
Right now I only get two magazine subscriptions.
Birds and Blooms was a gift to my avian from his doting grandma (aka my mom).
Time was yet another attempt to use up those expiring airline miles.
While you can probably already guess which one I find easier to read all the way through, Time does have the occasional newsworthy highlight.
For instance, this week’s edition shared the passing of an Austrian painter named Maria Lassnig.
Lassnig was an artist who spent much of her career exploring the felt experience of existing within a body (a style she termed “body awareness.”)
I found this quite intriguing!
In fact, I’ve been pondering Time’s little blurb about her for the last week or so. The question on my mind is this:
What DOES it feel like to be in a body?
Recently I finally got to watch “The Dallas Buyers Club,” starring two of my fav actors – Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner.
First of all (and just for the record), Matthew McConaughey will always be hot.
Not quite as hot as STING, but still quite hot.
Second of all – oh. my. goodness. what an actor he is!! If I hadn’t seen his name on the credits I would not have recognized him. And what courage it must have taken to alter his appearance so drastically – to literally embody a role of a dying man – and still emerge with his sense of personal self intact.
I was also so impressed with Jennifer Garner – for her acting, of course, and for having the good taste to choose such an important role, but even more (and on a very personal level) for her clear and present ownership of her new post-motherhood curves.
I loved her in “Alias,” when she perfected all those karate moves I can’t even pull off in my dreams (and rocked the abs to match)….but I loved her even more in this recent film, in her softer shape that spoke of body love and acceptance at every point along the ever-changing continuum of shapes and sizes.
I am not always (ever) the first to catch on to new trending news.
For example, let’s take the 25 year-old singing Italian nun, Sister Cristina.
I discovered the video on You Tube last week….after about 31 million others had already discovered it (a number that I have since discovered includes every single person I know who has an internet connection, and also some who do not).
But since my life motto is “better late than never” I still sent it out to everyone in my list group – just in case.
It is just that good. And I don’t mean just the singing (which of course is awesome).
But it is her presentation – her life – her authenticity – that continues sinking into all the sore, bruised, broken places in my heart and spirit, bolstering me for daily life yet to come, reminding me that there are no “impossibles” in this life.
There are only “possibles” we haven’t tried yet.
A friend recently sent me a post called “When Your Mother Says She’s Fat” by author Kasey Edwards.
The post was hard for me to read – painful, too.
This is because I had a similar experience with my own mom growing up.
One night she and my dad were going to a party, and she looked sooooo pretty to me! So I told her, “Mom, you are beautiful!”
Her response was less than reassuring. While I don’t remember the exact words she used, I did get the distinct sense that she disagreed with me – that perhaps I had even somehow embarrassed myself with my lack of correct perception.
In my assertion that I saw my mom as beautiful, I had made myself vulnerable, and received criticism rather than appreciation in return.
It was also jarring to realize that, as her daughter, this meant I was not beautiful either – or at least, I was destined not to be as I grew up into a woman.
As a girl I loved to copy drawings of beautiful faces and clothes line-for-line out of the magazines, relishing my ability to recreate loveliness on paper.
But after that night, my girlish art hobby soon turned from a source of sensory delight into a fretful fantasy that maybe one day, if I just changed enough about myself, I might be the gorgeous woman being drawn instead of the copy artist.
I never did manage to achieve that goal.
Instead, I got sick, and then sicker. And then I grew up and realized that “beauty,” like talent and intelligence and all the rest, is both an inside job and a wholly subjective assessment. I also realized it was a choice I would have to make for myself – whether or not to see “me” as “beautiful.”
Just the fact that there is such a phrase in use today – the “anorexic brain” – makes me realize how far medical science has come since I first contracted anorexia as an 11 year-old in 1981.
Those were dark days – no longer was a person who refused food automatically incarcerated in a general psych ward – but neither were they ushered straightaway into treatments tailored to their specific needs.
This, of course, was because there were no treatments tailored to the needs of anorexics….or bulimics, for that matter, or persons suffering from binge eating disorder or eating disorders not otherwise specified or any types of eating issues.
But today, thanks in large part to the work of Dr. Walter Kaye at the University of California-San Diego, and Dr. James Locke at Stanford University, we are staring into the face of an exciting (and long awaited) new era.
With the help of brain imaging research, we are beginning to understand what kinds of treatments make the most sense to help people heal from irregular eating patterns. This imaging research shows clear differences in brain activity when the brains of persons who have suffered from eating disorders are compared against the brains of non-eating disorders persons.