Food Stamps Saved my Life

Recovery is expensive. There are appointments with counselors, dieticians and primary care physicians, all of which require co-pays.  There are the monthly bills that come from the treatment center where your recovery received a jump start.  On top of that you have your welcome-back-to-the-land-of-the-living-bills like rent, utilities, and student loans.  We never talked about how expensive recovery was going to be while I was in treatment.  I wish we had.

Before I went to treatment, I had a good job. It was the kind of job that came with a title, a salary, and an arduous schedule.  It was a job that I could have never sustained while putting in the work that maintaining recovery, specifically recovery in the earliest stages, requires.  Consequently, after I left treatment I decided to take a full time job that paid significantly less but offered both a comprehensive health insurance package and a schedule that allowed me to maintain my appointments with my outpatient team.

I had been out of treatment for several weeks when the first round of bills came in. I paid my electric and water bills.  I received my first full paycheck and was able to cover rent.  For a brief period, my financial situation seemed manageable.  Things began to slip however and I soon found myself struggling to keep the number in my checking account above zero.

Confused as to why this was the case, I sat down with my receipts and came to a shocking realization. I had not budgeted for groceries.  As odd as this may seem to someone who has not struggled with anorexia, it never occurred to me that I needed to create a line item for food in my monthly budget.

This oversight left me in an ironic position. I could either pay to see my dietician or pay for groceries.  Things were literally that tight.  Going to treatment and moving into recovery was supposed to help me put my life together, but the financial vulnerability I encountered in the months following my discharge left me asking myself if it all been for naught.

Prior to leaving for treatment I began attending 12 step meetings. It was a practice I continued after my discharge.  As I sat in meetings I would hear the same question posed again and again.  The question was, “Are you willing to go to any length to obtain a life in recovery?”  As I was sitting in a meeting one night, it occurred to me that, if food was the cornerstone of my recovery, then I would need to go to any length in order to ensure access to it.

I had never been on public assistance of any kind before, but I knew what I had to do. The following day I filled out an application for food stamps.  The application was accepted and I was handed an Oregon Trail card.

There are a lot of stereotypes about people who rely on food stamps. Few are flattering.  People on food stamps are lazy and uneducated.  They should work more and buy less expensive food.  I heard all of these things.  They were said by people I know.  People I love.  People who had no idea that I had an Oregon Trail card in my wallet.  I never said this to them then, but I’d like to say it now.  I was sick.  I needed help and I’m grateful it was there.

The act of “going to any lengths” takes many forms. Though it has been inactive for a very long time, I keep my Oregon Trail card in my wallet as a reminder that, in order to maintain recovery, I need to reach out and ask for help when I need it.  Doing this will require humility.  Doing this may make me insanely uncomfortable.  Doing this may very well save my life.

I am Enough

I am enough. These three words appear in memes on social media.  We fling them around in the recovery community and silk screen them onto shirts.  While in treatment, therapists shared them, fellow patients repeated them and encouraged me to apply them to myself.  With a flip of a pronoun they altered the phrase and turned it into a mirror, one directed squarely at me.  You are enough, they said.  You are enough.

The fact is, when I was sick, these words made absolutely no sense to me. Anorexia had whittled away my body, yes, but it had done something far more insidious.  It had whittled away my sense of self worth.  It did this by isolating me from friends, destroying romantic relationships and even incinerating my career.  How could I, someone who could not hold a job down or a relationship together, be enough?

When I stepped out of treatment and back into the vestiges of my life, I looked inward to find a sense of self-worth. These words became my mantra.  I am enough. I am enough.  I reasoned that, if I repeated them enough times, perhaps I would come to believe them and when I did, they, and the sentiment they reflected, would sustain me in recovery.

The results of this exercise were abysmal and I ended up returning to treatment not once, not twice but three times. After my third and final go, I realized that I needed to do something dramatically different.  Relying upon myself and looking inward simply wasn’t working.  I decided to turn my gaze elsewhere.  I began looking at the world around me and began asking myself, how do I fit in?  How can I contribute?

I would like to be able to insert a dramatic story here, one in which I went overseas and was part of an international relief effort or perhaps selflessly leapt in front of a large, swiftly moving vehicle and saved a three legged, one-eyed kitten from certain death and, in the process come to understand that I have the ability to affect positive change in the world around me. Sadly, I don’t have that story to tell.  Sadly because such a story would be a good one, and if there’s one thing I love, it’s a good story.

The tale I have for is this. I was walking down the street and saw a flyer on the window of a coffee shop.  It advertised a writing workshop, one that took place deep in the heart of the Eagle Cap wilderness in Eastern Oregon, where I was living at the time.  It was a workshop for individuals interested in writing for children and young adults.  I enrolled in the workshop and spent two days doing nothing but writing.  I wrote in pen and pencil.  I even wrote in crayon that weekend.  I wrote and I wrote and I didn’t stop, not even after I returned home.

I began attending a critique group and volunteered to read with a kindergartener at the local grade school once a week as a part of the Start Making a Reader Today program. When I was at the grade school, I listened as children told me why stories mattered to them.  When I participated in my critique group and eventually began attending conferences, I listened to authors as they talked about why they wrote.  What they shared made me laugh and sometimes, it made me cry.  It made me do something I hadn’t done while I was sick.  It made me feel.

It made me feel more connected to the individuals and to the community around me and, in the process, I began to feel more connected to myself. It became easier to smile, easier to laugh and the space that used to be consumed with thoughts of calories and numbers and the 101 reasons I didn’t deserve to take up a single inch of space in this world were replaced with my own poetry and original stories.

It was through a sense of connection to other people and to my community that I began to realize my worth as an individual. Alone, I am not enough.  But as a mother, as a teacher, as a writer and an activist, I can see myself as a person of value. I can see myself as someone who is part of a greater whole.

Burnside Bridge Redemption

You might mistake him for Ziggy Marley
Jesus that is
At least I did
When I saw him walking up the sidewalk in Low top Cons
Soles the color of erasers

He stopped when he got to us
Three girls
Backs to the wall
Inhaling clove cigarettes

He asks how we are
We say fine
Which is a lie
But he doesn’t mind

He sits down on the sidewalk
Because we are
And looks
But it doesn’t feel bad
At the tattoos and belly rings our too small shirts show

I offer him a smoke
He shakes his head no
Coffee, he suggests
And nods in the direction of the convenience store
Across the street with windows painted black
And bars
On the door

There was a rainbow painted there
Before the black and the bars before
Got shot
And the store changed hands

It isn’t his fault
I hope he knows that

But the thing is
I’m hung over
And my head
It hurts when I talk
So I’ll just have to hope
He knows

I close my eyes to the too bright sun
Open them
To a man in loose
Loose coveralls and a tie
He switches the black plastic trash bag holding
His life
From one shoulder to the other

Pancakes? he asks
An invitation to breakfast at Sisters of the Road Café
And then socks
Socks because it’s Saturday and the church ladies give them away in the park
In front of the fountain
Still-in-the-package-new socks on Saturdays

I notice Jesus doesn’t have any socks when he stands up
And takes the trash bag from the man to carry like it’s his own

Come too, Jesus says
But we can’t
Or don’t
Which is fine

Because it is enough just to know that five minutes from now
They’ll be eating
Jesus and his friend
Eating pancakes with sweet cream butter and drinking coffee from thick white mugs

It’s enough that I know that after the pancakes
There will be socks
On the feet
In the shoes
With eraser colored soles.

My Other Birthday

Today is my birthday. It’s not the kind of birthday that comes with gifts and a cake ablaze with candles, it’s the bittersweet kind.  It’s a day that catalyzes a deep sense of gratitude for all the people who took risks on my behalf when I was sick.  It’s a day when I look back on the years I lost to anorexia and allow myself to grieve.  It’s a day when I take an inventory of my life and am overwhelmed with awe at all it has become.  Today is my recovery birthday.

Recovery birthdays are tricky things for people with eating disorders. Unlike individuals struggling to overcome substance abuse, there is no single moment when we decide to put down our drug of choice.  Instead, our recovery is a journey comprised of steps that bring us closer and closer to doing something that most people do every day without a second thought.  Eating.  Rather than abstaining, our recovery involves partaking.

It is for this reason that the act of choosing the date for a recovery birthday for someone with an eating disorder is personal. I chose the day I left treatment for the third and final time.  Since then I have discovered a great many truths and, each year, on this day, I reflect on them.

  • I still spend a lot of time at the doctor’s office. 
    I really thought this part would end after I left treatment, but my struggle with anorexia had medical consequences that I will have to deal with for the rest of my life. For example, every year I have a DEXA scan done. This entails sitting in a waiting room populated by individuals much older than I am. It means that a technician will look at me, and then at my file, trying to make sense of the number that is my age in relation to my last T-score. These appointments serve as reminders as to why I need to remain vigilant in my recovery.
  • Life is triggering.
    I can attempt to insulate myself from triggers, but they are everywhere. They come in the form of comments, photos, films and even songs. Rather than avoiding them, I now gather whatever support I can find and confront that trigger head on. If I don’t, it will surface again and again.
  • Self-care can be wonky.
    The things I do to protect myself don’t make sense to everyone. For example, for a long time, I did not have any mirrors in my house. I did not even have one in the bathroom. This is something people commented on when they came over. Sometimes I explained my lack of a mirror, other times I didn’t. Recovery is worth it and I must be willing to do whatever it takes to maintain it, no matter what anyone else thinks.
  • Think outside the box.
    Nearly two years passed after I left treatment before I wore a swimming suit in public for the first time. When I did, it was at a pool during a lap swimming session. Everyone, with the exception of me, was 55 years of age or older. No one in the pool cared what I looked like in my suit. This was liberating. I have had the most success overcoming challenges in unlikely places. Consequently, I now push myself to be creative as I think of ways to move forward in my recovery.
  • Do not rule anything out.
    Recovery has been nothing like I thought it would be. It has been more challenging and more fulfilling than I ever thought possible. I hope to celebrate many more recovery birthdays and will embrace the truths that each one brings.  After having been sick for as long as I was, I didn’t think I would ever have a child. My daughter turned four last spring. She is the love of my life. Last February she sat in the audience as I celebrated the launch of my first book. She has since traveled with me as I have given recovery talks, led workshops and done readings. I am now a writer, a mother and a teacher, three things I would never have become had I remained sick.Recovery has been nothing like I thought it would be. It has been more challenging and more fulfilling than I ever thought possible.  I hope to celebrate many more recovery birthdays and will embrace the truths that each one brings.

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