From the Inside Out

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Moving Forward

The days after my last session with Andrew were rough. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I just closed myself off in my room. I wanted to be left alone. My world had shattered and everyone around me just kept living and moving on like everything was the same. I continued to email Andrew, but his responses were coming in fewer and fewer.

My life the first few weeks after Andrew reminded me of the scene in the Twilight saga’s New Moon. Edward left Bella for her own safety. Bella was devastated after she left. For months she would send Edward and his sister Alice emails, and each email sent would come back as undeliverable. Though my emails were getting to Andrew, his lack of response felt like rejection. Bella’s nightmares increased after Edward’s departure; mine did too after Andrew’s. It was like I had to endure a never-ending cycle of missing him during my waking hours and being tortured by his absence while I slept.

One nightmare that was particularly cruel was one in which I would find myself driving to meet Andrew for our appointment time. I felt like I passed the same stretch of road over and over again. I was stuck in a loop but none of the other drivers in their cars seemed to be aware. I was anxious because I feared I would be late. I had my hands clenched tightly on the steering wheel at ten and two. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally made it to my destination. I opened up the door and walked up the flight of stairs to make it to my appointment. When I reached the door to the office, I opened it and discovered the place was dark. All the lights were out. I walked in anyway and just as I was at the door to Andrew’s office, Tony, the owner, asked me what I was doing there. I turned to look at him and I asked him where Andrew was. Tony looked at me, a bit of confusion and sadness on his face, and told me, “He’s gone.” “Gone?” I repeated. “Where did he go?” Tony would just turn and walk away. Again I asked, “Where did he go?” and then I stood in the darkness. I was alone, and Andrew was gone forever.

Desperation set in pretty soon. I was emailing Andrew still and he’d stopped responding. I felt my heart being ripped out for a second time. Crystal tried to reassure me. “He is probably doing what he should have done in the first place. I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but he is doing what’s best for you. He probably now realizes how much you care for him and he doesn’t want to hurt you. I’m so sorry that you’re hurting though, Karen.”

Deep down, I knew Crystal was right. I knew that I was no longer Andrew’s problem and he wasn’t obligated at all to talk to me. I didn’t think I was anyone special; I just wasn’t ready. I had this person in my life, this man who was never inappropriate with me, who helped me to not hate myself as much as I did. He saw me beyond my mood swings, depression, and other issues. He saw me beyond my weight. He saw me as just another human. He believed in me, he tried to help me believe in myself. He saw positive things about me and would often verbalize them. He thought I was intelligent, a good mom, he thought I was creative and a good person in general. And I never had to trade any sexual favors for him to think those things. Yes, I’d paid him, he had a job to do, but I truly believe that I know him well enough to know that he would think those things about me even if I wasn’t paying him.

Because of Andrew, I was able to finally report abuse that was happening to me. I remember calling him just minutes before I had to come forward and tell what I had been going through, and just like in the days leading up to it, he encouraged me. He told me I could do it. He was proud of me. For the first time in my life I was able to tell someone that someone else was violating me, making me feel unsafe and uncomfortable, and Andrew was there for it all.

I couldn’t count how many times I’d read that people who don’t come forward after an assault or abuse are to blame for others who are subsequently victimized by the perpetrator. So, now not only were survivors left with how to heal physically and emotionally, they were now guilted with having to come forward or have someone else’s assault on their conscience. I often wondered when society had become comfortable with blaming the victim. It was done with bullying––the victims of bullying are told “get over it,” “it happens to everyone,” “grow thicker skin.” And with victims of assault, “report it or it didn’t happen,” “it’s your fault if he does it again,” “you must have enjoyed it if you won’t say anything.”

Andrew never passed judgment. Had I lost my courage to come forward, he would be there for me to help me learn how to cope with yet another instance of victimization. But because of his guidance, I felt strong enough to come forward, and every step of the way I felt his unwavering support. How was I supposed to be OK with giving all of that up? I would have to go back to hiding who I really was. I would have to go back to pretending that I was OK. I would have to go back to lying. How could I find someone else to open up to the way I had done with Andrew? It took me going to therapy for nearly sixteen years off and on before I found someone I felt safe with. And now here I was, alone and vulnerable, having to start all over again.

Starting over was what I knew I had to do. The only alternative was to give in to my thoughts of killing myself, and as the days after Andrew turned into weeks, my safety was in serious question. I looked online for ways to end my life that would seem accidental so that I could spare my mom and my twins the heartache. After extensive research, I chose using the exit bag method. It seemed like the most ideal way to go. No pain. Just falling asleep for eternity. I worried how my mom would afford my funeral, and how she would get by financially. I had life insurance, but would it be enough?

These conflicting thoughts caused me to lose sleep at night. I decided to give therapy another try. I just had to deal with the fact that Andrew was gone and he was not coming back. I tried going to a community mental health clinic. It was the worst decision I could have made. The therapist I was willing to see didn’t accept my type of insurance and the company didn’t have a permanent therapist so I would have to give my information as many times as they changed therapists. Not to mention that they did a lot of teletherapy there. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of doing therapy with someone you didn’t have to actually sit in front of sounded like a good idea for me, but it made little difference if I had to see them on a screen. I even tried e-therapy on BetterHelp. I had an amazing therapist but it was just too expensive to keep up.

Besides, the only thing I ever talked about was Andrew. I would talk, then cry. I felt foolish crying because no one understood just how much I was hurting. I was told things like, “Your relationship with Andrew wasn’t real.” Or, “You shouldn’t still be mourning the loss of Andrew eight months later. Even married couples who end up divorcing start to heal after six months.” I didn’t give a shit how soon other people got over the loss of relationships. How I felt wasn’t an ordinary loss of relationship. I had no sexual attraction to Andrew. In fact, if I had, it would have ruined what I felt about him. I didn’t even want to kiss him intimately. A friendly peck on the cheek? Sure. But that was it. I would often imagine me spending the day with Andrew, and going to a park, or a museum, or to the movies, or to a festival. I imagine going to art shows, to poetry readings, or traveling to places with scenery that looked fit for postcards. That was it. To me, things that were entirely innocent. To others, weird, nonsensical inappropriateness.

I disagreed about the inappropriateness, but I did know that ethically, it wasn’t OK. That was why I hated my feelings. I couldn’t ignore them, and trying to be OK with these feelings and just let them exist just ate me up inside.

My feelings turned scary when I found myself doing things that I knew weren’t right. I knew that had Andrew known, he would probably never speak to me again. He would probably feel violated, and rightfully so. The Internet is an amazing tool, but it’s also an enabler for people like me. Lonely, depressed, and desperate. I visited Andrew’s professional Facebook page that was outdated. I knew that he had to have a second page where more personal information existed. I wouldn’t stop until I found it. It took a few weeks, but after a little digging and following breadcrumbs from different sites, I found out what his personal Facebook page was. I tried to look at pictures he had of himself and his wife. I couldn’t even look at his face in the pictures. I didn’t even know why. I thought how pretty his wife was. I wanted to be her friend too. I found out her name, because I snooped. I looked at her Facebook page every day. It was on her Twitter page that I found out that they’d welcomed a new beautiful baby girl in August of 2015. I discovered all of this information by stalking him. What had I become? Why would I do this? I felt like I was betraying him. I was. I knew I was wrong but God help me, I didn’t think I could help myself.

I finally found a therapist to see. Coincidently, it was the same therapist that my insurance wouldn’t cover, so I decided to see him and self-pay. I wanted to be honest with him. He appeared to be around my age, or close, which helped. Also, I didn’t know if it was because of Andrew, and subconsciously I was searching for an Andrew Part 2, but his being male helped. Even though Andrew hadn’t been my first male therapist, it had been the first time it worked. I would see my female therapists as extensions of my mom and I wanted to be seen as perfect and good so it was hard to tell them anything that would ruin that perception I wanted them to have of me. I figured that I would see if having a male therapist was what I needed to make therapy work for me.

Danny was no Andrew, but he was good in his own way. Danny often asked me what made Andrew so great to me. I would tell him how intelligent he was, and really, he was. He knew a lot but didn’t come off as condescending when talking about things. He was incredibly kind. He was compassionate and he was so funny too! And while I realized I’d only known the professional side of Andrew, what I did know was not many people went into the field of therapy unless they had kindness and compassion as characteristics. There were always exceptions to the rule, but I could feel it when I was with Andrew. I felt his kindness and empathy. He hardly gave up anything personal about himself, and I knew that was a therapy tactic so I did fill in a lot of the blanks myself, but I knew Andrew had some sort of anxiety issue. I picked up on it. There was always a point during our sessions where I would see him fiddle with the curls in the front of his head. It was cute and it relieved me because I also fiddled with my hair or my hands when I was anxious. I had a hard time giving Andrew eye contact, but that was how I was with most people anyway.

I also struggle giving Danny eye contact and oftentimes I ask him not to look at me, and he obliges. I like that. I know that I lack healthy boundaries, but I am practicing. When I am uncomfortable when I am having sessions with Danny, I tell him. During difficult times, Danny is cool with me bringing Reginald with me into sessions. Reginald is my stuffed oversized dog that I sleep with. Reginald protects me. If Reginald can keep me safe from my nightmares, I figure he can keep me safe during my therapy sessions.

Danny also knows I am able to better express myself creatively so sometimes we play emotion Jenga. It’s a game of Jenga, but on the wooden blocks, different emotions such as fear, happiness, sadness, hope, etc. are written, and whichever emotion you pull, you have to talk about a time where you have felt that emotion. We also play Sorry!, and so far it’s 0–2, Danny. But one day, I will win. I’ve seen Danny for fifty sessions already, and I still talk about Andrew. The difference is, I went from talking about Andrew incessantly and getting choked up as I recalled every feeling I ever felt during our sessions as I replayed things he’d said in my head over and over like a broken record––I would read the emails and responses I had with Andrew every day, so much so that I could recall it all in my head without looking at them any longer–––to now being able to think about Andrew without it hurting me physically and emotionally. I stopped looking at his Facebook page. I also stopped looking at his wife’s Facebook and Twitter page. This wasn’t me, and I didn’t like feeling like I was doing anything bad to Andrew.

One thing I liked about Danny was that he tried to understand my feelings for Andrew. And when I came clean about how I was basically stalking him, he didn’t make me feel as bad as I felt. He still treated me normally, even when I didn’t think he should. It was still unimaginable to me that I could still be treated decently despite my mistakes. As the weeks went on, I started to feel more confident with my sessions with Danny. I will admit, there are times when I contact Danny and try to cancel sessions, or times when I try to quit therapy altogether, but Danny always helps me to understand what triggers me to do that. It’s always at the time when we are making ground and moving into new territory that I want to quit. It’s my coping method. When I am afraid, I want to run. I want to run as far away as I can away from the person who is threatening my sense of safety and security. Unfortunately, I don’t run when someone is physically threatening my sense of safety and security, but when my emotional security is in question, I protect that with my life.

Seeing Danny and missing Andrew kind of helped propel me into a different direction too. I needed Andrew to be proud of me, so I threw myself 100% into things that would improve my life. I joined a Facebook group called 60 Days of Happiness by Amber Snow. There were daily and weekly tasks that we had to complete and we were held accountable for it. I took it seriously and I wanted to complete the two-month-long group. I received valuable tips and suggestions on how to find happiness. There were five things we had to do daily. Things like posting things we are grateful for, doing a short daily workout, praising or thanking someone every day, and things like that. We had weekly assignments to do, etc.

I also made friendships there with people who were also in the pursuit of happiness. I know being social online is different than going out and socializing, but––baby steps. I knew a big reason why I avoided people was because I feared how they viewed me. Besides, any time I had to go anywhere, I would pray they had chairs without arms, or worry, if they had booth-only seating, would I be able to fit? I worried whether anyone would be ashamed of me because of how I looked. My weight was always at the forefront of my mind. I used my weight as a cloak and yet it left me entirely exposed.

I started exercising daily. I even revisited the surgery option. Back in 2010 I’d signed up for gastric bypass surgery. I wanted to have the surgery because I wanted to change. I knew that change wouldn’t happen without help. Believe me, I tried. I had the cardiology consult and I went to the required class. During one meeting, I sat all the way in the back of the class. There were about ten people going through the process and there was enough seating for probably twenty-five. As always, I was the youngest, yet largest person in the class. I was aware that the instructor was staring at me. I felt uncomfortable. I tried to convince myself that it was all in my head and that maybe she wasn’t actually staring at me.

During a break in her presentation, and just as she was about to introduce her guest speaker, who happened to be a psychiatrist who had had the bypass surgery eleven years earlier, she looked at me and said, “I am sorry I keep looking at you, Karen, it’s just that you’re a very pretty girl. I can’t get over how flawless your skin looks. Doesn’t she look beautiful, everyone?” And, taking the cue of the instructor, everyone turned around and looked at me. If I could have melted out of my chair and out of the door, I would have. I was mortified and embarrassed.

At the conclusion of the class, many of my classmates said things like, “Wow, you are beautiful” and “You are going to be gorgeous once you lose weight” or “You’re going to be a diva when you are skinny.” None of those well-meaning comments made me feel better. One of the absolute worst was, “When you drop all of that weight, men won’t be able to keep their hands off of you.” That comment played in my head the whole fifteen-minute ride home. I lost focus on why I wanted to have the surgery so I gave up on it.

I could kick myself because had I done it back then, I would be five years post-op and probably several hundred pounds thinner. I tried again just this year to restart the process, but I don’t qualify due to my documented eating disorder and the fact that I have unresolved mental health issues. If you ask me, anyone who is several hundred pounds overweight will have underlying unresolved mental health issues. It’s not laziness that gets someone to the point of severe morbid obesity. Food only comes into play as a comfort. You can’t stay away from food like you can alcohol and drugs. You need food to survive. You can’t avoid food. I tried. I failed. I’ve been on diets.

I actually lost seventy pounds in three months on Weight Watchers three years ago. Then I was out food shopping with my mom and listened as two teenage girls and an older woman, presumably their mom, basically followed me around the store making animal noises and commenting on how fat I was. My mom realized after several aisles what was going on and she cursed them out. But it was too late. The damage was done. Even after a seventy-pound loss I was still seen as less than them. I gained back the seventy pounds, plus thirty-four more.

I also tried out for Extreme Weight Loss with Chris Powell and his wife Heidi. Candace drove six hours to Atlanta, Georgia, for an audition. The year before I hadn’t been chosen after sending in a video. I reached out with a letter to Chris Powell, and nothing. I didn’t get chosen in Georgia either. I tried again the following year; still, nothing. I joined a group of others who applied and didn’t get picked. I wanted to be among others who understood the struggles of weight and the desperation of being willing to go on national television to be mocked just to get help in losing weight.

Then you have those who lose a bunch of weight on their own and then go back to tell others, “I didn’t get picked for the show, but I didn’t sit around and wait for Chris to save me, I lost the weight all by myself.” And while I am genuinely happy for anyone who comes out of the weight fight on the other side, it’s disheartening how quickly people forget what it felt like to be so low. To feel like despite your best efforts, you know you need outside help. And when you reach out for that help, suddenly you are seen as weak. The only online presence that I know who hasn’t acted that way is Tony Polanski. The same guy who helped my children’s bullying story go viral. He lost over two hundred pounds and not once has he ever made anyone feel like because he did it, you can, or you’re not trying hard enough.

It took me a while to figure it all out. For years, I’ve had an unhealthy relationship with food. I have an eating disorder. I need help. I would go to the doctor with a sore throat and be told that if I lost weight, my throat wouldn’t be sore. I would have random people walk up to me and tell me that I am a pretty girl, but that I should do something about my weight and soon before I die. I’ve had people in my own family make fun of my size. I’ve had kids yell things at me or stare at me and point at me. I’ve tried starving myself, I’ve tried Slim-Fast, low-carb diets. I’ve exercised until I felt dizzy and faint. I’ve tried Weight Watchers, all liquid diets, etc.

It wasn’t until I’d been turned down three times from being on Extreme Weight Loss and turned down from having gastric bypass surgery that I had an epiphany. I was like a used car. A bad car salesman will do exterior work to repair the bumps and dings and scratches on the car to make it appealing to potential buyers. They may even reupholster the interior and give it a good vacuum. But underneath the hood, the engine is shot and the transmission doesn’t work.

All of these years I’ve been trying so hard to change my outside, to make myself presentable to society’s standards, to stranger’s standards, to male standards. I wanted to change my outside but nothing I did was permanent and it only made things worse. I would wear makeup and nice clothes to distract from my size. Make myself appealing. But the reason none of these changes helped was I was still very broken inside. I hated myself. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror or hold eye contact with anyone besides my own children.

I will never be able to get control of my weight until I fix the issues that caused my weight gain. I shouldn’t have to hide who I am to make anyone else feel comfortable. I am allowed to live, to think, to have opinions, to fucking say NO! I don’t have to give up my dreams, my ambitions, my boundaries, and my right to say no. I have a right to live while I am working on me. I am a work in progress and sometimes for every step I take forward, I take three steps back.

One day, I won’t take so many steps backward. There will be days when my progress is completely forward. There will be days when I have to remind myself to fight for life. I will have to remind myself that I am not what happened to me. I am more than my mental illness. I am not a doormat. I am allowed to cry when I am hurt. I am allowed to laugh. I don’t have to hide. I don’t have to apologize for existing. I will get out of my own way and live. I will love myself in spite of my weight, of my past, of my mistakes. I will be able to look at myself in the mirror and feel confident. I will be able to do this because I know that in order to love myself, I have to take care of myself. I will take care of myself for the first time in my whole thirty-five years. To care for myself, I will have to begin from deep down within me. It will be painful, but worth it. I know now that in order for me to change, I have to work from the inside out.

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