Self-Worth: A Journey Through Paradox Part 1

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PART I

As a woman with a history of severe anxiety and depression, life contains spells of shame and self-loathing.  There can be a heaviness that makes ordinary life seem like climbing everest. As challenges get tough, I used to often find myself thinking, “I will be happy when…”  As a Christian and firm believer in God, I would feel moments of His love like a shining ray. However, those moments were fleeting as I could not see myself as something of value in my day-to-day life.

Going into middle school, I was self-conscious about my weight.  So at some point during the seventh grade, I stopped taking lunch or eating in front of my peers because I was worried that they would assume I was fat from eating too much. I’d eat very little during the day and then be ravenous at dinner.  My parents made comments about me eating too much at dinner, so I felt ashamed. I’d go for as long as possible without eating.

In the eighth grade, I came down with the flu and my life spun out of control.  I missed school and the workload to get caught up became overwhelming. As a perfectionist, I couldn’t see any way to achieve As. I stopped sleeping more than a few hours a day.  Night was met with knots in my stomach and racing thoughts. Daytime was spent on edge, my temper on a hairpin trigger. After being angry, I’d be filled with regret and experience suicidal ideations. My best friend told me that “I just needed to exercise more” and then I’d feel better.  I was alone, in pain, and totally isolated. The only friends I thought I had wouldn’t let me sit at the table, so I kneeled on the cafeteria floor, longing to feel accepted. One day I went to see the school counselor. I withdrew from all non-essential classes and the load was made lighter.  After a trip to a medical provider, I started my first course of antidepressants. My parents bought a plane ticket for me to visit an older sister across the country. My sister helped me overcome my insomnia and be less anxious about falling asleep. While figuring out what to do next, my sister reminded me that there would be no permanent record of any grades before high school.  Therefore, I pulled of As for those classes and let the rest slide.

High school started and I was surviving.  I told myself that I would be happy when school was over.  The pressure from within to turn in flawless assignments and perfect scores was overbearing.  I debated not going to college, even though I’d wanted to be a teacher for as long as I could remember.  My self-worth seemed to be tied to my grades. I hated almost everything else about myself; I thought myself fat and clumsy. My relationship with food became even more toxic as eating began to make me feel ill.  I came down with frequent yet mysterious bouts of flu-like symptoms and missed school frequently. Then I was diagnosed with asthma. My ears became infected regularly followed by courses of antibiotics. I told myself that I would be happy when I was thin and no longer sick because I was certain that only then I would feel accepted by my peers. Finally, at the end of senior year, my tonsils were removed and I experienced a renewed hope.

My dream of becoming a teacher was closer to reality: I was accepted with a full tuition scholarship to a religious private school.  Each class included a prayer, and religion courses were graduation requirements. The structure of the rules and classes helped me thrive in a new way.  I took control of my eating and made choices that included whole grains- something that was lacking in my diet growing up. I began to feel less ill after eating. Slowly I started to lose weight.  I was on track to being accepted! Another visit to an ear, nose, throat specialist helped me understand that I have a sensitivity to chemicals that was causing inflammation. He advised me to filter chlorine out of showers and drinking water in addition to food.  I followed his advice and shortly I was able to exercise because my asthma cleared up. The amount of control that I finally had over my health was like euphoria for a while.

During college, I also started to make better friends.  I tried to use principles from my Christian background to serve and reach out to others.  Most of all, I tried to avoid pride. Everyone had to be better than me. Surely then I wouldn’t be guilty of having a beam while my neighbor only had a mote!  (Matthew 7:3-5)

At last I was accepted by my peers, but I still wasn’t happy. I felt that God loved everyone else but I couldn’t regularly feel His love for me. At the same time, I watched other women start romantic relationships and wondered what she had that I didn’t.  I felt a longing for the acceptance and peace that must come from be loved by a man.

My adventurous side blossomed a little as I picked up Ultimate Frisbee and country swing dancing.  I also took a decent stab at soccer. The ranks of my friends swelled and included a wider variety of men and women.  I was working as a teaching assistant and then in the student teaching office. I’d gone from a size extra large to a size small after losing 90 pounds. I was thin, so I should be happy, right? But I wasn’t always happy.  My emotions were a roller coaster between highs and lows based on my interactions with others. I would be happy when I had a lasting romance, I told myself. But why wasn’t it happening?

I controlled what I could: my eating.  Even though I was a healthy weight, I decided that I needed to be really thin to appeal to men.  I tried to eat as little as possible once again. A bag of goldfish was the perfect guise. A bag had roughly 800 calories- well below the daily allowance for someone my weight.  By snacking on it throughout the day, no one would suspect my eating disorder because it seemed as though I ate frequently. Soon I didn’t even need to eat the whole bag to make it through the day.  Some days I wouldn’t eat anything at all. I considered it a part of my religious zeal to fast frequently yet it didn’t bring me closer to God like it used to do.

Then I got a sickening realization when I stopped menstruating.  It was unexpected since there were plenty of thinner women, and despite my starvation measures, I’d only lost five pounds over the last couple months.  Was I ready to forfeit my ability to become a mother over my desire to be thinner? I went to see a counselor again through the student counseling center.  The first counselor that I met with was a terrible fit. A coworker recommended a counselor who had been a professor of hers. He’d counseled in anorexia hospitals before.  This counselor helped me identify that attachment issues were at the root of my eating disorder and therapy seemed successful.

Student teaching was actually a pretty enjoyable time.  I felt that my mood swings and anxiety were behind me and I powered forward, excited for the future.  Dating was somewhat fun again after therapy. Confidence soared as I was making friends and succeeding as a student teacher.  I had multiple job offers in two different states for teaching. After prayer and consideration, I felt the best about staying in the area and accepting a job at a Title I elementary school.  My health started to take a turn for the worse though as some abdominal pain that had only occasionally bothered me since avoiding certain chemicals became excruciating. Still, I finished my student teaching and returned home to work for a month before starting my first teaching job.  

That summer, I started dating someone but our relationship ended the first week of teaching.  Since I “knew better” than to get depressed by the end of the relationship, I dove headfirst into teaching, now defining my self worth by the success of my students.  I was incredibly driven, often staying at the school until it closed. Although highly motivated, I was not happy deep down inside. My husband and I started dating during this first year of teaching.  He was with me every step of the way as I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. We became engaged, and although I had been rejected by other men due to my health problems, he stayed. I even started slowly gaining weight again in response to temporary steroid treatments for my disease. He loved me but I couldn’t see it at this point because I had deemed myself a liability. Since I loved him, I decided to trust him and we got married that summer.

As a new wife, I was on top of the world at first.  However, little by little, insecurity ate and ate at my newfound happiness.  It started gnawing at the edges slowly. After I became pregnant with our first child, I didn’t have time to be depressed or anxious though.  I was teaching full time, on two school leadership committees, working on a teaching endorsement for teaching English as a second language, serving as a pianist in a women’s Sunday meeting, teaching youth Sunday school, and in charge of the Christmas party for our congregation.  I was experiencing hyperemesis, needing IV fluids, and at one point, a hospitalization for IV nutrition. Although pregnant, I lost more than 10% of my weight in the first trimester. I began to wonder if I was a failure of a mother already, but also told myself that it’d be better when my baby came.

When my daughter was born, I was severely anemic.  Her first few months of life felt like a deep sleep.  I literally slept every moment that my daughter slept-even though it was easily more than 16 hours a day.  Making dinner was a monumental effort that made me almost pass out. My job as a part-time tutor was mentally and physically taxing- I struggled to keep up with the material. For the first time, I felt stupid and wondered if I would ever be good at academics again. When I was finally treated with IV iron, I was in for a rude awakening.  

My life again spun out of control when the upstairs neighbors began smoking drugs that entered our apartment through the ventilation.  I would show up to tutor with bloodshot eyes. My baby girl starting vomiting in response to the polluted air. Insecurity now devoured the quality of the relationship with my husband.  I doubted his love for me more than ever, and we started fighting. I had given up hope of the manager or the police effectively helping us. How would I protect my baby? I wanted to get out of the lease, but my husband wanted things to work out with the complex. I started wishing there was a way to sleep through this nightmare and just wake up when it was over.

We prayed about staying in our current state or moving back to my home state where my family could take us in while we figured out what to do next. Finally my husband agreed to the move, but he had to finish his notice at work.  It would be good to be a resident of a different state for the next round of applications to medical school. My daughter and I went home to my parents 600 miles away while he kept working. Our time apart left me in emotional shambles.  I was totally ashamed of the point that we had reached, and my husband was too. Moving back in with parents, especially after marriage and a child, is humiliating. I had failed at everything: motherhood, marriage, and independence. My desire for life to end kept growing during these months.  Now, I not only doubted the love of my husband, but friends too, and most of all, God.

Continue to read part 2 here

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