I wish I could say that when I got home from Chestnut everything was great but that would be a lie. It was about a year, a job, and a fifty pound weight gain until I found my path to recovery. To be completely honest, the night that it happened I was really stoned. I went into a pretty deep pot head phase when I got out. Whatever, I was twenty, it happens. Anyway, I was sitting at my desk journaling on my old laptop and I had this crazy vivid vision of myself skinny and happy. I knew that in that moment I was seeing what my future could look like. It was almost as though the Universe, God, Higher Power, or whatever you’re comfortable calling it, knew that I needed the reassurance of knowing if I really tried this time I was 100% going to succeed. Whatever it was it worked, because the next morning, I woke up officially on track and miraculously stayed that way without even the smallest misstep for over two years.
People always ask me how I did it, what diet and exercise regimen I used, and how I found the strength to keep going. There are certain questions I can answer and others that are still so elusive to me I don’t know how to verbalize them. The weight loss question is an easy one. I ate 1200 calories a day, worked up to running a mile on a treadmill five days a week, and had an amazing therapist. I became the master of recording and tracking my food and knowing off the top of my head how many calories were in what I was eating. It took about a month, but eventually I found myself completely shocked at how effortless it had become. They say it takes twenty-one days for something to become a habit. I am living proof that this is true because very quickly my diet stopped being a “diet” and became just a part of my life. I turned it into this fun little game with myself and once I had all of the knowledge I needed, it became so easy I didn’t even notice I was doing it at all. Food, which had completely ruled my life in every way for as long as I could remember was no longer in control.
At the time that I decided to start losing weight I was in a life or death situation. I still weighed nearly 300 lbs., I was still binging and except for when I was at work, was alone and in bed in front of the TV. I had been trained in nutrition and knew all about things called “exchanges”, which is a system that they use for diabetics to keep track of their food. Exchanges made no sense to me. I understood them in a hospital setting where things were pre laid out, but as far as real life was concerned they just didn’t translate. But the idea of having a number to add up to as a way to maintain your food intake was appealing. So I decided, based on my knowledge of how many calories you need to eat in order to lose weight, to start counting them. It saved my life. More than that, it worked. But it wasn’t exactly healthy. You obviously eat some healthier foods because they are lower in calories. But was I getting the right nutrients and vitamins? No. Were a lot of the foods I was eating highly processed and filled with fake sugars or chemicals? Yes. I had no choice but to cling on to what worked for me because I needed a life boat. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it to anyone else, unless of course they are in the same situation I was in. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.
The question about strength is a little harder to explain. The truth is, the thing that kept me going was the same thing that has kept me going from that moment I agreed to go on medical leave from SVA; faith in myself, my future, and the Universe. That, and a great sense of humor. No matter how low I got, even when I was downing a bottle of pills in an attempt to end my life, I always was able to see some glimpse of hope. I may have ignored it because I didn’t know how to grasp it, but it was always undeniably there. I honestly believe that it is there in everyone. You just have to be willing to accept that all good things take work. Even the things that seem to come effortlessly. If you take the time to sit and think about it, you will see that you actually did some hard shit to allow that greatness to come to you. Most importantly, learn to laugh. When things seem so ridiculously bad, just laugh. Because really, life is hilarious.
The more weight I lost the happier I felt and the happier I felt, the more I began to question my reliance on the fifty pills I was given every day. In the past I had stopped taking my medicine and gone into a downward spiral, but things felt different this time. I had never been this healthy before. Possibly it could have been a dumb move but I started to wean myself off of my medication until, for the first time since I was fourteen, I wasn’t on anything. Exercise took the place of Lithium and thankfully for me it was a success. I waited until I had been in a really good place for a long time before I told my parents. My therapist supported me but I didn't know how they would react. Surprisingly after the initial shock wore off, they agreed with my decision. The proof was undeniable. I was doing great without them.
I had spent so long wearing my diagnosis as a badge of honor. It was how I defined myself. But as the weight and pain melted away I started to question if I ever actually was Bipolar. I really believe that what I had been experiencing was Post Traumatic Stress. Because once I started taking care of myself and dealing with my trauma, my symptoms became more and more manageable and I no longer needed medicine to make them that way.
Close to a year after getting out of Chestnut I got hired at a Starbucks on Long Island. It sounds so silly and probably would only make sense to someone who's ever worked at one, but that job gave me three things I needed in order to get better. One, it taught me responsibility and showed me that I had a strong work ethic and two, it gave me structure. I had spent my whole life being untrustworthy and unreliable and it wasn't until that job that I was able to see how capable I was of reaching my full potential. Fulfilling my daily tasks there, however menial they were, gave me confidence and made me feel like I had a purpose. I cared so much about doing a good job, because doing a good job meant standing up against my old habits of half-assed laziness. I was creating new patterns and much like my diet was surprised at how quickly working hard became second nature. In less than six months after being hired, I was promoted to a supervisory position. For the first time ever I was able to prove not just to myself but to the people in my life, who had watched me struggle for so long, that I was going to be a successful functioning adult. It was huge.
The third thing Starbucks gave me was community. After years of being terrified of one on one interactions or any form of social activity, I finally started to re-learn how to talk to people and make friends. It took a little time but being in that setting forced me to stop getting paralyzed around someone new. Part of the job was creating relationships and if I really wanted to prove myself I had to come out of my shell. Also, working with someone and not being able to hold a conversation is just brutally painful, so it was time to get chatty. I couldn't believe it, but people actually liked me and thought I was funny. I was being pushed out of my comfort zone and it was the greatest thing to ever have happened. I wasn't just getting to know new people, I was getting to know myself. It was the first time I felt a sense of identity beyond my illnesses, problems, and weight. At a certain point I realized I felt happy. Really, truly, happy. I was having fun and was able to really laugh for the first time in years. Finally, I felt free and confident enough to be silly and ridiculous me. In the two years I worked there I lost over 160 pounds and gained a sense of self. A few years ago a book came out called “How Starbucks Saved My Life”. The man’s story is completely different than mine, but I related to him on such a deep level because that is exactly how I felt. Getting hired at Starbucks saved my life. Without that job I honestly don't know if I ever would have gotten my life back.
About a year after I stopped working there the store that I had worked for was shut down. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and as soon as I heard what was happening I came home to help my former co-workers and friends say goodbye to this place that meant so much to us. Even though it had been a long time since I had been an employee or even lived on Long Island, it still broke my heart. The Elwood Starbucks was a second home to me. It was the place where I grew up and learned how to be myself. It was where I shed my guard in the most literal sense and just as I was moving on into my adulthood it was being taken away. As I helped tape paper over the windows I realized that this part of my life was over. My safety net was officially being pulled out from underneath me and it was time to take what I learned there and move forward into the next phase of my life.
The capacity to succeed is within each of us. I mean honestly, if I can do it, anyone can. We just have to stop running away from our problems. All that does is cause more pain. It isn’t going to be easy and it is forever going to come in waves. The twelve step saying is true, you gotta take things one day at a time. It was, and is, a daily process, but as long as I am able to envision my future, the option to give up is never in existence. To this day, the moments that I have fallen into my disorder are the moments that I have lost sight of that.