How Do You Measure a Year?

Content Warning: disordered eating, excessive exercise, and self-harm


I’ve been working on this post since December 30, 2016. It’s time to share this aspect of my story even if it’s making me shake as I write. There will be more time to unpack and reorganize my thoughts later. The beauty is in the imperfections. The beauty is in naming my lived experience even if I’m scared. Thank you for reading.


2016 was a remarkable year – literally.

As I was reflecting, I realized that for someone who isn’t very good at math, I did a whole lot of mental gymnastics and complex calculations in 2016. I measured nearly everything – even when I didn’t realize I was doing it.

So, in that spirit, to reflect on 2016, I’m asking, “how do you measure a year?

Really though, what’s going to make a difference when you look back? What matters for days, weeks, months later? What’s memorable enough? What’s quantifiable? What’s not quantifiable that’s still important?

I could measure 2016 by the number of Tweets I posted, the number of good things that happened, the number of bad things that happened, the number of times I didn’t feel guilty about the food I was eating, the number of amazing conversations I had, the number of trips to the ER, the number of friends I lost, the number of friends I gained, the number of pounds I lost, the number of miles I ran, the number of times I dropped everything because someone needed me, the number of dollars I spent on therapy, the number of hours I spent in therapy, the number of articles I wrote, the number of “accomplishments” I earned, the number of days I over-scheduled to occupy my mind for every single waking minute, the number of fights I had, the number of moments I actually felt present, the list could go on, and on, and on, and on.

The truth is, it’s a miracle I made it through this year, and I’m not sure how I did it. I was crazed and compulsive, and my brain NEVER shut off! I mean it. I woke up exhausted from how many ideas and conversations my brain entertained while I was “sleeping”.

Control

In 2016 I was out of control; even though the one thing I felt like I could count on was control.

Control for me is the ultimate goal. Perhaps it’s because I can recall so many times when I didn’t get to be in control of my life [read: abuse & chronic pain – although I can’t get into that right now]. I always fight my environment and circumstances to feel in control; it’s comforting, reliable, and trustworthy – except not really. It’s actually so deceptive. It’s a made up, abstract concept. Control reveals it’s malicious self when I’m not looking. When I feel like everything is finally manageable, the perception of control laughs in my face, and shows me how wrong I actually am [read: every excuse I ever had about compulsive exercise and not being hungry – more on that soon]. Control is a falsity. It’s a mirage. And, since I’m compulsive I literally get trapped in a vicious cycle of catching and chasing control. Striving for control manifested in a lot of ways for me in 2016. Since as early as I can recall needing control, I can identify how almost all of my attempts to ascertain control were various forms of self-harm.  Most recently, it looks like excessive exercise and compensatory, disordered eating behaviors. Craving control isn’t glamorous, and any threat to that poses a likelihood for a compulsion to kick in – a false sense of manufactured control.

Running

I started measuring 2016 by counting calories and miles – obsessively [Thank you Under Armour You Vs Year Challenge] . I ended the year the same way. I ended 2016 weighing myself twice a day, working out 6 days a week, eating one full meal a day, and purging when I felt too full or overwhelmed. I spent 2016 calculating how many miles I’d need to track to erase every indulgence, and every slip of self-control. I ended 2016 feeling “okay” if I ate the same thing every day, and being both proud and fearful every time I lost more weight. It was never about weight, size, or body image; it was always about control. I ended 2016 convinced that these behaviors were typical and not disordered.

In 2016 my identity was contingent on my accomplishments; my identity was consumed by how far I could push myself [read: attempting to run a half marathon while being malnourished and completing an intensive one year Master’s degree while working four jobs]. I tracked my the miles I ran (see below), and if you ask me I can tell you how my mileage totals correlates directly with the chaos in my life.  When I felt most out of control, I ran more. It was so simple.

capture

Side note: Melissa A. Fabello suggest it’s bests to “Never, Ever  Use Numbers” when talking about fitness on social media. While I tend to agree and realize it can be triggering, I’m using numbers right now. I’m using numbers to illustrate and own my experience. I’m using numbers as literal data to tell my story.

I once described my feelings about running like this,

 “pounding the pavement, counting each step, each throbbing step. Endure, push through, don’t stop. Determination.  Thud, pound, pound, breath, keep going, don’t stop, sigh, sigh…”

I’ve also described running like this,

“I started running because it was the most brutal, ruthless, clearest way, aside from being a competitive gymnast, I could think of to tell my chronic pain that it isn’t in charge. Running is how I’m reclaiming my body. When I’m running I’m in charge. I’m strong, powerful, and triumphant.

I channeled my mileage into training for two half marathons. The first race, I ended up in the hospital. I said I didn’t care, but I cared a lot! I was convinced I could push through anything but, my body had a different reality. If I was healthier, stronger, and had better intentions, I would have finished.There was a disconnect between my mind and my body. [Side note: There still is.]

So, the second time I trained for a half marathon, I trained smarter. I decided to think about food as fuel. The second time, I did finish! That was an accomplishment in 2016! In 2016 I  ran more than 1000K! I ran nearly the distance of 24 marathons, and with each crazed, obsessive step I gained clarity, pain, agony, energy, and strength – depending on the day.

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At the finish line of the Cambridge Half Marathon  – 11/13/2016

I ended 2016 both in denial and with a plan to tackle these perfectionist driven behaviors, and dangerous habits. I ended 2016 with a plan to be stronger – both physically and mentally.

I should mention here that living with OCD and overcoming compulsions or obsessions is not a linear process. I’ve had several bouts of compulsions in my life, and even if I’ve resolved one, it’s likely another will reveal itself or I’ll relapse – this is super context dependent (I learned this in 2016). Acknowledging this is a really important step.

Education

In 2016 I graduated with my Master’s degree. Now I have two degrees – count that! I am among the nearly 9-12% (depending on the source) of people in the U.S. who hold an advanced degree. That’s pretty cool.

I also got a job! I love my job, and I love getting to say that I’m a researcher! My team is an amazing group of nerdy, collaborative, intelligent people. Each day my strengths are recognized. I’m trusted and respected. Our work is important. I feel productive and valuable. I feel empowered and supported. I’m appropriately challenged, and I’m always learning new skills. I feel happy at my job every day (even when it’s stressful)- that’s a relief. I am so lucky!

Many people have asked me if I think that graduate school was worth it especially because I love my job and learned so much, and most often my response is overpowered by  my own ambivalence. Usually I don’t even want to be entertaining such a question. However, if I’m being honest, I hated graduate school. I have been working through a lot of issues such as complex traumaimpostor syndrome, and anxiety because of it. I do not think that it was worth it. Merely surviving should never be the objective. Although, it’s always an accomplishment. As much as I try to convince myself it wasn’t “that bad” the more I listen to my friends and recall several of the worst nights of my life it’s tough to deny how severe it was. I wouldn’t say that struggling for a year, being suicidal at times, and acquiring an eating disorder as a result of my unrelenting OCD was worth it no matter how amazing my job is now. In 2016, I learned how academia doesn’t take mental health and self-care seriously, and that it’s too easy to pretend you’re “fine” even when you’re struggling immensely.

Writing

In 2016, I also found and joined feminist writing spaces. In first publication on Ravishly.com I came out as asexual. I recognized my values and my identities were reflected in the topics other people were writing about.  These writers and activists exemplified for me how to elevate and insert my voice into important conversations. My queerness is not the most prominent aspect of my identity, but being queer and owning it afforded me both a sense of connection and exclusion. The connectedness was electrifying. The exclusion made me feel enraged and small. And so, I wrote!

I was enamored with the connection and the energy! I became addicted to saying things, and having them matter to someone. I wanted to be seen, and to belong. I wanted people to recognize my identities, relate to me, and engage with me! My feminism burst out of me once I gained knowledge and started writing, and allowed myself the privilege of being recognized for and confident about who I am, and how my life works. In 2016, I became a writer, and found my voice – which I still think is really cool!

Awareness, Acceptance, and Action – Next Steps

I measured 2016 in events, logistics, and numbers. I allowed my emotions to be in charge when they made sense and they were manageable. Otherwise I silenced them. I convinced myself most feelings were too big, and too intrusive. I learned to retreat instead of express myself. In 2016 I mostly felt complacent – which felt good. Conversely, I often felt out-of-control happy, out-of-control sad, out-of-control angry… and those feelings didn’t feel good. I learned that numbness can be an everyday, acceptable feeling, and that being numb can carry you for a really long time.

I’m still doing the work to recognize, respond to, and feel – literally – what emotions feel like. Sometimes that means getting on a soap box ranting about how frustrated I feel when women at my office complain about the actual, never-ending supply of candy, and the perpetual body shaming and food shaming. Sometimes that means saying when someone hurts me, and calling them out even if it’s uncomfortable. And sometimes that means, recognizing when I’m happy, and sharing that joy with others!

The point is, once I started allowing myself to feel, I allowed my opinions to be valid, and spent time cultivating self-awareness – including learning about myself and my opinions about feminism. I realized there were so many injustices that made me absolutely livid inside, and I charged toward advocating for justice and equity. I also gained some personal insight into what emotions mean for me – which is definitely a work in progress.

I rounded out 2016 by signing a lease for an apartment in Cambridge, MA. I found a wonderful, accepting community of social justice minded, Jewish, young professionals to share Shabbat with. I am in love with the intellectual capital and the culture of Cambridge. I’ve enjoyed sharing the camaraderie of running in this compact city! When I’m feeling really good, I’ll even admit there are a lot of incredible restaurants to try too! I’m excited for the opportunity to thrive in a new, invigorating space.

I could measure 2016 SO many ways. I did measure 2016 SO many ways. Now, in hindsight, I’m finding it most helpful and fulfilling to measure 2016 by recognizing all the opportunities for growth and all the potential for the coming years. I’m happy. Really. I’ve got a good thing going for me right now, and I have an incredible amount of hard, hard work ahead of me.

2017 will be about embracing being simultaneously a masterpiece and a work in progress! I’m ready!


If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

If you struggle with self-harm, the you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

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“Change is the only constant in life.”

I’m a completely different person than I was a year ago.

I guess you could say, I’ve matured. You could say that I grew up. You could say that I’ve entered full-fledged adulthood – whatever that means…

I’ve overcome challenges. I’ve become more introspective. I’ve whatever… this boils down to: I’ve learned an incredible amount!

I’ve always been a “process over product” girl. I thrive off of the opportunity to learn!  I appreciate most the experiences that garner ripples of knowledge, and layers of impact that, in some cases, I’m still realizing the effects. My mental endurance and, exemplified, agility drive me to crave knowledge and information. I want to uncover the “why” and the “reasons”. My refusal to quit and inability to stop fuels me each day! Naturally, to me, the journey toward clarity from chaos is exhilarating. In fact, in hindsight, all the experiences that have been the most influential for me were also the most challenging; those experiences taught an inexplicable amount.


Before I proceed, I’m going to briefly recap this past year both to give context to this piece, and to own it for myself.

I graduated, and left a school where I was thriving. I spent nearly every day for four years feeling on top of the world. It was amazing. I felt unstoppable. I left everything I knew, and everything I loved. I left what felt safe, and supportive, and leapt, basically unwillingly, into something that was incredibly risky, ambiguous, and into something that I wasn’t sure I would be any better for doing.  I left my mentors and friends for a glamorous name, and what I expected would be the next best step for my personal and professional development.

I had such high hopes too! I wrote, “it’s okay to be scared. I hope this fear will actually fuel me to make the most of this opportunity rather than cripple me. And, if my past experiences could inform my next steps, I’d say that based on those outcomes, and how influential they were for me, Brown can have just as big of an impact.”

AND, it had a huge impact. AND, I was miserable. I was absolutely miserable.

After months of struggling silently I found respite, and strength in writing, some amazing friends, and a hefty dose of much needed therapy. I jumped into my own uncharted space. I started to connect with myself, and others in a really vulnerable, and public way. It’s been hugely influential to my personal growth, and exploration. The outcome of this past year far surpassed the simple, although not so simple, accomplishment of getting to May 29, 2016, earning my Master’s degree, and being done with school. I longed for that commencement day; I yearned for this year to be over fast, and for time to travel by at warped speed.

And then it was over. As I anticipated, and wished for, it was as if I was traveling too quickly down a hill in my car, and I pulled up on the emergency brake right before my car flipped. It was just over. The danger was gone, and in front of me possibility glistened. If I could do this, I could do anything. There is no doubt in my mind that this year was one of the most difficult in my life.

This year, I struggled with claiming my sexuality, achieving my professional aspirations, abandoning and admitting to several variations of self-harm, losing friendships, and family feuds – to name a few. I wouldn’t listen to my friends; I lost so many friends. Yet, I had no idea how to even begin to navigate these challenges. It was scary, dark, dangerous, and lonely. I didn’t crave the solution, I craved the end.

It’s only been a short time, and I’m already noticing that I’m in such a different place. Some days, I can’t believe I ever experienced that depression. [Side note: crazed journal entries don’t lie – it happened. It all happened]

At the end of it all, I, now, stand corrected. Leaving UConn was the best thing I could have done! I had to leave to learn how strong and capable I really am!

I’ve regained my feeling of invincibility. I truly feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. I learned that it’s okay to be terrified because we grow most from the experience that evoke vulnerability and uncertainty.


I wrote my graduate school personal statement based on this mantra:

 “Do Three Squishy Things a Day You know you are truly leading when you do at least three things a day that make you uncomfortable” (City Year)

I learned to live up to the words that pierced my mind for so many years, and in so many moments. Those words continue to propel me to serve, lead, and learn each day!

I wrote previously, “there’s something to be learned from every experience… We are truly influenced by everything around us and by all of our experiences.” I grew to strive to live by the principles that ground me and, ultimately, in the face of this cascade of challenges, I learned to thrive own my own.

I learned to love, and use the phrase “what I heard you say is…” I practiced actively and reflectively listening.  I found value in really listening. LIKE really, really listening.

A good friend once told me that, in her opinion, good conversations are what college is about. I realized that I don’t need to be the person occupying the most space in a conversation for it to be a good a conversation. With time, even in this new space, I had several more invigorating, thoughful conversations, and continued to fortify existing relationships. I had to be really intentional about it, but it was worth it!

To that note, I learned that my relationships, and the people that I was afraid to leave would stand by me (most of them anyway…). I discovered that relationships are like the tools in a toolbox. They’re necessary to build us up! I realized a good friendship is rewarding and special – it’s a privilege.

Most importantly, I learned the importance, and value of reciprocity and vulnerability. Like a pendulum swinging, I swiftly wavered between not letting anyone in, to burdening my friends with my suffering yet not knowing how to accept their support. Finally, I resided in the middle both valuing my friends’ contributions and conversation, and being valued for my insight and influence too.

I also discovered that if I can identify how I’m feeling in a situation, and allow myself to authentically feel the entirety of my emotions in their context, right when they’re happening, I can be in charge of deciding how to react, and what steps I should take to alleviate the feeling or perpetuate it. I gained emotional intelligence, critical awareness, and intuition. Feeling didn’t have to mean feeling out of control. I found “calm and content”. [Just so you know, it’s WAY different than complacent.]

Before this year, my life was a hectic, hot mess – to be frank.

Imagine the pieces of a package scattered across the floor: the box, the gift wrap, the bow for the top, and the contents – a myriad of shapes and sizes. This year, step-by-step, that package was assembled, wrapped, and tied together with a bow on top! A complete, confident me emerged – looking pretty spiffy, and ready to face my next adventures!

I can’t precisely put my finger on it, but I’m definitely different. And, when I stop to think about my life, I simply feel happy and confident. I also feel proud.

Now, I say things like “there are no counterfactuals in life”, and “relationships are not bound by geography”. I remind people that the biggest regrets stem from the opportunities we didn’t take. I share that the incessant wondering quickly spirals into an interminable game of “what if”. That type of wondering will wear you down to the core of your weaknesses. Some of my weaknesses are vulnerability, change, and ambiguity – I learned this too!

Can you give voice to the areas where your strengths can be capitalized to cultivate your personal growth? Can you recognize how empowering, and exciting that feels to give voice to all the ways you can direct your own positive energy and strength to bolster your  personal journey and self-exploration?