Behind all coping mechanisms there is a story of heartbreak. All stories are different, and yet the knowing that in sharing our stories it can help others to connect and feel less isolated, can too help us to heal. Here Ivy from New Jersey, USA, tells us how she still struggles to make sense of her ‘wild experiences’, but that’s okay because; “Spirit always provides an inner strength that survives every disaster. Spirit says that I must not disappear, and I have a choice” …
Alcoholism, financial struggle, and fighting between my parents intensified. A month after we had sold our house and seven of us were living in a small 2 bedroom condo, my mother disappeared. No notice, just gone after a terrible fight. Older siblings fled. My 9 year old brother, me, 11, and our father were abandoned without a clue. My father laid in bed for days and my brother and I had to fend for ourselves. Lonely and afraid, I went to check on my dad one afternoon. Lying in bed he said, “I don’t think I can go on anymore.” That was the first time I had ever heard an adult, someone who I thought was unbreakable, so bereft that he told his 11 year old that he didn’t want to live. The terror of losing both parents wounded my soul.
No sign of my mother until Easter Day. She mailed us each a box of chocolate. No phone call, no contact for months, I got this box of chocolate in the mail, surreptitiously filled with jelly. I always hated the jelly filled kind. A thought crossed my mind that maybe she sent me the kind I didn’t like because I was too fat, hoping I wouldn’t eat too many. Even though this wasn’t true, I felt like it was, and no one was there to convince me otherwise. As I remorsefully bit into the first chocolate from the mail and unexpectedly tasted this awful jelly pouring out, it was as if mom had sent me an edible weapon. My insides melted and poured out just like the terrible jelly.
My self image started to affect my emotional well being. I used to be a skinny kid with no worries. Then all of a sudden, I realized I looked and felt different, and my family was falling apart. My physicality became linked to my emotional environment.
Before my 12th birthday, mom still missing, I went to the bathroom and discovered I had started menstruating. I had never had the talk with my mom, and my teenage sisters were not very involved. My oldest sister threw a pad in the door. I never used one before. I clumsily put it on. Off to school, I entered womanhood ashamed and dejected.
My poor self image started to replace my sense of self. I was now the chubby girl in the mirror, embarrassed of what anyone saw when they looked at me. I felt others’ gazes and immediately calculated in my mind what they saw, wanting to disappear. This lead to body dysmorphia, which became progressively worse over the years.
Begin bulimia. It took hold gradually, but soon I was able to purge most of what I ate just by bending over. By age 14 my parents were back together. We had a new house. Same underlying family problems resurfaced, but I had managed to get thin and built a social life that helped me escape. Admittedly, the thing that made me feel better was not just my parents and the new house. They still worked all the time, were miserable together and emotionally unavailable. What really made me feel better was the reflection in the mirror. I was acceptable.
High school into college: another divorce, devastating addiction, abuse, betrayals, led to more pounds shed. Now every meal, every day, every action could be broken down into caloric intake and expended calories. I barely ate for days at a time and would struggle silently with depression and hunger for as long as I could. I’d have to eat eventually but it always had to be purged. Food was like a drug and the purging an addiction. I would drive to a store, buy food, eat it all in the car hysterically, and then throw it up in the woods. These binges and purges took hours. I was unable to stop once it began. Bodily chemicals released during these binge and purge rampages eventually made me pass out. I went from size 8 to size 0 jeans. My boyfriend stole the “zero” jeans and threw them away, terrified that I was making myself disappear. Too close to a statistically healthy BMI to get emergency inpatient care, too sick to live without constant suffering, I reached out to my parents for help.
I bounced around from one psychologist/ psychiatrist to another, talk therapy and SSRIs were the method. The antidepressants helped at first with the major depression, but overtime changed my mood and I developed a cycle of mania followed by depression. The goal was to extend the creative surges of energy and shorten the depression; it worked for a while. I stopped the antidepressants cold turkey, started a new relationship, and had an unplanned pregnancy at the end of college. Tragically we lost our son at about 6 months and labor had to be induced. My body did not know my baby was dead. My breasts leaked milk as I wept for him.
I allowed myself to eat normally for my baby, thus gained weight during the pregnancy. I went from frail to plump. When I returned to work, a staff member stopped me in the hall to ask why I gained weight so suddenly. I was struck with grief and replied that I had been pregnant and gave birth to my dead son a few weeks ago, and was still holding some of the excess weight. I was not obese, I was just a little different than the year before. But people openly scrutinizing me for superficial reasons reinforced the lie that my perfect fatless body was my suit of armor, and any ounce of visible fat was a weakness.
I moved to another district and worked several jobs at once, plus painting gigs on the side. Every waking hour was comprised of work or exercise. I rode my bike miles to work skipping meals to make sure I had enough exercise. No matter how hard I worked or how fit I was, I was still an open wound invisibly seeping pain and sadness.
Life did not get easier. Losing both my grandparents within weeks of meeting my husband awakened something in me. Life keeps challenging me with more heartache and trials, but I began to realize that the void within is not just emptiness, it is sacred space. This knowing started small, silently, barely felt, yet undeniably present.
Miraculously, I remain. My mother is back, resurrected many times since. I am thankful for her healing return, and her undying love. I need to cherish our continuing journeys.
Since marriage and children, the eating disorder dissolved into the bigger picture of constant change and trudging forward. In 2011 spiritual emergency struck. I still carry all my wounds but maintain a foothold. I wish I could say that my transformation turned all the pain and struggle into purity and freedom. In some ways it has. I recognize my potential gifts, spirit speaks through me, I have known unfathomable worlds. However, at this stage I am still trying to grasp my wild experiences. Spirit always provides an inner strength that survives every disaster. Spirit says that I must not disappear, and I have a choice.
Ivy’s depiction; “Circle it in red”
Ivy Chaya Shiffler
Artist: Ivy’s Facebook Art page