Stories

The Gift of Pain

Warning: Long post ahead. Trigger warning for sufferers of eating disorders in recovery.

Eating Disorders, as the Ninja Turtle experiences it.

Obsession. It’s when certain thoughts dominate one’s waking hours and preoccupy the mind so completely that there is no space to think or to feel or to experience anything else outside of one’s obsessions. Sometimes, compulsions come into the equation. This is when one feels compelled to do certain behaviours, and these are often highly ritualistic, with specific rules and regulations, and beyond one’s control.

Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours are very common in eating disorders, and the Ninja Turtle has experienced the bane of almost all the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that come with the illness.

Weighing and calculating food to the gram? Check.

Only allowing herself to start eating her meals at very specific hours? Check.

“Balancing” out her food groups to rigidly defined ratios? Check.

Not permitting herself more than what’s prescribed in a meal plan, but ferociously guarding every last bite she is entitled to whether or not she’s still hungry, or really wants to eat it? Check.

Running a certain distance or time measured on her GPS watch? Check.

Not permitting herself to rest until she’s fulfilled her prescribed amount of daily walking, even if it means doing meaningless laps around the block or taking the least efficient route to go somewhere and feeling incredibly foolish? Check.

These are some of the ugly realities of eating disorders that people don’t necessarily want to know about. It’s tiring. It’s exhausting. It’s completely ridiculous, makes no sense to others and frequently, it makes no sense of the sufferers either, and yet we, or at least the Ninja Turtle, engaged in these behaviours for one very important reason –

They reduce her sense of anxiety.

The compulsive behaviours, with their rules and rituals, help reduce this inexplicable sense of panic and fear, an undefinable dread that bad things are about to happen if she breaks the rules. The obsessive thoughts, with their frequent looping repetitive refrain, serve as a distraction from emotions too strong and overwhelming that the Ninja Turtle had no courage to face.

So for days that turned into weeks, weeks that turned into months, and months that are now turning into years, the Ninja Turtle’s life has been dominated by this living hell which she found herself stuck in, simultaneously finding comfort and reassurance and yet also being hurt and damaged by engaging in these maladaptive coping mechanisms. It seemed like there was no way out, and that her existence would simply become defined thus.

But for the last two months, the Ninja Turtle’s entire world has been overtaken and thus defined by another demon – Pain.

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On Hospitals and Illnesses.

It all started during the move back from Lyon to GodzillaPin’s parents’ village. While out running one morning, the Ninja Turtle’s guts were not quite cooperating. She tried her best not to think about it, after all, in her recovery efforts she’s started making breakfast a habit again, and she figured it was simply the discomfort of exercising after a meal.

What the Turtle had not bargained for, was for that pain to escalate, and endure. The next few days saw the duo travelling back to Lyon for the Fête de la Musique where she had to go into the emergency as her eating disorder specialist suspected appendicitis. After some scans, she was discharged with a negative result and a prescription for the pain, and that was it.

The duo then continued to Nantes for a 30th birthday, where the Ninja Turtle was once again rushed to the emergency ward as not only has the pain endured, she’d developed a fever and the runs. Not only did she miss out on an awesome birthday bash, she went into septic shock twice as her temperature soared to 41°C, and was kept for a whole week in isolation as the diagnosis was pronounced: clostridium difficile. A highly contagious bacteria that causes endless grief especially in those who are immuno-compromised.

Make no mistake, fellow eating disorder sufferers. You may feel invincible, physically strong, or think you’re simply “not that sick” when the reality is, eating disorders damage your entire body, immune system included, leaving you vulnerable to all kinds of other illnesses. The Ninja Turtle found this out the hard way.

Over a year ago, the Ninja Turtle begged to pursue her eating disorder treatment outpatient, despite her dangerously low BMI. She and her medical team knew they were taking great risks – refeeding syndrome, sudden heart failure, etc etc etc. but at the same time, her doctors agreed with her argument that locking her up in a medical facility, in isolation, is certainly not the best way to recover from her psychological disorders.

Ironically, the very situation she thought she’d escaped, has finally caught up with her. This bacterial infection not only ruined her holiday in Nantes, it came back to haunt her a second time shortly after Bastille Day so she had to pass her 29th birthday alone once more in hospital.

Then, the duo had to cancel a hiking trip in the French Alps as the Ninja Turtle suffered the indignity of a colonoscopy to rule out Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease and Celiac. Another hospitalisation.

Just when she thought the nightmare had ended, the pain returned a few days after she was discharged, and another round of lab samples revealed that the bacteria was back for the third time. After 5 hospitalisations, the Ninja Turtle begged GodzillaPin, in tears, no more hospitals.

Hospitals truly aren’t ideal settings for recovery from any sort of illness. The Ninja Turtle was awaken at 5.30am for blood tests, to have her pulse and blood pressure taken (both disturbingly low at points that some of the nurses raised several false alarms). With insufficient rest, it is hard to recover, and nobody can claim to rest well with interrupted sleep and terrible beds.

Hospital food isn’t designed to help patients get better either. The normal food at best of times, is barely edible. Several times, the Ninja Turtle was put on a low-residue diet for her illness, which seemed to translate to crackers, yogurt, and very little else. This of course, meant the Ninja Turtle lost weight with each hospitalisation, leaving her even more immuno-compromised and vulnerable to re-infection, hence the vicious cycle.

Hospitals are circuses of viruses and bugs, quite simply because it’s where sick and dying people go. So what better place to leave one completely open to catching something else that could possibly kill her?

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Perspective.

Once again, the Ninja Turtle pleads her fellow sufferers of eating disorders to accept the reality of their illnesses – there is no such thing as not being “sick enough” to seek help.

You don’t need to be underweight, or have a low BMI. You don’t need to be a white, middle-class, heterosexual, adolescent, ballet-dancing [insert-your-preferred-stereotype] girl to admit that you’re struggling with an eating disorder.

And above all, do NOT be fooled into a sense of complacency that just because you’re getting by day-to-day, that maybe things are “really not that bad”. Eating disorders ruin your life in so many ways – for some it steals their relationships, for some it destroys their finances, for some it wrecks their education/careers, and for some, like the Ninja Turtle, it decimates one’s HEALTH.

The Ninja Turtle is less afraid now of dying from re-feeding syndrome than she is of dying from this bacterial infection, but she knows that if the latter were to claim her life, it would still be dying from the eating disorder, albeit indirectly so. And that would truly be a shame, because the Ninja Turtle really doesn’t want to die.

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The Silver Lining to Every Cloud.

The Ninja Turtle is currently pursuing a course of antibiotics at home for the infection. The fun thing about her medication metrodinazole, is that the Ninja Turtle suffers all the same effects of the bacteria infection – gut-wrenching pain, cramps, diarrhoea and constipation, fatigue and headaches. On top of that, she’s also got the worst nausea, loss of appetite, back pain, dark urine, bouts of confusion and dizziness. The only seeming benefit is the absence of a fever.

But the pain, oh the pain.

Faced with such pain, the fear of dying and a whole lot of possible regrets, the Ninja Turtle’s obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours have been forced to take a back seat in this entire episode.

With this degree of pain, running is out the question. Heck, even walking a few minutes can leave the Ninja Turtle squatting by the side of the road, hyperventilating.

With this level of pain, the Ninja Turtle congratulates herself for going through the basics of each day; showering is a victory. There isn’t enough energy left to obsessively weigh out quantities of food.

With this type of pain, the Ninja Turtle has no room for perfection, good enough will have to do because it’s hard to accomplish anything when your entire waking existence is dominated by pain.

With this amount of pain, the Ninja Turtle has to choose what she puts on her plate each meal because much as she loves her salads, too much raw vegetables or fats irritate her guts, and too much fruit worsens the diarrhoea, too much sugar feeds the bacteria, too much meat constipates her, and suddenly when she is forced to pay so much attention to detail in her food that is NOT related to the eating disorder, she’s FED UP.

Frankly, it’s tedious, it’s boring, it’s soul-sucking and it’s thanks to this bacteria infection that she sees how ridiculous those obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours are. Above all, she’s also realised that eating disorders are a form of self-harm, self-punishment, self-loathing and yep – inflicting pain upon oneself.

So while the Ninja Turtle cannot wait to recover from this awful bacterial infection, she is in some strange way, grateful for the experience and the valuable lessons it has taught her.

No more self-inflicted pain.

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