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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Stories

Recovering with Love, Not with Threats

They were walking along the riverside after an indulgent family lunch, followed swiftly by an afternoon tea of several cakes, and the children were getting restless. First, the Little Boy amused himself with collecting pebbles, and when his sister the Little Girl followed suit, it quickly escalated into stones, and eventually rocks. Pretty soon, their hands were full.

As the adults stopped to chat with some acquaintances who were out for their Sunday walk too, the Ninja Turtle continued with the children, being equally impatient and disinterested in small talk. Occasionally, the kids would stop to throw some stones into the river, with the Turtle charged with the duty of counting “one, two, three, go!” before their launched their ammunition, and the arbiter of who threw the farthest, or made the biggest splash.

It was the Little Boy who posed the question.

“Are you a child, or an adult?”

It caught the Ninja Turtle by surprise, to say the least. She asked him to repeat the question.

“Are you a child, or an adult?”

The Ninja Turtle stopped walking, crouched down to the Little Boy’s level, and faced him. Little Boy was thrilled to have the Turtle’s full attention by this stage.

“Why do you ask? Do you mean I speak like a child, or act like a child, or look like a child?” the Turtle queried. In the back of her mind, she was beginning to feel a wave of fuzzy panic growing. She had no desire to discuss eating disorders with such innocent young minds.

The Little Boy nodded. Vehemently. “Why are you like that?” he demanded with childish simplicity. “Are you a child?”

The Ninja Turtle looked at his sister, the Little Girl, who was older than Little Boy by four years, and possibly had memories of the Turtle from another time. The Turtle hoped she could answer Little Boy’s question without resorting to lies, but without having to go into details of the truth either.

“Well, what do YOU think? Am I a child, or an adult?” asked the Ninja Turtle of the Little Girl.

The Little Girl, precocious for an eight-year-old, highly perceptive but also reserved, didn’t hesitate with her response.

“Of course she’s not a child, it’s obvious,” she admonished her brother. But just as quickly, she looked at the Ninja Turtle for confirmation. In the Little Girl’s eyes the Ninja Turtle saw certainty, but also great confusion.

“Then why are you like that?” persisted the Little Boy.

The Little Girl clearly wanted an answer too, but had been too shy or frightened to ask before. With her younger brother opening the can of worms, she felt emboldened to ask the same question which had been politely silenced in her mind so far.

The Turtle turned to address the Little Girl. “Do you remember when your brother was really little, how I used to be?” Little Girl nodded.

“Well, Little Boy, I’m very sick at the moment so I am the way I am for now. But to answer your question, unfortunately, I’m not a child. Your sister is right, I am an adult, just like your Mommy. And I used to look like your Mommy. When I am no longer sick, when I am healthy and strong again, I will look like Mommy once more, just as your sister remembers. Will that be OK with you?”

The Little Boy and Little Girl seemed satisfied with the answer.

“I hope you get better in two weeks,” Little Boy declared.

The Ninja Turtle smiled at his innocence. “I hope so too.” Turning to the Little Girl, she asked “what do you think?”

The Little Girl looked at the Turtle and broke into a radiant smile.

“Let’s stop over there to throw some rocks into the river. This time, you can throw with us, and you can throw one of mine if you want to.

And with that, they ran ahead excitedly, shouting for the Ninja Turtle to hurry.

 

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Food

Harvesting Wild Blackberries

One of the better things about returning to the countryside, as the Ninja Turtle has found, is that time slows down enough for one to think differently. Sure, the city life in Lyon offered the duo plenty of exciting activities year-round, and one is constantly engaged, amused, stimulated… but perhaps that was the problem. It was very hard to disconnect, pull back and simply have some time for oneself.

In the quiet and calm of the campagne, far away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds and the commerce, the Ninja Turtle becomes much more pensive. And in her reflections, she begins to feel an immense sense of gratitude, despite her malady. There is, after all, a lot to be grateful for, despite everything.

Grateful for each moment she is alive.
Grateful for each person who’s come into her life.
Grateful for each experience that brings joy, or a lesson.
Grateful for each emotion and every new sensation.
Grateful for the hurt, the sorrow and the pain
Grateful that despite that, she still has much to gain.
Grateful for the kindness from strangers she receives
Grateful for the love friends and family give.
Grateful for existing in this messy world
Where life can sometimes be incomprehensible
Grateful for just being here today
Grateful for tomorrow, come what may.

There is so much richness in life, when one chooses to receive. The Ninja Turtle, in her leisurely strolls along the country road, recently chanced across wild blackberries growing in abundance, free for the picking and ripening at a deliciously alarming pace.

When GodzillaPin returned from his cycling trip a couple of days ago, the Ninja Turtle could not wait to bring him blackberry harvesting. OK, fine, she’ll admit it. After spending 2 hours harvesting blackberries alone the first time, and having the unfortunate experience of falling into the blackberry bramble (an experience which she will never wish upon anyone) when trying to reach for the higher branches, she knew she needed a helping hand from someone less vertically-challenged than herself.

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Enter GodzillaPin, 6’1.

Of course when the Ninja Turtle first proposed blackberry harvesting, GodzillaPin thought it was going to be a breeze. Little did he realise that battling the blackberry bush thorns and the stinging nettles that grow alongside, this was less of a leisurely pastime, and more of an extreme sport.

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After about an hour, the duo decided that they’d had enough (enough of being pricked, and enough blackberries to last a few days), so they hurried home excitedly to taste the fruits of their labour.

The Ninja Turtle had recently made a rich chocolate and beer streusel cake, and the acidity of the blackberries married well with the sweet dessert. They also tried the blackberries in a soy yogurt and fruit salad parfait.

They say that on the road to recovery from eating disorders, there are good days and bad days. That was a good day for the Ninja Turtle, and for that, she is grateful.

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Stories

Healing Through Caring

Sometimes, lost in the dramas and crises of life, it’s easy to forget our purpose. Often, we find ourselves bewildered, lost, unmoored – we lose sight of the meaning of our actions, then slowly, we lose our sense of selves, and then one day, we wake up and realise we have lost the meaning of life.

For almost two years now, the Ninja Turtle has found herself in a special kind of hell, when a series of unfortunate events triggered a downward spiral towards unfathomable depths of the horrors of eating disorders. Make no mistake, it has taken her a very long time to accept the situation, as long as this blog has been stagnant, for there is so much shame and stigma surrounding this poorly understood mental illness.

To openly admit that one is mad? mentally fractured? crazy? insane? a few fries short of a Happy Meal? is not easy. To accept the help one is offered, is sometimes much more difficult. To battle the voices inside one’s head, constantly roaring a litany of hateful jibes:

“You’ve spent years and years on education, only to find yourself jobless in a country where you’re afforded second class citizen treatment. You’re completely worthless.”

“You have failed in everything. You tried to build a career and you got royally screwed. You tried an ultramarathon and you quit halfway through. You’re nothing but a failure.”

“You want to show love to your father by visiting him, but you only end up vexing him until he’s threatened to disown you. Your partner’s parents are sick and tired of your present condition, and want you to return to Singapore so you are no longer visibly haunting them with your appearance. Your family and friends are sorely disappointed in you.”

“You always eat more than you should. You take up space. What have you done to merit your existence? You don’t deserve anything.”

It’s exhausting. It’s frightening. It’s the soundtrack that plays through the mind of someone so filled with self-loathing, so void of self-esteem that the eating disordered behaviours and physical appearance are merely a visible manifestation of the true horrors of being haunted.

No meaning. No purpose. No worth. No value. Nothing.

Until recently, things took a turn. After living in Lyon for slightly over a year, GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle have returned to Meuse, specifically GodzillaPin’s hometown. Having lost his job twice, more a reflection of the economic situation in Europe than his competence as an engineer, the duo have “come home”, where GodzillaPin will join the family business and at least, they will be closer to family and receive some support.

Grandma and Grandpa Lapin have aged incredibly in the year and half the duo have been away; whereas once Grandma Lapin was still able to cook up a feast of magret de canard with haricots verts from the garden, complete with red wine, cheese and tarte aux abricots for dessert, she is now burning her food on a daily basis as she forgets. Her eyesight is failing, and she is tired and cold all the time. Grandpa Lapin was recently hospitalised, and as old age dementia sets in, he is no longer able to do the gardening.

The task has fallen upon the Ninja Turtle to go over daily to ensure they have lunch prepared, and that they actually eat it (without an appetite, the elderly often forget to eat and even drink). Cooking their meals, washing up, cleaning the place for them, prying them for as many stories of their youth while she still has the chance… these are the little things that breathed new life into the Ninja Turtle’s existence.

Homecoming also means getting to borrow Mother Lapin’s kitchen, which is equipped with not one, but TWO magnificent ovens, where the Ninja Turtle has been busy baking up a storm. And heavens, what a sweet tooth the Lapin family has – a batch of 4 dozen cookies barely last two days before the Ninja Turtle finds herself baking once again. Mother Lapin has currently passed to mode “gluten-free” and “lactose-free”, which presents a challenge to the Ninja Turtle, but she’s happily experimenting with new ingredients and is truly enjoying herself.

Suddenly, she didn’t feel useless or unworthy anymore. Suddenly, Grandma Lapin was looking forward to the daily visits. Suddenly, people are demanding she do what she loves doing – baking. Suddenly, she’s found ways to maybe, just MAYBE, silent the critical demons in her head.

Grandma Lapin recently found a stray cat which birthed three kittens in the barn a few weeks ago, and one of the tasks the Ninja Turtle undertakes while visiting, is feeding the cats. Granted, she only pours milk and dishes out cat food, but that’s plenty enough for someone who is very allergic to cats. She’s contented enough simply observing them at play, and being reminded of what life is about. Fun.

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“Mom, he’s biting my ass again!”

Another project the Ninja Turtle has embarked upon, with the direction of GodzillaPin, is gardening. Last year when the duo visited Father Turtle in Vietnam, they were given several packets of seedlings for Asian vegetables, which are impossible to find in this corner of the earth. Well, GodzillaPin taught the Ninja Turtle how to till the soil, sow the seeds, cover them with earth, and then… (and this is the hardest part for the Ninja Turtle) simply wait.

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Mmm… weird plants that Europeans didn’t even know were edible…

But after a week or so of daily checking and holding her breath till her face has turned quite blue, the Ninja Turtle finally saw this:

Recovery from eating disorders is messy, nonlinear, exhaustingly long and never straightforward. The Ninja Turtle still struggles to find the words to talk about the disease, but as she slowly makes progress in her recovery and healing, perhaps she will finally find a way to show the world what’s really on the inside.

For now, she’s simply finding new ways to get through each day with a sense of purpose and meaning. And slowly, it seems, she’s finding it.

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