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Daddy and Doodle

My dad and I are creatures of habit. Every night after dinner, we retreat to the family room where he binge-watches vintage TV shows while I waste time online and listen to music through my earbuds. We do this in silence for hours at a time until we go to bed, and I usually don’t see him in the morning since he has to get up early to ensure that justice is served hot and fresh at the courthouse every weekday.

This routine, though comfortable, isn’t exactly refreshing or relaxing. I find that the more time I spend online when I’m not doing something constructive (browsing Facebook vs. writing this post), the more disgruntled I become. Don’t get me wrong, I think the internet is an amazing thing. I keep in touch with friends who live all over the country, I’ve seen all kinds of inspiring art, I’ve learned new skills (like how to conjugate irregular verbs in Spanish and how to make candy-stripe bracelets), and I have access to pretty much any song I could ever want to listen to. However, all too often I wind up scrolling through various social media feeds for hours on end, only to come up empty when I search for any meaning in the last chunk of time I spent inert on the couch, dead to the physical world.

Tonight, Dad and I changed up our routine for the better. In the week since I’ve been home from the hospital, I have effectively trashed my room (as I am wont to do), and I chose tonight to clean it up. My mom went out with her friends tonight, and I didn’t want to leave Dad all alone downstairs while I puttered around in my room, so I invited him into the big comfy chair where he used to read me bedtime stories when I was a little girl, handed him my laptop, and gave him the rundown of how Spotify works. Within moments, my messy bedroom was transformed into a jazz radio station, complete with “Mike Scott spinnin’ those stacks of wax!” I heard everything from Herman’s Hermits to Phil Collins, and I also introduced Dad to Panic at the Disco, which he deemed, “interesting.”

Since I’ve been out of the hospital, I’ve felt extremely raw, like I’m walking  around with no skin. Everything is terrifying, but life doesn’t just stop because you’re scared. I have a lot of free time on my hands since I’m not in school, and unfortunately, I often use that free time to think of all the horrible things that could happen to me and also how every horrible thing that has already happened to me is completely and totally my fault.

I went back to work this week, which I had been dreading. I actually love my job (I’m a cashier in a grocery store.), but I was terrified to have to spend all day in public with no close friends or family members around to protect me should I need them. I know these fears are unrealistic. In all likelihood, no one is out to get me, or is even thinking about harming me. Still, they linger. I was surprised to find that work was actually a great distraction from my fears once I got into the routine. I’m realizing the obvious: the less time I spend ruminating on my problems and everything I dislike about myself, the easier it is to get through the days. I’m very glad I spent some quality time with my dad tonight instead of looking at posts of seemingly perfect lives and yearning for that perfection in my own life, even though I know it’s all just an illusion. I’d much rather have my own imperfect life with all its little twists and turns. Do I wish I was already finished with my Associate’s degree? Do I feel like I should be on my way to a “real job” by now? Do I regret some of my relational choices? Yes, yes, and yes. But that doesn’t have to stop me from enjoying the small things on the road to the bigger things. Being mentally ill doesn’t mean I don’t have goals or the means and desire to achieve them. It does mean that I may achieve them differently than many of my peers. I know high school students who will graduate with the same degree I’m still working on three years after graduating high school. I know teenagers who are living on their own and paying rent, while I’m in my twenties and still living with my parents. I don’t have a fancy diploma to hang on my wall (yet), but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to be proud of the things I have accomplished. Progress isn’t always a new car, an engagement ring, or a graduation ceremony. Sometimes it’s throwing out your box of razors. It’s calling someone instead of doing something self-destructive. Progress is getting out of bed in the morning without dreading what the coming hours hold, but instead wondering how you can make the day everything it can be.

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You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

When I got my job at a grocery store, I was a wreck. My anxiety was through the roof, and I worried about every aspect of the job, no matter how small. I started as a bagger, which meant my job consisted of retrieving carts from the parking lot, some cleaning tasks, and of course, bagging groceries. Another aspect of the job, “providing premier customer service,” meant that I was expected to be friendly and outgoing. I was supposed to greet every customer who approached me, and be knowledgeable about where products were located in the store. The fact that I was supposed to spend entire days being friendly to strangers terrified me. Anxiety made my shy and awkward. I had no idea how I was supposed to overcome it. On my first day, a woman frantically asked me, “Where’s the cheesecloth?” I didn’t know what cheesecloth was, much less where it was shelved. Through no fault of my own, I had failed to provide premier customer service, therefore I was a failure at my job, which meant I was a failure as a person.

After working at the store for a few months, I was trained as a cashier. I was terrified of the register. I have nonverbal learning disorder, which affects my ability to process numerical and spatial information. It means that I struggle to read a map and that I’m really, really bad at math. I was scared that I would make incorrect change and a customer would accuse me of stealing from them, and that I’d lose my job. Obviously, this didn’t happen. Anxiety had me assuming that people tended towards ill will, that customers were unforgiving of any rookie mistakes I might make, and that it was people’s nature to yell at a nervous teenage girl. Eventually, I became comfortable on the register. I got accustomed to handling cash, and today, I am a job-class trainer, meaning I know my way around the register well enough to teach others how to do it.

Working at the grocery store has helped my anxiety tremendously. I strive to do well at my job, which means I follow the rules, even if it’s hard to. I learned how to talk to strangers, how to make smalltalk, and how to handle customer complaints. I also made friends with my coworkers, and earned the respect of my managers. I’ve come to enjoy working. I like spending time with my coworkers, who are a diverse group of people with many different perspectives on life. I feel like I fit in at work, which is important to me.

Over the weekend, I took a huge step out of my comfort zone. I started training for my new position at work, a meals clerk for the Aprons Kitchen. Basically, this means I spend a whole day cooking free samples of a meal to encourage customers to make the recipes at home. The idea behind the Aprons Kitchen is to bring families together at the dinner table. In the past, my eating disorder prevented me from enjoying cooking, or even handling food. I was afraid of absorbing calories through my hands or by smelling food, even though logically, I knew that was impossible.

Something John, the chef at the Creek, told me has stuck in my mind. He said, “Mealtime is a celebration,” and he’s right. Family dinners are a celebration of togetherness and love. Eating is a celebration of a job well-done. It made me happy to serve food to the customers and talk to them about how I cooked it. I spent the entire day cooking food and talking about it, something I never could have done a few months ago when I was consumed by anorexia. I got to make people happy by feeding them and motivating them to try the recipe at home.

My job has taught me that I am capable of much more than I previously thought. I can be friendly and outgoing, and doing so is rewarding. I’ve made friends with some of our regular customers. I’ve done mitzvot by helping disabled customers shop. I’ve helped financially struggling single mothers save money on their groceries. I’ve listened to elderly people tell their stories when they have no one else to listen to them. I’ve befriended my coworkers, and (at least I hope) have been able to set a good example for them. Most of all, I’ve overcome my anorexia and anxiety around food. Cooking a meal brought me joy I’ve never had around food before. I felt like I’d really accomplished something when I saw the smiles of customers when they tried what I’d cooked. I am proud of myself for testing the limits of my anxiety, and pushing myself to do more than what I initially thought I was comfortable with. Working has helped me see that mental illness doesn’t limit me. I may face different challenges than my coworkers, but that’s okay. I’m doing my best, and that’s enough.