Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sticks and Stones

Living in the information age is both a blessing and a curse. The Internet and its myriad ways of communication allowed Kelsey to reach out to people all over the world, many whom we have heard from, and support them as they worked through their own struggles. I think that was a blessing for her and allowed her an outlet that probably kept her going longer than she might have otherwise. Personally, through Facebook, I am instantly connected with friends and family all over the country, some of whom I hadn't talked to since Michael Jackson was Thrilling us. But, like the Force, there is a Dark Side, and it is powerful. Anybody can say anything, without regard to truth, consequence or spelling, and immediately blast it onto the Worldwide Web. Sitting here alone with my computer with no one to temper my comments, it is all too easy to shoot from the hip without regard to how what I am about to post will impact others, and there is no editor between me and the audience. For me, life has mellowed me over the years, and I am no longer the passionate, say what-I-think-without-thinking-about-it firebrand I was once, and I still managed to get a catty comment in on Mariah Carey (seriously, I don't get her). But, the demographics of individuals posting most of the comments on the various sites on the Internet (LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook, blogs like this one)are generally young. So, it was with no real surprise when Marissa told me about a comment someone had made regarding her sister.

I personally don't know the girl who made the post, she is a girlfriend of the brother of a friend (got that?) of Marissa's. Marissa does know her, but I am unclear if Kelsey ever did. But, the young lady, no matter how well she knows us, posted that she could not mourn for Marissa's sister because what she did was selfish. And, with a Twitter sized comment, she upset my surviving daughter. But, for all the issue I take with someone making a statement like that knowing that a grieving girl would see it, I did not fault her for thinking that. Marissa and I know she's wrong, but from the viewpoint of people who a) saw her lately and b) know just enough about her disease to be dangerous, I can completely see how that opinion gets formed. And, as I told Marissa, it wasn't that long ago that I would have said the same thing.

So, I want to address that. Let me begin by saying that I don't really understand bulimia. I lived with it for nine years, I read about it, did lots of therapy designed around it as a central issue, but I never got to the point where I could say that I had a handle on what it does to a person. I could never understand what Kelsey saw when she looked at herself in the mirror, and I clung to the belief that someday she would just wake up, decide to be done with it and be able to get it behind her. Now I know that was such a naive thing to think.

I think that unless you are the person suffering from the disease, you will never truly get it. We used to liken it to a beast who lurked over Kelsey's shoulder. It took on almost a lifelike persona and was the fifth person who lived in our house. And it was the Alpha. Everything revolved around it at times, and it threatened not only our daughter, but our family. There is a toll that I struggle to explain succinctly, but it wore on all of us. Keeping my marriage together at one point looked nearly impossible. Marissa, lost in the shadows of Kelsey's struggles initially, began acting out in ways that were seriously life threatening, the dogs fought as a result of the palatable tension in the house, and my career imploded. At the center of it all was Kelsey. It would be easy to blame her, particularly when scrubbing vomit off the roof or unclogging the shower, for bringing this devastation on us. And, early on, I'm ashamed to say, there was this "just snap out of it" mentality that her father and I had. And, as the disease took a stronger hold on her, her personality changed and the face she presented to us was quite honestly often an ugly one. She was angry, she was foul mouthed, she was rebellious. She screamed at us that we didn't do enough, but fought us when we tried. I made the horrible statement more than once, "The problem with you, Kelsey, is it's all about Kelsey. Try thinking of someone else for a change." Yeah. Pretty bad, I know. But, I can see why someone would say it's selfish behavior. It really looks like it on the surface. Maybe even more so with bulimia than anorexia nervosa. I can see how it is hard not to understand that she could not just decide to stop the behavior.

But she could not. For one thing, even if she had stopped, as she had done in the past, actively trying to purge, the gag reflex was too strong and was deep wired into her. She would throw up anyway. Eventually that can be rectified, but it is a process. And, as we all knew, some pretty significant damage had been done to her body from years of this behavior. One thing, aside from the obvious damage to ones teeth and esophagus, is the strain constant violent vomiting does to your heart. People my age remember Karen Carpenter. What most of us don't know is that she was actually in recovery when she died. We had been told more than once that recovery is actually a dangerous period physically. She probably was a walking time bomb and had been for years. I may have been sitting here trying to grab a hold of my grief no matter whether she was actively bulimic or not.

So, why did she turn to bulimia in the first place? We don't really know. Not for the lack of trying to figure that core question out. But, we agree that bulimia was a means to an end originally. She used it as a tool as she struggled to navigate the complexities of high school. She would tell us that it was the one thing she could control. We also knew that genetically, both our children were predisposed to mental health issues. Of course, we now know we have no idea exactly what I bring to the genetic table, but there were some early indicators with Kelsey that we missed that she suffered from depression even as a child. What does a child do to cope with misunderstood thoughts and feelings? Self medicate. Kelsey dabbled in drugs, did the cutting thing, certainly did a lot of drinking, but in the end, this was what initially gave her what she was looking for. Sort of ironic that the tool she used to try and establish come control over her life ended up controlling her completely.

And she didn't want it to. That is the thing I think people misunderstand. She hated the disease, but it was on her and in her and had no intention of easily letting go. In response to something Marissa had written to her last August, she wrote in her LiveJournal the query, "when did I stop being Kelsey the Person and become Kelsey the Disease?" As I've mentioned before, when I saw her hand written journal a few days after she died, I saw how she railed against it and wanted to be rid of it. I hope, no, I pray, she is rid of it now and at peace. If that's true, then, truly, maybe I'll be okay with her not being here any longer.

To that young girl who made the post: I'm not sure I made my case. I find that the root of an eating disorder is too deep to dissect in a reasonably sized blog post. But, trust me, as Kelsey's mother, when I say that her life was not selfish. Ir was tortured in many ways, and we all can lay claim to being too selfish to see that fully. I will have to suffice it to say that her death, my dear girl, was not selfish. It is simply sad.


  1. I was having a conversation at lunch with a colleague and the subject of suicide came up and the person said she thought it was selfish - I said, think about how overwhelmed, how much pain and emptiness someone has to be feeling to overide such a deeply ingrained instinct as self preservation, do you honestly think that person is in a position to take into account how their decision will effect others? Not possible - not selfish. -V.

  2. I agree. Even before all of this. I always took issue with the idea that suicide is a "sin". That seems really, really fundamentally flawed. Punish someone for being so deep in their own hurt they see no other way out? And, keep in mind that we're operating on the assumption for now that Kelsey did not do anything that caused her heart to stop - aside from the long term damage it had already suffered mind you. So, the girl was commenting on a natural death.

  3. exactly. . .mental health is something NOT everyone is going to completely understand. Your brain is just like any other organ but even more complicated...far more complicated. sometimes other people lack the knowledge of understanding this, poor them.

  4. Just to clarify, I only meant that to deem someone as selfish because they could not overcome a mental state that caused an untimely death as selfish is thoughtless. I did not mean to imply anything other than that.