I was given the name of this blog by a personal role-model, a mental health counselor from the Eating Disorder’s Inpatient unit that I’m currently on, fighting for my life back from Anorexia Nervosa and related disorders. She struggled with depression and anxiety when she was younger, and her story inspires me so much. I want to thank you so much for impacting her life so much that she was able to impact mine, with the same wisdom that you shared with her and that she read on your blog a long time ago. I have so much love for the both of you for that.
I had some questions that I really need advice on regarding life in general, and I don’t know if you can answer them, but I hope that you can.
How does someone decide that they want to live? How do they decide that the little things that are good in life outweigh all of the horrible things in their lives? I have teetered on the edge of wanting to live and wanting to die. I cling to very small things and hope that they are enough to motivate me, but sometimes it feels hopeless. Especially when I am in my eating disorder, without recovery, life seems dreary and monotonous and nothing I want to involve myself in. I don’t think you know the answer on how to stop restricting, over-exercising, and purging, but any advice that you have about eating disorders would be much appreciated as well. I guess it boils down to, what little things make life worth it? And what big things make life worth it? And how do you decide that you want to live rather than dig your grave “with your own fork and knife”? I want to live, but I want to die. I am a mess of contradictions, a mess of a girl. I don’t want to be a mess anymore, but I’m lost as to what to do with all of the hopelessness, worthlessness, loneliness, and feeling undeserving of life and food that I’m dealing with even as I type this.
I like the way you speak of being “in your disorder,” and how you’re fighting for your life “back from Anorexia Nervosa.” I like the way that you’ve separated yourself from your disease. You recognize it as something apart from who you are. Yes, it’s something that wants to kill you. Yes, it’s something that you have to fight every goddamn day. Yes, that’s fucking exhausting, so much so that I understand what you mean when you say you’re teetering on the edge of wanting to live and wanting to die. I understand how it would be so fucking easy just to give up and let it win.
That’s the thing, though. By simply not giving up, you’ve already decided that you want to live. Actually, that’s not even quite right. You do want to live. All you’re really deciding is why. You want there to be a good enough reason, something so profound and so obvious that you don’t have to keep burning all your energy scavenging around for a bunch of little things to keep you going. You want the magical secret answer to the question why that will finally and permanently beat down all that horrible shit that keeps trying to kill you.
The answer does exist. I discovered it. Your counselor discovered it. It really is profound and it really is obvious and it really will save you. You have no idea how much we wish we could just whisper it in your ear, but that’s not how this answer works. It has to come from inside of you. The most fucked up thing is that the answer is already there. It’s been inside of you all along, and once you discover it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
In the meantime, embrace your mess. Allow your contradictions to exist in the present moment. Practice radical acceptance of all the hopelessness, worthlessness, and loneliness. That’s all you have to do. Just let that shit be okay, because it is.
There is peace in the dreary monotony. It’s not the same thing as happiness. It’s not the same thing as health. It’s simply peace. That’s where you will find your answer. Come to a place of acceptance, unconditionally and with no expectations, and you will discover that there is no difference between the big things and the little things in life. It’s all one size and it’s all one thing, and yes, it’s all a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess. So are you.
35 thoughts on “On a beautiful mess”
I have no basis for offering advice. But there are other answers to your question. If you’re not religious, the purpose of life is self-made: maybe you want to have and enjoy as many experiences as the human condition allows; maybe you want to make things better for as many people as you can during your time; maybe you want to provide a nice life to a child (yours or not); maybe you want to be a titan of your profession. There’s so much to do! To see! To experience! Don’t give it up!
Listen to Ralph Waldo:
“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
Also, if you have the means to do so in the future, please consider a vacation to a country that is less obsessed with weight. Colombia comes to mind.
You inherently misunderstand eating disorders. It is not ultimately about weight or looks, it’s about control/distress. Going to a country less obsessed with weight will make no difference to a person with full blown anorexia.
To the writer, my turning point came when I realised I deserved to be happy and join in like everyone else, even in the minutiae of life. I was sick of my life being about my anorexia. I realised that who I am was more than my illness.
The most bizarre thing is, when I look back at when I was sick (and I was very young) it doesn’t feel like me, it feels like a different person. It feels like talking about a person I used to know.
I wish you all the best in your recovery. You have much to look forward to.
What a beautifully written letter, and what a perfectly constructed response. I love these little moments of personal truths.
The person that asked this question should know that it is very well-written and thoughtful. It moved me.
Coke brings me to happy tears with her words of wisdom. Love you ❤️
Coke is right, the answer doesn’t go into words. It can’t be spoken, only discovered, at least partially because it’s different for everyone.
For me, the closest I can get to putting it in words is that I’m stubborn. I have, at this point in my life, had times that were genuinely good. When I felt all right. So I know that if I’m miserable now, I know it’s not permanent. That I can actually change it, slowly, if I keep trying different things. So I have a very stubborn small knot inside of me that will. not. stop. trying. to heal. Life in my illness may not be worth it, but I know that there’s life outside my illness too. I’ll be damned if I make my judgement about life while the illness has hold of my brain. It lies.
I hope you find your equivalent soon. Like Coke says, the fact that you’re asking other people how they decide to live is hopeful. You’ll get there and you’ll keep the wisdom going for another generation.
I’m going to tell you about my ‘answer’ because I think it’s similar: when I was living inside my deepest depression, when I wanted to un-exist, every day for years and years, I felt like the butt of a universal joke. That I was a horrible, glaring, slapstick mistake. I didn’t know what the joke was, but I knew it must be great if I felt this bad.
A few months after my suicide attempt, I realised I got the joke. I still don’t know what it is, but somehow suicide and wanting to be dead were now the punchline, and not me (It was similar to the Hyperbole and a Half depression comic where the tiny bit of corn becomes the funniest thing ever). Suicide to me personally is now so funny that I can’t laugh, because I would not be able to humanly express that much laughter and it might kill me.
As well as being a beautiful mess, it’s also heartbreakingly hilarious.
I realise this comment might be less than useful so here’s some practical stuff: Weed, CBT, and immersing myself in things like language learning and video games are what helped me stop purging.
I think the word you were looking for is absurd.
And yeah, weed helps with making food look appealing again, instead of terrifying.
Actually that’s exactly it, that’s why I read The Myth Of Sisyphus as well.
Weed is incredible for eating disorders. My great aunt used to work in a treatment ward in the late 70s, and the girls who were on their last legs, for whom nothing else worked, she would take them outside for a quiet smoke… apparently it worked for everyone she tried it with.
“Radical acceptance.” I like that. I’ve been calling it “getting cozy with the abyss.” It kind of seems like when you have an unhealthy compulsion and all the trappings of it, you’re either locked onto the big, gnarly existential shit or the minutiae of every day life. For me, it’s the latter. Both of those can be shitty, or they can be a trip to remember. You’re not alone, Letter Writer. Keep on!
“You have no idea how much we wish we could just whisper it in your ear, but that’s not how this answer works.” Agreed. But do you have any thoughts/ suggestions for practices through which we might go about trying to find the answer for ourselves?
For me, it’s been DBT. You learn all about – and get the tools to practice – mindfulness, radical acceptance, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and so on. There’s lots of information online and in books, but a group setting can be especially helpful in terms of motivation and accountability.
I have bipolar with primarily depression and anxiety, and just a couple of months of group has been more helpful to me than years of talk therapy. It’s given me all kinds of insights, and not just things I’ve been told, but ideas I’ve figured out myself.
It’s a different way of looking at life and your place in it, and is about reducing suffering. I have four decades of stubborn, dysfunctional attitudes that are slipping away the more I practice it. You do have to go in with an open mind and a willingness to try. It isn’t easy, but it’s a lot more effective than trying to hammer healthier attitudes into your head. This offers specific techniques, like grounding, half smiling, and self soothing, that you can do and see results. When one thing actually works, your motivation to try more increases.
The biggest challenge for me so far has been getting over the fear of getting better and maybe losing a part of my identity. I just have to keep repeating to myself, “This isn’t me. It’s the dysfunction, and it’s holding the real me back.”
In terms of practices and thoughts, in addition to CQ’s “radical acceptance”, I’d recommend observing as much of the decay and creation this universe has to offer. Absorb the beauty and the horror of it all, soak up as many of the spectacles the universe has to offer as you can, and your perception of your own existence may shift.
I just found out that I have trauma along with anxiety and depression. I never thought that what I was experiencing could be trauma and always thought it was just these heavy and hopeless feelings and states that I had to figure out how to navigate through.
Now I realized that there’s a lot more than that, that I don’t just have to navigate through these emotions but I have to find a way to process some of my experiences. Thanks for recommending therapy, CQ.
This letter made me cry. I’m a mess too; thanks for reminding me that it’s ok to be one. Thanks for making me realize that I’m worth this fight.
I’ve had all kinds of suicidal thoughts, and I think the big thing that finally turned me around was the realization that no matter what happened, I could always put it off until tomorrow.
If I’m willing to go so far as to end my life, then what do I have to fear? I can wait until it gets so bad that there’s literally nothing left and do it then.
In the meantime, I focus on the things I can enjoy, no matter how small they might seem. If I’m drinking a cup of coffee or tea, I focus on just that thing and savor all the physical sensations – the taste, the warmth. I might pull a soft blanket around me and pet my cat. Listen to my favorite music. Take a long bath or shower. Look at some gorgeous photography. Find a beautiful, quiet place outdoors to walk or sit down. And just allow myself to live in that moment.
It’s not about avoiding or ignoring pain – that doesn’t work and can make things worse. It’s about acknowledging it and accepting comfort for its own sake. It’s a decision to squeeze every last bit of enjoyment I can out of life before ending it. Tomorrow.
But then there’s always something else to experience tomorrow. Sometimes something awesome that I would have missed out on! My life seriously sucks, but even so, I haven’t hit “empty” yet in all these years. And after enough time goes by, you even stop expecting it.
I can so relate to what you wrote.
Coke, you have done and continue to do so much good in this world through your blog. Thank you.
Re the eating disorder specifically. There’s a library’s worth of excellent, science-based articles on http://www.youreatopia.com about restrictive eating disorders and recovery. The site also hosts a support forum, with strict guidelines and moderating (a good thing).
Starvation affects the brain as much as the body. It can be almost impossible to find joy, or even interest, in life when there’s just not enough energy coming into the system, to say nothing of the massive, cumulative calorie deficit you’ve accumulated. A starved brain simply can’t be healthy. Calories in abundance are needed to respond to therapy. Take advantage of everything your program can offer you, every calorie and all possible support, yet know that you will still have at least many more months of physical and mental recovery once you get out (inpatient is for medical stabilization, it can’t take you to full remission).
Because restrictive eating disorders are anxiety disorders (for those with the predisposition, restriction suppresses anxiety and numbs difficult feelings), therapy is important. CBT, DBT are good. If you are having trouble committing to recovery or feel conflicted, Motivational Interviewing is another good therapy technique.
It all sounds hard, and it is, but full recovery (utterly renouncing restriction and healing body and mind from starvation) is worth it x100. Your whole world opens up socially, intellectually and creatively when you’re no longer hungry and you know you will never go hungry (or exhaust yourself with exercise) ever again.
I will second her response, OP, acceptance is key. Accept the disease you fight. I know that is hard – I have my own diseases that make me want to give up, but I cannot imagine battling yours. What strength you have! Accept your bad days. If they happen, they happen, that’s a part of your journey. Accept your good days as achievements of your hard work. Try to cultivate gratefulness in the moments you want to despair. It will take years, maybe, before the revelation comes, but it will happen. Don’t give up!
I look for generosity, the movement of celestial bodies as seasons change, silly moments in other people’s lives when they think no one is watching. I let myself laugh when I am low because there are many beautiful things that we are privileged to witness and understand in ways that no other creatures (that we know of) can comprehend on this Earth. And after wanting to die for a long time, I am finally finding peace despite my pain. I believe you can do this too. Keep going!
This quote helped me, from Ray Bradbury (yeah, it’s sci fi):
….and the men of Mars realized that in order to survive they would have to forgo asking that one question any longer: Why live? Life was its own answer. Life was the propagation of more life and the living of as good a life as possible. The Martians realized that they asked the question ‘Why live at all?’ at the height of some period of war and despair, when there was no answer. But once the civilization calmed, quieted, and wars ceased, the question became senseless in a new way. Life was now good and needed no arguments.
In other words, it’s always been there. You don’t have to do anything to find a reason. Like coke says, you already know it.
Beautiful answer. The reality is that you have two choices. One is easy and short. That is death. The other is harder and long. It is called life. I have pondered both. For the moment I choose life. The other choice cannot be revoked.
I hear you, I love you, I stand with you. Please hang on until this dark phase passes, because it will if you let it. It can take a long time. You are worth the wait.
Remember, the world only gets one of you. Make it special.
I’d also suggest this letter writer read the advice from the Dear Polly column at nymag.com.
Since everyone’s sharing their discovery, I thought I’d add my own in, as well. Maybe there’s something between each of our stories that will coalesce into your own personal wisdom. Actually, in some way, that’s where I found my own answer. I’ve spent more of the last two years reading people’s comments and stories littered across the internet than I have doing anything else. I mean anything. There’s something intoxicating about it – a vicarious high from stealing their language, their thoughts. I take ownership, and spit it out of my own mouth. See how it tastes, see how it feels. I keep what I like, remember what I don’t.
At some point I came back from dinner, mulling over a conversation in which I directly paraphrased someone else’s argument in my own voice. I asked myself, “Have you ever even had a shred of original thought?” And for a second, I didn’t know. I felt like I was being accused of something awful by my own reflection. I submitted. I said, “No, I’m a pretender. I shamelessly fake my intelligence.”
I was that willing to give in to a voice that didn’t come from anywhere but my own head. No one has ever told me that, that I’m a brain-dead parrot. No one had recently expressed to me their disgust over similar such behavior. This was an internal process that I couldn’t trace back to anything but my own self-contempt. But I took it for granted, didn’t even fight myself on it. I just accepted this new truth: I’m an idiot.
Some time later, I came back to the idea. What the fuck is an original thought, even? When you’re a kid, putting square blocks in square holes with your mom or dad, they walk you through it. “You have the square block. Does the square block fit in the round hole? No. Does it go in the…” And you repeat after them, “Square block in round hole? No. Square block goes in the…” Your whole thought process is this verbal vomit that you slowly internalize.
Welcome to learning.
So who’s the teacher now? I am. And I’m teaching and reteaching myself to hate myself. If I can teach myself to do that, I can teach myself to do anything. Seriously. What the fuck human being, evolved for self-preservation, would teach themselves to hate themselves? Well, a lot of them. But I look at all the people around me, and I am filled with love. Love comes so easily. I want to accept you into this big old family called humanity. People look in my eyes and they see that I am listening to them. I will disagree with them, I’ll fight them, and I will hear them out. They persuade me easily.
But me? I don’t fight with myself, I don’t listen to myself, I don’t persuade myself. I just accept this shit reality I’ve given to myself.
Fuck that. I swallowed some fucking fluoxetine, and said this is my life now. Religiously. I am so far from healed, but so much further along. Because that’s the thing about this truth – it doesn’t save you. It just tells you that life is worth living.
You don’t know what your capacity is. You just don’t. But it exceeds your belief. It exceeds your imagination. And when I saw that, when I actually perceived it, I made this connection: that capacity extends to myself, and I genuinely didn’t think I deserved that. But I do. I do.
I found the answer by reading this post. I have been battling with depression for 16 years. I have wrangled with the question of continuing to live or dying. I wrote a suicide note two days ago and then the day after that made me wonder why I bothered continuing to live.
I’m so thankful I hung on for one more day and it got me to this post because the answer is beautiful and it really will save you and I hope that the person who sent this question and all those who have asked the same one(s) find the answer.
The answer has been worth all of this.
This response brought a tear to my eye. Coquette, thank you.
This answer should be in your book (if you are writing one)
Weighing up the good things in life against the bad things isn’t possible even if life was so quantifiable. The only way of knowing if a life was worth living is to have lived it… would you take the average over a month? A year? 10 years? Any amount of time would be arbitrary except the full extent of a life and since we can’t predict the future, we’d have to live it to calculate it.
Personally for me, if I want to feel like participating in life, it’s important to be grateful for the great people I’ve met and got to know, and all the seconds I’ve spent with them, every delicious coffee I’ve drank, music I’ve heard, the times I’ve felt the sun on my skin, every strong emotion I’m capable of feeling, and the opportunities that have been given to me – even if I fuck it up (fucking up in some way is inevitable, but even if I fuck it up completely), it’s important to me that I’m grateful for the opportunity to fuck it up. I guess those are the little and big things that I hold on to, but I guess it’s different things for everyone.
Sounds like you’re pretty good at being grateful and feeling love and wanting to live (you don’t sound like you’ve given up), but I don’t think those things are the sort of thing that are the answers to breaking habits and stopping harmful coping mechanisms.
And since you already have a mental health counsellor that you like, it sounds like you’re already making some good practical steps at combating your eating disorder. Of course there’s always more specific therapies and things to try (and you should bear them in mind in case you need them), but it looks like you’re really making progress on all the major fronts. It’s scary to be doing everything that you can and still not being sure it’s going to work, but honestly it sounds like you’re doing really great and giving yourself the best chance of the next bit of life being good.
Unfortunately, the way out of restricting food, over-exercising and purging is to stop restricting food, over-exercising and purging. It isn’t easy, but one does develop rather individual techniques to “trick” oneself out of damaging behaviours, and the more weight one gains, the more regular meals become, the easier it will get.
It’s one of the most fabulous things to enjoy food, to let it titillate your pallet, and one day you will enjoy it again.
It’s a fabulous thing to be able to look at your naked body and think “this doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s pretty cool as is”.
It’s a fabulous thing to be able to run and dance and go for long hikes, and not be counting the calories you’ve spent, and not feeling every fibre of your body screaming for rest with a low tension, cramping muscles and a heart flutter.
All this is desirable and obtainable. There are bumps on the way to recovery, and this is the kind of thing that takes years to fully get over and leaves scars for life, but it’s such a wonderful life to have gotten rid of Anorexia Nervosa.
One thing that did work for me in increasing hunger and the pleasure I got from eating food was weed. I’d recommend trying it with friends (for fun), followed by dinner and a sleepover (to avoid purging behaviours). Other than that, it’s really just about letting yourself try to get better, recognizing the stuff that works, the stuff that doesn’t, and having the proper support system to catch you when you trip.
However, as much as I love my life now that anorexia isn’t a part of it anymore, I can’t argue that the net sum of good experiences is superior to the net sum of negative experiences. I mean, just look at the world in which we live, it’s enough to make any lucid person depressed.
Also, even as a “survivor” I’m still struggling to survive, to resist full blown substance abuse, to fight for joy (rather than happiness).
I could tell you about God, or the universe, or the abyss, dear OP. I could try to placate you with statements like “life is for helping others”, and even though helping others gives me a reason to get up in the morning, it sounds like a bit of a pyramid scheme. I believe that all these are honest lies, and I lose no respect for people who base their lives around them. I just feel like these justify life for servant robots, not sentient creatures who can experience pain.
However, we’re all going to die really soon anyways*, so I don’t think suicide is justifiable either, even when I myself feel suicidal. I realized that a few months after I saw a woman violently kill herself.
Life is a beautiful miracle, or a stupid mistake (the universe doesn’t care either way), but there is something quite singular to it, isn’t there?
Maybe that’s what CQ means by this personal and powerful reason to live. Maybe the mere existence of your own singularity is sufficient.
Then again, how the hell would I know?
*actually, as terrified as I am of death, this thought is sometimes more comforting than it should be. Link to a cute nerdy song about universal oblivion : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hxMs0cVCdM
Thank you for this beautifully written response. Reading it meant the absolute world to me. I printed your answer out and put it all over my wall, and gave it to the mental health counselor on the unit, too. Thank you so much. This gave me a lot to process and a new way of thinking about things. A hopeful one. One that I was lacking.
Glad to hear it, Jocelyn. I’m looking forward to you finding your answer.
“How do they decide that the little things that are good in life outweigh all of the horrible things in their lives?”
You choose to make the little things bigger. Mental disorder puts you at Ground Zero of happiness. You’re dead in all the ways but one. From there, anything is good and any way is up.
For me personally, I said to myself, fuck it and started taking pottery classes. I’d always wanted to but never gotten the option. Because I had no history at it I couldn’t hate myself for failing, and because it feels good to make things, I fell in love with it. It feels good to finally feel something other than despair. It was a tiny, little flicker of happiness, a three-hour class a week… But it was something. And from there I made things bigger.
All you have to do to decide to live is decide to die… tomorrow. Most people are great at procrastinating. So procrastinate on one more decision. Late at night when you want to kill yourself, go to bed. Say it to yourself: “Go to bed.” And then work up from there. If you’re procrastinating on killing yourself, you can do whatever you want. Try things you said you’d try “someday”. Say things you mean. Be kind. Be cruel. Be honest. Just BE, and be honestly, truthfully, genuinely, because you don’t have the energy for any more fucks. You’re at ground zero. Any direction is up.
When you find something that makes you feel again, then keep at that as hard as you can.
Thanks. This response helped put me in the right mental space and redirect the way I’ve been thinking about my own issues- namely, how suicidal ideation has carved itself a little niche into my everyday life. This reminded me to step back and separate myself from my sickness. It also made me smile.
Honestly, I come to this site when I need to reset. Every few months, just about. I appreciate your candor and the time you put into all this. It takes me out of my head long enough to take a good look at where I am and go, “Alright. I’m alright.” and keep moving forward. Sometimes it’s just what I need. So again, thanks.
I’m the last person who should ever give advice on this stuff, honestly. Im a huge mess, trapped by my own personal disorders (asperger’s syndrome, anxiety and panic disorders, severe depression, the works), and I do a lot of the same things (looking for little, insignificant things to make me smile when I really feel like bleeding out every porous surface of my skin). I know how tiring it is. My life had felt like it had no reason for a few months after I lost my ex whom I had devoted my entire self to. I was lost, I was in utter chaos, no moment of peace in any given day. I went on feeling lost and empty for the better part of the last year, then I took a visit to see my mother and I found my answer. While all the fucking miserable shit is going on in the life I live day to day is crushing the little things I use as distractions, I have one thing that matters enough to me to make it all worth it, my mother, who I had taken for granted these last 3 years. I’ve felt more free, less at war with myself, and been able to think more clearly, and function properly these last few months. I guess it could be that I’m finally getting past that phase of teenage angst, admittedly late in life (mid 20s) but who knows. It’s not a concern. I have my reasons, and fuck all the things that drag me down, because I’ll just get back up. You’ll find yours. Just meditate on it.
I sent a message before realizing I could’ve instead posted it as a comment, but:
Thank you for the sentence, “Embrace your mess.” It’s given me new perspective on how to just let things be. This is such a good post.
I just had one of the most indescribably eventful few days of my life and it lead me to my answer.
I just felt the need to express that. Maybe someone who read this and is skeptical: this is one more person saying that this is true. it can sound like the biggest, nastiest pile of new age bullshit from the depths of mental illness. It did to me. But I decided to trust that it exists anyway and I am so very glad I did. I am less than one week post-answer and I’m pretty sure every single aspect of my life is already changing for the better, for the sole reason that I am finally truly motivated to do all the things I’ve always known I should be doing to make it better. I became a whole new person literally overnight
it is so real and so profound and so so so worth sticking around for. every word of this post makes perfect sense to me in a way it didnt a week ago. I promise.
by the way, you cant possibly predict what will lead you to the answer. mine was a coincidental perfect storm of circumstances that on paper sound like a truly traumatically horrible few days. keeping an open mind probably helps as much as anything possibly can