A few weeks after turning eighteen, I packed my belongings into my boyfriend’s car and left for Western Washington University. In a short year and a half, I would drop out after struggling with drug and alcohol abuse and an eating disorder, symptoms of mental health conditions that went undiagnosed until years after I left school.
Things at Western started out fine. I found a job pretty quickly, settled into my dorm, and did well in my classes. But around the middle of fall quarter, things spiraled downhill rapidly. My high school boyfriend broke up with me, and I felt completely abandoned. This was intensified by my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) symptoms.
BPD is a mental health condition that is often caused by childhood neglect, which rings especially true in my case. My parents were always more like my kids than my parents. They got married at nineteen, had me at twenty three, and divorced when I was six. My dad got me on weekends, which meant I was living almost full time with my alcoholic mother. I had to grow up fast and young so I feel like I never really grew up all the way. I still feel like that eight year old girl taking care of my mom blackout drunk, cleaning her vomit from our sheets, holding her hair back as she kneeled over the toilet. My mom was mostly around physically (save for a few times I woke up in an empty apartment, my mom passed out somewhere), but mentally she was gone, and it made me feel worthless, like my own mother didn’t care about me. If she loved me, she would quit drinking, right? I struggled with this. I believe as a child I knew something was wrong, but it was just my life and I had to deal with it, so I rationalized. Because I just could not understand my mother’s alcoholism, my brain made it my fault. And my mom helped, by telling me repeatedly that I drove her to drink. I began to worry that something was seriously wrong with me.
I learned to shove my emotions deep in my brain and put on a happy face. My mom could be messy and sloppy drunk but if I showed any emotional extreme she called me dramatic and overly sensitive or obnoxious. If I tried to call her out I was disrespectful and bratty. So I shut up. Or in the words of Allie Rowbottom in her 2018 memoir Jell-O Girls (one of my absolute favorites this year), “it was her job to...smile and nod and assure the world she would manage her emotion, contain it inside her, a spell in a bottle, and shelve it away.” Combine the alcoholic mom with my nascent self-hatred, and thus, my abandonment issues are born.
I kind of went off the deep end when this big breakup happened. I felt out of place and confused, being away from home for the first time. Emotional trauma built up from being the child of an alcoholic left me woefully ill-equipped to deal with basically anything. Another poignant Jell-O Girls quote describes my mindset perfectly: “she knew what it was like inside the mind of a motherless girl. Long stretches of icy numbness inside and then rage, fear, and a dull longing for something she knew she could never have”. I was already angry and sad and convinced I ruined everything I touched, and losing a close attachment, my worst fear coming true, multiplied all those feelings. I wondered what was wrong with me that made people I loved keep leaving.
After things ended with my boyfriend I felt lonely and depressed. So, I subconsciously did what I didn’t realize my mom was teaching me to do all those years. I turned to alcohol to numb the pain. It didn’t become clear to me until recently that some part of my brain learned from watching my mom that when we are sad or anxious we get drunk. I spent a majority of my freshman year drinking and my mental health predictably started to decline.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I moved into a friend’s old bedroom at her mom’s. I worked as a summer nanny for two girls aged eight and ten, who I had also worked with the previous summer. Oh, and I stopped eating.
Being a woman in this society, I had struggled with body image issues since my preteen years, and again, my mom was no help here. I remember going on a hike with her when I was about ten. My mother stopped to take a photo of me and she told me to suck in my stomach for the photo. This is the first time I can remember being aware of my body in that way, the possibility that I might be fat haunting me like that was the worst thing a person could be. Like my mom would only approve of me if I were skinny, her love contingent on how my body looked. As I was about to turn nineteen I lost fifty pounds in six months.
This was also the summer that I tried cocaine for the first time. I was visiting a friend from high school in Los Angeles and we went to a party. Cocaine and alcohol made me fall in love with artificial happiness. Being on cocaine feels like nothing painful can touch you. It made me feel like part of something. It made everything good. To a young girl in as much pain as me, that quick fix was irresistible. It didn’t hurt that it helped me skip meals, because the smaller I got, the more control I felt I had. After a lifetime of my external circumstances being completely uncontrollable, the internal control that I got from shrinking myself to nothing was like another drug.
At the worst point in my eating disorder, I would allow myself one meal a week, surviving on my “safe foods,” Sour Patch Kids and Wheat Thins, in between. My life was spiraling out of control, and starving myself was the only control I had. Sickeningly, it made me feel powerful each time I went down a size or lost more weight. The eating disorder started to show in more ways than just my shrinking body. My hair started falling out. I was freezing all the time. I stopped going to class because I had so little body mass that it was painful to sit in the plastic chairs, feeling my bones press against my skin, leaving bruises. Tiny bruises speckled up and down my spine, which stuck out from my back gruesomely.
At this point, I could no longer deny that I was sick. I moved back into my friend’s mom’s house and got sober from drugs but I still drank. After years of struggling, in January of this year I knew I needed to quit drinking. I just had an epiphany that I was going to stay depressed and unable to control my emotions if I kept coping with them by drowning them in alcohol. I tried to do dry January and was unsuccessful. I tried doing Whole30 and only made it two days without a drink. I think these things were a way for me to try to fix the problem without fully admitting what the problem was. I was neglecting my mental and physical health and I did not know how to help myself. I lied to my psychiatrist about my drinking habits and was too embarrassed to get to a meeting. I was honestly not even sure if things were bad enough, because I maintained a job and a façade of being “okay”.
By June, though, I reached a breaking point. I was suicidal and suffering and I could not bear it anymore. I checked into the psych unit at my local hospital and spent nine days there. It was honestly a relief to be there, because I could finally take off the mask I was wearing by pretending everything was okay, the mask I had worn since childhood. There was some freedom in admitting that things were very much not okay. At the hospital they helped me get sober and out of the immediate mental health crisis I was in.
After I discharged, I had a follow up appointment with my psychiatrist and she referred me to a partial hospitalization program (PHP) that I am about to finish as I write this. August 15th was my first day of PHP and I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is changing your emotions through behavior, and that the patients and staff were all women or folks who identify as women, which made me feel safe. PHP is fifty hours a week, ten hours a day. We basically do group therapy, learning DBT skills and doing other therapeutic activities like yoga and meditation and art. We also have an individual therapy session once per week, something I had not done since I was a preteen.
Again, Rowbottom’s story parallels my own. She spent three months in an outpatient eating disorder treatment center. She writes, “although I wept with nerves before the first meeting, I quickly felt encircled by a coven of women who shared my story.” Reading this passage gives me chills because I relate to it so deeply. There is a sense of sisterhood in the simple fact that we are all in PHP together. We essentially spend fifty hours a week in group therapy so I have formed fierce attachments with a lot of the girls and it is hard to watch them graduate, even though I am immensely proud of them. These girls (and my incredible therapist) helped me find my voice again, after I numbed everything out for close to eight years.
I will finish the program September 21st, which is three days away at the time of this writing. I feel so much about that fact. Sad, anxious, excited, scared, proud. The DBT skills I have learned and the friendships I have formed here brought me out of darkness. I am so thankful. After PHP, I will step down to a shorter program that is three hours a day, for seven more weeks, and continue adding DBT skills to my tool belt and seeing a therapist. Even after the short time I have been in PHP, I feel completely changed. I have ninety two days of sobriety, and the terrified girl who checked in to the hospital would never have thought that could happen. I have learned skills to actually cope with my emotions instead of pushing them away. I have finally decided to live, for myself, and myself alone.
Quinn McMurray is a writer, nanny, and student living in Seattle with her boyfriend and her Siamese cat named Mulder. This is her first published piece.