Leaving the Nest

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Leaving the Nest

For the first time in over 2 years, I felt like I was making headway.

I finally felt good enough to write letters, cook most of my meals, and even leave the house occasionally, but something still wasn’t right. No matter how much I ate, I kept losing weight (now dipping down into the 90s).

I tried eating even more, but my weight kept plummeting—along with my newly regained energy.

It was like my life force was returning and fading at the same time. Even the slightest bit of exertion (like laughing too hard or going to a yard sale) would put me back in bed for days. This stirred up dark memories of when I was too sick to sit up, and I was scared that I was heading back in that direction. I started to wonder if I was ever going to feel healthy and “normal” again.

I dreaded telling my friends and family that I still wasn’t up for visiting. And if I did commit to anything, I worried about what others would think if I had to cancel or leave early. The last thing I wanted was for everyone to see me as unreliable and flakey on top of being sick and weak.

This triggered a kind of anxiety that I’d never felt before. Suddenly, the outside world seemed overwhelming and unsafe. Things I used to enjoy (like going to the store or getting together with family on a holiday), sent me into a full-blown panic attack. I started to feel different, separate, and like something was wrong with me—which led to even more anxiety.

I didn’t know what to do with the emotions moving through me, so I started writing about them in hopes of finding some insight and ease. I filled notebook after notebook with thoughts, feelings, dreams, and prayers. My journals became a source of solace and even guidance.

This made me curious about the mental, emotional, and spiritual side of healing, so I joined a remote library program and read every self-help book I could get my hands on. I’ve always had a tough time reading, so this was a huge deal for me (more on that later). I couldn’t wait for the red zippered bag to come in the mail—delivering nuggets of wisdom from Bernie Siegel, Louise Hay, Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, and other pioneers in the field of holistic medicine.

Each book gave me another clue and even more hope that I could heal.

Receiving 101

I was still barely functioning, but I knew in my bones it was almost time to go.  

Even though I was scared (and Mom was even more so), my gut told me I needed to leave the comfort of my family’s home for this next stage of healing. It felt like I was being guided to more answers that I could only find “out there.” I didn’t fully understand it, but I knew I had to trust.

Meanwhile, my lifelong dream of becoming a hairstylist was fading away and being replaced with ideas I’d never imagined before–like going to college and studying nutrition. I didn’t have the grades or SAT scores to get accepted into a university, much less the confidence to apply (more on that later, too), but the drive to learn more was so strong, I was willing to do anything to get there.

As much as I wanted to be fully independent, I knew I couldn’t do this without help—and a LOT of it.

After months of waffling, I applied for an apartment at an elderly and disabled housing development, about a mile from the University of Maine. At first, I didn’t want the stigma of being “disabled,” but then I realized the folks who lived there probably didn’t either. So in the fall of ’94, almost 3 years after I first got sick, I became the youngest resident ever to move into Freeman Forest apartments.

My rent was subsidized, based on the $446/month I received through SSI Disability (which I was darn lucky to qualify for). This wasn’t enough to pay my bills and put food on the table (especially the amount needed to sustain me), so I swallowed my false pride again and applied for food stamps. I spent my whole life watching my parents do ANYTHING to avoid receiving government assistance, and now my entire future depended on it.

The government wasn’t the only thing I depended on. My generous mom also drove 200 miles three days a week to help me with groceries and take me to appointments. We didn’t have Amazon Fresh or Uber back then, so as hard as it was to accept, I don’t think I could’ve done this without her.

Offerings

I lived next door to a woman in her 80s named Caroline and her cat, Sookie. Caroline was always trying to “fatten me up” with beef stew and dairy-drenched dishes. I tried explaining that I had trouble digesting these foods, but her offerings kept coming (almost every single day). It became a constant practice of learning how to politely refuse without rejecting her love and care—and figuring out what to do with the food when I didn’t have the heart to say no.

Meanwhile, I continued to explore what I could digest with more gusto than ever.

My ENTIRE day revolved around two things: cooking and eating. I challenged myself to try something new every week, and I discovered a whole new world of food. But it wasn’t just what I was eating that was important. Food became a medium for giving myself the love and care that I needed to heal.

Even though I lived alone, I’d arrange my food as nicely as I could on my plate. I’d fold my napkin in a triangle and set out my favorite fork (or chopsticks). Sometimes, I’d even light a candle. My dishes were mismatched and my food was humble, but I offered it to myself with all the love and care that I could muster.

Despite the nourishing food and good intentions, my weight continued to drop—now into the 80s. I chopped my hair short because it overpowered my thin face, and my pants now all came from the children’s department.

I tried compensating with heaps of peanut butter (sometimes a half-cup or more at a time), and I drank protein drinks between meals, but they only made me feel bloated and sick.

This made me realize it was going to take a lot more than food to heal.

Luckily, help was just around the corner…

To be continued…

Comments

  1. Amy McCarthy says:

    Sharon,

    The unfolding story of your journey is both painful to read, and yet so inspiring, since I know there is a happy ending ;) Having lost 30 lbs myself, at one point, from my already tall and lean frame, I can so relate to the fear and anxiety of not being able to eat and/or assimilate food due to digestive distress. So scary. I felt I looked like a skeleton and felt such shame to be seen by the world. The fact that you turned this around with self-care, by educating yourself, and through determination and perseverance, just keeps me in awe of you!!

    • Sharon Gray says:

      I feel you, Amy. There’s the fear and distress from feeling sick, and then there’s the pain of seeing ourselves as less than or unattractive (which can happen no matter what size we are). Tending to either of these things can be a life-long practice. At least it has been for me. And thank you, Amy. The awe is mutual.

  2. Sara Wohlleb says:

    Thank you so much for this heart-filled, vulnerable and inspiring personal story. It is a blessing to follow along

  3. Leah Ann says:

    Oh how scary it must have been for you Sharon. What strength you had and determination to learn how to heal yourself. Another feather in your hat!!

  4. Sara Tro says:

    I love you so! The sharing of this story, in this way, is like you’re sharing a meal with us! I can’t wait to read more.

  5. Mary Lou says:

    Thank you so much, Sharon.

  6. Saskia Gregory says:

    I’m glad you’re sharing your journey, Sharon.
    Love you always.

  7. Agnes Almquist says:

    I cannot even imagine how you survived, but I am sure happy you did. You must have a very strong spirit!

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