A long way home

Last October, I left UBC with my boyfriend to go back to Montreal. He had crossed Turtle Island to come visit me at UBC and was supposed to head back alone after a month — our reunion at Christmas time would then be glorious.

But it didn't go that way at all: I ended up in his Clownmobile, heading home and leaving my studies behind right in the middle of the term.

We left for our roadtrip on October 27, but my journey began a lot earlier than that. Why? Simply because it happens. Life, I mean. Most of the time, you just realize how much it happens whether you want it or not. Most of the time, you realize that the sense of control you have over your own path is merely an illusion.

Two years ago, in 2016, I was given the chance to start my bachelor degree at UBC and I really thought I was in control — and I was mad at my family and friends for telling me otherwise.

All was well, thank you very much. Anorexia? Oh, please! Don’t be so dramatic. I just didn’t have much of an appetite. Plus, as I said, I was in control.

Except I wasn’t. And that illusion nearly killed me.

I bet my life

I have been sick for more than two years. But the truth is, I didn’t start trying to find my way out of the woods until I couldn't bear seeing people I love suffering from my illness — until I couldn’t bear losing anything more to anorexia. But even then, recovery remains a vague concept in my head. Probably because the tales are true: you do get lost among the looming trees when darkness takes over.

The worst part is, even now as I am writing this in Montreal, I am still not convinced I want to heal from the bite of this vicious snake. I believe that’s the thing with eating disorders: you get addicted to them — or at least I did. I couldn’t imagine being worth existing without this little voice constantly pushing me to charge through my limits… and I didn't mind destroying my good-for-nothing self along the way.

I wish I could explain how it all started, but that’s another fabulous thing with eating disorders: it’s sometimes quite tricky to know what triggers them —and by the time you figure out where you come from and what you’re heading towards, you’re ironically already being devoured by the illness. All I know is that a little more than two years ago, right before turning eighteen, I suddenly got very self-conscious. What was I doing with my life? Where was I going? I was hoping to work to do some good in the world, but what was I actually bringing? Was I worthy enough to step into it?

These are quite common questions for people when they reach a crossroad, you may say, and I would agree. I may only be human, but for as much as I’m aware of, we are all only humans — no discrimination intended towards possible creatures or aliens.

Everybody has moments of pain.

The thing is, to some people, these questions might trigger some insomnia for one night or two, a sudden need to go hunting for a long-lost soft-toy in their dusty attic or a peculiar appetite for double-fudge ice-cream. Then they move on. Just like I thought I did.

Except I really didn’t. I had been bitten by hyper-performance and it had me throwing myself into all kinds of competitive sports, academic projects, volunteering... And sure, I did achieve many amazing things with this new frenzy. I got stronger and faster than I ever thought I could be, running my first half marathon and participating in my first taekwondo world championships.

I got better at writing too, winning my very first short-story competition in French and getting to represent my school at a provincial literary prize. I learned so many interesting things in school, throwing myself into the work, especially when I could learn more about human rights issues, anthropology and so on.

Looking back, I can say that I should have been very proud of all I was doing back then. But that’s the thing. I wasn’t. It was never enough. I was never enough.

Internal battles that turned into wars

I graduated from Cégep du Vieux Montréal after my required two years, with the best grades in my program and with an incredible scholarship. I found myself having the chance to study away from home, on the other side of the country at UBC. I was overwhelmed with thankfulness. But I wasn’t proud.

I was terribly sick and, most dangerously, blind about it. I wouldn’t admit it, but I really wasn’t doing well. No matter what I did, no matter what I achieved, a little voice in my head kept telling me I was mediocre. Not enough. Weak. Unimportant. That I needed to do more, hurt more, if I truly wanted to make a difference — and as I ignored the danger that this internal nemesis represented, it only grew stronger and louder.

Most of the time, the venom circulated through my veins as poor self-confidence and as self-destructive thoughts. Again, terribly human things, right? So I wasn’t all that concerned. Except eventually, as I started coming home from way-too-often sport practices crying, as my writings got darker and my drawings scarier, my parents and boyfriend got very worried.

Honestly, I should have listened to them. But I was sick, remember? It isn’t a metaphor. I am not trying to make myself a victim. But it was a fact. I was mentally ill: in my head, it was dark, lonely, and yet there was no other way. And so when my mum made me step onto a scale to show me how much my weight had dropped, I didn’t care. When I realized I was hurting myself, I didn’t care. And I didn’t try to make any changes. In fact, I fought ferociously to stay the same or to go even deeper. If I made it through my summer and got to UBC in fall 2016, it is a lot because my parents worked hard as hell to make me eat.

You might have guessed: as soon as I was alone in residence, I went back waltzing with the demon. I let the voice in my head wash over me and it took control. I was in total denial of my own struggle with an eating disorder and I almost effortlessly led myself onto the highway to hell.

Suffering from a mental illness such as anorexia, isn't about having nothing to be happy about or not making enough efforts to be happy. I do see I am a lucky person and I am slowly learning to enjoy life and to dream again. But it is a constant battle with an internal demon that uses your own strengths to bring you down, that strives to suck from you the idea that you may actually be better off without it. That you can be free. That life is worth it.

To me, it means constantly battling an internal demon that wants to kill you.

Last year, my parents had to force me to leave UBC after a few — and yet terribly long — weeks of having to watch me go under. I don’t remember very well how it all happened; my brain was undernourished to such an extent that my memories from that time tend to escape me.

But I know that during the weeks I managed to push through, desperately — and naively — hoping to get to the final exams in December. I was a breathing minefield. Anorexia and its destructive patterns, thoughts and consequences completely took over my existence. I had a constant urge to prove to myself that I was worth walking on Earth; nothing I did was enough. I had a desperate need for people to see me, understand me, validate my every move. I isolated myself a little more every week as the little voice in my head kept making me believe that everybody hated me. I felt like I needed to do and experience everything. I was dizzy and exhausted all the time —all of my energy was spent on either obsessing about or avoiding food and exercising. I was melting away and yet all my restrictive and self-destructive behaviours were the only things I was proud of.

I wasn’t eating.

I wasn’t seeing people as I got more and more afraid of them.

I was over-exercising everyday.

I was calling my parents way too often, crying.

I was stuck in a constant panic attack.

Back at the crossroads

It took me days to decide whether I was going to leave again with Alexandre this year or not. Long, restless, surreal days, spent spinning my thoughts round and round in my head. Going back and forth between “I clearly need to leave; it is the smartest thing to do,” and “Of course, I ought to stay! I love it here and nobody should tell me I can’t make it through the term!” And even as we rolled out of the parkade next to Gage on Thursday afternoon, my mind wasn’t getting any closer to accepting my decision.

I had failed, again. I was a failure. Definitely, now. And forever and ever.

Anorexia had been quiet-ish as I was striving in my studies. Dancing between volunteering opportunities, choir practices and conferences, I was happy. At any rate, much happier than I had been for what seemed like forever. When I came to the conclusion, hearing my parents and boyfriend’s worries, that I was spiraling down and that I most likely wouldn’t make it to the end of the term for a second time, it crushed me. I bet you could say it would have crushed anybody: leaving behind passionating projects, peoples, hopes, dreams... No one’s asking for it. But not only did it crush me, it also re-ignited a part of my eating disorder I thought I was getting close to uprooting. It was like someone had decided to turn the volume up of the demon’s voice in my head, painfully and dangerously fast.

Anorexia had been dormant; it rose again as its full happiness-sucker form. I still haven’t learned how to produce a Patronus, though.

I was hyperactive on Thursday morning, stocking all my things in Alex’s car. I became quiet as the day went by, focused on the battle inside. I am ashamed to say that by the time we turned the Clownmobile’s engine on and went down 4th Avenue towards the highway, I had given up. The monster had won over my head. All of the anchors had been lost to sea; nothing made sense anymore.

On the road

Thankfully, our first stop was merely a few kilometres away from Vancouver. I know an incredible family in Abbotsford: they actually were my host-family in an exchange I did back when I was fourteen, and that’s where we spent our first road trip night. So adventurous, I know.

I say thankfully, because I think both Alexandre and I realized just how difficult of a journey our week in the car would be. Just how steep the mountain of overcoming anorexia still was — and just how devastated I was.

Through the week, we slept together on mats in the back of the Clownmobile, we drove together in the front seats, we picnicked together in rest stops. It was fabulous crossing the country side by side, but we realized that neither of us were much into threesomes —anorexia was always present.

Sometimes, after an ever-too-long-and-anxious grocery shop, when Alexandre had to warm up the canned soups by himself, putting the stove inside the van at the risk of being suffocated to resist the constant wind of Alberta, he got tired; or when he had to force a breakfast, a snack or a basic meal onto my camping plate, and to fight by himself the demon I had given up on winning against; or when he had to deal with the panic attack that followed any exposition to food. Then, he got seriously mad. It resulted in a Clownmobile with a very silent Alexandre, a very anxious and shaken up Charlotte, and a very content and victorious demon.

We had some memorable moments, though. On the night of Halloween, we had decided we would go trick-or-treat wherever we stopped for the night... That was before getting completely stuck in Ignace, Ontario, a small village on the road two hours away from Thunder Bay. We just couldn't go any further in the dark and the blowing snow. We soon dropped the idea of trick-or-treating, as the population of Ignace seemed to have decided that Halloween decorations were overrated —and as everything was closing at merely 8 p.m., we ended up eating dinner in the town's Tavern, ironically the first I was stepping foot in. Although we were afraid of being cold on that snowy night, we slept surprisingly well in the empty parking lots of Ignace’s Tavern.

The next day, the traffic stopped completely on the highway because of a tragic collision between two trucks in front of us. We had nowhere to go, but we were so grateful to be welcomed by villagers along the road. They opened the doors of their curling centre, where we were offered tea, coffee, chicken noodle soup, scones and cookies. Although at the time everything scared me off except for the tea, I remain impressed by the spontaneous warmth of these people.

We did have amazing times. Canada is an incredibly beautiful territory. We were awakened by a guard in the Glaciers National Park, who forced us to leave early morning with a contravention for illegal camping, but also with an amazing view of the sun rising against the snow on top of the mountains. We were struck by the sudden flatness of the prairies, captivated by the incommensurability of the Great Lakes.

And Alexandre was of infinite patience most of the time, full of compassion and tenderness when I would start spinning dark thoughts. He encouraged me to draw or to play alphabet games with him, especially when Saskatchewan got too flat. He encouraged me to put on music on and sing, to play ukulele or to make lists of future possible projects. He encouraged me to find ancres (what is this?) along the way, along the stretched out line of the driveway that was ineluctably getting me home.

Tired of snakes and ladders

Once upon a time, I was blind to it all. That’s the crazy part of the eating disorder, at least in my case: it really is a mental illness that takes over.

Anorexia isn't a way of life. I didn’t choose to be sick. I didn’t choose to make my mom cry on the phone, to make my dad beg for me to eat one stupid grape more than the day before. I didn’t choose to lose friends. I didn’t choose to be depressed, to have anxiety attacks at any time of the day or the night, to not be able to sleep and therefore to have my nose in my books until four in the morning. Nor did I choose to have chest pains like bees stinging my heart when I was going up the stairs, to spend long minutes washing my hands because I could never get them to warm up, to wash what was left of my once annoyingly way too fluffy hair under near boiling water as I was always freezing. I didn’t choose to be so scared of life that I was almost welcoming my self-destruction with relief. I couldn’t get out of my own head, of my own prison.

I didn’t choose to be sick, I just couldn’t stop myself from dying.

I had medical follow-ups every week with weigh-ins, blood tests and electrocardiograms at some points. Whatever. I personally didn't care much, but those results were being sent home.

Eventually, my parents couldn’t bear anymore and told me that I had to come home. Right away. I remember crying, shouting, trying to convince them that I was fine, happy, that I had so much coming up. Midterms, visits to the museums, hikes... My mom got tired of trying to argue with the demon flaming in my eyes and she left the Skype call. My dad continued to try to reach me, give me advice on what was left for me to do to close my files at the University. I didn’t want to, but that really wasn’t the point. That was the least of their priorities. I had no choice. The plane ticket was booked for the next day. They would be expecting me at the airport. If I wasn’t on the plane, I could be sure they were going to be at my door at Place Vanier the following day to get me home.

Now, I am aware of how terrified my parents must have been, that night. Because they knew that I would hurt myself for this, for what I perceived like an ultimate failure. Like the end of my life.

I am thankful today that my parents are so incredibly strong. That they have the courage and the unconditional love to confront their illness-controlled daughter and to not back away before my tears and my pleads. I realize now that what made me so angry at them in 2016 was one of the hardest decision they had to make.

Yet, when they booked that plane ticket, they saved my life.

I am also thankful that, in 2016, a part of me wanted to get me safe to Montreal. A part of me wanted to fight, to leave, to live.

On my way

Props to my boyfriend and to my ever so fabulous retired host-mom, dad and sister: I surprisingly had fun that first night in Abbotsford, moving away from what I had dreamed of.

Props to my boyfriend: I did eat that night, however loud it was screaming in my mind.

And props again to him: when I started crying and panicking and letting anorexia speak through my lips when we went upstairs for my last night in BC, he told me the only thing that had a chance to reach me, Charlotte, in that moment of pure anxiety.

“Just rest for now. I’ll still be here tomorrow. We’ll still be here tomorrow.”

To this day, he hasn’t been proven wrong.

Some people just seem to find a way to remind you without saying so just how silly and precious your life is, even in its simplest or most fragile instants.