Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Days Are Shorter Than Yours

We are driving across the country for our move, and events like this are some of the times when I hate the limitations of my illness. I have a limited amount of time each day when I can be engaged and functional. Most people can drive for 6-8 hours and then have a night out of sightseeing and dinner. I however reach my breaking point much earlier than that, and just can't keep up a whole day of interaction.

I wish that I could spend all day with everyone and go out and do more interesting things. I want to force myself to do more, but at the same time I know if I overextend myself, I will eventually be unable to function at all.

I don't think most people understand living with a chronic illness, particularly one they can not see. Healthy people, understandably, don't know what it is like or what it means to have limited time and energy throughout the day. Basically, those of us with certain illnesses have a shortened day. While other people have 24 hours, we might have 8, 10, or even less. Can you imagine trying to fit in all you usually do in less than half the time?

What is even worse is that since other people don't understand such limitations, you come off as being selfish, not willing to do what other people want. But for me, going out to dinner or functioning past my limit is like expecting someone with a broken leg to run a 5K. It's not a choice to be unable to do something.
The Norris Family, somewhere at a rest stop in Nebraska.

I try every day to live my life in balance, to not do anything that will take away from my ability to function, but it's a circular issue. If I push myself one day and over do it, then I do not have the ability to do the things I need to stay more balanced and have more functional time during the day. For instance, one evening of going out will mean coming home overly exhausted, anxious, and possibly manic. In order to calm myself down from a state I can no longer control, I might eat a whole bunch of sugar to increase the serotonin in my brain. This leads to either not sleeping at all or not sleeping well, which means the next day I have even less energy and then I have to choose: "Do I use what little energy I have to go exercise, which is essential for balancing my mood?" or "Do I use what little energy I have to get my son fed and ready for school?" At that point it creates an ongoing deficit from which I can't recover unless I take a lot of time off to recuperate, at which point I don't even have the energy for the basic essentials in life. Seriously, tasks that are easy and quick for most people, such as getting out of bed and brushing their teeth, is extremely hard for me at times. Those tasks might take someone else a bit of energy and ten minutes of their day. For me it can take as much energy as running a few miles and an hour of my day.

So for me, decisions to go out and do more and have more fun are not actually decisions about myself only. I have to decide how much I can do so that I keep my illness managed well, which is what allows me to take care of other people. It allows me to get my son to school, feed the dogs, get my work done, be kind, be stable, and contribute to the world around me.

It is hard to be the one who is, essentially, the "party-pooper." I don't think the people I am with are required to change plans because of me, but I know many people feel forced to do so because they feel bad leaving me alone or they want everyone to stay together. However, I like to try and make sure my illness limits other people as little as possible. I usually always like to drive my own car so that if I can not stay out as long as everyone else, then I can go home. I get my own hotel room at retreats and on vacations because I don't want other people to have to limit what they do because of my needs.

Of course, the two people I am always with, my husband and son, are often the ones who are effected the most by my limited ability. Often things we really want to do together as a family, I don't do because even on the best planned days, something can go wrong and I end up having far less functional time than we anticipated. It's hard for them, but I always try and be honest that this is my illness and has nothing to do with them. I also show them how I am always learning how to manage my illness better, so that over time I have more functional time or I learn to estimate better so I can follow through on our plans more often.

I hate being unable to do what most other people can do. I hate it not because of how it makes me feel, but more because of how it makes other people feel. Which I know I am not responsible for, but it still bothers me.

It is very hard to have an illness that few people truly understand, which most people see as unreasonable, fake, or selfish because then you feel ashamed of taking care of  yourself. You feel bad for not being able to go out to dinner or going to an event because other people see it as selfish rather than understanding that it is just not healthy or safe for you to do.

I am fortunate to be traveling with family who understands that I can't function after a certain point. I wish the rest of the world was like that though because I know those of us with such illnesses would have a much easier time remaining stable and able to function to the best of our ability, if we were not shamed into doing more than we can handle.

I encourage other people like me to not take on the shame someone else tries to put onto you, no matter who they are. Stick to the choices that make you healthy and able to do as much as possible, for you. And, find friends and family who don't shame you and spend more time with them.


Rev. Katie

P.S. A great post was written on this topic called "The Spoon Theory," which I think everyone should read.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Corseting: Respecting How My Body Works

This post was originally written for The Body is Not an Apology, where I am a Content Writer.

I have had a binge eating disorder since I was in grade school. Sitting down to eat a family-sized bag of Skittles on my own in one sitting was not unusual for me. Now I know that binging on food, especially sugary food, was the only way I knew at that age to medicate my mental illnesses of panic and bipolar disorder. Sugar does a lot to the brain, especially increasing serotonin, just as antidepressants do - except that sugar is unregulated, and you need more and more of it to get the same effect.

Due to binge eating, I gained weight and started dieting - mostly starvation diets and low-fat diets that made me feel horrible and actually did make me crazy. My anxiety and bipolar disorder went through the roof every time I dieted, but I didn’t care, because at least I was skinny and people treated me better. This is what everyone told me to do, even doctors.

With all of the dieting, I lost all sense of hunger cues, I ate processed foods with no nutrition because they were low in “points,” and I rarely ate fruits (too high in calories) or vegetables because you couldn’t eat them with anything that tasted any good. Sandwich Thins and fat free bologna comprised every meal, while I binged on Skinny Cow ice cream bars in between. As long as I lost weight, the doctors were happy - and the weight loss company I was paying was really happy. I would go for half a day without eating to save up my calories for a meal I wanted if I was going out with friends.

Then, two years later, I could not handle the dieting and I would gain the weight all back. I swung to the other side, still eating processed foods, but not the low-fat ones anymore. Whether I was dieting or not, I had constant stomach issues; rarely did food stay in my body for very long. I was allergic to some of what I was eating and had terrible skin problems as well. Basically, I learned to destroy my body - to never listen to it and what it needed. I was told my stomach issues were all Irritable Bowel Syndrome and it was normal for me to be sick all the time. No doctor ever recommended to me that I should listen to what my body was telling me.

This cycle of binging and dieting slowly started to change when I started wearing a corset daily. First of all, as I mentioned in my previous post, due to wearing a corset, I don’t hate my body anymore, so I rarely feel like I have to diet or look different. Second, wearing a corset requires you to know your body. You have to respect your body.

Rev. Katie with her son. Corset by Dark Garden
When you get a new corset, the steel bones are stiff. It needs time to be seasoned and to mold to your body. You have to learn to listen to your body and to never wear a corset too tight, too long, or if it is applying pressure anywhere that makes you hurt.

I also find that I can’t starve myself in a corset. Whenever I under-eat (such as with dieting), I get light headed, tired, angry, and tend to have faster bipolar swings. In a corset, I become aware of when I am hungry faster, and I have to eat small meals throughout the day, which for me is better for my brain. (Some people do great on intermittent fasting and other patterns of eating.) I think since the corset helps you learn to honor your body and listen to it, corset wearers learn what pattern of eating is best for their bodies and helps them function well.

Previously, I had been able to put up with the extreme stomach pain and other daily issues from eating things that did not work well with my body. Now in a corset, when I eat something that bothers my stomach, I notice right away; the extreme cramps caused by allergenic foods are apparent while corseted. Many people while corseted cannot drink carbonated drinks or foods that ferment in the stomach, such as pasta. When corseted, I don’t eat things my body does not like because I know it will be uncomfortable, and because becoming more aware of my body has made me respect it more. Before I could just get away with ignoring my body and abusing it. The corset makes me very aware of everything my body feels and, for me, this change has resulted in being pretty amazed at how my body works.

My experience with corsets is not unique, and it is also not universal. I am sure some people continue to abuse their bodies while corseted. Different things work for different people. But there is so much negative stigma out there about people who wear corsets that it’s important to shed light on the ways in which corsets help many of us. Society sees corsets as oppressive garments that women only wear for attention, but many of us who wear them have found them to be extremely helpful on our journey to radical self-love.


Rev. Katie

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Corseting: Embrace Your Own Beauty Standards

This post was originally written for The Body is Not an Apology, where I am a Content Writer.

When I went to my first corset booth at a Steampunk convention, I was very embarrassed. I had only seen corsets in the media on very thin models, so I was sure that no one would make a corset big enough to fit me. The artistry of these handmade, steel-boned garments was amazing, though, and I had to inquire about them. 
Wearing my "Dollymop" corset from Dark Garden.

At the booth were men and women, of all shapes, assisting customers with trying on corsets. The corsetier had many plus sizes available and was happy to make a corset in any size you needed. This was the first shopping experience I had had where I did not feel out of place and as though everyone were wondering why I was there.

Last month, I was able to stop at Dark Garden Corsetry & Couture, where I was also pretty nervous because they make corsets for Dita Von Teese. I felt like I did not belong in a shop that creates garments for beautiful people. The woman who helped me never batted an eye, never questioned my size, and never treated me as though I were not good enough to belong in a place that clothed models and performers. She treated me with such respect that I felt safe and accepted, which is rare in my life.

I have come to find that the corseting community is extremely body positive. Most tightlacing groups and blogs all have a “body/corset snark free zone” label on their pages. They do not allow body shaming or shaming of how you choose to wear your corset. I had never really been in a community like that. People of every gender, ability, shape, size, ethnicity, culture, and country all come together around this one topic where we all support each other in being body positive and practicing radical self love.

Being part of this community has taught me to be snark free when talking about my own body and the bodies of others. It has also allowed me to learn to not care what other people think about what I look like.

At first, I was scared to wear a corset in public, especially since I like to wear them over my clothes because it is easier to adjust them if I need more pressure when I am anxious. The first few times I wore a corset in public, I did have people comment on it: “Can you breathe?” “Is that safe?” “That’s inappropriate.” As I spent more time in the corset community and saw so many people supporting each other and the concept that no one gets to tell you how to look or judge your character based on how you dress, I started not listening to other people and their beliefs on how I should dress. I am learning to say “Eff Your Beauty Standards.”

Plus-sized model Tess Munster started the “Eff Your Beauty Standards” campaign. She says, “For everyone that says we can’t show our tummies, wear a pencil/form fitting skirt, wear a bikini, wear sleeveless tops... YOU can! I want YOU to join me in wearing "daring" fashions & stop hiding your body because society tells you to.” (Tess looks great in her corsets.)

As I have learned to feel less ashamed of myself and follow my own beauty standards, I notice that people don’t really comment on my corset anymore. At least, not negatively. If I go into a room with my head down and my arms crossed to cover the corset, people feel the need to say negative things to me. When I go into a room confident and I don’t focus on my corset, I get no negative comments. In fact, my confidence seems to make other people more comfortable in telling me that they like the corset, especially older women who tell me all the time how pretty the corset is.

I still wear the corset under my clothes or under a jacket when I am in places that I know are unsafe. Usually, those are places where people want to try and exert their power and seek to shame me. One day, I will not hide it in these places, but emotionally, I am still building up to being ready to handle a verbal attack. I don’t think I would have ever gotten to the point where I was actually confident in what I wear- not the “fake it ‘till you make it” confident I had been practicing my whole life had I not started wearing a corset and participating in such a supportive community.


Rev. Katie

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Overcoming Self-Harm: My Messy Beautiful

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

This post comes with a trigger warning because it is about self-harm. However, I hope that by sharing with you one of my most Messy, Beautiful stories, if you are currently struggling with self-harm, that this helps you “Carry On, Warrior,” as Glennon would say. We need to know we are not alone. In order to heal, we need to hear from people in similar situations as us who have carried on, and been able to work through some of these messy parts of life.

Here is my Messy, Beautiful story:

October 20, 2013 was the first day of Brene Brown’s online class, The Gifts of Imperfection, through Oprah’s Lifeclass series.

I had all my supplies ready for my art projects. I was ready for six weeks of focusing on combating shame and embracing vulnerability. I was ready to be courageous and embrace my imperfection!

The first part of the art project was “Permission Slips,” where you wrote down some of the things you needed to give yourself permission to do in order to engage in the work of this class. Some of the “Permission Slips” might even be things you needed to give up. I knew there was one thing in particular I had to give up if I was going to be sure I started to heal from shame. I did not want to write it down though.

The second part of the project was to take a photo of yourself with “I’m Imperfect and I’m Enough” written somewhere on your person; most people chose to write it on their hand.

As I was getting ready to take my “I’m Imperfect and I’m Enough” photo, I could feel the pain in my legs. Every time I sat down, the fabric of my jeans pulled against raw skin. I had to remember to be careful how I sat so that I did not aggravate the sides of my upper thighs where the day before I had cut myself. This was the thing I had to give up, cutting. 

Writing it down would not be enough because I knew in a few days the raw skin would heal, I would forget the realities of what I was doing to myself, and I would do it again. A picture would be the only way to remember the gravity of what self-harm does. A picture was the only way to adequately describe what happens to me, and many people like me, when shame is so overwhelming and so painful that the only way we know how to release that inner pain so we can get through our life, is to cut ourselves.

That’s what self harm is, a release. Not a cry for help, not one step closer to suicide, it is a survival mechanism. I admit, not a good survival mechanism, but often the only one we have when we are not getting the help with shame resilience that we need, or we have not healed enough yet to have other ways to survive. Contrary to popular belief, cutting is not only a teen phenomenon or even something that starts in the teen years. I did not start cutting until a few years go, at the age of 33. It was actually an accident. I dropped a dish and I was overwhelmed because it was one more thing that went wrong that day. As I was picking up the ceramic pieces, I cut myself on one of them. I felt relieved and calm, and that’s how it started.

Photo copyright Jeff Norris, 2013.
Then on October 20, 2013, I took the typical “I’m Imperfect and I’m Enough” photo where I am smiling with the words written on my hand, this is the photo I let others see. However, I also had my husband take a photo of me where I wrote “I’m Imperfect and I’m Enough” with the raw cuts on my legs. I was finally working with a therapist, the first in 19 years, who understood trauma and shame, and I was embarking on this six week class with Brene Brown. I knew that now was the time to give up cutting forever because I had the support system I needed to be successful.

That was the most Messy, Beautiful photo I have ever taken.


Rev. Katie

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Vincent and The Doctor:" In Celebration of World Bipolar Day 2014

Today is the first World Bipolar Day:

"World Bipolar Day (WBD) will be celebrating its inaugural year on March 30th, the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed as probably having bipolar disorder. The vision of WBD is to bring world awareness to bipolar disorders and eliminate social stigma. Through international collaboration the goal of World Bipolar Day is to bring the world population information about bipolar disorders that will educate and improve sensitivity towards the illness."

Logo from ISBD.
Since Vincent Van Gogh's birthday was chosen to celebrate this day, I think it is fitting to talk about one of the TV shows I feel raises awareness about bipolar disorder, helps decrease stigma, and increases compassion: Dr. Who's "Vincent and the Doctor" (Season 5: Episode 10.) When I saw this episode, I felt like part of my story was being told. It was a compassionate understanding of mental illness and the struggle of those of us with bipolar disorder.

I think what the episode shows about mental illness that most people fail to understand, is that while our mind may not work the way we want it to sometimes, one of the amazing things about our illness is the way we see the world. We often see it as more real than other people. In Dr. Who, Van Gogh not only sees the nuances of color, light, and beauty in the world, which makes him a great painter, he also sees truths that others do not see. As Van Gogh says, "There is so much more to the world than the average eye can see."

In this science fiction story, something has recently brought death to the community, which everyone blames on the "madness" of Van Gogh. We discover though that the thing which is bringing death is a monster from another world that no one else can see, except Van Gogh.

Our Van Gogh/Dr. Who Poster. Copyright C. Norris.
This ability to see more than others can- whether that be through physical sight, increased empathy (which can be seen in the show with Van Gogh's ability to see Amy's sadness over a loss even she does not remember consciously), superior leadership skills, the ability to see organizational systems, etc...- is well documented in bipolar disorder. You can read about this in A First Rate Madness by Dr. Nassir Ghaemi and Touched with Fire by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison. Many people see us as irrational, eccentric, too sensitive, too emotional, and thus disregard what we see and feel. The research shows that we actually have more insight that people believe we have. I love in the show when Van Gogh says "I may be mad, but I'm not stupid." So true, and what so many of us want to say to those who think we are incapable of contributing to the world.

Dr. Who also shows the great agony those of us with bipolar live with daily, and yet we fight to carry on anyway. One of the things many of us worry about is that our illness will make us unable to leave anything good behind when we die. Will we ever be worthy of the precious life we were given? There is a beautiful scene at the end of the episode when The Doctor, Amy, and Van Gogh travel forward in time to the 21st century and Van Gogh is able to see that he has made a difference and left the world more beautiful.

The museum guide, an expert in Van Gogh's art says of Vincent:
"He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy, joy, and magnificence of our world; no one had ever done it before, perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind that strange, wild man.... was not only the worlds greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived."

Transforming the pain of my tormented life into beauty and good is something I strive for every day. Most people I know like me are all trying to do this, but rarely does the world see our resiliency, gifts, or talents because too many people choose to focus only on the negative aspects of the illness.

After their trip to the future, Amy believes they have "saved" Van Gogh and prevented his suicide. After they return Vincent to his own time, she hurries back to 2010 and thinks she will see hundreds of new paintings by Van Gogh hanging in the museum. However, they were unable to "save" Van Gogh, and he still dies from suicide at 37 years old.

Bipolar disorder is complex and like any illness, it takes lives. We wish we could save everyone, but we can not. Sometimes we are unable to find the right treatment in time to prevent death by suicide. It is sad, and I wish this were different, but this is a reality our loved ones have to understand about mental illness. They need to understand this for their own well-being, because the burden of attempting to "save" someone is too much for anyone to bear.

Because they could not prevent his death, Amy thinks they did not make a difference to Van Gogh's life at all, but she is wrong. Showing someone compassion always makes a difference, it makes our life better, and we never forget it.
As Dr. Who says to Amy, "Every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice versa. The bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And, we definitely added to his pile of good things."

I believe Vincent and the Doctor is the perfect show to watch on this, the first World Bipolar Day, for it reminds us that:
  • Those of us with bipolar see and experience the wonder and beauty of the world, also it's pain and sadness, in a way that others do not. This can be a struggle at times, but it is also an amazing gift, a gift which we can use to make the world a better place.
  • We may not always be able to fix or save someone, but we can always add to their pile of good things. The simplest way to do this is to show another person compassion.
In honor of World Bipolar Day, may we all add to someone's pile of good things today.


Rev. Katie

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Everyone Who Has Mental Illness Matters

I have been so conflicted over whether or not to write a post reflecting on the death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman due to a possible heroin overdose after 23 years of sobriety. He was a fantastic actor and his loss is felt by many people for how he touched their lives through his acting. Not very different from when Glee's Cory Monteith died last year also from a heroin overdose. Depending on your age, you may have felt a connection and deep sense of lose with the death of both of these actors. I have also written about other celebrities and mental illness such as the suicide of Lee Thomson Young.

When I write about these celebrities it is often to help raise awareness about mental illness. The stories of these celebrities remind us that mental illness is a very common illness but also one that we try to hide all the time. However, when we speak up, we help bring it to light. As more people can identify with those of us with mental illness, more compassion can be created, and the more people will want to help rather than make fun of or hide the illness.

For some reason though, even with how much I like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I felt like I did not know what to say, until I read an article by actress Jamie Lee Curtis on the subject of Hoffman's death and addiction in general. In it she says: "What we rarely talk about are the deaths of the unknown soldiers and civilians, the non-famous. Their deaths, no less sad and tragic, their families' grief, any lesser."

I could write about another celebrity and have a call to action through compassion and better care for those of us with addiction and mental illness. However, I have done it so many times before. What makes the stories of the celebrities any more important than the many people who die daily of overdose and suicide? Furthermore, I feel a bit like I am almost exploiting the deaths of these celebrities by using their death as a way to call us to action. Would they want their death to be used in that way? I did not ask them. Am I using their celebrity status for an agenda rather than seeing them as just another human being who struggled to live well on this earth, just like all the rest of us?

The truth is, everyone who has mental illness matters. None of these celebrities are any different than the rest of us. Yet we keep writing these stories because it's sensational yet a few months later we forget and nothing changes. In the mean time, people with mental illness are dying every day and we never mention them and never write about them. In fact, we cover up the reason for their death. In the mean time about 58 million people in America are living with a mental disorder and we do not do much about it.

How about now we do something about it instead of only talking about it when a new story comes out?

Here are some suggestions of what we can do:


Rev. Katie

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Disney's "Frozen": Why Elsa Matters

I have quite a few posts planned in reflection on the new Disney movie, "Frozen." (Note: while I do not tell you exactly what happens in the movie, there are spoilers and the ending will not be a surprise.) For this post though, I want to talk a bit about why I identify with the character of Elsa in "Frozen" and why characters like her matter.  Simply, I like her because she shows how scary it is to be taught to fear yourself and be told you might hurt the people you love just by being who you are.

My son says Elsa is like me because "She is scared of herself, that she might hurt someone she loves with her power. She has to learn to love and trust herself and then she is ok."

Photo from Disney's blog.
For me, Elsa is an important character not just because she needs to learn to accept herself the way she is, but because the writers show through her just how devastating and terrifying it is to fear your own soul. There is no terror and sadness like that of thinking you are bad and you do not want to be. It leads to a type of self-sacrifice and shame that actually makes you unable to heal. On accident, Elsa's parents taught her to be afraid of herself and taught her that the only way to protect others was to sacrifice herself. They shut her off from the world and gave her the mantra "conceal, don't feel, don't let it show." She becomes filled with fear, never learns to have compassion for herself, never learns to control her power, and thus she never knows love and belonging.

This can be seen in the song, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?":

Many people can relate to this archetype, especially people who have been physically or emotionally abused and were told they deserved the abuse because they were "bad." I am glad we finally have a character in mainstream media that shows how trauma can effect you and that bad behavior does not mean you are a bad person. (Which is why I also love Elphaba from Wicked.) My son says the most important line in the movie Frozen is in the song "Fixer Upper" that the trolls sing where they say: "People make bad choices if they're mad or scared or stressed." For some people if they are scared enough, even their ability to make a choice and control the fear is compromised. I feel like this scene from the movie best shows Elsa's fear and how much she wants to never hurt anyone. ("For the First Time in Forever, Reprise.")

Frozen seems to illustrate Dr. Brene Brown's research on vulnerability, fear, and shame. Shame, the belief that "I am bad," is what destroys people because it takes away the things we most need in life: love, belonging, and connection. I see Anna and Elsa both, in the end, as saving themselves by learning the components of true love. I am going to challenge the typical definition of true love (selfless love for another person, often a romantic love) and say that I think true love is radical compassion. Compassion for others, for yourself, and a community of compassion.

If you do not have compassion, you are unable to accept and truly love yourself or anyone else. Without compassion we engage in shaming and blaming ourselves and others, rather than seeing life as fluid and full of mistakes and success. Shame, blame, and fear keep us from healing. I find that in treatment for mental illness, compassion is frequently left out of the equation, and shame is the norm. No one ever learns to heal themselves and understand their mind when other people shame them and tell them they are a bad person.

True love and healing takes a combination of radical self-love (empathy and compassion for self) and compassion for others which extends to the world community.


Rev. Katie