A Secular Childhood: Letters to My Daughter — No. 32 “First Grade”

Dear Daughter,

It’s fall 2022 and a new school year has begun – first grade. More reading. More math. More everything. But so far so good! You like your teacher and this year seems promising.

You’re curious and innocent. You’re making new friends and meeting people who are different from you. You go on many adventures with the girl next door – usually barefoot. Your infectious smile lights up your whole face and brightens the world in your own special way.

You’re spunky. You put on your pretty pink princess dress to go outside and catch bugs. I love that about you.

You have developed a strong interest in art and I love that you now prefer drawing free hand to coloring pages. Your work hangs all over our little house. Daddy and I will do whatever we can to foster your creativity.

I’m a little frustrated that you think god, zombies, and Santa Claus are all real, but I try to remind myself that you’re only six years old. I am here to answer any questions that you have and I will look up answers if I don’t know. I’m not going to leave you hanging. There’s a lot going on in the world and I hope you learn to question everything.

Daughter, you are the future and I believe in you. Have a great year!

Love,
Mom 

Eating Disorder Recovery — 12/26/21 Wedding Anniversary in Treatment

I want to share another journal entry with you from my time in treatment in Chicago. It’s the day after Christmas — my wedding anniversary. This was written while doing a virtual partial hospitalization program just a few days before being moved to a residential program which is a higher level of care. Our program was virtual due to a Covid outbreak at the treatment center. I was being treated for symptoms of anorexia, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and rumination disorder. I kept detailed journals of the whole experience. I was discharged last February.

This entry includes thoughts on meals, body image, values, goals, and even a little poetry.

12/26/21 Day Eleven

I had a dream last night that I did a bike tour again like when I was younger but this time I didn’t finish. I felt defeated and embarrassed.

Every morning I look in the mirror and touch the underside of my belly – especially on the sides closer to my hips. I did this back home, too. Is that body-checking? Because I told them I don’t do that.

I wish I could just be at peace with my body. How do you do that?

I don’t want to be really thin – I like being curvy. Just take some off my belly. That would be enough for me. That’s what bothers me the most.

I’m about to give up (again). I just attempted breakfast. I opened the container and there were two hard-boiled eggs. I started gagging pretty hard just at the sight of them. There was no way I was going to put those things in my mouth. They’ve been sitting in the fridge for two days. I could smell them.

Then there was a bagel with cream cheese which normally I would like, but it was a plain bagel and there was very little cream cheese. It was like eating a plain piece of white bread only thicker and harder. As I chewed it got bigger in my mouth. With my first bite, I chewed and chewed and chewed. Then I gagged so I decided my second bite would be smaller but I still chewed and chewed. Then the bagel ended up in the trash.

The only good thing about breakfast was that I had orange juice to wash that crap down with.

Will I ever get better? Will I always be picky and that’s just how it is? It’s like I’m not even trying but I can’t help it. I have a very physical reaction to food.

The treatment center gave us little gifts for Christmas – a coloring book and a sensory toy. It might seem childish but everyone loves the sensory toy – myself included. It’s a squishy, stretchy centipede with little legs and a bumpy texture. Mine is the color of my favorite Sharpie, “sky”, so it feels kind of special to me.

AM snack was white cheddar popcorn. I tried my best but didn’t get very far.

Lunch was a turkey and cheese sandwich and a cookie. It was okay. Happy to have mayo.

I named my centipede Fred.

Cheez-Its are disgusting. I only ate one cracker and I don’t think I’ll ever get the taste out of my mouth. Unfortunately, they smell how they taste. Now I can’t stand to be around them. They’re like rotting vegetables.

Now I’m smelling something my roommate made. I feel like my olfactory sense is really sensitive right now.

I’m organizing my pills like my psychiatrist suggested. Going to CVS to buy the pill minders was the first time I left the apartment in five days.

I don’t like going outside. The city kind of scares me.

I was finally able to see the results of my Covid test from the 21st – negative. However, since then I’ve developed a cough, runny nose, and dull headache. Hopefully, it is just a cold. It’s just quite a coincidence that it happened right when so many people I was around have covid. I mean, within just a couple of days. I have to do a test tomorrow, and then another one later in the week. Hopefully, we can get back to in-person programming on the 3rd, but I kind of doubt it.

Just Door Dashed Jimmy John’s and got a turkey sandwich. I gagged and spit it out twice. Most of it ended up in the trash. It’s so stupid. I could have made a turkey sandwich here. Why didn’t I get something different? I didn’t think it was possible, but I think I’m actually sick of turkey sandwiches. That’s one less safe food. I don’t have much left.

I am really struggling with meals and snacks. I’m clearly not equipped to handle virtual PHP. I mean, this all went down on my fifth day here. I still hope they move me to residential.

I’m a little scared because during process group today many people said they would never go back to residential or they will do everything they can to stay out of residential. I really didn’t think they should be allowed to talk like that during group. I think residential is the best move for my recovery but now I’m pretty nervous.

I hope I hear from my case manager tomorrow.

I really haven’t eaten much today. This is getting really difficult and I’m struggling. I want to eat but I can’t. I need some serious help. It’s too easy to have behaviors sitting in this apartment all day. At this time, it’s too much freedom.

One of my favorite motivational phrases is, “move forward from here”. It’s hard to say that when I’m slipping backward every day.

I thought it was really interesting during ACT group when our pro-T said values can change – like when we get older or meet new people.

 

Values important to me when I was young –

Freedom

Loyalty

Creativity

Values important to me now –

Loyalty 

Family

Security

Humanity

I think becoming a mom is what changed my values the most.

I haven’t learned too much about values yet at the treatment center, so I referred to a list of values I Googled. I’m really looking forward to doing the value sort activity in the next week or two. I think it will be interesting.

My Goals as a Mom –

Color more with my daughter

Help her with homework/popcorn words

Make a strong recovery, be a good role model

Be honest with her

Make sure she bathes every day

Teach her to be kind and to respect others – even if they are different than you

Teach her to love, respect, and take care of her body and mind

Make sure she gets enough sleep

Make sure she has clothes that fit

Make a safe, nonjudgmental space for her to talk and express herself

Let her be her own person

Support and encourage her passions and interests

Let her decide her own post-high school plans

Teach her about money and be realistic

Teach her you don’t have to smile

I’ve been here a week and a half and I have yet to shave anything. Today I finally plucked my eyebrows but that was only because I noticed a few hairs in the middle and growing down my nose. I don’t do much to my hair but I still wear a little makeup every day. I don’t dress up. I don’t go out. This is about as casual as I’ll ever be. I think it’s the same for many others here.

My husband seems to have this fantasy that this place is filled with cute, high-maintenance skinny bitches and that I’ll have my first lesbian experience here.

Well, I’m sorry to burst his bubble.

There’s a little bit of everybody here – fat, skinny, all genders, LGBT, straight, etc. And I’m not thinking a lot about sex right now.

I have yet to meet one “high-maintenance” person here. Honestly, I might be the most high-maintenance person here.

 

Tripping over my feet
while trying to reach
for the stars.
The floor is only
six inches beneath me
but I bruise
just the same.

It’s the middle of the night and I’m up worrying about how I’m going to get my stuff to residential. I have two suitcases. Do I make two trips? Do I ask for help? What about getting an Uber? I’ve never done that before.

My anxiety is killing me.

Also, the apartment still smells like whatever my roommate made for lunch yesterday and it’s making me gag.

Now I’m up crying because my family is having another holiday gathering when I get home because I was sick on Thanksgiving and in treatment on Christmas. My family is amazing. I already miss them so much. I’m so lucky. 

Does being a skeptic make you more resilient?

When you are in recovery, you are bound to encounter the topic of “resilience”. It’s a certain toughness – an ability to bounce back from adversity. 

Not only am I in recovery myself, but I also spend a lot of time working as a peer supporter to help others. “Resilience” is the topic for a support group I’m going to facilitate. Obviously, I’m not going to bring up atheism or religion in the support group, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss here.

One of the ways I have overcome a lot of difficulty in my own recovery is by finding ways to stay grounded. As a person who has experienced psychosis, this can be especially difficult. Being an atheist grounds me. I know everything has an earthly explanation – even my psychotic symptoms. I am very aware of my illness which keeps me in treatment. I have seen my medications work so I choose to stay on them. The evidence presented in my wellness is key. 

Skepticism when it comes to my mental illness symptoms is crucial. I need the ability to question what I see, hear, and think. This also keeps me grounded and strengthens my resilience. It also lets me know when to ask for help.

Sometimes being resilient means keeping the bigger picture in mind. Knowing that a better life doesn’t exist after death reminds me to pursue the things I love and live with passion – right here and now. 

Are you resilient? Can the ability to question the world around you make you a little tougher in the face of adversity? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Kids and Gender Norms — I could use some advice.

Ever since my daughter learned the colors she knew her favorite was pink. She’s six now and that hasn’t changed. She has a closet full of pink dresses and she’s worn one every day since she started first grade a few weeks ago. I’m afraid the school is going to think we’re religious because she wears a dress every day.

My husband and I do not push this. In fact, we are often trying to get her to wear other colors. She picks out her own clothes at the store and she dresses herself. 

Normally I would say this is okay because it’s her choice, but recently she’s been talking about “boy” colors and “girl” colors. I always thought she wore pink because it’s her favorite color, not because she’s a girl…but is that true? Should I be concerned?

My daughter really isn’t a “girly” girl. She’s definitely not afraid to get dirty in those pink dresses and she’s constantly stealing my Tupperware containers to catch bugs which totally grosses me out. 

It’s just some of the things she’s been saying lately have been worrying me. For example, she said long hair is for girls and short hair is for boys. She had an adorable bob that she’s now growing out. I also have a female relative with short hair and my daughter often calls her a man. It can be a little embarrassing correcting her.

Is this just from her going to school? Help me out parents – how do you address this? How do I make sure she’s doing the things she wants to do based on her interests, not gender?

Does being an atheist affect your values?

What do you value? Do you think about your values consciously? Unconsciously? Does being an atheist affect what you value?

I recently received treatment for an eating disorder and the center I was admitted to emphasized a “value-based” recovery. We did this activity called “value sort” where we were given 100 cards. Each card named and described a value. After several rounds of narrowing down the values that were important to us, we made a list of our top ten. Here’s mine:

  1. Passion
  2. Family
  3. Purpose
  4. Acceptance
  5. Loving
  6. Loved
  7. Creativity
  8. Achievement
  9. Sexuality
  10. Contribution

Once you had your list, we often used our values in groups and activities. 

This was unlike any other mental health treatment I had ever received before. It was tailored to what was important to me and my life. Treatment was very intense but also meaningful. 

The values I chose feel like what I would have chosen ten or twenty years ago. I don’t change much. Many of the values were ingrained in me as a child and fit my personality.

There were values such as “faith” and “spirituality” in the deck of 100 cards – obviously, I didn’t pick those. But other than that, I don’t feel being an atheist affected my other choices. Maybe it affects the way I view and live my values but not necessarily why I chose them. I am really curious if any of you feel atheism affects your values.

Also, do you ever spend time thinking about your values, or is it more of a natural undercurrent in what you do in life?

The worst stigma is my own. (Mental Illness Recovery)

This is a tough post to write. Stigma is a sensitive topic; when it comes from yourself, it is associated with embarrassment and shame. Living with a mental illness is not easy and I don’t know any different. Medication is a game-changer but not a cure-all. Even when your symptoms go away you are left with a label. 

Stress exacerbates symptoms. So what do you do? Do you stay home and take it easy or do you see what the world has to offer? Either option is going to cost you. 

I have taken lithium for years.

In my early twenties, I tried several mood stabilizers with little success. I was still pretty new to the game having only been in recovery for a couple of years. My psychiatrist suggested lithium and it was definitely a drug I had heard of before – something I associated with “crazy” people. The routine bloodwork sounded scary as well. This was serious. As much as I was scared of being labeled “crazy” I also really wanted relief, so I reluctantly tried the medication.

Starting lithium came with some mental anguish, but now I’ve been on the med for many years and I take it every day without thinking twice about it. It really works for me. The stress I felt trying lithium was meaningless and counterproductive. 

I was treated for anorexia at 200 pounds.

This was more recent. I’ve struggled with eating disorders since the sixth grade. Last fall I felt myself slipping fast. I was very sick and I hit a point of no return around Thanksgiving. I knew I needed treatment. It was so difficult to reach out to treatment centers because I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously. I was overweight but also starving myself. I thought I would never get the treatment I needed, but thankfully when I called for help, people listened. 

It’s embarrassing to talk about having symptoms of anorexia when you look like me, but when I was admitted to the treatment center I saw people of all sizes. I thought I wouldn’t get the help I needed, but I was wrong. 

I was also treated for avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and rumination disorder which I find much easier to talk about. 

I’m still very embarrassed about struggling with anorexia. The truth is eating disorders affect people of all sizes. I’m still coming to terms with that.

I still believe that no one will take me seriously.

Worrying about being taken seriously is a common theme in my life. I’m sure people see me as “crazy”. I’m open about my experiences which probably makes it worse, right?

I know my mental illness doesn’t define me, but it does explain a lot about why I do the things I do. I’m always trying to prove myself, mostly by taking on more and more projects. I want to tell the world, “look what I can do!” I feel that with having a mental illness that’s necessary.

But what if it’s not? What if no one actually cares if I have a mental illness?

My Pledge to Myself

My recovery will be a lifelong process. There are so many outside forces at play when you have a mental illness but the important conversations happen between you and your doctor. I let the world get to me and internalize negativity. My pledge to myself is to keep an open mind when it comes to treatment and mental health in general. This is my life and no matter how “crazy” I think I look my health is important. 

Can anyone relate? What stigma holds you back?

“Science is how god works.”

I went through this strange period when I was a kid – probably around junior high – where I tried to force myself to believe in god. I started going to church with my friends. Growing up I was secretly skeptical and fearful. I thought maybe something was wrong with me. Why wasn’t I a Christian? Why didn’t I believe? I thought if I went to church enough, I would see what everyone else saw.

It didn’t work. It only led to feeling isolated and alone with some serious inner turmoil. 

I could never deny my true feelings towards Christianity. Why would I put my faith into something that just doesn’t make sense? Even as a little kid I sensed things weren’t right. Going to church actually made me pretty uncomfortable. 

I struggled for years trying to come up with a concept of a higher power. As a teenager, I decided that “science is how god works”. God makes things happen and science is how he does it. Deep down I always knew that science was real and god was at best murky. I tried so hard to make it make sense.

Finally, after a life-changing event in my early twenties, I became an atheist. It was freeing but I was also a little scared. I didn’t know what people would think.

It just amazes me how damaging religion really is. My family wasn’t even religious. We didn’t go to church like my friends did. However, I still feel scarred from the pain and confusion I felt growing up in a conservative area. 

I’m sure many of you have a similar experience – the struggle of trying to make sense of something as ridiculous as religion. Sometimes I think that last-ditch effort is really just a push into atheism. 

I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Does anxiety get worse with age?

I’ve always been an anxious person – even in childhood. I write about it a lot. Sometimes that’s all I can do with this nervous energy.

When I think back on certain events in my life it has become pretty clear that my anxiety has gotten worse with age. This is most apparent when it comes to my fear of driving. In the past, I was willing to drive greater distances. I even took a road trip by myself in my late twenties. Now as I inch closer to my 40th birthday, I stay within a few miles of my house. It even makes me nervous to take my daughter to school which is only a four-minute drive.

I’ve also noticed that since I had my daughter my anxiety has exploded. Can any other parents relate? I have a lot of sleepless nights and she’s not even a baby anymore.

I have a lot of mental health issues, and I see a therapist every week, but I think I need to do more work on my own to prevent my anxiety from getting any worse. I need to gently push myself to do the things that make me nervous. Any suggestions?

I have a hard time with the grocery store. People and food make me nervous and I never go shopping alone. Maybe I should start there.

Obviously, I will address this more with my therapist, but I always love getting your input. Are there any other anxious people out there? Did your anxiety get worse with age? How do you cope?

Atheism and Recovery – What if I didn’t have a mental illness?

I became an atheist early in my recovery and it remains an important part of my life to this day. I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in my twenties. Dealing with psychosis was confusing and frightening but when I tried medication everything changed. I had always been skeptical but when I experienced hallucinations that were spiritual in nature I was left with a lot of questions. A moment of clarity came when the anti-psychotics kicked in. My hallucinations aren’t real – and neither is god. I was always looking for an explanation. I just never considered the explanation to be a mental illness. My diagnosis came with some relief – this is treatable.

That moment of clarity flipped a switch and I declared myself an atheist. Years of suffering came to an end with a simple solution – medication. 

But what if that moment never came? What if I never had a mental illness? Would I still be an atheist?

First of all, my husband asked me this question and it is so hard to picture. My mental health symptoms started in early childhood so I really don’t know any different. I am not my illness but it is still an important part of me. It often explains why I do the things I do.

My journey to becoming an atheist may be a little unique, but I still believe even if none of the mental health issues happened, I would still be an atheist.

I’m a curious person – it’s always been in my nature to question. I questioned the existence of god in childhood and the judgmental people in the town where I grew up definitely made me question the goodness of Christianity. Mental illness or not, I always knew I didn’t want to be like them. Questioning at that time came with a lot of guilt and fear but I feel no matter what I would have ended up with the same conclusion – I am an atheist.

Were there any specific events that led to your atheism? If those events hadn’t happened, do you still think you would be an atheist?

My 6-year-old daughter told me god is real.

I’m still trying to unpack this one. I don’t even remember how it came up, but it did. We were just hanging out in the living room after dinner and my daughter told me that god is real. When I asked her why she thought that, she said because angels and the devil are real, too. 

I let it go. I didn’t push too much because my daughter also thinks zombies and Santa Claus are real and to me, god is on that same level.

I really want to dig deeper and find out where she is getting this information. She is in the first grade and also goes to daycare. She also spends quite a bit of time playing with the little girl next door. 

Is this worth investigating? Is she just being a 6-year-old repeating what she hears in the community? I still feel I should step in.

It scares me a little. We live in a conservative red state in the Midwest. I grew up here and even though my family didn’t go to church, I was always surrounded by Christianity. It led to a lot of hurt and confusion in my childhood, and anger and resentment in adulthood. I don’t want my daughter to go through that. 

My husband and I have been very careful in giving our daughter a secular childhood. Secular daycare. Public school. She’s never been to church. We have never exposed her to any religion. Maybe that’s part of the problem. She deserves an explanation.

I don’t want to shelter my daughter, but I do want to protect her. Being exposed to religion is inevitable. I want to teach her to be skeptical and use common sense, but I get the feeling that that might be a little much for a 6-year-old.

Should I say something? Should I let it go? Help me out parents – have you encountered this?