Let’s stop sugarcoating how to deal with holidays

Ah, Thanksgiving Eve.

There are always a million of pro-recovery, pro-love, pro-gratitude posts swarming around this time of year. These tend to include steadfast tips for enjoying the holidays, as if a 10-itemed list can accurately identify and provide you with all the answers to keep your eating disorder at bay at a time where your biggest vice- food- is what the entire day is all about.

I’m not knocking those lists. I’m not even knocking that advice. I dole it out to my clients on the regular. But here’s what we’re missing.

Yes, there’s family, and family is so important. Yes, there’s gratitude, and that’s even more important. We know this. I don’t have to tell you it.

While I appreciate the efforts to focus on what the holidays are really about, I find it dangerous and concerning to push down the reality of the food component, as if gratitude and connection with our loved ones will alleviate us from the stressors that come with our eating disorders.

Here’s the thing. Food is always going to be here to stay. Food is social glue. Food is there multiple times a day, in every setting, and is necessary for, you know, living. And I can rattle on and on about how we can’t change situations, how we just need to accept that fact, how we can’t let it defeat us. And while all that is true, we also cannot deny that Thanksgiving and the holidays alike can be kryptonite.

My piece.

I love my family. I fucking love gratitude. And for about ten years, I hated holidays surrounding food. I still struggle with them.  My point is, they are not mutually exclusive. Any holiday around food, no matter how actively I practice recovery, brings up some anxieties, desires to engage in old behaviors whether it be overeating or undereating, and general discomfort. I spent many dinners judging the plates of others, keeping score of how “good” I was doing until I inevitably “fucked up” and swore myself I’d start over again tomorrow. I can remember my weight on most Thanksgiving mornings, and most of the Fridays after. I can remember which Thanksgivings became full-pie, midnight binges and which ones entailed daylong fasts until I “allowed” myself a few bites.

This year, I’m doing two Thanksgivings. This year, like every year, there will be a lot of food. Food that “feels” scary and unsafe. Food that I don’t eat everyday. Food that has the capacity to create anxieties and stressors that, even when I know are irrational, suck to have.

I consider myself in a high phase of recovery. I am relatively happy with my body, the way I eat, and how I take care of myself. It’s not perfect. Far from it, but part of the recovery is also accepting the imperfections. With that said, the fall-winter season is still difficult.

I’m not here to write lengthy advice today. You’ve probably seen all the cliched suggestions, anyway. There is no right advice for navigating tomorrow, except for the notion that it’s one day, and one day never has and never will define us and our recoveries.

My only advice for you all tomorrrow? Don’t guilt yourself if you can’t fully stay present with your friends, family, and gratitude. It’s not always that easy, and I’m applying that same forgiveness to myself. Just do your best, reflect afterwards, and know that you’re chugging along, doing what needs to be done. There are no real mistakes, only lessons along the way.

 

 

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the cliche of the rock bottom

Unlike the throes of addiction and many other mental illnesses, we will rarely find a definitive answer for what constitutes rock bottom in eating disorders. There are the extreme cases, of course, with hospitalization and medical emergencies, but these do not account for the millions of sufferers silently mutilating their lives.

I don’t have a definitive rock bottom, but I wish I did. It sure would make for a beautiful, neat little story for my cliched memoir one day, wouldn’t it? I can jut picture it now. Chapter 6: THE MOMENT I REALIZED I NEEDED TO CHANGE. A moment of total clarity, a sudden, black-and-white realization that said, OH I NEED TO CHANGE! It probably has to do with getting some kind of scary news from a doctor or someone telling me that they were worried. I mean, that’s what we read about, right? That’s what we hear from so many people. My story isn’t quite so neat, and there is no definitive beginning, middle, or end. In fact, I don’t even know if I have the “climax” (rock bottom) and a resolution. My story is all over the place. I would bet MOST of yours are, too.

I’ve had lows, yes, but they’ve been scattered, and none of them have felt particularly worse than the others. The lying and deceitful ones stand out. Denying that I had stolen food. Lying that I had already eaten. Telling people I felt “great” and had “no triggers” and was “coping well” when it was entirely untrue. The physical pain ones stand out, too. A two-day, free-for-all binge spree which led to severe food poisoning, and (in hindsight) probably dangerous levels of dehydration due to such bad diarrhea and vomiting. The sugar-induced headaches. Pain in the back of my throat. Terrible stomach cramps. Feelings of heaviness. Feeling like I was going to pass out.

But my rock bottoms weren’t illegal nor were they necessarily destructive to society. And nobody really even had to know. Unlike most addictions, I will never be treated as a criminal. Because I don’t have to resort to theft, violence, or prostitution to get my drug of choice. Food is fucking everywhere. Simple as that. And it’s pretty fucking cheap, accessible, and rampant. And best of all: it’s perfectly legal and absolutely essential to live. Talk about a fun thing to abuse, right?

I didn’t have to be scared of jail or hitting someone with my car. I didn’t have to be scared to be stamped with fines or a criminal record. I didn’t have to worry about my physical safety. I just had to worry about my goddamn body and the nonstop chatter in my head.

The cold truth is that if we keep waiting for rock bottom, we keep flirting with death. We can always go deeper. We can always surprise ourselves. As humans, we are incredibly adaptive creatures, sometimes to a fault. Eventually, the “bad feeling,” no matter how terrible it was, wears off…and we will try again. We test boundaries. We push. We think nah, it won’t be so bad this time…I got this…I know my limits. We feed ourselves line after line of bullshit because our diseases will say and do anything to keep us committed to their school of thought.

There is a reason eating disorders are progressive. There is a reason you can’t stop no matter how thin you get, you can’t stop eating no matter how full you feel, you can’t stop obsessing no matter how many times you convince yourself you have control. The science of the disorder may have been built on logic, but the mechanisms of its wiring is entirely irrational and entirely destructive.

I have suffered with an eating disorder on-and-off for about ten years. I have flirted with recovery about half that time. Sometimes, I doubt I ever had a problem. Other times, it feels like nobody has ever had it worse than me. This is not unusual thinking: this is the etiology of any mental illness. It’s conniving and tricky. It’s entirely crazy and entirely reasonable at the very same time.

And yet, there may not be some milestone rock bottom. There may not be a lightbulb moment for change. God may not smite you, in the middle of the road, telling you that you have to pick recovery. In fact, forget God. Nobody may ever tell you to pick recovery. You may never feel like it’s reached that point of life-or-death. You may never be homeless or abandoned by everyone who loved you…you may not even reach that state of pure emaciation you so desperately hoped. You will never be as skinny as you want to be, and your life will never be as perfect as it should. And yet, the disorder will keep promising you the easy ticket to avoiding feelings, shortcutting pain, and mimicking control. You will keep going, numbly and bluntly, because it may never reach that point where you realize that you are choosing the chase of losing weight at the expense of losing everything else.

Emotionally, you are dying. You are avoiding life. You are numbing yourself, self-sabatgoing, self-medicating, doing whatever it takes to avoid the real feelings around you. You may slip through the cracks for months, years, decades without anyone really knowing. You may fool them all. Good for you! Then WHAT?

I was fooling everyone, EVERYONE, but what did that lead me with? A destroyed self-esteem, relationships full of toxicity, insurmountable shame, utter anxiety and depression, and a race on the never-ending hamster wheel towards perfectionism. I may have been fooling the world with my academic success and circle of friends and planted smile, but the more important question remains: why was I taking care of THE FUCKING WORLD instead of myself? 

The WORLD won’t be there when you are driving from restaurant to restaurant at night HOPING that none of the employees will recognize you from a few nights before. The WORLD won’t be there when you don’t get the perfect job, boyfriend, or happiness even if the supposedly perfect body arrives. The WORLD won’t be there when you’re crouched over your toilet seat, finger in your throat, tears stinging your eyes, in that fog of fear, guilt, and total humiliation. The WORLD won’t be there because you’ve probably done such a damn good job at shutting the world out.

You are screaming for help and you are pushing help away.

You are dying because you think it will give you a greater chance at living.

You are sure you have reached your limit, that this is your last time, that you will never do this again because it will never be worse than it feels right now, and then you will fucking turn around and do it again…three times worse.

You’re already on the tightrope. You’re already standing on the quicksand. There will always be more opportunities to fall. Stop glamorizing the rock bottom…because if and when you finally achieve it, the WORLD will finally know thanks to the tombstone with your name.

the days after the hard days

Dear Bee,

You are one of my oldest friends. You have outlived every job, every romantic relationship, every school. You and I go way back, all the way to around age 11 or 12 or maybe it was 13–the line between “dieting” and “disorder” becomes blurry–but we have quite an evolution together.

So many times, I have tried to let you go. I have spent so much money and time giving into your pleas, and I have spent so much money and time trying to avoid those same pleas. I am lucky in the sense that I do not believe I have lost life; in many ways, I am absolutely in a mental and physical place that is better than I ever could have anticipated. But, I have compromised much of myself and sacrificed much of myself in order to maintain your existence.

My sanity. My flexibility. My intuition. My sense of self. And, most importantly, my self-love.

When I am with you, I lose these.

It’s not abut you versus me. It’s not even about recovery versus disorder. It’s about keeping my priorities in check; it’s about understanding the costs and risks of engaging with you; it’s about making the best decisions I can when I can. It certainly isn’t about perfection. If it was, I would have been out of the running long ago. 

If you weren’t my weakness, something else would be. That is how humanity works. We all have something. We all falter and fall down sometimes. We all feel lost and hopeless. Emotions are a universal flavor. Pain is a jacket everybody has worn. 

That is the price of this invaluable gift called life. You take some pain and suffering and reap some tremendous rewards and benefits. That is the take and give. And it may not be fair and it may not feel good, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I could complain and bitch and moan everyday and never move.

Perpetual “stuckness” was the phrase I used with a client today. What’s that stuckness serving you? Because you wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t helping you somehow? 

Being “stuck” in quasi-recovery? Being “stuck” on the teeter-totter between wellness and sickness? It serves me comfort, familiarity, predictable pain, a cheap and guaranteed outlet for stress, anger, and any other emotion that feels too “overbearing.” But what does it cost?

My sanity. My flexibility. My intuition. My sense of self. And, most importantly, my self-love.

And sometimes, I’m going to choose old behaviors. Because I’m not perfect. Because recovery is fucking hard. Because this eating disorder is cunning, powerful, and baffling, and no matter how hard I try to work at it, there will be days that are harder than others. Because LIFE can be hard.

But being stuck is never random nor useless. Being stuck has a purpose. Being stuck tells you something. 

Find out what that is. 

cha cha changes.

Life, I’m always reminded, is defined by mere moments. By spurts of opportunity and rare offerings that suddenly change the entire course of action.

Things are happening. And they seem to be happening quickly and intensely.

In a few hours, I have a job interview for a counseling position I haphazardly applied to, without thinking much of anything. And they seem to really like me. I’m feeling really confident about it.

On Friday, my old therapist-YES THAT ONE- contacted me. Asking if I would potentially be interested in working for an eating disorder residential facility running groups and providing individual psychotherapy, and could I send her my resume- she’d like to pass it to the CEO? 

That’s obviously a different story, and all the weird transference and feelings about her and this opportunity will be addressed later. 

On Friday, my boyfriend met with a psychologist in private practice who is looking for interns. She loved him (no surprise) and now he is thinking of taking that opportunity. The kicker is that it’s about one and a half hours away. We’d be moving from my cushiony Southern California hometown into the jungle maze that is Los Angeles.

I’ve never moved.

My job opportunities are down here. My internship is down here. My current job that I’m working at (which is just to supply some income) is down here. I’d leave everything I know and start over fresh. This is terrifying; it is also exciting. 

We have the world on our shoulders, and yet, I wasn’t prepared for any of this. 

I love my boyfriend. I love him more than I thought I could possibly love another person, and I always use the phrase that relational health remains strong when the we comes before the me. This is a prime example of this. Figuring out budgeting, figuring out living accommodations, figuring out how to be a grown-up in a professional world I don’t necessarily feel equipped to deal with…

None of this is a rehearsal. None of this is a trial or a practice run. This is real life- this is it. Right here, right now, in this moment…

I have everything I ever wanted- the career I envisioned, a supportive and loving boyfriend, opportunity…

And yet, there is reluctance. And fear. And skepticism and doubt and the activation of those core beliefs, I’m not good enough and I’m not going to make it. 

There is the desire for movement and change and risk with the apprehension that the novelly will somehow destroy what I am preciously holding onto now.

I am a therapist. My job is to push people from their comfort zones, to expand their horizons, and to encourage them to take risks they may have not wanted to take before. That is where the magic and growth lies.

All of this– it’s overwhelming. But I’m going to make it. Because this is where I’m supposed to be and this is what I’m supposed to do.  

End of Therapy Journey

Dear Bee,

Well, I had my last therapy session.

It was emotional, and by the end of the hour, we were both tearing up. This whole weekend has been insanely life-changing, but that’s for a different post. The five-day psychotherapy conference completely inspired me in every way, shape, and form, and I’m grateful for the experience to be in the same room with some of the most influential people in my field. 

Anyway, back to therapy. I ended up terminating. We had a closure session today. I had prepped her with a text. Reflecting on the past fifty-one sessions, I started treatment a completely different person than I am today. I wanted to work on my eating disorder. That was it. Little did I know that I needed to work on boundaries, end a few toxic relationships, including the one with my ex-boyfriend, quit my jobs, and learn how to take care of myself. Little did I know how much ALL this mattered before, during, and after the eating disorder work. Today, I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I cannot emphasize this enough. I am head-over-heels in love with my boyfriend and feel incredible fulfillment in what I do on a daily basis. 

Grieving the end of therapy is like grieving the loss of any other relationship. She helped me, and at the end of the session, after we hugged, I told her, Thank you for believing me. She responded, That was the easy part. 

But when you barely believe in yourself, hearing that validation and concern from someone else means the world. And, for so long, I did NOT believe in myself. It hurt more than anything.

My needs stopped being met. Therapy stopped feeling so magical. I started feeling more annoyed, more bored, more as if I was wasting my time in session. 

But God. I loved my therapist. Ethics and dependency aside, she was THERE, and I mean, UNCONDITIONALLY there for me. It was unlike any support I had ever received (prior to my boyfriend), and that was exactly what I needed at the time. That’s what most of us need, but never receive. And so, in fifty sessions, over the course of about fifteen months, I was able to end a volatile relationship, repair issues with my family, attend eating disorder support groups for a few months, quit two jobs, attain an incredible internship, trek around Europe, and, of course, fall in love. I was able to learn the value of self-care. 

I can always return, but I doubt I will. It’s time to move on. I’m sure I’ll go to therapy in the future, because I think ALL therapists can benefit, but for right now, I’m going to see what it’s like to work on my own self-regulation, emotions, and self-care. I have the tools. Now, I just need to use them!

I am no longer tormented by the vicious throes of daily eating disorder battles. And that doesn’t mean I’m recovered. It just means I know how to handle and manage the ebb and flow. I can live a life free of the absolute obsession and bondage that came with the compulsive nature of such a complex disease. I have worked my ass off in the name of recovery, but it’s been worth it. 

I hope therapy helps my clients as much as it helps me 🙂 

This is the end.

Dear Bee,

I’m going to terminate with my therapist, and it’s really depressing…but honestly, she’s just being legitimately unethical. For one, we aren’t friends. We aren’t colleagues. And yet, she occasionally acts otherwise.

I may have shown some dependency at the beginning stages of our treatment together, but it’s her job to maintain the boundaries and keep the rules straight. She wants me to write her a letter of recommendation for a new position. She actually asked me that request through a text message. It’s very upsetting. For one, I shouldn’t be asked to do any sort of favor for her. And for two, what used to be constructive self-disclosure has now become intrusive and obnoxious. For instance, all the past history with learning about her eating disorder struggle was helpful in helping me feel normalized and understood, but I don’t need to hear about her hospitalizations or suicide attempts or cocktail of medication. I don’t need to hear about how many clients she is or isn’t seeing. I don’t need to know about her family and friends and where she likes to get her bagels. But I do. I also know where her kids go to school, her previous job history, and the types of books she likes to read. 

I can’t imagine EVER spilling all that out to my clients. 

At first, I loved the special treatment. Duh. Most clients do. Clients who want you to like them basically wear shirts with signs flashing, PLEASE LIKE ME. Yep. It’s that obvious to a therapist. So, I’m sure I was blatantly transparent that I was needy and dependent on her.  She would encourage me to call or text her anytime, and I would. And she’d talk to me. She would encourage me to come to multiple sessions a week. And I wouldn’t for financial reasons, but honestly?! I never needed to go to more than one session a week…most clients don’t. Maybe it was because she was the first person who didn’t look at me like I was crazy. Maybe, it was because she pushed me. That, I can’t doubt. With her facilitation, I was able to end a toxic relationship, quit an exhaustive job, and make some solid choices for myself. I was able to define what I wanted in life and develop some coping skills to manage with distress. Maybe, it was because I wanted to be her. A self-assured, recovered therapist with a husband and kids and supposedly happy life. When I was going through the beginning of school, unsure and single and active in sickness, she sure looked like someone worth idolizing. 

But, you know, it became stagnant over the summer. And now, I just feel like we’re not going over anything anymore. We haven’t gone over goals in…forever, and so now I feel like I’m just wasting my money. It seems more like a conversation social hour than it does professional talk therapy. 

So, why is it so hard to terminate? Because, well, I want her to like me. Yes, this is my transference. I hate disappointing people, even if it means sacrificing my own needs. I like to be the favorite. I don’t want her to think of me as just some other client who flaked out on her. I want her to believe I deserve that special treatment. Also, termination is just hard. You’re ending a relationship, you know? With someone who you’ve confided in with for a long while. I haven’t done a proper termination with any of my clients just yet, and there are a few I know I’d really miss if they just dropped out abruptly. 

I don’t really want to see her again. I want to end it over a text, but that’s shallow, so I’ll probably call. And say…what? I’m seeing someone else? I’m looking to go in a new direction? It’s not you, it’s me? Therapy relationships are just as intense as romantic relationships, except one person is making all the money, while the other is telling all the secrets. 

I’m going to miss her. And think about her a lot. And feel urged to talk to her and update her on my life. I want her to proud of me, just like most clients want their therapists to be proud of them. Our first session was in my first month of graduate school. I was just learning how to start a session with an individual, how to join with someone. Now, I have a full caseload. She’s seen me grow tremendously. I wish she could continue seeing me grow.

But my needs are not getting met. And that just defies the point of therapy. This isn’t about her; it’s about me. 

Time to learn the skills I learned in therapy and actually set some boundaries, practice my assertiveness, and stand up for my own needs. 

being THAT person

Dear Bee,

I am now that person.

The one who people frantically call, on a rainy Saturday morning, while I’m still in sweats and typing a literature review, in their perceptions of a crisis.

The one who people cry to and confide in. 

The one who people look to for answers, for fixing, for the solving of problems.

It is hard, being on this pedestal. It is even harder, because I want to be there. I’m that person for a reason. I’m that person because I am good at what I do, because I’m compassionate, because I believe everyone deserves a safe space and a chance to heal. Pain, to some degree, is nonnegotiable and part of the contract of life. We cannot avoid it, although some of us will get more of it than others. I work with people who have faced all levels of pain, whether it has been internal or external. I do not discriminate. It does not matter who is the sickest nor does it matter who has the worst sob story. Pain hurts us all. It is not a competition. 

Most importantly, everyone’s pain is valid. There is no such thing as “fake” pain, because even the pain that we perceive as fake or attention-seeking indicates a PAINFUL problem in it of itself. 

Anyways, being a therapist is a challenging job. Yes, it is entirely rewarding. And no, I can’t picture myself being as fulfilled doing anything else. But, it’s definitely difficult. And it definitely makes me question humanity and how we approach life. It makes me question why we do the things we do and why we make the choices we make. It makes me question fairness and equality, especially when some of the sweetest people seem to face the worst circumstances. It makes me feel grateful, that is, without a doubt, that I can function in this world relatively well and give to others what they cannot give to themselves. In a single session, I can feel so many emotions, ranging from happy to sad to angry to afraid to bored to curious to impressed to worried to insecure. I can be just as emotional as my clients. The difference is, I have to contain it differently. Because, otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors. And therapy isn’t about me. It’s about them. My job is only to facilitate that.

In conclusion, I really care about my clients. Every last one of them. I want them all to prosper.