vacations be like…

I was on a brief family cruise the past week. It was nice to just spend quality time with my brother and parents; these days, we rarely have the opportunity to spend time all together. And so…cruising. I’ve mentioned it before, but they can be like the achilles hell of eating disorder recovery. Food everywhere. Buffets and chocolate extravaganzas and fruity drinks and room service and 24 hour pizza.

I just ate. What a miracle, right? But, of course, I dutifully observed and analyzed the contents on my family members’ plates. I watched how they decided which entrees to select; who ordered desserts; how many rolls they selected from the bread basket. I made judgment. I can’t help it. My mom is on an eternal health kick who is now on the “lower” side of weight after battling with dieting swings for years; my brother is (annoyingly) the most intuitive eater I’ve ever met and has an awesome metabolism to boot; my dad is a grazer and junk-food lover who has a slight stomach and seemingly bottomless pit of an appetite. So, mom ate a bunch of salads and fruits. Dad ate a bunch of pizza and bread and chocolate desserts. Brother ate a bunch of whatever seemed appealing to him. I tried to embody my brother; I tried to practice moderation.

It went well. I beat myself up too much. But overall, I think I did well. The voice in my head, Bee, she’s telling me that I could have done better. She’s calling me a gluttonous pig, but then again, she likes to shame me. She thinks it will somehow motivate me to “cure myself,” as if the answer to any healing was through shame and hatred.

Whenever I come back from a vacation, I have the desire to restrict, to “cleanse,” to magically “detox” myself from all the supposed poison in my system. It’s hard, you know, living in a thin-obsessed, obesity-epidemic society, and struggling to find a balance between wanting to be healthy and wanting to feed into a mental illness.

If it wasn’t an eating disorder, though, it’d be something else. We humans have the tendency to make chaos out of life–calmness bores us; calmness makes us think terror is just around the corner.

It’s a messy life, the one I live. But I wouldn’t call it flawed, and I wouldn’t call it imperfect. Because it’s the way it damn well needs to be. And I’m doing what I damn well need to do.

I feel good right now. I’m lucky to be alive.

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Intuitition vs. Compulsion

Compulsion

The force of needing to do something rather than wanting to do something.

 
I struggle with compulsion. I

It’s not just an eating disorder- although that would be an easy diagnosis to wrap up in a pretty little box.

It’s a mentality- a constant belief that I can fill certain voids with inappropriate measures-it’s beyond desire, it morphs into necessity.
It’s a choke-hold restraint of control over the things I will never, ever be able to control.

 
I don’t want to live this way
I don’t want to have to live needing anything tangible
I want to live for experience and spontaneity. I want my intuition to guide me- I trust that, but I ignore its pleading voice. Intuition, for me, is synonymous with higher power. It is the good energy of the universe, the karma of the spiritual world, leading me in the right direction. And so often, I ignore that very clear insight. So often, I run in the opposite direction. It scares me to let go. To trust that things will, as they tend to do, fall into place. They will. I know they will.
And yet, I flirt with control.
 
My compulsion emerges in subtle ways-
From the coffee I think I “need” to drink to the work I think I “need” to do to the exercise I think I “need” to achieve to the “lists” I think I need to cross off to the gum I think I “need” to chew to the food I think I “need” to eat to the people I think I “need” to please to the therapy I think I “need” to perform to the expectations I think I “need” to meet.
My compulsion drives me to calculate, to predict, to meticulously plan. Basically, it drives me to a life that rides me.
What I am realizing is this: compulsion cannot healthily coexist with intuition. They contradict each other. Intuition makes me an active participant in life; compulsion makes me a passive rider. Compulsion throws me around and makes me a victim. Compulsion strips me of free will by convincing me I need to do what I can to take control…of something that doesn’t really need to be controlled, of something larger than me, of something that is a distorted need or want in my life.
 
I take solace that I am not alone.
I am among many others struggling the same fights
A fight against oneself, we discover, is more complex than fighting against anyone else.
 When there is only a party of one, who wins and who loses?
 
Death keeps happening in my life. Another relative. Another funeral. It hurts. God, it hurts. Why me? Why now? So many questions.  I cannot control these acts of nature as much as I want to believe I can. I can only feel. And I hate to feel. Because who wants to be in pain? But I’m letting myself do that. Compulsions cannot “cure” me, or protect me from experiencing the inevitable spectrum of emotions that come with BEING ALIVE AND HUMAN. I am used to believing that I need to punish myself for the “bad things” that happen to me. As if they are somehow my fault. As if I need to add a layer of suffering on top of suffering. As if my pain weren’t real.
 
We were talking about vices the other day. I still hang onto some of mine, but I guess I didn’t like to examine those. I consider them “less evil” than the ones I used to hold onto. I mean, they aren’t drugs. I’m not killing people for recreation. I’m not cutting or self-meditating myself with alcohol. I’m not engaging in the same destructive eating behaviors I used to.
 
But, still. Why? What’s keeping me attached to these compulsive needs. What drives me to the coffee cup, to the constant checking of online media, to the list-making and obsessive planning, and so on?
 
I read this affirmation this morning: Today I dare look within to see what is keeping me stuck. I know I cannot change unless I know what there is to change. I feel energized and empowered to move forward.
 
Fear keeps me stuck. Shame keeps me stuck. Anxiety keeps me stuck. But stuck is not feeling; stuck is a place. And I can get out of there. I know how. I know what I want to change. Intuition- not compulsion- is the answer. I am a beautiful and capable person- innately, I can trust that my heart and soul will lead me in the right directions. There are no rules. I can let go of rigidity. If it’s not making me happy – if it’s not filling the right the void– if it’s not something I genuinely WANT–I can let it go. I can let it go any damn time I want.

Time was never ours.

Dear Bee,

I’ve had some feelings of doubt and incompetence over the past week, especially in regards to my being a therapist. Part of it is the fact that I’ve been doing this line of work for precisely eight weeks, and it takes YEARS for people to feel comfortable in this kind of profession. But, still. I hate thinking that my clients could be receiving more quality treatment. I recognize this is a faulty line of thinking, because there will ALWAYS be someone better than me, just as there will ALWAYS be someone worse than me. I’m being too hard on myself. I’m supposed to be learning, making mistakes, growing, and evolving.

The other part, of course, is that I’m young, young, YOUNG. Always the baby of the group. Always the youngest in the workplace. In this field, I’m competing with people twice my age and sitting in meetings with people older than my parents.  Needless to say, this can become intimidating.

 I don’t have a lot of life experience. I’ve never been married. I don’t have children. I haven’t been exposed to a lot of death or trauma. I don’t know what it’s like to be beat or neglected or sexually abused. I haven’t had any serious medical issues. I’ve never lived on the streets or wondered if my funds were going to run out. By all means, I am a white girl living in middle-class suburbia. I cannot pretend to know what it’s actually like to be someone other than myself, but I can do my absolute best to empathize, understand, and stay curious.

Besides, there are advantages to being young: I can quickly build rapport with my child, adolescent, and young adult clients. I adore my teenage clients. I can sit on the floor and play with my young kids. I have a fresh mind, heightened energy, and I embody a sponge, in that I am eager to absorb whatever comes at me.

The reminder that I am exactly where I need to be at this moment is very reassuring.  I am good enough, no matter what I do. That is all I can ask of myself. That is all I would ask of anyone.

I can’t believe it’s almost November. Where exactly did this year go? Oh, right. It went to the end of a toxic relationship, termination of two jobs, development of a fantastic relationship, globetrotting around Europe, and the start of an internship. And lots of in-betweens: tears, random hookups, recovery slips and steps, support groups, parties, homework, weekend trips, and fear.

Time is the strangest concept. It’s never ours. It’s always moving. It ages us, changes us, and eventually, kills us. And yet, there are moments that appear to stretch on for hours and days that seem to fly right by us. When we are busy, it never feels like we have enough of it, but when we are waiting for something to arrive or end, we want it to move as fast as possible.

 Recovery is the test of time. It’s chronic and the speed constantly changes, depending on our feelings, thoughts, and circumstances. It’s like physical growth in children. They do not increase six inches overnight, but one day, we realize just how tall they’ have suddenly become. Increase the patience. Accept the process.  Let go of anything you cannot control.  Oh, and make it nonnegotiable to love yourself.

 That’s all recovery is about. 

why shame keeps you stuck

Dear Bee, 

Earlier this morning, I told a very distressed client that shame counteracts healing. Thus, to foster the process of healing, one must express the shame. One must become familiar, attack, and confront it. Shame keeps us sick. Toxic, stuck, hurting. Shame penetrates into every fear and robs us of our ability to be genuine with ourselves and others.

The antithesis of shame is acceptance. And that’s why recovery, recovery from anything, is hard. Because we don’t want to accept ourselves. We don’t want to accept our self-perceived flaws, and we don’t want to accept the elements that are simply and painfully out of our control. 

Shame is deeply entrenched in any mental illness, but I only recognized my own roots of it this year. I think of mental illness as a tree. The leaves embody the outward manifestations we call symptoms. The branches represent triggers that exacerbate the symptoms. The trunk is the history that develops the branches. The roots signify perceptions we hold about ourselves and the world, which, in turn, make the trunk grow. 

I couldn’t talk about my eating disorder. Whatsoever. I still struggle with open disclosure of my distorted thoughts and difficult feelings, simply because I often think I’m crazy, irrational, stupid, incompetent, etc. etc. etc. The list of negative adjectives could go on forever. Before this year, I couldn’t even identify my feelings. Imagine that. If someone had asked me how I was really feeling, I couldn’t tell them. Because I didn’t know. 

I would minimize, lie, exaggerate…I was essentially wrapped in a choke-hold of shame. I wouldn’t tell people when I began slipping back into old behaviors. I wouldn’t tell people if I was bingeing. Weighing myself. Getting obsessive with food counts. Checking calories. Overdoing my exercise. And so forth. I would smile and say, everything was fine. Because that’s what I thought people wanted to hear, and that’s what I wanted to believe. And the more you lie, the more bitter the taste…but that taste becomes familiar, and eventually you are all but desensitized to it. I’ve been working with the same therapist for a year, and I still find myself occasionally being deceitful in session! This just shows how painstakingly uncomfortable it can be to express utmost honesty. I have a hard time letting people believe I am anything less than perfect. I still sometimes feel weak asking for help. In turn, I do not like being vulnerable. Because it triggers the shame, and sitting in shame is like sitting on a bed of nails. 

Face the vulnerability. Relish in it. Accept it. If shame is Trainstop A, vulnerability is the train that takes us to Health, Trainstop B.

Bee is a voice that thrives in the name of shame. Even through recovery, you do all you can to keep yourself hidden, concealed, and protected from the world. You want me all to yourself. You absolutely recognize that healing comes from expressing, which is why you do all that you can to prevent yourself from being talked about. You’re a smart and powerful voice. It’s taken several years, books, individual and group therapy sessions, and support teams to start using MY voice, rather than yours.

You kept me in deep pain and turmoil, and I now recognize that same deep resentment in my clients. Their struggles may be starkly contrast from my own, but each person I work with desperately wants to remedy his or her distress. They want that sense of normalcy and health we all crave. Shame, however, often prevents them from believing they are truly worthy and deserving of those gifts.

Shame may manifest in different ways through different illnesses, but the feeling is universal: sheer humiliation, self-loathing, disgust with oneself, the disbelief that others can possibly accept or tolerate the particular circumstance. Shame is dangerous; shame keeps us isolated and afraid. 

The process of healing shame takes time. It involves forgiveness and a willingness to examine inner turmoil. Ultimately, it also boils down to finding a place of acceptance: acceptance of past, present, and future. This is not an easy task. Not by any means. We are constantly bombarded with reasons not to accept ourselves or our realities. We are constantly receiving messages that tell us we are not worthy of health, respect, or dignity. When we feel broken in some way, we often think we are doomed.

I know I did.

I didn’t think I deserved help for my eating disorder until I finally felt so frustrated that I walked into my college counseling center and asked to talk to a professional. I didn’t think I deserved to be honest until I met a supportive treatment team who promised that I could not let them down, no matter how many times I believed I failed. 

Tackle the shame. Even though it may put up a tough and scary front, you will overcome it if you are willing to put forth the fight.

We are who we surround ourselves with

Dear Bee,

After a few days of feeling sluggish and upset, I feel like things are going so well right now. Thank you for stepping out of the way and letting me live my life. I know that’s incredibly hard for you to do, so I want to emphasize how important it is for me to actually focus on things OTHER than you. What a revolutionary concept, right?!

Anyway, in spite of some friendship discourse, I’ve really noticed how my eating disorder maintained and stimulated some rather dysfunctional relationships. For instance, I now notice certain trends in the people I tend to associate with. On one hand, I have amazing friends who make me feel better about myself, support while simultaneously challenge me, and make me excited about life and what it has to offer. And on the other hand, I have a few select friends who seem to make me feel worse about myself, depend on me for rescue and guidance, and make me feel like life isn’t supposed to feel this complicated.

In my classes and training, we are often asked to reflect why we want to be therapists. Understanding the emotions and reasoning behind this career decision is crucial in the exploration of our own backgrounds and experiences. The running joke is that people go into helping professions to help themselves. There is some truth to this stereotype. Most of us leaning towards this career want to learn about ourselves, better ourselves, and share that wisdom, courage, and empathy with others who seek it as well.

I think I want to become a therapist simply because I subconsciously (and inappropriately) assumed that role with so many people in my life. And because of that I deeply felt a need to connect and help others in need. My eating disorder shamed and pigeonholed me into my own sickness; instead of focusing inward, I chose to direct my attention to others who were more emotionally unstable. With my love and support, naturally, these individuals were instantly attracted and used me as a crutch.

To summarize some of the dynamics I once shared:

-a clingy, overprotective best friend in junior high

-an insecure best friend in high school who struggled with anxiety and self-harm

-a controlling and possessive best friend/love interest in college

-a jealous,attention-seeking ex-boyfriend who struggled with codependency

-an insecure best friend struggling from alcoholism and depression

Clearly, I fall into a pattern of spending time with people who desperately and undeniably need me. This, of course, is not random or coincidental, and it absolutely reflects my desire to feel I can service others. It also shows a strong line of distorted thinking: the false belief that I will be the one who changes these people.

Thinking one can change another is a common but ridiculously unrealistic perception. The process of change is complex and difficult, and unless an individual decides he or she wants it, no movement or progress will last…at least not for very long.

This is not to say I do not have healthy friends. In recent years, I have accumulated a wonderful support system from all walks of life. I am never alone, and I cannot be more grateful for the deep connections I share with so many people.

And yet, part of removing myself from the toxicity enabling my shame, insecurities, and fears stems from cleansing myself from these unstable relationships. I firmly believe we are who surround ourselves with, meaning our interpersonal bonds reveal much about our personalities. If we have higher self-esteem, we tend to associate with people we enjoy, admire, and share interests with. This reinforces our happiness, keeps our spirits high, and creates a sense of contagious optimism and pleasure. When we have lower self-esteems, however, we may choose people who drain, upset, or worry us. We do not believe we deserve better; we rationalize that we are friends with them because we deeply, deeply care and because we need to be there for them. 

To a degree, this is true. But when we start assuming MORE responsibility for another person’s life than he or she does, we need to be careful. Furthermore, when we start assuming MORE responsibility for another person’s well-being and emotional stability than our own, then we have a real problem at hand.