Bikini Season, Body Shaming, and Other Stupidities

Bikini season is coming!

We know what that means… Lots of bikini/ fitness/ diet Pinterest boards leaving people feeling horrible about themselves. Article titles like, “How to get ‘bikini ready”. Or, articles about kale smoothies and how good they taste and while you’re at it,you should exercise like 18,000 calories a day. Pictures of “best/ worst” celeb bikini bodies. It’s already begun with “shocking” pictures of Tara Reid in a bikini and talk show hosts telling Kelly Clarkson she “could stay off the deep dish pizza” after she… gained weight (WHAT!!!!) after having a baby (um, you’re supposed to lose that weight in 2 weeks, maybe less, everyone knows that *heavy sarcasm*).

I don’t know what is more sad: 1) That a bunch of tabloid dipshits judge and mock people’s bodies, how much they eat, and their weight struggles/ triumphs/ how they’re “letting themselves go,” or 2) That somehow these magazines are selling! People are reading articles by said dipshits.

I just have to ask: What is this world?

What kind of weird society do we live in that deems terms like “fat,” “dessert,” “seconds,” and “full” shameful? What is so disgusting about women’s bodies? Side note: my focus for this post will be about body shaming women because I am one and have more to say on the topic, but men are also victims of body shaming.

All of the mean twitter posts… the cyber bullying… the incessant fat shaming… WHY? The stigmatizing body shaming comments casually zinged about, they hurt. We may not acknowledge that body shaming comments hurt inside, but they do.

Body shaming hurts.

There is endless interpersonal and internalized shame about what we look like– that number on the scale what we eat what we don’t.

Culture tells us appearance defines our worth.

People are ashamed of their own bodies, and then collectively, we shame the body of others. With all this body shaming going around, it is no wonder that the diet industry is so prominent. And here’s where things get more disturbing. In 2014, the U.S. diet industry raked in $60.5 billion. More disturbing yet: that astronomical number is a DECLINE from the year before.

This video is a good visual of how much $1 billion really is. So take that video’s visual and try to wrap your mind around $60.5 billion. This is, by any standard, a lot of money. How many social ills that much money could solve in the world? Water sanitation, poverty, racial, sexual, policy to promote gender equality, and so much more! Maybe we could even put a dent in the United States’ massive debt.

Let’s just sit here for a moment and realize how fucked up this all us.

People are spending more money than the GDP of many countries on diets that become popular and unpopular as fast as hashtags or the latest in social media… Atkins is old school (the N’Sync of diets), but kale is in (the Taylor Swift of food). People are going Paleo, organic, and gluten free. Egg white omelettes are the new black. Diet pills remain comparable to the quirky and questionable relative at many family gatherings. Constantly changing options for people who are essentially wasting their money considering that DIETS DON’T WORK!!

Body insecurity is a given in today’s culture. Between 40 and 60% of young girls ages 6-12 are already expressing concern about their weight or are worried about being fat. The body-shame cycle starts so young. The same girls memorizing Let It Go and wearing Elsa costumes around the house might be considering going on their first diet. Maybe they already have.

In our culture, we are not at peace with our bodies, and how can we be with all this propaganda and equating body size and looks to worthiness? We think, maybe that next fad diet will make us enough. Maybe, then, we can feel okay and good about ourselves. Maybe, then, we’ll be worthy.

I follow an Instagram page called “Bye Felipe” which was created to call “out dudes who turn hostile when rejected or ignored.” The site usually focuses on people who are interacting on dating web sites. You can see for yourself the number of fat-shaming comments doled out to girls on this page. It is horrifying to open up my Instagram and seeing how guys degrade women by playing on body insecurities and playing the “fat” card.

These comments hurt, and they are dangerous.

So here is my message, and I wish I could put this in size 200 font:

LET’S PUT DOWN THE SWORDS.

Let’s stop shaming ourselves and others about the way they look.

Let’s treat our bodies with acceptance and compassion.

Let’s humanize each other’s bodies. Let’s humanize our own bodies.

Do we have body flaws and faults? Do some people need to gain or lose weight? A resounding yes. But can that be okay? Are we still worthy? An equal and resounding yes. It is possible to take care of our body struggles with a posture of love and self-care.

When people talk about how so-and-so is too thin/ skinny/ fat; what’s with her butt/ boobs/ nose/ ears/ mouth/ teeth/ hair, they don’t know who they’re affecting. Little girls (AND little boys) see the disgusting way people are body-shamed, and we’re breeding new generations of body-shamers.

An app exists in which you can “fit the fat girl crown”, and there was an app (thankfully it was TAKEN DOWN) that was designed to “rescue the anorexic girl.” All this when some reports suggest that incidences of eating disorders may be on the rise.

Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting.

You don’t know what the person across the street or next to you or in the cubicle over from you is dealing with, body-wise or life-wise. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Often you know nothing about it, and it is better to be KIND and COMPASSIONATE, rather than shaming and potentially triggering. This spring marks the 14th year of my eating disorder, and frankly, I think people have to mind their own fucking business. I realize this does not sound kind, but one negative comment can set off a slip or relapse or a passive-aggressive text to my therapist about how much I hate her guts. NO ONE wants to hear a passive aggressive, “Do you really need that slice of cake?”, or, “Wow you look huge in that picture!” And especially not someone who has struggled with an eating disorder.

PUT DOWN THE SWORD.

So in conjunction with this blog post’s title, I’m going to tell you a secret about bikini season. Here is how to have a bikini body:

People are at war with their own bodies and the bodies of others. It is a war that no one will win, but there will be many casualties.

So, in sum: be kind, compassionate, and please:

Eating Disorders Kill, But Relationships Heal

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Fall 2009

Charlotte: Five years ago, the story was much different. Numbness and deprivation had drained my body of life, and vacancy replaced life in my eyes. Every night, I would pray that my heart would keep beating another night. I was spiraling into darkness, snowballing so fast that I wondered when and where I would crash. I eventually did crash, and landed on a ranch in Arizona, of all places. I had no hope but also nothing to lose by giving hope a try at residential treatment.

Janine: For over twenty years, anorexia had been the albatross around my neck. I had attended a long list of hospitals and treatment programs that seemed like one failure after another. As a last chance to evade death, I exchanged the towering evergreens of the Canadian west coast for the Arizona desert. My thoughts were jumbled in a fog of starvation and self-hatred. Anorexia had promised me everything, yet it had left me barely existing.

***

It sounds like the beginning of a bad, if not odd, joke. So this Canadian and Michigander walk into a ranch in Arizona… We, the writers, Janine and Charlotte, would never have met outside the confounds of one specific time and place: residential treatment for our eating disorders in 2009-2010. While our backgrounds were very different, in nationality, interests, and phases of life, we did share the same desperation for something better than living in the torture of anorexia. So we, along with others in our program, embarked on a journey that involved nourishing ourselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically. We cried with one another but also laughed and read books for pleasure. We ate pie on Thanksgiving and talked about identity and God. It wasn’t easy, or remotely close to easy even, but we healed together. We could see the tangible changes in ourselves. We could feel that we were no longer lifeless bodies anymore. Leaving treatment, we had hope again.

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Christmas at treatment 2009

Five Years Later:

Janine and Charlotte remain best friends. In many ways, our lives are so different now, now that we are less marred by our eating disorder scars. We are no longer treatment friends: we are just friends. We enjoy having adventures together. We have gone ziplining in Whistler, British Columbia (much to Charlotte’s terror/ chagrin) and to Disneyland (twice). While 1000+ miles separate us right now, we are intentional in maintaining our relationship through the wonderful development of Skype. Our eating disorders left us hopeless and incapacitated, but slowly, sometimes at a snail-pace, we have found freedom. In our respective ways, we want to help others out of their struggles within our spheres of influence. We would never have chosen to meet how we did or have anyone suffer in the ways we have, but we would never have changed the fact that out of the living hell of an eating disorder, an amazing friendship blossomed.

janine and i recovery

Charlotte: Treatment was a beginning of a new life chapter for me; not one filled with rainbows, unicorns, popsicles, and the end of all struggling forevermore, but one filled with real emotions, thawing, pain, and joy. In treatment, I felt unconditionally accepted and loved during one of the worst points of my life. I never believed that anyone could love all of me, even the ugliest parts. The abundant love and grace I received helped me emerge out of deep shame so I could deal with the factors that had led to my eating disorder in the first place. In the last five years, I moved across the country and then back to the Midwest and somehow earned two master’s degrees in the meantime. Although I still struggle with eating disorder behaviors at times, I believe there will be a day when that won’t be the case. I am so blessed by loving friends (such as Janine!) and a therapist who deserves an honor. I couldn’t be on this journey without them. Relationships don’t inherently heal eating disorders, but support is an integral part of recovery. While I wouldn’t wish my wild, roller coaster journey onto anyone, it is my story, and I am thankful for the beautifully chaotic mess. It is my story to own and love.

Janine: I catch myself once in a while realizing how different my life is now. A moment during work when I can’t believe I’m back doing what I love. I’m able to bring energy and enthusiasm to my job working with children that I couldn’t possibly have done when my eating disorder ruled my mind. I don’t think twice about eating cupcakes with my little nieces or laughing with friends over dinner. I am no longer numb and terrified all the time. I’m able to feel the amazing and wonderful parts of life and no longer attempt to dissolve into oblivion when the guaranteed challenges arise. Recovery has not made life perfect for me, but I am able to make plans for my life that I never thought possible. Nothing about recovery has been easy but I know it has been made easier by my unexpected and unlikely friendships.

Confessions of a Girl in Recovery

Many teenagers and young adults measure time with hugs, laughs, and kisses; with tears, heartbreak, and belting out Taylor Swift songs; with midnight donut runs and staying up all night talking.

I measured my life in calories, compulsive exercise, and setting my alarm to 3 AM, because that was a “safe” time in my mind to binge. I spent my moments daydreaming of endless buffets– plate after plate of spaghetti, followed by cookie dough ice cream caves. I would “go to the bathroom” at least 5 times during class for an excuse to walk.

I fantasized about food similar to how teenagers fantasize about a first crush or first kiss. Anorexia was my comfort… my everything. In the little world I made for myself, I felt safe. At least I knew this.

Most of my memories for a good 10 years centered around food. I remember only one thing about my high school graduation: the internal debate about whether I was going to eat lunch that day.

Every birthday party, including my own, I would be “too full” for birthday cake. Sometimes I would swear to anyone who probed, “I just hate sweets.” Lies.

Sometimes people would respond with jealousy, “I wish I could be like that,” or, “I wish I could look like you.” No, no you don’t. 

It is hard to describe what the living hell of an eating disorder is like to someone who has not personally heard the eating disorder siren call. I can’t count the amount of times others have said to me, “Can’t you just eat?” In my mind, that comment was akin to, Can martians become elected officials? Can Michigan be warm during the winter? Can I please teleport? Can there be peace in the Middle East? Anorexia had a neurobiological, psychological, emotional, and spiritual stronghold over my life. It was this gravitational vortex pull mixed with a sensation similar to being held down by the Boogey man.

Being asked to give up my eating disorder felt like asking to give up me.

At some point, I had to realize, No, this is not sustainable. I cannot maintain even a facade of normalcy. Despite the denial, I admitted that what I was doing was killing me. If I was compliant to the incessant demands of anorexia, I would either die or have everything be taken from me. I decided to give the having-a-life thing a shot.

Eating disorder recovery felt like being asked to move to a distant land, a strange, odd place where people would eat cake voluntarily. It was absolutely mind-blowing. Why would someone eat dessert? Willingly no less??? I ate celery voluntarily. I compulsively exercised voluntarily. Voluntary dessert was belching the alphabet at tea with the Queen of England, or  showing up to a job interview with mustard all over my face. It made no sense. I had to trust people who told me, This is normal. This will get easier. This is okay. You are okay.

Stabilizing my weight and food intake did not address the root issues, but it needed to come first.

After time in treatment, I finally admitted that fat free cheese was disgusting. I mean, really disgusting. It should barely count as cheese. Or not count at all. How could I have “preferred it” for years? I could say similar things about sugar free Jello (one word: gross), Molly McButter (I mean, what IS that really? is it edible? should it be?), and Splenda (confession: still trying to fully wean off that one).

Consequently, I found that cake is actually delicious. In fact, now it is one of my favorite foods. Dessert is really underrated when you have an eating disorder. I had this false dilemma in my mind: I could eat a slice or pie OR I could die. It seemed that dire of a situation. But it doesn’t have to be. At treatment for the first time, I started eating cake as often as I could. After years of severe nutritional deprivation, it just tasted so good!

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Me with cake… because it is delicious.

Recovering in terms of weight restoration and achieving medical and nutritional stability were important… but the hardest work came later.

In addition to the important eating component of ED recovery, I also had to learn how to live. Surprisingly, that has been a motherfucker of an obstacle that is ongoing.

So these things are works in progress:

I learned that there is more to life than the prison of anorexia. I learned not only to enjoy food but to enjoy people; to fall in love and fall hard; to open up to others; to experience happiness but also sadness; to feel and to feel it all, the spectrum of human experience, both the good and the bad.

Subsisting indefinitely in an eating disorder netherworld hardened me. The thawing work of recovery and subsequent therapy has hurt like hell, there’s no other way to describe it.

But I am learning how to live.

I didn’t do that for a really long time.

In the process of obsessive exercise videos and “being too tired” to go out for ice cream with friends, I missed so many moments… so much time. I missed the taste of gelato in Italy, and wine and cheese in France. I missed taking deep breaths and soaking up the sunlight. I missed years; in fact, over a decade of my life. I hurt others and myself.

The years…

the memories…

the bodily damage…

the relationships…

the lost opportunities…

I will never get any of that back.

I am still in the process of figuring out the labyrinth that is the sum of my life experiences and feelings. I have to tear off the (emotional) bandaids that I kept on for safety and address the pain that such a process produces. Not to mention the fact that the body does not do well with over a decade of abuse. I take steps forward and steps back. I like to think the overall trajectory is forward, though.

Sometimes I’m growing, and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I feel motivated, sometimes not. Sometimes I feel like I am exploding with feelings, and I want to gauge my eyes out. Sometimes I laugh until it hurts, and sometimes I am limping in agony. Sometimes my pace of recovery is that of a turtle.

I am learning to believe that is all okay. Sometimes.

Goodbye Ed: Why I Don’t Call My Eating Disorder “Ed” (Anymore)

In 2006, I entered treatment for the first time. I also read Jenni Schaefer’s book Life Without Ed. She externalizes and personifies her eating disorder as, “Ed,” on par to an abusive husband who she has since divorced.

At the time, externalizing my eating disorder was helpful because up until that point, I was convinced that my eating disorder was, actually, me. When I read it, Life Without Ed changed the way I understood my eating disorder. I learned that I could survive the loss of my eating disorder. That was a profound realization for me. When losing my eating disorder felt like part of me had died, and I didn’t know if I could pick up the pieces again, I had this: “Life without Ed is waiting for you/ Be strong keep the faith and you’ll see it coming true/… You can believe in life without Ed.”

I am not the only one who found comfort in Life Without Ed. During both of my stints in residential treatment, conversations were peppered with “Ed” lingo.

“Ed was really chatty today.”

“Ed was driving me crazy. I told him to go home.”

People in treatment would applaud and mmhmmmm. Head shake. Yeah Ed that jackass. He’s the worst. 

I used that language too. I found this from one of my 2010 journal entries: “Ed has been my horrible husband for the last few years, and when I feel so bitter and angry, I come running back to him, abusive as he is, because he’s familiar and comfortable.”

Phrases like, “It’s not you I’m mad at, it’s Ed,” or, “Tell Ed to shut up,” were comforting to me at the time. Besides, to be honest, if you don’t drink the “Ed” Kool Aid, residential treatment can be a menacing nightmare. It is a pseudo-expectation that if you are in treatment, you will call your eating disorder “Ed” at some point. Ed is common treatment vernacular, the metaphorical elephant in the room.

Since I left treatment for the last time, the seasons have come and gone and the roller coast of life has continued. As I morphed and grew, I said goodbye to Ed, but in a different way. I have stopped calling my eating disorder “Ed,” or by any other name, for that matter.

That has been my own personal choice, and I don’t have anything against people calling their eating disorder by a name. Similar to this eloquent blogger, I am just trying to open the conversation up.

I don’t think that “Ed”ing your way through recovery is the only way. 

There are some great reasons to externalize the eating disorder (ED) voice. But I am just going to say it: it is possible to go Ed-less. In this post, I am going to delineate some of the reasons that I have chosen life without the term Ed:

1. Because reducing my eating disorder to something outside of me does not take into effect that eating disorders are complicated diseases. What most worries me about the term “Ed” is that it has the potential for simplicity and reductionism. The whole of something cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. An eating disorder is more than what the ED voice says. If it was only about telling Ed to shut the hell up, you might think that recovery would be easier. I recently donated my blood to support genetic eating disorder research. Why? Because, research wise, we know relatively little about eating disorders. Externalizing an ED may be helpful to sufferers but it is a shortcut, a heuristic. It may help someone for a period of time, and if it does, great, but “Ed” is a tool, not a solution. Pat answers to complex questions can be harmful if taken at face-value.

2. Because my eating disorder is a part of me. One of my favorite recovery books is Gaining by Aimee Liu (read it, seriously). In it, she interviews people who recovered from eating disorders decades ago, but she notices in them (and in herself) personality characteristics and other similarities to the ED that linger. I may not hear eating disorder thoughts for the rest of my life, nor will I give in to urges, but I believe that my eating disorder will always be a part of me in some capacity. In recovery, I have had to discover the scared, fearful voice inside and honor that voice. If my eating disorder thoughts are loud, I have to ask: Why? What is going on right now? Instead of screaming “ED I’M DIVORCING YOU” at the time of my lungs when an ED thought hits, I am now more likely to listen to what my internal voice is telling me and ask what I’m feeling and why.

3. Because the concept is a little strange. I get why people do it. Like I said, I myself called my eating disorder “Ed” for a while. But… can we for 2 seconds think that there might be down sides to using “Ed”? I mean, to state the obvious, my ED voice is not a person. It’s not like I’m living with this asshole named Ed against whom I can file a restraining order, you know? For me, the idea of an abusive guy (or girl, whatever) in my head is not appealing at this point in my life. I’ve dated enough asshole guys, so why would I make up a nonexistent one and be in a pretend bad relationship with him? I am doing fine on my own, thanks. Also, could the term be demeaning to people who have undergone abuse or domestic violence? Could it be re-traumatizing even?

4. Because, quite frankly, calling my eating disorder “Ed” can be a cop out. “Ed was talking so loud” is a common sentiment you hear in treatment. Or even, “Ed was getting really worked up when you said x yesterday.” Is saying something like that helpful? What about, “I was feeling really anxious today because I was thinking of x and did y, and I’m having issues coping with my anxiety. My feelings are overwhelming.” Okay then! Now we have something to work with. That is taking the issue to its source. Blaming, sometimes scapegoating, Ed is not helping people to recovery. Eating disorder thoughts don’t come out of a vacuum. I have to place them in their proper context and take responsibility for them.

5. Because, after a while, eating disorder recovery has less and less to do with the behaviors. At the end of the day, the reason I have stopped calling my eating disorder Ed is because the term is no longer relevant for me. I don’t have regular urges to engage in eating disorder behaviors. I am not over my eating disorder completely just yet, but my recovery process has shifted. My therapist specializes in eating disorders. But do you know what we do NOT talk about 95% of the time in therapy? My eating disorder behaviors! Or my eating disorder at all. These topics are not agenda items. In fact, if my therapist made me set up a chair and do an “Ed’s voice- my voice” role play, I’d stare at her and then probably get pissed. Those things might have worked for me at one time, but they no longer do.

 

I met Jenni Schaefer at an event earlier this year. She signed a bumper sticker for me that is pink and has a line through the word Ed. I have placed it on a binder for my school papers. I don’t hate Life Without Ed. I don’t read it anymore, but I don’t hate it. If it works for you, fabulous, keep using the term.

What I get concerned about is the fact that there is an expectation, or to get punny, an EDspectation, that if you have an eating disorder, his name must be Ed. Ed is preferable, Ana or Mia are secondarily accepted.

Externalizing is not the only way of recovering from an eating disorder.  Or, “Ed” may work for you for a reason of your life, and then it may become irrelevant. The “Ed” label no longer fits in my personal recovery journey. And that’s okay.

Like this blog post says, some people may find the term belittling. Some may feel invalidated by it. Some may find it simplistic. Others may find it to be a brilliant way of breaking from of an eating disorder’s tight grip. Great. But let’s at least talk about it.

Foregoing the term “Ed” does not constitute recovery heresy.

Just saying.

Therapy: A Love Story

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I did not find therapy. Rather, therapy found me.

Or, more accurately, I was coerced, dragged, and bribed with a Harry Potter book to attend what my adolescent self found to be the most pointless 50 minutes of my life. “Waste of time” and “stupid” were other words I used to classify my experience. I wanted to be on my own to… you know… like STUDY (I know, I was lame). Sometimes I would just pull out my AP US History textbook during session. How could she stop me? Our sessions were confidential, right?

My relationship with therapy has been a lot like dating someone you don’t know you like. It has been a very love-hate endeavor. Since I began in therapy as an angsty pre-teen who took selfies with braces before selfies were cool (note taken: selfies with braces = still not cool), a lot has changed. Slowly, I have started to own my need for therapy. And ultimately, I have started to change. It took a long time. But it happened.

When I was a teenager, I was convinced that everyone needed to go fuck themselves and leave me alone. Everyone was concerned with my eating disorder and obsessive-compulsiveness and anxiety and BLAH BLAH BLAH. I put on a facade of wellness enough to appease others and continue doing whatever I wanted which was, in hindsight, destructive. I don’t know if I knew that what I was doing was bad. Honestly, I just didn’t give a shit.

It is really hard to help someone who doesn’t think they have a problem. Therapists tried with various degrees of success but weren’t able to adequately penetrate my ambivalence and denial. The behaviors that I developed were ingrained so deep into my psyche that stopping even one of them felt like I was being suffocated.

There was not a magical revelation or a moment when I owned my need for help. Rather, there was a period of time, over a couple of years, when I admitted– kicking, screaming, crying (okay, fine, bawling)– that I had a problem (okay, fine, many problems), and I needed help.

People often tell you in eating disorder recovery that food is like your medicine. That is true. Without nourishment for your body and brain, nothing else can happen. However, I realized that I needed therapy too. I couldn’t just eat my way to recovery. Therapy was another type of medicine: a different type of sustenance, but sustenance nonetheless. In the past, I had seen therapy as a waste of time, so it was a waste of time. I acted like it was prison, so it was prison. But… what if I saw therapy as healing, and I wanted to heal? Maybe– just maybe– then, I would heal.

As I was also going through a period of identity and paradigm shifts and learning about psychology in school, I was open to self-reflection and growth. For the first time, I was ready to do the work. On my own accord, I returned to therapy and decided to let someone in.

Over the years, I have come to see that therapy is not a series of skills, tasks, and tools in and of themselves. It can include those things, but it can be so much more than that. Therapy is the act of being present with another person. It is a real relationship, albeit special, with a certain purpose. The few therapists who I have let in have given me warmth, love, and empathy that I never thought were possible. In the context of that safety, I began to thaw.

Therapy can be deep and painful. I like the analogy Brene Brown made about the church being a midwife and would like to extend it to therapy. At times, the pain that comes up in therapy has been so overwhelming, it feels like I’m having contractions and it. won’t. end. My therapists have been there in solidarity, holding my hand through pain. As I learned, when you open the Pandora’s box of feelings, pain often coincides.

I had to learn to become vulnerable and unlearn maladaptive patterns from my childhood, such as stuffing, suffocating, and hiding my feelings. Opening myself up, exposing the dark parts of me to someone else, and letting that other person hold those parts were the most terrifying trust-falls of my life. Therapy felt like I was jumping off a cliff and praying that this person who was holding my deepest hurts wouldn’t drop them.

Change took me realizing that I was at the end of my rope, and I didn’t have to pretend like everything was okay anymore.  After years of running in circles and forming tight defenses against anything that might get too close, I found that I could just crumble to the ground. Paradoxically, it was in the posture of utter powerlessness that I could heal.

You would think that I’d be some therapy expert after being in therapy for so goddamned long. Not so. I have not “arrived,” nor do I even understand what “arrived” means. I am not better. I am not healed. And subsequently, I am on the remedial therapy track.

But you know what, there are worse things in the world. I’m just going to come out and say it:

I love therapy. 

After over a decade of therapy, I have more than an abundance of skills and tools from all the BT’s, and I can reference them on cue. More importantly, I have felt unconditionally loved and understood by my therapist. She has learned my dirty webs of defenses and the ever-abounding slime in my deepest parts, but she has not turned away from me. I love seeing her every week to work on my issues. Talking about defense mechanisms has become my crack. I keep a dream journal and text my therapist on command when I dream about her. Her insight has become ointment to my hurting soul.

Therapy is a beautiful, redemptive mess, a microcosm of the craziness of life. 

Now, therapy is not a panacea. For those who are like, “Where can I get a therapist?”, this is not a public service announcement. I do think everyone could benefit from therapy, but the process of therapy takes a lot of work. When I said I was finally ready to do the work, I didn’t know what I was signing myself up for. It’s like ripping off a band aid. No one wants to do it, but unless you want to live the rest of your life with a band aid chilling on your arm, you need to pull it off.

Without therapy, I would be either dead or a brittle body with vacant eyes. I needed to address my issues in order to survive and thrive. It sucks at times. As much as I love my therapist, sometimes she says, “How do you feel about that?”, one too many times in a given session, or she looks at me reflectively with those Carl Rogers eyes, and I want to tell her to go to hell.

Therapy can involve crying and talking about things I’d rather not discuss. It always involves feeling.

FEELING ALL THE FEELINGS.

For a very reflective, existential, intuitive, sensitive person, this has meant feeling a lot of feelings. I don’t like to feel all the feelings. But through therapy, I have come to see that my feelings are an asset, not an annoyance. They are part of makes me, well, me. They are what help me empathize with and love others.

I think my 13-year-old self who would scream in dismay at this, but I have become one of those people who believes in therapy. I have seen the redemption that can come from a corrective, messy, deep experience of connectedness. Therapy has been healing, needed, and so, so worth it.

The Night We Ate Pizza

At this time five years ago, the story was much different. I felt like I was spiraling into darkness, snowballing so fast that I wondered when and where I would crash. I eventually did crash, and landed on a ranch in Arizona, of all places. I found myself in the unusual world of ice cream “challenges,” tube feeding, and so, so much Ensure. And yet, this world healed me… not completely, but enough.

C. and I were always great friends in eating disorder treatment. We read the Bible together every day, and our therapist took us together on spontaneous ice cream outings on occasion. Since we live across the country from one another, and given our crazy lives, we haven’t gotten frequent opportunities to reconnect. I was elated that she agreed to visit me in Michigan this year… in March (surprise, surprise, it snowed).

Reunions with treatment friends have been a mixed bag over the years. Depending on the place the person is in, the place you’re in, and how you meld together (and more complicated, how your eating disorders meld together), the range of possible outcomes of such gatherings can range from crazy-making-ready-to-gauge-my-eyes-out to OMG-we’re-bff’s-this-is-the-best-time-ever.

On the Friday night that C. visited, we were deciding on dinner plans. The choice was all American food or pizza. “Do you mind if we go to this pizza place?” I hoped, having a cheese craving, per usual.

“Who doesn’t like pizza?” She scoffed, an obvious affirmation to my request. Then after a pause C. continued, “… Except anorexics of course.”

We laugh. The idea is alien to us now, that someone would forsake the goodness of cheese, bread, and tomato sauce for any reason, calories and fat content nonetheless. We laugh for the absurdity, but it is also an ironic laugh, coated with memories, many uncomfortable. We continued on with our night– and indeed, we did eat pizza.

However, that little bit of conversation followed me past the weekend. My mind kept going over our exchange, and I kept flashing back: back to how many pieces of pizza C. and I have wiped off with napkins through the years, back to the countless times we just “couldn’t” go out to eat to eat because… (insert one of the following: too expensive, no time, feeling sick).

I think of how somehow, how against the odds, five years later, we were sitting together joking about pizza and excited– genuinely excited– to eat it.

Moments like that give me perspective, a window into the past, present, and future. Being with C. brings me to the past, to the times we laughed and cried, to the time we snuck off to take a photo shoot by the horse gates. In all of the silly arts and crafts and G-rated movies, I felt loved and embraced by C. and others in all of my junk. Those feelings of fundamental acceptance and love helped me heal.

Residential eating disorder treatment is a beautiful, redemptive, but funny experience. After an intense, life-giving few months with girls from throughout the country, we went back home. As more time has slipped by, more friends have emerged from their eating disorders. I have watched them grow, evolve, and blossom– they’ve had babies and started new jobs and defrosted from the living hell that they have experienced. When I see friends from treatment now, I am awed and inspired by their resilience, dedication, and strength. That is so true of how I see C.

As the years pass, and we move to a post-eating disorder identity, I find myself grieving more than the loss of my eating disorder. I mourn the loss of a safe space of ice cream eating and butter sculpting (yes, that happened). I mourn that living a life without the eating disorder’s presence is so much more messy, and there are no clean lines. No longer can I dichotomize certain ideas/ choices/ food as “good” or “bad.”

There is part of me that has desired to go back into the safety of treatment, to be held and loved and comforted again, especially if I could avoid the whole Ensure-weight-gain thing. And yet, there are these glimpses, like when I talk with C., in which I see how much she has changed– and I have too. When we talk, we don’t talk about eating disorder struggles, “triggers,” or anything about treatment at all. We talk about our faith, something important to both of us. We discuss human trafficking, dreams, future employment, and… pizza. We talk about books we like, as well as movies. We go to church together. We watch Gossip Girl.

She is an embodiment of what it means to move on. But that idea is scary, at least to me.

It is hard letting go of the eating disorder identity… but it is hard letting go of the eating disorder recovery identity too. 

While recovery and treatment resources are very good things, those resources seem farther and farther away to me as I grow and move on, and they grow increasingly less applicable. Residential treatment no longer seems homy, desirable, or helpful for me.

And yet, five years later, while I eat pizza without a second thought, I am still not over my eating disorder. It is not a chapter in my life that is closed forever. I don’t know if it will ever be a closed chapter, or whether I will hobble through life with a slight limp. The idea of closing the chapter of my eating disorder in my life– forever– seems like a huge loss. Moving on means moving on from all aspects of my eating disorder.

Will I ever be ready for that?

What would it mean to have true freedom? What would it be like to be able to plan my schedule without allotted time for therapy?  I wonder if anorexia will stop being my default option, my brain’s well-worn neuronal pathway.

I wonder if I will truly, completely move on.

Do I want that?

Like most things in life, I have no easy answers. I look at others, and I look at myself, and I am mindful of the tensions that exist. I see where I have been, where I am now, and where I want to be, and I am left with a tangled web of messiness. It is hard to hold the tensions while choosing to believe in a greater hope.

I see this hope in a tangible way outside, now that the polar vortex has finally subsided, now that I see the sun again. The earth is still icy, but it is thawing. It will dry and produce flowers soon. So it is with my heart and body. At least I hope.

In the meantime, I will keep eating pizza. It is delicious.

 

If A Tree Falls

The last few days I have been thinking about this philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I first saw the short film, “Likeness,” directed by Rodrigo Prieto, a month ago, which is about a girl (Elle Fanning) with bulimia. **NOTE: If you’re thinking of watching it, and I will link to it here, I am telling/ warning you: it has disturbing images and shows purging. SO, be cautious before seeing it. If you’re worried about whether or not to watch it, maybe err on the side of not. That is my warning.**

Despite the disturbing content (I turned the volume down/ skipped through a few scenarios), this film spoke to something deep inside of me. Elle Fanning is at a party in the bathroom putting on mascara when all of a sudden her skin morphs into a peeling mask, and crying, she tries to rip off her own skin. It is haunting and raw, but it resonates.

It made me think of the tree falling question.

Does someone’s pain matter if nobody knows it is happening?

So often, with eating disorders, and mental health issues in general, the pain inside is not outwardly visible. I know the experience of walking around in a trance, knowing that people have no idea about what I’m going through. I can engage in normal activities and act like a regular human being, and yet, there is so much more inside.

Maybe one reason I relate to Elle Fanning’s character in “Likeness” so much is because the director externalized her self-loathing, dysmorphic inner state onto the outer, her skin. If I’m being honest, the outward is more tangible and seems more real to me.

The outward is also more comfortable for our culture. This series of images came out on imgur entitled, “If physical diseases were treated like mental illness.” My favorite image is a picture of a person who has blood spewing from his stomach, and someone is saying, “It’s like you’re not even trying.” Of course, no one would ever say that to someone who is internally bleeding, and yet, as the images suggest, isn’t that exactly how people with mental illness are often treated? Neurotransmitters are over/ under firing, and the brain is malfunctioning, and yet people are blamed for their issues because they can’t be seen. People receive rhetoric like, “You’re so frustrating. You’re not even trying. Just get out of bed. Eat dinner. It’s not a big deal.”

Stigma toward mental illness is so prevalent. It hinders a healthy person’s willingness to be empathetic towards those with mental health issues, and then sufferers can internalize self-stigma, or stigmatize themselves.

The tendency to hide is evident for Elle Fanning’s character in “Likeness,” who is in serious emotional discomfort  and then proceeds to go back into the party and tell others she is fine. My professional/ recovery instinct is to tell her: Everything is not fine. You can confide in someone. You don’t have to go through this alone. … and yet, haven’t I historically reacted how this character does? It is so easy to hide if you can.

In a recent anorexia memoir I read, I saw the author’s tendency to invalidate her own experience of an eating disorder. Her book is peppered with times that she is screaming, Was this thing that I went through real? Can you see it? Does it count? Is it good enough? Am I good enough?

My own eating disorder has seemed similarly elusive. Some of my past relapses have been in response to the thought, “I want to see if I still can do it” (hindsight: not a fruitful thought). I can’t say, “I broke my bone on this date, and I got a cast, and I was in physical therapy until this month.” My healing has been in a jovial conversation, a good cry, the taste of quality food, and increasing amounts of life. Part of me longs for the certainty and tangibility that I don’t have.

Now back to the philosophical tree question… Okay, I took a (required) philosophy class in college. One. So I know pretty much nothing about philosophical dilemmas. And right now I’m more talking about people than trees, obviously. But, shouldn’t a tree that falls matter? Maybe no one can hear or see it right away, but doesn’t it ultimately impact the rest of the forest? And if nothing else, I would think that it would be known by and matter to God.

Just because the tears may be deep inside, don’t they still count as tears? If someone is imploding and no one recognizes it, isn’t that still imploding? Just because everything seems okay, and others recognize it as such, maybe everything is not okay. Shouldn’t that be okay? Suffering is hard to measure, but it still matters. It means something, even if it is silent. My therapist has tried to tell me this 800 times, calmly, and the last 100 times more forcefully. I believe her every time. The hard part is putting it into practice in my own life. It is so hard to validate something no one can see, even when I know it is real. Elle Fanning and I cannot be the only ones in life who have had the impulse to hide emotional pain.

I see how stigma about mental illness has affected individuals and our culture, so one of my professional goals is to fight this stigma that inhibits people from acknowledging their own struggles and friends and family from recognizing and responding to another’s pain. It is unacceptable that so many people have to suffer alone without an advocate.

What would a world look like where people are free to be open about the pain they face inside, where the lack of judgment and safety are normative responses? I believe that through education and outreach, more and more people will be able to come out of the closet and verbalize their own struggles, or they can support others.

Many times, when you are falling or hurting internally, you can’t just get yourself out of it, just like this poor little tree below can’t re-plant himself if no one heeds his cry. People need support and love during hard times. They need it from others, and they need it from themselves.