Managing the Holidays When In Recovery from an Eating Disorder

Well, it’s officially autumn and winter is fast approaching, which means that you probably will be celebrating some holidays soon! As someone who’s been there, I know how stressful and scary the holidays can be when dealing with an eating disorder.  And so, I have compiled a little list of things I have found helpful in my own recovery. Feel free to pick and choose what you feel might work for you—I know we all come from different places and have different struggles.

autumn leaves

Autumn takes pictures of Autumn!

Communicate. I can’t stress this one enough (and that’s not just because I was a comm major!). Don’t panic in secret. If you’re with a treatment team, ask them if they can help you create a plan to navigate the holiday season. If you spend a lot of time with your family on holidays, it might be good to have a talk (do it BEFORE the holiday, not on it/during it—that can be very stressful). Talk about what they can do to make you feel safe and supported. Support people can have good intentions but poor execution when they’re trying to help you. Tell them what WILL help you vs. what is triggering for you.

Have an outside support system. Ask a friend or family member (or even your therapist if possible) if you can call or text them throughout the day for support and encouragement. Sometimes a, “Hey, you can do this! I’m here for you” text can go a long way.

Remember, it’s just a meal—same as any other day. Thanksgiving dinner is really just like any other dinner; there are just more options!  If you need to bring one “safe dish” along with you to a gathering, I think that’s okay. But do challenge yourself to try some of the other foods there. You don’t have to have an entire plate of every single thing, but maybe you can sample some different foods and side dishes. Easing yourself into eating a little bit of something is a great way to overcome a fear food.

Have some coping skills in mind. If the anxiety gets to you, make sure you have a safe, healthy alternative so that you don’t get pulled into an ED behavior. Bring your journal, bring some knitting, do breathing exercises, call a friend.

Holidays are meant to be fun! Holidays are a time to visit with the ones we love. Don’t get too hung up on the food aspect of it. Sometimes we can forget all the other wonderful things that happen because we’re so blinded with fear on what will happen at mealtime. When was the last time you enjoyed holidays? Maybe it was a couple years ago or maybe it was when you were a little kid. Think about what you loved about them. Playing football in the yard with your cousins? Playing board games with your grandparents? Putting up decorations? Opening presents (hey, I’m just being honest!)? Plan a fun activity for that day or the next day to lift your spirits and give you something to look forward to, rather than dreading all of it because of the food.

Know that everything may not go according to plan—but that’s okay. My first Thanksgiving in recovery, I had done all the preparing I could: I debriefed with my therapist, went over my meal plan with my dietitian, brought a dish that was safe for me (I used to be very anxious about eating food when I didn’t know every ingredient), and had some girls from my support group to text. I was set! When I arrived at my grandma’s house, she said she had a special surprise for me: Since I was a vegetarian and couldn’t eat the turkey, she had cooked an entire pan of fettucini alfredo just for me! Fettucini alfredo was a HUGE fear food for me on so many levels at that time. I was horrified. Later, I recounted the story to my therapist. I said, “And then, she brought out this HUGE thing of fettucini alfredo, for only me to eat.” There was a moment of silence as we stared at each other, and then we both burst out laughing. My grandma had only been trying to help me feel comfortable, but it was a hilarious misfire.

It was basically my worst nightmare, but you know what? I survived. I still had a great holiday. And you can too! If it doesn’t go the way you hope, there’s always another tomorrow. You got this. I believe in you.

There are also some great tips for surviving the holidays at the following blogs:

Something Fishy-Happy Holidays

Libero Network-6 Tips for Enjoying the Holidays

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Loving Yourself Through Old Photos

This weekend, I stopped by my parents’ house and had the urge to look through some old photos. It’s always hilarious to remember your old Halloween costumes, the year you had no front teeth, or (if you’re me), the fact that you seemed to exclusively wear bicycle shorts for your entire childhood. I guess hating pants is something you’re born with.

During my little excavation, I came across a photo of my 5 year old self at gymnastics class. I am standing next to two of my kindergarten friends in nothing but our leotards. My arms and legs are entirely exposed, and yet I don’t seem uncomfortable at all.  I’m not worrying about whether or not my friends think I look fat or telling myself my thighs are too disgusting to show people.  I wasn’t a large child by any means, but my thighs were actually the largest out of all my friends. The thing is, I don’t remember ever thinking my thighs were better or worse than theirs, just different.  It makes me wonder: when did I start ranking my body with others’?  When did I decide that the body that allowed me to run and tumble and do cartwheels was worthless unless it could be thinner than others’?

I would never tell that little girl that her thighs were disgusting or needed to be more toned. I would never pinch at the skin on her arms. I would never tell her to harm herself or make her skip dinner.

But I am that little girl. Those are my arms and my thighs. And I have told myself these things for years. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to envision this girl within me every time I have the urge to call myself ugly or “fat.” I want to love myself the way I love the spunky little gymnast in that photo.

Another thing that was interesting was to see that my relative build is the same as it is now. I mean, I’m an adult woman with curves and such, but you can see the same framework in my childhood pictures. It was a cool reassurance that I have always been designed this way and that this is the way my body is made to look.

If you’re ever interested, I would totally suggest looking at some pictures of yourself as a baby or toddler. Try insulting your adorable chubby cheeks or your tiny baby fingernails or your toothy smile. I bet you’ll discover a newfound compassion for yourself.

Anxiety, Blogs, and Moving Forward

honestyHey everyone! Sorry I have been away for awhile. I’ve been super busy (sometimes with real life responsibilities, other times with endlessly reading Buzzfeed and watching Netflix, let’s be honest), but I also stepped away for a bit to give myself time to process the fact that I’m sharing pieces of my story here.

I know that this blog is basically anonymous and really doesn’t say anything too outrageous, but do know that speaking my truth is a huge thing for me—even in as casual a setting as a faceless, random blog. Just creating this felt like a massive leap of faith! I have had blogs in the past, but always deleted them when the honesty got too scary.

I have spent a lot of my life lying to people or hiding the truth from them. It’s not something I’m proud of, but a lot of it has been out of fear and self-preservation. I have a massive fear of failure, so sometimes I lie about how well I’m doing to make my life seem better than it feels. I omit all the bad stuff and play up the good. I don’t tell people the whole story, and I don’t tell them when something is wrong. I’m working on this.

A piece of why I’m writing this blog is to have some record of my own progress. Like I’ve mentioned before, I have had 2 other blogs where I wrote about my life and recovery, but deleted them both out of mindless fear. In addition, I destroyed all the journals from when I was worst in my ED and when I was first going into recovery. I started worrying what would happen if someone found them and read them–not even just worrying, PANICKING. And so I ripped each page into tiny shreds, and then threw them all out in waves over the course of several weeks, out of fear that someone would find the pieces and then glue them all together to read my diary. Irrational? Yes. Have I always been this anxious and paranoid? Unfortunately, yes.

As far back as I can remember, I have struggled with a strange, overwhelming anxiety that makes me worry about every small move I make and how I will affect others in the world. As a child, I would feel tremendous guilt if I so much as thought something mean. I can remember being 8 or 9 years old and having my mother try to calm me down so I could sleep, telling me that it was okay to make mistakes and that I wasn’t bad. Fast forward to age 21 and I was still staying up til 4am, trying to find peace and remind myself that I am okay. I’d punish myself for things I did in 3rd grade. I would worry that someone was spying on me or planning to ruin my life. I’d deactivate my Facebook and withdraw from my friends.

Now I’m 23 and doing a bit better, but I have my super-anxious days. My therapist sometimes has to remind me that no one can hear my sessions and that she doesn’t tell people what I say. She also reminds me that I am a good person who makes mistakes, not a bad person who hurts other people constantly. I think that pieces of my eating disorder & other mental health issues stem from this lifelong battle. I have tried to think back on what may have caused my anxiety, but it’s possible that I was just born this way (unintentional Lady Gaga reference). Some people are born with very perfectionistic, high-anxiety personalities. Honestly, I’ve stopped caring about the Whys and am focusing more on the What Now?s. What can I do now, today, that will help me manage my anxiety and lead a meaningful life? What can I change? That’s what I care about at this point. If I find a root for my anxiety along the way, awesome. If I don’t, then at least I will still have some tools to lead me into a calmer, happier present and future.

I’m not a scientist, and I can’t see the inside of my brain. I don’t know if my anxiety was caused by an external event or if it’s in my genes. But even if I was born with anxiety, it doesn’t mean I have to live with it. I’m going to keep pushing forward and finding ways to cope–no, thrive. If I end up deleting this blog one day in a wave of fear, I will be disappointed but will keep trying. I’ll start another blog. I’ll open up to someone I trust. I’ll always take another leap of faith. I’ll always ask, “Okay, what now?”

Healing Through Photography

A big piece of recovery, at least for me, is learning how to find peace in living in the moment. When suffering from a mental illness, especially with anxiety or eating disorders, you spend a lot of time living in your head. Endlessly flipping through a mental catalog of numbers, worrying about what you did or consumed, figuring out if this cookie you’re eating now will make you gain 5 pounds later, nervous about what you’ll have to eat or if you’ll be able to exercise later–forever caught between replaying the past and agonizing about the future. You completely miss the here-and-now.

It can be nice (and I’d argue, necessary) to find something that brings you away from that, that shows you what living is meant to be like. For me, one of those things is photography.

forrest

My handsome cat and often un-enthusiastic model when I need something to shoot.

I always had an interest in photography growing up, but never knew the logistics of it or even had a real camera to work with. Then, about 3 years ago following a massive breakup, I decided that I wanted to do something for myself. I wanted to follow a passion and not worry about failing or being laughed at. I decided I would finally buy myself a camera. I did some research and pooled all my money from Christmas and the Target giftcard I had and set off to buy a Canon EOS Digital Rebel. I knew nothing about photography except that when I started taking pictures, I lost all track of time and didn’t care about anything else in the world.

vik

To be fair, taking pictures in Iceland makes it very easy to take amazing pictures 🙂

I spent the next few years teaching myself how to use my camera by just going out there and doing it (I got to take a photography class in undergrad too, which I loved!). Trial and error. Taking pictures of anything–books in my room, my backyard, my cat. Studying photos I loved. Did I become I pro photographer? Not by any means, but that doesn’t matter to me.

I developed a particular affinity for nature photography. When I was out hiking in the woods, I felt a connection to the earth and it helped me remember that I was a living thing too, created as special and strong as the trees around me. I felt beautiful when I could feel the sun shining down on my back, my hands and knees smeared with dirt from crouching down to get the perfect shot of the moss on the logs. I was removed from my disordered headspace and the toxic culture that can often surround us–these trees didn’t care about my weight, whether I was wearing makeup or not, what my job was, how many friends I had, or what calories I had eaten. They simply existed in the now. They just were, and that was enough. And so when I am there, I am able to let go of those things too. I am able to just be.

logs

Found in a forest near my childhood home.

Find something that makes you happy to be alive. Find an activity that you can lose yourself in, that you do just for the happiness and satisfaction it brings you.  Don’t worry about whether or not you’ll be good at it. It doesn’t have to be anything swanky. You don’t need a fancy camera or high tech cooking equipment or the oil paint collection of Van Gogh. Dare to be a beginner at something. Dare to follow your passions.

The Art of Self Compassion

Once again, I love everything from TheLoveYourselfChallenge.

Once again, I love everything from TheLoveYourselfChallenge.

The last blog I wrote talked about the importance of speaking up for yourself when someone else steps on your toes. This week, I learned a related lesson–how to apologize when you are the one who messed up.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait, aren’t you 23 years old? How do you not know how to apologize?” And the truth is, although I have obviously made mistakes and said “I’m sorry” before, I still have a lot of trouble owning up to things and making a direct apology. This isn’t to say that I don’t feel bad–on the contrary, I actually carry huge amounts of guilt and shame with me–but like I’ve said before, I tend to avoid people or shut down when things go wrong. Just as it’s hard for me to say, “Hey, you hurt me,” it’s also difficult to say, “Hey, I’m sorry I hurt you.” The vulnerability is too much to bear. Confrontation and I are lifelong frenemies.

Without getting too specific, this weekend I went out with some friends and ended up acting in a way that is not consistent with who I am or my values. Do you ever look at something you’ve done and think, “Who is that girl? I would never do that.” That’s kind of what this felt like.

Whenever I make a mistake, I have a tendency to internalize everything and send myself into a huge shame spiral. If you’ve ever read any of Brene Brown’s work on shame (highly highly recommended), you probably know all about this. She points out that guilt is saying, “I did something bad,” and shame is saying, “I am bad.” I never realized how steeped in shame I was until I heard this. Even the smallest mistake (like the one from this weekend), makes me feel like a monster. I still struggle with it. After this weekend, I sat down in my therapist’s office, told the story, and said, “I think I’m just a shitty person.”

“You’re not a shitty person,” she said. “You’re coming into your own. You’re still figuring out your boundaries and what your values are. It’s an ongoing process and you’re bound to make some mistakes, but that’s okay. You can apologize, learn, and grow from it. You’re a good person who did a less-than-good thing.” I realized that while I was feeling all sorts of guilt over how the other person must feel, I had forgotten to show a little compassion to myself. I know that everyone messes up and I can forgive others’ missteps, but I never afford myself the same empathy. “And furthermore,” she added, “Shitty people don’t admit their mistakes, feel guilt, or issue apologies to those they’ve hurt. The fact that you’re trying to make it right proves you’re a good person.”

And so I created a plan with her on how I would tell this friend I was sorry and learn how to check myself before I wreck myself in the future (haha).  I ended up apologizing to this friend in person (turns out I had blown the whole thing out of proportion in my mind, and she wasn’t even very upset), and although it was a small step, I really felt like I grew from it. I didn’t shut down. I didn’t punish or hurt myself. I admitted my flaws and vowed to do better. And that doesn’t make me a monster–it makes me a human.

Learning to Speak

This week, me and my therapist talked about the importance of speaking up for yourself. This is something I have struggled with my whole life. I am afraid to let someone know if they’ve offended me or bothered me. I am afraid to set boundaries with people or say no. I am also afraid to ask for things. My brain tells me that if I bring up something uncomfortable, it will escalate into a fight, push the other person over the edge, or result in the other person abandoning me.  It sounds silly to write it out, but when you’re in that awkward spot when you want to say something butjustcan’t, it’s easy for irrational thoughts to take over. And if you’ve ever spoken out before and gotten a negative reaction (as I have; as I imagine we all have), you might be hesitant to do it again.

My therapist asked me, “So, what do you typically do in a situation where you have to let someone know they’ve bothered you or stepped on your toes a bit?” and I replied, “I usually create a really elaborate plan to circumvent having to confront them at all.” She basically did a facepalm.

It’s sad but true–I am more apt to move around huge pieces of my life and create even more stressful situations, rather than just bear a minute or two of awkwardness. I also have a pretty avoidant personality. If something weird comes up, I will probably distance myself from you, cancel plans, skip a day of work, whatever. I’ll try to create passive ways to show you how I feel without ever having to say the words myself. If it’s something painful to talk about, there’s a good chance that I will turn it inwards and take it out on myself, which leaves me hurt and in the same place I was before. It’s as exhausting as it sounds.

But something I learned this week is that speaking up doesn’t have to be a big deal. Sure, there are situations where you’re going to have to break some big news (“I want to break up,” “You’re not the father,” etc.), but in everyday situations where you have to set boundaries or let your needs be known, it doesn’t need to be dreadful. If you are honest, direct, and respectful in the way you communicate it (“I felt hurt when…”), then you have nothing to apologize for.

Bearing a few minutes of discomfort is worth it if it means getting your needs met and letting your voice be heard. Would you rather say nothing and keep feeling weird/miserable, or tough it out for a few seconds and reach a resolution? You are allowed to have feelings. You are allowed to say that something wasn’t okay with you. Speaking up doesn’t make you annoying or needy. In fact, talking about things openly and honestly can help our relationships grow and improve.

I can tell it will be in baby steps for me, but I’m ready to start speaking for myself.

Stop Waging War on Yourself

Image via The Love Yourself Challenge

Image via The Love Yourself Challenge

“Waging war on yourself won’t fix the pain someone else caused you.”

The first time I saw this photo/quote, it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Like, literally I gasped at my desk at work.

You’d think after years of living in recovery and countless hours of therapy and telling my stories, I’d have realized this by now. I guess on some levels I did, but I never truly saw it spelled out like this. When entering recovery from eating disorders/self harm, my initial framework was that I should stop these behaviors because they were “bad.” Purging was dangerous and unhealthy. Restriction and weight loss led to malnourishment and heart stress. Bingeing made me feel gross. Self-harming was dangerous and physically hurt me.

All of the above are true for me, but I was missing a huge piece of the puzzle: none of these behaviors “fixed” whatever was going on. Sure, they provided a temporary distraction or relief from awful feelings or painful memories, but once I was done bingeing, purging, self harming etc., the feelings and memories were right where I’d left them–now accompanied by a huge wave of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Great coping mechanisms, amirite? Not.

Don’t punish yourself for the pain someone else has caused you. And furthermore, don’t do yourself harm when you are upset over something you’ve done. We’ve all made mistakes, and learning from them and choosing to improve is lesson enough. Hurting yourself won’t make the pain go away, especially not in the long term.

My advice? Start talking about what hurts. Find a friend or a counselor. Begin a journal. Start creating art. Make music. Start looking for how you can move past the pain in a productive, long-term way. Let it out, but don’t take it out on yourself.

“Faking It”: A Study in Impostor Syndrome

How many times have you found yourself in a situation and thought, “I don’t belong here. I’m not at all qualified for this. I’m not smart/experienced/good enough for this.” Maybe it’s a job, school, even a relationship. You feel like a fraud. You feel like you are the one faker that slipped through the cracks without notice, and everyone around you is better and belongs there.

This is called Impostor Syndrome. Caltech Counseling Center (random reference) defines Imposter Syndrome as “as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.” In other words, you always feel like you are not good enough, despite the evidence that shows you are. You dismiss all your qualifications, accomplishments, and strengths and worry that any moment now you’ll be “found out” by others for being a total fake.

I have felt like this my whole life, and when I first read about Impostor Syndrome I had this mini-epiphany. I was like, “THAT’S IT! That’s ME!”  I thought I was the only one. Apparently, it’s pretty common, especially in those who are successful and/or high achieving.

If you’re in recovery for an eating disorder, it’s likely that you are a perfectionist, so perhaps you’ll even recognize Impostor Syndrome in yourself. A lifelong perfectionist myself, I have a hard time ever believing I am good enough. Sitting in my college classes, I’d think, “I’m definitely not smart enough to be here. The admissions counselors must have accidentally let me in here alongside all these people who are ACTUALLY smart and capable.” My good grades? Not evidence that I am smart or a good student–probably due to a combination of easy classes and luck. In my internships and jobs, I’d be overwhelmed with thoughts that told me it was a fluke that I was hired–these people must think I’m more qualified or responsible than I actually am. Even in my own relationships, I feel that those who care about me MUST be seeing someone else entirely. I feel like they don’t see all of me because if they REALLY knew me, they’d realize I’m not that great.

I’d wait, panic-stricken, for the moment when others realized my shortcomings and a teacher would tell me I wasn’t smart enough, or I’d get fired, or someone would dump me for being boring or stupid.

None of my worst fears ever happened. I never walked into a classroom or office to be greeted by my peers with a big “GUESS WHAT WE KNOW YOU’RE ACTUALLY A HUGE LOSER” surprise party. I wasn’t an impostor. And to take that a step further: even if I had failed a class, messed up an assignment at work, or gotten dumped, it wouldn’t have anything to do with my worth as a person. You are NOT your achievements.

However, it’s high time we all start recognizing that we don’t suck in every way imaginable. Be proud of your achievements–whether it’s your GPA, your promotion, or someone saying they like your artwork. You ARE qualified to be at your school or job; it’s not an oversight or a mistake on the administration’s part!

It might even help to make a list of things that prove you are talented, smart, and capable. Maybe you got a scholarship, maybe you had a glowing recommendation from your music teacher, maybe an acquaintance complimented your photography, or maybe your idea was picked up by upper management.

You’re smarter, braver, and stronger than you think. You’re not an impostor.

One.

I guess every blog needs a first post.

I’ve had blogs in the past–there was my Xanga at age 15, on which I mostly talked about inside jokes with friends and complained about Driver’s Ed. There were a few vague, pseudo-poetic MySpace blogs. And then there was the secret WordPress blog I had from about ages 17 to 20. Unfortunately, all have been deleted for different reasons, but a piece of me wishes I had kept them so I could better reflect on the many, many changes my life has seen.

Now there is this blog–the blog of a 23 year old woman living in recovery from eating disorders, depression, and self harm. It’s a scary move to make for someone who has spent years fearing things like honesty and vulnerability. But I’m going to attempt to be as honest with myself and others as I can, because I think it’s time to.  Augusten Burroughs once wrote, “The truth is humbling, terrifying, and often exhilarating. It blows the doors off the hinges and fills the world with fresh air.”

I think it’s real what they say, that the truth can set you free. But I think it also sets other people free. When one person tells their truth and shares their story, it empowers others to do the same. It shows us that we’re never alone.

There are hundreds of people whose stories have showed me that the deep, dark feelings I carry inside me do not make me terrible or broken or hopeless. They often make me feel very isolated (oh my god, feelings about feelings–this blog is getting meta already), but in reality they connect me to others. They make me human. But if you never hear another person voice a similar feeling, you’d never know that you weren’t alone.

I think it’s important for our communities (especially the mental health/recovery community) to have as many voices as possible in order to reach across the lines of secrecy and shame we draw for ourselves. Because even one voice, even one “Me too” can change things. I know it has for me.

Not to get all self-righteous, but I guess that’s why I decided to start writing again. Partly for me, and partly with the hope that maybe my story can help someone realize that there is always hope and of course, that recovery is possible.

So, here goes nothing.