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.

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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.