Unknowing

Featured Image: “Silence,” © Ilya Dobrych, Apr 2009. CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Flying makes me anxious. It doesn’t make me anxious because I’m afraid of accidents or heights or the recirculating germs of strangers in a tiny, enclosed space. Rather, it makes me anxious because it is a situation that I don’t control. I am at the whim of the TSA employee, the gate attendant, the pilots, the flight attendants, and blind chance. Although I try my best to choose a take-off time that best suits me, I can’t predict the medical emergency on the inbound plane that will delay us by three hours, causing me to arrive home at 1:30 am. I am ALL ABOUT CONTROL. My eating disorder manifested at a time when my life was otherwise chaotic in the extreme due to numerous factors outside of my control. The more out-of-control my environment became, the more rigid and fixated I became with my eating, and so forth. Treatment allows me clearer insight into my control issues, and now I face them head-on rather than coping with my distress by engaging in self-destructive habits. I try to identify and name my emotions. Anxiety. Fear. Panic. What am I telling myself that is making me feel this way? Is it true? Is it helpful? Sometimes my reasonable mind can untwist my thinking enough to take the edge off those emotions. Inch by inch, it’s getting easier, but sometimes, it’s still a take-no-prisoners, guerrilla war. This is the backdrop of my story.

But first, another bit of background. It’s a universal reality that people use careless words, make stupid comments, and are occasionally cruel. I am fully guilty of this, myself, and it probably happens on a daily basis more often than I am even aware of, much to my sorrow. I would like to think that it usually comes from a well-meaning place or, at worst, results from my ignorance. One of the first lessons that I learned in Emotional Regulation 101 was that I cannot control what other people say to me or how they behave, but I can control what I tell myself about their language and actions and how I choose to respond. It wasn’t an easy lesson, and it is one that requires continual practice. I was helped by another girl that I met in treatment who, in her lifelong struggle against anorexia, stumbled upon what she called “THE THREE U’S.” They are as follows: UNKNOWING, UNEDUCATED, and UNCARING (or unkind). “When people say dumb s*&t to me or I start getting pissed about something someone is doing, I ask myself, ‘Is this person unknowing, uneducated, or uncaring?’” she would explain. “Does this person not know that I have an eating disorder and that their words are potentially very hurtful or triggering? Is this person uneducated about eating disorders? Does she think that she’s being empathetic and insightful, when really she is unintentionally saying or doing something really upsetting or hurtful?” Fortunately, in my personal experience, it’s rather rare that I encounter someone who is truly uncaring and is motivated by anger or spite, who means to cause me suffering or to make me feel pain.

"Open Book," © Honou, Oct 2008. CC-BY-2.0.
Open Book,” © Honou, Oct 2008. CC-BY-2.0.

At last, onto the story! It was a sunny, warm, Sunday afternoon, and I was sitting in the terminal at Baltimore-Washington airport awaiting the announcement to board my connecting flight back to Vanillasville. My weekend trip home to the Northeast was a wonderful respite from work and the isolated otherness of my routine, eastern Midwest life. Already, the travel back to Vanillasville was progressing more smoothly than my journey home. No delays. No unexpected gate changes. Just a bit of turbulence during the first leg. My ticket placed me in one of the first boarding groups, and I was delighted to find abundant bin space as I made my way onto the plane. Feeling rested, relatively safe, and confident in my ability to adhere to my meal plan under the present circumstances, I was in a pretty positive and optimistic mood. I settled into my aisle seat near the front of the plane, tucked my carry-on securely above me and my shoulder bag under the seat in front of me, and prepared for the short, hour-long jaunt that would land me back in familiar (i.e., controllable) territory. There weren’t many unpredictable variables left during this trip to heighten my vigilance.

Beside me, another woman, slightly younger than me, buckled herself into the center seat, and to her left, a middle-aged woman of about fifty found her place, shifting uncomfortably until the flight attendant subtly passed her a seatbelt extender. I smiled and said, “Hi,” to both of them, as I usually do whenever I fly. I’m not the type of person who relishes launching into a deep conversation with a complete stranger who I will be unable to escape from for the next several hours, but I like to smile, make eye contact, and offer a friendly greeting. It sort of gives me a bit of a warm fuzzy on the inside while allowing me to protect my privacy. My row-mates were of other minds on this particular Sunday afternoon, apparently. It didn’t happen all at once. It began with an innocent question from the woman nearest the window to the one in the middle, but in short order, the conversation was underway, and I found myself drawn into it. Dialectically, I decided to use my skills, to make myself fully mindful of the people I was traveling with, and to engage them, giving myself to listening and taking in their words, their gestures, their expressions. I called upon all my mindfulness skills to notice my own reactions, not only mental but also physical and emotional. The woman near the window was returning from a trip to Texas with her daughter and then woman in middle was on her way to a job interview. She was a very young physician, still in training, and after talking a bit about her work, the joys and frustrations of her life as a medical resident, the conversation somehow devolved into her personal opinions about the obesity epidemic in America. She spoke as though she possessed unique insight, as an enlightened and compassionate healthcare provider, but from my perspective, she sounded, quite frankly, rather uneducated on the subject. She was also unknowing of my own education and experience, background, and personal stake in the topic. How could she know how deeply and personally I am affected by the topic when I look, for all appearances, like a completely healthy, slender, fit woman? Why would she ever suspect me of having an eating disorder, let alone BINGE eating disorder? Who would think that my weight and my eating is such a source of pain and SHAME for me? She never seemed to take into consideration how what she was saying was affecting our third companion, and I wondered at the depth and breadth of thoughts and emotions hidden behind the kind, placid face of the woman near the window, who could not hide her obesity. Her only verbal response was to blame her weight problems entirely on genetics. I attempted to interject with a plea for a deeper understanding of the role that socioeconomics, family systems, culture, learned behaviors, and mental health all factor into the complicated and multifaceted issues of weight, nutrition, and health, but I was met with blank stares.

"Ball," © Riley Kaminer, Jan 2009. CC-BY-2.0.
Ball,” © Riley Kaminer, Jan 2009. CC-BY-2.0.

It was discouraging to be confronted with cultural ignorance toward weight stigma, eating issues, and health in general, but especially mental health, on a face-to-face, personal level. Even recounting the conversation in my mind to write about these events for this blog post is stirring all sorts of distress, once more. It feels like that familiar, tight, ball of rubber bands in my chest, just behind my sternum, ready to pop and shoot colorful bands all across the room. It’s one thing to read ill-informed articles in the media, to watch stereotypes portrayed on TV, or to see yet another exploitative marketing strategy that reinforces disordered eating behaviors and unrealistic, unattainable appearance and lifestyle standards. I sat mostly silent for the duration of the flight, occasionally speaking when I thought I could insert a statement that might be heard by my fellow travelers with an open heart and mind without exposing myself. It felt disingenuous. What could I do? What would you have done?

A Moment in a Pear

Featured Image:  “Pear,” by Takács István, 2007. Public Domain.

“We already know that you’re an apple girl,” states Kelly, my nutritionist, matter-of-factly during a recent appointment. ‘Tis true. I eat pretty much the same thing for breakfast every day, and an apple is always involved. “Of what’s going to be coming into season… let’s see…” Kelly’s latest strategy to introduce new foods into my narrow (but expanding!), orthorexic diet is to task me with trying the seasonal produce from the multitude of local farms, one fruit or vegetable at a time. After my sweet success with a sweet potato, I successfully conquered the entire berry family over the course of the summer, plus cherries. I discovered that I love blueberries and cherries, that strawberries are just OK, and that raspberries, while delicious, are rather too fragile to keep in my refrigerator consistently. I was feeling quite proud of myself, despite the fact that an artichoke, a zucchini, and a bunch of asparagus wound up as what I might call “collateral damage.” Usually, vegetables are my safe foods… but not vegetables that I must cook. It’s a complicated story.

“How about a pear?” Kelly stated more than asked.

“How about, no?” I replied, only half jokingly.

“What’s the problem with a pear?” she countered.

“Too many calories,” I responded. She looked at me quizzically. We both know that there is nothing rational about eating disorders. I think I’m allergic! I wanted to say, though I knew for a fact that I’m not allergic to pear. “OK, fine! Just one pear!” I conceded.

A few days later, I was in the grocery store surveying the pears. Did you know there are about five different varieties of pears in my local grocery store? What the heck is an Asian pear? Where do they put the normal pear-pears? Fortunately, there was a woman there who looked like she knew more about this pear-buying business than I did. “Excuse me,” I interrupted her. “Do you know which of these pears is the best?” If I was going to eat one of these things, I wanted to make it worth the effort. It just so happened, this very kind woman did know more about pear-buying than me. She pointed to one yellowish variety and explained that those were her husband’s favorite, but were rather gritty.

“But these,” she held up a perfectly pear-shaped, golden-brown, California Bosc, “are my favorite!” Then, as if letting me in on her secret, she leaned closer and whispered, “They’re the best!”

Sold! I hovered over the bin of pears, bobbing and weaving my head to examine them from every angle. I picked up one, the replaced it. I picked up another, turning it over in hand, squeezing it gently, rubbing the pads of my fingers over its skin. I carefully selected one of the smaller of the fruits, a smooth pear with no evidence of bruising, uniform in color, with just the right firmness. Kelly would be so impressed! I got my pear home and pulled out my food exchange list, which details just how much of each food constitutes one serving. I still measure and weigh everything that I prepare for myself, especially when it is something new that I am trying for the first time. (Thankfully, I manage to do relatively well in restaurants without these crutches). I skimmed the list of fruits. I skimmed the list again. I read the list line by line. No pears! I texted my best friend from high school. “Am I really supposed to eat this whole thing? It’s kind of big. If you were going to eat a pear, would you eat the whole thing? Or maybe half?”

“The whole thing,” came the reply. So much for that. My California Bosc and I were stuck with each other. I went for an afternoon bike ride and returned to my apartment to fix my snack. I arranged the food in neat little bowls. Some cottage cheese in one bowl, and my lovely pear in the other. I sat down on the carpeted living room floor. Mindfully, I took a bite, turning the tender flesh over in my mouth, noticing its subtle flavor, it’s not-crisp-but-not-mealy quality, it’s gentle aroma.

If I never eat another pear again, I don’t think I would mind. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I didn’t have that, holy-cow!-what-have-I-been-missing-out-on?! feeling that occurred when I ate cherries for the first time in half a decade. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was. Yet, for those fifteen minutes or so that I spent savoring my pear, it was a milestone experience, made more remarkable by my presence in the moment.  It is not one that I will soon forget.

"European Pear Blossoms," © Rillke, Apr 2012. CC-BY-SA 3.0.
European Pear Blossoms,” © Rillke, Apr 2012. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

I CAN Go Home Again

Featured Image: “Front Door,” © Stephen Grebinski, Sep 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

… after buckets of therapy and a family intervention by one of my mental health counselors. As of last Christmas, I hadn’t really spoken to my parents in about six months, save for a very limited number of terse exchanges and one overnight stay at their house in November while I was awaiting my admission into the partial hospitalization treatment program at Walden, just over an hour’s drive north. In fact, I was so alienated from my parents and so angry with them that I was planning on spending Christmas with the family of one of my college roommates. It just so happened that I made bounding progress in the weeks between Thanksgiving and that much-anticipated holiday – more progress than I made in the entire preceding year and a half of cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy for my depression and binge eating disorder. After my parents drove up for a sit-down with my counselor at Walden, I (with the support of my treatment team) was ready to admit that I missed my mom’s amazing Christmas decorations, the evenings we spent together watching classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, and opening gifts beneath the  beautiful tree, draped in the same ornaments year after year. It was five years since I last experienced a Christmas in the house where I grew up. At first, I was kept away by a chaotic work schedule, and then I managed to convince myself that I didn’t need it. I would save the vacation time and the money on airfare, and my parents would drive out to visit me in Vanillasville while I continued to work.

Well, I did need Christmas. A real Christmas. A home Christmas. And after all that therapy, I was starting to get to a place of acceptance and forgiveness. Acceptance of my parents for who they are, acceptance of myself, and forgiveness of us all. The idea was beginning to dawn on me that my parents might not ever change, and that it was actually OK. I could still love them with all their flaws and imperfections, just as I was learning to love myself in my unfinished state. Maybe there was hope for the relationship. The other piece of the puzzle was my binging. For the first time in my life I was not binging or restricting, my weight was stable, and I had a plan for how to keep moving forward in that same direction. A meal plan! And twice weekly, blind (meaning that I couldn’t see the number on the scale) weights, and a nutritionist nearby everyday, and a whole group of supporters with whom I “processed” for six hours a day, five days a week. Recovery was my full-time job. Knowing that I was going straight back to the safety of that environment on December 26th, I made the leap.

Bridge Over Troubled Water,” © Bert Kaufmann, 2010. CC-BY 2.0.

I still remember the anxiety I felt on that first trip back to the place where I learned all my eating behaviors and where they were reinforced for 18 years (and then sporadically whenever I made a visit afterwards). I was finally owning my eating disorder, though. And for the first time, it seemed like my parents were willing to begin acknowledging the role of our family dynamic in my lifelong struggle with mental health issues. The first order of business was to outline BOUNDARIES. I collected my parents around the table and showed them a typed piece of paper with two neat columns. At the top of the page, it read, “Tips for Living with Lulu’s Eating Disorder.” On the left, one column was titled, “Helpful (Please DO!)” and on the right was “NOT Helpful (Please DON’T).” Please do ask me, “Is anything bothering you/upsetting you?” or “How are you doing?” Please don’t ask me, “Should you be eating that?” Please do talk about ways to live a healthy, balanced life and prepare nutritious, enjoyable meals. Please don’t talk about how many pounds you need to lose or how many pounds you recently gained. There were many more, and some were very specific to my personal triggers (like loud noises). After we talked, I stuck the list to the refrigerator door with a magnet, and whenever someone in the house began to act up, I would declare, with as much humor as I could muster, “Does someone need to go read the list again?”

It wasn’t easy, but it was a monumental achievement for all of us, and I’ve been able to make more trips back home since those days. As I become more confident and secure in my recovery, and as I my continue practicing my recovery and interpersonal effectiveness skills, it becomes less awkward and forced, but of course there are always disagreements or issues of one form or another. That’s just family life in general.

As I type this, I am seated in the study of that familiar place. Little hints of gratitude, serenity, belonging, and joy are percolating in my heart. It’s just a brief weekend respite, and I’ll be back in Vanillasville come Monday morning, but for this moment, I am home.

Contentment,” © flattop341, 2006. CC-BY 2.0.

It’s Not the Food

http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1421a/

Featured Image:  “Artist’s Impression of Dust Formation Around a Supernova Explosion,” © EOS/M. Kornmesser. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

“So what I hear you telling me is that you’re still in a state of high anxiety from last weekend,” responded Kelly’s voice from the telephone receiver. It was just past noon on a Friday, and I was sitting at my desk in my little closet of an office, the door securely closed and my white noise sound machine swooshing steadily in the background. She was referring to a trip that I made back east over the Labor Day break. By Kelly’s estimation, based on my recounting of events, it was the most stressful and overwhelming situation I had encountered since my discharge from partial hospitalization nine months earlier.

I wasn’t exactly sure what made the weekend such a tsunami for me, but I knew that it was multifactorial. The result was that without even recognizing what was happening as it occurred, I found myself sucked into a pattern of psychological thinking, emotional numbing, and both mental and behavioral avoidance like I had not experienced since prior to my intensive course of treatment. My awareness didn’t awaken to this shift until the effects manifested in my eating. Kelly was adamant that I had not come anywhere close to binging when she reviewed what I refer to as my “Food and Emotions Diary,” in which I record how I am feeling both physically and emotionally before I eat, then write down exactly what I consume, and then reflect on how I am left feeling after I finish eating. My entries from the weekend were raw and uncensored. “WHAT THE FUCK DID I DO?!!!” lamented one entire, 3½ x 5½ inch page of the black, unlined Moleskine. Kelly declared it a success. “Are you kidding me?!” I challenged, sitting across her narrow desk on Tuesday morning. But she insisted, pointing out that even when I was in my worst mental and emotional place, blind to what was unfolding around me, unaware of my dangerous slide, unconscious of the need to even attempt to utilize the skills that I typically relied upon, I still didn’t really overeat. Use behaviors, yes. Overeat, technically no. I was still upset. I didn’t see the distinction as clearly as she did, apparently. Furthermore, my therapist seemed concerned… or maybe I was just mind-reading. One of the lingering repercussions of the weekend was that I was back to a stellar degree of over-thinking and over-interpreting every thought, word, and action from myself or others.

“I guuueeess…” I dragged out the vowels melodically, pleadingly, back in the present moment. Please help me! Why am I feeling this way? Make it stop! Tell me that everything is going to be OK!

Lepus europaeus (Uitkerke)
Feeling vulnerable and hyper-alert. “Lepus europaeus (Uitkerke),” © Hans Hillewaert. CC-BY-SA 4.0. Wikimedia Commons.

How could I still be recoiling from the past weekend? No sooner did I plunk myself into a vinyl seat by the gate in the airport than I began processing what went right and what went not-so-right, searching for all the lessons I could possibly glean. I immediately returned to my basic skills and crisis survival strategies – the tried and true techniques that helped in the past. I called upon my mindfulness practices, rallied my support network, promptly followed up with both Kelly and my therapist, dove into my journal, and readjusted right back into my healthy routine as soon as the plane touched down. Back to work, back to my moderate exercise schedule, back to my safe foods and the reassuring comfort of my meal plan. It felt like I was back to “baseline,” so why, four days later, was I suddenly… not? It started shortly after I arrived at work on Friday morning. There was a familiar creeping feeling in my lower chest and upper abdomen that felt deceptively like an aching emptiness. It was coupled with a growing tightness in my chest, directly behind my sternum. My muscles tensed, my jaw set itself like cement. My heart skipped quickly and my breathing became shallow as my thoughts began to race. I’M HUNGRY!

That’s not possible, my Wise Mind said. I call it my Kind Voice, my Reassuring Responder. It quells the panicked internal exclamations that proclaim impending nuclear holocaust when I am stuck in traffic on my way home from the Biggish City and wind up eating dinner an hour later than usual. I just finished breakfast an hour ago, and last night I ate a very nutritious, very filling dinner. I am certainly eating enough, because I am meeting all of my exchanges on my meal plan, and I have not been overly active. This feeling is not real hunger. Whatever it is, it is not hunger, and it will go away. I know this feeling, I’ve had it before, and I know that I can tolerate it. It will not last forever. It is unpleasant, and I don’t like it at all, but I can get through this.”

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?!! HOW LONG IS THIS GOING TO LAST?!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!! I CAN’T TAKE IT! The Reassuring Responder was compassionate and logical, but volume and intensity was on the side of Freak-Out-and-Panic. Back and forth they volleyed in my mind. I would feel relieved and at relative ease for a few moments, and then another alarming thought would race through my head as the hollow feeling in my stomach and chest expanded. What am I going to do? I started thinking about behaviors, and then I started to get really worried. As I fixed my lunch plate, I wondered what I would do after I ate. Would I go after the ice cream that was in the freezer in the break room, left over from the last pot luck? Would I hang in until tonight and then go out to a big restaurant dinner as an excuse to overindulge? It felt like I needed a miracle as I clutched my sanity, desperate to adhere to my meal plan while simultaneously searching for any possible loophole I might exploit. I can’t keep all this inside anymore, I decided. I need to share it. That was when I picked up the phone and dialed Kelly.

“I’ve been doing really well, though!” I protested, searching for some other proximate cause. “But…” I confessed to fears about gaining weight over the last several days. I admitted to thoughts about restricting, though I was not acting upon them. “Is this some sort of rebound from thinking about restricting?” I wondered.

“What ELSE is going on?” Kelly prodded. She always prompts me to dive deeper when I start thinking that I’m getting fat. “IT’S NOT ABOUT THE FOOD!” she declared to me just before my trip. Obviously, I knew that she was right… to some extent. My eating disorder is a deranged coping skill, basically. But sometimes it really seems like it’s all about the food. It is an eating disorder, after all. Her message at the time was that I was doing so well with food, with trying new foods and with eating in all sorts of different settings, that I would try to make it about the food when I was going into any sort of social environment, work function, or other place where I was uncomfortable or felt threatened. “Eating-wise,” she told me then, “you’re doing great.” I wasn’t doing so great anymore! Now it was about the food.

On the other end of the phone line, Kelly’s chipper voice wouldn’t relent. “Have you talked to your friend, yet?” she querried. The culmination of the weekend was that I finally managed (once I became aware that I had feelings and they needed to be released) to express my anger, frustration, disappointment, exasperation, and distress to one of my best friends, basically fleeing her house on Monday morning for the airport in tears. That was the last time we spoke… but we were planning to hash things out over the weekend… I admitted to Kelly that the conversation was impending. Could that really be it? Could I really be that worked up, as I anticipated speaking about the events of the weekend with the other person most affected by what happened? I was terrified of losing the friendship. TERRIFIED. I was terrified that I wouldn’t say the right thing.

In five minutes, Kelly diffused my anxiety. We reviewed my distraction techniques and distress tolerance skills. “What are you going to do this afternoon to tolerate this?” she asked me, and I ticked off my list.

“I’m going to dive into my work with all I’ve got, be present in the moment fully, I’m going to keep my hair appointment after work. My gym bag is in the car if I want to go for a (gentle!) swim. I’m going to read, color, journal, go for a walk, call a friend…” I’m going to be OK. I CAN do this. I’ve done it before. It doesn’t feel good, and it might not be pretty, and frankly, it might really suck, but it WILL get better…

…and it already is. Because it isn’t about the food.

"Gazing at the Wonder of Our Universe," © ESO/B. Tafreshi. (twanight.org). CC-BY-SA 4.0.
Gazing at the Wonder of Our Universe,” © ESO/B. Tafreshi. (twanight.org). CC-BY-SA 4.0.

The Potluck Lot

One of the recurrent themes that I seem to return to with great frequency is my aversion to the preponderance of food in my workplace. I feel as though I live in a varying state of dudgeon over what I interpret as the unconscious perpetuation by those around me of the insidious and reprehensibly unhealthy values surrounding food, exercise, and body image that are so deeply ingrained in our culture. My righteous indignation stirs into a fiery fervor whenever the “Naughty or Nice Cart” rolls through my hallway. I feel like a zealot on a one-woman crusade against the political, media, and industry-fueled machine that drives perversions of what is considered “healthy” in our society. Sometimes, I wish that I could just shout, “Wake up! Wake up, people! Don’t you realize what is going on here?!” After so much cognitive behavioral work, so much practicing at identifying my distorted, all-or-nothing, black-and-white thoughts and then replacing those thoughts with more reasonable, appropriate, rational versions, I might be better at recognizing the pattern of extremism and alarm underlying my ruminations.

Yet, I still find myself sucked into a vortex of vilification and catastrophization on a not-irregular frequency. Why is it so difficult to just LET GO. Is the situation as tectonic as I paint it through my choice of language and the story that I construct in my mind? I am so sensitized to these issues due to my personal history that it is impossible for me to approach the problem from an unbiased, objective perspective. A frequent topic of conversation at my weekly therapy appointments is trying to decide just when to speak up and when to simply ACCEPT that I do not control the actions, opinions, behaviors, or beliefs of others. Can I acknowledge that, though I have a unique insight, I am not an expert, and I am not always right? Can I “choose my battles,” so to speak? Can I WILLINGLY tolerate the off-hand comments, insensitive remarks, and the possibly uneducated or uninformed, but not necessarily ill-intentioned, activities around me? I CAN… but it takes practice. And more practice. And more practice. And more and more and more and more practice.

My latest distress revolved around an office potluck-staff meeting. I wanted to characterize my workplace as evil and my co-workers as criminal because we must hold a potluck at every quarterly staff meeting… However, I ruefully acquiesced that the focus on food did not, of itself, make the environment hellish or the people wicked. In fact, I admitted to myself, a shared meal can be a very healthy activity! It builds bonds of connection and can be an expression of love, friendship, and joy. Unfortunately, in my personal experience as someone with binge eating disorder, these large-scale potlucks are too often derailed by eating just for the physical pleasure of consuming food, which shortly loses its pleasing effect. The sanctity of the meal is lost. The gratitude for nourishment and fellowship and the serenity that would follow from that sense of fulfillment erodes away when satiety is exceeded, the sugar crash sets in, and I begin lambasting myself for being such a fat, stupid, worthless cow in the privacy of my inner mind. I can’t speak for others, but I wonder if this is not a somewhat shared experience. Do we joke about how overly stuffed we are, the number of calories we just consumed, how many hours at the gym it will take to burn off our excesses, or the number of pounds we just gained in order to normalize, rationalize, and justify? Again, how can I expect to be objective? Sometimes, it seems that attention is purposely diverted to others in a scapegoating fashion. At the last office potluck-staff meeting, I listened in shocked horror as two colleagues made some of the most demeaning, dehumanizing “fat jokes” I could recall hearing since riding the school bus as a teenager. When I objected, one of the men laughed and stated, “It’s OK, because they’re fat. They deserve it. If they didn’t want to be made fun of, they wouldn’t be fat.” Appalled, I decided this was one of those situations I wasn’t going to be able to change (though I did speak to the supervisor later about the inappropriateness of those comments).

Perhaps it was this past experience that aroused so much discomfort and resentment in me as the day of the potluck approached. Recollections of previous struggles at similar office events were also, undoubtedly, contributing factors. Would this potluck-staff meeting be anything like those affairs? When I considered the looming occasion, words such as “awful,” “horrible,” “sucks,” “crap,” “problem,” “failure,” and “disaster,” sprang forward. Alternatives such as, “less than ideal,” “it is what it is,” “imperfect,” “opportunity,” “challenge,” “doable,” “growth,” and “surmountable,” were much less accessible to me. When I was able to string together a “rational response” to a doomful prediction, the thought was ephemeral, vaporizing almost as soon as it was conceptualized, while my negativity lingered.

On the day of the potluck, I summoned my courage and my coping skills. It wasn’t graceful. I always have this image of myself navigating distressing situations with perfect equanimity. Of course, using that ideal as my standard, I felt shamefully dejected. Fortunately, the wonderful supports to whom I reached out possessed the clarity and insight to point out that such a model is entirely unrealistic, and I was able to listen. Once I started admitting my small successes, it became increasingly easier to see the multitude of ways in which I did remarkably well under less than ideal circumstances that were beyond my control. My brain is expertly trained to instantly find the fault, the critique, the thing to improve upon. What I discovered following the potluck, or perhaps just stumbled upon again, is the need to preferentially look for my positives. My good qualities. My strengths.

So… these are my goals today. 1) Practice willing acceptance. Again. And again. And again. 2) Look for my positives. I hope you all can see your positives today, too!

"Hawaiian Sunrise 09," by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
“Hawaiian Sunrise 09,” by Tamugreg, [Public Domain], May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.
Featured Image Credit: “Ceremonial,” © NAEINSUN, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Feb 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

Shame Doesn’t Lead to Change

Today, I’m upset about some joking that I overheard at the expense of “others.” Some people at work were making cruel “fat jokes,” and if that weren’t bad enough, they were saying these awful words within earshot of some very wonderful, lovely colleagues who happen to be struggling with weight and body issues at the moment. When will we all learn that we don’t motivate ourselves or the people we care about (or even don’t care about!) to change by making them feel bad about themselves? Martin Luther King, Jr. phrased it much more eloquently than I can when he said,

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

As LeVar Burton used to tell children on the television show Reading Rainbow, “Don’t just take my word for it…” Below is an NBC News piece by Melissa Dahl that summarizes an article published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE in 2013.  The results demonstrated that not only was size discrimination ineffective at promoting weight loss, it actually led to weight gain. Another study from University College London in 2014 revealed the same pattern. The second link leads to a Washington Post article describing those findings.

http://www.nbcnews.com/health/fat-shaming-actually-increases-risk-becoming-or-staying-obese-new-8C10751491

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/09/11/fat-shaming-doesnt-work-a-new-study-says/

The following is of my favorite Brené Brown quotes, which reminds me that I am constantly in need of practice when it comes to humility and empathy…

The biggest potential for helping us overcome shame is this: We are “those people.” The truth is…we are the others. Most of us are one paycheck, one divorce, one drug-addicted kid, one mental health illness, one sexual assault, one drinking binge, one night of unprotected sex, or one affair away from being “those people…”1

Fat jokes are a mechanism of shame that is often, inexplicably, socially condoned. This blog post is my plea to whoever reads it that we stop using these criticisms to undercut ourselves and others. I am just as guilty of using shame as anyone else in the world. I use it in a misguided attempt to impel myself toward self-improvement (especially when it comes to matters of body image and professional performance), and sometimes, it just slips right out in conversation or in my body language. I wish I could suck it back in, reverse time, swallow my words and my facial expressions… but that’s not the way it works. The only way to move forward, at least that I am finding, is to ask for forgiveness, admit my mistakes and my vulnerability, acknowledge my weaknesses, and love myself anyway. When I can do that, then I can love the equally imperfect people around me, and together, maybe we can all move toward a brighter future.

I owe a lot of what I’m learning on this topic to my wonderful therapist and nutritionist, the amazingly strong, beautifully vulnerable people in my therapy, groups, and the resources listed on my “Favorites” page. Check it out, maybe find a reason to forgive yourself for a past mistake or to celebrate a current accomplishment, and perhaps find a way to encourage someone else. Let me know what you think!

  1. Cover photo credit: “Cygnes et cygneaux,” by 20100, May 2007. [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons.
  2. Brown B. (2007) I thought it was just me (but it isn’t):  Making the journey from “what will people think? to “I am enough. New York:  Gotham Books.