Digesting My Shame (My struggles with Food)

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and that means a lot to many of my friends. Many more than it should, I feel in my heart, because so often eating disorders are related to trauma and abuse, or the destructive social effects in the way that people interact or experience media portrayals.

However, I am proud of these friends and so many more, and often feel appreciative of their ability to verbalize their struggles and share them with others. Food is such an intimate and necessary part of our daily lives, and thus it attracts a multitude of shame and stigma that can be hard to overcome.

So in this post today, I wanted to bring light to a new kind of eating disorder which has been rising rapidly, though it is still not a clinically recognized diagnosis just yet. It is called Orthorexia Nervosa. 

As described by the National Eating Disorder Association:  “Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.”.. Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise)..Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.” https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa

Do you know anyone who might struggle with this, or do you yourself? Please reach out to the hotline number at the bottom of this post, or comment below to share your own experiences.

My experiences:

I have worked with a counselor for childhood related trauma and conditions for about 5 years now, and she knows more about me than most anyone else. However, I remember the day that I admitted to her that I thought I had a problem with eating, and how it was one of the hardest things I ever had to say outloud.

I know am lucky, because I am fortunate to have access to resources that many do not, including counseling, healthcare, income (though still quite limited), internet, and community.

Despite all of this, however, my struggles with food have still made me feel completely isolated among my friends and family, never quite able to describe how most days I skip food for the stress of eating something “wrong”. This “wrongness” was nurtured by many things including:

anxiety around access to food and attitudes towards food growing up

-the bombardment of healthy eating pressures in society and media

-the control over my food choices experienced while in a toxic relationship

But more than anything, it has grown out of one of my weakest abilities, which is that of self care. Self compassion is not something that I had ever focused on until the last few years, and while I’ve gotten immensely better at it in many way, I overlooked this particular element. Its strange even to me, because I’ve always fed my animals the best I possibly could, and I used to love cooking for others. And if I host someone, I always make sure that they eat 3 meals. Unfortunately, that did not translate onto the self, and for me food became so stressful not only to prepare, but simply to consume, that I just stopped.

I’ll explain: Up until recently, despite the fact that I work an extremely physical job, most weeks I  would eat what might equate to 1 meal (though definitely not a healthy or wholesome one at that). This would occur at least 5 out of the 7 days in a week, and had been going on for the better part of 2+ years. Between external and internal pressures to eat well, I just ended up skipping meals, and would be left with such little energy and time that I would resort to eating something high in calories, sugar, or fat (“its better than nothing”, “you worked hard today you’ll burn it off anyway”.)

Recognizing that my relationship with food was becoming toxic, and admitting that I had gotten myself into a bad situation with my health, was really the biggest challenge for me. I am still working with my counselor on it, waiting to see how my changes will effect my blood work, and I am still populating the hang outs with close friends with more dialogue about food than I would like too, but I’m getting somewhere.

I know I am fortunate that my struggles with eating, whether or not they are technically considered a disorder, are still manageable and reversible at this point. Because I also suffer from Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, I am putting all of my extra money towards a functional doctor, who has a nutrionist on staff, and that makes it even easier for me (Diet is a large part of healing the chronic condition).

Overall, I can rationalize that I have a lot of support and that there are easy ways to get back into eating well. But despite that and the fact that I like to make light of it most of the time because I know its rooted in irrational thought and behavior..every day is still an enormous effort for me.

It is easy to feel fatigued, isolated, and drained from struggles regarding food (physically, emotionally, and mentally). That is real, and that is okay. You just do your best everyday.

Please take this week, and some time every week, to consider those in your life that might also have struggles around food and weight, and to be kind. Remember that commenting on someone’s weight, no matter their size, crosses a very personal line, no matter how close you are to them. Wait for them to bring it up if they feel comfortable, or find a different way to approach it. Help out by following the links on the “Get Involved”  page of the NEDA. Also, remember that not every person who has had an eating disorder wants it to be part of their identity, to be viewed as “in recovery” for the rest of their life. (Here is a great article that talks about why: “It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and once again, I’m not participating” )

Thank you for reading this, and making space to think a little bit more about people’s personal struggles. There is a lot of stress to carry with politics in the US changing rapidly, but it is important to make space for basic individual struggles as well.

If you, or you suspect a loved one might have an eating disorder, please..

1-800-931-2237

Dear Compassionate Person: Let me help you navigate my Anxiety

I’ve been writing this letter in my head to those I love around me. These people.. positive, compassionate, big hearted people, whom I just can’t seem to connect with some days. The answer to why I can’t may seem silly, but it truly is- just- anxiety.

Dear Compassionate Person,

I know that it was hard the other day, when I told you I was scared. Most certainly, that’s not something that comes out of my mouth on a regular basis. No, not me! I will typically run head first into any conflict, and volunteer to go first on scary rides, or be up for watching a horror movie. Scared is an unusual vocabulary word for me.

But I told you I was. And you began to tell me that it was no big deal, and that it would all work out. Isn’t that how we normally speak? It’s about positive thinking and thoughts. You can do what you put your mind too.

..Well maybe on a regular Tuesday it is. But this was a Blues day.

Blues Days

Blues days are where I wake up, and nothing feels right. I don’t feel like getting up, or working.  I don’t feel like going to hang out with someone, or writing. I don’t feel like hugging, or watching movies, or reading, or sleeping. It feels like I have woken up with a perpetual pillow over my head, but yet I can’t sleep. Instead, I worry. And I turn. And I toss. And I try to find warm places to bury my head.

Blues days are days when I don’t even get a chance to turn things around. The ship has already set sail.

So when I said I was scared, I was digging deep. Here’s why positivity doesn’t always work in those situations.

Positivity is Negated by Anxiety

You already knew that something must be different, if I was being quiet, and stated that I was scared. But it seemed so odd for me, that you just responded in the way you normally would. And on a regular day, I would smile and thank you, or even offer the same advice to you myself.

But on those blues days, or when I am amidst an anxiety attack, the best thing to do is to listen. Not to ask questions, or to try to point out a silver lining. When I have stated that I am sad, the simple question “Why?” can be incredibly overwhelming. The truth is, that I don’t know why. Anxiety does not necessarily meet rhyme or reason. It doesn’t always come rationally. And so, while a question like “Why are you sad?” or “why do you think you woke up feeling that way?” can seem simple, and like the best question to ask, it can actually make things much much worse.

With anxiety, answers to questions do not lead to solutions

Despite the fact that I suffer from anxiety, and sometimes depression, I have often found this the hardest thing to realize. I have asked numerous questions to my friends, especially those suffering with depression. Questions like “Why?’ or a series of questions intended to get down to the “core” of the problem. Its in my nature, and I have a feeling that its in your nature as well, dear compassionate person. You want to fix this person, or help them. You want to be able to ask just the right question so that their eyes light up and they realize that they have been thinking about everything wrong, and that if they just see it from a different perspective, they will get better.

(Also, the answers to the questions you’re asking might not necessarily be accurate. They may be fueled by anxiety, or the desire to come up with some sort of answer to satisfy the person doing the asking. Again, it may seem to benefit you, but in the end, doesn’t truly benefit either person.)

‘Getting better’ is not the objective. Sometimes, the process is more important

I’ll admit, in all of my friendships and relationships, this seems to be the hardest thing for others to learn. Focusing on getting better when I am trapped in those moments of anxiety really doesn’t help me at all. Often, all I want is to do is be better. But if I knew how, I would probably be putting it into action, and not having anxiety. (My anxiety is not rational, so it doesn’t have an A-B=C type of equation.)

So, the most helpful thing I have found is to be listened too. If I am alone, I will often end up writing or recording my voice speaking, because it is myself listening to me. When I am not alone, and I am with you, the most important places for your compassion to go is in your ears and your arms.

Physical pressure comforts me. Its why I almost want to invest in a Thunder Shirt like they make for dogs. Its part of the reason I like heavy blankets and comforters, and have a hard time sleeping or relaxing without them.

The other thing that comforts me, is a non-judgmental presence. One that is not trying to question me or react to me.. Because trust me, I am already doing enough of that for the both of us. 

No, what I really need for you to do, is either sit and listen, or leave me to myself if you really can’t handle the situation. I promise, I will be okay. It just may take me a while. I don’t do the best when people leave, because of my complex around abandonment, but if you approach me later, and let me know why you had to leave, and that you love me, I will understand. I will just need to come back to a rational plateau to do so. I want you to be safe too, or else we can’t create a safe space together. Just don’t leave and then not explain.

Allow me the ability to act a little bit “unlike” myself

If I am quieter than usual, it may just mean that I still need to recharge. Or that I haven’t shaken off the blues just yet. It may seem concerning, yes. But if you’ve asked me if I am okay, and I say yes, than there is a good likely hood that I am. I just might also be comfortable enough with you to where I don’t need to pretend I am more than okay, or awesome, or funny. Sometimes, if you continue to ask me if I am okay, I may begin to feel self conscious, or like I am not. I will begin to wonder why I can’t be better, or have more energy. And that might prolong my state of being.

Being Busy does not equal Being Okay

Sometimes, I have bursts of anxiety or anxiety attacks, and than all of a sudden I seem “okay”. By okay, I mean that I am being very active, and chatting/joking with lots of people, or being playful, and dressing up. I might be doing a million things that all seem like tons of fun. And if you ask me if they are fun, I might say yes.

But that doesn’t mean that I am suddenly okay. Being busy is a coping mechanism for delaying or keeping depression and residual anxiety at bay. Ever heard of “fake it till you make it”? That term can definitely apply here. Some of my most well put together outfits and appearances are the products of  day long anxiety attacks, or insomnia the night before.

This is because while sometimes, being around people can cause anxiety, other times, it provides the perfect distraction. If you can get involved in the lives and events of the people around you, you can create a buffer zone from your true pain. You can avoid it, if not, forget about it for a while.

Despite all of these things, I love you and appreciate you. 

Compassionate person, whomever you are, family, friend, or lover, I appreciate you, and am glad to have you in my life. Anxiety is not an easy thing to navigate. If this letter seems counter-intuitive and confusing, you’ll get a glimpse into why I suffer so much from the progressions of my mind sometimes.

But I still want you as my ally, and I still want you by my side.

Ask me questions about my anxiety when I am not anxious. That’s a huge part to figuring this out together! Don’t be afraid to trigger me, unless you’re being mean or judgmental, which I don’t think you’d be, compassionate one. But don’t pretend that I haven’t warned you either. Anxiety sometimes rolls in throughout the day, with dark ominous clouds, and you know its coming. Other times it just hits.

But the thing is, its always there, in me. I may be working at it, but I’m no magician. I haven’t figured out how to make the white bunny disappear from the top hat on my head just yet.

While these thoughts and ideas do pertain to me, I hope it will get you to start thinking about the way that you interact with others as well. So many people in just this last week have talked to me about their own shattering anxiety. It is one of our society’s most common “illnesses”, yet I liken it to a symptom of greater societal illness.

Let’s start listening to each other. Let’s stop assuming that people will never be or shouldn’t be vulnerable, that they might not always act the same way. Instead, lets begin to combat the immense pressures of handling each day with love and compassion. Are you ready to try?

With all of my love, Kara

Contemplation on Defense and Openness

As I was driving home from my job where I do social work today, I began to think about what separates people from each other, and how difficult it is to really exist in this culture. Capitalism has such a competitiveness nature to it, that it seems like our only options the majority of the time are to be defensive, and protect our limited resources, or to be offensive, and eliminate that which may threaten it.

There is a lot of stigma around mental illness and addiction. It is often a “me vs. them mentality”, when in actuality, I often believe it is an extreme version of something we all deal with. All of us have coping mechanisms.. ways of protecting ourselves. Sometimes, we do this through habits or behaviors. You learn not to make eye contact on the street, to remain silent when someone accuses you of something or raises their voice around you, to move out of the way when someone is walking in the middle of the sidewalk, to have a glass of wine to help you fall asleep. Or, you raise your voice, you beep your horn at someone who cuts you off, you ball your fists when you hear something you don’t want to hear.

Anger and fear are not isolated from each other, and they’re not necessarily easy to navigate either. It doesn’t quite matter what your mental capacity is or isn’t. We aren’t taught to accept and channel these emotions, we are simply taught to repress them. And when others can’t repress them, we see it as something wrong with them.

Social Work is an interesting field, at least for me. Its like plugging in a part of me that already analyzes, that already exists. When you work with people who supposedly “need” your help, there is a balance of boundaries, of compassion, of understanding. You’re not supposed to be judging or taking things personally, and you’re not in a competition for who is better or worse. You just realize that you’re able to help in some simple ways, and do.

Daily life is not like this. We don’t treat “normal” people with these same standards of compassion and acceptance. Instead we hold them to standards, often those produced by our society, and our personal or religious beliefs. What we don’t allow for, or account for, is the amount of anxiety and stress beneath the surface. If someone comes up to a cash register, and argues with the clerk for 15 minutes about a sale on a product, most of think: Geez. What’s their problem? Can’t they just pay and move out of line?

And yes, market places and other business settings, especially in a corporate and capitalistic environment, are supposed to be removed from emotion, or personal connections. Its more of a “Here is the rule. If I break it, I will give you something. If you break it, you don’t get anything.” Its simple, its impersonal, its general. It provides a barrier and mode of interacting that is most certainly more efficient.

But that’s the thing. That person arguing about that sale might not ever cross our mind again. We had to wait for them, and were bothered by their demands, but unless we’re mentioning it to a friend as something that bothered us, we are not going to put anymore energy into them.

But we start to think about what might actually be causing that behavior, things gets complicated. Perhaps they have trust issues from bad relationships with family or friends, perhaps their reading comprehension fell behind in school and they just got by because no one noticed, what if they really don’t have that much money and need the item? Or, even harder to understand, what if they have money, but are afraid to spend it in the fear that they will lose the security that comes with it? It is true that for a person living in the United States, money is power, and security. And power doesn’t necessarily mean influence, it means the ability to survive.

I cannot help but have these thoughts about almost every person I come across who seems disgruntled, or quiet, or a bit loud and pushy, or confused. I want to know why. I want to get to know them so I can speak their language. So I can figure out what they need, and how. I think if we all were able to do more of this, a lot of our problems would be solved. The barriers would come down.

But not at first. No, I do not pretend to dismiss the fact that when the dam is lifted, flooding will ensue. In fact, I think the dam is already bursting at the seams with the amount of anxiety and stress every individual is going through nowadays. “Mental Illness” is only an illustration of that. Its not wrong, and it doesn’t make anyone who suffers from it someone that we should feel superior over, or pity. No, its just a conversation that needs to be had, and some things we can do to interact better with one another.

I dream of a world where we can all be open with each other. I know I personally have a difficult time truly opening myself to anyone, even those closest to me. Peeling layers away reveals more layers, more defenses. But as I slowly undo the layers for myself, and learn to love them, I’m slowly changing the way I’m interacting. To share thoughts about anxiety or other similar matters might seem courageous, but really..I think its just simply necessary. At least, if I want to find some more infinite capacity for love in my heart.

Anxiety: Not a Multiple Choice Answer

I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting lately on how anxiety affects me and how to embrace it, instead of trying to smother it. For the longest time, I had this notion that anxiety was something that I could just pretend away.

At a party? Leave your anxiety in the car! Family function? Leave anxiety on the bed with all the clothing articles you rejected for the occasion! Its simple!

Eventually, however, I began to see that this wasn’t very possible. When I ignored my anxiety, it almost magnified. And while most times it kept itself quiet during social events, it roared in my mind afterward, causing quivering and analytical thoughts to crash around my head, and either delay or deny my sleep.

Unfortunately, even the most understanding of people couldn’t grasp why this was such a problem. “Don’t be nervous.” They would try to say soothingly, rubbing my arm. “It’ll be fun! Give it a chance.” They had all sorts of expressions..

“Don’t worry so much, you’ll be fine.”

“Come on, just pretend no one else is there.”

“No one is going to judge you. Stop being silly. You look great.”

“You’re beautiful and everyone loves you. Its going to be fine.”

“Don’t go in with that attitude. The more open you are, the more you’ll have fun!”

I have heard so many combinations of these pep talks and more throughout the years, and yet that type of encouragement hardly ever worked. I don’t blame anyone for trying it, we’re just not used to accepting flaws in our society, or acknowledging any type of trauma.

And so what most people imagine to be comforting words, sadly come off as irrelevant and demeaning to the person for whom they intend them for. What these approaches seemed to say is that I must accept their reasoning, and drop the topic for the rest of the night, or else it would ruin all of the fun.

And so because of this, a lot of times, I would show up late to the events that were stressing me out the most, or end up leaving early after trying to ward off my anxiety with these expressions like weapons.

“Back off anxiety, no one wants you here.”

But anxiety didn’t care. It just tagged along anyway, stuck to my hip like a small child threatening to throw a tantrum. And so would commence the cycle of anxiety, guilt, than anxiety about guilt, then guilt about anxiety, and so on and so forth. It was a very lonely place to be.

So recently, by reading a lot about people’s experiences, talking with the community around me, and finding helpful comics like this one: http://www.buzzfeed.com/erinchack/comics-that-capture-the-frustration-of-anxiety-disorders , I began to see that maybe there IS a way of living with that part of myself.

Part of this realization came with the notion of “self care”, something I have always been notoriously bad at. As an activist, it comes up a lot as a necessity to avoid burn out. But I had to figure out what my self care looked like, how much of a priority it was/how to manage my time around it, and that it was NOT something to be embarrassed about.

 

Here’s a list of the things I decided I need to stay balanced:

-Healthy food (organic and as local as possible); 3 small meals a day with snacks in-between

-Lots of water

-Time to exercise (by either walking, running, dancing, doing static workouts, and/or stretching)

-Time to Write and Process (like I’m doing now)

-Alone Time or to ability to step out for a minute(this one is essential for me)

-Spending time with animals (I get so much enjoyment playing with them and learning about/ from them, they are like therapy for me)

This list might sound simple, but its easier said than done when you have next to no money, and no time. So I did something that might seem very scary or crazy to some people.. I quit my job.

You see, the job I was working was draining all of my extra time and energy. I was able to work with animals there, which I loved, but there was an imbalance of stress, time, and energy. The majority of days I worked there till the end, I didn’t even have a chance to stop and take a break. This was normal- this was what the boss did herself. But it wasn’t healthy.

I’m figuring out a much better schedule and balance for myself now, exploring more of what I’m passionate about, and creating routines and structures to maintain my self care regiment before I look for another job.

Are those things really self care? you may ask. Most of them sound like basic rights and needs. Aha, yes, you have made a clever realization about the system and culture we live in. More and more people lose their own self care because they have no time to do anything but make enough money to support themselves.

I just took a workshop yesterday called “Social Trauma in the Body”, at this great by-donation yoga and wellness studio called “Justice in the Body”, here in Portland, Maine. I found myself connecting to the ideas and methods presented there in so many ways (so many I will probably write a separate post about it!). But a lot of what they talked about is creating the capacity for our body to deal with all of the stress it must endure-not only from traumatic events, but daily oppressive practices and norms.

So that’s what I will leave here as a question and a thought. How can we, both as individuals and a society, create a greater capacity for those who function differently or suffer? Can we begin to create solutions instead of shutting down those problems, or ignoring them? When must we stop pretending, and start processing?

Thanks for listening to my rambles, everyone. So long for now..