Unity in the Form of our Messes

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My friend Jolene and I at the women’s conference in Alaska

Over the last two months I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few really cool groups of people.  A women’s conference in Alaska, a Christian congregation, comprised of men, women, and children, and all female outpatient substance abuse recovery support group. Different places, different topics and themes. And yet, afterward, I heard nearly the same things.

“Thank you for your honesty.”

“Thank you for sharing your story, I struggle with ______________ myself.”

“I’m glad you said “crap” at the pulpit.”

“I needed to know I wasn’t alone in this right now.”

That’s when I realized something. No one’s looking for a preacher. Everyone’s looking for a friend. An equal. A fellow survivor or warrior. It doesn’t even matter if we’re battling the same stuff. My story includes body-hating, over-exercising, starving, and competing. But those things are not my real wounds. Those are the poisoned bandages I used in the hopes they’d burn my wounds into submission. The real wounds were the feelings of inadequacy. The idea that I didn’t have value, or the shame of being myself and having it be woefully insufficient for everyone around me.

Turns out, most people carry wounds just like mine.

At the end of one of the presentations I had a sweet, twenty-something girl approach me. She spoke quietly. She smiled shyly. She begged for a moment of my time as if her life depended on it, but also as though she probably didn’t deserve it. My heart broke a little listening to her.  I’d gone through something she was going through and she felt defeated by it. Defined by it. I’d never have been able to offer this girl my hugs and tears and hope if I hadn’t have screwed up my own wound care a time or two. She needed me because of my mistakes.

Another woman came up to me and said, “When they announced the keynote I thought it was going to be another perfect person preaching about being perfect. I’m so glad it was you instead.”

BAHHAHAHAHAHAHA. See? There is meaning in these messes.

We can help other people because we all have crap to deal with. Our struggles can pull us together. Tightly. Speaking our trials out loud makes us vulnerable, sure. It’s scary and it’s messy, and it’s raw. Scary, messy, and raw, though, is the glue. It’s what we all have in common. The more open we are about it, the more connected we feel.

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So, I just want to say, thank you for being part of my mess, guys.

The Small-Talk Wall

Small talk. It used to be reserved for awkward acquaintances and obscure relatives, but it’s gaining popularity. It’s now used almost anytime you run into anyone you know unexpectedly. It goes a little like this:

“How are you?”

“Really good, you?”

“Good. So, how are the kids?”

“Good. How about yours?”

“Also good.”

“Good.”

“Yeah. Hey, listen, it’s so nice to see you. We should catch up sometime. Lunch, maybe?”

“I would love that! Call or text me. Let’s set something up!”

“Totally.”

It’s such a great tool because it can be done with anyone, anytime, with any variations necessary. It’s easy to begin, easy to end, and keeps us squarely in the “well-mannered” category of humanity. But, I’m beginning to wonder if I use it too much.

Last month I went to my cousin’s wedding reception. I saw my aunt and uncle that I rarely get to see. I was fully prepared to shoot the bull because I have four kids, and there would be tons of people there for them to talk to as parents of the groom, and because small talk dominates every table top at every wedding ever.

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Aunt Lisa, Me, Uncle Carl. The very best kind of humans

They came over to our table and sat down. I turned to begin the “How are you’s” and my uncle stopped me with a very different kind of beginning.”You’ve been having a really tough time lately. I’ve been reading your blog, and it sounds like things have been really difficult for you. Tell me about that.”

Wha??

He skipped all the niceties and went straight for the meat of what the “how are you’s” should have covered,  but likely wouldn’t have because I would have stayed on the surface. Bless him for asking more from me than my surface.

What followed was an in-depth talk about my experiences, and my feelings about my experiences. He asked deep questions, he expressed interest and concern and it didn’t take much longer than the surface crap would have taken. Also, it took less energy because I didn’t have to put up any walls. And I felt loved. Genuinely cared for.

Crazy awesome, right? But then, that was in a situation where we had time. And there were treats to keep my kids occupied for a bit while I chatted. It’s not always reasonable to dig deeper into someone’s soul in the grocery store, for instance.

Last week at the mall I ran into a really good friend from high school. I was sure the traditional small-talk would put up a wall we’d have to tear down to have a proper conversation. But we were at the mall with our kids, we didn’t have time for a proper conversation. Except, she never gave me her surface. She said, “I really want to catch up with you, and I don’t have time right now. Dang it! Can we do lunch or a phone call soon?”

She didn’t have a pretend conversation with me. She defended her time boundaries without throwing up a small-talk wall. I felt loved. Genuinely cared for.

So I’ve been watching. Some of my friends are so good at connecting, and I think it’s because they’ve ditched the small talk. What if, in using small-talk as a time-management tool we are inadvertently putting distance between ourselves and people we could build or be built by, without actually saving ourselves time. We are giving the politest parts of ourselves, without leaving an opening for the deeper truths and connections. How much different would it be if we could feel comfortable answering a “how are you?” with “I’m so freaking tired, I think my husband is constantly disappointed in me and my kids secretly wish my neighbor was their mom.”

I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t add that much time to the rote memorized dialogue we’d have if we held the truth back. I’m also willing to bet it would add a level of depth and connection to each other that just might surprise us. And build us.

So, when you ask me how I am, buckle up. I’m going full-blown uncle Carl with this. I’m going to give you more than my surface, and I can’t wait to get the same from  you.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break my mind

The “irrelevant” experiment went pretty well. In fact, every time I consciously chose to say it, it never failed.

But……

I’m battling negativity that is as habitual for me as blinking and breathing–with a tool as foreign to me as chopsticks were my first time. I still only use chopsticks with sticky rice or potstickers. I can’t use them for an entire meal, it’s too much dang work. And stopping tearing myself down, which I’m actually really good at, using words that I have to think really hard about?

Pffffft. It’s a struggle.

And then my daughter did a super fascinating science project that gave me a kick of motivation: She basically killed a poinsettia using only her words. Seriously.

I’d seen a few projects like this online using rice:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zvm6IBo6Lyw
Basically, kind words are spoken to one beaker of rice, cruel words to another, and a third is completely ignored. Spoiler alert: the rice that was spoken kindly to thrived, while the rice beakers that were ignored and verbally abused rotted and molded.

It’s a lovely idea, but that experiment could easily be staged for Youtube to display manipulated results. I wanted to see the experiment with my own eyes.

She used the bigger, healthier looking plant as the one she’d be rude to, just to be sure of the results. She watered the plants at the same time every day with the same amounts of water. She whispered to both plants every day for 14 days.

The one on the left she spoke kindly to. The one on the right she spoke cruelly to.

By day 5 the negative plant showed some alarming changes. The petals started to curl, and some began to fall. Holes developed in some of the petals.

Day 5. Notice the petals curling, and the leaves and petals that have fallen. It’s still the bigger healthier plant, but not for long.
Hole developing on a petal.

 

Halfway through it hit me. She was killing the thing. I wanted her to quit. I wanted her to try to bring it back with kind words. But the data was incomplete and she needed to see it through. By the end of the experiment that big beautiful flower was not thriving. It wasn’t dead, but it was sick. Not even close to what it had been in the beginning–what it was meant to be.

 

Both of these flowers were unique. They had variations in coloring, in size, in shape of petals and in the overall plant. Both were fantastically beautiful living things. Until the external force of the words took effect.

I think I get it now. My words, my thoughts, my very idea of myself is keeping me sick. Keeping me from thriving. Keeping me from being who I’m meant to be. Who I want to be. And if I can learn to use these powerful, uplifting words on myself, what can I become?

We’re human beings. We’re meant to thrive. That’s worth the effort, don’t you think?

The power of dismissal

GUYS! I had a breakthrough last month. Break. Through. I’m so excited I can finally share something positive, here.

Last month my brother Dan was in town for this big old two-day family event. THE biggest annual gathering on my father’s side. A family tradition from backwoods Virginia over a hundred years old, I think. Cousins, aunts and uncles, lifelong friends, random friends, and the offspring come to eat, talk, and take turns stirring an 18 gallon copper kettle full of applebutter that has to boil constantly for eight hours over an open open flame. It’s intense. We call it Applebutter Day because our ancestors are creative.

The canning of the applebutter after it’s been boiling all day. The kettle is at the far end, and my sister, Jen, is stirring, just for reference.

The thing is, in order to fill a giant kettle with applebutter, you have to have gallons and gallons of applesauce, which is made the day before on Applesauce Day. That day is a much calmer, more intimate gathering of my parents, my siblings and all of our children, cutting up apples, listening to Guster, and making the sauce.

Two of my brothers, Jimmy and Dan  on Applesauce Day

This year my parents weren’t there. And we ran out of apples. I swear these two facts are unrelated. Anyway, Dan and I had to high-tail it to the farmer’s market before they closed.

Uncle Dan and my son

We got talking about my relapse, and how things were really going. I explained about the constant battle in my mind over my looks and my worth. Then he told me a very powerful story. When we were young, he remembers my mom saying that she was going to start a new diet. In his precious 3 year old mind, he pictured my mom waltzing into church or somewhere, all skinny and different, and him not being able to recognize her.  He was terrified. He said, “I was so worried that she’d look like someone else, not Mom. And that really worried me, because her size was completely irrelevant to who she was to me.”

I saw it. I saw it all through preschool-Dan’s eyes. His mother, my mother, how we adored her. How she was our entire lives. Our foundation, our safety, our stability. Her size was 100% irrelevant. I see my kids, how they adore me. How I am their entire lives. How they need me to be someone to build on, shelter under, and discover things with. My size is 100% irrelevant to them. To all my relationships, actually. Except the one with myself. But, here’s where the magic happened. I latched on to that one word: Irrelevant.

It’s such a powerful word, don’t you think?  Plus it’s fun to say. And if I think something is irrelevant, I immediately dismiss it. I give the word that much power. And if my size really is irrelevant to my children, and to my friends, maybe I could teach myself to think of it that way. For the whole last month, every time I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, or my reflection in a window, and the negative emotions and thoughts rushed in, I said, out loud, “my size is irrelevant.” All day. Every day. For weeks. And when I looked at other women and analyzed their looks, or wondered if I was bigger or smaller, I stopped myself and said, “her size is irrelevant to who she is.”

This is me and my nephew on Applebutter Day. My size is irrelevant him. He loves me because I’m aunt Rach

I can’t do affirmations quite yet. I can’t look at myself in the mirror and say things like, “you’re strong,” or “you’re beautiful.” I just can’t take myself seriously doing that. But this one feels totally authentic. No nonsense. Just taking an immature and dangerous train of thought and turning that thing right around. It’s working. I’m not perfect. I’m not completely happy with myself all the time, but recognizing what is relevant about me and what is not, and labeling it, has been a very successful beginning to stripping off the bindings of this disorder.

I don’t have to wallow in the thoughts. I can dismiss them. They’re irrelevant.

That’s my assignment? Seriously?

I want to love myself. I want to quit caring about my size. I don’t even care about my looks, guys, it literally is just my size. I’ll go to the grocery store with no make-up, wicked bedhead and no bra and not even think twice about it. But if I thought my love handles were noticeable I’d wear a snowsuit in July to cover it up. And I’d think about it all. Day. Long.

In the above photo, my friends and I got together to make these wreaths.They’re cool, right? And these ladies are the very best. The best. I couldn’t really enjoy them, though. Wanna know why? All I could think about was how much weight I’d gained since I started therapy. I pictured myself as a goliath next to them, and it made me uncomfortable. Around people I love. Now I want to be a hermit and not be around anyone. This is a huge problem.

I go to my dietician. She’s mean, but she does it so nicely. Always smiling. I ask the question. How in the hell am I going to get over this chasm? This mammoth division between what I know to be true about human worth, and what I believe about my own? She asks how my meals are going.

Fine. They are going really, really well. I have no more guilt about food. I don’t squirm at dinner time. I don’t hyper-focus on macro-nutrients or calories. I don’t skip meals. I don’t over-eat. I’m comfortable.

 Except I hate myself. And I want to quit therapy and go on a diet. Like, now.

She looks at me long and hard. Probably to assess whether or not I’m lying about the ease with which I ditched the eating disorder behaviors. But I told the truth. I’ve been going to group therapy. I’ve been doing my one-on one sessions. I meet with her weekly. And yet….

“I’m so huge. I’ve gained so much weight.”

“That’s the body dysmorphia talking.”

“My eyes aren’t broken.”

“I know. But your filters are.”

Great. My eyes aren’t broken. My brain is.

She thinks it’s time to address the body image issues. This, people, is the real heart of my eating disorder. The behaviors are not the issue. I don’t starve myself, or make myself throw up, or punish my body with hours of ruthless work-outs. The ideas about myself are doing the real damage. She makes me buy a workbook. That’s right, I had to spend my own money on the next new torture device.

Assignment number one: Assessments. A series of tests designed to tell me whether or not I have a poor body image. Uh. Why else would I buy the book? It wasn’t pretty. They took an hour, and I was a mess for several hours after. Results: I have poor body image.
Assignment number two: Stand in front of a mirror and describe yourself head to toe, out loud, as if you were describing a stranger to a sketch artist. You may not use any subjective or critical language. You must use unbiased and objective language. Describe a stranger to a stranger. 
From head to shoulders was ok. After that, it hurt. That exercise was to be repeated daily for four days, alternating toe to head and head to toe, and eventually wearing nothing but underwear. Not my fave. But, on day two I noticed that describing myself in a non-judgy tone was a relief from the constant barrage of disapproving messages I typically send myself. Huh.
Assignment number 3: Go back to your childhood and revisit significant memories that shaped your body image. Memories of elementary school flood my mind. Really, flood it. And in every one, I felt so inadequate,  and so determined to hide it. I was in a constant state of competition. It was as if I didn’t believe I had value, but that I had to prove it to others. Or earn it. Prove, prove, prove. Earn, earn, earn.  Always on stage. But I couldn’t pinpoint where or why it started.
I talked to my mom about it, and she told me that when I was three people would come up to her and say, “Your kids are so cute. Rachel doesn’t look like them.” They meant that my older siblings were blond and I was brunette, I’m sure. But little me didn’t take it that way. One day I tearfully apologized to my mom for not being cute. I apologized. That means at three, not only did I feel badly about not being cute, I felt a responsibility to my mother to be cute. I owed it to her. 
I still don’t really know what to do with that information, but it’s pretty obvious that we’re trying to undo more damage than I thought. And I don’t know how. I asked my therapist. I told him the story and asked what I’m supposed to do to get a better body image. In case you thought the therapy world had any better answers than the rest of the world for basically any problem you can let go of that right now. He gave me the two worst ones. Practice. And time. 
Dammit.

More assignments.

Instinct vs. Intuition – The battle’s in your head

Why does therapy suck?  I mean, an objective professional who sits and listens while you talk about yourself? Where’s the downside to that?And yet, it’s excruciating. You have to face the two sides of yourself that are in conflict.I’m in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. That’s right, I just used dissonance in a sentence. Probably even correctly. Boom.

Anyway, at the Center for Change they have several inpatient and outpatient programs to help with eating disorders. They’ve got therapists, dieticians, groups, classes, and reading materials. Oh, the eternal supply of reading materials. The first day there, I was assigned to read a book called Intuitive Eating.

 It looks exactly like a diet book. Which is the opposite of what I was looking for, right? RIGHT? Well, I read it. I’ll give you the quick version. You go through a re-feeding process. Basically, you have to look at all food as the same. It’s fuel. Period. Sure, some fuel might be better than others, but it’s all fuel. And, in order to let go of any shame and/or guilt you have about eating food, you have to literally see a piece of chocolate cake the same as you see a cucumber. They don’t even address nutrition until the end of the book. Problem number one. In my brain, and most people’s brains, there are forbidden foods. I am to ignore this completely, and lose any moral price tags on any food.

Then, you have to give yourself unconditional permission to eat. You listen to your cues. You eat whatever you want, whenever you want it. You have a hunger/fullness scale 1 being absolutely starving, and 10 being so full you might throw up. You don’t allow yourself to get hungrier than a 3, and you don’t eat past a 7 on the scale. The dietician outlined what an appropriate “meal” looks like and what an appropriate “snack” looks like using fist sizes. You keep a record of your meals and snacks for a full 7 days or longer if necessary. Problem number two. Charts give me guilt and anxiety. Also, whatever I want whenever I want it? I’ll only eat ice cream. Seriously, lady, if allowed, I will only eat ice cream.

They smile and tell me this is my assignment. That it will be difficult makes no difference.

At first it was fascinating. Liberating. I ate ice cream, sure, but I also wanted healthy food. The first day I realized the “unconditional permission to eat” exercise was working was when I woke up craving grape nuts and a banana before a run.  I was terrified of both those foods, but I honored my craving, ate the stuff and ran. My quads, which usually feel fatigued the first mile or two, felt amazing. Seriously, I felt nothing. I had so much energy. Not one step of that run was difficult, not even the hills. I was a believer.

Then I gained weight.

Those morons.

What were they trying to do to me? Make me a happy fat person? I didn’t go in there at an unhealthy weight. I didn’t need weight restoration. I charged back into that office in tears. I begged my dietician to tell me my weight because then I could fix it (yeah, I get that I’m adult and I could have driven to Target right then and bought a scale, but I forgot). She calmly told me that re-feeding is not the same as weight restoration, and that re-feeding was necessary to get my body back on track. I could yell at her, blame her, do anything else I thought necessary, but she wouldn’t tell me my weight unless I could give her a compelling reason why that would be to my benefit. Then she awarded me with a super smug smile. SUPER SMUG.

This is where the real difficulty in facing my creepy demon marched in. I crumpled. I mean. You guys, I came undone. How? How could I do this to myself? Allow myself to gain weight? That’s why I have the effing disorder in the first place. How long would this go on? They told me my body could fluctuate a great deal over the next while, but would find its own set-point. A healthy one for me. Uh, yeah, ok, but what if “my body” chooses a set-point I disagree with?

They gave me more reading material. This time on metabolism. If anyone wants to read it, I’ll give it to them. It helped me. But, it didn’t make the tight pants easier to wear. It didn’t make the giant in the mirror any more attractive.  I slept better, and on the inside was internally more comfortable than I’d been my whole life. I wasn’t ever hungry, and never too full. But, emotionally, mentally, oh man.I died a little inside those few weeks. I had failed. I’d allowed my value to be stripped from me, and like a pitiful creature with no other choice, I allowed others to see it by walking around in public! I watched friends on social media with their super-diets and workout challenges and everyone was so happy to have taken charge of their health and lost weight. And there I was, allowing myself to gain weight all in the name of my health. My mental- freaking- health.

I know inside that I can’t add to or subtract from my value by losing or gaining weight. I know it. But then, I can’t make myself believe it. I embraced my eating disorder because it gave me a set of external controls. A false sense of control, actually. And eating like this new program, using my body’s cues, and good sense for what it needs is actual control. It truly is intuitive. But my instinct is to buck it. I want to go on a diet so bad I can’t stand it. I need to fix it. To mend my value. My very worth is being threatened because I have a false idea of what my worth is based on.

It’s exhausting. I’m not quitting. But it’s exhausting. And that was just the tip of the crap hill.

Post Card from Hell: The aftermath

I realize that I haven’t posted on this blog since June, even though I promised to document the whole journey. Here’s the issue: This part of the journey sucks. It’s not good news and exciting changes. It’s struggle. It’s depression. And it’s hard to write, which is a guarantee it will be hard to read. But I’m finally ready. I won’t sugar coat it, and I won’t censor my thoughts. Hopefully that won’t offend anyone, but in my opinion, the raw and ragged truth of it is what makes it worth sharing.

I was on a high after buzzing my head, for like, 3 weeks.  I was proud, my head felt soft and fuzzy, and I literally didn’t even have to towel my head dry after a shower. It was ahhhmazing.

Don’t these look so happy?? This is one and two weeks after the buzz, that’s why.

Then–no big surprise–the regrowth started. And it didn’t hurry.

Pretty soon I looked like a full-blown baby gorilla. You know what I’m talking about. 2 inches of straight up fuzzy helmet hair. I couldn’t style it. I couldn’t make it behave with product, I couldn’t even comb it. It was funny for a minute, but then my demons emerged.

Last fall when I started this hair thing my motivations were two-fold. One, I wanted to try all the hair styles. Fun, scary, exciting. That sounded like a recipe for empowerment. And two, I wanted to challenge my looks. My eating disorder was ruling my life and my body image issues had become unmanageable. If I changed my hair and eventually buzzed my head I’d be forced to face down all the shallow parts of myself. I pictured myself laughing at them. I pictured myself cleaning out these closets in my soul and when I found the brutal abusive boyfriend people refer to as ED (Eating Disorder), I’d laugh at him and kick him out. Like a boss.

What I found instead was more like that creepy little girl from The Ring, staring me down and leering from a haunted corner of my mind. Every time I tried to tell her I was strong she smiled her disturbing, crooked smile and whispered her little lies in my head. I believed them.

Dammit, you guys, I believed them.

I don’t have many pictures of this time, for obvious reasons. But here’s one where you can practically feel the insecurity oozing off of me.

I can’t get into all the details, but what followed was a summer of defeat. A summer of complete undoing. I’d been convinced that I didn’t have good looks anymore, so I had nothing. I was nothing. By the end of July, I realized something.  Maybe people that took their own lives hadn’t necessarily quit. Maybe they didn’t do it because they were selfish. Maybe, just maybe, they had taken their lives because they’d tried everything else. Maybe they knew their load was so heavy they wouldn’t make it into their golden years still carrying it. Maybe they were out of ideas, and tries, and couldn’t stand to watch the people around them try to help, knowing it wasn’t helping, but their loved ones still had to deal with them everyday.

I began to empathize with suicide. And it scared the hell out of me.

Nathan, of course, had noticed this drastic darkening. He’d seen me retreat into myself and become a bitter, snippish version of the girl I once was, and he was scared, too. And when I finally confided the depth of it he stepped in. He was strong enough to do what I couldn’t. He didn’t suggest professional help. He demanded it.

I can see now that my hair journey did exactly what it was supposed to. It took me to the shallow parts of myself and I faced them. I just didn’t picture that enemy being so out-of-my-league. I really thought I was strong enough on my own to let the illness go, guys. But I wasn’t. And so began the chapter of my life I call the hell of therapy. It started with intensive work at the Center for Change eating disorder clinic. I’ll tell you all about my tyrant dietician, and the Hallmark-movie group sessions, and my excruciating one on one sessions. But I’m not gonna lie. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’m not done. So, if you want the truth, stay tuned. I’ve been promised it will be worth it in the end.

This is me at the end of September. One cool thing about baby gorilla hair is the amazing bed head.

P.S. Comments on and sharing this blog is greatly encouraged. I love to feel connection, especially with those that are suffering these things along with me, and also with those that love and care. Please feel free to share the blog posts with others, and comment away.