On Triggers and Tools

There are a few common things you hear when you have a large problem with your mental health.

You’ll never be rid of it.

You’ll have this thorn in your side the rest of your life.

Once an addict, always an addict.

The best you can hope for is to have it well-managed. It will never disappear completely.

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What the crap is all the hard work for, then? If the illness stays with me no matter what, I’m defeated before I begin. There has to be a possibility of a cured mind. Sure, there is a case to be made in twelve step programs about surrender. They speak of knowing the problem you have is out of your control, and you have to be willing to turn it over to God, or the Universe, or your sponsors and EDanon groups, and admit it’s bigger than you and you’ll always need to be open to help. Fine. I concur. But to believe you’ll never be strong enough to beat it?

Not buyin’ it. Can’t buy it.

It just feels….wrong.

Something happened recently that hasn’t happened in a long time. Ever. It hasn’t happened ever. I canceled a therapy appointment because I didn’t have anything I needed to say.

I felt so strong. So clean. So CURED.

Sounds like a perfect happy ending, right?

Everyone cackle like the devil while Madam Therapist rolls her eyes.

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Because since then, I’ve had a few things come up. Things that make me think: Should I have kept that appointment? Should I hurry and make another one? Am I really cured? When will I know I don’t need any more therapy appointments?

I do all this work in therapy, to hopefully become well again. To hopefully not need therapy anymore. To hopefully be cured from all the festering illness in my brain. That’s why I spend all the not-exactly-extra time and money on it. And now I feel like the storm has abated. I don’t need to call in the troops and strap on my gear and dig in. I’m doing pretty well right now. And I know deep down I can beat it, so, when can I say I’ve beaten it and have it really be true?

Ha. Never.

But Rachel. You said you could beat it. You said it was possible to overthrow the whole eating disorder regime and rule triumphant once again in your own mind. You did. Like, five paragraphs ago you said it.

But, then I realized something else big. Will vanquishing a foe ever guarantee no attack will be mounted against you ever again? That’s the thing. The recurring nightmare of the illness isn’t necessarily an oozing, festering canker in my soul that hasn’t yet healed, or will never heal. It’s not necessarily a corner of the inner closets of my mind that hasn’t yet been cleaned, or can’t be. It’s the external crap. It’s the campaigns that are launched continuously.

It’s the demons, the thoughts, the triggers. They’re the ones who don’t shut up.

Before all the work in therapy and at home and in church and in my inner mind closets, triggers were my nemesis. In the therapy world, they are talked about quite frequently. Many times in hushed, frightened voices. Because they do the thing it sounds like they do. They flip switches. Scary ones.

I’ve been triggered by sensible things–food I “shouldn’t” have eaten, billboards of perfect-looking people, the mirror–and I’ve been triggered by some not-so-sensible things–camping trips, wearing hats, successful jeans-shopping trips, etc. The thing is, there are limitless ways I could be triggered. Which means limitless opportunities for bad habits, even vanquished ones to resurface, because I don’t always know I’ve been triggered and half of what I do is done on auto-pilot and how was I reduced to tears and closed doors with the lights out in my own bedroom because I bought a pair of jeans that fit? Huh? ANSWER ME.

Here’s what I’ve learned. I can be cured of this illness. All of us can be cured of our illnesses. They don’t have to be a part of us on the inside forever. And some things that used to trigger us might not anymore with time and effort. “Cured,” though, has to take on a new meaning. We would never say that because we got over a physical illness, like a cold, being cured means we’ll NEVER have one again. That would be silly. Germs are everywhere. Yet, we sometimes expect that definition of “cured” from mental and emotional illnesses. But these triggers, these germs, they can morph, and evolve, or resurface anytime from the outside, triggering scary thoughts on the inside. Whether we let the ideas back inside our minds to become the festering cesspool of infection they once were is the real question.Which brings us back to tools.

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I used to think that I’d be cured when I got to the point that I’d never need my tools again. I was wrong about that.

I may not need a weekly therapy appointment, but knowing I can call Madam Therapist again when I need her is an incredibly liberating thing.

I may not need to deliberately look into my own eyes every morning and chant my positive affirmations, but as soon as a negative thought enters my mind I can use any number of those blessed and cheesy mantras to turn that train around.

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I have stuff. I have weapons and tools and time and options and I can honestly say now that I get it. Being cured doesn’t mean never being triggered again. Never needing my tools again. Nothing works like that–not lawns, not laundry, not the common cold, not human minds. Cured is knowing what tools you have, and using them every time you need them.

The cure, ladies and gentlemen, is in the maintenance.



Without It

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So my therapist said something maddening last week. Infuriating. I sat, bawling in her office, and she goes and says the most insensitive, the most ludricous…..

I’d worked myself into a full-blown tizzy about the eating disorder clinic I went to last summer. I mean, I went for help and you know what they did? Gave me a dietitian who put me on a re-feeding program when I wasn’t at an unhealthy weight to begin with. Madam Dietitian argued that re-feeding isn’t the same as weight restoration. And I trusted her like an idiot and followed her program and gained weight. Not just a little. Week after week, pound after pound, they smiled and told me to trust my body, meanwhile my traitor body ballooned out of control and I hated myself even more.

They were trying to make me a happy fat person. They betrayed me.

I sobbed hot, angry tears. Which is super embarrassing. Plus I had make-up on that day. Huge waste. And my cold-hearted counselor said, “I think you’re giving it too much stage time. You think about this side of yourself too much. You need to figure out who you are without it.”

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Without it?

How dare you? I came here because of it. Every experience, every memory of my formative years has been tainted by this disorder. Every thought about myself was formed through the lens of “if I was smaller….”

I clamped my mouth and my mind shut, which only validated her point. She said to write about myself. Point out the things I am without it. Stupid. What am I without an eating disorder or body image issues? You can’t disconnect me from it. Not really.

And then the little seed started to form. Why am I so against this exercise? Am I being honest with myself about why I hang onto this disease? This little drug I keep in my back pocket? Nope.

The truth is, it is a shield. I use it to protect myself. The real problem is my value. I don’t believe I have it on my own. I believe I have more value the smaller I am, and less value the bigger I am. That’s problem number one. But, that problem seems to be shrinking with therapy and hard mental work. So, why am I digging in and guarding this disease like it’s the last Thai restaurant on earth? Why am I fighting so hard against the idea of letting go?

It hit me pretty hard and I’m not proud of it, but I’m going to say it anyway. Here’s the naked, embarrassing truth: I’ve convinced myself my voice is more legitimate with the drama of the struggle. My point of view means more, somehow, because of what I’ve been through. So, in some sick way, I believe the disease gives me a reason to be seen. And heard.

And that without it, I don’t have a reason to be seen or heard.

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Suck, suck, suckety suck. It’s like I’m in junior high all over again trying to think of some interesting story to tell the cool kids so they’ll look my way for a second. I’m using it as an identity because the one I was born with doesn’t seem enough.

Ugh. I’ve been marinating in that ever since. I can’t be alone in this. Right? RIGHT?? Maybe not everyone picks the same shield, but I wonder how many of us hide our identities, gifts, and talents because we don’t think they’re legit enough to share.  So we give the other side of ourselves more stage time. The negative thoughts, the beat downs. But we are all so freaking awesome. We are so much on our own. Maybe it’s time to give the negative side a rest. Maybe it’s time to make that list. Take the thing that’s pulling us down, under, and away from our true selves, set it aside, and ask the question. Who am I without it?

I want these lists. I want to hear someone own their unique set of characteristics and abilities. Inspire us, motivate us. Build us. Please. Because we came to this earth with more than enough beauty to share. The ugliness that muddies our idea of ourselves has almost nothing to do with our true selves.

So, I want to know, who are you without it?


Unity in the Form of our Messes


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.


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.”


“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!”


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.


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.”


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.


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:

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?

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. 

More assignments.

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.