Category Archives: mental health

eating disorders, take 4

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If anyone has followed all that rambling…wow. You are long-suffering. I’d probably like you as an irl friend.

All that aside, I really don’t know much about eating disorders. I know some about my eating disorder, and what I know is that it requires me to keep constant watch on both my food and my feelings. They’re so connected. The only way I can keep them healthy, though, is to be honest, every single day.

Every day, every meal, I stare down my monsters. I eat because I know it is good for me, with the hope that one day I’ll eat because I want to. I rejoice every time I am able to listen to my body and know when I’ve eaten enough, or eaten foods that satisfy my palate and my stomach. I pay attention to my feelings, and when things feel like they are spiraling out of control I reevaluate what my idea of control is and if it’s a healthy one or not. Then I make a list of things I can take charge of. Then I call someone and am honest with my struggles and successes. They offer me an (often metaphysical) hand and I follow them back to the light.

Eating disorders are not about food, and they are all about food. This is life. We talk about things that are really not about themselves at all, even when they are all about themselves–alcohol, drugs, sex, self-harm. The only way I’ve found to escape the cycle is to acknowledge that I am a whole person, blood and fears and sweat and tears and dreams and goals and bone and muscle. One part of me hurting will make all of me hurt. I cannot exist as a purely spirit being. I need all of me. The only way to make sure I have it is to care for my stomach as well as my spirit.

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eating disorders, take 3

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Man, all that is depressing. I’m ready to get to the less-depressing parts. 🙂

Eating disorders, simultaneously, are all about food and nothing about food. On the one hand, they are really about control. On the other, they involve food–a fundamental part of us and one we cannot escape. (I once heard someone talk about imagining a life where we didn’t need to eat three times a day, but that was clearly a pipe dream.) Thus, my parents could take me to as many nutritionists as they wanted to, and threaten me with all of the negative consequences; but if I still felt like food was the one thing I could control, I wouldn’t budge. At the same time, I could work on not controlling everything in my life, or realizing what was healthy taking charge and what was toxic control; but without a blueprint for how to rebuild healthy eating habits, I was screwed.

For me, rehab provided both of these things. Let me take a break for a minute here and point you to a TedX talk I recently heard and loved. Glennon Melton, of Momastery fame, gave a talk at TedX Traverse City titled “Everything I needed to know in life, I learned in a mental hospital.” Replace “mental hospital” with “rehab” or “treatment” (or just add them, because I’ve had experience with all three), and you have a talk I could give. One of the points she articulate quite well is the fact that when you are on a psych ward you really have nothing left to lose. Everything you are on the outside is immaterial. In the psych ward/treatment/rehab, you have no masks or capes or coping mechanisms left. You’re naked, so to speak. Which feels terribly, terribly frightening. It is you and your demons, face to face. Your scars, your fears, your monsters, your pain–you don’t have any insulation anymore. But that is not all.

In rehab, you also have other people. And you may not like these other people. You may hate them, or hate how they talk, or be scared of them because of prejudice, or scared because they are seeing you at your bottom. But they are there, and they are not going anywhere. In that safe, controlled, unfortunately-rare setting, you can choose one of two things: open up, be honest, be scared, be real–but SHOW UP–or shut down and pretend you still have your cape and refuse to get help.

I am not perfect. I spent a fair share of time in the shut down mode. But what I eventually learned was that I couldn’t afford it. I could not afford to not get help. I was going to die without out it, inside and outside. So I took that terrifyingly scary first step.

Back to how it applies to my ED: I have had to work on both pieces–the out of control feeling that spiraled me into it and developing healthy eating patterns that sustain and nourish me. But I absolutely cannot have one without the other. I need to be honest with my life. I have to show up in the “brutiful”-ness of live and live the pain and joy and fear. I can’t numb out–it’s too risky. And it sucks. And some days I have no clue what I’m doing, in eating or anything else. But I try, and pretend to be a normal person, and take care of myself, and call someone else who can tell me the truth when I can’t, and I stand back up.

Practically, I had to cut way back on checking my weight. I still do it at times, because…I can’t not, even though I know it might be better. But I’m not a slave to the scale. I check it, and I get off and call someone and am honest and then I go about my life. I eat normally, and when I’m in doubt I make sure I get carbs, protein, and fat at each meal and hang in there for when I can go back to eating by gut feel (literally). Here is the interplay: when I am having a bad food day, I have to make sure I talk about my feelings with someone so that I can keep the food from going crazy. If I have a bad feelings day, I have to make sure I’m eating enough to stay present to feel my feelings so that they don’t engender a food shut down. They’re a toxic, interrelated, crazy mix I can’t afford to mess with. And that is why I have learned to take care of my mental health as closely as my physical health.

 

eating disorders: take 2

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(This is part 2 of some ongoing reflections on my ED. In part 1 I described my ED and some of the things that didn’t help.)

While my ED was certainly partly about food, it was about other things too. I was trying to stuff the pain of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and spiritual abuse. Not eating is addicting because you start to feel less. Your brain doesn’t have enough energy to function, so everything becomes muted. I couldn’t stand to feel everything, so muting was preferable. We went through a major church change, the stillbirth of my brother, and my mom finding out about my dad’s pornography–plus me telling them about the sexual abuse, which happened when I was 5–in a period of two years. I had a lot I didn’t want to feel.

Eating disorders are also often about control, and mine certainly was. I couldn’t control many things, but I could control what I ate. By exercising amazing self-control over every bite that went into my mouth, I felt like there was one thing in my life that I had charge of. In reality, I was out of control with my ED as well, but I didn’t see it that way. Any spare bite that I had not planned into my day threw me into a tailspin. I couldn’t handle changes well, and our daily schedule at the time never looked the same one day to the next. I desperately needed structure, but had none of it.

I started cutting when I was about 15, and that helped me numb more. I cut in places that no one would see, and with my obsession for covering up and dressing “modestly,” no one ever did see them. An enduring testament to the chaos and craziness in my head, two large scars on my upper arms will always remind me of a time when the pain got so bad I couldn’t drown it out, despite my desperate tries.

When I was 18 I spent a week and a half in the psych ward after attempting suicide. I couldn’t effectively numb anymore, and I was terrified of feeling. Given my temporary (though I didn’t know it) feelings, I tried to make a permanent decision, and I failed. I don’t know if I have felt many things as discouraging as waking up the morning after a suicide attempt. I mean, you have basically failed at everything at that point.

At this point, it was clear I needed help. My parents eventually made the decision to send me to rehab. I was 18, so technically I had a choice, but since the choice went something like “If you don’t go to rehab, you have t move out,” it didn’t feel that way.

I refused to talk about my ED in rehab. It was too much of giving up control, too much of letting people into my life. Besides, I reasoned, this was not a Christian treatment center, so they would not understand what I was going through. Not that I did either, but I was sure non-Christians couldn’t help me. And so, stuck at this impasse, I stayed: frightened, scared, dying inside, and unable to get or simply receive help.

eating disorders: take 1

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A friend recently asked me if I had written anything about my eating disorder. I am sure I have, because at that time in my life writing was my main form of escape, but I can’t find it. I probably didn’t blog about it and instead wrote it in one of the many half-finished journals I have lying around.

This will, I am sure, be something I will add to in the coming days, because…well, I just have so many thoughts about eating disorders (ED, for short). I am lucky/blessed/grateful/a combination of the three to be in recovery from it, and mostly just to still be alive.

Eating disorders…hmmm. Anorexia ruled my life from about 12-19, so for seven years. It only got really bad from 15-19, though. I lost a lot of weight, and I exercised obsessively. All the freaking time. I ran every day in the below freezing winter wearing just my short shorts and a light t-shirt and windbreaker. I would work out for hours every day. I counted every calorie against what I burned, only counting it a successful day if I managed to be “in the negative,” i.e. eat less calories than I burned off. I got very pick with what I would eat, and when. I refused to eat certain categories of foods, having good and bad foods. I would “binge” on maybe 600 calories–in other words, what a normal meal for me should have been. I had no context of what was healthy or not. I started to lose my hair and I was constantly tired, cold, and miserable. My parents told me about talking to a nutritionist who told them about a client who had to have a feeding tube because they would not eat, and even though they meant it to implore me to change, all I could think was, “Then I would not have to be responsible for eating anything.” And with where my head was, that sounded preferable.

My parents tried to help, putting me in counseling at 17 and taking me to a nutritionist. Unfortunately, my counselor…well, there’s a whole story right there. She was a biblical counselor, without credentials, who should not have been practicing. She had an ED that she overshared about and also claimed she was in recovery from. Actually, she was still in the middle of it–hyper-controlling of her food and obsessive about working out. I started to pick up some of those habits from her. Her methods of trying to help were at once overstepping boundaries and also not doing enough. All in all, that experience only complicated my ED.

My mom worried that I’d lose my ability to have kids. At my lowest point, both my parents worried that I would not make it. They threatened to take away my workout privileges and tried to force me to eat. They took me to counseling and to nutritionists, and threatened me with hospitalization. They were scared, and so was I They tried really hard to love me back to health, but in the end there was just too much pain for what they said or did to fill up the hole in my heart.

Christianity and mental health

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Recently Voddie Baucham, a respected homeschool leader, preached a sermon in his church on mental illness. (Here is the transcript, thanks to R L Stollar, who also wrote an analysis of the sermon.) I normally avoid evangelicals teaching about mental illness. I’ve been too screwed over, too hurt, too much more damaged when trying to seek help from them. I’d rather just avoid that conversation, because I’m still too raw. I don’t put myself into places where I have to expose a vulnerable part of myself to unsympathetic people.

What I’ve realized, though, is that to constantly stay silent in this area caters to both the power of the abuser and the pain of the abused. If I do not speak up, can I really be angry that only a brave few are calling these people out on their words?

I have a long and messy mental health history, including: hospitalization, treatment, antipsychotics, antidepressants, nouthetic counseling, secular counseling…you name it. I’ve been diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety (those, along with PTSD, are the only ones that actually held water). I have a lot of shame about this, and rarely talk about it. I am well aware that it could affect my chances of working where I want to work or applying to residencies and programs. I don’t know how much it will limit me, but there is a chance. For all of these reasons, I choose to keep silent for the most part when there are discussions about mental illness and the church. I’m tired of being silent, though.

My first experience with counseling was when I was 16. I was a cutter, I had suicide ideation and an eating disorder, and I had depression and anxiety. The first counselor my parents took me to was a nouthetic counselor. (For those unfamiliar with the term, it is basically just a counselor that uses the Bible above all else, scorning secular psychology.) My counselor did, to her credit, completely discredit all secular psychology–at least at first. She did, however, use several questionable practices. She refused to keep confidentiality, relaying to my parents anything I said. She was highly codependent, allowing me to overstay my sessions and including me in her family’s life. She overshared her personal life. These were merely bad counseling practices, unethical as a matter of fact.

What was more insidious, and more dangerous, was her twisted ways of mixing the Bible with her counseling. She was the first person that I disclosed my sexual abuse to. While she originally seemed non-condemnatory and affirming, she soon began to twist her words. She began to tell me I had to forgive my rapist, to confess my sin in the matter (I was five when it happened, not that age matters). The “bible study” homework that she gave me increasingly focused on my attitudes and actions. I was told that if I received negative attention in the future, it would be due to the fact that I had sexual fantasies and read erotica. My questioning of my sexuality was immediately rebuffed. I was criticized for letting my “trauma” influence my worldview. I was required to report on the contents of my counseling sessions to my parents, not that it mattered, as they already got emails after almost every session with the details.

I spent a few months in a treatment center when my self-destructive coping mechanisms got to be too much to deal with. By the grace of all that is above, I ended up in an amazing, secular center. I heard truth about recovery, trauma, and abuse. Without going into details, I will say that it was a one of a kind education in mental health and wellness, and how to deal with trauma. I left it with the tools to build a healthier, happier, safer, and saner life.

But after leaving, I still had to fight my demons. I still struggled with shame that I had to take meds. I felt guilty that I chose to stop going to church, even as I knew it was the right decision for me. I faced judgment from my family. I eventually broke ties with that counselor for good, but even that left me with a nasty scar. I can’t discuss her much to this day. I keep that boundary for my own health.

Mental health treatment in the hands of unqualified people, especially Christians, is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Voddie Baucham is not even a counselor, but his words will hurt many people, and I am sure already have hurt those in his congregation that morning. I fully support a licensing system for mental health professionals, just like we have for medical professionals. You wouldn’t want anyone who called themselves a surgeon operating on your physical bodies, and you shouldn’t accept anyone who calls themselves a counselor tampering with your mind. It’s dangerous, and deadly. I tried to commit suicide because of the condemnatory messages I received from pastors, the nouthetic counselor, and other well-intentioned but misguided Christians.

We need to speak up. Mental health is still very much a stigmatized topic in this country, but it is exponentially more so in Christian circles. This prevents people from getting the help they need. Just this week, Leelah Alcorn committed suicide because her parents refused to accept her transgender identity and acknowledge or support her. Christian teachings on mental illness are actively harming people, actively leading to suicide, injury, and compounded illness. I could cry, or I could rage. I don’t know which I feel like doing. What I will continue to do is speak. I will not let my voice be silenced, and I will speak for the now-silent who could have had a chance for help if they had someone who listened to them and accepted them. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It can be treated, and there is help. And you don’t have to be a Christian to change someone’s life.

mythbusters: socialization

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Last night as I was falling asleep I heard my roommate in the next room with her best friend, talking and laughing with abandon. I curled up and pushed away the longing that tugged at my soul, telling myself I needed sleep and I was an introvert so I was ok with not having someone to chum with at the end of a long day. In reality, I want that as much as anyone else. Unfortunately, I missed 12 years of practice in it, and it’s still a struggle to interact with other people around my age.

I was raised in almost complete social isolation. When I finally started realizing that other kids got to hang out with peers in settings other than twice a week at church (and always next to their parents, because heaven forbid you let your children away from your side when you are at church!), I was already so far gone into the fundamentalist mindset to really object to my parents’ methods. Once, I brought it up with my mom, who told me that if I could learn to get along with my siblings I would be able to socialize with anyone. I quickly grasped this as a goal to attain and started working really hard to get along with my siblings. I wanted to be prepared when I got the chance to have a friend, and I didn’t know how else to do it. I also bought into the myth that “socialization” included being able to get along with people from every age group—older than me, younger than me. What I didn’t seem to realize was that while I have always been pretty good at that, I never could get along with people my own age—something that continues to follow me.

Now, I’m not well-versed in personality theories, but I am an intense introvert. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t like people, but that being around people takes an incredible amount of energy from me and I have to plan it carefully. I think that this started kicking in as I got older, and when we finally left the fundamentalist church I grew up in for the slightly less fundamentalist church my parents now attend (when I was about 16), I discovered that combined with my introversion, my practical ignorance of how to form relationships with others was a veritable isolation fence. Even though I wanted to be able to talk to other my age, I didn’t have the skills. And while, if I had been an extrovert, I might have pushed through and tried to make friends, as an introvert I just couldn’t do it. It took all my brain space to adjust to life outside of the cult, and suddenly trying to figure out how to develop personal relationships as an introvert was too much. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand any of this at the time, and simply assumed I was a big social flop and that people didn’t like me because of sin in my life. Or something like that.

I spent the next two years desperately wanting to have friends, but having no clue how to go about that. I would vary between not talking to anyone and taking refuge in books to clinging desperately to anyone who so much as said hello to me. I didn’t know about boundaries, never having had any set with me. I was insecure, needy, frightened, and an inveterate people-pleaser—and people rightly ran the other direction when they saw me coming. A few tried to stick around, but I was a mess. My mental health was collapsing around the same time, and I was a master manipulator. I’m amazed that there were even one or two who didn’t run.

College and four years of mental health treatment (including a stint in treatment for an eating disorder) taught me a lot about myself. Newsflash: being able to get along with your siblings or your mom’s friends does not make you “well-socialized.” HA! Even though I can set excellent boundaries, understand myself as an introvert and can factor that into my social life, (am coming to) believe that I am inherently worthy and loveable, and don’t debate people on theological or moral issues every time I meet them, socialization is still DAMN HARD. Being able to socialize with people older than me and younger than me and my siblings did NOT prepare me for life in the real world. I still feel the effects of it today, and it hurts.

The socialization “myth” is one of the things that the most upsets me in the realm of legitimate-concerns-that-homeschoolers-make-fun-of. It’s especially rife in fundamentalism, with the concept that the family structure can be an isolated and independent unit. To quote John Donne, “No man [family, student, parent] is an island.” When parents homeschool in order to isolate their children, there is a whole host of problems attendant.

Apparently this

seen the village

is a thing, so I’ll end with my response to it: “I grew up outside the village and it wasn’t all so great either.”