Fighting the stigmas

I wanted to talk today about something that kept me from seeking help for my eating disorder and depression.  It kept me sick much longer, made me feel so much more alone, and because of it, I walked in a great deal of shame that I should have never taken on. What was it? It was simply the stigma that comes with mental illness.  I work in a hospital filled with different kinds of health care professionals – people that are supposed to be educated on all kinds of mental illness.  Sadly though, I still hear the judgmental comments that simply comes from being naive to what mental illness truly is.  And although a lot of people do have their own judgments about mental illness, it wasn’t those people’s judgments that kept me from seeking help, it was my own.

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For a long time, I thought an eating disorder was a sin issue – that I was choosing to starve myself over choosing to live for God or that I was being selfish and somehow prideful.  I thought not being able to stop binging and purging meant that I was weak. I thought my anxiety just showed that I was not in control. I thought my depression was just something I needed to snap out of.  I thought I was too fat for eating disorder treatment, not suicidal enough to get on an antidepressant, and not having nearly enough panic attacks to be diagnosed with true anxiety.  These are just a few of the hundreds of different stigmas or judgments about mental illnesses.  I could go on listing different stigmas that keep us from getting the help we need – but if you struggle with a mental illness, you probably already have a list of reasons why you think you don’t deserve help, why it would be embarrassing to admit your struggle, or what people might think about you.  I want to talk about ways to tear down the fear and shame that these stigmas bring so that you can get to the healing and help you need

  1. You are not your illness. You are not anorexia – You have the illness anorexia.  You are not bipolar – you have bipolar disorder. You are not a cutter – you have depression and self harm. Learn to see yourself as a living, breathing person who is struggling with something hard.  You have a ton of other things about you besides your illness – you’re a sister, a friend, a coworker, a daughter, a student, a wife, a mom.  You are not your illness.
  2. Mental illness is an illness.. I used to just say “oh this is what I struggle with” which I think downgrades the seriousness of it.  You were diagnosed with anxiety.  There is medication for it.  There are things you can do to make it better and things you can do to make it worse.  I’m not saying an eating disorder is the same as cancer but I am saying both involve getting medical, professional treatment and needing to follow through with your treatment plan.  Cancer patients have to get chemo/radiation/MRIs….eating disorder patients having to get on certain meds/follow a meal plan/be in counseling.  Not the same – but a mental illness is a legit illness – you didn’t choose this, which is confusing because with eating disorders, choices you made led you to it – but to some extent, it was out of your control.  But you do have control over getting help for it.
  3. Walk out of the shame.  Your mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness.  It’s not something you can wish away.  And it’s not your fault.  Seek help, treatment, counseling, and support – you deserve it
  4. Surround yourself with people who earn the right to hear your story.  You don’t have to go around telling everyone you have bipolar or schizophrenia and in fact, in most cases, I don’t think you should.  I think people need to prove that they are kind, trustworthy, and deserving of hearing your story.  Once someone has proved they would have a positive impact on your recovery – open up and be honest with them.  Go to support groups with others struggling with your illness.  You are not alone in this and sometimes being in a room of other addicts or similar people can help lift the shame and stigma of your situation.
  5. Be bold and brave. When I hear a nurse or doctor say something potentially hurtful about a patient (she’s doing this for attention…or it’s not THAT big of a deal…), I try to be bold enough to speak truth kindly.  No, in fact, she’s not starving herself for your attention.  She’s doing it because it’s the only way she can think to cope in a chaotic family system.  Or no, taking 5 Benadryl may not be that big of a deal, but if he did it hoping it would hurt himself, THAT is a big deal and deserves our help.  I try to educate coworkers, friends, family, and you who are reading this that people struggling with an eating disorder or other mental illness need your help, compassion, and support.  I want to help break down as many stigmas and barriers to treatment that I can for people even if that means making myself vulnerable.

So don’t let the stigma of your illness keep you from seeking the help you need or taking the steps you need to get to your healing.  Treat your mental illness like any other sickness.  You may need medication, you may need hospitalization, or you may just need time off to decompress and relax – whatever it is, take one step today to bring you closer to wholeness and healing.

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Fighting for authenticity

If you’ve been on social media more than 5 minutes – you’ve seen the posts and captions about women empowering other women, about how we rise by lifting others – which is fabulous & I’m all for.

On the flip side of this, there’s cyber bullying.  I used to hear that term and think it was something only teenagers dealt with.  Then embarrassingly, I got sucked into ABC’s the Bachelor and started following these people on Instagram and was shocked to see the amount of hateful comments on their photos.  But what hits really close to home to me is when bullying happens to someone I love.  My sister, Lauren is a fashion & lifestyle blogger ( Check out her blog here! )   She was willing to quit her job at Neiman Marcus to pursue a dream that seemed far fetched.  And she’s actually living her dream – she works harder than anyone I know (despite what people think about fashion bloggers) and I couldn’t be more proud of her.

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But with her growing amount of followers, she often gets comments telling her things like what kind of work she needs to get done so her physical appearance will be better.  People send private messages criticizing her passions or her work.  I was blown away to find out there’s actually a website, which I won’t name because I don’t want to give them traffic, that’s pretty much a hate site so people can go and rip apart bloggers.  Here are just a few comments about different bloggers (who are women with feelings) from this site: “Can this woman STFU? No one gives a shit about her.” “Is she totally clueless? Self absorbed? Or both.” “I can’t look at her ugly ass face anymore.”

These are just 3 out of THOUSANDS of comments and countless forums about different women. First, I have to ask – if these haters can’t stand these women so much – why do they follow them on social media? Why do they take the time to stalk their accounts and then go write anonymous comments about how much they think they’re stupid/ugly/fake.  That sounds like more of an issues of jealousy or being extremely bored with your own life that you get sucked down the hole of being a cyber bully.

Cruelty is cheap, easy, and rampant.  It’s also chicken-shit.  Especially when you attack and criticize anonymously – like technology allows so many people to do these days. -Brene Brown

Remember, if you’re the one making these judgments about people – that cruelty always hurts someone.  Even if these judgments or comments aren’t true – no one feels good after their appearance, work, or parenting is attacked.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – YOUR WORDS MATTER.  Whether that be what you say to someone in person or what you write about them on the internet.  Choose what you say wisely, because your words can bring life or death to someone. Let’s get back to the women empowering women and lifting others up so we rise together.

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Also, if you’re the one writing these things – ask yourself why you’re reacting so strongly to a picture posted.  Is something she’s doing making you feel threatened or less than? A lot of times such volatile reactions to things actually point to something we’re unhappy with about ourselves. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and get to the heart of why you feel the need to make these judgments.

Now, to the person who’s been bullied or put down – whether you’re a blogger, teenager, or mom of 3 – Keep doing you.  Don’t let people keep you from being your authentic self.  Keep fighting to love yourself in a world that loves to put you down. As E.E. Cummings said:

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight – and never stop fighting.”

Treatment in Chicago vs. Vacation in Chicago

Some of you may already know this, but I spent 3 months at a treatment center in Chicago for my eating disorder & depression.  Well, last week, I went back to Chicago for the first time in 5(ish) years & the difference was astounding.

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If you want a very honest picture of what my time in a treatment center in Chicago looked like (side note: pretty much NOTHING like the treatment center on To the Bone), read on: I stepped off the plane and shuttled to my hotel.  Someone from the treatment center would pick me up the next morning.  I couldn’t sleep because my anxiety and insomnia were so bad.  I was grieving over the idea of giving up my eating disorder.  I freaked out because I thought I wouldn’t be able to binge and purge for the next couple months.  So I walked to a Waffle House, ordered myself some waffles and chocolate milk, ate them, walked to CVS to buy laxatives which I took a handful of, and went back to my hotel and spent the next hour trying to throw up what I had eaten.  I want to treatment the next morning with blood shot eyes and a puffy face.  I spent 3 months at a facility with hundreds of other girls.  I stayed in a lodge that was monitored by staff 24hrs/day, 7 days a week.  The lodge was locked and although you could walk out – you’d have repercussions in that program if you hadn’t earned the privilege to walk around the campus. The first 2 days, I slept through every group session and every meal because I was so depressed.  Once I started having to eat my meal plan there, I would throw up in various containers in my room (because I didn’t have access to bathrooms without staff present) and hide the puke in my room until I could safely throw it away.  Once I got to the second phase of the program, I’d find places to throw up in bushes outside so I could manage the anxiety from food, counseling, family therapy…. We were “forced” to have a dessert a certain amount of times per week and it was like TORTURE.  I was scared, I felt disgusted with myself, and I was angry.  My body and my life felt out of control.  I was on so many medications to manage my anxiety and depression that I felt like a walking zombie….but I kept trying.  I didn’t leave the program early and in fact, from there, I flew to a outpatient program in California because I knew I wasn’t ready to come home.  After months (years?) of very messily making my way through recovery, I can say I’ve made it to happy, free life that the treatment center talked about.

Fast forward 5 years.  Last week, I flew to Chicago with the love of my life.  He lived there for a bit and wanted to go back to visit and I wanted to actually get to see the city this time.  Never once did the idea of not being able to binge and purge freak me out, because that temptation no longer plagues me.  I figured we may work out once or twice on our trip (we didn’t at all actually) – and that was totally ok with me.  I know now that a few days off from the gym won’t in fact make me gain crazy weight.  The morning we left for the airport, I was putting on a pair of jeans, which actually didn’t fit because I’ve gained a few pounds since we got married.  Honestly, this did bum me out.  I do still have hard days with body image.  But 5 years ago, this would have unraveled me, and that day I just said, “dang, that sucks” and put on another pair of jeans.  It didn’t ruin my day.  I didn’t step on the scale 5x.  At the airport, we had bagels, cream cheese and coffee for breakfast.  I told my husband that bagels used to be a HUGE challenge meal for me and I’d be on the verge of a panic attack after eating them.  This time, I ate mine smothered with strawberry cream cheese actually believing my body knows how to handle it and enjoying every bite.  We got to our hotel, walked around the city a bit (not once did I think about the calories I was burning walking around) and went to get a famous Chicago style hot dog and French fries for lunch.  For snacks we got candy and Chex mix, and then for dinner that night we had the biggest deep dish pizza I’ve ever seen.

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5 years ago, a day like this would have made me HATE myself.  5 years ago, I would have had a panic attack and had to medicate.  5 years ago, I would have turned to self harm to cope with the anxiety.  But last week, I ate all these things with joy, not even giving too much thought to them.  I didn’t feel guilty for eating like this because I know I don’t eat like this every day.  I didn’t think I was ugly or a failure because my worth is not based on how many calories I eat.  Caleb and I got to do all the touristy things Chicago has to offer, eat good food, have good drinks, nap in the middle of the day and it was fabulous!

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I guess I tell you all of this because if you are trying to recover from an eating disorder…or maybe you have an eating disorder and aren’t trying to recover because you think life in recovery is impossible – I’m here to tell you, it’s not.  Do the work, make mistakes, try again, reach out for help, get messy, clean yourself up, and do hard things – things that feel impossible.  There is freedom on the other side.  There is a life to be lived without the oppression of an eating disorder. You, yes YOU, can recover.

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my thoughts on To The Bone

If you have your foot at all in the eating disorder & mental health world – I’m sure you’ve heard of the Netflix film To The Bone that is about to be released.  And just to be clear, I’m writing this before having seen the movie – perhaps when it comes out, it will be this brilliant and encouraging thing, but here’s what I felt after seeing the advertisement: I was watching TV when I first saw the advertisement for it and just to keep it real – here were my unfiltered thoughts as I watched it. “Dang, that girl looks like a skeleton, is she honestly that thin or is it make up? ‘I’m in control’…I remember thinking that…I was clueless.  I miss being underweight.  She looks so frail. I can’t wait to watch this!” And these were my thoughts after being in solid recovery for three years!! At first on Facebook, I saw some of be fellow ED warriors stating that they too couldn’t wait to watch the film, then a couple days later I started seeing people post about how the film should not be released because it could be harmful for some people watching it.

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And it got me thinking about it: On one hand, great! Some people are still so clueless that eating disorders exist all around them.  This will help spread awareness, let people know warning signs so that they can potentially help support those struggling, and let those struggling know that they are not the only one in this mess. And that’s where my list of pros ends.

When I was my sickest, I searched out films like this & not because I needed to know I was not alone – I was looking for motivation to keep going.  Watching people, even actors, engage in behaviors made me think “even if I feel weak, I can keep going.” If they can do it, I can do it kinda thing.  Sick, but true. I read books about eating disorders looking for tricks to help making restricting or purging easier.  Just the mention of calories would make me not want to eat at all – and in this film’s advertisement, it shows the main actress listing off all the calories in each food on her plate.

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When I was my sickest, I wasn’t my thinnest.  The times when my health was most iffy was actually when I was slightly overweight.  But my electrolytes were off, my kidneys weren’t functioning at full capacity.  This was because of the constant binging, purging, and diuretic abuse.  I wasn’t thin by any means.  But I was sick, and I was deserving of treatment.  Seeing a film like this would have reinforced that (inaccurate) thought that I wasn’t thin enough to need eating disorder treatment.  This girl is a skeleton and going into treatment, I sure as hell didn’t want to go into treatment with a bunch of skeletons and be the overweight one.  That was a real and terrible fear of mine (and let me tell you, treatment was not just filled with underweight people.  There were women and men from young to old, skinny to fat, white to black – EATING DISORDERS DO NOT DISCRIMINATE. So don’t let your weight, ethnicity, or age be a reason you don’t seek help. That’s bull shit.)

Next, there are people who are predisposed to get eating disorders.  Did you know that? Anxiety, depression, OCD, perfectionism – all these things don’t necessarily cause or have to end up with an eating disorder – but a lot of people that struggle with eating disorders also struggle with these things.  So you’re going to sit down a bunch of teenage girls who may already be perfectionistic but don’t have an eating disorder and let them watch a film practically spelling out “how to” be anorexic in great detail and potentially trigger something that would not have been triggered otherwise.  Again, I know you can’t point to one movie and blame it for starting your eating disorder…..or can you? I know I can point to a specific book that set me off…

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Lastly, the actress is in recovery from anorexia herself. Yet somehow, “Under the care of a dietician, in a healthy way…*cough cough BS*” was able to lose a drastic amount of weight so she could play the part of an anorexic girl.  Let me clarify something: THERE IS NOT A HEALTHY WAY TO LOSE ENOUGH WEIGH TO BE UNDERWEIGHT.  IT’S NOT HEALTHY IF YOU ARE UNDERWEIGHT. Period. No matter if a dietician was watching you or not. That’s just messed up.  And last rant – she could have maintained a healthy weight AND played a part of a girl with an eating disorder.   They could have educated people and broken down stigmas that only thin girls are really sick if they would have just had her stay in her healthy weight range and played the same role. ammirite? I am….

OK, I think I’m off my soap box now – I URGE you, if you are struggling with an eating disorder, if you are early on in your recovery – just don’t watch it.  It’s not worth a potential relapse.  Be wise with what you see and where you let your mind drift to.

Feel free to comment with your thoughts.  Are you going to watch this film? Are you for it, against it, or really don’t care?

Physical fullness vs. spiritual fullness

Ok, time to get a little vulnerable.  This is a long post, but it’s important. Last week I weighed for the first time in maybe a month. I stepped on the scale thinking I’d see some weight loss because I’ve been running a little bit more…but much to my dismay, they number staring back at me was higher than I’ve seen in a LONG time.  In fact, it’s 2 lbs away from when I weighed my heaviest.  As any girl would, I had a mini freak out and those thoughts of self hate came creeping in: “You have no self control. You’ve really let yourself go.  Caleb’s not going to think you’re attractive. You’re disgusting.” I hate that these are still automatic thoughts that pop up so quickly.  But one of the biggest thing I learned through all the therapy I’ve been to was actually from one of my Christian counselors – Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.  I know that these thoughts of self hate are not from God.  To him I am fearfully and wonderfully made, designed with intention and on purpose.  So I prayed that the Lord would help me see myself as He sees me – and then move on and focus on what’s really important in life.

But sometimes that voice of self hate and insecurity is so strong that I need some more support.  This was the case last week, so I reach out to my sister, Lauren.  I asked her to pray for me because I was really struggling with my weight and body image.  I explained that I couldn’t even be mad about the weight gain because I haven’t been dieting, I’ve been eating junk food pretty much every day, and definitely over what my body needs.  I was frustrated because I don’t know why I keep eating food that makes me feel like crap instead of eating food that would energize and make me feel good. She helped me come up with a plan that would create more balance around food and said she’d pray for me.  I put my phone down and picked up the book I’m reading, “Uninvited.” I was about to have one of those moments where you know God is speaking to you & I wasn’t even expecting it.

The author was talking about how Satan uses three things to try to tempt us and lure us into sinning and the first one was this:

Crave: I feel empty.
Whenever I feel lonely or less than, I think I can fill my emptiness with temporary physical pleasures.  The things that I consume soon consume my thoughts.  What started as a little thing has become something of which I can’t ever quite get enough of.”

This is EXACTLY how I felt about food – The things that I consume [too much food] soon consume my thoughts [and I start having negative body image as a result].  What started as a little thing [overindulging] has become something of which I can’t ever quite get enough of. As if that wasn’t a God speaking moment already, I saw I had a missed text from Lauren and this is the gist of what she said.

Why are you constantly choosing to eat crap when you know it makes you feel horrible both physically and emotionally? Most of the time, it’s because I’m feeling unsatisfied in some other area or areas of life and looking to wine or ice cream to numb that or satisfy.  Be really conscious about asking The Lord to help seek true satisfaction in Him and Him alone

Um, WHAT?! Was she reading that book over my shoulder.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what she said lined up perfectly with what I had just read.  So, I read on:

When I go without the nourishment of truth, I will crave filling my spiritual hunger with temporary physical pleasures, thinking they will somehow treat the loneliness inside.  These physical pleasures can’t fill me, but they can numb me.  Numb souls are never growing souls.

And that’s when it really clicked with me.  At this point in my life, I don’t feel less than or lonely in the same way that I used to.  In the past, I felt like everyone was better than me, I wasn’t worth loving, and I didn’t have any authentic relationships.  Now, I feel overall confident in who I am, I’m secure in the way that my husband loves me, and I have deep, meaningful friendships.  So I don’t think I’ve been turning to food because of that.  I think it’s because I have been going without the nourishment of Truth.  I haven’t been spending as much time reading the Bible or in prayer.  I haven’t been to church because I’ve been working or out of town.  I think I was spiritually hungry but I didn’t realize that and therefore didn’t turn to the Lord for satisfaction.  I was turning to candy and burgers (which are all fine in moderation, but I was overdoing it), I was filling my belly instead of filling my soul.

Today, I’m working on satisfying my soul hunger instead of looking to physical fullness to satisfy me.  I’m spending time doing things that stir my affections for the Lord and bring fullness and joy in my life.  So instead of just trying to go on another diet or cleanse – ask yourself the hard questions & get to the root of why you may be overeating.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support in this process.  Sometimes people can spot things in our lives better than we can because we’re so close to the situation.