Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Eating Disorder Awareness Week: The Blog Post In Which I Practice What I Preach

I'm about to get a little've been warned.

Recently, a client asked me if I ever have body image issues.  It's actually a question I am asked fairly often, doing what I do.  Therapists have varying comfort levels with self-disclosure and I would say I am pretty open with my clients when I think it will be helpful in their growth.  So, my truthful answer to this woman was yes, once in a while I don't feel all that great about my body.  Usually those "body blah" days are cyclical and I can relate them to certain times of the month but they'll also come up randomly.  Since I am fairly attuned to my body's fluctuations, I can let those negative thoughts slip away fairly easily.  Sometimes I whine to my husband for a minute that I am not feeling my best; he comforts me and assures me that I am perfect the way I am.  And I believe him.  Do I feel any less negative about my body than other women?  That's hard to say since I don't know the inner dialogue that goes on in my friends and acquaintances, but I am pretty confident in my own skin.

This week is the National Eating Disorder Association's (NEDA) Eating Disorder Awareness Week.  The theme this year is "Everybody Knows Somebody."  Yep, we all know somebody who has dealt with disordered eating whether it is ourselves, someone close to us, or someone we just know in passing.  The goal of this week is to raise awareness of the hideous, and dangerous, nature of the eating disorder and to help promote treatment and early intervention.  I've been involved with this week over the years in many manifestations but this year, my participation is small.  I've committed to being loving toward and forgiving of my own body.  Before you think to yourself, "Get off your high horse, Allison!" understand the process that got me to this point.

I abused my body for many years through overexercise, laxative abuse, purging, and starving.  I couldn't be thin enough, couldn't push myself enough, and didn't care if what I was doing took years off my life.  I was depressed to the point of wanting to end it all, anything to end the pain of hating myself and my body, especially, so much.  After ten years I waved the white flag, surrendering to recovery.  I was tired of that life and knew there had to be some greater purpose. 

This is where I wish I could tell you my decision to embrace recovery transformed my thoughts about my body into magical self love.  My friends, it did not.  I think one of the biggest surprises about recovery was that I was going to have to actually work to accept my body.  I just thought if I ate and stopped abusing myself that I would like what I saw in the mirror, but I was still focused on the flaws; the lumps and bumps were still there.  It took deliberate self-talk, lots of prayer and intentionality, and friends who could relate to where I was to help me through this residual eating disorder brain stuff.

Over the past ten years, I have noticed a gradual slipping away of the cruel thoughts I had about my body.  It's much easier for me to see a strong, capable woman in the mirror than one with an imperfect form.  Now I can lovingly look at my arms in the mirror and smile at how much they look like my dad's. I chuckle at my stomach pooch which is just going to be there when I bend over, having been stretched by two big baby boys.  I embrace my small breasts which fed my sons for a cumulative 30 months, even though they look nothing like they used to.  I see the eye crinkles and white hairs that sprout at my temples and recognize them as a badge of honor - they represent hardships overcome and happiness experienced. That's not to say I am not using retinol cream and visiting my salon to take care of the little hair situation...come on, I'm human!  But I don't dwell on these things as being BAD.  They just ARE. 

My four-year-old has his school pictures taken today, so he was all spruced up with a haircut and a nice ironed shirt. While he was brushing his teeth in the bathroom and we were looking in the mirror, I told him how grown up and handsome he looked.  He looked at his reflection and said, "Mom, I know I am!"  Like, duh.  Of course we also tell him he is smart and funny and observant and thoughtful but he IS handsome.  And I am glad he knows it.  If we could all look in the mirror while brushing our teeth and confidently say, "I am looking GOOD," what a different world we'd live in. 

I adore Anne Lamott.  I read her work and think, "YES!!  She gets it!"  Take the time to read this piece, an oldie but goodie.  She sums it up a million times better than I ever could, but I think we both agree that we are fine, just as we are.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

2013: The Year of Risks

Happy New Year...a little late.

During the holidays, I had all of these blog posts swirling around in my head: 

"The Sadness of Christmas: Coping Skills for Dealing with Holidays"
"How to Avoid Setting Yourself Up for Failure with New Year's Resolutions"
"Who Cares if You Gained Five Pounds Over the Holidays?"

You  know, all of that redundant baloney about how stressful that time of year is and how pressured we are to start anew January 1st with righteous goals about becoming some amazing person in 2013.

But I never typed anything.  Part of that was pure laziness - when I shut my office door on December 21st, I literally didn't open it again for ten days.  I took a break from counseling to focus on being with my family and friends.  But also, I have nothing new to add on those subjects.  I am just as guilty as everyone else of opening that fresh calendar with a little skip in my heartbeat, excited at the chance to do things differently, and much better than last year. 

The theme that comes back to me again and again when I think of personal improvements is from a teacher I had in graduate school - Dr. Jane Myers.  I took a summer school class called "Habit Change," in which we had five weeks to come up with something we wanted to change in our lives.  We came up with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals and designed how we might accomplish the goal and why it was important to even make that change in the first place.  At the end of the course, we assessed our progress towards our goals and noted, if any, barriers that stood in the way of meeting our goals.  We also gave Dr. Myers a self-addressed, stamped envelope with a letter to ourselves inside, reflecting on the experience.  A year later, she mailed our letters to us so we could measure any continued work on that goal within that year. 

Some people made goals like flossing their teeth nightly or drinking 100 ounces of water a day or exercising five times a week for 30 minutes.  My goal was to be more social.  Just to set the stage, I was in my mid-20s, living by myself, and feeling lonely for a special person in my life.  I was in a rut of going to school and coming home, hanging out with my dog and my family, running, reading, and being pretty solitary.  I knew that Prince Charming wasn't going to come knocking on my door so I needed to get out there.  The ultimate goal was to make more friends with the added bonus of meeting someone I might want to date.  Long story short, after those five weeks, I not only had joined some social groups around town which I am still a part of ten years later, but I had also gotten up the nerve to approach a handsome runner I would see around the neighborhood.  We went out on a date, and now we've been together for over a decade.

Risks.  This is what I am talking about.  Fear is our obstacle, again and again.  We worry too much about screwing up, about pleasing other people, and that things might not pan out the way we hoped.  This year, I am encouraging my patients to take risks.  To step out of their safe place and do something daring.

To my client with restrictive anorexia - to take a risk and throw away her scale
To my client with depression - to make one phone call a week to a friend, even though it is sometimes almost physically painful to even pick up the phone
To my client with anxiety - to go to a yoga class and learn to breathe deeply (yes, it actually works!)
To my client who is paralyzed with grief - to let herself be vulnerable and honestly say, "THIS SUCKS" when someone asks how she is doing
To my client who just cannot let go of the past - volunteer at least monthly for an organization which helps other people - perspective is an awesome teacher
To my client who feels overwhelmed and frazzled - to regularly say NO to commitments

These are just examples of small risks that can be life changing.  We get caught up in thinking that we have to set huge goals for ourselves for all the world to see like losing 25 pounds or writing The Great American Novel or climbing Mount Everest, but truly just making a small, but tough, change can be enough to cause a domino effect.  Remember how my goal of doing something socially once a week turned into decade-long community involvement and a husband?  Now, I can't promise miracles or marriage, but I do know that if there is some small risk you can take, your world will open up.

So maybe I DID have something to say on the topic!

Wishing you all a happy, and RISKY, 2013.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I Am Who I Am

Today, I was looking up at my bookshelf in my office and scanning the titles (okay, looking for books to sell on eBay) of the reference books I've acquired over the years:  Ten Days To Self-Esteem.  Freedom From Depression. Intuitive Eating.  Mothering the New Mother.  I laughed a little, wanting to just toss all of those books in the trash.  Partly because I rarely even pick up a printed copy of a book anymore but mostly because I fail, daily, to live up to those titles.  Self-esteem?  Eh, most days.  Depressed?  More than I would like to be.  Eating intuitively?  Well, what mother of small kids EVER gets to eat when she wants to, what she wants?

All that to say, sitting in this leather swivel chair is a great place of power.  I am so humbled by my clients who blindly hand me the shreds and tatters of their lives, trusting that I might have some little nugget of insight or wisdom that they can carry out into the world with them.  Hoping that I can lead them to a "ding!" moment when something clicks that has never made sense before.  That, my friends, is power.

Sometimes clients ask me why I decided to go into counseling.  There is a very long answer (anyone have an hour or ten?) to that question, most of which is inappropriate to talk about in a therapy session, but there are a few very succinct answers too.  I believe in the healing nature of the therapeutic relationship.  I believe in empowerment, full recovery, change.  I care, deeply, for people.  I have also experienced the phenomenon of pain and the long trudge towards health.  I get it.

Those books on my shelf are part of my toolbox and I put in time and energy keeping up with all of the current "stuff" in my field, but me simply being who I am is what makes me a good therapist.  One of my heroes is Irvin D. Yalom.  He said, "Only the wounded healer can truly heal."**  Amen.

The therapeutic relationship is often compared to blind dating.  Someone you know tells you that you should call me for an appointment.  You get nervous before you make the first phone call and even email me instead since calling me seems so intimidating.  You fret before the appointment.  What should I wear?  What will she be like?  Will I embarrass myself?  What if I don't like her? Then, how do I get out of making a second appointment if we didn't click?  Sound familiar?  Well guess what?  I do the same thing.  I pray before your session that I can have something useful for you to take home with you.  I hope that we connect.  I hope that you like my style and I say the right thing.  I want the relationship to work as much as you do.

I am not the World's Best Counselor, but I am wholly accepting and willing to sit with you in your deep, dark misery or celebrate with you when you make a leap of faith towards a better way of living.  Try me.

**Irvin D. Yalom, Lying On the Couch