Monday, February 27, 2017

NEDAW - National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

A few weeks ago, I was at the Humane Society volunteering at the vet clinic when one of the cats let out a blood-curdling scream. It sounded eerily human or maybe more like something that once was human. It did not sound feline in the least. This little guy let out such a wail that the entire staff and volunteer team stopped, all of us with our jaws on the floor, and stared in disbelief. He did so because one of the vet techs merely opened the door to his kennel. She hadn't even touched him. Everything was fine. The resident cat whisperer was brought in, and she was able to safely get him out for some testing. She wore extra padded and extraordinarily long oven mitt-like gloves in order to do so, but the cat's wail was louder than his bite. He actually didn't make any attempt to bite anyone.

The work volunteers do at the vet clinic is sometimes hard, sometimes kinda gross, sometimes physical, and sometimes serious, but overall, it's incredibly rewarding. It can even be fun, but it does take a lot of attention and care. Time usually flies by when I'm there. My volunteer days are full with a work shift right after I leave the Humane Society, but I wouldn't change anything about those long days. I'm getting better at figuring out easy ways to get a somewhat healthy lunch in me those days since I usually end up eating on my way to volunteer, during my shift, or on my way to work.

Why am I bringing this up when the title of this post is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week? I wanted to explain what recovery means to me. Work, volunteering, living, running and being social were all things I struggled with in the throes of my eating disorder. Even during the first five years of recovery, I had a hard time being consistently reliable and facing the world. I held jobs, volunteered, and showed up most of the time, but I frequently called in sick and my mind was often a million miles away, focused on my body, food, weight, or how I felt in my clothes. In fact, when I was volunteering at a different vet clinic during the first year of recovery, I found it very difficult to be fully engaged. I was so rarely in the moment. That slowly changed the longer I committed to recovery.

A lady conducting a research study on eating disorders in which I participated told me that this is often the case. The common response when asked the question, "what was different in terms of working before and after recovering?" was the feeling of being more grounded, being more productive, and feeling more present. There's a shift that takes place, and the attention that was once put on counting calories, obsessing about appearance and worrying about food is freed up to be placed in new areas: work, play, learning, relationships, giving back to the community, helping others, etc.

People often believe that you reach a point in recovery where you feel like you have arrived. Diane Israel suggests that recovery is more an ever evolving process, usually with peaks and valleys. Even now, I look to see where I can improve. The issues I struggle with these days are more what "normal" people deal with: eating more fruits and vegetables or a generally healthier diet, getting enough sleep, finding the right balance of exercise and rest etc. A good recovery exercise is to describe what recovery means to you. I know I have a tendency to be too strict and too hard on myself, so I work on finding ways I can relax the rules I have set in place for myself. It's always good to ask yourself if what you are doing is being driven by compulsion or by the desire to be healthy.

This week, there are so many people promoting their websites, blogs, books, and FB pages in response to NEDAW. It can get overwhelming sifting through what is actually helpful and what is not when it comes to recovery. I have found that one of the best ways to help people is to listen. What does a person struggling with an eating disorder need? What is he or she trying to say through the disorder? Some people don't want help or are in denial, but those who reach out are usually willing to explore the deeper issues.

Telling my story was the first step. It gave me a platform and allowed me to explore my own issues on a deeper level and also provided a way for me to let others know that there is a way to a better life. More importantly, though, it let other people struggling know that they are not alone. Answers were missing when I was unwell, and the outlook on recovery was bleak. Things have changed a lot since then. There is more hope around recovery. I want to offer more, though. With so many ways to reach people through social media, a lot of misinformation can be spread. I'm doing what I can to address specific issues on this blog, but I'm also trying to find other ways to help those in need and those who are willing to accept it. Fortunately, I'm not the only one offering guidance and support.

The last few blog posts I wrote addressed images on social media websites. I'm so glad I'm not alone in my opinions and can talk to others about it. Today, Carmen Cool mentioned "before & after" images in reference to NEDAW on her Facebook page. It got me thinking about images in general again. I think in this field, it's always important to think about how images can affect and even possibly trigger others. More importantly, before & after images end up supporting the false idea that once a given weight is achieved, everything will be fine, discounting the emotional and mental aspects of these illnesses and the deeper issues at play. Probably the best response to this controversy came when someone brought up alcoholics and pointed out how bizarre it would be to see someone who is sober posting images of how drunk she used to be in comparison. What purpose would this serve? None, absolutely none. We don't need to see where you were in order to understand it and to understand the underlying issues related to the illness.

Here is one response to before & after images that I feel is worth noting:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Not Done Yet

I've been having an internal debate about how involved I want to be in addressing what I feel are dangerous trends in society. The other day I saw a preview for a documentary about Karen Carpenter. It made me think about how lucky I am to be alive. Though I never took the heart-damaging medications she took, our lowest weight was about the same. Sometimes it seems like sheer luck that I survived. More and more people seem to be struggling with eating disorders.

At the risk of beating a dead horse...

With the recent Lady Gaga's belly controversy, I decided I would allow myself one last outburst over the whole Instagram mess. Keep in mind that I'm not actually triggered these days, but I mentor people who are. Every day I see people fighting for their lives. Last year, five people associated with members of one support group lost their battle. We just lost someone in the group this month, too, so it's no surprise that I get fired up when I see people carelessly posting their insecurities and afflictions on social media for all to see and absorb.

Let me see if I can explain things in a way that people will understand because one middle-aged lady suggested I was "body shaming" when I called her out on her potentially damaging and highly triggering posts, even though I never once mentioned a single word about the woman's body or her appearance. As a friend suggested, this is like being called a bully for expressing concern when someone posts loads of images of herself sloppy drunk and in compromising positions or passed out on the floor with captions about how great and fun it is to drink to excess every night. No, I'm not actually the problem. Yes, I could sit back and say nothing, but that was starting to feel wrong. Complacency is its own injustice.

What upsets me more than the images, many of which are bad enough, are the captions that go along with them. In one particular case, the woman has revealed her BMI, her caloric intake, and her exercise level. It doesn't take a genius to see that this is a train wreck in the making, but the almost constant self-criticism and self-absorption are unbearable. That's what I see as the most harmful to others. Imagine a young girl looking at the image of someone who is underweight and then reading the caption about her round belly. How could anyone think this is a good idea? Another woman thinks it's OK to post images of her seven identical non-fat lunches in Tupperware containers. That's not as terrible, but OCD much? How is this healthy and balanced and enjoyable? One of the worst things I have seen is someone suggesting how to hide curves in images for people who have none. I have said my piece, but it hasn't resolved anything.

Here is why I have trouble getting past all this. Take a look at these statistics:

  • At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. 
  • Every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
When people flaunt an illness that kills so many individuals, I can't sit back and act like it's OK. It's never OK to subtly or blatantly encourage others to obsess over weight, body, and food. All this does is continue to promote an unhealthy standard. I can't stand the thought of anyone encouraging others to strive for thinness by counting calories, weighing out every morsel of food, obsessing about exercise, and focusing on every self-perceived flaw, and then publicly complaining about or making hateful comments about body parts, her own or someone else's. When I see this kind of content and the unwell people who encourage it, I see it as a slap in the face of those who promote body positivity, health, and wellness. 

Those who make comments about bellies on natural bodies, untoned abs on fit athletes and cellulite on thin thighs have disordered thinking and promote a sick culture. Those who make naive comments about how stupid it is for people to have eating disorders are no better. Eating disorders are a very rational response to the chaos in life, especially when we are not taught better coping skills. Most addition is a combination of genetic factors, past trauma, general physiology and/or underlying mental illness, and current stress level. Spend a moment talking to someone in the throes of an eating disorder who is triggered and affected by the kind of unhealthy content that's becoming so popular on Instagram - complaining about cellulite, round bellies, or fat and flawed body parts when the referenced image shows not just otherwise but the exact opposite -- and you will maybe understand what harm these kinds of accounts can cause. 

I get the insecurity, the need for validation. I know what it's like to worry about weight, food, appearance, body, exercise and to want some kind of reassurance, but if you are an adult and still begging for attention by showing the world how thin you are while complaining about phantom bulges, you should probably consider therapy. What you are seeking can't be found in rah-rah Instagram or facebook comments.

The response to my comment about the harm this kind of content can cause was that my remark was immediately deleted. That's not surprising when it comes to anyone in denial. The threat of potentially addressing, or worse, giving up any harmful behaviors is often too scary for someone in the throes of addiction. The addictive behavior has to be protected at all costs, even if it means losing friends and distancing family members, poor performance, or worsening health. Comments like mine challenge the warped sense of reality of someone with an illness, so they won't be tolerated. There's nothing a stranger can really do at this point. I have no desire to watch someone slowly kill herself. I can't. I actually ended up blocking one account afterward, even though Instagram is public and anyone not logged in can see everything. I've said all I can, though, and there's nothing more I can do. I lived it, so I don't need to watch it. I hope that maybe one day people like this will realize how damaging what they are doing is, not just to themselves but to others. We all have our issues, but there's no need to inflict every neurotic thought onto others, especially if it means negatively influencing someone in the process.

And NOW I'm done.