Anorexics Don’t Exist.

Anorexics Don’t Exist.

Nor, for that matter, do bulimics, or alcoholics, or schizophrenics.

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There is no such thing as “the mentally ill,” just people with mental illnesses.

In short, PEOPLE ARE NOT DEFINED BY THEIR CONDITIONS.

There are people with anorexia, yes. But anorexics? Never met one.

There’s an unfortunate tendency in society to label people. We like to categorize things. Our kitchens and closets and inboxes are all neatly organized by content, color and origin, and we try to do the same with people, as though they were folders we can just slap labels on before filing away in a box somewhere.

But here’s the thing: People are not folders, and we do not belong in boxes.

People are complicated, multi-dimensional, and undefinable. We’re always changing and we are so much more than any one label, or multiple labels, for that matter, could ever begin to describe.

But what’s the harm in labeling people? Can’t it help us to talk about things in a more organized way? Can’t it help us to put like things together in order to better study them? Yes, it can. But we can do that without turning people into just one of their many characteristics. One of the problems with labels is that they promote stereotypes. They encourage us to view all the people with that label as the same, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Take anorexia for example. I’ve met many, many people struggling with anorexia in my lifetime. So many I’d have trouble naming them all. But I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that they were all unique. Some were overly concerned with their appearances, yes, but many more were not. Some were perfectionists, some were not. Some had a distorted body image, while others didn’t. Some were artists, others had dreams of becoming doctors. You get where I’m going with this, right?

It’s the same with everything else.

Another problem with labels is that they separate us. They put up walls between us where none should exist. So while there are black people and there are white people, there are not “blacks” and “whites.” See how using the terms that way automatically erects a barrier?

The point is this: Language has power. So let’s be more careful how we use it to describe ourselves and our fellow travelers. Let’s stop putting one another in boxes and assuming that we can know everything there is to know about a person simply because we know one thing about them. Let’s look past society’s name tags and get to know the real person behind them. Because I guarantee you that behind every label is a living, breathing human being with thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, and worries and fears very similar to your own.

The Folly of “Awareness Weeks”

It’s that time of year again — Eating Disorder Awareness Week begins today and runs through this coming Saturday. The theme this year is again “I had no idea,” alluding to the fact that so many people know so little about eating disorders and the truth behind them.

While this is true, and I would absolutely LOVE it if everyone truly understood what eating disorders were like and what they were caused by, I’m not sure that’s a reasonable goal. Should more people be aware of the signs of eating disorders so they can be caught sooner before progressing to chronicity? Of course. Should children be taught better coping skills so they don’t feel the NEED to begin habits that will lead to something like an eating disorder? Most definitely. But is an awareness week really going to accomplish any of that? I doubt it. Sure, a few more people will come away with a better understanding, but from what I can tell, most of the publicity spread during this week concerns body image and the portrayal of thinness in the media. Both of which are important topics, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with the nitty gritty facts about eating disorders. The only benefit I can see to something like an eating disorder awareness week is that it might put these horrible illnesses higher up on the public’s radar and eventually lead to more funding for research into more effective treatments, as well as better funding so sufferers can actually AFFORD those treatments. Other than that, I think it’s pretty pointless and might actually spread more MIS-information than clear up any confusion.

So what do I propose?

Well, here’s a novel idea. How about we all just accept that not everyone has to completely understand everything? It’s simply not reasonable to expect everyone to understand every single mental or physical illness that could befall someone. I, for one, don’t fully understand what it’s like to have breast cancer. I know it must be horrible and scary, but I’ve never been through it, so I don’t really know what it’s like. I also don’t fully comprehend why someone would want to cut themselves or otherwise self-harm. I kind of get the reasoning behind it, but I still can’t imagine doing it or even wanting to. I also don’t really get what it means to have bi-polar disorder. I’ve seen movies and read things, but I still don’t really get it. But just because I don’t fully understand these things doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re important issues that deserve our attention. I also don’t think any one of them is more deserving of our attention than others.

So what DO I think?

I think people should respect people simply because they’re people. I think we should care for one another simply because we’re human, and I think there shouldn’t be an hierarchy of illnesses where some are regarded as more important, more devastating or more worthy of our time, attention and money. We’re all on this earth together; each of us are fighting our own tough battles; and the least we can do is support one another along the way. It’s not awareness we need. It’s love and acceptance.

So this year I won’t be posting daily about eating disorders. Instead I’m going to try and post something along the lines of love and acceptance. Stories, examples and inspiration for how to encourage those qualities in your own life. Today, I’m going to start with myself and build on the big step forward I made yesterday in my eating disorder recovery. I hope you’ll do some loving and accepting today of your own. If you do, please let me know about it in the comments!

Permission to Feel Shitty

I’ve been feeling pretty shitty lately. So shitty, in fact, that I don’t especially want to be writing this post right now. I’d rather curl up on the couch and close my eyes and shut out this world that, at least for right now, holds no appeal for me. SO shitty, that when I went for a walk this morning past the golf course and heard the ‘thwack, thwack’ of the golf clubs as they propelled little spherical rockets across the green grass, I wondered to myself what it might feel like to get hit in the head with one. And then I almost wished it upon myself, in the hopes that perhaps the resulting force would knock out that part of my brain that causes me to feel so shitty. Perhaps the ball would drop out of the sky, slam into my skull, and after I got over the initial pain and shock, I would wake up a new person. But it didn’t happen.

It’s a gorgeous day outside, but inside, I’m kind of numb.

You know what, though? I’m weirdly okay with it. Because by now I know that this shittiness is just one shade on my color wheel, and that in a few days, the wheel will turn again. I’ve felt shitty enough times to know that however bad and permanent and hopeless it seems in the moment, shittiness does not last forever. It goes away. Things get better. And that helps me to hold on.

What also helps me through these rough periods is when I’m able to accept them for what they are: rough periods. That’s all. They don’t necessarily mean anything is wrong, and perhaps more importantly, they don’t mean I’M wrong. It’s actually quite normal to feel shitty every once in a while. Fighting it is a waste of time. I know, because that’s what I usually do: I usually try to figure out exactly WHY I feel shitty, and then I fight like hell to make it go away. I beat myself up for feeling this way, trying all sorts of things to help myself “snap out of it.” Society tries to tell us that smiles and happiness are the only acceptable ways to navigate the world, and so I assume I must be doing something wrong. I try to fix what in reality, isn’t even broken. And all of this fight and struggle only makes things worse. One of my favorite meditation teachers would call this “adding the second arrow.” Not only am I suffering the first arrow of being depressed, but I’m adding a second arrow on top of it by struggling and beating myself up for how I feel. It’s like a dog pulling at its leash — it might suck for the dog to be on the leash, but then it goes and makes it even worse by pulling so hard it practically chokes itself. By not accepting my feelings, I’m choking myself.

So today, as counterintuitive as it may seem, I’m allowing the shittiness to be here. I’m not allowing it to pull me down into an even deeper, darker hole, but I am accepting it as today’s state of being. Sure, I hope tomorrow it’s gone, but for right now, I can sit with it and acknowledge that today, it is how I feel. Somehow, that acceptance is soothing. And as this newfound attitude of allowance registers in my body and mind, I even begin to notice the shittiness back off a little bit. Funny how that works.

Accept.

Slowly. Reluctantly.

Hesitance settles down upon your shoulders.

Fear and Doubt gnaw at your bones.

One step at a time.

Blind trust. A leap of faith.

Release.

Let Go.

Struggling only tightens the reins.

You belong in the world —

Flying.

Soaring.

No chains to tie you down.

Free,

At last.

©Jennifer Horton

Letting Go

I have a confession to make: I haven’t really been “loving what is” lately.

Instead of accepting whatever is going on and making the most of it, I’ve been resisting things with all of my might. And I’m not talking about instances that I really shouldn’t accept, but those that really can’t be any different, so I might as well suck it up and make the most of it.

If I think of it in terms of the serenity prayer, “Lord, grant me the willingness to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” then I guess you could say the Lord has granted me the wisdom to know the difference between the things I cannot change and the things I can, but not the willingness to accept it..

Or perhaps I’m just stubborn and thick-headed…Either way, I’ve been resisting. I do this a lot actually. I get thoughts or ideas in my head and once they’re there, it’s very difficult to let them go. They’re like an annoying piece of food that gets stuck in your teeth and bugs the hell out of you, but you can’t get it out for some reason or another. Instead of just letting it go for a little while and forgetting about it, you continually rub your tongue over it, reminding yourself that it’s there and how fricking annoying it is. (Okay, so that analogy is kind of weird and not entirely accurate, but just go with me here.) The point is, resisting things does not make them any easier or more tolerable. In fact, it makes them more difficult and more painful. Yet my de facto reaction when things are not going “my way” is to grab onto that thought and ruminate over and over and OVER about how miserable I am, when in fact, I could be trying to find something GOOD about the situation or at least relax into it. I think this tendency stems in large part from my desire to always be in control and for things to always go according to my expectations. When something is going differently than my head thinks it ‘should,’ I get upset, and I scramble for ways to change it or get the hell out of there. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that in life, THINGS RARELY GO ACCORDING TO PLAN. That’s what makes it life. It’s unpredictable and spontaneous, and while it has its share of disappointments, it is also full of delicious surprises.

Yet while the number of things I CAN’T control greatly outnumbers the number of things I CAN, one of the things I can control is my attitude. So that is what I’m going to work on changing this week. I’m going to try to relax my grip on the wheel, roll the windows down, and enjoy the ride on this windy road of life. Wherever it may take me.

Letting Go

My hands are tired from steering

My eyes are starting to blur.

My mind is doing cartwheels,

I’m not sure which way to turn.

My lips pursed in concentration,

my jaw clenched in iron rage.

Nose scrunched up beyond frustration,

I’ve driven right into a cage.

The darkness presses in around me.

The air is getting thick.

I gasp for one last breath of it,

but it’s so stale it makes me sick.

My shoulders sag beneath the burden,

my chest is caving in.

My knees give out below me,

And I’m sure this is the end.

A cloud surrounds my senses,

I don’t know where I went wrong.

I tried to stay on top of it,

but it’s been winning all along.

They pry my wingers from the wheel,

force air into my lungs

Move the key from the ignition

back to the life where it belongs.

I take off my gloves, loosen my grip

stop trying to win things by force.

I give up my seat in the captain’s chair,

Letting life run its own course.

©Jennifer K. Horton 5/5/12

R E S P E C T (just a little bit)

Part of the reason I started this blog was to help people understand what it’s like to live with something like an eating disorder. (Or anxiety, or depression, or any other type of mental illness.) There is so much misunderstanding out there about mental illness that I hoped to serve as a beacon of light in the overwhelming darkness. Somehow I thought my words could help paint a clearer picture of what we, the survivors of mental illness, face on a daily basis. Hopefully, I’ve done that to some degree, but I’m also beginning to see that perhaps understanding is too much to expect. I mean, heck — even I, someone who has struggled with anxiety, depression and anorexia for a good chunk of her life, don’t fully understand the issue. So how can I expect people with no experience whatsoever to “get it” just after reading a few blog posts? It’s simply not realistic. It may not even be possible.

But you know what? That’s okay. They don’t have to understand. YOU don’t have to understand. I’m okay with that.

What I’m NOT okay with is people making broad generalizations or assumptions about a whole community of people simply because they don’t understand. It happens every day. And not just with mental illness, but with all sorts of differences, from skin color to religion, to political affiliation. You know what I’m talking about — people with depression need to “cheer up.” People with eating disorders are vain, selfish and should “just eat.” Muslims are extremists and not to be trusted.

ALL LIES.

But that’s what people do when they don’t understand. Not content to just accept that they don’t understand, they seek to explain things in the only way they know how, in a way that makes sense to them. Or they decide that if they can’t understand it, something is obviously messed up about it.

ALSO A LIE.

You get where I’m going with this. I guess what I’m trying to say is, perhaps my goal to help everyone understand was a little misguided, and admittedly borne from a place deep inside ME that yearns to be understood. But the older I get and the more I try to explain my issues to people, the more I’m beginning to see that not everyone will understand. And that’s okay. Even those of us struggling with the same issues don’t experience those issues in exactly the same way. My experience with anorexia is not the same as everyone else’s. That’s okay too. Have I fully understood the issues of everyone I’ve encountered on my recovery journey? No way. And I actually tried. But that’s also okay. People do not have to understand everyone else’s experience. My journey does not have to make sense to you.

But what we DO need to understand, is that a lack of understanding does not warrant a lack of respect. We can respect one another without understanding one another.

I may not be able to wrap my head around why my best friend cuts herself when she’s hurting inside. I may even think it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. But I can still love her, and support her, and respect her.

You may not understand why a loved one who is obviously underweight has such a hard time eating a decent meal — it may seem like the craziest thing in the world to you — but you can give her a hug, tell her you care and respect her.

Because the truth is, EVERYONE deserves respect. I don’t care who they are or what they’ve done, they are a HUMAN BEING with feelings and a beating heart. You don’t know what kind of life they’ve had, or what factors have shaped them into the person you see, or what inner demons they’re battling. We all have a hard enough road to travel without encountering disrespect from our fellow travelers along the way.

Why not help one another along?

 

Never Forget

Ask my friends and family if I’m forgetful and they’ll tell you no. I remember everyone’s birthdays, pay attention to what people say and never miss appointments. But when it comes to life’s lessons, I am oh so forgetful. Case in point: so far on this blog, I’ve written about my intention to start breaking my internal set of rules, my dedication to tossing out bad habits as band-aids to problems and my resolve to start living and stop letting fear hold me back. How many of these have I followed through on for more than a few days? ZERO.

Now, before you abandon me and think me a fraud, know that I mean well. I really do. When I wrote each of those posts, I was filled with hope and inspiration and resolve. I want to do each of those things SO badly it hurts. So what happens?

Well, life happens. I have work to do, commitments to fulfill and mental demons to fight. And before you know it, my lofty goals are nowhere to be found. I forget. Oh, how easily I forget.

Exhibit A: If you recall, just the other day I wrote about hope, and how now that I have a nutritionist and concrete goals to work on, the equation was complete and I believed that I would soon be on my way to great things. Ha. Ha ha ha. Yeah. So it didn’t quite happen that way. Just a few days after that post, I went to the beach with my family. Sounds lovely, right? It was. I had a great time and it was wonderful to spend time with my family. Except for one little thing — any time I am taken out of my safe little bubble of routine — my oh so limited comfort zone — I experience higher levels of anxiety than normal. Which for me, is A LOT OF ANXIETY. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the outside, but on the inside I am on fire. So what did I do? I forgot. Forgot about my new goals, forgot that I’d tossed out my bad habits as band-aids and forgot about my commitment to breaking my stupid, stupid rules. Because when I’m in the moment — when that anxiety is swirling all around me 24/7, that’s what I do. I forget. I grasp for my rules and my bad habits like they’re life preservers and I do my best to weather the storm. So, yeah. While it was still a lovely trip and a much needed getaway, I didn’t make any positive steps forward in my recovery.

So here I am, back on terra firma (okay, so I’ve NEVER been on terra firma. Terra firm-er?) and my memory is slowly coming back. Which is nice, but do you know what would be nicer? If it never flew off in the first place. I’ve been trying to think of ways to keep my goals and intentions at the forefront of my mind no matter what’s going on around me but so far I’ve come up empty. The best idea I’ve had is to purchase a locket and stick a picture of my younger, smiling self inside to remind me of what it is I’m working for. Which kind of worked for a little while, until the picture fell out… Plus I’m not exactly one for jewelry and it kind of got on my nerves at times…

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You’d think you wouldn’t have to remind yourself to do things that are SO important to your quality of life and your health, but those are exactly the kinds of things I have difficulty remembering. Birthdays, things people say, things to do? Those I can remember. I feel like there’s an answer in there somewhere — some trick of the mind I could do to get myself to hold on to those dreams for more than a few days — but right now my mind is blank.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think on some level, everyone can probably relate to the inability to keep important things in their heads at all times. Life has a way of blowing through your brain and whisking away some of your most precious intentions. Take driving for instance. Or being stuck in the check out lane after a long day at work. Now, I imagine anyone who is reading this blog has the intention to be kind to others and generally help make the world a better place. But I guarantee you that at least some of the time, when you’re stuck in traffic or the check out lane, you lose it. You blow your horn, or you’re not especially the nicest to the guy bagging your groceries. You might yell at your kids to shut up, or lose your cool with your significant other. It’s not that you don’t want to be loving and kind to others, especially those closest to you, but every so often, life just makes you forget that that’s important to you.

I feel like saying it’s simply unavoidable, but I don’t think it is. I think it just takes training. A whole life time of training. Yesterday you may have lost your cool with someone you love, but today you can try again. And tomorrow you can try yet again. Sometimes, sure. You’ll forget. Just like I’ll surely forget later on today that I even wrote this. But hopefully tomorrow I’ll remember again. And then maybe the next day I’ll remember sooner. The fact that we forget isn’t a reason to give up. It’s simply a reason to try harder, and to be understanding when we see other people forgetting too.

Your Voice is Your Most Powerful Weapon

I was going to call this post “lessons from Rumpelstiltskin,” but then I thought that might be a little too hard to explain.  Partly because I’m not sure what age you have to be to pick up on that fairy tale reference, and partly because I know that my brain just tends to operate on different wavelengths than the rest of the world and the reference may not even make sense…

But now I feel compelled to share my reasoning, so here’s the condensed version of the story, with assistance from Wikipedia:

1. Insecure miller brags to a king that his daughter can spin straw into gold.

2. King locks girl in tower and gives her straw and a spinning wheel, threatening to cut off her head if she hasn’t spun the straw into gold by morning.

3. Girl is in deep shit. Luckily, an elf comes along and spins the straw into gold for her in return for a piece of jewelry.

4. Elf does this two more times, ultimately getting the girl to promise him her first born child.

5. When the child is born, the girl (now the queen, go figure) freaks out and manages to get the elf to agree to give up his claim if she can guess his name.

6. Surprise! She guesses his name! Surprise! His name is Rumpelstiltskin.

So, the moral of this story, for my purposes here, anyway, is that when you say something out loud you take away it’s power over you. When something is not a secret anymore, you can defeat it.

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In real life, I think this applies to a number of things. It applies to secrets about yourself that you’re afraid to share with others, fears you have but are afraid to voice out loud, things that have happened to you that you haven’t told anyone about… basically anything you feel compelled to keep inside out of shame or fear of judgment.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I become more comfortable speaking my OWN story out loud. While it’s scary as all hell, it’s been incredibly freeing. And believe it or not, empowering. Because when I share my experience with other people, I’m also communicating to myself that there’s no reason to hide. Because really, all keeping something inside does is reinforce your belief that you HAVE to keep it inside — that there’s something inherently wrong with you and you must, AT ALL COSTS, keep other people from learning the truth.

Well, people, I’m here to tell you that that is complete B.S. There is NOTHING wrong with you. Despite how put together they may seem on the outside, everyone has some kind of secret they’re afraid to share. I agree, sometimes this is hard to believe, but my therapist assures me it’s true. Personally, I know a few people who seem so perfect that I would love to go up to them and shake them until they divulge what their secret is, but I digress. The point is that you are valuable just as you are, no matter what your story is. Even if some people ARE perfect and don’t have anything they feel the need to hide (it does seem that way, right? It’s not just me?), that doesn’t make the rest of us any less valuable. Perfection is not a prerequisite of value. Embrace yourself, whatever secrets you’re hiding and whatever stories you hold inside, and try to share your story with at least one trusted person this week. Stories that are not allowed to see the light of day turn into ulcers that will eat you from the inside out. Shine the light on your story. Not only do you need to tell it, but the world needs to hear it.

 

Links to related TED talks that have inspired me:

Ash Beckham: We’re all hiding something, let’s find the courage to open up.

Kevin Breel: Confessions of a depressed comic

Susan Cain: The power of introverts (the last 5 minutes especially)

Brené Brown: Listening to Shame (her other talk kicks ass too)