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.

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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?

 

Facing the Music

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t been writing as much lately. I don’t really have a good reason for that except that I’ve been feeling pretty shitty.

I tend to go through little ups and downs like everyone else, but lately, my downs have been more frequent and more lasting. I’ve felt depressed, hopeless and overall just pretty disinterested in life. It’s a rough place to be, and when I’m in that place, the last thing I want to do is talk to other people about it. Think about it: when is the last time you went on Facebook to update your status to “I feel shitty” or “Life sucks right now” ? I’m thinking never. It’s just not something we go around broadcasting to one another. So it goes without saying that I wasn’t exactly feeling any motivation to write.

Well, I’m back. And as much as I hate to admit it, my latest funk taught me an important lesson: that I don’t have to feel shitty. I have the ability to fight back. True, sometimes it can be helpful to allow yourself to feel shitty — to mope around a little bit and grant yourself some down time. But never for very long. That’s where I went wrong. I felt it, and then I let it compound each day until I was just wallowing in one big pile of shit. It stunk.

Last night, however, I decided I didn’t want to feel shitty anymore. I decided that the next day — today — I was going to take some action. And you know what? It worked. I feel much better today, yet the only thing different is that I DECIDED to feel different. I had been sitting around waiting for things to just magically get better on their own, when the power to change things lay within me all along.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post. What I realized last night and this morning is that I’ve been doing the exact same thing with my eating disorder/anxiety/depression as I did with my latest funk — waiting around for things to magically get better on their own. Now, clearly I do not want to have an eating disorder. Clearly I do not want to feel anxious. And I certainly do not want to feel depressed. But wanting something doesn’t make it so. That requires action. And that’s what I’ve been sorely missing. I’ve been waiting around for my fears to diminish. I’ve been sitting here, thinking that one of these days I’ll wake up and all of a sudden eating will be easy, and I won’t encounter any anxiety and I’ll just be happy and chirpy and feel fucking fantastic. Well, NEWSFLASH Jennifer: NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

Recovering from an eating disorder is fucking hard. Getting to the point where anxiety doesn’t cripple you is hard. Overcoming depression is hard. Y’all, what I’m trying to say is, THIS SHIT IS HARD. There’s simply no way around it. Doing the things that will be required of me to live a more healthy, balanced life is going to be the most difficult thing I will ever do. It’s going to provoke anxiety. It’s going to make me feel really crappy at times. But that’s okay. I know now that to get to the other side of this journey, I have to go THROUGH all that stuff. I can’t just hop on a magic carpet and bypass the tough stuff. But I’m okay with that, because at least now I’m in control. I’d rather be driving through a rainstorm with my hands on the wheel than careening around a lovely meadow in a car without a driver. So while my goal before today was to avoid anxiety at all costs, my goal now is to walk through the anxiety at all costs. Not to shy away, or wait until tomorrow, or use one of my million excuses. I’m going to go on record right now and say there ARE no more excuses. I’m done with that. I’m ready to face the music. I know I’m about to embark on the most difficult journey in my life, but I’m ready. I know it’s going to be hard, and I’m ready for that too. I’m tired of waiting on the sidelines. I want to play in the game. I may get banged up and bruised, but you know what? I’m not afraid. Because I know what’s waiting for me at the finish line, and it’s a hell of a lot better than what’s lurking in the bleachers.

Thoughts on Depression, Suicide and Mental Health

With Robin Williams’ tragic death yesterday, I feel compelled to write. Whenever anyone dies prematurely it comes as a shock, but for some reason Williams’ passing struck me more deeply than I would have expected. Maybe it’s because I’ve always admired him both as a person and as an actor, but I think it has more to do with the manner in which he appears to have died. Although Williams was open about his struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, for some reason it never occurred to me that he might be suffering from depression as well. I mean, I know depression is often a precursor for substance abuse, (it’s a major player in my own issues, after all), but somehow I never connected the dots. I also know that depression affects millions of people, and that you can’t always tell which ones just by looking at them, but Williams’ death makes that more clear than ever. Because as much as I hate to admit my prejudice, in all honesty I was quite taken aback initially that someone as successful, funny, intelligent, talented, etc. as Robin Williams could EVER feel so desperate as to take their own life. It just goes to show you that you really can’t tell everything (or really much of anything) about a person simply by what you can see with your own eyes. People keep so much hidden, especially things they think they should be ashamed about or that other people might not understand. I certainly don’t feel comfortable sharing all the details of my personal struggles with people (blog notwithstanding…) — both out of residual shame and out of worrying what they might think.

But if Williams’ death can teach us anything, it’s that mental illness truly does not discriminate. And as much as I hate to quote a corny medication commercial, depression really DOES hurt everyone. In fact, in the United States, more people die from suicide than from homicide, with someone dying by suicide every 13.7 minutes. That, my friends, is a tragedy. For EVERYONE involved. And while it’s a complicated issue without any quick fixes, we can start by being more open about the topic of mental health. Blame, shame and embarrassment have no place here. We need to channel all of our energy into love, compassion and understanding.

If you’re struggling, tell someone about it. If you think someone is struggling, reach out. Above all, be kind. To everyone you meet. No man is an island: We’re all in this together. So share a smile and a kind gesture with someone today. You never know what they’re dealing with on the inside.

Rest in peace, Robin. May your tragic death be a wake up call to the world that we can’t keep our eyes closed any longer.

 

 

Spreading Hope in 30 Seconds

What if when you were feeling hopeless, all you had to do was dial a number or visit a website and you’d be connected with the exact message you needed to hear? With Project Hope Exchange, you can! The project collects, aggregates and shares 30-second audio messages from people who have dealt with some form of adversity and shares them with others who are currently struggling with the same adversity. How wonderful is that?!

Watch this short video for a more thorough explanation:

If you want to leave a message of hope for someone else, you just call the Hope Line at 855-975-HOPE (4673) or visit the website at projecthopeexchange.com.

And if you could use a shot of hope unique to your situation, just visit the website’s “Get Hope” page.

Personally, I LOVE this idea, because we could all use a little hope now and then, and every so often, we have some extra we can share 🙂

 

Thanks to Laura Collins over at Laura’s Soap Box for bringing this to my attention!

 

Meditation vs. Medication

So which is it? Sitting and observing your breath for 30 minutes every day or sitting and gulping down a couple of pills every morning? Remembering to stay present and be mindful throughout the day or remembering to take the little blue tablet with dinner every night? Is one better than the other? If you listen to some people, you might think the answer is yes. With all the attention meditation and mindfulness have been getting lately, you might think, like I once did, that you should be able to solve all of your problems simply by committing to a regular practice. Some studies even seem to support this fact, indicating that meditation could be just as powerful or perhaps even more powerful than medication. Still others might argue that such research is misleading and that meditation is just a new age obsession. Which side are you on?

Personally, being the lover that I am, I’m not inclined to take sides. In fact, I’d take out that “vs” altogether. Why must we always pit one method against another? If one works for you and the other doesn’t, fine. If a Prozac a day is all you need to carry on with your life and not spend all your time wallowing in bed, good for you. If you’re able to drop the meds and replace them with 30 minutes a day of meditation, power to you. If you don’t need either, well, isn’t that just swell.

In my own case, I’ve found that meditation PLUS medication is the perfect formula. Meditating has helped me to ground myself and become more aware of myself, my feelings and my triggers in a way that I never was before. I’m more patient, less reactive and more present. But before I started taking medication, meditation only went so far. I was still incredibly anxious, especially around food and social situations, and my obsessions/ruminations were pretty out of control. My therapist encouraged me to try medication for at least a year before I finally accepted the fact that I couldn’t really “do it on my own.” In the past, I’ve been really resistant to taking medication. Along with the conviction that I should be able to power through my issues on my own strength — that I didn’t need a ‘crutch’ — I was also a little afraid of being turned into someone or something I’m not. I was afraid a pill might mask who I really am. Now, I believe the pills I take enable me to be who I really am.

However, I realize I’m lucky. For many people, it can be difficult if not downright impossible to find an effective medication without a host of unwanted side effects. I mean, have you ever listened to those TV commercials for psychotropic medicines? They’re pretty disturbing if you actually pay attention: “Ask your doctor if astroprozanilol is right for you. Taking astroprozanilol may cause severe bloating, heart attack, frothing at the mouth, turning into a werewolf every full moon, hallucinations, uncontrollable urges to gyrate like Miley Cyrus and the very symptom you started taking it for…”  For such people, maybe meditation alone is the better option. It’s certainly worked wonders for me. But for other people meditation may not even be an option until they get some medication in their system to make it so their brain settles down enough for them to be able to meditate. I guess what I’m saying is, everyone’s different. Don’t compare yourself to someone else and don’t compare your situation to someone else’s. Don’t write off meditation as hocus pocus until you’ve really tried it, and don’t write off medication unless you have a legitimate reason to. And if you’re worried about potential side effects, do yourself a favor and don’t read the entire pamphlet that comes with your first dose. And DO NOT get on the internet to search for more information. If you’re anything like me, this will FREAK YOU OUT and you will be convinced that you are dying before you’ve even swallowed a pill.

It’s also important to remember that NOT taking medication may have severe side effects too. In fact, there are a few things I’ll never be able to reverse because of my long term illness. But that’s not something I care to dwell on. Right now, all I care about is that for the first time in a long time, I feel awesome. After speaking with my doctor a second time (after the initial discussion about a potential incorrect diagnosis I mentioned before), he prescribed something to amp up the medication I was already taking. Until I started taking it, I didn’t really even realize what was missing. Or that anything WAS missing. But now that I’ve been on it a little while, I feel as though someone has taken a blindfold off and now I’m finally able to see. I’ve been walking around with a huge weight on my shoulders and this tiny pill is helping me to shrug it off. I feel like MYSELF. And it feels damn good.

 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Friend or Foe?

I made a note to myself to write this post a long time ago, because as both a long-time diagnos-ee (what, I can’t make words up?) as well as a once upon a time would-be diagnos-er (yeah, I used to think I wanted to be a social worker…), the DSM is something I’ve become relatively familiar with. And I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s those complicated feelings, not to mention the complexity of the topic (I mean, does anyone really know what they’re talking about when they try to discuss the 500 pound gospel of mental health?), that have kept me from attempting it until now. After an interesting conversation with my psychiatrist yesterday, however, I think perhaps it’s time to take it on. But first, a disclaimer: I am not an expert. I am not AT ALL an expert. I could make this post all heavy on research and facts, but that would be hard. And I don’t feel like doing any research. So I’m going to focus on what I know from first hand experience — what I’ve witnessed as the pluses and minuses of having a tome like the DSM. (side note: I did at least google around a little bit before writing this, and apparently there’s A LOT of discussion out there about the DSM and its downfalls. And it does seem to have quite a few downfalls. Case in point: I also discovered that homosexuality was recognized as a mental illness until 1973…)

To set the stage, a little background: At the age of 12, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Back then, the doctors I was seeing were using the DSM-IV (it’s recently been ‘upgraded’ to the DSM-V), so on every receipt I received for mental health services, I saw the code 307.1. That number and its accompanying diagnosis came to define me, and as I’m just now realizing, has played a significant role in how I’ve viewed myself for much of my life. So imagine my surprise when about a year ago, a doctor somewhat casually mentioned that I may not actually have anorexia after all. We didn’t really get into it, though, and I got my scrip for Prozac and left. I pondered it a bit afterward, but the more I did, the more I didn’t really give a shit. They could call it whatever the hell they wanted — It was ruining my life no matter what number you wanted to slap on it, and that’s all I cared about. So I didn’t really think any more of it.

Until yesterday.

Once again, this doctor brings up the fact that anorexia may not be the correct diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with. Apparently the fact that I do not have a distorted body image or fear of gaining weight makes me “ineligible” for that label. (Funny that no one has ever told me that before….) According to this doctor, my symptoms may in fact be a result of untreated anxiety and depression, with perhaps a dab of OCD mixed in, which would in fact be much easier to treat. Now that got my attention. I’m all about easy to treat. So at my next appointment, we’re going to do some more investigating, maybe some über fun psychological testing, and figure this shit out.

My reaction to this new development has surprised me for several reason, one being that I was convinced I was over the whole label thing. I thought I didn’t care what I “had” as long as I could kick its ass. But all of a sudden I feel relieved. Like maybe I don’t have a death sentence hanging over my head after all. Maybe I will, after years and years of struggling, finally achieve full recovery. It’s strange to notice thoughts like these moving through my head because I didn’t realize I’d given up hope. To be fair, I’m still not so sure that I had, but two decades of fighting an illness that lives in both your brain and your body is tiring. It’s worn me down and after this long of a struggle without much to show for it, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that my hope got chipped away a little bit. So yes, this new development has reignited that old spark. This is something new. It’s not the same old, same old I’ve been getting from doctors for twenty years. That’s refreshing.

But anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about that bitch of a book’s whole role in this. First, the glaring fact that out of the many, many, MANY doctors I have seen over the years, this is the first one to point out that I don’t meet one of the key criteria for the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. In the past when I’ve told doctors (and therapists) that I don’t have a distorted body image, they’ve either A. thought I was lying, or B. thought I was unaware of it. I think the DSM is partly to blame for this, because when you walk into an office with a particular diagnosis, the treating professional (and I use that term loosely here) makes all sorts of assumptions about you. They assume you’re like every other person with that diagnosis and they forget to look at you as an INDIVIDUAL. They neglect to listen to anything you have to say that goes against what they’ve learned about said diagnosis. To be fair, I’m sure not every doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, what have you is this way, but in my experience, a hell of a lot of them are. So that’s my main beef with the book, and with labels in general, for that matter. If it were treated as a loose guide that would be one thing, but in my experience it’s not.

Another thing I witnessed while in inpatient treatment is the way insurance companies often require an official diagnosis before they agree to provide coverage. Many of the young men and women I encountered were turned away from getting the care they needed just because they didn’t meet one or two criteria defined by the DSM. Or they were discharged after just a few days (um, not enough time to recover from an eating disorder..)  Not only does this serve to deny people the treatment their lives quite literally depend on, but in many cases, it also reinforces in their minds that “they’re not sick after all” or they’re “not sick enough.” They may even use it as fuel to dive deeper into their disorders because after all, the pros say they don’t even have a problem. On the flip side, sometimes being given a diagnosis can make people feel helpless. They’re no longer individuals in charge of their own lives but pawns of a ‘disorder’ they can’t control.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, limited as it is to my own personal experience. As I mentioned earlier, run a quick google search if you’re hungry for more. Granted, the DSM no doubt has its value. I’m certainly not suggesting it be banned or that we all host huge bonfire parties. I’m merely suggesting that it be used with care and urging professionals to maintain an open mind at all times. While a diagnosis can certainly help guide treatment, the DSM is a double edged sword and should be wielded with caution.

So, in summation:

Pros:

1. Diagnoses can help patients receive insurance coverage for treatment more easily.

2. Much like medical diagnoses, mental health diagnoses can help doctors and other helping professionals determine the best line of treatment

3. Having an illness recognized by the DSM can help to legitimize it as a real problem.

4. Yeah. Sorry. I can’t think of any more..

Cons:

1. NOT having a diagnosis can make it more difficult to receive insurance coverage for treatment.

2. Having a diagnosis can put you in a box. Just because your illness been given a particular label, professionals seem to assume you’re like every other person they’ve seen or read about with that label.

3. If your illness doesn’t fit the criteria defined by the DSM, your problems may not be treated as seriously. (see number 3 above; flip it around)

4. On the other hand, having a diagnosed mental illness can make you feel doomed or helpless.

5. I’m sure there are tons more.

I’d love to hear what others think. What have your experiences been, either as a patient or as a caregiver? Do you love the DSM or hate it? Have you ever been misdiagnosed and how did that affect you? Leave your opinion in the comments.