Guest Blogger Gets to the Heart of Gender and Body Image

Transgender Body Image Eating Disorder

I am in the editing phase of my book (to be released this Winter) entitled Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self. I'm taking a long break from blogging to finish this book that I'm so excited to share with you soon.

In my hiatus, I was blown away by the beautiful poetry and clarity presented by Schuyler Bailar, a student/athlete at Harvard University, who spoke so eloquently at the MEDA eating disorder conference I recently attended. Schuyler is studying psychology and competes on the men’s swimming team. He also happens to be a transgender man recovering from an eating disorder and a public speaker. Schuyler finished his warm, honest, and informative presentation with this letter that he wrote to his mother the evening before he had surgery to remove the breasts that he was born with. I will let Schuyler's words speak for themselves. 

There has been a lot of discussion in my professional circles since the release of the movie To the Bone (warning: content of this film may be triggering to anyone who suffers from an eating disorder). One of the major concerns is that this film is yet another with a very thin white female as the protagonist. Those of us who work in the field of disordered eating know that anorexia nervosa (as well as other eating disorders) exist in people who have bodies that are not emaciated or thin. They also exist in people of diverse race, gender, and sexuality.

Transgender Body Image Eating Disorder

In the wake of this film's release, it seemed timely to introduce this inspiring young person's writing. Schuyler Bailar's piece below was first published on his blog and he gave me permission to repost it here. You can find information about Schuyler and more of his writings on his website

 

 

 

Dear mom.

I know that a lot has been going on.

I just got out of rehab, I‘m asking you to call me your son, and I want to move out.

And it seems like a lot is about to happen.

I know that surgery is scary and I know most people don’t understand why I would voluntarily undergo a double mastectomy to remove a part of my body of which most of my female friends are jealous.

And I’m not going to lie and tell you that I’m not a little bit scared, and a little bit sad.

Even though I’ve never wanted them, my breasts are a part of me.

Last week I made a video of myself for myself for later, with my bare chest exposed. And as I did so, I felt this strange surge of pride in my body – a love of every bit of me.

I haven’t ever felt like that…

There’s always been something I’ve hated or wanted to change. Some part of my body that I picked out to pick on.

But that day, even though I saw things I didn’t like, even though I saw things I really do want to change, for some reason, I still felt love and pride for everything. Including my breasts.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing that’s making me doubt my decision to get them removed, but I felt a sort of strange sadness that they’ll finally be gone – kind of like getting rid of a bad habit or something.

And I can’t say I’m going to miss them. Because I’m not.

But it still feels surreal.

My body will be cut open, the fat sucked out of me, my mammary glands thrown out along with my ability to ever nurture a child.

I’ll be patched back up, and wake up probably 10 pounds lighter…

And I will be whole, yet some of me will be missing.

And I will always love that part of me, in a peculiar way. I will always be thankful for the strength and courage they demanded I show as they grew (and grew and grew and grew) to declare to the world this was not me. I am not boobs. I am not woman. I am Schuyler.

But back to how you’re involved.

I like to believe that this body is just as much yours as it is mine.

My little brain, my little arms, my brown eyes with green flecks, my little fingers all grew in your body from your body.

And my body, though it has a separate consciousness than yours, is an extension of yours.

And I want you to know something as I move forwards in my transition: I do not hate the body you gave me.

People talk about transgender individuals being “born in the wrong body.”

As if being born is just something that happens.

As if there were not people and love and care and pain and happiness and joy and terror involved.

Born. Given life. Brought into the world. There is nothing wrong in that process. There is no “wrong” in birth.

I was not born wrong at all; I was not born with the wrong mind; I was not born into the wrong body,

In fact, you did not birth a body at all.

You birthed me; a whole and entire person.

A person with teeny little finger nails, tiny eyes and tiny hands, little itty bitty feet, and a huge heart… a whole person all the same.

A lot of trans people talk about how their bodies betray them and how they hate their hips or lack thereof, their breasts or lack thereof, their femininity or their masculinity…

But I don’t…anymore, at least. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my days of raging, of self-harming, body-hating… I’ve written a good deal of poems angry at my body — some on my body.

But these days, I do not hate my body.

In fact, I have worked hard learning to love every bit of myself – every part of my body that you gave me to love.

And I am proud of it all.

Because you birthed me whole; I arrived an entire person.

And through the past year of treatment and travel and just plain old life experiences, I’ve learned a love that I will always have

For this body of mine.

For the parts that I don’t agree with.

For the parts that I have always agreed with.

For the parts that are invisible…

For this body of mine.

Because no matter how life changes it, this body will always be beautiful, this body will always be something you created.

So.

Dear mom.

Thank you.

I love you.

© S. Bailar 2015

Transgender Body Image Eating Disorder

Feeding the Soul

SlowingDownOnVacation.jpg

Have you ever gone on a vacation but found that you had a hard time slowing down…? 

I have. And I noticed it a few times this summer. 

We can sometimes be so task-oriented in our lives, trying to cram so many things into a short day or week — even if they are rich, meaningful experiences — that we can suffer from a lack of spaciousness. 

Spaciousness is that luscious time that unfolds naturally. In the unfolding, we have room to breathe, to create, to reflect, to have insights, and to really connect with whomever is nearby. I consider spacious moments to encourage creative and spiritual growth spurts. I connect with my truest self, and I and grow more deeply with family and friends when we have some lazy, unstructured time together. 

I also notice that the active, productive, movement-oriented part of me struggles with unstructured time. I get a little restless. I need a balance of doing, being, and creating, and I am appreciating and trying to listen to this more and more as I get older. 

FeedingTheSoul.org

I talk with clients often about how those mini food breaks during the day (you know, the ones where you aren’t really hungry, but find yourself foraging) may sometimes be the sensory part of us yearning for some downtime. Something rich to eat might give us a 5-minute moment of bliss (goddess forbid we stop for more than 5 minutes!), but is that really what we are looking for? Perhaps what we really want is the richer taste of spacious time to do or be or make whatever it is that calls to us. We might not feel that we deserve those regenerative moments, but maybe we do deserve a bit of chocolate. 

What would it be like to fill up space with whatever calls to us in the moment — with what we really want to do, not what we feel obligated to do? Perhaps a few moments to sit meditatively under a tree, or look at the stars, or putter around the house, or write a letter or poem, or maybe even begin to prepare a more spacious and delicious, health-filled meal. There are other things that call to us besides something to eat. I have heard my clients and those in my groups talk quite a lot recently about the spiritual food and connection that we all really long for. 

BlueberryBlessings.org

As I said, I’m not so good at this practice of spaciousness, but I am striving for it in my busy life of juggling family and work responsibilities. The summer is a fitting time to practice being a bit more spontaneous and slow. I recently visited North Carolina and wrote a poem, as a result of taking a few quiet moments with a (now dead) tree in the forest. I’m doing something I’ve never done before in this blog: I’m sharing a deeply personal bit of writing that I never meant for public consumption. The poem came to me in the spacious moments that followed my tree encounter. It was rattling about in my head for a bit until I took the time to write it down. I asked my family and travel companions specifically for time and space, both in the forest and later when I wrote the poem. That’s not generally something I’m great at doing, but I learned how important it can be to ask for quiet and creative space when it’s needed.

A couple of people that I trust told me that my blog readers might appreciate the poem. I hope you do, and I hope you allow yourself some spacious, open, creative moments this summer.

 

AWAKENING

There are many ways to kiss the ground, says Rumi. 

AwakeningPoem.org

I choose lying in the palm of the hand of Nature. 

So much more than a felled tree, 

I am cradled and filled with comfort that never came easily. 

Amid the clear spring water, the moss, the turk’s cap lilies, 

I took a breath,

then another,

And connected with my soul

TurksCapLilies.jpg

Because my soul is

the clear spring water, the moss, the lilies, 

the smooth bark of the supportive tree. 

 

After kissing the ground, I kissed a man. 

A bee stung me mid-kiss, as if to say, 

“No, my dear, not back to this world yet. 

Stay with us in the woods, 

stay with your soul. 

You need more work before you are ready to merge with another.” 

I must embrace my wise,

earthy, 

MossyInspiration.jpg

watery, 

fiery, 

airy

Self

and feel that Self solidly connected with everything

like I did when the palm of the hand of Nature

cradled me close. 

AwakeningPoemSetting.jpg

I became a tiny child and my wisest oldest self

and the smooth, supportive tree

At the very same time. 

 

When I feel the nudge of a bee, 

I respond by picking some plantain,

chewing it up, 

and drawing out the sting. 

FlowerSoulFeeding.jpg

When I feel the sting of his words, 

I can turn to the plants and

not let the words hurt me. 

For the sting is not really about me. 

That little bee just wanted my attention. 

To share his not-so-sweetness.

That little bee just gave me his message, 

the repeat of a message I’d received in other ways. 

It’s time to forgive.  

It’s time to write. 

It’s time to let things bounce off and back. 

It’s time to sit in the palm of the hand of Nature, 

SoulFoodFlowers.jpg

Alone but not lonely. 

Then, 

only then, 

I will be ready for

kisses. 

 

Blessings on your summer, 

Heidi

 

Eating Disorder Blogger Slowly Returns to Writing and Learns a Thing or Two about Self-Care

IMG_6840.jpg

I’m going to be really honest here. I’ve been quiet on this blog for awhile and some of you have asked me what’s up. Well, here it is… 

It’s been too long since I’ve done any significant writing. It started with the fullness of life taking priority, and then I just got out of rhythm with the regular writing practice that I once had. 

And I haven’t danced enough lately.

And I’m not checking in with myself much or feeling rather clear about my needs and desires.

In fact, sometimes (like today) I feel like I’m just going through the motions. A bit on automatic pilot. Not fully present. A little lost. Not fully connected to my thoughts, my body, my true core self.

But …

I’m not using food — either the consumption of it or the withholding of it — to deal with this feeling. I haven’t done that in any significant way in decades. Food can be a way to soothe, reward, and even self-medicate when things get challenging, but in the end, it’s not really the food — or the control that comes from eating “perfectly” — that is really what I’m looking for in the first place. It’s not really what I’m hungry for or what I crave.

So what am I doing instead…?

I’m going to my journal to write and figure out what’s “eating” me.

I’m making conscious strides to find real connection with the people that I love and that care about me.

I’m checking in with myself and my “support team,” which includes friends and helping professionals, to help me remember my values and my needs.

I’m dancing, which is a way that I connect with all of the emotions that are inside.

It’s been a major transition time. My family has been going through a lot of changes. Really positive transitions have their stress, too. Let’s take the example of my partner moving in and becoming a part of our family. It’s a really good event, but it’s still a transition for all of us, bringing up the ghosts of past relationships as well as uncertainties about the future. Then there’s the new school year, which always seems to bring about a strong feeling of change and newness, amid the adjustment of schedules.

Something that I’ve learned about myself over the years is that transitions are challenging and I need spaciousness to take them in. At the same time, I can also be a “dive right in” kind of girl when the creative energy strikes me. Finding balance during transitions and creative breakthroughs may be part of my life’s work, but it feels worth it.

About twenty-five-plus years ago, when I struggled with an eating disorder, it was a big transition that I was anticipating and passing through: adolescence and the eventual moving away from my childhood home. In the past, I might have used food (either with too much control or out of control) to help me bridge the challenges of transitions, but eventually I learned other ways to cope and take care of myself. Now, decades later as a nutrition therapist who works with others struggling with disordered eating, I hope to help my clients move through their transitions and learn to nourish and feed themselves with care as they settle into their true selves.

I’m reminded, with this funky, automatic pilot, oh-my-goodness-what-a-busy-time, knocked-off-center feeling that I have today that we are all really just trying to find balance in a world that often doesn’t give us enough space and time to catch our breath.

Let’s take a moment together to just catch our breath…

And another moment…

Let’s make it three conscious, slow, spacious, deep breaths together…

(Big sigh)…

Taking a breath or two or three allows me to slow down, let go of the busy schedule and to-do list in my head and just live — really live through my breath — in the moment. When I do that, it’s easier to tap into what I really need or desire in any given moment. It's easier for me to listen better to what the the moment is asking of me. 

As I reflect and slow down, I realize that I need to write more. (This keeps me from driving my family crazy with all the things I have to say.)

I need to find time to dance more. (Dishwashing dance party, anyone?)

I need to hug my family more. (Those of you that have followed the blog, I’m sorry to report that guinea pig Boo is no longer with us. Although sad, her passing gave my daughters a chance to learn something about love and death. We recently added a few other critters to the household…)

Bud-bud stands alone.

Bud-bud stands alone.

And I need to honor my center, even as I get knocked off of it, again and again and again. After all, we’re all human beings here together on this planet, trying to find our way.

I don’t use food to negotiate transitions any more, but I still feel the challenges to my sense of self and value when I start to feel a little “off” during them. I’m so grateful for the reflection and skills and open-heartedness that my recovery has offered me. I’m so grateful to be supporting the recoveries of many wonderful individuals as they discover the best way to nurture and feed themselves on many levels.

Writing this blog post today was both a gift to you, my ever-patient readers who I have been out of touch with, and a bit of my own self-care. How amazing when giving and receiving flow so simultaneously, particularly when they come out of a funky, disconnected-from-self place. And it worked! On this end, I feel better already. Thank you for reading. I hope that I can be a small part of your journey toward balance today as I find my own footing this September. How good it is to be doing this living and breathing, eating and growing, doing and being — together.

Day by day.

Bobert the Beta Fish

Bobert the Beta Fish

Moment to moment.

One

deep 

breath 

at a time.

Today, can you make a commitment to slow down, breathe, and check in with those self-care practices that nourish you? Food is nourishing, but it shouldn’t take the place of other forms of self-care. What or who are your supports when you feel less than your stellar self? 

I commit to not letting it be too long before I connect here with you and myself in writing again. What can you commit to today? How can you commit to your Self today…? 


Bubbles the Gerbil

Bubbles the Gerbil





“The grass is always greener where you water it.”

greenergrasseatingdisordersrecovery.jpg

“The grass is always greener where you water it.”  This seems like an appropriate quote for the Spring, coming a bit later than usual here in New England. (If any of you know who said this, please let me know. I saw it printed with "unknown" after it.) In any case, it seems rather obvious that the grass is greener where it’s tended. One of my clients repeatedly says that she thinks that my work is to point out the obvious that she somehow forgets. Yes, when we take good care of ourselves — when we water that grass — it grows. We grow. Instead of gazing at our neighbor’s green grass (or our neighbor’s body, possessions, partner, whatever…) we can cultivate a greener lawn within ourselves by practicing good self-care.

SpringFlowersDisregulatedEatingRecovery.jpg

Some of us are afraid to practice self-care for fear of being seen as selfish or self-serving or self-absorbed. But these are different states than true care of the Self. Care of the Self fills you up and allows you to be more generous in the world, to give of your own unique gifts, and to give without feeling resentful and depleted on the other end.

But this is no easy task for some of us. It’s a real dance…

So how do we practice good self-care — when it comes to food or anything else? How do we know when we’ve eaten enough or the right things for our unique bodies? How do we know how much physical activity is enough to make us feel good and increase our health without taxing our immune system and making us feel exhausted? How do we really know when enough is enough in our work, relationships, sleep, socializing, or other habits that take time and energy in our lives…?

My Nondiet Book Club is reading Karen Koenig’s book Starting Monday, a terrific read that really lays out the issues underneath disordered and (I like her term better) “disregulated” eating. It’s a challenging book to read, as she asks so many really right-on questions. Chapter 8 is titled “Know What’s Enough,” and I wholeheartedly recommend this chapter (ideally while reading the rest of the book) to anyone who feels that they have trouble with eating. If you go back and forth between under-eating and over-eating — or if you just can’t seem to find a balanced eating style that works for you — this chapter might resonate.

SpringFlowersEatingDisorderRecovery.jpg

My favorite thing about Karen Koenig is that she cuts to the chase, exposes our vulnerabilities, but doesn’t just leave us hanging. She generally talks about concrete steps to take, once she points out the issues that get us stuck. Trial and Error is one of the strategies that she writes about in order to figure out how much is enough for you — with food, exercise, work, and in negotiating your needs in relationships. This is one of those (like, duh) really obvious strategies, but yet we are often afraid to employ it. We have to really experiment with how much is enough to know what works for us. Searching out other people’s green grass (“she looks so great, so I want to eat like her”) won’t cut it when you are trying to figure out the way to eat that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all eating or exercise plan, just like there is no one-size fits-all-amount of work that is right for everyone. Everyone has different thresholds for movement, intimacy, exploration in nature, need for quiet, and need for stimulation.

We are all such wacky, interesting, unique beings, but we often look to others to decide what is best for us.  Other people’s green grass might be nice to look at, for sure, but if we don’t play around in our own gardens, then we miss out on the lushness of a fully lived life.

SpringFlowersEatingDisorderRecovery.jpg

Trial and Error, as Karen Koenig writes, means trying different foods and really noticing what tastes and feels good. This takes some time and attention. It means cultivating trust in yourself by having an idea and not being too afraid to test it out and see how it feels, even if it’s something that no one else around you has considered. Just a few examples of what you might come up with as you apply Trial and Error to self-care include:

  • I need to have a solid breakfast in order to have balanced eating the rest of the day.
  • I need at least 7 hours of sleep in order to feel focused and alert.
  • Working out 4 times per week is just right for me.
  • Getting together with friends in person a couple of times per week helps me feel connected.

Create your own set of theories around what you need to feel balanced and test them out. How do you feel? Was your idea too much, too little, or just enough? When I started blogging I heard someone say that I had to blog every week. Someone else said to just blog when the mood hit me. I finally settled on every other week (with exceptions like two weeks ago when I had other priorities), as that helped me stay with my writing practice in a way that fit with my current life. It also gave me a sense of discipline and consistency that helps me stay on track. If I tried to blog more often, it felt like a chore that I didn’t have quite enough time for; less often and I lost momentum and missed it. I found my “enough” and it feels right. For now.

SpringFlowersEatingDisorderRecovery.jpg

Practice listening to your own sense of enoughness with food each day — and notice that sometimes a whole sandwich is just right, sometimes a half. Notice what types of foods make your body and mind feel good. Practice listening to your sense of enoughness with other things in life, too. Just because everyone in your office works 50+ hours each week doesn’t mean that this lifestyle is healthiest for you. As you pay attention to your own needs and limits and gradually learn to trust yourself more, you will develop the ability to take good care of yourself.  Karen Koenig writes, “Trust produces confidence, which produces more trust, and each reinforces the other.”

I find this work on “enough” is one of the last frontiers of eating disorders recovery, and it’s often something that has to be revisited even by those of us who are quite far along in recovery. The issues come up more often around other things than food — and food is no longer used as a way to deal with challenges of enoughness. Through the process of recovering from disregulated eating, one’s sense of being enough, doing enough, and saying “enough-is-enough” generally gets easier over time. At a certain point in recovery, we stop choosing to eat (or starve) to make us feel better. Instead, we ask for what we really need and soothe our own disregulated emotions. By directly honoring our needs and emotions, we learn how to take good care of ourselves.

As you tend to your own growth this Spring, notice that green grass of your neighbor, but please don’t forget to water and care for your very own garden.

Don't Weigh Your Self-Worth With a Scale

DontWeighYourSelfImageWithAScalejpg

A client of mine wrote this honest account of her troubled relationship with the scale. I asked her permission to post it here because I thought that so many people struggling with food and weight might relate to her writing. I couldn’t have written it better myself, and I’m grateful for the insights that I can share here with you...

Goodbye Scale

He was a numbers man, cold and objectifying, but I craved his contact and approval.  It was a dysfunctional relationship, but he was hard to resist.  

He was dominant and I submissive in our perverse relationship.  I never considered it a choice; I just had to see him.  I thought I'd die without him.  I was somewhat dissociative when we shared intimacy at least once but sometimes multiple times a day in various spots on the floor outside my room.  It was best on the wood that had a certain grain, never on the rug or in front of anyone.  I was ashamed of my despair, which I hid in the back of my eyes, forcing the tears away.  I didn't want anyone to see or even know what I was up to.  

Enough of this.  He's had free reign over me forever.  He was there in my parents’ home -- actually in their room -- and in my various apartments later on.  I guess it was my fault, because I would seek him out and want his advice, but he always made me so sad, like a victim -- not who I want to be, now or ever.   I'm standing up, finally.  I want to scream, "I want my body back!  You can't tell me how to feel.  Get out of my life!  I can and will live better without you and will never judge myself by your number again."

I no longer could stand the anguish, waking to his shiny face and knowing he had the power to dictate my mood.  What a pain he would give me, and I would take it out on myself, feeling "less than" and hopeless many days.  It would take a lot to undo this feeling, but it nagged at me all the time.   His approval also could send me into a tailspin, not knowing how to keep this going, especially because I wasn't really sure what I did to get it right one day but not the next. I wanted to beg him, "Please make this easy and tell me what I did and how to do it again."  But, no, the great manipulator only gave random praise.   And I was addicted.  There was a time when I thought I had the perfect solution and one which no one would know: I could starve myself or binge and purge to get his praise.  I have given up on that tactic, but need to take this next giant step: get rid of him and regain my life.  

With lots of help, I came to my senses and broke up with him this morning. He's down in the dusty basement right now, probably in shock and wondering what he did to deserve this.   But I had no choice; it’s as simple as that.  I forced him into a tomb-like place, similar to the world I needed to escape.  Now he's the one living in a box, one more skeleton out of my closet.  I cannot let him or anyone hurt me again.   I want my body back!!  I need to stand up; life is waiting!   I don't want to waste any more time.  So, I'm moving on, and I can't and won't take him with me this time.  I'm excited to feel the joy of movement again, and I rejoice in what my limbs and muscles can do.  Here's to swimming, dancing, stretching, walking, and playing again!

LoveYourBodyJumpForJoy.jpg

I love the words of my client above because they so capture the lure of the scale and the way that a strong relationship with it can undermine one’s trust in the body and self. If you step on a scale first thing in the morning, you may feel happy or dejected depending on what the number is today. You may use the scale as the reason to eat or not eat -- or to eat certain things over others. It’s hard to listen to the body’s wisdom about what to eat when the scale is deciding for you. It’s hard to listen to your hunger or fullness and pay attention to what you really want when that number is calling the shots.

Let’s say your weight is up a couple of pounds today. This could be related to hydration, water retention, and/or the presence of food in the stomach or intestines -- as compared to the last time your weight was checked. Those of you who check your weight frequently know that weight is lowest in the morning and increases naturally over the course of the day. You also may know that it fluctuates -- going up or down in a way that sometimes doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason when you compare it to your eating patterns.

Many of my clients are simply astounded by the sense of freedom that ditching the scale provides. Some of them smash it, throw it out high windows, or hide it in my office closet until they feel really able to let it go. I’ve donated scales to the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association so that they can use them for art therapy projects in their groups. The group members collage affirming, positive words and photos all over them. (You can try this at home.) Losing the scale makes most people feel, not ironically, like a tremendous weight has been lifted. And it is a major stepping stone in the process of trusting oneself to make food decisions based on self-care and not punishment or restraint.

If your doctor needs to monitor your weight because it is too low, or because you have a thyroid or other condition that effects your weight, then that’s fine. I personally can’t see any other reason to monitor weight outside of a medical visit or check-up. Most people are aware of shifts in their weight without needing a scale to put a number to it. In fact, some people start an exercise program and get discouraged because their weight initially goes up. Muscle weighs more than fat, so working out may make you leaner and healthier without changing weight very much. If you use the scale as your guide when you change your physical activities, you may be underestimating your progress in taking good care of your body.

WeightLossScaleBalance.JPG

If you are having a torrid affair with the scale, think about whether you really need him (or her) in your life. Instead, surround yourself with people and things that feed your senses, affirm your worth as a human being, and encourage you to take good care of yourself. Ditch it once and for all. And if you do, please share your story...

 

 

 

Putting Your Own Needs First is Radical and Healing

emotionaleatinglifedeprivation.jpg

I liked this recent article by Geneen Roth so much, I got her permission to reprint it here. I thought it would resonate with so many of my readers. If you would like to see more of her writing, please find out more at www.GeneenRoth.com.

 

There are some things in life you take for granted: Your children will outlive you. No matter how tough it gets, you won't poison your spouse with arsenic-laced toothpaste. And if you have a best friend, you will attend her wedding. 

But life sometimes upsets our most basic assumptions. And although I haven't resorted to the arsenic (yet), I did have this surprise: When my best friend from college got married, I wasn't there. Never in a million years did I think I would miss her wedding. We'd been talking about it since we were 18. And yet, when it came down to deciding about making the trip from California to New York, I did something radical, something I rarely do: I took my own needs into account.

I stepped away from my notions of what a good person would do, what any loyal friend would do, and considered the facts: I'd just returned from teaching an exhilarating but exhausting week long retreat; I had a broken ankle and a sprained back and could barely walk; my friend decided to get married rather suddenly and told me she wasn't expecting me to come. And I realized that although I would miss seeing her walk down the aisle if I didn't go, I would be a hobbling, exhausted wreck if I did. So I stayed home, sent champagne, and wrote my friend and her new husband a wedding story. It was an agonizing decision but not nearly as painful as the tale I told myself about it: If I don't go to my best friend's wedding — the very friend who held my hair back the night I drank a bottle of Cold Duck and threw up on the sidewalk — people will finally discover how selfish I am and I will lose every friend I have. I will spend my dying days alone, dribbling Diet Coke on my chin with no friends or family around. As soon as I realized I'd made a leap from taking care of myself to visions of dying alone, dribbling and friendless, I understood that I considered looking out for my own needs a radical concept — so radical that it scared me to (a pathetic, lonely, and potentially sticky) death.

I should know better. In working with tens of thousands of women over the past two decades, I've found that there is a whole set of beliefs called "the bad things that will happen if I take care of myself." I've heard things such as, "My son will choke on a fish bone the minute I leave him alone and take some time for myself." "My husband won't be able to make friends without me if I stay home from this party and rest." "My friend will hate me if I don't make brownies for her bake sale."

Think about this: Do you feel it is right to put yourself at the center of your own life, or is your secret fear that if you consider your own needs, you'll alienate the people you love and end up homeless, rifling through old chicken bones in a dark alley? Are you afraid that a "me first" attitude will get you drummed out of the "good people" club?

Most of us secretly believe that good people, especially women, take care of others first. They wait until everyone else has a plateful and then take what's left. Unfortunately, most of us make decisions based on our ideas of who we think we should be, not on who we actually are. The problem is, when we make choices based on an ideal image of ourselves — what a good friend would do, what a good mother would do, what a good wife would do — we end up having to take care of ourselves in another way.

Enter food. When you don't consider your real needs, you will likely fill the leftover emotional hunger with food. (Or another abused substance. Or shopping. But most of us opt for food.) You eat in secret. You eat treats whenever you can, because food is the one way, the only way, you nourish yourself. You eat on the run because you believe that you shouldn't take time for lunch; there's too much work to do. You eat the éclair, the doughnut, the cake, all the while knowing this isn't really taking care of yourself. But to really take care of yourself, you have to think of yourself first.

"Is that possible?" you ask. "What about my children? I'd die for them." Have you ever considered why, on an airplane, the flight attendant tells you to put on your own oxygen mask first, before you help your children? It's because your kids' well-being depends on it. If you aren't grounded, present, calm, and able to breathe, there is no one to take care of them.

What would your life look like if you acknowledged the truth that working nonstop for 10 hours, taking care of other people, leaves you so spent and weary that there really isn't much left of you for your kids, let alone yourself? What would your life look like if you realized that you need to set aside time every day to fill yourself up — even if it's only by taking a few 15-minute breaks during which you stare at nothing or go outside or lie down? What would the pace of your life be if you went on "soul time" instead of clock time, even just a little?

It's possible. A few days ago, I spoke with a first-time mother. Her baby son had colic, and she was completely exhausted. She was so afraid she wouldn't be there when he needed her that she couldn't sleep even when he was napping or with her husband. And she was turning to food to calm herself down. I asked her what it would be like to do something very simple for herself: to sit down and breathe. That's all. No big deal. Nothing to achieve. Just let the body do what it was already doing and give herself a break. She said she could try that. She just breathed.

At the end of five minutes, I asked her how she felt. She said she was relieved, immediately calmer. She said that since she'd had her baby, she had forgotten all about herself and her needs, and while some of that was natural ("I'm so in love with him," she said; "I've never known love like this before"), she was not serving him best by exhausting herself. She said that caring for herself was doable — maybe not in the same ways she did before she was a mother, but in new ways. Taking small rests. Eating well. Going outside for even five minutes while he naps. "I can do this," she said. "I can treat myself with the same kind of care that I give him."

"Now you're talking," I said. "And the better you take care of yourself, the more he will know as he grows up that it's fine for him to take care of himself, too."

If you operate on what you believe a good mother/partner/friendwould do and you leave yourself — what you need, how you feel — out of the equation, your relationships will suffer.

I'm here to tell you that cherishing yourself by making yourself a priority in your own life is possible. You can take care of your needs and your relationships with family and friends can thrive. I know, because I am making this my daily practice, and I am confident I will not go out either alone or dribbling.
 

This article was reprinted with permission from the author, Geneen Roth.  Sometimes even those who love to blog need to take a self-care break and let other good writers do the talking for a change. Let me know your thoughts and tell me about ways you cherish yourself by leaving a comment below...

 

Full Disclosure

SelfDisclosureEatingDisorderRecovery.jpeg

I haven’t blogged in awhile and I apologize for that. Several of you have asked if I could post more frequently. Please know that I’m not responding to your requests by blogging less. Honestly, I have been preoccupied with life, work, and a presentation that my colleague Charles Strauss and I are presenting at the Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association’s conference. We are speaking about the intersection of eating disorders, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It’s an important topic and I’m excited about it, but the preparations have definitely taken me away from the blog. I’m happy to be back.

In fact, I’m learning a lot from my friend Charlie about how to be sensitive to people who identify themselves as L, G, B, or T. I’m learning about the concept of “diverse gender and sexuality” and thinking about people being on a continuum. I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity, too. Living out who we really are, in our hearts, minds, bodies, souls...

Along these lines, I have a story and a confession to make. I guess it’s a bit of a “coming out” of sorts, although it’s not about my gender or sexual preferences.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my first session of the Non-Diet Book Club, a new group that I started in which the participants read books on mindful eating together. We are starting with Evelyn Tribole’s Intuitive Eating, which I highly recommend. I sat with five remarkable and strong women who came together to share their experiences of trying to give up dieting and disordered eating. They were all working toward building a better relationship with food. Their stories and supportive words to one another were truly inspiring.

To kick off the group, I asked everyone to go around the room and share something about themselves, why they were interested in the book club, and what they wanted to get out of it. They shared their stories of struggle with food and their bodies. They spoke of the challenges they’ve overcome and have yet to overcome. Within each one of them was a sense of hope and belief that things could be better, as well as fear about how to get there.

When the five had finished sharing, I explained how I’d developed the group (the original idea came from a client) and why I do the work that I do. I gave the same response that I always give when someone asks me why I decided to help people heal their relationships with food. I talked about my interest in science and psychology and my graduate school paper on childhood developmental feeding problems. I mentioned the fellowship in adolescent nutrition that I completed at Children’s Hospital Boston, and my first job at the hospital’s psych unit that taught me much that I needed to know about eating disorders. All this is true and brought me to the place that I am today in my work.

But, in the end, I left the group feeling like my sharing was only a half-truth. Here these women had poured their hearts out and I had kept it safe. Part of my hesitation in sharing more of the story had to do with what I have learned about therapeutic boundaries. As the nutrition therapist, like any therapist, I have to make sure that I am not taking up too much space in the room. The time is for my clients and group participants to share, and I’m there to hold that safe space. Still, something didn’t really sit well with me. It felt like I’d put up a barrier to openness by not being real myself.

So, I am going out on a bit of a limb here in this blog post. I have done much soul-searching and feel that it is time in my career to just be honest. Rigid Bostonian boundaries and the belief that I shouldn’t take up too much space have kept me quiet for a long time. But these “shoulds” also kept me from letting my group members know in a more authentic way that I really could appreciate their feelings.

This is what I wished I had said in that first group...

I recovered from bulimia, food restriction, and binge-eating, which I struggled with in my late teens and early twenties. I had a therapist for awhile, but I recovered mainly through a lot of my own work and with love from others. I was a dancer and I did not know how to feed my active, developing body. That left me feeling very confused. I eventually studied nutrition in college because I wanted to help other young people to be less in the dark, and (probably at first) to do the last little bit of healing of my own relationship with food.

Now that I am in my 40s and have been eating disorder free for two decades, I love being in my body and in my life, and I want to help others to get past obsessions with food, self-criticism, and negative body image. I enjoy eating, feeding others, cooking, gardening, and being a nutritionist; but even for a born "foodie," eating is still only one way that I nourish myself. I do this work because I want to help my clients find their own ways to nourish body, mind, and spirit.

If I’d had the courage to say this in that first group, the women might have felt even more held and connected to. Instead of feeling like the nutritionist leading their group can’t possibly know what it feels like to struggle with overeating, they could have felt that their group leader has truly been there, can relate, and has come out the other end. After all, by admitting that we have real human struggles in common, we acknowledge our connectedness. In doing so, we help each other feel less alone, encourage self-respect, and make our time here on this planet more meaningful.

Now, I have no interest in sharing my own journey to recovery from disordered eating. That’s not important, and would only take away from my clients’ and group participants’ journeys. There are many roads to recovery. I don’t presume to have the answers for how to do that for any one person. In fact, I bumbled along because I needed to find my own way. That was how I grew, learned about myself and my needs, and found peace with food, my body, and my self. It just feels right for me to tell the whole truth.

Eating disorders suck. In fact, they suck the life blood out of relationships, among other things. And the road to recovery is bumpy but worth it. Life without so much focus on food and weight is rich and wonderful. It’s not perfect, of course. It’s gritty and challenging and growth-inducing and... real. I want you to enjoy eating, to love taking good care of your body, and to have a full, rich, happy life -- your life, your recovery, your journey. And I am honored and privileged to help you get there, and to help you find ways to nourish your body, mind, and spirit.

And, this, dear Non-Diet Book Club, clients, colleagues, readers, friends, is the real reason that I feel called to do this work.

Recovery Often Sprouts from Suffering

IMG_6584.jpeg

In the past few weeks, many of my nutrition therapy clients have been talking about just how challenging this back-and-forth New England weather has been. We experienced several warm Indian Summer afternoons, crisp cold winds that made us hunt for our gloves, a surprise hurricane, and a snowstorm or two. Today it's back to 50 degrees and bright sunshine again. For those of us who need time to transition into change in order to feel settled, mother nature's bumpy road can feel challenging. I suppose the plant life becomes equally confused. Regardless, the autumn leaves drop and the spring flowers bloom. The cycle of life continues on, despite the not-so-smooth ebb and flow of the seasonal change. Recovery and growth are like that, and the path is rarely linear. In fact, I don't love those pediatric growth charts, even though I admit to finding them useful at times in my work. Although they are a great framework for noticing changes that are out of the ordinary in someone's growth and development, they give us the mistaken notion that growth is smooth. In reality, physical growth comes in spurts. I remember picking up my baby daughter years ago after a nap and saying, "Wow, did you just get longer in your sleep…?"

Our emotional growth is perhaps even more choppy, particularly during the teen years. This explains the mood swings and drama. I have been working with a young adult client in her twenties who is still going through the separation and individuation that is a part of adolescence because she is living with her parents. Her eating disorder, a major part of her teen years, had been a way to cope during this challenging time. Now she is learning to use other ways to cope with her strong emotions and her ambivalent desire to be in charge and independent. She is writing instead of binging and purging. She is crying and learning to tolerate the pain and hurt and angry feelings instead of harming her body. She is allowing herself to suffer, and seeing the value and maturity in tolerating and working through that suffering, instead of going around it with her eating disorder.

Eating disorders are satisfying to the young person who feels the chaos of change. They are black and white; there are good ways to eat and bad ways. Some of the very challenging work in recovery is deciding just how one feels about things. It's far easier if it's black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, and "this is just how it's done in our house."  It's far more challenging to find the grey areas. My client has to non-judgmentally figure out how she really feels about religion, politics, food, sex, tattoos. She notices that some people might judge her, "How could you think about such a thing?!" while others will just kind of shrug off her question as if it's no big deal. It's confusing…

How do I really feel about this? Where do I stand?  What is best for me? What do I want to eat right now? These are hard questions, and it can be easier to go back to the eating disorder to cope with the confusion and indecision that comes up. It's easier to go back to the diet as a focus than to face the bigger questions about ourselves and our purpose on this planet. If I just lose those 10 pounds, or cut out all the gluten and sugar, or become a vegetarian, then all will be well. We use food to distract us from the real struggles, whatever they may be. And in the process, we lose the pleasure of eating and the nurturing force that feeding ourselves can be.

Spring will bring green and Summer will bring harvest again, despite the erratic weather we're experiencing here in the Northeast right now. Similarly, our adult selves spring forth as a result of this challenge and chaos and questioning. Feeling our feelings and then letting them go, even the hard ones, often opens up space for change and possibility and clarity. From this suffering and confusion springs growth and recovery. My clients work through and learn from the challenges and traumas in their lives, instead of running from them or hiding behind the eating disorder. When they do this, they are like the trees that survive the winter and blossom fully in the springtime.

Welcome and Gratitude

Welcome to Nourishing Words.  My clients -- and their triumphs and struggles as they work to improve their relationships with food -- are the inspiration for this blog. I hope to honor their journeys and encourage others on their own journeys towards peace, happiness, and health. Thank you for reading and please come back soon. May food and eating become and remain a way to nourish, balance, and take good care of your body and your Self. (Something that we do several times per day should, after all, be a gesture of kindness and self-love.) In the meantime, I hope your Thanksgiving is a nourishing day of gratitude.

"We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us. We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water. We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of diseases. We return thanks to the moon and stars, which have given to us their light when the sun was gone. We return thanks to the sun, that has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye. We give thanks to that Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness."    ~ Iroquois Prayer