Acceptance in Recovery: Important Lessons from April

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April in New England this year has been particularly extreme. First it snowed, just as the crocus began to bloom. The snow melted, then it snowed again, knocking down the daffodils. Despite the intermittent frost and cold white blanket in these first weeks of April, the blossoms are still coming. The fragrant little grape hyacinths are dotting my yard this morning. The tomato and basil seedlings on my porch are stretching out to the sun. 

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I was thinking today that this year’s Spring is a little like recovery. My clients struggle with disordered eating, so that’s my frame of reference, but I suppose recovery from anything can feel like the fits and starts of this season. 

One of my Non-Diet Book Clubs is reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Acceptance is one of those harder parts of recovery work, but it’s essential. When we bring mindful acceptance to our experience, we notice our feelings and thoughts without judgement or without trying to push them away. Easier said than done. I personally find it hard to notice unpleasant feelings without judging, analyzing, or trying to explain them away. This is a challenging concept to grasp, never mind to practice. 

Many of you have heard about one framework from which I work with my clients: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In some ways, acceptance is not the best word to use. Clients often mistakenly think it means putting up with, giving in to, or tolerating things that are difficult or challenging. Acceptance is not about complacency, and it’s certainly not an excuse to do nothing on the path to our goals. Instead of putting up with or giving in to our negative thoughts or feelings, we can accept them by dropping the struggle with them — simply giving space for the thoughts and feelings to arise. We notice our feelings and thoughts, but we don’t need to react to them. ACT terms for acceptance work include “expand around it,” “make room for it,” “let it freely flow through you,” “breathe into it,” or in the words of the Beatles, “let it be.” 

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We don’t need to sit on a meditation cushion or yoga mat in order to practice acceptance. Acceptance happens any moment that you bring your attention to your thoughts and feelings, really notice them, and open up to the fact that you are a human being with those thoughts and feelings. You can choose to respond to them or not. You can choose to express them or not. But you don’t try to judge them or push them away. 

So many of us use food — either the withholding of it or the overindulging on it — to manage feelings that we think we can’t handle. 

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Instead, can we notice our hunger sensations, notice our cravings, and notice how full we are in any given moment? Can we accept these as our experience, even if the feelings in our bodies and minds are occasionally unpleasant? 

Can we notice that we feel angry at someone, but we’re choosing to take it out on ourselves by not eating instead of confronting that person? 

Can we notice how much we crave a certain food, and how much of this is about mouth hunger or emotional hunger and not stomach hunger? 

Can we notice feeling numb when we come home from work and just start eating, and admit that we’d rather eat and feel numb than ruminate over and over the stress from the day? Can we just notice this, without judgement? 

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These are just some of the questions that can take some time to explore and form the foundation for the profound work done by my clients. This is not about an external diet or person telling them how to eat; this is deep listening to oneself and opening to experience so that clear choices can be made. 

One important addition: noticing without judgement does not mean that we don’t also want to change our behaviors!  Maybe we don’t like that after-work, mind-numbing eating. Maybe we don’t like what food restriction in the service of avoiding anger is doing to our health and energy. Can we non-judgmentally notice these behaviors and acknowledge them as doing our best to deal with painful thoughts and feelings in the moment? Yes, we want to learn new strategies for dealing with stress, anger, frustration, loneliness. 

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There’s one very important concept here. (If you take only one thing home from this blog post, I secretly hope it’s this…) Finding new ways to cope and deal with difficult thoughts and feelings will not happen by trying to avoid or push them away. Just ask yourself if this has worked for you in the past…? Avoidance and automatic pilot go hand in hand. Acceptance of what is really happening inside in the present moment is the anecdote. When you can really drop into what is being felt or thought and observe it — and this takes a lot of practice! — you open up the freedom to make choices. You can choose to call a friend when you are feeling lonely, express feelings through writing, choose a snack that makes you feel satisfied and vital when desiring some food, and make other choices that move you towards recovery and the person that you want to be. 

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Recovery from disordered or dysregulated eating — and coming to peace with your body and self — is an ever-evolving process, and it doesn’t stop when you find yourself eating better. Like a flowering bush that needs pruning each year to realize it’s fullest bloom, we are constantly welcoming in the new discoveries about ourselves, as we let old patterns and habits that don’t serve us go. We can appreciate both our petals and our protective thorns. We are human and not perfect, and each of us are one of a kind.

What are the seeds that you are sowing this Spring? What is blossoming within you? What kind of flower are you growing into? What kind of life and person are you wanting to be? Every day, despite the frost, darkness, and other challenging conditions, we strive to blossom and become who we are. In fact, those challenging conditions are part of what makes us like a strong, resilient plant. This Spring, nurture and feed your soul and senses. Provide fertile, nutritious soil and plenty of water. Take good care of the seedling parts of you that long for the sun. 

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One of my favorite quotes is from Georgia O’Keefe, also a favorite artist. “Nobody sees a flower, really -- it's so small -- we haven't time, and to see takes time…” Take time to fully recover and develop a healthy relationship with food, your body, and your self. Get to know yourself and your uniqueness. Get to know what makes you feel alive and bring that aliveness out into the world. Allow yourself a full range of feelings and notice them all. Take time. Slow down whenever you can to check in with yourself and bring awareness to those feelings, even the hard ones— the ones that we tend to want to avoid or pretend aren’t a part of our experience. 

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I have to accept that April in New England is a little back and forth. I arm myself with a good warm scarf, lots of layers that I can peel off, and plant little sprouts on my sun porch to remind me that the sunnier side of Spring is coming. I emerge from the in-breath of winter, and breath out a blog post for the first time in awhile. My winter writing is more introspective and I don’t share so much of it. Today I accept and publish for you the imperfect combination of words here to describe this human’s experience of Spring and my work in it. I am grateful for the work with all of you — in person and on-line — that helps me feel the connectedness of all things. 

As I tend to my little seedlings, taking them inside when the porch gets below freezing at night, I imagine all the seeds being sown in the hearts and minds of humans all over, in all kinds of conditions, this Spring. I accept the cold temperatures, even though I don’t particularly like them.  I accept that I have to wait until the soil is warmer to put my plants into the ground. It’s another cold April in New England. The hard stuff in life is part of it all. 

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

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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





Zen and the Art of Chopping Vegetables

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Themes in my work these past few weeks have been about self-care and self-compassion. Couldn’t we all use a little bit more of these…?

Self-care can be a challenge in our busy lives. We spend so much time attending to our work, our children, our friends, our homes, our communities — and all of that is wonderful and rewarding. But does care of our Selves often get squeezed out of the day? Yes, indeed.

I believe that so many of our chronic diseases, our mental illnesses, and our growing fatigues may be related to deficits in self-care. This might mean simply failing to check in with ourselves, appreciating what we are feeling, and knowing when enough is enough. Sometimes we realize, at the end of the day, that we are depleted. We eat as a reward or treat — or to give ourselves something good when the day has left us little energy for anything else. Or, conversely, we restrict or obsess about our food as a way to feel better about and feel more in control of our lives.

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We all want lives that are our own, full of joy-filled activities and meaningful moments. We really do want to learn and grow from our mistakes and challenges in life, but we often punish ourselves instead. Sometimes with over- or under-indulgence of food or other pleasures.

Why do we do this…?!

We do this because food is tied so closely to expressing our larger needs and hungers — and it has been so since the time that we cried for our mother’s care and feeding on our first day as a human being. Whether we want it to be or not, food will always be associated with love and care and asking for what we need. Our brains are wired that way. So, no wonder the disregulated eaters are many, and I’ve been busy doing this work for nearly 20 years!  Now that I am blogging, my aim is to discuss what it takes to heal from this over- or under-eating and to give hope to those on this path.

Mindfulness is one of the most helpful practices for healing from disregulated (a kinder, broader term than “disordered”) eating and for cultivating more intuitive eating. The dictionary defines mindfulness as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” or “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” It sounds rather simple, but, in practice, mindfulness can be challenging — particularly in our fast-paced, multi-tasking world.

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When I work with clients to cultivate mindfulness in their eating experiences, amazing things happen (but, sorry, not overnight). Gradually, and with practice, disregulated eaters begin to identify the triggers to their un-attuned food choices and behaviors, question whether those choices and behaviors are in their best interest, and begin to make choices that are more aligned with self-care.

One of my favorite mindfulness techniques that I will share with you all today is what I call “The Zen of Chopping Vegetables.” I use this particularly with clients who overeat compulsively, but anyone who eats mindlessly at times could benefit. And it need not be done with just vegetables. It’s really about taking in the sensory environment of whatever foods are being prepared. It’s just that veggies are so colorful and make such a satisfying sound when they are cut. (So much so that when I cut something on a wooden cutting board, the sound makes our pet guinea pigs in the other room squeak in Pavlovian excitement.)

I’m sure many of you — perhaps all of you reading — have chopped vegetables. But have you really chopped vegetables…? I’m talking clear the clutter from your heads, examine that juicy carrot in it’s fullness of color and crispness, and chop away. Notice the sound, the texture, the rhythm of the knife on the cutting board. Now take a vegetable of a different color and texture. Notice the different sound the knife makes on the board, the change in juiciness, the feel of the experience. Notice the patterns on the inside of the vegetable. This exercise is exposing what prep-chefs in restaurant kitchens know already: preparing food is relaxing, transporting, sensual.

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When you get bored of being so in-tune with what you are doing (and you will, it’s the nature of the mind), then imagine where the food comes from, how it was grown, who tended it, and how it got to your kitchen — all the many steps. Acknowledge the miracle that is our nourishment. Now, chop some more. Tune in to the other parts of the meal with the same mindful attention, as if this was going to be your last meal and you really want to savor the experience. You may notice that the process of preparing food can be almost as nourishing as eating it. Almost.

Now, I’m hearing you say, “When in the world do I have time to chop vegetables like this? I only have a half-hour to get dinner on the table for a family of four!” I hear you. Most of the time, I can’t zen-out in the kitchen either. But, I guarantee that if you commit to mindful food preparation practice at least once per week (and ideally more in small doses here and there), you will enjoy those less-mindful times more. You will have slowly, but surely re-wired your brain to relax and nourish yourself more in the act of feeding yourself and others. Instead of a “should” or a “chore,” food preparation can feel like taking good care of your body and soul. It can be a peaceful respite from life’s more stressful thoughts, feelings, and activities.

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And, again, this won’t happen overnight. But by cultivating awareness of, nonjudgmental attention to, and gratitude for the foods that you are preparing, you will slowly appreciate the act of feeding yourself differently. There is little room for obsession, judgement, and mindless binging in the purest form of this sort of practice. If you notice judgement, emotions, thoughts come up; then do notice them, but return your focus to self-care, gratitude, and the sounds and smells that are before you. In the present moment. Right now.

Try it and see what it does for your eating and self-care. It’s just one of many mindfulness practices that clients have found helpful on the path toward healthful, balanced, more self- and body-attuned eating. The act of taking food preparation slowly — the way it used to be done out of necessity — can be healing and relaxing and kind of meditative. But you really want to allow yourself the space and the self-compassion to know that it won’t be easy at first. The simple act of preparing a colorful vegetable or fruit salad — or any baked good or main dish, for that matter — really can be nourishing on so many sensory levels. Allow yourself the time and attention and spaciousness to really notice.