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Monthly Archives: December 2014

Older, Wiser, Better

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If you realize that you aren’t as wise today as you thought you were yesterday, you’re wiser today.

– Bulletin of Detroit Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church

Last week I had the pleasure of spending Christmas with my niece. We went ice skating one of those days, but it didn’t last very long because we had different ideas of what constituted skating. Her idea was that I hold her up as we skate around the rink, trying to keep her from knocking us both over. This method probably works well with her dad, but I’m not strong enough to support her body weight for that long.

My idea of skating was to teach her how to skate. Which was a lot more work for her. Which is why our skating session didn’t last very long. Still, she was able to skate on her own for short periods of time. I tried to reinforce her efforts by telling her that she was a much better skater than when we started. This was also my attempt to rationalize spending $20 for less than an hour of skating.

Rather than taking this as a compliment, she interpreted my positive feedback as criticism about not being a good skater to begin with. Which I understand. I am a master at turning compliments into insults. In fact, the next day she told me I was pretty and I asked her if she was making fun of me. Which she did not understand at all. Because it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know what my problem is.

But I digress.

I tried to explain to Sadie that you can be better at something without being bad at it to begin with. Every year I think I’m a better tennis player than I was the year before, even if my rating and my record suggest otherwise. I mark progress by things that don’t show up in stats, like improving my forehand, picking the right shot, watching the ball.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and research has supported this–until recently. Now they say that some areas of cognitive functioning continue to improve throughout our lifetime. I never believed the old research, anyway. At least I didn’t think it applied to me. Because I’m going to get better at tennis, doggone it!

Last year I wrote a post on how to make the most of your New Year’s Resolutions, and I have to say, I did pretty well with mine. They were to

1. Blog 2-3x/week. (There were 2 weeks where I only posted once.)

2. Ask for help when I need it. (I’ve even asked readers, some of whom are perfect strangers, to pray for me.)

3. Say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want. (I have not given in to the urge to save someone when doing so would have compromised my own well-being.)

This year I will aim to blog 1-2x/week and spend more time participating in the blogosphere. But I think I’ll keep the other two resolutions the same.

Because there’s always room for improvement.

Happiness vs. Mania

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In my family, sometimes mania can look like anger, irritability, and paranoia, but most of the time it looks like happiness. It looks like the life of the party. The person who lights up the room. The person who leaves a lasting impression because his energy is so infectious.

I admit, I’ve had hypomanic episodes, and they did feel good. I become a more extreme version of the way people already see me: happy, loud, and energetic. But there are things that I do that are uncharacteristic. I will compulsively shop rather than obsess about money. I don’t need much sleep. I attract a lot of attention from guys.

Often mania is followed by depression, but that isn’t the case for me. In fact, sometimes I would intentionally will on a hypomanic episode to pull me out of a depressive episode–to get me out of bed, make me be productive. And it worked, too. Often it was the first step toward getting out of that dark hole. Still, with my family history, I am hypervigilant of any signs that I may be heading in that direction.

That is definitely one of the things that distinguishes me from the rest of my bipolar family. Because they never think they are manic. Once my brother wanted to scale the wall outside of a restaurant, but he knew this seemed crazy. So he preemptively reassured us that he was not manic; he just really wanted to climb that wall.

One of my family members is manic right now. This summer I finally worked up the courage to tell him this, and of course he disagreed. But it wasn’t completely pointless, because he did agree to see a psychiatrist. But since you can’t force someone to take meds, he assumed that the psychiatrist confirmed that he wasn’t manic, since he didn’t prescribe lithium or an antipsychotic. At least he started taking the meds that prevent bipolar depression, which is what I was the most concerned about. But then again, I don’t have to live with him.

And thank God for that. Because it’s unbearable to be around him for more than a few minutes at a time. What may seem entertaining to other people is absolute torture for me. It’s a terrible feeling to love someone but to not want to be in their presence. It fills me with guilt and makes me feel like a bad person. But I have my own sanity to protect, so I do my best to keep my distance.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note and say that things are looking up. But that would be lying, and this blog is about honesty. He’s still manic. Things are getting worse. And I am powerless to do anything about it.

So I just pray and hope for divine intervention. And if you believe in the power of prayer, then perhaps you can say one for my family, too.

Self Disclosure is the Hardest Work I know

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I have another guest post today! This one is from a former client who was different from the students I usually see–older and more worldly with lots of interesting life experiences. I am finally at the point where I feel like I have something to offer students in their 20’s, but not someone like her. She seemed so confident and poised. I was actually kind of intimidated by her in the first session. What could I possibly have that would be helpful to her?

It’s nice to be reassured that giving someone the opportunity to be authentic truly is a gift. And it is a gift to me, as well, to work with people who are willing to take the risk of being vulnerable.

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I am like a Christmas present. Shiny, alluring; and, there for the taking. What’s inside is a mystery. All wrapped up, I look really good. All wrapped up I am…the full package.

If Christmas morning never came no one could open me and reject me. No one would know I can be snippy, selfish, anxious, needy, human. No one would learn sometimes I am distant, selfishly desirous of the solitude of the privacy of my own mind; sometimes I have anxious feelings about what is between us; sometimes shiny me has a complaint, sometimes there is navigating to do. If Christmas morning never came, no one would find out who I am. All wrapped up, I am the full package all the time. I would rather gird myself in duct tape than disclose my feelings to you.

Fortunately, therapy has given me the vast perspective it takes to find the reasons why doing the business of feelings is complex for me and why I work so hard to perpetuate the illusion of perfect satisfaction in my outward appearance. In lieu of being fully human I am a picture of calm. The pay-off from learning what I have learned through therapy is that this Christmas and in this New Year I will give myself the gift of feeling human through disclosing my feelings to others.

Why? Because packaging how I feel, and not outwardly acknowledging my feelings or your feelings, being preternaturally centered at all times, has started to take a toll on my relationships. Before now, my feelings were kept prisoner in a shiny box and I thought revealing them would doom my relationship with others. Now, I understand that I must practice self-disclosure and feel my feelings in order to thrive. And, in order to be fully engaged in my relationships.

Experiencing the full range of human emotions cannot be done alone. Until I disclose who I fully am to those who I love and who love me, I am an unfinished gift. Pretty on the outside, and such a mystery that it amounts to an unknown inside.

Christmas is coming. I will be under the tree at the end of the day, finally open. My wrapping no longer encumbering me, my many colors of tissue and my many mysteries will be out of the box. All of me open and on display under the tree I will be like any other Christmas presents—some of them pure treasure, some of them so-so, some of them needing alteration, some of them more perfect than anyone imagined, some of them forever gifts, some of them for consumption now. All unwrapped, I still look really good. I am the full package.

Elizabeth Barbour is a perennial student of Life, recent law grad, avowed Late Bloomer, proud Mother, and writer coming into fruition. 

I Don’t Want to Talk About It. (But I Really Do.)

I have always considered myself a fairly open person, but maybe I’m really not. Blogging has made me realize how little I have shared of my suffering with others. Even friends and family. Even when they ask me how I’m doing.

During the summer when I was depressed and my dad was depressed and I was contemplating ending my marriage, I was rushing to a tennis league match, barely able to suppress my tears. One of my players noticed and asked me how I was doing. I just said, “Oh, you know….” To which she replied, “No. I don’t know.” But I still didn’t say anything.

A few months before this I confessed to my parents that I was depressed because I was missing so much work and felt ashamed, weak, and irresponsible. My parents never missed work, and they had far more responsibilities than I did. During my dad’s depressive episodes he still went to work every day, even though it took him forever to do his job. I wanted them to help me with my depression, but I guess I also wanted them to tell me that it was OK that I was struggling. That I wasn’t a terrible person.

But I didn’t tell my brothers. Luckily my mom did it for me, and they each reached out to me and asked me how I was doing. I said I was fine, even though I wasn’t. Even though I had to will myself to go to work and to stay at work every day. It’s only because they read my blog and because I’ve been helping one of my brothers who has been struggling with depression that they now know what that time was like for me.

A few weeks ago I had a client make a public declaration to his friends that he wanted them to approach him if he looked like he was not doing well. And if they asked how he was doing and he said he was fine, he wanted them to push a little harder and make him talk. It terrified him to do this, because he has always valued stoicism, and he’d had a ton of traumatic experiences that he might have to talk about now.

I’m not even sure what possessed him to do something so brave. Even now, I’m not sure I would make such a declaration to my friends and family. I’m trying to make myself ask for help when I need it, and I am more honest now when people ask me how I’m doing. But I haven’t gone so far as to tell them to ask and to hold me accountable if I say I’m fine.

I imagine our work together contributed to his decision to ask for help, but it’s still surprising when clients take steps that are more courageous than anything I have done because of therapy. Sometimes I even use them as inspiration to do something courageous. Sometimes I wish I could tell them how much they inspire me to take risks in my own life.

Maybe I can tell them to read my blog. But I’m still not that brave…yet.

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Learning to Trust My Instincts. And God.

You know how I had a horrible day last Monday? Well, things got even worse as the week progressed.

In my list of crappy things that happened that day, I did not include my oil change fiasco. I should stop going to this place because every time I go there, they screw something up. But this time, it could have killed me.

I heard a noise underneath my car after I got an oil change on Monday. At first I thought that they forgot to tighten the skid plate again, but after a few days it got so bad that I thought something was seriously wrong. Like my wheel was about to fall off or something.

I tried to put off going back until Saturday so that I wouldn’t have to miss any work, but by Thursday I was too scared to drive and decided to tow my car to the dealership. But when I asked the towing guy if he saw anything underneath the car, he said the skid plate was loose. So I took my car off the tow truck and drove back to the oil change place and told them to tighten the skid plate. And to renew my inspection sticker and rotate my tires. Even though this was the 3rd mistake they had made.

But the car was making the same noise after they supposedly fixed it. By then I had already canceled several appointments, and if I called the tow truck again, I would have to miss an entire day of work. So I took my chances and drove to the dealership, although it felt like I was risking my life to do so. But I didn’t know for sure. When I dropped the car off, a part of me was afraid they would tell me that they couldn’t believe I drove down there, but a part of me was afraid they would say there was nothing wrong with my car.

It turned out that the former was true. My wheel was barely hanging on, just as I suspected. And somehow, the mechanic who rotated my tires did not notice. All that time I was worried about spending more money, inconveniencing my clients, and being accused of overreacting. Now I am just thankful that I am alive. But this experience has reinforced some important lessons for me:

1. The “fool me once” expression is true. Giving someone a second chance is sufficient to prove that they won’t make the same mistake again.

2. I need to trust my instincts. I put my life at risk because I was afraid that I was making a big deal out of nothing. From now on, I’m putting my well-being first.

3. I need to have more faith in God. The night before I took my car in, I decided to trust that God would look out for me and to stop worrying about money. And even though my faith was shaky and my decision-making was questionable, God kept me safe on the road.

 Thank goodness God gives us multiple chances to believe.

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Roadmaps

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I have a special guest blogger today! She is one of the members of our Body Image Support Group, and I am so thankful that she is a part of it. In almost every session, I find an excuse to make her share her list of reasons for why she did not want to count calories because I love the list so much. I asked her if she would be willing to write a post for my blog so that all of those readers out there who struggle with mental illness can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, regardless of how long that tunnel may seem.

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It is a sad truth in our society that many people struggle with eating disorders. Moreover, just like any other mental illness, its spectrum is broad and deep. It is a big city that some people travel to and then leave after a short stay, while some set up residence in its limits and never leave. It is also full of invisible smog that suffocates and kills. I know this place like I know myself. I wore that citizenship like a second skin for nearly ten years of my young life.

I know the city like I grew up there, because in many ways, I did. My mind spent its adolescence wandering the streets of self-hatred and the alleys of obsession. It was easy to forget that anything else existed. I did make half-hearted attempts to recover once or twice in my teenage years, but these trips weren’t long—my permanent address remained the same.

It wasn’t until two things happened to me in college that set in motion my decision to leave and permanently depart from the city of this illness. One: I found my passion, writing. Two: I started going to therapy. Writing became a creative, constructive obsession that helped me face and make meaning from my eating disorder. Therapy allowed it to bubble to the surface and become something that was a crucial roadblock in my development of an authentic self, rather than a part of my identity as a person. These elements combined to free my mind to the rest of the world. As a result, I have opened up more to my peers, my surroundings, and the prevalence of eating disorders and their immense harm at my small university and in Western culture.

Therapy and creative writing both helped me put my eating disorder into words. In doing so, I realized that not only could I put it into words, but I could also fight it with words. Language—what we tell others, what we tell ourselves, what we see and choose to believe as truth—is the most powerful tool there is.

Here’s one of the ways that positive, empowered, truthful language has saved me: as I neared the end of the recovery process this summer, as I learned to love my body and myself, one thing that I had to work extremely hard on was not counting calories. Even as I had gained weight, even after I abandoned my eating disorder, my mind still wanted to walk on its sidewalks—they are straight, even, and predictable. They are safe.

Yet, a bigger part of me knew that I was lying to myself, that counting calories is like living in the suburbs of a city to which I never want to return. I had to force my brain to stop counting calories, and it was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. It was mentally difficult not because of emotions or intellectual depth, but rather because the sheer force of habit is a brick wall that is nearly impossible to scale. But I did it. One thing that helped—or perhaps, the main thing—was the creation of this list. The list started as a statement that I heard from a friend, and it developed over several weeks. The list is a roadmap for departure from my eating disorder, a map that only gives directions one way. The day that I decided to stop counting calories for good was the day I was truly recovered.

Reading this list every morning became a ritual that replaced the obsession of calorie counting. It nourished my mind like the food and love that I had gone for so long without. As I continue to think about combating unrealistic standards for women and other causes of my and many others’ body image struggles, I keep this list in mind. Though at this point I do consider myself fully recovered, this list reminds me the importance of not turning back. In continuing to write about eating disorders and other issues, the empowerment of this list remains with me, too. The list is specific to me, but it also isn’t.  It is my hope that it can resonate with others, too.

  • Because my body isn’t a project.
  • Because my body has a voice.
  • Because I am not my mom.
  • Because I might have daughters.
  • Because my body deserves kindness.
  • Because I want to be able to say honestly, “I am over my eating disorder.”
  • Because food isn’t a reward or a punishment.
  • Because being skinny doesn’t get the kind of love or attention that I truly want or need.
  • Because being skinny doesn’t result in anything that is good for my mind or my soul.
  • Because I can’t think about other things or be my best self if I don’t eat enough.
  • Because I shouldn’t waste thoughts on calories.
  • Because I need and deserve nourishment.
  • Because I expect others to respect and to be kind to my body, so I should respect and be kind to my body, too.
  • Because growth is necessary.
  • Because life is short.
  • Because even if it feels impossible, the alternative isn’t an option that I can live with. Life is for living, not controlling. I can eat what I want.
  • Because no one else really cares what my body looks like.
  • Because I am a strong woman.
  • Because it is a mental, chemical problem that I can’t just wish or talk away.
  • Because I am a hard worker.
  • Because counting calories and controlling food never results in ANYTHING valuable.
  • Because thinness is not part of my identity. Neither is smallness.
  • Because I would disappoint people who might respect or believe in me.
  • Because I don’t want to trigger someone else.
  • Because it’s not just about eating disorders, it’s about inequality, which I can fight IF I start by confronting myself.
  • Because the pain of change is better than the pain of staying the same.
  • Because I believe in change. I believe that people can change for the better.

Annie Persons is a senior English major and Creative Writing minor at Washington and Lee University. She enjoys writing and hopes to teach one day.

Smile: It Gets You Free Stuff. And Followers.

Appearances can be deceiving, even when you’re trying to be honest.

Today was a terrible day. I don’t want to waste an entire post on the details, so I’ll just hit the highlights:

1.  I spent 2 and 1/2 hours hanging out with the cable guy. This was after having a different cable guy show up at 8 a.m. yesterday and after multiple conversations and chats with customer service reps whose only troubleshooting advice is to tell you to unplug your cable box and turn it back on again.

2.  The office where I get my allergy shots randomly closes fairly often. So often that, to avoid getting into trouble, they’ve asked me to call ahead to make sure they are there. Which is ridiculous, because their job is to be there when the clinic is open. So today I didn’t do it. And guess what? They were closed!

3. I had to spend a bazillion dollars on a mattress today. OK, maybe not that much, but you know how I am about spending money. I have been sleeping on the same cheap mattress for 17 years. I only gave in because my back and hips hurt. And since I’m doing this whole self-care thing, I figured I should invest in a good mattress. Plus I had to get the reclining thing because of my stupid GERD, which was also expensive.

OK, that was a little more ranty than I meant it to be, but I had to give you some context about what my mindset was when I walked into the mattress store. When Mr. Salesman asked me how I was doing, I told him about the cable guy, the doctor’s office, and how he was robbing me of my savings. He told me that I didn’t seem like I was in a bad mood because I was smiling. Which is true. I’m always smiling, no matter how upset I feel. I told him not to be fooled.

After our transaction was complete, Mr. Salesman asked me what I do for a living. I told him I was a psychologist, and he was surprised by this. He said that all of the psychologists and psychiatrists he knew were super uptight, and I was super laid back.

What the hell? I don’t think I could have possibly had a worse attitude when I came into the store. And I’m pretty sure I’m just as uptight, if not more so, than most mental health professionals, given my various mood and anxiety disorders. Can my pathological smiling response really make me seem laid back and happy when I am actually pissed off? I don’t get it.

But I guess it’s a good thing. Because I made him give me every possible free thing he could throw in. Plus I told him that he needed to start following my blog. I also told him tonight’s post would be dedicated to him. So here you go, Mr. Salesman!

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