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Monthly Archives: December 2014

Ending Stigma One Person at a Time

Pathologically Helpful

Last night I listened to a panel of students share their stories about their mental illness before their peers. Stories about the darkest moments that they have never shared with anyone else. Yet there they were, saying them out loud, often through tears, to a room full of people they didn’t know.

Every year Active Minds, the student group that I advise, hosts two panels: one on mental illness in general, and one on eating disorders. Even though it often ends up being harder than they expect it to be, they tell their stories because they hope that it will help to end stigma by humanizing mental illness.

The closest I’ve come to sharing my deepest, darkest secrets out loud is when I told students in one of my Abormal Psychology classes about my first depressive episode. I had wanted to do it for some time, and it probably took me 3-4 years of teaching to work up the courage to do so. At the end of the semester, one of the students in that class thanked me for talking about my depression. But at the time I was still so ashamed of it that the reminder that I had said it out loud and someone heard it was so mortifying that I never shared my story again.

I started this blog because I read that this is the kind of thing you needed to do if you wanted to get a book published. My vision of the book was initially much more “how to,” with some examples from my personal life thrown in to make it interesting. But when I was researching blogs, I realized that there were already a lot of  “how to” blogs. So I decided that my unique contribution to the blogosphere would be telling my story. I could be a mental health professional who shares those deep, dark secrets that she has never shared with anyone else.

I have written often about how therapists are taught to use self-disclosure with caution to make sure that the focus stays on the client, but also because you want to appear as though you have your act together. But based on the feedback I’ve gotten from readers, perhaps therapists have been wrong about self-disclosure. It seems that sharing our humanity is one of the most healing things that anyone can do to help another person.

I have pushed myself to share my experience in far more detail than I ever imagined that I would. But I know I can push myself further. I, too, could stand before people and share my story out loud, in front of anyone who wants to listen. So now that’s what I hope to do. If writing a book will help me accomplish that goal, then I still want to write one, but that is no longer my end goal. My end goal is to do what those students did last night–to humanize mental illness with my story rather than my expertise.

No Offense

No Offense

There’s a lot of drama of late about the political correctness of wishing someone a Merry Christmas. Although the goal of political correctness is to help people be less offensive, it seems to have created the opposite effect. It sort of defeats the purpose to post something like, I’m wishing you a Merry Christmas, damn it! And you can’t stop me!  That’s not very merry at all.

I have mixed feelings about political correctness. My main problem is that any rule about what you should not say becomes a source of anxiety for me. I’m so terrified of saying the wrong thing that I err on the side of not saying anything at all. Which can also be construed as offensive.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether it should be our goal to avoid offending other people. While that has always been my goal, I’m not sure it’s always a healthy one–in part because it’s impossible to achieve.

In my relationships, one of my biggest problems was that I tried to get the other person to say things that I thought would make me feel better about myself. But even when they said them, they didn’t actually make me feel better about myself. Because in reality, if you don’t feel good about yourself, it doesn’t really matter what anyone says to you.

Now I preach the importance of controlling what you can control. I tell clients that you can’t control what other people say or do; you can only control your own behavior. You can stand up for yourself, or leave the room, or end the relationship, but you can’t force the other person to be respectful. And I’m trying to practice what I preach, too, which is why I’m single.

Wouldn’t the same logic apply to political correctness? I mean, if someone thinks less of me because I am a woman or because I’m Asian or because I struggle with depression, it doesn’t make a difference to me if they call me a woman instead of girl. Or Asian American instead of Oriental. Or a person with depression instead of a crazy person. I would still know their judging me.

I do my best to practice accepting everything that makes me who I am, but I don’t expect other people to do the same. But if they don’t, I try not to waste my time on them any more.

Plus, there are lots of things that people say that offend me that are not covered under political correctness. Like talking about politics, in general. In fact, I think the world would be a better place if unsolicited comments about politics were considered politically incorrect.

The holidays are supposed to be about spreading good cheer, generosity of spirit, and peace on earth. OK, maybe peace on earth is a stretch, but we are certainly capable of the other two. So rather than focusing on what we shouldn’t say, perhaps we can focus on communicating these sentiments genuinely, and hope that the other person will receive our well wishes as the gift that they are intended to be.

For the Love of Food

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Kids grow up so fast these days.

I spent Thanksgiving with my niece, and since I only see her every few months, I am keenly aware of every change that takes place in my absence. The addition of Seriously?! into her vocabulary. Her latest career aspiration (humanitarian and veterinarian). The evolution of what it means for her to be a girl. Thank goodness that now includes sports! It makes it a lot easier to watch UVA football and basketball games when I’m down there.

On this trip, her latest thing was to ask how many calories something has and to obsess about being skinny. Did I mention that she is eight years old? I specialize in eating disorders, so I’m well aware of the stats on how early girls begin to worry about their weight, but it’s still shocking to see it play out in real life.

One of the things I’ve always loved about her is how much she enjoys food. When she was a baby, one of her first words was cake. Desserts were usually the most memorable part of any family gathering for her. And whenever she eats, she hums to herself and periodically shakes her hands over her head like kids do when they’re excited. So when we went for brunch and she asked me how many calories pumpkin waffles had, I was disheartened.

I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I know how it feels to spend your life worrying about getting fat. I didn’t start worrying about it until I was about 25, which is pretty late in the game these days, but that’s still 20 years of my life that I’ve spent thinking about the state of my body. I obsess less than I used to, but I still monitor my weight.

I’ve always been a little turned off by the campaigns to combat all of the body image brainwashing. Especially the suggestion that we should compliment people on their personality rather than their appearance. That seems incredibly unrealistic to me. But maybe I’m just vain and superficial and want to hear compliments about my appearance.

Even focusing on eating healthy and exercising can be problematic, because anorexia often begins with that very goal. Being extremely health-consious and fit can be just as obsessive and unhealthy as having an eating disorder. And there’s nothing more boring than talking to someone who is on a diet. (Sorry, dieters, but it’s true.)

I’m not sure what the solution is, but perhaps it would be better to focus on giving ourselves permission to enjoy food in addition to loving our body. Because food shouldn’t be the enemy, either.

I don’t do prevention programs for children, so I wasn’t really sure what an age-appropriate intervention would be for an eight-year old. So I just told Sadie that I work with college students with eating disorders, and they spend many years suffering because they want to be thinner. That if she starts worrying about calories now, that’s a long time to spend not being able to enjoy food. So I made a deal with her that we would not talk about getting fat while we were around each other.

She agreed, and we happily ate our pumpkin waffles together. I’m sure it didn’t put an end to her focus on calories and staying skinny, but at least I can hold her accountable when I see her. And she can do the same for me.