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Roadmaps

Road maps

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.

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.

Psychological Energy Conservation, Part 2

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Despite the psychological energy conservation plan I came up with several months ago, I’m still struggling with the crash and burn problem.

I spent another weekend feeling exhausted and ended up canceling the plans I had been looking forward to. I no longer allow my inner critic to torment me by telling me that I’m just being lazy, because why would I be too lazy to go to a costume party and play tennis? Still, it’s frustrating to spend the entire weekend lying around the house watching TV.

To make matters worse, as soon as I have a little bit of energy, I try to do too much, because I feel like I’ve wasted so much time. And guess what happens? I burn out again, and the cycle repeats itself.

It helps that I have a blog where I have made public declarations about how I’m going to be more proactive about conserving my energy. And I have made some improvements. I am better at setting limits in my relationships. I try to go to bed earlier. I eat more mindfully. But there are other areas where I am still in denial. These include:

1. Hosting. I hosted a Halloween party that I obsessed about for weeks because I have a small place and I never cook and I had to do everything by myself since I’m single. Then my parents came up on Friday and we had another karaoke night, when ordinarily I would be spending the evening unwinding. For some reason, I didn’t think that trading rest for karaoke would affect my energy level.

2. Tennis. In my mind, tennis should not be tiring because it’s fun. In the summer I played 4-5 times a week, but now that I’m working, I only have the energy to play about 3 times a week, which my inner critic does not want to accept. But my body is like, too bad! That’s all I’m doing!

3. Football games. My brothers and I have season tickets, and this year they have been able to come to more games, so I really look forward to going. But it’s an all day affair that ends up affecting my entire weekend, because I don’t have much time to get anything done. Which means I’m really tired the following week. Again, this came as a surprise to me, even though it makes perfect sense.

4. Blogging. I know that blogging takes up energy, but once again, my inner critic is like, why should you be tired? You’re just sitting there typing and reading blogs. How hard can that be? You should be able to write 3 posts a week. But lately two posts a week is all I’ve been able to manage. Otherwise it starts to feel like a job rather than a hobby.

So I guess the lesson is that, while it’s important to have things to look forward to, fun things are tiring, too. Which is probably obvious to all of you, but it is somewhat of an epiphany for me. Guess I need to factor that into my energy conservation plan.

Mind and Body

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My body has a mind of its own.

For example, when I’m playing singles, I’ll tell myself not to hit a low percentage shot, like an overhead from 3 feet behind the baseline. But then my arm will be like, I can totally hit this shot from back here! It will be ESPN-worthy! And it will defy me and hit an overhead from 3 feet behind the baseline. And then I’ll yell at my arm: Are you trying to lose? Because that’s what’s going to happen if you keep hitting that shot!

This is why I don’t tell people what I’m saying to myself during a match when they ask.

Weight loss is the same way. I can eat healthy and exercise and count calories and nothing happens. Sometimes my body will even defy the laws of nature and I will gain weight. However, if I go through a divorce, I lose weight without even trying. Apparently, my body doesn’t like marriage. Which is fine, I guess, but divorce is a pretty radical weight loss strategy, and you can only get so many of them.

My body also likes the GERD diet, in which I can’t have anything 3 hours before bedtime or before exercise. Which is ironic, because I used to make sure I ate during these times, thinking I was doing my body a favor by preventing hypoglycemia. It’s also unfortunate, because I happen to like food.

I’m trying to get my body and mind to realize that we are all on the same team. Lately when I play tennis, the conversation goes more like this:

Mind: You’re good at defense, right?

Body: Yes! I am awesome at defense!

Mind: Well if you can just get all her shots back in this next game, there’s a good chance we can win it. Don’t try to put it away. Just keep it in play.

Body: I can totally do that!

Mind: Great! I have faith in you!

I know. It’s weird. But I swear, it works.

Since I’m on a relationship hiatus, I’ve been much more emotionally stable, so my body is pretty happy about that. The GERD diet, however, continues to be a struggle. I need food before a match, and sometimes I’m not awake long enough to give myself a 3 hour window before eating. And the matches are usually at night, so I can’t always finish eating 3 hours before bedtime without staying up even later than usual. And I cannot live without coffee and chocolate indefinitely.

So I’m trying a mindfulness approach where I check in with myself and see how my body is responding. I test the limits of what and how much I can eat, how much I can play tennis, and how little sleep I can get away with before my body rebels. But when it says no, I don’t push any more. I back off.

My mind and body are getting along better these days, but it is by no means a perfectly harmonious relationship. I’m committed to making this relationship work, though, because divorce is not an option.

Will Power

Like many of my middle-aged friends, I am trying to lose weight. I am not as obsessed about it as I was when I was younger and thinner because I am more accepting of my body now. But that also means I am less motivated. It’s even hard to will myself to do 10 minutes of stretching every day. 

In order to improve my motivation, I decided to look at some info on a workshop that I used to give on self-leadership. Good stuff. I ought to try it some time.

Here are some reasons why will power fails us:

1. We are more motivated to take action when things are going poorly than when things are going well. That’s why negative events stand out more than positive events: negative events require us to make some change. If things are going well, we can just maintain status quo. That’s also why anxious people like myself are often highly motivated–because almost everything feels like a crisis.

2. As we make progress towards our goal, we lose motivation because it takes more effort. This is related to the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule: 80% of our results comes from the first 20% of our effort. After that, it takes 80% of our effort to achieve the last 20% of the results.

For example, it is often easy for people to lose weight initially with minimal changes to their diet and exercise routine. But it takes a lot more effort to lose the last 10 pounds. So much so that people on diets are often perpetually stuck in the “I just need to lose 10 more pounds” stage.

3. The amount of will power we have is limited. Reseach by Roy Baumeister indicates that trying to exert self-control in one area of our lives leaves us less energy to exert self-control in other areas. So if you’re trying to change your eating habits, you will have less energy available to start exercising and vice versa. That’s why it’s better to focus on changing one thing at a time.

Despite these obstacles, it is possible to reach our goals. People do it all the time. So why not me? And why not you?

Here are some of the things that characterize people with willpower:

1. They try to understand why they’re not motivated. I was not motivated to lose weight for awhile because I just wouldn’t look at pictures of myself so that I could exist in a state of denial. That helped me avoid psychic pain, but now I think I need to be in a little discomfort. I don’t want to beat myself up over it, but I need to be honest with myself about how much weight I’ve gained.

2. They use their values to guide their behavior. Tennis is the greatest motivator for me. I want to play tennis for as long as I live, and doing so will require cross-training. So maybe I will try to remember this when I am feeling unmotivated.

3. They give themselves permission to fulfill their wants without feeling guilty. Because I work with students with eating disorders, I try to be careful about the message that I give about body image and I worry about how they will perceive my weight loss. But the reality is, my reasons for wanting to lose weight as a middle-aged woman are not the same as the reasons that students with eating disorders have. I can allow myself to honor my own needs. 

I know it’s still going to be hard, but perhaps writing this post will help me be more motivated. It certainly can’t hurt.

This tote has nothing to do with weight loss but it required a lot of will power because it was boring. It turned out nicely, though, so maybe I’ll knit another one.

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Good Fortune

Money can’t buy happiness. Beauty is only skin deep. Age is just a number. It may be an illusion that wealth, beauty, and youth bring happiness, but I have to admit, sometimes it’s still a convincing one.

Earlier this summer, when I was stranded in South Carolina waiting for my car to be fixed, I had the good fortune of staying with a friend from graduate school and her family. At the time, I had been on this kick about destiny, so her daughter recommended that I read Holes, by Louis Sachar. It’s about a boy who is sentenced to work at a camp for delinquent boys for a crime he didn’t commit. Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, he was exactly where he was supposed to be. I was working hard to stay positive about my situation, so I wondered if my reading “Holes” was meant to be, as well.

I asked my young friend what else I should read, and she recommended Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. It’s about a Chinese girl named Minli who goes on a long journey to try to change her family’s fortune. In the end, she learns that family is the greatest fortune of all.

Every year my college friend and I have an Inner Child Reunion. During our first reunion a few years ago, I introduced her to Sophie and she realized that she had a part of herself that was not allowed to play. So we make it a priority to get together for a few days over the summer for an extended play date. This year we could not find a mutual time to meet, so she decided to bring her son and meet me at my brother’s house because I had to babysit my niece. So it was a double reunion since she, my brother, and I all went to UVA.

As usual, my friend and I lamented over the very adult burdens of money, weight gain, and aging, but without the same level of obsessiveness as before. Perhaps it was because spending several days with 4 adults and 2 actual children, in addition to our inner children, left us with less energy for lamentations. Or perhaps it was because being together helped us to be more grateful for what we have.

I’m not gonna lie. We did not become enlightened beings over the past few days. We would still like to make a little more money, lose a little weight, and slow down the aging process. But we were also reminded that we are blessed to have family and friends who enjoy singing and recording “Let It Go” for hours on end, several days in a row. How many other people can say that? (I would post one of the videos but it’s kind of embarrassing.)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I finished “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” last night, at the conclusion of our Inner Child/College Reunion. Grace Lin was right: gratitude brings good fortune.

Motivation

In the Wimbledon final today, the commentators were discussing how Federer loves winning more than he hates losing, which is why he can shake off losses and stay motivated. However, in Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open, Agassi repeatedly states that he hated tennis, but he hated losing more, and that mindset worked pretty well for him.

It got me thinking: is it better to be motivated by love or hate?

There have been times in my life when I’ve been more motivated by hate than love. Even though I did well in school, I didn’t love it. I just hated failing, and anything less than a B was failing. So I mostly got A’s, but I can’t say that it brought me much joy to get them.

I used to be obsessed with my weight when I was in my 20’s and 30’s, so I was much more disciplined back then about exercising and watching what I ate. I weigh more now, which doesn’t thrill me, but I can’t say that I was happier when I was thinner. Every now and then I will get into that obsessive mindset again, but then I decide that I’m just going to stop looking in the mirror so much. Because even if it’s an effective weight loss strategy, it’s just too painful to hate my body.

I know I said in a previous post how it’s more important for me to play with friends than it is to win, but I have to admit, losing is starting to get to me. I haven’t had a single win in either of my mixed doubles teams this year. Still, losing hasn’t diminished my love for the game or my motivation to get better. I can’t say whether I love winning or hate losing more. I think it’s more accurate to say that I love competing and I love the fight, and that is all the motivation that I need.

Plus, win or lose, at the end of the day, you still get to have dinner with friends afterwards. And for me, food is the greatest motivator of all.

Here is a picture of my only winning team this season. Which I am not captaining, of course.

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