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Feeling Fragile

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You know what I feel like? I feel like that vase in the Brady Bunch. The one that the Brady Bunch Boys broke while they were playing football in the house, which they weren’t supposed to be doing. And then they glued it back together so their parents wouldn’t know. But there were little pieces missing, so when Carol used it for flowers and poured water in it, it started leaking. Because it was barely held together.

That’s what I feel like.

Even though I’m off for the summer, I’ve been really stressed. I didn’t realize how badly until I went to get a massage yesterday. Ordinarily I don’t get one in the summer because I don’t need to, but I noticed that my shoulder was tight and I couldn’t get it to release, even though I stretch every day, sometimes twice a day. But she said my whole body was tight. Was worried that she might be hurting me.

And usually it does hurt when I’m tight. But I was obsessing so much about how much it cost, how I need to start doing yoga. Can I make it to the class tonight? Tomorrow? But I want to do strength training! No, your body needs stretching, Christy! Listen to what your body needs! Hey, stop obsessing! This is costing $100! Focus on relaxing your muscles! Pay attention!

So I didn’t even really register the pain.

I’ve been doing a lot more than I would ordinarily do in the summer. I’ve decided to do Talkspace, which is an online therapy platform. Because, you know, my regular job isn’t really stressful enough. But I might be buying a new place.

On the one hand, it’s interesting to see how they work out all the legal and ethical issues that come up with online therapy. And there are a lot of things that I like about it. I think I could get pretty good at it. But it has been a lot of work just to do the training, and I haven’t even started seeing clients yet. I’m in the middle of my first test, but I have to record this 2 minute introductory video that requires me to memorize my script and dress professionally and put makeup on. When I usually just wear workout clothes and don’t even brush my hair. So I decided to procrastinate and write a blog post first.

And apparently everyone fails this first simulation. So I go back and forth between telling myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s OK if I fail, to channeling my inner warrior and being like, I will win! I will pass it on the first try, gosh darn it! So it’s been this exhausting emotional roller coaster of feelings.

And if that isn’t enough stress, I’ve also decided to sell my house, because of the two people living in the space for one thing. I don’t know for sure if it will sell, and if it sells, I don’t know for sure it will be enough to cover the downpayment for the townhouse I want to buy. So my mind goes back and forth between figuring out how I can rearrange things here if it doesn’t sell to thinking about all of the things I’ll have to do if it does sell. Oh, and I have to keep the place clean. And get my brother to keep his space clean, which is even harder. So another emotional roller coaster.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a situation where I felt overwhelmed. Where I had no idea how I was going to handle it all, how things could possibly get better. There were my two divorces. My brother moving in with me. The depression I went through 9 years ago. The 4 other houses I’ve bought. Eventually I just had to put my faith in God. I didn’t have to figure it all out. I didn’t have to envision how it would work for it work. I just had to trust that God would take care of me. And he always has. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Oh, and I take my Ativan. Because that’s what my psychiatrist told me to do when I’m obsessing. Which is also helpful.

I’m Obsessing

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I’ve written several blog posts about being obsessive (Obsessiveness, If There were a Prize For Most Likely to Obsess Over Nothing I Would Totally Win, Perception is Reality), and I haven’t written one in a while, so I thought I’d give you an update on whether I’m cured.

The answer is…no. I’m not cured. My brain has a mind of its own, and it really likes to think about the same things. Over and over. All the time.

Yesterday I was particularly obsessive for some reason. I repeated some items that I needed to write down on my grocery list over and over while I was trying to take a nap because I didn’t want to forget them. Which was really conducive to sleep, as you can imagine. Getting up and writing down the items would have been the obvious solution, but for some reason obsessing seemed like the easier choice.

And then there are those important decisions about the future that plague me like, what am I going to eat for lunch 3 days from now? Should I wear jeans on Friday? Should I weigh myself, since the results will probably be depressing? How can I stop from weighing myself, given that I’m obsessive? Should I risk eating chocolate today? Or am I willing to throw up over it?

The good news is, there are things that help me to obsess less. Medication helps. The other day I was remembering how often people use to tell me that they heard wonderful things about meds and I should really try them. I realize now that I was annoying the hell out of them and they wanted me to do something about it. And I have to admit, sometimes I annoy myself. But I am much less annoying than I used to be. So that’s something.

Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion helps. When I am in the midst of an obsessive episode, logic and reasoning are a waste of time. Telling myself to stop doesn’t do much, either. So I tell myself that I’m just obsessing. This is what the mind does. It’s not my fault. I’m doing the best that I can. It’s painful, but at some point it will subside. And then I try to be nice to myself until it does, no matter how long that takes.

Tennis helps. Regardless of whether I win or lose, I feel better afterwards. My mindset shifts, and the things I obsessed about all day become a distant, irrational memory. I had a meditation instructor tell me that I like tennis because it’s a way of practicing mindfulness, so maybe tennis is the most effective way of practicing mindfulness for me.

Blogging helps. The act of writing down all of the things I’m thinking about is therapeutic. It’s a way of listening to myself rather than trying to cut myself off, telling myself I don’t want to hear it. And sometimes people read these posts and like them. Sometimes they even comment on them. So that’s more people who are listening, which makes me feel really good.

So if you have an obsessive loved one, listening is truly one of the most healing gifts you can give. They’ll be much happier with you than if you give them advice or tell them they’re annoying you and they should just stop talking. You don’t even need professional training to do it well. It may not cure the problem, and it is a strategy that is always at your disposal if you remember to use it.

And then you can refer them to this blog post and they will feel much less crazy.

 

If There Were a Prize for Most Likely to Obsess Over Nothing, I Would Totally Win

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Next week I am going to a week-long meditation retreat on self-compassion in California, and I am freaking out about it. I didn’t realize the meditation part would be such a prominent component of the training until after I signed up. After I found out that they recommend that I pack a zafu meditation pillow–which I had to buy–and a yoga mat. And that I need yoga-type clothing.

I do meditate every day, but more of the 5 minute variety before I go to bed. Not the sit-on-the-floor-on-a-zafu-pillow-and-meditate-for-a week kind of meditation.

I am anxious about the typical things that would make someone not choose a meditation retreat, like not being able to get on my phone, iPad, or computer. And flying. And what impact the severe drought in California will have on my trip.

But I am also obsessing about seemingly insignificant and therefore maddening things like, will I be able to sleep if I can’t recline my bed because of my stupid GERD? Would a zafu pillow, a yoga mat, a GERD pillow, and yoga-type clothing all fit into my suitcase? I could bring a gigantic suitcase, but would they think I’m high maintenance?

Do I even have yoga-type clothing? If I wear tennis stuff, would that be weird? Do I need long-sleeve shirts? What will the temperature be? Because sometimes even when it’s hot outside it can be cold inside because of the air conditioning. Although maybe they don’t crank up the air conditioner at a meditation retreat, even when it’s hot. If it is hot.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Intellectually, I know people who have chosen to go on a self-compassion retreat probably aren’t going to be judging me for my luggage or for wearing the wrong thing, but I can’t stop obsessing, nonetheless. Which is why I signed up for this retreat.

But I realized something last night that helped me to accept my obsessiveness. I was watching this biography on one of the up-and-coming tennis players, and I noticed that all of the great athletes were super competitive and full of energy even when they were kids. Their parents had to get them involved in something at all times so they wouldn’t explode.

Obsessing is the mental equivalent of a hyperactive child. Sometimes I do it because I’m anxious, but sometimes it’s just because I need something to think about. Even if it’s just what I’m going to have for dinner tomorrow. Or what order I should do my errands in. Or how many inches I should take off when I get my hair cut. There’s all this energy in my brain, and the only way to burn it off is to obsess.

So maybe if I could channel my obsessing into something useful, like those hyperactive kids who became world-class athletes did, I could become famous, too. Maybe I could use my powers for good instead of evil. Well, not evil. But something more productive. So I wrote this blog post to see if that would help. Although I’m pretty sure I’m just going to obsess about the stats after I publish it.

If anyone has ideas about useful ways to channel my obsessive energy, I am open to suggestions.

In This Moment

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I’ve always been reluctant to tell people what kind of music I like, because it’s pretty mainstream. In fact, I’ll make that #11 on my list–my preference for Top 40. Some of my friends have criticized me for what they consider my poor taste in music: it’s so unoriginal. So superficial.

And it’s true that the lyrics usually aren’t profound, but sometimes they still touch upon universal feelings. That’s why even the sappiest of love songs can be appealing when you have a broken heart.

Yesterday on my drive home the song “Daylight,” by Maroon 5, came on the radio. Every time I hear this song I think of one of the long distance relationships I was in during high school. My boyfriend went to college 5 hours away, so we didn’t see each other often. And when we did see each other, I was so anxious by Saturday about him leaving on Sunday that I couldn’t enjoy our time together. No amount of reasoning could stop me from obsessing.

That’s what happens when you have an anxiety disorder. The things that other people find difficult, like saying good-bye, are intolerable. Adam Levine can still hold her close for one night, even if he’ll have to go in the daylight. I, on the other hand, would obsess about how sad I was going to be when that moment came and would end up ruining the whole evening.

Despite the intensity of my negative feelings, I have often chosen relationships that have been characterized by a high level of drama. Which doesn’t make any sense, I know. You would think that I wanted to be miserable. But love is like a drug–especially in the early stages–what with all the obsession and longing and all. Even though the cons outweigh the pros, you get addicted, anyway, because it’s not a rational process.

My relationships were like an addiction in that I craved connection, but no amount of contact was ever enough. And I would experience withdrawal during even the smallest periods of separation, yet I still preferred long-distance relationships.

That’s why I’m proud of myself for not being in a relationship. I’m learning how to tolerate my fear of being alone. And I’m learning how to live without the addiction of drama. And my behavior doesn’t seem as crazy and contradictory–in relationships, at least.

Other things have helped with my anxiety, too. I resisted meds for a long time, even though people begged me to take them for their sake, if not for mine. But I have to admit, even though I don’t like taking them, they make my anxiety bearable.

I also have a therapist who I can call when I’m freaking out. I meditate, which has helped me tolerate my feelings. And I practice mindfulness as often as possible.

One of my favorite mindfulness mantras is any sentence that begins with “in this moment.” In this moment, I am anxious. It’s hard to breathe. I am in pain. But in the next moment, I will feel differently.

And I always do.

It’s Just a Memory

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When you’re a therapist, you need to have a good memory, because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve ever said. I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I actually exceed clients’ expectations in this department. They often ask me if I take detailed notes, which I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even look at the note from the last session before I see them.

While I’m thankful for being blessed with a good memory, there are serious drawbacks, because it’s almost like having PTSD. For big things, like when I hydroplaned on the freeway and crashed into the median going backwards. Or any memory during the 4 year period when my dad was depressed. But also for little things, like every fight I’ve ever had with someone. Or anything traumatic that has happened to other people, because of the whole hyperempath thing.

That means when these memories come up, all of the feelings come back. I get anxious every time I pass the site of my accident on the way to work. I cry when I remember that my dad barely had the will to live. I’m angry whenever I remember the lies my ex-boyfriend told me. And I feel physical pain whenever I remember seeing someone getting injured.

And since I’m also obsessive, once the memory comes up, it’s hard to get it out of my head. I keep replaying the scene, even though it just upsets me more. And it’s really, really hard to stop obsessing, even with the help of medication.

Sometimes I’m so sick of listening to myself I literally yell “Stop obsessing!” Even though in a previous post I wrote about how self-talk with words like stop, don’t, no, etc. don’t work. Plus it’s not a very compassionate thing to say to yourself.

The other thing I say to calm myself down is “It’s OK; everything’s going to be OK.” All freaking day long. But it only works if I mean it and I’m not just trying to shut myself up. It’s all in the tone of voice. But then saying it becomes a compulsion, so I get annoyed that I have to repeat it hundreds of times a day.

One of the more effective things I say to myself is “you don’t have to think about that right now while you’re trying to sleep/in session with this client/driving to work. You can think about it later if you want to.” For some reason, if I don’t forbid myself from saying it, I can let the thought go more easily.

And my latest strategy, which is the most helpful to date, is to say, “It’s just a memory of something painful. You don’t have to think about it ever again, if you don’t want to.” Again, giving myself permission not to think about it, rather than telling myself I can’t, seems to be more effective.

I guess the lesson is, whatever you choose to say to yourself, say it with compassion; it will work a lot better.

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.

***

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.

Angels and Demons

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I thought of something I can say to the part of me that tells me I’m undeserving. In fact, I say it all the time. It’s “Shut up demons! You don’t know me!”

People usually think of that little devil on our shoulder as the part of us that tells us to do something bad, like “Go kill that person!” Plus some less extreme things, like “Call that ball out! You’ll win the game!” From a mental health perspective, the devil tells clients to do things like “Get black out drunk instead of staying in to study. And then miss your therapy session so you don’t have to talk about it.”

Sometimes that little devil will disguise itself as the angel and will try to make us believe that we are doing something good when we are actually hurting ourselves. Things like “There are people starving in the world, and here you are eating all of this food that someone else needs more than you. You really shouldn’t be eating at all.” Those are the most insidious messages of all.

When I was depressed I went around yelling at my demons all the time. They were constantly telling me that I should kill myself for stupid reasons. But I didn’t want to die. I knew it wasn’t coming from me. So I would literally go around the house telling the demons to shut up. Which I found hilarious.

My psychiatrist, on the other hand, did not appreciate my sense of humor. When I told him I had started yelling at my demons, he did that stereotypical psychiatrist thing where he just looked down and wrote something on his legal pad. Probably something like “She’s f@%ing crazy!” But whatever. It worked. All that warrior training paid off.

I was really tired on Sunday and Monday. I had been obsessing about my Halloween party for weeks because I have an anxiety disorder. I am in the midst of the busiest part of the semester and rarely have an hour to myself, unless someone doesn’t show up. I’m playing on two tennis teams and am captaining one of them. And the weekend before I drove 4 hours to watch my beloved UVA team blow another lead to lose the game, which was both tiring and depressing.

So for once, when I needed to sleep all day on Sunday and a good part of the day on Monday, I did so without beating myself up about it. Without trying to will myself to be productive. Without telling myself how pathetic I am for being so tired, when the average human being wouldn’t be. Instead, I tried to take care of myself. I would ask myself things like, “What do you need right now? Are you hungry? Do you need to go back to sleep? Would it help to take Advil? How can I make you feel better?”

Sometimes the little angel on our shoulder tells us not to do bad things. But more often, in my case at least, it encourages me to be more loving to myself. So I’m going to counteract messages about being undeserving with love. And by yelling at my demons.