RSS Feed

Tag Archives: therapy

Self Disclosure is the Hardest Work I know

Christmas gift

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.

***

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.

onions

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.

Full of Myself

Positivity

I’m going to be on TV! It’s just a segment on the local news about tennis in our area, but I’ve never been interviewed on TV, so it’s kind of a big deal for me.  I initially didn’t want to be interviewed because I didn’t want to look fat. Which is superficial, I know, but it’s true. But I have to admit, I was pretty awesome. I love having an audience.

I feel self-conscious about writing this, because it feels like I’m being full of myself. But when I tell my therapist that I’m being full of myself, she says that’s a good thing. Full of yourself can mean being whole. Authentic. Come to think of it, most of the time I’m filled with demons, anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and self-criticism. So maybe being full of myself isn’t such a bad thing.

In therapy, when clients talk about feeling self-conscious about sharing an accomplishment, I ask them how they distinguish between humility, bragging, and celebrating something good about themselves. Interestingly, the conversation often leads to a discussion about what it means to be a good person. About what God wants from us. Even though I never bring up God unless the client does.

I’m no theologian, but I think that God wants us to share our accomplishments, because they are a reflection of our gifts from Him. That using our gifts is a way of showing our appreciation for them. That sharing our accomplishments with the people who are important to us is a way of inviting them into this celebration.

So in the spirit of sharing my accomplishments with people who are important to me, I thought I would take this opportunity to share with all of you the good things that have happened to me recently.

1. I finally had a good tennis season. I played great and won a lot of tough matches. Except to that one team that beat us three times, which contributed to my bad mood on Sunday. But even those matches were competitive and came down to the wire.

2. I made it through this week without having to miss work! This is one of the weeks with the highest likelihood of a crash and burn episode. So I’m making some progress in my self-care efforts.

3. This is my 3rd post this week, so I met my goal! And my last few posts have gotten me a few more readers, so in the race against my former blogger self, I’m winning!

4. That small taste of the limelight confirmed my belief that if I had my own talk show, I’d be way better than Dr. Phil. (Is that going too far?)

Thanks for allowing me to share my accomplishments with you. I may not be in a relationship, but I do finally have people who care about the minutiae of my everyday life. And for that, I am grateful.

Do Something that Scares You

Decisions

Sometimes anxiety is a good thing.

The other night I gave a presentation on anxiety to Active Minds, the student organization whose mission is to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental illness. I began the presentation by reminding everyone that anxiety is not always something we want to get rid of. It motivates us to act. It socializes us. And it warns us when we are about to do something scary.

But sometimes it’s good to do something scary.

When I started my blog, it never occurred to me to use an avatar, because the point was to get people to know me so that they would buy my book someday. Plus, anonymously blogging about vulnerability seemed hypocritical. But I have to admit, sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing, telling people all my deep, dark secrets, and I wish there were a way I could take it all back.

Some posts are scarier than others. The post that I wrote a few weeks ago, Undeserving, was one of the scarier ones, because what therapist admits to having the exact same fears that her clients have? Publishing it felt a bit like standing in front of people naked and saying, go ahead; judge my body.

Which nobody did, thank goodness. Not to my face, at least. Although the most vulnerable posts are always the most popular, knowing this won’t make it less scary to bare my soul the next time. Because anxiety has no memory. It does not distinguish between past, present, and future. It does not know the difference between reality and fantasy. In the moment, there is only fear.

Actually, I am growing accustomed to baring my soul before friends, family, and strangers. But the thought of standing naked before students and clients still terrifies me. Therapists are supposed to be blank screens. At minimum, they use self-disclosure with caution. They certainly don’t let clients know that they struggle with anxiety and depression and that they don’t think they deserve to be loved.

Last night a student from the school newspaper emailed me some questions about Seasonal Affective Disorder because she’s writing an article about depression. I realized this was an opportunity to publicize my blog, since my last post was on this very topic. But the thought of doing so gave me an anxiety attack, so I decided to sleep on it.

Plus it was midnight, and I promised myself I wouldn’t start working on stuff after midnight so that I don’t screw up my sleep cycle. Even though I ended up staying up until 1:30 a.m., anyway, doing pointless stuff like playing Sudoku and Minesweeper. What is wrong with me?!

But I digress.

This morning I answered the student’s questions and told her about my blog. Part of me hopes that it will lead to a thousand new followers, and a part of me hopes that she ignores the reference to my blog altogether. In any case, I did it; I pushed myself to do the thing I fear the most, as far as blogging is concerned.

And I have to say, it feels pretty good.

Angels and Demons

spoonflower.com

spoonflower.com

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.

Undeserving

IMG_0491

Today I was reminded of how difficult it is for me to take in good things about myself. I had several small things happen: A friend who said he would miss me. A reminder of how much my parents love me. A client who said I had helped him. In all 3 cases, something in me wanted to resist believing that these things were true. Which is puzzling, because I want them to be true. Why is it so hard to believe good things about myself?

I can give you all of the psychological theories that attempt to explain this paradoxical phenomenon, but I won’t, because people don’t seem to find them as interesting as I do. So I will just say that from my personal experience, I believe it comes down to a question of my worth.

I would say that it’s a universal thing to question our self-worth, but perhaps my perspective is skewed, since my observations are primarily based on my clients and from people who ask me for help. Perhaps there are people who know their worth, but if there are, I’ve never met them.

Lately I have noticed how much the word deserve comes up in my self-talk. You don’t deserve to have a coffee because you slept late. You don’t deserve that compliment because you didn’t really do anything to help that client. You don’t even remember who he is. You deserved to lose your ex because you weren’t a good wife. It sounds terrible to write these things out loud, but they’re true. This is what I hear in my head.

I am often struck by how much more easily many of my clients can be persuaded that they deserve good things because I tell them they do. My therapist tells me the same things, and has done so for years, but I still don’t completely believe her. Why is it so hard for me to be convinced? Do I feel more worthless than my clients do? And if so, how is it that I am able to help anyone?

I saw a client last week who talked about how she feels like she has some fundamental flaw. A crack in her foundation. I said the exact same thing to my therapist several years ago. I didn’t tell her this, of course, but I reassured her that many people feel the same way. Eventually she was able to reframe this metaphor as the cracks that result when a house settles. The cracks that make it unique and give the house character. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

This is a good example of how sometimes you learn as much from clients as they learn from you.

Perhaps it is my client’s comment that has inspired me to be more mindful of when I use the word undeserving. From now on, when I catch myself using it, I’m going to replace the word with something else. I’m not sure what that word is yet, but I am open to suggestions, if anyone has ideas.