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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.

Running My Own Race

I am a terrible runner. That’s why I decided to take up running 16 years ago. I like to challenge myself to do things I suck at. I wanted to prove to myself that I could run for more than 5 minutes. My husband at the time, being the competitive athlete that he was, said he would train with me if we ran a 5K at the end. Which was intimidating, but I liked the idea of having a running partner, so I agreed to do it.

So we started a 10 week program for beginners. By the last week you were supposed to be able to run for 35 minutes. I couldn’t imagine getting to that point, but in the first week you only had to walk for 2 minutes and run for 1 minute for 7 laps, which was totally doable. So I just focused on my goal for that week and trusted that if I did that every week I would be able to run for 35 minutes by the end, whether I could imagine it or not.

We never made it to the last week but we ran the race, anyway. And it was even more embarrassing than I imagined. We were so far behind everyone else that we couldn’t see a single runner ahead of us. We were even behind the police officer who was supposed to follow the last runner, so we missed part of the route and ran past the finish line in the wrong direction. We assumed people were supposed to cheer when you got to the end, but no one did. So we kept running.

The police officer realized his mistake and told us to run around the block to make up for the segment of the route we missed. We came in second to last, and I finished the race in 36 minutes. But I came in 3rd place in my age group because there were only 3 people in it. I love awards, so I was like, woo hoo! When is the next race?

So we ran 5Ks for a few years before I rediscovered tennis. It always hurt, I never got runner’s high, and I hated everything about it except the sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line. Sometimes I would place if it were a small race, but I was still always one of the last runners. Women pushing baby carriages would pass me by. Sometimes I was barely in front of the walkers. But I just focused on my goal, which was to run faster than I did in the last race.

I’ve been struggling lately with posts where bloggers say how many followers they have or how many views a particular post has gotten.  It makes me feel like I’m wasting my time. Sometimes it makes me want to give up. But I don’t. Because even if I don’t have a large audience, I know my blog means a great deal to the small group of people who read it. And that small group of people is still larger than the number of clients I see in a week.

Recently I decided that I would use my running mentality whenever I read a post with numbers in it. I will focus on writing and promoting and trust that in the end, I will get to where I want to be. I will focus on my own progress rather than on the people who are passing me by. I will focus on my own race.

So far so good.

running

Turning Pain into Posts

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Yesterday was not a good day.

Yesterday, for the first time in his 16 year career, Federer withdrew from a major tournament, and I had planned my entire day around watching the match. That may not sound like a big deal to most of you, but to a Federer fanatic like me, it’s downright traumatic.

Then I played tennis and lost to the same team for the 3rd time in a row. Plus my opponent accused me of making a bad call. Which would ordinarily make me worry about going to hell, but instead it just pissed me off.

Then my doubles partner thought it would be funny to insult Federer because he knows how much I love him. Which was the last straw. So I punched him in the arm. Hard. Twice. No, three times. Twice in his right arm, and then when he turned away from me in self-defense, I punched him in the left arm. Then I paid for his dinner because I felt guilty about my violent outburst. Although I still think he deserved it.

During dinner he gave me the same old advice that everyone gives whenever someone is upset. Something along the lines of how it’s all about your attitude and he doesn’t even let the big things bother him. Which pissed me off even more. But instead of hitting him again, I just told him he was lucky.

Sometimes I can tell myself to think about all those people whose lives suck more than mine does and it helps me put things in perspective. Like when I had to pay $1000 to replace my water heater and reminded myself that at least I don’t have Ebola.

When I’m depressed, it just makes me feel ashamed that I can’t think positive thoughts, count my blessings, and call to mind the less fortunate. What right do I have to be depressed, given that I have a good life?

When I’m anxious, these strategies just freak me out, because I start thinking about how someday someone that I love will be in poor health. Someone that I love will die. Someday I will be less fortunate than I am now. So then I start panicking about the passage of time and I have to take an Ativan.

And sometimes it just makes me mad. Because I’m a psychologist so it’s not like I’ve never thought of these strategies. In fact, I practice them all the time. They obviously haven’t been reading my blog! But then I feel guilty because they’re just trying to help. I’m just being too sensitive. And I can’t just go around punching people when they piss me off.

Last night I tried to tell myself that in the grand scheme of things, nothing that happened that day was a big deal. I counted my blessings. I thought of Ebola. Nothing worked. So finally, I gave up fighting it and told myself that it’s ok that I’m upset about Federer’s injury. About jokes that I find mean-spirited. About losing. Being called a cheater. Having to listen to unhelpful advice. About being in a bad mood in general. I reminded myself that at some point, I would not be upset anymore. Perhaps I would even feel differently in the morning.

I did feel better when I woke up. Not happy, but better. Then I remembered that pain makes for good blog posts. So I started writing, which finally gave me something to be happy about.

So when all else fails, there’s always blogging.

Imagination

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Once when my brother was manic he thought he was the smartest person in the world. I don’t think he did anything with this newfound knowledge; I think it probably just felt good to believe he was intellectually superior. He also did stuff like show up at people’s houses unexpectedly to collect long overdue debts and convince telemarketers to go out on dates with him. This is one of the reasons why people who are bipolar don’t want to take their meds; who wouldn’t want to feel invincible?

While I haven’t reached the heights of mania that he has, I have what could be considered delusions of grandeur. For example, ever since high school I have been convinced that I am going to be a famous writer some day. I would ask whoever I was with how they felt about the fact I was going to be famous–whether they minded that they would be in the limelight and whether they would feel threatened by my success.

I still believe this. I’ve read all the stuff that says that the J.K. Rowlings and Elizabeth Gilberts of the world are the exception rather than the rule, but I’m not really deterred by  it. I don’t usually admit this to people because it does sound a bit delusional, but it’s a nice reprieve from feeling like I suck.

And it’s a helpful delusion. Anyone who aspires to do something great has to believe the odds are in their favor. Otherwise, why try? It’s hard to walk that line between believing that you are destined for greatness and being manic, but people do it all the time. So why not me? I have decent balance.

In The Secret Life of Bees, Zach is a black kid who wants to be a successful lawyer in the South during the Civil Rights era. Lily tells him she’s never heard of a Negro lawyer. That you have to hear of these things before you can imagine them. He counters that you have to be able to imagine what’s never been.

I would take this a step further. Our imaginations are actually fairly limited; we can’t envision all of the possible outcomes. Perhaps I  won’t write some best seller, like I have always imagined. Perhaps success will happen in a completely different way. Someone could decide to make tennis skirts out of my patterns, for example. Or maybe it will be something else that I can’t conceive of from my limited viewpoint of the present.

I try to bring myself back to reality. Don’t get your hopes up. Maybe all you will accomplish is to help a few more people than you do through therapy–which would be worth it, too.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you can’t fail if you never stop trying.

In the Zone

Want to be happier? Try adding some flow to your life.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that engaging in activities that you find pleasurable and absorbing is one of the things that makes life worth living. When you are in flow, you are focused on the here and now. You experience a loss of self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. You feel like you can handle anything that comes your way.

Flow is what athletes feel when they are in the zone. Although I don’t consider myself athletic, I have experienced flow on the tennis court. It doesn’t always happen, but every now and then, the ball does exactly what I want it to. No channeling of inner warriors required: everything is effortless, unconscious.

Flow is not limited to sports. You can experience flow at work, during artistic activities, and in nature. Sometimes I’ve experienced flow with clients in therapy: I feel so connected to them in the moment that I know what they’re trying to say before they say it. Occasionally, I’ve experienced it when blogging: the words and ideas seem to be writing themselves, and they are perfect.

And there are those rare moments–usually when I’m at some lookout point–where I have a moment of clarity. I am Neo at the end of “The Matrix,” when he breaks the code and fights off the Agents with minimal exertion. The mysteries of the universe unfold. I feel joyful and calm at the same time.

Flow can also be interactive. Like Hazel and Augustus in “The Fault in Our Stars,” you stay up all night, sharing your life stories, and time stands still. Or like when you’re catching up with your best friend who you haven’t seen in ages, but you can pick up right where you left off, as if you talked just yesterday.

This weekend I was blessed to experience flow in all of these areas. I was at the Virginia district tournament with my tennis team, and I was in flow on the court. My team was in flow, and we made it to the finals for the first time ever. And all of the moments off the court were filled with joy, celebration, and camaraderie. Even writing about it is effortless. No self-consciousness. No demons. Just a pervasive sense that life is good.

Usually Mondays are hard for me, but today I am happy. In this moment, I am in the zone.

Orange Crush

The Paradox of Productivity

Have you ever noticed how you’re actually more productive when you have less time?

I had grand plans for all of the stuff I was going to accomplish over the summer. I was going to crank out blog posts 3-4 times a week. Learn how to write a book proposal and a query letter. Find an agent.

I did skim through a book on writing non-fiction. I actually wrote fewer blog posts than I do when I’m at work because I didn’t have very many deep and meaningful thoughts over the summer. I pretty much only thought about my sleep cycle, tennis, and what I’m going to eat. You can only write so many posts about those topics.

I was going to get my jewelry business going again. I was obsessed with making jewelry several years ago and sold a lot of what I made. So I bought all these beads back in January and planned to make some new items over the summer. Take some pictures of them, even. Sell them on Etsy. The only thing I made were some earrings (the purple pair on the left) for my tennis team to match our uniform, but I didn’t make any money. I just wanted my team to look cute!

I was going to knit more. I sell some of my jewelry and knitting at my friend’s store, The Stitchin’ Post, and my knitted items have sold the best, but it takes forever to make the things that I like. I was also going to knit this cute top for myself:

This is the picture from the pattern. I haven’t finished mine yet. I’ve made it to the armholes, but by the time I finish it, I might only have a few weeks left of warm weather, because the top part looks pretty complicated.

I was going to get in better shape. Play more tennis. Add more low-impact cardio like riding my bike. Do some strength training. Throw in some yoga.

I tried to ride my bike, but I couldn’t figure how to put the bike rack on. My ex was kind enough to help me do it, but then I couldn’t load the bike onto the bike rack by myself. And it was going to take 2 weeks to take it to the shop to get a tune up. I bought something to lubricate the chain that was supposed to be easy to apply, but it still seemed too hard and messy to do by myself. In fact, the whole bike preparation experience made me feel so ill-prepared to live my life alone that I stopped trying because it was depressing me.

I did play tennis more, and I stretched almost every night, but that’s about it.

I was going to read more books. I keep track of what books I read throughout the year, and I’m way behind from where I would ordinarily be. So I started reading more when I realized I only had a few weeks left before I had to go back to work. The only problem is, since I read on my iPad, the longer I read, the harder it was to fall asleep because of the back lighting. So then I had to read less so that I could fall asleep before 4 a.m.

All in all, I fell short on almost every goal. Perhaps I was being a tad unrealistic about what I could accomplish in 2 months.

Plus, when I have less time, I get more done because I have to make the most of every minute. Squeeze in a trip to the grocery store right after work, even if I’m tired. Write a blog post if I have a no show. Read a paragraph if my client is running late. When I have all the time in the world, I tell myself that I’ll get stuff done eventually. No need to rush.

But I’m not feeling too bad about myself for falling short of my goals. It’s good for me to set goals, not because I have to meet all of them, but because it gives me something to strive for. After all, isn’t life more about the striving than the end result? At least that’s what I tell myself to feel better.

Liebster Award

I would like to thank Somber Scribbler for nominating me for the Liebster Award. I am new to blogging so I always wondered how people got these awards. What a great way to find out! In the words of Sally Field, “You like me! You really like me!”

What is the Liebster Award?

Liebster is a German word that means lovely or valued. It’s an award for relatively new bloggers with less than 200 followers. Nominating someone’s blog is a way of letting them know that you like their work and a way to interact with other bloggers. 

Liebster Rules

In order to participate, Liebster nominees must:

1.  Thank the person who nominated you. (Thanks again to Somber Scribbler, who writes one of my favorite blogs.)


2. Answer the 11 questions given to you.

3. Nominate at least 5 blogs with less than 200 followers (approximately).

4.  Post 11 questions for your nominees to answer.

5.  Post a comment on your nominees’ blogs to let them know that they’ve been nominated.

Questions from Somber Scribbler

1.  Why did you start blogging?

About 2 years ago I started writing a self-help book on self-acceptance, but I thought it was so terrible, I was embarrassed to let anyone read it. I had to figure out some way to let other people read about my ideas, so last September I decided to start a blog, even though I barely even knew what a blog was. It turns out blogging is perfect for my writing style.

2.  If you could describe yourself with one word, what would it be?

At the moment, I would say “hopeful.” That’s why I’m a therapist, why I continue to try to get better at tennis, and why I think I can write a book.

3.  If you could be famous for one thing, what would it be?

That’s a tough one. I’d like to be famous for just about anything, as long as it’s positive. But I’ll say writing a best seller.

4.  What advice would you give to fellow mental health sufferers?

Listen to that voice that tells you to believe in yourself, regardless of how small it may be at the moment.

5.  If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Another tough one. I will interpret “thing” as “ingredient” and say anything with sugar, for obvious reasons.

6.  Which fictional character do you relate to the most and why?

Ellen O’Farrell in “The Hypnotist’s Love Story,” by Liane Moriarty. She falls in love with a man whose ex is stalking her and becomes obsessed with her stalker because she has so much compassion for her suffering. That would totally be me. 

7.  What did you want to be when you grew up?

The first thing I remember wanting to be was a cashier when I was 5 because they had access to all that money. But then my parents told me that money wasn’t theirs. So then I wanted to be a bank teller, but my parents said that money wasn’t theirs, either. After that I clearly gave up on any attempt to make money.

8.  What is your greatest strength and your biggest weakness?

I would have to say that my greatest strength is my biggest weakness, which is my empathy and compassion for other people’s suffering. It helps me to help people, but having too much empathy can be overwhelming at times.

9.  What is your dream vacation?

Maui is one of the few places that has lived up to all of my expectations, so that’s where I would go for my dream vacation. With Roger Federer.

10.  Which of the many quotes about mental health speaks to you the most?

My favorite quote is from Kung Fu Panda (although I’m sure it’s originally from somewhere else):

Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow a mystery.
But today is a gift.
That’s why they call it the present.

I have a lot of trouble living in the moment, which is why in my blog I often start sentences with “In this moment….” A lot of suffering can be minimized with the practice of mindfulness.

11.  What is the most positive thing about today?

Today I got to spend time with my niece, Sadie, which is always a gift.

My Nominees

I’m going to interpret “new blogger” loosely so that I can nominate some of my favorite bloggers. So in no particular order, I nominate:

1.  Amy Purdy, who writes Bipolarly. Her blog on bipolar disorder is informative, personal, and from the heart.

2.  Matt Fried, who writes Fried’s Blog, because he is committed to honesty and to eradicating stigma against mental illness.

3.  Tim Clark, who writes Life, Explained, because he rooted for UVA to win the NCAA championship in basketball after his team was eliminated.

4.  Joy Page Manuel, who writes Catharsis, because she is a fellow Filipino and we think alike.

5.  Somber Scribbler, which is probably cheating, but we think alike, she also writes about mental illness, she also includes doodles in her blog, and she would have been my first nominee, had she not nominated me first.

My Questions

1.  What job would make you say, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”

2.  What’s the last dream that you remember?

3.  Who was your favorite character on “The Brady Bunch” and why?

4.  What was your New Year’s Resolution this year? 

5.  What do you want to be remembered for? 

6.  What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a blog?

7.  How many jumping jacks can you do in a minute?

8.  If you could put 3 things into a time capsule, what would they be?

9.  Who is your favorite superhero? 

10.  What song best describes you?

11.  What’s the last book that you couldn’t put down?


Here is a random picture of Sadie and me in Legoland.