Hello, Nourished Life

I’m in the process of saying goodbye to somebody. Unlike most goodbyes, that we want to avoid because they are sad, this is a goodbye I happily walk toward. I’m saying goodbye to this girl:


She looks happy right? She seems nice, confident, smiling. This is where she fools you.

Although I was 20-years old when this photo was taken, when I look at this, all I see now is a sick little girl with her collarbones and neck tendons jutting out, thinning hair, and no boobs to hold her dress up. A girl who ate only salads, who tried to literally outrun self-esteem issues at a rate of 15km per day. A girl who was scared of food and scared to miss a workout. A girl who lost her period for months due to restrictive eating and over-exercise. A girl whose problematic body behaviours went unnoticed because her BMI was still “within range,” even when her body was screaming that this weight wasn’t sustainable. A girl who regularly received reinforcement in the form of compliments that she looked great and to “keep it up.”

Imagine how much I could have accomplished had I directed even a quarter of the brain power I had put toward taking up less space in the world, towards my schooling and future career… I like to think I’d be backing up the Brinks truck into the driveway of my summer home.

I won’t say it’s not hard to look back on these photos and know that I was much thinner then than I am now. When these images pop up unexpectedly (Facebook, you’re the worst), I give myself a moment to float around in those feelings of inadequacy – if only I had appreciated my body then, and had not been so self-conscious with it, etc, etc, ad nauseam. There is a part of me who still looks for this girl when I see photos of myself now, and when I don’t see her, the same part of me wants to look away and avoid acknowledging the reality of my actual, real, nourished body.

Soon enough however, in my back of my brain I hear the voice of my best friend Kim chanting, “No! More! Skeletor!” and I’m rushed back to the truth: That girl had a lot to learn. I’m smarter than that girl. I’m kinder. I’m a better listener, a better friend. I love myself more. My hair doesn’t fall out, but grows in long and shiny. I have a butt and boobs (both of which took a notable leave of absence during the time this photo was taken). I have hobbies other than obsessing over food labels and tracking burned calories.

I don’t miss her. Being obsessed with controlling my body and what went into it left little room to think about other people, and for the life of me, I can’t recall many instances during this time where I helped someone or threw myself into a project that wasn’t all about me. Disordered eating and exercise habits are an isolating and all-consuming endeavour in themselves, in addition to the effort put forth to avoid detection from others. This was a lonely, lonely life.

My life now nourishes me. I make a concerted effort to fill my world with good things – good people, good food, good movement, good thoughts – instead of trying to deprive my body and mind of what it wants. I consciously include things in my life that make me feel whole and allow autonomy over my life, something I was always pursuing but never achieved while restricting.

Of course there are moments where I wish I didn’t worry about what my body looks like, and I fool myself into thinking that women thinner than me could not begin to understand how I feel. Of course I deflate a little inside if someone makes a comment about how thin (and blond) I was back then. But I know these feelings are leftover from when I truly believed that my body size determined my worth, and I know better now. Media and society tell us that thinner is better, more attractive, the only kind of beautiful that matters, and we must have either reached that ideal or be punishing ourselves towards it. But at what cost? I will tell you for free that it is not worth everything I gave up in the pursuit of making myself smaller.

Along with a few LBs, I’ve gained self-awareness, true friendship, a passionate career, and a lifetime worth of belly-laughs. If gaining all this means adjusting my ideals of thinness and worthiness and saying goodbye to the sick little person featured above, then girl, bye.

What to Give a Fuck About

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This winter was brutal. After a long and sunless couple of months, I feel like I am finally waking up. As much as I wish my spirit animal is an enthusiastic teacup pig, I know I embody many more of the qualities of a hibernating brown bear.

I feel better. Between the improved weather, bedtime routine adjustments, and yet another change in medication, I am feeling more myself and better able to adapt to life’s inconveniences. Don’t forget the “soft” changes I’ve made in adding more creative and mindful outlets to my day-to-day, which you may have read about here.

I think the most important adjustment I’ve made involves a change in mindset that I’ve adopted from Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, a book that supports understanding what you value, discovering what is really important and not letting everything else bother you so much.

The book doesn’t pretend that life can exist without problems – life will have problems and that’s all but guaranteed. But Manson asks the reader to determine what problems we wouldn’t mind having. If someone wants to make a ton of money and be highly successful in their career, they may have to deal with the problem of working late and spending most of your time at the office. For one person, working late is a problem they wouldn’t mind having – they love what they do and want to spend lots of time doing it. For someone else, working late means time away from home, which would be a problem they could not happily live with.

Someone who wants kids and who values raising a family will have their own problems – sleepless nights, less free time, hundreds of loads of laundry, and the parents’ own needs and wants taking a back seat initially. These are problems that many parents would gladly choose as they raise their kids.

As I surface from a depressive episode that took me out at the knees, I’ve started identifying what I give a fuck about and what kind of problems I don’t mind having. I give a fuck about showing up for my family and friends, recognizing the big and small wins with them. This means hustling across this great province to do so, which costs money. I don’t mind having money problems in exchange for healthy relationships because my people make me happy. For someone else, they couldn’t live with money problems and would choose to have another problem instead.

Taking the pressure off to care about everything has significantly improved my mental well-being. Being more selective about what I give a fuck about has made room for the things that are really important, and also recognizing that life is not designed to be comfortable at all times. If my expectation is that my life is supposed to be free of hardship, perfectly organized and with gorgeous filtered lighting, I am setting myself up to be sorely disappointed. Instead, I give myself permission to be less than perfectly put together, to choose a few things to care about and work on those, and cut myself a little slack for the rest.

 

A Case of Self-Care

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With the ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues, we’ve likely come across the concept of self-care as it pertains to reducing stress and managing mental illness. If you’ve been encouraged to take a bath on occasion, exercise, or unwind with a glass of wine the evening, it might have been in the name of self-care.

Having worked in a university setting as a student and professional staff, I have been encouraged to engage in self-care practices since I was a teenager. Perhaps in its overuse, self-care has lost its meaning for me, or I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for it. Either way, until recently, I had considered self-care and its practice to be a touch “froufrou”. Of course taking time for oneself would be nice, however, things need to get done, and quite frankly, I’m tired.

In the past month, however, my therapist and I discussed reframing self-care into a concerted effort to engage in a relationship with self. Another frilly thought, at first glance. But then I thought about the relationships in my life and the effort it takes to maintain and nurture them, and realized that if I was dating myself, I would dump me.

Looking at healthy relationships around me, I see people making an effort to listen and understand their partners, taking on an equal of household responsibilities, cooking healthy meals together, trying new things, and occasionally unplugging from electronics and social media. In short, making their relationships/friends a priority and behaving as such. When is the last time I made my relationship with myself a priority? As my own oldest friend, I admit, I have neglected myself shamefully.

So this past month I have focused on jumping two feet into a relationship with self, reminding myself to take it slow and not rush into things. Wouldn’t want to scare myself off, after all.

This month, I rekindled a creative outlet in crafting and even entertained the idea of learning to crochet. I have had a quiet night in binge-watching Glee. I have taken myself to a movie. I have gone on long bike rides. I got my hair cut and made time to put make-up on in the morning. I unplugged from social media when I maxed out my cell phone data (not my choice). I did my dishes right away, because if I would do that for someone else, why wouldn’t I do that for myself?

I tried to take the pressure off myself in terms of attempting to remove all the negative symptoms associated with my illness, but instead worked to add things to my life that bring me closer to my most authentic self. Why? Because all of the loved ones in my life are in receipt of my generosity, my thoughtfulness and my time, and I need to devote just as much of that energy into my oldest and greatest relationship: the one with myself.

I’m stuck with me for life, so if that relationship is suffering, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own.

In this case, it’s not you, or anyone else.

It’s me.

Helpful, and not so much.

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Up to this point, I haven’t fully engaged with a group of people who are so essential to the recovery and wellness of people who are mentally ill: the loved ones of the mentally ill.

If you don’t think you have experienced mental illness yourself, aside from the occasional highs and lows to be expected from life, you likely know and love someone who suffers from mental illness and wonder what you can do to help. Hopefully I can help with that. I’ve given some thought as to what has been helpful to me – and maybe not so much – when it comes to supporting my mental health.

Maybe Not So Helpful: 

“Get well soon!”

Said with undoubtedly the best of intentions, and I recognize that. The trouble with responding to a “Get Well” or “Feel better soon” is that I’m managing what is anything but a linear illness, and I might not get “well” soon at all. There seems to be an added pressure with mental illness to feel better quickly and “snap out of it”, that doesn’t exist with other illnesses, in part because depression is uncomfortable and we don’t have a social script for it. Because it is an illness of the mind and there are often no physical symptoms to focus upon and treat, I sometimes feel pressure to bully myself out of my depression through sheer willpower. Certainly difficult to do when my brain is on the injured reserve list. The only thing I know for sure is that there are good days and bad days in my future, like with many other chronic illnesses.

Maybe Try: “Take care of yourself.”

“I know exactly how you feel”

A violation of one of the most important rules of interpersonal support is assuming you know EXACTLY how someone feels. Everyone is coming to the table with their own set of genetics, psychology, biological and social factors that influence their every perception. There is no possible way for you know exactly how someone feels. Using this phrase expresses the opposite of what you likely intended: that you want to relate and help your loved one feel less alone. In practice, however, you may have dismissed their feelings as trivial and invalidated their individual struggle.

Maybe try: “I can understand how that could be exhausting. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”

“Have you tried…?”

Another expression where I recognize the effort and desire to help, however, could come across as dismissive and condescending. Have I tried…yoga? Meditation? Have I tried NOT being sad? Chances are if I’m sharing with you how things are not going well, I’ve exhausted many of the suggestions I’ve gleaned from friends, doctors, the internet, and I’m still struggling. Treatment for mental illness is very individualized, where the right combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes will be unique for every person. This is not to say that you shouldn’t share your success stories – just keep in mind that your mentally ill loved one is still fighting to uncover what works for them.

Maybe try: “What have you tried so far and how has it helped?”

Definitely Helpful:

Do something

When someone is hurting, it can be difficult to know what to do to help. We are compelled to say things like, “let me know if there’s anything I can do” because it sounds nice and feels like the right thing to say. A person experiencing mental illness may struggle to recognize what they need, never mind finding the words and the courage to ask for it. My favourite example of this in action was when my best friend recognized that I was paralyzed by everything I needed to do and didn’t have time to clean my untidy apartment. While I was at work, she came by armed with her cleaning supplies and scrubbed the place clean. I hadn’t asked her to do this, but the gesture was so thoughtful and welcome.

Be a generous listener

Being a generous listener means being present and engaged with the conversation, asking thoughtful questions and allowing the person to speak on the subject as long as they want. The greatest gift you can give another person is your time and your undivided attention, so look for those opportunities to entirely focus on your loved one.

“I will be with you”

There are times where I am fearful that the symptoms of mental illness push people away and that the longer my condition doesn’t improve, the more likely my loved ones will pull back from me. The most comforting thing I could hear in those moments of doubt is that you will be there. As a loved one of someone with mental illness, you are essential to creating a safety net in which someone can recover and knowing you will be with me reminds me that I’m not fighting this alone.

 

Eating Disorders as Coping Mechanisms

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For me, there is no talking about mental health without talking about body image. I remember feeling the pervasive desire for thinness, the necessity of dieting, and seeing food as either “bad” or “good” from as young as 6 years old. Blame fat-free food marketing of the 90s, or blame my vast collection of Barbie dolls, but somehow my body has consistently been a target for negativity. On the heels of Canada’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I thought it appropriate to share how my relationship with my body and food became my first outlet for my mental health issues.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, and as I’m sure you can relate, we all have our coping mechanisms for managing our mental health, and these strategies sit on a spectrum of things that can be healthy for us, or not so much. You’ll recall that in my early 20s, I used work, my social life and a shocking amount of cocktails to avoid confronting depressive feelings. However, as an adolescent, these coping mechanisms weren’t available to me, and my world was much smaller and contained.

I developed an eating disorder in high school in response to an unstable and stressful home environment. At a time in my household when I had no control over what went on and could never predict what I was walking into on a given day, what I ate and managing my weight became the outlet where I channeled all of my energy, stress and negative emotions. While I was busy obsessively reading food labels and writing lists of calories I had consumed that day, I was distracted from what was going on at home.

Living with this disorder was an exhausting experience, defined by cycles of guilt and joy that were completely dependent on the number on that scale. My unrelenting inner critic kept me laser focused on my goal: to be smaller, to take up less room in the world. Thoughts of how I could require less food consumed my day, so there was not an ounce of room left in my mind to feel the full impact of life at home.

And like many coping mechanisms, it worked for a time. Losing weight and eating very little felt like an accomplishment to me, at a time when my home life was not a source of confidence or security. At the very least, I would think to myself, I had this under control.

Only my oldest childhood friend and boyfriend ever called me out on my bullshit, asking me where my lunch was, or not believing that I had “already eaten”. At the time, I felt attacked – how dare they challenge me? Now I see their confrontations as the sincerest act of love and as much as they could do as teenagers themselves.

As my home life improved and I moved away to university, the pull of the disorder had quieted and I found myself able to loosen the reigns on such restrictive eating patterns. I was happier, and not merely surviving.

Some residual effects of the illness remain, mostly in the form of emotional self-harm. This is how I describe the repeating soundtrack of negativity that I will sometimes allow to play over and over in my mind. This can range from remembering all of my most embarrassing moments in quick and vivid succession, to beating myself up for drinking too much, to finding myself in a social media black hole comparing myself to strangers on the Internet – all of which certainly fall under the “not-so-good-for-you” category.

There is no physical harm, but I have to be careful – emotional self-harm becomes reminiscent of the pervasive thought patterns of my disorder that kept me safe for a time, but nonetheless controlled my thoughts and behaviours for too long.

I also have this weird aversion to bagels. Someone had told me once, at a clearly impressionable time, that bagels have as many calories as 5 pieces of bread. I can imagine that frightened me to no end and thus, I have not eaten a bagel since 2005. There’s a fleet of new flavours at Tim Hortons that I have never tried, and I’m finding myself a little curious…

Avoiding bagels was one of many coping mechanisms that worked for me for a time and so I have to respect them. They served their purpose. Now, I have better tools, stronger relationships, and more love to give myself, so maybe I don’t need that one anymore.