... From an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or any mental illness?
What do you say? How do you communicate to them that you are there, and that you care?
One important first step I would tell my family and friends is to accept that probably won't understand everything that I'm struggling with, or everything that I've been through. Eating disorders are confusing, hard to understand, and defy most of the logic that there is. My experiences probably won't make a whole lot of sense to you, and that's OKAY. There are certain things in life that really, truly won't make sense until/unless you've lived it. I'd prefer someone say to me, "I don't understand what you've been through, or how you're feeling, but I'm here," rather than have someone pretend they get it. It's usually pretty obvious when someone is pretending to understand, and can do more harm than good if you say something meant to "help" that actually turns out to be a huge trigger. (The "I tried to give myself an eating disorder so I know how hard it is" example sticks out in my mind here).
Let's talk about triggers. I know that in this socio-political climate this word has been used to attack/belittle others, and has unfortunately lost a lot of its true meaning. A trigger, for me, is something that causes me to get so uncomfortable, upset, and anxious that it triggers intense eating disorder thoughts and the urges to use behaviors skyrocket. Just as everyone's eating disorders are different, so too are their triggers. It would be too difficult to list out anything and everything that I find triggering, as some things are slightly triggering and some things are really awful, and I know that list is changing every day. I find that a good rule of thumb would be to avoid the "big 3", if at all possible. The big three consist of talk about: food & diet, body, and exercise. If you feel that might be too difficult, think about it like this: how much more fulfilling and enriching will your conversations become when they don't revolve solely around those three things? Something to think about.
Eating disorder recovery can also be a very confusing and stressful time for your loved ones. They are essentially working to re-train their brains against a devastating mental illness, while also working to restore normalcy on the physical side of things. From the outside looking in, it may seem like a strange thing--your loved one's treatment plan. You may be perfectly fine going more than 4 hours without eating, never including snacks in your day, or exercising regularly. But, you also (presumably) don't have an eating disorder. In recovery, it is so important that we follow our treatment plans set out for us by our team of professionals. It may seem "unusual" or different for you, but for us, it's just as important as following through with medication or anything else that may be "doctor's orders". This again comes back to understanding, and recognizing that just because our recovery looks different than your lifestyle, there's nothing wrong with either way of doing things. It also may mean radically accepting that you may not totally understand all the components of our treatment plan, or WHY we're doing the things we're doing. Again, that's OKAY.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to help someone who is recovering is to be there and reach out. This again may vary from person to person, as some people may love to hear from you everyday and some people probably prefer it less. It may mean that you simply give them a quick call or shoot them a text message saying, "Hey, how are you doing? How's everything going?". It could be as easy as reminding them that you are there for them when they need you. As someone in recovery, I know intuitively that I have a really fantastic support network, but on the days where I'm really struggling, my mind is the furthest thing away from reaching out to those people. It means the world to me when someone reminds me that they're there for me. It also doesn't help that I'm really good at pretending everything's okay, and keeping things to myself. I've personally benefitted from people asking me, "Okay, how are you, and don't be a hero and act like everything's great if it's not. How are you, really?" Those times when people reach out remind me that it's okay to not be okay every second of the day and that I truly have support in my corner.
At the end of the day, everyone's experiences with mental illness, eating disorders, and recovery is different. Everyone has their own ways that they need and prefer to be supported. The most important takeaways are to show compassion, recognize your own limitations and remember that they are normal and okay, and talk with your loved one. What works for one person may be the worst thing in the world for another, so talk to them. Make it so there is a platform to have a conversation about their experiences, if and when they want to share them with you. And remember, I am so grateful to have you supporting me through one of the hardest things I'll ever do. It may feel intense and overwhelming sometimes to support me, but it means so much that you're there and not giving up on me. I see your support, and I thank you.
"It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it."
One of my biggest struggles in seeking and actually doing recovery has been in opening up, sharing what's actually going on, and asking for help from others. There came a point last semester where the only people who knew that I was relapsing were my therapist and my dietitian. And while I love my treatment team a lot, that's exactly what they are. Clinical professionals who are doing their jobs to help me. It became a problem that I wasn't opening up to anyone else in my life about what I was going through or that I was struggling.
It was a really strange time to not open up to anyone about what was going on. I have AMAZING friends who have been through hell and back with me, and my boyfriend of 2.5 years couldn't be more supportive. My family and I have always been extremely close and I know that they would do anything for me, even from 1,500 miles away.
I couldn't do it.
I couldn't share what I was going through.
I felt trapped, scared, and so much shame for what I was experiencing. And most of all, I felt like I would be a huge burden to everyone if I simply let them in.
The load I was carrying felt too heavy, too dark, too scary, to share with anyone. And I've come to realize after working through this concept a lot that the reason I felt this way is because I was carrying this load all alone.
Let's think about it like this. I'm carrying a backpack that's 100 lbs., and I'm struggling with the constant weight day-in and day-out. The weight feels too heavy to me, because I never get to take it off or share the weight with anyone else. If I started to open up to my boyfriend, for example, and gave him 10 lbs. out of the backpack, or even let him carry the backpack for a little bit, it wouldn't completely burden him. Instead, it would help to lighten my load and let him in.
My therapist helped explain that by not opening up with the hopes of protecting others from the "burden", I'm not actually helping anyone. I'm hurting myself by keeping everything in and on my own back, and my friends and family are feeling frustrated and in the dark because I don't want to hurt them.
It's taken me a while to come to realize that I deserve to ask others for help.
It won't ruin other people to let them in and share what I'm going through. In fact, it will probably make our relationships stronger because they'll finally know what's going on. My boyfriend put it this way, "I can't help you if I don't know what's happening."
And that's true. And it doesn't make it any easier.
For the majority of my life, I've had this nagging feeling that I need to figure all of my shit out on my own, and that asking for help would make me weak. I've known, logically, that this isn't true, but it didn't make it any easier to accept until I started processing it in sessions and practicing sharing what I was feeling, thinking, struggling with, etc.
This has to be a practice. It's not a skill that I talk about with my therapist and on the blog once, and then forget about entirely. If I want to heal fully (which I do!) then I have to practice, daily, letting people in, and sharing how I feel. Writing a blog has been good practice because it's helped me to reduce some of the shame I feel about mental illness, but I'm challenging myself to do more. To have these conversations in person, to disclose the hard stuff even when it feels like I could never possibly open up about it or those in my life wouldn't understand.
The title of this blog, Living Free C, is about living free from my eating disorder, and no longer feeling trapped by my depression and anxiety. However, it's also about living free from these arbitrary rules that I've set for myself about a number of things, including opening up about how I'm feeling and letting people in. Healing is going to take time and it's hard enough on its own without intentionally depriving myself of the support around me.
Your support system only helps if you give them a chance to help you.
Raise your hand if you've ever made your boyfriend drive you an hour away to go to the nearest Trader Joe's. Anyone? Just me?
It's no secret that I love Trader Joe's for it's convenience, prices, and array of awesome items and finds.
However, I am a little pissed off about their marketing strategy on some of their items.
Let's talk about "Reduced Guilt."
From what I can find on the internet, there are a wide range of items that Trader Joe's has so lovingly marketed as being "reduced guilt". This includes wheat crackers, guacamole, mac & cheese, chicken salad, and dips.
I have little problem with things being marked as "low calorie" or "low fat" if that's what they truly are, even though that's a story for another day as a lot of companies put that on products where they add a bunch of chemicals or other things to make up in taste for what they've taken out of it.
However, I am bothered by the phrase, "reduced guilt". If something says low fat, you can at least quantify how much fat you've taken out of it compared to the original product. How much guilt is in mac & cheese originally, compared to the newer version?
I get that they're trying to be clever and cute about marketing things that may be lower calorie or lower fat, but I have a problem with the deeper implications of this.
Eating is a necessity of life.
Eating is needed to sustain life, fuel your body, and to provide you the energy you need to be alive.
Eating should not be associated with guilt.
Even if I didn't have an eating disorder, this would make me feel bad about myself. Especially if I chose the *gasp* full-fat guacamole or mac and cheese over the reduced guilt options.
This mentality lends itself into diet culture and I think it's something worth bringing up.
Eating should not be associated with guilt. Period, full stop, end of sentence.
It's 2018 and time for us to call out the bullshit that we see in stores, advertising, and the world today. I love Trader Joe's but I think it's important that we realize the deeper implications of wording and marketing as they can have potentially negative consequences to consumers.
It's time to do better than this.
"Health" has become such a loaded word in our society, and is something I believe many people struggle with, regardless of their histories with mental illness or eating disorders.
This has been something that I've been thinking about & struggling with since the first time I went to treatment. As I started working through my issues with food, body, and self-worth, I continued to run into this concept of "health" and how it impacted me throughout my recovery. My dietitian finally addressed it with me, and this was something that effects me deeply, even over a year later.
She told me, "Charlotte, you used to equate health with being skinny. You have to redefine what health means for you."
I wrote an Instagram post about it, where I detailed all of the things that used to be "healthy" to me (eating disorder behaviors and symptoms). You can read that post here. And while I think it's important to point out what's not considered healthy for me anymore, I'd much rather focus on all of the things that make me truly healthy. This kind of reframe can help me on the days where it feels hard to acknowledge that what I'm doing, right here, right now, is what's healthy for me.
Health for me means a number of things.
It means that I eat. It means that I value a good night's sleep, and constantly aim for 8+ hours a night. It means that I walk and move my body, to get fresh air, and to regulate my mood. It means that I take medication every day, to keep myself stable and feeling alright. Health means that I make time to spend with family and friends, but can set boundaries and be comfortable spending time alone. It means going to therapy, showing up and working hard in treatment. It means that I am recognizing that I am not only allowed, but also encouraged to reach out when I need extra help. Health means writing, blogging, and creating art. It also means slowing down, listening to my body when I'm over-exerting myself. It means that I have a doctor who I see regularly, getting tests done when they're needed, and making any and all mental and physical health concerns known. Health means that I'm finally getting surgery on a chronic shoulder injury after 9 years. It means practicing new coping skills, expressing my needs, and trying to show myself compassion. It means loving myself and others as fully as I can. Health means living as authentically as possible.
The amazing part of this is that health is always changing and evolving. Something that is part of what you consider to be healthy may no longer resonate with you in the future. And things that may have not seemed to be important to you can also become a huge part of your health, and what you value health to be.
I encourage you to think about what health means to you. Does it mean that you can keep up with your kids and your dogs, or does it mean that you do yoga and meditate a certain number of times every week? Is it about making sure you have enough energy to do what you want to do, or does it mean setting a goal, running a race, or trying new foods?
Health is very individualized. Think about the unique ways that health can manifest itself for you.
I've asked a couple of the people close to me what health means to them. I really loved all of their responses, because each one is so individual and unique, and each one is so true and valid.
My wonderful roommate Shree tells me that "health for me is taking care of myself and being well."
My fellow mental health advocate, & friend Jocelyn puts it beautifully, "A true state of health is when one is able to feel fulfilled and thrive both emotionally and physically, day in and day out."
"To me, health is about focusing on how you and your body feel, as opposed to how you look. And placing the same importance on mental health as physical health, realizing that they are very intertwined and need to work together," Colleen, my close friend, & ED warrior told me.
"I believe health encompasses the body, mind, and soul. Our bodies hear everything we say and feel everything we do to it. It is so important to develop self-love... when we have that, our personal health can empower us in so many ways." My soul sister and lifestyle writer, Jordan, rounds out these quotes, and I couldn't agree with her, or the other interpretations more!
So I challenge you again, what does health mean to YOU? I'd be curious to hear all about it, and think there'd be a lot more variety than you'd think.
Eating disorders are hard to understand. Mental illnesses are hard to understand, especially if you've never experienced them first-hand. This post is for all the family members, friends, and loved ones, who may be struggling to understand why and how an eating disorder develops, and why they're so hard to recover from.
My therapist gave me a really great metaphor in our session this week. It resonated with me, and I think it does a great job of explaining the complexity that is an eating disorder or any type of unhealthy coping mechanism. Let's call this the log metaphor.
Imagine that you are floating along in a river, and suddenly, the water gets extremely rough, dangerous and unpredictable. You begin to struggle to keep your head above water, you're afraid, and there's no way you can swim to safety on your own. Along comes a log, big and heavy, something for you to grab onto. It saves you as you cling to it. Eventually, the storm clears, and the waters become calm again. The log starts to feel increasingly heavy. Your friends and family are on the river bank, calling to you to swim to shore, to safety. To do so, you would have to leave the log behind. But, the log saved your life, there's no way you feel you can leave it behind. Besides, what if the water gets bad again and you don't have the log?
Recovery and treatment are the acts of learning to leave the log behind. In treatment, you learn the skills to make it through the bad water without needing the log again. You start to swim laps around the log, then come back to it, while you're just starting out. Eventually, you won't come back to the log at all. That's when you'll have the skills to successfully navigate the waters on your own. You'll finally be able to make it to shore. You'll be finally, truly, fully, recovered.
Can you see now why it's so hard for for those suffering from eating disorders? Here's the major takeaway if you're not one for metaphors:
Eating disorders serve a purpose.
They're maladaptive coping mechanisms, that are there for a number of reasons. They are biologically based and serve to help individuals cope with various experiences.
My experience, for example, was that my eating disorder served as a life-line. It helped me deal with my anxiety and depression, with my insecurities and negative self-talk, and to cope with toxic relationships and traumatic events. It gave me a sense of control, and that helped me to numb out the other, negative feelings that I didn't feel strong enough to face on my own. It was there for me when I really didn't know what else I was supposed to do.
It brought me a lot of comfort.
And that's part of the reason that recovery is so hard. You are being asked to deal with some of your hardest, most painful experiences and beliefs, while at the same time also not using the behaviors that have helped soothe and comfort you in the past.
This is why I'm such a big fan of the work I'm doing with DBT. In it, I have learned interpersonal skills, how to access my wise mind and be more mindful, and I am learning how to cope in more effective, healthy ways.
It's impossible to expect someone to stop their negative behaviors without giving them new skills to help them through tough times.
Hopefully, this helped shed some insight into why this recovery process is so challenging, but has the possibility to be so rewarding at the same time.
It's hard because the eating disorder served me in the past, but I know that the future is so much brighter without it.
Hi, I'm Charlotte! I'm a 24 year old navigating life in NYC and mental health recovery. I am passionate about public health and eliminating stigma.