Archives for Recovery

Emotions

A Mentor in Hiking Boots

About seven weeks ago, my boyfriend and I returned from a 6-day trek into the wilderness of West Texas. The town we stayed in had a population of 349 people (coming from Houston, a town of more than 2 million people, this was pretty wild all on its own)! Our goal was to hike the tallest mountain peak in Texas (you can read this post to find out how well that went!) Our other goal was to reconnect to our wild insides - the parts of us that still remembered how to live simply, how to breathe in and breathe out, how to allow our jaws to drop open in wonder at the vast natural beauty around us, how to sip coffee in the morning without simultaneously building the day's to-do lists in our heads. One night we decided to browse through the DVDs at the sweet rental casa where we were staying. We came across a film called "Wild" and popped it into the DVD player. As it turned out, the main character in the film, Cheryl Strayed, had recently experienced some tragedy and decided to "hike it off" - literally. For her first-ever hiking adventure, Cheryl chose to tackle the PCT, or Pacific Coast Trail. The PCT took Cheryl from California to Oregon and then across the "Bridge of the Gods" into Washington State. A young 20-something, she had just lost her mother very suddenly to cancer and then lost her husband with nearly equal suddenness to divorce. She had never hiked or camped before. Her pack, which her PCT trail-mates quickly nicknamed "Monster," was so heavy she couldn't even move it at first, much less strap it to her back and stand up. I am reliably fascinated by these kinds of stories. For instance, in the movie The Way, a bereaved father decides to hike through a Pyrenees trail called "The Way of St. James" as a tribute to his recently deceased son. Of course, in Wild, Cheryl hikes the PCT, and cites similar circumstances as her inspiration to do so. On a lighter note, The Big Year chronicles three avid birdwatchers, each with his own deeply personal reason for pursuing a "big year" trek of counting rare bird species around the world. I have never hiked the Pyrenees or the PCT, and the only bird I can reliably identify (and count) is the one living with me in my casa. But there have been many times when I have woken up one day, only to realize I had reached my limit of how many days I could go on living the way I had been living and feeling the way I had been feeling. When these days come, there is no arguing with them. And until they come, there is no rushing them. 
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Inspirational

Thinking Your Way Up the Self-Talk Ladder

Recently, I attempted to track down an interesting quote about how the average person tends to repeat five times more negative than positive messages about himself or herself. The surprise was what I got when I hit "enter." I got lots of hits describing how positive self-talk can backfire on us. In fact, the more I read about this topic, the worse I felt. Apparently, if you suffer from low self-esteem and you try to raise it by repeating positive self-talk messages, you have a greater chance of making yourself feel worse than better. This totally makes sense to me, by the way. As someone who is slowly recovering from a lifetime of low self-esteem, I have put in my time and then some repeating those very same positive self-talk messages - usually with ever-worsening results. It would seem the key is to choose to repeat messages that actually feel believable or possible, which (understandably) can be quite a feat if you are feeling like total crap. But in this new era of studying the mind-body connection and finding that they are connected, well, all over the place, there is also an ongoing eagerness to learn to feel better in body AND in mind by making the mind a more positive place to live...or at least visit from time to time. And I can say this. As I have continued on my recovery journey, I have become much kinder towards myself, if through no other mechanism than sheer dogged determination to do so. In other words, after innumerable years of oh so many failed affirmations, one or two of them must have finally stuck. And once that happened, the others were easier to wedge into my brain alongside the surviving trailblazers. But I wouldn't be able to describe to you exactly how I did it, save for this little juicy tidbit I actually picked up from a book called "Ask and It is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires" by Esther and Jerry Hicks. This is one of many books that often seem like variations on the theme of the popular "law of attraction" theories. And don't get me wrong here. While to this day I have zero problem with developing an ability to bring more of what I want and less of what I don't want into my life, I must also acknowledge that sometimes it is precisely the stuff I really don't want that has turned out to be the same stuff I really do need in order to learn how to get more of what I want and less of what I don't. If that makes any type of obscure sense at all. So even though I know the "Law of Attraction" has been a big blessing for some folks, it has never really worked well for me in a sense, because it actually tries to get me from A to Z  (or at least A to B) a lot faster than is healthy or even possible for me. In other words, I actually seem to need a road map with more dead ends and roadblocks and wrong directions so I can learn the stuff I need to learn before I can learn the stuff I want to learn. (I will totally understand if that didn't make a single bit of sense at all!) But what I learned while reading "Ask and It is Given" is also the reason I now know that repeating strong positive self-talk statements doesn't work when I am in a particularly negative self-talk state. It doesn't work because I don't believe any of it - not for a minute. So instead of soaking in the good vibes of all that rosy-positive self-talk, I am typically busy giving myself a stern lecture about spending yet another day blowing smoke up my own a**. What DOES work, however, is this: I reach for a thought that feels just a little bit better than whatever awful thought my mind has been thinking ad nauseam about myself. So if I'm thinking, "I am the worst, most-selfish and worthless person on the planet," I don't try to immediately replace that thought with, "I am the kindest and most-wonderful person on the planet." As if. I wasn't born yesterday. Instead, I might replace it with a thought that feels just a little bit better - i.e. just a little bit more accurate, such as this thought, "Well, okay, I'm probably not the worst person on the whole planet. I mean, at least I'm not an axe murderer." That thought feels better. It also feels accurate - i.e., still true." So my mind doesn't waste any real energy or time trying to contradict it. In an odd and absolutely counter-intuitive way, suddenly I'm not feeling quite so bad about being me. Once that thought settles in, I can then reach for the next "not quite so bad feeling thought." So maybe that might be, "In fact, yesterday I got out of bed to feed my animals even though I didn't want to. So that was unselfish - kind of nice, actually." Here again, the statement is true. My mind can't argue the point since I did in fact get up, get out of the bed, clean out their habitats, and give them fresh food and water. That thought also feels just a little bit better than, "well at least I'm not an axe murderer." 
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Celebrity Mentors

What Do You Think of Jennifer Lawrence’s “New Normal?”

A post or two ago, I shared a personal experience about ordering a pastry and eating it with peace and happiness. This was significant because I did this even though the friend I was with at the time (who is much more slight and not curvy like me) wasn't doing the same on account of feeling, well, fat. I mean, I've been in recovery for well over a decade, and this certainly wasn't the first time I've eaten what I wanted in the presence of someone who was having a bad body image day. But it was the first time it felt so - effortless - AND that I noticed how effortless it felt. That was the really cool part. Back in April, actress Jennifer Lawrence came out with a statement about her vision for Hollywood's body future. In an interview with Harpers Bazaar magazine, she said she wants her city and her industry to embrace what she calls "a new normal body type." What she actually, precisely said was this: 
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Inspirational

No, I Don’t Feel Fat (and Yes, I’m Going to Eat That)

I had such a cool day today. It was the kind of day that makes every single day - all 2 decades of them - I spent recovering from an eating disorder worth it. More than worth it. When I left to meet my friend for coffee, I wasn't especially keen on what I was wearing or how I looked. I also felt like I might have a cold coming on. In short, I felt kind of .... iffy. But since I love this particular friend very much, I went to meet her anyway. We ordered. She got a latte. I got a giant cold coffee frappe and a tasty pastry. My friend is quite tiny (naturally so - not on account of any past history of an eating disorder). Where I curve, she hugs the straight line. When I offered to share my pastry with her, she turned me down, but not for the reasons I expected. My tiny friend told me her pants were suddenly way too tight and no way was she going to eat a pastry. And here is the best part. IT DIDN'T PHASE ME ONE BIT. 
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Celebrity Mentors

Retraining Your Eyes to Accept Your Body

These days, I spend increasingly less of my time focused on what I would call "recovery" matters. In other words, I can go whole days, weeks even, without really thinking about the me that used to struggle SO hard with an eating disorder on a daily basis. But there is one area that continues to require significant daily investments of my time and focus. That area is body acceptance. I certainly wasn't an overnight recovery success myself. By that I mean, I've never gotten to a place where, from that point forward, I simply stopped struggling with my eating issues. Rather, recovery happened gradually, not even day by day but minute by minute, until there were fewer moments of significant struggle with increasing stretches of relative peace in between them. Now I am working on body acceptance in the same way, minute by minute and day by day. Some days are harder than others, but the really tough days are fewer and farther between. One particular tactic is really paying off. I call it "retraining my eyes to accept my body." The way I do this is simple. 
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Mentoring

Are You a “Giving Tree?”

Once upon a time, I made a new friend. Over time, we became very close. When we first met, she mentored me. As we got to know each other better, we mentored each other. Then things shifted and I began supporting her through some of the toughest times a human being can endure. During those years, she gifted me with a book by Shel Silverstein called "The Giving Tree." This book talked about a relationship between a boy and a tree. The tree loved the boy, and the boy loved the tree back. But whereas the tree's love was unconditionally giving, the boy's love was focused on getting. At first, this was so innocent - after all, the boy was little. He needed a lot from the tree, and the tree gave it all willingly. But as the boy grew up, he continued to take. The tree continued to give. At last, the boy had grown old himself. He had taken so much from the tree that only a stump remained. Then the tree gave him even this. The book ends with these words, "And the tree was happy." 
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Mentoring

Feelings and How You Feel About Those Feelings

A few days ago, I posted some thoughts about a possible evolutionary basis for worries about whether or not we are "normal." Surprisingly, this contemplation came out of a book called "Come As You Are," which is basically about, well, sex. Author Emily Nagoski is a sex educator and researcher who has tackled (and, I would say, thoroughly knocked out) that age-old enduring myth that there is any kind of normal barometer by which to assess anyone's sex life. But she accomplished this in a surprising and welcome way - by first knocking out the underlying myth that there is any kind of normal barometer to anyone's life, period. Male or female, young or old, heavy or slim, tall or short, rich or of limited means, our individual biology can definitely differ significantly from one of us to the next (Darwin liked to call this variation "natural selection"). But our individual psychology can differ even more so. In fact, our psychology is unique to us and is totally dependent upon our innate mood "set point" as well as who raised us, how well they did, the messages we accepted along the way, whether we were good at what others wanted us to be good at, how well our appearance fit in with cultural sex appeal standards during our lifetime, how we felt about all of this, and - most of all - how we felt about how we felt. And how we feel today about how we feel. In other words, we may not have chosen to have the feelings we have, but we are definitely choosing how we feel about our feelings! Dr. Nagoski calls this phenomenon "the little monitor." 
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Animal Mentors

How Parrots Can Help People with PTSD

Out in California, something special is taking place. At a sanctuary called Serenity Park, traumatized parrots and traumatized people are connecting for mutual healing. What is interesting about this is, well, pretty much everything (of course, as a lifelong parrot lover, I may be just a touch biased here). The people participants are formerly homeless veterans (both men and women) victimized by the many and varying traumas associated with wartime military service. The parrot participants have been victimized by a different kind of war - mainly abuse by or loss of their human owners. On both sides, there are emotional and mobility issues to contend with. But in all cases, it is clear that the interspecies participants' minds are still sharp and eager to heal. Speaking of minds, there is no doubt in mine that the pioneering work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her now-passed African Grey parrot, Alex, (two of my own most cherished mentors) are responsible for laying the foundation for what is going on at Serenity Park right now. Thanks to Alex & Dr. Pepperberg, we know that parrots can display emotional and cognitive abilities to rival young humans. We know they feel deeply, form intense social bonds, understand abstract reasoning and have the capacity to develop complex and extensive vocabularies. This means that, in some capacity, parrots may be even better suited than dogs to participate in animal-assisted therapy as service and support partners. Perhaps this is what veteran volunteer Lilly Love meant when she told New York Times reporter Charles Siebert, You can look in their eyes....any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense. 
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Emotions

Frozen (A New Take on Fight or Flight)

A couple posts ago, I wrote about a neat and very effective new tactic I just learned for healing stress. Oddly, I learned about this technique, called "completing the cycle," in a book called "Come As You Are:  the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life" by Dr. Emily Nagoski. As I've kept reading, I've kept learning more surprising new things. In fact, I just finished a section that describes how  our ancient reptilian limbic brains prefer to deal with stress. I have always believed that when animals (human or non-human) feel threatened, our ancient limbic brain gives us two options: fight or flight. But according to lots of science and Dr. Nagoski's book, we actually get three options: fight, flight, or FREEZE. This makes a lot of sense....so much sense that I can't believe I didn't learn about this until age 45. It also makes sense because I am now realizing that freezing is one of my threat-detection specialities. Freezing is what baby deer do when they hear a nearby rustling in the grass (hoping that if the hungry predator does spy them, it will think "oh look a dead baby deer - that is not what I had in mind for lunch today"). For that matter, freezing is what adult deer do when caught in a set of car headlights....and likely for similar reasons. Freezing is what my baby turtle, Malti, does whenever a shadow changes the light around her. And freezing is what I do in nearly any context when I am startled out of whatever it was I was doing before the startling occurred. For many of the memories I am now working towards completing, my threat-response option of choice has been to freeze. I have played dead. I have pretended I was part of the scenery (no matter how little I may have actually blended in). I have dissociated my mind and frozen my body, a good trick that left the predator talking to empty air, however much I may have appeared to still be standing there. Ha.
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Mentoring

Healing Stress by Completing the Cycle

Although it is a very important topic, I seldom write about intimacy (aka s.e.x.) here...or anywhere. It is a very personal thing to write about, or talk about, or even think about. But I read about it more these days, in the sense of trying to figure out answers to questions I have and to find a barometer for where I "fit" in the spectrum of intimate interests and needs. I mention this because recently I checked out a book from the local library called "Come As You Are: the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life," by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. Now I should preface this by saying that books with titles like this one often make me feel irritable. This is because they make me uncomfortable. And the last thing I want to do late at night (which is usually when I have time for "free reading" that is not related to required work) is read something that makes me feel uncomfortable. But since John Grisham isn't likely to have the answers to the questions I have in this particular area, I typically try to soldier on and get through whatever the book of the week happens to be. In this particular book's case, I'm glad I chose to stick with it, because I may have finally discovered one of the biggest missing pieces that continues to hold me back in certain areas of my ongoing recovery journey. This is called "completing the cycle." To illustrate how it works, Dr. Nagoski gives an example from the animal world (see why I'm glad I stuck with it?). To summarize - Suppose you are a deer. You are placidly enjoying your lunch when suddenly a hungry lion decides you look like its lunch. You sound the alarm and start running very, very fast. Here, there are two potential outcomes. Outcome A: you don't escape and the lion enjoys its lunch very much. Outcome B: you do escape. Let's say you do escape. Whew. This is great news, of course. But it is what you do next that can determine how that close call affects your life in the future. Most human beings tend to move right away to take care of the issue causing the stress (this is called "dealing with the stressor" - in this particular scenario it would be outrunning the lion). When we are done with that task, we tell ourselves very grown-up-sounding unhelpful things like, "well, that is dealt with now so you can just get over it and move on." And then we wonder why we can't sleep for nights or weeks or we turn to alcohol or food or other numbing behaviors to help us rest. Animals, on the other hand, do things very differently. And what they do usually tends to work much better. 
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