Thursday, May 30, 2013

More on memory

This past week, I went to St. Paul's Hospital for a nursing skills lab. It went really well, I enjoyed myself and had a practical confidence boost as I performed the skills they were reviewing. There is still a lot for me to learn and brush up on but with each step I take, I am reassuring myself that the knowledge is still in me and my capacity to learn persists.

When I left the hospital, I walked to the bus stop along a familiar route. It was rush hour and raining enough to have out umbrellas. As I was walking, I experienced waves of emotions. At first it was slightly unpleasant because it was such an emotional cacophony! I was, in my true moment, so satisfied with my learning experience and even more thrilled to be getting back to work. I was smiling to myself at the thought of the present and of the future. However, there remained currents of unrest and anxiety. It had nothing to do with my afternoon at work it seemed. And then I remembered...everything.

It was more of a sensation of memory than direct. Feelings and a few picture memories from years past. From while I was working and physically well; those I had while working and physically unwell; and of course, those I had as a career sick person and commuting to the hospital for appointments.

Luckily, I caught this early in my walk to the bus and was able to observe it rather than analyze it and become confused or distressed as I may have before. It was rather interesting!! Nothing was intrusive, it just was.

As I approached home, a track by a great band - School of Seven Bells – came through my headphones. A few lyrics from the song “Kalaja Mari” are:

Do you feel the pain
or do you feel the memory?”

That struck me profoundly. I was not feeling the pain of the past, simply the memory. I have said before, that memories are affecting me less and less and this experience illustrated that so well. I felt many things but it was not the old pain. It was just feeling the memory.

So surely, I am walking away from the past. Memories will last, I am sure, but they are rarely intrusive at this point and even more rarely anxiety causing. It is wonderful, in a way, to have the memories I do as I lost many of them for some time (some form of mental protection). Now, it is a safer time for me to experience them as they need to present themselves in my consciousness again. I can only hope that as I keep giving my emotional self room to feel and to remember, that I will fill my most accessible mind with “better” memories. The others serve as a reminder right now, of how far I have come and what I went through to get to where I am today. At this time, I appreciate the push towards gratitude that my memory offers. In time, it will likely be different. For now, this is just as it should be and that is quite okay!

The image for today's post is a quote by Paulo Coelho. “It takes huge effort to free yourself from memory.” I agree but like so much of the effort put towards wellness, it is not at all draining – rather quite life-giving and refreshing. What better results of effort could one ask for?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

“What makes us say such mean things to ourselves?”

This was a question that came up in conversation regarding the way people with eating disorders, though often remarkable human beings and worthy of wonderful lives, think about and talk to themselves. Surprisingly quickly, I had my answer to this question.

For me, it was not knowing how to be who I really was/am. As a child, my parents did their very best with me. My sensitivity was accommodated in ways that others' is not by family. It was my own perception of how I felt, and judgement of the same, that caused the disconnect with my true self and thus, the negative self-talk.

I'm not sure if I have shared this memory in this blog; I know I have spoken about it in my face to face interactions.  It stands out from my childhood, and begins my explanation of why I became the way I was.

When I was 6, my mom's brother passed away after battling cancer. I had met him once, maybe twice. He lived on the other side of the country and we were not close. The day he passed (an expected death), the call came through to my mom and, when she hung up the phone, my dad asked how Bill was. Mom stated quite matter-of-factly, “He's dead.” and carried on doing the dishes as she had been before the call. I overheard this news and fled to my room with my eyes stinging. I remember standing in the corner, crying - sobbing in fact - and wondering why? It was my mom's brother and she was not crying, why was I so upset? The fact remained that I was but, the idea that my emotional response could possibly be wrong, stuck with me. From then, I wanted to be “stronger” – more like my mom, my hero.

As time went on, I tried to control my emotions but not in a way that worked because I did not have instruction/guidance.  In fact, I cannot imagine many, if any, people were aware of the effort I was making to be “like everybody else”.  Emotional control meant stuffing, stifling, and bottling my feelings. Within myself, I felt flawed. I still had my emotional reactions/responses but I hated myself for them. When I didn't observe other people having, or allowing expression of, their emotions, I had to wonder why I was feeling the way I was at any given time - certainly I was wrong.

It makes sense now, how the rest of the negative self-talk came to be. If one starts at 6 or so thinking that they are wrong and weird and tries to change with no direction, a certain divide arises:

I still had my feelings but I felt they were often the wrong way to feel and, therefore I, as a person, was wrong; eventually it was as though I were two people in one body. I did not lose my sensitivity but I sure tried to deny it, mask it, and suppress or change it. After years of telling myself and being convinced that I was not doing “it” right, what could the result be except extreme judgement and negativity?

Take it one step further, I figured that if I could not even feel the "right way", I must be doing everything else wrong too!  The snowball effect...

When I went through eating disorder treatment as an adolescent, I was finally allowed to be whomever I really was. At 17, I experienced, emotionally - in one year - what I imagine most people spread out over all the adolescent years of 12-18. It was challenging but freeing. However, despite being allowed  and encouraged to be myself, there was still no understanding of how I could contend with my sensitivity in the context of the “real world”. It was finally okay to be sensitive, it was seen as a gift, I accepted it...but to be allowed it and to be able to really deal with it, understand it, and celebrate it, are different skills.

As I progressed into chronological adulthood, I started to suppress again because my experience was too strong and too painful. I continued to see myself as doing things wrong and feeling too much or the wrong way. Thoughts like, I “should” be stronger; I “should” be able to deal with life. After all, I'd spent two years in intensive treatment and was in recovery from an eating disorder!

I look back and want to hug that young adult and tell her that it's okay not to have it all figured out. I want her to know that she does not need to numb out her feelings, though extreme at times, with mood stabilizers, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety agents. I want her to see and understand that her OCD tendencies were just an attempt to structure her world when, internally, there was still chaos. I want her to know it's okay to ask for help and that she is still worthy of help even after the effort put into her during treatment; that needing support does not end for any strong human. Strength is found in vulnerability and removing the simple mask of bravery.

As the conflict between how I felt and how I thought I should feel arose again, the self deprecation and hate naturally followed. After all that, I was still doing it wrong. (By whose standards? By the image presented by the superficial elite of the world to be sure...) 

Additionally, I realized that I was not only feeling my own feelings but was highly perceptive of others' also. To experience others' feelings as viscerally as if the were one's own, while trying to contend with the deeply personal jumble inside, is an overwhelming task!

Eventually, I relapsed hard. Through the ED I was able to numb it all. I disconnected with myself and with the world as I became more and more obsessed.

When I entered treatment this last time, I expected a recovery similar to what I had when I was a young adult but hopefully with a bit more insight and "tools". The journey was far from the same and the result is extensively different.

Sensitivity, as a gift, is not a simply a belief anymore, it is knowledge to me now. The idea that I feel very deeply is okay and it does not need to destroy me. I am not doing anything “wrong” because there is no scale with which to judge the right and wrong of my feelings.

If other people do not think and feel the same way I do, it does not make anyone wrong, it just adds to the mosaic of human material.

I love my sensitivity now. I love that it allows me a completely different and wordless language/interaction with the world. I am okay with crying over the loss of a person or animal I barely knew or knew for only a short time. I know that my experience of the world is different than many others' and that is okay too. It is not wrong, it is just me, and how I feel, how anyone feels, can never be “wrong”.

Now, I also know how to really manage and care for myself. I might go so far as to say that I am an expert in me! I have never felt this way. I always thought that someone had to understand me, and what I was thinking and feeling, better than me. These days, I know me and I trust myself. I can comfort and reassure myself but am okay (and getting better) with the idea that sometimes, someone else can comfort me too. I am allowed all my feelings because that is all they are. I understand the power I have to choose my thoughts about those feelings (and about life in general) and that is a practice I engage with most of the time. I have stopped over-analyzing how I am feeling - what is the point? So that I can compare it to you or her, or him, or myself from a different time? I do check-in with myself when I am feeling unexpected or uncomfortable emotions but without judgement. It's kind of like I am asking myself to “tell me more. What is really going on?  Does this even belong to/come from you?”. In that way, it sounds like I am my own therapist and I feel like exactly that!!

It is amazing to know myself and be okay with whatever I am and who I am becoming. I can always improve on things. I have a list the length of my arm of areas in which I am making much effort to change and improve, but only because it serves my true self, and hopefully the world, better - not because I feel flawed.

So with all that, the negative self-talk has vastly improved. I remain human and have doubts and fears. I sometimes criticize myself more harshly than I would like to or need to. I do not think I am the “bees' knees” on any given day but I sure do not hate myself – ever. What is so dramatically different is that, although I remain hard on myself at times and push myself extensively to move forward, the real me is consistent. Consistently evolving, perhaps! The disconnect that I described earlier doesn't exist and therefore, less and less confusion. With this clarity, I can see myself for who I really am and that alright!!

I have proven to myself that I do much better with gentle encouragement versus harsh words to myself; learned to be curious about what and why I am feeling; and understand that my feelings cannot be wrong - regardless of what they are - but can be explained and offer insight.

If you ask yourself, who is the "you" you speak to in your thoughts?  Is the real you the speaker or the listener?  Both?  Why not visualize yourself as a child and speak to her/him as you would a young one?  Ultimately, you are your child and you are your parent.  You are your client and you are your therapist.  Everyone needs input from the outside but, in your thoughts: be the gentler speaker and the open listener - as one.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

To be continued?

With 6 other half-written blog entries open as word documents on my computer, here I am writing another. It is not for lack of things to say but a consideration that maybe it is time for me to wrap up this blog. My intention, in the beginning, was to keep people in the loop (who wanted to be) as to my progress towards recovery. Soon, the blog morphed slightly due to my desire for people to better understand the mindset of people with eating disorders and for those afflicted to really grasp that there is hope. Have I succeeded in those things? I am not sure, but I know I tried my best.

Do I have more to say on eating disorders? I sure do! I just have to wonder what good sharing my personal story does. I have to consider that those who are currently sick or working towards recovery are looking for answers and the potential for influence is great. I would not want someone to think that what worked for me will necessarily work for them; that my way is “right”, and end up more frustrated when it becomes clear that everything is individual when it comes to self-discovery. My way was, and is, right for me but not for everyone! This sounds obvious to me but is not always.

For example:

I have started two entries regarding body image as, when I was coming through, I searched and searched for some answers as to when things got better and when the changes would end - I didn't find much. I don't have the answers for anyone and, ultimately, have the same message for others that I came across: it is different for everyone but it does get better. It was frustrating, especially while my patience was very low and still being nurtured, to not be able to find an answer or a guideline for me. The fabulous thing about how personal it is, is that whatever happens is exactly as it should be. It's not an easy realization when one is in the thick of dealing with a negative mindset. There was a desire in me to be like everyone else, just in some simple ways, but also a deeper, stronger desire to be fully myself and embrace my individuality. If I speak to my experience with physical recovery, I have to wonder how many people will put themselves on a time line in a negative way or wonder why, when their bodies do somethings entirely different, things are not working out as expected. It's a delicate area to discuss but so misunderstood.

Another entry spoke to why such nice people say and think such awful things to and about themselves. I may come back to that topic. It is certainly a pattern of thought that begins at an early age and takes time and effort to correct. However, my why is not going to be the why for anyone else – so is there value in sharing it? I do not know.

In the meantime, while I contemplate whether to continue discussions regarding eating disorders and illustrate my points with subjective experience, I want to emphasize, today, how possible life after an eating disorder is.

I believe I have been clear about how beautiful I find life; how I delight in wonder at the world and people; and how connected and loved I feel. I am forever thankful for all of this.

To say what the biggest change is, is difficult but, it may very well be the dissipation of fear. And this brings me back to my query about continuing this particular blog because, to remain eating disorder specific is perhaps the wrong approach. Let me explain...

Fear is a human condition. It does not belong to only people with “mental illness”. Well people live with fear too: of the future, of change, of commitment, of death, heck, of spiders, birds, and heights! The list goes on. We all have it. Sensitive perfectionists (classic traits of many with eating disorders) may experience fears more intensely, especially related to these ominous concepts of “success” or “failure”. I was previously terrified that I was a terrible person under my illness. Now, does a truly terrible person worry that they are a bad person? I think not!

The "dissipation" of my person fears does not mean eradication. Fear exists for evolutionary purposes and to that extent, I have embraced some healthy fear.

Aha! So it is not fear that has left but my understanding of the concepts that I was so scared of before that has increased and changed!

More examples:

Success has been redefined by my own standards (which I will not get into as I believe it is an extremely empowering task for each individual to find their own meaning of this concept). “Failure” has become an opportunity to learn and do things differently. In fact, it does not seem to exist in my thought process anymore because, if I learn from all my experiences and commit to applying that learning, how is there any room to conceive of a situation or event as a failure? Change has been embraced. How else can one survive this life if one does not relinquish the illusion of control? Change is uncomfortable at times and disruptive, yes. But, again, through each process of change, I learn more about myself and the world. By entering each day with a curiosity about what I can learn and how I can possibly change for the better or practice the way of being that I am developing that works for me (and those around me), change itself - becomes fascinating.

So you see, though I could go on, life for me, now, is much less about “recovery” and simply about joining the weird and wild world while getting to know myself and continue to improve on and grow into the person I want to be.

Now that I have written this, I think I have decided to maintain this space – though probably with a similar infrequency I have of late.

So with that, I will add that I have been back in Canada for just over 6 months and things keep getting better and more interesting. My past, though memorable finally, is only that – memories. To date, my experience is that life is as good as I allow it to be and I know I have the ability to choose how I perceive it.

Let it be lovely to you too. Happy May!