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When yoga gets complicated: How to appreciate the mental aspects of yoga

A little over a year ago, I was on the phone with my best friend. I remember telling her, “Ok, so don’t hate me, but I think I want to start doing yoga. Like, real yoga. For real.” She had a good laugh and then was like, “Wait. You’re serious?”

What’s so funny or unbelievable about wanting to do yoga? Well, for most people, absolutely nothing. It was funny to us though because up until that point we both had a strong mutual dislike for yoga. I’ve found this to be true of many people who’ve been through a great deal of eating disorder-related treatment, as yoga is often incorporated. I’m not just talking about the fancy residential centers; I’ve been to inpatient EDUs and even general psych wards that incorporate “yoga.” NYPSI, 2008– a unit comprised of patients with eating disorders, depression, and pill addiction are led in weekly sessions of “yoga” which consist of a bunch of dirty makeshift mats spread out on the tiled dining room floor (yes, we yoga-ed where we ate). Because ED patients were usually on restricted exercise there was very little movement involved, so it usually ended up being 90% meditation with maybe a tree pose and one downward dog thrown in to spice things up. It was often led by some random psych-tech and very rarely by an actual licensed yoga instructor. Is it any wonder why people exposed to this kind of “yoga” would develop an aversion to it?

This isn’t to say that all of the therapeutic yoga I experienced was horrible. For example, the place I was at in 2012 actually had a really awesome (licensed!) instructor teach legitimate yoga to patients once we were medically stable. It was experiences like this that led me to wonder if maybe I really could/would enjoy “real” non-treatment yoga one day.

So, in May of 2015, I took a leap of faith and signed up for my local yoga studio’s newcomer special that allowed you to take three weeks of unlimited classes for just $30. By my second or third class, I was hooked and I signed up for a membership as soon as my 3-week trial was up. I loved almost everything about it. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I maintained a lot of my gymnastics days flexibility. I loved that it was 60, 75, or 90 minutes at a time where I could temporarily escape from my everyday worries and stressors. I loved that the body image aspect I was so worried about (more on this later) wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. People really seemed to be focused on their own practice. And finally, I really loved the social aspect. Even though it was several months before I got comfortable enough to casually talk to the people I regularly saw there, just the experience of being in a space with 10-20 other people was surprisingly really… nice. I sometimes think I’m an extrovert stuck in an introvert’s mind/body; I do love people and can feel energized by them when I allow myself. In time I started being more friendly and open with people. I quickly became “good enough” to attend the advanced classes. Yoga life was good.

I’ll admit, my major motivation initially was physical. I suck at most regular exercise, so I thought yoga could be my thing. I made myself go to at least one class a day, often more. I gravitated to the most physically intense and advanced classes. More often than not my thoughts during savasana were along the lines of “I wonder how many calories I just burned?” Super deep and spiritual, I know. When yoga was a purely physical thing for me, I was convinced I had to be super compulsive about it. If yoga wasn’t going to help me achieve/keep the body I wanted, there was no point. Yoga twice a day everyday or not at all.

Gradually, however, I started noticing the more mental and emotional benefits. I noticed I just felt generally better after yoga, in every way. I went to sleep in a good mood and woke up excited for the day ahead, which was not typical for me. I started being easier on myself if I had to skip a class due to a scheduling conflict because after all, beating myself up for only going to yoga 5x/week instead of 7 was kind of silly. When my one-year yoga anniversary (yoga-versary?) came up in May, I was feeling pretty good about my yoga journey over the past year. I had managed to embrace the more spiritual side of yoga without becoming a hippie pot-smoking flower child (no offense to hippie pot-smoking flower children; that just isn’t me).

Then, a couple weeks ago something happened that kind of threw me for a loop. After class one night I was chatting with a fellow yogi. I mentioned that it was recently my one-year anniversary of being at the studio, and how crazy but cool it was that I had come to be such a fan of yoga. And then, out of nowhere, she started telling me how she had noticed a remarkable transformation in my body (yes, my body) over the past year. This came completely unprovoked; I didn’t give this woman any indication that I wanted her to give me a detailed analysis of the changes she noticed in my body (my body!) over the past year. It was so completely bizarre and uncomfortable. I just stood there with a blank stare on my face until she finally stopped talking long enough for me to kind of awkwardly laugh and tell her I had to be getting home.

I remember driving home that night thinking, “What seriously just happened??” As for the specific comments, it took me a long enough time to figure out what she was even trying to say. I think she was trying to pay me a compliment, but not unsurprisingly nothing about it felt good to me. I had recently worked hard to convince myself that even though I may be X lbs higher than I was at this time last year (thank you daily weight records), it’s not the end of the world, and it’s even okay because I’m generally happier and in a better place. I should also note that this wasn’t the first time this woman had made comments about my body, although this time was definitely the strangest, as she actually made reference to changes she’s noticed in specific body parts. What…the… actual… f*ck?

This woman is not aware of my history with EDs. That said, I truly think comments like this would make anyone uncomfortable, even people with no ED history whatsoever. I was telling this story to a close friend today, and she passionately validated for me that this woman’s comments were completely inappropriate.

One of my major hesitations to joining a yoga studio was the fact that it would mean major “exposure” for my body. In general I really hate the thought of anyone looking at or even noticing my body. This used to be so bad that I would avoid leaving the house entirely on bad body image days. As such, willingly choosing to put myself out there via group yoga was a pretty huge deal for me. Whenever I started to feel weird and anxious about my body being “on display” I’d tell myself that no one was looking at or examining my body; everyone was too focused on their own practice. Listening to this woman give such a detailed assessment of my body negated this completely.

I think this woman is a perfect example of someone who does yoga purely for physical reasons. This is absolutely fine; I respect that everyone does yoga for their own reasons. That said, I’ll admit that being around people like her make it harder for me to embrace the other more mental/spiritual aspects of yoga, as it brings the entire focus back to the physical.

I don’t intend to let this woman spoil my love for yoga, although it’s definitely been a mindf*ck of a couple weeks as I try to make sense of and put to rest these comments. I’m grateful for the very candid conversation I was able to have with a friend today who was able to offer much needed perspective and insight into this and related body concerns. Thank you, friend, your input today meant more than you know.

“Welcome. You’ve got mail.”: Recalling the early days of online support forums

I met my best friend (K) online. We “met” on an eating disorder-specific message board in late 2008. About a month into our friendship we were already corresponding on a daily basis, through emails, texts, and phone calls. We didn’t meet in person until nearly four years later when she came to stay with me for five days shortly after I moved to Los Angeles. We were scared it might be weird, but it really wasn’t. Today, seven and a half years later, she remains one of my closest and most loyal friends.

I used to be afraid to tell people how we actually met. I even lied to some people and told them we met at gymnastics camp or at a treatment center. Both of these were actually plausible as we were both into gymnastics as kids and we both had been to some of the same treatment centers, although never at the same time. I was afraid that if I was honest about having her met online, especially on an eating disorder site, people would get the wrong idea. You’ve probably heard about the “pro anorexia” movement and their large presence online. I was never into any of that, and neither was K. Still, people hear “online” and “eating disorder” and assume you must be talking about some graphic pro-ana site where you drool over emaciated pictures and trade tips on how to lose 15 lbs in 3 days. To people with actual eating disorders, this assumption is pretty insulting. I know others may disagree, but I don’t consider those people to have real eating disorders. They’re struggling with something, surely, but that something is usually completely unlike what I and most others like me have struggled with. I don’t want to give too much attention to this topic because it’s pretty irrelevant to what this blog is about. Anorexia is not a “lifestyle” that anyone should strive for and people who treat it as such are doing everyone a disservice by perpetuating ridiculous stereotypes.

Moving on… I’m no longer ashamed to admit where I met K. I wanted to write about my many positive experiences with online connections and support because so much of the talk around this topic is about the negatives. The truth is, the online world is a completely different beast than it was 15-20 years ago. Both K and I agree that what so many people with eating disorders do online today in the name of “support” is not at all conducive to real recovery, and is in many cases harmful. I’m not talking about pro-ED forums. I’m talking about the ever-expanding “recovery community” that exists on sites like Tumblr, Instagram, and to a lesser degree, Facebook. I want to keep the focus of this blog on the positives of online support, so I’ll save my discussion of the current Tumblr/Instagram situation for a future entry.

My first encounter with eating disorders on the internet was in late 1997 when I was 13. One of my teachers had recently picked up on my eating disorder and turned me into the school nurse, who then got the school psychologist and my parents involved. It was not a fun time for anyone. I had been secretly dealing with stuff for a while, but this was the first time it was “exposed” and people were labeling it as anorexia, or an eating disorder. That alone scared the shit out of me. I knew what anorexia was and I was convinced that was not what I had. I was nothing like the girls in the Lifetime movies about eating disorders. I didn’t start losing weight to look good in my prom dress or to impress a guy. I didn’t eat 3 sticks of celery a day or faint dramatically after a run. That was not me.

I knew there was something weird/wrong about me though, so I started doing my own investigating. This was before Google, but I managed to find quite a few resources, such as the AOL “support forums” dedicated to eating disorders. Yes, AOL; this was 1997. It wasn’t long before I realized how many people out there were dealing with very similar struggles. There was a close-knit group of “regulars” who I quickly got to know well. We were girls, women, and men of all ages from around the world, but we had no problem relating on the level of our shared struggles. I started waking up early so I could “check the boards” before school and more often than not I’d go straight to the computer after school and spend several hours catching up. Some would call this isolating, and yes, it kind of was, but consider that before this I would spend this time completely alone and depressed in my room. The few friends I had from school were not people I could talk to about this, and I never wanted to burden my parents. I started seeing a therapist but it was years before I trusted her enough to really let her know what was going on. My “boardies” as we so cheesily called each other, were my biggest confidants.

AOL

The following summer I went to a routine doctor’s appointment only to be told I was being admitted to an inpatient facility that very night. They gave me an hour to go home and pack my bags. To say I was terrified would be an understatement. This would be my first encounter with out-of-home treatment and all I could think about were the horror stories I heard from my friends online about these places. “If you refuse to eat, they’ll put a tube up your nose and feed you high-calorie liquids all day. They want to make you fat. You can’t do anything unsupervised, even take a shower or go the bathroom.” This was my absolute worst nightmare; I begged everyone to give me one more chance and not make me go to such a prison.

Once I realized it was a done deal I knew I had to “check my boards” one last time before leaving. As soon as I got home I threw a bunch of clothes and (unbeknownst to me at the time) contraband in a bag and ran down to the family computer. Lucky for me, one of my closest “boardies” was on good old ICQ, which was a super old-school instant messaging system for all you youngin’s reading this. I told her what was happening and she assured me it would be okay. She told me not to believe all the horror stories about treatment; it wasn’t all that bad. Maybe I’d even get something out of it. And hey, I was finally going to have “permission” to eat! I made it through that first admission, I believe, partly thanks to the support I knew I had back home via my snail speed dial-up.

Through the years the forums themselves came and went, but I continued to find similar online support. The longest stretch of time I continued visiting any particular forum was from about 2004 to the very recent present. Many of the people I met on this board became close friends, including K, the person I consistently refer to as my best friend. I gradually stopped visiting this board over the past year or so, mostly because I found it had changed greatly from the board I originally fell in love with. Even without regular visits to the actual forum, I still remain connected to many of the people I met on this board. I actually have plans to meet up (for the first time in-person) with a long-time friend from this forum soon, as she happens to be in town.

I won’t pretend my experiences with these forums were always 100% positive. There was the inevitable competition and drama you find in any group of disordered individuals. There were the compulsive liars, the manipulators, the bullies. We also witnessed the unfortunate deaths of many; that’s what happens in a community of 900 people with eating disorders and other mental health issues. However, none of this was any different than what I would have experienced had I known these people “in real life.” That’s what a lot of people don’t seem to understand. The way we conversed online in these contexts was completely different from how people converse online today. Today people do nearly everything from their smartphones. We’re connected 24/7 and it’s not uncommon to be replying to emails in the car, in line at the store, or even while simultaneously holding several other conversations. We’re not just sending each other words but pictures and videos, often highly edited to ensure everyone sees us in our very best light.

“Back in the day,” I remember staying up until 3 and 4 in the morning on my clunky laptop having in-depth conversations with people. We didn’t have constant internet access that followed us everywhere we went. Connecting to others through this channel was a truly special and treasured thing. I got to know people online better than I knew most of my day-to-day acquaintances from school, work, or other “real life” places. I may never have met 80% of them in-person, but they were my core lifeline over many years of depression, hopelessness, and interspersed crises.

These days, most of my interaction with people is through “real-life” scenarios. I’m thankful for that because it means I’ve finally built a life for myself outside of my disorder. I no longer have to rely on secret online forums to be validated, understood, and engaged. This wasn’t always the case though, and I will never forget “where I came from” and all of the good that came from those avenues of support.