Using the past to your advantage: When comparisons may actually be helpful

I was reminded by Facebook that eight years ago today I was sitting at the tiny wooden hallway tables of good old  “4 Center” at New York State Psychiatric Institute writing a sitcom about life on a mixed diagnosis psych unit. Sadly but not surprisingly, that sitcom never got off the ground– I wasn’t exactly known for finishing the things I started back then.

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Aside from bringing back both hilarious and horrific memories, it also reminded me just how different my life is now. Eight years ago, despite being 24 years old, I still had not graduated from college; I was too busy being dragged from one treatment center to another in hopes of making any dent at all in my eating disorder.

Recently I’ve experienced a spike in some super frustrating behaviors. Of course things are nowhere near as bad as they once were, and often I would consider this kind of thinking dangerous (i.e., “Things used to be way worse so things must be fine the way they are now” –> no reason to change or progress further in recovery). However, sometimes I think it truly can be worthwhile to compare the past to the present, even just to ease your mind that not everything is coming crashing down around you.

So, while the actual behavior (e.g., binge/purging) may be the same, the frequency, duration, intensity, and/or circumstances may be completely different. I know for me there are certain aspects of the behavior that have not been a “thing” for me in years– like regularly purging in public restrooms, stealing food, or using the scale and other devices to obsessively (in the moment) monitor my purging “effectiveness.” I no longer wake up and b/p first thing in the morning and continue straight through the day into night. I no longer walk around with scary looking eyes due to all the blood vessels I’d break from purging so excessively. I no longer drive my roommates away by my weird and intrusive habits (it kinda helps that my roommates are now both cats, but still).

So no, things are not perfect now, and I wish they were better, but at least I can look back and remember how far I’ve come. Failed psych ward sitcom writer without a college degree to… accomplished research analyst with a master’s degree (x2, eventually) and an exciting new life plan, with two roommate cats who haven’t kicked me out yet. Yay, total failure this is not!

 

You don’t have to participate.

The past few days have been rough on the social media landscape. I normally try to stay out of political discussions on the internet (or anywhere, really), but there were a few instances these past few days when I felt I could not not say something. In those instances, I was choosing to participate in what I knew had the potential to be triggering territory. I felt it was worth it, and I was fully prepared for people to disagree, agree, or completely ignore what I had to say. Of course the beauty of the internet is that you can stand up and walk away when you want to get out of an upsetting or unpleasant situation. Sometimes it’s hard to do this– or even know that you can– in real day-to-day life.

Recently my workplace launched a “Maintain Don’t Gain” weight loss initiative. Okay, so I guess it’s technically a “weight maintenance” initiative, but let’s face it, the message is that you should be highly conscious of this single number that’s supposed to define your success or failure in the game. I’ve never been a fan of any type of workplace weight competition, but until recently I thought it was all my problem and I just had to suck it up and stop being so sensitive. I realize the committee who put this thing together has nothing but the best of intentions, and I appreciate their interest in our well-being. I just happen to disagree that these types of activities actually foster wellness. There are going to be scales placed around the office for us to use as we please, aside from the official weigh-ins with someone called a “Wellness Champion” (not sure who that is, or how they got that title). At the end of six weeks, anyone who maintains or loses weight wins some kind of prize.

I was telling my dietitian about this and we had to laugh because for the first time in well… ever, I’m actually making a conscious effort to gain a small amount of weight. I’m no joke trying to get to a healthier BMI now that I’m taking this “become a therapist” thing seriously. And then along comes this initiative telling me to “maintain not gain!” Cool. I also can’t wait to be even more self-conscious about people seeing me eat now that we’re all supposed to be like, dieting. I know if I can get through these crazy six weeks and still reach my goals, which seem completely out of line with the work initiative’s goals, then that will be some kind of a miracle. I guess I won’t be getting that prize, but oh well.

Now obviously, participation in this initiative is voluntary. No one is forcing anyone onto a scale or blurting out their stats for all to laugh at. As you may have guessed, I will definitely not be participating. I have no problem with other people participating, I just hope everyone realizes that the option not to participate is there. I know I’m probably far more negatively affected than most by things like this, but I also doubt I’m all alone. I’m not just talking about people with past or current eating disorders. This may not be a healthy activity for others for various reasons. Also, for someone already at risk, a competition like this could act as a breeding ground for an emerging eating disorder.

I hope this initiative serves all those who choose to participate, and I also hope those who don’t feel they’d be best served by it exercise their right not to participate. Simple as that. 🙂

 

Therapy for the therapist (and everyone else too)

Tonight I saw a new therapist for the first time– someone who miraculously takes my insurance. I pay just a small co-pay for each visit; it’s kind of amazing. Of course I’ve only seen her once, but I think I’m really going to like her. Our first session together was different from most if not all other “first sessions” I’ve had with therapists before. We didn’t do a long detailed assessment where I felt pressure to spit out my entire life story in a span of 50 minutes. We didn’t launch right into “How are we going to fix your eating disorder/depression/anxiety?” She just let me talk about what brought me back to therapy.

It’s been over two years since I’ve been in regular one-on-one therapy. My decision to go back was largely motivated by my recent plan to apply to MFT programs and finally pursue my own dream of becoming a therapist myself. Most programs require that you be in some kind of personal therapy for at least a portion of your time in the program. Even if they didn’t require it, most agree that it’s the smart thing to do. I guess I wanted to get a head start seeing as I’m already experiencing such a wide array of feelings since making the decision to go back to school.

Nearly 12 years ago during one of my inpatient stays for my eating disorder, a fellow patient’s father came up to me during one of the weekly “Multi-family” groups and started making conversation. When he asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I said I ultimately hoped to become a therapist. When I said this he (no joke) started cracking up laughing. “A THERAPIST?!? But you’re… here. In a mental ward. How IRONIC!” um, no not really? It was weird to me that this was apparently the first time he had heard of someone with “mental issues” bad enough to be on a “mental ward” going into the helping profession. Hello nearly every person I know who has pursued this path?

This man had a strange way of saying things, but it was far from the last time I heard someone allude to the assumed distinction between “the therapist” and “the patient” as if they could never be one and the same. It makes me sad that therapy in general is still stigmatized at all. Going to therapy does not make you crazy, mentally ill, or broken. A couple weeks ago I was out with some people from work and we somehow ended up on the topic of therapy. The resulting conversation uncovered that most of us have been or are currently in “therapy.” And guess what? We’re all accomplished, intelligent, hardworking individuals. Kind of amazing.

Data Collection & Analysis: Follow-up

I wanted to follow-up to my blog from about a week and half ago regarding this new life plan of mine. I received even more incredibly useful feedback since posting it and I’m happy to say I have finally made the decision that I AM going to go through with this!

As I mentioned in the first blog, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this idea since it was presented. I thought that might be a sign it was something I really wanted to do. Well, that’s exactly what it was. I realized that I pretty much had my mind made up even when posting that blog. I guess I just wanted a little more reassurance from others that it was an okay thing to do? I hate that I’m so approval-seeking, and it’s something I’m working on. Even though most people were outwardly very supportive of this decision, I know there are still some people who think it’s a bad/crazy idea and I’m going to have to be okay with that.

I’m planning to apply to five MFT programs for admission next fall (two of those programs actually start the summer before). I picked these programs after extensive research on everything from cost of attendance, geographic location (they’re all in the LA area, amazingly), and flexibility for working students to reputation and program completion/MFT licensing statistics. Hopefully I’ll get into more than one and will have some choice in the matter, although let’s face it– it will probably boil down to which program will put me into the least amount of debt because I’m not exactly rolling in the dough here. 😉

One thing that I thought was very telling occurred when I sat down to start writing my application essays. Every program asks for basically the same content in the essay, just with different length requirements. I figured I’d start with the longest and cut it down from there for the other programs. Now, I love to write (clearly) but normally these things are very hard for me, and I end up procrastinating and then freaking out the week before the application is due. The 10 essays I had to write for my PhD applications 3 years ago were the bane of my existence at the time. This time was different though. I sat down with the intention of just doing some simple outlining and I ended up banging out an entire 3,000 word draft in just a few hours. No informal “breaks” every 15 minutes to check Facebook or my phone, just solid excited writing!

My plan is to continue working full-time (at my current job, which I still love) for as long as I can in the program, but I realize I may have to drop down to part-time once my fieldwork starts during the 2nd year because then I’ll be working as a trainee at an approved site for another 15-20 hrs/week. And yes, I’ll be taking out more student loans, but I can hopefully stay on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan and get them all forgiven eventually.

I don’t get excited about things easily (or at least I didn’t used to; I find myself getting excited for more and more things these days which is a refreshing change of pace). I know there are a million things that could go wrong with this plan, but there are also so many things that could go right and that is what I’m excited about!

Data Collection and Analysis: Version Real Life

For the past month, I’ve been consumed by an idea that others might find crazy (and that I found crazy at first as well). Ok, brace yourselves for this… This crazy idea would involve me going back to school to become a licensed mental health professional, most likely via an MFT or MSW program. This idea was/is crazy because:

– As I’ve mentioned many times before (even in this very blog), the clinical route was never for me. Or so I thought.

– I already have a master’s degree (in experimental psych, aka the research/stats side of psychology) that took me long enough to obtain thanks to my crazy maze of a life. I also finally have a job that I enjoy that also took me quite a while to achieve thanks to that same crazy maze of a life. So… why the need to complicate things?

For the past six months I’ve been talking a lot about eating disorders with a former colleague to help her understand them better. It’s been a really great experience– not only have I helped her gain a deeper understanding of what is a very complex disorder, but I’ve also learned some news things about myself. For example, I’ve learned that I’m capable of providing useful knowledge to others based on my own lived experience. This may sound really simple and obvious, but it was a pretty big revelation for me.

About a month ago she brought up the topic of me pursuing a career in therapy (particularly therapy for eating disorders), even though she knew it was something I had in the past rejected. At first I straight out rejected the idea again, saying it was not for me and it would never work, for a million reasons. To be honest, it surprised me that anyone would even suggest this as something for me to seriously consider, because at the time I still saw myself as this crazy f#cked up person and assumed everyone else did as well. And yet, here was this person who I really looked up to and admired telling me that she could totally see me being an amazing therapist. I almost cried tears of joy. Almost.

Just a brief recap of my career aspirations, my original goal back when first choosing psychology as my major as a college freshman a million years ago was to became a practicing therapist. At the time I actually hoped to get my PhD and become a clinical psychologist. However, as the years went by and my eating disorder grew stronger and stronger I realized this was a pretty dead end goal for me. I was never going to be mentally stable enough for that to become a reality, so I switched my focus to research instead. I got my master’s in experimental with the intention of going directly to a PhD program in clinical psych, although my focus was going to be almost purely research/teaching. I mean yeah, I would be getting clinical training whether I liked it or not in a clinical PhD program, but my end goal was to be a researcher; I was only looking to clinical programs because my research interests were clinical. (This all makes 10x more sense if you’re familiar with this field, otherwise you’re probably bored and/or confused to tears right now, haha). Anyway, I ended up frantically withdrawing all of the PhD applications I sent out 3 years ago– for several legit reasons, but also, if I’m honest, because I didn’t think I was stable enough to handle such a grueling career path at the time. I had nightmares of making all of these drastic life changes in pursuit of this path (e.g., cross-country moves, going into more debt) only to have it all come crashing down due to me falling headfirst back into my eating disorder and depression. I mean, let’s face it, that had happened several times before already. So, as the story goes, I put a halt to that plan and found work in the field instead, which is how I ended up where I am today, in a job I genuinely enjoy and feel good about.

Even though I finally feel good about what I’m doing, I’d be lying if I said I never wondered what could have been or even what could still be. Over the past couple years, as I’ve made once unimaginable progress with my eating disorder, I’ve found I’m more and more eager to  share what I’ve learned in hopes of giving other people hope that a better life may very well exist for them as well. I started this blog in March in hopes of reaching others and I’ve been talking a lot recently to fellow sufferers about how I was able to make changes that I never thought I’d be able to make.

Over the past month, I’ve reached out to many people from various parts of my life, past and present. I’ve contacted old therapists, co-workers, bosses, friends, etc. I’ve talked to people currently in the clinical field as well as people who started down that route who ultimately went in a different direction. I’ve asked them to share their own experiences with me, and perhaps a bit selfishly, I’ve asked them what they think about me ever succeeding in such a role. I really wanted to get a diverse and balanced perspective, and that’s exactly what I got. While everyone I talked to was supportive of me choosing to go down such a path if I so ultimately chose, some were more optimistic than others and many offered their real concerns and hesitations. This is exactly what I was looking for– real, honest feedback! The problem is, I’m now left with the difficult job of analyzing it all and deciding what the final conclusion is. And I know it’s not that simple. This is not my work as a research analyst; life choices like this are not a simple matter of some nifty data analysis and reporting.

I’m not looking to start a whole new career. As I’ve said before, I truly do enjoy and find fulfillment from my current line of work. I get to use some of my best skills to make data meaningful to people who can then use that data to inform practice and programs. My goal would not be to replace this but to supplement it with a new clinical skill-set. I guess ideally I would see myself continuing to work in the non-profit research sector while also holding a part-time private practice. The agency where I currently work is rife with people who maintain small private practices outside of their full-time jobs so I know it’s possible, I just wonder if it’s possible/feasible for me?

Now, I’m a very practical and risk-averse person, so to say I’ve carefully examined all the messy logistics and financials of this idea would be an understatement. I’ve kind of been obsessing over it for the past month. 😉 It would be a lot of work, none of it easy. There are programs that would allow me to continue working full-time through the first year or so (before I’d start my supervised clinical hours), but it would definitely take some adjustments. I’d have to take out more student loans, and somehow find the time and financial space to complete all my internship hours to eventually become licensed (i.e., to become licensed as an MFT you need to accumulate 3,000 supervised hours, most of which are usually unpaid while you’re still in school and very low paid once you have your degree). If I applied to programs soon for fall 2017 admittance, I’d realistically be looking at about 3 years of school and another 1-2 years before becoming licensed and able to start building my own practice, so about 5 years in all (and 6 years from now). I’d probably be 38 before I’d even have a chance of starting to live that life I’m so ideally imagining– working full-time in the non-profit research arena while also maintaining a small but thriving private practice. If it all worked that way though, it would totally be worth it to me. Hell, 38 is not that old. I’d still have several decades of working years left (and let’s face it, I’ll probably never be able to afford retirement so I’ll be working until I’m dead 😉 ).

Of course, I’m a pessimist by nature so it’s really hard for me to picture any of this working out even slightly as planned. I’ve come up with pretty much every imaginable reason why it wouldn’t work, and yet somehow, I haven’t been able to fully release the idea from my brain, which I’m starting to take as a sign that I must really want this on some deep level.

Now before I get too carried away with this, I should mention the pretty huge part that I haven’t really touched on yet, which is the question of whether I’m even in a place to be considering this, mental stability wise. This idea originally focused on working specifically with eating disorders, which was perhaps why I initially had such a strong pessimistic reaction to it. Yes, I’m doing a million times better than I have been in the past, but I’m the first to admit I’m not fully recovered, and may never will be. As someone who’s been exposed to quite a few “recovered” ED therapists, I know firsthand how important it is that these people be actually recovered. While people with lived experience have the potential to be great therapists, I’ll admit I’ve come across more people in the eating disorder world who were actually worse therapists because of this. They say or do quite triggering things without even being aware, or they inaccurately assume things about their clients’ eating disorders based on what they think is a universal experience. They fail to recognize the incredibly unique experience of each individual. When confronted with this these things, they often get defensive and even angry. I think a big part of my reluctance to consider this a serious career possibility until now has been a fear of being like these people. Yes, I want to help people and I truly believe my life experiences could be an asset, but I also know there’s a huge risk in assuming that to be true.

I would never, ever want to risk being a negative influence on my clients, so I quickly decided that I’d have to commit to being more in recovery than I currently am if I ever planned to work with clients with eating disorders. Part of this would mean finally getting to an actual healthy weight (not just “better for me” which I currently am and have been for a while, but like, actually a legit non-underweight BMI). Could I do this? I think I could, but who really knows? At first the thought of this actually made me excited… like I finally had a reason or “excuse” to loosen up my control a little bit. I could allow myself to eat more, and even if I gained a little weight, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, because I’d be doing it for a greater purpose. Would it really be that easy though? Is it really wise to get better for the sake of others, especially others who I plan on legitimately helping through this very issue? And what about my own personal philosophy that I’ve been preaching for the past six months, ever since starting this blog, that “full recovery” may not be for everyone and that’s okay? So now I’m saying it actually is necessary, at least if you want to help others? Or is that even what I’m saying? Who’s to say that getting to a healthy weight would mean I was magically 100% recovered anyway? And would that be okay?

These are all complicated questions that probably no one can answer for me. The bottom line is that if I do pursue this path, I would not limit myself to the treatment of eating disorders because I’m not fully convinced I’m capable of being “recovered enough” in that area. It’s a specialty I would ultimately love to pursue, but I’m also not willing to risk the health and safety of others to make it happen. While I truly do think that starting down this path would help me take my own recovery to the next level, I know that’s not the reason to pursue anything. I would be doing this to help others, and if I happened to help myself in the process, great, but at the end of the day my goal would be to help people in the way I best felt I could, whether that be specifically with eating disorders or other issues.

Does this all sound completely out there and unrealistic? If it does, feel free to tell me. I’m still on my quest to gather as much information as I can about the feasibility and soundness of this plan. I don’t do well with indecision and the unknown so I’m hoping to make a decision about whether or not to take the next steps to make this dream a reality within the next week or so. I know the real decision is mine, but I also really enjoy and appreciate hearing so many different perspectives from the people whose opinions I value most. If you don’t feel comfortable replying directly to this blog or on Facebook, feel free to message or email me privately. I love data! The more the better! 🙂

 

When the “best years of your life” are an awkward disappointment: College and eating disorders

Seeing as it’s “that time of year again,” I wanted to write a blog about college and eating disorders. For a lot of people, college is the first time they ever live away from home. I think it’s pretty well known that major life transitions are common times for mental health issues to develop. However, transitions can be just as difficult for those already dealing with these issues.

I was very excited to go off to college my freshman year. I didn’t have that great of a high school experience, but everyone kept telling me that college would be so much better. “People are more mature in college. You can totally reinvent yourself and you’ll definitely fit in because there are no cliques or ‘popular kids’ in college. You’ll love it!” Well, maybe. I guess it depends on where you go. I went to a fairly small liberal arts school for my first three years of college, and I found it to be eerily similar to high school. My freshman dorm quickly became divided into high school-like cliques. There was drama and gossip and people still had to work hard to fit in. Honestly though, that stuff exists everywhere, even in the adult working world. I think I was just mildly disappointed that it wasn’t the drastic culture shift that so many people tried to to claim it would be.

At the time I was heading off to college, I had already been struggling with my eating disorder for six years. By the end of high school, though, I had at least reached a kind of stasis with my ED that I expected to maintain through college. After all, every one kept telling me college was so much better than high school, so I figured I’d be super happy throughout and have every reason to do well. I said goodbye to my therapist of five years; I figured I’d just go back to her if things started to slip but I really didn’t see that happening. This was definitely a mistake. Things did start to slip, almost right away, but I was too ashamed to admit that I wasn’t thriving in the amazing college scene so I suffered in silence for the first year.

I started having major issues accepting my body. Going in I could at least somewhat accept it– I was significantly bigger than I was at the worst of my anorexia, but I was still technically underweight and could see that most people probably still saw me as ‘thin.’ Within a couple months of starting college, that was no longer enough. I started really missing my old (smaller, sicker) body and my eating disordered behaviors intensified. This is when I first began to struggle with bingeing/purging, a behavior that still to this day remains incredibly shameful for me.

There were also certain factors specific to the college experience that probably didn’t help. For example, my dorm’s Resident Director (who managed all of the RAs) was really into encouraging us to record our calories and participate in these awkward weight loss challenges. She posted signs on the elevators advising us to take the stairs instead, complete with handy pictures of food crossed out with red x’s. Drink all the alcohol and smoke all the pot you want, but whatever you do– SAY NO TO THE COOKIES!!! Yeah, she was weird… I also had two friends who were always trying to get me to join their diet groups, even though they knew about my history with eating disorders. None of these things were solely to blame for my relapse, but they certainly made what I was doing seem more socially acceptable, at least at first.

It was also in college that my anxiety related to eating with others became pretty extreme. Eating with people was never an easy thing for me, but I could at least make myself do it when absolutely necessary and I went into college hopeful that I’d be able to eat with my friends from time to time. While I started the year off going to the dining hall with the few friends I made, this quickly became an almost impossible task for me, perhaps largely due to my increasing b/p behaviors which I kept strictly secret.

During the first few weeks of going to the dining hall, I noticed a girl who I knew had an eating disorder. She was quite thin, but even aside from that, it was clear to me. She had all the physical signs of chronic purging, and she always sat alone and ate the same exact foods in the same order. She would finish each meal with a huge bowl of ice cream and then would disappear. I’ll admit at first I was almost envious that she at least had the ability to eat out in the open like that, because my bingeing (and actually at that point, eating anything at all) always had to be completely secretive which made it harder to maintain this behavior that I hated and was so ashamed of but unfortunately couldn’t stop. I also just felt really bad for her though, and often wanted to run up and hug her (but yes, that would have been super creepy so I restrained myself).

I later learned from a mutual friend that this girl did indeed have an eating disorder, and that her original roommates had voted her out of the suite they were living in because they couldn’t deal with her b/ping. Little did I know at the time, this very same scenario would play out for me my junior year.

Now, I want to say something about college counseling centers. Some really suck. I’m sure there are good college counseling centers out there, but the two experiences I had (at two different schools), were really shitty. If you have access to a qualified therapist outside of the school, you’re probably best off sticking them them. I find a lot of therapists staffed at college counseling centers will claim to have experience with eating disorders when they really do not. I was dragged to my first college’s counseling center by my roommates and it could not have been more of a disaster. I was made to feel even more ashamed and at fault than I already felt, and I spent the rest of my time at that school going out of my way to avoid running into these crazy “experts.”

At the end of my junior year I got stuck in a cycle of revolving door inpatient admissions that eventually led to me taking an extra four years to finally graduate. Today, at the old age of 32, I can recognize that while this seemed like the end of the world at the time, it actually wasn’t. I did eventually graduate and even went on to get a master’s degree. That said, if I could magically go back in time I would absolutely do things differently. Sometimes it really is necessary to leave school and get more treatment. I don’t regret ever doing this, I just regret doing it as many times as I did. I wish I would have put more effort and time into making the first few rounds really worthwhile, so that the subsequent times wouldn’t have been necessary. There were also times when I wish my treatment team would have given me more of a chance to turn things around on my own, instead of throwing me back in treatment as soon as I struggled. Hindsight is 20/20 though, right?

I used to get really sad when I’d hear people talk about the great college experiences they had. Mine were filled with lots of shame, secrecy, tears, and hospitals. Can I go back and do it all over again? Like, the whole freshman dorm experience? It could be a reality show– 32 year old ‘cat lady’ poses as a college freshman and infiltrates most popular dorm. Will she finally be cool??

I no longer let myself get sad. I had lots of experiences, and not all of them were good, and some were really, really bad. However, I eventually managed to move on and had it not been for those crazy eight years, I probably never would have ended up here, in Los Angeles, with a graduate degree and a life I finally like.

Sleep: A Strange (or Not-So-Strange) Enemy

I’ve gone through large portions of my life being chronically sleep-deprived for one reason or another. In the early years of my eating disorder, I didn’t like sleeping because it felt like a waste of time that could be spent doing anything else that burned more calories. I would pace around my room for hours every night forcing myself to stay awake until the last possible moment, when I could no longer keep my eyes open. Once I started binge/purging, I was often kept up by that. I would be so tired but also so hungry that the urges were impossible to ignore. Nine times out of ten, I would choose b/ping over sleep. Some nights I would get less than an hour of sleep before having to leave for class or work the next morning. I struggled to stay awake during these daytime activities and sometimes crashed as soon as I got home, which then just led to an even later start to my nighttime b/ping. It was a vicious cycle.

When I first started writing this blog, I remembered my sleep issues all occurring in the presence of my eating disorder. Then I recalled a funny conversation I had with some family members several months ago that made me realize I was actually weird about sleep even before my ED officially began. My mom and my aunt were talking about taking long family car trips and my mom said, “My kids usually slept most of the way, except Rebecca- I don’t think I ever saw her asleep in the car. I guess she just never got tired!” This sparked memories of those long 10+ hour car rides we used to take to visit family out of state and I replied, “It wasn’t that I never got tired, it was that I always forced myself to stay awake in the car. I was miserable!” I saw sleeping as a sign of weakness. At 5, 6, 7 years old. What a weirdo. No one ever told me sleeping was bad or anything; I came to that conclusion all on my own.

When I first got into therapy, a lot of professionals tried to insinuate that my parents held me to unattainable standards or even that they put strict limitations on what I could eat, do, say, etc. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. My parents held me to very reasonable standards and were not at all restrictive about how I lived my life, what food I could eat, etc. No one ever told me I was only allowed to sleep X hours a night or that I couldn’t eat X type of food. All those rules came entirely from my own strange brain. And not only that, but once I imposed those rules and had people take notice of my weird behavior, I thought it was absolutely essential to uphold that version of myself. Once I became known as the kid who didn’t sleep in the car, I had to be extra careful about never to allowing myself to fall asleep in the car. Once people knew me as the kid who never ate in front of people, I couldn’t let that version of myself die either. It made no rational sense but it was the way I lived most of my life.

One of the first things I noticed about inpatient facilities for eating disorders was how obsessed they were with sleep. Upon my first admission, I was immediately put on medication to help me sleep, before I was even asked if I had trouble sleeping. If a nurse noticed me still awake during one of their routine checks during the night (usually every 10-15 minutes), they would ask what was wrong and if I needed more meds to sleep. Apparently anyone who took longer than 15-20 minutes to fall asleep at night had severe insomnia!

I never liked taking meds for sleep because they always left me extremely sleepy in the mornings. I would struggle to stay awake in groups and sometimes even meals. As if meals weren’t hard enough, I had to continuously pinch myself to stay awake. When I would ask to be taken off the meds or when I refused to take them, it would go down in my chart and I’d be labeled a “difficult patient,” all because I didn’t want to fall asleep in my cereal.

This was a theme throughout most of the inpatient and residential facilities I passed through over the years. Many places had doctors prescribe patients powerful antipsychotics as sleep aids. I remember the first time I was handed Seroquel; I was so confused. I knew my meds, and I knew that Seroquel was an antipsychotic. Why was I being given an antipsychotic when I displayed no psychotic symptoms? I quickly learned this was becoming the new trend in the mental health world– prescribing antipsychotics for their “off-label” uses, many of which included drowsiness. Seroquel, Risperdal, Geodon, Zyprexa– I’ve been on them all that some point, mostly for the sole purpose of helping me sleep, even when I never asked for help in the first place. Speaking of Zyprexa, it is also commonly prescribed to anorexics to “help them gain weight,” as weight gain is a common side effect of the drug. Because, you know, that is totally the answer– give someone who is already terrified of gaining weight a drug with a known side effect of weight gain. That will totally work! They won’t suspect a thing! That one is wrong and ineffective on so many levels, but doctors still use it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using medication to treat (actual) insomnia. The problem I had with these facilities’ obsession with sleep was that they did what this article referred to as “medicalizing sleep.” Sure, there are countless physiological processes that occur during sleep, many of which have been studied in depth. However, the overall concept of sleep itself is impossible to measure. We’re also constantly being fed mixed messages about sleep. We’re repeatedly being told how important a good night’s sleep is, how adults require a solid X hours of sleep per night while children and the elderly need X (it’s always changing). Entire clinics are devoted to helping people learn to “sleep smarter” and doctors are handing out medication for sleep like it’s candy, including powerful antipsychotics. On the flip side, we set multiple alarms to make sure we wake up at the same ungodly hour each morning, and some professions have people working 60 and 70 hours a week. How do we reconcile these two mindsets? We’re being told that the quantity and quality of our sleep has critical implications, and yet we’re being expected to endorse lifestyles that make getting sufficient sleep impossible.

The idea of sleep being a sign of weakness was probably not completely invented by my own strange brain. My parents did not instill this into me, but modern society might have. When we run into people we haven’t seen in a while and they ask how we are, chances are both sides will say something like “I’ve been so busy!” It’s good to be seen as busy. It makes us feel productive and useful and sometimes it can even be a source of competition. We’ve all probably been a part of many “who’s the busiest?” conversations, either at work or amongst family or friends. “I am so busy this week. I have to do x, y, and z, all while managing Project A.” Then someone chimes in, “Is that all? That’s nothing compared to my week. I have to do a, b, c, and d on top of managing Project x, y, and z.” And so goes the game of one-upping; everyone wants to be seen as the busiest. Bonus points for mentioning how much sleep you’ve sacrificed.

There are countless parallels that can be drawn between sleep and eating. I know I’m not the only person with an eating disorder to have these warped ideas about sleep. I like to think that the distorted thoughts and behaviors I have (or had) around sleep developed much like my distorted thoughts and behaviors around food did. No one single person drilled these ideas into me, nor did society force them upon me. It was likely a combination of my innate personality traits interacting with the messages I received and interpreted (in my own way) from society. I’m lucky to have, over time, cultivated a progressively less black-and-white view of these things. Sleep is not all bad or a sign of weakness, and neither is food. I can admit to liking both now, which seems like such a silly thing to even point out. Sleep and eating are both basic human needs, and yet for so long I could not allow myself to admit to liking either one. Well shit, the secret’s out. I do love sleep. And food. Never believe an anorexic who says she/he dislikes food. Everyone likes food, and I’d even venture to say that most people who develop anorexia (or any eating disorder) probably “like food” even more than the average person. Otherwise, there would really be no disorder… but that’s a topic for another blog. 😉