“I wouldn’t want you to throw this all away.” Don’t worry, I won’t.

 

I feel like the tone of this blog has been shifting towards more personal posts lately which has been unintentional but perhaps meant to be? A couple weeks ago I was really concerned with “what to do” about this blog once I become a legit therapist who sees clients as if that were scheduled to happen like, tomorrow. I’ve since calmed down a little and realized I still have time to figure all that out.

As scared as I often am of being so open here, I hope I’m at least doing my part to “shatter the stigma”– the stigma of being a person still struggling with mental illness while out living life in this big scary world.

Yesterday I spent Christmas with my family and it was pretty wonderful. My little sister and her fiance are in town from the east coast and it was great being able to see them along with the rest of my immediate family. We did our yearly tradition of eating dinner at this restaurant on the beach near where my parents live.

During dinner the topic of me applying to “get my second master’s” came up and my dad expressed doubt that this was the best idea. “You’re doing so well where you are now, I’d hate for you to give that up.” This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this concern; hell, I’ve had this very concern myself. Outwardly, I am doing pretty well right now. I have a stable job at a great company and most days I even enjoy what I’m doing. Why would I want to give that all up to take a risk at something that has no guarantees at providing me that same stability? Well, for one, I don’t plan on “giving this all up.” My plan is to stay at my current job for as long as I can while in school, even if that means dropping down to part-time eventually. I don’t plan on leaving the world of research entirely, I just hope to supplement it with something I’ve always dreamed of doing but haven’t been in a place to pursue until now. I know to the casual observer though, this sounds suspect.

The truth is, the past several weeks have not been easy. I’ve been wrestling with this decision and trying to convince myself it will all be worth it in the end. I’ll admit though that I keep coming up against imagined road blocks, many related to my ability to do what I really want to do given my own demons. When I first had this idea, I was so excited that I got this burst of motivation to make a lot of serious changes in my life. For example, I increased my calories quite a bit and told myself I was going to finally let myself get to a healthier weight and stay there because that’s part of what I thought being a successful eating disorder therapist required. I was almost surprised at how “easy” it was at first. My body image concerns became mostly background noise and I was able to ignore them and remain focused on my new life’s ambition, for the first time ever. It was pretty amazing but seemed almost too good to be true.

Sure enough, a few months into this new way of life things started to get a whole lot harder. I’ve become really uncomfortable with my bigger body and I’ve started to question why it’s even necessary. Even if I do plan on working with eating disorders, it will still be quite a while before I’ll be doing that in any direct capacity. What’s the hurry? I might as well take advantage of this time and you know– “get all the eating disorder out of my system”– have one final hurrah. This is the same thing I used to think every time anyone mentioned a higher level of treatment. “Ok, I’ll go into treatment, but not before I lose as much weight as possible and have as much ‘fun’ with behaviors as possible because once I’m in treatment, that will all be taken away from me, and once I’m out, I’ll be in recovery and none of that will be acceptable anymore.” Of course, given my history of many failed treatments, this method was never that effective. Every single time, my “one final hurrah” just sent me into a deeper state of despair and made it that much harder to succeed in treatment.

What’s scary is, I can totally see myself going in for my “one final hurrah” now and never coming out. I’ve seen firsthand from friends who have been fighting this as long as I have, that things really start to shift  around this age. Not only is the body increasingly less resilient to the abuse, but the level of hopelessness that accompanies the deeper stages of this disorder becomes even more ingrained and hard to overcome.

I’m actually glad my dad made that comment at dinner last night, because it caused me to really reconsider the idea of the “one final hurrah.” Whether he meant it or not, I took his comment to mean that he doubted I could succeed at something other than what I’m currently doing. He’s seen how long it’s taken me to get to where I am today, how much I’ve had to struggle and fight. I’m sure it would be very hard for him to see me “throw that all away.”

Well, I don’t plan on throwing it all away, and over these past 24 hours I’ve regained some of my steam. My dad hasn’t (to my knowledge) been reading this blog, nor have we really discussed my reasoning for choosing to go down this new path. Perhaps if he knew these things, he’d feel differently, although in the end it shouldn’t really matter what he thinks. For Christmas I asked for a bunch of therapy-related books, some of the “must reads” for every new therapist. I’m already well into the first book and it’s become even clearer to me that this is what I want to be doing. Has it all become “easy” again, like those first couple months? No, not at all, but I have a renewed sense of hope that somehow, I can and will succeed at this.

 

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Living authentically feels so good

I’ll officially be submitting my applications to the four MFT programs I’m applying to within the coming weeks. Aside from the one program that does rolling admissions, I likely won’t hear anything until late January/early February. I’m hoping to get interviews at each school so I can carefully assess which program would be the best fit for me. Overall the process has been so much more pleasant and less terrifying than applying to PhD programs back in 2013. This is something I truly want to be doing and I feel none of the same pressure and dread I felt back then. Don’t get me wrong– I still feel pressure (from myself) and anxiety, but it’s a completely different and better kind.

I’ll admit I’ve found it slightly harder to concentrate on my current life since making this decision, but only because I’m so excited–for once– for my future. Not all that long ago I still dreaded and feared my future, if I could imagine it at all. Lack of focus was always a byproduct of depression or eating disorder, never excitement— what even is that?

I’m trying harder than ever to live authentically and not worry about what people may think of my choices, changes in my behavior or appearance, or anything else. I’m currently at the highest weight I’ve been at since leaving treatment in 2012. I’m letting myself eat more freely in social situations and not beating myself up (as much) for eating a more normal amount of calories each day. My body image is pretty shitty but dare I say not quite as bad as I imagined it would be at this point? I sometimes can even recognize that I’m still thin. I did yoga in front of a mirror for the first time ever over the weekend (my home studio doesn’t have mirrors, which I like). I was completely surprised that I wasn’t doubling over in disgust at how gross and fat my body looked. It actually looked way more acceptable than I imagined it would look at this weight. Were those trick mirrors? “Skinny mirrors?” Perhaps, especially considering I was doubling over in disgust just hours later when in front of my mirror at home. However, just that fact that I was able to see myself– even for just 75 minutes– a little closer to how others see me was pretty significant.

I had a good talk with someone the other day about how it’s not necessary to completely LOVE your body in recovery, or even as a recovered therapist. You merely have to accept it and be willing to let it take up less mental space in your life. Maintaining an unrealistic weight of under XX lbs used to be at the top of my priority list. My self-worth was determined almost entirely by how far below that weight I could be, because I thought it actually meant something. In reality, it meant very little. I never made a positive impact on the world or even just one person because of how thin I could be. Do I like my body now? Hell no, but I’m slowly becoming more okay with just accepting it as a very insignificant part of who I am.

 

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!

Everyone needs something: How my love for psychology, research, statistics, and more helped me hang on in desperate times

I recently learned that I’ll be advancing to an exciting new role at work effective July 1st. I’ll be taking the lead on some existing projects and also transitioning into some new areas. In preparation for my new role, my supervisor and I have been reflecting back on my past two years with the agency. This led me to start reflecting back on my entire professional/academic journey that ultimately led me here. It’s been anything but a linear path, and I’ve recently come to realize that it’s been my passion for academics/learning that has carried me through the past 15 or so years.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I entered college as a psychology major with every intention of going the clinical route. My ultimate goal was to become a therapist who would work with eating disordered clients. It seemed like the most natural career choice for me given that so much of my life at that point (and so much of it after, little did I know) had been shaped by my own experiences in therapy. I wanted to “give back” and help others like myself. I had the perfect little timeline mapped out where I would graduate from my college’s special 5-year combined bachelor’s/master’s program and then after a couple years of working I would apply to doctoral programs in Clinical Psychology. By my late twenties I would be Dr. Becca, happily managing my own successful private practice specializing in eating disorders and contributing valuable research to the field on the side.

That would have been really nice. Unfortunately (or actually, somewhat fortunately, I now realize), that did not end up happening. My eating disorder remained an unrelenting force over the next 10+ years which greatly altered my perfect little timeline.

Luckily for me I soon realized that clinical work in the field of eating disorders was not for me, and I shifted my focus entirely to research. While this initially restored a little of my hope (I could still help others indirectly by publishing groundbreaking research) I still came up against more and more challenges as the years progressed. I picked up several new behaviors during my freshman year that complicated and intensified my eating disorder. I was having trouble staying on top of my schoolwork because I was constantly exhausted and depressed and I quickly alienated myself from every friend I thought I made.

I had an especially rough junior year. A string of rather traumatic events that began on my 21st birthday led me to start questioning my future and why I even bothered going to school anymore. This was also the start of my longest succession of revolving door treatment stays. When I came back to school from a leave in the spring of 2006 I was denied the opportunity to return to on-campus housing, thus forcing me to move back home. I tried commuting for a while, but the nearly 2-hour drive was extremely inconvenient. More often than not I ended up taking spontaneous detours along the way to engage in various eating disorder “activities.” All my former college friends were getting ready to graduate and there I was pulled off on the side of the road trying to convince myself to go to class instead of doing “that thing” that I absolutely hated but could not stop doing.

Several interrupted semesters and hospitalizations later I finally swallowed my pride and transferred to the college 20 minutes from my home. This felt like a huge step down for me. This school wasn’t as highly ranked as my first school and although I was less than a year shy of graduating when I transferred, I had to re-take a bunch of classes that didn’t transfer which prolonged my schooling even more. (Note: I soon realized that rankings are not the be all and end all and I honestly think I got a better education at the lesser ranked school…).

One of the class sequences I had to re-take was the entire psychological statistics and research methods sequence (so like, four semesters worth of classes, because for whatever reason the A’s I got in those classes at my first school meant nothing). The psychology department at this school was very small, and I ended up having the same professor for most of these classes, the notorious Dr. N. Nobody liked Dr. N right off the bat. She was tough and blunt. She did not subscribe to the “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” theory. If a student asked what she thought was a stupid question, she would stare at said student with disbelief for what felt like an eternity and then with a huff would say, “look it up!” I tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible in her classes. I purposely sat in the middle row closest to the wall with the door so I could make a clean and quick exit at the end of each class. Halfway through my first semester with her I was pretty sure she couldn’t place my face with my name on the roster and I was perfectly okay with that. Then one day everything changed.

As I was making my usual clean exit I heard Dr. N shout my name. “Hey… you. Rebecca? Come back here!” Cue major panic on my end. What on earth had I done wrong?!?

“What’s your story? Where are you from? What are your plans? Do you actually like this stats stuff or are you just good at it?”

This was her way of initiating conversation with me, you know… socially awkward style. Little did I know this was the beginning of a very unusual but positive relationship that would shape my future.

Dr. N started inviting me back to her office after class to chat and before I knew it I was TAing two of her classes and spending most of my free time in her tiny cramped office assisting her with research. I soon learned that Dr. N was not the scary grouchy old woman I once thought she was. Okay, she actually was pretty grouchy, but only because she got upset when students failed to live up to her high expectations. However, she could also be quite friendly and warm once you got to know her.

Working with Dr. N served as a major turning point for me in my academic journey. At a time when my identity was very much tied up in the eating disorder, she helped show me that I had more to offer. I spent the next two years working for her and although my troubles were far from behind me, she helped keep me going. In the fall of 2008 my eating disorder took a turn for the worse and although I never told her exactly what was going on, she knew something was wrong and encouraged me to get help. When I returned three months later a good XX lbs heavier after my intense stay at NYSPI she greeted me with, “Oh wow, you don’t look like you’re dying anymore! This is so great.” Yep, that was Dr. N. Had anyone else made such a comment (and they did), I would have been undeniably triggered and in full over-analysis mode. I was already self-conscious enough about my massive weight gain, and here someone was drawing direct attention to it. With Dr. N though, I was actually able to take this comment at face value. She wasn’t calling me “fat” or shaming me for my weight gain, she was genuinely happy that I appeared healthier because it meant I could devote more energy to the things I was good at.

Now, I wish I could say this was the end of my struggles and that I went merrily on from here with my renewed love for research and stats. Unfortunately, the next couple years were some of the hardest, but I can only imagine they would have been even harder had I not had my work with Dr. N to keep me going. She helped me navigate the university bureaucracy that was making it extra hard for me to get my damn degree. She listened to me go on for hours about my research interests and how I came to be so passionate about getting people to understand mental illness. She also encouraged me to apply to graduate schools.

In the summer of 2011 I made the cross-country move to Los Angeles to begin a master’s program in Experimental Psychology, something I never would have imagined myself doing just a year earlier. As I’ve revealed in previous blogs, my transition to LA was not the easiest, and my struggles continued throughout my time as a graduate student. However, in late 2012 after yet another major low point followed by some quality time at BHC/Reasons, I was finally able to start initiating serious life changes that would help me become more functional and “healthy” than I had ever been. When trying to make sense of this transformation I’ve mostly just thought of it as a result of me finally becoming fed up enough with my eating disorder to start doing something about it (like, actually doing things that were initiated by me and not some outside force of treatment). And yeah, I’m sure this was part of it, but I’m now realizing what a pivotal role my commitment to education had in this transformation. It’s the one thing other than my eating disorder that followed me wherever I went. As sick and depressed as I got, I still kept coming back to my love for learning.

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to yet another amazing mentor through my master’s program, Dr. A or “Andy.” Andy loves to tell the story of the first party I attended at his house just shortly after moving to LA. Being among one the newest members of the lab, I didn’t know most of the people at the party. I was also about 10x more shy and “socially awkward” than I am now and I was well aware of this fact. So aware, in fact, that I felt the need to apologize for this as I was leaving the party. Yes, on my way out I turned to Andy and said, “I’m really sorry for being so… socially awkward…” and he started cracking up. I like to think that comment broke the ice for us, and from that point on I gradually grew to be less and less “awkward.”

I truly believe that the general-experimental psych program at CSUN is a hidden gem that few people know about. The advanced statistics training is outstanding and the professors are among some of the best and brightest who are willing to mentor students with a wide variety of research interests. My research interests were more clinical than most so I was able to cross-over into the clinical psych program to work with professors and take additional classes.

Just as valuable as the academic training, however, was the dedication to students’ personal and professional growth. Without this, I may have lost myself along the way. Midway through the process of applying to research-heavy clinical psych PhD programs, I had an epiphany and realized I actually did not want to go that route. My love for research hadn’t gone anywhere, I just realized that I was applying for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to wait another 6, 7, or 8 years before I could start working in my chosen field. I didn’t want to be forced to move to some random place in middle America just because that’s where the research was being done. I didn’t want to fall into even more debt. I had already wasted enough time and wanted to actually start doing something. I shocked everyone and withdrew my applications and started applying to jobs instead. At first Andy and others told me I was crazy; I was throwing my life away. No, I thought, I was finally not throwing my life away. I was finished doing things just because they seemed like the “right” things to do, or because they may sound more impressive on a resume. With my eating disorder, I had spent a huge chunk of life doing things half-assed and without my full devotion. I was ready to start doing real meaningful stuff all the way through. When I first interviewed at Hathaway-Sycamores, I instantly felt connected. This was a place where I knew I could make a difference.

Part of my job involves supervising undergraduates who complete research internships at our agency. I’ll admit at first I wasn’t sure how much I’d like this task, but it quickly became one of my favorite parts of the job. I see bits and pieces of myself in a lot of the interns, and I love helping them discover their passions in this very fascinating field of work. It takes me back to that day nearly a decade ago when Dr. N approached me with, “Hey you! Do you actually like this stats stuff or are you just good at it?” Yes, I do like it, and I get just as excited when I see my interns enjoying their work.