Exciting update from a legit future therapist

I’m back after a year+ long absence! As some of you know, as soon as I made the decision to go back to school to become a therapist (!!!) I got really nervous about blogging. I’ve gone through and taken out most identifying details (although I still use my first name) and I feel okay for now, but I may go back and do another round of edits once I actually start seeing clients (in 3 months!!!). I’m also open to any words of wisdom about how to navigate the online world as a therapist…

The past year has been quite eventful. I just finished up the second semester of my MFT grad program and I’m on track to graduate next summer (2019). I start my year-long practicum this August– I’ll be counseling high school girls. This June I’ll also be leaving my Research Analyst job that I’ve been at for the past four years. As sad as it will be to leave, my passions/priorities have changed and I’m ready to move on with my life.

Probably the biggest change, however, has been with my recovery. Ha, I finally feel like I can use that word without being scared someone will call me a fraud! So, as I’ve written about before in this blog, I consider the starting point of my recovery to be in late 2012. That summer I hit (one of?) my rock bottoms and went inpatient for the very last time. The circumstances weren’t the best (roommate drama overload) but that aside it really did help my depression and got me thinking more clearly. It was only after leaving that I started making any real sustainable progress (i.e., I finally committed to life and gave up trying to kill myself). Eating disorder-wise, things stabilized and I managed to somehow finish my master’s degree and get a really awesome job soon after graduating.

By 2016, I was feeling pretty good but I knew by all DSM accounts I still had an eating disorder. I thought I was okay with that. Then last August something incredible happened. I broke a tooth. Again. Crumbled in my mouth as I was brushing, one of the few natural teeth I had left. And to be honest, I have no way of knowing if that particular incident was a direct result of my purging behaviors (which were way down but still pretty regular), but for whatever reason that was just IT for me. Too many lost teeth, wasted dollars, and lost years over this stupid disease. I decided right then and there that I was DONE with purging. And yes, I had made similar declarations countless times over the years, but this time was different. My eating disorder was no longer serving any real purpose for me, and I didn’t NEED it anymore. I finally had a fulfilling job, dreams, passions… the eating disorder was no longer the main plot-line of my life. It was just getting in the way and draining my money, my time, and my dignity.

That was August 19, 2017. Over eight months later and I’m happy to say that I am STILL completely purge-free. WHAT?!? And the crazy part is, it feels almost completely natural at this point. There is no way in hell I would ever choose to go back to my old life. In the past whenever I’d have a string of a few good days my best friend would be scared to ask how I was doing the next time we talked, or she’d see that I was up all night and would assume I was back at it. However, a few weeks into this good streak she was like, “I don’t get scared to ask anymore, because something is just so different this time and I know you’re never going back.” She felt that 2,000 miles away and I’m not surprised!

So what made this time different? Several things…

  • I started eating more. It really was that simple– well, kind of. ūüėČ In the past when I tried to stop b/ping, I would wonder why I still had such strong urges to binge even with my “completely normal” daily intake of 850-900 calories. After 20 years of dietitians telling me that was still very restrictive I finally accepted that fact myself. It wasn’t like I just started eating a normal amount of food one day, but gradually I increased my calories each week and within about 2-3 months, my urges were almost completely gone. At about month six I stopped tracking my calories altogether and now I kind of eat… intuitively? That sounds so weird to say, as I never thought that would ever be a reality for me. Who AM I?
  • I stopped obsessively weighing myself. In the past, whenever I imagined stopping b/p for good, I thought I could only do that while remaining under some arbitrarily chosen low weight. The whole “of course I want to recover but only if I can still weigh XX” thing. I finally accepted that was never going to be possible and I kind of just said “to hell with it.” I knew I still needed to gain weight and I finally started being more okay with that idea. At the time I still thought I for sure wanted to work with eating disorders professionally in the near future so that definitely helped. However,¬†instead of trying to meticulously control every aspect of the weight gain process (because that’s just triggered different disordered behaviors in the past), I started just gradually eating more– enough so that I wasn’t always starving and on the verge of bingeing. And I did gain weight, but not nearly as much as I feared, and I was honestly surprised at how quickly my metabolism bounced back. Eventually I stopped weighing myself altogether, which was… pretty terrifying at first but honestly, after 20 years of my crazy weight tracking and measuring systems, I have the (sometimes unfortunate) ability to estimate my weight accurately even without a scale.
  • I let myself eat previously forbidden “b/p only” foods. A big fear was that by stopping b/p, I would only be able to eat a super boring diet of my safest foods. ugh, why even recover? For a while, that kind of was the case, but I slowly started letting myself eat riskier things and at this point I will let myself eat pretty much anything I crave. Seriously. I have no urges to binge on such foods anymore because I never let myself get too hungry and I don’t completely deny myself.
  • I stopped avoiding food-related events and started eating more in public or with friends. This was already a ton better than it had been (there was a time when I was super weird and refused to even talk about food), but it’s gotten even better over the past eight months. I think by now most people know better than to make rude food-related comments directly to me but I’m not afraid to shut them down even if they’re made in general or to other people. Like, if you shame someone for eating a cupcake or feel the need to loudly read off the nutrition facts of the cookies someone nicely brought into the office to share, I may politely tell you to STFU.

These were the four biggest things for me, and I realize some people may be thinking these are all pretty food-based things for a disorder that “isn’t actually about food” (ugh, but that phrase…). Keep in mind that I was already well into the recovery mindset back in August 2017, and after 20 years of on-again-off-again therapy of every variety, I had pretty much worked out all the complicated “whys” of my eating disorder and could write a book (or two or three) on everything my ED does for me, the ED identity, blah, blah blah… And that’s not to say that I have it all figured out or that I have stopped going to therapy or anything (never!), but for me at the time the biggest thing was actually taking action with the food part.

So am I “recovered” now? ugh, that term still makes me nervous and knowing how weird people in the sometimes judgey “recovery community” get about it, I usually just avoid it altogether. I don’t intentionally engage in any eating disordered behaviors anymore and haven’t for over eight months. I no longer place ridiculous standards on myself in terms of weight. I don’t “love my body” but I’m honestly less bothered by it now than ever before. I have so much more time and space in my life. For the most part, food has just become food and not something I waste precious brain power obsessing over every day. My worst days now are almost always still better than the best days in my eating disorder. I could go on.

I have no idea if I will eventually see clients with eating disorders. I’m no longer stressing over that idea because I know my experiences will help me regardless of what population I work with.

I’m not sure what the future of this blog will look like (open to suggestions), but I felt a strong urge to bring it back to life and let people know that I may have been wrong two years ago when I preached that “full recovery” wasn’t possible for me or many people. Maybe it is? Maybe I am? Who knows, but I no longer claim to know everything!

Just… wow. I have to pinch myself every so often to remind myself that this is actually my life now. Not that it’s some super glamorous life or anything. I still have problems– lots.¬† But I’m no longer doing THAT. I got through an entire year of grad school without once reverting back to the thing that just a year ago, I never thought I’d be able to live without. I’m on my way to finally having the career I always dreamed of but never believed was possible. I’m going skydiving with my best friend in July… my friend who has been through every bit of this with me who is now rocking her own life after decades of this shit. There is hope, and I’m so glad I made it this far to be able to say that.

Advertisements

“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 strange strange world.

Yesterday I spent Christmas with my family and it was surprisingly pretty okay. My little sister and her fiance are in town from the east coast and it was great being able to see them. 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 it 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 things started to get a whole lot harder. I’ve become really uncomfortable with the thought of gaining any more weight 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 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 (lol) and none of that will be acceptable anymore.” Given my history of many failed treatments, this method was never effective. Every single time, my “one final hurrah” just sent me into a deeper state of despair beforehand and made it that much harder to succeed in treatment. I’d be planning my relapse before I even left.

What’s scary is, I can totally see myself at some point going in for “one final hurrah” and never coming out. I’ve seen firsthand and 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, because it caused me to really reconsider this idea. 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, and 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 hope. 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.

 

How to appreciate the mental aspects of yoga: take two!

I’ve had a pretty complicated relationship with yoga from the start. See this blog for details.

For the past several months I had been toying with the idea of doing Yoga Teacher Training in the spring. I know- what? Haven’t I made enough life-changing decisions recently? Well, I really wanted to deepen my yoga practice and I had always heard that going through teacher training was a great way to do that. It’s “expensive,” but comparatively a drop in the bucket when you consider how much I’ll be shelling out to go back to school.

I took a one month break from yoga back in August in an effort to explore some of my ~feelings~ around it and I came back in September with a renewed love for the activity. I thought all my complicated “yoga issues” were behind me, but I guess that wasn’t exactly true. I keep coming back to my idea that I have to be doing a certain type of yoga every day in order for it to “count.” If the class is only an hour long, it doesn’t count. If the yoga doesn’t make me sweat, it doesn’t count. If I’m doing yoga in my apartment and get sidetracked by my cats for a minute , then that doesn’t count as yoga either.

My studio that I have a membership to doesn’t offer hot yoga, but I kept hearing that hot yoga was the real “legit” yoga so I started paying separately to attend hot yoga classes at a nearby studio that I didn’t even like. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if I’m honest with myself, I really dislike hot yoga. Warm yoga, sure, but 98-100 degree yoga? No thanks. I was eventually able to convince myself how stupid it was to be wasting money on something I wasn’t even enjoying all in the name of becoming more of a “real” yogi.

What kind of yoga do I like? I like the variety of (non-hot!) yoga offered at my original treasured studio– sometimes that means a vigorous vinyasa flow and other times it means a slower more strength-focused hatha class. This is the studio I originally fell in love with and the one I keep coming back to after all my little breaks to find (get over?) myself.

The #yogaeverydamnday movement is strong, and I’ll admit I got sucked into it, thinking I needed to be doing X hours of real “legit” yoga every day in order to consider myself someone who was serious about yoga. Who’s to judge that anyway? Is someone who religiously does 2 hours of hot power yoga a day more serious than someone who does one hour of non-hot yoga most days? What if the person spending less time on the mat is the one who actually succeeds at bringing the principles of yoga into her/his life?

I’m so grateful for my amazing friend Emily for helping me realize that I don’t need to spend thousand of dollars on a teacher training to be able to appreciate the benefits of yoga in my life. I realized my fixation on becoming a “serious yogi” was actually fueling my eating disorder, and there’s no need or room for that right now. My Christmas yoga wish would be to figure out how to simplify the existence of yoga in my life, because I’m pretty sure yoga was never meant to be this complicated.

(This is my spiritually-minded cat Wendy practicing yoga. For the record, she’s not a fan of hot yoga either…)

15380277_10100812842524042_1505764219039963980_n

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. ūüėČ

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. ūüėČ 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 ūüėČ ).

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! ūüôā

 

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. But, that wasn’t really true. 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. ūüėČ