The way I wish I could write: Natalie Breuer, “On Depression”

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I haven’t written much yet on my struggles with depression in my teens/early 20’s. Those are perhaps my most real memories.  They made me who I am; they prepared me for what came next.  (After all, if I could make it through some of those dark times, I could definitely make it through physical pain).

Those memories are, of course, the hardest to write about publicly.

That is why I’ve been so struck by this amazing post from Natalie Breuer at Natalie’s Lovely Blog.  Ever since I first read it last month, I just can’t get it out of my mind.

I was just so struck by the way Natalie put her experiences into words.  Of course, my story is different than hers, but I noticed a lot of parallels and her writing really just took my breath away.

Because I love good writing, and am trying to become a better writer, I’m making it a goal for 2017 to really pay attention when people use language well.

So here are two excerpts from Natalie’s post which I really loved, and want to remember:

When things got really bad, I attempted to detach myself from reality. I hardly spoke to anybody, and when I did, my words were heavy and cruel. I drove spaces between myself and the people who cared about me and felt no remorse as I did. I grew my hair until it reached my hips, I stopped wearing shoes, and I scrubbed my hands nine, ten times a day. Somehow, they felt unclean no matter what I did. I only took cold showers, and I ran every morning until the only thing I felt was the ache of my body and a heartbeat in my left ear. I figured the more worn out I was, the easier it would be to sleep again.

And yet the most important thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years is that it is possible to love a place or a person, but also know that they aren’t the right fit in any sort of permanent way. I have also learned that it is possible to know a lot of different things about a person but nothing about what they are actually like. I do not know if I will ever get used to it — having to quietly get rid of someone, having to leave some place — but I do know that it is the only thing I can do to help myself sometimes. It is the most difficult and important thing to understand that just because you need something to end in order to move on, doesn’t mean it wasn’t once the most significant, beautiful part of your life.

I feel like I could say more here, but honestly, those quotes are really all you need.

I hope you will check out the rest of Natalie’s post, and her blog in general!

Out with the old: Saying goodbye to 90’s nutrition advice

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In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions and goals, I thought I’d share this really great article I found recently on nutrition “myths.”  

Fitness Magazine interviewed registered dietitians on how their perspectives on healthy eating have changed over time.  These RD’s talk about some of the conventional wisdom regarding nutrition coming out of recent decades, how it influenced them, and how a lot of it turned out to be wrong.

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As a teenager struggling with body image issues in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I encountered much of these same nutrition trends myself from magazines and books, as well as from the nutritionist I saw for help with my eating disorder.

I remember– I was terrified of fat.  When I went out to eat, I insisted that I found mayonnaise and salad dressing “gross,” because I had read that cutting those things out was the best way to cut calories.

Each day, I only ate a certain number of calories at set times, and carefully adjusting the amount depending on the number of calories I had burned through exercise.  My treat at the end of the day would be some kind of “low-fat” dessert or “snack pack” of cookies.  Most of the food I ate was low fat– Healthy Choice ham for my sandwich at lunch, with low fat cheese.  Lean Cuisines for dinner.

It is so strange, now, to realize that so many of the “rules” I based my life around were, in fact, actually all wrong.

One of the quotes I related to the most in the article came from Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Nutrition Starring You.  She says:

“When I became a dietitian in the mid 1990s, we were in the middle of the fat-free craze. Bagels, fat-free frozen yogurt, and Snackwell cookies were all the rage. Our hospital diet materials recommended limiting nuts because of their fat content and limiting shellfish because of their cholesterol. Now, we know much more about the health benefits of fats derived from nuts and seeds, and we’ve also learned that high-sugar, fat-free foods are not nutritious choices. Unfortunately, people have long memories and to this day, so many of my patients are afraid to eat shrimp if they have elevated cholesterol. It’s exciting to work in a field with ever-evolving research.”

Yes– it absolutely was a fat-free craze.  Fat-free dressing, fat-free cheese.  Sometimes I’d even come across bread that was labeled fat free.  I always thought I was doing something great for myself when I reached for that label, not understanding that my body actually needed fat in order to function.  

I also really related to this quote from Emily Cope, M.S., R.D.N., Owner & Consulting Dietitian at Emily Kyle Nutrition:

“When I was in college, I remember being obsessed with those ‘100-calorie packs’ of cookies and crackers. I thought they were a great option—less than 100 calories for all of those tiny wafers!! Little did I know those calories were being replaced with chemicals and unnatural ingredients. These days, now that I am older and wiser, I am less concerned with calories and more concerned with the quality of my food—whole fruit and nuts are my current go-to snacks!”

Yes.  Unfortunately, that was so me as well.  I felt comfortable with pre-packaged, processed foods because they were marketed for weight-loss, and it was easy to know how many calories were in them.

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These days, I have come so far in terms of my outlook to food that sometimes I almost forget that I ever had a problem.  (After all, I’ve had to deal with so much else with my body over the intervening years!).

I will talk more about how I overcame my eating and body image issues in future posts.  But for now, let me say that these days I think I live and eat pretty holistically.  I don’t get caught up on the idea of depriving myself of something if I really want it; I don’t count calories.  

And the funny thing is, now that I allow myself to eat whatever I want, I find that most of the time, I generally tend to crave pretty healthy choices.  Now that I’m actually well-nourished, I find myself more in touch with how my body responds to different foods, and I tend to gravitate towards the foods that make me feel best.

I’m sharing this with you for a few reasons:  

A) There’s some really good advice contained in this article, and

B) It serves as a reminder to me– and maybe to you– that things can get better.  Even if you have a problem that goes on for years; if you feel trapped and you truly seem stuck, things can change when you don’t expect it.

I truly hope this post was helpful to you.  Happy New Year!

A Clearing

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So I’ve been clearing out all the old stuff from my storage unit.  Finding so many reminders of all the plans I once had.

The high-heeled boots I bought senior year of high school, right before the Halloween dance.  My friends and I were all going to go as “sexy cops.”  (I know).

My running “spikes,” as our cross-country team called our specialized lightweight racing shoes.

It’s bittersweet, to look back and remember all of the optimism I had towards my goals– goals I would never reach.  Especially when I can recognize that some of those goals were pretty unhealthy.

Why did I need to wear high-heels?  They were only making things worse, as I was developing compartment syndrome.

Why did I need to run?  I truly loved it… but at the same time, I wasn’t truly listening to my body, and ran it into the ground.

So much pressure, to be thin, to be pretty.

So now I’m clearing out my storage unit, and there are just so many clothes.  So many clothes, in just about every size.

My size 2 clothes– the last clothes I bought before my health issues spun out of control and a medication forced me to gain weight.  At the time I thought it was horrible, but now I can see it was a blessing in a disguise.  It took something overpowering, and dramatic, to truly break me out of that way of thinking.

Chronic pain finally pushed the obsession with being thin out of my head.  There was no room for anything else; there was only survival, from one minute to the next.  I’m not sure if anything else could have done that– not without it taking years.

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But I’ve held on to my old clothes all this time.  I loved them, because they were my way of telling the world, at 16, that I was an adult.  (An adult that wanted to dress just like Buffy!).

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My outfits, at the time, felt like works of art.  Handbags, sweaters, dresses– everything perfect.  My mom had picked out all of my clothes for me as a kid, and in the cutthroat world of high school girlhood, it took me a while to define my style.

Once I did, my clothes became my way of making a statement.  I discovered that the better I looked, the more power I had in the social world of high school.   If I looked perfect, it was harder for other girls to make fun of me.  My clothes became my armor.

When I gained weight at first (right after high school ended), I held on to all my old things because I thought I’d eventually be a size 2 again.  Then, once I realized I never actually wanted to be a size 2 again, I continued to keep them simply because it felt strange to part with them.

They’d helped me to define myself as an adult.  At one point in time, they’d protected me.

And they’d been waiting for me for so long, like a lost bookend, marking where I could find the life I’d been waiting to come back to when things finally got better.

I wasn’t ready, until now, to let them go.

But I don’t need or want that life anymore.  I no longer feel like I need to wear high heels in order to be a true girl.  I don’t want to put on eyeliner every morning like it’s war paint.

And I don’t need to weigh 115 pounds, or to be able to see the outline of my hip bones perfectly, in order to be attractive.

I just want to be me.

The ‘Tyranny’ of Positive Thinking

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A friend posted this article about the pitfalls of positive psychology on Facebook this morning, and gosh– it resonated.

I’ve honestly been annoyed by the concept of positive thinking for a long time. It seems like most of the time, when someone tells urges you to be more “positive,” what they really mean is that they’re tired of listening to you.

The whole idea of trying to “block out” negative thoughts never made sense to me. If you have a problem, shouldn’t you try to solve it? Pretending the problem doesn’t exist isn’t going to make it go away. You have these feelings for a reason. It’s gut instinct trying to tell you that something is wrong and needs to change.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time battling health issues that appeared to many people to be “in her head,” I’ve probably been accused of dwelling on the negative more than the average person. (But probably not more than most of my fellow health bloggers– I know you guys will know what I mean!).

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I had never really considered how that mindset might be unique to where I live (the Northeastern US) until I spoke with my friend M., who is from Costa Rica. She told me that, since moving to the US several years ago, she feels a definite pressure to sweep problems under the rug and always appear cheerful– a pressure that was not there back home.

In Costa Rica, M. says, people have more of an understanding that problems are part of life, and that we all need to find someone else to listen once in a while. When you’re experiencing a crisis, it’s not so much a reflection on you as a person, like it is in the US. It’s more that it’s your turn to go through an aspect of life that everyone experiences occasionally.

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Well, this Newsweek article totally backs M. and me up.

The author, Morgan Mitchell, cites several studies that have demonstrated that there are drawbacks, and even potential dangers, of positive psychology (and its less-nuanced cousin, positive thinking).

For example, Mitchell cites a recent study by Karen Coifman et al., which found that “when people acknowledge and address negative emotions toward their relationships or chronic illnesses, it helps them adjust their behavior and have more appropriate responses. Those negative emotions, in turn, benefit their overall psychological health. ”

That’s exactly what I’ve been saying. You need to fully experience the negative emotions you have, so that you can process them and then get to a better place emotionally.

Mitchell also references a study by Elizabeth Kneeland and colleagues, which “concluded that people who think emotions are easily influenced and changeable are more likely to blame themselves for the negative emotions they feel than people who think emotions are fixed and out of their control.”

In other words, people who view their own negative response to a given situation as a reflection of their own shortcomings are most likely to feel badly about themselves. To me this seems like a complete waste of energy– instead of judging yourself for your emotional response to something, wouldn’t it be better to focus on doing whatever it takes to create a better situation?

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As much as I know “positive thinking” annoys me on principle, this is still something I’m struggling with. To let myself experience a difficult situation and, instead of judging myself for the way I react, to recognize that there is actually some wisdom in that reaction. My truest and deepest self is letting me know that this situation is not okay for me, and I need to take steps to change it.

It’s okay if things don’t always work out. It’s okay if something you thought was going to be great turns out not to be.

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One of my favorite bloggers, Beauty Beyond Bones, wrote a post about a similar situation the other day. She found herself in a professional situation where she did not feel respected, and was not being compensated adequately. After some time, she made the difficult decision to stand up for herself, despite the potential consequences it could have for her career. She wrote,

“Our actions, whether consciously or unconsciously, communicate messages to ourselves. What do we think we’re worth? Do I allow someone to walk all over me? Am I completely upending my life to meet the needs of someone who doesn’t even respect my time when I’m there?

I am worth respect. I am worth honesty. I am worth dignity.”

This is what I believe. Sometimes, when you really just feel awful about a certain situation, and the feelings don’t go away– those feelings are there for a reason. Instead of wasting time judging ourselves, or fearing others will judge us for our response, we need to trust that inner voice that tells us where we need to be.

Trust Your Nervous System photo courtesy of Cliph

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Lessons from an amazing weekend

I had a crazy, fun-filled weekend. The kind of weekend I haven’t had in at least five years. 4634683686_d575b661b5_o

Five years ago, my friends and I went to a “tango night” at a local restaurant.  It was an amazing evening.  The teachers were professional dancers, and a lot of the other students were from other countries.  There was such a fun, friendly, open vibe to the night.

The evening started out with a free tango lesson, and then afterwards, the dance floor opened up to anyone who wanted to come and dance.  Some truly amazing dancers showed up.  I was in my element, starting to picture myself traveling through Argentina.

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But as the night went, on my knees started to hurt. At first, I tried to ignore the pain, but it got worse and worse until eventually, I had to sit down and watch everyone else for the last two hours.

“We’ll go back,” my friends and I all said at the end of the night. I thought I’d fix my knee problems, and organize another group outing in a few months.

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Of course, it never ended up happening.  People got busy; the friend who organized it the first time moved away.

And I ended up spending the next five years having trouble walking.  My knee problems got a lot worse before they got better, and the months I spent limping and carrying my weight unevenly led me to develop the SI joint issues I still have today.  Basically, it’s been five years since I could stand, or walk, or dance without so much as a thought.

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Yet somehow, this weekend, everything clicked. I didn’t plan it– I just got caught up in the flow of things, and went where my friends went.

I guess all my strengthening exercises are starting to really pay off, because somehow, I went out dancing Friday and Saturday night. Friday night, I was in one of those loud, crowded bars I normally hate, but the band was actually amazing, and I found myself out on the dance floor with the group.

And then Saturday? Well, it wasn’t tango, but some friends went to a salsa night. I didn’t make it in time for the lesson, but I did make it out onto the dance floor afterwards. I wouldn’t say I wowed anyone with my salsa skills, but I also didn’t need to sit down once the entire night.

But here’s what really shocked me: I was back to where, physically, I had left off five years ago. But nothing about it felt monumental or life-changing.

What was life-changing? Everything it took for me to be okay, in the past five years, when I couldn’t have a weekend like this. All of the restraint it took; all of the patience I was forced to cultivate.

Don’t get me wrong– I haven’t stayed at home for five years, I’ve gone out– but it was never without compromise, never without having to constantly be aware of the nearest chair.

I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I’d be sitting by myself when an amazing song came on and everyone else wanted to be on the dance floor. I’ve had to perfect the art of looking calm, confident, and busy doing things on my cell phone.

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I’ve been through so much pain, frustration, and effort with my SI joint, I can’t even tell you. As much time as I’ve spent actually exercising, I’ve spent about three times as much time trying to learn about the problem. Researching the joint, consulting different doctors, chiropractors, and PT’s. Learning what movements not to do, which has been just as important as finding the right exercises.

That’s the thing– and I think anyone with chronic pain and health issues knows this– mind over matter doesn’t work. And actually, it’s counterproductive to push yourself into doing something that isn’t good for you.

You have to listen to your body: fine-tune your balancing act of when to push and when to rest. You have to become still.

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Something that’s helped me immeasurably is learning how to meditate. I actually don’t meditate every day, but learning how to be in the moment in that way has really spilled over into my daily life.

For me, meditation is like an experiment. You take everything that’s bothering you– whether it’s physical pain, or emotional, or stress and anxiety– and you just tell yourself, “Yes, this is all happening… but what if I was okay, anyway?” The problems are all still there, but just for a few minutes, you stop trying to fight them. They exist, but you see that underneath it all, you actually are okay.

Even after I’d only had this experience a few times, I felt as though it began to change the way I saw the world. I just felt calmer; more at peace. Somehow, it started to feel easier for me to notice the good in the world.

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There are different ways to grow as a person. You can go on a journey through the world– you can travel, meet people, and see fascinating things.

But you can also journey inside of yourself, and that can transform your perspective just as much.

I have had to learn how to find peace in the moment. I haven’t had the option of going out and losing myself in the way people describe when they talk about travel. I’ve never backpacked through Europe… I’ve never even backpacked through the White Mountains, like just about everyone else I know.

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But I have been transformed, no doubt.

It’s tempting for me to try to compare myself to other people, to suggest that maybe I have actually learned more by being forced to stay still, compared to people who have been able to leave their problems behind by going out and doing things. But that would be wrong– I don’t know what journeys people are on, or what they are learning.

But I can compare myself to my past self, and say that the things it takes to make me happy now are very different than the things I used to think I needed to be happy.

That night that I was forced to sit down at Tango Night, I thought I was losing a piece of myself that I wouldn’t get back until I could come back and dance again.

Now I see that I didn’t lose anything at all.  In fact, I gained something.

And that is a lesson I’m grateful to have learned.

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Credits for the photos in this post:

 

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