Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The irony of being controlled while trying to be in control

I know I’ve written on this topic before, but I recently had an “aha” moment that cause me to revisit the experience.

When I had an eating disorder, I wasn’t free.  I was bound to the shackles and chains of counting calories.  Everything that passed my lips not only had to be counted but also accounted for.

I thought I was free.  I thought that I was in control; my biggest fear was being out-of-control when it came to food and weight.

The irony was that I wasn’t in control – even when I was controlling everything little thing I ate down to a stick of gum, an Ibuprofen, or even licking an envelope shut.

My mind was constantly preoccupied with food, exercise, how many calories does this have, how many miles will I have to run after I eat this, how many pounds will I gain if I don’t…

I could never live in the moment.  I could never fully let go of the control of food in order to be present in whatever situation I found myself.

Parties were the worst – I was so afraid of the food that surrounded me.  I could not fully participate in conversations because I was either trying to figure out if I could manage a cookie or I was beating myself up for eating some buffalo chicken dip.  Then for days or weeks after, I tried to exercise away all of my eating “sins”.

My big turning point in this regard was after I ran a marathon.  The day of the big event came and I was still counting calories.  After the race, my husband and I had a celebratory dinner at our favorite restaurant.  Still, even after vigorously training for and then running a marathon, I had to tally up what I was eating.  I realized then and there that I had a problem.  It would never end.  If I was still obsessed with calories after I ran a freaking marathon, then I would never be able to stop.

I realized then and there that I was not in control.  My obsession with food, calories, exercise, and weight was in control of me.

After that day I decided to stop counting calories and stop “making up for” what I ate through exercise.  If I am to exercise, then I will do it because it feels good and makes me feel good after – not because I “need” to in order to negate the food I consumed.

Because I had been counting calories for about 10 years, the practice was a deep-rooted bad habit.  Its roots had spread over my whole being infiltrating every aspect of my life.  Stopping this routine was very difficult, to say the least.

It’s a lot harder to “unlearn” than to learn.  It’s not easy to just forget how many calories are in a banana, a granola bar, or a glass of milk…containers, boxes, and labels don’t help the situation either.

But since I realized that I had a problem, I had to be committed to giving it up.  So, I don’t look at nutrition labels anymore.  If I try to tally up calories in my head, I literally make noise, “la la la la la”, until it passes or until I’m distracted by something else.

The critical moment comes when I try to count how much I’ve had to eat in one day.  I’ve been known to hold my head with my eyes tightly squeezed shut saying “no no no no no”.  I have to remind myself that I don’t want to be controlled by this evil eating disorder anymore.

I have to remind myself that I want to live life – I don’t want to be on my death bed counting the calories in my ensure shake or the liquid in my IV.

So, with a lot of grace from God and continual practice I can say that I no longer count calories.

Most days I don’t even remember what I ate anymore, and for me, that’s a huge turn around.  It took about a year to get the information out of my brain.  Occasionally, calories will pop in my head but I dismiss them and move on.

The other day, I was at my parent’s house and almost everyone was home (which is a big deal nowadays).  Of course there was plenty of food around.  Only a few years ago, this would have caused me so much anguish, so much anxiety.  But, during our gathering, I didn’t think anything of it.  I actually didn’t even eat any of the snacks because I was full from a delicious dinner earlier that evening.  And I never thought twice about it.  (Well, until the next day when I marveled at how different the experience was for me compared to what it would have been in the past.)

It was an “aha” moment when I realized later how great it was.  I laughed, I was fully present in conversation and company, I was relaxed, and, most of all, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Had I not changed, had I not given up the control, I would have been miserable.  I would have been distraught from being surrounded by food.  I probably would have been hungry because I was afraid to eat or I would have been mentally defeated because I did eat.  I would not have been able to enjoy myself because I was a slave to my eating disorder.

I am still working on keeping a positive body image.  I can’t say that I don’t still struggle with low self-worth.  But I have to remind myself that I don’t want to go back to the way I was, being controlled by the eating disorder.

When I am tempted to start controlling what I eat I have to remind myself that I would not be in control, but I could be controlled by an evil that I no longer have room for in my life.

I also have to remind myself how awesome it is not to be obsessed with food and what I did or didn’t eat.  I eat when I’m hungry, I eat what I am hungry for, and I don’t eat if I’m not hungry.

In the past, when the eating disorder was ruling my life, I thought that I if I didn’t control my food, then I would be out of control, like an animal, and not able to stop eating.  But it’s not like that at all.

I guess the point of this post is to let you know that it is WONDERFUL on the other side!  (I rarely use exclamation marks an all caps in my posts, so this sentence should stick out.)  I have a much better relationship with food now that I’ve stopped trying to control it.  I’m not saying it’s perfect – it never will be.  But, it’s a heck of a lot better now.  If you are teetering on the fence, make the leap of faith – it’s worth it!

If you are struggling with letting go of controlling what you eat and need some more information, try implementing some intuitive eating techniques.  Click here, here, or here to learn more about this practice.  Or read these other articles from other bloggers.

Why diets don’t work
Mindful eating: What it is and isn’t and why kids don’t need it

Monday, March 17, 2014


I think everyone has experienced the feeling of being overwhelmed at least once in their life.

Sometimes, at the end of the day, the to-do lists are twice as long as when the day started.  And it doesn’t help that our busy-busy-busy culture leaves us feeling less productive than we really are.

Often times, we compare ourselves to other people and, therefore, try to accomplish more.  Other times, we give ourselves unrealistic expectations that no human being can live up to.

Too long to-do list, not enough hours in the day, lofty goals to accomplish, never-ending cleaning, monthly bills, committing to too many obligations, stretching the grocery money… It doesn’t matter the reason, at the end of the day most people feel frazzled and spent – but, conversely, they feel like they didn’t get anything done either.

Recently, I read a bit on “The Conversion Diary” by Jennifer Fulwiler.  She was writing about The Secret to Not Being Overwhelmed.  How can you not click on the link and read more?!

In her post, Jennifer was explaining how she wrote to a priest friend of hers asking a very interesting question:

“So I asked Fr. Langford: What did Mother Teresa do when it seemed that there was more work than she could possibly handle?  His response was simple and wise, and it marked a turning point in my life.  In his reply to my email, he wrote: The [work she could not get to] she did not think twice about, nor should you or I, since God is not asking you to do what He does not give you the time (or health, or resources) to do. So be at peace.

Mother Teresa is such a good example to us on so many levels.  I can only imagine if I was running the show in Mother Teresa’s place.  I’d be constantly stressed about how many poor and suffering people we were NOT helping.  I’d try to do too many things in one day, day after day, eventually getting burned out.  I’d sacrifice prayer and my own needs because “there was too much to do”.  The work would become more about “getting things done” then about love.

We can imitate Mother Teresa in our own lives no matter how different the two seem to be.  We might not be doing anything remotely close to what she did, but we are still called to live out our own particular vocation in whatever form that may be.

Mother Teresa never sacrificed prayer time.  She and her sisters spent countless hours in prayer before the Lord.  It is evident by her actions that she knew the importance of first being filled with the love of God before you can share it with others.

I really appreciated that Jennifer shared those words because it has also given me a lot of peace.  God is not expecting me to be super-human.  He does not want me to do great things at the expense of my mental health.  No, He is only asking me to do small things with great love.

This spiritual attitude reminded of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and one of his insightful, relevant analogies.  He wrote multiple sermons on “The Song of Songs” a book in the Bible.  One particular part has stuck with me since reading it in college.

He says: Be a reservoir, not a river.  "If, then, you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reservoir than a canal.  For a canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and then communicates, without loss to itself, its superabundant water…"

In his correlation, St. Bernard writes about how one must first be filled, because you cannot give what you do not already have.  He advises not to be like a river that is constantly outpouring.  Instead, be like a reservoir that fills to the brim before it overflows.  A river will run dry during droughts and dry-spells.  A reservoir has resources to last through any trial.

St. Bernard writes:

“[Also] learn not to attempt to give forth except out of a full [heart and mind], nor to desire to be more liberal than God.  Let the reservoir imitate its source, for that does not flow into a river, nor spread itself into a lake, until it is brimming over with its own waters.”

Don’t get caught up in the old English.  His message is profound.  Those words remind me that I must first take care of myself – not in a selfish, egotistical way – but in a practical way.  In order to be a useful instrument in the hands of God, I have to first let myself be filled with His love.  I can do nothing without His love.

The overflow of love within a soul is service.  Service without love is imprisonment.

I will be a better person, friend, servant, and teacher, if I give myself permission to take care of my needs.

If I first give time to God in prayer and allow Him to fill me with His love, I will be able to do what He wants me to do.  Then at the end of the day, I can be at peace because I know that God gave me the grace to do those things.  And tomorrow, He’ll do the same.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Is Depression a Character Flaw?

I think one of my biggest struggles right now is viewing my depression as a character flaw as opposed to an illness.

When I am feeling more down than usual, instant criticism pops in my head, “I am weak, I am a failure, and I am good for nothing.  Why can’t I be different?  What’s wrong with me?”  Thus starts a downward spiral of self-hate.  I begin to despise who I am rather that the disease from which I suffer.

When I said I “had” depression a couple years ago, I mean that I had severe depression that needed immediate intervention.  Had I not received help at that time, gone to the hospital, started medication, and seeing a counselor, things would not have turned out so good.

I will say that I am recovered, meaning, I am recovered from severe and even moderate depression.  However, I think I still struggle with mild depression on a day to day basis.

In order to keep my mild depressive symptoms in check, I monitor my stress and expectation levels, I try to pay attention to early warning signs, and I have reoccurring chats with my husband about my moods.  In addition, I regularly update my coping skills list to make sure it reflects the best possible ways to help me get through the tough times.

These things are really important.  I don’t want to go back to the way I was before.

Also, part of staying away from severe depression is recognizing that I still have mild depression.  I am not completely “cured” as my psychiatrist would say.
When I have bad days, when all I want to do is stay in bed or wallow in self-pity, I often make matters worse by beating myself up about it.  I think my persistent depression must be the result of some character flaw – some defect in who I am as a person – and, therefore, I must be beyond hope.

Falsely, I think my depression is something I’ve brought upon myself.  It’s because, “I am lazy, I am self-centered, and I am ungrateful.”  Sometimes, depression becomes a part of how I’d describe myself: quiet, artistic, patient, depressed.  I apply the same resolve to trying to be happier – less depressed – as I do for trying to be more patient.

In reality, depression is an illness that imposes itself, unwelcome, in my body and in my brain.  In this way, the disease is not so different than any other disease of the body, like cancer or diabetes.  I might be more susceptible to it because of my genetic makeup or my introverted personality, but that doesn’t mean I gave myself depression - or if I tried harder, I wouldn't have it.

And that doesn’t mean I am a bad person.

Depression is not a character flaw.  It is not the result of some sin or vice.  It is not a descriptive adjective.  If I knew someone suffering from cancer, would I describe them as fun-loving, determined, generous, and cancerous?  No.

I need to remember that mercy when I am dealing with my own struggles.  Depression is not part of who I am – not part of my character – but is an unwanted illness that I hope to recovery from someday.

Friday, March 7, 2014

One Way to Counteract False Feelings about Yourself

Feelings can be very deceptive.  In the troughs of difficult feelings, it can be challenging to stay grounded in reality.  When my anxiety is high or my depression unchecked, I have very low self-worth and often let the verbal abuse run rampant in my head.

In order to defeat the lies that seem like the truth at the time, I post positive phrases around my house or memorize them in order to repeat their truth over and over again.

Right now, some of my favorites are:

“Today a little work; tomorrow eternal rest.” – from the book, My Sisters the Saints, by Colleen Carol Campbell.

Feelings are NOT facts.

I am loved despite my faults and failures.

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.”– Mary Anne Radmacher

Lots of people struggle with depression like I do.  I am not alone in my pain and suffering.

“I do not have to do great things, only small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa of Calcutta

I can’t hate my way into loving myself.

“No one can make me feel inferior without my consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I need love the most when I feel I deserve it the least.

It’s OK to ask for help.

If you’d like some more ideas, check out Therese’s Blog post, 15 Affirmations to Say When You’re Depressed.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent, relaying some good advice, must-read book recommendations, and the dangers of fasting for those who struggle with eating disorders

This title has enough material to competitively volley with one of Jen’s titles, from Conversion Diary, for one of her Seven Quick Takes Friday Series.  I can't see the draw of a link up party but having an appropriate heading must be a step in the right direction.

Seriously though, Lent begins this Wednesday (tomorrow) and is, just like every other thing I encounter in life, an eating disorder trigger.

Talk of fasting, sacrifice, and “I’m giving up dessert” comments don’t go in one ear and out the other.  No, if I’m not careful and aware of the deception going on inside of me, I could easily slip back into old, bad habits again.

Will Lent feel like Lent if I don’t cut back on snacks?  Are hunger pains the only way I can tell that I’m sacrificing?

When we think of Lent, the first thing that comes to mind is giving up something.  And more often than not, people focus their penances around food, trying to give up sweets, chocolate, or eating in between meals.  I’d argue that these sacrifices have ulterior motives, but that’s a post of a different color.

For those with eating disorders or disordered eating tendencies, food restriction is the last place we should look for spiritual growth.  Food based sacrifices will not lead us closer to God, but farther away from Him by distracting us with desired weight loss, diminishing self-worth, and obsession with appearance or control.

This disparity calls for some creativity when discerning what to do about this liturgical season.

During the Homily this past Sunday, our priest gave some very practical advice on how to approach the self-penitential side of things.  The purpose of Lent is to help us prepare for Easter by growing closer to God.  He recommended looking into these three areas for growth: intellectual, spiritual, and physical.

First, we can grow intellectually by engaging in any spiritual reading, the life of a Saint, the Bible, the Catechism, or another goodie from your local Catholic book store.  You can also find a ton of encyclicals and papal letters on the Vatican website; JPII’s Letter to the Artists, Humanae Vitae, or Gaudium et Spes are a few of my personal favorites.

If you’re looking for a good, spiritually and intellectually enriching novel type book, I’d recommend My Sister’s The Saints by Colleen Carol Campbell, Left to Tell by Immaculee Illibigiza, and The Hidding Place by Corrie Ten Boom.

My Sister’s The Saints, by Colleen Carol Campbell is an amazing, totally relatable, spiritual autobiography of a 21st century woman who’s story intermingles with the lives of certain woman saints who aren’t so un-relatable as she once thought.  I think, primarily, this book is intended for women, but I spoke about it so often and with such admiration that my husband read it and loved it too.

Left to Tell, by Immaculee Ilibagiza is an incredible account of one woman’s experience of the Ruanda Holocaust.  To say her story is inspiring is a severe understatement.  Her perseverance in faith, complete trust in God, and supernatural forgiveness makes this book a perfect Lenten companion.  I could not put this book down once I started reading it.

The Hidding Place by Corrie Ten Boom is a story of one family’s service and ministry to the poor and needy during WWII, even when they themselves were counted among the suffering.  It is truly a life-changing book that will certainly help you grow in faith.

The second area to look at is spiritual growth.  Strictly speaking about prayer, there is a plethora of things one can add to his daily routine.  Lent doesn’t have to be about the “giving up”.  Adding prayer throughout the day is also a form of penance because you have to sacrifice the time you would have spent doing something else.

Starting small is the key; even five minutes a day will change your life.  If you try to take on too much, you will get overwhelmed and likely end up doing none at all.  Blessed are the over zealous – committing to daily Mass, daily rosary, liturgy of the hours, conquering the Summa Theologica, and reading the Bible cover to cover – for they shall be snowed under and never seen again.  Instead, humbly pick just one small realistic thing.  It is better to achieve an obtainable goal then to talk about lofty ones and never do anything at all.

Something that has worked for me is to listen to God’s invitation to prayer.  Instead of imposing a rigid prayer schedule, I try to pay attention to the moments when the Lord calls me to come to Him in silence.  If I am passing by Church, I might stop in for a bit.  Or if the notion comes to me when I’m washing dishes, I’ll say some prayers then.  For me, the danger with lists is that they become mechanical, robotic, unfelt.  It becomes more about crossing them off the list then about actually praying.  If instead I respond to God’s still strong voice, my prayers are more intentional and heart-felt.

Now for the physical (cue ominous piano cords) – Immediately my mind goes to food because that’s how I’ve trained my brain for some 20 odd years.  However, incorporating a bodily sacrifice doesn’t have to be limited to eating or, I guess, not eating for that matter.

In fact, for me and others who struggle with E.D.’s actually shouldn’t mingle food and penance.  It’s like expecting a recovering alcoholic to go to a bar everyday yet never take a drink.  It’s too much of a temptation to put oneself in that situation day after day, and it could also be a near occasion to sin.  Likewise, for those with disordered eating tendencies using food for sacrifices is harmful, irresponsible, and should be avoided.

All in all, the Lenten Season is supposed to help us grow closer to God.  Maybe it is a bigger sacrifice for me not to participate in the giving up of sweets like everyone else.  Maybe it is more of a penance to humbly accept my limitations.

I am reminded of a story about St. Therese of Lisieux.  She wanted to skip dessert and offer the sacrifice up for poor souls, but her Mother Superior told her she was not allowed, for whatever reason I do not know.  St. Therese came to the conclusion that it was more of a sacrifice to obey her Superior than to not eat the dessert.

When I am tempted to sacrifice in a similar way, I’ll think of The Little Flower and find reassurance and solidarity.  From her example, I’ll be re-committed to obey the Lord in this matter.

And hopefully, this year I can actually grow in holiness opposed to enabling my eating disorder tendencies.