Grounding Through Yoga

Whether I have a million tasks to get done or have absolutely nothing to do, the presence of anxiety seems to be constantly looming. My go-to in order to manage anxiety was always running or working out. During an intense workout, I would experience peace as it was one of the few activities that would take me out of the racing thoughts in my head. However, having struggled with a restrictive eating disorder, the option of exercising or exerting tremendous physical energy was no longer sustainable. I tried several other coping skills, such as coloring, reading, and walking outside, but none were as helpful as the practice of yoga. I had been introduced to yoga while in an inpatient eating disorder treatment center, but at the time despised the idea of laying still on a mat during which catastrophic thoughts overwhelmed my mind. However, months after discharging from intensive treatment, I knew I had to find a healthy, balanced way of coping with anxiety, if I wanted to maintain the progress I had made in my recovery. This is when I decided to give yoga another try.

I read somewhere that it takes 8 weeks of practice in order to make something a habit. So that is what I set out to try with the practice of yoga. Every other day, I made time to take out my mat, and practice various forms of yoga. Some days, I tried a meditative aspect to yoga by listening to guided meditations while laying down. Other days, I did vinyasa flow routines by watching videos on YouTube. For every day I took the incentive to take out my mat and practice, whether that be for 5 minutes or an hour, I put a smiley face sticker on a calendar in my room! This continued for only a couple weeks, until practicing yoga became engrained in my everyday routine.

At first, yoga was not an efficient tool in relieving the anxieties I held. It was more like a chore to check off my to-do list. But with practice, yoga has become an effective outlet for the stress and tension I hold in my body. While moving through poses, I actively think about the functions my body performs in order to keep me living. This in turn has helped me find more gratitude for my body as whole, which gratefully has decreased the intensity of body dysmorphia I regularly struggle with. I set aside “yoga time” as my time in the day to consciously release any worries, fears or anticipations I am holding. Whenever a thought about an upcoming exam or an undermining self-belief pops up, I try to bring myself back into the present and solely focus my attention on moving deeper into a pose. With consistent practice, my body and mind soon integrated, automatically connecting yoga with mindfulness and serenity. Fitness posters, athletic brands and media usually portray specific types of yoga, but there are several different forms out there and can be tailored to meet our mental and physical needs. So don’t give up on the idea after one class or one try. Practice creates habit!

 

 

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Life after Residential

Being in a 24 hour treatment center for an eating disorder is like being in a safe, yet mentally and physically challenging bubble with only extremely supportive people. I remember on my last day at the facility, on my graduation day, I felt ready to take on the world. I had been following my meal plan 100%, stepping out of my comfort zone consistently and disputing numerous self sabotaging thoughts I often faced.

However, the “real world” outside of treatment wasn’t as optimistic and recovery focused as I had glamorized it to be. My first snack out proved to be a challenge in itself. There was no one sitting with me, watching me consume every bite, and that all too familiar voice of ED became stronger. In treatment, there were so many items censored due to its potentially triggering content, such as magazines, websites, toxic people and most forms of media. But in life, there unfortunately aren’t “trigger warnings” on everything. I was blindsided by the countless diet/weight loss ads and the number of active, athletic people I saw all around me. I had forgotten what real life was like in just the couple months I spent cooped up in a treatment facility.

Even though it was quite a shocker immediately following residential, it became a normalized challenge that I began to expect; it was just another component left to battle on my journey to recovery. It is common, and actually completely expected to face lapses and slips after higher level of care. It is the only way to learn! That said, it is all the more beneficial to have a strong support system in place after discharge. Continued care has been a crucial aspect to my continuation in recovery. Whenever I had moments when the eating disorder thoughts tried to slip back in, my treatment team was there to catch me and pull me back into my wise mind. Overall, life DOES get better after inpatient care for an eating disorder. The strict rules of treatment facilities do not linger forever. It becomes a gradual process of learning to live a life true to your authentic self.

 

“just eat”

I’m on my eighth therapist now. And we are just about at the end of our time working together. “I think I may not be the best match for you”. Oh how many times I’ve heard that. It’s funny how therapists always seem to tell me this during my most vulnerable times.
I know that all I have to do is eat. If I can maintain my weight, I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a new therapist or receiving higher level of care. But why can’t I do it? Why can’t I just eat?

I read somewhere that an eating disorder is like a wool sweater. The wool keeps you warm from the cold outside, but then becomes uncomfortable as it begins to itch. It’s time to take the wool sweater off now, but for some reason, you don’t want to let it go.

I can see now that my eating disorder is hurting more than helping. But I am afraid to take it off. Who am I if I don’t have an eating disorder? How will I be able to survive the unknowns of the world without having the comfort of falling back to restricting, exercising and dieting?

I spent a lot of time pondering on these questions, since the answer lies at the root of change. What is it that motivates me to leave behind my eating disorder and pursue a life of recovery? For me, it is the concept of connection, knowledge and compassion. These are the values I hold closest to my heart. My life is nothing without the relationships I have that create it. Everyday I am lifted up and loved by family and friends, from both far and near. The thought of knowledge excites me. I yearn to continue learning, whether that be through classes, books or a career. Lastly, the idea of giving back to others, and ultimately being at a place where I am capable of expressing compassion to myself motivates me more than anything. I cannot live a life centered around these authentic values if I continue to engage with my eating disorder. It is for this reason, I continue to fight.

 

 

The Problem with our Mental Health Treatment System

Looking back on my eating disorder recovery journey, I am grateful for the amount of help I received and the level of care I was recommended to. However, what I am not appreciative about is the extent of shaming and toll that process took on me.

I understand that health care providers and treatment team professionals are trying to keep clients thriving at the minimum amount of care necessary. But for others facing a situation similar to mine, where outpatient treatment was not adequate enough, the process it takes to finally receive an effective structure of treatment can take an extended amount of time and obstacles.

When I was seeing an outpatient therapist specialized in eating disorders, appointments were very limited. It started out as seeing her every five weeks, which in terms of beginning recovery and normalizing eating is not nearly enough support. She began weighing me during sessions, and when she saw that I lost weight, she would see me more frequently, such as every two weeks. But if my weight stayed stable, she would spread out the time between our sessions again. The message this communicated to me was that I was not deserving of help, unless my weight continued to decrease. However, I see now that this is a completely FALSE statement. Eating disorders are a serious mental illness. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses with 1 in 5 deaths resulting from suicide. Therefore, weight is not an accurate indicator of illness severity or the extent to which someone is mentally suffering.

Several months later, after continuing to make no progress with infrequent, outpatient therapy, I was referred to an Intensive Outpatient Program that met three times a week. Even after settling into this IOP program, I was not making much progress. I was overwhelmed with disordered thoughts and engaged in destructive behaviors. My treatment team there made me feel like I was failing at the requirements expected of me. The most corrupted, illogical part of this was that the professionals had made me feel like I was not trying hard enough. If I had put in more effort, had more self discipline to complete meals and take on less in life, I could have succeeded right? Absolutely not. I was putting in my all to these programs, yet the eating disorder voice was far too overwhelming. After months and months of feeling shame and frustration, while all my peers were graduating and leaving the program, I was finally referred to an inpatient, residential program.

I see now how residential had saved my life, but why was it that therapists and dietitians had made it seem like a failure for needing a higher level of care? Why was it that I had to undergo nearly a year of suffering due to receiving the wrong level of care until I was finally provided with what I needed? Programs thrive on success rates and statistics. It is also much cheaper for health care providers to keep people at the perceived minimum level of care necessary, especially when it comes to mental health treatment. Health professionals and treatment programs will try their absolute best to help a client transform while they are under their care, without needing to refer them out. But there comes a point when this intention becomes more damaging than beneficial to the client actually receiving treatment. More awareness and education needs to be spread about these pitfalls within the mental health treatment system. Victims of mental illnesses should not be feeling discouraged in terms of recovery due to the disregard and ignorance to the level of care necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year in ED Recovery

It was flu season and it was far too easy to get sick in a dorm hall with 400 other college students in such close proximity. So one of my best friends and I had decided to get flu shots at Kaiser, just down the block from our school. We got in the elevator to leave the building when I received a phone call. It was the call from my treatment team saying that I had to check into an inpatient eating disorder treatment center within the next 48 hours. My entire life changed at that moment. It was the day putting recovery first was no longer a choice, but a necessity in order to continue living a life worth living.

It has been a year since that time now. It has been a year of treatment programs, therapy sessions, meal plans but most importantly, it has been a year of growing in recovery. I always wondered at the time what recovery would be like. Will I ever eat normally again? Will I ever accept my body? Is recovery actually worth it?

I am here to tell you from the other side that recovery is SO worth it. For quite a while, I was on a strict meal plan, counting exchanges and logging every meal/snack. But as my dietician had promised, there came a day where my meal plan was actually restricting my food and meal choices. I began the process of intuitive eating and now am able to eat balanced meals and snacks, without an exchange system in place. However, when I feel overwhelmed by food on an unusually tricky day, I simply go back to logging for a day or two to help me maintain consistent eating.

At the start of recovery, overcoming desires to engage in eating disorder behaviors seemed impossible and was extremely draining. But as time progressed, and as my toolbox of coping skills expanded, the time and energy spent needing to fight off an urge became more manageable. I consider myself in stable recovery, but not fully recovered. Therefore, I do experience urges, but they are not nearly as strong or overpowering as they once were. There are days where I feel like restricting, but very rarely do I actually act on them. Nowadays, I find pride in myself for being strong enough to act against ED’s wishes, whereas before it was the exact opposite.

When in treatment, I felt “sickly” with having so often to get my blood drawn, EKGs, vital checks, doctors appointments and therapy sessions. Truth is, I WAS sickly which is why I needed so much monitoring. But as my vitals stabled out, the number of appointments and tests/scans did decrease! I get my vitals checked every few months, instead of multiple times a day, and meet with my dietician once a month, instead of twice a week. Important to note that I have gained the skill of being able to ask for help when I need it. So when there are times where checking in with my treatment team more often would be beneficial, I am not hesitant to reach out to them!

One of the largest mental struggles I faced was related to body distortion and negative body image. Words cannot express how grateful I am that BODY IMAGE DOES GET BETTER! People assume that body image issues are “cured” as soon as weight restoration is complete. However, that is when the real work in practicing body acceptance comes into play. Body image is one of the later aspects to improve during recovery from an eating disorder. This is just one of the several reasons why recovery is such a strenuous journey. Why would someone want to continue fighting and overcoming urges to end up struggling mentally just as much as before? This is one of those times where trust in the process and trust in the treatment team is crucial. It’s that point where things get harder before they get easy. I wore sweatpants and oversized sweatshirts in the middle of summer, spent hours crying in front of the closet mirror in my room and avoided social gatherings due to embarrassment of my body…so yes, I understand how bad body image really gets. That said, I am at a point now where I am able to wear a bikini and go kayaking with my friends, happily try on clothes at the mall after a full meal AND dessert, or wear crop tops to class! This doesn’t mean that I am perfect or cured from bad body image. There are still days where I struggle, but those times are not NEARLY as often or as intense as before. I now use bad body image as an indicator that I need to pay increased attention to the other stressors in my life. The mood of the day or the tone of my week is no longer determined by the reflection I happen to see in the mirror.

I thought I would always have an eating disorder. But now, I have a renewed sense of hope. I believe that it is possible for me to one day forget the caloric values of foods. I believe that one day I can look at my weight on a scale and accept that the number is just a number. I have already come worlds farther in recovery than I ever could have believed possible. I used to think that eating disorder survivors were “in recovery” for the rest of their lives; but today, I wholeheartedly believe in “fully recovered”.

Portrayal of Eating Disorders in Media

“To the Bone” is a new Netflix original coming out soon presenting the story of a young woman who goes to treatment for an eating disorder. At first, I was really looking forward to watching this film and was so glad that the truth about eating disorders was finally being brought to light. However, I realized that after watching the trailer, I went to bed that night thinking maybe, just maybe, I could do that again; I could starve myself and be “perfect”. But then I caught myself; there is nothing perfect about eating disorders. For a split second, I had forgotten about the grueling side effects onset by an eating disorder. I forgot about the life threatening aspect of this disease. I forgot about the isolation, anxiety, self hate as well as the other uglinesses that come with it.

I questioned myself as to how I could allow two minutes of a simple trailer get to me. I realized that it was because the trailer was not an accurate representation of what fighting anorexia looks like. I understand that the producers of this film were attempting to spread awareness about eating disorders in an entertaining way, but the problem is that there is nothing entertaining about mental illnesses. Gathered from the “To the Bone” trailer as well as various other films regarding mental illnesses (which I will not list due to potentially triggering content) are a couple myths debunked. Here is the raw truth of what struggling with and fighting anorexia is like:

062017-to-the-boneMyth 1: People with eating disorders proudly recite the calories of everything on their plate.

Truth: Calories are secretly and shamefully counted in the mind. Even when you try really hard not to think about it, your mind will automatically remind you of how many calories everything contains and as a result will create guilt regarding food. Calorie counting is a trapping obsession, not a prideful activity.

Myth 2: You will find the love of your life in residential treatment.

Truth: When you’re in residential treatment, you have a couple other pressing issues on your mind aside from finding your true love. If you’re not busy in DBT, CBT or ACT group, and you’re not talking to your therapist, dietician, doctor or psychiatrist, you’re most probably too busy crying to get out of treatment and longing to go back home to your family. Any time with other clients is strictly supervised by counselors and nurses, which makes it somewhat difficult to have meaningful conversations with them aside from mental illnesses. It’s hard to fall in love when you don’t love yourself, or by that means, you don’t even tolerate yourself.

Myth 3: The psych hospital is a place where you get to play games and have fun with those around you.

Truth: The psych hospital is not fun and it is not like summer camp. It is a facility where patients are held to (literally) prevent them from ending their life. The staff there doesn’t necessarily remind you of butterflies, rainbows and all things beautiful in life. They are strict and abide by rigid rules to keep all patients in check. Most patients admitted aren’t quite in the mood to play games and do arts and crafts since they undergoing mental turmoil. It is an intense period in people’s lives and is a place where some patients are sectioned to against their will. Leaving the psych hospital does not indicate that you are “cured” from feeling depressed or suicidal. It simply means that you can now focus on the long road of recovery awaiting ahead.

Myth 4: Doctors will not try to help people who do not want to recover from their eating disorders.

Truth: Many sufferers going to their doctors with an eating disorder aren’t usually hunky dory about recovering. Recovery is a long, strenuous, difficult, but also rewarding journey. The idea of recovering and getting “rid” of their eating disorder can be very intimidating. It is scary to imagine a life without an eating disorder when an eating disorder has served as a comforting coping mechanism for so long. Treatment programs are in place to provide support for those trying to strive for a life that does not revolve around food, weight and numbers. Passion and motivation for recovery increases as treatment progresses.

Myth 5: Doctors take everyone in residential outside to dance and have fun in the rain.

Truth: Definitely wish this had some truth to it, because then inpatient might have been a little more tolerable. But what really happens, is that doctors, therapists, nurses, counselors and any other staff who may be around are constantly reminding you to stay seated. For the first few weeks, you get the “royal treatment” and aren’t even allowed to clean up your dishes after meals, since they don’t want you to faint on the walk over to the dishwasher. And if you would like to go outside, a staff member needs to accompany you while you are seated on a wheelchair.

Myth 6: It’s easy to “trick the system” during treatment by water loading or stuffing weights in your clothes.

Truth: If tricks like these are shown on movies and tv shows, be assured that the health care professionals providing treatment are well aware of them. Every few days, weights are taken by nurses while you are fully gowned. They also monitor amounts of fluid intake and make you pee in a cup before being weighed…not fun, and frankly quite humiliating.

Myth 7: You need to be underweight to get help.

Truth: This is INCREDIBLY misleading and false! The prognosis of an eating disorder can be influenced by how quickly intervention takes place. The “eating disorder voice” will tell you that you are not thin enough, not sick enough, not bony enough along with whatever else it may add on to make you feel unworthy of reaching out for help. Eating disorders are mental illnesses with physical symptoms. Weight can not be a sole indicator of the amount of mental suffering taking place.

Veganism and Eating Disorder Recovery

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for animals. And every since I found out in elementary school that meat actually came from slaughtered animals, I longed to be a vegetarian. I ate mainly vegetarian but still ate meat while living with my family at home throughout high school. It was only while in college, I made the dramatic decision to become vegan.

It had first started out with me wanting to become vegetarian. But I suffered with IBS in college and avoiding dairy helped me feel less bloated along with experiencing other uncomfortable symptoms. I thought to myself that I might as well become vegan if I didn’t eat meat or dairy…which I see now was definitely “all or nothing” thinking!

For months while in treatment, I fought my dieticians when they advised I become vegetarian, instead of vegan. I would continuously ask nurses and counselors if the meals I was presented with were vegan and would either eat it with tears in my eyes or shut down, numb out and mindlessly stuff down the food I was given to finish.

It was only after 4 months in intensive treatment, I voluntarily let go of the restriction I had put on myself of staying vegan. And honestly, it has been one of the most monumental steps I have taken in my recovery journey.

Even though I am very passionate about animal rights, being vegan WHILE battling an eating disorder was just not applicable for me. My eating disorder gradually took over, and it became an obsession. Being vegan and restricting out so many foods was just another way for me to feel “in control”. Checking backs of food labels for calories changed into checking for dairy or egg products. Being vegan was a more acceptable excuse I used with my friends and family to avoid going out to eat. I hijacked myself into thinking that I hated cheese and loved vegan desserts…definitely not true!

I challenged myself with a non vegan food everyday until it became more tolerable. Even though I now consider myself vegetarian, I still allow myself to eat vegan foods! The difference is that I am no longer restricted to eating ONLY vegan foods.

Being vegan while in recovery from an eating disorder isn’t advised by most health professionals. ED may tell you that you are strong & different, and can still fully recover while being vegan. But just because you CAN, doesn’t mean that you NEED to. Letting go of veganism opened me up to not only a less restrictive diet, but also to a less restrictive life stlye. It helped me release a large set of food rules that I was trying so desperately to hold onto. I told myself that if I still want to be vegan in ten years, after being stable in recovery for sometime, I can open up that door again if I so choose. But for the time being, veganism is not on my agenda!