Since I live in an area where wildfires have been devastating communities, this is some of what I’m hearing in therapy this week:
“I’m having trouble breathing.”
“Should I keep my child home from school or make them wear a face mask?”
“Three of my friends just lost their houses.”
“I can’t seem to focus.”
“I was just starting to get my head around the Las Vegas shooting and now this.”
“I don’t even know how to take care of myself right now.”
“Donating bags of supplies doesn’t seem like enough.”
“I’t’s just one disaster after another- I’m not sure I want to bring my children up in this world.”
These are from people living near the wildfires. Not the ones who directly lost their houses, schools, churches in the fire. So you can only imagine the trauma for those impacted even more directly.
A Little About Trauma:
What is trauma? According to the APA (American Psychological Association) trauma can be defined as:
“an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and… physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.”
Secondary trauma can be defined as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.” (Figley, C.R., Ed., 1995).
According to Secondarytrauma.org, some of the symptoms of secondary trauma include:
- intrusive thoughts
- chronic fatigue
- poor concentration
- second guessing
- emotional exhaustion
Many caregivers, therapists, nurses, firefighters, emergency providers, and what I call “senstives” or “empaths” experience secondary trauma. Secondary trauma can result from working directly with people who experienced trauma.
But what can we do about it?
If you are feeling the effects of trauma, here are some thoughts on self-care.
- Physical self-care
A friend of mine said recently, “I feel like a baby. I don’t even know how to take care of myself during this.” Actually, thinking of baby self-care is a good clue as to what you may need. Babies need physical care and tending. If you are able to, keep regular routines of sleep, meals/snacks, hygiene (showers and baths), and stay hydrated. Obviously, physical self-care also includes staying in a safe house or shelter. In the bay area, many hotels, air b and b’s, and nearby friends/family members/colleagues are offering shelter for those who have lost their house or residence due to the fires.
2. Emotional Self-Care
When thinking about a time when you have felt grounded, ask yourself what you were doing? It may have been journalling, meditating, or spending time with a dear friend. Although tempting to NOT do these things during times of crisis, it is actually even more important to do them. This is the directive of “put your own oxygen mask on first.” You cannot be of service to others of you are unable to breathe yourself.
3. Help others
Note this comes third on the list. After you make sure you are taken care of and resourced, then you can give, whether it be through providing housing, volunteering, donating supplies, or emotionally supporting people affected by the disaster.
If you are a parent:
Here’s a beautiful acronym/summary of ways to support your child during/after a disaster or emergency from Alberta Health Services:
Remove yourself and your loved ones from danger. During an emergency or disaster, finding shelter, water, and food is the first step. Staying safe and keeping calm is important in helping you and your child in an emergency.
Eat nutritious food and drink water.
Activity. Return to your normal routine as quickly and much as possible. Try to do what your family normally did before the event (e.g., eat meals together, walk together, play games, read).
Take care of yourself! One of the gifts of both recovery and of disasters is that it forces asking questions such as: What is most important? And what do I need to take care of myself right now? Here’s to living our way into those answers.
As always, this blog is not intended to provide or replace psychological treatment.
Mentis in Napa county is one of many mental health centers in the bay area providing mental health support at low fee currently for victims of the California wildfires. 707-255-0966 ext 132 http://mentisnapa.org/our-services/#mental
The National Center for PTSD is a good resource for information on trauma recovery: https://www.ptsd.va.gov
There is a scene in Moana in which she is trying to convince her friend the chicken that the ocean is not something scary. She says:
“Heihei, the ocean is your friend.”
The chicken (as you can imagine if you were a chicken in the middle of the ocean) was not convinced. My little one and I also learned this lesson about the ocean not always being your friend recently. We were boogie boarding in the ocean and my little one got pummeled by a wave. He stood up, crying, with a bloody nose. We got out of the water, rocked and cried in a beach towel for a bit, and then he was ready to go back in. I was surprised. What?! Already? My Mama Bear protective instinct was thinking:
Oh No. You are not going back out there. We are going to stay up here on the beach with SPF 50. Under an umbrella. Making sand castles safe from the ocean for the rest of the day.
Thankfully, he (and my husband) are more resilient than I. They went back in. Eventually, so did I. I even swam out past where the waves break and floated for a bit. For a few moments I was carried by the water. It felt good to let go.
Years ago I worked with a young woman who was recovering from bulimia that called the ocean her Higher Power. She was a surfer, and, like Moana, she knew both the power of the ocean and its capacity to carry her through difficulties. She knew it could carry her. And that she couldn’t do it herself.
Riding the Waves, Higher Powers, and Other Recovery Metaphors
There’s a reason why waves and the ocean are so often used as metaphors. Waves are both separate from, and inextricably connected with, the ocean (your Higher Power/Part-Of-You-That-Knows/Wise Self). “Riding the wave” of your feelings, without attaching to them, is a skill of recovery. In order to be at peace with having all kinds of feelings, you have to acknowledge your feelings, ride them out, and not get pummeled by them. (Or get back in the ocean with new humility after you get pummeled). Some waves are peaceful. Some are fun to surf; some are destructive. They all emerge from, and return to, the ocean. The ocean is vast. It can carry and hold almost everything. So can your Higher Power (Wise Self, Part-Of-You-That-Knows). It can help you let go. It can carry and guide you where you need to be. And, if you’re not respecting its power, it can turn you upside down and pummel you.
One thing I learned from my little one recently? Don’t let fear of the ocean’s power block you from connecting with it. You will get hurt in life. That is inescapable. Don’t let fear keep you from engaging with life on life’s terms. As the great poet Rumi said:
“Don’t move the way fear makes you move.”
Get back in the ocean. In imaginal Psychology they call the wise part of the Self, the part that is based on a vast expanse of compassionate objectivity, the Friend. In that sense, Moana was right. The ocean really is your Friend.
Do you ever wonder if change is possible for you? If you’re just going to have to be stuck in despair, your eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, or feeling not-good-enough forever?
I have this posted on my office door:
Butterflies have long been a metaphor for recovery for me. Butterflies (the eggs they start as, the caterpillars they become, the cocoons they build, and the butterflies they emerge into) embody the miracle of transformation that happens in recovery.
In recovery, one model for change, called the Stages of Change,* divides the gap between thinking-about-change and implementing it into 5 Stages. This model was developed from addiction recovery, but can be used for eating disorder or postpartum depression recovery, or another vision you thought was not possible for your life. As an example (because it clearly embodies tangible hope, which can be hard to do in eating disorder or postpartum depression recovery), I’ll take you through my butterfly garden stages of change. As you are reading, you can fill in whatever vision of yours that you think is not-yet-possible.
- Stage 1: Precontemplation or The Hopeless-Caterpillar Stage (Not thinking about changing, Do not want to change, or Feel change is hopeless/not possible. This is the stage in which disordered eating, drinking, or depression feels “normal” and/or there is a feeling of resigned this-is-the-way-it-is-and-will-always-be.)
So with my butterfly garden vision, there were years of thinking about this. (“Oh! I should do this! Oooh what a great way to practice ecological conservation in my own backyard! I love butterflies! I used to study butterflies! What a great idea! Butterflies are deeply symbolic of the transformation that happens in recovery and motherhood!!”etc, etc.)
Clearly, as evidenced by the exclamation points, they were excited, visionary thoughts. They were so excited that they tired me out even thinking them. I went back to changing diapers, trying to survive early motherhood, engaging with my professional work, and maintaining my own recovery self-care.
- Stage 2: Contemplation or The Asking-Friends-About-Their-Cocoon-Experience Stage (Considering there is a problem, Still ambivalent about changing but willing to become educated about alcoholism/eating disorders)
When I was in the contemplation stage, I would pay attention when my little one and I visited butterfly exhibits in museums or the insect house at the zoo. I would talk to the butterfly curators. I would get inspired by people planting gardens. I read one blog about a guy who re-introduced an endangered butterfly species just by creating a native garden for their caterpillars. I read educational signs at the museum and zoo and thought “Oh! They’re endangered! I could plant a butterfly garden to help! I could do that thing I’ve been thinking about!” Then I went back to my life and didn’t take any action about it.
- Stage 3: Determination or The I’m-Not-Always-Going-To-Stay-A-Caterpillar-Because-I-Know-There’s-Something-More Stage (Deciding to stop the behavior such as drinking or disordered eating, deciding to seek postpartum depression support. Beginning to make a plan.)
So in this stage, I was thinking “Well, even though I’m not much of a gardener, I could do this. I could get a book. I could go to the local garden store and talk to the people there. I could start a list of native plants that attract and feed larva, caterpillars and butterflies…” I was deciding that I was going to take action. I was envisioning how I was going to take action. I was less tired about the ideas, more determined, and getting ready to take action. I saved money to buy plants for my future butterfly garden.
- Stage 4: Action or The Building-Your-Cocoon-Of-TransFormation Stage (Beginning to take actions such as announcing to loved ones they are going to change, seeking support of a therapist or treatment program, beginning to attend eating disorder or postpartum depression recovery support groups or 12 step program)
So at this point, I told my family I would like a butterfly garden book for Christmas. I started actually writing (instead of thinking about) a list of plants. I bought a guide to local butterflies. I made a place on a shelf for my butterfly-garden materials. I posed on a neighborhood list serve about local butterfly plants. I made a special pile of materials that was designated butterfly-garden research. I looked into local gardening stores.
- Stage 5: Maintenance or The I-Now-Know-It-Is-Possible Stage (An alcohol, disordered-eating, or depression-free life is becoming “normal,” and the threat of old patterns becomes less intense/frequent. Relapse prevention skills and support systems are established.)
This is the stage that my garden is in now. Though this may sound like an end-point, (Ta Da! We’re Done! Now everyone lives Happily-Ever-After, The End), it’s actually a beginning. Now I have to water the plants. My husband (who is more of a seasoned gardener) helped to replant some of the plants in wire baskets under the soil so they would be protected from gophers, and in full sun (important for butterflies).
People in this stage of recovery CAN have the luxury of resting somewhat, having done some tough work digging in the soil (therapy, treatment, etc) of planting their garden of transformation. However, the work of continued action is crucial in maintenance. If I don’t water my plants, they might not survive. If you don’t go to your recovery support meetings, or practice the self-care skills you cultivated in your recovery from PPD or an ED, you are at risk of relapse. One of the best ways to prevent relapse/stay in the butterfly stage is to connect with a caterpillar. That is why I work in recovery. So I can remember the darkness of the cocoon AND stay in the sunlight of the spirit.
Here’s to your garden, your butterfly-ness, your recovery. Whatever stage it (You) are in.
*Researchers, Carlo C. DiClemente and J. O. Prochaska, introduced a five-stage model of change to help professionals understand their clients with addiction problems and motivate them to change. Here is one summary article that I referenced in this blog: “Stages of Change” by Mark S, Gold, MD
Moana’s Archetypal Message Offers Hope and Healing… Lava Monster and All
I was very excited to see the movie Moana. But it took a long time. Life got in the way…my little one and I went to the theater twice and it was sold out…and then, finally, we saw it. I entered expecting it to be good, but by the end I was sobbing. Like many archetypal stories, this one reaches right onto your heart. And with this one, the hero is a girl. A girl who has nothing but a canoe, a friend in the ocean, and a grandmother who believed in her.
Everybody has a canoe, whatever your “canoe” is: the vehicle that carries you on your journey to awakening. For some it is writing, or art. For some it is meditation, 12 step, or yoga. And everyone has someone who believed or believes in him or her. (More on that later). And every one of us, no matter how far gone, disconnected, unworthy, or unforgivable we think we are, knows the truth about themselves deep down. Not the Demigod complex of trying-to-rule-the-world-because-he-feels-unworthy-so-he-is-constantly-trying-to-make-up-for-it-by-acting-bigger-than-he-is. Not that part. (Although Heaven knows there is a lot of that energy going around, and that part definitely needs both compassion and fierce confrontation). But I’m not talking about that part here. I’m talking about the deeply-humble, but most powerful intuition-heart-knowing.
In Moana, the Goddess Te Fiti is the one who held the “greatest power ever known,” who creates Life. And she shared it with the world! And yet, without her heart she began to crumble, and a terrible darkness was born.
What is this power of creation?
Women have long-held the power of creation in their bodies. It’s not an accident that women with disordered eating hate or try to starve away parts of themselves that reflect this power of fertility: their hips, their stomachs (wombs), their butts. The power of fertility is profound but, in the current culture, relationship with this power is ambivalent at best. This fertile power is not just literal, it is symbolic. Archetypally, the feminine includes the Great Mother, the Earth Mother that holds the power of creation. Long ago the Venus De Willendorf embodied fertility. Hindu goddesses such as Aditi and Aitimmavaru are the mothers of the deities and laid the egg that hatched the gods Brahma, Siva, and Vishnu. In the Wiccan tradition, the Mother Goddess is sometimes identified as the Triple Goddess, composed of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Another name for the mother goddess is Gaia, Earth Mother.
The feminine goddess archetype also holds the power of destruction, as seen in the Hindu goddesses Durga and Kali dancing on her dead consort, Siva. In Moana, this destructive force is embodied in Te Ka, the lava monster. A similar goddess in Hawaii is Pele, the goddess of the volcanoes. She is also the creator of the Hawaiian islands. This points to how interrelated these forces of creation and destruction can be.
Creation or Destruction?
Any woman with disordered eating knows, in her body, when this force of feeding life turns into a force of destroying or hurting. When eating an enjoyable bowl of ice-cream turns into frantically stuffing the entire carton in, shoveling it down so quickly so it can be violently thrown back up, that is the destroyer. That is where feeding your own life-body turns against the self. There are many reasons for this: trauma and abuse, a family or larger culture that tells women “nice girls don’t get angry,” ambivalence and fear of becoming a women in a culture that does not celebrate the power of the feminine, and many more. We do not have rituals to celebrate becoming a woman in American culture, and so it is a time when many girls start to implode. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls writes: “Adolescent girls discover that it is impossible to be both feminine and adult.” And so menstruation, having a woman’s body, and speaking from the place of your inner truth become submerged, hidden, hated, and cut off.
Back To Moana
So Moana, from her childhood has this connection with herself and the world. She connects with the ocean; it “calls her.” She connects with the turtles; she connects her Grandmother’s sense of knowing something bigger than what her family and culture are telling her to be the truth. And, like many women struggling with disordered eating, wanting to be good girls, and finding their voice, she wrestles with it. She sings:
“See the light where the sky meets the sea/ It calls me/ No one knows how far it goes”*
“The voice inside is a different song/ What’s wrong with me?” *
This questioning part, this part that doesn’t match up with cultural expectations needs mirroring and validation. Without it, self-destruction (disordered eating, depression, anxiety, etc) runs rampant. We all have, if we look far and deep enough, this person or Being that mirrors our inner truth in our life. It may be a teacher who “got” your art. Or it may have been an aunt who had travelled her own healing journey and was in recovery from alcoholism. If you are lucky, it was a parent. For many of us, we find this mirroring understanding in a therapist. For Moana, this was her Grandmother. Her Grandmother is the self-described “village crazy,” who doesn’t have to answer to Moana’s father (the Village Chief).
“I’m his mother – I don’t have to tell him anything!” *
This Grandmother is what Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call a “Wild Woman,” one who has power in her body. In the Hopi tradition there is a butterfly dancer. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD writes in Women Who Run With The Wolves, (Ballentine Books: New York, 1992)
The butterfly dancer must be old because she represents the soul that is old. She is wide of thigh and broad of rump because she carries much. Her gray hair certifies…[that] the Butterfly Woman can touch everyone…This is her power. Hers is the body of La Mariposa, the butterfly.
It is not about what her body looks like – it is about listening to her feeling within:
The wilder woman will not be easily swayed…For her the questions are not how to form, but how to feel. The breast in all its shapes has the function of feeling and feeding…Does it feel? It is a good breast.
The hips, they are wide for a reason…they are portals, the handholds for love, a place for children to hide behind…
There is no “supposed to be” in bodies. The question is not size of shape or years of age, or even having two of everything, for some do not. But the wild issue is, does this body feel, does it have right connection to pleasure, to heart to soul, to the wild?…Can it in its own way move, dance, jiggle, sway? Nothing else matters.
Her “Wild Woman” Grandmother mirrors and nurtures listening-to-her-inner voice inside her body for Moana. She sings:
“You may hear a voice inside/ And if the voice starts to whisper/ To follow the farthest star/ Moana, that voice inside is/ Who you are” *
And this is the truth that guides Moana on the hero’s journey that every recovering woman must travel: Who are you?
Who You Really Are
This is the work that I engage with my clients every week: Who are you? How can you listen to your values? What does your inner Wise self have to say? How can I help you separate enough from the critical voices telling you “Stay small” or “Art is not for grown ups” or “You should do something more practical” rather than follow your dream of becoming a Nutritionist/Healer/Artist/Yoga Teacher/Environmental Educator/Women’s Advocate. This process involves separating enough from the cultural dictates and negative messages enough to hear the quiet voice inside. It is the moment when Moana, abandoned by Maui on the boat and despairing, is visited by her Grandmother’s spirit. And her Grandmother asks the question: Moana, Who are you? This is the point at which she discovers “the call isn’t out there at all – it’s inside me.”
You might be thinking “But how is this going to help in my recovery and in the world we are living right now?” Well, there certainly are a lot of “lava monsters” whose hearts have been stolen in the world right now. Where do we start? Where do I start? Where can you start? We start with ourselves. I start with myself. You start with yourself.
The cartoonist Walt Kelly stated, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Moana, in looking for the place to return the heart of Te Fiti suddenly realizes it is in her worst fear. The heart of Te Fit is inside the lava monster. But she is not afraid. Because she knows that fear, that addiction/eating disorder/lava monster/war/global warming/misogyny (as just a few examples J) are not outside her: They are inside her. And the call to awaken was always inside her as well. The call to find her true self. There is nothing to fear.
One of my favorite quotes from A Course In Miracles, A Self-Study in Spiritual Thought says:
The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, which is your natural inheritance. The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.
In Moana, the, still voice of never-ending, powerful, and all-encompassing love emerges as she sings to the Lava Monster Te Ka:
“I have crossed the horizon to find you, I know your name / They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this is not who you are / You know who you are, who you truly are.” *
*Lyrics from Soundtrack to Moana (2016)
All original art work copyright Linda Shanti Mccabe
Some addiction counselors recommend getting a pet after going through treatment (for alcoholism, eating disorders, depression) before you start dating. The thought being that first you learn how to tend to an animal that has a body and feelings, isn’t ashamed of them, doesn’t abandon them, and lets you know when you do (abandon them). It’s a metaphor for self-care, responsibility, and tending: tending to recovery, tending to relationship, tending to health.
Plants are harder. They don’t bark at you, jump on you, or snuggle up to you. They don’t beg for food or scratch on the door. They just sit there, in their pot, very quietly, thriving. Or not thriving. For someone with a black thumb, it’s hard to tell.
This orchid plant has been in my office for two years. It has never bloomed until this past week.
At one point it had sticky gunk covering its leaves and I thought it might die. Orchids are particularly challenging. With orchids, there are long periods of just sitting there, mostly looking ok, but not blooming. For two years, I watered it. Just a little, because I have heard they don’t like being flooded. Sometimes I put it on the sunlit windowsill, but not for very long, as I have heard that they don’t like too much light, either. As one gardening site states:
“Insufficient light results in poor flowering. However, too much light can lead to leaf scorch.” *
Well, I don’t know what leaf scorch is, but I certainly don’t want that for my orchid! And I certainly don’t want my clients coming into an office with a leaf-scorched plant! That would not represent hopefulness or health in the recovery process!
Orchids are what some might call “high maintenance” plants. They require very specific conditions or they will not flourish. “High maintenance” is not always a description that is welcomed. I prefer sensitive. Like orchids, many recovering people have orchid-like temperaments: sensitive and requiring certain conditions to flourish. Without these conditions, they may “go dormant” (depression) or become sick (eating disordered, addicted) in order to survive.
Many of my clients are what might be characterized as “orchids.” (No, not all of them, and everyone has some degree of orchid-ness and dandelion-ness in them). Orchids are a sensitive lot. They need just the right amount of light and water or they don’t bloom. They’re often the ones, as children, that stay on the edge of the playground until the conditions are exactly right for them to jump in and play. I often use this analogy with my clients: If you go to a playground and one person runs right to the slide to go down it, and one person pauses before deciding where they would most feel comfortable playing, who is better? They often either look at me puzzled, or give me an exasperated:
“Well obviously, neither, on the playground. But real life isn’t like that, Dr. Linda. I should be able to go right to the slide (share confidently in class, jump right into a leadership role at a new job, know whether I am going to marry this person on a first date, be Supermom the day after labor and delivery).”
When I ask “Why?,” the answer that comes is:
“Because other people do.”
To which I respond “Hmmm…who are these ‘other people’ and did you do any double-blind research studies before comparing and despairing?”
Orchids are sensitive to their conditions and often “slow to warm up” in temperament. Dandelions, however, bloom in many different kinds of environments. Dandelions go right to the playground slide. Or the swings. Or hang out with their orchid friend in the quiet zone of the playground. They can grow in soil full of organic compost or they can thrive in dirt under a concrete sidewalk. If you suggest:
“Let’s eat here (Pizza, Bar-on-the Corner, 5-Star Restaurant),”
a dandelion will say:
If you suggest:
“Let’s eat here (Pizza, Bar-on-the Corner, 5-Star Restaurant),”
an orchid will say:
“Do they have gluten-free or vegetarian options, how loud is it, have the chickens been free-ranging?” (Except usually they won’t say this because they are worried about being too “high maintenance,” so they’ll go to the pizza place and get a stomach/headache from the noise, inability to digest the food, and concern about if the chicken was ranging free.)
You might be thinking “But those ARE the high maintenance people. That’s Sally in When Harry Met Sally when she takes ten minutes to order a sandwich.”
To which I would reply:
No, those are the people who are going to be deeply affected by the food they ingest, the company they keep, and their external environment. Those are the canaries in the mineshaft. Coal miners they used to take a canary with them into the mine because, when the canary died, they knew the air was toxic and they needed to get out. The sensitivity of the canary was their awareness of their own mortality. Canaries (Orchids) can offer wisdom as to how to honor sensitivity and diversity.
IF you are an orchid, your work is to stop pathologizing your sensitivity. Get yourself to an environment where you can thrive. Surround yourself with people who embrace your sensitivity. Give yourself the right amount of water and sunlight. Visit nature. Make art, music, or write. If you are an introvert, create quiet introversion recovery time in your schedule. If you have learned how to tend to your own sensitivities, then be of service advocating for other orchids and educate the dandelions. Many (but not all) dandelions are open to helping support orchids. Many (but not all) orchids are open to helping support dandelions. They can thrive together in the right conditions.
If you are an orchid, take very good care of yourself, even when you don’t see immediate results. Remember it took my orchid two years before it trusted me enough to bloom. But, in the famous words of Anais Nin:
“the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
[i] I borrowed the metaphor of orchids and dandelions from an esteemed colleague, Vivette Glover, who is a British professor of Perinatal PsychoBiology at Imperial College of London. Dr. Glover cites the article below as one that explores the “Orchid/Dandelion hypothesis.” This hypothesis explores how twins with short 5-HTT (“orchid”) alleles have different environmental susceptibility to depression.
Conely, Dalton, Rauscher, Emily, and Siegal, Mark L., “Beyond orchids and dandelions: Testing the 5HTT ‘risky’ allele for evidence of phenotypic capacitance and frequency dependent selection” Biodemography Soc Biot. 2013; 59(1): 37-56.
[ii] Part of this post originally appeared on Recovery warriors blog https://www.recoverywarriors.com/lessons-recovery-life-little-one/ “Lessons About Recovery and Life I’ve Learned From My Little One,” November 8, 2016
I’ve been struggling with hope recently. I have two sick loved ones, democracy in America is crumbling before our eyes, healthcare coverage is in a shambles, many of my clients have been in crisis. I have been feeling the weight of this. I’m not going to go into details because, as a wise colleague of mine advises: don’t disclose a story until you can be the messenger of hope. Then it is medicine. Before that, it is spewing more unhealed shit into the world. (For the record: it is wise and helpful to disclose the story that is still in-process in your therapy! That is the place to spew it so you can get to the medicine!) One place I find refuge when cynicism, grief, and despair are fighting to take down hope, is to go to those who are carrying the torch. For me, one of those people is Marianne Williamson. In a Beautiful Writers podcast interview, here is what she had to say about hope:
“Hope is born of participation in hopeful solutions. So when your hope is intimately connected to your own sense of responsibility to provide hope for others, then it’s something beyond optimism. It’s knowledge.
If I want something down on the ground and I let it fall from my hands, gravity will take it there. I don’t just hope that gravity will work; I know that gravity will work.
If you’re an airline pilot and you can’t see the horizon because there is a strong cloud cover, you still know the horizon is there, you just know that today you can’t see it. So the pilot doesn’t just hope that the horizon is there, s/he just knows that s/he can’t see it right now so in that moment, you fly on instruments.”
What does it mean to fly on instruments in recovery?
It means acting as if the horizon is there. It means following your food plan. It means showing up for your support system: meetings or group, therapy, nutrition, doctor. If you are further along in recovery, it means providing service to the newcomer, your friends, or your clients. Tell them you’ve been there. Be a listening ear. Provide hope for them. Be the message that it is possible. Remind them of the horizon they can’t see.
And in Mommyhood?
Similarly, flying on instruments in motherhood means acting as if, even when you have lost sight of the horizon. Show up for the daily tasks: make breakfast for you and kid(s), pack the lunches, take a shower, get some sunshine and outdoors time, practice gratitude for what you can see in the present. Last night my little one expressed gratitude for the air.
“Thank you for the air, sunshine, mama and papa, and my hamster.”
It is good to be grateful for the air we breathe. It is god to listen to the little ones. They are the carriers of hope. It is good to practice gratitude for loved ones, air, sunshine. This is the fuel that will help us keep going when we can’t see the horizon.
Back to Marianne. She says:
“We are living in an extraordinary time…”
[I know – my pessimistic critic isn’t fully on board with this silver lining either, but let’s just act-as-if the horizon is there]
“…Blessed are those who have faith that cannot see. So hope in things unseen means knowledge of things unseen.”
May you find this knowledge in your daily actions today. May you breathe the air of hope, eat the food of hope, be the message of hope. Hope doesn’t mean pink icing on the garbage. Hope means traveling through the cloud cover, sure and steady, one tiny millimeter at a time.
PS As I was finishing this post, the American healthcare bill that would have taken coverage away from my sick loved one and many of my clients was withdrawn due to lack of support.
Carry on flying, people. Carry on. Revolutions are built on Hope.
It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. And the theme this year is “Let’s talk about it.” Talking about eating disorders isn’t necessarily comfortable. Or pretty. Last week I wrote about women having all of their feelings, including anger, and having the right to assert their boundaries. This means a woman has the right to say no. She has a right to say no to unsolicited comments about her appearance and her body size.
When women aren’t allowed to directly express these boundaries or when there is trauma such as sexual assault, an eating disorder can become unconscious expression. For example,
- Binge eating or starving can become I’m going to make my body sexually unattractive so I can be protected from ever having to go through the trauma of sexual abuse again.
- Bulimia can become I’m going to take this food in, in a violent, self-harming way, and then I can get rid of it. I can get the trauma and the pain of the assault out of me.
- Anorexia can become I’m going to show you that you CAN be too thin. I’m so thin that I’m smaller than the 12-year-old girls on model runways that your culture says are sexually attractive or coveted.
At the most basic level, women have the right to say no to abuse and feel safe from sexual and physical assault. But when a woman’s right to say no is laden with cultural ambivalence and minimizing, abuse and rape occur at an alarmingly high level. And rape culture thrives.
No Means No.
Violence against women is still frighteningly common. Here are just a few scary statistics:
- 22% of surveyed women reported they were physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend or date in their lifetime. (National Violence Against Women Survey, November 2000).
- Approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. [i]
- Of the American women surveyed who said they had been the victim of a completed or attempted rape at some time in their life, 21.6 percent were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 32.4 percent were ages 12 to 17. [ii]
I see many of these women in my practice. (No, not all women recovering from eating disorders have a history of abuse. Eating disorders have a complex and multifaceted etiology.) Sexual assault among women is very common though more common than you may think. Among my colleagues, we talk about how the statistics are more likely to be one in three women.
One in Three
Due to survivors being reticent to report it, the statistics reported are often much lower than the actual numbers. The shame of the abuse is still often carried by the survivor. When assault perpetrated against a woman is blamed on the woman, or not believed, or minimized, there is little incentive to speak up. We need only look at the news of the past few weeks to find evidence for this. And when convictions for three sexual assault felonies, such as in the 2016 Stanford rape case, get reduced from 14 years in state prison to 6 months in county jail, there is little incentive for survivors to pursue legal action.[iii]
If one in three women has been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, that means it is highly likely that you, your spouse, your sister, your mom, your child, your friend, or your colleague has been sexually assaulted. The experience of sexual assault is not limited to women of particular socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or religion. I am probably preaching to the converted here, but just to name a few basic educational points about sexual assault:
- Sexual assault is an act of violence, not sex.
- Sexual assault is not caused by what a woman wears, drinks, or doesn’t drink, or whether she is “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
- Sexual assault is not consensual. If a woman is unable to consent, that is non-consent. If a woman says stop, then that is non-consent. If a woman has said yes in the past, but is saying no now, that is non-consent.
- Sexual assault can leave long-lasting impact of the survivor, including but not limited to Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, Flashbacks, Self-Harm, Suicidality, Eating Disorders, STD’s, and unwanted Pregnancy.[iv]
I could go on and on about the work to be done in healing “rape culture.” I am grateful for the education and advocacy work[v] being done currently. And I am grateful for the January 2017 Women’s March “Pink Pussy Hat” movement reclaiming women’s bodies and rights as their own. I am grateful for every survivor doing their healing work. I am grateful for every woman and man who says “No, this is not ok” to rape culture. And I am grateful for 19-year-old Nina Donovan writing her “I Am a Nasty Woman” poem and Ashley Judd reading this poem at the Washington DC Women’s March. In Donovan’s poem she writes:
“I am not as nasty as racism…homophobia, sexual assault, transphobia, white supremacy, misogyny, ignorance and white privilege.”[vi]
Feminism today is being called to become intersectional, addressing the places where misogyny, racism, and socioeconomic status intersect, and where they don’t. Stay tuned for the next post on how eating disorders do not just affect straight, white, adolescent women. And, in the meantime, what can you do? You can be an ally. You can talk about it. Talk about eating disorders and that recovery is possible. Talk about how rape culture is not okay. Be an ally: for yourself, for others. Healing is possible. You are not alone.
[iii] “Telling the Story of the Stanford Rape Case” by Marina Koren, The Atlantic, June 6, 2016
[iv] RAINN.org RAINN stands for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE
[vi] Ashley Judd reciting Nina Donovan’s “I Am A Nasty Woman” poem at the January 2017 Women’s March https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/ashley-judd-recites-i-am-a-nasty-woman-poem-at-march/2017/01/21/93205bc6-dffd-11e6-8902-610fe486791c_video.html
Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood. –Gloria Steinem
In honor of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I am writing a series on Eating Disorders and Feminism. The first is a guest blog, “Full Women Have Full Feelings,” published on Psyched in San Francisco magazine.
Have you ever been afraid of being called “The B word” (something that rhymes with
witch)? I know I have. As someone who is attuned to relational dynamics, asserting my own voice, when…
To continue reading Full Women Have Full Feelings, click HERE
Part two continues the topic of sexual assault followed by an exploration of how eating disorders do not only affect straight, white adolescent women. Stay tuned!
Anxiety comes up frequently for people in recovery and moms. When I imagine anxiety, it looks like this:
It is rigid, red and rapidly moving. Usually, we want anxiety to go away. We want to just get rid of it. But when we ask what anxiety has to say, and respond with curiosity or tenderness to the scared-self, a new relationship can emerge. Below are some examples of what the anxiety part of the self might say.
Here’s What Anxiety Says:
- I’ve made a bullet-point list for you. You should do everything on the list and then I will go away.
- (After list is complete): “OK, that was the first one. I now have several more.”
- Other people have it all figured out, so you should pretend like you do. One way to do this is to look good. I will help you with that. Try to look perfect.
- You are the only one that struggles with this anxiety. It makes you isolated, and you don’t belong because of it. Therefore, you should hide it.
- Be very busy. If you’re not busy, doing things, I can help keep your mind be very busy. I can even make your thoughts race.“
- I will always be your friend, but especially from 1:00-4:00am. At that time, I will remind you of the ways you are incompetent, the world is falling apart, and you can’t do anything about it. If you go on social media during this time, I will find lots of evidence for you.
- Other moms are doing it better. You are not qualified to be a good parent. You should read parenting books to illuminate all the ways you are f*cking up.
- Your body is the wrong size/shape. You can (and should) fix that. If you do, I may go away (but I will probably stick around because you will need me to manage you, since you can’t be trusted).
- Not eating, bingeing, purging, drinking, or smoking pot are good ways to get me to go away. (Oh, and you will need to maintain that. And you should hide that you do that, because it is shameful).
- The world is not safe. I have found lots of evidence of this for you.
As you can see, it is not a kind voice, this anxiety. It is relentlessly hypervigilant to the ways that you are inadequate. Strangely enough, this part of the self is often trying to protect you: from vulnerability, from the unknown. In my training as an Imaginal Psychologist, one way we worked with different parts of the self – and integrating them back into wholeness – was to bring fiercely compassionately objective voice into the dialogue. Compassionate awareness can take several different forms: it can be humourous, fierce, gentle. It can be rational and empirical. In my experience, this compassionate part is much more flowing and less rigid than anxiety. It feels like a deep breath down into the cooling water under the anxiety. It might look like this:
Here are some examples of what this voice of might say to anxiety. What the Voice of Compassionate Objectivity Might Say:
- Isn’t it interesting to notice the associations between anxiety and accomplishing or not accomplishing things? So interesting to notice…
- I bet you could choose to do some, all, or none of the items on the list, and your value as a human would remain fully intact and whole. How about you try and I will be the witness observing?
- Is “figured out” an equation? If “it” is figured out, does that mean fear or suffering disappears?
- Who are those “perfect,” and “busy” people? If they exist, might they be struggling with the same fear of inadequacy you are?
- If there are 7.5 billion people (roughly) on the planet, do you really think you are the only one who struggles with these thoughts and feelings? Might it not be the very thing that connects your heart, mind, and body with humanity?
- I wonder what would happen to your thought-speed if I help you breathe. Does it change if you breathe all the way into your abdomen? It doesn’t need to change. But if you are in discomfort from the racing, bringing attention to your breath can help your body shift into parasympathetic (rest) mode. Would you like to try?
- I will do everything I can to help you get a good night’s sleep, honey. I’m going to help you with loving limits: no social media at night. Not helpful.
- We can take stock of your strengths and weaknesses during the day and/or with someone who can add compassion and objectivity to the assessment. When you’re feeling weak, that’s not the time to assess your weaknesses.
- If you can’t sleep, I won’t abandon you. I’ll stay with you and the anxiety. I’ll be right there with you, surrounding you with care and tenderness.
- Body size and shape have nothing to do with your worth, honey. I know you keep really wanting it to be about that. But I’m going to keep reminding you the answers you seek are not there.
- Did you show up to the best of your ability as a Mom today? Your best can be different on different days. That is ok. Mistakes are how we learn. Oh, and put the parenting books down.
- You can tolerate anxiety. It won’t kill you. You can ride the wave of this fear without medicating it.
These are just some examples. The goal is not to get rid of anxiety. The goal is to develop a different relationship with it. Perhaps it might look like this?
Obviously, you will have to see what your own voice of Compassionate Objectivity has to say.
For now, I will leave you with a summary that I and some of the people I work with find helpful:
There is nothing wrong with you.
Nobody has it all figured out.
You are safe right now.
You are not alone.