Do The Opposite
I really hate being told what to do.
I mean, who does? Am I right? But believe me when I tell you, I really hate being told what to do. I’m talking like, if you told me not to touch a hot stove, I would probably touch it anyway and endure the burn simply because you just had to go and tell me not to. I have been this way my entire life and truthfully, my disdain for direction has come back to bite me in the ass at times, i.e., the hot stove situation. But when I look back at the last nearly three decades of my life, I have noticed that my hatred of being told what to do and how to act has ultimately done me much more good than harm. Doing the opposite of what I am told is what I’ve always been best at. It has gotten me through really difficult times in my life and it is one of the main reasons I am now married to the love of my life, have my own practice, my own blog, and a podcast about to launch. I have always gone after what I want with ferocity, letting the doubts and judgements of others serve as fuel to propel me further toward my dreams.
Recently though, I have found myself losing sight of this part of me. Times are so tough – not just for me, but for all of us. COVID-19 has flat-out devastated everyone in one way or another. Most of us went from hugging people on daily basis to fearing for our lives if we get too close to someone. I mean, six months ago – it was considered normal to eat birthday cake after someone else breathed all over it in an attempt to blow out candles. Can you even imagine doing that now? Will we ever be able to do anything like that again?
This quarantine feels unending. As much as I consider myself to be a homebody, I am so tired of being stuck in the house. In fact, I am so sick of all of it – the conspiracy theories, the death tolls, the unanswered questions about the long-term effects of this virus….just everything. These last few weeks in particular, I have found myself feeling powerless, overwhelmed, and exhausted. I am questioning every professional and personal move I make, on top of feeling nervous every time I cough. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting for the monster that is COVID-19 to finally catch up with me. Sometimes it feels like it is just a matter of time before it finds me (Hello, anxiety). I feel distraught for those who have died. I feel sick with worry over the continued increase in rates of abuse and suicide among kids and adults. But what can I do about it?
The voices in my head have been so loud – “You can’t do this. You don’t have what it takes. You’re so dumb. Who are you to think you can change the world?” And then one day it hit me: I would never in a million years let someone else talk to me like that. I can guarantee that if someone told me I do not have what it takes to succeed, I’d simply use it as fuel!
Don’t tell me I can’t, because I can.
Don’t tell me I won’t, because I will.
Don’t tell me it’s impossible, because I’ll get it done.
This has been my mantra for as long as I can remember, so why on earth am I now giving into my own thoughts of criticism, hopelessness, and doubt? Why am I giving that voice in my head more credit than it deserves? I cannot let these terrible feelings shatter me now, and neither should you.
- When you feel powerless, do something that makes you feel empowered. Buy yourself some resistance bands and a pair of dumbbells and create your own workout. Go for a bike ride. Create a garden in your backyard. Do something that raises your heartrate and makes you feel strong and alive.
- When you feel devastated as you look at your summer wardrobe, realizing you barely got dressed up all summer because everything has been cancelled, make it a point to go out. Even if you think outdoor dining is terrible. Even if you feel annoyed at having to sit outside and sweat while you eat. Do it anyway. Pick out an outfit. Dress up. Go out to eat, sweat your ass off, sweat your makeup off. Who cares? Do it just to remind yourself that you can.
- When you feel isolated, surround yourself with people in the ways that you can. Don’t cut people off because we cannot see each other in person. Get creative! Plan virtual game nights with friends (via Tabletopia, the House Party app, etc.), plan FaceTime dates, Zoom dates, Zoom happy hours. If you enjoy going to wine/beer tastings with friends, plan a Zoom wine tasting. It’s not the same but it helps immensely with the isolation.
- When you feel like your whole life is out of control and the decisions you once used to make for yourself are no longer yours to make due to the pandemic, remind yourself of the things you do have control over. Remind yourself of the things you can still do. You can speak to people, you can still see people, you can get outside and catch some Vitamin D, you can hold your pets, your kids, and some of your loved ones tight, you can move your body, you can get in your car and go for a drive to the beach to 7pm to watch the sun set. Yes, so much has been taken away, but we have to remember that we still have so much power.
I know I am not the only one who has been feeling really upset and disoriented lately, especially in the wake of COVID. But instead of giving into those feelings, I am working hard to do the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, there are times that I still find myself needing to make space for the devastation that I feel, but these days I am making every effort to not stay stuck in those feelings. I’m channeling the part of me that uses the obstacles as fuel to create a brighter, and more hopeful future. I am doing a little more each and every day to bring back the part of me that has always done the opposite….
…and I invite you to do the same.
A few weeks ago, I finished reading Abigail Pesta’s book, The Girls, a book about the USA gymnasts who took down sexual predator Larry Nassar back in 2018. If you are not familiar with the case, Larry Nassar was a highly esteemed doctor at Michigan State University. He also served as the doctor for the USA gymnastics national team, where under the guise of treating young gymnasts, he spent decades sexually abusing them. Larry had convinced his victims that his “treatment,” which included digital penetration, was medically necessary for their recovery.
As Larry’s heinous crimes continued to escalate, he would often abuse children while their parents were sitting in the same room, using his body to shield the parents from seeing what was happening. He worked double-time to develop sincere relationships with the girls and their parents….so much so that they came to view Larry as a friend, a confidant, and a trusted doctor.
After Larry was convicted in 2018, the presiding judge, Rosemarie Aquilina, gave each of the survivors the chance to speak about their abuse and how it affected them. One by one, the women rose up and spoke their truth about the ways in which Larry’s abuse ruined their families, their psychological wellbeing, their ability to form healthy relationships, and so much more.
The victims blamed themselves for never speaking up, for trusting an esteemed doctor who appeared to have their best interest at heart. Parents of the victims also blamed themselves, finding it inconceivable that their child could have been assaulted while they were sitting in the very same room.
Let me crystal clear about this: There is absolutely no blame to be shared among the victims or their families.
The fault lies entirely with the abuser himself, as well as the other adults who were aware the abuse was happening and chose to do nothing.
What? Others knew and did nothing?
That’s right. NOTHING. There were so many people who did not believe the girls when they tried to ask for help. They explained away Larry’s actions, which left the girls feeling more confused than ever. For decades, people were able to pretend as if this horrific abuse was not happening.
But it was. And the sad, disturbing fact of the matter is that there are many more predators out there, just like him. Abigail Pesta’s narrative about this particular scandal is such an important read for everyone because it shows how even the most vicious of wolves can be dressed in sheep’s clothing. This is what makes abuse so confusing, this is why some people cannot see it coming, and this (among a million other reasons) is why victims should never be blamed or asked “Why didn’t you speak up?”
Predators are often the ones who work their way into your hearts, gain your trust, build a sense of safety around you, and then shatter your sense of safety by violating you. It leaves you feeling so confused that you don’t speak up. You don’t say anything. Because you spent so much time believing that this person could be trusted that you continue to believe he or she didn’t mean to abuse you – that the violation was just a mistake, or a slip-up. You tell yourself whatever it takes to keep up with the belief in your mind that this person is good for you and has your best interest at heart. To think anything less than that is too much to bear.
Time goes on, this person continues to build trust with you, and then just like that, there comes another violation, another boundary crossed. But at this point, you feel that it is too late. If you speak out now, people won’t believe you because they will question why you didn’t speak up earlier or why you continued to be in contact with a person if you knew he or she was sexually abusing you. So you sink into the shame and guilt, blaming yourself for getting into this mess in the first place.
Before you know it, you have lost all sense of self worth. You continue to find yourself in dangerous situations because you think, after all this time, that you deserve the abuse that you got. You find yourself wondering if your life is worth living, since your body, mind, and soul, no longer feel like your own.
So many people don’t understand nearly enough about this type of abuse, which is why I highly recommend reading The Girls. It is a devastating, sobering, and extremely important book that is helping other survivors of abuse to realize that it’s okay to speak their truth.
I feel it in my bones – the world is changing. The silence of all of the disbelieved, disregarded survivors is becoming louder. For so long, victims of sexual abuse have been told:
-You shouldn’t talk about that unless you’re REALLY sure it happened. You could ruin that person’s life.
-Are you positive you remember it that way?
-Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten so drunk.
-Maybe you’re confusing this memory with something else?
-Well maybe he/she was just being really friendly?
-Did that really happen? That’s a serious accusation. Are you just doing this for attention?
No more. No more. NO MORE. We are finding our voices.
Can you hear us? If you don’t, you will soon. We’re just getting started.
-To the army of survivors who rose up to take down Larry Nassar: I have the utmost respect for all of you.
-To the judge who gave those survivors a voice in that courtroom – I hope you know that you broke the mold and changed the world, especially the worlds of the victims.
-And to the ones out there who still suffer in silence, to the ones who are not ready to speak, to the ones who are not quite sure yet or cannot find the right words to say what happened – there is so much hope. You are so much more than the abuse you endured and you can reclaim what taken from you.
Speak up. Seek help. Find support. And know that you are believed.
I am left speechless from the feedback on last week’s blog post! Thank you to those of you who reached out to tell me how deeply you resonated with my words. I value your input and the story that you have to tell because I know how painful and isolating eating disorders can be. I also know the intense emotional pain that lies beneath eating disorders – the pain that most people do not like to speak about, the same pain that we MUST speak about in order to recover. This is such a huge part of what sparked my inspiration for the Light After Trauma podcast.
I view eating disorders as a coping skill for the pain. While I do acknowledge that disordered eating can be learned from family members and societal norms, I have found that more often than not, people use their ED symptoms as a way to cope with painful feelings associated with trauma or abuse. For example, a man may starve himself because he feels like it is the only way he can gain control after feeling so out of control from being sexually assaulted. Or a woman may develop binge eating disorder because the food helps her to stuff down the unwanted feelings that are starting to surface. If she binges until she feels sick, then she will not have any space left over to process her feelings.
With that being said, when I first sit down with a patient who is presenting with ED symptoms, I never ask “So, what’s your trauma history?”
Although I am a trauma therapist, I never directly ask about trauma. If someone is seeing me for help with an eating disorder, then that eating disorder is serving them a purpose – and that purpose is usually to distract or cope with suppressed or repressed trauma. It may take someone months or even years of being in therapy to feel comfortable enough to disclose trauma, especially when it comes to childhood abuse. People will often spend years in their ED, trying to fight off the demons that lurk beneath the obsessive calorie counting and over-exercising. It is not my job to push others to express or acknowledge more of their history than they are ready to. Therapists don’t walk in front of people, pulling them, nor do they walk behind people, pushing them. Instead they walk beside their clients, exploring emotions on the client’s terms, not the therapist’s terms.
But why? Why are people developing life threatening disorders and addictions instead of dealing with their core wounds? Doesn’t it just seem safer to deal with the trauma instead of developing another disorder or addiction?
No. Not necessarily. The feelings of fear, horror, grief, and loss that accompany facing our core wounds can be so intense that our brains cannot process it – either because we are still in the trauma (i.e. an abusive relationship) or because we do not have a sufficient support system (i.e. friends, family, and a good therapist to help you through the process). Unless you’re enveloped in safety, your brain will not allow you to process your trauma because your brain is just trying to keep you alive. We do not choose to be afflicted with disorders and addiction as a way to cope with our pain. The fact of that matter is that sometimes, it is our only option until we can get to a safer place in our lives where we can face the core wounds.
Trauma work is painful. It’s ugly, messy stuff, made even more difficult by those who ignore it, deflect it, and deny it. I have been shut down for speaking out on more occasions than I can count, and I would tell myself over and over again “Some day, the world is going to hear you!” It looks like that day is about to be here soon!
My goal with the Light After Trauma podcast is to help you realize that you can live again after whatever it is that you endured. You can reclaim a life full of love and happiness and support. On my platform, on my blog, in our Facebook community, and on my podcast, there will be no deflection, no ignoring, and no denying anyone’s experiences. While I am undoubtedly nervous about starting up this podcast, I know that it is time to shed more light on what people have gone through and the ways in which they have had to cope in order to survive.
I hope you know how resilient you are.
I hope you know how much happiness can be found on the other side of your seemingly unbearable pain.
I hope you know you are capable of and worthy of an incredible life.
The Light After Trauma podcast launches on August 25th and can be downloaded on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and wherever else you like to listen. I hope you all continue to interact with me on the podcast in the same way you speak to me through this blog. I know sometimes life can feel so dark, but my hope for all of you is that this podcast can help trauma survivors learn to take back their lives! I am so thrilled to be on this path of recovery with you all.
You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Too (I Promise)
I don’t know about you, but when it comes time for me to die, I hope that my loved ones are able to say so much more about me than “Oh she was super skinny, never indulged in dessert, and had such great willpower.”
If I’m being honest, though, at one point, having willpower with food was truly the only thing in the world that I cared about.
As someone who has bounced from bulimia, to binge eating disorder, to anorexia, and back to binge eating– I can tell you with great confidence that when you have an eating disorder, you spend 99.9% of your day wondering when your next cheat meal is, how many carbs you’ve had so far, and how many calories you just burned during your workout.
A week in the life of someone with disordered eating habits looks a little bit like this:
-You pack your own healthy keto bread to bring to restaurants so you don’t eat their fresh ~white~ bread.
-You talk to your friends about how to make “skinny” margaritas instead of regular ones.
-You take out a food scale at dinner time so you can weigh the amount of grilled chicken you are going to eat so that you don’t go over your points if you’re on Weight Watchers.
-You step on the scale every morning when you hop out of bed. If you don’t like the number, you step off and step back on it. If you still don’t like the number, you beat yourself up, saying things like “UGH, that’s it, no dessert tonight. And I’m going for a run every day this week. I’m out of control.”
But then again, if you DO like the number on the scale, you STILL panic. “Ok, what did I eat yesterday? What workout did I do? How can I keep this up so that the number on the scale keeps going down?”
-You soak in how everyone around you tells you how much dedication and willpower you have towards eating healthy, and how they wish they could be more like you. You feel honored for a split second. You feel like you’ve won a gold medal. The problem is, you’re so weak from imbalanced nutrition that you do not have the ability to see that your gold medal is in fact, a poisonous snake.
When I was deep in the throes of my eating disorder, so many people would say to me:
“Oh my gosh, look at you! What are you doing? How are you doing it? You’re so skinny, you must feel great with all that weight off of you!”
Admittedly, those days are a little fuzzy to me. My nutrition was unimaginably poor and I was running half-marathons at the same rate that most people change their socks, so I cannot even remember how I responded to people, but I do remember how damaging those comments were. Maybe I looked great, but I did not feel great. I felt NUMB. I was disappearing. My ED convinced me that the only way to get noticed is to disappear. I was in so much emotional agony, and at the time, I did not even understand it. The only way I could communicate was through a vicious cycle of starvation, bingeing, purging, and over- exercising.
I was so obsessed with losing weight that, during my college years when I studied abroad in Italy, I packed my scale in my suitcase. YES – MY SCALE. I took my eating disorder with me across borders! At the time I was more focused on losing weight instead of enjoying the gorgeousness that is Italy. It was my goal to come home from Italy with my rib cage showing. However, at some point, when my body could stand to be starved no longer, I switched over into chronic binge eating – a symptom that most people do not like to talk about due to guilt and shame. But I refuse to let the shame silence me any longer.
I have struggled with bouts of binge eating as early as elementary school. And I’m here to tell you that if you have ever struggled with this, please do not listen to the voice in your head that tells you that you will never be able to stop. I beg of you, don’t listen to the voice that tells you your only problem is that you’re lazy and have no willpower. None of that is true and you CAN recover.
I consider myself to be in recovery after about 20 years of disordered eating and I have to say – I have never felt more free. I have thrown my scale in the trash and I have been working with an ED-focused nutritionist (she’s the bomb) who has truly changed my relationship with food and has taught me how to listen to my hunger and fullness cues instead of allowing my emotions to dictate my eating habits. I am learning to eat intuitively – sometimes that looks like your typical meat, veggie, and starch type of meal for dinner. Other times it looks like a good old fashioned PB&J with a side of Oreos for dinner (Yes, I actually allow Oreos to be in my house now and I don’t binge on them!!!).
A few years ago, I remember how I used to cry to my therapist every week, saying “I would do anything for this eating disorder to just go away.” And now here I am, slowly but surely pushing my ED out of my life. I am unfollowing toxic diet influencers on social media, I am shutting down body shamers, and I am working through the trauma that caused me to develop my ED in the first place.
What I want you to know is this: If you struggle with disordered eating habits, please ask for help. Chronic dieting is an addiction. Like gambling, it is a game we feel we must play, but one in which we rarely ever come out on top. Dieting leaves us feeling frustrated and defeated because diets rarely ever work in the long-run. In fact, they backfire, forcing your body to hold onto more fat because the diet itself puts you into deprivation/starvation mode.
While it took me 28 years to realize all of the above, the freedom that now comes with allowing myself to enjoy desserts, workout when/how I want to, and eat when/if I am hungry has made the hard work totally worth it. The truth is: That six-pack of abs I used to endlessly pray for will surely never come, and Lord knows you’ll never see me on the cover of a magazine flexing some mean biceps. And while 10 years ago, these facts alone would have been enough to destroy me, these days, I’m cool with it. And I promise you this:
You can get there one day, too.