I Escaped With My Life
It has been eight years….
….eight years since I packed all my bags, scoured the room for my keys, and made my way down the stairs and into the foyer, much against the loud opinions of the people around me. I pushed aside the man who stood in my way, the one who told me I’d never be okay out there on my own, the one who told me everyone I know and love is dangerous and that I need to be careful. As he stood in front of the door telling me I couldn’t go, I felt myself flooding with rage. As tired as I was, as hurt as I was, as sick as I was, I mustered up every ounce of strength I had and looked him directly in the eyes:
“LET. ME. GO” I said coldly. There were no hysterics in my voice, just a rage simmering beneath the surface which I knew he could sense.
“You want to leave? Fine, GO. GET OUT,” he said as he quickly stepped aside and opened the door for me, hoping I would collapse back into his arms and tell him I needed him. But I didn’t do that this time.
Instead I pressed forward until I was outside in the hot, sticky July air. I don’t remember the walk from the front door to my car, but I do remember putting my key into the ignition and turning on my little Mazda. I drove away as fast as I could, but not before taking one last glance back at my rearview mirror to see if he was following me.
He wasn’t. In fact, his door was already shut and the house sat quietly on the block, pretending as if it hadn’t just housed a horribly abused woman for six months.
Eight years feels like so long ago and very recent all at the same time. I wish I could tell 21 year old Alyssa that she’s going to do great things in this world. But this time eight years ago, I left the home of an abusive, violent man and felt like my only option was death.
I’ll never be able to go back in time and tell my 21 year old self that in just 6 days, a puppy will be born who will find her way into my arms come September and will save my life. Nor will I be able to go back and tell younger Alyssa that she’s going to graduate college and get her Master’s degree. I wish she knew that in the next 6 years she would start her own business that would grow, seemingly overnight, into a success that is beyond her wildest dreams.
I never would have imagined all of this for myself – quite frankly, at 21 years old, I didn’t see myself surviving long enough to turn 22.
There are parts of this period in my life that I still cannot speak about. And this time of year, the flashbacks are always more intense, the body memories are also ever-so-present. To be honest, I have no clue why he let me go that day; and what I want you to know is that my escaping has nothing to do with who I am as a person. It’s not about me being “strong minded” or anything like that. SO MANY VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE DO NOT ESCAPE OR DO NOT SURVIVE. And there is no telling which of us will escape with our lives and which of us won’t. I feel so lucky that I made it out of there with my life. And while I am always thankful for my fur babies and husband coming into my life, today is definitely one of those days where I appreciate this beautiful family of mine just a little bit extra.
Lessons from the Skaneateles Lake
The COVID-19 pandemic has made me forget part of the reason why I love traveling so much – the unexpected lessons, the character sculpting, and the major moments of insight and awareness that come from being in a completely different place.
This past weekend, David and I finally got to go away together to a place neither of us had ever even heard of: Skaneateles, NY. We’ve heard of the Finger Lakes, but we had never heard of specifically the Skaneateles Lake/Town. I cannot say enough great things about this town! It was both stuck in the past and way ahead of its time in all the best ways. As we soaked in the views from the lake, hiked up mountains with dozens of waterfalls, and explored various nature preserves, I realized that this was the most at peace I have felt in a long time.
And then, on one of our last days in Skaneateles, I found myself standing on the dock, peering down at the fish swimming in the lake below as we prepared to take a boat tour. Suddenly I was hit with a feeling that I still don’t really have words for. All I know is that the feeling was so strong, it nearly took my breath away. The wind suddenly picked up, the water from the lake sprayed my face, and, almost involuntarily, I whispered to myself “It’s time.”
“It’s time? Time for what?” I asked myself almost immediately. And then, a few moments later, I understood what was happening.
In this midst of moving to a new state, selling our current house, recovering from health issues, watching my business change, and adjusting to post-pandemic life, I’ve done a lot of fighting – fighting for relationships, fighting to keep certain friendships, fighting because it felt like something I “should” do. Or perhaps I have been fighting to keep these relationships so I could avoid the grief that comes with letting go. Either way – the last few months have found me holding so tightly to the people who continuously seem to be slipping through my hands.
While I know I’m on the right path for myself, I also recognize that I have been pushing away the fact that this path I am taking means I will be saying goodbye to people I once held close to my heart. The fact of the matter is that not everyone is meant to stay in our lives forever; and, perhaps most importantly, not everyone is meant to fill the role that we think they should fill.
For years I’ve held on to certain hopes and expectations about what some of the relationships in my life should look like, and doing so has often sent me into bitterness, anxiety, and depression. When I fight to keep a relationship that simply isn’t meant to be, I end up abandoning myself. And in this last year of my 20’s, I made a promise to never abandon myself again.
I have spent far too many years sacrificing my own needs, blaming myself for miscommunications, and overlooking painful moments just so I can maintain communication with people who I thought I needed in my life. Over the last several months, as I fall more in love with the woman I have become, I am realizing I cannot have it both ways. I cannot please others just to avoid confrontation or abandonment AND honor my own needs. While I know this on an intellectual level, emotionally speaking it has still been very difficult for me to let go of the things/people that need letting go. But leave it to traveling to teach me some of life’s most difficult lessons; for when I was standing on the dock taking in some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, my gut told me it was time. It’s time to release my grip. It’s time to grieve over what happened, because I can’t change it. It’s also time to grieve over what won’t ever happen, because I can no longer operate in relationships that aren’t two-way streets.
It’s time to acknowledge the hurt and rejection I feel instead of pushing it down, telling myself that if I just try harder, I’ll get the acceptance I’ve been craving from the people I’ve been craving it from.
The fact is that I am so loved. I am loved by people who see my light and celebrate it in ways I never imagined. And I am so grateful for it – for my friends and family, for my dogs, for my clients, for the podcast listeners, the blog readers, and all the supporters in my life – each and every single one of you!
All of these feelings seemed to hit me at once, and I found myself both smiling and crying at the same time. While I know that so many good things await me on the other side of letting go, it’s still a sad process. I wiped my tears away, stepped onto the boat, and climbed my way to the second floor (for the best views of course!). I peered back at the little village of Skaneateles as the engine revved and we started gliding across the lake. I know the path ahead of me, and I know with absolute certainty that what is behind me is no longer meant for me. I turned my head up to the sky and let the sunshine dry the remainder of the tears on my face as a mixture of grief, gratitude, and relief flooded my soul. I know that it’s not just time to let go of the past – it’s also time to move forward to the next part of my career. This strong intuition has been simmering just beneath the surface for some time now, but I wasn’t ready to acknowledge any of it until this moment.
How will I make it happen? How do I move through the grief? Where do I even begin with the next chapter of my career? God only knows. The only thing I am certain of right now is this:
It is time.
I really wish that we were talking about Pascal, the chameleon from Rapunzel. He is one of my favorite Disney characters! Has anybody ever discovered a stuffed animal Pascal? I’ve looked high and low but cannot find one anywhere! So if you know where I can buy one, please let me know. Clearly it’s a very urgent matter!
But I digress. What I really want to talk about today are the human versions of chameleons – those whose thoughts, beliefs, and opinions can change depending on their environment. Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, first coined the term “fawning” as a trauma response. Fawning is essentially described as being a chronic people pleaser. Some trauma survivors will engage in fawning, or people pleasing, as a way to diffuse tension if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. But what I don’t think many people know is that fawning extends beyond saying “yes” to everything and everyone’s requests. People pleasers are also the kind of folks mentioned above – the ones who tend to have different beliefs or different personalities depending on who they are around.
For example, someone who is fawning could look like your friend that tells you all the time she is a Democrat, but in a room full of Republicans she will quickly turn into one of the most passionate Republicans the world has ever seen. Someone who is fawning might also look like that cousin of yours who complains constantly about how much she hates this one person in her friend group, but the second she hangs out with that person she acts like the two of them are best friends.
As a whole, the public generally doesn’t take kindly to people who behave like this. It creates a sense of mistrust and frustration among people when they see that somebody acts one way one minute, and is completely different the next minute.
Now I am not saying that every single person who engages in these types of behaviors is fawning, because that simply isn’t the case. But what I am trying to say is that sometimes people aren’t trying to copy others and sometimes people aren’t changing their beliefs and values out of a desperation to fit in. What this behavior actually could be is fawning, or in other words, a type of trauma response.
I myself can be like this when I feel threatened in some ways. Recently, I found myself in a situation that felt tense, uncomfortable, and downright awkward. The topic of conversation was very triggering to me, and I had many triggering events take place in the hours leading up to this conversation. Thus, I was already on edge. The people around me were in a heated discussion about something that I actually found offensive. On a good day, or even a so-so day, I might have chimed in and dared to have an opposing viewpoint. But on this day in particular, I was already having such a bad day, and between the topic of conversation and the harsh tone of everyone’s voices, I was triggered beyond belief. I did the only thing I could do to try to get the conversation to come to a close: I simply agreed with them. Yep, against everything I believe in, I became the person that I thought that they wanted me to be and I agreed with what they were saying, even though, if you were to ask me to speak on that same subject any other day of the week, I would have given you a completely different opinion.
I didn’t agree with them because I had an overwhelming desire to fit in, and I didn’t pacify them by siding with their beliefs because I wanted to make friends with them. It was more so that I felt emotionally unsafe, and feeling that way put me in such a high state of emotional distress that I said whatever I could to get myself away from the situation. Fawning, like fight or freeze or flight or any of the other trauma responses, is a survival tactic. I wasn’t able to fight or flee the situation, so I became a chameleon and I blended in with my surroundings in the best way that I knew how.
Millions of folks do this. I’ve watched it time and time again, and while a younger version of me might get annoyed and accuse that person of not being genuine, the person I am today realizes that so many people engage in fawning because they have found themselves in situations that trigger their previous traumas.
While I have come a very long way in my PTSD recovery, I was reminded by this event that there is more work to be done. Even though I am tempted to sit in a pit of shame and self-loathing, I’m refusing to do so because my brain did whatever it could to keep me safe in the moment, and that is no reason to feel ashamed. So here I sit, pouring vulnerability onto the page in the hopes that I can educate other people on this type of trauma response, as I think it is often misunderstood and creates a lot of tension in relationships.
To those of you who have never engaged in fawning and don’t quite get it, please be patient with us.
And to those of us who struggle with fawning, let us try to have more compassion for ourselves. We have brilliant minds, built for survival. And although fawning doesn’t always serve us well, it did keep us safe and alive for many years. We are all a work in progress, but please oh please, don’t forget to love yourself throughout the journey just as much as you’ll love yourself once you’ve arrived at your destination.
The Loss of the Living Part 2: Does Time Really Heal Us?
A few months ago, I sat down with a new client who had just been deeply traumatized and was in a state of crisis. “What do I do?” she asked. “How do I make the pain stop? Why did this happen? I’ll never get through this, I just know it!” Immediately the old adage “time heals all wounds” came to mind. I carefully chose to take that saying, open up the metaphorical garbage bin in my head, and throw it right the hell out. Lord knows, the last thing my grieving client needed at that moment was to hear me say “give it time.” She felt like her whole world was crumbling. A traumatized person doesn’t want to hear that things take time. They want to hear that they can get some type of relief to the seemingly endless agony that they feel. My heart broke for my client, who wished and begged for there to be a way to reverse what had happened to her. But I didn’t rush her agony. I didn’t try to find a bright side to it all, nor did I tell her that her feelings would change eventually. In that moment, it was important to meet her exactly where she was at. As we sat in my office with her grief and despair, I knew that over time she would have a different perspective on what had happened to her, and that new perspective would change her entire life.
As honored as I was/am to walk this journey with my client, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the fact that I knew what she was feeling all too well…
It has been about five months since I posted “The Loss of the Living” on my blog: and in case you didn’t read it, I’ll bring you up to speed: About six months ago I lost someone who is still very much alive, and at the time of my loss, I truly thought my world was ending. I was betrayed and violated by someone who I thought cared deeply for me. After the initial impact of the loss, a few people here and there would say “Give it time, you’ll feel better.” and I hated hearing it. I didn’t want time – I wanted ANSWERS. I wanted answers for the abandonment, for the vile words that were spoken about me, and for the completely unprompted betrayal. But I couldn’t find them because my pain was so blinding.
Time hasn’t healed my wound, nor do I believe it ever will. Pain doesn’t disappear over time, it transforms. So while myself and any other grieving person may not experience the same earth-shattering pain that we initially felt at the time of our loss, we still ache in other, more subtle ways. For example:
-Some people who go through breakups and initially feel that they cannot breathe without their ex-partner may realize over time that their partner was actually controlling, abusive, or perhaps the relationship as a whole was not healthy. Their pain can transform from “I can’t breathe without this person.” to “How dare this person abuse me.”
-Parents who lose children to an overdose often take their pain and use it to combat the stigma of addiction and help save others from being lost to drugs. Their pain can transform from “I’ll die without my child here on earth.” to “I’ll never stop missing my child, and I’ll take what time I have left on this planet to save other families from the same fate.”
My pain isn’t gone, but I understand so much more now than I did six months ago. Time has taken the myopic view I had on the situation and has allowed me to see that the woman who hurt me is the epitome of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Time has revealed that, contrary to what I used to believe, this woman is wounded in ways she isn’t capable of accepting, going through life projecting her own insecurities and pain onto everyone she meets. I thank God that our relationship did not last, because I know she would have made me extremely sick.
With my new perspective, I realize that the downfall of our relationship was rooted in one thing: pure, unfiltered envy – envy over the flourishing parts of my life that reminded her of the places in her own life where she still has significant voids. And with every passing day, I learn new information of how I’m still being copied and stalked by this person, who used to make every effort to tear me down and tell me that my ideas and dreams were way too far out of my reach. In understanding this, I am no longer sad over the loss. If anything, I’m thankful she is gone, as my health and wellbeing have significantly improved without her narcissistic presence. The pain remains, but these days, that pain looks so much more like determination. In trying to tear me down, she has made me stronger and healthier than I’ve ever been before – what a shocking turn of events!
So does time truly heal all wounds? No, I wouldn’t say so, and I doubt many other trauma survivors would say so either. It’s how we treat our wounds that matter. Do we nurture them? Do we seek justice? Do we find new perspectives? The answer is different for everyone. Only time will tell. Thus, while time might not heal us, it certainly will tell us all that we need to know.
Oh, and I’d hate to end on a cliffhanger, so suffice it to say this: The client I referred to at the beginning of this post is now the happiest and most confident she has ever been. That is due to new perspectives, not the passing of time.
“I’m So OCD About It.”
I am quite guilty about having talked like this in the past: “I’m so OCD about it.” About what? How clean I like my house to be, how I organize my closet, etc. I can even recount many times at the gym where I would be in the middle of a fitness class – God forbid the instructor accidentally lost her place and we ended up doing 11 kettlebell swings with the right hand and 10 kettlebell swings with the left hand. I’d be the first to say out loud: “Oh my gosh, we’re uneven, we have to do one more one this side – I’m so OCD about it!”
A lot of us do this, but as I got older and started becoming more seasoned as a therapist, I realized how wrong those comments were. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be a crippling mental health disorder in which we find ourselves having to act on certain impulses in order to quiet the thoughts in our head that just won’t seem to stop.
Yes, people can develop OCD symptoms around cleanliness, disorganization, and numbers, like I mentioned above, but the obsessive thoughts can also be much more than that. You see, when I would make those comments like the ones I mentioned above, I would laugh, my friends would laugh, and we would go about our day. But the truth is, I was joking about an issue that runs so much deeper and is more serious than most folks know. While many of us joke about having OCD, the truest form of the disorder is brutal.
Of all the issues I have been battling, one of the ones I talk about the least is my OCD, mostly because I know that my OCD is a result of my trauma and in treating the trauma, I am also treating the OCD.
But truth be told, OCD is an absolute beast, one that lives with you, follows you everywhere you go, and keeps you from sleeping at night. It’s the worst friend you’ve ever had, but cannot seem to get rid of. It’s counting how many times you chew your food before you swallow, it’s making sure you step on the scale 3 times just to make sure the scale is right. It’s this irresistible compulsion to say your prayers exactly the same way every night, fearing that something bad will happen to you if you don’t.
This elusive beast comes in many forms, and what I named above are only a few symptoms that people with OCD may struggle with. Looking back on my childhood, I know that my OCD began as early as 3rd grade, where I remember washing my hands so much and for so long that my skin would bleed. As I got older, my obsessions then became about people breaking into our home. I would have to check the doors at night, dis-arm the alarm that my mom already armed, check to ensure the garage door was shut, and then re-arm the alarm. After about 3-4 rounds of doing this each night, only then could I be assured that the doors were truly locked and the alarm was truly set.
My symptoms have come and gone throughout my life, worsening during times of extreme stress. COVID 19 of course sent my obsessions and compulsions through the roof. I would cry if anyone came too close to me, I refused to see anyone but David for months on end, and any time I needed to go anywhere, I would come home and strip at the front door, throwing my clothes immediately in the washer and jumping into the shower to scrub my skin raw. We even used disinfectant to wipe down every grocery item that we bought before allowing it into the house. It was exhausting, time consuming, and needless to say, very rough on my skin.
And have I mentioned intrusive thoughts? I could write an entire blog post on intrusive thoughts so I won’t dive too deeply into this, but they often couple with OCD. For example, if you’ve ever been driving your car on a highway and suddenly thought to yourself: “What if the car next to me runs me off the road and I crash into a tree and die?”, this is an intrusive thought. Or maybe worse, you’ve even pictured the entire event taking place in your head. This is also an intrusive thought, and you are not alone if you have them.
Often times we develop compulsions to quell our obsessive and intrusive thoughts. Over the last few years, my obsessions and compulsions have come back in more crippling waves, likely due to extreme stress. Back in 2018 when my mom was severely ill and in the ICU, I believed that I caused her sickness. I recall sitting in the spiritual room of the hospital, feeling the urge to pray the same exact prayer, in the same way, for the same amount of time, because somehow, I believed that would save my mother. I remember those dreadful times when I would have to leave the hospital after spending a day with her in the ICU, I would make sure I didn’t step on a single crack on the floor as I walked down the hallways, because I thought that if I stepped on a crack it would be the reason why my mom didn’t survive.
In more recent months, I have been battling health issues, including an autoimmune disease that is – to put it lightly – excruciatingly painful, rendering me, at times, incapable of even breathing without severe, nauseating pain. I have also had multiple tests done on my eyes, as doctors were concerned that I had inflammation in my optic nerves that were being cause by a brain tumor. I was referred to one of the best neuro-opthamologists in the country, but had to wait nearly two months for an appointment. (I just had my appointment this week – no brain tumor!) Naturally, these last two months have been wrought with compulsion after compulsion to try to quell the obsessive thoughts about dying. Some examples:
-Driving to work: Did I check the stove to make sure the gas isn’t on? (after having checked it 20 times before leaving) Am I sure my dogs are safely in their crates? What if there is a fire and my house burns down? My dogs will die. Oh god, I can’t go to work. What if David dies? Let me call him to make sure he and the dogs are okay. NO, don’t call him. Don’t give into the compulsion.
-Driving home from work: Did I really blow that candle out in my office or did I just imagine it? Let me turn around, I have to check, I can’t be responsible for burning down the building. *drives back to office, confirms that the candle is blown out, starts driving home again* Okay but what if I imagined that? Did I really blow out that candle? *Gets home from work 45-60 min later than expected because I have to act on my compulsions*
-Getting ready for bed: *Hears David cough* He must have COVID. Oh God I probably gave it to him. He’s going to die and it’s going to be my fault. He can’t die, because I’m going to die because I probably have a brain tumor. He has to live because someone needs to take care of the dogs. Speaking of dogs, are mine safe? I know I checked earlier but let me check on them again to make sure they are breathing. While I’m at it, let me check the locks on the doors again. If I don’t, something bad will happen and everyone I love will die and it will be my fault.
It’s terrible. It’s exhausting. And sometimes I so desperately want out of this head of mine. This is the case for so many folks with OCD. It’s not just about wanting your house to be neat and orderly. It’s about needing to do certain things to avoid horrible things from happening and to quiet the brain.
I understand things so much differently now. I used to have the attitude of “I’m not changing the way I speak just to save other’s feelings” but the older I get, the more I realize how much of an impact words have on myself and others (I am a therapist, after all!). Intent does not equal impact – and even if I was just joking all those times when I said “I am so OCD about it”, I realize that it is nothing to joke about.
1. If you have been diagnosed with OCD, know you’re not alone and there is no shame in sharing the thoughts and compulsions you are having. In fact, speaking them out loud takes the power away from them.
2. If you have never been diagnosed with OCD, but resonate with some of what I’m saying in this post, please reach out for help. You don’t have to live like this forever and managing the symptoms truly does get much easier.
3. If you have no experience battling OCD, but often say phrases like “I’m really OCD about it”, maybe consider trying to change your words. What else could you say instead? “It makes me feel frazzled and disorganized when my house is a mess” or “I prefer my closet to be organized by color because it makes me happy” are just a few examples. The beautiful thing about language is that there are millions of ways to say something without using words that might minimize the beast that is OCD.
To learn more about obsessive compulsive disorder, please visit https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml
*All information about OCD is derived from my training as a clinician. No articles or websites were used to create this post.*
Intuitive Eating and a Smack in the Face
When it comes to my intuitive eating journey, I have been so gosh darn proud of myself lately. In fact, two days ago I said to my husband how drastically different our lives are now that I’m not obsessed with food, micromanaging how much salt he puts in meals, asking him to hide cookies from me so I don’t binge, forbidding there to be any ice cream in the house, and, most upsetting of all, bursting into tears after every meal because I hated the feeling of being “full.” Today, we have a minimum of 3-4 pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in the house at all times and we eat it whenever we want it. It has become such a normalized food, as have Oreos, chips, pizza, and any other kind of fear food that I had. For the last few years, I have been crushing it when it comes to letting go of my food rules.
And yet, I still haven’t felt well physically, as you may have read about in my previous blog posts.
But yesterday I finally received some answers!! We traveled two hours to see a highly recommended doctor to help me figure out what is going on with me, and I must say – she was fantastic! To summarize the appointment, I am intolerant to the following foods: onions, garlic, gluten, dairy, beef, and anything fermented (alcohol, kombucha, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, etc.). Because I have been freely consuming these foods, my body is having a major inflammatory reaction in the form of weight gain, water retention, painful joints, aches, fatigue, and my personal favorite, an excess of candida (yeast), which would explain why I have had about five yeast infections in the last two months. SO, the goal is to kill off the excess candida in my system by eliminating the above foods, plus maintaining a low carb and low sugar diet. I’m also taking supplements that will help kill off the candida so my gut bacteria can get back to its normal state. I will do this for about 3 weeks, go back to the doctor to see how I’m feeling, and from there I’ll see if my body can tolerate some of these foods in smaller amounts.
So hooray! Off I went on the drive home, talking about how nice it is to hear someone tell me that my aches, pains, and weight gain aren’t a result of laziness and over eating. I was all rainbows and sunshine and butterflies for about 3 hours until I went home and tried to find sauces, spices, and other foods that don’t contain ANY of the ingredients listed above.
And suddenly I was back in it – “it” meaning my anorexia. From about 2pm-10pm, my husband and I sat on the couch, hard-pressed to find meals and sauces that had no trace elements of onions or garlic, only to realize how near-impossible it is. I mean, for the love of God, I’M ITALIAN! How DARE I be intolerant of garlic?! I scoured the internet, reading the find print of every ingredient list and nutritional info chart, thinking to myself “Okay, if there are no onions or garlic in something, then there’s dairy. If there’s no dairy in something, then it’s high in sugar. I should be low in sugar, but how much sugar is too much? What did the doctor mean by low sugar? Should I just eliminate sugar? Yep, I’ll be the best patient ever and I’ll eliminate ALL sugar and ALL carbs and I’ll just eat steamed veggies for the next 3 weeks. NO, I can’t do that. I’m starving just thinking about it. WHAT THE #*%$ CAN I EAT?!”
Around 10pm, I slammed my laptop shut and sobbed out of fury. Because WHY? Why did I work SO HARD to become an intuitive eater only to end up feeling like crap and needing to go back on a ridiculously restrictive diet? What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to start eliminating these foods and then just fall right back into my anorexia, continuing to restrict until I waste away? Am I going to start binge eating again as a result of not being able to have certain foods? I don’t want to die, whether it be from starvation or chronic binge eating. Eating disorders kill, and now I have to figure out how I can do this without letting mine resurface and kill me. It feels like all of the hard work I have done has gone right out the window and I’m infuriated. Not to mention, in the middle of our hunt for foods I can actually tolerate, we ordered dinner. I ordered scallops with gluten free pasta and steamed veggies from one of my favorite places in town, and to add insult to injury, they forgot my gluten free pasta, and both the scallops and the veggies were quite literally smothered in garlic, despite having asked for zero garlic. So I sobbed. I yelled. I let out every single thought and feeling I was having. I went to bed and despite being utterly exhausted, I tossed and turned until 3am, wondering if I’m being punked (Ashton, where you at, man?!).
I needed (and still do need) some time to process all of this. It’s a major ask for me to have to monitor and ask questions about every single thing that goes into my body, because it is so triggering of my diet days, when I clung to the Weight Watchers program like it was the gosh darn Bible. But now that I’m a little bit removed from the initial meltdown and now that I have 1. joined a Facebook group for folks allergic to onions and garlic (I know, I know, I’m secretly 89 years old), and 2. found some sauces from a company that I can try out (and I only had to spend a small fortune!!), I feel a bit more relieved. I realize that other people have it worse and that this isn’t the end of the world, but when I watch my husband eat sourdough garlic bread while I chomp on celery sticks, it sure as hell feels like it.
In my fury, I actually wanted to blame intuitive eating on why this is so hard for me. It sounds ridiculous, but at one point I truly was like “Screw you, intuitive eating! If I never knew how much freedom came with giving up my diets and restriction then this wouldn’t be so hard!” But beneath my fury, I am beginning to realize that all of this is another lesson in intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is about normalizing “bad” foods and allowing our bodies to determine what we want to eat and how much. If I’m being intuitive, then I have to recognize that something is very wrong with my body right now and some foods are not jiving with me. It is my job to honor my body, to feed it what feels good. And truthfully, any time I have had any of the foods listed above, I end up in agony, crying to David, asking him why I feel like I binged after having a decent-sized meal, and wondering why my body is storing fat at an unbelievably fast pace. So if the goal is to listen to my body, then eliminating these foods is doing exactly that.
Just when you think you have it all down, just when you feel like you’ve mastered the art of listening to your body, you get a curve ball thrown at you. It’s unfair, but it’s another challenge I will fight to overcome. And at the end of the day, it’s going to make me stronger in my own eating disorder recovery and stronger as a therapist working with others in their recovery. Intuitive eating really does look different for each and every one of us at different points in our lives, and for me right now, this is what it looks like. Is it ideal? No. Is it triggering? Yes. But I will tell myself over and over and over again that this is my choice. Despite the doctor’s recommendations, I can still choose to ignore her and eat however I want. But what I want more than anything is to feel better, so right now, this is how I’m going to feel better. I will not starve, nor will I restrict my caloric intake. This is an opportunity for me to listen more carefully to my body and to experiment with alternatives types of foods and ingredients.
While this major change in lifestyle is admittedly very frustrating, this journey will help strengthen my ability to tune in to my body’s needs, and in turn, I will be able to help others who have food intolerances to do exactly the same. There’s my silver lining!
Our Children Are Always Watching
I often say to the families I work with, “It’s takes a village to raise a kid.” I do not yet have biological children, so I will never profess to know what it is like to be a parent. However, I do have nearly two decades of experience working with children (first babysitting, then summer camps, then substitute teaching, then crisis intervention, and now, my independent practice).
All of my experiences with children thus far have led me to believe that it truly does take a community to raise a child. It takes teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, school counselors and other adults to raise a healthy, well-adjusted kid. If you work with kids in any way, you have likely had an affect on their upbringing. As kids get older, they tend to spend more time in school and in extracurricular activities and less time with their parents, which is why I say “our” children are always watching. While they may not be your biological children, if you are spending a significant amount of time around kids, then you can rest assured that they are watching you, too.
Why does this matter? Well, let’s look at a few examples below:
-A few weeks ago I had a teenager and her mom in my office. It was brought up that during dinner a few nights back, the rest of the family ate pasta while mom ate a salad with grilled chicken. Mom mentioned that the pasta looked amazing but she wouldn’t allow herself to have any because she is on a mission to lose weight. While this may not seem overtly harmful, adults talking about their diets and weight-loss often leads to children feeling highly dissatisfied with their own bodies.
-Many years ago when I worked for a crisis intervention unit, I performed an assessment on a young boy who said to me “My dad tells me that he loves me, but sometimes I hear him talking to my mom about how they would have more money if they didn’t have kids.” While dad surely did not mean for his child to hear this, the child now, unfortunately, can never un-hear it.
-On a more personal level, when I was in kindergarten, I did not follow directions on one of my assignments. My teacher looked at me and yelled “Are you stupid?!” To this day, looking back on that memory still floods my body with shame from head to toe.
-As another personal anecdote, I had a soccer coach in high school who always tried to have genuine conversations with me and made efforts to get to know me on a deeper level. She acted this way with all of the kids on the team. The respect that she had for all of us was palpable and we all felt seen and heard by her.
The list of impressionable moments that can change or solidify the way a child feels about themselves is limitless. What I’m trying to say is this: Kids are always taking in information, even when we think they aren’t. They are listening, they are observing, and most importantly, they are picking up on the feelings of the ones around them. If we’re not careful as adults, we can send dangerous messages to children that reinforce diet culture, low self-esteem, perfectionism, feelings of abandonment and being unloved, etc. All of this can ultimately lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
This is not a call-out to parents only, nor is it an attempt to parent-shame. We’re all doing the best we can and need to treat ourselves and others with compassion. Rather, this is a shout-out to all of the adults in this world, as most of us will find ourselves around children at some point in our lives. The next time you find yourself in the presence of a child/children, please make every effort to leave them feeling like they matter and that they are accepted; for this is how we start building self-esteem in children, which will have positive ripple effects on generations to come.
Missing Those ~Precedented Times~
If I hear the phrase “unprecedented times” one more time…..
Now let me just preface the remainder of this post by saying that I am eternally grateful that my loved ones have not yet lost their lives to coronavirus, and therefore, my intention is not to come off as inconsiderate or selfish when I say the following:
UGH! I miss going out to eat. Especially Zahavs (to die for) in Philly. My husband and I went on our first date there, celebrated our engagement there, and continue to go there every year on our anniversary, with the exception of last year and most likely this year due to Covid. What I wouldn’t give to be able to hop on a train and head into the city, where I can stroll carefree from one historic monument to the next, enjoying the sights and sounds and, most importantly, the delectable cuisine!
I won’t sit here and go through all of the things that I miss, because it’s not news to anybody. I know we are all on the same boat when it comes to missing our pre-covid lives. But what I will say is this: Being stuck inside has forced me to re-evaluate what I’m doing to take care of myself. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would tell you that self care was going out for an expensive date or a pricey spa day. I would tell you that self care is being able to hop on a plane and go to your favorite vacation spot whenever you want. Or I might tell you that self-care is forcing yourself to wake up at 5 AM so you can get to the gym even though you only got three hours of sleep the entire night.
Some part of me always believed that self care should have an emphasis on spending money or looking a certain way. But I didn’t have an opportunity to do any of that this past year. I had to actually stay in my house and figure out how I was going to take care of myself, because going on vacations or strolling the mall or hitting the gym excessively was not an option for me. Looking back, I see now that those things weren’t truly self care at all. The only purpose that all of those things served was to be a giant distraction for the painful feelings that were surfacing as a result of my PTSD.
With all of that being said, I thought I might take a moment to share on the blog some of what I’ve been doing to keep myself sane over the last year. It has nothing to do with spending big bucks or trying to make my body meet some impossible standard. Ready? Let’s go!
1. Puzzles. Don’t you roll your eyes at me! I hated puzzles up until this year. You know why I hated them? They forced me to be still and process all of the intense feelings that were coming up. Since quarantine, I have completed about ten 1000-piece puzzles. When I’m having some big feelings, I shut all of my technology down and I work on my puzzle. It keeps my hands busy, and keeps my brain distracted while allowing space to process my emotions at the same time. I highly recommend!
2. Painting. Again with the eye rolls?! I’m telling you, it works! I have zero artistic talent, and that’s putting it nicely. But a few months ago, one of my clients introduced me to “Canvas by Numbers”, which has been so satisfying to work on! Not only do all of the colors soothe my soul, but just like with puzzles, it keeps my hands busy and keeps me focused, while also allowing me to process other things.
3. Epsom salt. People who struggle with anxiety and depression tend to have lower magnesium levels, which can be found in Epsom salt. Magnesium is best absorbed through the skin, and there are now different types of Epsom salts that are infused with essential oils (which is really the icing on the cake if you ask me). If you are not a person who enjoys taking baths, I have also found it to be extremely soothing to put some Epsom salt in a cup and bring it in the shower with you. You can scoop it out with your hands and rub it into your body, using it as an exfoliant. It certainly helps with aches and sore muscles, but also with anxiety and depression. It’s one of those instant fixes for me when I’m really depressed or dissociated.
4. Essential oil diffuser. When I am dissociated or anxious, I need all of my senses on deck to pull me out of the funk that I am in. So my diffuser doesn’t just give off incredible scents, but it’s also a 3-D light-up diffuser. I found it on Amazon! Between the amazing smells from the essential oils and the pretty lights, I find this to be a very grounding tool for me.
5. Movement. And I don’t mean exercise, although this can include exercise if you would like it to. If you have a yoga mat, roll it out and sit on it. Do some light stretches, some neck rolls, some lower back stretches, and even give yourself a foot massage. There are parts of the feet that are directly connected to your organs (more on that later), which is partially why some spots on your feet are more tender than other spots. There are a million free videos on the internet with guided stretches if you need a bit of assistance. The goal here is not to lose weight or change your body. It is simply to allow the emotions that are stuck inside of you to start moving through you.
6. Animals. Do you have a fish? A cat? A dog? A bearded dragon? Whatever you may have, interact with him/her/them. Yes, even your fish. Feed your fish, clean the tank, walk your dog, etc. When I force myself to put my phone down and play with my dogs, it often pulls me out of my depression and brings some laughter into my days.
This self-care list is drastically different from the list I would have given you two years ago. One of the most important differences between what I did back then and what I do now is that my current self care tools are all about moving through the feelings instead of trying to avoid the feelings. If you’re struggling in these (dare I say it?!) ~unprecedented times~, I hope that this list can help you make a giant leap towards taking better care of yourself. You one thousand percent deserve it!
Depression Stole 28, But It Won’t Steal 29
My birthday (January 6th) always falls during a weird time of the year. The madness of the holidays has just passed and everyone is trying to get back into their work/school flow. Growing up I’ve had countless people mention that it must be tough having a birthday right after the holidays because people are always so tired of parties and presents and celebrations by the time my special day rolls around. Luckily for me, my parents never made me feel like my birthday was any less important because it falls just after the holiday season. My parents have always encouraged me to celebrate myself on my special day.
But last year was different. Depression reared its ugly head and I simply couldn’t celebrate my birthday. It was all I could do just to breathe. I dreaded the days leading up to my birthday, so much so that I actually changed the settings on my social media so that no one would be able to see it was my birthday and thus, wouldn’t reach out to me. And to those who did wish me a happy birthday, I could barely muster up the strength to text them back and thank them.
When I look back at my birthday last year, I feel so much sadness for myself. I wish I could tell my newly-turned-28 year old self that I deserve to be loved by others. If I could change things, I wouldn’t have shut my phone off that day. I would have packed on all the self-care instead of all of the self destruction and isolation. While my year on earth as a 28 year old woman was the most difficult year to date, it has turned me into a self-care warrior, which made my 29th birthday so much more enjoyable.
This year, I took the time to celebrate myself on my birthday. When I opened my eyes on January 6th, I wasn’t filled with dread. Instead, I was filled with excitement! I ate a great breakfast, did some neurofeedback (more on that later), and cozied up in a fresh pair of my favorite pjs. I sat on the couch under a pile of blankets and worked on a giant puzzle. I ended the night with an awesome boxing session, a healing epsom salt bath, and of course, dessert!!! I truly enjoyed every second of my day, wrapping myself in love and self care and appreciation for who I am and the resiliency I have shown over the last year.
It has taken so much sadness, anxiety, anger, grief, rage, and pain to be able to get to a place where I could celebrate myself on my birthday. Time after time this past year, I had to take a leap without knowing where I’d land, hoping for the best. I quit my job in the middle of a global pandemic, praying I’d be able to make it on my own. I stopped making myself so readily available for people to keep myself from burning out, not knowing if in doing so, I would end up being abandoned by everyone (spoiler alert: I wasn’t!). I gave up chronic dieting and put my faith in a nutritionist who had me eating ice cream every night to start normalizing “bad foods” (again, there are no bad foods). In my 28th year, I found the balance between letting go and holding on, between surrendering to the things I truly can’t/don’t want to control and fighting like hell for my voice to be heard. And most healing of all, I walked away from a cancerous relationship that was sucking the life out of me (not my husband, Dave’s a good guy!).
And here I am at 29, happy. Of course I have bad days. Horrendous days. Days where I want to rip my hair out and scream at the top of my lungs. Days where the tears don’t stop coming and I blow through an entire tissue box in 6 hours. But that’s what living is. It’s showing up for your emotions – all of them. It’s allowing yourself to feel all of it instead of numbing out with drugs/food/sex and self-destruction.
A few days before my birthday, I had a long talk with one of my best friends. God blessed me with her beautiful friendship over ten years ago. I believe wholeheartedly that she was hand-picked to come into my life at the exact moment that she did, because I’m not too sure where I would be without her unconditional love and support. This Wonder Woman has been with me my through my highest of highs and my lowest of lows, even though there were periods of time where we spent years living on different continents, in different states, etc. While we were on the phone recently, I found myself expressing how I am feeling about turning 29. I told her that these days, even in my worst moments, I still love myself. I’m still thankful for the very air that I breathe (even if I have to breathe it through a damn mask).
Days later, I received a birthday gift from her in the mail. It was a subscription to Vellabox, which is a candle company (my days are incomplete unless I have a candle lit somewhere nearby). In the box, there happened to be this card with a quote on it, which is randomly selected and placed in each box before it ships out. Tears filled my eyes as I read it, because it so beautifully sums up the lesson that I’ve learned over the last year. The card read:
“Our memories are gifts that show us life, even through the toughest times, is worth living.” – Chrissie Pinney
So cheers to 29, for I am far more alive than I’ve ever been before.
Why Trauma Survivors Don’t Go To The Doctor
I have not been feeling well for months. -low energy, aches and pains everywhere, chills, and chronic fatigue. I’m so exhausted that I can barely make it from my bed to the couch downstairs without feeling drained. At first I thought maybe it was depression, but as the months went on, I started to get this feeling that there is something deeper going on with me aside from depression. I have a history of thyroid issues in my family, and I’ve been told by a few doctors that I should keep an eye on my thyroid levels, as they have historically been on the lower end of the spectrum.
Thus, after months of feeling like total crap, I picked up the phone and made an appointment with an endocrinologist, hopeful that this doctor will give me the answers I am looking for. I scheduled my appointment for the end of December – and what did I do immediately after I hang up the phone?
I agonized over the appointment. Every day that it got closer to me having to go to the doctor, I felt my anxiety increasing. I loathe going to the doctor. In fact, I’m petrified. And here is a little glimpse as to why doctors appointments, for myself and many others, are often traumatic:
My recent appointment with the endocrinologist went as follows:
I arrived, checked myself in for my appointment, got my temperature taken, and was called back by one of the techs.
“Step on the scale please,” she says. I respond “Oh, no, I am in recovery from an eating disorder and I cant – ” She cuts of me off. “Ma’am, we really do need your weight if you’re going to be a patient here.” I feel myself starting to shut down. “Ok dont be a big baby, just get on the scale” I think to myself. As I step on the scale, I say to her “Okay but it’s triggering to weigh myself so can you please not tell me what my weight -” She cuts me off again to say my weight out loud in front of multiple other people in the office so that someone else can write it down.
And then the shame starts. I start sweating. “Oh my god oh my god that bitch yelled my weight out to the whole office everyone is going to know my weight oh god I cant breathe.” I walk into the room to wait for the doctor. Soon enough the doctor barges in the door and says hello without making eye contact. She sits down at her computer and asks me deeply personal questions without looking back at me one single time.
“You wrote down that you have PTSD?”
My heart sinks right into my gut. I stammer on my words as I try to give a 15 second elevator speech about my trauma to a woman who isn’t even looking at me. As I finish speaking I start to cry into my mask. “Why couldn’t I just tell her I wasn’t comfortable discussing it?” I think to myself. But I cant help it. I’m with an “authority figure”. I’m playing out my trauma – giving my all to a person who promises to help me but doesn’t actually care about me.
She types on the computer in complete silence for what feels like 15 minutes. She gets up, touches my hands, my ankles, my neck, my chest, and says “There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong.”
I finally start to get angry. “That can’t be right. I’m telling you, I don’t feel well. I know when something is wrong with my body. I am in recovery from my eating disorder and eat better now than I ever have in my life and somehow have put on an excessive amount of weight in the last few months that has me extremely concerned about my health.”
She says “Well, I’ll send you for more bloodwork but in the meantime, you should exercise, 20 minutes a day. Sound good?”
NO THIS DOES NOT SOUND GOOD, DOC. If exercise was the f&%$*@! answer, I wouldn’t be here talking to you, now would I? The problem is that I do exercise, perhaps not as much as I would like because I’m so exhausted I can barely function but I do my damn best. I’m not here because I needed you to tell me to exercise. I’m not here to talk about how to lose weight – I’m here because everything in my body is screaming “SOMETHING IS WRONG.”
But I dont say any of that to her. Instead, I nod through my tears “Yes, I’ll exercise.” and I am sent to the front desk to check out. The woman hands me a piece of paper with the summary of my appointment, in which it says that the doctor discussed BMI with me and I agreed that I was going to exercise every day for 20 minutes.
And I sobbed. The discharge summary said nothing other than that I am overweight and need to exercise. I threw it in the garbage because IT IS garbage. Why why why can we be so obsessed with someone’s weight but be completely oblivious about the trauma that is often behind the number on the scale? Why are we still even talking about BMI? There is a plethora of research negating its validity as a tool for determining health.
How differently could that appointment have gone if she had asked me what is going on in my life aside from exercising? If she had looked me in the eye when she walked in the door and made me feel seen and heard? Would I have been so horribly triggered if they had respected my right not to step on the scale? I guess I’ll never know, but I do know one thing:
This sort of stuff happens in doctors appointments over and over and over again. Folks who are struggling with eating disorders are often masking trauma. When you get to the root of the trauma, you mitigate the eating disordered symptoms. The person then learns how to listen to their bodies and eat intuitively, and their weight becomes whatever it is meant to be.
WEIGHT WILL TAKE CARE OF ITSELF. It is not necessary for doctors to be discussing BMI when 90% of the time, we don’t show up to the doctors to discuss BMI. Weight isn’t, despite what so many people think in this fat-phobic society, the root of all evil. Unprocessed emotions, underlying autoimmune diseases, irregular metabolic functioning, and suppressed trauma, are just a few of the many, many things that are more important than BMI.
I wasn’t given the time of day by this doctor, as has been the case with dozens of other doctors. Instead of leaving with answers for what is going on with me when I know something is wrong, I left full of shame and rage that no one will listen to me when I am doing everything short of screaming at the top of my lungs “SOMETHING FEELS OFF WITH MY BODY PLEASE HELP.”
I’ve been in recovery from my eating disorder for awhile now. I’m more in tune with my body than ever before, but because my BMI labels me as being overweight, everyone jumps to the conclusion that it must be my diet and exercise that are off.
We need to do better. We need to get rid of the BMI are start assessing people’s ACE scores (see https://alyssascolari.com/understanding-adverse-childhood-experiences/ for more info on ACE scores) because this is ultimately what’s going to kill people, not their BMI. You can put someone on the biggest, best diet in the whole world and they will still continue to have health issues until you get to the core of their wounds.
“Trauma-informed” is not just some training that we need to get in order to check off another box on our “to-do” list. It’s a crucial part of the work that all healthcare professionals do. When we start to shift our focus towards a truly trauma-informed practice, I can guarantee that we’ll start saving more lives than the BMI chart ever has.