Bodies That Change: Weight Loss and Trans Narratives

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There’s a parallel that’s been rumbling around in my mind for quite some time now that I’ve been hesitant to write about for fear of stepping into a topic that I know not nearly enough about. I’ve often noticed that whenever I read something written by a trans person, I see lots of parallels with recovery from an eating disorder and with weight loss narratives. And then last week I got a little kick in the pants from a friend who posted an article about weight loss and said they felt parallels with their experience of transitioning.

So I’m just going to go for it. I think there’s a lot of rich support and community that could be built by talking across these boundaries and experiences, and speaking to similarities. I obviously am not trans, so I’m going to do my best not to make statements about the experience that I don’t know anything about, but I will try to pull from places that I’ve heard others describe it and the struggles that they’ve mentioned. I would love to hear any trans perspectives or challenges.

The thing that strikes me most about recovery, weight loss, and transitioning, is that all of these processes circulate around bodies changing (and along the way minds and identities). There is probably some sort of final goal (lose weight, gain weight, present as female/male), but there are all sorts of small changes that a body goes through that must be incorporated into a new identity, projected to the world, adapted to, accepted, and understood as “me” by the individual who inhabits that body. While the particular changes may be different, the experience of “is this me? How does this work? Where did that muscle come from?” is shared. And there are many elements to it that are confusing and difficult which could be made easier by shared conversation from a variety of perspectives.

At the core of all of these things is the process of changing body so that it fits into your sense of who your are: it is creating an identity through a body. In many ways, I think that all of these processes of changing your body are coping mechanisms for feeling that something is wrong with the way you view yourself or the way that others view you, or for feeling as if your body is standing in the way of you creating a healthy identity and life for yourself.

This process is hard. Really, really hard. It doesn’t make sense and there’s really no template for it because asking “how can I get people to take me seriously when my body  no longer takes up the same amount of space?” is not considered Real, Deep, Appropriate work in the social justice community. But this is work. This is the work of understanding that we are physical creatures, and that our physicality can change who we are. This is the work of creating our own identities in such a way that we fully accept the body that is a part of us. Sometimes that involves large, sweeping moments of self-realization and sometimes it involves little things like “I really liked the way I could pick up a heavy couch when I was fat. How do I do things that need strength when I’m skinnier?” It’s the process of learning yourself all over again, but it’s not particularly sexy and it’s not particularly interesting unless it’s your life and you can’t for the life of you figure out how to move your damn bookshelf.

Everything about your body can affect the way you interact with and view the world (or yourself). Having different muscles can affect your mood and energy level, hormone levels can affect your basic perception and sensitivity to stimuli, the sheer amount of space you take up will affect how big, intimidating, powerful, or potentially dangerous you see the rest of the world as. It may seem simple to change your body and switch from checking “female” to checking “male” on the census form, but actually understanding how your body changes your perspective is a much harder and much more subtle process that involves figuring out all those little pieces and putting them together into a new conception of “this is me and this is how I see things and this is how I do things”.

For myself, I have found the process of adapting to my changing body to be frustrating and angering. I’ve often wished that I could talk about it more openly with others, that people were there to commiserate, or that there was just some sort of guide book (will I keep gaining weight forever????). I have heard some of these frustrations echoed in other places, by Zinnia Jones, by those who have lost a great deal of weight. Many of us just want some reassurance that our bodies haven’t turned into something alien and unknown. We want to know that other people’s bodies reacted the same way or similarly. We want to know that we’re still ourselves.

But we also want to know how to relate to the world with a new body. A body that was fat and is now thin is going to take up space differently, move differently, have different strength, touch things differently…even something as simple as sleep differently (welcome to skinniness, where you can’t sleep on your side because your knee bones rub together and it hurts like a bitch). And so many of us are looking for a model of “how do I do stuff when I’m like this”. We’re trying to figure out how to tell other people about our bodies and how our bodies match our selves and what part of our bodies fits our identities. It’s difficult when you’re in recovery to explain your body. The body is often in flux, you’re not “skinny like you were supposed to be”, you don’t entirely understand your body as “right” yet. It doesn’t wholly feel like you. The process of labeling your body and then explaining yourself to others is difficult and something that anyone whose body goes through a drastic change must learn how to deal with.

Learning about how to talk to others about a new body is something we could all use help and support with. How do you respond when someone says “you look different” or “you look healthier” or “you look great!”? How do you tell others what you identify as? How do you look down at yourself or look in the mirror and think “yeah, that’s me. That’s just me”? For me, this process is hardest when I think about my body in the long term. I keep thinking that I’ll drop the weight again, that I’ll go back to the “real me”, that somehow this is just a temporary state of unreality. I have no idea if there are trans individuals who feel this way, but I have heard from some people who went through weight loss regimens that they think about whether the weight will come back, and worry that they’re in a temporary state. I imagine there might be some parallels when you haven’t reached a point of feeling comfortable in your gender identity (sort of in the “still transitioning” point of being trans). I think all of us wonder if the changes will stick, if we should commit to ourselves as we are.

And a big part of that is learning how to internalize this new shape as “me”. While I have never transitioned, I would imagine that it takes a bit of time after hormones/surgery/whatever to get used to the changes (hey I have boobs that didn’t used to be there! That’s odd). For me, it was more along the lines of getting used to being present when I wasn’t entirely happy with how I looked. I wish that I could speak to some of those trans people about how they learned to see their bodies as them, how they learned to view those new manly muscles as “me”, how they started to see boobies as part of their bodies.

One piece of identifying with a new body or a changing body is accepting that there are both pros and cons to any change. For me, I am highly aware of the cons of my changing body (uuugh I’m fat and my thighs rub together) but I often forget about some of the positives (I don’t feel dizzy all the time, I am more physically capable, I’m not nearly as fragile and don’t expect others to walk all over me because of my petite and sickly frame). I think because of the very positive framing of transitioning in the mind of the person who transitions, speaking to people who have transitioned could be an amazing way to remind me of the benefits I’ve gotten from my new body. On the flip side, I think the perspective of someone who is more hesitant to change their body could be useful for someone who is TOTALLY GUN HO about their new body and might need a moment to slow down and learn the ways that their body can’t quite keep up to past expectations.

There are elements to being larger, to being male, to being more muscular that are AWESOME. You take up space. You feel powerful. You feel capable. You even feel like your body protects you from smaller things like hard surfaces or the boniness of your own ankles. But there are elements to being smaller, to being female, to being dainty, that also rock. The world fits you. You get to wear awesome fucking dresses. You’re often allowed to express more emotion and enthusiasm without ridiculous policing. It’s a great practice to recognize the good things about being you right now and being the you that was (sidenote: I am not saying that “female” equals smaller, more dainty and “male” equals bigger and stronger).

Part of this is being honest about the nitty gritty changes, which I believe is a place where all of those whose bodies go through extreme changes can support each other. Your hair fell out, or you get diarrhea constantly, or you get bizarre heart pains, or your mood is all over the place, or your tits are really tender. For people whose bodies haven’t changed these are uncomfortable and overly personal things that shouldn’t be shared. But when your whole world is in flux, it can be extremely comforting to be able to tell someone. I think that’s true no matter the cause of the changes. Recognizing out loud that these are things that are happening can be a big step towards actually accepting yourself. And I don’t think that it matters exactly the experience of the person being open, whenever someone is willing to be vulnerable about these things it makes it easier for others.

At the end of the day, trans narratives, weight loss narratives, and eating disorder narratives are all focused around a body that changes, usually in an attempt to make that body fit with an internal conception of “who I am”. Nobody likes to talk about how the body actually changes, but rather they like to focus on external categories like “fat” “thin” “male” “female”. But in all of these narratives, bodies change slowly, with little adjustments in how we walk and talk, in how much space we take up, in our strength, in how alert and awake we feel, in our moods, in our flipping bowel movements. And for most of these narratives there are pros and cons. Hopefully each person makes a choice that makes them feel more comfortable and more confident in their own body, but change always comes with some cost. I wish that we could talk about what it means to see your body change, to adjust in small and large ways, to move into a new category and identity, to say good bye to some things you might have liked.

I think some dialogue across these spaces could be good for both: we have different concerns about the ways that our bodies change, but I believe we can provide insight to each other. Having an outside perspective that isn’t so wrapped up in the same concerns (ah! gaining weight! ugliness!) might help us see some of the benefits of how bodies change, help us deal with the difficulties, and give us support around the weird little things that happen. And if we can speak across some of these boundaries and labels, we might learn to accept others’ identities a little bit better when we see the parallels to our own.

Things That An Eating Disorder Is Not

1.A fear of fatness
2. A diet
3. A choice
4. Stupid
5. Caused by Western media
6. Caused by beauty ideals
7. A new phenomenon
8. Understood
9. Anyone’s fault
10. Incurable
11. Easy
12. Sustainable
13. Irrational
14. A metaphor
15. Internalized fatphobia
16. Prejudiced
17. For white girls
18. A phase
19. Identifiable by size
20. Isolated from family/friends/society
21. Identical to any other eating disorder
22. Useless
23. About anyone else but the sufferer (and potentially close friends/family members whose emotions are deeply enmeshed)
24. For young people
25. For women
26. A ploy for attention
27. Trivial
28. Motivated by someone else’s body
29. Motivated by the sufferer’s body
30. Seriously, not about bodies
31. Isolated from other trauma/emotional issues that the sufferer might have
32. Fun
33. Shallow
34. Simple
35. Definable
36. Caused by any one thing
37. Entirely genetic
38. Entirely socialized
39. Making a statement (except possibly “help!” or “I can’t handle life!”)
40. About you
41. An epidemic
42. Getting more common (hey guess what more awareness does? Leads to more diagnoses!)
43. For you
44. To please men
45. To make women submissive
46. Weakness or powerlessness
47. A problem for you to fix
48. Something you get to define
49. An identity
50. A talking point or pawn for your theories about society
51. Manipulative
52. Blackmail
53. Seriously, still not about you
54. Gender roles taken to the extreme
55. Not really a problem
56. All in your head
57. Solved by “just eating” (or really by eating at all…that’s an important piece but really doesn’t fix the disorder)
58. A lifestyle
59. A fashion choice
60. Limited to anorexia and bulimia
61. Limited by your location, age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, education, or really anything else
62. The same as “wishing you were skinnier”
62. The same as weight discrimination
63. The same as skipping lunch that one time
64. Self-control
65. Submitting to patriarchal beauty ideals

Things that an eating disorder is:
1. A potentially deadly disease that is unique to each individual who has it.

Taking the Long View: On Recovery and Motivation

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Recovery from a mental illness is a rough gig. I’ve written many times before about how I wish people would be more honest about just how difficult it is and what that difficulty looks like. Right now, my motivation is low. I want to be done with this stupid, frustrating, painful process. I want people to just leave me alone to wallow and make bad decisions. I want to be allowed to feel bad.

This is basically how I feel all the time right now

This is basically how I feel all the time right now

Now in the traditional narrative of recovery, this means that I’m slipping. It means the “eating disorder voice” or the depression is getting louder. It means that what I really need to do is double down and fight harder. It’s part of the “roller coaster ride” of recovery. If I don’t nip it in the bud though, then I’ll have given up, I’ll have wasted my progress. I’ll be back to square one, fallen harder than I did the first time and it’s all because I didn’t have “the proper motivation” or I didn’t “fight hard enough”. So if I’m slipping I need to keep my eye on the prize of recovery, think about how great I’ll feel, post a few affirmations around my house, and remind myself once again that I can’t live my life the way I have been living it (because who wants to live in the hell of an eating disorder if you can have recovery, amirite?)

If I was telling the story of my eating disorder, that would be the expectation of how I’d frame this. But that is not the reality. Here is the reality.

Recovery sucks. By most basic cost/benefit analysis standards, it’s a really risky, difficult, long venture. It takes flipping forever, and the time that you put into treatment is not fun. In fact it’s more than not fun: most of the time you feel even worse during treatment than you did when you were happily living out your delusion that starvation was the way to a great life. Things have suddenly gotten a whole hell of a lot more complicated and you can’t just rely on rules anymore. So say you’ve been trucking along in your mental illness and then treatment comes and hits you like a ton of bricks. You spend the next 2/3/4/5/forever years working through mountains of crap. And those years SUCK.

And the more you realize that they suck, the more you realize that a lot of the suckiness will still be there even if you do “recover” because life isn’t easy and being healthy isn’t easy and it’s hard work to enforce your boundaries and balance your needs with the needs of others and fight against sexist and damaging media and somehow put together a clear and cohesive identity that can stand up to the trials of life. So you get this picture that in the long run you’re going through a whole hell ton of suffering right now to maybe feel like you can cope with the fact that life is really hard later.

Now pile on the fact that it often looks as if you’ve made no progress whatsoever. Seriously. I’ve been at this for about 3 years (with the same therapist), through intensive programs, groups, dieticians and many, many, many hours of therapy, and a lot of commitment. Three years is a long time to be spending at least 2 hours every week in therapy and most of the time in between wrestling with all the hard questions. And yet when I think about the things that really get in the way of feeling content or grounded, I see no change. Perfectionism still drives me. I still feel unlovable. I still cannot accept praise and focus exclusively on the negative. I can still be flattened emotionally by one negative comment. I still personalize, I still tend towards black and white thinking, I still feel anxiety for no reason, I am still afraid of social interactions…

Logically, it makes sense to be a little low on motivation when there is little evidence of how far you’ve come, much evidence of the pain you’ve suffered and will continue to suffer, and no guarantee that things will be a whole lot better if you continue to work (for another 3/4/5 years?). Part of recovery is trying to make sense of what is worth it and what isn’t, what life can or can’t be like. This isn’t some sort of slip, this isn’t an indication that I just need to fight harder. This is coming to grips with reality.

But there’s another truth and it’s one that I’ve had a really hard time accepting. It’s about the long view. I spent the better part of 20 years developing these really bad coping strategies. It will take me a long time to change them, nearly certainly more than 3 years. For many things that I care about I am willing to invest huge amounts of time (schooling as an example), often because I can see that the end goal is worth it. And many times I can make these investments on faith (when someone tells me that I’ll get a diploma at the end as an example). With nearly everything else in my life, I can take the long view; I am willing to put up with the pain of the now to get something in the future, even when that something isn’t happiness or a perfect life. Why does the pay off for treatment have to be held to a different standard?

Now there are very real differences here. I like school, the pain that I’ve experienced while in treatment far outstrips anything else I’ve ever felt, and the evidence I have of the benefits of recovery aren’t as strong as the evidence I have of many other things (that, for example, a higher degree would make my life a lot easier). Recovery is harder than anything else I have done in my life because when I look at it logically I can’t guarantee that I’m making the right choice to pursue it. But if I look at the long haul, I can see that I can’t come to the conclusion that it’s failed yet. The experiment has to continue. And I do believe that when people are waning in their motivation, it’s because they are re-analyzing the long view and that view is scary.

But I hope others can join me in realizing that it has to be long, but we are capable.

 

 

 

Intersectionality in Animal Rights

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Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

I Am Not A Puzzle to Be Solved

Puzzle

Note: I do not mean this post to be a criticism of my parents or any of the other people in my life. I know that everyone is doing the best they can in the relationships that they have.

One of the things that I have come to value most in relationships is honesty and vulnerability, particularly the ability to be straightforward and ask questions. I have learned to appreciate this because in many cases, arguments or disagreements can be solved simply by finding out what the other person is actually thinking or feeling. More often than not, brainstorming solutions together will solve the problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that we’re taught to interact with people. From the time we’re little, we’re treated as little puzzles that need to be solved, as if there’s some code that can crack the behavior of a small child and get them to do what you want. I think that my parents did a fantastic job raising me, but even they bought into this mentality in some ways. When I’ve spoken to my parents about their techniques, my mother has told me things like “If you keep a kid on a schedule, they’ll be much less cranky” or “If you ignore a kid who’s throwing a tantrum they’ll stop”. Now these are effective techniques, and for new parents they can be a godsend, but unfortunately they don’t do much to validate the actual feelings of the child involved or teach the child what to do when they’re feeling overwhelmed or upset.

In contrast, I’ve been reading Libby Anne’s blog lately and there has been a surprising amount of content about treating your child as a real human being with legitimate needs and wants and the amazing returns that she’s gotten as a parent by adopting this technique. This involves validating a child’s emotions, trying to communicate and compromise where possible, and explaining why the answer is “no” when the answer has to be “no”. Instead of coming up with a series of tricks that will have a certain effect, Libby Anne prefers to work with her children to identify their emotions and brainstorm solutions so that in the long term they will learn how to manage those emotions themselves.

Unfortunately, most parents work by trying to devise methods to get their children to a certain behavior, rather than working with their children to create healthy behaviors and tools to live well. The most obvious and harmful example of this is corporal punishment: if you beat the child then they’ll do what you want and learn to do what you want them to do. But we all do this to some extent or another. Think of the magazines that boast “this quiz will tell you if he likes you” or “10 ways to tell if your relationship will last”. Every teenage girl has engaged in this behavior: trying to discern what the text means, trying to “unlock” the secrets. And media is even worse when it comes to portraying women (they’re a mystery!  A complete mystery! Buy her things to unlock the secrets!).

Friends do this to each other as well. There are “rules” to friendship (e.g. it’s against the rules to date your best friend’s sibling). Dating relationships are potentially the worst culprits. While many people say that they value communication, it is still all too common for people to try to figure out how to get their partner to act differently while not actually talking to their partner about what’s bothering them. “Nice guys” are a prime example, but I’ve been known to do this as well, thinking things like “If I just don’t speak up ever about what’s bothering me then they’ll think I’m nice and want to be with me forever” or “I’ve already texted x times and they haven’t texted back. Is it against the rules to text again? What are they trying to tell me? Do they hate me?” It’s a process of both mind-reading and personalization, in which every action must mean something about you and in order to crack the code you need to behave just so.

Unfortunately, human beings are not puzzles. There is no secret combination of words and presents that you can present to someone in order to unlock their love or kindness or good behavior. When we approach children in this fashion, we teach them to approach all relationships like this. And when we do this, we set them up for all kinds of problems. If relationships are about getting the other person to behave in the way that you want them to (whether that’s them being happy or that’s them doing whatever you want), and the way to do that is to find the “correct input”, then you end up with problems like people thinking they’re owed sex, or people believing that they’re allowed to do whatever it takes to get the result they want.

It can also lead to the flip side: people assuming that if others aren’t ok then it’s their fault, people thinking they have to manage the emotions of others, or people who have never been taught appropriate ways to deal with their own emotions because they themselves have always been “managed”.

For me personally, I have found that thinking there are things you should be able to do that will make feelings or bad situations stop has led to really bad behavior. It didn’t teach me that sometimes things had to feel bad and that I would get through it. Even worse, it let me stay in relationships that were abusive and painful because I felt that if I simply found the right combination of actions, the other person would stop behaving the way they did.

More than anything, I wish that I hadn’t been convinced that there was a right way to behave towards others when I was first forming my identity. I can no longer tell whether I became sexual because I wanted to, or simply because I thought it was what you did with someone you loved and it would make them happy. I followed the scripts that others told me would work, the scripts that not only were supposed to make the other person happy but were supposed to make my emotions work in a certain way. I never felt that I could openly speak about what I wanted or didn’t want, and when I did say no to things there were reasons that had to be stated (because otherwise it will be rejection and that makes the other person sad: you didn’t input correctly). I wish that I hadn’t been spending my time trying to suss out how to get others to act, but rather taking the time to think about what I actually wanted and what I care about.

When I was asked recently about how I would be in a relationship without feeling that I needed to manage the other person, I replied that I can’t even imagine what I’m like just being myself in a relationship. This is a good part of why I’m finding the question of identity and orientation very confusing. I feel like every relationship I’ve been in, I’ve acted the way I felt would make the other person happy, repressed the parts of myself that wouldn’t have the right reaction, and said things I didn’t wholly mean becuase it was what you were supposed to say in order to make another person smile. I went through grandiose gestures of romance because that was what it meant to “be in a relationship” that was how you were supposed to show your love and if you did that then your relationship would be good.

All of these ways of approaching relationships are about looking at outward signifiers (what action did I take and what action did I get in response) instead of actually trying to get information from each person about what’s happening internally. I want to be honest in my actions instead of spending my life trying to manage exactly the right stimulus to garner the right response in people I care about. If I have children, I don’t want to try to come up with tricks to get them to behave well. With myself, I don’t want to bypass what my emotions are telling me by coming up with some action that shuts off the bad feelings. I am not a code to be cracked. I don’t need anyone else trying to figure out how to fix my feelings, nor do I need to fix myself. I need honest communication that asks how I can recognize my emotions, understand why they’re happening, and deal with the source of the problem.

Through Black Tinted Glasses

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Life is in a lot of upheaval for my boyfriend and me lately. We’re both looking for jobs, we’re looking at apartments (together?!?!?!), I’m thinking about grad school, and generally we’re both spending a lot of time trying to figure out what we want and how we’ll get it in the upcoming year or so. As we’re going through this process, we’re both learning a bit about the other’s style of approaching new opportunities and situations and it’s become highly apparent that bad past experiences can leave a person hard pressed to be open and willing to try new things.

It’s obvious that past experience can affect what you think in the present. But many people underestimate what that means. As an example, after some severe bullying from my brother as a small child, I came to believe that I didn’t deserve the space I took up and eventually developed an eating disorder. Past experiences can interact in subtle and complicated ways, often leaving you feeling as if you can’t stop yourself from acting in the same patterns over and over again to protect yourself from a harm that may or may not be real. Certain things become reminders of the past in such a way that you might become overwhelmed with past feelings or memories. It sucks and oftentimes turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you’ve been hurt in the past, it’s easy to spend a lot of time finding imagined flaws in every possible job/apartment/date/school/opportunity/anything that comes up. It’s easy even to interpret simple miscommunications or bad situations as intentional (that landlord purposefully left out a picture so that we wouldn’t see the uglier room. He was lying by omission! I can’t trust him! RUN AWAY!). Anything can look like a sign of an international conspiracy to ruin your life. Unfortunately, not only does this hurt you, it can start to get in the way of your relationships, as the people around you don’t understand why you’re making the choices you do. This only builds on the anxiety because then you’re second-guessing yourself and trying to keep others happy as well.

Of course it makes sense to learn from past mistakes, but brains are funny things, and it is not learning when your brain short circuits itself to avoid repeating a past experience. It turns into something like paranoia, a smaller form of phobias that won’t let you live your normal life for fear of something bad happening. It’s dangerous to keep past experiences from letting you accurately see a current situation and it often means that you miss out on things that could be great. Just like in dating, it doesn’t make sense to become an old spinster because you had a couple of bad breakups. Instead, you might want to ask yourself why those bad breakups happened, how you can protect yourself, and then move on while looking for positive things in the future.

So all that sounds just fine and dandy, but how do you make yourself stop when your mind immediately personalizes everything, when the first thoughts that pop into your head are always “they want to hurt me”, when you’re worried that you’re starting to lose it? Well as someone with a bona fide anxiety disorder, let me reassure you that you are not broken or alone or horribly wrong in any way. Sometimes brains go a little wonky. They’re built to make quick connections that keep us safe, but those connections are not always handy in modern society and sometimes the connections are made too deeply or in ways that leave us short-circuiting new information. You’re probably  not even on the scale of something diagnosable, just some minor anxiety that’s not really doing its job anymore. So never fear, there are ways around the pesky jerkbrain.

Seeing everything as always shitty is relaly not a pleasant way to live though, so I’d suggest doing something about that. You can’t just stop thinking and feeling the way you do, but you can try to retrain your brain. Some people who don’t have a diagnosed mental illness seem to write off the fact that they can still have less than perfect mental health, and that their mental health still deserves time and attention. This is a good time to remember that regardless of how “serious” your problem is, if it’s causing you harm then it deserves attention and a solution.

The first and most important thing to do is to recognize that sometimes your anxiety, while totally valid, does not accurately reflect what is happening around you. When you start to come to the conclusion that your feelings may not be helping you, then you can start to do something about them. At this point I’d suggest seeking out the help of a therapist if at all possible, because they’re generally useful people and they can give you resources and tools that I don’t have. But if that’s not an option, here’s some thoughts.

Mindfulness: one good way to keep yourself from wallowing in the past is to be as fully in the present as possible. When you notice that you’re starting to spiral into thoughts of the past, choose something in the here and now to focus your attention on entirely. If you’re driving the car, only drive the car. If you want to sit and pay attention to your breath, only do that. Whatever you are doing, do it completely. If you notice your mind start to wander, simply notice and then bring it back to what is happening right now. This can help you to notice what’s actually going on and stop your emotions from falling back into a negative cycle.

Checking the facts: when your emotions start to take over, you begin to look at your interpretations of facts rather than at facts themselves (I am aware that we always interpret facts, but this is a shorthand so bear with me). Instead of looking at someone and thinking “their eyes are scrunched up and they’ve pursed their lips”, you think “they’re angry at me”. When this starts to happen, go back to the very basics. Describe things as simply as possible. If you’re still having trouble with jumping to conclusions, then check in with someone else who might have a different perspective on the situation.

Distract/sensations: If you simply need some relief from anxious thoughts in order to give yourself space to calm down, distraction can be really helpful. Some people can make this happen just by watching a movie or reading a good book, others need to have a friend around to talk to, and some people find it extremely challenging. I personally find it the most helpful in those situations to focus on sensations. I’ll take a hot bath and pay close attention to how the water feels. I’ll light candles and watch or smell them. I’ll go find my cats and pet them. I might buy something extremely tasty and focus on eating it. Sometimes this can be enough to bring you back into the here and now.

Challenging thoughts: When you’ve started to get a bit more settled, you can start to challenge the negative thoughts that you have. Each time you notice yourself making a negative judgment (e.g. this job will be bad, this isn’t worth the time), think of a fact that is evidence against it. Don’t simply contradict yourself, but try to reframe what you’re thinking. Oftentimes negative thoughts are all or nothing: “Every job I look at is horrible”, “No matter what I do, I’ll never get a job”. In these cases, even one instance of the opposite is enough to shoot down the myth. “The job I saw yesterday looked good”, “I got offered a job last year”.

Exposure: This isn’t something I would suggest doing with no planning or without some help from a professional, but if you’re feeling up to it and you’ve got a backup plan in case of emergencies, then it’s up to you. The basic idea of exposure is to slowly put yourself in situations with the thing that causes you anxiety. In the case of having negative feelings about new situations, it would be applying to new jobs, looking at new apartments, putting yourself out there and trying new things.

Skills handbooks: If you’re looking for more suggestions of how to deal with constant negative judgments, there are lots of skills workbooks and handbooks out there for anxiety. Try checking one out and seeing what you can try.

If you’re spending your life looking through black tinted glasses, you’re not alone and you’re not hopeless.

Why I Spend Money on Eating Out

money

For some unknown reason, many people enjoy judging how others spend their money. Particularly when the person spending money is poor, others like to make comments. “Why would you have a smartphone if you can barely pay rent?” “How can you spend money on organic veggies if you’re using food stamps?” “If you can afford x then you can definitely afford y”.

What’s fascinating to me about this is that there are often complex reasons that people choose to spend their money the way they do. People have different priorities, purchases can mean different things to different people, and often something that looks frivolous may serve an important role to the person who buys it. It seems to me to be yet another example of individuals assuming that everyone else views the world and interacts with the world in the same way that they do, and then becoming upset when others act differently from them.

Unfortunately however, this kind of judgment does actually have negative consequences. It leads to campaigns to take away food stamps and support programs, verbal harassment, and serious anxiety and emotional tolls on those who do spend their money in different ways due to the necessity of constantly defending their choices. Those who live in poverty already have to make difficult decisions about how to spend their money, but putting their choices constantly under the scrutiny of all of society is generally a horrible way to ensure that they can make decisions which will positively impact their lives. Most studies have found that shame is a bad motivator, and because individuals require different things (unheard of, right?), expecting all people with lower incomes to follow the same set of societally enforced guidelines is deeply unhelpful.

Let’s not even get into the fact that oftentimes large purchases were made before someone fell into poverty, or were a gift.

Now I’m sure some people out there are shaking their heads and thinking “Yeah, but everyone needs food and shelter, so shouldn’t those things always come first? Shouldn’t you always make sure your money goes to those things and then prioritize other stuff?” Yes, it’s true that everyone needs food and shelter, but not everyone is privileged enough that these are their only basic needs. Some people have chronic illnesses, disabilities, children, or other extenuating circumstances that could put their safety at risk if they are not attended to. Additionally, life is not just about surviving, and when those who live in poverty manage to have the money to do something that helps them thrive, we should not disdain them for it.

As per usual, I will use myself as an example because I like to talk about me (and because I am the most readily available subject). I currently am living in poverty. I make a ridiculously low wage ($11,000/yr) and don’t get benefits. I am lucky in that I have a fair amount of savings, but I do have student loans as well and at this point in my life I’m fully independent. However I go out to eat on a regular basis. Sometimes really nice restaurants. I spend probably half of my money on food.

I very often have this pointed out to me as a way that I could cut costs and live in a more stable fashion. I’ve gotten the side eye from family members who think I’m being stupid or irresponsible. People tell me all the time “why don’t you just cook at home? It’s cheaper and better for you!” To that I laugh. One of the symptoms of my eating disorder is that I really hate cooking and having food in my home. It sends my anxiety through the roof, particularly when I have perishables around. If I have to spend more than about 15 minutes on cooking, I just won’t do it and when I try I often end up a crying mess, purging, cutting, or all three.

Because of this, the only foods that I feel comfortable having in my home (e.g. which I don’t feel leave me vulnerable to hurting myself) are those which are quick to prepare and will keep for a long time. Essentially this is ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and soup. When I eat at home, that is the extent of my diet and when I have attempted to change it, very bad things have happened. Eating this diet is not healthy. It’s not really safe for me to eat this day in and day out, especially considering my history of restriction. Going out to eat is the only reprieve I have from this. It’s not a get out of jail free card from my eating disorder, but it makes things easier. It gives me access to more variety, to balanced meals, to some joy in my food.

Spending money on eating out is for me spending money on my own health. I cannot simply choose to eat and cook at home and be healthy. So when others look at me and act as if I am being frivolous with my money by eating out, what they miss is that the money I spend is spent on something truly important. It could even be a matter of life and death (yes, eating disorders do kill and frequently). What they miss is that they have no comprehension of the complicated balancing act of pros and cons that go into my purchasing decisions.

Everyone has an entire life that goes into every action that they make. You don’t see everything they’re weighing when you see the final outcome that is the decision to spend money. So unless you have a great deal of knowledge about the life of whoever you feel the need to “help”, leave it alone.