The Importance of Being Present to Pain

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Often, for weeks or months at a time, I have very little negative self-talk about my body. Then, sometimes with a distinct trigger and sometimes without warning, the negativity begins…a single, seemingly rational, thought (“You ate too much today”) followed by a fear-based attempt to control something (“You should skip dessert tonight” or “You shouldn’t have any cappuccinos this week”). I often catch myself before I get swept away in the undertow, but not always.

Today, as I frantically headed outside for a walk (not with the intention of enjoying the scenery but of burning off calories I ate while out to lunch with a friend), I suddenly realized that not only was negative self-talk present with me, it was running ten paces ahead, begging me to stop being a loser and catch up. So, I did. I caught up to those thoughts and realized what was happening.

In the past ten days, I have mourned with the nation over the senseless deaths of 58 country music fans. I have learned that my beloved spiritual director is leaving the area to pursue a new ministry. I have said goodbye to my pastor of 10+ years at her retirement service. I have listened to my clients’ stories of pain and loss. And I have been unable to stop or control any of it. Although I’ve cried often and engaged in meaningful self-care, it wasn’t until my walk this afternoon that I realized my mind is trying to control something (someone) when everything feels like it’s slipping away.

And when I realized that was what was happening, I was disappointed and sad. I slowed my pace and started sulking. I remembered my spiritual director’s oft-asked question, “Have you taken this concern to prayer?” and my usual answer, “No. God knows my suffering already.” But this time, I decided to try it. I started talking out loud to God. “Why do I keep falling back into this pattern? Why can’t I be free from this negativity forever? Why can’t I just love myself 100%, all the time? Why do you let me suffer? Why do you let any of us suffer?! WHY DO SO MANY OF US SUFFER?!” I kept walking. I didn’t hear God’s voice responding. The clouds didn’t part. Nothing magical happened. So I kept walking, silent now and more calm.

As I rounded the turn of the last road that would take me back to my apartment, I took a wider path than I usually take, one that took me closer to the road than the houses. I paused to take a photo of some pansies on the corner and then looked up and saw a magnificent tree with sunlight streaming from behind it. And in the middle of the tree was a heart-shaped hole…a scar of sorts. (The photo is kind of dark. Can you see it?) I smiled. I stood in awe. I tried to think of something profound and meaningful to sum up that moment, but the only thing I can say for sure is that it was a moment of True Presence — my presence with pain and God’s presence with me. I took a photo and started walking home.

I still don’t know the answers to my questions, but I know the value of being present to pain instead of running from it. I pray for the courage to continue to be so and for the awareness of God’s presence in my and others’ pain.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

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5 Ways to Reconnect With Yourself

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Today is the fifth day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2017. This morning I was reflecting on an experience that is commonly reported to me by clients in recovery from disordered eating: mental disconnection from their bodies. This can develop due to physical abuse or sexual trauma, such that living in one’s head is much safer and less fearful than being connected to one’s physical self. Or it can develop because of a growing dissatisfaction with one’s physical body, a feeling of betrayal by the body, such that thinking or doing feels better than being.

Before and during my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder, I, too, experienced disconnection from my physical body. It was as if my thoughts controlled the show; I was very aware of the barrage of negative self-talk running through my head all day, but not at all in tune with my body’s actual needs and sensations. Part of my recovery from B.E.D. was to engage in the process of “embodiment”, reconnecting with my physical self. So, on this 5th day of NEDA Week, I thought I’d share with you 5 ways to reconnect with your physical self:

  1. Mindful breathing – Sit in a comfortable position, in a quiet place, and close your eyes. Direct your attention to the flow of air in and out as you breathe naturally. Don’t try to change the quality of your breathing, just allow breathing to happen. Notice any physical sensations as you breathe. Notice where you feel the air (your nose, your throat, the rise and fall of your chest). Sit quietly noticing your breath for a few minutes, just to reconnect with your breath…to remind yourself you are alive and connected to all other living things.
  2. Mindful hand-washing – The next time you wash your hands, turn your full attention to that process. Notice the temperature of the water on your hands. Notice the sound of the water. Notice the sensation of the soap on your hands. Notice how one hand feels while the other washes it and vice versa. When you rinse and dry your hands, attend to the feel of the fabric of the towel.
  3. Gentle stretching – There are many wonderful gentle stretching videos on YouTube. Whether you try a seated stretch from your chair or something from a standing position, stretching increases our awareness of the breath and the flow of oxygen throughout the body.
  4. Self-massage – Self-massage is a great way to reconnect with our physical self. However, if you have a strong aversion to your body, the thought of touching yourself may be uncomfortable. I suggest starting with a relatively neutral body part, perhaps the hands or neck & shoulders. Gently rub (instead of vigorously squeezing) the area and notice any physical sensations: coolness, warmth, tightness, tension, pain. Even if you do this for just 60 seconds, you are taking time to compassionately reconnect with your physical self. Gradually increase your time, or massage other body parts.
  5. Massage by someone else – It took me several years to feel comfortable enough with my body to pay a massage therapist for a massage. Maybe this is a longer term goal. Whenever you do try it, be sure to do so mindfully — noticing times when your mind wanders and returning your attention to the physical sensation of the massage in order to stay connected with yourself.

With all of these exercises, it is normal for the mind to wander. We’ve spent a lot of time in our heads/thoughts and less time connected to our bodies. Be gentle with yourself. When you notice yourself thinking, simply say the word to yourself: “Thinking”. And then return your attention to the physical body.

Reconnecting with the body is a process. It will become easier with time. For more information on embodiment and mindful body awareness, use the search terms “embodiment in eating disorder recovery” and you’ll find many resources and blog posts.

Peace, joy, and reconnection,

Megan

Body Positivity

It’s the third day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (2/26-3/4/17) and today I want to focus on body image. *sigh* I don’t even know where to start. I could start with the lies sold to us by the diet and fitness industry. Lies that suggest we will gain happiness, success, money, or health if we lose weight or tone up. Here are just a few of the seemingly innocuous slogans of the multi-billion dollar business:

“What will you gain when you lose?” (Special K cereal)

“It’s all about being a better you” (L.A. Fitness)

“Get paid to lose weight” (Weight Watchers)

These lies suggest that dieting will lead to bigger and better things. For years, I thought dieting was a good thing. My parents dieted. My friends (even at age 14, 15) were dieting. My professors talked about dieting. Church members dieted. I thought, “If I don’t like something about my body, I can change it. I can diet to lose weight or I can exercise to change my shape.” What happened, however, was that dieting didn’t make me lose weight. It made me lose connection with my body’s own ability to regulate itself. Exercising 2+ hours a day 5 days a week changed my shape at first, but it also changed my mind, so that thoughts of exercise and calorie-burning left little space in my head for anything else. The more I dieted and exercised, the more self-conscious I was about my body and the less I liked my body.

So, during this week of raising awareness, I want to point out a website (one of many) that promotes body positivity: Proud 2 Be Me. Proud2Bme.org is a partner of the National Eating Disorders Association, but it was created by and for teens (or 39-year-olds like me!) to increase body confidence and positive body image. I was especially moved by this recent blog post: Let’s Change Our Mindsets, Not Our Bodies.

Take some time this week to notice the self-talk that runs through your head and listen to the body talk you hear from friends and family. Consider saying something more positive instead. Things like, “You’re amazing just the way you are.” “You’re beautiful.” “Beautiful bodies come in all shapes and sizes.” “You are unique. Don’t change.”

These types of messages won’t sell diet plans, power bars, personal trainers, or make-up. But positive messages like this WILL change your life, one phrase at a time.

Peace, joy, and body positivity,

Megan

“It’s Time to Talk About It”

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week began yesterday and continues until 3/4/17. The goal of the awareness campaign this year is to get the word out: eating disorders affect people of different races, ages, cultures, incomes, and body types. We can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their appearance. As a result, all are encouraged to complete this anonymous screening tool and learn about online and telephone resources: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool

Whether you complete the screening or not, I hope you’ll join me in sharing accurate information through word-of-mouth and social media platforms this week. The National Eating Disorders Association is a good place to start for accurate and helpful information: http://nedawareness.org/

One topic that may help you start a conversation among friends or acquaintances is the relatively recent push for “clean eating”. You’ve probably seen the Panera Bread Company commercials advertising “clean foods”: https://www.panerabread.com/en-us/our-beliefs/our-food-policy/clean-ingredients.html But when does “clean eating” become “dieting”? Is it ever helpful to label foods as “good” or “bad” or “clean” or “dirty”? I don’t have the definitive answers, but posing that question to your peers is a great place to start the conversation.

Also, be sure to check out this infographic from the National Eating Disorder Association to increase your knowledge about who is impacted by dieting and how dieting contributes to the development of eating disorders.

Peace, joy, and good conversation,

Megan

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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2017

Next week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 26 – March 4) and the theme this year is “It’s Time to Talk About It”.

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At the college where I work, we’ll be posting body-positive messages around campus, providing screenings and resources, offering a workshop on mindfulness, and doing whatever we can to get the conversation started. Although individuals are seeking treatment for eating disorders more frequently now than in past decades, they are still under-diagnosed and under-treated. I believe this has a lot to do with the continued stigma and shame.

I know that providing information about eating disorders will help some students feel validated and will encourage them to seek more support. I also know that efforts to teach healthy self-care will have an impact. But I often feel overwhelmed by the mountain of toxic body messages that stands in the way of all people loving themselves as they are right now. This mountain gets bigger every day as the (well-meaning?) American Medical Association pushes their research on the link between obesity and poor health and as the fitness, fashion, and diet industries preach at us about the religion of thinness. “Being thin/fit/ripped won’t just make you happy, it will save your life!”

Reminding ourselves of the great progress we’ve made in affirming all people of all body types is important, but we must look ahead and tackle the work that still needs to be done. I hope you’ll join me next week in posting something on social media or talking with your friends. And be sure to check back with my blog next week when I’ll share some ideas about how to chip away at that mountain of negativity and build up your own (and others’) body esteem.

Peace and joy,

Megan

“Love Will Take You Places”

This morning, as I meandered (one only can meander) down the back roads of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, I listened to Danny Gokey’s 2014 album “Hope In Front of Me“. Nearly every song on this album has made me cry at one point or another. The songs speak to the importance of living joyfully in the present, appreciating and fully loving those around us because the next moment is not guaranteed, and trusting in God’s presence with us in the darkest and most painful hours of our lives.

Today I was moved by the song, “Love Will Take You Places” in which Danny Gokey sings this:

Love will stand in the place of the one who’s guilty;

Gives a voice to those who can’t speak;

Take a bullet, take the fall;

Walk on water, make it part;

Breathe new life into a broken heart.

When you let it turn the pages, love will take you places.

These lyrics point to the healing power of love. Not romantic love (“eros”), but the love of the Divine Spark that exists within all of us (“agape”) and thus is ours to share with a world in great need of healing.

The True love of God is the only thing that saved me from the self-destructive, self-deprecating path of disordered eating on which I stumbled for so long. When I shared my “recovery wisdom” in my recent post, the last thing I included was “Feed Your Spirit”, but perhaps it should have been the first. Tending to my spiritual health has had the most lasting impact.

This morning when I weighed myself at the gym and the number was higher than I anticipated, I was immediately bombarded with that familiar, fear-based inner critic: “You know you’ve been eating too many sweets lately! You’ve got to lay off. At this rate, you’ll gain another five pounds in the next month. That’s it. No more snacks and you better exercise every day instead of five days a week.” Whew. It caught me off guard, because I had felt pretty centered and thought I was no longer so identified with my physical form, having spent a significant time tending to my spiritual health in the past year and cultivating a mindfulness practice. But, there it was. Loud and harsh. My inner critic. The Ego. And I bought into its lies for most of the day today. I felt discouraged, less able to be present with my friends, and entirely identified with my physical self again.

Until now. In a moment of quiet, the lyrics of Danny Gokey’s song came back to me: “When you let it turn the pages, love will take you places.” I realized how far God’s love has taken me already and that all I need to do is surrender to that love again…and again…and again. As often as it takes, as many new moments as it takes. The love is always there for me, for all of us. This realization helps me. It heals me.

Will you let love turn the pages of your life? Will you let it write a new story for you, one that is outside the narrative of self-criticism and disordered eating? Let’s all let love take us places.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan

Love Your Body

It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb 21-27 2016). As an individual recovered from Binge-Eating Disorder, I find myself reflecting on my journey and looking ahead to where I’d like to “go” next.

My disordered eating behaviors began in elementary and middle school, long before I developed a full-blown eating disorder. That’s often the way it begins. Unhealthy attitudes about weight and shape develop, as do rigid ideas about what foods are “good” and “bad”. Over time, an individual begins to experiment with different diets or stops listening to their body’s need for food, hydration, and rest/movement. Underlying these attitudes and behaviors are confused thoughts and uncomfortable emotions. The disordered eating becomes a way of suppressing the thoughts and numbing the emotions. Eventually, for some individuals, those behaviors take on a life of their own and magnify one’s difficulties. The more one tries to control one’s weight and shape, the more out of control life becomes.

I’m blessed to have had caring mentors, counselors, professors, family members, and friends who helped me on the path towards recovery. While I am now completely recovered from Binge-Eating Disorder (no longer binge-eating, restricting, or conflating my weight with my self-worth), my body image occasionally needs a boost. As adept as I am at aiming a critical eye towards the media and as quickly as I can dismiss the false notion that “thin is better”, I still have days when I look in the mirror and don’t like what I see. On those days, I’m forced to open up my “toolbox” and try a combination of things to improve my body image.

The National Eating Disorders Association has a wonderful list on their website called “10 Steps to Positive Body Image”. Click here. One of my favorites is to keep a list of the top ten things you like about yourself, being sure to include things that aren’t related to your physical body. When I did this activity two years ago, it morphed into a list of qualities that make me ME: “I am a child of God, blessed with many gifts of the Spirit: awareness, compassion, curiosity, creativity, enthusiasm, intelligence, and wonder.” This is one of the “tools” I pull out of my toolbox when my body image is suffering. It reminds me that I am more than the sum of my physical parts, more than my physical appearance.

How will you love your body today? Take a look at the website and see if any activities resonate for you.

Peace, joy, and health,

Megan