My Struggle for Self-Acceptance

By Andy Jackson

As I grew up in an alcoholic home and buried my feelings, I eventually developed an eating disorder by the time I was ten. The only emotions that I felt were fear and pain. I was very self-conscious because I was always heavy. I came in touch with my singing ability when I was 8. I began choir in school at 11. When I sang, even with a group the world dropped away and I found a new emotion, JOY. I was so focused on the music and doing the best I could that I never thought of anything else. When I was 14, I sang my first solo in the morning worship service at my Grandfather’s church. I wasn’t self-conscious of my size, but rather of having all the relatives from both sides of the family who had never heard me sing watch me. When I started singing all my fears dropped away. It was like I was a different person. I must have done a good job because I got compliments from relatives who weren’t even there to hear me.

I sang my first competition solo a few months later. Again, as I stepped up to sing it was like an out of body experience. People told me I had a wonderful voice. It was the first time I was singled out for attention. I always hung out at the back of groups conscious that my size was a distraction. As a soloist, I stood in front of people, some who had laughed or snickered at my size before the performance. I gained confidence within myself that the laughter would stop as soon as I started to sing. It always did! I had started leading music in church at 14 also. By 16, I was also directing all the choirs. I was a teenager essentially operating in the adult world and my size didn’t seem to be an issue. I was still insecure of my size and looks but never when I was singing.

My eating disorder continued throughout my life, but when I sang I felt joy, pure joy! I eventually lost my job in music due to health issues. It took me five years to realize that my entire identity had been wrapped up in my music. I had been doing church music as a soloist, song leader, and choir director for 37 years and it was the only life I knew. When I realized I could not continue in music due to my health, I fell into a deep depression. I became more reclusive as my health deteriorated. I am now in a nursing home and my eating is regulated, but loving myself for who I am is an uphill battle.

With my eating under control, all of the emotions that I had buried as a child and teenager came surging to the surface. The hardest issue to work through was the the fact that I had denied my sexuality and was, in fact, gay. I had been aware of this since I was 17 but the attraction to men terrified me. There was no one that I could talk to and no open gay culture in our city that I was aware of. If I came out I would have lost my job and everything for which I had gone to school, so I buried those urges and piled more food on top. This is the way I lived my life until I was unable to function as a musician.  It was then that I found a question from a counselor that changed my life. “I see, hear and feel your pain, now what can we do to help you start loving yourself?” I watched a lot of ‘coming out’ videos on YouTube for encouragement and in January of 2019 at the age of 63, I found the courage and came out. Daily I face negative thoughts and feelings, trying to find the love that was denied me as a child. I work on reparenting myself with the help of friends I have met since coming out and the counselors on the gay hotlines. Learning to love and accept myself is a process, just like coming out is. It is also emotionally exhausting. I no longer worry about my appearance. It is what it is and I am at peace with myself. In learning to accept myself as I am, I am finally becoming happy within my own skin.

The Stranger in the Mirror

By Thomas R. Barnett, LCDC-III

What if I told you that I see something every day that no one else can see and that it haunts me all of the time. What if I swore that the thing I am seeing everyday were as real as the sky is blue or the grass is green TO ME. No, I am not crazy but I am talking about body dysmorphic disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines body dysmorphic disorder as a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance-a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable. But you feel so ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations. I was first diagnosed with BDD when I was 13 years old. In the height of my anorexia I had this crippling fear that every time I look in the mirror, I saw myself as an obese person. It was so paralyzing that I locked myself in my house for months because I was too ashamed of being seen. Throughout my childhood I was a victim to bullying. I had a learning disability and a speech impediment and everyone used to make fun of me. When I got older, I was picked on for being overweight. It got so bad, that I would pretend I was sick so I didn’t have to go to school. It got so bad that I began to have symptoms of depression and anxiety. I remember looking in the mirror and screaming at myself “I hate you and I wish I wasn’t you.” I would fantasize how my life would be different if I were not overweight. One day I snapped and tried to kill myself because I didn’t want to go on living like this anymore. I ended up in the care of a child psychiatrist. He diagnosed me with major depression and started me on a cycle of Zoloft. I was only 13 years old when this happened and I remember the next day going into school trying to pretend I didn’t try to kill myself the day before. Flash forward 7 years.

About a year abstinent from anorexia and bulimia my body dysmorphia crept back into my life. At one point during a photo shoot, someone made a comment that my skin was red. The way it came out of his mouth made me feel vulnerable and ashamed. It sounded to me that it was going to keep me from being successful. Successful in my eyes was acceptance. I based my self-worth upon acceptance from my peers. If I didn’t feel accepted, I felt alone and ashamed. My only way of coping with shame at the time was through self-hate. Out of fear, I spent the next six months researching on why my skin was red and finally got a diagnosis of Rosacea. I remember hiding my self by wearing a ball cap below my eyes and big sunglasses to cover half of my face. I didn’t want to be seen and it was my only way of hiding when I had to go out of the house. My dermatologist gave me some antibiotics for my skin and suggested laser surgery to get rid of my condition. I believe I spent somewhere around $15,000 on skin surgery and $300 per month on antibiotics and creams. The sad part was that I felt nothing worked because all I could see was my red skin. It became an obsession, and the only way to ease the anxiety was by checking in the mirror to see if my skin was clear. Every time I saw red, I was quick to call my dermatologist for another laser treatment. The laser treatment is basically like getting a tattoo. I remember the feeling like someone was snapping a rubber band on my face as hard as they could. The pain didn’t compare to the shame and that helped me get through it. At one point my dermatologist cut me off because he said there was nothing else they could do. In his eyes my skin was all cleared up, but I didn’t see it. I was so depressed and self-obsessed I isolated away in my own home. At one point I had to take down all of my mirrors because I couldn’t stand seeing myself. I would pray and then curse God for giving me this skin condition.

I am not entirely sure when I got over this obsession. I do remember there being a moment when I was looking in the mirror and saying to myself, “Tommy you need to accept yourself, as you are in this moment, as if you chose it.” For some reason, saying this to myself gave me the courage to face the world. I knew the only way for me to get over my fear of being judged was to surrender the person that I thought I was over to something greater. Over the next few weeks, and with this new state of mind, my redness disappeared.

Body dysmorphia is a crippling condition. My hope for you is that you become aware of who you are and become content with that. You cannot build your self-worth on a foundation of shame, hate, and fear. I know this to be true because I lived it for so long. An easy but very challenging exercise it to look at your self in the mirror, as you are, and say, “I love and truly accept you. You are loved, wanted and safe. I will always take care of you because you are worth it. Not only do you deserve to be happy and free, but it is your birthright.” If that’s not enough, treatment options are there.

 

 

Pretzels and Cheese

By Francis Iacobucci

The Sunday after Thanksgiving I received a text from a trainer at my gym: don’t forget to sign up for a session this week to burn off all those calories! As someone who has struggled with body acceptance for essentially my entire existence, I was filled with emotions and racing thoughts.

In the immediate aftermath of the text, old eating disordered thoughts emerged: It’s not like I ate that much. Or did I? I’m pathetic. I should have purged. I wonder how much weight I gained. I’m so ashamed. 

And then justifications: Well, I had this much protein and this many carbs – that seems about right. I’m a man, so I’m supposed to be big and strong; and it helps me lift weights, of course. I need to eat a lot! Stop being a wimp – be a man! Just make sure it’s the right amount of calories and macro nutrients.

And then, as a bit of reason and years of therapy began to set it, I became frustrated: What gives this person the right to dictate to me what foods are good and what foods are bad? I’m never going back to that gym!

And finally, after my emotions regulated a bit (it’s amazing how one text can get someone so fired up!) I asked myself some questions, and I answered them: did I enjoy the food I ate? Yes. Did I eat to the point of feeling full? A little. Is that okay? Yes. Why is that okay? Because I’m allowed to eat food that tastes good.

 I’m so thankful – after years of therapy and support from so many – that I’m able to process thought and emotion to ensure my safety and health. For so many, the constant barrage of diet and wellness culture rules and regulations lead to constant uncertainty and shame about their bodies. For those with eating disorders, it can be exponentially more damaging.

I was once asked to write down a list of all the “rules and regulations” that wellness culture had influenced me over my lifespan – the list was five pages single-spaced. Eat this to look like that. Stretch that to feel like this. Don’t eat this to date a girl like that. At one point I had written down all the rules that stated why it was bad to eat certain foods, and it got to the point that the only foods that was “safe” from wellness rules and regulations were basically fruits and veggies – organically and locally grown, of course – that had fallen off the tree. Everything else was off limits if you wanted to be happy and healthy.

The list was tangible evidence that the way I thought about food and body dissatisfaction were intertwined and tangled to a point that seemed impossible to unravel. Going from saying no food is bad to engaging in that practice while eating took years, and is still very much a work and progress. I’ll always remember, though, eating pretzels and cheese (two things I would have never eaten in the past because they were on the list) and feeling satisfied and satiated, rather than guilty and ashamed. I had successfully snacked. I had put down the notions of food morality so ingrained within me briefly enough to feel what eating can be: a fulfilling and pleasurable experience. It was a blissful moment in my recovery process. I smirked as I crunched the pretzel and chewed the cheese, scoffing at the notion that what I was eating was going to change my ability to be a “good” person.

While I’m sure that trainer has good intentions, no one has the right to dictate to anyone the morality of food. Save biological reasons and personal preferences, restricting or eliminating foods from diet because they have been labeled “bad” by a multi-billion dollar industry is not healthy. I have – and at times – remain a victim of the wellness culture’s campaign to profit off of individual’s fear of imperfection; and I thank all the therapists, family members, friends, pets, colleagues, and humans that have helped me develop coping strategies for when I’m told to be ashamed of the food I eat, and the food I enjoy.

Every person’s eating disorder and body image story is unique, and I hope those who are struggling have the support they need and deserve. You are beautiful and worthy – not just of food – but of life.

Powerless Over Food

By Tommy Barnett

Which is worse, the fear of eating food or the shame you experience after you eat something? The pain of hunger and the necessity to live always led me to eat. I can remember being so afraid of taking a single bite because I feared that I would gain weight. When I would eat, the shame would penetrate my core and force me to engage in eating disorder behaviors.

I can remember a time when I was in a treatment center. During snack time, I was called upon to go and see my primary counselor. Before I could leave the group, I was told I had to eat the yogurt that was given to me. I tried to sneak out of group because I didn’t want to eat the yogurt but the therapist caught me. As I stood in the middle of a group, I ate every bite of yogurt. The fear I was facing didn’t come from eating the yogurt but more from the shame I felt that everyone was watching me.  I felt naked and embarrassed being in my own skin.

Someone once stated that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is when you do something wrong and shame is when you feel you are wrong. Having an eating disorder is fighting a double battle. It takes so much effort to face the fear of eating and an even greater effort to be okay with ourselves after we eat. Every time I would eat food, I can remember using self-hatred as a motivator to engage in eating disorder behaviors. I felt like I couldn’t live with myself after I would eat something. The trick is, that in order to live you must eat. This was the cycle I lived in for too many years.

As we approach the holidays, being around food of any sort is almost inevitable. Today, I am neither afraid nor am I ashamed. I value my mind, body and soul and to do that is by practicing both a kind relationship with myself and with food. My hope is for you to find freedom from your pain and realize the true nature of yourself. A kind and loving soul, no matter how far down in the darkness you have gone. Beneath your fear, guilt, hurt and shame is a light waiting to shine through. Be strong my friends for you are never alone.

 

Considering Gut Health in Treating Eating Disorders

by Jason Arnold, PhD, ND

Currently there are approximately around 30 million people in the United States struggling with some form of eating disorder whether it be Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Bing Eating Disorder (National Eating Disorder Association, 2018). According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM; 2013). Clinicians and providers are still searching for new and innovative ways to treat these serious illnesses. We have seen the use of psychopharmacology, therapy, group therapy, family-based treatment, and functional approaches to clinical nutrition – all of which have been met with measured success. One of the areas that has been recently explored is your own body system and how this can influence not only your physical health, but your mental health as well.

There has been a huge amount of attention on the gut microbiome, or the community of microorganisms living in our digestive tracts. It appears that, in the past couple years, many physicians and providers have been looking at gut health as being a link to physical and mental health. For a Cliffs Notes idea of what this means is that your gut has trillions of microbes – “gut bugs”, so to speak – that are used in digestion and other physical processes that enable a person to live.

There is evidence that the health of your gut can impact your mental health. Based on research from the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine (Kleiman, Watson, & Bulik-Sullivan, 2015) there appears to be a direct link between your gut and your brain. A majority of Serotonin – the neurotransmitter that regulates mood and anxiety states – is actually made in your digestive tract. The link between gut health and eating disorders is even more so. According to Dr. Loren Cordain, a scientist who specializes in nutrition and exercise physiology,  people who are struggling with eating disorders have different types of microbes, or gut bugs, than those who do not have ED. Each individual has close to a trillion bacteria in their gut that aids in digestion and processing of nutrients.  In addition, those who have eating disorders also typically have fewer microbes than those without eating disorders, which may be a result of altered digestive processes or eating disorder behaviors (Kleiman et al., 2015). Research suggests that a change in your gut microbiome can also help a change in your mood and aid in your recovery as well (Thaler, 2015; Deans, 2015).

So here are a couple of helpful hints that could  build back up your gut microbes, which in turn, may potentially help improve your mood, decrease your anxiety, and also help regulate how your body digests food and stores nutrients as you progress through the recovery of an eating disorder:

  1. First things first. The best rubric: Lack of nutrition and a lack of a balanced diet lead to poorer health, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and ultimately can influence the microbiome in your gut. A balanced diet according to Dr. SC Kleiman, a researcher on gut health and eating disorders, leads to more positive outcomes. Meet with your dietician regularly and make sure you ask questions and address any concerns you have about what you are eating and how that may influence your recovery.
  2. Consider the types of foods that you do eat. To strengthen your internal body system and your gut microbes, eating a variety of foods in textures, colors, etc. Research (Heiman & Greenway, 2016) suggests that variety helps to challenge gut microbes, encourages reproduction and diversity in your gut microbes, and strengthens the microbiome. The road to good gut health and an improvement in mood and anxiety, and ultimately a reduction in symptoms of an eating disorder is to allow for variation in your diet. This is a great way to also work on challenge foods as well!
  3. If you have been struggling with an eating disorder for quite some time consider probiotics. As a society, we’ve been using probiotics for years to support good gut health and digestion. These are foods, such as yogurt, that contain good, friendly bacteria that can help restore gut health. According to Dr. Karen Ross, MD, MPH, a physician and columnist from Psychology today, probiotics are associated with positive physical and mental outcomes. Probiotics also come as supplements including products like Culturelle. These can be taken under the direction of a physician.

If this is something you feel is worth exploring, speak to your doctor, dietician, or treatment team. During your recovery, it is important to have the maximum amount of support you can during a time that may be intimidating and sometimes very scary. Your providers can best help direct your treatment in a way that is right for you that will not only keep you healthy, but keep you safe. Everyone has the right to recovery regardless as to where they are in that process. If you need help, please do not hesitate and reach out.

Be well.

 

Bibliography

Deans, E. (2015). Junk food, gut, and brain. Evolutionary Psychiatry. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201505/junk-food-gut-and-brain on September 15, 2018.

Heiman, ML & Greenway, FL (2016). A healthy gastrointestinal microbiome is dependent on dietary diversity. Molecular Metabolism, 5(5) 317-320.

Kleiman SC, Watson HJ, Bulik-Sullivan EC (2015). The intestinal microbiota in acute Anorexia Nervosa and during renourishment: Relationship to depression, anxiety, and eating disorder psychopathology. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2015.

Thaler, C. (2015). Eating disorders, mental health, and the gut microbiome. The Paleo Diet. Retrieved from https://thepaleodiet.com/eating-disorders-mental-health-and-the-gut-microbiome on September 12, 2018.