Serving the City of Raleigh and Surrounding Areas

Year: 2011

Being a Witness – What Our Soldiers Have Taught Me

Over the past 6 months I’ve been doing assessments with veterans who are suffering from various psychological concerns. The most common by far is PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). This disorder occurs when someone experiences something so traumatic (war, rape, attempted murders, 9/11) that their brain just doesn’t know how to cope with it. Symptoms include vivid nightmares, constant thoughts of the event/s, feeling as if the event were occurring in present time, attempts to avoid reminders of the event, use of drugs and alcohol to avoid thinking about the event, feeling as if you have no future, feeling detached from people and life in general, forgetting significant pieces of the event, and extreme anxiety when exposed to things that remind you of the event. People with PTSD often feel constantly on guard and edgy. They are often irritable and depressed, not to mention sleep deprived. Many of the veterans that I’ve been working with have been dealing with these symptoms for decades and feel like their lives have been destroyed. And who wouldn’t?

Can you imagine for even a moment witnessing people die horrific deaths and fearing that you could be next? On top of that experience, your brain then forces you to relive it in some way on an almost continual basis. It’s a horrible way to live and makes holding a job, taking care of children, talking with a partner, and even getting out of bed impossible at times. Unfortunately, this isn’t something we’re likely to see any less of in the future. Our soldiers are being asked to risk their lives everyday and they are witnessing terrifying events. For the most part, we don’t teach young men and women in their 20s how to cope with these situations. Why would we? Most of us never have to think about these issues, much less witness them.

Before I started doing this work, I didn’t give it much thought either. I knew about PTSD and I had seen the symptoms in the women I worked with who had been raped or abused. The fears of America’s soldiers were never really on my radar. And yet some of the hardest stories I have had the honor of hearing, have come from these men and women. The level of terror we ask our soldiers to endure is breathtaking. I, as most of us probably do, look at military officers as being brave and strong, able to handle anything that comes at them. We forget that they are also human.

It is that humanity that I have so connected with over the past few months. These veterans risked their lives so that Americans could feel safe. I have also learned that it doesn’t take much to help the veterans either. After most of my appointments, the overwhelming response I get is gratitude for being willing to listen. Most of these men and women have never shared their experiences with anyone – they feel that no one wants to hear it or that admitting they were scared means they are weak. If even one soldier feels this way, we are failing our veterans.

Being a witness to the fear and the horror has become my most important job. Working with these men and women has changed how I work with all of my clients. I have come to understand that most people simply want someone to acknowledge their pain and tell them they have every right to feel that way. I’m not suggesting that you sit down with your nearest soldier and start asking them about their experiences – you may hear some things that you truly aren’t ready to learn. However, what you can do is help them find someone who is able to hear their story and support them in the healing process. Rather than letting them withdraw or push you away, offer your support and caring. Being a witness – it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve had the honor of doing.

Toning Shoes for Girls?!?

I was signing into my personal email account the other day, when a news item caught my attention. Skechers Shape-Ups . . . for girls! Now these ridiculous shoes have already made it into the closets of many women, even though there is no evidence they follow through on the leg toning abilities they claim to offer. But really, do young girls really need to be concerned about how toned their legs are? the headline itself kind of got my blood boiling, but then I read the story. These shoes are being marketed primarily on child centered television. Skechers is also not offering an equivalent type of shoes to boys. Do boys not need strong legs? That is what Skechers claims they are offering in the statement they released in response to a petition to get the shoes off the market. They even compared these shoes to Michelle Obama and Jill Biden’s Let’s Move Initiative, saying the shoes are about being active. Um, no they’re not. Tennis shoes are about being active. These shoes are about telling women and now girls, that nice legs are toned (and preferably tanned). In related news, the Today Show ran a piece this week about a mom in California giving Botox to her 8 year old daughter before pageants. What possible reason could an 8 year old have for needing Botox?

These two stories have truly made me question what the future holds for little girls. I work with women everyday who loathe their bodies and can tell you exactly which parts are wrong. They have learned their worth is measured by how their outsides look, regardless of what that does to their insides. And these women did not grow up with anywhere near the amount of pressure young girls experience today. I am not advocating that these products be removed from the market (well, except maybe the child Botox), but I am advocating that parents become smart consumers and that they teach their children to do the same. One of my favorite things to do with younger clients struggling with eating and body image is to look through the fashion magazines with a critical eye. Talk about the photo shopping, hours of hair and make-up, and unrealistic expectations being placed on the models. Talk about whether all of that sounds healthy. Educate them on what is realistic and what is simply Hollywood magic. Our children are smarter than we think they are sometimes. Some of these young women that I work with understand the pressure in those glossy pages better than I ever have. Understanding it doesn’t always mean that they can fight it though and sometimes that pressure gets the best of them. The ones who move through that and go on to feel proud of themselves for the size of their heart or brain rather than the size of their jeans, have parents who teach them that looks are not the key to success. Wearing the right makeup or making frown lines disappear will not make you feel good about yourself. And who knows, maybe if more of us felt that way, these products would disappear on their own. We can always hope.

Is this an Eating Disorder?

Because of my specialty in Eating Disorders, my family and friends are constantly telling me about the bizarre diet and exercise habits of someone. Whether it’s the person who’s at the gym constantly or the one who will only eat wheat toast, (with no butter!) for breakfast, the common question is, “Is that normal?” Let me tell you, that’s a tough question to answer. In reality, what my family member or friend usually means is, “Should I be worried that this person has an eating disorder?” Also not an easy question to answer based on one odd behavior or eating habit. An eating disorder is a culmination of several behaviors based on a central fear of fat or being fat. For example, I happen to be one of those people who doesn’t like my food to touch. Does that mean I have an eating disorder? Absolutely not! I love food too much for that, but that might be the topic for a different blog. Is it a somewhat disordered way to eat? Definitely. Does that mean you should ignore when your formerly cheeseburger loving friend suddenly becomes a vegan? No it doesnt, but it also isn’t enough to diagnose them with Anorexia. Eating disorders are complex disorders consisting of both specific thoughts combined with a myriad of behaviors on a spectrum from things we all do that might be a little weird with food to rigid rules about the method and specific food that can or cannot be eaten. Which paritally explains why the “is this normal” question is so difficult. Making a judgment on what is or is not normal based on one odd behavior is extremely difficult. A clinician uses all of the data gathered in an initial meeting that lasts about an hour to make a decision about an appropriate diagnosis – and even then it is difficult. A 5 minute description of your friend who will only eat ham sandwiches cut in the shape of stars for lunch, does not provide the level or amount of information needed to know if that is a behavior to be concerned about. Now if that friend also refuses to eat entire food groups, constantly pinches invisible fat around her waistline, and spends two hours a day exercising, my red flags start waving. So to make a long explanation a little shorter, if you are concerned about one of your friends or a family member never hesitate to contact a professional who specializes in eating disorders. And, talking to your friend or family member may help them to take the sometimes scary step of seeking help. If that family member happens to be your child, as a parent you have to right, and I might add responsibility, to find the help that child needs to move past these symptoms before they become a way of life. www.edreferral.com is a great site for finding referrals in your area. This is a site that only includes professionals who specialize in working with eating disorders.

Unbreakable Bonds

“At a very young age, the trainers capture young elephants in the wild and bring them to a forest camp. One of their feet is bound with a chain so large that there is no possibility of escape. For a while, the young animals struggle to free themselves, but very quickly learn that it is futile and stop trying. They eventually grow accustomed to being bound and to the presence of the trainer.

As the elephant grows, the trainers exchange the large chains for small ropes. Although they are now held only by a small strand that could easily be broken, the elephants never try to escape. Why? They believe that they can’t. In their mind, they believe they are still bound by unbreakable bonds and that struggling is useless. Although the real barrier has been taken away, it is as real as if it were still in place. For the elephants, freedom is literally a gentle tug away, but it might as well be on the other side of the universe.” – from a recent email, no author given

For many, February has become a month synonymous with love and all things cupid. It’s a time when Hallmark and every flower and candy shop tell us that true love is celebrated with cards, roses, and chocolate. When I was in college, February 14 came to represent something very different for me. I was a part of a group called the Carolina V-Day Initiative. The goal of this group was to support community organizations that focused on ending violence towards women. So why Valentine’s Day? And what on earth could this have to do with elephants? I’m getting there . . .really.

Bur first, a little history. There are many legends surrounding the date and name for Valentine’s Day. Most concur that the name was chosen to commemorate a priest who performed secret marriages when Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men in the third century. So that’s why this is a celebration of love. But what about the date? Most scholars believe that the date was chosen by Catholic priests to align with a pre-Christian Roman celebration of fertility. This celebration was held on the Ides of February or February 15. So there you have it, a holiday about love and lust celebrated in February, and it’s made Hallmark billions.

So why the scorn in my tone? Isn’t celebrating love a good thing? I would say, absolutely! As long as we’re celebrating real, healthy love. The unfortunate truth is that 1 of every 3 women in the world will be the victim of violence, both physical and sexual. Statistics also show that 3 in 4 of these women are victimized by people they know and often love. So what kind of love are we celebrating? Until 1975, all 50 states in the US had a spousal exemption in their rape laws, meaning it was legally impossible for rape to occur in marriage. It took 20 years for all 50 states to remove this exception, and even now most states charge the offending spouse with a charge less than rape. Is that what love is? Just a few weeks ago, Congressman Chris Smith introduced a bill to change the definition of rape in abortion laws to “forcible rape.” This definition would not include rape in which drugs or fear were used as coercion and an already difficult topic would become impossible. Whether you support a woman’s right to chose or not, this redefining of rape is frightening.

In college, I was horrified when I learned these statistics, which led to my involvement in V-Day. This group empowered women around the world to say enough is enough, it’s time for the violence to stop. As part of this organization, we staged two performances of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. I remember being awed by the response. People lined up starting at noon the day of the show to get tickets for a 7 o’clock performance – on Valentine’s Day! Seven college age women came together and made a difference in our community. It was amazing! And filled me with such hope. I began to feel that people really did care about these issues.

That was almost 10 years ago now. I’ve been “back in the real world” long enough to realize that activism on college campuses is much different than activism in the rest of the world. I’ve heard so many times in response to stories about abused women who are killed by their partners or who kill their partners, “Why didn’t she just leave? If my husband ever touched me like that I would leave.” And you know, most people in these circumstances would leave. But for some women the idea of leaving wouldn’t even come to them. They are like the elephants in the email I received. They have been bound with the unbreakable bonds of fear for so long, they don’t even know what options they have. Abuse doesn’t start out like an explosion. It’s more like a slow leak, where the air is slowly released until you realize your tire is flat and you don’t have a spare. You’re trapped. Men who abuse don’t start out beating their wives – no one would stick around for that. Men who abuse start small, isolating women from their friends with their jealousy, slowly taking over the finances of the family, convincing the woman that her place is at home.

Some of these things start off as “cute.” Women often see jealousy as a sign of how much their partner loves them. Many women were raised in a family where the male dealt with the finances. These things can seem normal, until they’re not, and the woman finds that she has lost all of her support, both emotionally and financially, and doesn’t even have an excuse to leave the house anymore. Freedom might as well be on the other side of the universe. That’s why for me, Valentine’s Day may be a day to celebrate love, but it is also a day to remember that we have a long way to go in making sure every woman and girl experiences true love.

V-Day is an organized response against violence toward women.

V-Day is a vision: We see a world where women live safely and freely.

V-Day is a demand: Rape, incest, battery, genital mutilation and sexual slavery must end now.

V-Day is a spirit: We believe women should spend their lives creating and thriving rather than surviving or recovering from terrible atrocities.

V-Day is a catalyst: By raising money and consciousness, it will unify and strengthen existing anti-violence efforts. Triggering far-reaching awareness, it will lay the groundwork for new educational, protective, and legislative endeavors throughout the world.

V-Day is a process: We will work as long as it takes. We will not stop until the violence stops.

V-Day is a day. We proclaim Valentine’s Day as V-Day, to celebrate women and end the violence.

V-Day is a fierce, wild, unstoppable movement and community. Join us!

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