Oak City Psychology

Serving the City of Raleigh and Surrounding Areas

Author: Kimberley L. Benton Psy.D. (page 1 of 3)

“Politics” are Personal

Today was a day of landmark decisions by the Supreme Court related to marriage equality.  Many people will focus on what this means for civil rights, legal arguments in states that do not yet allow same sex marriage, and the change of definition for “traditional marriage.”  All of these aspects are great for debate and intellectual discourse, but they don’t tell us much about the impact on actual humans.  As I have said in previous posts, many of my clients are GLBTQ.  In sessions, we often talk about the impact of laws that do not allow them to marry the people they love.  They rejoice in the triumphs and sorrow in the losses.  It is a real life lesson on how our legal system impacts real people with real lives and real families.

Laws are not just about acts that our society finds unacceptable.  They often imply or flat out state that the person doing the action is also bad or unacceptable in some way.  Can you imagine going through life believing that loving someone is bad?  Now, most of my clients know logically that this is not true.  They recognize that society’s laws simply have not caught up with our recognition of changing morals and science.  But what they feel and believe is a different matter.  My gay clients come in feeling broken and beaten down by a world that finds them strange at best and abhorrent at worst.  They hear pundits and “scientists” comparing their committed relationships to pedophilia and bestiality.  They are told by lawmakers that their relationships are such a danger to society that they have to be outlawed by constitutional amendments and marriage bans.  I can see the weight of these things on my clients, even when their rational lives show no signs of damage.

And what about the children who are raised in these loving and supportive relationships?  They have been told that their parents are not valuable enough for society to recognize their relationship.  And if their parents aren’t valuable, then the children must be the same.  When we devalue our children’s parents we devalue our children!

I rejoice today.  Not because a huge legal shift has occurred in our country.  No, I rejoice because for my clients, who I have come to know, respect, and love as the amazing humans they are, our world is one small step closer to seeing their value.  Our world is one step closer to recognizing their relationships as a valid way to love, one step closer to recognizing their children as offspring from a valid relationship.  For me, “politics” are personal.  Laws are personal.  We are talking about the lives of real people changing, hopefully for the better and hopefully at a faster pace.  I rejoice with my clients and for my clients.  Because they have value and worth.  Because they love.

I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

Because of my specialty in eating disorders, I often get comments from family and friends about their eating habits. Anything goes, from “Well maybe you can help me stop eating then.” to “What is an eating disorder anyway?” There is a lot of confusion out there about what is healthy eating vs. disordered eating vs. an eating disorder. And no wonder! With all the fad diets, liquid diets, starve yourself and then binge diets, and simple misrepresentation of the facts who wouldn’t be confused. Combine the shame that can go along with some of the symptoms of an eating disorder and people simply don’t want to talk about their problems.

Michael Polan, author of Omnivore’s Dilema and In Defense of Food, may have the best description of a healthy diet. His mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Sounds simple enough but there are a lot of assumptions in those few small sentences. First his statements assume that we know what constitutes food, and if you’ve read his books it’s pretty clear that a lot of folks are confused about real food. General trends have shown that the more we “understand” about nutrition the less healthy the American population has become. Why is this? It would seem that having more knowledge would increase our abilities to eat well.  What has really happened though is that we have learned to create “food like substances” with all the nutrients of food made completely of chemicals.  We have forgotten what a tomato looks like, much less tastes like.  Our lives have become so busy  that it is easier to grab a meal replacement bar or shake than to make a sandwich or, heaven forbid, an actual meal.  When Polan says food, he means actual food that our grandmothers would recognize, not yogurt in a tube or protein in a candy bar.  Secondly, his statment assumes that we know what “not too much” means.  Part of the reason we are seeing such an epidemic of obesity and eating disorders in America is because we have lost track of what a portion really is.  Most dieticians recommend 3-4 ounces of protein 2-3 times a day.  Three to four ounces of protein is about the size of a deck of cards.  When was the last time you ate a piece of meat that small?  On the other hand, a portion of veggies or fruit is about half a cup, or the size of a tennis ball.  Recommendations state 4-5 portions of fruit and 4-5 portions of veggies a day.  If we ate this way, we would completely refocus our plate on fruits and vegetables rather than a giant slab of meat (which meets Polan’s third statement).  A serving of pasta is a cup, which would barely cover a small salad plate, much less the dinner plates most of us eat from.  Considering, most of us probably eat a few pieces of bread with that pasta we are more than meeting the requirement for grains we need in a day. 

So as you can tell, most Americans suffer from disordered eating.  That simply means that we don’t eat in a way that creates a healthy relationship with food or with our bodies.  Most of us live in a state of unhappiness about the way we look and what we’re eating.  Most of us don’t feel like we have to time or the energy to do anything about it.  This is a far cry from someone who has an eating disorder.  People with eating disorders are completely and totally consumed by thoughts of food and concerns about the way their bodies look.  They believe that they way they look determines their value as a human being, that the food they eat tells others about the kind of person they are.  They often participate in incredibly unhealthy and dangerous behaviors such as starving themselves or forcing themselves to vomit.  Others eat such massive amounts of food that they become physically ill afterwards.  For the most part, eating disorders are not about food or even weight.  They are about asserting control over something in a world that feels uncontrollable, feeling worthless, and a variety of other emotional concerns that feel too difficult to deal with.  People turn to food as a way to take control because it is something tangible, it’s something “real” that they can manipulate.  Emotions are hard to deal with and often times very scary.  It’s much easier to decide dairy products are the bad guys than to try to understand why you feel sad all the time.

I have a theory about why we have seen such an increase in eating disorders and unhealthy eating over the past couple of decades.  I believe that we have completely lost touch with the process of eating.  A salad is no longer a multi layered dish of ingredients that were carefully chosen from a grocery store or farmer’s market.  It comes in a plastic box at Wendy’s with ingredients chosen based on cost effectiveness not nutritional value.  Spaghetti sauce comes out of a jar and gets heated in five minutes.  It is not a dish prepared from tomatoes, herbs, and spices that simmers all day while filling the house with amazing smells.  Dinner time is most often had in the car on the way to an activity.  It is an inconvenience that happens as we go to something more important.  It is rarely an occasion in and of itself that involves family and friends connecting over food that they either grew or cooked themselves.  One thing I encourage my clients with eating disorders to do is to visit the farmer’s market and talk with the farmers about how the food was grown and the work it took to create their produce.  This often gives someone new respect for food and it becomes less of an inconvenience and more of something to be appreciated and savored.  Some even take it a step further and begin their own garden.  How amazing would it be if we all gained a new respect for food?  If we began seeing it as something that takes effort and has more importance in our lives than we currently admit?  I think our concerns about health would change, and I know we would have a better relationship with food as a whole.

Feeling Privileged and Why That’s Not a Good Thing

When I was in college at UNC, I read an article that had a profound effect on the way I view my life.  Peggy McIntosh wrote about White Privilege.  This is the idea that some of us have “an invisible package of unearned assets that [we] can count on cashing in each day.” (p. 30*)  McIntosh found that she had difficulty explaining this concept, even to people who were open to discussing issues of diversity.  So she made a list of these privileges.  I wanted to share a few of them to give you the idea and then share my own list that I have made recently.

1.  I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2.  I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
3.  I can go into a bookshop and count of finding the writing of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.
4.  I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color. 
5.  I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
6.  I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
7.  I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
8.  I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
9.  I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

These are just a sample of the 46 privileges that McIntosh came up with for herself.  Most of these privileges are good things and should be extended to everyone.  Having privilege is like playing baseball and automatically getting to start on second base.  Or playing basketball and always getting to inbound the ball at half court.  It’s not that those things are bad, it’s that they are not extended to everyone who is playing the game.

This article was brought to mind for me this morning because of a very big issue that has arisen in many states and finally became personal to me because it happened in my home state.  Yesterday, North Carolina added their first amendment to their state constitution.  But rather than protecting the rights of their citizens, this amendment took rights away.  I have always avoided discussing political issues on my professional websites, blogs, and Facebook pages because of a fear of alienating potential and current clients.  However, this has become more than a political issue for me. 

Let me begin by saying that I am an ally for the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community.  I work with members of this community in my practice on a daily basis and so many of them come to see me because of the overt and covert discrimination that they face on a daily basis.  They come to see me because I am one of the few professionals who will advertise that I am an ally.  They come to see me because it is one of the few safe places they have in their lives.  So for me this has become a mental health issue that is impacting my clients, my colleagues, and my friends. 

So, yesterday when my home state passed an amendment to their state constitution banning same sex marriage and declaring that the only union that would be legally recognized would be a marriage between one man and one woman, I became angry, sad, ashamed, and determined.  I also have to recognize some level of feeling privileged and not in a good way.  I recognize the impact votes like these in states so far from where I practice have on my GLBT clients.  They are constantly aware of the atmosphere in this country and it creates a sense of fear and mistrust in their lives.  So I decided to make my own list of privileges.  Some of these are based on posts I saw from my friends on Facebook yesterday and today, some are based on things clients have said to me through the years, and some are based on just my own thoughts.  I hope they give some people pause and cause them to think about how their beliefs impact others.  But mostly, I hope it shows people who identify as GLBT that they do have allies and that we are aware of the lack of justice that is in our country right now.

Heterosexual Privileges:
1.  I can decide to marry the person that I love and be confident that my current state and any other state in which I choose to live will recognize my marriage as a legal union.
2.  I can hold hands with, kiss, and hug my partner in public without worrying about my safety or the safety of my partner.
3.  When I am out with my partner, other people do not stare at us trying to figure out if we are in a relationship.
4.  I can attend any church or religiously affiliated organization and not worry that they may not accept my life partner.
5.  No one questions whether my “lifestyle” is a choice.  It is assumed that I was born straight.
6.  I never have to “come out” to anyone.
7.  I never have to fear that by coming out I might jeopardize my career, my family, or my safety.
8.  I never have to worry that my children will be rejected because of the sex of my partner.
9.  If I am ever hospitalized, I do not have to worry about whether my partner will be able to visit me, make medical decisions, or have medical information about me withheld.  The same is true if my partner is hospitalized.
10.  In the event of my death, I have no fear that our children may not be raised by my partner.  My partner does not have to fear this either.
11.  When I started dating my partner, I had no concern that my family and friends would disapprove of him simply because of his sex.
12.  Either me or my partner will always be able to sign permission slips for our children, make medical decisions about our children, and pick up our children from school and daycare.  With no questions asked.
13.  I do not have to worry about being evicted from my home in the event that my partner dies, regardless of whose name is on the deed.
14.  I never have to worry about people trying to “save” me because of the sex of my partner.
15.  I do not have to worry about whether my family doctor, my OB/GYN, my therapist, my psychiatrist, or my pharmacist will disapprove of my “lifestyle” or if they might even deny me treatment.
16.  No one thinks about my sex life when they are introduced to my partner.
17.  No one has ever reacted to me with fear or disgust because of the person that I love.
18.  I can receive tax advantages for being married.
19.  I do not have to worry about having health insurance because my partner’s insurance will automatically cover my health care and the health care of our children.
20..  I have never been told that I am a sinner or that I will go to hell because of the person I love.
21.  No state has ever made a law or changed their constitution in an effort to deny my rights to marry.
22.  If I chose to do so, I could ignore all of these privileges and live my life in total denial that they even exist.

These are just a few quick things that I came up with in the 15 minutes that it took me to type the list.  I’m sure there are more.  I am also equally as sure that my GLBT clients are aware of these things everyday.  Can you imagine living your life without these rights?

*”White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” by Peggy McIntosh.  Published in:  Feminist Frontiers:  5th Edition edited by Laurel Richardson, Verta Taylor, and Nancy Whittier.

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!

Surviving Thanksgiving

For most people, Thanksgiving is a time of celebrating the things that we are thankful for, be it family, friends, or just lots of football. It is also a time where binge eating is the norm. The expectation is that we will all eat ourselves into a coma and feel full for a week. For most of us this is fine. We bounce back from this binge and go about our everyday lives. For someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, this is a nightmare. Someone who restricts their food intake sees nothing but a day of avoiding all the sights, smells, and meals of the day and someone who binges feels like their dirty little secret has been discovered and will spend the day looking for ways to compensate. How can someone who has struggled for so long to eat in a healthy way participate in such an unhealthy style of eating? Can Thanksgiving become something more than just a day to stuff ourselves on turkey and pumpkin pie? I thought I’d put out some ideas for folks who need some grounding during this holiday, whether recovering from an eating disorder or not.

Firstly, let’s all take a step back and try to remember that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks (it’s in the name of the holiday) and not about how many pumpkin pies you can eat. Allow yourself to be thankful for the people who prepared the food and the hard work that went into the planning for this meal. Make every attempt to enjoy the company of those you care about. For people who have struggled with an eating disorder, this might be the first holiday you’ve experienced where you could actually allow yourself to enjoy the food, and that truly is something to be thankful for. It will also most likely be difficult and you may struggle. That’s fine. Get your support system lined up before the holiday rolls around and you’ll be able to handle those stumbles.

Also, rather than gobbling up all the turkey within arm’s reach, take a few minutes to savor the food. Make an attempt to eat more slowly and truly taste the flavors. Many families save these “special” foods for the holiday season, so take the time to actually taste it. If you’re feeling really rebellious, make the decision to have these foods more than once a year. That can often take away the urge to overeat these “special” treats. If you have struggled with restricting it will most likely be scary to participate in a holiday where everyone else goes back for seconds and more. Work hard not to compare your plate to that of others. This is good food, and you deserve to enjoy it!

Now this last bit might be touchy for some of you. Some people love Thanksgiving because they get to spend time with family they don’t see often. Others dread it for this very same reason. It can be difficult to be around family members that you may have been avoiding since last Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for this. If you family is abusive, the healthiest decision may be to forgo the traditional celebration. This is difficult, but you have to make the decisions that are right for you. However, if you’re just annoyed by your family it may be grin and bear it time. There are a lot of ways to deal with this situation – have a stress buddy that you can call at the end of the day to vent, rely on your significant other to keep you sane, and plan a little alone time throughout the day to keep a check on your sanity. As with the thankfulness piece, focusing on the positives of the day rather than dreading the tension can also make this holiday much easier to endure.

I hope you can use some of these tips in your holiday celebration, if only to remind yourself to focus on giving thanks. May you and yours (whoever they may be) have a blessed holiday that truly encompasses the meaning of Thanksgiving.

Our National Eating Disorder

I recently finished reading Michael Polan’s The Omnivore’s Dilema (which was an amazing book), in which he talks about our “national eating disorder.” No he’s not saying that all Americans have Anorexia or Bulimia. What he is arguing is that we have lost touch with the food that we eat, to the point that we have begun eating “food like substances” rather than food. He seems to be saying that the more we have learned about food and food science the more unhealthy we have become. If you look at the statistics on this, it’s hard to disagree. Our “knowledge” about food has grown exponentially over the past decade. I put that in quotes because, like Polan, I think we may have lost the real knowledge of food along the way. As a nation, we seem to have become so confused about which foods are healthy – milk? eggs? salmon? wild or farm raised? – that we’ve simply given up. Why bother trying to decide which meat we should have for dinner when it’s much easier to grab a protein bar and some fruit flavored water. There’s even a commercial for a fruit drink that makes eating an actual piece of fruit seem like the biggest hassel we have to endure during our day. At the same time, the rates of both obesity and harmful eating practices (restricting, bingeing, and purging) have exploded. Polan says that a big reason for this problem is that as Americans, we don’t have the same kind of food geneaology as say native Italians or Greeks. Because this country was settled by so many different types of people, we didn’t develop our own food culture with rules about how and what we ate. The goal became convenience.

Now, whether you agree with that or not, Polan may be onto something with the idea of a national eating disorder. It seems to me that our relationship with food in this country has become extremely damaged. Don’t believe me? Well then think about this – when was the last time you made a dinner in which a can opener was not an essential tool in the preparation? For that matter, when was the last time you made a dinner that didn’t involve the microwave? We live in a world where convenience is the most important aspect of any product. Our children attend schools where chicken nuggets and french fries are standard fare and body fat measurements are a typical part of health class. Young girls are encouraged to both love their bodies (Dove) and get rid of that acne once and for all (Proactiv, Clearasil, etc). Magazines geared toward women, and increasingly toward men, show airbrushed models with abs of steel and flawless makeup on the cover and advertisements for chocolate, Lean Cuisine, and Hydroxycut on the inside. No wonder we’re confused! The government tries to help by releasing guidelines for healthy living (mypyramid.org) that are more confusing than the magazines. What is the average person, without an advanced degree in nutrition and food science, supposed to do to navigate all of this information? Well, there are plenty of advertisers, fast food restaurants,and frozen food companies out there that would like to tell you.

Food is no longer a personal experience, shared with family and friends. Food has become the enemy, and I see a slew of women in my office everyday who can attest to that. Is that what we want for the next generations? Think about some of your best memories, and I will bet a high percentage of them revolve around food of some sort – a Thanksgiving turkey, watermelon seed spitting contests, ice cream on a hot summer night, diving into that bag of Halloween candy. Is our obsession with what is scientifically healthy, robbing us of some of the joys of life? Is our fixation on what will be quickest and easiest keeping us from connecting to our families and friends? Now, I’m not advocating we go back to the days when girls spent their days learning to be “good” wives, getting lessons on cooking, sewing, and cleaning by working alongside their mothers, grandmothers, or nannies. I know that’s not practical anymore, or even that desirable to most of us. But, what would be the harm of using a Saturday to make a meal from scratch, using real food, with all the fat? Having your son or daughter come into the kitchen with you to mix the batter for pancakes that you made with flour and sugar instead of a mix? Gathering around the dinner table to eat and talk about the day? Packing a lunch or dinner and heading to the park? Do these things take time? Sure, things that are worth it usually do. Will having an outdoor dinner with your family solve all the problems with food in our society? Of course not, but it may just give them the ammunition they need the next time they read an article, see a commercial, or hear an advertisement that tells them they aren’t worth it. And that’s worth more than all the hours in the world.

The Secret of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

If you’re American, you know these words by heart almost from birth. It’s the foundation upon which our country was built. But what do they mean? In particular, what is “the pursuit of happiness?” Pure scientists would have us believe that happiness is simply chemicals floating between neurons in our brain. New agers equate happiness with inner peace. Dictionary.com defines happiness as the state of being happy and then procedes to define happy using synonyms such as joyful, blissful, and exuberant. All well and good, but really, what is happiness?

I watched a few movies recently that got me thinking about this question. One of them (which I truly don’t recommend watching because the movie was pretty terrible)was True Confessions of a Shopaholic. In the opening scene, you see the main character as a little girl talking about how happiness became a shiny pair of shoes for her. The gist of the movie (spoiler alert) is that because she equates new things with happiness she finds herself in massive amounts of debt with plenty of things and having completely destroyed the most important relationships in her life. Which of course, this being Hollywood, leads to an epiphany on her part after which she completely mends her shopaholic ways and finds true love and friendship. Ah, if only life were that easy.

The second movie I watched was Julie and Julia (which actually was pretty good)in which we meet Julie a woman on the brink of turning 30 who decides to find happiness by cooking her way through Julia Child’s cookbook while writing a blog. Along the way (again spoiler coming) she comes to realize that it is not the act of cooking, or the even the food itself that creates happiness but the ability to spend time with friends sharing an experience.

Thirdly, I watched a documentary called This Emotional Life (which was fantastic) that explored what science has found about how to create happiness in our lives. Ironically enough, the findings seem to point to the very premise of the first two movies: it is not things, deeds, adventures, or even money that make us happy – it’s having people to share those things with. I know, Hollywood actually got something right for a change, although in a kind of unrealistic, sugar coated way.

I was amazed to learn that research being done all over the world shows that relationships change our brain chemistry. The smile of your own newborn releases that same chemicals in a mother’s brain that cocaine creates, which creates a euphoric feeling. And hearing laughter almost doubles the amount of chemicals. People who were shown pictures of people they love during a brain scan showed activity in the areas of the brain where positive emotions are regulated. There is also research being done on lottery winners and “the lottery curse.” What this research is finding is that the people who adjust the best to winning large sums of money out of the blue, are those who have close relationships which remain stable after winning. Now, this research also found that people with more money tend to be happier than people with very little money and that lottery winners who actually change their status in life show the largest happiness gains. But again, these results changed if the winners lost their close relationships along the way, leading to very depressed, uber-rich people who made poor decisions about their winnings. It seems good relationships even lead to better decision making!

The moral of this story – happiness is not a new pair of shoes, a journey through cooking, or a huge sum of money. Happiness truly is about who we have to share it with.

“It’s so much more friendly with two.” – Piglet

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