Category Archives: Mental Health

Inside the Mind- breaking stigma with knowledge

Trigger warning: This article mentions specific details of compulsions and emotions relating to eating disorders.

Mental health awareness has improved considerably in the last five years, which has been so encouraging. However, we still have a long way to go, especially in terms of funding and resources for public support services.

One mental illness that I think is still highly stigmatized, significantly under-supported, and poorly dealt with, is eating disorders. We can sit around and complain about this as much as we like, but that will achieve nothing. So, recently I have been trying to figure out why eating disorders are so often swept under the rug.

One large reason, I think, is lack of knowledge of the actual psychology behind eating disorders. Research shows that the main way to reduce stigma, as well as dissolve societal issues, is to establish an increase in knowledge of the issue.

Maybe that is what we need to do here.

Have you ever wondered what actually goes on inside the mind of someone with an eating disorder?

If so, read on.

I am going to share with you some of the compulsions that have been a part of my life from a psychological perspective, in the hope that understanding will be gained, and stigma will be eased.

*please note: I am speaking purely from my own perspective and experience. It is near impossible for me to cover the experience of everyone with an eating disorder. It is important to understand that although there are similar and recognisable signs and symptoms, everybody’s experience is different.

Social eating:

What it looks like: Not eating with others, constantly looking at and/or commenting on others’ food, leaving the table early, not turning up to social events that involve food, keeping a large distance from the food table, avoiding conversations linked to food/body image/exercise.

The psychology: Eating disorder suffers feel very insecure about their relationship to food, and often about their body image too. They are so insecure, that they experience an extreme sense of self-consciousness about their behaviours around food. There is often an overpowering voice in their mind that convinces them that everybody is judging them. This voices seems uncontrollable, and the feeling of relentless judgement of our eating habits is terrifying. As humans, we try to avoid things that terrify us. Therefore, it seems easier to avoid eating socially, rather than fight that intense self-conscious voice.

For people with eating disorders, there is a constant war going on in the mind. A war between the logical, healthy voice, and the toxic eating disorder voice. When we feel controlled by eating disorder voices, there is still part of us that knows deep down that what we are doing is wrong and unhealthy. A large part of my disordered eating journey was trying to navigate what is right and what is wrong, because the mind-war threw me off and I found myself feeling very confused about things that had once seemed so simple and automatic.

A large part of this navigation involved obsessive comparison of myself to others. My intention behind this relentless comparison was to try to relieve my confusion and regain my grasp on realistic thinking. It didn’t work. It just made me more anxious and more obsessed. When there is a controlling monster inside of you that wants to convince you that it is your friend and your conscience, and you are trying to function normally as if everything is fine, comparison seems the only way to try to grip on to reality as it slips further and further away from your grasp.

 

Restriction

Restriction of food is common for people with eating disorders, and is normally the behaviour that is noticed first. The psychology behind this is very varied, so I am only going to speak from my own experience.

What it looks like: Skipping meals, being dramatic and stubborn, being ungrateful for what has been made and prepared, being fussy, “playing” with food more than eating it.

The psychology: Restriction normally became a problem for me when I was already feeling fragile about something else, or when I was tired or stressed. I lost the energy to fight off the monster voice, and so it came in strong. As a meal time was approaching, there was a powerful, unidentifiable force preventing me from eating normally. It’s like there is someone holding a knife to my throat, telling me that if I eat, something very bad will happen. If someone actually did this to you in real life, you obviously wouldn’t eat, would you? It’s that terrifying.

It is not as simple as just not eating, either. Sometimes the ED monster tells me that I’m not allowed to eat certain foods, or I’m only allowed to eat certain foods, or that I’m only allowed to eat a certain amount.

Sometimes the voice gives reasons. These reasons include that I don’t deserve to eat, I deserve to be sick and tired, a certain food is poison to my body, or that eating properly will make me weaker and more worthless than I already am. Of course, these are all utter, evil lies. But when these lies are so strong and manipulative, it is easier than it seems to let them control your life.

For me, if I did manage to ignore the evil ED voice and eat properly, I would experience a sickening sense of anxiety, guilt, and insecurity. In my most fragile times I didn’t know who I was without the ED compulsions, and choosing to do the right thing and fight the voices seemed scary and confusing.

 

Purging

This is something I find very hard to talk about because I am so ashamed, hence why bulimic behaviours often go unnoticed.

What it looks like: Throwing up to be dramatic or to gain attention, a failed attempt at weight-loss, wanting the taste without the calories, “being gross”.

The psychology: Again, I can only speak from my experience. For me, purging was never about trying to rid my body of calories. It began as a way to let out strong and distressing emotions in a way that wasn’t harmful to anyone else. However, over time this led on to yet another powerful voice. After a meal this potent urge to throw up would emerge from nowhere and conquer my mind, and I could think of nothing else until I had done what the ED monster required. If I managed not to listen to the voice, I would feel a confusing mixture of guilt for keeping the food in, and confidence for doing the right thing.

 

Body Dysmorphia

What it looks like: Always thinking they’re “fat”, making negative comments about themselves to gain attention, constantly looking in the mirror and weighing themselves, always comparing their body image to others.

The psychology: People with body dysmorphia have an actual skewed view of what they look like. What they see when they look in the mirror does not match up to what everyone else sees. We are not just being dramatic and self-conscious- we actually have a dysmorphed perception of ourselves. It is basically a “you are your worst critic” scenario to the extreme.

What I hate most about body dysmorphia is how selfish it made me. I became so self-conscious that all I could think about was myself, even though I hated myself. This was uncomfortable and shameful.

 

*I am well aware that I haven’t covered all of the components of eating disorders, and I acknowledge those sufferers who have struggled with compulsions not mentioned here. Since I am not a professional, I feel I can only speak from my own experience.*

I have only recently started opening up about my struggle with disordered eating. I have managed to keep the most part of it secret for years. This secrecy was all out of shame. I have been stigmatizing my own illness.

Is this, perhaps, at least partly because of the social stigma around me?

And I have been one of the lucky ones. One that has only been noticeably physically sick once, and for a relatively short period of time. One that was provided with support and advice at an early stage. One that, for the most part of the journey, has managed to make it through the daily battles with ED voices, and not be fully conquered by them.

And yet it has still been awful.

So I hope that by reading this, you will understand that eating disorder sufferers are not dramatic, selfish, and image-obsessed teenage girls. They are rational human beings who, because of their disease, are caused to act irrationally. Their weight and body function aren’t everything, in fact this is a very small component of a much larger, mental/emotional issue.

They are unwell,

they wouldn’t wish this illness on anyone,

and they need your support for their recovery.

 

 

 

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God Speaks

“Don’t you remember the promise I made? I will never let you down.”

I was caught off guard as I briefly closed my eyes in Mass yesterday. The second my lids shut, a bold image of a rainbow appeared to me. My eyes flew open again before my mind registered what was going on.

Was that a vision?

I closed my eyes again, and sure enough, the rainbow appeared again, accompanied by the words,

“Don’t you remember my promise? I will never let you down.”

Classic God. Blatantly and directly speaking to me right in a moment when I am not making any effort to intentionally listen to Him(sorry God!). In fact, I was doing quite the opposite- I was completely zoned out in my own silly universe(God forgive me. And at MASS too! DISGRACEFUL!). Yet there are plenty of times when I am totally and utterly listening to God; desperate and eager to hear what She has to say, and I struggle very much to gain any understanding of what God might be wanting me to hear or see.

WHY?

I will unpack the vision itself in just a moment, but first I would like to discuss the question that was circling my mind as I drifted off to sleep last night:

Why do we so often have clear encounters with God in the mundane; in the moments where we are doing very little; in the moments that could be considered relatively “God-less”? And why do we so rarely experience these encounters when we are supposedly doing the “right thing”, doing what is considered “Godly”, or intentionally following the societal norms of the Christian cultures and communities?

Maybe it is because God couldn’t care less about the humanly rules and expectations we have suffocated Christian communities with. Maybe He laughs at us when we get hung up on which songs to play during sung worship. Maybe She cries when we forbid someone from attending our churches because of their ethnicity, sexuality, or walks of life. Maybe He frowns when we restrict freedom of speech in a church to only a select few. Maybe She rolls Her eyes when we insist on rules around when we should sit or stand, what we should wear, who we should interact with, or what order the proceedings of a church service should be in. Why should God make an effort to only speak to us in moments that are human-approved as “Godly”? God will make and go by His own rules, thank you very much!

Maybe it is because God likes it best when we are able to just be. Maybe we are more in touch with the true essence of our being in God’s eyes when we aren’t being “try-hard Christians”; caught up in a tornado of humanly expectations. Maybe all God really requires of us is to love, to listen, and to be. Maybe we are more receptive to God’s guidance and love when we are making no effort to be anyone else but authentically ourselves. Maybe this “being a good Christian” thing is taking us further away from God’s truth, rather than fulfilling our intentions of drawing nearer. Maybe finding God in the mundane is more raw, authentic, and personal than any other setting.

Maybe it is because when we’re zoning out and thinking of ourselves, God likes to shoulder tap us from time to time- gently reminding us why we’re here and where our priority of focus needs to be. “Helllloooooooo?” says God!

THE VISION

“Don’t you remember the promise I made? I will never let you down.”

What first came to mind in the seconds after this moment was the Bible story of Noah’s Ark, and the rainbow that God sent after the flood to promise that She would never do something like that to the earth again. I was confused. Why this reference? God obviously hadn’t done anything to destroy my life, and I certainly wasn’t worried that He would suddenly flood the earth or anything.

But after some pondering, it all began to make sense. As much as I know in theory that God is always by my side(growing up in a Sunday School and attending a Catholic secondary school definitely made sure I remembered that!), I very often forget to fully adopt this concept into the circumstances of my life, and I don’t always fully trust that all will be well in the end.

I was also prompted to reflect on the past few days and how bad my mental health has been. For a couple of days last week, Anxiety and EDNOS came back to bite me very hard, and I managed to convince myself that I was giving up. That it was too hard, and I was never going to reach the end point of wellness I’ve always aspired to achieve. I was adamant that nothing and nobody was going to convince me that I could possibly keep going. I just didn’t feel strong enough. A wonderful friend of mine’s loving and gentle consolation reminded me that I needed to trust in God’s strength to keep me going, but I must admit I wasn’t entirely convinced that it would work(sorry God!).

Why do we so often recite these universally-known truths about God, but then fail to fully embrace them in the times we need to do so the most? Maybe because our humanness craves full control over everything ourselves. Maybe because it is difficult for us as earthly beings to trust in something that is not materialistically visible.

However, in this moment in Mass yesterday, God brought me back down to solid ground.

“Don’t you remember the promise I made? I will never let you down.”

There is nothing too hard for God. If it feels too hard for me, God will give me what I need to make it doable. Brokenness and trial is part of the human condition, but through Christ we overcome.

And as for the Noah’s Ark reference, I suppose it is a reminder that nothing will crash and burn forever, because God promised us that He would never let pure tragedy happen ever again.

“Don’t you remember the promise I made? I will never let you down.”

 

 

I am NOT traumatized

“Cara, you’re traumatized. You have trauma in your body cells that you can’t remove. But that’s okay, because when I pray just now, God is going to banish the trauma from your cells and you are not going to live another day traumatized.”

That was how I was introduced to PTSD. This statement did nothing for me but freak me out, which, for an apparently “traumatized” person, this surely is not a good feeling to have in front of a counselor; the very person who is supposed to make me feel better, not worse.

Worse yet, was the next morning when the perfume of the lady on the bus next to me sent me into an episode of flashbacks and dissociation(which I didn’t actually have a name for then as I didn’t know what was going on), and I realized that God in fact hadn’t “banished the trauma from my cells” as my counselor had said She would. So, alongside the normal fright, confusion, and exhaustion that follows flashbacks, there was now an illusion added to the mix that being “traumatized” must be my destiny, since the quick fix suggested by the professional hadn’t worked.

This initial encounter with (false) awareness with PTSD led me to stigmatize my own illness. I let myself wear the label of “traumatized”, which for me portrayed weakness and inability to cope with life’s obstacles. I also believed that there was a quick fix for PTSD, and that if I couldn’t find it or make it miraculously heal me over night, then I would diminish all possibilities of ever being able to undress from the “traumatized” label I made myself wear.

But fear not! This story gets better!

Now, after legitimate diagnosis and treatment, my understandings of my PTSD are much healthier and more truthful:

  1. Just because I have PTSD, I do not see myself as a traumatized person. Rather, I am a whole being who has experienced some traumatic events in my past, and sometimes my body and brain forget that these events aren’t still happening now, and like to default into coping mechanisms that helped me to survive at the time. This isn’t my fault. It’s just bad luck that my brain was affected in this way.
  2. There is no quick fix for PTSD. PTSD is a physical, chemical change in my amygdala and hippocampus that will not be magically healed over night. My brain needs re-training. It needs to be taught that it doesn’t need to activate the fight-or-flight response everyday anymore. It needs to be taught how to differentiate past memories with the present-day reality. This takes a lot of practice, patience, and love, just like training a puppy.

In saying this, however, I definitely do still have my moments. I have moments of wondering whether I will ever be able to fully escape my past. I have moments of guilt, self-blame, and self-victimisation. I have moments of convincing myself I don’t have the energy to face another day of differentiating reality vs brain-tricks; past vs present; healthy vs unhealthy coping mechanisms.

But each day I am coming to a deeper understanding of who I am without the trauma, and learning how to be more and more in touch with the reality of my present, rather than my past.

Just some facts that everybody should know:

  • Not everybody who experiences trauma develops PTSD, and those of us who do aren’t weaker or more “stuck in our past” than those who don’t. It’s just bad luck that our brains were affected in this way.
  • Not only war veterans suffer from PTSD, and it can develop from both an accumulation of experiences as well as from just one experience.
  • PTSD isn’t weakness. It’s an illness.

 

I’m not destined to flashbacks and dissociation for the rest of my life because of my experiences. I fully believe that one day I will be 100% free of PTSD.

Please bear with me a moment while I undress from my “traumatized” label, and banish it from every ounce of my being.

I will never be seen wearing it again.

 

Mental Posit(ill)vity

When speaking of mental illness, I could go along the common path of explaining how the stigma is almost as bad as the illness itself, the flaws in the mental health system, or the frustrations of being unable to provide any physical proof of an invisible sickness.

But I won’t this time.

This time I’ll say that my experience with mental illness has helped me to gain so many skills and insights that I would never have gained otherwise. Although there are many days where I am horrified by the alien voice of my own mind, feel trapped in a dangerous psychological cycle, and want nothing more than for my mind to just shut up and be ‘normal’, I still don’t wish that I was, or had experienced, anything different.

Through the many hours of therapy, self-reflection, crying, ranting, brainstorming, creative expression, and supporting of others’ mental illness;

I have become a lot more self-aware.

I have learnt about my limits, my strengths, my weaknesses, my boundaries.

I have further discovered my necessary methods of self-care, my values, and my passions.

I have grown and developed as a person in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I have learnt so much about human nature and the world around me.

I have gained mental strength and resilience.

I have learnt valuable social skills and had conversations and discussions that I will never forget.

I have discovered the experience-strengthened power of my influence on those I’m supporting.

And, for the above, my gratitude overflows.

 

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The mental health journey is a roller-coaster ride full of wonderfulness as well as terribleness, and although I feel exhausted just thinking about it, I look forward to the lessons awaiting me in my future experiences.

Parts of my brain might be messed up but I’m not a messed up person.

 

I might have mental illnesses but I’m not a mentally ill person.

They are not my definition, they’re merely one part of life’s many battles that I am willing to fight.

And I will win.