Healing Decade Old Wounds

At the beginning of October, I departed Massachusetts for a quiet town in Maine, just south of Bangor, for a yoga retreat. With a number of different things going on in my life, I felt that it would be a good opportunity to gain new perspective on where I am and where I’m going.

I drove up the coast and felt good as I pulled into the driveway of a quaint old farmhouse. The drive was beautiful and the foliage was vibrant. The farmhouse, though simple and rustic from the outside, had been remodeled to accommodate guests ready for yoga and mediation. As soon as I had arrived, it felt familiar and I was comfortable.

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Actual scenery from the retreat.

We had an introduction to the weekend. Cell phones were to be turned off, yoga and meditation were to be practiced, and words were not to be spoken. Yes, it was a silent retreat. At first, I thought I’d have no problem with it and I didn’t for a while. The night of arrival went well and the majority of the next day was quite pleasant.

There were ample walking trails to meander and walking them brought me into a damp, leaf filled wood that reminded me of plenty of other forests that had soothed me before. It felt so nice to be in that quiet by myself and be so present in every moment.

As the day wore on into evening, I got the bug to write so I did. (What else was there to do?) I scribbled out pages upon pages, seemingly emptying all of the thoughts I’d ever had. I wrote, smiled, felt glad to be writing so much, and kept writing. It turned into a writing exercise and I challenged myself to describe the kitchen in detail. I wrote about feeling like this flow of words was rare and how I needed to savor it. As I savored, words kept coming. The writing seemed endless. It could go on for days if I kept this pace! I could write a book!

And then it stopped. The words went silent. My pen stopped moving. As soon as the writing stopped, so did my joy. I didn’t know it then but my peace was breaking away from me and unrest was fast approaching. I put my pen and journal away as it was nearing the 9:30pm lights out and found my way up the unevenly crafted but sturdy old staircase toward the room I shared with two others. I tucked myself in and the lights were out. I didn’t have the trees, or wind, or notebook to help guide me anymore. It was just me.

I began feeling uneasy that night as I stared into the pitch black room. I know I was looking at the ceiling but I couldn’t see anything. I drifted in and out of sleep and in and out of nightmares. All of those nightmares centered around myself in my high school years when I was angry at the world for everything but couldn’t pinpoint a single bit of where that anger came from. I had visions of people I hadn’t talked to or thought about in many years, some even more than a decade. None of it was good. It felt horrible as I checked my watch every few hours to see if it was over yet. Is it morning? Can I get up? It wasn’t, and I didn’t.

I waited and finally the bell to wake everyone up at 7:30am sounded. I was finally able to get up and out of my head–except I couldn’t. I was still stuck there because I had no where to turn. The day that lay ahead of me was filled with more time in my head meditating, doing yoga, and staring out at the landscape as I tread through the paths of the grounds.

After breakfast, I’d resolved to break a rule. I was going to use my phone. I had to. I had to feel connected to something. It wasn’t the phone itself but who the phone could lead to. People I love are on the other side of that phone and naturally, when upset and scared, I retreat to my safe place: my husband. Only, it was 8:30am on a Sunday and there was no way he was awake. I felt even more alone.

I laid on my bed trying to write something but nothing came. I kept telling myself that I should stay and stick it out because I committed to doing this retreat (except I’d committed before I knew how terrible my brain can be to me.) That was challenged with how I thought my husband would advise me. I kept hearing him say “If you don’t like it, just come home.” He was asleep and I didn’t want to wake him but I know it’s what he would have said.

I toiled over this decision for a good hour before resolving that I would leave.

I packed all of my things, which wasn’t much, and toted my bags downstairs. I told a fellow participant I had to leave “for family reasons” and exited.

Walking to the car, I felt some guilt packaged with the wonderful sense of freedom. I’d let myself down for not staying and enjoying myself but I’d done myself a great justice by realizing when I’d hit my limit and leaving.

I drove and every mile that I traveled further away from the retreat and closer to home, I could breath more deeply and feel more comfortable. That day, as I pulled into the parking lot behind our apartment building, I was so grateful to be home.

Over the next few weeks, I recovered from traveling that deep within my thoughts. I’ve recovered and realized that as much as I did feel pain from all of those thoughts and nightmares, it helped me. There was some positive in it.

Since the time of anger in my high school years, I’ve always felt anger towards that time. The emotions that I felt then are the only bits that I could recall from that time so I ended up hating that time and those people. In reality, I was lost and scared and felt like the weirdest person on Earth because no one I knew was like me. No one I knew felt this way (or at least I didn’t know it if they did). I was angry because I felt alone.

Something happened on the retreat that allowed me to feel the uncomfortable emotions from high school and set them free. It was the exact same set of emotions that I had in high school and I didn’t even know it. I was at a retreat with some people who were probably really cool but there was a rule: silence. I couldn’t speak to them nor them to me and it felt so utterly lonely. Again, I became angry and upset because I felt alone.

The scale is much smaller (two days versus four years) but eventually, feeling the same emotions can help release some old but similar ones. I’m thankful for the retreat because it allowed that bit of unexpected healing. Those feelings have broken free–like I’ve managed to acknowledge and validate them and that’s all they needed to leave me.

But I’m not sure I’ll be going on another retreat anytime soon.

50 Pound Anniversary

A year ago today I woke up to the sound of my alarm just like every other work day. After I shut off my phone’s alarm, I navigated to various apps (Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit–in that order) to see what had happened in the hours since I fell asleep. It wasn’t anything of note but it had become my morning routine while I lay in bed waking up.

Eventually, the nagging of my bladder drew me out of the comfort of bed to seek relief. Another part of what had become routine for me was to weigh myself after using the bathroom but before eating breakfast. I got up, put on my glasses, peed, took off my clothes (so as not to add any extra weight), and stepped on the scale. Of the hundreds of mornings that I’d done that, a year ago today was different.

A year ago today, I saw the scale reach 150 pounds. My goal.

A year ago today, I could officially say that I lost 50 pounds.

That morning last January could have been any day. In fact, until I’d gone through my ever-vigilant weight loss tracking notes, I’d forgotten the date that I hit the milestone. It was a day when I reached a goal and the day when I had nothing left to work towards. I was there. I made it. Sure, I kind of wanted to lose 10 more (and I ended up losing three more before backsliding–we’ll get to that) but I had done what I didn’t think I could do a year and a half prior. I had worked on my eating patterns and kept going with them because I knew I couldn’t revert back to how I’d eaten before.

On this January 30th, that day seems so far away and the journey that I traveled in order to get to that day can’t even compare to the struggles I’ve had with food since. I can tell you that I know why people lose weight and gain it all back. I have been lucky and I haven’t, but I know how it can happen.

When I was on the hunt to lose those 50 pounds, I was determined and I quickly found a rhythm. I followed that rhythm to the point that I didn’t have to think that hard about it. I just woke up every day and did it. It was awesome. It felt easy and like I’d unlocked the secret. The pounds fell away week after week and it just worked. I learned how to lose weight and I mastered it.

But after that goal, I was faced with challenges that I’d dare anyone to meet up with and not bend a few times.

The first challenge was the cruise that my husband and I went on after we eloped. From January 30th until we got on that cruise ship nearly two months later, I held strong. I splurged a little here and there because I knew I could without destroying everything but when we stepped aboard that ship, I no longer had control over what I fed myself. I was at the mercy of their menus and their mealtimes.

I drank more wine and beer than I’d had in a long time. I ate more pizza, burgers, and desserts than I could tally up. And when I got home I saw that I didn’t gain anything. That was the worst thing for me.

The mentality that worked for a year and a half of weight loss broke that week.

I had gotten the taste for foods I hadn’t had en masse for over a year and saw that I could eat it and not gain weight back as quickly as I lost it. When I got back, I kept some of the pre-cruise habits but I introduced some pizza, burgers, and desserts back. I introduced a little more than a splurge.

I knew how to lose weight and I knew I could lose weight, so why not have a few extra things?

Before I knew it, I’d jumped from my 147 elope/cruise weight back up to 157 in about 9 months. I felt bloated and awful. Many days, it felt like I’d gained back the whole 50 and then some even though it was only a fraction of that. A part of weight loss that is hard, at least for me, was knowing how it felt to be obese and then realizing that being bloated triggers that exact same feeling, even if you’re 50 pounds lighter.

The most frustrating part was that I knew how to do what I needed to do to lose the extra I’d gained back but I just wasn’t doing it. I continued to let myself slide because I’d made it to my goal, even though that goal was slowly inching further away.

The truth is that I’m still not back down to 150 pounds, even though I am earnestly working on it again (for real). I’m close so I’ll still consider myself to be on the right path, but it’s important to know that if the non-obese life is something that you want, the work doesn’t stop when you stop being obese.

This next bit that I’m going to say is entirely cliche but it’s also realistic. The work begins when the weight loss ends.

When the goal is reached, a new baseline needs to be established within eating habits. I couldn’t eat like fat Amanda anymore. I didn’t need to eat like weight loss Amanda anymore. I hadn’t learned any other way to eat so piecing that together wasn’t very easy. I ended up with a hybrid between the two for a while which consisted of counting calories and doing well some days but other day just ignoring it altogether and eating my feelings.

I think you probably know how that went some weeks.

I’m finally getting to the point that I’m learning to eat like healthier Amanda and it’s such a different mentality. I don’t have to run screaming from bread like weight loss Amanda learned to do. I don’t need to be either at the calorie limit or miles above it during my hybrid diet days. If I go over a bit, it’s okay. I don’t beat myself up. I move on and do better tomorrow.

One of the things that made it hard for me during the past year was the celebration of losing the weight. In order to keep going on the right food path, what I really need to do is ignore this 50 pounds and just push forward. Sure, I accomplished something, but celebrating it doesn’t help me maintain and it definitely doesn’t help me get in better shape.

Day in and day out, I still struggle. I have great days and I have miserable days. It honestly makes me wish that there was something like Alcoholics Anonymous for weight loss. I guess the closest thing would be Weight Watchers, but that’s a business–it’s not a support group. It would help to know that there are other former fat people struggling in this same way.

I’d like to end this on some sort of happy note but I’m not sure that makes sense. After all, celebrating my weight loss has brought me to a point of gaining a bit of it back. Let’s not celebrate today. Let me just wrap this up with honesty and hope. Here goes nothing.

I think I will struggle with food and weight and feeling fit for many years to come, quite possibly my whole life. That’s the honest part. I also think that if I keep working at this and refining my methods, mentality, and goals, I will get better at dealing with this struggle. Practice makes perfect, right?

Tragedy Fosters Compassion

It’s been a week since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary but even with the passage of time and my distinct lack of connection to anyone involved, I can’t shake the thoughts and feelings that keep flowing through me. It’s for that reason I’m turning to blogging. This isn’t because I think the world needs to hear my voice because I have all of the answers. I will assure you that I don’t. This is because my brain won’t stop buzzing and thinking about this topic and writing is the only true way to clear my head.

Here goes nothing.

When this massacre happened, I immediately felt disgusted and angry. I wept. I cried for these little children who had been brutally slain for no purpose. I’m not sure if it was just their age, or that Connecticut is much closer to home than where many other events like this have occurred, but I can say that I was distraught. This feeling lasted for days. When the public began crying out for gun laws and mental health care, I couldn’t break thought from these families and their suffering. How does one come back from losing a child in such a sudden and horrific way? How does a child learn, understand, and cope with their classmates no longer being in their class?

I felt that although the focus was on what’s wrong, we all really could have used that time to give that community a massive hug and tell them that we’re there for them. Instead of outrage (which I know is fully justified), we could have used some compassion. I don’t think calling for new laws carries that same sentiment quite like saying “I care.”

I donated money to a counseling center in Newtown. They serve that community today and they will serve that community when the media has long forgotten that those people effected still suffer.

Never for a second did I think that donating money was enough to help these people. It felt like honestly the least I could do outside of Tweet about the tragedy. I thought about taking a day off of work to volunteer somehow. Somehow, could I do something that would help comfort someone? But their needs are probably for mental health counselors, of which I’m not one, and was swayed from volunteering. I still do not know if that was the right choice. I regret it as I sit here typing this. I think I want to help both for them to know that someone does care about them in a real and honest way but also because I’m having such a hard time with this so I can only imagine how hard it is for them.

The positive thing about this is that it’s not too late. I can still help (we all can, really). In fact, it might be better to wait. When the spot light has shifted to the next news story, that is when they will need the extra love and care the most.

As a country wide community, we collectively ponder solutions to this issue. As I’ve been feeling all of these things, I’ve also been thinking about changes that would need to occur in this country in order for these events to even just happen less often.

I, too, have thought about gun laws, mental health care, and media coverage. I’ve thought about how the time I’ve grown up is somewhat unprecedented in the way of school shootings. Columbine happened when I was in 8th grade, and not even two weeks later, there was a threat in my own school. It thankfully never materialized but it was taken quite seriously considering the news frenzy.

Columbine wasn’t new, of course. I didn’t grow up in a more violent time if you look at the history of school shootings. School shootings happened just as often before now. They just hadn’t happened in a world with 24-hour news stations.

Not only are school shootings happening, but they’re happening under a microscope. As soon as it’s reported, news crews are on the scene trying to get their scoop and get their ratings. They’re interviewing children hours after they may have seen horrific things so that they can get the sympathy viewers. There’s a point when journalism stops being that and turns into a ploy for more profits by getting the most horrific details of children murdered that you can. That’s what these children have turned into. It’s deeply sad.

We would be negligent as a culture to not examine ourselves after this tragedy and guns and mental health care are some of the most difficult topics to puncture in our culture. We’re supposed to have guns according to the second amendment and we’re supposed to be strong enough to not need help. It harkens back to the days of picking ourselves up by our bootstraps. If you work hard enough, anything can be yours in America.

Except sometimes we change. Sometimes we learn more. Sometimes we develop weapons that the founding fathers didn’t even dream of when writing about the need for a militia. Sometimes we figure out the human brain just a little–enough to realize that it’s hard to sort out our mental space on our own sometimes.

My view of gun ownership has always been shaped by having been raised around them. Hunting and target practice were common things in my family and I know the power guns hold because I’ve wielded one at a paper target. I’ve felt the kick and seen how deep those bullets can burrow in to stacks of logs. It’s probably been more than a decade since I handled or shot a weapon (yes, I was a minor but safety was always paramount) but I’m not inherently afraid of them when they lay dormant.

With that bit of background: I do think now is a time to discuss guns in our culture. I’m not saying that prohibition would work (it didn’t for alcohol and it isn’t working for drugs) because I think it would make things worse. I am saying that we should talk about it. We should talk about how gun owners have a responsibility to keep their weapons secure and out of the hands of others to their best ability. We should talk about how some cartridges simply carry more ammunition than you need to kill a deer. We should talk about hollow-point bullets that are designed to cause the most damage as they cut into and rip apart the target’s flesh.

I’ve heard others speak about other countries who don’t have guns with incredibly low crime rates. Or even places where gun ownership is widespread and they also have low crime rates. I want to say that we have to examine our own laws and treatment of weapons but we also need to know that these laws don’t happen in a vacuum. I don’t think America could adopt a carbon copy of another country’s gun laws and have the same result just because it works somewhere else. Why? Because of our culture.

Guns are part of our founding documents and an inherent part of our culture as a result. I understand that and not wanting them erased completely. But we also have to recognize how much our country has evolved since its inception. We have more powerful firearms and we need to moderate it a bit to do our best to prevent the worst of the worst. It won’t stop gun violence–I’m not sure we ever could in America. The best we can hope at first is to get some type of handle on things. Terrible events have always happened so they will keep happening but we can act like we care about preventing them.

Guns are not the only thing we need to talk about. I’m a big sponsor of mental health care and reducing the stigma of seeking therapy or having any type of mental illness. I think the reason why after a tragedy like this we’re focusing on mental health is because on so many levels and in so many ways, we want to believe that no rational “sane” adult could do something like this. I understand that. It’s hard to figure out how someone could be so cold to murder children.

I also know that there’s massive potential to create more of a stigma against mental health care because of that. If the shooter was insane or crazy and we’re assuming he had some mental illness, are all mentally ill people insane? We, as a culture, should really be careful not to cross that threshold.

In my own life, I’ve received counseling (or therapy, whatever term you prefer). I spoke with a woman every week for the past year. I’ve recently stopped going because we mutually agreed that I didn’t need it as much and had greatly improved in areas where I was struggling, but I hadn’t told many people this. I wasn’t mentally ill. I never took medication or was diagnosed with anything. I just had to talk some things out and get life in order and sometimes that’s what mental health care is. Why, then, does it feel like some giant secret to keep for fear that others will think that maybe I’m crazy? I’m not. Even mentally ill people are not. Somehow we have that idea, though, and it makes it hard to talk openly about the realities of mental health care. It’s up to us, those who’ve had great success, to speak about how we’re not crazy, so that’s why I’m even mentioning it.

Sometimes mental health means dealing with depression or bipolar or schizophrenia. Sometimes it’s handling a tough year or a betrayal by a friend or rediscovering one’s true self. It covers such a range that I firmly think there’s a time in everyone’s life where they could benefit from talking things out. Mentally ill or not, it’s healthy to have an impartial party to just be there to support you.

I’m not going to say that I think the murderer was mentally ill because I don’t know and I can’t diagnose a dead man. But I do think it’d probably have been good for him to talk to someone because I think it’s good for all of us to talk to someone if we’re having a tough time.

Would he have talked to someone if given the chance? I can’t even begin to speculate on that. But what if we didn’t brand all users of mental health care as mentally ill? What if there wasn’t a stigma against saying you’re in therapy? What if it was much like how people go for physical therapy after breaking their wrist and it was just a thing people did to get better? Maybe then we’d be able to talk more openly about the times when we’ve sought help. Maybe if we all admitted that we need help sometimes, it’d be easier to talk about.

All too often, the common response is to just get over it. It goes back to the bootstraps mentality that we have. That mentality got us a long way but there are some times when it’s no longer applicable. If we could all just imagine ourselves better and it would work, we wouldn’t need health care at all. Not everything is a self fulfilling prophecy. I mean, some things are. Some things definitely are. Depression isn’t but compassion is.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on myself in the last year and realizing that compassion towards others is something that we all too often forget. We’re all so quick to anger that there leaves no room for caring and that’s the major piece of our culture that I wish I could fix.

We all have situations and people that make us angry. That’s a given. But road rage? Being rude to a cashier? Getting flustered when the number you dial returns someone rude? If we all practiced a little more compassion towards fellow strangers, we could shift from this trend of anger towards a bit more caring and understanding.

This shooting didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened in our culture and we’re the only ones who can fix it. If we can’t have open discourse about all of this, then I don’t think we can recover. That’s not saying this is too far beyond what we can fix. Quite different, actually. If we can talk openly without being insulting to each other, we will be able to put our collective heads together to come up with the ways, bit by bit, to be better.

Let’s cultivate compassion. Let’s work together. Let’s find ways to be Americans with differing opinions that can see that our goals are all the same. I hope we can all agree that this needs solutions.