Friday, September 19, 2014

Dancing at the Shame Prom

Shame is an internal, insidious experience that lives in the body. It can be one of the most devastating emotions because it often leads to isolation, which can then increase the entrenchment. Shame and bodily shame have been strongly associated with eating disorders and, in my experience, oftentimes prevents those suffering from seeking the help they so desperately need. Unknowingly, the dust of shame can sprinkle for generations to come.

Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter compiled stories of shame in their new book, Dancing at the Shame Prom (available now through Amazon.com). This honest, vulnerable and beautiful collection recognizes the impact of shame on self-esteem, self-worth and the way we move through the world. Twenty-six courageous women shared their stories of letting go and breaking through the shame that has blanked them for too long. I can’t recommend this book enough and believe that everyone can relate to the suffocating grip of shame. I encourage you all to bump this book up to the top of your list and when you’re done, consider writing your own shame story.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a mother, Kristine, and daughter, Kate, who shared their individual stories of going through Kate’s battle with anorexia. Below are their interviews.

Kristine Van Raden stumbled upon a bit of a miracle 15 years ago with her best friend Molly Davis. A shared idea led to an interesting project, which led to a dinner party with a slightly inebriated and highly enthusiastic publisher. Soon Kristine and Molly were interviewing strangers on street corners, produce sections of grocery stores -even on an elevator trip up the Eiffel tower- compiling a collection of letters from women around the world which became Letters to Our Daughters (Hyperion,1999). Since then, they formed Matters That Matter (LLC), offering workshops around the country, building upon the honesty and transparency of the women they have met throughout this experience. They have come to understand that we are all more alike than we are different, and that if we can get past the differences, there are common threads that connect us as human beings (taken fromDancing at the Shame Prom). Here is Kristine’s interview:

What made you decide to share your story?
It was a bit of a miracle, the way I met Amy Ferris and in the past few years, when life overwhelmed me, Amy seemed to intuitively know to reach out, call or email. She listened, empathized and was able to make me laugh at times I thought impossible. I shared with her, our family’s ordeal regarding Kate’s eating disorder. Amy never judged. Instead she shared her own pain and vulnerability. Through exposing our shameful stories with one another, we developed a safe and trusted friendship.

We had spoken of a potential project (Shame Prom) that she and Hollye Dexter had dreamed about. I wanted to do what I could to support them, initially thinking I could introduce them to women I thought might have something incredible to contribute. That’s about the time Amy asked if Kate and I might consider writing a co-op piece about life with an eating disorder.

For the first 2 years of dealing with Kate’s anorexia, we as a family made a pact to honor her request that we didn’t tell people about her struggle. She was ashamed, embarrassed and lost as how to navigate her life with this all consuming disorder. There were so many secrets, so much avoidance. In time and with great caution she started speaking about therapy, what she was learning, how she was relating to food and how anorexia effected her life.

I considered what I might have to say about Shame. I have never known the-likes-of such darkness; the shame of failing my child…the shame of not being able to make things right for her, the shame of being such an inadequate mother. I asked Kate how she would feel about me submitting a piece for consideration in an anthology about shame, exploring, from a mother’s perspective, what life with an eating disorder is like.

As we talked about it Kate started to consider her own shame…what it had been, and how it had evolved. We realized how closed we all were for so long, and how we had started to open as we all continued to heal. Kate was strong and confident enough to agree. It felt right; the time, the opportunity, the women involved. Kate and I agreed that sharing our perspectives had merit, not just for ourselves, but for those who might be struggling with similar issues. We both knew it was time to come out of the darkness and offer a little light for others.

What was the most challenging part of writing your essay?
All I did for weeks, every time I tried to write, was sob…sob and sob some more. I had worked so hard for so long, in secrecy and shame. My only priority being to protect and encourage my daughter. That often meant being strong, showing little to no emotion…doing anything it took to move her forward.

Once I got passed the avalanche of emotions, I started to get in touch with my experiences. Remembering was hard on so many levels, but remembering also helped me to realize how far we have come.

I thought I had reconciled that Kate’s anorexia was not my fault. But as I started to write, all those feelings came right back and suffocated me for a day or two. It was Kate, again, that assured me, that I was not to blame.

Exploring and expressing my shame, my failure, and my shortcomings as they relate to Kate’s suffering was both unbearable and freeing.

Did you learn anything about yourself by going through this writing process?
Oh, where do I begin? Because I loved my children with every ounce of my being, I assumed that their lives would take a certain shape, look like a particular “thing” that I had in mind. Love doesn’t create a specific outcome. Love does provide constance through life’s challenges. I have learned to let go of my expectations and I have learned to do so with so much less fear.

I think most parents live under the assumption, that at least on some levels, they are in control of their children’s lives and therefore their destinies. Trying to hold onto that premise represents constant heartache. Of course it is a parents job to love, protect, educate and nurture, but that has to all come under the umbrella of letting go…of recognizing that their lives are just that: Their lives. Just as our parents couldn’t prevent the heartache, suffering and times of agony for any of us, so it is with parents today.

I have worn out the expression, “Life is hard, gear up”, with my children. I knew it would be hard. I just never expected it to be this hard.

How has sharing your story helped you?
Kate, and therefore our family, has struggled and worked so very hard to understand and tame the eating disorder that haunts her. While we have celebrated every victory, no matter how small; pizza in a restaurant, the end of diet pills, a first date with an interesting young man, ice cream, when we finished our Shame Prom contributions, we literally screamed for joy, danced like crazy and felt more free than we had in a long time.

What did you find most helpful throughout Kate’s recovery process?
What I found most helpful was Kate’s attitude and willingness to try, fail, try, fail and try again. While she was getting educated, so were we. We read everything we could get our hands on. We sought out professionals on all levels who had experience and were willing to share information. We worked with Kate to create safe food, safe meals. She was courageous enough to teach us what she needed. We were eager to learn. Kate started individual therapy right away, as well as family therapy. With guidance and education we learned that this was no one’s fault. When we all stopped blaming ourselves treatment became much more effective.

We had the privilege and opportunity of walking along side Kate every step of the way. Were there times I wanted to run for the hills? Hell yes! But I know that our family, united in her wellness and recovery was our strongest asset.

The book that I recommend to anyone who asks is Brave Girl Eating, by Harriet Brown. Harriet tells her story in such a way that I felt like I had found my path, my voice for the first time in this agonizing process.

What did you learn about yourself through Kate’s recovery and being a loving and concerned parent?
As I mentioned, the hardest thing for me to come to grips with was that all of the love, devotion, time, investment in my child could not spare her from such devastating heartache…at that when under full attack, I couldn’t protect her from it. Raising children, we learn to solve so many crises; big ones, small ones. I think we fool ourselves into thinking that we have power over what causes them harm. I have learned that I have the extraordinary power to love my children, come what may.

Having gone through this experience, what message and/or advice would you give to parents of those struggling with eating disorders?
Trust your instincts. At the earliest sign of concern, seek help. If the help you have isn’t right, seek a different solution. This often means coming up against an angry, unwilling child. So be it! If they don’t agree to help, start the process for yourself. Get educated. Get informed.

Do you have anything else that you would like to say to your readers?
I continue to remind Kate of her progress…where she started and where she is today. A person who lives with an eating disorder loses sight of their accomplishments, because in the world we live in they may seem trivial. But like Harriet Brown so appropriately titled her book, Brave Girl Eating, everyday having to face the “enemy” and make peace with it..understand that the thing you hate is also the thing that will keep you alive, will insure your future…so so brave.

I tell people that drug and alcohol addicts can live without their vices and dependencies, but people with eating disorders cannot live without food.

Kate Van Raden is a self-taught photographer who pens both a fashion blog and poetry blog: katevanraden.wordpress.com She is also a twenty-seven year old woman who has struggled with the trials and tribulations of anorexia for the better part of five years; throughout college and modeling in New York. She is currently juggling a zoology degree, a full time job and her continued pursuit of wellness. Kate continues to attend treatment and therapy for her mental illness; making great strides towards increasing personal capabilities for love, growth and self-acceptance; all the while, passionately and vigorously committing herself to her work with endangered species. Kate lives with her three-year old hedgehog Rosebud in an apartment in Portland, Oregon (taken from Dancing at the Shame Prom). Here is Kate’s interview:

How did shame contribute to your eating disorder and/or seeking help?
We all live with shame. Some of us try to make up for the things we are ashamed of, some of try to change; and some of us try to hide these things. As a beloved partner faded from my life, I reverted to the feeling I knew best and felt most comfortable with: shame. I punished myself for failing the relationship. I loathed the things about myself that I perceived as the flaws that were unlovable. I threw myself into ‘improving.’ I thought if people couldn’t see my imperfections, that they would accept me, like me, not be disgusted by me…not leave me. The harder I worked to perfect my appearance, the more ashamed of myself I became. The harder I worked to seem perfect, the more magnified my flaws became to me. As I spiraled into Anorexia, I became increasingly engulfed in a shame that was so overpowering, I pulled further and further away from anyone who could get too close; eventually moving to the other side of the country from my entire community of family and friends. As if slinking away to a cave, in NY no one knew me and no one noticed me. The more shame I felt about WHO I was, the more I starved my body, and the more I starved my body, the more I starved my life. I won’t go into the extremes that my disorder reached (that is fairly well detailed in the book, if interested), but I began to deteriorate so quickly that it wasn’t long before I couldn’t work and felt convinced I couldn’t leave my apartment; as ashamed as I was of myself. I guess I would say that the shame of failing to achieve this perceived perfection through my resolve to be “thin,” and failing to manage my illness, made me feel ashamed. When I realized I couldn’t manage it myself, I had to come clean with my physical and mental struggles and accept help. That meant surrendering; accepting and putting on all the self-loathing and disgust I had been running from for years. I would often feeling dependent and weak, humiliated, worthless…leaving me convinced I had failed myself and the people I love. The only way I could salvage respect for myself, was to make a commitment to fight. I decided one late morning in fall, sitting in the car with my parents in our drive way…to fight.

From the time I was young I wanted my family to be proud of me…on so many levels. I’ve been blessed with a loving family and have always wanted to feel like I measured up, contributed. I have always worked hard at the challenges before me; school, college, scholarships, foreign exchange, relationships, etc. I guess you could say I am a pleaser. I wanted to please those who loved me and I wanted to feel successful in my own right.

What did you find most helpful in your recovery?
Honesty. When you are living with an eating disorder, your life becomes a lie; the lies you tell others about your health and weight, the lies your eating disorder tells you about your self-worth, your body, your perceptions, the lies you tell yourself about listening to the influence of the eating disorder…at least in my experience, giving myself the gift of honesty was the moment I saw hope. To this day, being completely honest and candid with myself and those I love is one of the most important tools I use to maintain my health. In my family, we don’t lie. We don’t let things hide in the dark anymore…we stand up and bare the horrible, terrible, unacceptable truths about ourselves, and give one another the chance to love us anyway. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. Without question, the unconditional love and support of my family kept me afloat many times when I couldn’t see my way clear to the next step. We have done it all together: family therapy, group therapy, individual therapy, nutritionists, psychiatrists, psychologists and hypnotists…read all the books, talked with experts, traveled to clinics, sought help and support where ever possible. I had committed to recovery, and I would NOT fail at that.

Early in my recovery, I was encouraged to attend a week-long intensive program led by Geneen Roth, author of When Food is Love. While I was the only participant suffering with anorexia, I came to understand that food is a struggle for so many. It represents how we value ourselves, how we love and care for ourselves as well as our perceived self-worth. I left with more tools, and a gentler perception of myself and my struggle. I had begun to feel less shame around my personal struggle by sharing it with others and allowing them to share theirs with me.

What made you decide to share your story?
For the first three years of my recovery, I asked my family to keep my illness secret. In earnest, for the first year that I was back in Oregon and going to day treatment 8 hours a day, I insisted that they keep even my presence in Portland a secret from all but grandmothers and siblings. I didn’t want to be “that girl.” The girl everyone pitied and watched for signs of mental illness. As I have gotten stronger and more confident about my recovery and about my self-worth in general, I have opened up a bit at a time. After almost 5 years battling my illness, I began feeling that I wanted to reach out and help someone else. I could finally understand that I really had accomplished significant progress in recovery; more than had ever been promised to me, or expected. I was ready for a next step. The next step for me meant that I would no longer live with the “shame” of hiding my eating disorder. There are still shockingly few resources for people struggling with eating disorders. As hungry as my family and I have been for knowledge and research, it has always been an ordeal to seek out new materials. For all these reasons, when The Shame Prom landed in our laps, my mother and I felt compelled to participate. I don’t mean to say that I felt no apprehension about publishing my most shameful moments alone, but I felt deep in my heart that I was being called to do so.

What was the most challenging part of writing your essay?
The most difficult part of writing my essay was being willing to look back. I have worked so hard to move past the constant sense of self-loathing; it was scary to conjure those thoughts and feelings again, relive the darkness that threatened to swallow me up. I hesitated weeks in starting my piece, purely because I felt an excitement in my body; my Anorexia, sensing an opportunity, and clambering to push me back under the tyranny of hateful self-talk. When I sat down to write, I told myself ‘Remember everything you have learned. You have earned the right to expose this ruthless disease…don’t spare one drop of blood’.

How has sharing your story helped you?
My mom and I spent months writing, reading and editing together. We laughed and sobbed over the trials and tribulations we have experienced together through this process. We sent our pieces together. When we pushed the “send” button I had an overwhelming sense of freedom. “The truth shall set you free” rang true for me in that moment. I genuinely embraced the spirit of the project and decided, “You know what; this is who I am, YES I struggle like everyone else, and I am done pretending that I don’t. I will live an authentic life and embrace the consequences.” Realizing how far I have come, from secrets kept in the dark, to truth shared in the light…I much prefer the light.

Did you learn anything about yourself by going through this writing process?
Life with an eating disorder is a devastating experience. Day after day the battle to eat, or not eat consumes every waking moment. Even today with all the skills and knowledge I have ascertained, each day there is a spirit of deprivation inside me that would like me to believe I don’t deserve to want, need, or eat food. I know this about my brain and body, and there is a constant energy management happening in order for me to resist that feeling. Stresses of life and the occasional moments of insecurity can still be all it takes to unravel my ability to resist the self-flagellation. I felt for so long that I was an eating disorder…that it defined me and left me void of those parts of myself I once recognized as good and capable. Writing my story allowed me to see the difference between the eating disorder and ‘me.’ I am not my eating disorder. Anorexia and Kate Van Raden have different values, different perceptions, different experiences and different desires. I am so much more than some illness; and now that I am aware and informed, I can be more compassionate to other people’s struggles. I value the place I have chosen in the world, and can now accept the love that has always been available to me. I have a future that resonates with hope.

Are you still modeling? If so, how is that experience for you today?
Hell NO! I only began modeling because I was already ill and thin enough to make some money doing it. There was not one thing about that career that made me feel validated or beautiful. People are always surprised to hear that, but then I explain to them:
Imagine, if you go to a casting, you know they are looking for a model of your ‘type’. So you walk into a room of 200 girls who look eerily like you, but slightly taller, or thinner, or with fuller lips and better skin. A casting director looks at you once and says ‘Turn. Oh god no, her thighs are too thick for the pants. And her eyebrows are terrible. That mole splits her lip line…no no no, we can’t use this. NEXT!”

Living to please an industry that not only demands perfection, but seeks to annihilate diversity (in order to sell us all their image of what every person is supposed to be) was never something I could resolve with my personal values. I believe that beauty, real beauty, includes the entire range of shapes, colors and sizes…that is the spice of life!

How do you keep yourself healthy today?
I am still in regular therapy with someone I have a great deal of respect for. I look for opportunities to get more insight and more education whenever possible; be that a course in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), mindful meditation or a new book about neuroplasticity. I try to be transparent with my family when I am struggling and welcome their support and guidance. But mostly, I now thoughtfully greet myself each morning with love. I take opportunities throughout my day to feel appreciation for my body; all I have put it through and how faithfully it continues to let me play, learn, feel pleasure, love, and yes, eat. When you are constantly making the choice to offer yourself this kind of compassion, the things about eating that can be hard, get easier.

Having gone through this experience, what message and/or advice would you give to anyone struggling with food, weight and body image?
First, you are not alone. You may think the things you have felt and done throughout your experience are more awful, more disgusting, more shameful than anyone can imagine…so pick one person you love and trust most in the world and test that theory out on them. You must give someone the opportunity to know (and yes, I understand, possibly reject) the real authentic you, in order to feel that ‘authentic you’ authentically accepted, warts and all. I would venture to guess that those who love you will pleasantly surprise you with the depth of their compassion and understanding. Of course, there will be people on the path who don’t understand and cannot offer that compassion…but in my personal experience, those are the people who are probably not meant to walk your path with you. I have come to understand that the longer an eating disorder is in place, the harder it is to move beyond it. The sooner one can release the shame about this particular struggle, the shorter the climb is out of the darkness. I know now that just like anyone else, I am worthy of a life filled with peace, self-acceptance, love and kindness. So I encourage anyone who lives under the presumption that they are unworthy of these things, to make it their business to defy that thinking. Start by testing it. Allow some space in the iron clad will of your eating disorder, for some doubt. That cruel voice, she could be wrong (mine is a ‘she’).

Do you have anything else that you would like to say to your readers?
You are beautiful. There is no one on this planet who can replace YOU. You have as much right to have flaws as anyone else on this planet. You have the right to accept those flaws and not feel shame because of that. While it is wonderful to choose a path towards being the best human being possible, it should be a choice made out of self-love and not self-loathing; so be aware of how you talk to yourself and what is motivating your choices.

I am living with an eating disorder. I am not an eating disorder. I am an individual with strengths and weaknesses and I am going to spend the rest of my life celebrating those strengths, learning about those weaknesses and giving myself the gift of peace.

I want to express my deep gratitude to both Kristine and Kate for continuing their courageous contributions to the issues of shame and eating disorders. Without a doubt, your stories have already helped many. Thank you both!

And to Amy and Hollye, for embarking on such an important project, for giving these 26 women voices to express what has felt inexpressible and for inspiring countless others to begin their own journey.

Jodi Rubin, ACSW, LCSW
http://jodirubin.wordpress.com

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