Friday, January 22, 2016

Taking Away My Own Power

From age 14 to 15, I gained 45 pounds.

I started what would become an almost two-decade long struggle with food and my body in middle school, around age 11. Most of the struggle in the beginning manifested in sporadic guilt and regret: In my mind, I berated myself for the so-called roll of fat over my Gap jeans that preventing me from tucking my shirt in (God, did I ever want to tuck my shirts in like the other girls did), and I practically committed mental suicide over the way my arms looked in tank tops—a lunch lady dangle making me feel like I may have some kind of aging disorder.  Yet, most of this struggle only resulted in half-hearted attempts at restricting my food to all-veggie salads and sandwiches made with diet bread and before bed calisthenics routines and an occasional Jane Fonda workout video.

But as I made my way through middle school, the struggle became more and more real: I started to notice how my friends were able to consume an entire bag of Doritos, wash it down with real Coke (not Diet Coke), and top it off with a pint of Hagen Das and not ever even show a slight bloat in their incredibly flat stomachs. I began to feel horrible at sleepovers, regretting the hangover the next day from a night of pizza, ice cream, chips, cookies, and cake.

On the outside, I never had a “weight problem” and was always visually pretty average. My struggle was deep, deep inside. And it wasn’t about being fat or about being pretty or about fitting in. It was about feeling out of control.

Here is the thing about that time period, despite the internal monologue berating myself, I still ate fairly normally, eating when hungry and stopping when full.

It wasn’t until age 14 that I began to eat compulsively. A combination of the transition from middle to high school with my first real heartbreak sent me head first into a carton of Vanilla Fudge ice cream. These episodes were different from the occasional over-eat-athon with girlfriends at a sleepover. When the hunger switch inside me said “full”, I kept going…like driving a car and watching the speedometer lean all the way over—I pushed the peddle further to the metal.

Oddly, I felt powerful while binging. I felt a freedom that I didn’t feel in my day-to-day life. Yet, after each episode, I was left helpless and empty, despite the filled-to the brim murkiness in my belly.

Over the course of almost 2 years, I put on 45 pounds. Then something shifted for me…I no longer felt powerful and free when I binged. I felt horrible, I felt like I was violating myself, hurting myself, like I hated my self…yet, I didn’t hate myself and I didn’t want to do it any more. I was growing up now and with the promise of college to take me out of my small town, I saw that a wider world was waiting and I didn’t want to be stuck in my wall of food and fat, missing out on it all. 

So I stopped…with the help of a book by Geneen Roth called Breaking Free From Emotional Eating. I learned about the powerful tool called the hunger scale and I started to watch and listen to those numbers instead of the ones on my bathroom floor.

And my weight evened out, and I cured myself of the compulsion to binge.

But this isn’t a personal essay about how I cured myself of compulsive eating.

This is an essay on the connection between writing and self-love, writing and compulsive behavior. There is a connection to writing somewhere in this adolescent experience of mine. If I were to create an analogy, I don’t think it would fit perfectly but it goes like this: If writing is to eating, then compulsive writing is to compulsive eating. In other words, if writing is nourishment to my soul as eating is nourishment to my body, then it is possible to turn that act of nourishment into an act of destruction, as I did once with food.

Writing was, for many, many years, a natural expression and expansion of myself, my soul, my thoughts, my force field, my energy.

The way I feel about my writing now, is so very reminiscent to how I felt when binge eating stopped feeling powerful and free and started to feel limiting, horrible, and self-destructive.

The natural ebb and flow of my hunger was disrupted by my misuse of food. I remember that one day I woke up and thought, instead of going to school and dealing with the pressure and stress of 9th grade with all of its uncertainty, newness, and heart break, I could stay home in my bed and eat…anything. All day long. I could taste and chew and fill and never have to feel the sadness and depression of loss that I was carrying around (starting with the sudden death of my grandfather, followed by a painful break up, and the ending two close friendships). If I just keep eating and tasting the tastes of delicious sweetness, I won’t have to feel a thing ever again!

Or so I thought.

When it didn’t work, I had to stop. I wanted to stop. I was more than willing to figure out how to eat normally and healthfully again. So I began to listen to the signals of hunger and fullness, and my eating began to be rhythmic and predictable and feel good and normal. I stopped obsessing all day long about it. Sure, my mind would wander and do what it did, but I became so grounded in my own hunger urges and needs and queues, that the chatter in my brain didn’t matter to what I actually did in terms of eating. My soul and body took over the chatter in my brain, and I started to trust myself .  

When my writing didn’t catch fire in the industry as I thought it would years ago, I just wrote more and harder and faster because then I didn’t have to face the pain of loss, disappointment, and heartbreak.

Geneen Roth talks about how food is just food and not love. It is not power or control either. Food brings you the ability to be nourished and it keeps you alive. The same can be said about writing, yet there is a break down in this analogy—writing can bring about change, and it can bring about love. It can also bring about hate, fear, rage…because writing is art. Art has power, has the capacity to be powerful. But writing is not love. Writing is not worth. When I write compulsively, I take away my own power, my own self-trust, my own authentic voice.  

When I use writing to avoid emotional struggle and pain, when I use it as a weapon against myself, when I go at it with a rawness that no longer feels healing, writing is just as bad as compulsive eating, gambling, or drinking.

Yes, something so good can become so bad, if you use it to avoid emotional distress and pain.

When I began to eat based on internal and natural cues, I started to remember that I used to do that, that before puberty took hold of me, before I started to be afraid of my feelings, I would do a lot of thing without too much obsessing and worry.

Today, I don’t eat to avoid pain. I don’t eat to block things in my life. I eat for hunger, flavor, and taste. Eating is enjoyable, but when it is over and I am full, I move on and live . There is no struggle.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve stopped writing compulsively and have started to listen to internal cues about what I love to write. I love writing this piece. I love helping my clients write. I love writing freely or writing for a purpose or writing on a deadline.

I hurt as I sit here and write this. I hurt about my manuscripts that sit in my computer and that are not agented and that are not considered by editors. I’m sad about my books that sit in my closet not in the hands of readers. The difference is, I allow myself to feel all the hurt and pain, and I don’t write to avoid it. I accept the pain of rejection, of “no”, and in that acceptance, I find my own yes, my own pleasure for writing.   

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Social (Media) Comparison Bias: The Artist’s Illness

When I was in school studying creative writing, the director of my MFA program started off each of the residencies with a mini speech about the dangers of comparing yourself to other writers. The main danger is that you can render yourself not only artistically paralyzed, but also emotionally frozen by focusing on how much better you think everyone else is compared to you. Envy and comparing were dangerous emotional paths to take during workshops with other writers because it took away from both your own experience as well as the experience of enjoying another student’s writing. Not to mention, as our director would often say, there is room for all successes, and one person’s success doesn’t detract from your own.

In the nurturing environment of the MFA program, coupled with the inspirational speech from our director at the twice-a-year residencies, I can honestly say, I never experienced more than small flickers of envy and comparing during those two and a half years.

Then, I graduated, thrust out of the cocoon of warm and fuzzies that was The Solstice MFA Program and into the Real World where I encountered a serious problem with envy and comparing, encounters that got increasingly more emotionally upsetting over the subsequent four years post graduation.

Looking back, thanks to my newest pursuit of becoming a psychotherapist, I know from my studies of psychology that comparing yourself to others is a normal and even healthy way to measure your own successes and failures and that envy also is a normal response to such comparisons. However, there is an insidious cognitive experience that occurs when we start comparing ourselves to others, and it’s called Social Comparison Bias.

Social Comparison Bias, which stems from Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory that states humans have an internal drive for “accurate self evaluations” (basically we want to know how well or poorly we are doing), and the way that we humans get those self evaluations is by comparing ourselves to others, across the many domains of our lives (looks, economic status, education, etc). Festinger’s theory was expanded upon by a guy named Willis, who talked about upward and downward comparisons. This is where it all can get tricky and exceptionally bad for us artist-types because we are pretty sensitive and emotional creatures. Willis’ idea is that in order to measure our own success, we look up (for motivation to be better) and we look down (to feel better). This is all well and good if you can, in fact, compare yourself to an Olympian, or the Olympian of YA fiction, Judy Blume, and become inspired. Or, if you can compare yourself to an out-of-shape slob and feel good about the three miles you jogged. And, in my case, if you can compare yourself to someone who isn’t as far along in the world of publishing as I am—someone who hasn’t had anything published yet—and feel like you are progressing towards the goal of published author.

The problem lies in this: as we are looking up or down, if our self-esteem isn’t in a healthy place—instead of being inspired by Judy Blume, I actually started to resent her (as if I even knew her personally!)—this psychological shit hits the fan.

And, friends, my shit (emotional, spiritual, psychological) hit that fan, hard, splatteringly hard upon graduation of that MFA program.

On the surface, I was a model post-MFA student—within a year I was launching a YA anthology, landed in Publisher’s Weekly, and was receiving an offer from an agent. Deep inside, something terrible was happening.

These successes were trumped by the failures that came along with them. The YA anthology, while widely recognized and submitted to, didn’t “take off” as I hoped. Signing with an agent I loved and who believed in me didn’t guarantee we’d sell my work. Within a few short years post MFA, I was sobbing in a therapist’s office, declaring myself a complete and utter failure and sham of a writer. I took this even further, by the way, attaching guilt to the fact that I’d spent over a decade of my time and money to this to turn up with nothing and sacrificing time away from my family. I took my failure to launch as an author to be a failure as a mother, wife, friend, daughter, teacher, etc.

How did this happen?

As soon as I graduated from Solstice and began my YA anthology, I spent a lot of time on social media, building up interest and excitement over my new endeavor. Unfortunately, I also started to compare myself to other writers/authors, who I perceived as being better than me, and neither comparing up nor down served me well. Not to mention, my comparisons were 24-7, thanks to Twitter and Facebook.

All of us are continually bombarded with Facebook posts and Tweets that espouse successes, triumphs, and achievements, as if life is truly always endless bowls of cherries and constant dancing unicorns. This is such a problem that in recent psychology studies, researchers have been able to link Facebook with depression, making this social comparison bias phenomenon a possible cause to mental illness! This makes perfect sense! When we continually see statuses about job promotions, new relationships, and expensive purchases or, in my case, new book deals, we start to compare ourselves to those statuses in unrealistic ways. The bias (tendencies to think in certain ways that stray from what is rational) part is the worst because this is the part where now we actually start seeking out information that supports this cognitive distortion that I suck and everyone else doesn’t. Thus, when I see the status that so-and-so got a “nice” book deal, I start to seek out more information about the book deal to either confirm that, in fact, I suck or, the opposite, that they suck. Everyone who has a Facebook or Twitter has committed the social media “crime” of stalking that ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/friend’s page to find out more about his or life…in search of some information to reassure yourself that somewhere in his or her life things are not perfect. Aha, Suzie may have just married a hot guy in Fiji but scroll down a few years we find out that she got divorced from an overweight, former, high school sweetheart. Or, in my case, aha! Suzie may have signed a book deal, but it was with XYZ publisher and “nice” means that she could have gotten no advance. Woo-hoo! Boy do I feel good now because she isn’t such hot shit. 

There were times, for a few of those post-MFA years, Suzie’s new book deal simply drove me to work harder on my craft and on my research of publishers to send my work out to. Unfortunately, more times than not, it made me feel like total shit. My “illness” took over for a period of time and rendered me depressed. By comparing myself to others, it didn’t inspire me as it could have had I been in a better mental state.

And, as I discovered in therapy, this constant comparing, over time, changed the way I thought about myself not just as a writer but as a mother, wife, friend, teacher, etc…What rendered me so depressed was the major change in my thinking and my perception of myself. The comparing myself to others I perceived as more successful, reinforced the thought, I am a failureat everything and that thought became the lens through which I looked at myself and my world.

Eventually, the healing came in the form a serious commitment to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. By both challenging these thoughts about failure and gathering up concrete factual evidence to both support and refute that statement, I was able to start seeing myself more clearly. I started to examine failure and discovered that I was equating my failures as crimes rather than what they were, simply failures and that failure doesn’t make me a bad a person. A bad person is many things but not someone who simply fails to get a book deal. 

I also discovered that I was putting my worth into something that is kind of equivalent to winning the lottery: saying “I suck because I don’t have a book deal” is like playing the lottery and saying “I suck each time I don’t win.” Not only is equating suckage with whether or not you achieve a certain goal or dream ridiculously illogical, but also you can’t control winning the lottery any more than you can control if someone wants to publish your book. All you can do is play the game.