The End of the Affair (?)

Hershey's bars 6 packI thought that when I quit drinking in September of 2017, that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Turns out it was just the tip of the iceberg. Turns out Kettle One martinis have nothing on Hershey’s milk chocolate.

Of course it’s natural to crave sugar and carbs when suddenly abstaining from alcohol, which is full of both. And on top of that, I’ve struggled with disordered eating all of my life—not just my adult life. Being molested by my grandfather when I was five, and then being emotionally and verbally abused by my mother most of my life—especially when she was drinking—left me with a messy battle with food, alcohol, and my body. I was hoping that breaking up with alcohol would fix everything. Turns out it was only the end of one affair.

In recent months, Hersheys Kisses moved into my life with all the force of a lover in heat. It started with only a few Kisses a day, not even every day. But then it escalated to whole bags of kisses, which I would devour without stopping, usually while watching something dark on Netflix, like Homecoming. When I mentioned my kisses binges to a couple of people, they laughed, not realizing the seriousness of my situation. One of my favorite essayists, Anne Lamott, a recovering alcoholic herself, seems to condone my habit, as she writes in her latest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope:

Chocolate with 81% cacao is not actually a food . . . . It was never meant to be considered an edible. [Note: AMEN!] . . . .

Don’t let others make you feel unsophisticated if you reach middle age preferring Hershey’s Kisses. So many of your better people do. Also, always carry a handful of Kisses in your backpack or purse to give away. People will like you more.

IMG_5704As I read those words, from someone who like me had ended her affair with alcohol, I wondered if I could enjoy just a handful of kisses without eating the entire bag. I thought back to when and where the attraction to the Kisses began. It was five months ago today—June 15—when I was speaking at the Alabama Writers Conclave Conference in Orange Beach, Alabama. I’m always nervous when I’m going to be speaking, and I was also teaching a workshop at this event. When I was drinking, I would shore up my courage with alcohol prior to any such event, but with that source gone from my life, I innocently picked up a handful of Hersheys Kisses from the snack table in the foyer of the building where the workshops and talks were being held. For two days, I returned to that table again and again, pocketing more and more handfuls of Kisses. (I wrote about this new lover in a post in September, “Disordered Eating Revisited.”)

Recently I wondered if I could slow my roll by switching from Hershey’s Kisses to Hershey’s chocolate bars. One bar had fewer ounces than the smallest bag of Kisses, so maybe I could wean myself off. The taste was just the same—the amazing texture and the instant comfort as the milk chocolate melted in my mouth and pumped its sweetness into my blood stream. I even found myself comparing the rush to that of a vodka martini at the end of a long day, when I’m in physical or emotional pain, nervous, or stressed. But just like the vodka, after a while one was not enough. I would purchase a 6-pack of chocolate bars—intending to eat only one a day—but I found myself eating all 6 in one sitting, more than one time. I knew I was in trouble.

Enter the Nativity Fast. What? Now you’re wondering if this is the same blog post I started out writing. In the Orthodox Church we observe the Nativity Fast from November 15 until Christmas. It’s similar to our experience of Great Lent—the forty days leading up to the celebration of Pascha (Easter). There are some rules/guidelines for fasting during this season, and the Church emphasizes that the point is spiritual growth, drawing closer to God, not just following rules. I’ve always struggled with this, but something I read a couple of days ago gave me pause:

Did not the Lord Jesus Himself begin His divine ministry of the salvation of mankind with a long, forty day fast? And did not He, in this way, clearly show that we must make a serious beginning to our life as Christians with fasting? . . . With this weapon, He vanquished Satan in the wilderness, and with it was victorious over the three chief satanic passions with which Satan tempted Him: love of ease, love of praise, and love of money.—St. Nikolai Velimirovich [quoted in Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints and Fasting Calendar 2018—the Orthodox Calendar Company]

Love of ease. Love of praise. Love of money. I struggle with all three of these. In my brain I can’t understand how fasting can help me let go of these, but I do know that I’m hungry and thirsty for something.

Anne Lamott on Hershey’s Kisses.

An Orthodox saint on the value of fasting.

What’s she going to write about next? (You know I read widely and search diligently for wisdom from many sources.)

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

Last weekend when I was speaking at the Louisiana Book Festival, I met an amazing woman. I was drinking coffee in the author’s lounge on Saturday morning, waiting for my 9 a.m. panel to start, when an attractive, colorfully-dressed, bright-eyed woman came in and sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out she was Sheryl St. Germain, winner of the 2018 Louisiana Writer Award. She would be presented with the award and would give a talk—you guessed it—at 9 a.m. in another room in the Louisiana State Capitol. The other members of my panel joined us on couches and chairs in a circle and laughed about how maybe some of the people who couldn’t get into her talk would find their way to our panel.

Sheryl and I had a short but intimate conversation. I fell in love with her immediately and felt a kindred spirit with her as a writer and as a human. She is 9 years sober, and has suffered great loss in her life, including the death of her son to an overdose. She wrote beautifully about this in her poetry collection, The Small Door of Your Death, which addresses issues of addiction and recovery. Sheryl directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University, but she’s a native of New Orleans. She is also the co-founder and director of the Words Without Walls Program, which offers creative writing courses to those incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail, and also to inhabitants of Sojourner House, a rehab facility for women with children.

I’m reading her book Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair right now. In this book she chronicles the time she spent in Alaska, drawing surprising similarities to her home state of Louisiana, but also sharing insights from living so close to nature. I’m remembering my own visit to Alaska about thirteen years ago as I read these words this morning:

Juneau lies on a thin strip of land at the mouth of Gold Creek amidst a backdrop of mountains and glaciers that push down from the Juneau Ice Fields, which native people called “Home of the Spirits.” The irony of this name is not lost on me; I’ve seen a lot of public drunkenness since arriving in Alaska two months ago. . . . I’m reminded that the old label for what we now call alcoholism is dipsomania, which means, ‘crazy with thirst.’ As I hammer—with difficulty—the final tent stake into this rocky soil, I wonder if the thirst I have for wilderness and for union with the land is not more deeply connected to my own thirst for alcohol than I have wanted to admit. [Note: this was before she quit drinking.] Carl Jung would write that the alcoholic’s craving for alcohol is the equivalent, on a low level, of a spiritual thirst for wholeness, a desire for union with whatever one understands as God.

There it is—a spiritual thirst for wholeness and a desire for union with God. Yes.

And later she says,

It’s no mystery that Christ’s blood is offered to us in the literal and metaphoric form of wine, and it’s no mystery that alcoholics are such spiritually thirsty people.

I was hoping to give up Hershey’s milk chocolate altogether during the Nativity Fast, and possibly forever. If I can quit alcohol, surely I can quit milk chocolate, right? But I’m wavering today . . . still clinging to the hope that I can just be moderate with it. Hoping that I can stop with one handful of Kisses or one Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. Yesterday was the first day of the fast and I did, indeed, eat only one chocolate bar. I knew better than to buy a six-pack. One day at a time. Stay tuned.

Intuitive Eating

On Tuesday I did a post about “Disordered Eating.” This is a follow up, so if you’re bored with this topic, check back in next week. If not, please keep reading.

1515intuitiveeatingThere were interesting discussion threads on Facebook and Instagram in response to my post on Tuesday—thank you! This is obviously a topic of importance to many people. One person left a comment on Tuesday’s post asking for a recommendation for an in-patient therapy program for her morbid obesity, and I’ve put her in touch with two people in her city who might have suggestions. And two different people who live in two different cities both mentioned the book INTUITIVE EATING by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.  These two women are both seeing nutrition experts for help with their eating disorders. I got the book on Wednesday and read most of it in two days. (And yes, I finished off another bag of Hershey’s kisses in the process.)

It’s a complex book and program, so I’m not going to try and do a full review here. I will respond to the book’s 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating and a few other excerpts from the book.

First let me introduce the authors. Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietician with a nutrition counseling practice in Newport Beach, California, specializing in eating disorders. Elyse Resche, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A., C.E.D.R.D, has been in private practice in Beverly Hills, California, as a nutrition therapist for thirty years, specializing in eating disorders, Intuitive Eating, and preventative nutrition. . (C.E.D.R.D. stands for Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietician—yes, there actually is such a thing!)

twiggyAnd before I go any further, I’d like to share a link to a blog post I found while clicking around this morning: “Why Intuitive Eating is Making Me Sad.” I think this short post is important because the author is simply making the observation that this program or principle, which claims to be “revolutionary,” is really a return to the way people used to eat before the diet craze took over our world. I think her words are a good addition to this conversation. For me personally, I barely remember that pre-diet-craze time…. only a few years in the 1950s when I happily ate my grandmother’s homemade rolls, fried corn, and homemade ice cream without guilt. My grandfather who molested me when I was 4-5 died around 1956, and it would take several decades for me to make the connection between those acts and my disordered drinking and eating. By the time I was a teenager, my mother had already started in on me with the “fat talk” (this is explained in the book) and shaming, and my eating disorder was in full force in the 1960s. Just when Twiggy came on the scene and I wanted to be her. Thankfully my eating disorder never became as life-threatening as anorexia, although there were times when I wished I could be anorexic so I could be skinny. Yes.

So back to the book. I read 10 of the 17 chapters, and skimmed the other 7. It’s not that those chapters aren’t important. It’s just that they address things that I had already learned in my 67 years and didn’t need to revisit. FULL DISCLOSURE: I must say up front that I don’t embrace a major tenet of this approach, which is that the patient/client must put weight-loss on the back burner as they work through this program. I have lost almost 20 pounds in the past two years, but I’d like to lose at least 10 more, so I’m not willing to put this “on the back burner.” This isn’t a one-size-fits-all issue, and in Chapter 2: “What Kind of Eater Are You?” I didn’t fit any of the descriptions. The one that came closest for me was the “Emotional Unconscious Eater,” although I’m very conscious of my eating. This type:

“uses food to cope with emotions, especially uncomfortable emotions such as stress, anger, and loneliness. While Emotional Eaters view their eating as the problem, it’s often a symptom of a deeper issue. Eating behaviors of the Emotional Eater can range from grabbing a candy bar in stressful times to chronic compulsive binges of vast quantities of food”

So, Chapter 11 was possibly the most helpful chapter for me:

PRINCIPLE 7: Cope With Your Emotions Without Using Food

This chapter is summarized in the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating I mentioned earlier:

Find ways to comfort , nurture, distract, and resolve your issues without using food. Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you into a food hangover. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger will only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion, as well as the discomfort of overeating.

The chapter goes into detail about various emotional triggers and the ways we use food for comfort, distraction, sedation, and even punishment, although that last one hasn’t been my experience. While there wasn’t anything “new” for me in this chapter—I kept waiting for the magic answer—the easy ways to find comfort without using food—it was reaffirming:

Becoming an Intuitive Eater means learning to be gentle with yourself about how you use food to cope, and letting go of the guilt. As odd as this may sound, eating may have been the only coping mechanism you had to get through difficult times in your life.

I identified with that statement, with one really big caveat: for years I used alcohol as my coping drug of choice. But one year ago tomorrow (yes!) I quit drinking, so food has moved back into the forefront of my struggles, with renewed vigor.

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The main things about Intuitive Eating that make sense to me are things that I already embrace. I am a mindful eater and am aware of when I am full and can often stop eating at that point. Like yesterday when I had lunch with a friend and only ate half of the two sushi rolls I ordered. I was full and comfortable with that amount. It wasn’t hard to stop eating because the food, which was delicious, made me happy. I was also enjoying the company of a friend, so I wasn’t lonely. The day before, I had buttered two halves of a blueberry bagel and toasted them for breakfast. My husband walked in and said, “something smells good,” and I realized that I was full after eating one half, so I gave him the other half. (I had also eaten a peach.) All this to say that I already get the mindful eating thing, and I actually practice it fairly regularly, where meals are concerned. And thankfully the binge eating has almost gone away during this year that I’ve not been drinking, so that’s interesting. I haven’t had a bulimic episode in many months. It’s the trigger foods (like Hershey’s kisses) that I’m struggling with controlling, and I don’t really see how this book addresses those issues directly. Maybe they will resolve themselves as I get healthier in general. If I ever reach the point, as page 163 in the book describes, “When Food is No Longer Important” (when a person reaches the point where they’re no longer using food to cope with their emotions):

You no longer have the “benefits” of using food…. One client noted that on tough days she knew she could always go home to her chocolate. Now, instead, she’s “stuck” with experiencing her feelings. You might even need to go through a grieving period for the loss of food as comforter and companion.

This is probably the most important paragraph in the whole book for me. This describes exactly what I’ve been able to do with alcohol for the past year. Almost every day (at least for the few first months) there’s a time when something triggers me and I want vodka so badly I can hear the martini shaker going in my mind and I can taste the magic on my lips. But since I made the decision not to drink, this is no longer an option for me. I have GRIEVED the loss of this comfort, but like grief over the death of a loved one, it’s getting easier with time. I’m thinking that I will need to make similar choices about certain foods (like Hershey’s kisses) that I can’t seem to limit. I already do this in some ways—like not buying kettle-cooked potato chips very often because I will eat the whole bag at once. But I do choose to buy those chips at times, maybe about once or twice a month. Maybe intuitive eating for me will mean making these hard choices more frequently, and allowing myself to “experience my feelings in a deeper, stronger way” as the book says. I used alcohol to numb those feelings for so many years, and now I’m trying to learn to quit using food in the same way.

The chapter of the book about respecting your body also hit a strong note with me. I already do the “nice things” the book suggests, like getting massages and regular visits to the nail and hair salon. And I’m embracing moderate exercise, which is discussed in another chapter in the book. I was an exercise “addict” in the 1980s when I ran an aerobic dance business. On days that I didn’t work out, I often didn’t eat. When we traveled I looked for an aerobic class to attend, and if I couldn’t find one I would panic. When I quit teaching aerobics at age 40, I began to gain weight again, and the struggle has intensified over the years. But I’ve finally made peace with exercising moderately on our elliptical machine in my office, and at the swimming pool in the summer. I’m not “driven” to exercise, nor do I feel guilty if I skip but it makes me feel so much better to MOVE my body, that I’m drawn to it fairly naturally.

I’ve also been learning to really enjoy food at times by eating mindfully, eating foods I really love in a nice setting. So I think I’ve been on the road to “intuitive eating” for a while, but I’ve got a ways to go with the trigger foods. And I would love to some day be free of my obsession with food and body image. You would think that being 67 years old would help, and in some ways it does. Also, surviving a life-threatening wreck five years ago (when I broke my neck, leg and ankle) has helped, because I have become more THANKFUL for my body and the life it provides for me, when I could have died or become paralyzed. The pain I’m left with does trigger unhealthy eating (as it once triggered the alcohol) but I’m learning to use other means to help deal with the pain.

Chapter 14 was helpful: PRINCIPLE 10: Honor Your Health With Gentle Nutrition. Again, it didn’t have a lot of information that was NEW to me, but it confirmed a number of things that I’ve been learning over the years that make me think I’m moving in a good direction. I think that for me, right now, today, focusing on how eating certain foods and certain amounts of food makes me FEEL is key.
The bottom line is, I’m tired. I’m tired of food and weight and appearance taking up so much of my life. One of the clients described in the book talked about her obsession with clothes and body image while preparing for upcoming social events. I do that when preparing for speaking engagements on my book tours. Like this weekend, when I’m flying to South Carolina to speak on a panel sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literary Center. It’s an honor and I’m excited about it, but of course I’m also keenly aware that the other women on the panel are thinner than me (two are quite a bit younger as well) and I worry about what to wear and I compare myself to these other women. I’m sure that the people in the audience are just there to hear about our books and our lives as southern writers, but I can’t help but worry about how I will look.

I’m hopeful that I’m moving towards making peace with these issues, and while I don’t think this book is a magic bullet, I do appreciate some of the wisdom its authors have shared. I’ll close with an excerpt from Chapter 16: The Ultimate Path Towards Healing From Eating Disorders:

The vision of a future, free of obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors is very powerful. This hope can facilitate the patience it will take to get through the period of time that is needed for healing.

Thanks, always, for reading and please join the discussion here or on Facebook or Instagram.

Disordered Eating Revisited

eating-disorderAccording to an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry (2009):

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

And yet, this mental illness was left out of the Mental Health First Aid training course I took last weekend, sponsored by the Church Health Center here in Memphis. They used to include Eating Disorders, but the course took longer than one day, so they cut it out. The mental disorders they included in the eight-hour course were: anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia. I can see why they chose these disorders for the course, as each of them have specific things a person can do to help—mental health first aid—when they see someone struggling with an anxiety or panic attack, severe depression, substance abuse, and behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others. For someone with an eating disorder, the symptoms don’t always present in such obvious forms. And “mental first aid” for persons with this disorder is a bit more complicated.

Thankfully there’s a whole chapter devoted to eating disorders in the Mental Health First Aid USA manual they gave us at the training, and I came home and read it right away. If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know that my interest in this disorder is very personal, as I’ve suffered from eating disorders for most of my life. I don’t believe that my level of disordered eating has placed me in a life-threatening situation—the way that anorexia can, on the one extreme, or morbid obesity, on the other. And for many people like me, it would be difficult for someone to know how to reach out to us with any kind of mental first aid. By the time a person’s eating disorder has become life-threatening, it seems that treatment has a diminishing chance of success.

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Aerobic dance instructors at Phidippides Sports in Jackson, Mississippi, 1984. That’s me in the black tights, middle row on the left. Even at 116 pounds, I often wore black to make my thighs look skinnier. I was 33 years old.

 

With so much emphasis on body image in our culture, it’s not surprising that many people (especially women and girls) suffer from body image distortion and resultant eating disorders in an effort to live up to society’s standards for a thin body. This started for me when I was a young teenager and gained 35 pounds in one year as a result of hormone therapy I received following surgery when I was 16. I went from a skinny 95-pound bundle of energy (who could eat as much as I wanted and not gain weight) to a 130-pound late-blooming adolescent. (I also grew three inches taller.)  By the time I got married at age 19, I weighed 140 and was depressed. My bulimic habits, which began as a teenager, continued into  adulthood. I would eat in secret and lie about what I was eating. I tried various forms of exercise, and finally in 1982, I found something that “worked.” I began teaching aerobic dancing at my parents’ athletic store in Jackson, Mississippi (Bill Johnson’s Phidippides Sports) and dropped to 116 pounds pretty quickly. But my disordered eating and body image distortion only increased. Standing in front of a wall of mirrors in spandex, teaching my students, I still thought I was fat. On any day that I couldn’t work out, I wouldn’t eat. Bulimia was still part of my life, but less so with al the exercise.

kissesWhen I read the chapter on eating disorders in the Mental Health First Aid manual, I recognized immediately which category I fit into. I don’t have anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa (since bulimia isn’t a regular activity for me) so the third category, “Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified or EDNOS” includes Binge-Eating Disorder, which is the main thing I’ve struggled with most of my life. Whenever I post images—like this one of the Hersheys Kisses I ate on a recent binge—on social media, I get lots of responses from others with similar issues, so I know it’s fairly common. According to an article in Biological Psychiatry (2007):

A national survey of adults found that 1.2 percent had binge-eating disorder in the previous year and 2.8 percent had had it some time in their life. Approximately 28 percent of people with binge-eating disorder received treatment for mental health problems.

I think that last statistic is important, because in order to get healed from an eating disorder, I think a person needs help with the underlying cause. Again, according to the Mental Health First Aid manual (and an article in Lancet in 2003):

A range of biological, psychological, and social factors may be contributing factors. The following factors increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder:

Life Experiences
Conflict in the home, parents who have little contact with or high expectation of their children.

Sexual abuse.

Family history of dieting.

Critical comment from others about eating, weight or body shape.

Pressure to be slim because of occupation (model, jockey) or recreation (ballet, gymnastics)

Mom circle 1963. She was 35 years old and thought she was fat.

Mom circle 1963. She was 35 years old and thought she was fat.

I checked “yes” for ALL of these. I could never live up to my mother’s expectations, and experienced relentless verbal abuse from her, especially her criticism of my weight, hair, and clothes. She was always dieting and talking about weight (hers and others) although she remained slim all of her life. As a cheerleader in my teenage years and an aerobic dance instructor in my 30s, I was often in situations where I felt pressure to be slim. The year I spent as a coed on the Ole Miss campus added to that pressure. I kept comparing myself to the beauty queens my boyfriend had dated before me.

The manual also says that mental disorders in family members can contribute to someone having an eating disorder. My mother definitely exhibited substance use disorder (drinking) and I have reason to believe that she was sexually abused by her father, my grandfather, who molested me when I was a little girl.

So, what’s the Mental Health First Aid Action Plan for helping someone with an eating disorder? It’s tricky, to say the least. It requires that a person wanting to reach out and help someone must learn as much as possible about the disorder first, by reading books and articles, or talking with a health professional. Then they should choose a time to approach the person they are concerned about and do so in a way that is non-judgmental and compassionate. Some tips in the manual:

Initially, focus on conveying empathy and not on changing the person or their perspective… try not to focus solely on weight or food. Rather, focus on the eating behaviors that concern you. Allow the person to discuss other concerns that are not about food, weight, or exercise. Make sure you give the person plenty of time to discuss their feelings, and reassure them it’s safe to be open and honest about how they feel.

I think this is great advice. Some things NOT to do (that I’ve experienced personally and found not to be helpful) are: (these come from me, not from the manual)

Suggest a specific diet or nutrition plan that has “worked for them.” (Unless the person is ASKING for one.)

Use words or a tone of voice that is patronizing, even in an attempt to flatter the person with phrases like, “Oh but you are beautiful just the way you are.” This is fine if you are close friends with the person, but not helpful in mental health first aid.

Like the other mental health first aid approaches, this one has guidelines for assessing the person for crisis including:

 The person has serious health consequences (disorientation, vomiting, fainting, chest pain or trouble breathing, blood in their bowels, urine, or vomit, or cold or clammy skin and a body temperature of less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

eating_disorders_imageIf you come across someone with these symptoms, mental health first aid is important, and you should apply similar techniques as for other crises (the

ALGEE action plan I explained in my previous post.) But there are suggestions specifically for helping someone with an eating disorder who seems to be in a crisis. There’s too much information for me to share here, but I hope you will get the manual and read about this yourself.

I know this was a long post, and as always, thanks for reading. And of course I love to hear from you, either here or on the Facebook thread.

Here’s a post from a few years ago that has an excerpt from my essay “Eat, Drink, Repeat”:

“Eat Drink Repeat: Day 1 of a 3-Day Binge” (2015)

Mental Health First Aid

thDo you know someone who suffers from schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Severe depression? Anxiety or panic attacks? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Substance use disorders? Psychosis? Suicidal behavior? Eating disorders? Have you lost someone you loved to suicide? I have personally had conversations with two people who were contemplating suicide, and with another who was cutting herself because of the pain she was suffering as a result of her mother’s behavior and her parents’ divorce.

Maybe you suffer from one or more of these illnesses or disorders yourself. I have struggled with several in my 67 years.

Did you know that there’s an organization that exists to teach you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders in your community?  MentalHealth.org is a wonderful resource, and fortunately they offer one-day training courses. In Memphis these courses are offered by the Church Health Center. In fact TOMORROW the Church Health Center is having GIVING DAY, with opportunities to contribute to the wonderful ministries they offer.

mental-health-first-aid-3d-crossword_0Because of my own personal struggles but also those of friends and acquaintances, I signed up to take a one-day mental health first aid training course this past Saturday at my church, St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis. I was especially interested in learning how to help someone in our church home, neighborhood, or community who is showing signs of a mental health crisis. We gained lots of specific information on dealing with each disorder or event, but we were also reminded throughout the day to always treat the person with respect and dignity, remembering that they are not the disease. It saddens me that people with mental health issues are often shunned from society, even a church community.

Near the beginning of the course, an instructor asked us to come up with a definition of mental illness. We worked in groups at our tables to do this, and the one that was most helpful to me actually came from my husband:

BEHAVIOR OR THINKING THAT’S NOT CONSISTENT WITH REALITY.

That definition can apply to so many of the types of mental illness that we learned about on Saturday.

 

"ALGEE" is the mascot the presenters used to help us learn these steps.

“ALGEE” is the mascot the presenters used to help us learn these steps.

The course doesn’t make you a mental health professional. It teaches you what to do until the person can get the professional help they need. One of the best take-aways from the course for me was the ALGEE action plan, which is easy to remember:

Assess for risk of suicide or harm

Listen non-judgmentally

Give reassurance and information

Encourage appropriate professional help

Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Denise and Lauren—the trained social workers who taught the course at St. John on Saturday—were wonderful. They kept us interested and involved with hands-on activities throughout the day. We also each received an informative Mental Health First Aid manual, which I plan to read more thoroughly now that the workshop is over. The one-day schedule didn’t allow for a discussion of eating disorders, which have plagued me most of my life, so I’m especially interested in reading their take on this issue.

AGLEE_Mental_Health_First_Aid

 

They also gave us a referral resource guide for Shelby County, with phone numbers to call for various crises we might encounter. I’m putting a copy of this list in my purse to always have with me. Rather than calling 911 for every type of situation, there are specific numbers to call for suicide prevention, sexual assault, domestic violence, rape, abuse, and incest, and a general local crisis hotline.

I hope that this post has encouraged you to consider taking a mental health first aid course. They are offered nationwide, are free and are usually completed in one day.

Peaches!

peachesFinally! I’ve been looking for good peaches all summer, and a few days ago the produce guy at Miss Cordelia’s—the small boutique grocery a few blocks from our house here in Harbor Town—told me that peaches aren’t usually any good before August. How did I go 67 years without knowing that? And is that a new thing, or has it always been true? My fuzzy childhood memories include eating peaches all summer long, or so I thought. A favorite memory is making homemade ice cream with my grandmother in Meridian, Mississippi, in the 1950s, and putting fresh peaches into the creamy frozen custard just before it reached its perfect soft-serve state.

I’ve already been back to get more of these perfectly sweet, non-pithy peaches. My husband has been eating them on cereal. I had one with cinnamon toast this morning. As I was savoring its perfect texture and taste, I thought of an essay I wrote that was published in The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul in 2013. It was a three-day “journal” of a binge. Really a reflection of my disordered eating and drinking habits. (Note: I still have disordered eating habits, although I’ve made some progress in that area recently. And, in case you’re new to my blog, I quit drinking on September 8, 2017.)

Anyway, here’s the paragraph about the peaches, from “Eat, Drink, Repeat: One Woman’s Three-Day Search for Everything.” (You can read the entire essay here.)

I look around the kitchen and find fresh peaches ripening in a small brown bag on the counter. I pull one out and make a small indention in its flesh with my thumb—it feels ripe. I bring the fuzzy yellow-red orb to my nose (I always smell my food before tasting it) and breathe in its sweet aroma. It’s ready. Using a small, white-handled Cutco paring knife, I make one incision, then another, allowing a perfect slice to be removed from the peach. I observe its texture—free of pithiness—and its color: red tendrils, freshly pulled from the seed, contrast with the shiny yellow crescent. I put the entire slice into my mouth and savor it slowly. I give it an 8. If it were a 10, I would eat the rest of the peach naked. Instead, I pour a small amount of white sugar onto a saucer and dip the remaining slices, one at a time, into the sugar before eating them.  No longer savoring the flavor, I eat mindlessly, reaching into the bag for another peach, dipping one slice after another into the sugar, waiting for a surge of energy and wondering if it will sustain me for an afternoon of writing and working out and preparing dinner.

Mindfulness and Addiction

NGM2017_09_SEPTEMBERThis coming Sunday, July 8, will be the ten-month anniversary of my last drink. I first wrote about this in my final blog post of 2017, “0 Meetings in 90 Days,” when I wrote about how I quit drinking on September 8, 2017.

I did a follow-up post three months later, on my 67th birthday, “Birthday Musings: People Can Change #sixmonthswithoutadrink”.  And again in January, “120 Days….”

I was talking with a friend about this yesterday and she mentioned an article she found interesting from the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine, “How Science is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction” by Fran Smith. My friend loaned me her copy of the magazine and I read the article this morning.

While I found much that was helpful and interesting in the article—which wasn’t just about alcohol and other drug addictions, but also touched on addictions to food, shopping, and other behaviors—I took issue with the author’s definition of addiction as a disease. Although she presented a broad brush view of treatments, she seemed to agree with the Alcoholic Anonymous template when it comes to approaching alcoholism as a disease. I didn’t take issue with the plethora of treatments that are being studied to help people who are addicted to addictive substances, only with defining addiction as a disease. (One of the things that resonated with me about Annie Grace’s book, This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, & Change Your Life, was her focus on alcohol as the extremely addictive drug that it is, rather than a focus on the “alcoholic” as a sick person.”)

Dr. Judson Brewer

Dr. Judson Brewer

Smith did part ways with AA on some important tenets in her National Geographic piece, though, and offered an alternative that touched on some of what works for me:

“Although 12-step programs, cognitive therapy, and other psychotherapeutic approaches are transformative for many people, they don’t work for everyone, and relapse rates are high…. [Judson]Brewer is a student of Buddhist psychology. He’s also a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. He believes the best hope for treating addiction lies in melding modern science and ancient contemplative practice. He’s an evangelist for mindfulness, which uses meditation and other techniques to bring awareness to what we’re doing and feeling, especially to habits that drive self-defeating behavior….

Researchers at the University of Washington showed that a program based on mindfulness was more effective in preventing drug-addiction relapse than 12-step programs….

Mindfulness trains people to pay attention to cravings without reacting to them. The idea is to ride out the wave of intense desire.

That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the past ten months—riding out the wave of intense desire. Yes, the desire for a vodka martini is sometimes still intense, but the good news is that I don’t have those desires as often as I did when I was drinking. I used to crave vodka pretty much all day, every day. Now I only crave it a few times a week, sometimes less. I actually have whole days without that craving, which is wonderful.
But when it comes, I use a combination of mindfulness and prayer to ride out the craving. Sometimes I even talk to myself aloud, saying things like, “Yes, that martini sounds wonderful, and would certainly take the edge off this emotional or physical pain I’m having right now, but one wouldn’t be enough. I would want two. Or three. And the next time I’m in pain—which is a daily thing for me—I would want alcohol again. So why go there?” Sometimes I do things to counter the intense desire. Things like exercise, or a “treat” like something sweet or taking a break from work to watch TV or read a good book. All of these things help, but the mindfulness and prayer are the main things keeping me from drinking.

As I’ve written about here before, I’m still struggling to learn to apply these same tactics to my struggles with food cravings. The main problem remains: one cannot quit eating; one has to learn to be moderate with food. I’ll close with an encouraging quote from the National Geographic article about a woman who is having some success with mindfulness and eating:

Donnamarie Larievy, a marketing consultant and executive coach, joined the weekly mindfulness group to break her ice cream and chocolate habit. Four months in, she eats healthier food and enjoys an occasional scoop of double fudge but rarely yearns for it. “It has been a life changer,” she says. “Bottom line, my cravings have decreased.”

I always love hearing from my readers on your experience in these areas. Please leave a question or comment here, or in a thread on Facebook. Thanks always for reading!

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