Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thriving


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Camp is almost over. Two days from now I will load up my things in Jeremy’s car and we’ll drive out the winding road that leads to Indian Creek camp.
Today, a friend asks me, “So now, in retrospect, how was the summer?”
“Surprisingly good,” I answered.

It’s true. I had no idea what to expect at camp. I had never worked at a summer camp before. I had never been a counselor. Never lived in Tennessee. Never lived in the same place as my boyfriend. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

After camp finishes, we are making a road trip to Delaware, Jeremy’s home. This is where he grew up, where home is, where family is, where memories are. I’m excited to see it for myself. Yes, I will bug his family for embarrassing stories. I will be nosy and raid his bedroom searching for toys and yearbooks. And, of course, there will be photo albums narrated by mom. Can’t wait.

We are seeing his family in Delaware, then making a weekend trip to Washington D.C to meet up with a friend of ours, Ryan, and his girlfriend. They will show us the sights of D.C, a place I’ve never been to. I’m looking forward to the Smithsonian and the White House.

Jeremy’s family is renting a beach house for the week, so we’ll meet up with them there. While it is hard to call “camp” a job because it is so fun, I’m still looking forward to some real down time. Camp is fun, but busy. I want to read at least one of the five books I thought I’d have time to read. I want to soak up the sun, well, with 50 SPF sun screen and a wide-rimmed hat, of course. I want to get to know his family, play Skip-Bo, and sleep in.

Polly, of Polly from Cambodia, has landed back in the States. In Cambodia, we always joked that we’d take road trips to each other’s side of the country because I have never been to the east coast, and she’s never seen the Rocky Mountains. This may be the best we can do for awhile, but either way, I will hopefully get to see her while she is visiting some family she has in Delaware.

Then, August 11th, I fly home.
Ick.

I love Colorado. I love my family. I love my friends. I don’t love leaving Jeremy.

I’m looking forward to so many things in my life: Delaware, D.C, the beach, seeing Polly, getting my own apartment, getting a new job, heading back to school, writing for the school newspaper, someday graduating from college, and becoming a teacher. But somehow, if possible, I’d really like to skip the most inevitable and guaranteed portion of my life, leaving Jeremy.

Long distance sucks. I’ll say it again: it sucks. Not favorite. Not one bit. I want to complain and whine. I want to control circumstances in my favor. I want it my way. I want, I want, I want…

Story of my life.

I don’t like the unpredictable. I don’t like to go with the flow and take each day as it comes. I don’t want to let things happen and ride the waves. I know these are things I need, but I don’t want to. I want to fight it. I want to mold this experience to be what I want. I want to make my life custom fit, easier, more manageable.
I am a perfectionist in recovery.

I just started a new book called Gaining: the truth about life after eating disorders. Today I read, “Anxiety is primal instinct in all of us and a basic necessity for survival, but more than two thirds of anorexics and bulimics have a lifelong history of anxiety disorders: they get stuck in either freeze, flight, or fight mode, even when not under any actual threat. Many never feel safe enough to relax yet find in eating disorders a perverse mode of escape.

“Here’s how this escape works: you flee anxiety by pulling into yourself; you purge fear by vomiting it up; you become so obsessive about your body that nothing else in the world seems to matter. The result is that you feel you have this body—your contained world—under control.”

The author Aimee Liu has not been directly fighting an eating disorder for the last 30+ years of her life, just the aftermath. She may not be 77 pounds, but she still fights the perfectionism, the critical mindset, the obsessive compulsive behaviors related to food and exercise, and rigid lifestyle an eating disorder thrives in.

UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute considers a patient “recovered” when they return to their normal weight and no longer obsess about calories. This is a far cry from recovery because the ripple effect can last for years. But it doesn’t have to.

I do not have to be what I’ve been.
I can forgive myself.
I can let things go.
I can ask for help.
I can pray.
I can do my best.
I can get help.
I can take deep breaths.
I can surrender to the Universe the things I just can’t carry.
I can learn from others.
I can take one step, then another, then another.
I can walk forward without knowing exactly the size, shape, distance, proximity, and cushion of my next step.
Because frankly, that’s all I can do.
I don’t have to fight this.
I can thrive.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Never Before

Last December, me, Jeremy, our friend Keri, and a few other friends, sat around on a Saturday afternoon. Snow covered the ground outside and the idea of snuggling in for hot cocoa and a nap sounded good to everyone.


“I’ve been changing my reaction to cold weather,” Keri announced after awhile. “I’ve realized that for the most part, I hate the cold weather. It makes me mad and whenever the weather changes to cold, I resist it.”


As we grinned and listened to her humorous story, she continued, “So you know I’ve just started telling myself, ‘Who cares if it’s ten degrees outside? The icy wind on my skin is a new experience. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing.’”


We all laughed and began thinking of other “new experiences” that don’t have to be bad things. It started with getting burned alive in volcanoes and actually got more silly from there. “Ahh, getting shot in the heart. This is a new experience. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”


Jeremy and I got a good laugh out of that conversation and seem to quote Keri regularly since then. We’ve had plenty of new experiences this summer, things I’ve never done or imagined doing before, but hey, “It doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” we tell each other, “It’s a new experience.”


I like curry. I like making curry. Geoff, the chef, discovered this and I found myself leading 6-7 kitchen staff through chopping onions, kneading dough for chipatis, and seasoning 4 huge, steaming pots of spicy deliciousness. Lunch was success. I took a nap.


I like kayaking. There are half a dozen kayaks down at the lake front and often during rest period or free time, I’ll take one out and paddle until I can’t go any further. The water is a great place to think and be reminded to ride the waves.


A trail winds around the tip of the point at camp. Though it is not a long run, it winds through trees, along the shore, and up some challenging hills. Sometimes I see deer in the brush and ticks on my legs, but trail running in the early morning, is one of my new favorite things to do. It’s not a treadmill. It’s not the sidewalk, traffic, and observers. It’s clear, open, clean, wild, unpredictable, and rejuvenating. I ran the first time without my ipod because I didn’t know if I would need to listen for animals. But since then I’ve tried to do without. Headphones have always been a distraction from my thoughts and motivation to keep running. But this summer, I’ve learned I don’t need them. I don’t need to hide from myself.


I’ve never worked with blind people. That week came with a treasure chest of experiences I’m so grateful for. Also, I’ve never inserted a tampon for another person. That was a new experience. It doesn’t have to be bad, it’s just…new.


I’ve never gone stargazing on a boat.


I’ve never gone stargazing on a barn roof.


I’ve never been to Waffle house. Everyone from the south is now shocked in amazement as to how this has happened, but let me explain. I’ve only seen one Waffle house in Colorado, ever. They just don’t make ‘em or staff ‘em the way they do out here. Some people take pride in going and quoting all the different ways to order has browns. It’s a cultural experience. And now everyone from the south is thinking, Cultural experience? What is she talking about?


Thought I’ve wanted to, I’ve never acted in a play. I’ve always thought I might be capable, but in high school, drama always fell during basketball practice, and well, basketball always won. I don’t have any big parts, but it’s been fun nonetheless.


I’ve never dressed up as Red fish before this summer. The teen banquet theme was Dr. Seuss. My friend Katie and I dressed up as Red fish and Blue fish. The gym was decorated with characters from the books and bright neon colors as we feasted on a buffet of weirdly colored food: green eggs and wham, roast beast, purple potato salad, green ice water, and Who pudding. Oh my.


I can’t possibly mention new experiences without mentioning Jeremy. I’ve never dated a boy for 7 months. I hadn’t ever had a fight with Jeremy. I hadn’t ever had a fight and then high-fived afterwards. New experience. I’ve never braided my boyfriends’ hair or been confused as two girls holding hands. I’ve never Nair-ed a guys back. Oh new experiences galore!


I’ve never contemplated so strongly never having kids.


I’ve never contemplated so strongly having kids


I’ve never adapted so well to change. I’m learning flexibility.

I’ve never felt community like this. I’ve always assumed I’m just not a “group” kind of person. I’m not a social butterfly who loves meeting new people and having lots of acquaintances. So while I appreciate having a few really close friends, let’s just say Saturday nights I don’t get tons of phone calls from all my friends wanting to hang out. It’s not that I have that now either, but it’s nice to be in a larger community where we work together and connect in different ways.


I’ve never shared my story with kids. Talking with adults is different. I didn’t want to somehow encourage destructive behavior in kids, but I didn’t want to avoid the topic either.


I’ve never taught sports to kids. I’ve always been coached. Watching them learn and grow and improve must be that “rewarding” feeling my coaches always talked about. Last week after playing competitive games of dodgeball, basketball, and football with teen boys, it felt good to be teaching them valuable skills, even as a girl. I might’ve also taught them how to lose to a girl, because let’s be honest, they needed humbling. But I paid the price for that as well. Every Saturday night the cabin with the best behavior and cleaning scores gets to choose a staff member and pie them. That’s right. Each week two staff members don swimsuits as campers and counselors toss banana crème or chocolate slop in their face. Again, not my favorite part of camp, but as a result of some apparent “schooling” that went on on the basketball court, my boys had their revenge. In all honesty, it was sweet revenge. Because I made them admit before the pie-ing began the “real” reason they chose me. Sweet victory, a quick run to the lake, and pudding in my ear the next morning. Wow.


Never before have I felt cool to kids. I’ve never felt so looked up to and admired. They watch me for sure and I don’t attempt to be anything I’m not. I’ve never felt so responsible for their safety, happiness, and well-being.

Being the youngest in my family, I haven’t had much exposure with kids who are younger than me. Camp has allowed me to work with a wide variety of ages and then gladly give them away at the end of the week. I’ve learned developmental traits I wouldn’t have noticed as easily because the weeks fall in succession by age. I’ve been able to see the differences in kids as they age, what they need, what they don’t need.


I’ve never felt so “old”. Much of the staff is 19, which is only two years younger than me, but they seem so surprised that I am, gasp, 21 years-old! Even more shocking is the campers reactions. To them I seem light years older than they are. One girl last week said, “That girl is such a ho. Oh, if you don’t know, a “ho” is someone who sleeps around.”


While I may feel older than some, I know I am wise. I continue on with what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed. Never before have I been so grateful to be out of high school. It’s a new experience; it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. And oh no, please believe me, it isn’t.


I gladly move on.

Weekends

The weekends are my least favorite time at camp. Between the crucifixion play, commitment fires, and staff member pie-ing Saturday night, I’m not a fan. But this weekend I feel will be different. This weekend has been different.

Last night I sat through my 8th viewing of the crucifixion play. As I watched though I realized, as much as I’m uncomfortable with seeing Jesus on the cross, again, and singing songs about blood and flesh, again, the play isn’t only about death. The play seems to last longer and longer each week, but as I became more conscious of what was going on, I realized that Jesus was already dead before half the play was over. This does not change my view on how Christians overuse the gore of crucifixion, eh hm…Passion of the Christ anyone? But it gave me something else to focus on.

My friend Katie commented on my Crucifixion blog about how she focused her cabin conversations on love instead of death. This might be what everyone is trying to do anyway, but it gave me somewhere to start. Friday nights get easier the older the kids get. So last night wasn’t bad at all. I didn’t pressure them or force them to talk. I will never, ever force a kid to pray. We talked about their lives and what it means to be truly free.

As we walked back to the cabin, Teresa said, “Heather, when we get back to the cabin can I share my story?”

“Of course,” I said excitedly. “I’d really like that.” We walked a little further until I said, “What’s on your mind?”

Deep breath. “Porn.”

She continued to unload an existence of guilt and shame over what she’s done and what she’s seen. But somehow this week at camp, she realized that she didn’t have to carry that around anymore. She wants healing and a new beginning. After awhile I stopped her and hugged her close. “You are so brave.”

In the cabin, I said, “I remember the first person I ever told about my struggle. I sobbed and sobbed for awhile before I could even form the words, ‘eating disorder’. I didn’t want to admit it to anyone. But strangely, the more people I tell the easier it gets and the lighter the load.”

Teresa shared her story. Short and to the point, but healing for her I know, just to say it outloud.

Quiet. Then another girl…

“My dad is addicted to meth. He started using cocaine and tried to kill my mom. The therapists say I have a stress disorder. I’ve tried to kill myself four times. We live near a busy road and four times last summer I went and laid in the middle of the road waiting to get run over, but a car never came. I starved myself two years ago, but I’m probably over that now.”

Then another…

“My sister tried to kill me with scissors. It didn’t work. I don’t know why she hates me so much. My parents don’t believe me. Sometimes I claw at my own arms till they bleed. I almost had sex with a guy. My parents found out and got mad. I still text him. All the guys at school think I’m a whore now. My dad has this evil streak and when we were kids he used to beat us. I don’t know what all this ‘freedom’ crap is. I’m just confused.”

Silence. And then…

“I don’t have a really bad story or anything. This bad picture got passed around on myspace. Everyone thought it was me. All the guys at school think I’m slut. My dad saw it. He got so angry. I feel bad. He’s been to Iraq and I don’t want to make him more angry.”

Then…

“Yeah, my story isn’t that bad either, but my dad molested my step sister. My mom wants me to hate him, but he’s my dad. I know what he did was wrong and I’m scared to be left alone with him, but he’s still my dad. Our name was put on all the newspapers. Now everyone thinks our family is bad. My mom has married 3 times since then. I want my family back.”

Then…stillness.

Ahh yes, this is why I was looking forward to teen camp. Now we can talk. I get some odd high off of hearing other people’s stories and working through them. I am a crier for sure, but only about my own problems. Not last night. I thought about the innocence of these 13-16 year-olds. They have lived such short lives and have endured so much hurt. I cried for them.

After the sharing ended, one girl joked, “Heather, you must be scarred by all our stuff.”

“Absolutely not. I am so grateful that you shared your stories with me. I don’t know what all of you are thinking about yourselves right now, but let me tell you what I am thinking. I am thinking, Wow, these girls are brave. It takes a lot of guts to share that part of yourself. I don’t think any of you are gross or bad or messed up or awful. In fact, I think I like all of you even more than I did an hour ago.

“I’m so sorry that this has happened and that you are hurting. You don’t deserve this. This doesn’t have to be the rest of your life. There is healing. If you are all completely and totally honest with yourselves, ask yourself, “Is this my true self? Am I a whore? Am I an anorexic? Am I only worth killing?” If the answer to any of these questions is, “Yes,” then please dispute the lies in your head with a definite, “No.”

“Whatever lies you’ve been told about who you are or what you deserve in life, I dare you to consider that they are dead wrong. Who are you really? If you are waiting for your family or the guys at school to decide who you are, they’ll always be wrong. Know for yourself that you are loved, valued, and deserving of life, not because of what you look like or what you’ve done, but because of what you are, human. No one can take that away from you. You are worthy because you are human. So when someone calls you a whore, you can say confidently, “No, I am not.” Or in another way, if someone says you are a kind person, and you know that you are, you can say, “Yes, I am a kind person. Thank you.”

We talked about who we are created to be and how we start to believe the lies of what we should be.

“I’m so sorry for what you all have been through, but you are more than this. You can be whoever or whatever you want to be. There is healing. You don’t have to live bound by these chains. Tell people you trust and respect. Ask for help when you need it. Never be afraid to be everything you were created to be.”

Prayer doesn’t come easily to me around other people, but it did last night.

I prayed for healing and change and growth.
I prayed for comfort and peace.
I prayed for new beginnings and hope.

Because as I’ve learned and continue to experience, there is hope.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ahead

I have been looking forward to teen week all summer, proclaiming to most anyone that I would much rather deal with teenagers than little ones. The verdict is still out. I am not about to change my major from secondary to elementary education or anything, but I have been trying to remember exactly what I was anticipating about this age group.

Before I start ranting about the disrespect and silliness of teens, I will say, the older the campers get the easier. I’m pretty sure I’d rather mediate an argument about who-likes-who than a comfort a 7 year-old who is crying because someone pinched them. There is some amount of reason and logic found in a teenager. They can have a conversation with me. They actually help clean up after meals. I have to give orders much less. They say, “Heather, we saved you some food in case you haven’t eaten yet.” Cub campers just don’t do that. Cub campers can’t talk intelligently about most anything. Cub campers can’t walk anywhere on there own. Cub campers present much more risk if they aren’t watched constantly.

Teenagers present different risks. Where cub campers didn’t know any better, teenagers do and they did it anyway. It’s much more of a mind game. Before I was disciplining an action, but now I realize they knew better. These kids really could care less that I am here, at least that’s how they act .They don’t pay much attention to the staff and it seems like they don’t care much for us. I’m speaking overall, because they aren’t all that way.

My cabin, for example, is actually pretty good. Some counselors have had 7 days of horror, but I’ve pretty much lucked out. They work together well, they laugh, we talk, they like to have fun. But indeed as it seems to be at this age, they are incredibly conscious of what everyone else thinks about them. They live with this imaginary audience of people who might judge them or talk about them. All in all, you could not pay me to go back to high school. Nope.

This week has been busy and since my day off was moved from Tuesday to Friday, I feel like I’ve been at the end of my rope for about 48 hours. But today finds me sitting in a quiet library in Smithville, not far from camp. Days off are relaxing and restful. Jeremy and I usually do a whole lot of nothing which is exactly what we both need.

The blogs have been rare in comparison to how often I usually write. It’s not that blog-worthy events aren’t happening, but that I rarely have time to write them down or find internet long enough to post them.

So as much as I dislike it, here’s another random update from my small, small corner of Tennessee:

The bulimia seems to get better and better the more people I talk to about it. As of last week, I’ve now talked to 2,000+ people about it and that still blows my mind. I have been back in touch with Chris my dietician. She centers me. She helps me get my head back on straight. She helps me keep going. She is accountability and insight I need.

Jeremy is…Jeremy is….amazing. I am headed back to Union and him to Southern. Somehow we’ll make this work. He’s definitely worth keeping around and I can’t imagine where I’d be if we weren’t together.

I realized this morning talking to my mom that, I’ve never been so unsure of the future than at any other time in my life and, I’m doing okay. I want to sort this out and have a plan, but I can’t. I don’t know when I’m driving back to Union, I don’t know where I’ll live when I get there. I don’t know what classes I’m taking. I don’t know how I’m going to finish the newspaper articles I said I’d write. I don’t know how I’m going to finish on time for my book deadline. I don’t know where I’ll be going to school 2nd semester or where I’ll be working next summer. I don’t know a lot of things. It isn’t comfortable, but it’s going to be all right.

I’ve been thinking about Cambodia a lot. I don’t know if it’s as simple as the heat and humidity bringing back those feeling and emotions, but it seems that this summer I’ve had change of pace that has allowed me some time to think. Most of the time I am not necessarily considering a particular person as much as a memory or a place. I spent so much time alone while I was there. Alone with my thoughts. Alone in my room. Alone praying. Alone riding my bike through town. Alone walking the streets. Alone traveling. Alone journaling. I have been dreaming about Cambodia again. I have been reminded of places I went or people I saw. Maybe my camp experience is so different from the last time I worked with kids in Cambodia I’m reminded in that way.

Kids in the States and kids from Cambodia are so different: their priorities, their interests, their way of communicating, all of it. So I can’t directly relate them in anyway. They are a whole new breed of kids. I am not cool to them. I am old to them. I am odd to them.

I feel a bit flustered, overwhelmed, lost. Camp is so consuming it is difficult to focus on or deal with much else. The future seems to big and bit intimidating.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Worthy

We all struggle with self-worth, on some level, at some time, in some way.

As I’ve been doing my own research and interviews I’ve learned: men struggle with porn. Maybe they did struggle, maybe they are struggling, maybe they will, but it seems to be inevitable. Maybe it’s not a direct struggle with porn, but it could be masturbation, cheating, or lustful thoughts from a movie, a magazine, or reality, daily life. Women don’t always make that battle much easier.

“Ninety-nine percent of guys struggle with porn, or have struggled in the past, and the other one percent are lying,” or so I’ve heard.

Porn is compensation for wanting to feel worth it, to feel like a man.

Women battle self-worth too. As I’ve never talked to a guy who denies a struggle with porn, I’ve never vocalized my battle with an eating disorder and had a woman say, “Huh, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Women fight to feel worth it by being beautiful, wanting to feel pretty, worth it, important. Why do we so readily associate women with shopping, hair salons, and fashion? It does not have to be a negative thing, but we are wired to be the beautiful half of humanity, someone has to do it. It is okay to want to feel beautiful and attractive. It is not okay to push extremes to achieve it.

Every woman has either said or thought, “I should not eat that.”

“I am fat.”

“I am ugly.”

“I need to go on a diet.”

“I need to lose 10 pounds, then I’ll be happy.”

“I wish I looked like her.”

Men and women want to feel worth it. We just attempt less than effective methods of doing so. We know by now how I’ve sought self-worth and you probably know how you’ve tried too.

I’m still trying to figure out if every woman has an eating disorder. I hear myself in other women’s words. I recognize my thoughts in women who claim no eating disorder. I realize I’ve taken behaviors to an extreme, but the more women I talk to, the more if feels like I am doomed to an existence of self-hatred for the rest of my life.

I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t dieted. I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t guilted herself into not eating something. I’ve never met a woman who always exercises for the right reasons, her health. I’ve never met a woman who loves herself truly. I’ve never met a woman who doesn’t compare herself to others and feels she comes up short. I’ve never met a woman who is confident, loves herself, and feels adequate and valuable in every way.

Dove conducted a worldwide survey asking women to describe how they look. Of the options “beautiful” was only chosen by 2% of the world’s female population. Two freaking percent.

Saturday night found me angry, crying, frustrated, and hating myself, again: hating what I look like, what I weigh, where I’m at, how I act, who I am. Jeremy held me as I cried, unable to do much else, though that is exactly what I needed him to do. We’ve been here before. Sadly he’s used to it. He just listens. He hears. He helps. I’ve realized that the act of just sitting quietly with someone while they cry, might be one of the hardest things for a guy to do. Jeremy doesn’t try to fix me. He doesn’t try to solve my problems. He understands that the battle for self-worth is not easily fixed. He is strength that I just don’t have, but desperately need.

Sunday I disappeared, well as much as possible amidst 150 people, staff meetings, registration, and arriving tween campers, no easy task. It can be painful to put on a mask, acting like you’re okay, when you just aren’t. So I didn’t. I didn’t put it on. I just was and it was okay.

When people asked me how I was doing, I told them. “Ya know it’s not the best day of my life. I can’t quite figure out how to stop hating myself.”

This might seem a loaded response to a simple question. But I mean “How are you” when I say it, so I always try to answer it honestly. Surprisingly, I gained helpful insight along the way.

“I know exactly what you mean. I’m so sorry,” Hannah told me. Kasia, Hannah, and I sat on the cabin porch and talked about it. Why can’t women stop hating themselves and comparing to everyone else around them?

I told them how I want so badly to be a woman who truly loves herself. Hannah said, “I’ve never met a perfect woman, a woman who loves herself totally and consistently. But I’ve met women who come close.”

As she said it I realized I was again again seeking perfection and that only worsens my situation. Perfection is what got me started in the first place. I may never find the perfect woman who loves herself completely, but I know plenty of women who come close, and that might just be good enough.

My roommate, Kasia stopped me, reached for my arm, and said, “I can’t believe you’re saying this right now. You are that woman to me. You are that woman who seems to be okay with who she is. You are confident and you love life. It’s so surprising for me to hear you say that you struggle with the same things I do, because I look up to you so much.”

My jaw dropped. I could not believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. I found myself in a similar position a week ago when Katie, a thin, beautiful, blond babe with a spunky personality, compassionate smile, and generous spirit, told me, “I wish I was more like her. She makes me look fat.”

My dropped again. How could Katie, the girl I compare myself to, feel as worthless as I do, when she’s 10 times the person I’ll ever be?

It’s sick really and it’s getting us no where. It’s a vicious cycle I refuse to contribute to or take part in. I’m not exactly sure yet how to avoid it or how to get out of it, when sometimes self-hatred seems to pump through my veins.

Someday self-worth will find me, loving, forgiving, accepting, and kind. Until then I’ll be the best version of myself along the way.

I dare you to do the same.

1,500 +

The more I share my story, the more liberated I become. Eighteen months ago I wrote a blog admitting to an eating disorder and found an inbox overflowing with support, encouragement, and others personal stories: eating disorders, pornography. I spoke at Union college and was greeted again with warmth and other people’s testimonies: eating disorders, self-hatred, depression, alcoholism. I shared my story here at camp in Tennessee and again, have met several girls struggling with the same problem.

Every Sunday night at campfire bowl we do something called, Cardboard Testimonies. As our theme this summer is Freedom, we are encouraging those we come in contact with to face the chains that bind them and surrender. One at a time, any staff that want to can go up and hold a piece of cardboard with their own testimony written on it. For example, mine says, “Recovering bulimic” and when I flip it over it says, “God is re-defining beauty.”

It is equally uncomfortable, but equally rewarding every time. By now, 18 months after “exposing” that secret I swore I’d never tell by blog, emails, speaking at Union, speaking at camp, and conversations with people, I’ve probably told close to 1,500 people, “Hey, I’ve got an eating disorder, what’s your story?” Wow. That’s a lot of people. But by sharing that part of myself with 1,500+ people I don’t have to carry so much of it on my own.

Consider a full size moving truck full of possessions: couches, dresses, a grand piano, beds, boxes, fine china, and books, and being expected to unload and move into a house all by yourself. Split up that load equally between 1,500 movers. Piece of cake right? That’s how I feel. Relief. Rest. Healing. I don’t have to carry this on my own anymore.

We’ll call her Deidra. She runs 6 miles every morning. Yesterday I saw her out running twice. She doesn’t eat much. She labels food “good” and “bad.” She likes black and whites. She has never told anyone but me. She disappears at times and shows proof of life at others. She gets defensive, avoids confrontation and conversation, she exists. I can’t save her.

We’ll call her Brenda. She vocalized the need for help to a few close friends, but didn’t receive much support. I’m the only other person who knows. She runs. She compares. She fights within her head everyday wishing to be beautiful, noticed, important, enough. She looks anxious, antsy, uncomfortable. She uses humor to mask her pain. She does it well, but I can’t save her.

I have to remember that while I am public in my personal journey, that does not automatically make me responsible for everyone else’s. I can’t save these girls. I can be here to listen, but I am still fighting my own demons.

I’ve been intentional in this blog to not write in too much detail about the specific behaviors of an eating disorder. I used to search online for tips, I know others do too. It’s sick, but it’s true. I don’t want to encourage an already massive monster. But it struck me the other day that I have not written much about how to help someone who is drowning in an eating disorder.

Someone battling an eating disorder does not need:

-to be told they are beautiful.

-to be told they are skinny.

-to be told they are perfect just as God made them.

-to be guilted and shamed into feeling worse than they already do.

-to be told your own personal stories about weight loss, that’s different: “Yeah, I could stand to lose some pounds too. It’s so hard isn’t it? How did you do it?”

-to hear, “I understand.” Because even if you’ve had an eating disorder, you still don’t understand. They are a different person, with different family, friends, and environment. “I understand” is one of the worse things you could say.

Here are some helpful things you can do:

-Observe. Gather information. Consider if what you are seeing could be eating disorder behavior: infatuation with weight and appearance, anger/mood swings, avoiding social situations and withdrawing from people, strict comments about food and exercise, weight loss, disappearing to the bathroom after meals, inflexible, agitated, black and white thinking, perfectionist, over achiever.

-Become a safe place for them to talk to you if they so choose. Be honest and transparent with your own struggles. Say “How are you?” then shut your mouth and listen. No really. Don’t interrupt. Don’t fill the precious silence with junk. Just listen. Everyone wants to be heard.

-Speak honestly. “I’ve been unsure of how to bring this up. I am worried about your health. I’ve noticed _________ and ___________, and I just want to know if there is anything I can do, because I want to help any way I can.”

-Don’t give up on them. I lived in denial for several months even after the doctor told me I was anorexic. It wasn’t that I was trying to be tricky and hide anything, I figured eating disorders only happened to crazy people. Ha. Be around. Be available. Be persistent in your compassion without pushing the person away. If she doesn’t want to talk to you, suggest a specific counselor you’ve been to or heard about.

-Compliment the person on more than just their appearance. How about character, personality, skills, attitude? Remind them they are worth much more than what they look like.

If someone tells you they have an eating disorder, don’t freak out. It is not your fault. They are not entirely your responsibility. They made a lot of decisions before hand that got them here. Be compassionate, but keep in mind that an eating disorder is like many other addictions and most of the time, short of suicide, there is time, take a deep breath. Do your best with where you’re at. No one is perfect.

I’ll be honest: people with eating disorders are sometimes difficult to help. I’ve often told my family that I’ve never had to help someone with an eating disorder so I don’t know what it feels like, yet they’ve done a pretty dang good.

On any given day I wanted to talk about it or I didn’t want to talk about, I wanted to hide it or I wanted to flaunt it. I would get so angry at some people’s comments or bulimia jokes though they didn’t realize they were laughing about me. I felt that the entire advertising industry was out to get me. I was pissed off that there were drive-throughs, that holidays revolved around food, and that eating was completely necessary to survive.

Keep in mind, she might be irrational. She might be angry. She might not be ready to talk. But healing will come. Don’t give up on her.

It might take 3 or 30 years, but don’t give up on her.

Un Ano

One year.

Exactly one year ago today, my plane departed from Phnom Penh, Cambodia where I was a student missionary for a year. I looked over the faces of several 11th grade students who had come to the airport to wish me farewell. They were quite and kept saying how much they would miss me. I wondered, Will Kagna be sent to marry a stranger in another province? Will they live to ripe, old ages and get wrinkles? Will they survive in Cambodia? Will they be hurt by someone? I grew to care deeply about each one of them, but mostly relief flooded my thoughts as I realized I was finally going home.

I flew to Tai Pei and then Los Angeles, finally landing in Denver, Colorado. Home. Gasping for air between tears, the wheels touched down, and I realized I had no idea how I had survived since the last time I left that airstrip. In fact, landing alive after a tumultuous year overseas was probably the most “spiritual” experience I had during my year “serving” God. Between flights to different countries, near-moto accidents, corrupt governments, new cultures, and war within myself, somehow I arrived full-circle in mostly one piece. My spirit was broken, my world view had been shaken, but my physical body remained intact, starving, confused, and abused, but intact.
One year.

I think July 1st may serve from now on as my own personal New Year. January is so overdone. I’m starting my own. July 1 reminds me of new beginnings and a fresh start. July 1 reminds me of lessons learned, opportunity, and growth.

So what has changed in my life during the past year?

Home found me supported, understood, and healing. I learned how to reach for the help I desperately needed, whether it was family and friends or psychologists and dieticians. I learned that honesty would only help me and keeping it stuffed inside was not an option.

God is no longer a source of guilt and anger, bitterness and resentment. I wouldn’t call myself a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, at least not until I find out what that actually means and if I believe it whole heartedly. If I must have a recognizable title “Christian agnostic” seems to fit best. I am probably Christian, but I cannot say with absolute certainty that there is a god. No one can. I may be wrong and I’m okay with that. I believe Jesus existed. There must be something to the fact that the Bible and Christianity have stuck around as long as they have.

Post-Cambodia I began considering strongly, What if I am only Christian because that is all I know? What would I believe if I had never read the Bible or stepped into a church? Would I still sense the presence of a god or higher power if I didn’t have all of those things?

I began considering that God uses people. That I may never see or hear God, but I might see his work in other ways. I started exploring prayer and devotions in more ways than one. Maybe it isn’t getting on my knees and reading my Bible. Maybe it can be yoga, deep breaths, and writing. Maybe “devotions” can be a much needed conversation with a friend. Because frankly, as I’m sure we can all relate, I’ve seen God more often outside of church than inside of church. What if praying for God’s will really means, putting myself aside long enough to listen to what the Universe is trying to tell me? What if I am not pre-programmed to live one way? What if I have decisions to make using the brain in my head that was given to me? What if Christianity does not have to mean evangelistic series, prayer meetings, church attendance, nominating committees, and potlucks? What if Christianity can mean healing a hurting world and loving others?

I’ve learned that sometimes life will ask me to make a whole hearted decision about something I am only 51% sure. It's called "faith" on purpose, otherwise it would just be a "prudent life insurance policy." Thanks Elizabeth Gilbert.

In one year I’ve only thrown up 3 times. Yippeee! In Cambodia it was several times a week, that’s progress. The behaviors related to an eating disorder consume me less and less than ever before. Now I’m sorting through the thoughts that drive them. I’m getting down to the source of what leads me to control my body. I’m learning that I am enough and I can forgive myself. I’m learning that if I eat right and exercise, my body will tell me what it needs to weigh. It is not up to me to determine the right number. I’m learning to trust what my body tells me, fully, hungry, happy, sad, anxious, tired. I stopped listening for awhile.

I still catch up with my dietician from time to time to stay on track, but I’m more flexible with my eating and exercise than ever before. I’m learning to forgive myself.
In the last year I picked up a boyfriend along the way, or maybe he picked me. Jeremy and I began emailing during my time in Cambodia. Upon returning to Union, he wanted to hear my stories, the good, the bad, and the…well, you know. We built a relationship knowing full-well each others dirt, no surprises. It was refreshing that he already knew the most shameful parts of me and still wanted to be with me. He encouraged me to speak my mind and to be who I was.

Six months later I find myself really attached to this guy. It is intriguing to me how we just fit together. His playful, spontaneous, side balances well with my more structured, organized self. He helps me lighten up. I help him get things done. Jeremy isn’t scared of my tears, the bulimia, my questions about God, my girly side, my competitive side, or my depressed side. Jeremy is passionate, dedicated, strong, and loyal. We talk about everything from God to religion, chick things to guy things, feelings, how to love better, and why I’ll never cook him meat. He hugs me when I’m sweaty and gross. He makes me feel beautiful when I just don’t see it. He encourages me to write. He pulls me away from magazine racks covered in gossip and half-naked celebrities. He looks me in the eyes across a room and makes me feel like the most important person in the world.

We want to travel, experience, live. We want to help people and live on purpose. I keep waiting for him to really disappoint me, to snap at me, to lose his patience at one more random thought that comes out of my mouth. But instead, he listens, he shares, and together, we grow.

I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time and consistently too. It is difficult to compare, but I dare say I’m happier than I’ve ever been at any other time in my life. That is a strong statement, but I don’t feel much hesitation in saying it. Sure 6 years-old was nice, but come on, I was terrified of clowns and my brother could make me cry just be looking at me. Yeah, 21 is pretty darn good.

I’d say that the single greatest lesson I’m learning since my experience in Cambodia is: peace. There is peace in life. I’ve never felt such peace and joy in my life than I do right now. The last few years of my life have been dominated by fear and control. I wanted to control my weight, my appearance, God, my friends, my family, and circumstance. I’m learning to let go.

I’m learning to ride the waves and take the days as they come. I’m more likely to adjust to change and roll with the punches. I can ask for what I need. I can be late. I can be wrong. I can eat carbohydrates all day. I can disagree. I can take care of myself. I can make mistakes. I can feel. I can say that wrong thing, at the wrong time, to the wrong person. I can have bright red zits and cellulite. I can have down days and up days.

I can be.