Recovery Is Not A Linear Event

In early March, I traveled to Dickinson College to talk about eating disorders and recovery as part of their Love Your Body Week, and ever since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to define “recovery” and “recovered” (which I will be discussing in a later blog) as well as how there are some myths surrounding eating disorder recovery. Often, we think about eating disorders, treatment, and recovery like this:

develop an eating disorder–>seek treatment–>recover

And while that may be how it works for some individuals with an eating disorder, my experience, and the experience of many people I know who have recovered from an eating disorder looks more like this:

develop eating disorder–>seek treatment–>struggle with the eating disorder–>relapse–>seek further treatment–>…

The idea that treatment, and I’m talking broadly here about any type of treatment (therapy, outpatient, partial, residential, inpatient) immediately cures someone of an eating disorder is a myth. We need to work to dispel this myth, because it sets up unrealistic expectations, and adds additional stress to the individual who is trying to recover, as well as their support system (friends, family, etc.). I would venture that for most people, recovery is not a linear event. While this is anecdotal evidence, almost everyone I know that has been to residential treatment has struggled to some extent when they were discharged, even if they had the support of a treatment team, partial or outpatient program.

Struggling is normal, and I think it’s actually a good sign. Struggling means you’re fighting, and not just giving into the eating disorder. After I left treatment, I had a lot of ambivalence, and while I wanted recovery, my eating disorder urges were still quite strong. At times, I did very well in managing to fight off my eating disorder urges, and at other times I did not do very well, and I know now that this is somewhat normal. I was stuck in a black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking pattern, which is fairly common for people with eating disorders. It was hard for me to accept that I did not have to be perfect at recovery, and that there would be good days and bad days, and that eventually the good days would outnumber the bad days.

Early recovery is hard, and every day it feels like you’re doing battle with eating disorder urges, but eventually, it does get easier. It’s important to remember, though, that recovery is not a linear process, and that is okay. There is no perfect or right way to recover from an eating disorder. In my next blog, I’m going to be addressing relapses, as I think that ties in with this idea, and while we usually see relapses as bad, I like to think of them as a learning opportunity.

 

“The Biggest Loser” Controversy

I’ve been thinking about this topic for awhile, but I’m just now getting a chance to sit down and write about “The Biggest Loser” contestant weight loss controversy, and while I will touch on the frenzy surrounding Rachel Frederickson’s weight loss, I don’t want to lose sight of the bigger issues at hand. Shows like “The Biggest Loser” are symptomatic of our collective societal issues surrounding food, exercise, and body image. How we talk about the bodies of contestants on shows like this fascinates me. Right now, Frederickson’s body is under the scrutiny of the public eye, and people are concerned about her rapid weight loss and low body weight. Once again, it has become all about the weight, and a woman’s body. Some people think she looks great now, and other people think she looks like she has an eating disorder. The only person who truly knows what is going on is Frederickson herself, but we love to speculate. Why is that? Why, in 2014, are we still so obsessed with women’s bodies? If you think about it, what do we know about Frederickson, other than that she was once obese, and has now lost a lot of weight? We have once again separated the woman (person) from her body. Textbook objectification.

I have no idea if Frederickson has an eating disorder or not, and it’s frankly none of my business. My hope is that she is happy and healthy. If she is struggling with an eating disorder, my hope is that the staff of “The Biggest Loser” helps her seek treatment.

What is interesting to me about “The Biggest Loser” is that the show takes obese (often morbidly obese) individuals who often appear to have dysfunctional relationships with food, exercise, and their bodies, and puts them on restrictive diets and launches them into insane exercise regimens. This seems like a plan that’s destined to fail. The trainers aren’t working with contestants to help them learn to eat a nutritious, healthy diet or to work out in moderation. Instead, they are propagating all-or-nothing thinking. For most people, it’s not possible (and most likely not healthy) to spend six hours a day at the gym. I remember one episode I watched in which one of the trainers said the contestants should be eating 1500 calories a day while they are working out six hours a day. That kind of caloric restriction combined with heavy exercise seems like a set-up for bingeing, and eventually a restriction-binge cycle.

What would happen if “The Biggest Loser” took a more moderate approach and aimed for healthy weight loss by teaching the contestants about how to properly nourish their bodies via a well-balanced and adequate meal plan? What if they aimed for a moderate amount of exercise per day, like one hour per day, without the trainers screaming in the contestants’ faces and trying to give them “therapy”? What if they had actual, licensed mental health professionals available for consultation?

It would not make for very exciting television, is my guess.

When I go to colleges and high schools, I often talk about how we need to rethink our relationships with food, exercise, and our bodies. Shows like “The Biggest Loser” encourage people to assign negative connotations to food, when in reality, food is simply fuel for our bodies. It is neither good nor bad. Likewise, shows like this promote the idea that exercise has to be all-or-nothing, and that hardcore exercise is the way to weight loss. And, these types of shows send a message that our bodies are not acceptable if they are obese or overweight. They promote the insidious idea that the number on the scale or size of our pants is indicative of our worth as a person.

What bothers me the most about “The Biggest Loser” is the attempt to humiliate the contestants and shame them about their body size. Shaming is never an effective way to help anyone, with anything, yet the contestants on “The Biggest Loser” are weighed in sports bras and spandex pants, and throughout the show, they are belittled and made to feel less-than because of their bodies. How is that helpful? I know that the contestants have free will and are participating of their own volition, but they are made to feel like the show is their last chance for weight loss. I think there just has to be a better way. Also, the idea that this is a weight loss contest is disgusting. While the factors for developing an eating disorder are not clear-cut, it seems like common sense that if someone had any type of predisposition to developing an eating disorder, this type of contest would likely trigger eating-disordered behavior. In addition, if a contestant is dealing with Binge Eating Disorder (BED) this type of regimen is not addressing the underlying mental health concerns of that contestant. This could be viewed as swapping one form of disordered eating for another form of disordered eating.

My hope is that NBC cancels this show. It demeans the contestants, and it propagates destructive myths and ideas about food, exercise, obesity, and weight loss.

NEDAwareness Week 2014 Thoughts & Seal Press Giveaway

This week is the 2014 NEDAwareness Week, and this year’s theme is “I Had No Idea.” I think this is an excellent choice for a theme, as there a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding eating disorders, and a lot of people have no idea what it is like to have an eating disorder, how to support someone with an eating disorder, or how to seek help. When I was traveling to and from my last speaking engagement at Lynchburg College, I had a total of four flights, and on each of those flights, I met someone who was either struggling with an eating disorder themselves, or had a loved one who was struggling with an eating disorder. I think we often forget that eating disorders affect not only the individual, but that they are also a community issue, and so it is important to educate the community about the realities of eating disorders, and also to dispel common myths and misconceptions. I think at this point, most everyone is aware of eating disorders, and now we need to move toward educating our communities about how to help individuals that are dealing with eating disorders, while also reinforcing the idea that caring for someone with an eating disorder is often challenging, and that caregivers need support as well. In addition, we need to shatter myths such as eating disorders are only serious if a person is emaciated, anorexics never eat, etc.

The NEDA website has a ton of great information and resources, but I especially like their NEDAwareness website: http://nedawareness.org.

In honor of NEDAwareness Week, my publisher, Seal Press, is doing a giveaway of some Seal Press titles, including Purge: Rehab Diaries. And, the winner also gets a tote bag to tote around all of those books!

http://sealpress.com/book-tote-giveaway-for-neda/

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Creative Thresholds

My friend Melissa, who I met at the Prague Summer Program back in 2005, edits an online arts journal, Creative Thresholds. I am honored to have my poetry appear in the current issue. I love the image that my poems are paired with.

Check it out: http://creativethresholds.com/2014/02/13/liminal/

I wrote “The Trouble with Bridges” and “Rush Hour” shortly after the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, when I was spending a lot of time commuting in the Twin Cities, practically parked on overpasses and bridges. While commuting, I had a lot of time to just sit and think (sometimes traffic can be a blessing in disguise?) about life in general, and how much my life has changed, especially since I moved to the Twin Cities in 2003. I wrote “Liminal” in a coffee shop in Minneapolis on one of those dark, impenetrable Upper Midwestern January nights. I love the word “liminal” and the idea of “liminality.” “Poetry Village” is an old poem whose genesis was from an assignment in the MFA program. I don’t remember the exact assignment, but I thought it would be fun to personify language.

Lynchburg College Visit

Last week I had a speaking engagement and book signing at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA, and it was a great campus visit! Last year, some of the graduate students in the counseling program read Purge: Rehab Diaries for one of their classes, and decided they would invite me to speak as part of their eating disorder awareness week. I spoke about the complexity of eating disorders, and how they’re about more than just food as well as co-morbidities, the recovery process, and how to help someone with an eating disorder. The audience was a mix of undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and staff from Lynchburg College, and they asked lots of good questions, and I enjoyed talking with people afterwards, and as I signed books.

While I was only in Lynchburg for roughly twenty-four hours, I had a wonderful time. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and I was definitely the recipient of Southern hospitality! When I arrived at Lynchburg Regional Airport, R, a grad student was waiting for me, and she gave me a tour of Lynchburg, which is a pretty little town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then she took me to my hotel, the Craddock Terry, which was originally a shoe factory in the 1800s. If you’re ever in Lynchburg, I can’t recommend this place enough: http://www.craddockterryhotel.com. They even have a hotel dog that you can take on walks! Here are a couple pictures of my room:

Craddock Terry

Craddock Terry

Craddock Terry

Craddock Terry

In the morning, they put your breakfast in a little wooden box outside your door. My breakfast consisted of a croissant, brie, fresh fruit, yogurt, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and coffee from the Keurig in my room.

Thursday night, I had dinner at Waterstone Pizza, and it was delicious. I had a BLT with fresh mozzarella, and lemon berry mascarpone cake, in addition to two sweet teas. I love sweet tea, so anytime I head to the South, I always make a point of ordering one (or five). If you’re ever in Lynchburg, this place is great (and affordable): http://www.waterstonepizza.com.

Friday morning Dr. P picked me up and we headed to campus. It was a beautiful day, in the mid-40s, and after living in a white-on-white landscape in Minnesota for the past few months, it was so nice to see grass and (non-snow-covered) trees again. Lynchburg College has a beautiful campus, and I thought the chapel was especially pretty. Before I gave my talk, I met many members of the graduate student counseling organization, C.O.P.E., that helped bring me to campus. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and I wasn’t nervous at all. The talk went well, and afterwards, I was presented with a C.O.P.E. t-shirt, which I will definitely wear. I always try and get a t-shirt or mug, or something like that as a souvenir whenever I speak somewhere, so I love that they gave me a C.O.P.E. t-shirt! Afterwards, I signed books and talked with members of the Lynchburg College community and C.O.P.E. Here are a few pictures:

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Signing books

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Speaking

Me and the C.O.P.E. group after my talk.

Me and the C.O.P.E. group after my talk.

After the book signing, we headed to lunch at a place called Neighbors, where I had more sweet tea and crab cakes. I love crab cakes, but I often question the freshness of the crab cakes I can get in Minnesota, so I usually only order them when I’m near the East Coast. These crab cakes were excellent. I would recommend this restaurant as well: http://www.theneighborsplace.com. At lunch I had the opportunity to talk more with the C.O.P.E. members as well as some of the counseling faculty. Afterwards, Dr. P. showed me more of Lynchburg before dropping me off at the airport. Lynchburg Regional Airport has just one gate, but while you wait for the security line to open, you can sit in a rocking chair and look at the Blue Ridge Mountains.

On my way home, I had a long layover in Charlotte, NC, and my cousin J came to the airport and we drank Starbucks and talked. I hadn’t seen J for about two years, and it was really good to see her, and I’m happy our airport cousin meet-up worked out.

I had four flights total last week (MSP–>CLT–>LYH and then reversed for the trip back), and on each flight, people asked me why I was headed to Lynchburg, and whenever I told them, they told me about a loved one, friend, or coworker who was struggling with an eating disorder. I know this is a small sample size, but I think it’s telling that on each flight I encountered someone whose life had been touched, even indirectly, by an eating disorder. This is why it’s important that we keep the conversation going, and keep talking about eating disorders.

Upcoming Speaking Engagement: Dickinson College

I’m excited to announce I will be speaking at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA as part of “Love Your Body Week” in early March. I was at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA last week, and I had a fabulous time. I will be blogging about my Lynchburg trip soon. I love doing campus talks and visits, and I am so honored that people read my book and invite me to come talk at their school. It’s a huge privilege.

Pennsylvania H.B. 1959

Residents of Pennsylvania, please think about supporting Pennsylvania H.B, 1959, proposed by Rep. Steve Santarsiero, which would require schools to share information about eating disorders with students in grades 5-12. It would also create guidelines for optional screenings (with an opt-out option) for school districts as well. More information on the bill can be found here:

http://www.pahouse.com/PAHouseNews.asp?doc=34905

You can show support of this bill by writing to your local politicians using this easy form letter from NEDA:

https://secure3.convio.net/neda/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=231

If done appropriately, I believe that age-appropriate education about eating disorders and when to seek help is highly valuable. School district guidelines for how to assess and help students with eating disorders would also be good. When I was a student in the Pennsylvania public school system (K-10) we received little to no information about eating disorders, and I’d like to see that change. If you are a Pennsylvania resident and have a moment, please consider looking into this proposed legislation.

Upcoming Speaking Engagement: Lynchburg College

I’m excited to announce I will be heading to Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA to talk about eating disorders and recovery! It looks like in a couple of weeks I will also have another campus visit to announce…it’s going to be a busy spring!

If you are interested in having me speak at your middle school, high school, college, or organization, you can contact me via email: nicolejjohns@gmail.com

Autumn 2013 Recap (Part 2)

As you can see from my previous blog post, last fall was a busy time. I’m enjoying my January break, and I’m prepping for my spring classes, writing, submitting to literary magazines and contests, and working on various projects. It’s very cold in Minnesota, but I’m determined to get outside this winter. Prince Charming and I went to Lake of the Isles for some ice skating (this is the first time I’ve ever skated on an actual lake!) and a New Year’s Day walk.

Skating at Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis on New Year's Day.

Skating at Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis on New Year’s Day.

Posing with a snowman at Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.

Posing with a snowman at Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.

After finals week, Prince Charming and I headed to Green Bay for the Packers vs. Steelers game. I could not have asked for a better first NFL game. It was cold and snowy at Lambeau Field, and it was a good game; the lead changed several times. Prince Charming is a Packers fan, and I am a Steelers fan, so we are a condo divided.

Steelers vs. Packers 2013, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI

Steelers vs. Packers 2013, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI

We also watched the last Steelers game of the season at the Steelers’ bar. It was an excellent way to the end the season.

Steelers' bar, St. Paul, MN Steelers vs. Browns

Steelers’ bar, St. Paul, MN Steelers vs. Browns

Other highlights of autumn 2013 include having Thanksgiving brunch at the Saint Paul Hotel, where Prince Charming and I got married (it’s going to be five years this May!). After we ate, we walked around Rice Park in St. Paul.

Rice Park, St. Paul, MN, Thanksgiving 2013

Rice Park, St. Paul, MN, Thanksgiving 2013

I also got back into baking. I love making pizzelles at Christmas, and I also enjoy baking cakes using various bundt cake pans.

Pumpkin-spice turkey bundt cakes.

Pumpkin-spice turkey bundt cakes.

Pizzelles!

Pizzelles!

As much fun as autumn 2013 was, I’m looking forward to winter 2014. I hope all of my readers have a wonderful 2014!

Autumn 2013 Recap (Part 1)

Autumn 2013 was quite busy, and I’m just now getting some time to catch up with my blog. I did a lot of traveling and speaking in addition to my usual teaching load, and I’m currently enjoying my January break. My first school visit was at Elkins Middle and High Schools in West Virginia (which I previously blogged about here: http://www.nicolejjohns.com/speaking-engagements/my-trip-to-elkins-wv/), then I headed to the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English (WCTE) conference in Madison, WI, to do a presentation on narrative writing and developmental English with two of my colleagues, which went very well.

I finished my fall semester travels by giving a presentation on eating disorders and recovery, and visiting a few classes at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette, and visiting a creative writing class at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. I know I’ve written this before, but one of the best things to have come from publishing Purge: Rehab Diaries is that I get the chance to talk to schools and organizations about eating disorders and writing. I love doing this, and I am honored that I get the chance to do this. I had a great time at UW-Marinette and UW-Green Bay, and I enjoyed meeting the students and faculty there. They were quite welcoming and friendly.

Prince Charming came along with me on this trip (it was his birthday), and we drove up into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and also headed to Door County, WI. We also visited Lambeau Field! I’ve included some pictures from my travels below.

Near Marinette, WI

Near Marinette, WI

I was a cheesehead for two seconds at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI

I was a cheesehead for two seconds at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI

 

St. Odile's Church, near Thiery Daems, WI.

St. Odile’s Church, near Thiery Daems, WI.

Gills Rock, WI

Gills Rock, WI

Another fun part of the trip was that my friend Tara, who I met at the University of Minnesota MFA program, was the one who invited me to UW-Marinette and UW-Green Bay, and it was good to reconnect with her, and meet her family.  Prince Charming and I both really like Green Bay, and we hope to go back again soon.

This is getting to be a long blog post, so I will break it in two. More later…