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One year ago today I wrote a blog called 27 Reasons in celebration of my 27th Birthday. It listed 27 reasons how overcoming anorexia changed my life. Reason #26 on that list was: “I can become a mom (this is a big one and has not always been a reality).” One day after writing this I found out I was pregnant with my now 15 week old son, Oliver. So this year on my Birthday, in keeping with tradition, I give you reasons #28. I am the mom to a beautiful baby boy.

 

While motherhood has had it’s fair share of struggles, when I think of everything I’ve already overcome to have him, I wouldn’t trade in my sleepless nights and spit-up stained shirts for anything.

But oh how easy it is to lose perspective in the moment. When Oliver is red-faced and screaming in my ear and my relief is hours away from coming home from work I find myself wondering if I’m really capable of being a mom. Am I strong enough? Compassionate enough? Patient enough? Do I have the fortitude to see this through? When I start to have my doubts all I have to do is think back on my past struggles. Overcoming anorexia required all those attributes that I am now calling into question. If I possessed them then, if I could do the seemingly impossible, what makes now different.

Most of us are capable of more than we think and it just takes a little reflection to realize it. Isn’t that what past trials are all about anyway? Building up a memory bank of successes and of exceeded expectations. What if I started to view motherhood in that way? Undoubtably there will be a day in the not so distant future when I find myself facing another challenge. With my back against the wall and my reserves almost on empty I will question if I am enough. And then I will think back to these past 15 weeks. I will remember that I survived and came out a stronger woman, and I will smile and move on.

 

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Nothing could have prepared me for parenthood. Not the parenting classes my husband and I diligently attended at the local hospital. Not the hours I spent listening to advice from trusted friends and family members. Not even adopting the motto, “expect the unexpected,” could fully prepare me for how unexpectedly hard it has been.

I anticipated sleepless nights, and I braced myself for smelly diapers and vomit stained shirts. I expected a certain amount of crying and stocked my arsenal with endless tools to soothe a fussy baby. I was ready for all the trials and joys that go along with caring for a newborn, or so I thought.

When my 8lb 6oz son entered the world on July 20th at 11:20pm, and the doctor lifted him onto my chest I stared into his big blue eyes waiting for the influx of maternal warm and fuzzies that I’d heard so much about.

NOTHING

So I looked harder. I glared down at my son, squinting my eyes into focused laser beams of love. But still nothing. After a long labor, preceded by four sleepless nights, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. My birth plan had gone out the window about 20 hours into labor when, after having my water broke and experiencing continuous stabbing pain, I was still only 1cm dilated. When I first saw my son I was feeling defeated, overwhelmed, slightly traumatized, and upset that I didn’t have the “natural,” drug-free delivery I planned.

When we loaded our son into his car seat to go home, I was happy to be putting distance between the delivery experience and myself. Now I can move on, I thought. Now I can begin the bonding process. But the first few days home from the hospital were filled with conflicted emotions and uncontrollable crying spells more than tender moments and googly eyes.

As I stood hunched over in the shower with tears welling in my eyes and my chest tightening I couldn’t fathom what was wrong with me. This is what you always wanted, I told myself. This was a planned pregnancy, a decision my husband and I consciously made. Why was I suddenly feeling an intense regret? I couldn’t stop the deluge of unwanted thoughts.

Having a baby was the biggest mistake. My life is over. I wish I could take him back, give him away to someone more deserving. I don’t love this baby; I don’t feel connected to this baby; heck he doesn’t even feel like my son. I am a terrible person and I am going to be a terrible mother. This baby would be better off without me.

My husband, who was privy to a few of these crying episodes, raised a red flag and called my doctor. An appointment was scheduled for later that afternoon. As I walked into her office I tried desperately to compose myself, rubbing the desperation out of my puffy, blood-shot eyes and pulling a jacket over my shirt that was sporting a mix of baby vomit and my own snot. I was fine. I needed people to think I was fine. But the façade crumbled the moment the doctor entered the room.

I broke down and cried, muttering incoherently between gasps and sobs. My doctor diagnosed me with post partum depression, and along with a prescription for Zoloft, should I want it, she sent me on my way with a few words of wisdom.

First, bonding is not instantaneous for all women. Many times, the raging hormones from the baby blues or PPD make is difficult to establish a connection with the baby in those first few months. Additionally, the stress of being a new parent can be so overwhelming that it blunts a lot of the tender moments that lead to establishing a bond. Give yourself time to get to know your baby and build a relationship instead of expecting there to be one right away.

Most people carry certain expectations for parenthood throughout their pregnancy and are often upset when reality does not line up with those expectations. The disappointment can often leave the new parents questioning everything from their decision to have a baby to whether or not they will be able to cut it as parents. The best course of action is to mourn the loss of your unmet expectations, take stock of reality, and then set a new course based on your updated expectations.

Next, don’t compare your journey into parenthood with others because you’ll probably always find yourself feeling slighted on some level. At times, our son can be an incredibly fussy baby. It was a running joke the first month of his life that if he wasn’t sleeping or eating he was probably crying, screaming, screeching, whimpering, whining, or my favorite, making his high-pitched, ear-drum-breaking wail. It was one part car alarm and one part blaring smoke detector playing on repeat. I would look at other babies quietly sleeping in their car seats and think, why can’t my baby be like that? The simple answer is because I have a unique child, with his own temperament and personality and the sooner I accept him as he is the happier I will be. Babies don’t come in a one-size fits all mold. If you’re constantly comparing your baby to others, instead of working on appreciating your child as is, chances are you will overlook all the great attributes he does possess.

Lastly, acknowledge that being a parent, especially in those first few months, is one of the hardest things you will ever do. Expectant mothers are often inundated with stories about the joys of parenthood and are told repeatedly how having a child is the greatest gift there is. At the end of these feel-good tales, someone might casually throw in a “better enjoy your sleep now” as they look at you with sympathetic eyes, but the inherent struggles are merely an afterthought. From my perspective, it would be a lot more helpful, not to mention accurate, if people led with the sleepless nights and then proceeded to talk about the joys.

I liken parenthood to running a marathon. You eagerly sign up, spurred on by a friend’s story of glory and a glimpse at her shiny finisher’s medal. Training is hard but you persist. You think you’re ready, you’ve read all the books, put in the miles, and are rested and fueled. You show up at the starting line blissfully unaware of what is in store. It’s not until the race starts and you’re a couple miles in that you realize exactly what you’ve gotten yourself into and just how far you still have to go.  At this moment it’s easy to lose sight of the finish line and to forget why you set out on this adventure to begin with. Your feet are tired, your muscles start to ache, and you begin to question your resolve along with your sanity. You push on because you have no other choice and eventually fall into a rhythm. You cross the finish line exhausted but euphoric. You did it!

As the days and weeks and months pass, you begin to forget about all the pain, the fatigue, the blisters, and the bruises. The struggle becomes nothing more than a foggy memory.

And when the fog clears, all that is left is a story of triumph and your shiny finishers medal, gently encouraging you to sign up again.

Another blog prompted by a comment from a stranger at the gym. I’m starting to consider intrusive strangers my new muses.

During a recent trip to the gym, I found myself dragging my pregnant, lethargic, still-sore-from-yesterday’s-workout legs onto the elliptical to get in my recommended cardio for the day. About fifteen minutes into the heart pounding, sweat inducing torture I knock the resistance down a little and give my normally primed for speed interval legs a rest. Today was simply not my day for pushing it. The older gentleman on the elliptical next to me, upon seeing the slow-down, felt obliged to interject some grade-A motivation.

“You’re slowing down already?” he asks. “You gotta give it 100%.”

Note: actual man was not wearing suit and tie at gym.

He smiles sweetly and turns back to focus on his non-sweat producing, resistance level one workout. Really?

I fake a smile and continue chugging along at my slower pace. Just say no to peer pressure! Does he not realize how hard my workout was yesterday, I think angrily. No, probably not. Does he not realize how poorly I slept last night because it takes hours of tossing and turning to find a comfortable side-sleeping position for my pregnant belly? No again. Oh yea, and does he not see I’m clearly pregnant? Hopefully that last one just a little. (Unless he’s conspiring with Jeff from my previous post)

I don’t say these things to make excuses for my actions; I hate making up excuses as much as I hate needing an excuse to begin with (unless of course it’s why my husband is out of clean boxers once again). But sometimes it just isn’t practical to always be going full-throttle or giving it 100% effort, 100% of the time.

I made this unfortunate mistake in college. I knew if I studied enough studied until I memorized the textbook, I could get a near 100% on anything. I tortured myself with multi-day study sessions for 10-question quizzes. I became a shut-in at times with only my coffee pot and sugary snacks to keep me company. Friends would invite me out, but I’d be too busy memorizing the name of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood pet (a pig named Fido in case you were wondering) or the diameter of Mars. I believed that if I could get a %100, I should, no matter how much it interfered with my (sometimes nonexistent) life outside of school. Try my best I did! I tried and I tried and I tried until trying my best became who and what I was about. By senior year I had trouble grasping the idea of “enough.” What do you mean when you say give it “enough” effort to get an A? What is this elusive, mystical word you speak of? It’s either all or nothing. I either succeed or fail, and anything less than all my effort is decidedly failure.

If only I were as enlightened then as I am now.

Following college I started and stopped a couple different graduate programs and a handful of sub-stellar jobs, all of which I was less than enthused about. I would begin a program with my college ambitions and attitude, realize I didn’t feel driven or passionate enough about what I was doing to put forth 100% effort, and because I couldn’t put forth 100%, well I might as well not even try. I became a habitual quitter. I felt awful, like a flat out, no-good failure. The fortunate thing about hitting this low is that it afforded me the opportunity to reflect on how I had somehow gotten things so wrong.

For me, this light bulb moment came on a warm summer day when I was out running in the park.

In the park on a not so sunny day, do something that is decidedly not running.

After submitting yet another resume to potential employer # bajillion, aka, “another employer who won’t even send me a rejection letter,” I was desperately needing to vent my frustrations. I hit the path with the intention of going full-speed-ahead until all my anger and pent-up despair was lying in sweat puddles under my feet. Only a couple minutes into the run I felt tired, and my lead laden legs begged me to slow to a jog. This apparent weakness annoyed me and I pushed on in defiance, forcing my legs to keep the steady pace. An internal soundtrack played through my head.

Dana’s Motivational Soundtrack

1. The You’ll Never Be Good Enough Blues

2. Give it All or Give Up Boogie

3. Baby Say Bye Bye Bye to Your Dreams

4. You’re not a Survivor

5. Oops I Messed Up Again

6. Rumour Has It You’re a Failure

I couldn’t put it on mute or flip the station. I began to cry. Cry, sniffle, inhale, exhale. Cry, sniffle, inhale, exhale. Cry, sniffle, cry, sniffle, cry, sniffle. Must. Stop. Running. To. Catch. Breathe. I came to a halt about a mile down the trail and hobbled to the nearest bench to sit down.

I can’t even run well anymore. I’m horrible at everything. I used to be so motivated and dedicated, what happened?

What did happen? I asked myself. Why was I so unhappy?

I thought back over the last couple years about the effort I put into pursuits that didn’t interest me. I thought about the all or nothing attitude that usually led to nothing and about how tired and defeated I felt from putting 100% effort into everything I did. What would happen if I didn’t always try my best? What if I gave 100% effort only to those things I really care about and 90% to everything else? What if I let the situation I’m in and my abilities at that moment determine how much effort I put forth? Is it okay to be less than my best?

I got off the bench to finish the last two miles of the three-mile loop, continuing on at a slow but steady jog. I took in the smell of the woods around me, the light glinting through the tree tops, and the sound of squirrels running across remnants of dead leaves. I reached my car feeling calm, happy, and accomplished. I hadn’t given it my all; I couldn’t finish the run saying I put forth 100% effort, but I could say I finished. And finishing, feeling happy and at peace, was more important at that moment than fast.

Today I live by the 90% rule. I give 90% effort, 90% of the time and save my 100% effort for the 10% of the time when it really counts. What I’ve discovered time and time again is that while my effort levels may have gone down 10%, 90% of the time, my enjoyment of life has gone up 100% almost all of the time.

I now let my effort level be determined by the situation I’m in and the amount of passion I feel for a given pursuit. If I’m having a hard day or I’m physically and emotionally drained I let myself slack a little. Ah, “slack,” it used to sound like such a dirty word. If I’m forced into a task I feel less than thrilled with, say a boring project at work, I do it well enough.

How I’m usually feeling at work.

I’ve detached myself from the belief that nothing but the best will do and attached myself to the notion that “good enough” often leads to more happiness. And I’ve learned over time that when I’m happy, it’s much easier to put my good foot forward and be at my best.

After 30 minutes on the elliptical, I hit the stop button and step off the machine. “You’re giving up already?” the nosy man next to me asks.

“No,” I respond, “not giving up, just accepting that good enough is my best for today.”

 

I broke my foot exactly 1 month ago, and with it, all my dreams of losing too much weight, overdoing it at the gym, and once again reclaiming my eating disorder glory. Let me explain.

About 2 months ago, I stumbled upon the website sparkpeople.com. Much like diet and exercise trackers I’ve used in the past, it allows you to set a goal weight and a day at which you would like to achieve said goal weight and POOF…. it pumps out a daily calorie allowance and suggested exercise program.

The fact that I searched out this website to begin with says something about my general mental well-being. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with grieving the end, or death if you want to sound more poetic, of my anorexia. I’ve been struggling to fill the void it’s absence has created. At one point in my life eating disordered behaviors could be the answer to almost any question or problem. Feeling bored? Turn to ED. Feeling stressed? Turn to ED. Feeling overwhelmed? Turn to ED. Feeling angry? Turn to ED. You get the idea. Lately, I’ve had to admit to myself that anorexia is no longer my coping method of choice. I’ve had to admit that even if I wished to develop anorexia again, I don’t think I could. Just as much as I didn’t control its onset the first time around, I can’t magically will it into being now. And all that makes me sad.

I liked having an “easy” answer to all life’s problems. I don’t like having to deal with issues in a mature, adult way. I don’t like having to look for alternative coping mechanisms, or what most often happens, not cope at all. Over the past year I have fallen into quite a depressed state, and without my fixation on weight loss, or the sense of accomplishment I get from sticking to a diet, I’ve been hanging out at the bottom of this dark hole for quite some time.

Enter sparkpeople.com. I became hooked on its community based approach to weight loss and point system very quickly. I loved entering my food for the day and seeing the ticker land right between my designated calorie allowance. I loved watching the calories burned bar far surpass the calories consumed bar. I especially loved watching the slope of the line graph indicating weight steadily become steeper and steeper.

In about 1 month’s time I had lost 7 pounds. The depression was starting to lift, and I was feeling on top of the world. I was feeling like a somebody instead of a nobody. And then in a seemingly innocuous fall while playing tennis I broke the base of my 5th metatarsal (aka: a Jones fracture for all you medically minded people). The moment I heard the doctor say it was broken I knew my weight loss plans were over. The tides had been turned and I was bearing straight toward a sea of home alone binges, uncontrollable crying sessions and irrational, nearly suicidal thoughts.

It’s always been that way with me. The moment my plans are disrupted I can no longer stay on course. In effect, I do a complete 180. It’s my all or nothing mentality at its finest. And sitting on that cold, paper-lined hospital table I knew it all too well. I started to cry, not because my foot was broken, but because I knew that meant I was heading into a period of compulsive overeating, purging, and depression. And despite having complete awareness over what was happening, I had no control.

It’s been one month since that accident, my foot is still cast bound, and my follow-up appointment isn’t until September 6. I’ve completely abandoned my sparkpeople account, except for the rare occasion when I wake up committed to track for the day and make it through lunch. Those half days only make me feel bad when I look back over them…reminders of my failure. I’ve tried telling myself that this broken foot was a relapse intervention; it was some higher power’s way of telling me to cut it out. Or it could have been the universe’s way of showing me just how ill equipped I am at overcoming obstacles, how little drive and perseverance I have.

Despite the cast, I still make it to the gym 3-4 times a week, my weight is “only” up about 2 pounds, and I’m managing to eat a more balanced diet than I normally would were I in a typical binge and purge period. I’m hoping once the cast comes off and I get the go ahead to apply weight I can flip the switch again and get back into tracking and out of this funk. I know I should hope for a future that isn’t centered around any extreme eating and exercise behavior, but frankly, I have a hard time imagining what that would look like.

Because it is the thing that makes me most miserable that I also need to find any joy at all.

October 2011 Update: I am completely managing all eating disorder behaviors and have taken this incident as an opportunity to deal with some of the latent emotions I have surrounding the “death” of my eating disorder.

In an attempt to defer my imminent disappointment and self-loathing I’ve been avoiding my blog. On January 1st of this year I set five goals, which I perceived as achievable, attempting to prove to my wavering self-confidence that I do indeed possess perseverance, follow-through, and drive. Today, on April 6th having not accomplished nor even ardently attempted one of my goals, getting married aside, I am finally facing the reality that, if I do in fact possess those qualities I so desire, I have failed to utilize them in working toward my goals.

My first inclination is to find external excuses, think too many hours at work or too many demands at home, for why I have not succeeded. Social psychology would call this defending my self-efficacy, or my belief that I am a competent and capable person. It is a well-established theory within psychology research that a person’s attributions for successes and failures play a large role in shaping one’s self-efficacy and self-esteem. Attributing a source outside of oneself for failures and sources within oneself for successes promotes a high self-esteem. On the other hand, if you believe that everything good in your life happens by chance but you are responsible for all your downfalls, the glass is most likely half empty.

So is the solution blaming everyone but myself for not achieving my goals? Probably not. While it might temporarily protect my self-esteem, I am nowhere near proving to myself that I possess perseverance, follow-through, or drive. The only thing I am proving is that my life is out my control, and I am nothing more than a passenger along for the ride, at the mercy of others. It’s not a very empowering belief for a woman who desperately wants direction in her life.

If I’m not going to blame external causes then how about I claim responsibility for my failures, point the finger at myself, and succumb to the belief that I am quitter. Hmmmm… maybe I should rethink that one.  Even worse than never taking personal responsibility is creating an environment that fosters the very behavior I am trying to snuff out. This idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is prevalent throughout literature, history, and the social sciences. It says that by believing myself to be a quitter, I change my own behaviors and the behaviors of those around me until I create an environment that elicits quitting.

So what to do? By now I’ve learned that both blaming others and blaming myself can be destructive in overcoming failures. That only leaves me with one problem: who or what do I blame? In this world of shades-of-grey kind of thinking, where most situations are not black and white or all-or-nothing, I tend to believe that taking a middle of the road approach will serve me best. It’s important that I believe I possess the ability and competence to achieve goals, but I also should be aware that it is possible for goals to be sidelined by life’s stressors if I don’t remain focused. Even though I had every intention of following through, an external complication, a kink in the plan arose, and I allowed it to interfere.

Now that I have a sense for why I did not achieve my goals, the important thing is what am I going to do about it. First, I am going to reassess my goals. Are they still relevant? Are they still desirable? Are there other goals that might be better suited to my present situation? Next, I am going to develop a concrete, step-by-step plan for achieving my new goals. Because even though I may know my destination, it’s going to be very hard to get there without a map. Finally, I am going to rally those around me for support in reaching my goals. The more people you can involve the more accountable you will be, the more strength you can draw on when you want to give up, and most importantly, the more people you will have by you side celebrating when you finally reach that end.

I’m going out of my mind. For the past 4 weeks I have been sick or injured in some capacity. It started with a case of strep throat, which led to a bought of bronchitis and has finally evolved into strained back muscles from excessive coughing. The ironic thing about all this illness is that the actually sickness itself doesn’t bother me. I can deal with the sore throat, fever, and body aches that came with the strep. The coughing and tight chest from the bronchitis, no big deal. The back pain, piece of cake. What I can’t deal with, however, is the inability to exercise that has resulted from this prolonged illness.

Summer has finally arrived in northern Ohio; the sun is shining; the air smells of flowers and fresh cut grass, and I have the worst case of cabin fever. As I sit here in bed writing, looking outside, my new running shoes are calling to me from their cubby in the closet. I bought them over a month ago and still no inaugural run. I think they are starting to get sad… or maybe that’s just me. For someone whose self-esteem and identity is tightly wound up in how many miles she can run or how much weight she can lift, not being able to work out has taken a toll on my feelings of self-worth. I find myself getting anxious, depressed, and slightly neurotic. My new favorite question to ask my boyfriend has become, “what if I never get better; what if there is always something wrong with me?” It’s a very real fear I have, and even though he often manages to punch through it with logic and reasoning, there is still this lingering fear that he might be wrong.

“Get back in bed; go lie down.” I’ve been hearing this one a lot from my boyfriend also. I’m standing in the mirror trying to see if it looks like my muscle are getting smaller or my butt is getting bigger and he ushers me back to the couch, beseeching me to just rest. He’s right. He knows it. My rational side knows it. But my stubborn side, the one that still sometimes likes to mingle with the enemy, to converse with the eating disorder, doesn’t want to listen. It fills my head with images of my body ballooned out to 300 lbs. “Do you want to look like that?” it asks. “Do you want to be lazy? Then go ahead and rest.” My rational side begs me to listen. “Rest,” it tells me, “or you will risk injuring yourself worse.” And here is where the anxiety lies. If I rest now I am lazy and fat, but if I don’t rest now, I will double my recovery time.

So now I must ask myself this question: why is it so hard to be still? Why does taking a month off from my normal workout routine to recover from illness freak me out so much? The more important question might be: why is my identity so wrapped up in my athletic ability anyway? I know I am more than a number; whether that number is my fastest 5k time, how many pounds I can bench press, or how many risers I put on my step for step class. All of those are just things I can do, not things I am. I think the problem I am running into is that for so many years, my athletic ability and my weight constituted the only important part of my identity, and in some way, I’m still stuck in that mindset. I still believe that if I sit in stillness for too long I will lose myself, or at least the part of myself that I value the most.

Here’s wishing for either a speedy recovery or an identity beyond my physical self. Really I wish for both.

November 2017
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