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“I Want To Recover From My Eating Disorder and Look Hot While Doing It”

Of the coaching enquiries I’ve received over the past year, some of the most common ones read something like this:

“I’ve recovered from anorexia through an in-patient program, but now I’m overexercising. I’d like to raise my self-esteem, make peace with my body, and look really fit and lean. Can you help?”

or this…

“I’ve been binge eating for years and am finally ready to stop this bad habit, but I also want to reduce my body fat and weight.”

or this…

“I’ve been in and out of treatment for an eating disorder for many years, and nothing seems to work. Every time I start to get better, I gain weight. Can you help me overcome it while being able to maintain my current weight?”

Most months, I’ll receive a few requests along these lines, all from smart and determined women in their teens, twenties, and thirties. Their accounts are often similar, mirroring the traits and experiences of those who deal with eating disorders in other parts of the world, which include numerous failed treatment attempts, low self-esteem, pervasive perfectionism, and few social supports. Some of these women were raised in enmeshed or narcissistic families, where self-worth is gained through external achievement and little autonomy or emotional expression is allowed.  A majority deal with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosomatic illness or other kinds of addictions in addition to an eating disorder. Some are in tumultuous relationships or are otherwise experiencing instability in their lives, and others have a history of trauma.

I know this story all too well because the narrative is also part of my own, one that I’ve gently held onto in order to alchemize it. I know the shame of having a nurse hover over you as you sit on the toilet because she’s got to make sure that you don’t throw up. I know what 800 calories a day does to mood and metabolism, what it’s like to try on a hundred outfits and still hate what you see in the mirror, and how empty if feels to live for the approval of others. 


It’s been many years since I’ve contended with an active eating disorder or addiction and since that time I’ve realized that we’re having the wrong conversation. Eating disorders are not about vomiting or starving or compulsive calorie-burning gym sessions. They’re not about reaching an ideal weight.

Eating disorders are about refusing to actually be IN our bodies. They’re about rejecting our true selves. They’re about seeking worth externally, and then battling with that external illusion in an attempt to regain control. They’re about swallowing big lies- that we don’t matter unless someone else recognizes our significance, and that a woman’s value is hinged on the way she looks. And, they’re about attempting to cope with emotional pain stored in the body- pain that is all too often “unspeakable.”

In Asia, we’re in the midst of a process addiction and eating disorders crisis, exhibited by the rapid rise in the number of people seeking treatment for gambling, sex and video game addiction, binge eating disorder, and anorexia. Due to the shame-based cultural underpinnings and the pervasive sociological concept of having “face” (mianzi) and protecting a family’s reputation at all costs, eating disorders and addictions are woefully underreported in this neck of the woods. To complicate things, careers serving this population aren’t generally desired due to the nature of the work, the low pay in comparison to glitzy financial service jobs, and a high rate of burnout. This ensures that many, many people who need treatment aren’t getting any because they’re too afraid to ask for it and even if they did, options are severely lacking. It’s estimated that 80 percent of people receiving treatment for eating disorders will relapse, and 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders will die from their condition. That’s what I’d call a serious public health crisis. ED recovery is hard work, and women on the path are true warriors. A quote I recently came across summarizes things quite accurately:

“Alcohol and other drug recovery is like dealing with a tiger in a cage. Recovery from eating disorders is like taking that tiger out of the cage three times a day and then taking it for a walk.”

When you couple this global health emergency with the fact that the societal perception of a person’s value has become increasingly commodified, it’s no wonder more women are saying, “I want to recover from my eating disorder and look hot while doing it!” Since today’s version of “hot” apparently equates to being impossibly lean and thin, the goal of solid recovery is in direct opposition with the wish to chisel a Fitspo body.

I should know- while competing as a bodybuilder in 2014, I noticed that as soon as I hit a low body fat percentage during my third competition prep, several eating disorder-related thoughts and obsessions began to resurface. Because I’d been on the recovery path for many years and had a great coach, I was able to view these thoughts objectively and avoid a relapse, but I now recognize the fine line I was walking in pushing body, mind and soul to complete exhaustion. In some ways, sports are an incredible option to overcome an eating disorder or other addiction; I’ve met a lot of other bodybuilders, powerlifters, and distance runners who became athletes on their journey of recovery.

One of the best ways to beat a bad habit, compulsion or addiction is to replace it with a healthier behavior. However, if the addiction or disorder is still active and the person’s secondary goal is focused on the external (to look a certain way) rather than the internal (to self-partner and generate positive inner energy), I can nearly guarantee that the person will not reach a higher level of self-esteem, make peace with her body, or find reprieve from her disorder- quite the opposite.

So, what can you do if you want to develop a better relationship with yourself, with food… and still look a certain way?

First, a focus on the true roots of the eating disorder and a method for releasing some of the internal pain is paramount and best done with a licensed counsellor or psychologist, as this is beyond the realm of coaching. Somatic psychotherapy and EMDR can both be helpful on this journey.

Second, reprogramming your inner messaging system to raise self-esteem, transforming your emotional hooks or vulnerabilities into strengths, and replacing negative behaviors with positive ones are all vital and require long-term commitment. A qualified coach can be highly beneficial here.

Third, relearning all you can about nutrition, food and exercise will provide knowledge, newfound self-respect and a sense of control. I personally find that intuitive eating approaches don’t work all that well for a lot of women with eating disorders due to an impaired interoception response (missed cues for hunger and satiation) and difficulty accessing their emotional barometer, particularly around something triggering like a food buffet. Add to that, ripping away control can actually backfire. Acquiring knowledge about how to eat in a healthy manner reinstills some of that control.

Fourth, cultivating an environment that supports your journey is important, which usually means severely limiting or deleting social media applications like Instagram and refusing to flip through fashion magazines, at least until you feel a comfortable level of confidence within yourself.

Fifth, returning to your body is essential- practices like yoga, mindfulness or prayer, journaling, and an exercise program can be incorporated as a part of your week to turn your focus away from the impossible ideal and toward learning how to love and appreciate yourself as you are.

By coaxing your body toward alignment and honoring your emotions, you’ll begin to feel deeply that you’d rather be friends with yourself than fight against the true you in your quest for the “perfect” body.

Over time, you might just find that you already have the body you’ve always dreamed of, because it supports and houses the authentic spirit of you.

Recovery is a lifelong journey and an unparalleled gift.

If you’re on the path to overcome an eating disorder or an addiction, that means you’re also on a path of self-realization and heightened awareness, which will give you the tools and vitality to build a life you can appreciate in the body you’ve been given while maintaining your integrity and cultivating peace of mind. Recovery lights up the BEING inside the BODY. Now, that’s hot.

I'd love to hear from you- is holding onto the ideal of the "perfect body" keeping you sad and sick? If you're in recovery from an eating disorder, what's helped you stay on track? Leave your comments below. And, if this helps you or may help someone you know, share it! 

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To Move Out of Self-Sabotage, Get SELFish. Here’s How

Whether it’s an addiction, a bad habit, a harmful relationship, a self-sabotaging behavior or an inauthentic life- we’re often surprised to discover that letting go of the thing which has been dragging us down for so long doesn’t automatically coax out the rainbows and trumpets. In other words, a shiny new life won’t magically appear just because we’ve made space for it.  

The self-destructive mentality that we’ve been operating from for so long dramatically compromises our coping mechanisms and life skills. After we finally stop ingesting poison, we may realize that we don’t know how to engage in nourishing activities like cultivating healthy relationships, setting boundaries, practicing self-care, or supporting ourselves. Our sense of self is shaky, at best, and the shame that has underpinned our negative circumstances and poor decisions may still be running the show. When shame’s the director of our lives, it’s hard to know who we are and nearly impossible to assert ourselves or speak our truth.

No matter what our age, we’re bound to fall back into our intricately designed traps until we make a conscious decision to completely change how we think and relate with the world, and then seek support from mentors who can assist us in uncovering our life-affirming and creative gems from the dung pile of shame. Quitting a harmful behavior, substance or relationship provides us with clarity, but it doesn’t give us the tools we need to move forward in a healthy and wholehearted way.

Recovery teaches us to be of service and to release the habit of indulgent, destructive self-pity. Self-involved thinking is part of what got us into a mess in the first place! However, recovery also requires that we embrace SELFishness and reclaim our power by learning how to respect our own needs and health.

This can be an incredibly foreign concept to many women, who were taught from a young age to be selfless, accommodating and long-suffering- a character lesson passed down unconsciously through generations. Here are five SELFish practices that I recommend cultivating:

1. SELF-PROTECTION

Author Julia Cameron writes, “it is enlightened self-interest to be selfish enough to be self-protective. Being self-protective may not seem nice. We may say no to invitations that do not serve us.” A majority of women who engage in self-sabotage can easily be categorized as “too nice.” They are people pleasers to the extreme, and have little experience in standing up for themselves. No wonder- statistics show that women battling addictions, eating disorders, and abusive relationships overwhelmingly contend with early childhood trauma, which programs them for victimhood and low self-worth down the road. It’s these very same women who become easy targets for violence in their adult lives if they haven’t learned to protect themselves, as they consistently allow politeness and the need to be liked to override intuition and self-preservation. When we learn how to adequately protect ourselves, we gain the confidence necessary to show our true selves to the world while asserting our values and beliefs through our actions.

2. SELF-SUSTENANCE

Making a successful major life change usually requires the support of a trusted circle of people, as well as the humility to accept our shortcomings and ask for help. Being able to financially and emotionally support ourselves in some way acts as a counterweight in this process while preventing learned helplessness in what should be an empowering, freeing journey. Excuses and “I can’t” mantras are detrimental to recovery and, if uttered often enough, will undermine our efforts to improve our well-being. One of the most effective ways to legitimize our power is to make our own money through a pursuit that nourishes us, even if the paychecks are initially barely enough to cover a morning tea at Starbucks. It is the act of reaching toward self-sustenance that matters in those beginning stages. Through working, you are proclaiming, “I am committed to taking care of myself.” Similarly, by learning how to emotionally nourish ourselves rather than relying on external validation, we find our voice, our courage, and our self-respect.

3. SELF-CARE

In any major transformation, regular self-care is the contract we must make with ourselves in order to redirect attention to the parts of us that were once neglected and step into a more awakened way of living.

Initially, something as simple as taking time to meet with a coach or therapist, or read an uplifting book with a cup of soothing tea in hand will open up the space you need to trust yourself again. Self-care faciliates a romance between the body and the mind, integrating our practical needs with our higher desires and providing us with the energy we need to venture out into the world with our heads held high. Often, self-care is a sacred secret, a ritual that unleashes our childlike spirit. By doing something each day that is loving to ourselves, we generate a grounded and joyful energy which attracts supportive people and opportunities into our lives. Through self-care, we radiate the message, “I’m worth respect and love.”

4. SELF-CONTROL

Self-control is central to human evolution as a developmental perk of our prefrontal cortex. It’s also what allows us to move forward as individuals through conscious decision-making and behavioral regulation. No surprise- those of us who have struggled with an addiction or bad habit tend to be low on self-control, and once we’re able to admit this shortcoming, we’re likelier to develop more of it. Just like our physical muscles, self-control must be exercised each day in order to grow and flourish. This can feel painful and tedious at first! Because excessive self-control is tied to perfectionism, this SELFish skill may be the trickiest to master, particularly if you’re overcoming an eating disorder, exercise addiction or any other type of compulsive pattern. Often, controlling ourselves actually means riding the wave and letting go of insisting on a particular outcome. Instead, we focus on the moment in front of us and take actions aligned to our integrity and purpose. Self-control is considered one of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity, and mindfulness and prayer are two great ways to cultivate it.

5. SELF-DISCOVERY

At the heart of addiction is the belief that we should not be “feeling” creatures, that the emotions we label as negative are to be snuffed out and rejected. In our pursuit of non-feeling, we lose the essence of what it means to be human, to connect, and to love. Without a full range of emotions, we’re unable to understand who we are and what our purpose is. Self-discovery is a process of allowing once-forbidden emotions to resurface, and of tuning in to the wisdom of the body rather than processing everything through logic.

Being willing to rediscover the self means rejecting the dictates of our current society, which demands that we plaster on a happy face at all times and become masters at emotional perfectionism.

When we commit to self-discovery, our emotions flow without censorship, and we learn how to befriend them in order to uncover what we’re really about.

Although the world may tell us otherwise, every single one of us is worth self-respect. That self-respect must be generated from the inside first; once we treat ourselves well, we’ll begin to notice that other people show more kindness and consideration to us. When we put these five SELFish skills to work, we begin to refill the once empty well that drove us to self-destructive behaviors in the first place, and we eventually come to a place where we appreciate our lives enough to stop the cycle of self-sabotage for good.

How are you integrating a life of service, purpose and SELF-ishness? What's the most important thing you're doing to take care of yourself? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you! 

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PREGNANCY, DEPRESSION & EMOTIONAL RELAPSE: HERE’S HOW I’M DEALING WITH IT

Exposure therapy at work? Or, a good friend who coaxed a belly pic and smile out of me? A bit of both... Week 25, 12kg's gained so far, and today was a good day. 

Exposure therapy at work? Or, a good friend who coaxed a belly pic and smile out of me? A bit of both... Week 25, 12kg's gained so far, and today was a good day. 

As I type this, I’m now 25 weeks into marching alongside my scary monster, a once-imagined situation that I’d framed in my mind as “the most frightening thing in the world.” I’m not talking about public speaking or spiders or failure or the dark. I’m referring to a condition that many millions of women welcome and yearn for: pregnancy. Please don’t misread this- I’m elated to become a mom, and I consider my good fortune at conceiving naturally at this point in my life nothing short of a miracle. However, the concept of being pregnant has always terrified me. Whenever my husband and I discussed our options for potentially starting a family, including fertility treatment, I usually came to the somewhat illogical conclusion that I’d been dealt my hand of cards- which included a history of depression and less than fabulous hormonal wiring- for good reason, and one of those reasons was that I simply wasn’t meant to be a parent. As I mentioned in my last blog post, that line of thinking was never a huge deal for me, and I knew that I could be fulfilled as a person with or without children.

Since week 8, my “scary monster of pregnancy” has been all too real, beginning with a solid two months of morning sickness that rekindled some of my worst hangover memories and made me question my own inner strength. Regularly hugging the toilet bowl at 3am was hard; harder still was feeling like I was constantly letting people down because I couldn’t get out of bed some days, or worrying that my own physical and mental state might be causing harm to my baby. While the millions of pregnancy blogs all seem to view the second trimester as a golden and bliss-filled time, around week 14 I slammed into a steel wall of what appears to be antenatal depression, marked by persistent insomnia, obsessive thinking, and extreme irritability. Although an estimated 20 percent of pregnant women contend with antenatal depression, I didn’t even know it was a “thing” until I began investigating what the heck was going on with me- we only seem to talk about the postnatal kind. To compound matters, I became unable to look at myself in the mirror without feeling repulsed, which unfortunately continues to this day- quite an interesting conundrum for someone who regularly preaches self-love and works with women on their own journeys through body dysmorphia.

Yep. All the feels in the world for this. 

Yep. All the feels in the world for this. 

But, it’s not only my own head that’s been doing me in. The public commentary is also surprising.

“You’re pregnant!” some random guy exclaimed to me at the gym last week, as if I hadn’t noticed.  “Shouldn’t you be sitting down? Can’t exercise like that hurt the baby?” He openly and persistently doubted the expertise of both me and my doctor.

“A 10kg weight gain at this point in your pregnancy is a bit high. We’ll monitor it and do a test for diabetes later on,” the nurse said to me during a routine check. This is definitely not something a health fanatic wants to hear.

And, let’s not forget the various folks who decided to take a guess on the baby’s gender, based entirely on an old wives tale that a woman who’s become ugly must be having a boy…. or a girl... depending on your cultural lens. Yes, a few people actually said this to me.

In the parallel pink cloud universe that seems to have a particularly strong presence in Singapore, pregnancy is touted as a lady’s time to magically float and glow from one high tea luncheon to another- in luxurious silk kaftans, of course. “Cherish every moment!” they say. “Enjoy your pregnancy!” I don’t think it serves anyone to pretend that we all blossom beautifully in our ripening when the reality is often anything but. 

Thankfully, I tend to hang around some seriously awesome and refreshingly honest women who, rather than shaming me for expressing this unpopular narrative, were willing to open up about their own conflicted pregnancy experiences, doubts and fears, or at least just listen to mine without judgement.

As a coach and behavioral health professional and with their moral support, I can confidently (albeit very self-consciously) admit that after seven years of feeling mentally rock solid the majority of the time, I am no longer at that place since becoming pregnant, thanks in part to some pretty major hormonal shifts. What was beyond a doubt some of the happiest news of my life has also morphed into an anxiety-riddled roller coaster ride, and I’ve not yet figured out a way to quell the resulting cognitive cacophany. From a recovery perspective, I recognize this as an “emotional relapse.” In other words, I’m not thinking about drinking or restricting food again to deal with an uncomfortable state of being, but some of my emotions and behaviors are in line with what led me into addiction in the first place. No matter how long someone has abstained from their destructive behavior(s) of choice, whether it’s binge eating, pill popping or excessive drinking, most people in recovery will experience emotional relapses at various points in their lives, particularly during high stress situations or periods of great change. The signs of an emotional relapse include:

  • Anxiety
  • Intolerance
  • Rigidity and inflexibility
  • Isolating oneself
  • Insomnia
  • Rejecting intimacy and love
  • Poor eating habits
  • Shame and blame
  • Black and white thinking
  • Mood swings
  • Ruminating and living in the past
  • Refusing to seek help

Whether simply the side effects of a rough pregnancy or something more, I know that for myself and the people I work with, this potent psychological cocktail is nothing to mess around with. So, as I prepare for the third trimester, I’m assessing what I’ve been doing to support myself through this emotional relapse and life challenge. Here’s how I’m getting through my first big emotional relapse in nearly a decade while tackling antenatal depression head on:                                          

And, once in a while radical self-care means sitting on a beach when you're supposed to be at a conference.

And, once in a while radical self-care means sitting on a beach when you're supposed to be at a conference.

  • I’m not hiding. As hard as it’s been to be honest about my own experience of pregnancy in the face of so many myths and expectations, I’ve committed to speaking my truth. When I’m not ok, I say so. When I’m feeling really down, I do my very best to reach out to someone I trust. And, although it’s exceptionally tough for a person who works in the behavioral health sector to admit to their own weaknesses and rough patches, the fact of the matter is that coaches, counsellors, psychologists and other “helping” professionals can be particularly prone to depression, anxiety and addiction-related issues. The related sensitivity and experience is what brings so many of us into the field in the first place. Consider this- nearly 50% of practicing NHS psychologists in the UK currently have depression. We’re all human, bottom line.
     
  • I’m practicing RADICAL self-care. Radical self-care means saying “no” to anything and everything that totally stresses me out. It means making a pampering date with myself at least a few times a week, whether for a manicure, massage, physiotherapy or shopping for new bras. It means journaling and drawing and curling up with a good novel instead of focusing on an achievement-based “to do” list. It means forgiving myself for engaging in harsh self-talk and negative thoughts, instead of identifying with them. And, it means staying away from people who may be toxic for me at this time.
     
  • I’m fighting the urge to isolate by keeping the lines of communication open and asking for help when I need it. I knew the importance of being honest with my obstetric doctor about my personal history, and as a result I’ve been seeing a therapist every few weeks who specializes in pregnancy and fertility-related issues, including anxiety and antenatal depression. I also have a small yet strong support network of friends who I can trust and I’ve been making it a point to reach out to some of them, whether it’s just a text, a brunch, or a tea date at my place.

  • I’m making exercise and good nutrition a top priority. While I actually don’t feel like working out or eating much, I’ve been getting in at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week and I also eat between 2,200 and 2,400 calories daily consisting of healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and lean proteins. Despite the urge, I’m not bingeing on junk food because I know that the sugar crash won’t help my mood. When the cravings come, I’ve got some good snacks on hand, like sliced banana drizzled with honey and nut butter. Having a workout buddy I can lean on- usually my husband or Roz- has helped immensely during this time.
     
  • I’m taking a long sabbatical from social media. Uploading this blog will be the first time I’ve logged onto social media in over two weeks, and after it’s been published I’ll unplug again until the end of October. I’ve been using HootSuite to pre-upload posts for Tangram Wellness, and have it set up so that I’m not able to view anyone else’s feeds- it’s a fantastic tool! Social media can easily bring up a slew of negative emotions for people, as well as serving as a crutch or addiction when the going gets tough, which only compounds the problem. I advise many of my clients to curb their social media use, particularly if they find themselves comparing their own experience to that of others, and I’m taking my own advice here.

    I share this blog post in part for every woman who has experienced a less than stellar pregnancy, and for the millions in recovery who will go through an emotional relapse at some point in their lives. As the saying goes, "we are only as sick as our secrets." We free ourselves and others when we each speak our truth as women, as parents, as individuals in recovery, and as helping professionals. 

Thanks for reading! If you feel like this post would help someone you know, please share it. If you have a question or comment, leave it below or email me directly at aimee@tangramwellness.com

- Aimee

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Navigating Italy... Without the Wine or Pizza

Watching other people exercise at  La Vogalonga,  Venice's famous boat race.

Watching other people exercise at La Vogalonga, Venice's famous boat race.

As I type this from my desk at the gorgeous new Woolf Works, a women’s co-working space in the heart of central Singapore, I am nursing a horrid case of jet lag which feels eerily akin to the hangovers I used to battle at least a few times a week. I’m usually zippy and fresh after a long flight now that I’m not downing the mile high cocktails, but this time, no such luck.

My husband Ryan and I have just returned from a blissful two week holiday in Italy, my favorite “old country”, where we embarked on a driving adventure in the North, commencing in Rome and ending in the delicious foodie village of Modena, with a few nights each in Bracciano, Venice, Florence, and Assisi. Italy is perhaps the oddest destination choice for a teetotaler who also happens to be a figure competitor with autoimmune issues (read: food restrictions & intolerances).

After all, aside from washing down copious amounts of cheese with buckets of wine while basking under sunlit grapevine canopies, what else does one do in Italy?

Thousands of wheels of cheese, oh my! A cheese tasting at t he     4 Madonne dell ' Emilia  Dairy.

Thousands of wheels of cheese, oh my! A cheese tasting at the 4 Madonne dell'Emilia Dairy.

It was my second trip to Italy as a sober chick, and I still thank my lucky stars that I’d never visited as a card-carrying lush because my only memories of it would have likely been based on embarrassing vacation photos. And, I’ve gotta say, the rumors are true- this Mediterranean paradise is indeed the toughest place in the world to continue a commitment to health & sobriety, no matter where you are on your journey.

First, wine is offered everywhere, and the refusal to partake is sometimes met with quizzical glares. “Baby?” one waiter had asked me on my first trip there, rubbing his tummy with a smile.
Second, the food is RICH- think cheese, bread and cold cuts galore. I wasn’t once able to score an egg white omelette for breakfast, and I’ve yet to spot a sweet potato or protein shake there. Third, the concept of a “gym” is still quite foreign. Although they do exist, exercising with the aid of machines just isn’t Italy’s scene and the only heavy lifting you may see is the lifting of a 50kg wheel of parmesan cheese. Finally, the entire vibe of Italy reeks of leisure and indulgence- a lust for life- which may be why so many gravitate to the region, including me!

So, how does one thrive as a vacationer in Italy while staying sober or upholding other health & fitness goals in the process? Here are my 4 tips to loving your Italian vacation without hating yourself when the holiday’s over!

A Crodino Mocktail. Crodino is a non-alcoholic bitter apertif... and delicious! 

A Crodino Mocktail. Crodino is a non-alcoholic bitter apertif... and delicious! 

1. Get real. Accept that you’re not going to be able to stay on track 100% on all fronts without being miserable. Yes, you read that correctly! Italy is not the place to aim for perfection, and if you want to stay happy, you’ll need to make a few concessions. That means deciding the difference between your “non-negotiables” and your “wiggle areas” before you go. For me, remaining sober is a “non-negotiable”, and I was prepared to do whatever it took to keep it that way, which meant constantly refusing glasses of wine and grappa and even asking my hubby to enjoy a few meals without the booze when I started to feel fatigued by it all. In my nearly seven years of sobriety, Italy is for some reason the only place that I’ve been where I feel like I struggle a bit, mainly because the strong smell of alcohol is so pervasive, which is also a good reminder for me that recovery is a lifetime job. 

However, I knew that restricting across the board throughout the trip may trigger some depression or anxiety (as restricting is known to do for many), so I loosened the bodybuilding belt and allowed myself to eat what I wanted- including some things that made me feel a bit awful afterward- and I also made sure to get in at least 10,000 steps a day. I exercised when I could, but I didn’t make it a top priority. The result of this approach? Feeling balanced and content overall while encouraging my intuitive body to lead the way when it came to eating. For instance, after a bit of an inflammatory flare up from a few too many pastries I started not to want them anymore and that was ok.

2. Lace up those walking shoes. You may not be able to find a gym in your area, but you can certainly find a million reasons to tour around an Italian village on foot. Opportunities for walking and hiking are endless in Italy, and the best way to get to know the country is a “step at a time,” whether that’s winding through cobblestone streets, hiking up mountain peaks, or climbing a few dozen flights of stairs at one of the many stunning cathedrals, like Il Duomo di Firenze. If you have a smart watch like FitBit, decide on a step goal for each day ahead and don’t forget to bring your camera! Yes, you may not get to pump much iron or attend regular yoga classes in Italy, but there’s no excuse not to get the blood flowing. Many of the smaller villages are also great for running, and there are countless public parks as well, including my world favorite, the Villa Doria Pamphili.

Villa Doria Pamphili,  I love you. 

Villa Doria Pamphili, I love you. 

3. Focus on all of the options you DO have, rather than the ones you don’t! Italy offers so much variety in the way of both food and beverage, and while you may have to miss out on a few things, your options for enjoyment are endless. Gluten intolerant? Then pastas and crusty breads are out for you, but all the succulent fruits, sun-drenched veggies and scrumptious cheeses are not! Does booze make you break out in handcuffs? So, wine’s not going to be your thing but you can still drink all of the Crodinos you want, as well as rich and frothy coffees and my all-time favorite, acqua frizzante with a slice of lemon. There are also AA meetings throughout the country and online groups like SMART Recovery if you need some extra support. Doing the Paleo thing? Then head to Tuscany for a sizzling grilled steak and some traditionally cured meats, or to the Amalfi Coast for some amazing seafood. 

If you want to feel deprived, focus on all of the things you can’t have. If you want to feel gloriously satiated, enjoy all of the things available to you. The same advice applies to everyday life, by the way. ;-)

I asked for egg whites- or just eggs- pretty much everywhere we went. This was the reality more often than not! 

I asked for egg whites- or just eggs- pretty much everywhere we went. This was the reality more often than not! 

4. Capitalize on the fact that we all need a break sometimes, and schedule your vacation to Italy accordingly. If you’re engaged in a regular exercise routine 4-6 days a week and you’re pushing yourself to the max most days, congratulations! Now, here’s the rub- you actually need to take a week off from training once in a while to get the most benefit out of it. A recovery or de-loading week is generally recommended anywhere from every 3 to 8 months, depending on your sport or intensity. This means dramatically reduced physical activity for a good week to let the body rest and repair itself. If you’re not engaged in a serious training plan and feel like you wouldn’t benefit from giving your body a break, focus on a mental “time out” instead. I doubt that anyone today reading this isn’t experiencing some form of stress in their life, whether in their job, marriage, finances or mental well-being. Use your vacation as a chance to reset, and maybe commit to a short daily meditation session or some time at a spa while you’re there. A holiday is meant to be just that! Give yourself permission to breathe and relax.

As a health & behavior change coach, addiction therapist and soberista, these are four of my tips for enjoying your holiday in Italy while upholding a healthy lifestyle. Health isn’t meant to feel rigid, so remember to make some space in your life for flexibility and flow!

Ciao for now,

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Why We Self-Sabotage… and How to Stop

Artist: Tigran Tsitoghdzyan

Artist: Tigran Tsitoghdzyan

Self-sabotage is perhaps the most common factor leading to the derailment of a person’s goals, and yet, we generally fail to see this core issue at the center of our disappointment. A personal trainer might think, “oh well, she just didn’t want it bad enough” while a yo-yo dieter may say to herself, “I’m big boned and diabetic- might as well give up on being fit.” A woman with a binge drinking disorder might think, “it’s been a stressful day at work. I need to take the edge off,” while her partner may silently mutter, “if she wants to kill herself, that’s her business.” By taking the messes we make in our lives at face value, we're able to avoid the sharp yet temporary pain that comes with deeper investigation. Unfortunately, this perpetuates further sabotage; we eventually find ourselves neck deep in our own unsettling muck. 

So, what exactly is self-sabotage? 

Self-sabotage is the act of confirming the worst beliefs you have about yourself, beliefs that are often imposed on you by an external source at a time when you were not yet prepared to think independently. Self-sabotage is rooted in a legacy of self-hatred passed down through generations, like an ancient poison recipe, or a customary curse. It’s the echo of an elementary school teacher who screams, “what are you, stupid?” because that is what her great aunt taught her about herself. It’s the memory of a narcissistic mother who defined you as “nothing,” or the imprint of a schoolyard bully who, after punching you into the lawn, goes home to a father who does the same to him. What’s most compelling about self-sabotage is that even though it can decimate our lives, it has absolutely nothing to do with us. In fact, its seeds may have been planted hundreds of years before we were born.

Why do we self-sabotage?

We sabotage ourselves because we take what we perceive to be “wrong” with us so personally. We believe deep down that our “failures” are what define us and that we’re destined to be less than what we once hoped we’d become. Whether it’s regaining all the weight back, picking up the bottle after swearing off alcohol yet again, allowing that bully at work to undermine our success, or failing to ask for what we need and desire, our self-sabotage is a message to the world about how we see ourselves: Less than. Unworthy. Undeserving of help. Unable to have a voice in our own lives. Beyond redemption.

We sabotage ourselves because self-imposed isolation seems like the safest path. We act out the traumas of our distant past as if we’re still small, unprotected, disempowered. Whether it’s wrapping our bodies with a flesh-coat of extra kilograms to repel and dissuade, or numbing ourselves with booze in our bedrooms to avoid meeting the day, or tucking our inborn talents within the darkest parts of us to avoid potential criticism, our self-sabotage lets others know that we’re off limits: Undesirable. Untouchable. Repulsive. Undeserving of love. Unable to steer our own ship. Beyond protection.

We sabotage ourselves because we have no other means to cope with discomfort. We internalize our stress and we refuse to accept that unpleasant emotions are a natural part of each person’s existence. Whether it’s compulsively running on the treadmill for two hours every night after work, drinking to blackout after a fight with a lover, or mindlessly bingeing on chips in an effort to stop ruminating, our self-sabotage announces that we prefer “numb” as our default setting, that we’re not interested in intimacy or vulnerability or growth. We strive to be robotic. Unfeeling. Detached. Perfect. Undeserving of closeness. Unwilling to celebrate our common bond. Beyond humanity.

Artist: Andre Gelpe, Christine au Mirior, 1976

Artist: Andre Gelpe, Christine au Mirior, 1976

Self-Sabotage can manifest as:

  • Overeating
  • Undereating or restricting food
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Ruining solid, healthy relationships
  • Remaining in toxic relationships
  • Attracting people with personality disorders
  • Gravitating toward violent, abusive people
  • Neglecting your mental health needs
  • Failing to see a doctor for physical health concerns
  • Quitting a fitness or weight loss plan
  • Spending too much money
  • Staying in a job you hate
  • Trying to copy someone else's path
  • Doing what seems easy over what seems right
  • Saying “yes” when you mean “no”
  • People pleasing
  • Ignoring messages from your body
  • Ignoring callings from your soul
  • Refusing help, even though you may need it
  • Numbing out in any way possible
  • Neglecting your gifts and talents
  • Downplaying your abilities
  • Not asking for what you need
  • Not asking for what you want
  • Self-harm, cutting
  • Harming others, emotionally or physically
  • Getting into legal trouble
  • Cheating on your spouse
  • Signing up to a race and not accomplishing it
  • Overcommitting
  • Setting yourself up for failure
  • Constantly putting others needs before one's own

How can we stop self-sabotaging?

Artists: Vogue Italia by Paolo Roversi, September 2011

Artists: Vogue Italia by Paolo Roversi, September 2011

Remember what I’d written on accepting beliefs about ourselves that aren’t really our own? In order to overcome self-sabotage, we have to take our power back- power that we’d handed over to external forces a long time ago. Taking our power back means owning every decision we make, and developing a deeper consciousness about our actions. We can no longer place the blame for our behavior or perceived failings on someone else. We must commit to being responsible for what happens in our lives.

The beginning of a journey to return to our truest selves can often seem daunting, if not impossible. We’re no longer sure what we want, or how to measure our progress, or if we’re telling the truth to ourselves. At this point, it’s helpful to enlist a group or individual who can reliably act as both mirror and guide, providing you with a way to strengthen your awareness. Consciousness, like anything else, is a muscle that must be trained. If we don’t know how to do the training, how can we expect to see results? Refusing to self-sabotage means ASKING FOR HELP where you need it.

When we’re ready to stop self-sabotaging, we’re ready to accept the natural process of things, not as big chunks of achievement that we take on with all our might, but as small and reasonable steps toward change that allow us to build and learn as we grow. We no longer say, “even though I haven’t moved from the couch in a month, I’m going to run a marathon this April.” Instead we say, “I’m signing up for the 5km at the end of the year and I’m going to find someone qualified to help me with my training.” We no longer think about writing the next great novel in the span of a week. We focus instead on producing a steady and comfortable word count each day.

Leaving self-sabotage behind means abandoning our rigidity. We don't insist on having things exactly as we think they should be, and we honor the beauty inherent in a world that unfolds unpredictably with the ebbs and flows of seasons. The perfectionism we once held dear is seen merely as an obstacle to our creativity, an unwelcome roadblock in our yearning for exploration. We are open to the full experience of life- the beautiful and the cringeworthy, the depressing and the divine. We seek to see in color now, rather than in black and white. We commit to self-partnering in the moment, no longer looking to dead relics for our identity and worth.

How have you self-sabotaged in your life? What do you attribute to pulling you out of it? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you. If you think this post would help someone else on the journey, please share it. 


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Ten Surefire Ways to Sabotage Your Sober Ambitions

Now that Drynuary has officially ended, I’m counting down the days until I’ll inevitably receive an email which reads something like this:

Dear Aimee,
I’m reaching out to you because I’d like to get some control over my drinking. I’m a social drinker who enjoys around 4-5 drinks most nights, but it’s getting in the way of my goals now and my body doesn’t feel too great either. I quit drinking for Drynuary- 31 days with no alcohol, yay!- and I thought that would give me a chance to reset, but now I’m drinking more than ever before. I’d like to quit drinking for good- sort of. I mean, I’d like to quit drinking but eventually be able to go out and have a glass of wine or two with friends once in a while. Balance- balance is key! Can you help? Signed, Frustrated


If this brain train sounds familiar, it may be because the vast majority of women with an alcohol use disorder think and behave in this manner. First, they realize that their drinking is getting out of hand. Then, they take on some type of “sober challenge”- there are even businesses that faciliate entire programs around a short-term sobriety stint. After succeeding at the challenge by resisting booze for a month or two, they reflect back on how easy it actually was to give up the sauce and then they decide to drink again- in moderation, of course! A few weeks or months down the road, they discover that they’re drinking more than ever. They really crave alcohol now, they’re not sure if moderation is possible anymore, and that begins to scare the crap out of them. Embarrassing memories of drunken nights resurface, and they develop a new awareness about how alcohol is actually impacting their dreams, as well as the people they care about. Finally, they come to a crossroads: they will either admit to themselves that there’s a problem and commit to do whatever it takes to quit drinking for good, or they’ll continue to drink as usual, awaiting a new beginning to “get it right” next Drynuary, or Sober October.

I know this path all too well- it’s one I followed for a number of years before finally becoming serious about my sobriety in 2009 and, as a coach and counsellor, it’s one I read about in my inbox every single week. If you’re determined to lose the booze, I’d like you to forget for a minute about what you need to do to make that happen and focus instead on some surefire ways to sabotage this goal. Here are ten ways to completely wreck your sober ambitions:

1. Fudge the truth about your drinking: You either have a problem with alcohol or you don’t. You’re either able to stop at one glass of wine or you’re not. While alcohol use disorders fall on a spectrum with both severity and impacts ranging widely, if you’re even on that sliding scale, it will serve you well to come to terms with it. Are you lying to yourself about how much you drink? Do you feel like you’re making excuses for your drinking behaviors? If you’re seeking clarity on the difference between a healthy relationship with alcohol and an alcohol use disorder, a good place to start would be to check out the 11 symptoms of an alcohol use disorder at the end of this post. 

2.  Take the same route home from work: Changing a behavior requires changing the triggers that lead to the behavior in the first place, and routine tends to play a massive role in drinking. If you usually stop by the bar or package store after work, consider changing the routine and the triggers that enforce this behavior by taking another route home altogether!

3. Continue to hang out with your usual crew: Here’s the unvarnished truth- big drinkers hang out with big drinkers, and if your clique of friends is used to bonding with you over beers, they’re probably not going to be very happy to hear that you’ve decided to clean up your act. First, they’ll be bummed not to have gossip time with you anymore (because, what do we do when we’re three sheets to the wind? We talk shit!) Second, your decision to quit holds up a mirror to their own drinking hangups, and then some. Given these two factors, your dear friends may do their very best to sabotage your efforts at a sober life, even if that’s not their conscious intention.

4. Deny the role that alcohol plays in your emotional life: For many women, alcohol serves as a vehicle of numbing and detachment- a way to postpone addressing emotional turmoil. Refusing to investigate the deeper “why” behind your drinking allows you to continue rationalizing your hangovers as “just another night with the girls,” or “a few drinks on the couch.”

If you want this kind of photo on your Facebook page, then be sure to sabotage your sober ambitions! 

If you want this kind of photo on your Facebook page, then be sure to sabotage your sober ambitions! 

5. Insist on quitting on your own, without any source of support: Isolationism and secretive behaviors are trademark traits of many people with alcohol use disorders; loneliness, even in the company of others, fuels the desire for a buzz. Trying to quit drinking on one’s own is an admission that you still have full control over the way you drink, and that you don’t need connection- physical, emotional or spiritual- in your life, nor help from another human being. “You cannot solve a problem at the same level it was created at.”

6. Constantly remind yourself that “everyone else is doing it”: When you make a decision to quit drinking for good, you’re deciding to take the path less travelled and to live in a way that much of the world rejects by bringing more introspection, awareness, and self-responsibility into your life. If you want to do what everyone else is doing and your main objective is to fit in, than quitting drinking is not for you.

7. Place yourself regularly in high conflict situations: Placing yourself in situations of constant stress is a fantastic way to sabotage any goal you have, not just quitting drinking. If you’re still in regular communication with someone abusive or you’re always picking fights over petty issues or you’re holding onto a job that you are absolutely miserable at, you’re going to have a tough time staying on the path. Clean up your environment and say “NO” to the drama.

 8. Fail to fill up the time that you usually spend drinking: When I was drinking, I generally wasted 3-5 hours a day over a wine glass- far more if you count my years moonlighting as a bartender. Booze is a glorious time waster, and the average moderate drinker may spend around 12-15 hours having drinks, as well as many more hours making up for the consequential hangovers and lowered motivation. When you quit drinking, you’re going to have a lot more time on your hands, which will equate to boredom if you don’t figure out a constructive way of filling it up. Running or weightlifting, learning how to paint or make pottery, picking up a new instrument, joinng a fellowship or enrichment group, or volunteering at a charity are all great ways to replace the void.

9. Continuously judge the faults and habits of others: If you’re interested in completely derailing your own personal progress, one of the best ways to do that is to focus not on your own issues, but on the perceived flaws and bad behaviors of other people. Pointing fingers and projecting is an awesome way to ensure that you never do the spiritual and emotional work necessary to stay sober, and it’s also a wonderful way of eroding your support systems. As a wise sage once said, “focus on your own shit.”

10. Depend on other people for your sobriety: “I wouldn’t drink so much if my husband didn’t get me so angry.” “My boss causes me to drink.” “If I don’t have cocktails with clients, I won’t be of much use to my company.” “The only way I’ll be able to quit drinking is if my partner quits drinking as well.” If you want to change a destructive behavior and improve your life, you’re going to have to get into the driver’s seat and take full responsibility for your actions.

By observing hundreds of relapses as well as reflecting on my own when I originally tried to quit drinking in my twenties, I can assure you that if you wish to completely sabotage your sober ambitions, these ten ways will get you there! Here are the symptoms I mentioned earlier in the post:

11 SYMPTOMS OF AN ALCOHOL USE DISORDER

  1. Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
  3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
  4. Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
  5. Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
  8. Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  9. Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
  10. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: a) A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect b) A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.
  11. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol (refer to criteria A and B of the criteria set for alcohol withdrawal) b) Alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as a benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

The presence of at least 2 of these symptoms indicates an alcohol use disorder (AUD). The severity of an AUD is graded mild, moderate, or severe: 1. Mild: The presence of 2 to 3 symptoms. 2. Moderate: The presence of 4 to 5 symptoms. 3. Severe: The presence of 6 or more symptoms.

Do you have any points to add on this post? If you've achieved long-term sobriety, what's the one thing that made the biggest difference to you? If you like this post or think it could help someone you know, please share it! Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you. 

 

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You Are Worth the Work!

This morning I was reading about the work actor Matthew Perry is doing to help fellow addicts seek sobriety. One of the greatest gifts about the journey of recovery is having the opportunity to be a light for others who are new to the path of deeper living.

Many struggling with addiction- be it food, booze, sex, drugs, or anything else- believe that if they are "good" for a month or that if they go to enough meetings or abstain for a certain period of time, they'll be "cured,"- "all better" or that there was no issue to begin with. I certainly thought that way in the beginning, and then I ended up continuously falling into destructive patterns for nearly half my life!

It's not just about the BEHAVIOR, it's about the THINKING behind the behavior. If you've physically and mentally been operating a certain way for 10, 20, 30 years, why would you think that you can turn it around in a week or a month? Don't be so hard on yourself!

Recovery means learning a new way of living and being, AND doing the work to carry out that new way each and every day. You step into a daily ritual of gratefully rebuilding yourself until eventually, it becomes you, and even so, THE RITUAL CONTINUES BECAUSE IT HONORS THE BEAUTY AND THE PURPOSE OF YOUR LIFE.

Today, I'm thinking of all those who are new to the path. Yes, it is really tough stuff, but you are tougher, more resilient and YOU ARE WORTH THE WORK.

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Smartphone-free, One Day at a Time

technology.jpg

If push came to shove, I’m betting that the vast majority of you reading this right now would be able to give up a vice or two for at least a month, be it booze or chocolate or online shopping. I’m sure that some of you already do this regularly, whether for Drynuary or Lent or to fit into a fancy dress. And, there may be a good number of you who have chosen a more mindful and sober life, eschewing things like alcohol, tobacco, processed foods, or pills. But, what if you were asked to give up your Smartphone for at least thirty days?

Where I live in Singapore, we are some of the most digitally addicted people on the planet, boasting the highest smartphone penetration rate on the globe. Nomophobia- the fear of being without one’s mobile phone- prevails. About the size of a tarot card, these inanimate wizards gently pull us out of ourselves and into a shiny, filtered future crafted primarily by strangers we seem to know and trust. Our smartphones offer the ultimate in escapism- conscious and yet unconscious, responsive and yet aloof, continuously shifting its tricks to the tune of our moods. This is precisely why the Smartphone is a potential disaster for anyone susceptible to an addiction… which includes all of us.

I’ve been addicted to something for the majority of my life since birth, beginning with the wrinkled thumb of my left hand, which morphed my two front teeth into diving boards. The thumb sucking eventually gave way to food, cigarettes, love, booze, and benzos, all of which offered velvety rabbit holes of escapism where I could curl up and see the world as what I wished it to be instead of what it actually was. That’s the sucky part about addiction- the initially warm and fluffy den of it all eventually makes you feel like you are ever so gradually boiling to death.

Which is why, when I felt those telltale edges of anxiety creep up six months ago after a strong six years of sobriety, I began snooping around to see what kind of pit I’d fallen into. The first thing I did was make a list of the evidence by asking a simple question: what was I seeking to do in my life that I wasn’t achieving and WHY? There were about thirty things on that list, large and small, with a common theme woven throughout- I was failing at achieving most of my goals due to shortcomings in time management.

Next, I began journaling each morning upon waking in an effort to tap into which emotions were leading me astray. Some of the usual characters began to pop up- fear, insecurity, and dread- but the one that was particularly interesting was “overwhelm,” something I had worked so hard to overturn and which- given how I had reordered my life since exiting the corporate grind- had no place in my being. Finally, I looked at where my time and my emotions were being directed to, immediately realizing that I was gripped by an addiction both insidious and yet acceptable enough to be seen merely as a necessary evil of our era.

My Smartphone, that simple little device I’d used to control the flow of my daily life, was now controlling me. Endless hours were being siphoned into text messages and Whatsapps, beckoning reactions instead of responses as they filtered in with their tinkling, sparkly bells. The enjoyment of a meal or a vacation could only be confirmed upon Instagramming it. Texts like, “what’s better: quinoa or barley?” were suddenly urgent matters; staying on top of emails became a futile game.

By the time I realized what had happened, some of the damage had already been done. I could no longer spend great swathes of hours alone without scrambling to find something to distract me. My thought patterns and language were changing- less rhythm, more sound byte. And, all the things deemed most important were being interrupted continuously by the crude punctuations of beeps, bells and buzzing from something that had supposedly been designed to support daily life, rather than overtake it . So, on June 29th, I removed the heart of my iPhone- its SIM Card- and tucked the deadened device in a drawer, replacing it with a grey Nokia bar phone that does little more than tell the time.

Since then, life has taken on a very different pace, each day marked by flow, trips and slips. I’ve written the first half of a meaty book, poured my evenings into Yogananda’s written works, and spent more time staring into my third eye- as well as the sky. I’ve also overlooked two appointments, missed birthdays and events, and felt the embarrassing pull of FOMO (fear of missing out) each time I’ve logged onto Facebook from my home computer. I’ve lost a few social media friends, perhaps because I’m no longer constantly engaged, and some of my true friends have heartily complained as well.

All the inconveniences are sorely felt- no Spotify on the go, no camera to capture a special moment, no media streams to distract me while I’m waiting in line. But, so are the benefits- the freedom of a wandering mind, a happier husband, feeling less like a servant or a consumer and more like a human being who can once again create something beyond the ephemeral, or just sit quietly with whatever’s going on between the ears.

It’s been nearly a month without my Smartphone and I’m just not ready to rejoin the rest of the developed world yet. I still feel those edges of anxiety boiling beneath the surface which makes me wonder if I can go back to it at all without tumbling into the hole again. Several people have said, “just delete your apps,” or “have more self control” or “leave the iPhone at home,” and I cannot help but wonder if they’re not just other addicts staring down into those tiny panes of glass, those windows of denial.

The truth is, I’m still hooked. I peek over at the shiny apps gleaming from my friend’s Samsung Galaxy, conceptualize a slick photo or video, lament the fact that I’m no longer rowing on those rivers of distraction. I nearly salivate when I think about holding it in my hands again, or tucking it into a pocket with the earphone hanging out, or even scheduling an appointment without having to write it down in one of those silly diaries from the caveman days.

Perhaps we’re all cyborgs now, I wonder. Instead of thinking of it as an addiction, I could consider it an extension, a plug-in with a few major bugs. Here’s the thing- we’ll find a way to justify whatever pulls us out of the listlessness and longing that comes with being human. That’s addiction at its core- a pursuit of self-soothing that eventually morphs its victims into muted, mindless characters enslaved by their fix of choice. Addiction or extension, I’m going to pass on the zombification… at least for now. One day at a time.


Would you ever consider giving up your mobile phone? How about the Internet, or even Facebook? How long do you think you could live without these technologies? Leave your thoughts below; I'd love to hear from you. Did you like this post? If so, please share the love!

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Do You Feel Like "Toxic" People Are Sabotaging Your Success?

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You know the ones I'm talking about:

  • They dump their emotional garbage on the lawn of your heart.
  • They tell you that they liked you better with more "meat on your bones," or when you drank, or when you were in that job you hated, or five years ago.
  • They will race to your side when the chips are down, but they'll never celebrate your wins or share your joy.
  • They sabotage your efforts to change your life.
  • They minimize, overlook or make fun of your achievements.
  • They use hurtful, cutting words and frame them with phrases like, "I'm just being honest," or "because I care about you," or "it's for your own good."
  • They are quick to point out your flaws and judge your mistakes.
  • They don't apologize with any sincerity. Their judgments are quickly made; their minds work in black and white. For instance, "you're wrong. I'm right."
  • They make a real effort to keep you playing small and feeling small.

I'm pretty sure that most people who have traveled through the landscape of addiction or depression are qualified for PhDs in this subject, not only because they've risen from a world of toxicity and dysfunction, but also because they have been toxic themselves, in one way or another. They've sat on both sides of the fence, so to speak.

"Toxic" people are wounded, uneasy souls, unable- at least in the moment- to tap into their own light. Growth, change and faith feel like triple threats to them. Instead, envy, ingratitude and anger dot their path. Toxic people generally DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOU DO WELL because it forces them to take a harder look at themselves, and that is very painful for them. Once you accept this truth- that they are not interested in seeing you flourish- it becomes a lot easier to move forward.

So, what can you do about "toxic" people when you're on a transformation journey?

1. Recognize that they are suffering. Wish them joy and healing in your heart; visualize them stepping into their highest, most loving self. A regular Loving Kindness Meditation practice can be very helpful in cultivating empathy and compassion toward those who are bringing you down.

2. Keep your distance. Your job is not to fix people. Your job is to practice self-care and self-love, to bring your creative contributions into the world, to be your most awesome and authentic self. When you invite toxicity into your life, you are unable to flourish. No matter how strong we are, hurtful people have a way of bringing us down. It doesn't matter if they are family, friends or colleagues- if they are constantly shooting bullets your way, you need to get out of the line of fire.

3. Surround yourself with positive people. Cultivate new relationships that are supportive, celebratory, and kind. Be discerning about the company you keep, and trust your gut! I always love watching dogs at the dog park; they inherently know who they can play ball with and who's going to bite them. Practice that wise canine mindset and sniff people out! Remember, people can be toxic to some, and not to others. Find and build your pack.

4. Work with a therapist, counselor or a coach to devise strategies for setting boundaries and dealing with hurtful, wounded people. If you need to build a high fence, that's ok. Allow yourself to experiment with boundaries and standards until you find what works best for you. Writer Danielle Laporte succinctly conveys this idea: "open, gentle heart. Big f&%king fence."

5. Keep a journal. It can be incredibly helpful to write or draw out what you're feeling and experiencing as part of the healing process. Did you know that journaling is shown to speed the healing of both physical and emotional wounds?

6. Don't go down the Google rabbit hole. Don't sit on the computer for days at a time learning everything you can about why someone is being the way they are, and don't diagnose them from your laptop! Again, it is not your job to fix them. Focus on cultivating yourself and evolving into the best person you can be.

7. Try thinking of them not as "toxic," but as "transitional." Perhaps they are on the cusp of their own breakthrough or transformation. They are people in flux, and flux creates chaos. This allows you to recognize their own earthly journey and learning process- a common bond we all share.

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."  -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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The Conversation: "Total Alcoholic"- Is Our Language a Problem?


“The Conversation” is a weekly series on women and drinking. If you missed the introductory post, you can read it here. I am a health and addiction recovery coach and researcher who has firsthand experience with this topic; I am not a medical doctor, counselor or psychologist. All ideas proposed are up for discussion and debate- it's one of the best ways we can find new solutions and evolve. 

Tina* was the kind of girl you could always count on for a fun time. We met when we were both waitresses at the landmark Coffee Shop in Manhattan’s Union Square, and we immediately discovered that we had something else in common- we both relished getting blitzed toward the close of our work shift and were always smooth about not getting caught. After we'd punch out the clock, we’d race over to the East Village together and spend the rest of our evening drinking at a handful of dive bars until closing time- ones that would serve underage charmers like us. Our party came to an abrupt end when, after barely a few months at Coffee Shop, we were both dismissed. I didn’t see Tina again until a few years later, when I ran into her at the 24-hour diner where she worked as I was brunching with a friend. I surveyed her face- sunken cheeks spotted with acne, circles under her drowsy eyes, collar popped on a grubby shirt- while we exchanged an awkward acknowledgment, and I remember thinking to myself,

“Total alcoholic.”

What were our differences? She was a young black woman from the Bronx, I was a Connecticut-born WASP without the usual privileges attached. She was serving up eggs at a rundown greasy spoon, while I was racking up student loan debt at a fancy university. She was relatively honest in her presentation to the world, while I was a liar in a Betsey Johnson frock who spent money I didn’t have on dresses and martinis that I certainly didn’t need. She’d always been “balls to the wall.” I was measured, careful, rehearsed. And yet, we were both heading in a similar direction. 

“Total alcoholic.”

Have you ever had this thought cross your mind about a person you don’t truly understand while out at a friend’s party or a wedding or a company meeting? I know I have, at several points in my life. The colleague at work who’s always hungover, who’s always calling out sick. The melodramatic, co-dependent buddy who just can’t seem to keep it together. That Facebook friend who posts photos of cocktails several times a week, with hashtags like #roughday and #thirsty. The lover who stumbles home well past midnight after yet another business outing, who wakes you up by vomiting. It’s the easiest way to dismiss a behavior that unsettles us because that behavior hits too close to home, or because it looks like us, or because it confronts us with something that seems incomprehensible, alien, uncouth.

So, what’s an “alcoholic?” This often misused and outdated term came into our lexicon way back in 1852 to describe a person who was addicted to alcohol and who could no longer control their consumption, nor the harmful outcomes resulting from it. Much like the designations  “lunatic asylum” or “mentally retarded,” “alcoholic” was retired quite a while ago and is no longer found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which sets the standard for criteria and language to be used by mental health professionals, researchers, insurance providers and pharmaceutical companies. “Alcoholism” has been replaced instead with “Alcohol Use Disorder,” a phrase implying an issue that flows along a spectrum (your experience and mileage may vary), rather than a disease (you either have it or you don’t). Unfortunately, journalists, recovery programs, and the general public have not received the memo- labeling someone an “alcoholic” may be as inaccurate, inappropriate and backwards as placing the “R” word on a child with dyslexia or ADHD- or any other challenge, for that matter.  Compounding this issue in our language and, of course, our thinking- as one shapes the other- is the fact that the primary method of treatment prescribed by hospitals, doctors and courts is Alcoholics Anonymous, which more or less encourages its participants to pat a label on themselves like a gold-foil badge: “my name is so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic.” 

I know the drill well because I’ve said that sentence myself at least a few hundred times over the years, which has created just as much peace within me as it has turmoil. When we are labeled, that mark initially makes it a lot easier to find our place in the world, even if that place costs us, over time, our ability to flourish, transform and grow. Sadly, I still use the word on occasion- about myself and in describing the experiences of others- if only because it makes it so much easier to carry on with a conversation or get to the point, rather than delving into its history and myriad offenses. “Alcoholic” is what most people know. It’s what we’ve learned to get comfortable with. And, I owe a great deal to AA, just as millions of others do. In its context, saying, "I'm an alcoholic," becomes nearly as easy as, "my name's Aimee and I'm a Taurus." 

But, what would happen to the way we view, treat and discuss excessive or problem drinking if we changed the language we use in describing it, and in describing all the millions who are impacted by it? How would treatment for those with an ALCOHOL USE DISORDER evolve and improve if we honored the spectrum as well as each individual's unique experience, rather than framing it in black and white? By alleviating sufferers from the yoke of stigma- and I cannot help but think of Hester Prynne's scarlet red patch embroidered in gold with the big letter "A"- are we then finally encouraging them to heal and become healers themselves? Or, must we brand them in order to keep them humbled and in line? I don't have the answer, but what I do know is that I'm doing my absolute best to adopt this more progressive terminology as a way to acknowledge the dignity and POTENTIAL of those who are wishing to change their relationship with alcohol, those who have already changed it, and to also respect my own growth.

I stopped fully identifying with the term "alcoholic" a few years ago- a divorce that was actually quite conflicted. I remember saying it aloud following my name, and feeling my throat constrict. This constriction had happened again and again- it felt as though I was no longer telling the truth about who I was, and I had a lot more to discover about who I was to become. I needed to make room for that. In this shift- one that isn't yet complete and may never be- I've discovered a world of difference in living as a thriver, in comparison to existing as a survivor. 

So, I'll pose the question once again- what would happen if we released the term "alcoholic" from our world and all the ideas that go along with it, and instead began to work with and through the knowledge, language and discoveries of more recent times? Estimates show that only around 15 percent of people with an alcohol use disorder receive treatment and that most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent. If we went about discussing it in a more accurate and progressive manner, how many more would finally get the help they need? 

Thank you for reading. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and as I mentioned earlier, all points are up for discussion or debate. I do not propose to have or offer all the answers, so if you disagree with me or feel that something needs more explanation, please say so. I'm here to learn as well! In the next installment of "The Conversation," I'll be exploring how one can identify an addiction or alcohol use disorder. What's the difference between someone who likes to party and someone who drinks too much? How and when does drinking become a problem?

*Names have been changed.






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