Friday, November 14, 2014

Living Without My Eating Disorder, Narrative Therapy Part 3

And now it's time for the happy ending. Well, the happy ending that I imagine for myself.

As the final assignment for my "narrative therapy," my counselor asked me to picture a future without my eating disorder in it.  Who did I hope to be?  How would freedom feel?  What would my life of freedom look like?

This is what I came up with.

It is amazing to me that my life today is much closer to this reality than it is to the reality that I described in my last post.  Sometimes my eating disorder thoughts and behaviors still come creeping back to me, and I start to worry that I have made no progress at all--but when I look back at the slow but cumulative growth that I've made during the last few years, it is easy to recognize how far I've come. Sometimes it's still a battle, but I am winning.  I don't plan to lose.

Have you seen the movie "A Beautiful Mind" about John Nash, a mathematician and Nobel Prize winner who suffered from schizophrenia?  The movie chronicles his discovery that some of the key people in his life, including his best friend and his boss, are not real but are figments created by his mental illness.  Near the end of the movie, John has reached a stable place with his illness for many years and requests a teaching job at Princeton University. Referring to John's schizophrenic illusions, his colleague asks him,  "What about the...well, you know...are they gone?"  As viewers, we can see what John sees in his mind, and as he looks over his shoulder, his imaginary friends are there, walking just steps behind him.  He responds to his colleague, "No, they're not gone.  Maybe they never will be.  But I've gotten used to ignoring them, and as a result, I think they've kind of given up on me."  He continues, "I think that's what it's like with all of our dreams and our nightmares...we've got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive."

Now I am not claiming to know anything about schizophrenia, and I don't think that mental illness will just go away if you ignore it.  But I love the message of that scene and have thought about it often and in various contexts in the 12 years since that movie was released: I choose which thoughts to entertain, which dreams and which nightmares.  Some weaknesses and natural personality traits may never completely go away for me--but I can decide not to dwell on them and not to give them power.

I choose not to live with my eating disorder anymore.  I choose to ignore her.  I choose to love myself and my body, no matter what size it is.  I choose to live today in a way that is leading me toward the beautiful future that I imagine for me and my family--to feed my dreams instead of my nightmares.  Even if my future doesn't end up looking exactly as this narrative describes, I am determined that it will include the key elements captured here: love for myself, love for my family, love for my body, love for God, love for others, and love for life.


I am the mother of five beautiful children.  It is a busy, chaotic life, but, for the most part, I am able to keep my cool and mother with love because I love myself.  I am close to my Father in Heaven. I feel His love for me, and I know my worth.  

I am able to take the stresses of life in stride, instead of eating my way through them.  When I do revert to emotional eating, which happens on occasion, I forgive myself and move forward.  My eating disorder rarely comes knocking anymore—she knows there is no point.

I teach my children to take care of their bodies, minds, and souls.  We eat lots of delicious fruits and vegetables—and of course some awesome treats too.  Food isn’t the center of our family and universe, but we aren’t afraid of it.

We get outside and exercise together a lot as a family.  We go for hikes and bike rides.  We go for after-dinner walks around the neighborhood.  A few nights a week, Ryan and I put the kids to bed and have a teenaged neighbor come over and sit with them, so we can go walking or jogging under the stars together, just like we did when we were dating.  We are active and strong.

I take the breaks that I need from mothering my big family, and I don’t feel guilty about it.  I have a sitter twice a week for a few hours, so I can go to a local coffee shop and write.  I also take an evening every week to myself, meeting up with a friend for dessert, going to a bookstore to read, or just taking a walk by myself at sunset to think and pray. Because I want to be present and relaxed for my family and friends, I say “no” to extra curricular activities and responsibilities that will leave me feeling overwhelmed and drained. 

I am someone whom people can call on a whim.  I am available to talk and to help—I am not stressed and overly busy all the time.

I find joy in serving other people, and it’s a big part of my life and the lives of my children.  It is one of the things that nourishes me and fills me.  I tutor underprivileged kids in reading and writing, and I know I am making a difference to them.  I teach my own kids to look for opportunities to serve others, and I help them follow through on their ideas for service.  It gives me so much joy to see the light that comes from service in my children’s eyes.

I am happy.  I am fulfilled.  I am able to see the value and meaning in my life.  I no longer feel stress or self-loathing on a daily basis.  I get enough sleep.  I take care of myself.  I feel my emotions instead of fleeing from them through starvation, exercise, or excess. 

I love and savor life, with all of its ups and downs.

I love and nourish myself, with all of my weaknesses and imperfections.

I am grateful.  I am at peace.

I am free.


To listen to my Power of Moms podcast about what I learned in counseling, click here:
            Unhealthy Stress or Habits? Break the Cycle!

And to see this narrative therapy published on the Power of Moms website, click here:
           The Surprising Way I Confronted My Eating Disorder

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Living With My Eating Disorder: Narrative Therapy, Part 2

Okay, so are you ready for this??

I have published a lot of personal things on this blog.  This, though, takes it to a whole new level.  I am warning you upfront, this might be hard to read.  It was hard to write, and it was even harder to live.

The good news is, my life doesn't even resemble this nightmare anymore.  In fact, as I read over this narrative and look back over my counseling notes, it's sometimes hard for me to believe that my life ever resembled this nightmare.  Was this real??  Did I really live this way??  It all feels like a distant and very bad dream.

I recently shared this narrative with a friend who struggles with her own body image demons, and her reaction surprised me.  I thought she would be shocked and slightly horrified by my description of life with an eating disorder, but she said, "Wait, so all women don't think and feel this way?  It's possible to overcome these types of patterns??"

If you read this and recognize some of yourself in it, please know--you do not have to live like this!  It is not okay for you to feel this way about yourself or to treat your body like this.  And most importantly, it is possible to be free of these cycles and destructive thoughts.  Send me an email at rachel (dot) nielson (at) hotmail (dot) com, and I will tell you more.

Thank you for reading and for being a safe place to share.  It is scary for me to be so vulnerable in such a public forum, but I feel like it's important.  And if you didn't read yesterday's blog post, this one is going to make no sense to you.  So start with yesterday's post here, and then come back, okay?

Deep breath...and here we go...


Over the ten years that I allowed this friendship to be part of my life, she manipulated me and told me all sorts of lies.  

She told me that I had to run every single day or else I was a failure.  When I had mono and was emotionally exhausted from news of my mom’s terminal cancer diagnosis, she told me that I had to go running with her at 11:30 p.m. when I got home from studying at the library.  If I ever got more than four or five hours of sleep a night, she told me I was worthless and unproductive.  A true friend would’ve told me to climb into bed and be gentle with myself during such a difficult time.

She told me that if I ate more than half a salad wrap at any one time, I was going to get enormously fat.  She told me to stop eating sweets altogether except for once a week—once a week was all I could risk if I didn’t want to be obese.

She made me hyper-aware of what I ate because she was constantly making comments about it: “You’re going to eat a second cookie?  Looks like you won’t be able to wear those jeans that you just bought for very long…”  “Are you really going to order fettuccine alfredo?” I could always hear her critical commentary running through my head. 

The summer that my mom was so sick and I was her caregiver while my dad was at work, she met me every morning on the running path.  In and of itself, a daily jog was not an unhealthy way to cope, but she pushed me to run farther and farther each day, telling me that my run was a “waste of time” if it wasn’t at least five miles.  She would tell me I was pathetic if I missed a day or didn’t feel up to running as far as I had the day before.  Five miles…six miles…seven miles a day…it wasn’t enough.  I often ran eight miles or more in the early hours of the morning, and then went home and took care of my dying mother for the rest of the day.

She told me that she would help me fix the negative emotions that I felt about my mom’s impending death.  She reminded me to stand on the scale every morning to make sure that something in my life was still in control.  The decreasing number on the scale seemed like the only thing that was measurable in the midst of all of the pain. During those months, I did feel comforted by my faith and my family, but I couldn’t bear to just sit with the agonizing grief that I was feeling—so I tried to run and starve it away. 

A few years later, when I started my career as a high school English teacher and got too busy to jog every day, she told me it wasn’t worth running at all.  “What’s the point?” she would say. “At this rate, you’re going to get fat anyway, so why even try?”  When she said this, I felt utter panic—I don’t want to be fat!—and she seemed to love getting that reaction out of me.  She always told me it was “all or nothing.”  I believed her. 

She told me not to go to parties and social gatherings because I wouldn’t be able to resist the food there. I usually ignored her and went anyway, but I spent the entire time telling myself that I “couldn’t” eat any of the refreshments.  I often ended up eating them anyway, which made me feel guilty and weak, so I ate more than I even wanted to because “tomorrow I will start my diet—tomorrow, I will start being ‘good.’”  I left those parties feeling sick to my stomach and awful about myself.  “I told you so,” she would say with a smirk.

She told me I never deserved to have time to myself.  “You are so selfish,” she would say when I felt too tired to participate in a service opportunity organized by my church.  When a student seemed to need extra help on something (whether or not he or she had even asked for the help), she would tell me, “If you want to be a good teacher, you need to give up your lunch break to help that student.”  I would often go an entire day without eating anything, only to realize at 3:15 when the students left my room that I was ravenous and utterly drained.  

Despite my fatigue, I stayed at the school until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. every night, grading papers and planning lessons—working, always working.  During those long afternoons and evenings at the school, she brought me candy bars from the vending machine.  “You’re tired, you’ve been working hard,” she would say to me. “This candy will make you feel better.”  In those moments, she seemed sweet and supportive, but it was always her underhanded attempt to make me feel reliant on her and bad about myself.  I sometimes ate two or three candy bars to make it through those exhausting work sessions.  Slowly, just as she knew it would, the weight crept on.

She told me not to go to baby showers and parties because I was overweight and embarrassing, and everyone would judge me. I usually went anyway, but I spent the entire time feeling self-conscious and loathing myself.  Sometimes, I actually listened to her and stayed home.  I even gave up the opportunity to go visit the kids that I love in an orphanage in El Salvador one summer because she told me that they would all make comments about how much weight I’d gained.  I knew she was right that people in El Salvador are blunt and make comments about people’s weight—and I didn’t think I was strong enough to smile and bear it. A true friend would’ve said, “Those kids love you for you, not for what you weigh or look like!  You should go!!”

She told me that I must be disgusting to my husband with the weight I’d gained.  “I bet he doesn’t find you attractive at all anymore,” she would say.  This sometimes made me cry when Ryan and I were together, because I was sure that she was right.

When I was struggling to get pregnant and going through infertility treatments, she started hanging around even more.  She would wait in the car after my appointments, and as I drove away from the clinic, my heart breaking and numb, she would say to me, “Well, if you can’t have a baby, at least you deserve to have a dessert.  Dessert will make this feel better.”  She encouraged me to stop at the grocery store and buy myself a mini pie, or go home and scour the refrigerator for something to temporarily numb the pain—chocolate frosting with graham crackers, ice cream…foods I didn’t even really like or want, but that she assured me would make things feel better.

In the midst of my fertility treatments, I was also going through the adoption process, and when I was corresponding with expectant mothers who were considering adoption, she was always the first to remind me that things were uncertain.  “Don’t get your hopes up, Rachel,” she would say.  “Remember the last three birthmoms you communicated with?  They all changed their minds.  I'm sure this one will too.”  Her words filled me with anxiety that never really went away, no matter what I was doing. I tried praying and reading scriptures, I tried going out with friends—all of those things helped, but the stress and pain still gnawed at me from the inside.  Always, always there. 

Months later, when my miracle son finally arrived to us through adoption, things didn’t go as smoothly as I’d imagined they would.  My son had colic and cried most of the day, and I was filled with inadequacy, loneliness, and desperation.  Instead of encouraging me that things would get better, she told me I was a terrible mother.  She told me I hated being a mother.  She told me the rest of my life was going to be miserable.  Then she’d say the inevitable: “Here, eat these brownies.  After all, it’s the only thing you have to look forward to, and you’re never going to be skinny again anyway, so you might as well.”

She told me to lie to my husband, something that I never thought I would ever do until she infiltrated my life.  She didn’t want me to be close to him—she wanted to be my only friend and confidant.  “He will think you are a failure if he knows how much you eat,” she would say.  “He will realize that you can’t follow through on your goals and you are weak and unworthy of his love.  You should only make cookies when he isn’t home and then throw away the evidence. And you better make up a reason to leave the house instead of telling him that you want to go get a treat.”  After a long day stuck at home with a crying baby, I would tell Ryan that I was running an errand but instead meet up with her to indulge in a dessert that she assured me would help me feel better about my life; but even as I was eating it, I knew she was lying. I would silently resolve to be rid of her, starting the next day.  “This is the last time I will ever hang out with her,” I would tell myself, “so I better live it up now.” Sometimes we’d stop at multiple drive-thrus to get various treats in one evening, because nothing was making me feel better so I had to keep trying different options.  A few times I felt so physically sick and so full of self-loathing when I got home that I made myself throw up before I went into the house. 

It was in the midst of that final nightmare that I decided that I had to break off my friendship with her.  I wasn’t sure how to do it, so I recruited help.  I prayed and plead with my Heavenly Father for strength.  I sought help from a professional counselor.  My husband, my family, and a few trusted friends were at my side when I told her to get away from me.  Get out of my life.  I told her that I never wanted to speak to her or see her again.

She didn’t take the news well, and she was slow in leaving.  There were times when she knocked on my door, and in a low moment, I let her in.  We’d sit on the couch and talk, and she would start feeding me lies again, and sometimes I would listen, but it wasn’t like before. I never really let her back into my heart. 

Now her visits are few and far between.  Sometimes she still knocks.  I look through the peephole and see her standing there—sometimes she even tries to talk to me through the door—but I generally don’t respond.  I may hear her words and wonder if they are true, but I don’t respond to her, and I don’t let her in, and I think she is starting to get the hint.  She comes around less and less often these days.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I allowed myself to be abused and manipulated for so long.  It makes me feel sick and a little embarrassed to think about the years I wasted on her.  But it also makes me proud to realize that I have almost broken free, and it makes me feel hopeful to realize that she has left a big space in my life that I can fill with relationships that actually nourish me, instead of leaving me empty, alone, and in pain.


Part 3, "Life Without My Eating Disorder," (yay! the happy ending!) tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Meeting My Eating Disorder: Narrative Therapy, Part 1

I have been thinking about eating disorders again.  I am recording a podcast for Power of Moms this Friday about what I learned when I went to counseling for an eating disorder, so I've spent a lot of time this week preparing and attempting to organize my thoughts on this complex and personal topic.  Going back through my notes and the books that I read during my counseling has been awesome and gratifying.  It has reminded me of how much I learned and how far I've come in my relationship with food.  I am a dramatically different and happier person now than I was when I was trapped in destructive cycles of dieting, negative self-talk, and obsessing about food/exercise/body image.  Man, am I glad to be free of all of that.

As overwhelming as it is to condense a year's worth of counseling and self-reflection into a 40-minute podcast, I am so grateful for the opportunity.  I can't wait to record it, and I can't wait to share it once it airs.

As part of my preparation for this podcast, I've revisited something that I wrote during the "narrative therapy" component of my counseling.  For this exercise, my counselor asked me to embody my eating disorder as a character in a story--a person separate from myself whom I could interact with and analyze.  She told me to write about how my eating disorder and I met, what our relationship was like, and what my future looked like with or without him/her in it.  I did this in three different portions, over the course of three weeks, and we discussed the insights I gained from each chapter as I wrote it.

This was a super interesting and eye-opening exercise, and the finished product is pretty heart-wrenching to read.  I've decided that I'm finally ready to share it on this blog.  I've been contemplating doing so for over a year but have never had the courage.  I share it now in hopes that it will help someone who might be feeling alone, trapped, and desperate.

There is hope.  You can change.  I know this because I have been there and I am not there anymore.  As I wrote in a blog post back in May, I can only share this now because it is so very far from my reality today.  That can be true for you too--I promise.

I will publish this in three parts over the next three days.  Today's portion is Part 1: How I Met My Eating Disorder.  

And here we go...


She came to me one night when I was out for a run under the starry skies of Provo, Utah.

She pulled up beside me in running shorts, falling right into stride with me--as if she knew me, as if she’d been waiting for me.

“You could run faster than this, you know,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Huh?” I asked, vaguely confused about who she was, but so taken by her nonchalance that I almost felt like we’d planned the meeting.

She repeated herself.  “You could run faster than this.”  I didn’t respond, but I didn’t have to.  She hadn’t meant it as a question.  “And I hear your mother is dying,” she continued.

Again, it was a statement of fact.  And as we plodded along in side-by-side silence, breathing heavily, taking in the night air, I didn’t say anything more. 

“It’s okay.  I’ll be here for you,” she said simply.  “I can make it better.”

These runs, which had started just a few months earlier when I’d left home for my freshman year of college, had never been about running fast, or burning calories, or counting mileage—they had been a time of solitude and peace, a time to think and to try to make sense of my vastly changing life.

I wasn’t sure I wanted company.  

But I didn’t tell her to leave. And as we reached my dorm hall and I watched her padding off into the night, her long blonde hair swinging with her steady stride, I knew that I would be seeing her again. 


Part 2, "Living with My Eating Disorder," tomorrow...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Big Spook, Little Spook

When Noah told me that he wanted to be a ghost for Halloween, I was not thrilled.  All I could picture was a white sheet with eyes and a mouth cut out (so lame! you wouldn’t even be able to see his cute face!)—or worse, a scary, zombie ghost (I don’t do scary).

Well, Ryan and I consulted the amazing world of Pinterest and got the idea to make a fringed fleece poncho and add a face with black felt.  I don’t make things—like ever, as you all know—but even I can cut and tie fleece and glue on some felt!

Then Noah started insisting that Baby Sister be a ghost too, so we decided to make her her own miniature poncho.  Best idea we’ve had in a while.  I mean, miniature ghost poncho?  To die for.

Noah wanted to be a “scary ghost” and his sister to be a “happy ghost.”  They turned out so cute, if I do say so myself.  Cutest ghouls I have ever seen!


Though I may not have a shred of artistic ability, my husband does.  He made his Halloween costume to wear to work this year: a Leggo dentist.  It was a hit at the office! 

I took Noah and Sally into his office to visit him that afternoon, and then we went Trick-or-Treating as a family that evening.  Noah loved it and chatted with everyone, assuring them, “Don’t worry--he’s not a real Leggo man; he’s my dad.”  Thanks, Noah!  I'm so glad you cleared that up! ;)

It was a great low-key holiday with our little spooks.  I couldn’t love them more!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sally's Blessing Day

Our little Sally Grace was blessed in church by her daddy on Sunday, September 28th.  She is such a treasure, and it was a beautiful and special day.  Isn't she just a cherub in her little white dress??

I loved all of the sweet little details of her outfit, such as the dainty bracelet made by my Aunt Jackie and the darling booties knit by Ryan's Aunt Tammy.  The beautiful dress was a gift from Grandma Nielson (one of Baby Sally's namesakes), and I love how the sleeves kind of made her look like she had angel wings. :) And in an act of uncharacteristic craftiness, I actually made her headband! (Well, I took a pre-made flower and glued it onto pretty elastic--hey, it's something.)  I hope all of these special little touches from women who love her will mean something to Sally someday.

A lot of family came to celebrate Sally: Bapa came from Colorado; Uncle Derek, Aunt Alli, and Lily came from Utah; and Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Ashley, Baby Lucy (who was only two weeks old), and Great Grandpa Nip came from Pocatello.  Sally is so lucky to be so loved.

Ryan did a beautiful job on the blessing, and I was asked to sing a special musical number about Jesus, "Close Enough to Touch."  I hope Sally will remain close to the Savior throughout her life.

I love baby blessings because a father gets to speak to his child and give him/her sacred counsel and gifts--it's like a prayer but spoken directly to the baby.  He spoke all of the advice that he and I both wish for her and had discussed in the days prior.  I love seeing Ryan prepare for the blessings of our babies--he always takes time before that day to ponder and pray and reflect on the sacred responsibility it is to be a father to such precious spirits.  I love his tender heart and the closeness he feels to God.

In the blessing, Ryan told Sally that she is a gift to our family from Heavenly Father and that we are so grateful to have her in our home.  He told her that she has been such a happy, sweet baby.  He blessed her with a healthy, strong body and mind and encouraged her to always remember the good women in her life--to know and follow their examples.  He explained that she is named "Sally" after both of her Grandmas and she should look to their lives of faith and service and strive to emulate them.  He blessed her to understand the significance of her middle name "Grace," which is the enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  It was only through Grace that we were able to bring her into our family, and he promised her that the atoning power of the Savior could help her throughout her life as well.  He told her that when she turns to Him, she will be able to do more than she could ever do on her own.

He encouraged her to understand the Gospel and to seek to live it throughout her life--to follow the commandments, search the scriptures, and lean on the knowledge of God.  He blessed her to be a light--to serve and reach out, lift up and inspire others.  He told her that her purpose is to be happy like Heavenly Father and to feel the power of Goodness in her life.

I loved everything he said, and I hope that Sally chooses to heed his counsel throughout her life.  Obviously, it will be up to her, but we plan to teach her all that we can about God because He has brought us so much peace and happiness.  Just like her brother, Sally is a miracle baby, and we thank God daily for her.  We are so lucky to be the parents of these amazing little people!

Noah's hair was a little pink from the color run he did with his dad the day before :)

Dear Sally Grace,  I am so smitten by you and so grateful to be your mama.  Can you tell by the joy on my face in these photos?  Do you see it in my eyes when I coo over you and talk to you as I change your diaper?  Can you hear it in my voice as I sing to you before bedtime?   Sometimes I say to your Daddy, "Do you think she knows how loved she is?"  I hope you do.  You are such a gift.

Thank you for coming to our family.  Thank you for teaching all of us more about love.  We can't imagine life without you.

Your Mama