Advice

Simple words...

I talk to myself... a lot sometimes. Hell, every now and again, I even respond to myself. Sometimes the words I have to say are meaningless banter. Sometimes they're harsh criticism for something I've done, words I've spoken, or for simply just being me. But every so often, I speak kind words to myself. It's a rare (but ever-increasing) occurrence. After realizing just how hard I am on myself, I've begun to understand the value of self-directed affirmation. There are a few ways that I do this...

Last year, one of my dearest friends made a suggestion to me. I'd been struggling with both my body image and my intellectual capabilities. Additionally, my personal faith had been struggle. Her suggestion was a simple one, but more powerful than I would have thought. Every day, at least once, I was to look in the mirror and tell myself, "I'm sexy. I'm brilliant. I'm a Beloved child of the Divine." If speaking it wasn't enough, then I was to plaster my apartment with post-its filled with similar words. It sounded silly, and while I don't do it nearly as often these days, I'm able to discern when I need to reestablish this habit. When I do, it usually ends up being just as powerful.

Another way that I've learned to speak kindly to myself has been through solitude. It's easy for any of us living today to become caught up in the busyness of life. Meetings. Classes. Lectures. Homework. Relationships. Dates. Hookups. Bar-hopping. Dinner parties. Holiday gatherings. Shopping. You name it, and it can be used to keep us from spending time getting to know ourselves. Don't get me wrong, solitude often happens best alone. But even something as simple as riding the train without putting in the headphones or turning on the e-reader can make a difference. When we take the time to give notice to our thoughts and our feelings, we get a chance to know something new about ourselves, even if it's subtle and seemingly miniscule. It's a powerful thing when we make self-awareness a priority.

Finally, as odd as this may sound, I speak kindly to myself through taking care of my body. Admission: I am not a gym rat. I hate running. Lifting weights makes me awkward. But I enjoy taking walks with close friends, and within the past two months, I've developed a love for yoga. I stand close to the mirror in the studio, not so I can practice vanity, but so I can make sure I have proper form, but even more importantly, so I can spend close to an hour seeing myself for who and what I truly am. I'm able to see nearly every nook and cranny. I've learned to accept the reality of my barrel chest and broad shoulders, of my incapability of ever looking a particular way. As I reach the end of my yoga practice and flow into fetal pose, I often find myself gazing in the mirror with a smile. This simple gesture is a way of affirming the fight within me, the transformation I've allowed to take place.

We all need to hear kind words. Sometimes those are words unspoken. Sometimes they're written encouragement and affirmations. Sometimes is a smile seen in the mirror, the feel of one's heart racing and sweat dripping off of one's skin. The list is as long as we make it. This much is true: when we take the time to be kind to ourselves and to develop self-love, we're able to release that love into the world around us. When we let go of the busyness and the "stuff", we make it possible for our intentions and affections to be directed where they're really needed. The kindness we speak to ourselves becomes kindness we offer to the world.

True lies...

We all tell ourselves different lies, probably on a daily basis. When we're confronted with the reality of this self-deception, well, it's awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes disarming. Unfortunately, for someone like me who seeks to be as authentic, rational, and emotionally stable as I possibly can, I go through cycles where I sit down and inventory the lies that run through my head on a regular basis, and then I start to attack them with logic, dispel them with rational thought... or at least I try. Here are some of the lies I find to be the most pervasive in my life...

1. I need someone in my life to be happy and to feel complete. This is probably the biggest one for me. I remember asking a friend once, "Where's your other half?" He very quickly responded, "He's not my other half. That would mean that I'm not a complete person in and of myself. That's not me." He's right, for the most part. I do believe that, as humans, we're made to be in relationship with others, to be a part of a community. That said, I know plenty of friends who are single and perfectly content. We're all whole people, even if we don't always feel like it. And unfortunately, whole does not necessarily mean without pain or brokenness, but while the process of healing is often helped by the presence of others, we never really need someone else to complete us.

2. I'm not beautiful because I don't have ... In a world and culture where media is constantly telling us what is and is not attractive, sometimes it's painstakingly difficult to find the beauty in yourself. At IML a couple of years ago (a kink/leather/rubber/fetish convention held in Chicago every Memorial Day), I was sitting out in the lobby with a friend of mine and my partner's. I believe it was my second time attending the convention, and being someone who makes vanilla soft serve look kinky at times, I felt out of place. I didn't feel as if I looked good in anything remotely skin tight. I wasn't into really anything there. I didn't feel attractive, and I shared this with our friend. He looked me straight in the face and said, "Sweetie, you have to realize that there are plenty of people who find what you've got goin on goin on." In a later conversation, he shared his belief that beauty is a fetish. Everyone is into something different, and sometimes, we have what someone else finds attractive, and they have what we find attractive. It was a pretty strong revelation, and certainly a new way of thinking about beauty.

3. Money is necessary for happiness. This one's a strong one for a lot of us. We live in a nation riddled with debt and obsessed with materialism. We watch shows about celebrities and the extravagant lives they lead. We walk by stores that display things we want but would have to starve to have. For most of us though, it feels like we can never have enough money. We live paycheck to paycheck. Unfortunately, money is a necessity, but I've learned something over the past couple of years. Last summer, my grandma passed away, and much to my surprise, had prepared for me in a way I could and would never have imagined. I was concerned for myself afterwards that I would waste it all and go on a sickening shopping binge, and while I have done some indulging, I've honestly found more joy in doing for others. Yes, I know that this is not a possibility for many of us. But the lesson is simple, at least from my perspective. It really doesn't take a lot of money to make one happy, not when one understands that it's the people in our lives that bring true contentment.

4. I can eat whatever I want and I'll be fine. After two and a half weeks of watching my calorie intake and exercising three days a week, I've learned what difference a little intentionality about eating and physical health can make. I've also learned that overindulging on those things that are unfortunately not so good can make me feel, well, pretty crappy. I've been amazed to see some pretty drastic changes both in my appearance and in my energy levels since tracking my food and exercise. Granted, for someone like me who can become slightly obsessive over things like this, it's hard. In times like that, it helps having someone there to pull you back out of the madness, sit down at the table for a meal with you, and remind you that there's more to life than the numbers on the scale.

5. Healthy relationships happen when I keep my mouth shut, my ideas to myself, and my feelings bottled up. Anyone with any amount of common sense sees the deception present here. Good relationships take mutuality, and nothing good can come from one person feeling unimportant or silenced. Unfortunately, some of us grow up thinking our emotions matter less than someone else's. It's important for any friendship or partnership for there to be a sense of equality, even if it's in a constant state of flux. We all give, and we all take, and it's vital to feel as if what one receives is comparable to what one gives. This probably differs between introverts and extroverts (I'm the former), but the idea is the same. Everyone needs validation, and no one has the right to take that away.

Mirror's remnants: moving beyond an eating disorder...

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For many, the topic of eating disorders is a difficult one, especially if one has been diagnosed or suffered from symptoms of one. Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us who struggle with such things are rarely diagnosed, most often because we never share the secret. We don't talk about the obsessive calorie counting, the endless hours working out, the feeling of gazing in a mirror and never seeing the beauty that's really there. We hide the bingeing and purging, the dental visits to repair teeth damaged by months or years of stomach acid. We pray that no one notices just how anxious we are about eating around them, worried just how much we're being watched and just what the watchers are thinking while breaking bread with us. So when the question is posed, "Do you ever really get over an eating disorder," the answer most often is no, probably not.

One thing is fairly clear about eating disorders: it's not really about the food. It's often about control — at least it was in my case. During my sophomore year of college, in the midst of coming to terms with being gay, I became bulimic. Not in the usual sense of binge-purge. Rather, I just purged. I grew up in a family that was anything but body-positive. Mom was overweight. Dad was overweight. And me, well I filled out my choir tuxedo a little too well. I think I actually looked like a penguin at times. Food was a necessity and rarely something to truly take pleasure in. It was often more important for our family that meals were affordable, leaving their nutritional value unchecked. So when it was time to go off to college, I had very little experience with planning my own meals, and I'd never had the experience of looking in the mirror and liking what I saw.

I began purging for several reasons. One, I had an incredibly poor body image. Two, being raised in a conservative Southern Baptist home and being gay led to much self-hatred and internalized homophobia. Three, I was attending a small, private Christian Reformed college where the majority of the boys, while easy on the eyes, only served to make me feel even less in control on the ways that I felt my mind, eyes, and body had betrayed me. Apparently throwing up one meal after another made complete sense to me. That's how we all deal with emotional baggage, right?

My stint of purging unfortunately led to some very apparent, long-term effects. The amount of metal in my mouth could make a quarter I often think. My hair, well, I'm thankful that I have the head shape to pull off the 1/8" look. I can still bring up a meal with barely any effort, which makes those times I get sick with a stomach bug a little more bearable. Despite it being several years since I voluntarily purged after a meal (and we're not counting one of those nights of intense drinking where "cleansing the system" is the only way to ensure going to bed and waking up without an awful surprise), I still consider myself a bulimic at times. Even though I don't act on my inner urgings and desires to purge, the urge and desire to do so is still there, and frequently.

When I tell people I deal with bulimia (as well as a couple of other diagnoses), they're often surprised. I don't look bulimic. I'm not super skinny. My flesh doesn't hang from my bones. I've got a good set of teeth. I'm not in residential treatment somewhere. In fact, on the outside, I appear, well, stable. That's what struggling with an eating disorder does for a person. It gives us the capacity to feel and look "normal" to those around us. It's a coping mechanism like so many of the other things we as broken humans do to be able to get through the mud and the muck of life.

Fortunately, for a lot of us, the temptation to act out, and the reasons we sometimes contrive for doing so, start to disappear and fade away. We develop healthy ways of dealing with pain and the feeling of not having control. Better yet, we learn to take control in ways that were not previously visible to us. After deconstructing the lies we've told ourselves for so long, we're left with these pieces, these remnants of who we truly are. With grace, patience, and time, we're able to take those remnants and build something new. Those pieces of who we were — the diagnoses, the exercise, the lost meals and unspent calories, the denial and secrecy — still have an impact. Scars still show. But in becoming someone new, someone more whole, more complete, those scars fade into our new skin. We know they're there, and when we share our stories, the reality of redemption, of restoration comes to life.

Across your face...

The following is my first post for In Our Words: Salon for Queers & Co.

1. You stop going to Monday night Showtunes at Sidetrack because the crowd is “so much younger”, you have to be up before 6am the next morning, and you feel like you “fit in better” with the Friday or Sunday evening crowd.

2. You’ve experienced the reality of heartburn, and it’s a bitch.

3. You buy off-brand medication, not because you’re cheap or poor as dirt, but because it feels like a waste to buy Zzzquil when you know it’s just dyphenhydramine hydrochloride (Benadryl) at twice the price.

4. You know medications by their chemical name instead of their brand name.

5. You get an inheritance from a family member, and you decide to pay off your loans and open an investment/retirement fund knowing that you might never see a dime from Social Security.

6. You use phrases like “Kids these days” or “My, you are so young.”

7. You start thinking about cholesterol… seriously.

8. You realize anyone turning 21 this year was in 5th grade when you were a senior in high school… and you cry.

9. All your joints hurt, and it’s not from the amazing sex you had the night (or even 5 minutes) before.

10. You get the feeling of being “settled,” and it doesn’t horrify you.

11. You hear yourself saying, “Yeah, we’re thinking about having kids.”

12. All of the 18 year olds look like 12 year olds.

13. You’re not afraid to admit to watching shows like Family MattersFull House, Blossom, or Are You Afraid of the Dark.

14. You miss the 90′s, and then realize they started almost two decades ago.

15. You see the clock says 10pm and either have medicine to take, or you just go to bed — and not because you have to be up early.

16. You’re slightly scared realizing that Mark Paul Gosselaar (Zach Morris from Saved by the Bell) is only 10 years older than you… and only 2 years shy of turning 40.

17. You worry that you friends might do for your 30th birthday party what Brian Kinney’s friends did for him: throw him a funeral with a tombstone cake and their own version of This Is Your Life

18. You see Lisa Ling on The View and remember when she was an anchor for Channel One News, which you watched in 6th grade.

19. You realize the OJ Simpson murder trial took place when you were in 6th grade; you were thankful because it meant your teachers stopped teaching for the majority of that time so you could all watch it.

20. Someone asks you what you think of 1984, and you have to do a mental check to make sure that really was the year in which you were born… it was, and so you answer with something  snarky about George Orwell.

21. You talk about going bald as “your hair losing the fight against gravity.”

22. You talk about your favorite scene in your favorite movie (Sally Fields’ historical breakdown in Steel Magnolias), and your younger friends who watch Lifetime but won’t often admit it dare to say, “I bet Queen Latifah will be so much better.”

23. Breakfast is a real meal… not just hangover food.

24. You remember when gas was $2.00 and cigarettes were $5 — and that was expensive!

25. You start getting flyers from AARP… and you open them.