Why Mindfulness Isn’t Always A Solution

When I started seeing a therapist consistently for the first time ever, he identified the borderline personality traits wrecking havoc in my life and relationships. The first DBT skill he taught me was mindfulness. And it is a skill, a very powerful one at that.

But it’s not a solution. I try working at it, diligently. I practise, daily.

And here’s my hypothesis: it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because being aware of my emotions does nothing to change them, it can’t soothe my damaged soul, it can’t repair past trauma, it can’t repair ruined relationships and it certainly doesn’t stop me from self harming. Being aware of my emotions is not the same as being able to regulate them.

I am trying to work out why it doesn’t work for me, why it’s not the saving grace many claim. I think it has something to do with this core belief I identified recently: I don’t deserve nice things. Nice things like recovery. Now I’ve already resigned myself (smartly or stupidly I’m not sure) to the fact that my depression is chronic, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recover from it. Just as it’s not impossible to recover form anxiety, bulimia, anorexia and self harm, and learn to live a fulfilled life as “a borderline”. Recovery is possible, but it’s not something I deserve. And it’s certainly not something that an increased awareness gained through practising mindfulness is going to solve.

I don’t deserve nice things. Nice things like recovery.

Being aware of my emotions is good; it’s something I used to struggle with daily – feeling everything, nothing, or something unknown somewhere in between. I can recognise emotions now, and yes, mindfulness has helped with that. But what it hasn’t helped with is the depression itself, or the self harm. These are not things that a simple awareness will fix. In fact, I think it actually compounds their effects. If I notice that I’m having thoughts of self harm, trying to exist with the urges without engaging with them does nothing. It only makes the urge more difficult to resist.

I’m not being negative. I’m being honest, brutally so, as is my usual. Mindfulness has helped me in ways that you might not expect, but it has not fixed me or my problems. It helps me recognise emotions, and urges, and develop breathing patterns to instantly calm me down, reduced suicidality and helped me through panic attacks. But it has not – and I do not think it will ever – completely eliminated these things.

So next time I tell you I self harm, or suffer from depression, or am recovering from close to a decade of disordered eating, do not suggest mindfulness. Because my response may be to mindfully punch you in the face.

Strong Not Skinny: Lifting Weights in Eating Disorder Recovery

The first time I attended yoga I was fifteen years old. I was the youngest person in the class by at least ten years. I started to practice yoga amidst eating disorder recovery, as I attempted to leave behind excessive exercising, and build strength instead. Strong not skinny is my greatest mantra. And it really did make a difference. It started with yoga, and the more I went, the more I built not only strength but confidence in myself, my body, and my abilities. Within three months, my hands could rest flat on the floor with straightened legs, I could downward dog with heels down, and I attempted my first headstand. I felt the most confident about my body that I had for years. I also felt a part of a community, as my local gym had a wonderful atmosphere and even more wonderful instructors.

It wasn’t unaccompanied by its own set of anxieties though, especially as I built muscle in new places, and mistook it for fat – particularly around my glutes and calves. But my stomach was lean, not concave, and I had kick ass obliques. I was proud of how far I had come, especially because of where I had been.

Yoga was just the beginning of my strengthening journey. After that, I started to do Les Mills classes – Body Balance, Body Pump and CX Worx. They are all set to music, and are high energy, high impact classes. The more strength I built, the more empowered I felt.

When I moved away for study, I could no longer afford the gym. I continued to do yoga, but doing it by myself to a YouTube video once a week, or cycling through all the sequences I could remember, wasn’t the same at all, and not nearly as rewarding. There was simply no encouragement involved. As I lost strength, I felt worse. My depression got worse. And it had an impact on my eating disorder too (lots of things did, but this was just another contributing factor). As I lost muscle, my metabolism slowed down, and I fasted more often, and for longer. Which only precipitated binge eating and the compensatory behaviours that followed, and so the cycle continued.

Twenty eighteen is the year I returned to the gym, and to Body Pump. Already, after four weeks of being back in that sweaty, empowering environment, I’ve noticed the difference. Not only do I feel leaner and stronger (and a little sore too, which is encouraging), but my metabolism has begun to increase again as muscle mass returns. Muscle memory also helped with this.

This is why I encourage people trying to lose weight, or struggling with disordered eating, or tried to lose weight and slipped into disordered eating, to reduce their cardio, and pick up some weights.

Because it’s far better to be strong than to be skinny.

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The headstand shots and above photograph were taken in Nepal 2016; on hillsides, mountain tops, roads and bridges, in the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara and in the Annapurna Mountain Range.
Other image credit to Rupi Kaur

 

A New Kind of Veganism

Eighteen months ago, I made the decision to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Not just a diet, a lifestyle. I would no longer consume animal products in any way, which meant not just as food, but indirectly through the purchase of clothing and household goods too. Now, at the time, I gave three reasons for this decision: ethics, environment, and health. Two of these reasons are true: I have an overwhelming passion about the complicated ethics of consuming animals and animal products, and the impact this consumption has on the environment. The last reason however? Not as true. In fact, this was just a façade for what became a new eating disorder behaviour. This was never going to be a ‘healthy’ venture.

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Since the age of eleven, I secretly and silently struggled with anorexia nervosa. So secretly, that it was only diagnosed quite recently, and after the fact. It was quite severe to say the least, and I was very unwell, eating only dinners and tiny breakfasts with my family to maintain a sense of normalcy, calories which I carefully counted to exercise away later. I lied, extremely well, and very often. About what I ate, when I ate, the amount I ate, the amount I weighed, how often I weighed myself, how often I exercised, how much I exercised, the point of exhaustion I reached when I finally stopped exercising… there were a lot of lies. At age seventeen, my weight restored, I turned to veganism. I thought I was ready for it. But this was yet another lie.

I turned to veganism so that I could stop eating meat and dairy. This need far outweighed the other reasons I gave. The overwhelming fears I was consumed with after weight restoration – a solo feat, due to the secrecy – and all the uncomfortable sensations it entailed, was what sent me down this path. Looking back, it was not so dissimilar to my initial orthorexic behaviours that initiated my spiral into anorexia, namely, eliminating fat and carbohydrates. Veganism satisfied the same restrictive desires.

Veganism also triggered the development of bulimia nervosa, which I am still struggling with every. Damn. Day.

Which is why, as I embark on a new stage of recovery, eating dairy is a major sign of progress. No, I still don’t eat meat, and yes, this truly is because of ethical and environmental reasons. These reasons also explain why I choose to avoid consuming animal products indirectly by purchasing clothes and household goods either derived from, or tested on, animals. What I do eat however, are ‘ethical’ eggs (from a friend’s free-range chickens), occasional seafood, and cheese. I no longer excuse myself from eating certain processed foods because of tiny amounts of dairy, when really, my disorder was berating me every time I had a taste. I do try to drink soy milk as much as possible instead of cow’s milk; this is another decision truly based in ethics alone.

It’s a new kind of veganism.

One day, I would like to return to the vegan diet I so wrongly adopted. But I will do it when my body is ready, and nourished, and can support that journey, and when I no longer rely on eating disorder behaviours to deal with other problems in my life. By that I mean, hopefully when I have fully recovered from almost nine years of eating disorder struggles. Until then, as I slowly unravel the tangle of lies I have weaved around myself, I will be leaving veganism behind me.