Sample Session 1
I’m dizzy. I’m unsteady. I’m parched. I’m punchy. I’m speedy. I’m nauseous. I’m forgetting words. I’m not making sense. It’s 6:30 p.m. and I’m still in Fair Lawn: giving, caring, offering, helping, supporting, overseeing, double-checking, managing. I need to leave. I need to drive. I need to focus. I need to hurry. My husband is waiting. My kids are waiting. My dog is waiting. My bladder, brain, and body are waiting. They’ve been waiting for hours.
It figures. There’s traffic on 208. With one hand on the wheel, I use the other to rummage for something, anything. A drop of water in the Poland Spring bottle, cold coffee dregs in the mug. An apple core. Two stale pretzel sticks in a ziplock bag in the center console.
I relay this experience to Melanie. It had become repetitive, for months; putting the needs of my elderly relatives before my mental and physical needs. Day after day, I’d pushed myself, performing with perfection on low fuel and raw adrenaline to show up selflessly for them.
“So when you rushed to your car and sped home, what were you thinking? “I was thinking about Jessie.” What about Jessie?” “I was hoping someone had taken her out.” “And what else, what else about Jessie?” I was hoping someone had fed her.” “Why is that?” “Because I love her and because she needs to eat.” There was a pause and a period of quiet after that statement. Melanie looked at me and nodded, willing me to make the connection between what I’d said about Jessie and how I’d essentially deprived myself of every bit of sustenance I’d needed throughout the day to not only be alert, responsive and productive, but to survive.
Food is love. Do I nurture myself?
Sample Session 2
I’d waited for the special T-shirt to arrive: a long-sleeved, cozy, light blue beauty with a small PSU logo on the front and a sweet Golden Retriever on the back, donning a bandana covered in Penn State’s Nittany Lion insignia. Putting it on hurriedly, I ran downstairs and asked my husband to take my picture. “You sure?” he asked. He’d been put in this position countless times before. “Yes,” I said assuredly, handing him my phone.
Turning away from the camera, I lifted the back of my hair in a twist so he could get the full view of the puppy on the back of the shirt. “OK!” I instructed, feeling a rush of excitement, eager to share the photo with my college friends. “I took a bunch,” he said.
“Thanks,” I told him and quickly placed my phone on the counter. He didn’t bother waiting to see if I’d check them. I never looked right away. I couldn’t. The time had to be right. Just before bed, I opened my photos. Shocked, I covered my mouth and closed my eyes. How could it be possible? What had happened? Was that really me? The width of my back from shoulder to shoulder was 100 feet. I looked like a linebacker. No, a wide receiver. I may as well have been a Penn State football player vs a Penn State alum. Finding the repulsion impossible to bear, I took a chance and emailed the photo to Melanie. It was late, but perhaps she’d check her email before our session the following day.
Sitting in the dark, I replayed the feelings over and over and over. How could I not have known I was that huge? Why hadn’t my husband said anything when I came downstairs wearing the shirt? Swiftly and deliberately, I shook it off, taking the action step I’d become so accustomed to after seeing photos of myself from any angle or vantage point. I pressed delete.
When Melanie and I began our session, I confirmed she’d received my email. “Did you open the picture?” “Yes! The shirt is adorable.” “Did you see my back?” “Yes, the Golden Retriever!” “NO! Not the Golden Retriever, my back,” I clarified. “Did you see the size of my back? I look like a wide receiver.”
She contemplated this but did not indulge me. Instead, we spent the session discussing football players: what they eat that contributes to their girth, how they train, how they bulk up to make weight, how generally tall they are, what protective equipment and padding they wear on their chests and shoulders, how physically strong they have to be to take the beatings they do on the field. By the time we discussed and reality checked the overall physical stature of most linebackers and wide receivers and confirmed that I was not prepared mentally or physically to play football, I was able to breathe again. I was assured, with her support, that I did not resemble what my distorted mind had been sure of just 12 hours prior.
I loved the shirt but gave it away. I couldn’t bear to wear it. Will I ever accept myself?
Sample Session 3
The pandemic has forced something on me that is typically in the unwanted and unacceptable category. It’s a mirror with a name called Zoom. Every day, for work, for social connections, or other support groups, I am forced to see myself in the proverbial Hollywood Square. While sometimes I’m compelled to remain off-camera, most of the time I go on so as not to call more attention to myself. But oh what that does to my psyche. For someone who has made an art form of shading my lips, putting in contact lenses, blow-drying my hair, and penciling in eyebrows, all without a mirror, staring at myself on camera has been extremely uncomfortable. Each day, I try not to attach myself to the person I see. “I am the fat lady in the circus,” I report to Melanie. “Is that so?” she asks, without much reaction. “My face takes up the entire square,” I cry. “My cheeks are huge,” I continue. ”It’s as though I’m one of those animals that pockets and stores food or like I’ve had an allergic reaction to something and my entire face is swollen…” She nods, contemplatively. “There’s been a shift in the economy you know.” I look at her. “Businesses have slowed down and I’m not sure the circus is hiring.” She smiles. I smile. And we laugh, breaking the tension. But I’m not ready to let this go. She needs to know how painful this is for me, and she does.
“I can’t believe people don’t say something to me!” “What would they say?” she asks, seriously, innocently. “I don’t know, something. They must be mortified that I would consider turning on that screen and letting them see me!”
Then softly and convincingly, Melanie asks a series of questions that stay with me all through the week. I hear her voice when I wash my hands at the sink and glance at the mirror. I hear her voice when I stand on the treadmill, warming up for PT, a wall-to-wall mirror staring back at me. I hear her voice when I take Jessie out at night, stealing a look at my reflection in the kitchen window glass: “When you sign on to Skype, and the familiar jingle signals the incoming call for our session to begin, you answer the call, the camera connects, and you see my face. What do you see?”
“I see Melanie.” “How does that make you feel?” “Happy.” “What would it be like if the onlookers on Zoom were truly just happy to see you?”
I’m quiet, surprisingly speechless. She continues, and I’m left with this:
“What would it be like if the person everyone who sees is simply J.?”
When I was a baby, I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. I wasn’t concerned with other people’s opinions. Why do I judge myself so harshly?
The process continues…
Week after week, with the help of Melanie, I’m allowing the onion layers to be peeled back further and further. Like Humpty Dumpty who fell off the wall, I’m putting the pieces together again. The stories I’ve told myself about who I am and how I look and why my body is unacceptable to me and to others are deeply embedded in my psyche. The negative self-talk, the criticism, the opinions, the pummeling of my ego, the comparisons to others; the prettier, thinner, sexier, perfectly built, formed, and put together girls. The voices I’ve heard in my head for so long, I know the script by heart. My chastising of my naturally curly, unmanageable hair; grown brittle from years and years of harsh, chemical straightening. My flabby, offensive stomach— the bane of my existence, the rolls of excess flab that at times I’ve wished to pinching tightly with skin calipers and cut off with gardening shears. Like extra dough on a pie crust, unnecessary.
So many parts of my body that for as long as I can remember have represented my inadequacy, my stigma, all that is and will always be wrong with me. My fat ass. The one that when I dare to look at its enormity makes me wonder why I leave the house. My arms, my thighs, my calves, my cellulite, my varicose veins, my chin, my neck, my facial droop, my distorted profile, and more. How is a 60-year-old mother of three supposed to look?
I recall the days of punishment and freedom. Which was it? Both. Laxatives. Vomiting. Running. Starving. Repeat as directed. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to shift the internal dialog and break free.
A group I’d joined, also led by Melanie, helped me make a start. “What are each of your goals for this 6-week session?” she’d asked each of us. I was the last to respond. In a whisper, I said the words I’d never said aloud: “I want to stop hating myself.”
The sharing among us was painful, but I felt safe. I could finally identify with the feelings of other women who’d lived with the shame of a lifetime of agonizing and destructive thinking. Handing us a piece of blank paper, Melanie asked us to write: “What has your eating disorder taken from you?” This was easy. I began to write with certainty and conviction: Joy. Intimacy. Time. A peek into loving myself. Taking chances. Forbidden foods. Bathing suits. Mirrors. Letting go. Outdoor summer events. Fun. Freedom.
I looked at the paper, knowing I could easily tear it up and make it all go away. “Is anyone comfortable reading her list aloud?” “I am,” I said, raising my hand.
With shaky hands, an attempt at a deep breath, and a churning in my stomach that signaled a desire to flee, I began to read. Years of dammed-up emotions poured out. That was my beginning.
People can’t get help until they’re willing to acknowledge they have a problem. I looked around the room. Surrounding me were the most courageous group of women. Was I willing to let go of my old ways of thinking and behaviors?
I’ve just taken the plunge and spent the money to have someone put keratin in my hair. After practically harassing her for a commitment that my hair would “stay straight” for a while, she explains that the product is really meant to reduce frizz and help manage the unruly curls. I didn’t admit that I wanted a guarantee that I’d look like a princess.
“You look nice,” Melanie complimented. “I got my hair straightened,” I explained. Had I said thank you? Do I ever? “It won’t last. It never does.” I told Melanie about when I’d first had it done, back in the early 80’s when these products weren’t safe or tested or controlled, lye-based products designed for women with thick, strong, coarse hair. But I went into East LA with my hispanic and Black friends and sat in that chair hoping for the best, hoping the stylist would do what I’d wanted all my life: to make me look different, or even better, to make me look like all the girls I’d gone to high school with. “Did you like it, your pin straight hair, back then?” Melanie asked. I’d honestly forgotten she was there. “That first time? With my scalp burning and my eyes tearing and my throat burning from the smell of those chemicals, I walked out of that salon like I hadn’t a care in the world. I’d been transformed.”
“Did it last?” she asked. “The feeling or my hair?” “Either.” “Nope,” I admitted. “I tried to make it last as long as I could, waiting forever to wash it, covering it when it was a misty morning or on a day it was humid. But when I finally had to wash it or on a rainy day, the frizz and curl reappeared and I didn’t feel like the same person anymore. It was awful, I was stripped of that confident, self-assured, new identity.”
Melanie listened intently, taking in my words and the deep and complicated feelings associated with them. “Have you ever seen any of the Disney movies where they feature princesses?” I told her I hadn’t. “Go look up Disney princesses. See what is common about all of them.” More homework, I thought. But I knew I’d follow-through. When I did, I was transfixed: Ariel. Jasmine. Belle. Cinderella. Princess Aurora or Sleeping Beauty. Their faces: flawless. Their hair: impeccable. Their waists: impossibly tiny. Their figures: slender. Their gowns: elegant. Their stature: regal. Their overall character: refined; portraying self-assurance, confidence, and independence.
Was it possible for any human being to look like these Disney characters did? Was I meant to be a princess? Would I ever accept my imperfections? My humanity?
A never-ending conclusion
Is the work painful? YES. Do I deserve to put in the time, money and effort involved? YES. Do I consider throwing in the towel regularly? YES. Is it worth it? YES. Am I worth it? YES.