Caring Less

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Photo by Abigail Keenan

By Rachael Whitlock

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall an article I wrote a few months back called “My Eating Disorder Doesn’t Define Me.” In that previous article, I spoke about an eating disorder that had consumed my life for the past five years. I recently decided to write this follow-up article because I’ve realized my problem wasn’t simply an eating disorder; in fact, it was much deeper than that. My real problem was my overwhelming fear of being judged negatively by others. The eating disorder was simply a symptom of my own insecurity. Many people experience this feeling of insecurity in their lives, and while I attempted suppress these feelings with unhealthy eating patterns, someone else may use a different method of control. I bring up my insecurity not to discuss repressing it, but instead to take the much healthier options and address them in order to correct the problem from where it begins. In other words, I’ve decided to care less.

Unfortunately, humans are a painfully social species, and it’s completely natural for us to care about what others think. If we didn’t have this empathy, we wouldn’t be able to form any healthy relationships or deep connections with others. In order to be happy, great relationships with others aren’t an option – they are a necessity. The fear of losing valuable relationships with people stems from the fear of other people’s opinions. And in some cases, this fear is useful. It can motivate us to behave in a way that makes more people like us. But in many circumstances this fear leads to anxiety, insecurity, and depression, which is counter-productive to creating relationships with others. The best way to overcome this is to simply not try so hard. Although it doesn’t sound very helpful, it works. Humans are drawn to others that seem confident and genuine, so the less we worry about others’ opinions, the more they will enjoy our company.

For me, caring less doesn’t mean being apathetic towards other people’s judgments of me, but simply not taking judgment from the wrong people to heart. Throughout middle and high school, I worried about what everyone thought: family, friends, acquaintances, even total strangers. But now, I can count on one hand the number of people whose opinions I let influence my life. I’ve found the importance in trusting a select few people who have your best interest at heart. Everyone else’s opinions should be ignored if they are not beneficial to you. This is probably the most difficult, and most useful, piece of advice I’ve ever been given. Even though I still have to consistently remind myself of my own advice, the advice itself has immensely helped my recovery.

Another way to care less about others’ judgments is to simply think of the absolute worst-case scenario if you ignore someone’s opinion. Chances are, whatever happens will not be anywhere close to how bad your imagination played it out to be. This tactic was extremely helpful to me because I realized that no scenario was worse than the one I was creating for myself by staying bulimic. I decided the best way to be happier was to think of how much worse off I would be if I didn’t recover. If I continued to let my insecurities rule my life, I would never get anywhere. Richard Branson, the well-known English philanthropist, perfectly summed up this notion when he said, “I’d rather look back on life and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that’ than ‘I wish I did that.’”

I decided to write this follow-up article not for myself, but for everyone else who is struggling with their own fears and insecurities. After all, that’s what college is about: struggling to fit in, to make a name for yourself, to overcome your personal burdens. At some point in their lives, everyone worries that others think negatively of them, and this insecurity can manifest itself in devastating ways. But with a shift in your own thinking, you can overcome much of these feelings. I am concrete proof of this accomplishment. Although it’s not an easy or a quick fix, it is possible to become the best version of ourselves if we simply care less.

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By Joseph Cox

I was 15 years old when I self-harmed for the first time. In media, there’s always a pale character shimmering in the darkness of the room. The knife slides through the flesh off-screen, the camera zooms in on the neck as it gasps in succulent relief, and the character fades into sleep as all the troubles slip away and the blood reaches the comfort of the sheets.  I found relief, but it came only from the shock of the moment. It wasn’t the cut, but the bitter realization that suicide was drawing near.

Every year as the clock ticks by, the candles get more plentiful, and I venture just a bit farther from home, that kid with the knife gets a little bit farther away. I remember the days when I’d stand in front of a crowd and shake so much that my skin would beat against my baggy jeans, but that boy gets buried a little deeper with every presentation, speech, and leadership role I encounter. Though, all the drifting feelings can’t hide the reality that the boy is never too far away. He was wrapped in the same blanket I’m tucked beneath as I write this now, he wore the same watch, he sang too loud in the shower to the same music, and, truthfully, the same things scared the hell out of him. The people that didn’t care about him then don’t care about him now, he didn’t stop caring about the people he loved, and he stubbornly refused to have apathy for just about anyone, yet, somehow, he became much happier. He rose the tired body that he detested out of bed every morning, tried to fix the hair he could never get right, brushed the teeth that pounded with brace pain, and put on polos that looked atrocious on him only to drag his depressed self to the high school that had zero chance of improving his happiness. I just turned 19, and I think back to what I’d say to that kid now.

I’d tell him that the sweaty palms and resounding thuds of his heart won’t go away no matter how many times he stands in front of a crowd, writes down words he hasn’t heard someone else say, or talks to a girl he finds attractive, but it won’t matter that he can’t quell his heart. His heart is what makes him feel alive. Even when he horrendously massacres a social situation, he’ll learn to laugh at himself, and he laughs quite a lot. Sometimes, he screws it up just for the fun.

I’d go on to explain that I don’t blame him for anything he’s feeling right now. He lives in a society that’s rigged with systems built to retain commerce instead of happiness, and high-school is a breathing example of a system that went horrifically wrong. I’d also know that he spends every day surrounded by people struggling just as much, if not more, than he is. Then, he comes home to watch the news that belts a cheerful, “Good evening world,” while proceeding to tell him all the reasons why the evening is not good at all. Also, his parents ask him, “You okay?” so many times per day that he’d love to have something go right in life just to have something else to talk about. I’d tell him that life is incredibly tough at times, and I don’t blame him for wanting to die for a fair portion of it.

I’d also tell him that his polos and overly large jeans aren’t hiding his chubbiness from anyone, that his brown polo he used for picture day in middle school made him look like a UPS salesman, that the roundness of his face is hilariously more accentuated when his hair is short, that he’ll forever have a hatred of sandals and flip-flops unless they are worn by Spartans, and that he’d probably hate himself less if he just went to the gym instead of dissing muscular people that have the bodies he wishes he had. Also, I’d tell him mac-n-cheese is delicious, and even though he’ll go on a ridiculous diet plan that no one should ever do, learn the convincing rationality of veganism, and come to despise the drowsy feeling he gets from consuming cheese, he should keep eating it for the fun of it.

I’d tell him these things because depressed people aren’t always blameless. People confined to wheelchairs aren’t always nice, veterans aren’t always cool, policemen don’t always shoot unarmed people, and small children don’t always bring me to tears with their high voices, so no one should be treated a specific way due to one characteristic.  Don’t get me wrong, life became immeasurably more enjoyable upon graduating from the cesspool of self-loathing that is the average American high-school, and some mentally ill persons are dictated by the terms of their respective diseases. But, it’s not as if the universe delivered happiness to my life. As much as I wanted it to happen, happiness never burst through my door in Kool-Aid man fashion with an “OH YEAH!” no matter how many times I said, “Oh no.” to the life I so desperately hated. Why? Because depression doesn’t come from having a terrible life, it comes from the perception that life will always be garbage. Hence, we kill ourselves to avoid the insurmountable avalanche of trash coming our way. No suicidal individual ever had the final thought of, “I’ll bet life would be great if I was living tomorrow, but nah.” The truth is, I always defined what happiness was for me, but the kid I was had no idea what that definition might be.

What I did know is that other people weren’t bullied, other people weren’t chubby, and other people didn’t struggle with the immense amount of other troubles that are too personal and lengthy to mention to an audience that didn’t ask for any of this. I also knew that I felt sorry for everyone else, didn’t want to be worthless, and wanted every person on the planet to be happy. Yeah, of course I was going to be sad when that’s all I was consciously aware of.

Look, what I’m trying to say is being purposefully antagonistic to any ill person, mentally or otherwise, is probably one of the least cool things you can do as a human being. It’s right up there with kicking the crutches out from underneath someone and hitting a dolphin with a boat; cruelty and misunderstanding to any ill person is no bueno. However, bashing the ill person over the head with empathy until they feel helplessly defined by the ailment isn’t a better alternative, for we should strive to listen and care for the people that need it rather than berate them with empathy. Had I received more understanding, perhaps I would have learned to define my own happiness sooner. Instead, I was caught in the world that always loved to come crashing down.

Obviously, I’m not asking anyone to walk up to a cancer patient and go, “Hey pal, I empathize and understand the severity of your situation, but walk it off, homie. It’s just cancer!” because anyone who says that should be kicked in the left knee repeatedly. What I am saying is that empathy, as rare as it may be, is only the beginning of a decent conversation. Empathize, think through the situation, and respond accordingly. Don’t just hit him or her with an, “Aw, I’m sorry, but life will get better soon.” That’s about as useful as reacting with glee at any cat video; it’s an automatic reaction now.

So, in conclusion, I’d tell my 15-year-old self that he’s incredibly strong for enduring the pains that his perception, and the things that caused such perceptions, had brought him. I wouldn’t blame him the least for wanting to kill himself either. But, most of those crappy things aren’t going to change quickly, and life is still going to be insanely difficult regardless of what he does. However, with some work, some great friends, and a hell of a lot of mistakes, he can manage to work his way through life. I won’t propose that there’s some one stop solution to everything, but I will propose that life gets to be much more interesting when you leave that dark room, that desolate high-school hallway, and the daily drag of allowing yourself to have the exact same thought patterns. Start small, kid, because each step makes the next step a little easier.

You’ll probably never figure it out, but that’s what makes it all so entertaining.

My Eating Disorder Does Not Define Me

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By Rachael Whitlock

Since the 1990s, clinical eating disorders have been on the rise, with national surveys estimating that nearly 30 million people in America will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives (National Eating Disorder Association). Although many are unaware, I am one of these people. Contrary to popular belief, these diseases are not reserved for teenage girls that wish to look like models. Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, regardless of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Eating disorders are not a choice or a diet plan, but are serious illnesses that, if left untreated, can cause devastating physical and emotional consequences. For many, eating disorders serve as coping mechanisms, safety blankets, and identities. For me, eating was about control and simplicity. My eating disorder is called bulimia nervosa, and, although I am recovering, the consequences of my illness still afflict me every day.

My eating disorder first surfaced when I was fourteen years old. At that time, my family had just moved, I was starting at a new school, and my social anxiety soared. I had no friends, struggled in classes, and my self-esteem quickly plummeted.  Soon, I began altering my eating habits to cope with my anxieties. I restricted food during the day until I was starving, and binged later on whatever food I could find. The loss of control during binges brought overwhelming feelings of guilt and self-loathing, but these feelings were alleviated by purging, or induced vomiting. My new routine quickly grew into an addiction. For the first year, I denied I had a problem, and allowed myself to believe I was healthy. For me, my eating disorder was the one thing in my life I could control. Bulimia helped me cope with negative feelings, and it became a comfortable habit I refused to acknowledge was harming me.

For the next three years, I continued my unhealthy coping mechanism. However, during my senior year, I became aware of the physical and emotional damage I was causing myself. I felt nauseous all the time, and purging could no longer alleviate the feeling. I also noticed that after particularly severe episodes, my heart beat irregularly, and my body would shake for hours. I also became aware that my eating habits were not normal or healthy, and guilt began to eat away at me. Finally, I decided it was time to quit before permanent damage was done, so I did. For the last six months of my senior year, I was bulimia-free. Stopping was surprisingly easy and, for a while, I assumed I had recovered.

However, my initial recovery didn’t last long. I had a devastating relapse the summer before starting college. I was overwhelmed with the stress of planning for college and then struggled to cope after a particularly difficult situation took place in my life. During these months, I spiraled into a depression I had never felt before. I lost all the self-control I had been working on throughout my senior year and completely gave up on attempting to recover. My days were filled with restricting food until late afternoon, binging, purging, and then crying until I couldn’t anymore.

As I continued to give in, eating became my entire focus. I could not think of anything else. I became consumed with thoughts of food, purging, and my self-image. I hated myself a little bit more with every meal, and the only way to alleviate the feeling was to purge. I was losing the illusion of control my eating habits gave me. Even then, when I realized what I was doing to myself, I didn’t want to stop. By then, my eating disorder had become such a large part of who I was that I couldn’t see anything else. In my mind, I didn’t possess any other qualities. I let my bulimia define me, and maybe this was the reason that, for so long, I couldn’t stop. I felt that if I was no longer bulimic, I would no longer know who I was. Although I hated my actions, and myself, for giving in, at least the feeling was familiar. Since the beginning, bulimia was my identity. In my mind, I justified my actions by thinking, ‘If I allow myself to heal, then who will I be? If I recover, I’ll lose the only part of me I am comfortable with.’ To me, the thought of changing my habits and abandoning my rules was terrifying.

A month before last semester ended, I began to throw up blood after a particularly severe lapse. Caused by unintentionally scratching my esophagus, the bleeding was not a medical emergency, but was a wake-up call nonetheless. That bloody night became a turning point, and helped change the way I viewed my disorder. I no longer saw my bulimia as something that was a part of me, but as something that was harming me both physically and emotionally. For me, bulimia was no longer something that I could control, but something that was controlling me. This shift in my thinking allowed me to finally tell my parents and seek professional help. Although opening up about my disorder first seemed like an impossible feat, it was the first step to recovery. Recently, I’ve begun to participate in online discussion forums and meet people in eating disorder recovery groups. Whether online or in person, talking to others who are dealing with the same issues makes me feel better about myself. Just the realization that I’m not alone takes some of the pressure off my shoulders. Every time I share my experience with someone new, it gets a bit easier to breathe.

My eating disorder was born out of the desire to feel accepted by my peers, but I assumed the only way I could have friends was by being physically attractive. Now, although these feelings still occasionally surge to the forefront of my mind, I understand that I was wrong. I’ve discovered, over the past few months, that I am the only one who criticizes myself this harshly. Other people really don’t care or notice nearly as much as I do. I was my own worst enemy, but recovery is helping me change the way I perceive myself. Even though I still have the occasional lapse, I’ve learned to deal with these setbacks too. I’ve come to realize that, although I am bulimic, I am also so much more. Being bulimic plays a part in my life, but it isn’t everything. It no longer controls me, and it is no longer my identity. My eating disorder does not define me.