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.

Decisions

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Photo by Rachael Whitlock

By Rachael Whitlock

A thin veil of smoke curled around her fingers before dissipating into the air. She held the cigarette loosely to her lips and felt the warmth of its tip radiate towards her skin. Silent tears rolled down her cheeks as she inhaled once more. For a moment, as smoke filled her nostrils, she relaxed. Then, with another exhale, she began to heave in quiet sobbing.

She brushed her black bangs out of her eyes before picking her head up and taking another hit of the fast-shrinking cigarette. Sitting on the edge of the sandy cliffs, she watched the sun – a fiery ball of orange – as it began to disappear beneath the horizon. The entire city beneath her was bathed in the pink glow of the sunset, and as the darkness slowly enveloped it, yellow squares of light began to brighten the buildings.

Behind her, she heard light feet kicking the gravelly sand; sighing, she knew exactly who was about to sit down. Part of her leapt with elation as the boy sat next to her, but another part recoiled in pain. She yearned to speak to him him, but she also didn’t think she could bear to see his face. “I knew I would find you here.” he said quietly.

His soft voice made her wince. She thought the pain would subside with time, but it seemed to loom over her, completely enveloping and suffocating her already broken heart. “I haven’t changed my mind, you know. I can’t keep it.” she said while brushing tears off her cheeks. He sat next to her silently with his blue eyes staring at the city lights. After a minute, she stole a glance of his face and saw the shine of tears rolling down his cheeks.

“But why not?” His words were barely more than a hoarse whisper; his pain was evident. In hushed desperation, he pleaded, “Let me have it. You wouldn’t have to do anything after…this part. I’ll take care of it myself.” and it hurt her to hear the desperation in his voice. A piece of her wanted the child.  She ached to keep it and raise it with this boy she loved, but she knew it was just a fantasy that would play out differently in reality.

“I told you already. I can’t do it. I just can’t.” Even though she said this with certainty, her mind was twisting with indecision. They loved each other, and it was as if she was ripping his heart out and watching him bleed. No one does that to someone they love, she thought silently. She couldn’t look at him, even just a glance at the broken boy would prove devastating. She could hear him crying quietly and knew comforting him, even just looking at him, would only bring her more misery. Her heart was being squeezed, tighter and tighter, until it was nearly impossible to breathe. She turned her face to the sky and stared at the moon, full and bright, surrounded  by thousands of twinkling stars. Please, tell me what to do, she thought emptily. She didn’t truly believe there was anything in the stars that would help her, but she figured she’d try.

Still sitting next to her, the boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a small silver ring. He turned the jewel over in his fingers and let the moonlight shine on the cluster of diamonds on the top. After a minute of staring at the glittering silver, he held it out to her. “I got this for you. I don’t know why. I guess I thought it would help change your mind.” He continued to look at his hands, at the ring, and at the ground – anywhere but her face.

She held her breath in uncertainty. In her chest, she felt an almost overwhelming urge to reach out and grab the ring from his hand to put it on and never take it off. Instead, she simply sat there. One then two slow minutes passed before she even moved. Finally, she pulled her eyes away from the shining metal and looked up at his face, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.” It wasn’t until she had gotten up and walked away from him, out of earshot, that she began to sob.

***

A week later, she took a deep breath before dialing the number of her doctor’s office. A cheery nurse answered her on the first ring. She spoke to the nurse with certainty, for she knew   what she wanted. “Yes, I’d like to cancel the appointment I have next Tuesday.” The nurse asked her if she was sure and reminded her of the consequences of her decision. In two weeks, she could no longer change her mind if she decided she didn’t want it anymore. With an upbeat positivity, she exclaimed, “I know, but I want to keep it. I’m not going to change my mind.” A minute later, she hung up the phone and relaxed for the first time in months.

Then, she dialed another number. She wasn’t sure he would answer, but, after the fifth ring, she heard a sigh  with a strained “Hello?” that was a question more than it was a greeting.

She steeled herself for what she was about to say and decided to start slow. “Um…hey. I know this is hard, but can we talk? I have something important to tell you.”

The Sound of Goodbye

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    Art by Felicia Wahlstrom

By Rachael Whitlock

The machine’s steady beeping was the only sound I had heard for the last week. Everything else, the other machines, all the voices, the scuffling in the hallway, I couldn’t focus on any of it. I could only focus on the rhythm of the machine. This sound kept me from getting lost in my head. The rhythmic beating was all that kept me grounded.

I couldn’t touch her. Her hands were so cold, and I couldn’t bear to reach out to her. The blue veins crawling up her arms were sickeningly prominent; the chipped red nail polish on her fingertips was a painful reminder of our life before. Every time I summoned the courage to rest my hand on hers, I drew back as soon as I grazed her skin. Every time, I looked at her face afterwards there was no movement. Not even so much as a flutter of an eyelid escaped her body.

Her still face was smooth and, although her cheekbones were sharp underneath her skin, she was still beautiful. Her once-soft skin was pale and took on a bluish tone, her honey-blonde hair was no longer there, and there were small clear tubes that snaked into her nostrils. To me, though, everything about her was still perfect.  Even though her eyes were closed, I could still picture them: a light blue the color of a tranquil sea hiding beneath those dark lashes. What I would’ve given to see those eyes bright with life one more time.

I knew, though, that seeing that sea again was impossible because about a week ago, an insincere doctor had said so. I didn’t understand most of his words, but I picked up enough, enough to lose hope. After this news, I started focusing on the beeping.

Even with the machine’s calming rhythm, though, I was not calm. I couldn’t help but stare at the wedding band wrapped tight around her finger, and that was more painful to look at than her still body. The way the diamond mocked me as it glittered, and the gold metal took on a rosy tint in the pale blue light. The scene reminded me of what our life used to be. The ring that once symbolized love, hope, and progress was now nothing more than an artifact with the capacity to drudge up painfully sweet memories. I stared at the diamond until it was just a blurred shape in my vision, and my thoughts took over. I was no longer in the hospital room, but in a memory, I would give my life to go back to one more time.

I stood under a giant oak tree with the wind whipping my dress around my legs, and I was smiling as I watched her walk towards me. She was absolutely stunning- white dress glittering in the sun, honey-colored hair falling in rivulets down her back like a waterfall, red lipstick outlining her smile- I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She walked down the pale blue aisle slowly while holding an overflowing bouquet of wild flowers loosely at her chest. After she reached me under the oak tree, she read the vows she’d written nearly a month before she had even proposed, and then I read mine. Her smile got larger with every word, and tears began to spill down her cheeks behind her veil. Before I knew it, I gently lifted her veil over her face as she threw her arms around my neck. Then, her red lips were on mine, so warm and soft–

The frowning man with the lab coat pushed the door open to break me from my thoughts. He opened his mouth and sound came out, but I was trying to focus on the noise of the machine to keep from hearing him. I knew why he was here. I had signed all the paperwork yesterday, but I just couldn’t bear to hear him say it again.

The doctor continued to speak until I finally heard what I’d been waiting for: It’s time to say goodbye now. Right then, the crack in my heart that had been slowly growing the last few months broke open into a giant abyss that left me teetering on the edge. I took a deep breath and, with a shaking hand, finally reached out to her. I grabbed her icy hand and held on like I would never let go.

The slowing of the machine’s once-steady beeping threw me off rhythm. After a minute, the sound was replaced by a single drawn-out flat-line. Then, silence ushered its way into the room as the doctor turned the monitors off. He walked out.  He had left me alone in the room with nothing more than an empty shell of the woman I once loved. I stared dumbly for what seemed like an eternity before finally standing and wiping away the tears that had begun rolling down my cheeks. Without the machine, I had nothing left to focus on, nothing to hold on to, and nothing to keep the thoughts at bay. The silence was deafening.

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.

The Dividing Line

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Photo by Peter Lawson

By Rachael Whitlock

Typically, when we order barbecue at a restaurant, we don’t think about the animal that the meat came from. We don’t think about the 9.2 billion animals that are slaughtered every year in America for food (Human Society of the United States). Instead, it’s just a product – something that has been processed for our taste and enjoyment. But if someone ever put a plate in front of us with a piece of dog meat on it, most of us would not see edible food. In fact, many Americans would picture their own four-legged friend, with his wagging tail and lolling tongue, and would be repulsed at the thought of eating him. For hundreds of years, humans have divided animals into two separate categories: the ones we eat and the ones we don’t. In the United States, cows, pigs, and chickens fall into the “edible” category while cats, dogs, and horses fall into the “inedible” category. In other cultures, although animals might fall into different categories than these, there is still a dividing line between the spared and the slaughtered. But how have we come to create such a line? Why is it that people find it acceptable to eat some animals but not others?

It would be difficult to argue that our companion animals are more intelligent or more sentient than at least some of the animals we eat. A series of studies published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology in 2015 found pigs to possess more cognitive capabilities than dogs, and to be on about the same intellectual level as chimpanzees. In order to conduct these studies, pigs had to pass a series of tests involving using mirrors to find hidden food, completing mazes, learning a simple symbolic language, and manipulating a joystick to move an on-screen cursor. Another study concerning farm animal sentience done by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, indicated that pigs may be able to empathize with their pen mates, a trait previously assigned only to humans and primates (Scientific American, 2015). To conduct the study, scientists trained a few pigs to feel either happiness or stress based on whether they received rewards or punishments. The untrained pigs began to show the same signs of happiness or distress as their pen mates, even though the untrained pigs had no knowledge of the rewards and punishments. Based on the pig’s reactions, the researchers were able to conclude that the animals possessed the capacity to be effected by, and share the emotional states, of each other (Scientific American, 2015). The study on empathy in pigs was published in the journal Animal Cognition.  These studies conclude that at least some of the animals we eat, including pigs, are as intelligent as our beloved pets.

But even with evidence that dividing species is nonsensical, many of us continue to eat farm animals without blinking an eye. Today, the general public is so far removed from living, breathing, farm animals that the disconnect many feel is understandable. Few people still work on farms and interact with their food before it’s on their plate. Most Americans no longer have to collect chicken eggs, milk cows, and slaughter pigs they’ve raised since birth. After all, it seems the most obvious reason we don’t eat dogs and cats is because they play such a large role in our lives. We feed them, play with them, and sleep with them; many people would find it difficult to fathom eating their companions. The apparent reason for our choices is simply because that’s the way it has always been done.

The point of this article is not to influence people to start eating their companion animals, but to ask people to think deeply about the reasons they eat (and don’t eat) certain animals. Realizing that “edible” animals are intelligent and emotionally cognitive could suddenly make it more difficult to eat them with a clear conscious. Our pets and our food are much more similar than they are different, and, because of these similarities, we should think more closely about the moral dilemma eating animals poses.  Next time, when ordering a rack of ribs, think about that pig as you would think about your dog and ask yourself, should there really be a dividing line?

 

What do you think of this article? Share your feedback in the comments section.

 

References

  • (2017). Protect Farm Animals. Humane Society of the United States. 28 March 2017.
  • Griffiths, Sarah. (15 January 2015). Pigs Have Feelings Too! Farm Animals Feel Empathy Towards Their Penmates, Study Claims. Daily Mail. 28 March 2017.
  • Marino, Lori; & Colvin, Christina M. (2015). Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review ofCognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticusInternational Journal of Comparative Psychology, 28 March 2017.
  • Muth, Felicity. (13 January 2015). Can Pigs Empathize? Scientific American. 28 March 2017.
  • Reimert, I., Bolhuis, J. E., Kemp, B., & Rodenburg, T. B. (2014). Emotions on the loose: emotional contagion and the role of oxytocin in pigs. Animal cognition. 28 March 2017.

 

The Poet That Started a Movement

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Picture by Rachael Whitlock

By Rachael Whitlock

Phillis Wheatley once said, “In every human beast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance.” When people think of February, Valentine’s Day is typically what first comes to mind. But February isn’t only the month for celebrating love, it is also Black History Month. It is a time to celebrate the most prominent African American leaders in history, and their contributions to society. It is also a time to celebrate the African Americans who, after centuries of oppression, challenged molds and societal roles that were once forced on them. Although there were plenty of well-known leaders who fought for human rights, there were also many artists, musicians, writers, and poets that used their talents to challenge the oppression they faced. One of these people was Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet whose work helped set the stage for the abolitionist movement in the late 1700s.

After being kidnapped and enslaved when she was just eight years old, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American, and one of the first women, to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. Wheatley’s owner, John Wheatley, who originally purchased her to be a servant for his wife Susanna, quickly realized the girl’s intelligence. Although most slave owners at the time discouraged their slaves to read and write, John and Susanna Wheatley were different. The family began to educate Wheatley in theology, Latin, mythology, and Greek, and greatly encouraged her literary pursuits. By the time she was thirteen, Phillis Wheatley had her first poem published in a local newspaper, and continued to publish work as a teenager.

In 1773, Wheatley became the first African American to publish a book of poems when she wrote Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This was a landmark achievement in American history, as it began to change colonists’ perspective on African Americans’ capabilities. Not only was Wheatley now an accomplished poet, she was also a strong supporter of American independence from Britain. She even wrote several poems in honor of George Washington, who eventually invited her to visit him in Washington.

Unfortunately, the years to follow her first book’s publishing became more difficult for Wheatley. Both John and Susanna died a few years apart, which devastated Wheatley, who had come to see them as her own parents. In 1778, Wheatley married a free African American and had three children, but they all died in infancy. The couple’s marriage was constantly strained by poverty because, as growing tensions between America and Britain grew, Wheatley couldn’t find a publisher in London to take any more of her work. Ultimately, Wheatley spent the rest of her life working as a maid in a boarding house and died in her early thirties.

However, despite Wheatley’s hardships and struggles as a writer, she is still regarded as one of the most prominent poets and influential figures in African American history. Her work as a woman, and as a slave, presented opportunities that many previously didn’t think possible. She also proved that African Americans were equally as capable, creative, and intelligent as anyone else, and should be encouraged to read and write. In this way, Wheatley’s work was instrumental in setting the stage of the abolitionist movement and helped pave the way for other African American poets throughout history.