Melissa Groman, LCSW, joined us to discuss her book, Better is Not So Far Away: Decide to Recover from Bingeing, Starving, or Cutting. What follows are our questions in italics, and Melissa’s thoughtful answers.
In your introduction to Better Is Not So Far Away: Decide to Recover from Bingeing, Starving or Cutting, you specifically address a number of different groups who are in “emotional pain.” Can you please mention the different readers for whom you feel your book was written?
The book was written for, but really to, anyone who knows what it’s like to feel a deep pang of loneliness, jealousy, anger, shame, frustration, self-pity, or fear. It was also written for anyone who may hate their body, and struggle with food and eating in any way. I really speak to anyone who is hurt and hurting and struggling with obsession, compulsion, self- worth, and to those who have felt the urge to hurt themselves, have, or do hurt themselves. This book is also a guide of sorts to tools, ideas, and willingness on a variety of levels.
Since my own personal experience is from a female perspective, and my professional experience comes mostly from working with girls, young women, and women, the book has a female slant, but I welcome male readers with open arms, and hope they, too, will find a home in my pages.
Can you please develop your comment about “the decision” to get better and to “re-decide over and over again”?
You know, recovery and healing are not so much a straight line, especially when you are hurting and struggling with food and body stuff. Sure, there are some days (there really are!) when the sun seems to be shining and we feel like we can do the day. It’s like, “Okay, I can keep going. Things are alright enough. I got this.” And there are some days where everything just hurts. The world seems dark and you get a case of what I call the “forget-its.” (You can use stronger language if you’d like!) And somehow our mood and our thinking goes south and we just can’t see why we should even bother. We get into the “no one understands” mode, or “I can’t do this,” or “It’s not worth it and who cares” mode, or we get stuck in bouncing back and forth between the world stinks or we stink.
On my own journey, I made a lot of promises and plans and then when my mood slipped out from under me, I was just lost again. Or, if some trigger tripped me up, I just couldn’t shake myself out of it. In those moments, which are sometimes long and hard and seemingly endless, a lot of damage can get done. We can get pretty low. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware that we are in an old thought story, or that our human innocent thoughts have us by the throat. Certainly, if we are being told what to do, we can humanly get pretty rebellious, especially when the thoughts are food and body based.
If we are in the mood for support, sure, we are glad to have it. But if not, we can just entrench ourselves right back into our old protective but not ultimately helpful mindsets. Somewhere along the line, and I do think there are so many stages and pivot points in recovery, we have to make a decision. We have to check in with our true self, our wise, innately healthy voice, even when it’s really hard to find, and land again on the idea of recovery. We have to possess a general quiet sense that even though the pain is so hard sometimes, and our eating disorder behaviors do serve us and soothe us in many ways, that ultimately, we believe we want to find a way to live safely and freely without them ¾ that they are ultimately hurting more than helping.
If we slip back or get triggered, we have to find a way to reconnect to/touch that decision and that understanding. We need to embrace this again and remember that above the current turbulence is peace. It’s challenging to do in these moments but when we know it ahead of time, painful as it is, we can do it. We may have to decide over and over again to keep doing it, to keep touching base. We have to do this especially when we are faced with a decision where one choice points us toward wisdom and recovery and another points us away from wisdom and recovery. We often have to re-decide that we can be safe and well and let our feelings and thoughts run through us, not run over us, including the food and body thoughts.
The more we touch base with ourselves on this, the better we get at it when something or someone triggers us. On those days when our old thought stories are sounding pretty convincing again, we can find ourselves again. I think we have to know that this is how it works; we can get lost along the way. So, it’s okay to remember, “Hey, I decided. I decided I was going to keep going, even when I am lost and frustrated, and I am deciding again.”
For some, relationships with their parents are complicated and challenging. Please share some of your suggestions on how to improve relationships with parents.
In the book I talk about this in detail, because it is so central to so many of us in terms of who we are, how we see ourselves, what we need, and how we get those needs met.
And yes, it can seem very complicated! I believe and wish that parents should be the ones to lead the way respectfully, calmly, maturely, lovingly, and supportively, but it doesn’t always happen like that. Hence, one of the chapters is entitled, “Parenting Your Parents.” You shouldn’t have to, but if you do, there are ways to try to make things better. My top five list, in short form is
- Try to be your best self around your parents as much as possible. Sometimes this does not seem possible. We have all kinds of mixed feelings about and toward our parents, depending on who and how they are and our relationship with them. But, we can learn to take care with words and tone and be respectful, even if they are not. When we are our best selves, (or at least attempting to be!) then we immediately have honor, dignity, and grace. Whether we think they deserve our efforts or not, or we both love them and hate them at the same time, or we are so frustrated because they don’t understand, or they understand all too well, whatever the circumstance, when we behave respectfully, we have self respect. Sometimes that changes things. At the very least, it leaves us more intact.
- Say you’re sorry if it’s your mess up. It takes a solid sense of self and a right-sized ego to apologize. There are times we can’t always pull it off. I’m not saying we should apologize when we are not wrong, but when we are, it can be pretty freeing. Again, it’s about our own dignity and wisdom. Apologizing for our part in things does not get others off the hook for their part in things, (even if seems like it!) – that’s another story, (and another chapter!) But, this does make us stronger and develops our self worth and self respect when we do the right thing. It leaves us more intact overall. How we act shapes us and we can aspire to being our best selves and feel good about ourselves for it. Keep in mind, if it’s dangerous to do so, then please, self protection comes first. When you can, learning and executing appropriate apologies are beneficial skills.
- Remember the good stuff about them, and the good stuff they do for you. For some people, it’s easy. Even though some see their parents’ shortcomings, they also see their strengths and helpfulness. For others, it’s tipped the other way. And yet for some, there doesn’t seem to be anything good at all. Some parents are absent altogether. If you can find even a tiny bit of positive, somehow, somewhere, it can ease the pain you feel. I’m not saying it will – or even should – cancel out the frustrations, but it can help ease your pain, because we are like our parents in some ways and we likely don’t really want to hate them totally. This looking for the positive can balance things out a bit and open the door to better feelings and relief for ourselves.
- Let yourself have your feelings, but let them run through you. This applies to lots of situations. If you can let yourself feel what you feel and be pointed toward not acting on the feeling, but just allowing and noticing them, they will eventually move along. If you can be open to allowing this process and to considering that we are not the sum total of whatever we are feeling in the moment, and neither are our parents, things can ease up a bit. Of course, some feelings are based on many experiences and moments put together. It’s better to honor those feelings and be curious about them then to act on them. Again, I’m always looking out for what keeps our sense of self intact.
- Try to see into and through the meaning things have to us. Food often means love to us, and hunger is often hunger for attention, love, understanding, connection, support, and nurture. Body issues are often also about our value and identity. Parents often don’t see what we need. They never learned how to read signs and signals and work with them. These ideas don’t necessarily excuse others, but they may help explain things, and help us to move along to our better selves and get less caught in other’s shortcomings and our disappointment and frustration with them.
Can you please discuss the connection between eating disorders, self-injury, and “meanness”?
Sure. We humanly have so many thoughts and feelings that run through us all the time, and one of the ways some of us cope is by defending ourselves, in order to protect ourselves. This can translate into feeling mean. We can feel like being mean to others. We can feel vengeful, or want to punish others, or want to hurt them in an unconscious attempt to get them to understand us, or feel our pain, or change themselves and their behavior.
The other part of meanness occurs when we get into self blame and self attack (instead of pointing ourselves toward responsibility and forgiveness) and then we get mean to ourselves. We start to think that we deserve to be punished, or believe if we are mean to ourselves first, no one can hurt us more than we hurt ourselves, or that being mean to ourselves will help us with self discipline or controlling our food or our body or our behavior.
I think there is a big difference between working on ourselves by honestly taking a look at our human shortcomings and mistakes and where we want to grow and how that is part of the essence and beauty of being human and being mean to ourselves. Mean doesn’t accomplish anything. It just shapes us sharply and eclipses any grace or gentleness which is ultimately what brings true healing. When we hurt ourselves, even when it’s our escape, our relief, and our “go-to” – ED (eating disorders) and SI (self-injury) behaviors are usually not kind and gentle – we are cultivating meanness instead of kindness. ED and SI behaviors and thoughts are usually mean, even if we don’t believe them to be on the surface. When our self-talk and thoughts present themselves sounding gentle, when we are restricting, or bingeing, or purging (and they often do not!), they are coaxing us toward hurting ourselves, putting ourselves down in some way, or punishing ourselves, which is never the road to recovery, wisdom, and wellness. The voice that is harsh and rigid and mean only leads us to more harshness. It has often been said that the mindset, voice, or thinking that us got into our eating disorder cannot be relied on to get us out. If it did, we’d be out already.
What have you learned about the value of “talk,” “telling your story,” the merits of the narrative to trusted other?
Yes, well, I’m a real fan of talking and telling your story, for so many reasons! First, it’s a direct antidote to feeling alone. There is something unbelievably delicious and relieving about being understood, having someone genuinely take you in, hear you, and resonate with you. Talking is also a chance to listen for and explore ideas that might be holding you back, or tripping you up. It’s also a relief and release valve for all kinds of feelings and thoughts.
Talking is like a road map to the unconscious, too. It helps unearth things that may be innocently protecting you or holding you back that are not apparent until they are pulled out into the light and gently examined. It cultivates our awareness and leads to new ideas and possibilities. Talking is one great way to metabolize our feelings and let them process and run through us, helping us toward clarity, slowing down our compulsions and reactions, and guiding us toward a more mindful and awake life. Of course, the right listener is very important. I always suggest knowing your audience when you can. Select someone who is receptive and willing to just hear you and be with you. Then, if you want some feedback, this listener is willing to offer it. In the book, I list some guidelines for choosing good ears, and even different ears, depending on your circumstances. Sometimes, we need different ears for different times and different subjects. When we tell our stories, we come to know ourselves and release what we need to release, and affirm what we need to affirm.
Can you please explain your term “protectzia,” and what distinguishes this from dependency?
Protectzia is my word for protecting yourself without hurting yourself. There are lots of tools for protecting ourselves, we just have to keep agreeing to use them. Protectzia is when we use our wisdom and our self love to guide us. It’s when we depend on the people and the tools and the ideas that come from our creative, healthy, whole, evolving self. I speak about this a lot in the book – that dependency has a bad rap. We are, can be, and should depend on many things! It just depends in what way and for what! There are lots of unhealthy kinds of dependence, as well. If we believe that our value and worth come only from pleasing someone else, or what others think or feel about us, that is a kind of unhealthy dependency. So is reliance on our eating disorders or drugs or people who routinely hurt us or disappoint us. That’s the distinction, because we need each other! We need to be reliable and connected and to learn how to take good care of ourselves and each other in safe and healthy ways. My idea of protectiza is learning healthy ways to stay safe and care well for ourselves. Good dependency is knowing, uncovering, and relying on the right people, the right ideas, and the right tools to support us and keep getting us through! That’s good proctectzia!
You chose to end your book with the story, “Fish is Fish” by Leo Lionni. What would you like your readers to take from this?
I love this question! So many things really – primarily that we are each unique and we are human! We share so many human experiences and feelings, fears, longings, desires, and frustrations. We don’t have to be afraid of ourselves or of our humanity. We can get to know it and work with it.
A friend of mine recently said to me, “You know, this is just how I come.” I used to think that meant a dead end. But it’s just the trail head! When we get lost trying to fight our nature, instead of working with it, we just get tangled up. We all have strengths, weak spots, challenges, natures, and beliefs about ourselves and when we look toward growing and learning and loving and discovering, we can have such a better life!
When we are so caught in trying to be something we are not, we just lose out. I say in the book that I used to think acceptance was the end, and now I think it’s just the beginning. We can say, “Okay, this is the situation or circumstance.” “These are my ideas, my thoughts, my feelings. Now what?” We don’t have to get stuck where we are, we just have to start there. Sometimes it does mean accepting things we can’t change, but when we know what our overriding priorities are, and we can point ourselves back to our wisdom, we can stop getting caught up in what we are not and get back to what we can be.
We need to touch base with our core selves, our core values frequently so that even when we get lost we can redirect ourselves.
We are always creating a brave, new, inner world that helps us end up loving ourselves, flaws and all. We move to being who we are meant to be, and being happy about it. It’s really amazing how much we each have to contribute to the world – how unique and necessary we each are! That’s the other core message – we all have a unique contribution to make. I can’t make yours and you can’t make mine. Even if they are similar, or we think it’s been said or done, or sung, or written before. We each have a part that only we can play and we need to keep that in mind, even when things seem dark, when the pain is bad, and when our mood slips out from under us. There are so many moving parts to recovery and to life and there are so many tools, paths, and ways to learn, grow, feel better, and stay willing! When we learn to live from the inside out, better really is not so far away!
About the author –
Melissa Groman, LCSW is a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, relationships, and healing emotional pain. A graduate of The University of California at Davis and Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Melissa has over twenty-five years of experience helping people live healthy, satisfying lives. Melissa has written for a variety of magazines and websites. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and five children, where she maintains a private practice and an organic garden. For more information, please visit www.melissagroman.com