Friday, December 31, 2010

What I've Learned in 2010 . . .

20.) When making brownies, the egg is not optional.

19.) I am capable of doing really hard things and surviving anyway.

18.) Emotional discomfort is part of life, and constantly striving to make it go away is futile -- like trying to soak up rain puddles. There is always more rain coming, at some point. Better to learn to play in the puddles.

17.) When sampling a new brew at the Starbucks counter, it's not a good idea to blurt out, "This must be the coffee they serve in Hell." No matter how awful it tastes. Know your audience.

16.) Songwriting is really fun.

15.) Bodies in motion must, at some point, become bodies at rest. There seem to be no loopholes here.

14.) I can run pretty fast when I have to. In a rainstorm. And in heels.

13.) You cannot drive your car through two feet of standing water. (You can drive your car INTO two feet of standing water, but not through it.) RIP, little red Mazda.

12.) Trying to teach a cat to stop peeing on the carpet is like trying to nail Jell-o to a tree.

11.) Bananagrams may be the most addicting game ever. "Hi, my name is Jena, and it has been four days since I last played . . . "

10.) It is completely possible to absolutely LOVE a job that just barely pays your bills. This is why the Human Services fields remain. (Psst. Have you hugged a social worker today?)

9.) You know that overused cliche, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care?" Turns out it is completely and absolutely true. Go figure.

8.) Sometimes vulnerability is its own reward. When it comes to sharing a personal struggle, it seems that honesty begets honesty. This continues to inspire and amaze me.

7.) I'm starting to think that maybe the greatest human need is to be KNOWN, through and through. ("To be unknown of God is entirely too much privacy." -- Thomas Merton)

6.) When you work in a rehab, it doesn't matter if the client is an 18-year-old anorexic or a 74-year-old alcoholic. They are first and foremost people, and if you listen closely, you will relate to them in ways that will knock your socks off -- whether or not you want admit it.

5.) If you want to know who your true friends are, confess something majorly embarrassing and see how they respond to you. Also, my friends are even cooler than I thought they were.

4.) When your pastor's wife can say to you, "Honey, your church family loves you for more than what you can do for us", you know you have a good thing going. And I do.

3.) When you have a book published, people will automatically assume you know what you are talking about. They will also assume you are rich. They will be wrong.

2.) Wisdom and discernment do not always come easily to me. This is why I am grateful for my counselor, my agent, my pastor, my mentors, and above all, my God. (For some of us it takes a village.)

And, whaddyaknow, the same thing that topped my list in 2009 topped it again in 2010. The number one thing I have learned this year was:

1.) I still have more to learn.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Up in the Air

Sometimes, God just picks you up and sets you back down in a place you never thought you’d find yourself in a million years. I’m sitting in one of those places right now.

As I type this, I am thousands of feet in the air, flying out of Springfield, Missouri after an AACC (American Association of Christian Counselors) conference. And, as I type this, I am sitting two feet away (literally; it’s a VERY small plane) from Dr. John Townsend – THE Dr. John Townsend, of Cloud & Townsend, the esteemed team who have given us such Christian counseling classics as Boundaries and Changes that Heal. If I were the gushing type (I’m really trying to curb it), I could have started telling him how his books have changed my life, have challenged me, have gotten thrown across therapists’ offices when I felt they asked me to do impossible things. Instead, I sat beside him awhile, politely waiting for him to wake up when we hit turbulence.

After a few moments, I heard a soft voice from across the aisle. “Did you enjoy the conference?”

I smiled. “Yes, very much, thank you.” What ensued was a brief conversation about the events of the weekend, his books, my book, mutual acquaintances in the recovery world. He extended his hand and officially introduced himself to me. “John Townsend,” he said, as if I didn’t know. He did not say “Doctor” John Townsend.

We agreed to exchange books once we deplaned, and then he went back to his iPad and I pulled out my laptop to work. Because, when all was said and done, he wasn’t some acclaimed psychology guru and I wasn’t some newbie to the field. We were just two people on an airplane.

I love God’s way of leveling the playing field and reminding us all of who we are – His servants, His creations, His vessels, His tools, His voice, His instruments. Common thread here: We are His. We can do nothing apart from Him, and yet we can do “all things” through Him (Philippians 4:13). And He doesn’t seem all that concerned with our lack of credentials – nor does he seem all that impressed with the ones we may have.

Don’t get me wrong: I'd like some credentials. If I had fancy degree, I might just hold it in my hands a while, rubbing its fiber between my fingers just for the sake of feeling it, of grasping it. And that, presumably, is why God hasn’t yet provided a way for me to start my journey back to school. It means too much to me -- or, rather, it means the wrong thing to me. It means significance, and He never intended me to get my significance from a piece of paper.

John Townsend is a wonderful man of God. He is an excellent speaker, a prolific writer, and no doubt a gifted clinician. And yet God has the audacity to ask me to believe that I am every bit as significant as he is. And why? Because of the cross. Simple as that.

I think it’s probably a good thing, actually –my lack of a title at this point in time. Booksignings can get a little heady; everyone gushes and tells you how wonderful you are because you turned something ugly into something that can help people. This is, then, your cue to politely counter that only God Himself can take something ugly and make it beautiful and that you are just grateful to be on His anvil. And it works, telling people that – because it reminds you, each and every time, that it is absolutely true.

I am nothing without God – His hand upon me, His life within me, His words on my tongue and at my fingertips. “Oh, but you’re talented,” people will counter, and I will want to argue, “Please. I’m a college dropout. I’m winging it here.” But instead I say, “Thank you; that’s very kind of you to say.” Because I’m learning, see. I’m following after God like a puppy dog and watching intently as He shows me who I am because of Him, and why it’s okay to take a compliment once in a while, even if I’m not Dr. John Townsend.

So, John and I (he said I could call him John; I asked) shared a bit more conversation before the plane landed; we talked about the role of blogging and social media in the context of writing. And again, we were colleagues, equals -- just two people trying to navigate the waters of public ministry, wanting to do it right.

When I catch glimpses of it, I really dig God’s perspective on things. It takes the pressure off. He looks at you and at me and sees potential. And promise. And hope. Unwritten words, unsung songs, uninvented ideas. Unreached hearts, even. He doesn’t look at what we haven’t yet attained or accomplished, but at what He intends to accomplish through our lives.

And rest assured –He will accomplish His purpose. One way or another. Whether we are bestselling authors and keynote speakers or college dropouts recovering from inferiority complexes. And when we get out of our own way long enough to listen, He will speak.
Even at 30,000 feet.

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Waiting for the Artist"

for the TK girls

She stands beside me,
Waiting for her ride.
Soft downy hair on her
Arms and cheeks
Catch sunlight.
She clutches at her belly,
Hunches over, face a grimace.
"Ohh," she moans, and her eyes
Become strangely familiar --
Mirrors of a sort, they show me
A girl of yesterday.
A girl of sorrows.
A girl who knew too much
And felt too little.
Her eyes remind me of that girl,
Whose body I once occupied,
Whose wasted frame I lived within --
If you could call it living.
"I'm so FULL," this girl
Laments to me now, and I
Smile with empathy. "I know," I say --
Which is to say, I remember.
"It will go away," I assure her,
And she appears to want to believe.
Full, she says, and I have to wonder --
Full of . . . ?
Of fear, of dread, or shame?
Of a tentative, undying hope?
Of a will to go on,
To push, to trust, to try?
This too, I remember, this mosaic
Of emotion -- broken pieces of a life
Once believed to have been whole --
Of a heart, a soul, a self.
Broken pieces, waiting --
As my girl waits for her ride --
Waiting for the Artist to pick them up
And lie them down again
In all new places, with all new purpose --
Waiting to be arranged into something
Even more beautiful
Than they might have been
If they had never been broken at all.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Who's Afraid of a Room Full of Therapists?

Well, me, evidently! Tomorrow, I will be representing both my book and my employer, Timberline Knolls, as I head up to the Meier Clinic in Wheaton, Illinois to share my story, introduce myself, and have a little Q & A powwow with their clinical staff. This will be the first of several visits to Meier Clinics across the country, so we're kickin' it off with the one right in by own backyard. I really have no reason to be nervous; I mean, it’s not a room full of drill sergeants; it’s a room full of therapists. Should be a gentle crowd; these folks are encouraging and supportive by trade. They’re nice people, for a living. Right?

But, see, it’s that voice again. That nasty, weasely little voice that likes to chime in and remind me of who I am not: credentialed, official, well-schooled, respected, esteemed. A graduate. A finisher. A someone. A someone with letters – Jena Morrow, XYZ, PDQ. So what do I have to say to a room full of PsyD’s and LCPC’s and LCSW’s and LMFT’s and LMNOP’s? And why do they seem to want to listen?

Good question. But they do. And they’ve invited me. And I’m going.

Do you recognize that voice? Does she creep into your mind and tease and taunt you, too? Does she tell you that you are not good enough, smart enough, and that doggone it, maybe people really don’t like you? She is the anti-Stewart Smalley. She is the author of a bestseller: Negative Affirmations. And the only reason it’s a bestseller is that we keep on buying it. A recent development in my life: I’m sick of it.

In my work at Timberline Knolls (a residential treatment center for women battling eating disorders, mood disorders, and substance abuse), I am becoming familiar with Marsha Linehan’s practical modality known as DBT: Dialectical Behavior Therapy. The term ‘dialectical’ is defined as “holding two seemingly opposite truths together as one” –specifically, holding acceptance together with a willingness to change. (In this case, I am accepting that I am feeling intimidated by a group of twenty well-educated therapists, while also exercising my willingness to change by getting in the car and driving to the clinic to tell my story and speak to the staff.)

The overall goal of DBT is to enable clients to create “a life worth living.” This idea, as I see it, compliments the thesis of Donald Miller’s recent book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: we must live in such a way that we tell a good story with the lives that we live. I’m learning, opportunity by opportunity, to live my life in such a way. I am learning to take risks. Without them, our lives are boring—safe, but boring. Not the kind of story that will hold the attention of our grandchildren one day. Without taking some risks, I’m not even sure I am capable of creating a life worth living. Are you?

So, I’m going. I’m going as I am, accepting that I am intimidated, but being willing to change and not stay stuck in my apprehension.

I’m going.

Can’t live out a good story without conflict and drama and tension and action, right?

Right. And I’m going.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Touching book review from a reader (via . . .

Humbling review of Hollow from a reader named Bobbie . . .

"When I first began reading this book, I almost put it down and walked away. The emotions from page one were so intense.

For anyone who has felt less than worthy - you will find yourself in this book.
For anyone who has struggled with self-image - you will relate to this book.
For anyone who has completed a 12-step program - You know the roller coaster of recovery you will find in this book.
For anyone who has had a friend or loved one who has struggled with a food disorder - you must read this book.

For anyone who has a food disorder, inside of these pages you will find a friend. You will find someone who understands your feelings, who knows your story. This friend will introduce you to Someone who walked with her through her darkest days, who loved her in her deepest valleys, and who holds her hand every single day ... His name is Jesus.

Jena writes the story of her longstanding battle towards recovery in a way that draws you in and doesn't let you go. She explains in great detail exactly how the disease took hold of her life, and the way she hears the siren that calls to her each and every day. The battle of addiction is never over, and her addiction to controlling her body through the disease of food disorder is an ongoing battle.

As a Pastor, I did not expect to have her words resonate so loudly in my own life. And yet, they did. Her battle with a food disorder is all of our battle with sin - the same voice that calls her to disobedience and darkness in this one area is the voice all of us hear calling us to disobedience and darkness and death.

Thank you, Jena, for sharing a story that will live in my heart ... for the despair, the joys, and the struggle that you live every single day. You have given all of us a precious gift."

THANK YOU, BOBBIE! You have the distinction of being the very first reviewer of Hollow on the Amazon website, and what joy your review has brought to my heart. Thank you, so very much, for taking the time.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In anticipation of Mothers Day . . . a sample chapter from my Work-in-Progress :-)

I don’t care how cool you are, or how cool you think you are, once you become a parent you are forever at risk of humiliation. Pregnancy is just the set-up—God’s way of easing us down. It happens slowly, of course, because God is kind and knows how fragile our egos are, so He peels off our pride one layer at a time.

Because of the fragile ego thing, He gives us a little boost in the beginning—increases our blood flow or something like that—and people start telling us how cute we are, patting our poochy little tummies and gushing on and on about our “glow.” We enjoy this. We feel pretty darn special, walking around (the waddling comes later) with our glowy cheeks held high, feeling invincible because, for Pete’s sake, we are mighty people-making machines now. If we can incubate a life and actually grow a person, we must surely be capable of anything.

But God doesn’t want us to get too big for our britches (pun intended—we’re about to get too big for a Sumo wrestler’s britches), so He reminds us that only He is God the Creator of Life. We are still human, still frail, still fallible, and we must be reminded of this. So God makes us incontinent. And prone to burping. And then He gives us the hiccups—not dainty little girly-girl hiccups, but loud, echoing, register-on-the-Richter-scale hiccups—the kind so noisy that the startled fetus gets a head start on his anxiety disorder.

No one has ever been brought to her knees in humiliation from hiccups, but factor into the equation things like stretch marks, hemorrhoids, insatiable cravings for all things peanut butter or pickle, swollen ankles, strangely wide feet, sausagey fingers and breasts so tender you want to slap a sticker over each that says “FRAGILE”, and it’s easy to see how we arrive at our due dates with far less pride than we had when we glowed through month three.

Whatever remaining dignity we manage to drag with us into the fortieth week is sure to disintegrate once we get our little piggies into the stirrups. There really should be a sign, don’t you agree? A big backlit hot pink sign on every maternity floor of every hospital which reads, “What happens in the delivery room stays in the delivery room!” We need to be granted license, I think, to say (or scream) whatever we want as we are turned inside out on the table, knowing that it shall never be repeated or held against us in a court of law.

I remember people telling me that the moment my baby was born, I would hold him in my arms and I would forget all about the torture I had just endured. Liars.

I still wrestle the Mom Guilt to this day over my reaction to my precious little bundle of joy as he was placed across my traumatized belly: I ignored him. Completely. Didn’t even acknowledge he was there. (I know, I know—Mother of the Year, indeed.) “Jena, look at your baby!” the midwife said. “Look at Jaden; he’s here!” And I waved her off, still caught up in self-pity as I ached and burned from the greatest assault on my body I had ever survived, and said, “I will in a minute!”

I will in a minute. Brilliant.

Let me redeem myself in your eyes before you slam the cover closed and tell all your friends not to buy a book from the most selfish mother alive: once I managed to pry my eyes open and look down at the little person squirming on my tummy, I was completely smitten. I fell in love so deep I’ll never get out. The minute I looked at my baby boy I understood how mothers are able to muster the adrenaline to lift cars off of their trapped children. This kind of love is crazy—it’s all-consuming and forever-enduring and longsuffering and irrational and just . . . huge.

I looked into Jaden’s squinty little cloudy-blue eyes and thought about John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Jaden is my “one and only son”—and all I can say is, it’s a good thing I’m not God.

It is true that some sort of God-granted love takes over once a mother gives birth. It’s the kind of love that enables her to forgive the baby for all that he has already put her through by the time he is born—to love him and be crazy about him, all the while knowing full well that he is singlehandedly responsible for the widening of her hips. That kind of love.

But it takes more than warm fuzzy new-mommy love to equip one to care for a newborn. Some things you just have to learn the hard way—by trial and error.

We had been home from the hospital for two days, and we stunk—both of us. First I tried strapping my infant into his vibrating bouncy seat and placing him on the bathroom floor, just two feet from the shower. I figured I could keep singing to him while I lathered up on the other side of the curtain, and then slip into my robe and transfer him to his spongy little baby bathtub thingy.

Oh, but that would have been too easy. The child screamed louder than I could sing, and the Mom Guilt took over again. (It’s some wicked powerful stuff, the Mom Guilt.) So I did what any sleep-deprived, stinky, half-showered new mother would do: I drew some bath water and brought the baby into the tub with me.

FYI: infants are very slippery when wet. Should you attempt this co-bathing method, please use caution. Or rubber gloves. I made sure the temperature of the water was newborn-friendly and I gently lowered the baby into the water as I clutched him in a Kung Fu grip to my chest.
The screaming. Oh, the screaming. Again. Louder than before.

Just then, Jaden began to root around looking to nurse, and I had an epiphany: I helped him to find what he was looking for, and praised God for the convenience of breastfeeding. With my baby suckling and contented, I leaned back in the tub and exhaled, letting a glorious, incomparable peace wash over me.

Oops. Turns out that it wasn’t exactly “peace” I was feeling. Incidentally, did you know that infants have very short digestive tracts?

So there we two sat—bathing now in . . . There is just no gentle way to say it, really. We were soaking in poop water. I panicked, visions of e-coli dancing in my head as I imagined my baby’s circumcision and umbilical stump becoming two massive infections before we could exit the tub.

How to exit the tub, exactly? I had zero abdominal strength, having just given birth two days before—and I had my hands full of poopy baby, so I couldn’t pull myself up with the old lady grab bar thing left behind from the 92-year-old from whom we had bought the condo. So I did what you might also have done: I burst into tears and apologized profusely to my son for being a clueless, inadequate, selfish mother whose child would die from an e-coli infection because she couldn’t wait until he napped to take a shower.

Somehow, I managed to lift the baby over the side of the tub and lay him on the fuzzy bathroom rug while I stood to my feet and scanned the room for a towel—and caught sight of myself in the mirror above the vanity.


As I stepped out of a tub full of baby mess, the mirror before me reflected a nude, crazed-looking woman with swollen everything, bags under her eyes, dark blue bruises in the oddest places (infants have incredible sucking strength when they’re hungry), and a belly-and-thighs combo that looked as though it had been formed out of soft white Play-Doh. And now the baby and I were both wailing.

I scooped Jaden up that day and carried him to the kitchen sink where I quickly disinfected his tender little baby boy parts as I laughed through my tears and said, “Kid, I’m a mess, but you’re stuck with me. Good thing I’m crazy about you.” He seemed to understand, I think. He was surprisingly forgiving.

But that’s because he knew he would get back at me later.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Heartwarming post from a reader . . .

Received this today from a young woman via Facebook private message, and she has agreed to allow me to share it. I am humbled and blessed to think that God would use my random confessions and musings to reach and touch others. How cool that He could do it without us, and yet He chooses to use us. I'll never get over the wonder of that.

Chelsey says . . . "I just came across your page after seeing a post on Remuda Ranch's wall and I decided to read over the blogs listed on your info. They are wonderfully convicting and remind me that although every day is a battle to not engage in self-hate and remain in recovery, there is unceasing hope and grace at the hands of our Father.

I don't know you but I also cannot adequately express my gratitude. After going into organ failure at the age of 18 (I'm 21 now), I was sent to Remuda entirely against my will. I've never felt more understood or loved, and for once I felt like I was allowed to heal -- that I didn't have to remain sucked into the lies I'd been told my entire life and that it was really okay to be okay, in fact, maybe I deserved that.

Anyway, that's just a short musing of my story. Know that your blogs are rays of light in the continual fight to truly live.
Love, Chelsey

P.S. I just saw you have a memoir being released in a couple weeks! That's awesome!"

Thank you again, Chelsey, for reaching out. I wish you all the best in your recovery and in your journey. Stay well! Continue to CHOOSE LIFE!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Your Tongue: Handle with Care

When our parents taught us to talk, they were actually equipping us with a very powerful weapon which could be used to edify or to destroy. For many of us, it has taken years of honing to know how to use our tongues for good and not for evil. It begins in pre-school ("Oh no, sweetie, we don't use those words. Please apologize to Tommy.") and it's a lesson we continue to learn well into adulthood: words are powerful, and we must handle them with care.

My son and I are currently reviewing this lesson. When he is angered or frustrated, often he will spit venom in the form of words, faster than he can think them over. This is not a new learning topic for us, but when he told me last week that he hoped I would die soon, I decided that maybe it was time for some review. (I also decided that boys are every bit as capable as girls at being drama queens. Sheesh.)

I reminded Jaden of the "Toothpaste Lesson" we had done when he was four. Surprisingly, he remembered it. It goes a little something like this:

1) Sit your children down at the table and give them each a travel-sized tube of toothpaste and a paper plate.

2) Put a twenty-dollar bill in the middle of the table.

3) Tell the children that they are going to have a contest. The first part of the contest is to see who can squeeze all of their toothpaste out onto the plate the fastest. (Little kids love this step.)

4) When the fastest kid shouts "Done!", congratulate him -- and then tell him that the next step is how the winner is determined: whoever can get their toothpaste back INTO the tube the fastest wins the twenty dollars!

5) Watch the children try, in vain, to replace the toothpaste. When they realize it is impossible, explain how the toothpaste is like our words: once we put them out there, they cannot be taken back. Words cannot be 'unsaid.'

Jaden and I came full-circle with the discipline last week, and he lost his Wii for a week. I told him that as he gets older, the stakes get higher -- because as we grow into maturity and life gives us more of a voice, the stakes are higher to use it correctly or risk doing real damage to others and ourselves.

Case in point: a week ago, I spoke at a treatment center for eating disorders and substance abuse. I delivered my talk, I read from my book, and I ended with an extended Q & A session. Afterward, one of the patients approached me as I was packing up my belongings. She had these pleading brown eyes which have been haunting me since last Friday. "How do you get your family to understand? I mean, they're the ones who called me names all my life," she said, as her chin began to tremble, "and now they can't see what their words have done to me."

I told this young woman that while her family may never understand her struggle with eating disorders, she can still ask them to respect it, and I reminded her that her recovery is not her family's responsibility, even though they may have played a role in her descent. Still, I could see the pain in her eyes: she wanted them to own what they had done to her. Was that so much to ask?

I think of another teen I know, a fourteen-year-old boy who suffers verbal abuse at the hands of his own father. Daily, this young man is called "idiot" and "fag" and "loser" -- by his own parent. I cannot even imagine the emotional pain connected to that. I wish we could go back in time to the father's childhood, and sit him down at a table with some toothpaste and a paper plate . . .

We're all carrying deadly weapons around in our mouths, all day long. For centuries, people have come to understand the power of the tongue. Proverbs 18:21 says it this way: "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit." (NIV). I rather like the Message paraphrase: "Words kill, words give life. They're either poison or fruit -- you choose."

The choice, clearly enough, is ours to make. Words, like toothpaste, are easy to squeeze out -- and impossible to squeeze back in. Life and death are inside of our mouths. Let us choose wisely.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Remembering Cindy (A Personal Challenge)

This week marks the five-year anniversary of the death of a dear friend of mine, Cindy Ward. Cindy died of complications of anorexia at the age of 29—ironically, right at the beginning of Eating Disorder Awareness Week in 2005. This time of year, then, is always bittersweet for me as I see the efforts and outreach events planned to help raise awareness and educate people about the very thing which stole my friend’s life out of season.

Five years is both a short time and a long time, depending on one’s perspective—it’s a short time, for example, to be married; it’s a long time to be a prisoner of war. It’s a short time to enjoy the life of a child—and a very long time to live without the child after her passing.

We can do a lot in five years time, can’t we? I was thinking last night about all the things that have happened, just in my own singular, fleeting-as-vapor life in the five years since Cindy passed away. I’ve gone from mother-of-a-toddler to mother-of-a-second-grader. I watched my grandmother take her last breath. I’ve changed jobs twice. I bought a house. I got laid off. I wrote a book. And I got to wondering what might have happened in Cindy’s life that she never lived to see or accomplish. Would she have gotten married? Had a child? Gone back to school? Written a book or gone on a mission trip or shared her faith with dying hearts? She might have. But her own dying heart beat her to the punch.

I truly believe Cindy didn’t see it coming. Even after multiple heart attacks before age thirty, she didn’t really think she’d die. If she had known, she would have done things differently. I just know this.

So, naturally, I got to feeling philosophical and weepy about it all. It’s become a cliché, to lament that life is short, our days are numbered, blah, blah, blah. It’s become so trite, I think, that we forget that it is true—and we never know for whom it will be true next. What if it’s me? Or you? What do we want to do before our number is up? If it’s something huge and seemingly insurmountable, shouldn’t we at least give it a shot so it can be said that we died trying?

I’m not sad for Cindy; I know where she is and Who she is with. And I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that even if she could come back here, she wouldn’t—not for one minute. I’m not even all that sad for myself anymore, as I was when she first passed. It dulls after a while, the longing for one last hug, one more email or card or phone call. We move from grieving to acceptance—and maybe we even feel a little guilty about that as the grief becomes lighter and lighter a burden. What I’m sad about is the loss of what could have been—how Cindy could have contributed to the world over the past five years. She could have done so much with her talents, her generous spirit, her kind heart. And I’ll never know exactly what.

But all of you who are reading this are still here. And not to be morose, but of those who will read this, one of you will be next to leave this Earth. Someone has to be. Maybe it will be you. Or me. If it is, are we making the most of our time until we graduate out of this world? Are we chasing a dream or working on a goal or loving to the fullest of our hearts’ potential? I can’t answer for you; I can only answer for myself, and I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not. I’ve gotten complacent in a few areas. I’m dragging my feet on some things for fear of failure. And really, what’s the worst that could happen?

I know my friend, and if she could come back for five minutes, I think she would tell us to shrug off the fear that binds us and go for it—whatever our particular “it” is.

So . . . shall we?

In joyful, loving memory:
Cindy Ward (1975-2005)
“Cowgirl up, Cindy!”

For futher information about National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2010 (Feb. 21-27), check out

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Therapists Are People, Too: Idealizing Your Counselor Will Not Help You

Picture it: you are thirteen years old. You and your friends are hanging out in the mall, sucking down chili dogs and Cokes, standing around trying to look cool (and trying to look like you’re not trying to look cool). You laugh, you play with your hair, you admire your shoes. And then you catch sight of someone out of the corner of your eye and the scene screeches to pause: it’s your teacher. You all giggle, strangely uncomfortable, almost fascinated. Seeing your teacher outside of school – where she’s wearing jeans and holding hands with her husband and answering to her first name – is awkward. After all, don’t teachers just climb into their glass cases at four o’clock and turn into lifeless wax figures until the bell rings the next morning? They don’t have their own lives – do they?

Now fast-forward twenty years or so and imagine a similar scenario. You’re shopping in the mall, still secretly trying to look cool, in your very adult, pseudo mature way, of course. You’re hunting through a stack of sweaters on a table when you hear a familiar voice – a voice you hear often, say, once a week for about fifty minutes at a time. You look up as the voice registers in your brain as that of your therapist. She’s talking into her cell phone as she shops, and you realize she is engaged in an argument with someone. You blush. You want to escape before she sees you – to save you both the embarrassment. It doesn’t seem right, hearing your therapist duking out her own relationship strife. She shouldn’t have any relationship strife – should she?

Does your therapist having an argument with her husband or mother or child equate to the plumber with the leaky faucet, the mechanic who’s overdue for his oil change, or the out-of-shape gym teacher? Or . . . does it simply make her human?

Having spent some time “on the couch” in my thirty-three years, sorting through relationship issues, an eating disorder, and just life in general, I have been guilty of idealizing my therapists in the past. My guess is it’s a somewhat common tendency. We want to know that someone’s life actually works for them, that someone has it all together, because if they don’t, how can we hope to?

I shared this recently with my friend Allen, a clinical psychologist. “It always seemed to me that the coffee table between a therapist and me was the defining border between functional and dysfunctional, between normal and flawed.” Allen’s response was, “Well, I don’t have a coffee table in my office. “ I laughed. He went on to say, “All the good therapists start their training while dealing with their brokenness. We don't hire anyone who hasn't.”

Can that be true? If it is, the implication is profound: therapists are people, too. People with problems. People with heartaches. Flawed, imperfect, blemished people who hurt and bleed and make messes just like the rest of us.

I remember sitting in a movie theater a few years ago, seeing the romantic comedy Prime, in which Meryl Streep plays a psychotherapist who discovers that her 37-year-old client is dating her 23-year-old son. It was a charming film, and Streep did a wonderful job of portraying a professional caught in the ultimate web of conflicted interests. Around the middle plot point of the movie, Streep’s character is shown visiting her own therapist. At this scene, the audience erupted in laughter. It seemed that most people at the movie that night thought it ironic and funny for a therapist to be seeking therapy for herself. But is it?

“I am perplexed by the number of therapists who have never experienced the counseling process for themselves,” says James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., an author and cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Fortunately, many educational institutions that educate therapists mandate counseling as an aspect of their training program. In my opinion, no therapist should be licensed without having experienced the counseling process as a patient. How can a therapist identify with his clients if he has never sat in the other chair?”

In other words, a counselor who seeks counseling is wise. But can we handle that? Are we ready to let go of the impossible ideal of a perfect person on the opposite side of the Great Coffee Table? We have to be. Idealizing one’s therapist is counterproductive.

Look, life is messy. If we are engaged in the process of life – with ebbs and flows and ups and downs – there are going to be problems. There are going to be arguments. And strife. And discouragement. And maybe even depression. The flipside of these realities is that there will also be joy. And celebration. And laughter. If we are human, we will experience all of these things, both desirable and undesirable. Every one of us. Clients and therapists alike.

It is not your therapist’s job to represent some unattainable state of grace to which you should aspire. It is his or her job to come alongside of you and help you achieve the closest thing to a state of grace that we as humans can hope for: inner peace in a turbulent world full of imperfect people.

The state of human brokenness is universal. We’re all in this together.

When Sickness is Celebrated: Exploring the 'Pro-Ana' Trend

We all know eating disorders are dangerous. We would have had to have been living under a rock for the past twenty years to have missed all the cautionary tales, tabloid headlines, and made-for-TV movies that have dramatized the dangers and trappings of such psychological illnesses as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. But a disturbing new trend has come about in the eating disorder community in recent years — and ‘community’ is, in fact, the operative word.

With the advent of internet chat rooms in the late 1990’s came a new means for technologically-savvy sufferers to commiserate in their illnesses. And today, in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, gone are the days when eating disorders were synonymous with isolation; conversely, those with eating disorders — especially young sufferers — now have formed a sort of sob-society online, wherein they are finding encouragement to proceed in their illnesses, often to the point of no return.

When I was a teen suffering with anorexia in the 1990’s, I gradually withdrew from my friends and family, seeking solitude as a refuge from the prying questions and intrusive concern of outsiders. As is almost always the case with these illnesses, my disorder became the most important thing in my world, and I came to a point where I would have done anything at all to protect it — even if that meant my world growing strangely small. And while I found a dysfunctional sort of comfort in the bell jar of my anorexic world, I had an undercurrent of awareness that my life had fallen away from normal. I didn’t necessarily want things to be right — but at least I knew that something was wrong.

Many of today’s young anoretics are unified in their exclusive world, and they all seem to know the secret handshake. “Pro-ana” is a modern term describing a sect of eating disorder sufferers who seek to embrace anorexia and bulimia as lifestyle choices rather than life-threatening illnesses requiring treatment.

In pro-ana circles, the illnesses are no longer referred to in clinical terms, but rather by familiar, almost friendly-sounding nicknames: “ana” for anorexia and “mia” for bulimia. The lingo also includes such neo-slang terms as “thinspiration” or “thinspo”, which is any sort of material — photos, song lyrics, books, video — that inspires sufferers to lose weight; “food porn”, which are images intended to allow a sufferer to enjoy the food vicariously by poring over the images and imagining eating the foods portrayed; and “wannarexics”, which are usually young girls (and sometimes guys) who are deemed by the group to be illegitimate posers — those seeking to pop into the chat room for diet tips and tricks who do not intend to make the disease their lifestyle, or who are not already chronic sufferers.

I spent a week lurking in these pro-ana chat rooms and groups, and was disturbed by the cameraderie that was so evident among the girls in the group. They know one another by screen names such as TinyDancer, LovelyBones, and LilStickFigure17. Their posts to one another are almost sickeningly sweet as they encourage one another one their group fasts, cleansing programs, and in their attempts to thwart the efforts of their therapists and parents or boyfriends to “make them fat.” There seems to exist a terrible “us-versus-them” mentality in the groups, wherein mental health professionals are the enemy, bent on invading their utopia.

These girls believe they can live this way. They believe that their systems are sustainable. They convince themselves — and one another — that the decision to live on, say, 250 calories per day, is a hallmark of self-control and willpower, and that those who would seek to correct their self-destructive behavior are merely jealous.
So how then do we hope to reach a generation of psychologically-fragile young women who have found comfort and community in such deadly territory? What can we offer them that their counterfeit online relationships cannot? And how do we go about doing so before it is too late?

Anorexia nervosa holds the highest mortality rate of all psychological illnesses, and is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 5 – 10% of anoretics die within 10 years after contracting the disease; 18-20% of anoretics will be dead after 20 years and only 30 – 40% ever fully recover. The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of all causes of death for females 15 – 24 years old.

The threat of death is real. The allure of sickness is enigmatic. The number of statistics is growing. What can we do? Have we any options? Is there an answer?
If there is any key piece to the puzzle, it is awareness. We must be aware of our teens’ online lives. They have done their homework, seeking out the forums and learning the protocol. We need to do the same. We cannot look the other way and hope the phase passes. These stakes are too high. Statistics show that early intervention affords an anoretic the greatest chance of recovery.

Got a teen or tween in your life? Sister, daughter, student, friend? Keep your eyes open. Watch for warning signs. Mentor her. Love her. Encourage her. Help her to discover her unique talents before she becomes fully convinced that starving is an art. Engage her. As much as is possible, keep her in the moment, in this three-dimensional world where people express affection without the use of emoticons. Form a support network around her (if the person is a minor, insist she see a counselor with expertise in eating disorders), so that she will not go in search of her own in a world where up is down and food is foe and illness is honor. Awareness may not equal prevention in all cases, but it is a step in the right direction, and we cannot afford to be ignorant.

Our world is changing, and if we want to make a difference, we’ve got to keep up. Mental illness, like everything else, has gone high-tech.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Picking Up Where We Left Off

Last weekend was amazing. My son and I flew (or rather, were flown) to Boston to be with a dear friend of mine, Nancy, as she made a public profession of her Christian faith through the act of baptism. It was a very special, emotionally-electric reunion for my friend and I, having not seen one another in 13 years. We met under unconventional circumstances, and both of our lives have done 180-degree turnarounds in the past decade or so, and so this reunion was interesting, finding us both in completely different modes than when we'd last been together.

And yet, there was no awkwardness. No pretense. No need to get used to one another again. We fell into one another's arms at the airport, got some giggles out of our system, and then seemed to pick up our friendship right where we'd left off, with a flippant "So, anyway . . . "

It was very cool. Our connection seemed to transcend the time that's passed. It was as though we'd been together even while we'd been apart. And it made me think about Jesus.

I have this idea of what my arrival in Heaven will be like. I don't believe I'll have to stand in line at the pearly gates with my "Admit One" pass, waiting for Peter to stamp my hand. My Bible tells me that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" -- in other words, my last breath here will be my first breath there. And somehow I get the feeling that when I fall at Jesus' feet, it will be a bit like when I fell into Nancy's arms -- as if we'd been together all the time we'd been apart.

Now, I know I'm stretching things a bit; seeing an old friend surely cannot begin to compare to seeing the savior of my soul face-to-face for the very first time. Don't get me wrong; I am in no way trying to minimize or humanize the unfathomable magnitude of that moment. I'm only trying to wrap my mind around something in the here and now that might help me to glimpse just a wee bit of what I'll feel when the most blessed reunion of all takes place.

I'd held Nancy in my heart all those years, and so being in the same room with her didn't feel new or weird or forgotten. It felt only natural. And that's how I believe it will be when I am in the same room (as it were, since God is not or never has been confined by time or space) as my Lord. It will be amazing. Stunning. It will feel too good to be true. And yet, it will be only natural. As if it were the plan all along.

Our relationships on Earth are meant to be a model of our relationship to God. God Himself is relational -- before there was an "us" there was a Him, and even then He was not alone. God said, "Let Us make man in Our image" -- speaking to the other members of the Trinity. Relationship was at work, even before there were people with whom to relate. Is it any wonder God places such value on the importance of relationships?

I left Boston a very grateful girl. Grateful for friendship and common ground and heart connections. Grateful to know that I am loved by one who knows me on a heart level, and in whose presence I could be myself from the very moment I stepped off the plane.

It's only a teeny, one-dimensional thumbnail picture of what that other Great Reunion promises, but I am grateful for the foretaste of what I cannot otherwise begin to imagine.