Peace with my body has not come easily.
I believe in the healing power of stories -- telling them and having them heard.
Here is mine. I'd be honored to hear yours.
Compassion has not come easily to me. I've traveled a long and winding road through 30 years of injuries, surgeries, chronic pain, chronic illness, body image struggles, and more. For much of my life I tried to push through, deny, avoid, and ignore pain, illness, and fatigue. I'm an achiever - that's my family's deepest value and it's been my identity since I was five years old. (It's my second Enneagram type, for those who know what that is. My first is peacemaker. More later on what happens when those two collide!)
When I was 23 I developed severe back and leg pain. Two years later, I was diagnosed with a herniated disk. I had a back surgery that was "promised" to completely resolve the problem. It didn't. The pain became chronic. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and clinical depression.
But I wasn't going to slow down. I had things to do and places to get to.
I made it work for about 20 years - achieving and living with chronic pain.
Then came a point where I simply couldn't anymore. My body said NO MORE. I hit a dead stop.
When I was 45, my life basically imploded. My "achiever" side had earned me an undergrad degree from Harvard, and a PhD from Penn. I had and an intense full-time career, a successful husband, two kids, a big house, a close community, and a very active social life.
Then - in less than 3 years - I suffered two back injuries, three more back surgeries, and a divorce from my husband of 17 years while our kids were adolescents. I moved out of my house. I lost my job and went on disabililty. It was a perfect storm, a total crash, a liquification.
They say that when a caterpillar enters its chrysalis to be transformed into a butterfly, it first disintegrates nearly all of its tissue and is reduced to an oozy soup. The butterfly is then created anew from the vestiges.
It was like that for me, in those years.
Out of the ashes of the life that crumbled around me at that time, I trained to become a health coach with the express goal of helping others to navigate these very rough waters, and, I hoped, avoid some of the suffering I'd experienced. I am also a long-time mindfulness meditator and student of Buddhism. From the beginning, I wove the principles of presence and compassion - the two wings of mindfulness - in to my work with clients.
Merging my personal journey, my professional calling, and my spiritual practice has yielded a unique and very special way of working with clients. I approach my work with passion, empathy, understanding, and very deep care.
Needless to say my body's appearance changed as well over the years. I'd always been vigilant with food and exercise, having grown up in a family of women for whom dieting was a competitive sport. And I swam in the waters of beauty and diet culture like we all do. When I was coming of age, all the girls wanted to look like "Charlie's Angels."
Then came limited mobility from back pain in my 20s, two pregnancies in my 30s, and a long period of complete immobility in my 40s.
Controlling my size and shape were out of the question. My body felt like it was out of control. And I feared and hated every extra pound, every new curve, and each new clothing size.
I was struggling with my body on two fronts. I was trying to force it to function through pain and fatigue while at the same time obsessing over food, the fit of my clothes, and the scale.
Paradoxically, my PhD is in History and Women's Studies. I have an exquisite understanding of the oppressive nature of conventional beauty standards, their ties to privilege, patriarchy, white supremacy, class domination, and capitalist profit. For over a decade I taught women's studies, using texts like The Beauty Myth, Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Body Project, Regulating the Lives of Women, and The Feminine Mystique. I knew that I shouldn't care what my body looked like. I knew that my value and my purpose had nothing to do with a number on a scale or a clothing label. I grew up during the Women's Liberation Movement and listening to "Free to Be You and Me."
And yet. Unconscious, internalized fat-phobia, body shame, and self-consciousness were, as it turned out, stronger than that understanding. I longed to accept my changing body and it just felt impossible.
Change has a way of sneaking up on us, arriving in pieces that at the time don't really seem to add up to a totally different life. The experiences that ultimately shifted my perspective, and opened the way to a truce with my body, were somewhat random. In 2005 I was advised to learn meditation as a pain-control strategy. I took an MBSR course, started a regular practice, and began studying with Buddhist teachers. Mindfulness and the dharma did not make the pain or the body shame go away. They changed my relationship to them. They showed me a path toward acceptance of what once seemed utterly unacceptable.
In 2013, as I was recovering from a spinal fusion surgery, I adopted a dog who'd been abandoned in North Carolina and shipped to Philadelphia by a rescue agency. Ruby got me out walking every day, which was part of the idea. She rescued me, too. It was a "tail" of two rescues.
We hung out at our neighborhood dog park where one day I struck up a conversation with a woman who would become my first health coaching teacher and mentor. I'd never heard of her and I'd never heard of health coaching, but when she told me what she did, and that there was one spot left in her training program that was starting the following week, I jumped in with both feet. I hoped that my experience with my body, with pain and illness, and with the health-care system could be turned into wisdom to help others. Slowly, haltingly, I re-entered the world with a new vocation.
As a health coach, I began walking with others down their healing paths - folks with chronic Lyme disease, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, auto-immune diseases, neurological, endocrine and GI disorders. I came to understand the stress response and its physiological affects. I immersed myself in integrative and functional medicine, which offered hope for these chronic, multi-systemic illnesses that left conventional doctors mystified and patients dismissed and hopeless. I saw that my clients were suffering from profound medical trauma, from failed treatments, invasive tests and procedures, missed diagnoses, and dismissive practitioners. I saw that I had had similar trauma myself . I learned about the Highly Sensitive Person trait. I studied and began practicing somatics - the mind-body connection, the embodiment of thoughts and emotions
It all wove together with my ongoing mindfulness and self-compassion study and practice. I was learning that healing requires that we stop the struggle with our bodies and, instead, listen to what they are trying to tell us. I learned the importance of responding to the body's signals to rest, to eat enough, to slow down, to avoid toxic relationships, to say no, to set boundaries.
I learned to accept that I was not in control, that bodies, by their nature, suffer pain and trauma. We can only control how we react - our stories, our escape strategies, our aversion and denial. I learned to stop asking WHY this was happening to me and instead focus on WHAT I could do to find relief.
I came to see that my "self-care" was often accompanied by shame and resentment about what "wasn't getting done." The only way to relieve that shame and allow self-care to be truly restorative is to have compassion for the pain AND for the shame and frustration I felt when I "had to" stop and rest.
Self-care and self-compassion are not the same thing. Self-care is essential to well-being.
But without compassion it can yield guilt and shame.
Another huge puzzle piece fell into place when I discovered Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size (HAES). I had become extremely restrictive with food -- hoping to control the ongoing pain, inflammation, and GI problems with diet. I eliminated one food group after another, and spent a fortune (and huge amounts of time) on "superfoods," oils, bars, powders, and supplements. I drove myself crazy trying to connect specific foods with specific symptoms, which is like trying to find the match that started a forest fire. It's impossible and torturous. And, of course, in the background was always the desire to lose weight. That was also impossible and tortuous, seeing as I was in my 50s, going through menopause, and living in a body that reacted with pain to most forms of exercise.
Intuitive Eating and HAES gave me a paradigm that meshed with my women's studies background, my mindfulness training, and my growing disillusionment with weight-loss or pain-control diets. I jumped in with both feet - personally and professionally. It's been profoundly freeing. I've discovered a world-wide community of IE and HAES practitioners and professionals. I came face to face with my own internalized fat-phobia, and read countless stories of trauma suffered by people in larger bodies. I realized that body size had been a huge blind spot in my understanding of structural inequality and individual oppression. Once you see that, you cannot UNsee it.
I am now able serve as a guide on a path to body-peace for all kinds of people who are struggling. I have intimate understanding of the mind-body-spirit effects of pain, illness, and trauma (also known as psychoneuroimmunolgy). I have a big-picture perspective and personal, embodied experience with internalized stigma and shame, diet culture, beauty culture, and healthism. I'm able to see how all these factors intersect with other marginalized identities to compound stigma, pain, and suffering. The stigmatization of sick bodies, fat bodies, and differently abled bodies is a social justice challenge that will require ongoing structural and institutional change. And, at the individual level, peace and freedom can be found through the radical acts of acceptance, kindness, compassion, intuition, and empathy.
This is a journey that requires community -- we cannot heal alone, either as individuals or as a culture. Sharing our stories is a powerful part of the healing path. We make sense of the world through stories, we understand one another through stories, we connect and bond through stories.
If the goal of living with greater compassion resonates with you; if you are ready to explore the limiting beliefs and internalized rules that have kept you struggling; if you are ready to heal in a deep and lasting way, I would be absolutely honored to work with you. Click below to set up a complimentary 30-minute Zoom call.