Thursday, August 14, 2014

I Still Don't Want to Believe it. Thank you, Robin Williams

            There is a lot of sadness and a lot to be said with Robin Williams’ death. There is a lot of sadness with any actor or public figure’s death. These are the people who achieve a certain expertise that some of us do not give them credit for. They become the canvas for us to reflect our emotions and feelings. They are the people who remind us of our humanity in a way that no others can. The emotional catharsis that actors must be able to accomplish is a feat and I can only imagine how exhausting it can be having to know, understand, and hold so many feelings for the world to see. Many people rely on, and almost cling to that expression of emotion because we find ourselves incapable of it.
            The tragic passing of Robin Williams has brought to light an issue that many of us deem necessary to talk about: open communication of mental and emotional health. Some people will not find this topic a necessary thing to discuss, even edging on the point of preferring not to associate themselves with the topic. The funny thing is that more people than we know struggle with these kinds of issues. It is only until they are open, and the stigma sets in, that mental and emotional health change one person’s perception of another. All of a sudden every action is irrational, every feeling imbalanced, and every word nonsense.
            I have been struggling with Depression since I was seven, Bulimia and Overeating Disorder since I was seventeen, and was diagnosed with Anxiety and Alcohol Dependency just recently. It wasn’t until I was hospitalized three months ago for suicidal ideations that I started being open about the struggles in my life. Oddly enough, while I found that some people were adverse to my newfound honestly, a lot of people I know struggle with similar issues or know someone else who struggles with similar issues and I have found support in them.
            While Robin Williams played many iconic roles, one in particular comes to mind. For some people it is the witty wish-granting Genie or the faithful father disguised as one Mrs. Doubtfire. Possibly you see him as a mentor and a friend who will push you to your potential like his portrayal of Sean Maguire.  You may even see him as the man who would risk life, death, and dreams for love. These are but a few of the many great roles he portrayed and we all have our favorites. Not going to lie, I thought he was amazing in Insomnia. The role I am referring to though is John Keating from Dead Poets Society.
            As Mr. Keating, Robin Williams taught audiences to love poetry, to love LOVE, and to seize the day. “Carpe Diem.” He inspired us to live extraordinary lives.  But what is an extraordinary life without understanding and sympathizing with the plights of others? Why conform to the norm of today and only show the parts of yourself that you for some reason consider more worthy? We struggle enough with the masks that people put on us. We struggle with the limitations people set and the expectations people have of us. We are in a time where we have the tools at our disposal to create a positive environment to discuss these things, yet instead we choose to hide. We choose fear of rejection or embarrassment, over love. Carpe Diem. Seize the Day. Seize one another. Seize yourself.
            The only people who know the intimate details of Robin Williams’ struggles are those closest to him.  It still breaks the hearts of millions who felt close to him because his every performance transcended the screen or the stage and brought us honesty and clarity. We can honor him with quotes and sentiments, but we can also promise to be whoever we are, however we are, and embrace others. Actors adopt a type of honesty that few people understand. Considering in a way that we are all actors, now more than ever, we should listen more carefully for the things each of us are trying to convey and encourage free expression.
            Rest in Peace, Robin Williams. You are a great man and truly an inspiration to many.

Reprinted with permission from

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Yoga and Compassion

Nurturing the New You
by Dr. Mari Richko

If you are committed to change, replace the hard-headed discipline with self-compassion.

Yoga practitioners have been practicing self-compassion for some time, but psychologists have only begun to test the wisdom of this approach. The evidence, so far, is clear: self- compassion dramatically improves your chances of making a change for the good.

A self-critical approach to change – including self-judgment, fear, shame, and guilt – reflects what is called avidya “incorrect understanding” or asmita “false identification.”  Basically, you are mistaking the behavior you want to change for who you are, rather than seeing it for what is it – a pattern or habit that is not serving you.

Think of the mind as a brilliant gem, a diamond. Over a lifetime, that shiny diamond gets dirty, dusty, coated over by conditional thoughts and the experiences we have. Yoga is the process of cleaning the mind and whatever is blocking the inner light – the part of you that does not need to be fixed, controlled, or perfected.

When you think of changing a pattern that is not serving you in this way – that is, as cleaning away accumulated dust of the mind, it causes you to view negative behavior from a more compassionate place.

View any changes you are trying to make this upcoming year as an act of self-care, rather than motivating yourself with anger or rejection.

When your inner critic starts up while you’re holding a pose, notice how you feel in your body and mind. Then choose a more compassionate response. For example, if you are berating yourself for not being flexible enough in a pose, remember the pose is meant to gradually improve your flexibility, not force you into perfection overnight.
Unfortunately, there is a strong belief that we need self-criticism to motivate us. Meaning “If I am not hard on myself, I will let myself get away with everything.”

Think about self-compassion in a different way : being kind and supportive with yourself when you are confronting personal weaknesses, challenges, and setbacks.

Self-compassion goes beyond self-acceptance. It has an active element of caring, and wanting the best for yourself. It means saying to yourself “I want to heal, to be happy, to be healthy, and knowing that sometimes requires making a change”

The Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s most sacred scriptures, offers advice on how to stick to your resolve even when you efforts are less than perfect:

Actions truly born of one’s nature, even if they contain fault, should not be relinquished. For all undertakings are covered by some fault, just as fire is covered by smoke.

*at a deep level, even actions that are motivated by your best resolves are marred my imperfections, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. When you invest yourself in the actions you’re meant to perform, you are naturally more tolerant of your imperfections. Step by step, you recognize that you are making your way toward a clearer mind and more tranquil heart.

What’s the ultimate lesson here? When you think of changes you’d like to make in your life, think of them with self-compassion. Remember that being kind to yourself will give you the strength to change for the good. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Circle of Diets

During my past twenty years as a nutrition student and Dietitian, I have witnessed the macronutrient craze go full cycle.  What do I mean by this statement?  Before addressing that question, a macronutrient is a substance that provides calories; carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

So this cycle of macronutrients I speak of relates to the American habit of focusing on one single item as the secret to weight loss, and dare we say, a happier life?

As a nutrition student  in the early to mid-nineties, this cycle started out with the fat-free era.  The mind-set was calories do not matter, as long as everything is fat-free.  I can remember going through boxes of Snack Wells© cookies and cinnamon graham crackers, bags of pretzels and popcorn cakes, and sugar-coated cereals.  About the only thing with some nutritional value was the awful tasting, fluorescent-colored fat-free yogurts that filled my mini fridge.  Hey, I had to get calcium in some form, and cheese and most dairy products contain fat!

In the later nineties, my internship years, there were more reports about the people living in the Mediterranean area.  After years of thinking a fat-free lifestyle was the key to preventing heart disease, Americans felt betrayed when finding out that this area of the world had a lower incidence of heart disease, possibly related to a moderate consumption of foods with unsaturated fat (think olive oil, nuts, salmon).  Keep in mind, they also included fat-free foods in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables, not sugary and salty processed foods.  However, how could they enjoy better health eating fat, when fat-free was supposed to be the golden standard?

With the rate of obesity rising every year, those that were fat-free devotees now became Mediterranean followers.  Once again, the focus changed to healthier fats, and people started bathing everything in plant oils, and snacking on nuts with abandon.

Now let’s go to the early part of 2000.  The Atkin’s Diet had been around for several decades by this time, but now, several high protein diets were gaining popularity.  High protein fanatics of the Atkin’s era ate protein without considering the fat content.  One of the newer high protein diets, South Beach, promoted leaner animal proteins, with a pretty strict set of rules regarding allowed carbohydrates.  The days of eating high carb foods were extinct.  Even healthier carbs (several fruits and vegetables), were a big no-no.

Fast forward to today, and the American frame of mind in regards to the ideal distribution of macronutrients.  The US Government has always promoted well-balanced meals with their published educational tools.  The “Basic Four” food groups underwent many modifications over the years, which  is represented today by “My Plate”.  However, many of us choose to lean towards a specific macronutrient when meal and snack planning.  Chances are, no matter what nutrient you support, there is a research study to support and refute what you prefer to follow.

Back in the day, Grandma used to cook meals for her family that included meat, vegetables, potatoes or another starch, and milk as the main beverage.  Have you ever watched a rerun of “Leave It To Beaver?”  His mom always served meals similar to what Grandma thought was best!

Now for my opinion, which you many not care to hear, but I still must represent!  I tend to be old-fashioned and stand by the Government and Grandma.  There is a reason why it is difficult to follow all of these single macronutrient-focused diets (fat-free, low-carb, South Beach, etc.).  Each  macronutrient is needed for the body to function; carbs are the main source of energy, protein maintains muscle, and fat keeps the skin healthy.  When something is missing and eventually becomes deficient, the body can no longer operate effectively.  Failure while on one of these diets is the body’s way of reminding you of what it needs!

In conclusion, the well-balanced meals served up by Grandma provide the body with all it needs to function.  Remember, weight gain occurs with an excess of calories from any source.  The fat-free era is a prime example; too many calories, even from fat-free foods, caused many to gain unwanted pounds.  I will end with something you are probably tired of hearing, but is the simplest piece of advice:  “Everything in Moderation.”

Michel D. Harris, MS, RD, LDN, CDE

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Acceptance Does Not Mean Resignation

Acceptance Does Not Mean Resignation

Every day, we are bombarded with messages that cultivate dissatisfaction with our lives and selves. Our culture valorizes a particular type of achievement, and we’re told not to “settle” for second best. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and being ambitious. But what do we do with ourselves in the meantime? Are we not OK until we have that prestigious job or perfect body?

We tend to confuse “acceptance” with “resignation.” Acceptance becomes equated with settling for less or giving up. “I’ll never stop eating.” “I’ll never find a partner.” “I’ll be alone forever.”

Acceptance means simply acknowledging the reality of a situation. Accepting the job you have today does not mean that your career has come to a screeching halt. Accepting that you’ve had to downsize to a small apartment does not mean that you’re stuck in your hovel forever. But why, then, does this all become so messy? Why do we resist? And why do we resort to self-blame or judgment?

Acceptance of Relationships

Think about your relationships with your family of origin, partner, friends, or coworkers. How much time do you spend wishing the relationships were different? How often are you disappointed or even heart-broken when the same scripts play over and over. By accepting the relationships as they are, we can calm this inner battle and alleviate some of our suffering. If your parent can be counted on to make a snide comment about your body, then you can plan and respond more effectively.

Acceptance does not mean we’re giving people permission to mistreat or abuse us. In fact, it’s just the opposite--we’re letting go of a fantasy and turning our energy inward toward self-protection and making decisions with clear eyes.

Most of our relationships are a mix of good and bad. Acceptance helps us put the “bad” in context so we can focus on the good aspects. We can also then set realistic expectations of our friends and family. If we accept that our mother loves to boil vegetables to within an inch of their lives, then we won’t be disappointed when she serves us pasty zucchini. Or perhaps we can offer to bring the side dish!

Acceptance of Our Bodies and Emotions

Given the messages we constantly receive about how our bodies “should” look, acceptance of our physical appearance can be tough. But it’s true--we don’t have to hate our bodies. We can accept our curves, our knobby knees, our weird toes no matter what the magazines say. When we don’t--when we tell ourselves we can’t be happy until we look a certain way--then we’re sending ourselves a message of self-hatred. If we need to make changes for our health, self-hatred does not help that process, in fact, it hinders it.

It can be difficult to let go of the fantasy of the “perfect body.” But genetics jumps in with its own plan, often conflicting with our ability to precisely sculpt ourselves. Accepting that our DNA has come together to form us as we are helps us appreciate all the intricacies of our body. Our form is the the visual representation of our family history. We carry the eyes, ears, noses, skin tones, hips, thighs, bellies, and so forth of generations that came before us, so our bodies are precious and deserve our tender loving care.

Emotions can be just as challenging to accept. We’re often told how we should feel and we can then become disconnected with our own emotional experience. We resist the tears that well up; we deny anger when our hands shake. We resist grief when we think we should just “get over” a painful loss.

We’re all born with a range of sensitivities and tender spots. Denying our vulnerabilities does not protect us from being hurt. And negating our strengths diminishes our spirits. The sadness, anger, or fears do not just go away quietly as we white knuckle through a difficult moment. The emotion inevitably returns with more intensity than before.

Accept Acceptance

Acceptance is not a final destination but rather a process. When we connect with our own compassion and curiosity, we’re able to acknowledge an experience, thought, or feeling without judgment. We gain perspective and objectivity to see nuances previously hidden behind self-blame and resistance. Acknowledging that we’re stuck helps pry us loose.

So take a deep breath and dip a toe in the waters of acceptance. Pick something small and see how it feels to say “I accept ____ just as it is.” Once you’ve had some practice, move on to more vulnerable areas. Note emotions that churn and keep breathing. Let the judgmental thoughts float by like clouds, reminding yourself that your value remains constant no matter how much you weigh, where you work, or what your relationship status is.

Acceptance is a gift of kindness; take it in and enjoy!

Nancy Hall

Nancy is in the Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Northeastern IL University in Chicago. She is currently a graduate intern at The Awakening Center.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Less Stress Summer Guide

Less Stress Summer Guide

After a winter of endless snow and subzero temperatures for most of the country, many are eagerly awaiting summer. Consequently, the recent nice weather in Chicago has stirred anticipation for summer festivals, dining al fresco and afternoons at the beach. For someone in recovery though the summer months may also trigger anxiety around body image, and concerns about maintaining recovery while enjoying summer's fun. Just as we prepare for the stresses of the winter holiday season we can examine our recovery toolboxes and plan for the summer ahead.

1. Summer Clothing

Many of us spend winter reveling in the fact that we can use clothes to cover up what we would rather not reveal to others. As the temperatures rise the safety of our cotton layers become uncomfortable, leaving us with what seems like no protection. Add in the pressures of what the media tells us a summer wardrobe is supposed to be like and dressing ourselves feels like a losing battle. But it doesn't have to be. Every morning you have the option to choose: Skirt or pants? Short sleeves or long? Fortunately in 2014 there are many options that can be comfortable both for the temperature and for you. Look through your closet and have a few options that you know you usually feel good in. Know which pieces are more challenging for you and on the days you wear them acknowledge your bravery. And remember, clothes can be fun but they don't speak to your kindness, courage or strength. Listen to what's right for you that day and honor it.

2. The Beach

Whether you're at the beach or not it seems like so much centers around it during the summer. Every gym is certain they can help you achieve a beach body, and dieting products will assert the same. The funny thing is, every time I'm at the beach I see every body there. Every body can go to the beach to enjoy the sun against her skin or sand beneath her toes. What is being advertised to us as a “beach body” has nothing to do with the beach; instead it's just another marketing ploy. Consequently, the bodies advertised to us are photoshopped and the models featured are paid to look a certain way. Reminding ourselves of these things can help us challenge these ads.

Beyond the ads, if you enjoy going to the beach make an effort to focus on the things that drew you there. Dip your toes in the water, run your hands through the sand and laugh with the people you're with. Resist the urge to compare yourself to the person across the way, acknowledging that they are okay the way they are and you are okay the way you are. Being present for the moment can help take your mind off of how you and everyone else looks.

For those that do not enjoy the beach a genuine, kind “no-thanks” is all you need. If you're feeling left out, consider many of the other activities you could invite others to. Fortunately in Chicago there are plenty of opportunities for movies in the park, impromptu trips to the zoo and music in Millennium Park. Create an achievable list of activities you want to do this summer so that when you turn down an invite to the beach you have others options to enjoy the summer months.

3. Vacations and Irregular Schedules

Maybe you're going on vacation this summer or your therapist is. With summer may come a few weeks in your treatment that you or your therapist have to miss an appointment. If you are anticipating a break in your treatment for a week or two, talk to your therapist. Together you can plan for the time away so that you don't feel like you're sitting in a canoe without a paddle. Often we forget about our most obvious tools when we're stressed. In hindsight we remember that we could have used breathing to slow us down or our senses to help ground us in the present. Work with your therapist down to sharpen your tools so that when the moment arises you can more quickly access them. With this, consider activities you can turn to while on vacation that can help you release the thoughts you'd normally share with your therapist. Write down what you may have shared with your therapist or take some time at the end of the day to acknowledge a few of your strengths. This can help keep your mind in recovery mode rather than on vacation of its own.

Summers seems to require a larger degree of flexibility sometimes, which can be difficult when in you're in the thick of treatment. Be gentle with yourself during this time. Speak up about concerns you may have so that your support system can help. Prepare for what you can during the summer and recognize your effort if something does not go as planned. Just because the temperatures are rising doesn't mean your anxiety has to heat up as well.

Katie Infusino

Katie is an intern at The Awakening Center and finishing up her Masters degree in Community Counseling at DePaul University. She has been thrilled to be an intern at The Awakening Center this year and plans to continue specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and trauma.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Reality of Relapse

Relapse can be defined in a variety of ways.  Perception and coming to terms with the reality of relapse is important. These moments are inevitable, but they don’t necessarily mean that a relapse is unavoidable. The key is to recognize when warning signs arise and to take preventive measures. I think that relapse can have a negative connotation at times.  When looking at it through a different lens and honoring that it might be part of your journey or your process, recovery may help you form your own sense of discovery and Self.  As the art therapy intern, I believe this poem can speak visually to the hardships and victories while in recovery.  This poem is written about the journey of recovery.  Becoming aware of our surroundings and emotions that manifest on a daily basis can aid in recovery and trying a new “street.”  The poem is by Portia Nelson and it is from her book, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: Romance of Self-Discovery.

Chapter I 

I walk down the street. 
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk 
I fall in. 
I am lost ... I am helpless. 
It isn't my fault. 
It takes forever to find a way out. 

Chapter II 

I walk down the same street. 
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. 
I pretend I don't see it. 
I fall in again. 
I can't believe I am in the same place. 
But, it isn't my fault. 
It still takes a long time to get out. 

Chapter III 

I walk down the same street. 
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. 
I see it is there. 
I still fall in ... it's a habit ... but, 
my eyes are open. 
I know where I am. 
It is my fault. 
I get out immediately. 

Chapter IV 

I walk down the same street. 
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. 
I walk around it. 

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

Rachel Olszewski
Art Therapy Intern
The Awakening Center 2013-2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Just Breathe

Sometimes the best place to begin is to breathe.

So I invite you to take a few deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth and I want you to gently notice how you and your body react.

Notice your belly filling, as if it were a balloon being filled, and the gentle pause between inhalation and exhalation.

Are you feeling a little calmer, as if things slowed down a little bit? Is your heart perhaps beating a little bit softer and at a slower rate? Maybe your limbs are feeling lighter or heavier. Is your posture less rigid and more relaxed?

Take one more deep breath and take notice of your body.

Perhaps by this point you've arrived at a more natural breathing pattern and I want you to try to keep with that as you read this post.

We just took a few seconds, maybe 30 max, to pause and just focus on our breath. Breathing can be a valuable tool to not only calm anxiety, but also to invite yourself to connect with your body, even if it is just for a moment. Taking a few deep breaths allows for the opportunity to clear your mind because you're feeling overwhelmed, or possibly giving yourself the space to sit with an emotion for a few moments before you choose to react. We all use it in different ways, but regardless breathing is a very powerful tool and something that can be done anywhere, at virtually anytime.

So maybe the next time you have a few moments to yourself, you can take a few breaths and focus on your breathing and give yourself the opportunity to reconnect with your body, even for just that moment. You can always find time to breathe. In fact you do it everyday! So what better way to develop the skill, than through practice.

-Jessica Huerta is a Clinical Mental Health Intern at The Awakening Center. Jessica is currently pursuing her Masters of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Roosevelt University.