The Avoidance Crisis

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life …”
– Mark Manson –

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Last week I blogged about death and how we live in a society that avoids this subject to the point of delusional insanity. The response was overwhelming. What became clear amongst the many messages I received was that our collective existential angst has created a social and cultural avoidance crisis. It is difficult for us to acknowledge that life can be very painful and challenging and that we have very little control over it.

Avoidance has helped us cope and survive in life. We naturally choose the path of least resistance to escape danger or suffering. Our early childhood lessons were often about learning what, or who, to avoid in order to make it to adulthood. We have an inbred protective reflex when exposed to adverse stimuli and that is beneficial – unless it becomes driven by anxiety.

Anxiety can cause us to protect ourselves from things we perceive as threats, but often these very threats are important life experiences. We may think avoidance is a cure, not realising it can actually heighten our distress. We begin to be consumed with the very thing that we are trying to avoid. There are many examples of this. People suffering from eating disorders trying to avoid certain foods, so food and calories become their obsession. People suffering from social disorders trying to avoid encounters with others and feeling continually panicked. My previous blog on death discussed our society’s avoidance of talking about death, underscoring a primal fear that drives us to all sorts of unrealistic beliefs or behaviours, both in religious and social settings.

Mark Manson’s quote above is so accurate: “The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.” The more dogmatic and hostile we become in areas of our lives, the more we are struggling to avoid something unpleasant, perhaps a shadow side to ourselves. It’s an internal struggle and a form of suffering. That is why vulnerability is such an important transformational tool. When we learn to be vulnerable we begin to recognise that avoidance is not the answer. In fact, avoidance comes at a very high price as we barricade ourselves from life’s inevitabilities and our own flaws.

Facing our fears takes courage. In a society that is caught in an avoidance crisis as it pursues experience after experience to feel ‘better’ or ‘happy’, it takes guts to stop, reflect and become counter-cultural. We need to learn to build our tolerance to things that are challenging, painful and uncomfortable. It is in the full embrace of life, with all its ups and downs, laughter and tears, that we experience what it means to be truly human and to build relationships that are genuine, healthy and have longevity.

Dear reader, take a moment to think about your life. Are there areas that you are avoiding that desperately need your attention? Are you sidestepping conversations because even though they are important and should not wait any longer, you know they will be difficult and awkward? Are there shadows you need to face that you have denied?

Avoiding avoidance is risky. Will it all go well when you stop running and turn around? I don’t know. “It all going well” is not what life is about. Life is raw, risky and at times filled with peril. We become vulnerable and our Jenga blocks, sometimes built on lofty ideals and a protective guise, can all topple over … and then we have to rebuild … one honest, humble, vulnerable block at a time …

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
– R.D. Laing –

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Anxiety and Eating Disorders: Tash’s Story

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In the previous blog post, I presented an introduction to anxiety disorders, which affect a large percentage of the general population. I would like to keep the conversation going in the hope of creating further awareness and chipping away at the ridiculous stigma that often
surrounds mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental disorders in
Australia. One in four Australians will experience a form of anxiety
disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders often go hand in hand with
anxiety disorders. In struggling with severe anxiety, for instance, being able to control an aspect of one’s life, such as food, weight, and exercise,
indirectly gives the sufferer a false sense of control.

In this post, I am interviewing my daughter, Natasha. Tash is 23. She is a vibrant, passionate, focused and determined woman – characteristics that were always there from an early age. She completed her Bachelor in Health Science with Honours and is currently pursuing a career as a chef. Tash went through an exceptionally difficult time as she struggled with anxiety that outworked itself in an eating disorder. As a family, we were totally unprepared and uneducated in dealing with this.

Several years on from this dark time in her life, she is now well on to the road to recovery. She was prepared to be interviewed for the same
reason I am blogging about this: to create awareness and help destroy the stigma. As a family that cherishes privacy, this has not been an easy post.

1. “Tash, when was the first time it dawned on you that you were struggling with anxiety disorder?” 

“I started dealing with anxiety during my first year out of high school. I was involved in two car accidents in a short period of time. It was the second car crash, only a few weeks after getting my driver’s license, that I slowly began to spiral and develop, what I now recognise as, an anxiety
disorder. In the years that followed the crash, I was conscious of my
anxiety, but I only became aware of it as a disorder when I
acknowledged my eating disorder. As mentioned, the two are often
interrelated.”

2. “Was there anything you think that triggered it?”

“The second car crash was when I began to unravel. However, I think this was merely the trigger, not the cause, of the disorders. Through my last three years in high school, I had repressed a lot. Not only was I repressing the death of my Oma and the near fatal car crash involving my brothers, I was repressing years of unrealistic expectations and forced beliefs/ideologies experienced in a religious church and education
system as a pastor’s daughter. These unrealistic expectations, projected upon me by systems and people (most of them well-meaning, I’m sure), burdened me with an ongoing sense of guilt and shame. I still struggle with this and, no doubt, it was also a key trigger in my anxiety and
eating disorder.

What I have learnt in my battle with anxiety and eating disorders is that triggers are different for everyone and in many situations there are
multiple triggers. My own experience, and also my studies in health at
university, showed me that a person’s traits and characteristics can also determine their likelihood of experiencing a mental illness. OCD and perfectionist tendencies are not uncommon in our family, and, in my non-healthy mental state, they became my enemy and drove me further into my disorders than I could ever imagine.”

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3. “How did it outwork in your life?”

“An eating disorder can be paralysing, suffocating and exhausting. I
consider myself a pretty rational, educated person, but when anxiety hits you, ‘reason’ does not help. Sometimes it hit me hard in the forms of panic attacks, where it felt like I couldn’t breathe. However, most of the time it was just this ongoing sense of dread that I just couldn’t shake. As an introvert, it also made me withdraw more from social events because being around some groups of people only made it worse. I obsessed over whatever was making me anxious and then I crashed emotionally once it had passed. My moods were often up and down and this affected my
relationships, even with my family. I would then feel anxious and guilty for being so moody towards them. I felt as if I was at war with myself, fighting a battle that no one understood.
 
4. Can you describe to people what goes on inside you when anxiety outworks itself in trying to gain control through eating/food?”

“Poor body image is often a trigger that comes to mind when you hear about someone with an eating disorder. My case was very different. My eating disorder stemmed from my anxiety. It was perpetuated through a need to control and a deep self-loathing from years of shame and guilt.”

“What made the combination of the two disorders so detrimental is the strain I put on my body from losing so much weight. I was completely
irrational, moody, cold and exhausted all the time. Battling an anxiety
disorder while being somewhat physically healthy is hard enough, but when your body is malnourished all it’s energy is focused on staying alive.”

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5. “What was helpful during this time?”

“When I was in the midst of it, I only spoke to my mum about it. At that time, I had no interest in talking to anyone else because I was in denial about how big of an issue it really was. I know now that this would have been quite a burden for her, but it was life saving for me. I knew she couldn’t ‘fix me’. I didn’t expect that. But she was there. She calmed me down when I was hysterical, rationalised with me when I was troubled, and celebrated with me in my triumphs. Most importantly, she didn’t give up on me despite probably feeling very hopeless and helpless many times. It wasn’t a quick and easy step, but eventually I came to accept what I was battling, and this was when I began building my support
system.”

“Once I had acknowledged my disorders, the most helpful, yet painful thing to do was talking about it. I remember telling my oldest brother over dinner. I was emotional, ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t like showing vulnerability and I felt silly trying to explain what anxiety feels like, especially to my brother. He’s the least anxious person I know, but,
despite having no understanding of what it felt like, he recognised the
torment it put me through. He listened and comforted me. I walked away from that dinner as if I had taken my first breath of air after being
underwater for so long.

“Again, it didn’t happen overnight, I am a very private person, but I began to talk about my situation more with safe people from different walks of life. One of mum’s friends was a saving grace. She understood anxiety and she understood me. She encouraged me to talk to another one of her friends who went through a similar struggle growing up.”

“Eventually, I sought out professional help and that wasn’t without a few failures. I ended up seeing a friend’s doctor who specialised in mental health and it was one of the best things to happen to me. He gave me a proper diagnosis and helped me address it from a psychological and medical point of view. The ongoing support from my family and friends and the help from my doctor was the most helpful and significant step in my recovery.”

6. “What made you decide to seek help?”

“Although I didn’t talk about it for a while, my family and many of my friends could see something was wrong when I began losing so much weight. No one really understood what I was going through and no one said anything, mainly because they were worried I would react. It was an emotional, eye-opening moment when I realised how many people were so concerned about my health and drastic weight loss.”

“As important as a support system is, no one could help me make changes but me. I got to a place where the pain of living like this outweighed the fear and denial. I know of many other people’s situations that become so life-threatening that someone has to intervene. I’m thankful that I came to acknowledge my problem before it got to that state, but that didn’t mean that I was very proactive about seeking help. I wanted to deal with it myself and it felt like I was being dragged kicking and screaming at times. I certainly would not have persevered without the encouragement of my support system.”

7. “What was unhelpful during this time?”

“People trying to diagnose me by reading a book or something they have heard. Books are certainly helpful, but if you are not an expert don’t try and diagnose people from a book or random stuff you find on the
Internet.”

“Downplaying someone’s anxiety is not helpful and can cause great harm. I know that for people who have never experienced anxiety or eating disorders, it can all seem silly and unreasonable, but telling someone that is not helpful. Most of the time we know this and if it was as easy as just shaking it off, believe me, we would.”

Thank you so much, Tash, for being willing to share some of your story. What is a final thing you would like to say to anyone dealing with anxiety and/or eating disorders (or for that matter any mental disorders) reading this, who perhaps is concerned about any stigma/perception from the world around them? 

“Be hopeful about recovery and be kind to yourself in the process. Recovery is not easy and you will battle everyday between wanting to recover and wanting to stick to your habits. Don’t be disheartened. Whether it is an eating disorder or anxiety you are struggling with, there will be bad days and set backs and that is okay. Sometimes you just have to accept that it’s a setback sort of day and that it will be a new day tomorrow. Bad days don’t mean failure. If anything they can give you perspective on how far you have come. What’s important is that you keep choosing life, be kind to yourself and be patient.

The process is not easy either. I tried multiple methods including doctors, focus groups and self research. Many were hit and miss, but it was important that I continued to pursue recovery, even when these things weren’t always helpful.

I also had to let go of the idea that recovery meant going back to who I was before my disorders. I can’t promise you that life after recovery means you will never be anxious again or think about your food or weight. The difference is that you get to a point where you control the power they have over your life rather than them controlling you.”

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