Self Help That Doesn’t Suck #9 – Women, Food and God

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Title: Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth

The Break-Down: In Women, Food and God author Geneen Roth breaks down how our appetites and allowances around food are pretty good indicators for what we believe about what we deserve in life. Roth was a chronic dieter who experienced much madness around food before giving up dieting for good. In this book she outlines the processes of how she was finally able to come to peace around her own food compulsions and inspire thousands of women to do the same.

Why I Loved It: Everytime I read this book, an inner part of me stops holding her breath; I realize I don’t have to live in fear of food or fat, that I can eat in a way that is free from “shoulds” and rules. So much of what we are told about eating is rule based and ignores the often complicated relationship we have with food and our bodies. In reading this book, I come back to inquiry, play and acceptance. How many times have I admonished myself with what I should or shouldn’t have eaten, how many times have I felt shame for the compulsions that surround my intake of food, how many times have I tried to correct my body with food? Too many times to count. And yet, a large part of me truly believed the only way to eat well and be at my optimum best was to subscribe to this inner cacophony of shame. Thanks to this book, I know there is a better way. I read this book years ago and only understood it on  purely intellectual level. Today when I read it, I feel the book and the lessons within.

For You, If…: You are tired of your food compulsions, whatever they may     be. You want to stop dieting and hating your body but don’t know where to start. You often find yourself stuck in shame about your body and food habits. You dig mindfulness concepts. You want to eat with more joy and less guilt.

Woo-Woo Factor: 2 out of 5 patchouli  sticks. If you don’t like spiritual analogies, this book may not do it for you, friend.

Onward,

Hannah

 

How Being Corny Saved My Life

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It’s funny, but I didn’t really take the deep, deep dive into Self-Help Land until I got to NYC.

Funny only because I had lived the previous three years of my life in Portland, Oregon, Lair of the Happy Hippy.

New York City was where I upped my yoga practice, did shamanic breathwork, visited mediums, went to the Open Center, started going to weekly meditation classes.

The New York City subway system is where I read a plethora of self-help books.

I often hid the titles of these book by the cover of my lap.

Because reading You Can Change Your Life! replete with a smiling white woman and 80s neon colors was the definition of Corny. And this was New. York. City. I couldn’t have the random passerby who could care less that I existed think about my uncoolness!

Amidst my desire to outgrow unhealthy habits and modes of thinking, there was still an ever-present need to be cool.

There was only a certain cadre of my friends who I shared my self-help leanings with. And then I would usually follow up with some random aside about the literary novel I was reading or the nugget of political news I had discovered that week. (Did you hear about the call to restructure the electoral college?)

These asides were not some esemplastic mode of expressing my total truth as a person.

Nah.

I added these asides so I sounded “smart” and “cool” and “deep”. Because: I was really, really embarrassed by the often corny nature of changing one’s life.

There are some people out there who gain emotional and mental wellness via 18th century philosophers, ancient mystics, and deep study of archaic religions. When they talk about their journeys toward depth, they sound intelligent and sharp and use tons of three-syllable words.

But, these weren’t the places that usually worked for me.

What worked for me were things like affirmations and dialoguing with my Inner Child and blindfolded screaming in yoga studios with strangers. What worked for me was reading O Magazine instead of some fashion glossy and books with titles like The Disease to Please. What worked for me was going to Soul Camp where we had an OM off (which group could hold their yoga OM the longest) and a “tug of love” instead of a tug of war. What worked for me was asking W.W.M.D? (What would Maya Do?) and having cumbaya sing-a-longs with Kombucha drinking Wiccans and carrying citrine in my pocket. What worked for me was dancing my anger out to Tubthumping and visualizing the future I wanted via Desire Lists on hot pink paper.

What worked for me was corny as fuck.

There was no way to make this stuff cool.

And I hated that.

Why did all the things that actually worked for changing my life seem so silly?

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There were times when I’d look around at the strangers beaming around me, the people who used phrases like “heart opening” and “shadow work” and talked about their chakras with as much seriousness as people talk about their mortages and I’d be like, how the hell did I get here?

I have been sarcastic and self-deprecating since forever. It runs in my family I think. I did not grow up in a household of hugs and effervescent happiness. I and my siblings often show our love for each other with our ironic teasing and deadpan observations of life. Both me and my sister have been told that we have “dark senses of humor” and that our sarcasm confuses (and scares) some people.

I often laugh at things that are truly not funny.

And yet, I really desired to change my life. I knew that the way I was living: constantly chasing perfection, lingering in self-doubt, being constrained by old stories, vituperating my very existence was NOT going to bring me to the life I desired to live.

But, I also wanted to be cool. I wanted to be known as deep, intellectual, razor sharp, a woman of the mind.

What was a sardonic black woman to do?

*

I will call her Eve. She was the owner of Lucky Lotus, the yoga studio I often went to for meditation and creative art classes in Fort Greene.

She was loud, flamboyantly in love with life, unafraid to dance and laugh with gusto. She was a tall, white lady who once trained to be a Yoruba priestess and now led shamanic breathwork classes where she walked around beating a handheld drum. She was enthusiastic about everything.

She was simultaneously someone I wanted to emulate and also the most intense stereotype of Hippie Seeker I had ever met in real life.

I really liked Eve. Initially I deemed her to be just another client, no way did I expect the owner of this successful, beautiful yoga studio to be so wild and outspoken. We often would talk after yoga and breathwork classes and she listened in a way that is kind of hard to find these days: never discounted my experiences, never lost that childlike joy.

Over time, she revealed more of her story. I won’t go into details here because that is her story and not mine, but this was not a woman who had a simple, la-di-dah existence. She had demons she had faced down—and was still facing. Her entry into this world of spirituality wasn’t some navel gazing pastime. It was her route from a rock bottom and frenzied existence.

She talked about how affirmations had literally saved her from the brink of suicide, that if she wasn’t saying these words of positivity to herself during her more precarious times, she would not be here talking to me.

One day, she and I went to Fort Green Park. We bought a bottle of bubbles from a local bodega and set ourselves atop a grassy hill. We meditated and then spoke aloud of all the things we wanted to let go of and what we wanted to be in life. And then, we blew bubbles. Like kids. And I watched those sensitive balls of light float away into the spring sun. I half wondered what we looked like to the people passing by, two grown women sitting cross-legged and blowing bubbles. Afterwards, I felt lighter and more buoyant than I had in a very long time.

I felt that a life of true joy and happiness was possible. Of course, the feeling did not last forever (it never does….this is another lesson), but I started to approach the corniness of the self-help world with more openness.

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I started to own my corny. And my sarcastic streak. I started to see the ways they could co-exist.

Not long after, I rode my bike over the Manhattan Bridge listening to the Grand Dame of Self-Help Herself Louis Hay (may her soul rest in peace) deliver syrupy affirmations into my ears. It felt good and I felt good. And that was all that mattered.

I started to become more open about my love of goddess culture, didn’t lie about the fist-bumping You’re-Okay-I’m-Okay-We’re-All-Okay! conferences I was going to, blogged more and more honestly about all the sorta-weird self-help things I was doing.

Because as much as I still wanted to be known for my dry wit, I wanted to live a life of love way more.

If that meant that I was going to be corny and do corny things, so be it.

Oftentimes, our assigning certain self-care practices a signifier of corny or silly or stupid is just another clever mode of resistance. It is us clinging to the very behaviors that are harming us. It is our fear of change and being cast out of our friend group. It is our fear of doing something different.

We may have decided that happiness and health are only for certain types of naïve or shallow people. We may even decided it’s only for people who grew up in nice homes or white people or the lucky few. We decide that we are not those people and therefore, happiness and salubrious living is out of the cards for us.

In some ways, our culture is deeply afraid of true joy. We call it immature and stupid, as if wallowing in misery and being incessantly down on life makes someone smarter or more sophisticated, assigns them depth.

No, it usually just makes that someone a boring, bitter jerk.

Cultivating emotional and mental wellness, embracing our joy, being vulnerable with those we love are not easy modes of being. It’s much, much easier to be impenetrable and unkind and closed off and make snarky comments about shiny-happy-people. (Ask me how I know…)

But, we don’t get close to the lives we want this way.

So, if you’re worrying about being too cool for self-help, I hope you reconsider. Everyone has their own flavor of what calls out to their hearts and I hope you can be with how silly and weird it feels and really decide that your happiness is worth the struggle and being uncool.

Let’s be cornballs.

Onward,

Hannah

Therapy While Black – Part I – The Stuff That Keeps Us From Going

“Who wants to go broke paying for a fake friend?”

Molly from the HBO series Insecure

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In 1999, when I was in seventh grade, I would occasionally visit the counseling trailer during break.

That year, I was active in student government, won the lip sync with Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, and easily made the honor roll each semester. I even had a steady group of friends. I’d lie to them that I was going to math tutoring and talk with a softly smiling white woman for twenty minutes about how lonely I felt.  It was usually the typical sophomoric litany of teenage issues (disconnection, changing roles, lack of romantic attraction), but these issues were earnestly felt (as are all things without the buffer of adult conformity to squelch them).

The woman had strawberry blonde hair and her office smelled of something sweet and artificial. I always left feeling lighter, less adrift.

After two visits, the counselor had some news,

“Hannah, while I really enjoy our conversations, to continue to see me I’m going to need you to get this permission slip signed.”

My heart descended into my stomach and stayed there. For awhile, I could compartmentalize this sort of therapy. Now it was real as the white paper that sat in my lap.

I took the slip home and asked a family member to sign it while they were on the phone half-hoping their telephonic conversation would distract from reading the finer details. I left the room and waited. Five minutes later, when I heard my name being yelled over the phone along with words like “weak”, “thinks she’s white”, “instead of confiding in her family…” I knew I would never be visiting Ms. Smiling White Woman’s office again. I shamefully collected the unsigned paper, crumpled it into a ball and threw it in the trash.

I didn’t try therapy for another ten years.

When my friend Monique, another black woman, casually told her black friend she was seeing a therapist, her friend clutched the desk in extreme alarm and looked from side to side as if what Monique had dispelled was that she was dabbling in bestiality, “GIRL”, she stage-whispered, “ARE YOU OKAY?!”

 

*

                There have been numerous articles about why black people don’t go to therapy. Maybe it’s because the warranted distrust of the medical community. Or because your family tells you to pray harder. Maybe it’s the general thought of “my life isn’t THAT fucked up” and only whiny, upper-middle class white people have the luxury of getting mental help. In America, especially in Trumpian America, there are “pre-existing conditions” to consider and the outrageous costs of health care.

The external pressures are many and daunting. I’m surprised black people go to therapy at all.

Then, there are the barriers that occur inside.

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One of the words I have dragged around my entire life is weak.

Weak for needing help.

Weak for asking for help.

Weak because emotional wellness is a “white people” thing.

Even when I finally accessed a level of inner courage and honesty and started seeing a therapist this word would dance around my sessions, catching me off-guard and a warm shame would rise to my face. Did I really need to be sitting on this couch? Why couldn’t I just figure it out like the strong women in my family?

Watching the “Real as F-” episode of Insecure made me laugh in recognition. I have been both Molly and Issa around therapy. Suggesting it for others but pretending I have my shit together. Teasing those people who started sentences with “My therapist says…”

 

*

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Things are getting better. Black people, especially those who have access to a higher education, are seeking help. A part of the de-stigmatization of black people going to therapy comes from people being honest about their personal stories around counseling and therapy.

This is my story. I wish my school system knew that some families, especially working-class, non-white families would not find therapy normal. I wish I grew up in a society where mental and emotional health were prized above glossy appearances of wellness and glamour. I wish I never heard my own flesh and blood deliver a monologue about how weak I was for wanting to see a counselor once a week.

Alas, this is not the case. Therapy is not about seeking a “fake friend” or a panacea for all of life’s ills. Black people do go to therapy. And I cannot change how the world or my culture perceives mental wellness, no matter how much time I spend wishing things were different.

But I sure as fuck can change my own views.

Full disclosure: I have never been formerly diagnosed with a mental illness. I write this not to assure my validity or superiority, but to show that one does not need to be classified as mentally ill to desire emotional and mental health.

Therapy is no magic cure-all for all of life’s issues, but it can greatly assist you in figuring some stuff out. Yes, it’s not for everyone and not every therapist or kind of therapy will be an awesome fit (more on this in Part II).

However, in a world which brutalizes black people in ways both subtle and overt, in a world where families can be settings for immense pain, in an age where we are instructed to acquire likes and followers at the expense of inner peace, seeing  the assistance of a  mental health professional can be highly healing (and very, very smart) for learning how to be more at peace in the world.

Therapy helped me figure out the words I had been carrying, the negative stories that were spinning, the ways in which I was being a general asshole to others because of my own unworked-out stuff. My therapists guided to me towards the actions that were already inside of me, the things I just needed help de-cluttering.

Therapy made me more compassionate, grounded, and aware. It helped me to forgive and forge healthier, deeper relationships.

And I never solely relied on therapy. I still read books, went to yoga, talked with my sister and friends, and journaled. My inner healing methods were (and remain) diverse and expansive. Yours can too.

Today, I can finally see that I am not weak. If you are thinking of going into therapy but have that word or ones like it rambling around your inner universe, please don’t believe them. Distance yourself from anything that suggests taking care of yourself is foolish or extravagant. You are not weak for seeking help outside of church and family. You are taking action to be well.

 

***In Part II of Therapy While Black, I discuss the racism that oftentimes exists in therapy and considerations that black people may have to make prior to seeing mental health professionals.

Art: Thomas S. Eliot and Kirz Art

Self-Help That Doesn’t Suck #7 : MoodGYM

 

The first page...
The first page…

Title: MoodGYM

The Break-Down: MoodGYM is a comprehensive on-line cognitive behavioral therapy tool. Through a set of modules, you learn how to really see how your thoughts color and affect your behaviors in actual life. Cognitive-behavior therapy is one of the most common, modern therapy modes out there and has found it’s way into many mainstream discussions. You’ve probably heard of it even if you don’t know the name. Anyone ever told you to challenge your negative thoughts? To locate and befriend your “inner critic”? If so, they are talking in the language of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Why I Loved It: My boyfriend suggested it to me  and being that I am obsessed with any kind of make-me-less-of-an-anxious-person processes, I did. MoodGYM is Australia-based and has the funny slang to prove it. (Unfortunately, I think this also translates to a lack of diversity on the site with the illustrations, all the cartoon-pictures of people are a watercolor beige color.) The modules are straightforward and still enlightening. It is free. I liked being able to see the kinds of common prisms with which I see the world (MoodGYM has online “characters” which represent our most common archetypes for seeing the world. “Elle” is self-hating and sad, “NOPROBLEMOS” is happily well-adjusted, and “Moody” is well…you know, moody).

I’ve read and worked through lots of cognitive behavior therapy, but we all need reminders about how our thoughts color our interaction with the world. Despite never having been formally diagnosed with depression or anxiety, I have had both in my life. I am pretty sensitive, can get stuck in stale thought patterns, and my inner critic eats her Wheaties. I know that I need to be very aware of my mind and have seen how my invisible, negative thought patterns color how I view the world, myself, and other people (usually in a not-so-great way).

Some of the characters...
Some of the characters…

For You, If…: You want to try out therapy but are mired in cultural shame or don’t have disposable income enough to warrant $175/hour appointments. You have bouts of depression or anxiety and your tried and true method of “just ignore that shit until it dissipates” is not working. You want to giggle at some Australian slang (someone please tell me what a “tinny” is…)

Woo-Woo Factor: 0.5 out of 5 amethyst rocks. CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is pretty locked in with sciencey stuff.

Onward,

Hannah

Today

So, things are different now.

I write this and want to take it back, for it reveals the optimism I had regarding America way too boldly. I know America is founded on the blood of conquest, but I really did think we were better than this…I think a lot of us did.

I’ve been spending way too much time on social media looking at the spate of racist and xenophobic attacks, pondering the 52% of white women who voted for a sexist bigot, going over and over what campaign mistakes the Clinton team made in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania…

I don’t know the last time when I felt my actions were so futile.

One thing I hate seeing are these false equivalencies which act like this election was just like any other contentious battle between conservative and liberal factions.

“Let’s all just realize we have different views as Americans!” a friend wrote to me.

Different views. You get to say different views when discussing the nuances of foreign policy. I’ll even give you different views on abortion or state rights.

Different views does not encompass being endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan and describing women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community as less than human. Different views is not being totally unqualified and unprepared.

 

The people who read this blog (thank you again) know this. We know that Trump’s words are not on equal scale with the platform Hillary Clinton was running on, even as we acknowledge she was not our perfect candidate.

Is across-the-aisle dialogue truly possible right now?

I have cried. Yesterday, I consciously emotionally ate a large sized McDonald’s nugget meal and binge watched Insecure. I made immature allusions to The Purge/Hunger Games and wallowed in black humor. I sobbed like somebody died about every other hour whenever I saw Hillary Clinton’s face. I was glued to my social media feed like a fiend.

I am still not out of this gobsmacked wall of incredulity: does a large segment of America really hate this much? (I know the answer is yes, but damn…)

But, I am better for three reasons:

  1. Community: Sitting with colleagues and friends on the 6th floor near the computer lab. Just talking. Sharing our pain, sadness, anger, and what-the-actual-fuck feels. My non-fiction teacher making room for honest conversation and ending with an ice cream trip. Writing and hearing poetry at Black Poet’s Speak Out and realizing I am not alone. All the friends who have asked me how I am. Organizing a Friendsgiving meal. People. Thank you, people.
  2. My Grandmother(s) Real and Imaginary: My paternal grandmother passed away before I was born. She was industrious and strong-willed, starting over when my grandfather kicked her out of the family home at a time when being an unmarried Yoruba woman shameful. I start remembering that so many of my heroines: Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper all lived during political eras where their lives meant little to the powers that be. Still, they fought back in the ways they knew how.  They wrote, they preached, they even sued. They lived and they loved. I must do the same.
  3. Boring Ass Self-Care: Let Instagram tell it and you’d believe self-care was all yoga retreats and tie-dye quotes from Audre Lorde. Sometimes self-care is boring as fuck. My version of self-care was letting myself sleep since I stayed up so late looking at election results the day before, folding clothes, having my boyfriend hide my phone, and doing kettleball swings at LA Fitness. It was eating slowly and going to burlesque class as usual. It was this blog post. It was undramatic, quiet, and routine. And today it saved me.

We are living in an age of real uncertainty. I am proud of my black women (94% for Hillary, y’all) but I am honestly disgusted and afraid at how the rest of my country voted. We’ll see how much they like the “change” coming along…

I have many questions, as you do.

What will life be like a year from now? My privileges afford me some protection, but what of the most vulnerable in this society? How do I utilize my life and gifts in a way of true service? What will be the first holy shit action this new President in 2017?

I have no answers but I will continue to rely on the support of my community, on my grandmothers, and on truly taking care of myself  moving forward. I still believe in the power of radical self-love and a divestment from the patriarchy, including the patriarchy within ourselves. I still believe that women will rebuild this world.

May you find some solace over the next couple of days and weeks (well, over the next four years…)

May we figure out how to really be together in all of this without the lies, false equivalencies, and stand in love. Not the love of trite quotations or anemic half-ass discussions, but a love that acts and sees.

Some of us have a long way to go before we can truly emit this sort of love. I cannot wait for those people, but I will join with the people who are already wrestling with this sort of love.

Onward and Onward and Onward,

Hannah

 

 

 

Self-Help That Doesn’t Suck #6 – Rock My Soul

Yet again. Another shooting of an unarmed black person. There are no words.

I wonder what to DO. I usually feel even more useless when I post hashtags and Instagram photos commemorating the murdered. I hardly do it for that reason. I have no qualms with how others choose to protest, but it does not work for me. I probably think way too much on these things…

My “doing” tonight in light of this recent tragedy is to offer one of the most impressionable self-care/self-help titles I have ever read.

Also: for my black people. I see you. I see us. And I really pray you take care of yourself as best as you know how.

And for those who are true allies out there, thanks.

book cover of rock my soul with sepia image of black hand wrapped in athletic bandage holding onto pole

Title: Rock My Soul

The Break-Down: From the inside cover, “In her most challenging and provocative book to date, bell hooks gives voice to what many black people have thought and felt, but seldom articulated. She offers readers a clear, passionate examination of the role self-esteem plays in the African-American experience in determining whether individuals or groups succeed or self-sabotage. She considers the reasons why even among “the best and brightest” students at Ivy League institutions “there were young men and women beset by deep feelings of unworthiness, of ugliness inside and outside.”…With true brilliance, she rigorously examines and identifies the barriers — political and cultural — that keep African Americans from emotional well-being.”

Why I Loved It: hooks does not mince words as to what living in a racist society can do to the self-concept of black people, but she is also careful to include the ways self-esteem is a universal issue and the myriad of actions black people have taken to own their own story surrounding it.

There is no one “black” experience. I grew up in a relatively safe, majority white and Mexican city in So Cal with Nigerian immigrants as my parents. Yet, so many of hooks’ stories and explorations rang/ring true in my life. I did not escape the feelings of inadequacy and the urge to “prove them wrong” as I journeyed through school, into the military, and of course, in my personal life. I too questioned my beauty and ability based on my race and gender.

I love that reading this book was a healing act in itself against this torrent of trauma and often unspeakable pain.

For You, If…: You want an honest look at one of the buzziest words of the 90’s (self-esteem is to 1990’s as self-love is to Now…) but also want real social/political consciousness surrounding this. You are a black person who has been dogged by feelings of inadequacy or shame but have found no real lasting outlet to explore these feelings (Instagram platitudes can only go so far…)  and maybe therapy didn’t work for you or you don’t have the money/time/energy to see someone. You want to feel less alone. 

Woo-Woo Factor: 1 out of 5 Doreen Virtue Angel Cards. hooks doesn’t delve into much “woo” in this book.

Onward and don’t forget to take care of yourself,

Hannah

Self-Help That Doesn’t Suck #5 – How to Sit

Title: How to Sit

The Break-Down: Meditation/mindfulness is popular. I’m sure you may have read an article on it’s powers recently. You sit, walk, lay down, or stand. You follow your breath or observe the going-ons around you. Most importantly: you start where you are. In this book, Thich Nhat Hahn gently explains the process of sitting.

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Why I Loved It: It’s small enough to travel with. It is simple, straight-forward and gives you good ideas to start with in the present moment. Just reading it makes me feel more at peace with the external and internal worlds around me. The chapters are about one page each and loaded with solid advice and considerations.

For You, If…: You want to start a mindfulness practice but don’t know where to go first because there’s a LOT of information out there. You travel a lot and often feel harried when you do. You want to know your own mind and deal better with life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Woo-Woo Factor: 3 out of 5 flower crowns . The language is beautiful and clear. There is also mention of the Inner Child and lots of nature imagery. Still, I have never found a better beginner’s mindfulness book.

Onward,

Hannah