Traversing the Mountains of Life
A Therapist's Journey to Conquer Disordered Eating
For many years, I stood on the sidelines watching others take bold steps to accomplish their goals and dreams. I am starting to really love the idea of past tense! In 2021, I decided to courageously step into the arena of mountaineering with a hope of facing some of my inner bullies and show em’ who’s really boss! To say this choice has been lifechanging is an understatement, and I’m beginning to see that I’m much more capable than I’ve given myself credit for.
This summer, I had two transformative mountain experiences, both with very different endings. After extensive training and conditioning throughout the winter and spring, it was finally time to tackle my first stratovolcano. On June 26, 2022, I was ecstatic to reach the summit of Mount Adams! Standing at 12,281 feet, Adams is the 2nd highest peak in the state of Washington. While the journey to the top was physically demanding, it was a profoundly mental and emotional battle with every single step. Reaching the summit after fighting loads of fear and shame was extremely liberating! As I stood in celebration of my climbing accomplishment, mountain number 2 came clearly into view.
A few weeks later, I had the amazing opportunity to climb Mt. Rainier alongside my husband (therapist & Founder of Grey Sky Co.) and a climbing team from Alpine Ascents International. Honestly, even now as I continue to replay and process this life-changing experience, some days it still seems like I’m up in the clouds! Even with my previous training accomplishments and 1st summit of Adams, I found myself feeling anxious leading up to the climb, incredibly anxious! Climbing with complete strangers and not knowing if I had what it would take to get up such a rigorous and technical mountain. There was enough fear to fill my climbing pack! Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for me to feel a sense of safety and connection with these “strange” folx once we embarked on our journey to the top. Our expedition team had a total of twelve climbers, and four were guides. I quickly learned our guides were sturdy, emotionally safe, confident and their mountain presence was inspiring.
My journey to the “top” was not ideal, and far from what I had envisioned. Suited up and outfitted with all the gear needed to summit a mountain - crampons, helmet, hefty gloves, trekking poles, ice axe, avalanche transceiver, monstrous boots that felt like bricks on my feet, gaiters, glacier glasses and a trillion layers of clothing, I filed in line behind some of the other climbers as we all set off with high expectations of reaching the summit. At the outset, I didn’t know I was trying to climb two mountains at once. There was the physical mountain, and then there was the emotional one. The latter, something I had to fight against in order to reach the “summit” of Rainier (which for me, ended up being as high up as Ingraham Flats/High Camp and not the actual Columbia Crest summit) parallels the mountain of emotional eating I have been traversing for decades. Personally, and professionally, I have come to know how difficult it is to navigate the mountains of life, particularly how incredibly hard it is to climb mountain of shame.
Ironically, THE #1 ingredient that informs my toxic relationship with food is shame. This relationship was extremely unhealthy to say the least, codependent, perverse, enmeshed and compulsive. It wasn’t until I was almost 40 years old when I made the choice to stop believing shameful lies about myself and chose to heal my relationship with food. Instead of using food for comfort and soothing, I fought to create a different trail up the mountain. This new route required immense endurance, patience, dedication, a new belief in myself fueled by a desire to fight the lies that pop up like marmots on the trail. Changing my relationship with food required a shift from black & white, all or nothing thinking, to learning to live in a grey space where more than binary options exist.
For the first 5 years in recovery from disordered eating, I was deeply entrenched in black & white (good/bad) thinking - stuck in the rigidity of abstinence. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not pathologizing or criticizing abstinence. There were definitely times in those early months of recovery where abstinence was needed to get me to a healthier place with food. However, for so long, abstinence or compulsive eating were the only two options in my mind. Wanting desperately to be “free”, I chose abstinence which meant a lot of restriction emboldened by fear and shame that convinced me to believe I would nosedive back into compulsive eating. While abstinence kept me extremely safe, it also kept me at the base of the mountain feeling so much shame. Just before I celebrated my 6th year in recovery, I made another bold choice. This choice was a catalyst for finally getting up the mountain. Taking a huge risk, I embarked on a different relationship with food. One that no longer labels certain foods as good or bad but allows me to eat freely in moderation. Fear and shame still tend to hover some days like a dark, ominous cloud but their power has lost its grip. I am no longer an employee of these bullies; they work FOR me now! I no longer use food to avoid/numb my feelings and have grown and developed healthier ways of soothing and coping when I face the mountains of life.
All those decades, I was trying to carry such a heavy load up the mountain by myself but the only place I was going, was in circles around the mountain. Stuck in a vicious loop, I could not find my way out on my own. Shame pain hurts like hell and we were never meant to do life in isolation. Research shows humans are neurobiologically hard wired for connection. Healing started to come when I admitted the truth about my powerless, came out of hiding and accepted the help of others who knew how to climb the mountain. Like the four guides who helped me up Rainier this summer, I acknowledge that I have had many guides (numerous therapists, 12-step recovery groups, sponsors and a supportive spouse) that have guided me up my mountain of shame and disordered eating. Together, they have helped lighten my climbing pack and have been with me as I’ve mourned the years I lost and will never get back. I validate my grief every time I allow myself to feel my healthy sadness. Healthy sadness illuminates our need to remember, to grieve and to mourn.
I am nowhere near the “top” of my journey navigating disordered eating, but I continue to put one foot in front of the other taking baby steps towards healing, growth, and change. I’m continuously learning how to live in the peaks and valleys of the mountains of life without using food to soothe, cope or numb. Thanks to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change no matter how old we are), we ALL have the capacity for healing, growth and change. Most of all, I am grateful for those who didn’t give up on me and in my therapeutic work, I get to return the favor. At Grey Sky Counseling, we really do believe you don’t have to climb alone.