Feeling and Healing

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Feeling and Healing: From Chaos to Creative Wellness 

A Personal Workshop for Women with Addiction, Eating Disorder, and Compulsive Overeating

by Deborah V. Gross, MD

Once upon a time, this book began in a one-woman psychiatric office in a blue building on the beach “Old Town,” in the heart of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  The building looked and felt like a small ship with its prow-shaped front and wall of windows looking out across the water.  My patient and I sat in comfortable chairs situated so that we could look at each other or gaze out to sea as we talked.

My patients told me their stories—stories of sadness and fear and joy, betrayal and loss and love, violence and shame and brokenness and courage and healing.  We talked about what felt bad and we talked about what they did to try to feel better.  Sometimes the things they did to feel better had become yet another source of pain and difficulty.  One morning as I looked at the list of people I was to see that day, I realized that eight out of the ten were either addicted to something or were misusing something—alcohol, drugs, and food topped the list, but there were also compulsive sexual activity, gambling, spending, care-taking of others, and many more. 

As I looker closer, I began to see the pattern more clearly and more often, in ever more different situations. I did some consulting at an obesity clinic and noticed strong clinical similarities between people who compulsively overate and those who were addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.  I began to read and think and write about these issues as I explored the connections between emotional stress, psychiatric disorders, addiction, and compulsive overeating with my patients.  I worked with them to develop tools they could use to manage stress and emotional pain without turning to food.

Fast forward a few years. Monday morning, August, 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina came ashore and blew away my little blue ship, along with my town, my home, and my practice.  I lost my life and found myself still breathing.
Professionally speaking, I landed in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where it has been my privilege since to serve as Director of Psychiatry for Pine Grove Women’s Center (PGWC), a 90 day residential treatment for women with addiction, disordered eating, or both. 

At PGWC, as I talked with woman after woman about herself and her life, I began to adapt and use the materials I had once referred to as “Food & Feelings 101” (back at that obesity clinic I told you about) into a set of tools that could be used for recovery in a broader sense. Delivered in weekly group sessions or in monthly workshops, these tools evolved into an integrated system of self assessment, information, and exercises based on previously validated scientific information and long clinical experience.  This book takes that system outside the treatment setting. 
The women I work with at PGWC often wanted to know why I didn’t “write all this stuff down” so they could take it with them when their time with us was complete.  “Dr. Gross,” they would say, “that’s just so messed up!  What if  I forget what you told me?”  This book is for them.  If you have an addiction or an unhealthy relationship with food, it’s also for you. Family and friends often want to help but don’t understand what they can (and cannot) do for you.  This book is for them, too.

Pine Grove Women’s Center is located in what was once a big Southern home nestled in (what else?) the pines.  We sometimes refer to it as “the house,” as in, “the disease is alive and well in the house today….”  I am grateful to the women of “the house,” both patients and staff, past and present.  You know who you are!  In a time of great personal pain, you, and my work with you, gave me solace and the sense that my loss could come to count for something positive in the end.  You helped me to bloom where I was blown.  I hope this book helps you on your own journey of healing.  Thank you.

How This Book Can Help You

Learning to live “in recovery” means learning to live fully and healthfully, without resorting to harmful compulsive behaviors. This is a good goal for anyone, and I have reached the stage in life where it seems to me that everyone is recovering from something!  However, this book is about you.  To live your best life, you need general knowledge, self-knowledge, and new skills for managing things (we will call them “triggers”) that make you want to run to the refrigerator, the liquor cabinet, the pill bottle, the cigarette pack, or whatever is hurting you so much you’ve decided you want to change.

Using this book, you will set your goals and make yourself a map for how to reach those goals.  You will also build and fill a toolbox for the journey and learn a system of self evaluation and self help that can go with you throughout your life.

Family Matters
Family really does matter, and there are lots of family matters involved in the recovery process.  If you are reading this because you have a family member with a compulsive disorder of any kind, then, as we say in the South, “Bless your heart.”  We use this saying in a variety of ways but what I want to convey to you now is that I understand how hard it is to watch your loved one suffer and not be able to fix it.  Be clear about that.  You cannot fix it.  Once you get that very clearly into your head, we can move on to what you CAN do to help and support.  There will be tips for you in every section.

How You Can Best Use This Material

If you are compulsive about anything (food, alcohol, cigarettes, work, drugs, whatever….), you probably don’t like to wait for anything, so if you don’t want to read this introductory material right now, feel free to jump to whatever interests you and get going.  I’d rather you do that than put off starting (yes, I know you’re prone to that, too…) because you don’t want to do it in the order I’ve written it.  You might not even really want to do it at all, so starting anywhere is better than not starting!  I understand. You can skip around and come back to things you missed.  That’s the beauty of a book. However, I do encourage you to—eventually—read everything and do all the exercises.  Often the things we most want to avoid are the things we most need to face and work on.

In general, human behavior (like most everything else in the world) is stress sensitive.  If you overeat or drink too much, for example, you will probably be even more likely to overeat or drink too much on a holiday visit during a stressful family situation. Sensitivity to stress is magnified when you have a psychiatric disorder, which can be anything from addiction or eating disorder to depression, anxiety, psychological trauma or anything else in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual,” which contains umpteen pages of different mental health issues and problems.
Compulsive behaviors are those things you feel driven to do and can’t seem to control no matter how hard you try.  Compulsive disorders are especially stress sensitive for reasons that probably relate to the particular brain troubles that cause these disorders in the first place (more about that later).  All forms of addiction involve compulsive behavior, as do all forms of disordered eating, from Anorexia Nervosa to Binge Eating Disorder. You can think of compulsion as the common denominator for these disorders. 

The title of this book is taken from an old 12 Step saying taught to me, like a lot of the really important stuff I know, by one of my patients:  “In order to heal, you have to feel.”  There is a lot of stuff you can’t change in your life, including the brain you’re born with and the family you’re born into.  Some of these things contribute to what is hurting you.  However, there are things you can change—in your life and within yourself—that will greatly enhance your recovery.  This book is designed to help you discover those things and apply them.

You can use this book on its own and by yourself—to begin your healing process, or perhaps (if you’re not quite ready to begin in earnest) to look at what might be possible when you’re ready.

You can use it as a supplement to whatever you’re already doing—with a therapist, a doctor, or a dietician, in a program of some kind, in groups, or with a buddy.

Whatever the specifics of your struggle, if you don’t deal with the emotional aspects which often drive compulsive behavior, you will have a very hard time staying in recovery.

Recovery is an ongoing process, not a one time thing, so make this a true “working book.”   Don’t just read it—USE it!  Underline, highlight, scribble in the margins, turn down the pages, and stuff it chock-full of any interesting discoveries you make.  That’s how you make it your own, and that’s how it becomes a real map for you—a guide to “creative wellness,” my term for the unique combination of body, mind, and spirit elements YOU need in order to feel healthy and whole most ways, most days.

A Caveat

Understand very clearly:  This is a self help book.  It can never substitute for a good doctor, therapist, and/or treatment program. It also does not substitute for a solid 12-step program for anyone with addictive disorder.  Yes, you can use what I offer here, as many others have, to develop your own personal toolbox for change, but that toolbox almost certainly needs to contain more than one thing.  If you want to have a healthy heart, for example, you can follow your doctor’s advice, eat right, and exercise.  However, if you need open heart surgery, you can’t do it by yourself. You’re going to need a heart surgeon. Get professional help if you need it. It’s the smart thing to do!

Can a Man Use This Book?

I wrote this book for women, but much of the material is useful to anyone struggling with addiction or disordered eating. In general, I have indicated gender differences where appropriate.  A man reading this book will simply have to do what women have been doing since reading and writing were invented.  That is, he will have to make the mental translation of all the pronouns from “she” to he” or “hers” to “his” and be aware that there may be important issues for men in recovery that are not covered here.  Medical research is woefully lacking when it comes to specific gender differences.  Hopefully, future generations of researchers will correct this dangerous situation to the benefit of all.





©copyright 2009 Deborah V. Gross,MD • 361 Towne Center Blvd, Suite 1300, Ridgeland, MS  39157 • phone 601-812-6123