Posts in Category: Minds

Hungry For The Holidays

star katy

One population dreads the time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s: people with eating disorders.  

Consumerism explodes at the holidays, so, too, does literal consumption. People with eating disorders, often students returning home from college, are faced with a double-whammy. They have to navigate the usual regression to family dynamics we all feel but also, have to figure out food.

I’ve spent hours these past 10 years planning someone to get through cracker-and-cheese time without binging. Guiding and wondering and counseling someone who has not eaten dessert in years and faces a buffet piled high with pies and cakes.

For a few years I worked on at a psychiatric unit for the holidays. I loved Christmas there; we kept the spirit of it well in that old wooden-raftered building in the woods. Surrounded by snow and bowed evergreens, the small group of patients and staff were polite and hushed on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Day. Insanity seemed to have taken a small vacation. We were an isolated group out there, needing the containment of the hospital or the distance from our families to stay sane.

The lines between patient and doctor changed as we clustered in the snow for a rushed cigarette or marveled to see our footprints appear in each luminous dusting of the night. Fellow travelers, we were all at this inn for the night.

I’ve frequently thought about renting an inn for the holiday season. We crave community but one that is compatible. What if we could be assured that behavior,) around food at least, will be regular? What if the focus were on talking, thinking and doing rather than consuming?

Hiding food, eating leftovers, doing the dishes, midnight refrigerator raids can turn holidays into a desperate time. Patients return in January like tired anthropologists out in the field for too long. They often want to punish themselves by binging and purging relentlessly; some are worn from trying to appear  cogent when they are starving in plain sight of their families.

From where I sit, holidays haven’t changed much in 20 years.

Few people in America eat because they are hungry. We eat because we are bored, sad, angry or anxious. We browse the bright refrigerator shelves looking for something that will not be found there. Food is everywhere–now in pictures on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and more. Surrounded by this overload to the senses we are supposed to buy ‘zen’ or ‘mindfulness’ as easily as purchasing a yoga mat. It’s not that simple nor that easy.

Breaking bread with people with love is wonderful. Proust knew that a Madeline brought back childhood. Holiday smells and tastes are the same. But hungering for childhood is not the same as eating it. Whatever we want will be there today, tomorrow and next week. Remind yourself as you eat:

Do I want this or is this rather a socially condoned binge?

We confuse feeling full with filling ourselves. Try connection instead. Interview your grandparent. Pretend you are an anthropologist visiting our culture. Observe the family traditions and taboos. Stay in touch with your outside life. Use the nearest Starbucks or the public library in your town as place to regain perspective. Step outside your family into nature and be absorbed in something larger.

Invite a family member to make a new tradition with you. My brother and I started going for a walk after a particular tense Thanksgiving. We stopped at a lovely hotel with a piano bar not far from where the Boston Marathon ends. We went inside and sat down. Two newly-minted adults breaking free.

Holidays are not a cage that holds your family rules and a bowl of food. They must be recreated and reinvented to hold meaning.

The most cherished Christmas holidays I made was in Mexico. All I had in that tiny town was a Walmart and my ATM card. But I had my then-husband and our daughter. The small village was thrilled by the new Walmart and buzzed with activity on Dec. 24. Dazzled by the sequins on the swimsuits, the toothbrushes that lit up, the candy in exotic flavors I went up and down the escalators in a daze. We scattered mango chips and guava candies that night for the reindeer.  Christmas morning we opened stockings on the roof in the morning after our daughter trundled up the spiral staircase.

We ate that day, of course, but it was the newness of Mexico that drew my small family close like a small silk sack. I was reminded of the holidays at the psychiatric hospital. We make our happiness when we can and where we find it. We cannot capture it with things and we cannot consume it. Make it new.

“In the Name of What?” Finding Common Language


katy rose






I never understood the Shakespearean phrase, “beggars description.” I understand it literally of course. Some experiences or feelings defy words.

These past two weeks have been intensively and sadly divisive. Grief, fear and shock have been fought over as though they are desirable currency. Who is entitled to these tarnished coins? Who can feel important feelings? The answer: anyone who does.

After the attacks on Paris from terrorists, some of my patients wondered if they “should” feel anxious about terrorism because their peers were not. College freshman feared they were not brave because they had nightmares. Some raised the issue of greater losses elsewhere and felt we “should” feel more for other countries. 

Many others were simply concerned about a science midterm or Thanksgiving break. Evacuating Harvard Yard made it hard to reach a professor with office hours. The omnipresent drone of a circling plane activated PTSD from 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attacks. I sat in my office like a shaken sphinx. I was full of questions. What was normal? What was pathology? Hard to know. I could not promise security to anyone. I could not reassure a patient that we were all safe. All I could do was continue to listen to each person’s response to another attack on the world. The responses were wildly different. None, however were hard to understand.  

My life has been spent putting words to feelings­. I have been a  writer. I have taught others to how to write. Now I use words to cast a net over someone else’s experience. I search for a “common language.” The best words I can hear are “me too.” But there are never “no words.” If someone says “I don’t understand” or “I can’t imagine what you’re gong through” I feel alone. I want to say, well then—“try.” So this week, like others, I tried. Even when I urgently wanted to talk about the situation of the world, I tried. I listened when active listening was especially hard to do.

I’ve rarely met a situation where I can’t find words. These past two weeks I had to hunt for them a bit. The older I am, the more I find clichés comforting. A stitch in time saves nine. One swallow does not a summer make. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Old poems worth memorizing came back to me this week: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say ice.”

In the carpool I explained these proverbs and poems to seventh graders. I quizzed my calm daughter on their meaning at night. What was I suddenly trying to transmit? Nothing she wants to hear— yet. Understanding, as John Green wrote about falling in love, happens like falling asleep, slowly and then all at once.” In therapy, months are spent visiting an experience or  a relationship until suddenly, you see it from above. An X on a map. A discovery of perspective. 

Insight comes as a flash of brilliant green after months of words dry as cicadas. Someone across the world says “I am Paris.” Someone else answers. “I am America.”

“You too?”

“Me too.” 

Hunger To Read

I identified myself as a reader at the same time I understood I was a self. I was at a sunny day camp which seemed quite far away from the city though it was not. I remember holding a book open before me under the sheltering high pine trees. Suddenly the words made sense. I saw pictures where I had seen dark code.

Now my daughter struggles to read. After waiting for her to catch fire, I realize that reading may not be her thing. Not that she can’t, or often won’t read, but at any moment the sheer delight of dipping into a a book does not compel her. Like dipping into a perfect body of water. I watch the laborious unnatural training of her mind and it surprises me. I find myself revisiting the lifelong companionship, luxury, addiction and pure pleasure of reading.

I want to open the world of my childhood. I want to introduce her to the families I knew. The words unfurl as I read to her, stored in the place age has not decayed. I cannot remember this morning’s ride but I can remember what comes next in Rush’s “First Saturday” or how the “All of A Kind Family” slept in cracker crumbs traded in the dark. She does, however, love for me to tell her stories. And so I grow with her. We create a new language, the Oliver stories. Marissa and Melissa, good and bad mermaids, Yoshi. a Japanese girl with a penchant for mischief.

The hunger to read has been, for me, like the hunger to practice medicine or be in nature. Only in the books of childhood do I see plots free of the romance tale. Girls are thinking and talking and feeling; they are using all their senses to become known in the world and explore history, cities, fields, cattle, spiders, farms.

Before “happily ever after” looms, featuring a princess and prince, or king and queen. run these stories. Many childrens books remind me of a time when my deepest being was absorbed in an enterprise of pure imagination. As I read I see girls wondering what they will be, or dancing on desks, or bossing their brothers. It is all about what we can be or do.

When I wait online at the school she attends, my daughter bursts out of the line with excitement. I wonder how long it will be before she peppers her definite needs with “like,” before she asks friends if she looks “fat” in her clothes, before she finds her anger terrifying. These books which guide girls quickly turn from exploration of self, other and the world into one story: a romance quest. The Holy Grail.

If there were one thing I wish she could grasp, it is that she is already complete. Everything which comes next will be misunderstanding. Books deepen and enrich us, they mirror and extend the understanding we already have. They also distort our goals, and our sense of an ending. Perhaps her body and dextrous hands will give her more pleasure than her imagining.

Perhaps she will be freer than I was. I could not imagine having a book and choosing to sew a satchel or go rock climbing. Her own extroverted nature may force her away from the distortions of introspection. She has so many friends she does not hide behind a book. Perhaps her knowledge will serve her better; she will grow like a tree, with stronger roots.

Piercing, Cutting and Tattoos: The Body Speaks


I started small, noticing and ignoring body art. One girl with a small diamond stud in her nose had a huge diamond engagement band on her finger. We spent a lot of time discussing the enormity of her ring. No mention of the nose stud. Then came a girl from outside the city, a suburb so conservative that I’d imagined it as filled with horses. Her therapy was long and complicated, involving many family members. Somewhere during therapy she got a tattoo- the most popular sort at that time. Chinese characters were inscribed in black at the base of her spine. They showed only when you might bend over to give a customer change, or if you were scooping ice cream for a summer job. 

Then an artist came to see me with forearms decorated like a Minoan snake goddess from Crete. We discussed the tattoos. The why, the when (a break-up), the choice of subject matter.

Later I saw a drug addict in remission- a girl with a straight spine and a pierced tongue which flicked like a snake, in and out as she talked. I had to ask. The piercing was unnerving to me. She had chosen to pierce the visible juncture between speech and silence. Not to ask her about this  choice seemed like denying part of therapy. Then I began to ask more, much more. The foot covered with henna that looked like a fortuneteller’s palm. 

The second recovered addict saved her money working retail to tattoo installments of Alice in Wonderland all over her body. Not somewhere subtle, the nape of her neck, a shoulder blade wing. She was writing on her body- the body as slate, the body as book. She said it was a constant reminder ” not to fall down the rabbit hole.”

 All signs have meaning. If someone shifts and exhales- I ask. I shied away from discussing piercing and tattoos- though I had always asked directly if a patient cut or burned themselves. As the world spins on its axis the culture changes. I can make no assumptions. To assume that body art is culturally neutral is, itself, a convenient assumption. So I ask. Everyone wants to be known. What they inscribe, what they cut, what they pierce, needs translation. Use your words, we teach our children.

Make no assumptions. Do no harm.      

The oath of the psychologist.

Anxiety and Children’s Books: Or Fear Itself

miss clavell

Waking one morning with a feeling of alarm. I suddenly remembered the image of Miss Clavell who ran the orphanage in which the insouciant Madeline was tucked.

Hair straying from her bun. Miss Clavell sits upright in a white nightdress—the emblem of maternal terror. In that old house in Paris, one stately with rhyming lines, children have returned for decades to enjoy Madeline who is not “afraid of mice, winter snow and ice and to the tiger in the zoo…says pooh-pooh.
Both children and parents seek and order there. The children are numbered and cared for. Madeline makes every fear comes out right.
I identify with Miss Clavell. She who wakes in the night and knows “something is not right.” She doesn’t think this, she knows it. That is the feeling of true anxiety. It is not a feeling—it feels like a truth on the border of consciousness. Something terrible about to be remembered.
Similarly my daughter re-read a book about three gophers trying to find their home approximately several hundred times. There was nothing spectacular about the book (“May We Sleep Here Tonight“).  It was a prolonged tale of suspense as rabbits, raccoon, gophers all open the door to a snug cavt of person will this be and systematically pile into bed, seeking shelter from a storm. But the question looms whose house is this? 
Each time the door opens, the bell rings, the whiskers twitch or noses quiver.
And, indeed, it turns out to be the home of a huge bear. Fears are confirmed. Animals that had snuggled now scuttle to the bottom of the bear’s huge bed in hiding. But the bear, because this is a children’s book, turns out to be jolly and comforting. After preparing hot soup all around the final page of the book shows the bear in bed with all the animals, enormous paws wrapped round them. Even the bear needs comfort too.
Who wants to be Miss Clavell in the middle of the night, who wants as John Berryman said, to wake up wondering who is missing? Recently my daughter told me she didn’t want to grow up. At first I feared as mother—therapist too—this was she start of some pathology. But then I realized, who does?
If children are afraid the outside world may be frightening and practice at mastering it—adults continue this. The fear of losing a precious person, the fear of feeling that fear holds many people in its paws. That is, as Delmore Schwartz wrote, “the heavy bear who goes with me.” The mother’s fear that something essential is missing; the daughter’s fear that she is not good enough—the fear of feeling a fear we cannot withstand links so many patients that I see. And I, as Miss Clavell, fear that ‘something is not right’ and count the days or times or tasks. To miss that fear would be a consequential relief. MY hope for my child and others is that they are not accompanied by that early morning call to arms. That fall into the preverbal state of aloneness where we need our mother but have only a cry to bring her forth.
A lifetime of anxiety has left me quite aware of waking to a world, which seems suddenly not level. Perhaps this experience drew me to become a psychologist, feeling that the need to reassure or undo the ravages anxiety causes is a great gift.