This month’s column is a tribute to a woman I’ve known and worked with since she was a girl. Haley is now in college, but her story could be that of any age. Maybe you’ll see yourself in her struggles and triumphs. Haley is everyone who has worked so hard for so long to climb to the top of her own mountain and now something inside of her is getting in the way. I’m honoring Haley because she fills my heart, and she breaks my heart, and because she is finally letting herself start to see how amazing she is.QUIZ: How High Is Your Self-Esteem?Why Little Haley Needs a HugWhen Haley was in elementary school, her parents got divorced. But, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that they had major conflict during the marriage, during the divorce, and for years afterwards. They didn’t just have little arguments—they had huge destructive battles punctuated by their own emotional illnesses. As you might assume, Haley was significantly impacted by their terrible conflicts and forced into the middle at times. She also was the target of very hurtful abusive words and behaviors for years, especially from her mother. Though the pain was unintended and largely the result of her mother’s own illnesses and limitations, it was very real.Though Haley has always been smart and talented and kind and beautiful, she was never able to see it. She developed very low self-esteem and major depression. Over the years, Haley also developed a raging eating disorder, which would certainly have killed her, if she hadn’t decided to fight for her life.In the process of recovery, we discussed how her inner “Little Hayley” never got to have a childhood full of love and nurturing and innocence. So, sometimes Little Hayley needs a hug. These are the times that Haley has learned to focus on respecting her grief for her lost childhood and caring for her present self. No matter what challenges you’ve faced, respecting yourself and your journey can be comforting and empowering.MORE: Eating Disorders in Older WomenHaley worked so hard for so many years, and she became physically healthy and emotionally stronger. She developed fairly good boundaries with her parents and found other sources of support. She allowed herself to see her achievements and pursue some of her passions. But it’s very difficult to truly move beyond the pain of the past. Which brings us to…Why I Hate Rob (no, that’s not his real name)I have never met Rob, but I couldn’t hate him more. Rob was Haley’s boyfriend for several years, on and off during high school and part of college. Though the relationship started nicely and appeared to include a good friendship in the beginning, it soon became apparent that Rob is a poster child for toxic boyfriends. Here are some lessons we can learn from him:
- It is not ok if your boyfriend yells and curses at you and calls you vile names.
- It is not ok if your boyfriend insists on doing things sexually that are objectionable and humiliating to you.
- It is not ok if your boyfriend demeans you, insults you and cruelly blames you for his terrible behavior.
- It is not ok if your boyfriend is possessive and controlling.
- It is not ok if your boyfriend manipulates your emotions and ignores your words and feelings.
COLUMN: How to Get Out of a Bad RelationshipThe relationship with Rob was very confusing for Haley, as many controlling and abusive relationships are, especially for women who are used to feeling badly and being treated badly. For a while she accepted that he was the “keeper of her self-esteem,” as though it was a necessary fact of life. It took some time for Haley to realize that she needed to totally end it in order to save herself.So, I hate Rob because he continued the cycle of abuse for Haley, where her parents left off. As she was struggling to move forward in her life and keep the anorexia at bay, he was keeping her down and obliterating her emerging self-esteem. Thankfully, Haley eventually listened to her own voice, found the strength to end the relationship and found her own internal sense of closure.It’s ok to be okHaley is now in college. She is doing absolutely amazing—great grades, healthy friendships, fun activities and many opportunities for the future. Most importantly, she is generally happy, or at least content. So, here’s the puzzle: I saw Haley recently when she was home for winter break and she is again feeling the pull of her old eating disorder. She knows that it feels different than it used to, because it doesn’t seem to “fit” the rest of her life, but the pull is very strong. Unfortunately, Haley is also very “practiced” at being seriously anorexic and will undoubtedly move quickly down the path to major illness if she doesn’t fight back.We don’t know for sure what in particular triggered the return of Haley’s demon. We know it’s an Achilles heel for her (and for everyone with that history) and may be triggered in times of change or stress. Most of us tend to regress a bit when we feel overwhelmed or upset. It also may be that, for Haley, contentment and security are very unfamiliar feelings. Since she was a little girl, she was used to being uncertain, scared, mistreated and sad. She was also used to feeling terrible about herself as her norm. Now Haley’s norms are different, and may not be inherently comfortable for her. She is going to need to fight again and listen to her own voice instead of the eating disorder voice.MORE: Find The Superwoman In YouWith persistence, Haley will learn to be comfortable with her contentment and with positive changes in her life. I hope she also allows herself to see the amazing woman that the rest of us see, and allows that woman to continue on her healthy path. If you also struggle to find comfort in your own fabulousness, remind yourself that it’s ok to feel good about yourself. We could all stand to give our inner Haleys a hug sometimes and appreciate the beautiful, strong women we’ve become.