34.

34 | The Full Helping

It’s that time again.

For those of you who just started reading my blog, these annual birthday posts are a tradition that started when I turned 30. I originally intended for them to help me meditate on and find meaning in each year, but the posts are usually more inquisitive than expository.

How to talk about this year? It has been a strange one. In many ways, the last twelve months have afforded me more stability than any other year I’ve written about in a birthday post so far. First I was in DC, slogging through my post-bacc and anxiously waiting to learn whether or not I’d go to medical school. My 32nd birthday was all about grappling with the end of my post-bacc chapter and reformulating my vision for the road ahead. Last year, I was settling into life with Steven back home in New York, and I had just committed to my RD program at Columbia.

This year I started grad school, all the while working to grow this blog, my nutrition counseling, and my work as a recipe developer. In the fall, I finally changed my blog title, which was an important symbolic step for me and a sign of how my relationship with food has evolved in the years since The Full Helping (formerly Choosing Raw) began. I knew that the name change would feel significant, but I wasn’t prepared for how much creative space it would open up.

Since letting go of the raw foods orientation–not merely in my personal life, as an eater, but also in my branding, my message, and my language–I’ve felt such a sense of freedom and inspiration. It’s amazing how words–something so simple as a blog name–can serve either to constrict or nourish our identities. I didn’t realize how choked I felt by maintaining identification with raw food; I figured that since my approach had always been flexible, it was no big deal. But it was a big deal, because it was the linguistic remnant of a time in my life where I approached food very differently than I do today. My vision of good nutrition was far less holistic back then, my definition of “healthy” so much narrower. In some ways, vocalizing this shift was every bit as important as experiencing it.

This has been a year of tremendous professional excitement and growth on all fronts: academic, culinary, creative. Throughout it all, my heart remains firmly tethered to blogging. Recently a friend of mine remarked that she’s surprised I’ve been blogging for so long, as so many blogs are short-lived. But in spite of the fact that I’ve gone through ups and downs with blogging–periods of greater or less investment–not blogging has never crossed my mind. During my post-bacc, I started to feel disconnected from blogging, in part because of stress, and in part because I was so uncertain of myself that it was hard to show up publicly and speak out loud. In the last year, I’ve regained the capacity–or the courage, maybe–to share my words, my voice, and my food. It feels good.

In the spirit of sharing, though, it’s important for me to come clean about the fact that outside of the blog, this was not always an easy year.

In February, for NEDA week, I wrote about the odd realities of leaving an eating disorder behind. Yes, there’s a lot of freedom to be gained. But there is also the unsettling process of having one’s favorite armor stripped away. I’m further removed from anorexia than I ever have been, but I’ve also become poignantly aware of how many seemingly unbearable feelings my eating disorder protected me from. Without it, I am so much more susceptible to loneliness, anxiety, and fear. My eating disorder imprisoned me, but it also made me feel safe, and it gave me a layer of remove from thoughts and emotions that were far more threatening to me than the pain of self-denial.

In the fall of this year, I started to feel anxious. At first it was easy to dismiss this as the inevitable result of juggling graduate school with work, but the anxiety didn’t seem to improve during my winter break, and it never ebbed or flowed with professional stress. It clung to me no matter how busy I was or how hard I tried to shake it off. By the late winter, it was so acute that tiny, insignificant things could make me unravel in the blink of an eye. I felt as though I was losing my capacity to differentiate between what was meaningful and what wasn’t, and it scared me. That sense of brittleness, of feeling as though I was perched someplace precarious and constantly at risk of falling, reminded me a lot of my eating disorder.

There were other things, too. In spite of having finally found myself in a graduate program that’s a perfect fit for me, in spite of living in the city I adore, and in spite of sharing my life with a wonderful and loving partner, I was often unhappy. Or rather, I felt as though I was looking at happiness through a pane of glass: I always felt so close to it, so ready to partake, but somehow I couldn’t shatter the glass. That so many things were going well made me feel even worse about this sense of distance and remove. There was so much abundance in my life; why couldn’t I inhabit it fully? Did this make me ungrateful and rotten? And since I had no reason to be sad, anxious, or fearful, why did I so often feel those things?

In February, I finally gathered up the courage to return to therapy. I haven’t been in therapy since my last ED relapse in my early and mid twenties, but it was a vital tool for me back then, and I hoped that it could help me again. It has been very different this time around: uglier, messier, and not nearly as comforting. My last experience of therapy was a relief: after all of those years of secrecy, it was so good to speak and be heard. And because nearly all of the “work” was focused on managing my recovery, there’s a lot that I was able to avoid.

Therapy in my thirties has been anything but a relief. It has been by turns exhausting and humbling, a process of self-exposure that leaves me wishing for my old defenses. I started the process hoping to find quick answers, and instead I’ve been presented with more and more questions about who I am and how I want to be. More than anything, being in therapy has made me aware of the ways in which I tend to hide, and it has given me insight into the things I’m hiding from. In that sense I know it’s doing its job, but to have the curtain pulled back is painful, and I often wish I could close it up again.

But along with all of the exposure and vulnerability, therapy is helping me to find my voice. I don’t tend to think of myself as someone who is muffled; I write about personal things in a public space, after all, and I tend to express my emotions freely. But I also spend a lot of time apologizing for and doubting myself. When conflict arises, I lose sight of my own perspective. And, in spite of how hard I’ve worked to wrestle down anorexia, I’m still often paralyzed by perfectionism, by trying to craft a life that is oh-so neat and tidy and carefully maintained.

Since life itself is rarely tidy, I need to start exploring what it means to incorporate messiness into my world view, to embrace a way of being that’s freer and bolder than the one I cling to now. I don’t know how I’ll do that or what the end result will be, but I do know that I want to feel less confined and more resilient. I want to take more risks. And this is the first step in that direction.

Late this spring, things happened in my personal life that brought up a lot of my stuff. Deep stuff, painful stuff, stuff I’ve worked long and hard to avoid–usually with great success. It was a difficult experience, but I didn’t hide, and I was able to make some choices that amounted to what is for me a radical form of self-care. It was a sign that, no matter how turbulent and weird these past few months have been, they’ve served a purpose. They’ve helped me to live more authentically, which hasn’t always meant living more wisely or more benevolently or with greater equanimity. It’s so hard for me to open the doors of my life to conflict, struggle, or anger. But I’m trying, because the consequences of avoiding these things feel scarier to me right now than the things themselves.

So, that’s 34. If nothing I just shared makes sense to you, that’s OK. It doesn’t make much sense to me, either. But in the spirit of allowing confusion and disorder to be a part of my life–along with the beauty and meaning that I work so hard to find–I’ll let this post be the tangle of words that I knew it would be.

I say this nearly every year, but it always merits saying, so I’ll do so this year, too: Thank you for reading, and thank you for making this blog a space that I cherish and value so deeply. The best part of every birthday is finding a way to communicate a year’s worth of experience to you. Onwards into the 35th year.

xo

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    43 Comments
  1. Happy (late) Birthday Gena! Thank you for your bravery, honesty & poignancy & for continuing to inspire me every day. XOXO

  2. Thank you for sticking with your blog, for the great recipes and the insightful posts. None of us are perfect and our lives can get messy – all we can do is be honest with ourselves and do what feels right at the time. I can honestly say that the older you get (and I’ll own up to being a fair bit older than you!), the more you feel comfortable in your own skin and know what in life matters to you and makes you happy.

  3. I teared up reading this post. I just turned 31 and have found myself also reflecting on the past year…I got married and started a business, and while I should have every reason to be “happy,” I’ve been experiencing debilitating anxiety that I can’t seem to shake. I feel down, then beat myself up for feeling so. I’ve also reached back out to my therapist to begin therapy again, and while I imagine it will be a different journey compared to when I was 26, I think it’s the healthiest choice. Thank you for writing this and helping me feel less alone. Xo

  4. Happy Belated Birthday. I really appreciate your honesty with us. You really show your rawness and it’s humbling. And I could feel myself visibly relax while reading this. Not because I want you to have these feelings and struggles, but because I feel them as well. As I find myself distancing myself more and more from my eating disorder, I’m having a hard time with life as well. The anxiety and depression and I isolate myself as it’s easier to deal with being alone than with others. I also went back to therapy and found it helpful in some ways, not in others. I’m glad you are doing better and are looking forward to another year, stronger.

  5. Happy Birthday Gena! Here’s to many more courageous years of pulling back the curtain and self exploration. Thank you for sharing your journey with us, for changing the things you need to so you can shine and spread those wings! You are such an inspiration. xo

  6. You are always so thoughtful and inspiring, Gena! I’m so glad that I found your writing, recipes, and insight years ago, and I can’t wait to continue following your journey. Thank you for all that you do. Happy birthday and best wishes for the year to come.

  7. Gena!

    It truly amazes me how you’re able to talk about your own life in such a way that, as a reader, I feel like I’ve been given a mini therapy session of my own. As someone who suffers from tremendous anxiety and shields myself from any form of messiness, your words make absolute sense to me. I’ve been reading your blog for…I don’t even know how long now! Definitely back when I was still recovering from my own eating disorder. Your ability to weave every word into something beautiful is an art, and I’m so happy you’re still blogging. Of all the blogs I’ve read and forgotten about over the years, yours remains. I don’t usually comment on your posts, but after reading this one, I feel you should be reminded of the very real impact you have on your readers–an impact that may not always be verbalized, but is definitely felt. I’ll also tack on that you’re a much appreciated presence in the vegan community. It’s easy to watch or read certain content and feel as though you’re inadequate in some way, or feel compelled to “do” veganism differently. For lack of a more descriptive sentence, I’ll just say your blog is the exact opposite of that. It’s welcoming, comforting, and full of inspiring content. For as long as you write, I will read. Happy 34th birthday, babe. Rock it! You’re a goddess!

  8. Dearest Gena,

    Happy 34th Birthday! I am sorry to come late to the party–I was recovering from heat exhaustion and am still catching up. And what a beautiful, heartfelt post this is, making it such a pleasure to try and catch up a bit. I always admire your capacity for honest, fluid articulation of your life experiences, and how well you write about that. When I was your age, I, too, was in therapy that was indeed quite messy, but oh so valuable–I call on what I learned from that time in my life to this day. I want you to know that in my early 30’s I was needing to be able to allow myself gut wrenching weeping that would come upon me almost without warning, so much so that it’s also the time in my life when I decided to stop wearing mascara–it was just a lot easier to clean up after a good sob. I also used to use the time in the car on the way to teaching on campus to allow myself to scream if I wanted to. These emotional outbursts were completely new to me and very unsettling. That your own account of your year would bring them back to my 60 year old self is testament to the beautiful generosity of your willingness to share authentically with us, as you look back on yet another year. Here’s to all the changes that have shaped you up until now, and the ones that will come. Blessings to you now and always, for doing your utmost to embrace the mysterious wonder that is you. I feel very fortunate to call you my friend. xoxoxo

  9. Loved reading this, Gena. I feel quite connected to this because I thought everything was absolutely perfect for you, but of course it hasn’t been exactly that picture I created in my head for you. I have spent a lot of time thinking that, recently, though. 34 (and 33, for that matter) were super rough for me, having finished a PhD but not knowing the next steps. I have felt proper depression for the first time in my entire life. But things are finally looking up, and a couple of months after my 34th I was offered the job of my dreams, after feeling like I had taken a very wrong step and would need to do something dramatic to get back on track again. Realising that so much of my depression was related to the loss of self-worth I attach to my career – and seeing how that dramatically turned around once I was back on track again – is also, in and of itself, a thing to contemplate because of what it says about me.

    I love these reflective posts not just because I’ve been able to follow you through many different stages as a reader, but also because it prompts reflection in my own life. For example, I hadn’t really connected that discomfort with experiencing emotions without the ‘shield’ of a disorder to the enhanced vulnerability that being recovered brings. But it rings true.

    I also hadn’t fully appreciated just how much more I enjoy your blog now that you have opened up with the new name, but let it be known: I do love the newfound freedom and the delicious recipes. I just only read blogs once every month or two, so I don’t always comment, but rest assured that I still make the recipes and I still read your words. And all of it is appreciated. Happy birthday, Gena!

  10. It makes total sense. It’s crazy – at 39, I’m going through a parallel experience and you’ve just put it all into words for me. You’re amazing. Thank you for your talent and your gift. I feel like it’s MY birthday today. I hope that you can unwrap 35 with even more awareness.

  11. Two things:

    1. As a reader of your blog, without knowing you personally, when I think of Gena Hamshaw I think: amazingly eloquent writer, deeply intuitive and thoughtful person, inspiring human being, genuine, kind, and wise beyond her years. Those are literally the things that came to mind just now.

    2. The fact that I percevie you in this way has a lesson for us both I think. A: those characteristics ARE inside of you and they ARE what you are capable of, whether you allow yourself to see them in yourself or not. And B: I’m not the only one struggling. Even people who possess the characteristics I aspire to have self-doubt, unrealistic ideals they hold themselves to, anxiety about not being good enough, and not enough faith in themselves. This reminds me that I am just like the people I hold in high esteem; I am not “less than,” “unfixable,” or “unworthy.”

  12. Gena, it’s unsettling how much I see my own past year in what you’ve written- I know I’ve commented on your blog a few times about how hard it’s been. Particularly what you wrote about feeling overwhelming guilt for your unhappiness when you’re surrounded by reasons to be happy. Thank you for continuing to share your writing with us, as it means a tremendous amount to me to hear that I am not alone when many days I feel nothing but alone. I adore reading about your perspectives on nutrition, health and veganism each week and I find your words become more eloquent and compassionate with each passing year.

  13. Happy Birthday Gena and Greetings from the UK. Be yourself and you will find strength to conquer anything – stay strong! I always say to my son. Everything happens for a reason……..and everything that goes round, comes round. Give yourself time. I have been there and have come out the other side and you will too. Nina X

  14. Happy birthday and thank you for sharing so openly, vulnerably and honestly. Its been such a privilege for us to read-watch your growth and development and you never cease to inspire and reassure me. There’s no golden-wonderland on “the other side” of an eating disorder, life is always and inevitably going to be a rhythm of struggle and growth and, however painful, your writing fills me with faith that is is manageable xx

  15. Happy birthday, Gena. I have been reading your blog for a few years and continue to be inspired by your honesty, intelligence and compassion. I am now 40 and went through a horrible period of anxiety in my late 30s. It forced me to confront some painful issues that I had always managed to hide from – including beginning to accept that I cannot control everything in my life,.. ! Thank you for sharing your own struggles. It really helps to be reminded that we all struggle and just need to try to be kinder to ourselves and each other.

  16. Gena, happy birthday sweet friend! You amaze me, and this post was no exception. Your open-ness and willingness to work on “life” and share it here is a constant beacon of light, even in your struggles, you are shining. And I, as well as so many others, are so grateful for you. I hope you have the most wonderful birthday and feel crazy loved. Here is to another year of growing and experiencing life – xo

  17. I too recently had a birthday and it made me reflect on what a strange year it has been. I feel like me life has done a ‘180. A year ago, I was still so wrapped up in maintaining a psuedo-recovery that I was convinced that I all I wanted was a career, a schedule, my comfortable routine of exercise and food. Then I met the man I’m going to marry and my safe world was shattered. I realized I want to be a mother, I want to change my career, I want to be healthy mentally and physically in order to do all of those things. I joke with my boyfriend that he made my life so much more difficult and complicated in the best way. I too feel like I’m looking at happiness through a pane of glass, but hopefully I’ll be able to break through soon. Cheers to a new year!

  18. Powerful words, Gena. It’s so brave of you to put this out in the open and share your decision to seek outside help. I can totally relate to your visual of looking at happiness through a pane of glass. Why is it so hard to accept one’s own happy, even enviable life?? (At least for me), positivity/reinforcement from friends or loved ones (or even strangers) can’t really change how I feel about myself at a given time – it has to come from within. Happy 35th, and I hope this year brings great things for you! xo

  19. Gena,
    I always look forward to your yearly recaps with anticipation :). You are such an eloquent writer and do a remarkable job of painting a canvas of the details and intricate tapestry of the events of life. You’re writing is always so captivating and humbling and eye- opening, so thank you for continuing to write and show up in this blog space; even when the going gets rough and waters get murky. I myself am in therapy and it took a lot of self- reflection to get myself to go back again and ask for help. And be ok with going for reasons other than being really ill (“I’m not sick enough to go”). I’ve been going through a lot of my own shedding and reflection questioning this past year, which is another way I can relate, but I love how you turn around adversity into viewing it through different lenses and finding the silver lining. And I also really am grateful that you’re gotten over the hump of the 20s and can speak to that, because the mid 20s and on are oh- so- difficult and it helps to know others have gotten over the high bar and come out the other side stronger and more textured. Happy happy birthday again, and thank you for continuing to show up and write and remind us that we’re all in this together. I hope you had a fabulous day celebrating !!

  20. Gena,
    Thank you for sharing this. I relate to so much of what you said. As someone daunted by a similar need to tie-everything-up-in-a-bow, I know how hard it is to share something you haven’t yet figured out. In my adult life, I’ve noticed how much I am desperately grasping at control over everything else, to the point of throwing well-being out the window entirely. I haven’t figured my shit out yet, but some things that help me (esp. for bad anxiety): exercise (make time as much as possible. the more intense, the more relieving), trying to stay in the moment as much as possible (anxiety is future fear or getting tangled in your thoughts, even remind yourself “I am washing the dishes, it is Tuesday…”), and a big thing I’m still working on is just “allowing” things (could be anything: allowing the clutter – literal or figurative, allowing the pain, allowing the feeling). It reminds me of in yoga when you realize you’re in a pose and clenching literally every muscle. Once you let go of holding on, you actually get deeper and the pose feels better that way. From a fellow anxiety-sufferer, you’re not alone. It’s horrible & hard to explain, but we do our best. I think it makes us stronger.

    xo,
    J

  21. I think I mostly comment here when you’ve written something so important that I just have to take a minute to see it again. Today’s no different:

    “It’s so hard for me to open the doors of my life to conflict, struggle, or anger. But I’m trying, because the consequences of avoiding these things feel scarier to me right now than the things themselves.”

    Man, this.

    Related to this, in undertaking a formal meditation practice (in part to manage feelings of anxiety I feel certain should be examined by a therapist, but oh well), I had a tough time for months nailing the language during times of guided inquiry, answering that basic question, “why are you here meditating?” Gaining presence, being aware. Sure, sure, all that, but that doesn’t cover it. Then I finally got there: it’s to make room. For all of it. I’ll never chill the eff out unless I create space for the un-chill emotions to get some air. Pursuing emotional health can’t be about curating my emotions to be a better citizen, lover, friend, whatever. Part of chilling out means making room for not chilling out. Which is a, you know, process. To say the least. Identity is so messed up.

    Anyway, you’ve been powerful and articulate about messy things, as ever. Happy belated birthday. All the luck.

  22. Thank you so much for this post, Gena. It is very encouraging that you are working through difficulties and openly admitting that it is far from painless (which of course, is terrible to be okay with when struggling with lingering perfectionism). Being open is so helpful — it is a reminder that I am not the only person presently wrestling with myself! I wish you all the best growth and healing in this next year. Thank you.

    • You are certainly not the only person, Alyssa. I wrestle with myself all the time, and I think we all do, though it can ebb and flow (and I hope it gets a little less imposing and scary as time goes by). Be well, and take care of yourself.

  23. Hi Gena,
    I wanted to let you know, there is an advertisement from Newfoundland Labrador Canada about hunting Black Bears in your side bar. I assume you don’t support hunting since you are vegan. The advertisement says “At 650 pounds, it’s either you or him spread put on the floor. Over 10,000 black bears. Hunting, the way it’s meant to be.”

    • Hi Dana,

      That’s terrible. I’m not seeing the ad, but they differ from page to page. I’ll email my network to request immediate removal, and I’ll give them some strongly worded feedback (they’re really good about respecting the vegan parameters of my blog, but sometimes mistakes happen). Thanks for the head’s up!

      G.

  24. Thank you for opening up your heart and soul to us. It’s one thing to feel like we know you through your recipes, your voice, your kind and gentle nutrition advice… But it’s something else entirely to be plunged into your life and psyche in such a raw and honest way. May 34 bring you respite and balance.

  25. what a lovely and thoughtful post. I’ve been blogging for almost 9 years, and I know just what you mean – I’ve ebbed and flowed with it, but I haven’t considered stopping. I love it a lot. I remember now that you and i are practically bday twinsies (my bday is on the 9th!), but I’m almost a decade older than you. When I was 29, I had a similar return to therapy experience (I mean, I know that everyone’s experience is unique), but it opened up all those curtains that i had found many methods to avoid looking behind. Your description of these phenomena is so articulate. May you continue to have courage and growth, and may you have increased happiness and peace. Happy birthday.

    • Amey, thank you for this comment. I am always happy when we communicate at this time of year, near our birthdays!

      It’s funny that you also had an experience like this with facing therapy in or on the cusp of your thirties. Amazing how much less warm and fuzzy the process is for me now…but what it’s asking me to do is be brave, and that’s what I need at this moment in my life.

      I so appreciate your reading, and happy early birthday to you! <3

  26. So much love and happy birthdays to you Lovely. I fully and completely understand what you have written here – the messiness and all that surfaces in the years – decades even – post anorexia can be major. It is all learning. Learning to live deeper. In the mess. You CAN do this – and one day you will wake up and feel totally differently about the craziness – promise. <3

  27. As always, its such an honor to be one of your readers. Thank you so much for your honesty and your continued work. Your willingness to show up when the going gets tough is exactly what makes you such a powerful person in our community. Happy Birthday!

    • Lacy, thank you for this. I’ve taken much inspiration and strength from your words and your authenticity, so these feelings definitely flow both ways. XO

  28. That was so beautifully written, especially for something that must be difficult to share. I have been reading your blog for several years and I have to say that I see a big change in the last year. Your posts are more eloquent than ever and are exuding a confidence and gentleness that are really lovely to read. I hope you feel what I see in your writing and content. I look forward to every blog post.

    • Donna,

      It means a lot to me to hear that! It’s hard for me to perceive shifts in my own writing or voice, but if something has been detectable, then I’m glad for it: it means that the changes I’ve been feeling are finding their way into my words.

      Thank you so much for reading.

      Gena

  29. happy birthday, gena! i cannot believe you’ve been with steven over a year now!
    it sounds like a year full of ups and downs. i hope therapy helps, and i hope you come out stronger than before <3 and of course, thank you for keeping the blog and sharing with us

  30. What a beautiful post. Growth is so incredibly painful. It’s so much easier to stuff it down, glaze over the junk, or ignore how deep it really goes. You are a brave woman to face it all head on! Blessings to you on your birthday. May it be one filled with growth, joy, and fun surprises!

    • Thank you, Heather. “Glaze over the junk” is a good phrase, and your comment is so spot on–yes, it feels much easier to duck and hide. But there are big risks to doing that, too.

      I always appreciate your reading.

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