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Criticism starts deadly spiral

“Karen’s” mom was a very religious person and also very hard on herself and subsequently hard on Karen.

Karen was scrutinized, criticized and controlled. To be loved, she thought, she had to be perfect, and any imperfections needed to be hidden. Karen lost who she really was in the interest of who her mom needed her to be. All agreed she was a brilliant little girl headed for a high-end education followed by a stellar career and marriage to a wealthy and powerful man.

By the time she was in high school, Karen had pretty much taken over her Mom’s position and was able to scrutinize and criticize herself quite well, although she left the control to her mom. She was unaware of any of this with the exception of the constant feeling of discomfort with herself and occasional flashes of anger.

Karen found some relief in binge eating, hiding her overeating then purging so the excruciating self-hate wouldn’t overwhelm her when she looked in the mirror and saw a “fat” girl who wore a size 2.

She also began to “mark” or cut herself on her upper arms and legs where her mom wouldn’t see. The pain, she found, brought her some type of relief from her constant self criticism.

By her late teens, Karen was so lost she rarely even tried looking for answers. She began to hang with kids who were as lost as she. Grades plummeted in direct proportion to her increasing use of drugs and alcohol. She became promiscuous in a misguided attempt to find love and acceptance.

Desperately trying to locate herself in this mess of addictions, all she could find about herself was that she felt like garbage and she was angry – nothing that encouraged further examination.

By age 20, Karen, destined for a good Eastern college, found herself headed for a good Eastern treatment center. She brought with her a strange mixture of pride and low self-esteem, a substantial drinking and pill problem, a need to balance her inner pain with the application of outside injury, an eating disorder that had satisfactorily scrambled her hormones and enzymes, and an overpowering need for approval that made her into anything anyone wanted her to be.

At two years post-treatment, Karen has made great strides. She got sober through treatment and a 12-step program, addressed her eating disorder (the thing she found hardest to accept and was most obvious to others) and learned to see her own light instead of looking for others to remind her of it.

She is living in a “sober living” apartment with two roommates, is working part-time and, although not going to that high-end Eastern school, will have an associate degree in a couple weeks. Karen is on a path to finding herself, her own standards and values, and feels good about herself today.

• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email by visiting northwestcommunitycounseling.com.

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