Whatever our issue is, there are bound to be times when the issue is less apparent or when things are going better — even if just a tiny bit. In my experience, taking a close look at these exceptions, as we call them in solution-focused practice, will show you that you have everything it takes to make positive change already.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Annina Schmid, a feminist substance use and eating disorders counsellor who helps her clients navigate a world of liquor ads and diet culture while finding meaning in their day-to-day lives. As part of this series, Annina will speak to how people in recovery from eating disorders, drinking and substance use can best navigate potentially stressful family situations without jeopardizing their wellbeing over the holidays.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
Thank you so much for having me! I got into this field because I used to struggle with binge drinking and Bulimia. My eating disorder lasted from the ages of 12 until about 24, and I started drinking at 13 and didn’t really stop drinking problematically until I was about 30. For the longest time, I didn’t believe that full recovery from either of these behaviors was possible, but feminism and counseling helped me make lasting changes for the better, and now I’m very passionate about teaching others how it can be done. If I can do it, anyone can!
With the holiday season upon us, many people are visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?
Keeping your recovery efforts in mind, I think the key question to ask is: Is this setting, person, or group of people helpful and supportive? And if they’re not, what steps will I need to take to stay safe?
In mental health, we talk about triggers a lot, and I think anticipating those and coming up with coping strategies ahead of time is very worthwhile — in particular when the idea of attending such gatherings is something you dread and causes you stress. Stress is the number one reason for illness and problematic behaviors, so I advise all my clients to reduce exposure to stressful events as much as they can, at least for the time being.
Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. In families where celebrating separately is not an option, what advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?
Great question. My best advice in any situation would be to do more of what works: Stick with people who are helpful and supportive as much as you can, and stay away from the rest, whether that means sitting at the other end of the table or staying home altogether. If you anticipate difficult conversations around touchy subjects, prepare statements that can help you set healthy boundaries, such as: “Thank you for offering, but I am not drinking tonight.” or “I know you mean well, but I would rather not talk about portion sizes. This type of conversation is stressful to me.”
We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?
Personally, I don’t believe in labels much. In my understanding, the bottom line is whether or not a family member can make us feel loved and appreciated; if not that, at least not actively hurt us emotionally or physically.
Generally speaking, healthy relationships are non-threatening, respectful, fair, and based on mutual trust. You deserve to be treated with the same respect that you offer to people.
When personal safety is at stake, this becomes a whole different ball game. If you are concerned for your own or another family member’s physical safety, call your local domestic violence helpline, distress line or even the police, potentially ahead of time to inquire about safety measures.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
I help clients set healthy boundaries with family members all the time, whether it is about sharing space in an environment where everyone else still gets drunk or whether family members keep commenting on how much or how little my client is eating.
Recently, one of my clients managed to come back at her mother, who was commenting on on how carrots would be a better snack than the snack my client chose for herself. She said: “Mom, I know about carrots. I’m not interested in carrots. I’m trying to heal my relationship with food here.” Those seemingly small moments of speaking up for yourself take a lot of preparation during sessions and are huge wins for my clients. I was super proud when my client told me she managed to say that!
Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?
Here are my five tips to apply year-round:
- Ask yourself what YOU feel, need and want, and try to adjust your plans accordingly.
- Revisit the idea of a compromise. A compromise means two parties are meeting halfway, and not that one has to accommodate the other. As the old saying goes: You don’t need to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm!
- Think of times that family gatherings or social situations went well, or at least better. What was different that day? What would it take to do that again?
- Think of strategies you have used in the past to cope in difficult moments. How did you do it?
- Understand that, when surrounded by unhealthy people, you are not trying to fix the situation or make it a “perfect” event. Instead, shoot for making it an event that won’t affect you negatively long-term. Then, think about how you would notice that things are going in the right direction for you after the event is over. What will be different if things are going well?
What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?
I think a key strategy is asking the person with the mental health concern what they would actually find helpful, rather than just making it up and deciding that over their head. Once you know how the person struggling would actually like to be supported, you can come up with strategies or a signal for the ally to step in and steer the conversation, or even unhelpful people, in a different direction.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
My favorite mental health quote is: “Do more of what works.” Whatever our issue is, there are bound to be times when the issue is less apparent or when things are going better — even if just a tiny bit. In my experience, taking a close look at these exceptions, as we call them in solution-focused practice, will show you that you have everything it takes to make positive change already.
The fact that you have done it before means that you can do it again. That is a powerful realization for many.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
The movement and change I would like to inspire in mental wellbeing is “non-diet dialogue.” Practicing non-diet dialogue means purposefully steering conversations away from diet talk. Diet talk is harmful, as it inspires dieting, and diets don’t work and cause stress and eating disorders.
People could support me in this mission by understanding that all foods fit into a balanced diet, and by focusing on how a person really feels when they say they feel “fat.” Fat is not a feeling, and there’s really nothing wrong with being fat in the first place. Your weight and the way you look is the least interesting thing about you!
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
Thank you for the work you do and for sharing your expertise! This was so inspiring!