The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast Episode #79 - Tana Amen
Tana Amen is a New York Times bestselling author, vice president of the Amen Clinics, a neurosurgical ICU trauma nurse, and a world-renowned health and fitness expert. She has won the hearts of millions with her simple yet effective strategies to help anyone optimize their lifestyle and win the fight for a strong body, mind, and spirit. Tana holds a second-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Tana and her husband, Dr. Daniel Amen, have four children and five grandchildren. Her latest book, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child: How Persistence, Grit, and Faith Created a Reluctant Healer, will release nationwide January 5, 2021.
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The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child (Tana Amen)
8:30 - Tana's Inspiration
10:20 - Spectrum of Trauma
12:30 - Self Comparison
14:20 - What is the purpose of guilt?
15:00 - The Struggle out of Feeling Guilt
17:05 - toxic control
18:00 - Perfectionist tendencies
19:10 - perfectionism in the health sphere
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22:25 - the tenets of omni revolution
24:35 - basic nutrient tests
26:50 - emotional component to illness
29:30 - the powerful psychosomatic connection
30:40 - medication for mood disorders
33:20 - Screening a new psychologist
36:10 - Misdiagnoses of mood disorders
37:30 - Sexual abuse in childhood
40:20 - date rape
42:45 - embracing sexuality after assault
46:35 - resenting men
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49:10 - confidence and self esteem
52:10 - Disordered Eating
53:40 - Feeling Out of control
55:30 - medication for disordered eating
56:00 - balancing your life "circles"
57:05 - unhealthy uses of intermittent fasting
58:30 - Tana's spiritual journey
Melanie Avalon: Hi friends, welcome back to the show. I am so incredibly honored about the conversation that I am about to have a little backstory. A few months ago, I had on a fabulous guest, I had Dr. Daniel Amen on the show. He is a 12 Times New York Times bestseller, a celebrity psychiatrist and he specializes in brain scans, SPECT scans for brain health. I actually got a brain SPECT scan, which I talked about on that episode, and we dive deep into the physical aspects of mental health and what's going on there. But, his wife, Tana Amen, is also a New York Times bestseller, and she is releasing a new book called The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child. Her team reached out to me about Tana coming on the show for this book, and I was so incredibly honored and so excited because this is actually the first time bringing on a guest with this type of content, because normally it's nonfiction, diet health, and I'm sure we'll dive into that as well. But Tana’s book is a memoir, and it was absolutely so powerful, it dives deep into childhood trauma, identity, all of the things that we experience as human beings and how that really affects really our perspective of ourselves and what we do in our lives. Tana, thank you so much for being here.
Tana Amen: Oh, I'm so excited. Thank you so much, Melanie.
Melanie Avalon: For listeners who are not familiar with you, which I'm sure many of them are, but like I said, Tana is a New York Times bestselling author. She is Vice President of the Amen Clinics. She's a neurosurgical ICU trauma nurse, and she's a world-renowned health and fitness expert. Her New York Times bestselling book is The Omni Diet, which I would love to dive in a little bit at the end if we have time. To start things off, the first question that I normally ask is, tell me a little bit about your story and what brought you here, but that really is the topic of today's show. Instead, I will ask Tana, because your background is-- this is the first time I'm assuming that you're releasing a memoir, what motivated you or inspired you to write this book? What was the need that you felt there?
Tana Amen: For so many years, I actually did the opposite. I had a wall up, I had a façade, that's how I describe it. I felt if I had enough makeup on, had the right clothes, if I accomplished enough, if I could get good enough grades, make enough money, people wouldn't see how broken I was inside. I really hid all that brokenness I felt, all that frustration, how inferior I felt for so many years. It wasn't until after I met my husband, and really did a lot of work. Let me clarify, I was not a patient. That is not how we met. He's such an incredible human. He would tell you I tortured him, but the truth is, I wasn't ready to get involved after going through what I had gone through. I went through a really awful divorce, but he created this safe space for me to sort of heal.
I'd really never talked much about my past, but I would divulge little bits and pieces when I was doing The Omni Diet and some of my health and wellness training and coaching. As I did, just these small tidbits, I had women start to tell me, “If you can do it, I can do it.” I had this woman at an event come up and tell me-- she started crying. She was like from Nigeria, and she says, “I pray every day that God will do for my life, what he's done for yours. And if you can do it, I can do it.” I thought to myself, I haven't even really told anybody the worst of it, and I've had people say to me, “What would you know about my life? Your life looks perfect.” I felt I needed to really drop the rest of it and be honest, but I also needed to wait till my daughter was at an age where I could really tell her the truth and be honest and have her understand. I didn't want to just drop this bomb while my daughter was growing up and have her sort out the debris, if you will. And now, she's old enough.
Melanie Avalon: Listeners, definitely get the book because reading it, you went through a lot. You just touched on it right now that it can be-- I think really unexpected for a lot of people, especially women, because looking at you, you look like you have the picture-perfect life. You open the book by telling how you talk at a rehab facility and you weren't really accepted, people were very skeptical, like, “What do you know?” because nobody had any idea of what you had gone through. That's a question to start off with, because I think people experience different levels of trauma growing up, identity issues, whatever they may go through. You went through a lot. Sexual abuse, like murder, drugs, the whole gauntlet. Do you have to have experienced a certain amount of trauma to be broken? Or, can some people experience seemingly no trauma and still feel broken? What do you see in the spectrum of experiences of trauma and how it affects people in their day to day lives later?
Tana Amen: That's a really good question. It's very different for everybody. It's so funny when you say I've been through so much, and so many people I know who have been through a lot, even more than I have been through, they'll minimize it, because that's what they had to do to survive, and that's what I did. It's like, “Well, it wasn't as bad as some people have had it.” I knew what was wrong, I knew it was bad. But the way I survived was by saying, “I'm tough, I can get through this. Other people have had it worse.” Some people are able to do that, other people can't, and they will crumble, and that's not an insult. It's just a fact. Some people can deal with more than other people can. The fact is some people have had it worse than I have. Some people dealt with it better than I did. There are other people who didn't have as much, and maybe they struggled more. There's no judgment there. It's just where you're at in life and it's how you deal with it. Resilience is an interesting thing. No one really knows why people are as resilient as they are, whether you're born with it, whether you develop it, but it's very different, and it's individual, and I don't think you should be hard on yourself, wherever you're at.
Melanie Avalon: I absolutely love that. That's actually something I personally have struggled with so much, is I have my own personal demons or things that I have experienced as “trauma” in my head, but I compare myself to others, and I think, “Well, it's not this bad.” It's not as bad as what other people might be experiencing. So, I don't know. I really struggle with how to experience it. Should I see these things as trauma? What do you think about the victim versus the resilience warrior mentality? What do you think is the healthiest approach to that?
Tana Amen: I think it could be a fine line, and you touched on something really important. When you start to compare yourself to others, because I did that in my 20s when I went through a wicked depression after I was diagnosed with cancer. I went through this wicked depression, kept wishing I would die. I was struggling. It was compounded. There were so many factors going on, so many thoughts in my head. One of those things that I was struggling with is, I felt guilty that I didn't have it as other people. I felt guilty for not being more grateful that I couldn't pull myself out. I felt guilty that it's like, “Well, my cancer is not as bad as other people have it.” I wasn't sexually assaulted and abused as much as some girls have been. I wasn't sold into sex trafficking, I wasn't chained to a radiator when I was-- I’ll come up with the stupidest things, and I would tell myself, that I should be more grateful, because I did that. There's a fine line between resilience, yes, there's a certain amount of resilience that comes from saying, it could have been worse, but if you take it too far, you start to lay on guilt. When that guilt starts to impact you, you paralyze yourself, you're not able to move forward. That's not a good thing. That's what happened to me.
Melanie Avalon: This is resonating with me so much. What do you think is the purpose of guilt? I assume that it serves a purpose, is that a protecting feeling? Why do you think we experience guilt about that?
Tana Amen: When it serves the purpose of keeping you on track, keeping you from doing things that you know are going to get you into trouble-- We often will reframe it into, if I do this, then what? Is my behavior getting me what I want? If you've got a certain amount of guilt that keeps you focused on your values, that's a good thing. But if after you've done something, you can't forgive yourself, and guilt is paralyzing you and preventing you from moving forward and forgiving yourself, that's toxic.
Melanie Avalon: When did you have a moment when you were able to have this epiphany and release the guilt? You talk about a lot of things you did, EMDR, the work with Byron's Work. Was there one thing that was the trigger for you, or was it a long journey?
Tana Amen: I'd say that it was a process. If you're reading my book, the first half of the book, it's pretty clear that it was a struggle. It's just mostly struggle. There's a lot of childhood trauma, there's trauma in my adolescence. Then in my 20s, I'm diagnosed with cancer, go on the wrong medication, which almost ruins my life. Then, I have a lot of bad decisions that occur because of that, because I'm on the wrong medication, and I'm wildly impulsive, I make a lot of bad decisions, which creates some self-induced trauma, if you will. Let's just be honest. Because of that, my spiritual walk was really tainted. I didn't have anything to grab on to. I didn't have a lot of hope in my life. But the second half of the book is where the journey starts, for healing. There's my spiritual walk. There's the biology. I get physically healthy. There's the psychology, where I start to get mentally healthy. There's the social, where I start to get new friends and I start to develop a whole-- I get into college and start to change the people I'm hanging out with. There's the spiritual walk. All of those things begin to change.
There's a lot of change that happens fast, but the journey to healing, I wouldn't say happened overnight. It was process, and it's not a straight line. People start to feel again guilty or they feel bad if they try something and it doesn't work instantly. We are this quick-fix society. The truth is, as long as you're moving up, as long as you're moving in the right direction, even if you fall, it's okay because it's in those downtimes, it's in those falls that we learn the most. As long as it's a jagged line upward, it's okay.
I practice martial arts. I actually have a second-degree blackbelt in kenpō. One of the things that helped me so much was this metaphor, because women, especially if you've grown up like I did, and trauma and you're trying to control, you struggle so much for control. When you get to that point of trying to find control in your life, you become this perfectionist, which can become so toxic. I remember walking into my dojo one day, and I just wanted to learn how to hit stuff really hard, because of some of the stuff I had been through with sexual trauma. I'm like, “I just wanted something empowering, where I could hit stuff really hard and protect myself.” My master said, “I really want you to avoid fights, you really don't want to go blow for blow with a 250-pound guy. That's not really the goal. We're going to learn how to fall safely and get up quickly and get away.” I was like, “I don't want to learn how to fall. I want to learn how not to fall.” He was like, “No, you have to learn how to fall because it's part of the journey, it's part of martial arts, it's part of protecting yourself is being able to fall safely and get up quickly. You only fail if you stay down.”
It was one of those light switch moments where I'm like, why didn't someone teach me that when I was a kid? Metaphorically speaking, what if we all learned that falling is not failing?
Melanie Avalon: I love that. That's actually something I really struggle with, the perfectionist tendencies. I remember one time when I was talking with one of my therapists, I think it was some of the work that she was giving me. There was a list of all these different traits that you could have, which were mindsets that were not supportive or ideal, and it was things like being a victim or worrying, but one of them was perfectionism. I was like, “Why is perfectionism a bad thing?” I was like, “Isn't that a good thing?” I feel I take pride in it or it keeps me productive, or it gets things done. What is the issue with perfectionism?
Tana Amen: The issue with perfectionism is number one, you don't forgive yourself if you don't do it perfectly. So, many women won't even try, because if it doesn't go perfectly, or if they don't think they can do it perfectly, they'll pick up their toys and go home and not try. It becomes an excuse not to try. And then, if they do try and it doesn't work out perfectly, they'll just continue to beat themselves up. Our self-talk, our internal dialogue is so toxic, most of us would never allow another person to talk to us the way we talk to ourselves, because it's abusive. That's what perfectionism does. It's like if we can't do it perfectly, we just beat ourselves up.
Melanie Avalon: I think it's particularly a pretty big issue, especially with people in my audience who are in the whole biohacking sphere, because we can have a perfectionist tendency or drive to try to perfect all of the things, especially with health, that we're experiencing, diet, fitness. There can be this huge drive to be perfect. I read The Omni Diet as well, and that was one thing you talked about was like your 90/10 rule, and also putting yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, your perfectionist tendencies and where you should be for that. So, yeah, do you see that a lot with people when it comes to diet, fitness, nutrition?
Tana Amen: Oh, for sure. I hate the word diet. The first three letters of the word diet are die. I don't like that word. I didn't like the title that my publisher picked. I wanted to call it The Omni Revolution, but diet sells. So, I lost that fight because they bought the book. I really loved the content in that book, but the word diet wasn't my choice, because I wanted people-- and this is one thing I always said when I was teaching my classes, “I will not help you lose weight, I will help you get healthy, because weight loss is this stunning side effect of vibrant health.” I would never focus on someone's weight, I just refuse to, because it's way too toxic. I'm not going to help you get into a bikini for some special event, but I will help you get healthy. Because if you get healthy and you reduce your inflammation, and you're eating whole foods, and you're doing the things that are right for your body, the rest of its going to happen.
Melanie Avalon: I want to go back to your original book, but while we're talking about the diet, first of all, The Omni Revolution, there's always this debate in the carnivore and the keto people, and then there's the raw vegan and it's always this dietary war. My initial thought is, I think if we just look at the human body, we are omnivores. That's pretty much what I see. I loved in your book that you talked about the debate or the war between plant versus protein, and really brings absolution there. Just really quickly, could you tell listeners that the tenet of The Omni Diet and the plant versus protein debate?
Tana Amen: Let me start off by saying, people will fight more about food than they do about politics, maybe not now. Historically, they fought more about food than politics or religion. It's the craziest thing I've ever seen. Why they even think they should tell someone else how they need to eat is bizarre to me. For me, it's always been about health. I don't have a dog in the fight. I do not have a dog in the fight, whether or not you want to eat plant or protein. I just don't. Whatever my personal belief system is, I also tend to believe that we are omnivores, I do believe we don't eat enough plant-based foods in general as a society simply because processed foods have taken over. I believe we need to cut the processed foods out of our diets, because they're not real food, they're chemically created Frankenfoods. If we just cut that out, we ate more whole food right there, I think we've eliminated most of the battle.
But when it comes to plant versus protein, my thought is, for some people, they do it for health, and that's really where my focus is at. In our clinics, we will test your blood. It's really about your individual type, what works best for you. If it's more about ethical reasons or religious reasons, then that's fine. I am not going to argue with you about that. All I want to know-- again, I'm going to test you, we want to see what's going on with your body, what do you need, what is missing, and let's supplement. Let's make sure you're getting what you need. If you've got inflammation, let's make sure we're addressing it. If you're not getting the right nutrients, let's make sure we're addressing it. Let's cut out-- the one thing I think both sides agree on is processed foods. So that's really my belief on that.
Melanie Avalon: What do you test with the blood specifically?
Tana Amen: All of your basics. We want to know a basic chemistry. We want to know vitamin D, your fatty acid levels, and then for some people, because we're a psychiatric clinic, obviously, we're going to go deeper. We do a much bigger assessment, we want to know what's going on with your thyroid if you're depressed or you're anxious. What's happening with your thyroid, your hormones, there's all sorts of stuff we need to know. As far as nutrients, we want to know what those basic nutrient levels are. What's vitamin B, vitamin D, what are all those things doing. The two big ones actually are vitamin D and your fatty acid levels. Those are the two that are typically not right in almost every person that walks through our door, and you absolutely will have problems with your mood if those are off. You're more likely to become diabetic, have heart disease, have cancer, like all sorts of problems. If we can get those two things right, you're much better off. But also, your gut, we want your gut healthy. If you've been taking antibiotics, or certain medications, or having way too much stress in your life or taking NSAIDs like Advil, you're likely to have problems with your gut. Or, if you've been eating just a really lousy diet and you've got food allergies, you're likely to have problems with your gut. And if your guts not right, your brain is not going to be right, period, end of story.
Melanie Avalon: I was actually researching last night at length, all the studies they've been doing on vitamin D and COVID, the relative risk and everything is just insane. Those who have COVID are much more likely to be vitamin D deficient. If your vitamin D deficient, you're much more likely to be not asymptomatic. Yeah, it's huge.
Tana Amen: Just to touch on, I've been surrounded by people who have suddenly popped up with COVID. It's just been freaking me out because I'm right in the middle of this book launch for my new book. Plus, they're people I care about and you're always worried how are they going to-- some people will have very light symptoms, some people have really severe symptoms. I've been tested a number of times, and shockingly, even though I've been exposed to it several times, I don't have it. One of the things that I think makes the difference is I've really worked on my immune system. I've really worked on keeping those numbers up. I take extra vitamin D, I take liposomal vitamin C, and I make sure I'm taking zinc. Those things have been shown that people are low in those things are more susceptible to COVID.
Melanie Avalon: That was actually a question I had for you, because in the beginning of the book, you talk about how you often got sick a lot as a child.
Tana Amen: I was really sick.
Melanie Avalon: You had thyroid cancer, not just-- I'm saying just. Now here, I am comparing trauma levels, but not hypothyroidism, or something like that, you had actual thyroid cancer, really intense things. Do you think there was, and do you think there is for a lot of people an emotional component to health issues like that?
Tana Amen: I refused to acknowledged it or believe it or even look at that when I was younger. I think that was a protective mechanism. It was so funny when I met my husband and we're getting to know each other, and he'd asked me questions about my childhood. When you grow up in that environment, like you said, my first three memories were almost drowning when I was two, being left alone when I was two and a half and there were no adults around. When I was four, everyone screaming in my house, my mother and my grandmother on the floor because my uncle had been murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. Those are my first few memories. When you have that happen, everything in your life becomes-- your first few years are supposed to be about safety and security so you can explore the world, but that didn't happen because I was always looking for the tiger around the corner.
When your early memories are almost all about survival, you begin to hide, at least I did. I would hide because it was safer, or try to be invisible. So, forget exploring the world. I was just trying to make sure I stayed out of trouble and stayed out of the way. Then all of a sudden, two weeks after my uncle was murdered, I was in the hospital for upper and lower gastrointestinal studies. I was having severe abdominal issues, gastrointestinal issues. Then I was sick all the time, always on antibiotics. I've had 10 medical surgeries, had thyroid cancer that metastasized. If anybody could get something, I got it, so it was just crazy. I didn't really connect that, or maybe I just refused to. I remember when I was talking to my husband about my life and whatever, and I was telling him about being in the hospital four years old and going through that. He looked at me and he goes, “Wow, that was two weeks after your uncle was murdered.” I'm like, “Oh, don't give me psychobabble.” He's like, “Really? You don't think those are connected?”
As I got to know him, and I really started to do my own work, and I started to maybe acknowledge and admit some of the things with that scared child when I was growing up, I dropped that defense mechanism and I started to really pay attention. I could almost see growing up, like right after I developed a panic attack at nine, my tonsils had to come out. Right after I got mono, and then I had to have my tonsils out, actually. I almost always got sick right after some major event that happened that was negative.
Melanie Avalon: I think there is a huge connection there. I actually recently interviewed Wim Hof, and he talks a lot in his book about generational stress stored in cells. I've interviewed David Sinclair about stress, and I just really feel there is something there, and it's funny because something like IBS, people will often write off in a way as being psychosomatic, and that's the reason it's not real, or in a way because of that, but I think, now I'm like, it actually is. Maybe it is psychosomatic partly, but that doesn't make it any less a factor or any less real, or any less of a connection.
Tana Amen: Yeah, and I don't know that I love the word psychosomatic only because, yes, that is a real term. When we say psychosomatic, the society tends to write off people's issues as being “in their head.” Well, guess what? It is in your head, but not in a bad way. It doesn't make it bad. It is in your head, but it doesn't make it bad. We need to be more conscious of the fact that our subconscious and our brains are so powerful, and they're trying to tell you something.
Melanie Avalon: Also, to that point, because you also talk about in the book, how you would have these issues, and in that spirit, doctors would say, “Oh, well, maybe go on antidepressants.” You had your whole experience with Prozac, which was quite a story. Listeners, you will have to read the book for the craziness with all of that. What are your thoughts on medications like that? Do they have a place? What do you think is a healthy approach?
Tana Amen: Well, I'm a neurosurgical ICU nurse. So, of course, medications save lives every day. I am not anti-medication whatsoever. I'm against the indiscriminate use of it without actually knowing what effect those medications are going to have. Without actually trying to give people skills. Pills over skills is not what I consider to be good medicine. That's not what my husband considers to be good medicine. Do medications have a place? Absolutely. Like you just said, I was put on the wrong medication without anyone really knowing anything about how that would affect me. I went from being so anxious that I developed an eating disorder because I needed control over my life, to being dangerously impulsive over an eight-month period almost ruining my life with bad decisions. To the point that I on a dare went to Costa Rica with nothing, got left there with no passport. It was just insane the stuff I was doing.
I write about that in my book. I know that there are a lot of people who are listening, who feel shame over those things. I, for so many years felt shame over, like, “Wow, what was that? What was going on?” I kind of knew it was the medication, but you can't really explain it to anybody because no one's going to understand. I remember when I met my husband, and he did a brain scan on me, and it showed that my frontal lobes were sleeping. He said to me, “So, you went through this period of really bad depression and you saw a psychiatrist.” He's like, “I hope he didn't put you on Prozac.” I'm like, “Actually, he did.” He's like, “Oh, well, I figured that because during that time, that was sort of the drug of choice. But that's not the drug I would have put you on because you--” And I said, “Why?” Now I'm perked up. I'm like, “Why is that?” He said, “Because you have sleepy frontal lobes and that is an SSRI, which means it basically increases the availability of serotonin. What serotonin does is it drops blood flow to your frontal lobes which can make you more impulsive.” I'm like, “Oh my gosh.” Ding, ding, ding, you just explained my whole life.
It just suddenly validated how I felt. He's like, “There are medications. There are actually antidepressants that would have been great for you to pull you out of that really severe depression,” because I wanted to die. He's like, “There are medications that would have been great, but that's not the one I would think that would work.” I was just like, “Wow.”
Melanie Avalon: For listeners, if they are working with psychiatrists and potentially trying different medications, is there a way that if they can know if the psychiatrist they're working with has a thorough understanding of all of this, like, what type of questions would they ask?
Tana Amen: It's been our battle, and just our pain point, since my husband started what he's doing is getting people to look at the brain, because how do we know if you don't look? It's like, people look at the heart, they look at-- if you have a broken bone, if you go to the gynecologist, they're going to look before they just do something. When you go to a psychiatrist, they don't. They just put you on a drug, and if it doesn't work, they try a different one, and if it doesn't work, then you have a personality disorder, which is why psychiatry has such a bad rap.
When I first met my husband and found out he was a psychiatrist, I almost canceled my first date with him because of all of the experiences in my family, and because of being a nurse and having to work with them in the hospital, I just didn't have respect for them. It's sad to say, but it's just true. When I found out what he did, I was fascinated. I'm like, “Wait, that's so interesting. I don't know other psychiatrists that do this. Why doesn't every psychiatrist do this?” I sort of didn't understand. I still don't really understand the battle. I've been to the meetings with him. A lot of it is about money. It's bizarre to me. I hate when these arguments come up about money and billing. But we would say that you need to look at the brain. That's been our fight all along, you need to look at what you're treating, because in a scan, you can actually see if someone's brain is working too hard, you can see if it's too busy, you can see if it's slow, if it's like has low blood flow, if it's got sleepy frontal lobes or sleepy parts of other parts of their brain if they've had a head injury. Based on that, it gives you a target to go after.
Now, we do a thorough assessment in addition to that, so we want to know exactly what's happened in your life and what's going on and why those things are that way. That gives us a target to go after. We would say that you want to know what's going on in your brain. Obviously, there are people who are never going to be able to get a brain scan. We've created like tools that are on our website to help people understand based on their lives and a series of questions what might be going on in their brain. Probably, my husband's best book for describing that is Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. He goes into detail. About, if this is going on with you, you most likely might have this. Of course, the scan is going to be more accurate, but that at least helps people who can't come in for a scan.
Melanie Avalon: For listeners, I will put a link in the show notes to the interview I did with Daniel, it's at melanieavalon.com/brainscan. Like I said, I got a brain scan done and he actually reviewed it in the episode, and it was so eye opening the things that you can learn from it. I just applaud you guys for fighting this battle because it seems to be such a-- and I don't want to make a blanket statement about psychiatrists. There is often I feel like a very casual approach to medication. This is people's lives that we're dealing with. Just furthering more information and education about I think is so, so key.
Tana Amen: My mother's life was even harder than mine. She was a 16-year-old runaway, lived on the street, never finished high school, because her life at home was so awful. My grandmother was misdiagnosed. This is why I had a hard time with psychiatry. She had been misdiagnosed. We actually think she had a hormone imbalance, probably some other stuff going on, some PTSD and things like that. But she was misdiagnosed as being schizophrenic, put into a mental hospital, and given electric shock therapy. Just craziness. As a nurse many years later, I'm like she's not schizophrenic. She had no symptoms of schizophrenia that I could see, or even some of the professionals that I knew of. But for years, that's how she was treated. It ruined not only her life, but the lives of all of her children and my grandfather. That's not fair.
Melanie Avalon: Was she having visions? Or, is that your mom?
Tana Amen: Yeah, growing up with someone who sees things is really interesting. My mother is the one who has visions, and she hates when people call it being psychic. When you grow up with someone who in detail sees things, it's always really interesting. So, that was another sort of interesting aspect of my childhood. Yeah.
Melanie Avalon: So many things. Some big topics I'd love to touch on and ask you questions about. The sexual abuse in your childhood and the role of sexuality. So much there. You did experience a lot of sexual abuse in your childhood, near-rape experiences as well, sexual abuse at the hands of family members. You talk about the struggle in your mind that you had about how to identify yourself and that, like, were you a victim? Were you at fault? I think so many females-- I'm going to start crying, I think so many females experience a lot of sexual trauma or abuse, and it can be very difficult to know, we try to feel like we must be at fault.
Tana Amen: Oh, for sure.
Melanie Avalon: Can you talk a little bit about that?
Tana Amen: The first time something happened, I was 12. Almost 12. My stepdad, my mom had gotten married really quickly to someone, and he climbed in bed with me. Well, actually, there was a series of things that led up to that. So, the signs were already there, but I was so confused. I didn't grow up with a dad. The only male figure in my house was my heroin addict uncle who was always high, breaking in and out of the house. I didn't really have a strong role model. My dad had abandoned me when I was a baby. I didn't really have this strong role model so that I understood how men should behave in my life, if that makes sense. This stepdad who I'd really don't know, because they just met, pops into my life, and he starts really misbehaving, and I was afraid to tell my mom. I was afraid to tell her because I'm like, “She's finally happy. I knew she was struggling on her own. I thought this is her shot at not having to have such a hard life.” I was withholding all that guilt over that. I also knew something wasn't right.
Then, it ends up with him in bed with me one morning, and he's got his hand up my shirt. I was molested by my stepfather, and without going into too much detail, I, for the longest time felt like, “Did I do something? Was it even wrong?” There were so many questions. It's like, “Did I misread it? Did he really do that?” You start to literally question your own thoughts and wonder if you're crazy. Fortunately, my mother did not question me. She believed me. And so, often part of the struggle is that women are not believed. Young girls are not believed for a number of reasons. Either they're not believed because it's not convenient for the adults in their lives. It's not convenient for their mothers to believe it, because they don't want to be single, or it's a family member and it's going to cause too much drama. Whatever that reason is, that does more damage than the actual event that happened in my mind.
When a woman is not believed-- especially a child, forget women. When a child is not believed when they do come forward, it just invalidates everything that they just went through. They tried to do the right thing, they tried not to be a victim. And they just got slammed into that victim category by not being believed. Now, they're being called a liar. For me, that's way worse. My mom at least believed me. She actually tried to kill him. It was very dramatic, even that was traumatic going through that. At least I felt validated. Unfortunately, she then followed up by sort of taking my voice away because-- and I don't think she intended it, but it happens sometimes with our parents. They do something that they don't really intend to do. She took my voice away by telling me I had to be polite to him later. I started developing grit and gumption of my own. I realized that being that scared child that I was growing up and trying to hide wasn't working. I wasn't willing to have that happen again, the same thing that happened with my stepfather, and I developed a very caustic tongue, but because my mother had done that, I became angry. So rather than using my voice in a balanced way, I really started to use it in a toxic way.
But then, there was more. I was date raped. That was even worse, I think. When I was 17, I was date raped. That was much harder because I had made a choice to go out with someone. I liked him. I thought we were going to have a relationship. I dressed to impress. Even though I said, “No, no, no.” And he didn't listen, afterwards, I didn't know what to call it. I didn't label it as anything until I was an adult. Then I realized, after I did enough work on myself, because for so long, I'm like, “What was that? I don't even know what that was. Was that rape? Was it date rape? Was it my fault? Did I ask for it? I went out with him, so I was certainly responsible.” I couldn't put a label on it, until after I went through therapy. After going through therapy, I felt empowered enough, and now I feel empowered enough to tell anybody listening, it's okay to just call it the way it is, to be very clear about what happened, and also to take responsibility. When I say responsibility, please hear me clearly, I am not saying blame. I am saying giving yourself the ability to respond appropriately. In my mind, responsibility means the ability to respond, not taking blame. What that means for me is, I was finally able to draw the line and be clear. He had no right to do that no matter what. I can be responsible in the sense that I can't go backwards, but I can go forward. That won't happen again.
Melanie Avalon: This is incredible. My follow-up question was when you are older, even though it's still young, but when you are older, and how confusing can be, girls in their late teens, maybe even early 20s if they're being taken advantage of, and like you just said, it can be so much more confusing because you do feel like you had make-- perhaps that you had choice in the matter. You went on that date and you like dressed up and it can be so, so confusing. That’s was, yeah, really incredible. Could you talk a little bit about your own feelings of your own sexuality, because you talk in the book a lot about your experiences with that? On the one hand, you, I guess, were well endowed at an early age and experienced a lot of backlash from peers because of that. Then you had experiences with Playboy. What has been your whole experience with how you perceive or interpret or embrace your own sexuality, especially when it comes to all these issues that we just talked about with the dynamics of just everything?
Tana Amen: Yeah. I don't think it's hard to imagine that I was just primed for code red identity crisis. I did develop very early, by the time I was 14, I was a DD bra. Back then, we didn't have social media, you didn't see a lot of other people like you. You didn't see girls enhancing their photos. That was like, if you looked like that and you looked a lot older than you were, even my face I just looked older than I was. you got attention, and it wasn't just attention from boys. I mean, boys acted like idiots like, they can't help it, like adolescent boys say things and whatever, and I got a nickname “jugs” at school. That just happens. I think that's more expected, but when you start getting attention like that from men at an early age, that's really confusing. My dad, my second stepdad, at home, started calling me ‘sexy bitch’ when I was 14. He actually meant it as a compliment. That's what's really twisted about the whole thing. He never put a hand on me. He thought it was funny. He thought he was complimenting me, but I hated it. I thought it was so inappropriate, and I hated it. My mom didn't do anything about it. She was always busy working, and she thought she would ask me, “Did he try to touch you?” When I would tell her that I didn't like it, it's like, “Well, did he do anything to touch you?” And I'm like, “No.” And she's like, “Okay, well, he's protecting you.” In some ways, he did protect me. So, it became very confusing.
I started to hate the attention that I got because I was just so young. I would go out at times with no makeup and a big sweatshirt. If I did that, all of a sudden, I would get no attention. Or even worse, people would ask me if I was okay. I started thinking that this is what's expected of me. Why I cared what was expected of me is, it's just because I was so young, I thought, well, people expect me to look a certain way, and so I have to do that. If I didn't get the attention, it's like, I started to crave the attention I hated. That really did a number on me.
Then, fast forward several years, I think it was less than a month before I found out that I had cancer, I was also told that I tested for Playboy. There's the whole story in the book, which I don't have time to go into in this interview. I had tested for Playboy and was accepted, and they were going to schedule a date for me. I was just told that I was accepted, they were going to schedule a date, and then I found out I had cancer. Talk about a weird, crazy rollercoaster of a ride. It's like I'm told on one hand, like, oh, at that time that was considered like these are the most beautiful women. On the other hand, you're rotting with cancer. I couldn't even digest it. It was just so crazy. I really did become very confused about needing the thing I hated. I started to resent men and the “games” they played. I started to think that I needed to be better at their games than they were. Rather than being hurt by men, I needed to be better at their games than they were. To be quite honest with you, I was pretty good at it. Not that that's a good thing, but I started to become the thing I hated.
Melanie Avalon: What do you think is a healthy relationship with one's evaluation of their own appearance? That's something I personally struggled with because I was raised in a very Christian upbringing. I've always had this struggle about how to feel confident about yourself and your looks without feeling it's something that is egotistical or selfish or the foundation of your identity. It also ties into your warrior mentality. That's something that I also struggled with because I think I identified a warrior mentality as being-- I only looked at the negative traits of it, that it's being too forceful, and it's being too assertive and not being humble. What are your thoughts on both of those? Being confident in oneself and being a warrior without feeling-- I don't know. I really struggle with the humility aspect of it all and taking back my strength.
Tana Amen: I think it's a journey. Byron Katie’s Work really helped me a lot. She does this work, it's called The Work. It's really about questioning your thoughts and turning your thoughts around. I went to this one event of hers, and she asked the women in the audience what they hated about their bodies, and, oh boy, did that just unleash just this whole crazy tirade of women just going off on their bodies, but the craziest part of all of it was that everyone had the same thoughts. Literally almost identical thoughts, whether they were overweight, older, young, in shape, out of shape, it didn't matter. They almost all had the same thoughts. The exact same things about their bodies that they hated. The thin women hated their bodies more than the overweight women. That was really eye opening for me, because I realized, it's really not about our bodies, it's about our thoughts.
For me, a big part of it was unwinding the trauma and unwinding why I started to feel the way I started feeling about myself. Doing EMDR was really critical for me, because we develop those ideals, we develop coping strategies when we're young as a survival mechanism, as a way to get through and they work. When you're two years old, when you're four years old, when you're 10 years old, whatever it is, or 15 years old, you develop these strategies as a way to survive. That strategy worked for me at the time, because I didn't-- it was the best I could do. It was the best thing in my toolbox at the time, and it helps me survive. The problem is those strategies don't work when you're 40, they might have helped me survive, but they don't lend themselves to healthy relationships, or like you asked earlier, healthy sexuality. By doing EMDR, I was able to not only go back and figure out why, how those came about, like unwind the trauma, reprocess the trauma and see it through an adult size, but then also, replace those strategies with healthier ones, with what I wanted to have now.
Melanie Avalon: I was really excited to read that you've done EMDR because I've done that as well and it's been a really profound and powerful experience. Another topic that you discuss in the book, one of the ways that you dealt with the craziness in your life and trying to feel in control was you did have an eating disorder. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. How many women do you think experience that? Does it require checking off certain boxes, the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating? What are your thoughts on eating disorders?
Tana Amen: The preferred expression is disordered eating, but they're sort of interchangeable for a lot of people. I think clinically speaking, the current preference or the politically correct way to say it is disordered eating. Whatever you call it, when we have an unhealthy way that we manage either food or even our body image, they can become connected. Just like at Amen Clinics, we say that depression isn't one thing or anxiety isn't one thing, I'm going to go out on a limb here with the research I've done and say that eating disorders aren't one thing, because I've talked to a lot of people with eating disorders and they don't all experience them the same way.
For me, when I experienced an eating disorder, one day I found-- it was shortly after the date rape, by a series of events that happened in my adolescence, they stacked really fast, and everything felt out of control. I remember having the thought that maybe I'm just not as smart as other girls. Drama doesn't follow them the way it follows me, and everything felt so out of control. One day, I just found myself over a toilet bowl purging. I was like, “What am I doing? This is so gross. I can't stand myself right now.” But I felt relief. That became my way to try to control things. When my mother took me to an eating disorders clinic at UCLA, I really, really, really hated it. I really hated it. I didn't want to be labeled like that. I thought they were going to help me with my anxiety. Instead, I felt like I was being labeled, I just despised it.
Some girl went into-- she coded while I was there, and then she died. I remember hearing everybody running around screaming, and I'm like, “Okay, I'm never coming back here.” I refused to go back, and I promised my mom I wouldn't purge again, which I sort of kept that promise. I didn't throw up, but what I did instead was I turned to extreme exercise, like two and a half hours a day minimum. So, I didn't use exercise in a healthy way, but I figured that was better than throwing up. I wasn't going to die from it. I was beating my body up, but I wasn't going to die from it. Nobody was going to criticize me for it. If anything, it lent itself for towards my need for validation with my body, so I looked better. It's very complicated and confusing, because there are a lot of ways to purge. You might be a binge eater. You might restrict eating. There's so many ways that people show disordered eating, and sometimes you don't even-- it doesn't come out through eating but your body dysmorphia might show up in other ways. You don't see yourself the way other people see you. So, that's a really complicated thing to answer as far as how do they experience eating disorders, it's really complicated. How many women have it? They say it's estimated that about one in three, but they don't really know because so many don't come forward, especially older women, they won't come forward.
Melanie Avalon: How do you feel about, especially being in the field, some of the medications that are prescribed for different eating disorders, like for bingeing?
Tana Amen: I'm not sure I have too much of an opinion on it because I don't really work too much with binge eaters. I know we'd rather see what's going on in your brain. That's just our way of approaching things is what's happening in your brain, what's happening in your life? We treat everybody by four circles. Biological, what's going on with your body and your brain? Psychological, what's going on with your mindset? How are you thinking? How are you controlling your mind, because your thoughts, they lie a lot, you’ve got to talk back to them. Your social circle, what's going on with your social circle, because people are contagious? Your spiritual circle, what gives your life meaning and purpose? Those are like four tires on a car. If one of those tires goes flat, the car might drive for a little while, but it's eventually going to crash. But if more than one of those tires goes flat, that car is not going to drive. It could even flip at some point, which is what happened to me. If all of those circles are low, if you're not taking the time to keep those circles full, your biology, your psychology, your social circle, your spiritual circle, that's when people begin to suffer.
For us, if somebody came in with an eating disorder-- we actually have an eating disorder specialist who I love. We've had a couple of them, but there's one in our Costa Mesa clinic who's amazing. They're really going to look at what's going on in every aspect of your life. They're not going to just prescribe something. Now, will they prescribe something? Possibly. It really depends on you, and how severe the eating disorder is, whether or not they can do something holistically or not. That's really individual.
Melanie Avalon: Okay, gotcha. Actually, I'm dying to know your opinion on this, because I am also the host of The Intermittent Fasting Podcast. I was wondering, because intermittent fasting is becoming more and more popular, time-restricted eating, do you see though a lot of people potentially using intermittent fasting as a type of control? Do you see unhealthy patterns with people with that?
Tana Amen: I think anything to an extreme can become that. A lot of it has to do with your mindset, why are you doing it? If you're exercising for an hour a day because you know it's healthy for you, that's very different than doing two and a half hours a day, because you need to sweat it out, which is what I used to do. The same is true with intermittent fasting. If you're fasting for days, and you're a cop, and you need to be very sharp on the job, that's not going to work too well for you. Or, you're an athlete, you're going to crash. Being aware of what you're doing, and why are you doing it. But if you're intermittent fasting, because you're doing 12 hours or 16 hours, and maybe once in a while you do 24 hours-- once a week, you do 24 hours, when you're not doing something really important, that's fine, because the studies show that it's actually really healthy for your brain. It's healthy for your body, it's healthy for your brain, it's really good for you. The question is, what are you eating the rest of the time? Are you restricting calories? Are you eating healthy food? Are you trying to take care of your body? Or, are you trying to punish your body?
Melanie Avalon: Then you touched on this. I love the four spheres of a whole mind-body approach to everything. One thing you do talk about throughout the book is your spiritual journey. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and your initial skepticism, but ultimately your role in the church, how does that function in your life today?
Tana Amen: It's a huge part of my life. I know that people listening right now, Melanie, are probably coming from all different walks. It's funny, I initially decided I was not going to put any of my personal spiritual beliefs in the book, but how do you write a memoir and not put that in there? If it's an important part of your journey, it's really hard to do. It's not intended to preach at anybody. It's really just intended to show my journey, which was very rocky. My dad had abandoned me when I was a baby, and he started doing drugs with my uncle, who was a heroin addict, and he left. Then he showed up one day-- so I didn't have a relationship with him, but he showed up one day with a new wife, a pretty new wife, and he was a Baptist minister. So that was really confusing. This is the guy trying to teach me about a savior in white robes, and this dude named Jesus, I'm like, “That makes no sense, because you're not even a part of my life. Why are you talking to me about this? Why can't you just show up and be present, like, be here for me?”
I wasn't receptive to it, especially because my dad's behavior still wasn't all that great. He was better during that time, but he still wasn't really part of my life, except for maybe a week or two a year, and didn't pay child support. Then, he embezzled money from the church, and then he started doing drugs with my younger half-sister. It was really complicated, my relationship with him, but because he was the one trying to tell me or sell me on Christianity, I became very resentful.
I eventually crashed when I was 23 and I went into that wicked depression, and I realized I had no spiritual walk. I didn't even believe there was a God. If there was, I was praying He would just let me die. Eventually, I got to this point where I was so low, I was just so completely bankrupt in every area of my life. I just started thinking to myself, I don't know if there's a God, but something big, it's going to take something big to pull me out of this hole. It is not going to be a person. There is not one person on the planet that can pull me out of the hole I'm in. I sort of inherently knew I needed to work on myself. They say, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” That's what happened. I had several mentors that appeared in my life when I was ready to turn things around.
When I went off the Prozac, I had a woman who appeared that really helped me with my spiritual journey. My uncle who used to be a heroin addict, now he turned his life around. He's the one that really taught me about the word ‘responsibility.’ That was just an awesome full-circle moment for me. When my friend started talking to me about God, at first, it was a little too much God talk for me, but she was so different than my dad. Rather than that hellfire and brimstone, “You're going to hell, if you don't do this,” it was really always about love, acceptance. This very different God than I had heard about growing up. She was always so full of joy, annoyingly so. I don't know if you've ever known people like that, but you're like, “Why are they always so happy? It just really bugs me.” I just knew I wanted that, but I really didn't know what it was. I'm like, “I don't know if I can do this God-talk thing.”
The big breakthrough for me, was when I finally realized my dad's not God, he's a flawed human. That epiphany for me, it was like, “Why am I expecting my dad to be God?” All people are going to disappoint you at some point.” I just realized if I'm going to have any kind of spiritual walk, it needs to be my own spiritual walk, it needs to be independent of my dad. And that's when I started my own journey.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, that is so powerful. Everything that you experienced with your dad, and the story of how he didn't come to your wedding, and you struggled for so long with actually forgiving him was really, really powerful. Listeners, you've got to get this book, it's really, really eye opening. For listeners, who get the book and read it, what is the message that you're trying to share regarding what is normal? Can people from any background, whatever they might be experiencing, what might they learn from reading your journey?
Tana Amen: When I wrote this, the intention was to just give people hope, because there's people who have been through a lot worse than I have, there are people who have been through something very similar as to what I've been through. The bottom line is, I just wanted to give people hope, that there is hope. It's easy to call people bad. I ended up having this great moment with my dad before he died. The story is in the book about how I came back together with him, he died in my arms after me not having a relationship with him. I was praying for him as he died, and it was great, we were able to let everything go. I realized God was calling me to help certain people in my life that I didn't want to, I argued with God. The title of the book is, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, but the subtitle is, and then how it created a reluctant healer.
The reluctant part was because I constantly felt like I was being called back to help these family members who I felt justified in disconnecting from. Don't misunderstand me, having boundaries is important. Even when I reconnected with my dad, and my half-sister, who was an addict, who had addiction issues, I still had boundaries. I had established healthy boundaries in my life by then. But I felt like I was being called back to help them and I realized that in the end, the help was for them, but the healing was for me. I almost robbed myself of that opportunity to heal if I hadn't helped them. By giving them help, I got to heal those wounded parts of me from when I was a child. That's one of the themes in the book, is knowing when to help, knowing when to draw your boundaries. It's easy to call people bad, it's harder to ask why. We are not more beautiful in spite of our broken pieces, we are more beautiful because of them. Each one of those breaks has a story to tell.
Melanie Avalon: I love that. It's so beautiful. It's really wonderful because you do have the whole journey and the healing aspect for members of your family within the book, but then, for readers of the book, it extends beyond that to people who read because I'm sure when we read it because you went through a lot. As a reader, for at least for me personally, and I talked about this interview, pieces of it so intensely resonated with me, even though I hadn't experienced most at all of what you have experienced, reading it, you can find the pieces that do resonate with you, and then that that overall message is so inspiring and really, really eye opening. So, really, really, I thank you so much for this book.
Tana Amen: I so appreciate it.
Melanie Avalon: This is actually perfect. The last question that I actually asked every single guest on this show, and it's just because I've realized more and more each day how important mindset is surrounding everything. What is something that you're grateful for?
Tana Amen: I'm so grateful for my family. That's the thing I wake up to every day. It doesn't really matter what else is going on if my family is here with me.
Melanie Avalon: I love that. Is there anything else you'd like to say before we come to a close?
Tana Amen: No, I'm just so grateful that you read the book. If anybody wants to preorder it, it's a relentlesscourage.com. We've got all kinds of gifts, but other than that, I'm just really grateful that you enjoyed it.
Melanie Avalon: All of the work of you, of Daniel, everything you're doing is so incredible. I am forever in gratitude. Any new books or any developments in the horizon, I love to bring either of you back on the show and share with listeners? For listeners, if you go to the show notes, I will put links to everything that we discussed. Definitely get the book. It's really, really, really wonderful piece of work. So, thank you so much, Tana. I really, really appreciate it.
Tana Amen: Thanks, Melanie.
Melanie Avalon: Have a good day.
Tana Amen: Bye-bye.
Melanie Avalon: Bye.