Finding My Own Festivity

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/The_autumn_leaves_%28305979423%29.jpg

There is no need for air conditioning at night lately. If I leave just a half-opened window in the bedroom, I find myself pulling the comforter snuggly around my chin sometime near 3 am. In the mornings, the chilly air propels me toward the closet for a sweater as I set the kettle on the stovetop for my ritual cup of tea. As I sip the steaming liquid, the aromatic vapor wafting pleasantly around the tip of my nose, I can hear the bleating, rather obnoxious squawks of Canadian geese passing overhead as they progress to their winter habitats. The humid, stifling heat of summer is giving way to drier, crisper air. I can feel the change on the breeze that rustles the leaves, which are showing just the faintest hints of brown shrivel at their edges, a flash of orange here or there, and a rare, prematurely stark branch. I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of chrysanthemums at the garden center next to the library. Autumn is coming.

Do you know what Autumn means in Vanillaville, East Midwest, USA? It means that festival season is upon us. A few weeks ago, there was the Celtic Festival, followed by the Jazz Festival and the Sweet Corn Festival. Then, the area hosted Bacon Fest and Germanfest. The agenda for next weekend includes the Music and Arts Festival, Lebanese Festival, and AleFest. The weekend after Labor Day will see the Popcorn Festival and the Greek Festival come to town. Other events on the horizon include the Apple Festival, because it really wouldn’t be fall without one, but also the Renaissance Festival, Oktoberfest, Buttercream Festival, Cyclops Fest, Pork Festival, Mum Festival, Pretzel Festival, and Sauerkraut Festival (I kid you not)… among many others.

Is it a cultural thing, or an eating disorder specific thing? Because I just don’t get it. Growing up in New England, we didn’t even have counties, let alone county fairs. The only benefit to knowing what county I lived in was being able to pick my geographic location out of a weather alert map at the bottom of the TV screen during an emergency warning broadcast. There certainly weren’t multiple festivals happening every weekend.

For the first several years that I lived in Vanillaville, I thought that there was something really wrong with me. Clearly, festivals were fun. It seemed obvious and implicit in the word itself. \‘fes-tə-vəl\ (noun): “a time of celebration…” “gaiety, conviviality.” Origin: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin festivus festive.1 During my first August in Vanillaville, as my eating disorder was just emerging, I ventured to the Germanfest with a friend. It was a nifty experience for about forty-five minutes. There was live music, and women dressed in dirndls sold homemade tchotchkes while beer flowed liberally beneath a giant, white tent. We ate overcooked schnitzel and spätzle, or rather he ate while I anxiously nibbled and berated myself for overindulging until my heart was beating faster than the wings of a hummingbird and I was near-tears with the deluge of panicked thoughts I managed to stir up in myself at the certainty that I was assuredly going to become fat from this single chicken patty. We perused the rows of ceramic steins and the tables laid out with keychains and license plate holders emblazoned with the German flag, and when we were bored we drove home. That was it? I thought. Maybe we simply didn’t catch it at the right time. Perhaps we missed the best of the activity. So, a couple of years later, when some friends of mine wanted to scope out the Sauerkraut Festival, I decided to tag along. The novelty of a celebration dedicated to sauerkraut that made the thirty minute drive out into the rural area surrounding the “city” seem worth the investment of time and gas money. If nothing else, I would be able to spend an afternoon in the company of my friends. By that point in my life’s history, my eating disorder was significant enough that I was socially isolating out of fear and anxiety surrounding food and the consumption of it, so a chance to be in the company of peers was both terrifying but also longed for desperately. However, it would not be incorrect to surmise that I wasn’t planning on eating anything at this carnival of kraut.

Unfortunately, it rained on the afternoon in question. We piled into Brad and Jenny’s fuel efficient, charcoal gray Camry and made our way past corn fields and cow pastures until we arrived in the tiny downtown that was transformed for the weekend with banners, streamers, yellow police tape and orange cones, folding tables, tarps, and tents. It was looking inhospitable and sad, splashed with mud, as bedraggled volunteers manned booths under a damp sky. A steady drizzle began just as we departed the car. We circled the tract around all of the tables, past the crafters and the cooks. Once Brad, Jenny, and our friend Monica were satisfied that they picked out the best-looking brats of all the possible options, they shelled out a few dollars, and we huddled under the eve of the only permanently standing building nearby while they scarfed down sausages, pretzel rolls, and Cokes. With their appetites mollified, and my curiosity quelled, we picked our way past puddles back to the Camry and began the trek home.

Last autumn, I gave the festival circuit one last chance at redemption. On a stunningly beautiful, warm, blue-sky Sunday afternoon, I journeyed over winding roads to the much-acclaimed Apple Festival, held in the historic area of a nearby town that is also home to the state’s oldest hotel, as well as a real, working coal-powered locomotive. This is going to be fun! I told myself. The weather was perfect, I was gaining insight into my eating disorder, and apples were a relatively safe food for me. I ate one every day. When I arrived, the place was flooded with cars and people. Clearly, it was a popular event. Two of the downtown streets were blocked to traffic, with booths set up along both sides. I merged with the flow of bodies spilling into the festival area with eager excitement and anticipation. Gradually, I picked my way from one temporary stall to another. Knitted scarves, homemade soaps, beaded jewelry… more homemade soaps, etched wood signs… more homemade soaps… more knitted scarves… apple tarts, apple fritters, apple crisp, apple pie, caramel apples, chocolate-dipped apples, candied apples, local honey, fried dough, more caramel apples, more fried dough… my interest began to wane, my feet began to ache. All around me, people were devouring baked potatoes loaded with bacon, sour cream, and cheese, nachos, turkey legs, and sugared apple concoctions of all varieties. Under the hot sun, sweat beaded on my forehead, and as I slid into disappointment and depression, my anxiety began its quick crescendo. I didn’t yet possess the skills to help me diffuse the situation. Distress tolerance was a term that was not in my lexicon.

Admittedly, my exposure to festivals is limited. I went to the Renaissance Festival one year, and when I was living in DC, I attended the Montgomery County Fair. They all seem to follow a basic recipe, however. As I wrote when I began, maybe it’s my eating disorder or maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up going to festivals with my family and friends, or maybe it’s a combination of both… but I it doesn’t matter all that much. They are fun for some people, but they just aren’t for me, and I’m finally comfortable saying, “There’s nothing wrong with me because I don’t find festivals entertaining! Just because I think they are uninteresting doesn’t make me a boring, antisocial, cranky person! I find my fun in other ways!” It’s exciting to finally feel comfortable and confident enough with myself that I’m not trying to become someone I’m not, and I can work on becoming the person I am! This weekend, while people were flocking to AleFest (I’m sure it was a blast for those who love ale and fests), I drove to the Big City, about an hour away.  Some friends and I bought tickets for a historic walking tour of one of the old neighborhoods and then sat down to dinner at a cute, Belgian café. That might sound boring to some, but it was thrilling for me! Step by step, bit by bit, I’m learning who I am, and trying to love her…

“All is Safely Gathered In,” © Jonathan Billinger, Oct 2009, CC-BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.
  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary © 2015.
  2. Featured image credit:  “The Autumn Leaves,” © Darwin Bell, Nov 2006, CC-SA-BY 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.
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The Ties that Bind

“You know what would be really great?” my brother leaned back casually into the corner of the plush, red leather sofa, his voice sharply punctuated by his characteristic sardonicism. The corners of his mouth curled in mirth. “If you weren’t afraid of eeeeeverything.” His eyes twinkled playfully, offsetting the biting edge of his words, but they didn’t sting any less painfully.

Caught off guard, I could feel the rusty gears of my mind grinding against themselves, ineffectively searching for the best response. “Yeah,” I answered lamely. “That would be super-great. That’s the goal.” I stared at the dish of broccoli, carrots, and sugar snap peas on the coffee table before us, the artfully presented bowls of artichoke dip and hummus, my own dry hands, my sister-in-law’s between us. His comment dissected me like surgical steel slicing directly into one of the chambers of my heart. What I heard him say was, “You are a pathetic fraidy-cat, so scared of her own shadow it’s amazing that you’re able to function in the world.” Something inside me shriveled.

One of the lessons I’m coming to understand about communication and interpersonal effectiveness is that owning up to my anxieties, vulnerabilities, doubts, and questions is important to ensuring that my needs are met and is key to establishing realistic expectations and healthy boundaries for myself and others, and to building relationships. However, there is such a thing, apparently, as too much vulnerability. My memory of the evening is a bit fuzzy when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, but I’m pretty sure that in the fifteen minutes before my brother’s half-jovial, half-exasperated comment, I declared my fear of at least twelve different situations and inanimate objects, ranging from various types of food to overseas travel (despite the fact that I’ve been to Europe four times and visited seven foreign countries), to camping, dogs, germs, herbal teas, and swimming pools (even though I was a former competitive swimmer, then worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor for eight years). Sigh.

He doesn’t understand! I thought, feeling defensive and wounded. He doesn’t realize all the work I’m doing to identify my fears, name them, and confront them! Perhaps that was true, but perhaps he was also overwhelmed by my unguarded and uncensored announcing of all-things-that-terrify-me. It won’t always be this way, I told myself. One day, I’ll be brave. One day, I won’t be afraid of the swimming pool or traveling.

Was it always this way? When I think about myself BEFORE, I remember myself as independent, spirited, determined, self-sufficient, bold, and courageous. Ironically, there isn’t a clear distinction between this vague before and the current present. I always contended with depression tinged by anxiety, waged a war of hatred and shame against myself and my imperfections, and wrestled with a persistent thought-milieu that coalesced into the general messages, “I’m not good enough,” and “This is never going to work out.” I was the kid in high school who flipped out if everyone wasn’t wearing seatbelts and when somebody showed up at a party stoned, because we were probably all going to get arrested and someone might die.

So… yeah… it was probably always this way. The difference is, now I’m owning it. I’m facing it. Instead of eating it away, or starving it away, or pounding it into the asphalt beneath my running shoes, I’m standing up and saying, it’s not that I’m scared of germs, or the pool, or flying across an ocean and eight time zones, it’s the UNCERTAINTY of it all. I can’t control whether the medicine will work when I get sick, and I can’t prevent myself from accidental injury in the lap lanes, and I can’t predict, let alone protect myself from, all the unfortunate ills that might befall me abroad. And that TERRIFIES me. It’s easier to be afraid of experiencing an allergic reaction to herbal tea than it is to be scared of uncertainty in general. In his own way, my brother was effectually calling to my attention the reality that I was (am) afraid of everything, because the truth is, that I really can’t control anything.

It seems that the only healthy solution to this conundrum is… ACCEPTANCE. My previous solutions (binging, orthorexic restricting, avoidance behaviors) only led to more anxiety, despair, and an ultimately dysfunctional life. I am in need of some acceptance of a radical variety. RADICAL ACCEPTANCE. Because, here is an even deeper fear – the fear that I will one day die having never lived because I spent all of my days trying to rigidly control and direct every aspect of my existence. Radical acceptance means different things to different people. It might mean just acknowledging the unpredictable nature of the universe. For me, radical acceptance means putting my faith and trust in God. It’s a work in progress.

So, dear readers, what would YOU do if you weren’t afraid? Today, I am GOING to go for a bike ride! I already texted my friend Meg to ask her to hold me accountable, and she set an alarm on her phone to chime at 5 pm, the deadline I gave myself for getting my hiney out the door. I better go put on my cycling shorts!

"Dülmen, Marktstraße," © Dietmar Rabich, rabich.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons. License available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode.
Dülmen, Marktstraße,” © Dietmar Rabich, rabich.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons. License available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode.

The Girl on the Grocery Store Floor

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and maybe you are popping into Wegmans on a mission to obtain that dratted half-gallon of milk that you need for tomorrow morning’s cereal or you are making your weekly pilgrimage, pushing an overflowing cart. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you see her crouched like a ball in the middle of the seasonal aisle, knees tucked into her chin, looking so small that at first it’s hard to tell if she is an adult or a child. Is that a three-ring binder spread open at her feet, pages askew? What is going on? Her toes are pointed forward at the white pages with black lettering, and you can see that some of the lines are highlighted in bright green. She appears to be rocking gently back and forth ever so slightly. The motion is almost imperceptible. Her lips are moving wordlessly… she is either reading or conversing with herself. It’s one of the more odd sights you’ve seen at the grocery store, but then, people are weird. You shrug. Maybe the notebook is a collection of recipes that she is consulting to figure out which ingredients she is still missing. Wait a minute… the shortly cropped hair, the heavy-framed glasses… it’s the same young woman you spotted fifteen minutes ago pacing to and fro before the shelves of bread, lifting one loaf, then another. Her face would flush, then blanch, and just when it looked like her decision was made and she was halfway to the next item on her list, she would turn back, practically sprinting, fling the loaf of bread in her hands back among its brethren as if it was kryptonite, and begin the entire process again. It was so bizarre… and yet it barely registered with you. Just in the same way, the slight, quivering girl on the floor of the grocery store is barely a blip on your radar. You notice the green highlighting, a quick flash of fluorescent lighting off the metal ring of the binder, the funny, inaudible way her thin lips are working. She notices you not at all, as you maneuver your cart around her binder, and then you are off again. Milk… milk… there it is! How fast can you get through the checkout line? It’s Saturday afternoon, and there’s probably going to be a wait. Fifteen minutes later, you’re in your car and on your way home. There’s so much to do this weekend! It’s going to be great! No work until Monday! At Wegmans, a girl with a binder paces the racks of bread.

"Fresh Bread on Local Market," by Vera Kratochvil. CC0 1.0. Wikimedia Commons.
“Fresh Bread on Local Market,” by Vera Kratochvil. CC0 1.0. Wikimedia Commons.

“Naughty or Nice?” – A Lesson in Letting Go

Featured Image: “Northern lights (Aurora borealis) flowing over the Lyngen fjord in 2012 March,” © Ximonic (Simo Räsänen), CC-BY-SA 3.0. Original work. Wikimedia Commons.

It drives me nuts!

It’s awful!

It’s horrible!

It embodies everything that is disordered and sick in American culture!

It is the latest food-related fundraising effort at my workplace – “The Naughty or Nice Cart.” The first time that one of the office staff rolled through with this trolley of over-priced snacks, it was late on a Wednesday afternoon.  I was already in that fatigued, clock-watching, brain-addled state of non-productiveness that sometimes settles in around 3:30 pm. For that reason, I wasn’t particularly swift to recognize what was going on as she silently ambushed me, popping from seemingly nowhere into my doorway with, “DO YOU WANT TO BUY SOMETHING OFF THE NAUGHTY AND NICE CART?!”

The scales of justice have been replaced by food scales.
The scales of justice have been replaced by food scales.
La Giustizia,” by Antonio Canova, 1792. Photograph © Fondazione Cariplo, CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s bad enough that I get hit-up for money at least once a day.  Usually, I’m asked to contribute to charitable organizations I never heard of by people I never met. It’s worse that the fundraising creativity within my (very large) organization never branches beyond bake sales, pancake breakfasts, barbecue ticket sales, lumpia sales, cookie bake-offs, chili cook-offs… you get the picture. The fliers on the stairwell and bathroom doors I can stare past (although I must admit to passive-aggressively tearing one down once), the emails go straight to my junk bin, but when people come knocking on my office door it stirs up all sorts of defensiveness and anger. In the same breath that my boss tirades on about the “obesity epidemic,” he cajoles us to participate in the pasta lunch, because “we need to show that we have team spirit, and those ladies in the front office worked hard to put this together for a good cause!  So come hungry!”

The fund-raising tools of default. “A Selection of Rolling Pins,” © Terra Ambridge, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Jan 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

It usually takes all of my mindfulness skills to remind myself, in the moment, of what my therapist and nutritionist try to reinforce with me at our weekly appointments.  They don’t know any better. We are all victims of the same community-societal dysfunction and economic exploitation. I am very privileged and fortunate to have the opportunity to unlearn my food-related behaviors. Most people don’t even recognize the extent of the problem in our homes and in our society. I can see myself and my co-workers for who we are, complicated people who are suffering in our own ways.  I can forgive their comments and their actions, even when they put me down or put other people down, or when they perpetuate the underlying disordered patterns that are keeping generation after generation physically, mentally, and emotionally sick… just like I would want them to forgive me, because I am sure not perfect, either!

Jarred from my computer screen-induced stupor, I was caught without a ready response for my unwanted solicitor. I was also particularly appalled at the concept of a “Naughty or Nice” theme. My moment of delay gave her the opportunity to interject with enticements that she mistakenly thought would motivate me to dip into my pocket for loose change. “We have healthy snacks, too! You can choose to be NICE! We have fruit, and veggie sticks, and water…” So if I were to choose the chips or soda, does that make me NAUGHTY? I thought. I wanted to scream at her to get the hell out of my office with her token of pathology and judgment on wheels.

“No thanks, I don’t do food-related fundraisers,” I said instead. I saved my rant for my colleague, Steve, whose office is across a narrow, quiet hallway from mine. We leave our doors open and call out to each other through the day, popping in and out to pose questions, share interesting tidbits, or alleviate our boredom. He’s probably my biggest supporter at work, and helped cover for me while I was circling the drain prior to getting into a treatment program, then picked up my workload while I was away.

“Now our self-worth and value as human beings can be qualitatively determined by our snack purchases for an office fundraiser!!!” I growled, angrily.

“Really?” Steve raised an eyebrow. “Anyway, I thought you gave up all this complaining business and all-or-nothing talk,” he casually replied. Grrrrrrrr… I couldn’t even stew in my own indignation. He was throwing my Wise Mind back in my face! What was I supposed to do? Start burping up buttercups? I knew that he was right, but…

What can I do? As my nutritionist once told me, I can’t change the world – not alone, and not when people don’t want to be changed. When the Naughty or Nice cart rolls by now, the woman pushing it doesn’t bother knocking on my door anymore, and, still simmering, I return to the Serenity Prayer…

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr

So, dear readers, what would you do?

Sunny Day,” © Marcus Quigmire, May 2008. CC-BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

To Love and Forgive

In my last post, I wrote about tripping up and falling face-first into a concoction of sticky, sweet ice cream, caramel, whipped cream, and chocolate.  I reflected on this incident as a learning experience.  It served as a reminder of the reasons I might want to place greater confidence in my Wise Mind, which I am conditioning through education and the training I am undergoing in psychotherapy, rather than buying into beliefs that arise from alarming comparisons to others.  Those comparisons usually come from or lead to thoughts of, “I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”  There was another notable feature of my experience on the Fourth of July that is worth mentioning.  I didn’t waste time shaming myself, hating myself, punishing myself, or belittling myself for a perceived failure, sin, lapse, or unforgivable mistake.  The fact that I was able to reflect on the events that transpired (i.e., my thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, and the behavioral choices that I made in response), assess what was helpful and what areas I might improve upon in the future, write it all down in my journal, and then move past it to enjoy the remainder of my vacation, was pretty monumental.  After I put it on paper, I didn’t dredge it up again until a week later, when I was sitting across the desk from my nutritionist, and we were able to laugh as I described what it felt like to nearly black out because I was so panicked over something as meaningless and incidental as a bowl of churned and frozen cream and sugar.

My ability to forgive myself and think both reasonably and compassionately about what I consider a “slip” or a “fault” is probably a better indicator of my improving mental health and the state of my recovery than the fact that I am eating bread again and haven’t binged in roughly eight months.  (*Gasp* I had to count on my fingers.  I can’t believe it!)  Sometimes, it still takes a while to work through my mistakes, and I spend a period dwelling in abject horror at my awfulness, but for the most part, I move through these shame-spells much more fluidly than I ever did before in my first 30 years.

Thunderstorm Over Corfu
“Thunderstorm Over Corfu,” © SimonQ, CC-BY-2.0, Aug 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

My recovery journey is long, twisted, and ongoing, but if there is one insight that made a fundamental difference in allowing me to gain freedom from the death-grip my eating disorder held on my mind and soul it was this:  GOD LOVES ME NOW, AS I AM, IN THIS BROKEN STATE OF IMPERFECTION.  HE SEES ME MORE CLEARLY THAN I CAN EVEN SEE MYSELF, AND HE LOVES ME MORE THAN I CAN IMAGINE.  If God can forgive me that much and love me that powerfully, though I am so fallen, so stained, so wretched, if God can ACCEPT me as I am while still HOPING that I will someday be better, I can accept myself as well.  I realized, in essence, that acceptance is not the same as approval.  I didn’t need to condone my binging, but in order to move beyond binging, I needed to accept myself for who and what I was, forgive myself for all my past wrongdoings, and start approaching my failings as opportunities for self-exploration, personal discovery, and growth.

Flowers Along the Sidewalk
“Flowers in a Planter Box,” Tomwsulcer, CC0 1.0, May 2014. Wikimedia Commons.

This realization was monumental, and it literally struck me like a bolt of lightening so suddenly in the middle of a group therapy session one day, last winter, during my stint in partial, that I burst into tears and the mental health counselor overseeing the discussion stopped to make sure I was all right.

It’s difficult to describe just how vehemently I despised myself.  My view of myself was as an abhorrence, a mistake of creation, something not deserving to live.  I blamed myself for my inadequacy, believing that if I was more diligent, harder working, with a stronger will, I would be able to overcome all my wretchedness, stop binging, lose weight, get in shape, and achieve the “perfect” body.  (Even though I was on the borderline of being underweight and was very likely malnourished).  I stepped on the scale several times a day and would tear into my closet, distraught, to try on every pair of pants and every belt I owned, seeking either reassurance or fuel with which to further berate/”motivate” myself.  This pattern of thinking didn’t suddenly dissolve overnight, replaced by self-compassion and reasonableness.  It was a gradual change, but it was enabled by a group of people suffering in many of the same ways.  It was much easier to practice compassion for others as I listened to the stories they shared during the many long hours we passed together under the mindful guidance of experienced professionals.  They, in turn, treated me with empathy and love.  Slowly, I started to internalize what I heard repeated over and over.  I began allowing myself to entertain the possibility that my friends actually do appreciate and love me just as much as I cherish them, and that I am not the tremendous burden I imagined.  I read Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection, and something inside of me shifted (1).  I realized that this process of becoming is really the process of living, and my imperfections are what make me who I am.  Would anybody really go to Pisa if it’s tower wasn’t leaning over?  I’m still a work in progress, and I always will be, but I love who I am and I love even more who I am becoming.

White Blooming Cherry Tree
“Blooming Cherry Tree,” Dinkum, CC0 1.0, April 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

“There’s nothing interesting about looking perfect…” ~ Emma Watson

“The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.  We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity.” ~ Brené Brown

“There is indeed something terribly the matter with us, and there is, at the same time, something foundationally good, something ‘divine’ at the heart of us…we must awaken to what is god-like in us, what is rich and fecund and unbroken, what is in continuity with the saving designs of God.” ~ Fr. Robert Barron(2)

(1) Brown, B.  The Gifts of Imperfection.  Center City, Minn.:  Hazeldon; 2010.

(2) Barron, R.  And Now I See…A Theology of Transformation.  New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company; 1998: pp. 27-28.

For more info about self-compassion resources, including books, websites, and free TEDx talks, check out my Favorites.

Attack of the Killer Sundae

Picture this – the pressures of work are mounting, the daily grind is bearing down, and just when it gets to be too much… VACATION!!!  WOOHOO!!!  On July 3rd, I kicked the dust (or should I say mud, because it seems like it’s been raining for a month straight) of Vanillasville from my feet and hit the road with an assortment of Mozart CD’s and one very unhappy cat.  Fourteen (FOURTEEN!) hours of driving later, we were in New England.  [Cue angel choir!]

Two Angels Singing by Benjamin West
“Two Angels Singing,” by Benjamin West

For Independence Day, I ventured off to join Alice, my former college roommate, and her extended family at her mother’s house.  Her mom and dad just happened to live along the parade route in her hometown.  I was so eager to see the joyful, excited expressions on the faces of her children, especially three-year-old Elliot, who loves not only firetrucks but pretty much anything that can transport a human being from one place to another, that I almost didn’t think to plan for the “food situation.” …

One of the factors that is extremely helpful in my recovery is that so many people know about my eating disorder.  Don’t mistake me,  I still feel hugely terrified of what might happen if the whole world found out, and there’s a reason that this blog is pretty much anonymous for the time being, but just about everyone who was going to be at this little Fourth of July gathering knew all about the BED and the orthorexia.  Alice and her mom actually flew to Vanillasville last autumn to check up on me as I rapidly decompensated while awaiting insurance authorization for partial hospitalization treatment.  (If that’s not true friendship, then I don’t know what is.)

Another fundamental component of my ED recovery is PLANNING, which I am usually reluctant to do for some reason.  Maybe part of me hopes that by avoiding thinking about a “problem” (most people might not consider dinner with friends at a delicious restaurant a problem, but hey, this is the world I live in) it will either magically (a) disappear, or (b) resolve itself.  Needless to say, the non-planning (aka avoidance) approach usually plays out a bit rougher than the I’m-mentally/emotionally/physically-ready-so-let’s-try-to-remember-our-skills-and-be-FLEXIBLE-while-sticking-to-the-general-idea-of-a-plan approach.

Remembering how many times my nutritionist stressed the importance of planning for flexibility to me, I packed myself a lunch, tossed some emergency snacks in the car, and set off, using the hour drive from my parents’ house to northern Mass to run through my whole, long list of coping skills, reiterating to myself all the reasons why everything was going to be OK.  Then, I congratulated myself for being so phenomenal, prepared, and ready for flexibility.  (Notice a theme?  My rigidity with food and perfectionism are some of my major stumbling blocks in my recovery.)

When I arrived in MA, it was all bear-hugs and smiles.  Though I saw Alice, her husband, and kids a few months earlier, it was the first time I was seeing her dad and brother in about seven years!  Of course, the table was spread with food, as I figured it might be.  “That’s OK,” I told myself.  “I could eat this food if I wanted to, and it would be fine, but I know that I am going to face many food challenges this week, and I am going to pick and choose which to confront, so today I will just eat the sandwich I brought in my lunch bag.  Neither choice is good or bad, they are both acceptable options with their own pros and cons, and I am making my conscientious decision.”  Woohoo!  Go me!

Reflections of Earth 9,” © Benjamin D. Esham, Jan 2008. CC-BY-SA-3.0 US.

“And after lunch, we are going to have an ICE CREAM SUNDAE BAR!” Alice’s mother exclaimed with delight.  “It really can’t be the Fourth of July without ice cream sundaes, especially in Massachusetts.  It’s an American tradition!”

The Scream
“The Scream,” by Edvard Munch, 1893. PD-US-1923.

So here’s the short version of the long history between me and ice cream.  You see, I was raised by a wonderful, loving, well-intentioned but tragically misguided woman who instilled in me such core values as hard work, discipline, and perseverance.  I also learned along the course that emotions get in the way of perfection, and that if I or my work are not perfect, the only recourse is to try harder.  Phrases such as, “Get over it,” “Just do what you have to do,” and “God helps those who help themselves,” were frequently heard in my house when I was growing up.  My father, for his part, suffers from serious depression and what I think is possibly a personality disorder characterized by frequent outbursts of rage.  I would like to believe that he means well and does his best, though his best does not include professional help or treatment.  Emotions, especially strong negative emotions like the ones I witnessed my father acting out, were NOT tolerable and were to be suppressed by any means possible.  I imagined myself as a hardened, steely professional – cold, precise, and successful.  Well, as you can imagine, realizing this ideal was pretty darn impossible, because, it turns out, I am not actually a robot!  Who knew?!  And just to show that there are no hard feelings… or that I’m at least working through my feelings… this next picture is for my dad, a die-hard Trekker.  It turns out I’m not a Vulcan, either.

Lesson in eating disorder recovery #1: Apparently, not feeling emotions is only ok for robots and Vulcans.
Lesson in eating disorder recovery #1: Apparently, not feeling emotions is only OK for robots and Vulcans. (Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, Desilu Productions/NBC Television, 1976/77, US-PD-no notice.)

OK, you’re probably thinking, “This is the short version?”  Suppressing all emotions turned out to be not-so-easy.  Where could I turn when I was “feeling” confused, angry, sad, overwhelmed, overjoyed, stressed, anxious, scared, enraged, rejected, hurt, depressed, bored, excited, or happy?  Well, pretty much any food would do, and sometimes things that didn’t even count as food.  (Yes, I’ve eaten kitty kibble before.  Yeah, it’s gross, I know.)  But ICE CREAM was my old friend and standby.  My mom always kept at least one or two gallons in the freezer, and I started digging into those when I was pretty young (about 10 years old or so, if I remember correctly).  When my binging really spiraled out of control, I was spending a small fortune at the ice cream parlor around the street from my house, where they knew me by name because I stopped by several times a week for an extra large sundae and a couple chocolate bars… to top off the two to three meals and half of a vending machine I’d already eaten that afternoon.  I digress.

As I work through my recovery, I am gradually reintroducing many of the foods I was afraid of back into my diet and learning to love them.  Peanut butter, bread, snap peas, walnuts, cottage cheese, hot chocolate… I can keep all of those in my kitchen without a second’s hesitation.  OK, sometimes the hot chocolate trips me up a little.  I even practiced becoming more comfortable eating desserts.  After my blood sugar didn’t plummet and I didn’t go running for the cupboards in full-on binging mode when my nutritionist at Walden forced me to eat two Hershey Kisses and ONLY two Hershey Kisses as my mid-morning snack (the trauma!), I started to understand that I don’t need to be afraid of these foods.  With a lot of practice, patience, and self-forgiveness, I am learning how to enjoy them responsibly (and now I sound like a liquor commercial).  However, I am still basically terrified of ice cream.  Like, TERRIFIED.  We’re talking, I-don’t-know-what-I-might-do-and-I’m-really-afraid-I’m-going-to-blow-my-whole-recovery-because-I-can’t-control-myself level fear.

The afternoon passed very pleasantly, despite the cool and drizzly weather.  It was comfortable and heartening to be with Alice and her family.  I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do when it came time for sundaes, however.  Honestly unsure of how I would respond, I felt confused and conflicted.  My sweet tooth was itching to participate in the sundae extravaganza, but I couldn’t distinguish my distorted thoughts from my reasonable and wise thoughts.  “It’s all right to eat ice cream,” I told myself.  “It’s unrealistic to think that I will never have another ice cream sundae again.”  Yet, a single serving of ice cream is only half of a cup, and that is a complete dessert exchange.  Adding toppings, whipped cream, and a cherry just seemed so DISORDERED.  “If everyone else eats ice cream sundaes, it must be normal,” I tried to reassure myself.  “Am I really going to be the only person here who doesn’t have any of the ice cream?”

Elliot was the one who finally spurred us out of our relaxed conversations and toward the dessert table.  “Is it ICE CREAM TIME yet?!” he demanded.  I felt fear and anxiety swelling inside.  My mind still wasn’t settled, and so I hung back, deciding, “Let me watch to see what everyone else does first.  Then I will know what is normal.”

Like a lemming lead to an ice creamy cliff.
Like a lemming led to an ice creamy cliff. (“Die Gartenlaube,” by Friedrich Specht, 1886. PD-old-70.)

As I was peer-pressuring myself into over-eating ice cream, I neglected to consider this pivotal question. What the heck is “normal,” anyway? If “normal” means going along with the majority, that may not be healthy, balanced, well-adjusted, or ideal.  Eating issues are rampant in the United States, and the National Institutes of Health estimate that 3.5% of women and 2% of men suffer from BED at some point in their lives (Hudson, et al. The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.  Biol Psychiatry 2007; 61: 348-358).  That’s 1 in every 20 people!  My ability to brain-dump my common sense in moments of panic is remarkable.  Rather than trust my own judgment, I decided that I was the least reliable judge of what was best.  It’s not that Alice and her family were piling their bowls sky-high.  Actually, I was so preoccupied by the thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings flooding me, that I wasn’t paying very close attention.  The point is that I completely discredited my Wise Mind, tumbling headlong into the distortions of my disorder.

Standing before the table, with several gallons of ice cream before me, M&M’s, sprinkles, hot fudge and caramel sauce, strawberries, whipped cream, every delicious topping I could desire, I could feel my chest tightening.  My throat began to close, my vision narrowed, and my breathing became fast and shallow.  I felt my heart racing, slamming away ineffectively as the blood drained from my face.  My periphery started to go dark, and I felt a sweat breaking out.  Tears threatened to well behind my eyes.  “What do I do?  What do I DO?  WHAT DO I DO?!!!” were the only words that would come to my stricken brain.  “Everyone is going to see that I am freaking out.  Everyone is thinking that I’m a basket case and totally pathetic and weak and screwed up.”

Finally, a different voice spoke up and said, “No matter what you choose, you are still OK!  No choice that you can make right now is going to be your ruin, and passing out would be worse than any decision you might make, which is what is going to happen in another minute or so…So just do SOMETHING.  It’ll be all right.”  It sounded as near to my Wise Mind as I was likely to come, and so I reached for the scooper and began to hesitantly, fearfully, uncertainly construct my sundae.

If everything always went perfectly, I would never learn or grow.  I learned a lot that afternoon, and a deliciously sweet lesson it was.  There was plenty of fodder for discussion with my therapist and nutritionist when I returned from vacation.  Perhaps the biggest lesson was to trust myself, without comparisons to others, deciding in my own Wise Mind, according to my values, with the help of the professionals I’ve been working with, what is best for me.  Oh, and I really need to keep working on my ice cream issues.