Checking the Body Check

Featured Image:  “Hall of Mirrors,” © Levi Neeson, Aug 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There are certain places and certain chores that I perform that are more conducive to practicing mindfulness than others. Washing the dishes. Folding the laundry. And…showering. The hot water strikes the taught muscles at the base of my skull, gently thumping against them, coaxing their relaxation after a tense day spent sitting in front of a keyboard with my shoulders pulled up toward my ears. I feel the rivulets and streams as they run their course along my scapulae, my low back, down toward my brightly painted toes. This week, they are pink. Steam and heat build in the air around me, filling my lungs. The soap bubbles grow into a frothy, white lather that slips and slides smoothly over my hands and wrists. The scent of the soap is clean and refreshing. Sometimes, I bring my bottle of shampoo just under my nose so that I can take it in. I reach around my side, and into my head pops…Hmmm…it’s been awhile since I checked in the mirror to make sure I can still see my ribs and my sternum. I instantly recognize this as a disordered thought. It’s an eating-disorder thought, I tell myself. Damn it!

Fortunately, after entertaining this thought, I quickly managed to counter with the following: If I look in the mirror, and I can clearly see the bony outlines of my ribs, I will be reassured, but what does it mean? It means nothing, because the important thing is that I’m healthy. I’m at a healthy weight, I’m following my meal plan, I’m eating a variety of foods, I’m exercising moderately, and I’m remaining in recovery. I’m living a full, vibrant, balanced life, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I can see my ribs in the mirror. If I look in the mirror and I don’t see my ribs, what does it matter, because all those statements I just made about being healthy and balanced and happy are still true. So, if I can’t see my ribs, I will be making myself feel bad without reason. Therefore, I choose not to check. Hooray!

I tend to be rather forward-thinking. I’m always worried about stalling my progress and am constantly anxious about the status of my recovery. It’s difficult to stop myself long enough to appreciate the obstacles that I managed to overcome in the last 11 months.

Gone are the habitual practices of carefully examining my abdomen from every angle in any reflective surface, like the glass of storefronts or the shiny surfaces of cars. There was a time when I couldn’t pass a reflection without scoping out my appearance and using it as an opportunity to shame myself. Inspecting my stomach, I would pinch, poke, and prod myself cruelly, saying (sometimes screaming) terrible things to myself about how I was a worthless, fat, disgusting waste of life. I “motivated” myself toward improvement by undermining my value as a human being. It took hitting rock bottom for me to finally realize that it doesn’t work that way – my recovery now depends on radical acceptance, self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and the cultivation of my imperfections.

“There’s nothing interesting about looking perfect.”

~ Emma Watson

One afternoon during my stint in partial hospitalization, I called the friend who was house-sitting for me, and I asked her to chuck my multiple scales and my full length mirror into the dumpster. She was more than happy to oblige. I returned to my apartment a few weeks later and bagged up every belt and pair of pants that I once wore. These were the belts and pants that I used to rip on and off violently in a desperate, emotionally fueled effort to berate myself for my unacceptable binging, to convince myself that I was gaining weight and that I needed to dramatically change my ways. I dropped them in the donation bin outside the church down the street and didn’t look back. I stopped whiling away entire afternoons perusing old photographs of myself or scrolling through the Facebook feeds of “friends” I met on one occasion five years ago, tearfully admonishing myself for being such a failure. I “unfriended” all those strangers and adjusted my feeds to deliver daily updates from Brené Brown, Recovery Warriors, Walden, my church, and the dozen odd friends and family with whom I keep in close contact. In the grocery store checkout aisle, I avert my eyes from the glossy magazines displaying air-brushed photos of celebrities to whom I am meant to find myself inadequate by comparison. Rather, I smile at the woman behind the register, catch her eye, and chat with her about her plans for the weekend when her shift lets off.

“I don’t love Photoshop; I like imperfection. [Imperfection] doesn’t mean ugly. I love a girl with a gap between her teeth, versus perfect white veneers. Perfection is just… boring. Perfect is what’s natural or real; that is beauty.”

~ Marc Jacobs

Nowadays, when I fall asleep, I do so wearing comfortable, soft, baggy pajamas, laying on my side, surrounded by soft pillows and curled into a relaxed little ball. I don’t fall asleep on my back, staring at the ceiling, stroking my iliac crests, reassuring myself that they are still protruding against the tight skin of my hips. One of the goals that I set for myself when I began the partial hospitalization program the day before Thanksgiving 2014 was that I wanted to be able to step back on the scale and accept the number. What I discovered over this past year was something even better. I am accepting myself without a number. The only two people on this planet who know how much I weigh are my nutritionist and my psychiatrist, who both allow me to stand on their office scales backwards at our appointments. Can I allow myself the acknowledgement of what a remarkable transformation that represents?

Yes, I still have a long way to go. Yes, I still have disordered thoughts about food and about my body. Yes, I am still afraid of gaining weight. I worry about relapsing and about slipping into old behaviors. But, gosh darn it, I am checking my body checks, and that is progress.

Check and Mate,” © Ben_from_Dk, Feb 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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Being Wrong

Featured Image: “Peterhof Palace Garden,” © Leon Yaakov, May 2010. CC BY 2.0.

How does growth happen? How does a person heal? How do I become the person that I am becoming?

My thoughts on the subject seem to drift in front of my eyes like an ephemeral mist. I stretch out my fingers to grasp at them, but the mere act of clutching stirs those same air currents on which they ride, and just like that, the understanding that was almost mine disperses in a gentle puff. I squeeze my eyes shut tight and try to recollect the pattern of the wisps before they disappeared… “Don’t hold on so tight!” I tell myself. “It will come.” My eyes relax, and I inhale deeply. This is what growth looks like.

Smoke,” © Centophobia, Apr 2009. CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Why does it hurt? Why does God let us hurt so badly? Why is it so hard?” Vivienne asks me over and over again. I only have one answer for her. It is always the same answer. I don’t know. For myself, hindsight reveals that my experiences of struggling and hardship, my personal losses and deepest grief, my darkest times and deepest turmoil, are creating the person I am today… and the person I will be tomorrow. Without those experiences, would I be able to empathize, to think dialectically, to see the world not only in shades of gray but in a multitude of colors? No. I would still be the arrogant, bitter, angry, resentful, perfectionistic, driven, striving, anxious, person that I was before all of my treatment helped me to see the greater perspective in those experiences. Now, at least, there is the hope that I am, just maybe, on the path toward a more profound capacity for love, forgiveness, humility, patience, gratitude, and joy.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard

I close my eyes again as the vapors swirl just beyond the thin lids. They are barely out of my reach. There is something else required for this growth that I so treasure… Perhaps there are many other somethings… But the one that comes to the forefront of my mind as I sit in contemplation is… Being Wrong. More specifically, I am finding that my own becoming necessitates that I be willing to admit that there is the possibility, the near definite likelihood, that I have been wrong in the past and may be wrong now.

_____

When people ask me why I have an eating disorder, or how I developed an eating disorder, I am usually quick to point the finger at my mother. My mom is a loving, dedicated woman, and I know that all of her actions were carried out with my best interest (and the best interest of my brother) in her mind and heart. She is smart and hard-working, with a master’s degree in special education for elementary school-aged kids with learning disabilities. Yet, I could spend hours recounting stories of shame, humiliation, and invalidation that I felt as a result of her parenting style. Despite the fact that I was always normal weight, when she wasn’t telling me that I was fat, it was subtly (or not so subtly) implied. When I reached puberty, she made copies of the growth chart from the pediatrician’s office, and then she sat me down after one check-up to explain that even though the doctor wasn’t direct enough to tell me I was gaining weight, she was NOT going to have a fat daughter, so I better shape up, because there was the irrefutable evidence staring me in the face that I had moved up a growth curve. When she took me shopping for a prom dress, out slipped the comment, “Oh, this one makes you look thin!” When I left for college, she threatened me with, “Not EVERYONE gains the freshman fifteen, you know.” During my second week in the dorm, I received a package in the mail. It was my very first scale, with a handwritten note from my mom, “The better to weigh yourself with, my dear!”

It seemed that nothing I ever did was good enough. When I brought home straight A’s on my report card, my mom asked, “Why aren’t there any A+’s?” The answer was that my high school didn’t use an A+ grade. A 4.0 was considered an A. When I came in second place, my mom asked, “Well, who was first?” Whatever her intention, what I learned was that my best was not good enough, I would never be good enough, I could never work hard enough or do enough, and I needed to earn her love and approval.

“Genetics loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger.”

~ Jenni Schaefer, author of “Life Without Ed”

It was not as though this harsh and critical treatment was reserved for me alone. She treated my younger brother with similar regard. My brother was a collegiate athlete on the water polo team at his university. They were in the midst of an intense cycle of training and competition one October when my parents went to visit him at school. “How’s it going with Mom and Dad?” I asked when I got him on the phone.

“Well, the first thing she said to me when I opened the front door was, ‘You look like you’re getting fat!’ even though I think I’ve lost at least 10 pounds since I last so them. So, there’s that.” Yeah. My mom was demanding, there is no doubt about it. But my brother did not develop an eating disorder, and I did. He doesn’t suffer from depression. His medical history is remarkable for his chronic allergies and his total absence of mental illness.

"Cape Robin Eggs," © Martin Heigan, Aug 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Cape Robin Eggs,” © Martin Heigan, Aug 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“I just wanted the best for you!” she protested defensively when I first confronted her after my eating disorder was diagnosed. I was so angry. I essentially accused her of destroying my life. What made me even more irate was her complete denial that there was anything wrong with me at all. I suppose that refuting the existence of my eating disorder made her adamant refusal to either accept any wrongdoing or responsibility for her actions easier for her. “Well, just how much weight do they want you to gain?!” she demanded to know when I told her the results of my medical evaluation. “I think you need a second opinion,” she argued when I attempted to explain the definition of binge eating disorder. I finally just stopped speaking to her entirely.

Fast forwarding about six months, I found myself sitting in one of the group rooms at Walden with Diana, the mental health counselor who was assigned to my case, my mom, and my father. It was to be our one and only family session during my six weeks at the center. There are a few strong memories from that afternoon, but among them stands out a recollection of my mom asking, “How can we learn from what Lulu is learning here?”

Our session occurred in the third week of December. I was planning to spend Christmas with the family of one of my college roommates, so uncomfortable was I with my parents, but after that meeting and much soul-searching, I decided to take a chance on going home. A few months later, I was back again for another visit. One afternoon, I found myself struggling with some difficult emotions. Near tears, I sat at the dining room table, and as I questioned how I was going to get through that particular obstacle, my mother replied, “With those new skills that you are building! You are really changing. I am learning just from listening to the new way that you talk about things.”

About three months after I returned to work full-time, I was invited to deliver a presentation at an international professional meeting in Florida. Everyone from my office would be attending, in addition to everyone who is anyone in our industry. I was still relatively insecure about traveling and managing my eating disorder on the road. By “insecure,” I mean “terrified.” How would I deal with restaurant meals? What if there was a (GASP) formal dinner! How was I going to survive a week with all of those work colleagues, who did not know about my eating disorder, and without any sources of support? I started asking friends if they wanted a free trip to Florida for a week. Alice had family obligations. Alexandra was already overbooked with business traveling. Therese was just returning from her honeymoon. The conference was occurring over Mother’s Day weekend. Joking with my mom on the phone as the date approached, I was relating my anxieties and laughingly said something such as, “Let me know if you want to spend Mother’s Day in Orlando.” The next day she phoned me back, stating in a serious tone, “If you really need me to go to Florida, then I will be there.” I couldn’t believe it.

She purchased her own plane ticket, and I bought us two passes to Disney World. A few weeks later, we were sharing a hotel room in the Sunshine State. We had a fantastic time. My presentation went off without a hitch, even though I was so anxious, my stomach was upset for an entire day. We both coped well with the little ups and downs of the week. My mom gently prodded me to think dialectically and to accept imperfection, and I reminded my mom that life is not just about what a person can achieve or accomplish. On our last night, we ate dinner at Epcot and gazed at a fireworks show before exhaustedly turning back to our hotel. My mother was once my main trigger and a major contributing environmental factor to the expression of my mental illness. Yet, as we both came to recognize the ways in which we could be wrong, she became an unexpected source of support.

I was so wrong about so many things. We both were. It took admitting it to ourselves and to each other to move beyond the pain. What am I wrong about right now, even as I am typing this? It’s an unsettling thought, and it’s difficult to admit that I’m probably mistaken about a great many things. But is that how growth happens?

I close my eyes. There is no swirling mist. Just stillness and the emptiness of my mind. For this moment.

Autumn Clematis,” © Tricia J, Sep 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Catching

Featured Image: “Tundra,” © Ryan Fonkert, Dec 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0.

“You’re not as alone as you think you are.

It’s going to be ok.”

After turning over a dozen, different, possible responses in my head and rejecting them each, these were the words upon which I finally settled.

“I want to believe you,” replied Vivienne.

“I know that you do,” I sighed.

Following my first week with the eating disorder process group that is now part of my maintenance lifestyle, Vivienne emailed our therapist to express how excited she was to meet me, someone with whom she felt like she could relate. I was a bit hesitant to jump into a friendship with someone I didn’t know who, like me, suffered from an eating disorder and concomitant mental illness. Yet, over the past many months, I have come to know Vivienne as a brilliant, witty, hysterically funny, generous, and selfless person.

We exchange text messages and occasionally invite our demons out for coffee at the local bookstore or café, spending hours spilling the stuff we wouldn’t share with just anybody. The stuff that makes us vulnerable. The stuff that keeps us stuck in our own heads, in our old fears, in our rigid patterns. We share much in common, despite our many differences, but there is one, quite painful difference, and it lies between us like a chasm. My eating disorder and depression are in remission, and Vivienne’s eating disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder are not. Yet.

I try to help her focus on that word, “YET.” I try to help her understand that recovery evolves organically. It doesn’t just happen like flipping on a light switch, or at least it didn’t for me. “Try to think of it like starting an old car on a cold day,” I once said. “You turn the key and turn the key, but nothing happens. Then you hear a few clicks, and you may think, this is it! But again, nothing happens. You may need to turn the key and turn the key and rev the engine over and over, but eventually, something catches!” I try to help her remember that we are both works in progress, just different stages of progress. I tell her that we are both on our own journey, and while our paths may look the same in places, no two journeys are exactly alike. I try to convince her not to compare herself to me or to anybody else. I tell her that I will tell her as many times as she needs to hear it that she is worthy, she is beautiful, she is not fat, she is smart, she is kind, she is capable, she is strong, she is more than her diagnoses, she is more than her past. I try to show her how she is already succeeding. I tell her that every day that she wakes up and fights again is a success. I tell her that not quitting is a victory. I tell her that she is in a battle for her mind and her soul, and she will win in the end by her sheer tenacity. “Inch by inch,” I tell her. “Bit by bit.” I try to help her to see the ways in which she is already changing.

The Arctic Tundra,” © Karina Y, May 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

She amazes me with her intelligence, her waggishness, and her courage. In the face of unimaginable circumstances this past summer, largely beyond her control, she struggled on day after day, week after week. It was enough to crush most healthy people, but she came through it. I list out all the obstacles she already overcame. “You’re right!” she agrees, and I see a glimmer of hope in her face. But her demons return with fangs and claws bared. She asks me questions that I cannot answer. “Why does it hurt? Why is this happening? What am I doing wrong? Why is it so hard?” She can’t see me crying for her. She can’t see my heart breaking. I remember being in a similar place and asking these questions, and I know that nothing I say can take away her pain.

“You’re not as alone as you think you are. It’s going to be ok,” I tap the letters into my phone and send off the text message.

“I keep re-reading these words,” she writes back. “I want to believe you so badly!”

“Good!” I tell her. “Keep re-reading it. Keep saying it to yourself. Even if you don’t believe it now. Because it is true. One day, once you’ve repeated it enough, you will believe it.”

“We are not alone as we think we are. It’s going to be ok.”

"Lesotundra," © Indrik Myneur, Aug 2009. CC-BY 2.0.
Lesotundra,” © Indrik Myneur, Aug 2009. CC-BY 2.0.

Rigidly Flexible

Featured Image: “New York,” © BKL (original work), Jul 2013. CC-BY-NC 2.0.

If I haven’t gained any weight since I left Walden, but I wasn’t exercising at all during the winter, and I’m much more active now, yet my weight is still stable, then I must be eating more now than I was when I was at Walden. So, if I want to keep eating the way that I’m eating, which I think is healthy and varied, then I need to keep exercising. If I stop exercising, then I will gain weight. But the tendinitis in my ankle hurts. If I exercise, I will make my ankle worse, but if I don’t exercise, then I will be avoiding exercise, and there is probably nothing really all that wrong with my ankle, and then I will develop a pattern of avoidance behaviors, which will just make me think about my ankle more, which will only make the experience of pain worse.

 I can’t have turkey today, because I ate turkey the last three days in a row. That is too much turkey. I can’t have egg salad, because I had poached eggs on toast yesterday. Greek yogurt with 2% fat is too calorie-dense to pair with salmon on a day when I ate my optional second starch with lunch. I can’t eat dessert today. I ate dessert yesterday. Two desserts in two days is too often. I need some dessert-free days in between.

It’s been four weeks since I last made a drawing. The right side of my brain is dying. When was the last time I used my coloring books? Coloring a picture that someone else drew may not be creative enough. I don’t think that counts as creativity. I am not balancing all of my interests well enough. I am not spending enough time journaling. I am falling behind in my food diary. When was the last time that I cooked quinoa? I am eating too much toast. I think my diet was more varied a few months ago. I think I am losing variety in my diet. How many times did I go to the gym this week? When was the last time I read anything out of my Brené Brown book? 

A Jumble of Stairs and Escalators and Struts,” © Denny Wu, Aug 2014. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“Your brain is a very busy place,” remarked my friend, Dorothy, over dinner one Wednesday night. I was recounting just a portion of some of the above thoughts that frequently spin through my consciousness on a somewhat continual basis.

“Tell me about it,” I agreed. “But,” I added, “It’s sort of the difference between having a thought and believing a thought.” I turned my head to one side thoughtfully. Like an owl, observed the color commentator between my ears. “I can hold all these ideas in my head, but they don’t necessarily cause me distress. Sometimes, when they are very persistent, they make me physically anxious, and I can feel my muscles tensing up, or my jaw locking, but at the same time that all of these thoughts are pinging around in there, another voice is saying, ‘Really? Seriously? Are we going to go through this again?’” What a change from a year ago!

When I confided in my therapist just how RIGID I can become about trying to FORCIBLY remain FLEXIBLE, she suggested, “It sounds like the rules are starting to creep back in.” As if to caution, “Uh oh!”

I suppressed what was almost a chortle. “You’re assuming that the rules ever went away. I don’t think they did. Whereas before, I was aware of them and simply tolerated them, now I am bringing more attention to the fact that they are still present.”

Maybe dispelling the background noise rather than just challenging the words is the next step. It would be a big one, because those thoughts do still influence my behavior. I am regimented about being varied. I am disciplined about being able to go with the flow. It’s the mother of all ironies. What would I do without this predictability in my life? What would I do without my rules? I’m scared to find out, but Dorothy’s voice echoes in my busy mind, “AVOID AVOIDING!” It’s on my list of rules.

Dream #2,” © ڪario Reale (Own Work), Apr 2009. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I’d like to extend a big “THANK YOU!” to Ruby Browne, whose poetically honest piece, Hover, inspired me to write this post. Your wit and wisdom are a gift. Thank you for sharing them with the world.

The Drift

Featured Image Credit:  Untitled, © Fi15 (Own Work), Apr 2009. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

“See, you’re like me,” remarked John charismatically. I mentally recoiled, feeling myself snapping off at the root whatever cognitive connection was beginning to bud between us in conversation. No. That is always my immediate instinct and default response whenever there appears to be a suggestion made that I am the same as another. Do not begin to think that you understand me, I want to say. As I listened to the continuation of his sentiment, though, the depth of the analogy that he wove rekindled my curiosity. “You’re like this beautiful swan, looking all peaceful and calm on the surface, but underneath you’re just spinning and churning.” He held his hands in front of him, palms toward the floor, and flapped them wildly up and down from the wrists to emphasize his point.

John is currently my interim supervisor. Unfortunately, though he is filling in only briefly, he happens to be covering during a time when my work-mandated medical review is due for renewal. This creates an interesting situation, because John knows nothing of my history of binge eating disorder, orthorexia, and depression. John lives in what I call, rather un-creatively, John-land, which is a very pleasant and rather oblivious place to be. He is a wonderful, kind, caring person, but my impression of him most of the time is that he is rather clueless and uniformed. On the spectrum of the 3 U’s, he would be both unknowing, and uneducated. I’m not really sure where he thinks I was for six or seven weeks last winter during my out-of-state partial hospitalization for binge eating disorder, and I’m fairly certain that in his benign, kind way, he couldn’t care less. My actual supervisor, Inga, is well aware of all the details, and I have supportive friends in my office. John just isn’t one of them.

As my interim supervisor, John was required to write a form letter attesting to the fact that my eating disorder and depression didn’t interfere with my ability to perform my job functions. I thought that Inga took care of this before she left, but apparently it was incomplete or needed revision. The fortunate bit was that he was working from her draft. The weird part was that this was my first discussion with John about any of my mental health history. I didn’t quite know where to start. It turned out that when my previous supervisor departed for a new job in May, she informed John of the rudimentary basics of my past. He was the interim supervisor then, too, before Inga, a woman I’ve known for years and who was already aware of my E.D., transferred into the position. While he knew that I had an eating disorder, he remained grossly under-informed. It didn’t take long to discern that he was still clueless about the scope or severity of my illness or the intensity of treatment I underwent. Exactly where did you think I was? I still wanted to ask. John-land must be such a blissful place.

One of the main reasons that I always chose to not discuss my eating disorder with John (when I felt comfortable talking about it with my other peers) was because I suspected that, due to his lack of understanding, he also lacked the capacity to empathize. Sitting in his cozy office, directly next door to my own, I struggled to decide just how much to reveal. Was it even possible to communicate my experiences to someone who I doubted possessed the contextual framework that would enable him to fathom? He conveyed how remarkable he thought I was as the most senior and most experienced person within our organization in my particular capacity, how strongly worded his recommendation would be, and how he noticed not a single hint of impact in my performance, ever. I thanked him and agreed that my eating disorder and depression, now in remission for nearly a year, do not impair my functioning. Yet, perhaps this was an opportunity to illuminate some of that unknowing…

“I’m doing great now,” I nodded, “but at this time last year it was a different story. I was in a terrible place. I was in bad shape. Maybe it didn’t look like it to everyone else, but I was circling the drain. I was losing it. You know the reason I was gone for two months last winter was because I was in a treatment program in Massachusetts.” He didn’t know, of course. It was a complete surprise. “Maybe it just shows that we’re all too hard on ourselves,” I continued, thoughtfully. “I mean, we all do it. We think other people can see right through us and that they know just how screwed up we are inside. We drive ourselves crazy. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough, we’re not working hard enough, we are failures because we aren’t meeting some unachievable standard we create, when really, we’re doing just fine.”

It was this reflection that elicited the swan analogy. Perhaps John wasn’t as devoid of empathy and understanding as I thought. Maybe I never gave him enough credit. There remained an underlying disconnection, but it was more of a connection than I expected, and his imagery left me with something profound to contemplate.

Untitled, © olkin11 (own work), Sep 2006. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Untitled, © olkin11 (Own Work), Sep 2006. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“I feel adrift,” I told my therapist last week during our regular session. The swan, I decided, was a fitting analogy. “I’m just sort of… hanging out in the middle of the lake. I just feel…” I paused and took a deep breath. Leaning forward on the plush, softly upholstered couch, I rested my elbows on my knees and my chin just touched the tips of my fingers. I released a long, deep sigh. There was no word to describe this feeling of drifting. Only the sigh could make audible the sensation in my chest.

My therapist wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. “Can you put words to that?” she asked me. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know…” I responded, sitting in silence awhile longer. “It’s like… I’m not flapping my little feet furiously, churning the water up all around me, completely exhausting myself while going nowhere anymore. Instead, I’m just sort of floating in the middle of this flat, placid lake. I’m still not going anywhere, but now I’m just floating. And I have no idea where I’m supposed to go or where I even want to go. I’m sort of just eyeing the shore, thinking, ‘Hmmm, that grassy spot over there looks kind of nice… Ooooo, that little boathouse over there is pretty… oh look, there’s a pagoda over there that’s nice…’ but I’m just floating.”

My job doesn’t fill me with meaning. I don’t have an overarching purpose to my life. I’m living in a place that is not the place I want to live, separate from the community and the people who fill my life with the most vibrancy and warmth, because this is holding the place of whatever will come next, until I decide what that will be. I’m just kind of… waiting. I have an advanced degree and I’m in my 30s. When am I going to figure out what I want to be when I grow up?

We talked about the different activities that I am doing while I wait. Taking classes, exploring different interests, getting to know my authentic self, learning my likes and dislikes, prioritizing my values. “It’s not like you’re just parked in the middle of this lake doing nothing,” my therapist pointed out. “You’re swimming a little closer to the boathouse to take a better look, and then you’re swimming a little bit closer to the pagoda.” Point taken.

“I know that there’s no timeline on this,” I repeated. I heard it so many times before, and I acknowledged its veracity. My therapist nodded emphatically in agreement. “But how long am I going to float here?” I wondered aloud, “Until I molt?” We both laughed aloud.

Swan Feather on Hatchet Pond,” © Jim Champion, Sep 2008. CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Riding Shotgun

Featured Image: “Le Jour ni l’Heure 0538: La Place du mort, rives du loch Rannoch, Perth & Kinross, Écosse, samedi 14 avril 2012, 18:49:25,” © Renaud Camus, Apr 2012. CC-BY-2.0.

I did then what I knew how to do.

Now that I know better, I do better.

~ Maya Angelou

It’s autumn. My favorite season. But last year, at this time, I was in the deepest, darkest place of my life. Last year, I was spiraling into a hole that I couldn’t climb out of, and it nearly cost me my life. It’s a hard thing to remember, and lately, there are many reminders.

“Are you going to allow yourself to celebrate your success?” Kelly, my nutritionist, asked me at our last appointment. Her message was that I needed to mark the occasion of my first year in remission. “Even if it’s small, with just a few people,” she encouraged me. I could appreciate her argument.

I am not one to permit myself an accomplishment or a victory. There is always some way I could be better, and the journey is far from complete. My recovery will be the work of my lifetime. Always ongoing. Always in progress. It’s fragile. I’m fragile. Perhaps, I’m not quite as fragile as I was during those first few days, weeks, and months, but isn’t it enough to just try to live this day of my recovery? Today? I tell myself that celebrating the one-year milestone does not make me more likely to relapse. Acknowledging an achievement does not mean that I am setting myself up to fail. But I am still afraid of what the future holds. And so, can’t I just focus on today?

“It’s not as simple as celebrating your success after a year in recovery,” my therapist affirmed when I tried to express my complicated thoughts and feelings swirling around the subject. Juxtaposed against my climb out of the chasm is the fall into it. While my recovery really began in earnest at the end of November, my rock bottom occurred in the days and weeks just preceding it. My memories are neither objective nor clear, but October was the worst month.

The person I was then would be unrecognizable to me now, except that she is me. I was a wreck. I was depressed, suicidal, and barely functional. I marvel as I try to imagine how I managed to get myself showered, dressed, (I applied makeup and fixed my hair every day, no less!), then to and from work each day. When I wasn’t at work… I’ll spare the graphic details, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. Of course, I only know what it looked like and felt like from inside my head. “You have this idea that you were a babbling, incoherent, disaster. You seem to think that you couldn’t string two words together to make a sentence,” my friend and co-worker, Steve told me. A thick, brown envelope sat on the desk between us with a case number scrawled on the side in black Sharpie. “Your judgment wasn’t quite there, but just read it. I think you’ll find it’s actually very well-written. It makes sense. It’s a good write-up. You made a snap decision and it was the wrong one, but it’s a good write-up.” The folder contained the contents of work that I produced when I was on my downward spiral. At my absolute worst, I only ever made one significant misjudgment on the job. Well, three, but it was the same misjudgment made three times. Within the folder was the first of those instances. My co-workers corrected the effects of my errors, reworking my concluding statements, and then they covered my workload for me while I was in treatment, and now that file was up for its annual review. Once more, it found its way to my inbox. I started to cry. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to relive it. I didn’t want to face the person I was and the things that I did, because it wasn’t just this one case, it was all of it. The daily binges so severe that I was sure my insides would explode and I would die. The catatonia into which I would sink the moment I left our office building. A hidden life of shame. Laying on the floor of my living room every night, the detritus of my binging spread around me, flooded with mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical pain. “You are not that person anymore,” Steve stated. “You are my go-to. Don’t be afraid of this. It’s a chance for healing, or to close the loop. I think you’ll feel better when you bring it to completion.” Deep down, I knew he was right, so I picked up the folder, and headed back to my office.

Files,” © Artform Canada, Feb 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“It feels important that I be able to forgive myself at this stage,” I told my therapist during our session that afternoon. “I processed this during my very first weeks of recovery, but then the new skills sort of took hold, and I didn’t think about it much.” She asked me how. How do I forgive myself for what I did? What I did to myself. What I did to the people around me.

Love. LOVE. Love can be the only answer. “When I was driving back from Massachusetts, I practiced this visualization,” I began. “I did a lot of prep work with my counselors before I left in order to cope with returning to the environment where I was using behaviors for so long, and I would practice telling myself, ‘The scenery is the same, but I am different.’ And I worked on accepting everything that happened before. Instead of denying it, I had to accept that it’s part of me. It’s my story. It’s part of who I am. My old self is part of who I am, and she deserves to be acknowledged. She deserves love. So I would talk to myself in the past and picture her sitting in the passenger seat next to me during that long drive. I would tell her, ‘We’re in this together, and I won’t leave you behind. I am sorry for everything that you went through, and I know that you did your best. I know that you were in a very bad place, and I know you were just hurting so badly and didn’t know what to do, but it’s going to be ok now. I forgive you for hurting us, and you don’t have to be afraid or hurt anymore, because we have new skills now, and I’m going to take care of us. I won’t forget you and I won’t deny you, because you are right here with me, but now it’s your turn to rest. So don’t worry, because I’ll take care of us now.’”

When I finally opened that brown folder and began to read, I was surprised. The words flowed eloquently, and the narrative was seamless. The conclusions were based on shaky reasoning that was likely the result of impatience, anger, resentment, and the overly rigid, all-or-nothing thinking that permeated every aspect of my life at that time, but the sentences were coherent. I could feel my tense muscles relax just a bit. Steve was right. I’ll never know objectively who or what or how I was during those weeks and months. It affected me too personally. But maybe I wasn’t the total failure I believed myself to be.

“The same traits that have made you so successful at everything else are going to make you successful at this,” a friend told me as I was leaving to enter partial hospitalization for my eating disorder.

“What are those traits?” my therapist asked last week.

“I never quit. Ever. Not ever. I’m smart. I work hard. I am always searching for answers and trying to improve. And I have hope. That’s probably what saved my life. When I would be sitting in my car at a red light and think, ‘I could just drive home and park in the garage with this thing running. It would be so easy,’ my next thought would be, ‘But what if tomorrow is the day something changes? What if tomorrow, God finally answers my prayers?’ When I think back to that time and the other times in my life when I was severely depressed, I sometimes think the greatest achievement is simply that I survived.”

So, to my former self, the me that I was a year ago, thank you. You survived. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you and your stubborn refusal to give in. You are a SURVIVOR. I am proud to have you with me on this journey.

Though much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

~ Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses