“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.
“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.