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.
“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.
“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.