What is best in life? This is a question I used to ask myself frequently when I was first learning how to not engage my disordered eating behaviors. When the impulsive, compulsive thoughts pummeled me like hurricane-strength waves against a worn, ocean levee, I would ask myself for what it was that I resisted.
There was a time when living life well, to me, meant having it all. I slaved hard for the job that everyone stood in awe of, and it wasn’t worth doing if I wasn’t giving 200%. I needed to be working harder and longer than everybody else. If it didn’t hurt, I wasn’t sacrificing enough of myself; I was lazy and sloppy and average. I needed the perfect house, perfect car, perfect clothes, perfect diet, and perfect body. It wasn’t enough that I ran to stay in shape; I ran until it hurt. I entered races, and I made sure that I was a competitor, whittling down my mile splits as I whittled down my waist and whittled away at the foods I would allow myself to eat (read here for more about my struggle with orthorexia). If there was an element of my life that didn’t fit into the perfect image that I tried to project of myself, such as my binge eating disorder, I denied it, minimized it, buried it, rationalized it, disassociated from it, did whatever I could to get rid of it, while shaming and berating myself for my weakness and promising that I would work harder. I was a woman at war not only with the world and everyone else occupying it, I was a woman at war with herself. And I was miserable.
What good was the job, the car, the clothes, the body, the trophies and accolades, when I was depressed, anxious, suicidal, and sinking into binges so severe every night that I was terrified I was going to die if I didn’t kill myself first? Perhaps it seems intuitive to a healthy person or to someone who never struggled with an eating disorder or mental illness, but it took quite a while before I was finally able to recognize, really, truly, and with my whole heart, that this idea of perfection I created for myself was not worth the price I was paying. It didn’t happen quickly or suddenly. It was a gradual realization, and it grew from repeatedly asking myself, What is best in life?
It is three days before Halloween. I am sitting on the rubberized gym floor of the preschool that Alice’s kids attend. Elliot is huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with the other four-year-olds in front of the small, folding table at the front of the little, square room. They are all completely oblivious to the fact that they are now well beyond the line of tape that marks the “do not cross!” point that they are supposed to stay behind. With each simple magic trick, they squeal with delight, bounce up and down, and scooch forward. I am struck by the idea that a middle-aged adult would spend his evenings performing magic shows for preschoolers. He pulls out a giant pair of wooden scissors as big as some of the children and asks who would like to try to cut the magic rope. They encroach even further, erupting into excited shrieks as two dozen hands shoot into the air, fingers stretched to their maximum length.
Behind this line of miniature, jostling bodies, the littler siblings are carelessly wheeling through the wide, empty space of the remaining gymnasium. Penny, who is two, runs loopy circles around and around until she falls onto her bottom, and then stands up to repeat the same pattern. Around and around and down. She never cries, never looks distressed, and never tires. She is completely oblivious to whether or not she might hurt herself, bump her head, or run into another kid who is careening in the opposite direction. Every so often, she trundles over in my direction, flops into my lap, and practices her new favorite word, “Wuwu! Wuwu! Wuwu!” she echoes as she points at me. As if to emphasize how proud she is of learning names, she occasionally points to her brother or mother and throws in an, “Ewiot, Mama.” Something inside my chest twists up in knots and climbs into my throat.
The magic show comes to an end, and Elliot races eagerly to find Alice and me. “Did you like the magic show?” Alice asks as she tries to wriggle him into his jacket.
“Yeah!” he exclaims, as he jostles against her legs.
“What was your favorite part?” she persists.
“When Lulu came!” he declares.
I choke again.
The weekend will include walks to the park under a brilliantly blue sky, the autumn sun sparkling through the golden and fiery New England leaves. The air will feel crisp and clean while the kids ride bikes and go down the “big” slide. Elliot will insist that his grandmother drive to the craft store so that he can buy beads to make me a necklace that I am never to take off. He will request that I give him his bath and watch his favorite cartoons with him, his itty, warm body curled into the hollow under my arm like a living furnace. For the next three days he will ask, “Is it time to go trick-or-treating yet?”
Penny will throw a monumental fit when it is time for her bath, as she does anytime her head is wetted. She will scream until her face is mottled and snot is streaming from her nose, but within thirty minutes of being wrapped in her soft, velvety robe, she will be calmly nestled on her mother’s lap with a stuffed animal and a book. Elliot will whack his head against the arm of the couch playing ring-around-the-rosy not an hour before trick-or-treating begins, which will precipitate a meltdown, which will be completely forgotten once he is in his monster costume with a flashlight in his hand. His mom, dad, and I will take turns pulling him and his sister around the cul-de-sac in their red wagon when they are too tired to walk home, and then, clustered around the kitchen table, they will dump the spoils of their treat bags on the table, less interested in the M&M’s and Snickers bars than in the experience of the evening.
What is health? What is happiness? What does it mean to live a full, vibrant, wholehearted existence? What does it mean to love and to be loved? What does it mean to be fully alive? What is best in life? What is that worth?