Grace Breaks Through

Who remembers Taz, the incoherent Tasmanian devil animated by Warner Bros.? As an increasingly self-aware, recovering perfectionist, when an attack of perfectionistic fervor strikes, it feels like Taz is inside of my chest, whirling in a maniacal cyclone of destruction, tongue hanging out, panting, scattering saliva, and spouting indecipherable gibberish at a deafening level. Welcome to last weekend.

By the time I crossed Friday’s threshold, I was frustrated, angry, and entirely exhausted. I was guilty of foregoing sleep and self-care, the consequence of forcing too much into too little time while telling myself it was all completely necessary. Friday brought with it an enticing promise of relief and an opportunity to catch up on everything that needed doing.

Back when I set my New Year’s Resolutions, I mentioned that I wanted to become better at identifying when I was using anger as a screen to avoid feeling vulnerable, hurt, afraid, uncertain, etc.. When I spent the entire course of Friday feeling frustrated, bitter, and resentful, I persistently questioned myself, “What am I missing? What is really going on here?” My inability to answer my self-inquiry only deepened my irritation and impatience. Finally, I resolved that it didn’t matter. I was convinced that after a night of solid sleep, I would arise on Saturday feeling refreshed and renewed. Well, I woke up on Saturday to a messy house, a cluttered desk, and an excessive list of “must-do’s.” Of course, I jumped straight in, assuring myself that I was being necessarily reflective. I was prioritizing, taking one thing at a time, and “doing the next best thing,” mindfully. I even paused for a brief, guided meditation (on exploring anger) and spent an excrutiating four whole minutes sitting in silence, gazing out the window, letting the sunlight penetrate my exterior, simply contemplating. New Years’ Resolution #1 – to cultivate stillness, quiet, and peace? Yeah, that’s not going to be so easy.

By the end of the day, I was disappointed with my productivity, and I wasn’t feeling any better. When I sat up in bed on Sunday, at first appearances, it seemed like more of the same. I can’t exactly describe what happened, but in the midst of all that, light broke through. Figuratively at first, but then literally.

On Sunday morning, I awoke, and I did what I do on most Sundays. I reached for the phone, assessed the hour, and in an instant broke down the rest of the day and what I could expect to accomplish. Then, I picked up the little prayer booklet beside by my bed and tried to let the mass readings for the day penetrate my calvarium, underlining and annotating with color-coded pens.

“Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, the governor, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: ‘Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep’ – for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: ‘Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!’”

~ Nehemiah 8:8-10

In these words, I found something that I needed that morning. I found permission to be joyful.

You see, my perfectionism really arises from my deep belief that I’m not good enough. To borrow from Brené Brown, it’s my shuffle for self-worth. Yet, God knows that I am a sinner. He knows all of my darkest parts far better than I know them. And he forgives me. And he loves me. And he wants me to be happy. Because he also knows all of my glorious parts and all of my potential far better than I. The people who heard Ezra proclaim the law of Moses wept and lamented as they realized their failings, but they were then invited to resume a life of love, gratitude, and joy free from the burden of their past. Once I acknowledge my stumbles and make them as right as I can, I am invited to stand back up. And sing. And laugh. And dance. And eat rich food. (Still working on that last part.)

It wasn’t quite entirely so simple, though, old patterns being hard to break. Even as my glimmer of realization began to cast a hint of illumination into the hardened, self-hating recesses of my mind, I was simultaneously planning what I was going to wear for the day, mapping out my afternoon, organizing my bedside table with one hand, and scratching the cat with the other.

Finally, I came downstairs and opened the blinds, and I couldn’t close my eyes to the dazzling sun reflecting off the frozen snow. As the first rays of day shot over the horizon, I truly paused. It occurred to me that there must be some sort of atmospheric phenomenon that makes the sunlight of winter appear more clear, radiant, and bright than the warm, humid sun of summer months. In that moment, almost impulsively, I did something almost foreign to me. Even though Taz was whirling inside me, jabbering something about how I would be running late, I stepped outside into the icy air.

One of my favorite blogs to follow is alpha // whiskey // foxtrot, by the enormously talented Ashley Wilson Fellers. Her black-and-white photography is just as breathtaking as her mindful, poignant, thought-provoking reflections in poetry and prose. (Seriously, if you don’t already follow blog, go check her out). She is one of those artists and writers who encourages me to see the world differently, and on that particular morning, I almost felt like I was seeing the sunrise with her eyes.

I took a picture. And then I took another. Then I pondered, “I wonder how the light and shadows would look from that spot over there.” And I went. In black-and-white, there was no color to distract the eye. The brightness and darkness were just… there. It was an image of the simplicity and stillness that I spent the preceding 48 hours hunting relentlessly. No noise. Just peace.

Winter sunrise 1

Winter Sunrise 2

In the end, there was no great epiphany or single event that catapulted me to some new, profound plane of existence. Rather, it was a culmination of tiny moments, finally ending in a willingness to open my eyes to what was before me all along.

Wishing each of you who read this love, laughter, joy, and peace today.

“For I know well the plans I have for you – oracle of the Lord – plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”

~ Jeremiah 29:11

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Incongruence

Featured Image: “Dark,” © Stephen Bowler, Dec 2013. CC BY 2.0.

In the daily morning meeting, a contextualized and multifaceted discussion arises. As I lean back, my chest and arms open, hands resting in my lap under the long conference table with palms turned ever so slightly upward, I tell myself, “Relax.” There is a touch of forcefulness in the directive, just as there is a raggedness and unsteadiness to my breath. The conversation is not provocative or heated, but more evocative and inviting. And yet, I still feel the chronic tension in my body, especially the tightness of my face and shoulders and the sore lump of my left upper trapezius where it meets my neck.

Slowly, gradually, I melt into the moment, letting the quiet hush of the circulating HVAC system wash over me, settling into the background of the tonal voices that rise and fall from one end of the table and then the other. Across from me, along the far wall of the room, I see a smooth face, rosy cheeks, with deep, dark shadows underneath both eyes. I think about his three young children at home and the new baby, his wife’s recent surgery, and his obscure, mysterious life beyond these walls, of which I know very little. I wonder who he is and what experiences make him. What is buried under the surface of that face? Is he even aware of his own depth? My eyes shift from face to face, taking in the wrinkles of age, the softness of youth, the creases of concern, ringed eyes and heavy lids, or bright irises following their own wandering route. Parents, husbands, wives, children. I wonder what beauty these eyes have beheld and what pain those hearts bear. I pause when I come to a co-worker whose adult son committed suicide several years before I met him, and my eyes start to sting. He never speaks of it to me; I only know that it happened from a passing comment once made by someone else about attending the funeral. What else do the human hearts gathered in this room carry in their depths?

I begin to hear the breaths around me, and for the first time ever, I start to notice the asynchronous rising and falling of shoulders, chests, and bellies of all these gathered bodies. Mine is one of them.

How often do I allow myself to move through my day with awareness of what forms me? How often do I allow myself to really feel? How often am I open to those tender, vulnerable places in my soul? I am tempted to answer, “Never.” I think that I was more awake and alive when I returned from Walden last January, but slowly the walls went back up. I formed a hard shell around my heart, and coming to this realization hurts.

“…for the unexamined life is not worth living.”

~ Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates

Perhaps, my tranquil consciousness during the conference this morning is an invitation to be more curious about myself and others. The question it leaves me with is, can I accept this bidding to look deeper?

On January 1st, I began reading a page each day from a little book by Anne Wilson Schaef called Meditations for Living in Balance: Daily Solutions for People Who Do Too Much. I am finding the short reflections for each day both meaningful and challenging, moving me to consider differently. On the 25th, the topic was “Congruence.”

“Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.”

~ St. Anthony of Padua

Am I a trustworthy person? Do my words and my actions align? Do I mean what I say and follow through, or do I speak and write in empty sentiments? Am I deceiving others? Am I deceiving myself? I would be doing myself more harm if I glossed over these questions. Of course I am dishonest. Every time I commit one of these incongruences, I am eroding my soul just a bit. Such self-examination is painful, but living blindly in incongruence is damaging in a more diabolical way.

As one of my favorite, pithy recovery sayings goes, “Feel. Deal. Heal.” It is impossible for anyone to live congruently all the time. Honest introspection is necessary, difficult, and it hurts, but I am not meant to pitch my tent there. I am meant to move THROUGH it and find the reconciliation with God and self that is waiting at the end. There is joy to be discovered in this process. Of course, it is an often-repeating process, but the goal is that with continuing effort, I grow in time.

“Do not let the past disturb you – just leave everything in the Sacred Heart, and begin again with joy.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Calm
Calm,” © Stephen Bowler, Apr 2015. CC BY 2.0.

The Shedding

Featured Image:  “Cable car let go,” © Mr. Littlehand, Jan 2010. CC BY 2.0.

“Do you have a song that you want to sing to Lulu?” Alice asked. I could hear Elliot and Penny jabbering excitedly in the background. I was calling to ask Alice a question about coordinating upcoming travel, but it was a Saturday afternoon, and her two kids were sitting on her lap watching Frozen when the phone rang. Elliot seized the receiver almost immediately to declare, “Lulu, you’re MY Lulu!” I could feel my face cracking as a smile spread across my lips, crinkling the corners of my eyes and lifting all the little muscles of my brow. It was as if, with those words, not only my countenance but my very center changed, and a warmth and light broke through my rough surface, the way red-hot magma bubbles up through new fissures in hardened igneous rock.

“You’re my one and only Elliot!” I exclaimed, grateful that I didn’t know any other Elliots, and I could make such a bold proclamation with full honesty. There was some more fumbling as the phone was passed, and then the clear voice of two-year-old Penny came through.

“Leh ih GO! LEH ih GOO!” she belted. “LEEEEEH ih GOOOOOOOO!”

Her rendition of the signature Disney song left us all laughing. Finally, once Elliot and Penny could think of nothing more to tell me about their Christmas visit from Santa, Alice and I were able to spend more time catching up. Among various other topics, we chatted about our days in college, thinking ahead to our upcoming reunion in June. As we reminisced and exchanged news of mutual friends, I recalled some of my actions of which I was less than proud. “If I could do it again, I would do it so differently!” Alice exclaimed.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t think I would be who I am now if I didn’t go through it the way that I did. I think I would need to do it the same way again.”

When I consider who I was during college, I think of a girl who was hot-headed, self-righteous, brilliant but amazingly egotistical and arrogant… a girl who lived in nearly constant shame and mortification, who was never good enough, who was an outsider, and who hated herself with an intensity that could crack a diamond. My self-perception now is radically different. I would like to think that I am intelligent, but certainly not brilliant. I am less reactive, and I am less controlled by my emotions, which (I think) are also less fiery and extreme. I hope that I am growing in humility. I know that I am more empathetic and compassionate than I once was. A compassionate heart and a more open mind is a strange gift that my prolonged illness and my eating disorder bestowed on me. Thankfully, with therapy and medication, I am not nearly as depressed as I once was. I hope that I am not the same person I was in college, but I think that I needed her experiences. I needed to feel the effects of her decisions and the way that she lived her life.

Reflecting on the conversation the next day, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that this dear friend remained so dear. I was also mindful that I was not entirely mindful during our conversation. As we started to talk, I was thumbing through my email, but once I found myself asking her to repeat a comment she made not two minutes earlier, I realized that my attention was divided, and I was able to put aside my distractions. However, that didn’t stop me from painting my nails twenty minutes later.

In the midst criticizing myself (“What part of ONE THING AT A TIME is so difficult?!” I was thinking), when it occurred to me that I internalized every word that Alice spoke. With a pen and my journal, I breezed through our 55 minute dialogue, which rambled and ranged over work, family, holidays, weddings, children, friends, the past, the present, and the future. I WAS engaged. Perhaps painting my nails was almost reflexive, like picking at a stain on the tablecloth. In an unusual turn, I decided to let go of my self-criticism, accept Saturday’s behavior during my conversation with my friend for what it was, and move onward. “I wasn’t necessarily unaware,” I concluded. “But,” I continued, “maybe I can keep this experience in mind the next time I am trying to hold a meaningful conversation with someone over the phone, and I will be a little more mindfully aware.”

“If there are people you haven’t forgiven, you’re not going to really awaken. You have to let go.”

~ Eckhart Tolle

Self-forgiveness is hard for me. It is even difficult for me to forgive myself for struggling with self-forgiveness. Forgiveness, in general, is always a challenge, but when it comes to forgiving myself, there is part of me that still couples forgiveness with forgetting. I worry that if I let go of my guilt, shame, blame, or culpability, then I won’t be able to move forward. I will be destined to repeat the same mistakes again and again. It remains somewhat counter-intuitive to me that the way forward is to let go, yet when I am able to discard the weight of those dragging thoughts and burdensome emotions, my heart seems to blossom, and I feel more open and malleable. I don’t expect that my weaknesses will suddenly mend or that I will overcome my chronic problems by forgiving myself, as if I could simply kick aside or step around those personality traits and maladaptive patterns that remain my frequent stumbling blocks. No. I think that I will continue to repeat similar patterns as I work toward progressive change. Slowly. Bit by bit. With lots of trips, falls, and scraped knees along the way. However, the wounds will heal, and often the scabs fall away without even leaving a scar. There will be deeper cuts that may continue to ache, and the skin that grows over the gash will be a bit thinner and a bit shinier than what was there before. But… to not forgive would be to continue poking myself, over and over again, in those same spots.

“It doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.”

~ J. C. Watts

One of the items on my long-term “to do” list was “clean out old clothes.” When I returned from partial hospitalization last January, I was quick to bag up armloads of pants, too-tight shirts, and belts that I associated with too many past behaviors or in which I simply could not feel at ease anymore. My philosophy was, “I’m starting over. If it doesn’t fit or if it isn’t 100% comfortable, it goes.” I dropped off a few garbage bags stuffed with clothes, both old and new, at my local church. However, there were a dozen or so pairs of slacks that went into a box, and there was a rack of dresses in my closet that I didn’t touch. I purchased just a few essential wardrobe elements to get me through the winter. I was still left with many articles of clothing that didn’t trigger a strong emotional reaction, but I found that I wasn’t wearing many of them. Gradually, I added a t-shirt here, a sweater there, and eventually, even a skinny pair of jeans. Every once in a while, I would glance over my drawers and pull out a few more items to donate. Yet, I knew that another thorough overhaul was probably in order.

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.”

~ Lao Tzu

What possessed me to root through the hangars on the morning of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m not sure. That is exactly what happened, though. I thought that it would be a time-consuming and onerous process of trying things on and debating what to keep and what to give away, but when it came down to the actual doing, I felt surprisingly free. I found that I didn’t care if these clothes fit. Pulling down that last box of pants from its shelf after clinging to it for over a year, I was surprised by my detachment. I didn’t want them. Once, I was convicted that I would somehow “reclaim” each pair and learn to wear them again, but on that Monday morning, as bright sunlight streamed through the frigid air outside, I didn’t need to reclaim anything. I just wanted… to let go. I piled the dresses that were hanging untouched in their plastic drycleaner bags into a heap on my bed. I hesitated for a moment, because some of my cocktail gowns were quite lovely, and the sheaths and pullovers were versatile classics. Finally, though, it didn’t matter if they were still in style, if they were too tight or too loose, if they might fit again with a little fabric taken up here or let out there.

“One of the most courageous decisions you’ll ever make is to finally let go of what is hurting your heart and soul.”

~ Brigitte Niole

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#1)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#2)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#3)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#4)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#5)

Clothes Clean-out, 18 Jan 2016 (#6)

The extra space in my closet is really nice. What is nicer is the extra space in my soul.

Holding onto my eating disorder, to worries about weight and appearance, and to my fears about food is draining. It saps my mental, physical, and emotional energy. I am not where I once was, though neither am I where I’d like to be. What else am I holding onto? I have a sense that there is much more that I could let go of; the only question is… will I?

What about you? Are you holding onto anything that you don’t need anymore? At what costs to yourself?

“Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

~ Henri Nouwen

 

The Perennial Party Problem

Featured Image: “Eyjafjallajökull Eruption,” © Söring, May 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0.

As I begin to type, I’m sitting in my office, back arched away from my desk chair, shoulders pulled angrily up to my ears, forehead creased, mouth taught and frowning. There are five minutes until I need to walk across the hall for the daily 9am meeting, but my fingers are slamming the keys. If I can just put a few words on the page, maybe the hostility that’s seething inside of me won’t continue to consume me like a pyroclastic cloud, burning me up from the inside-out.

WHY am I so upset? What exactly is it that is compelling me to both lash out and to self-destruct. I can feel the forces of my anger directed simultaneously outward and inward. I want to scream at my co-workers, then grasp the mug that sits between me and the keyboard, in which steeps my steaming green tea, usually such a tranquil focal point, and fling it at the wall. I imagine the ceramic shattering into huge chunks and bits of powder with a satisfying jolt and crash followed by a tinkling rain. I want to punish myself. What’s going on? I realize that this reaction, now probably temporary, is the state that I once lived in nearly every day. Today, just under the surface, if I peel back a hastily applied, too-shiny shellac that barely obscures all my thoughts and feelings, there is a running list of my mistakes. Screw the Powerball. I will put my money on the underlying message that is playing on the tape reel in my head. Consciously, I’m deaf to it right now, but if I stop long enough to listen, I bet I will discover it repeating some version of, “I suck,” right now.

Ok. Meeting time. Good vent.

Narrow Passage
Narrow Passage,” © Marc Soller, Feb 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There’s something about the combination of sitting in a quiet meeting room, meditating on my breath and the tone of the voices filling the air, a blank page, and Yo-Yo Ma that is intensely therapeutic. Here it goes… Time to scrape at the layers.

Before I begin to write, I want to take a moment to be grateful. I’m grateful for a private office, where I can close my door, pump up the volume of Ma’s sweet sounding cello, and pause. I am grateful that I work in a place where this moment of introspection is possible. It doesn’t happen every day, but more often than not, if I need a bit of time for reflection, I can find the space. I know that I will be much more effective (and much more pleasant) if I can process whatever is going on between my heart and my head in this moment. If I continue to press on, then I am at risk of acting out. I’m grateful for this insight.

Getting down to the matter at hand, here is how I’m feeling. Defensive. Angry. Vulnerable. Not in control.

Exposed. Imprisoned. Captive. Trapped. Like a caged animal, I am ready to scratch the eyes out of anyone who comes near me or chew off my own arm to get away.

There is an obstacle in my immediate future that I cannot escape. Two obstacles, actually. Two work parties. On Thursday, some of my co-workers are throwing a “diaper party,” which is apparently an alternative to a baby shower, except all the gifts are diapers of various types and sizes, for one of our officemates. His wife is expecting their first child later this month, and I get it. A baby shower for a close colleague is one of those events like a birthday or Christmas, and while I’m not excited about navigating the food situation at work, I am supportive of the occasion and am excited for my friend. I’m not burning up over the diaper party.

But I am reeling about the barbecue banquet that is being planned for the following week. As a reward for winning the inter-office holiday decorating competition, our department chair is throwing us a celebratory lunch. The group-wide email soliciting input about date and type of food to serve is currently circulating through the “reply-all” channels.

Why are we so uncreative as a society that we continue to use food as both reward and punishment? Why can’t we be rewarded with a few hours off to go bowling as a team (there’s an alley close to our office), or brainstorm some other fun activity that we might all enjoy? I am not eager to attend another office lunch where my colleagues can demonstrate their individualized disordered eating patterns (either binging or restricting), while seeking external validation in the form of baiting others with comments about the new diet they plan on starting, their juice cleanse, new work-out routine, or, worse, observations about what other people are eating, how others look, or how much others exercise. I am often the object of many of these “others” comments. So… yeah. I tend to loathe forced socialization with my co-workers, and I especially abhor mandatory fun with food. Outside of these events and these conversations, my colleagues are wonderful, amazing, astounding people. They are kind, generous, well-meaning, funny, intelligent… I can go on and on. I even enjoy getting together with them outside of the office from time to time. Oblige me to sit in a windowless conference room with them and eat, though, and they are the enemy.

The seething is already starting to recede. I realize that I have a choice – continue along this path of AVERSION and WILLFULNESS, or search for an alternative way. What is the alternative? Is there more than one other choice?

Step one – Recognize that I am experiencing a strong emotional reaction. Identify when I am triggered.

Check. Definitely, definitely check.

Step two – Explore.

Well… isn’t that what I’m essentially doing right now? Here I am, sharing my explorations with the world, if the world cares to read them. It feels like groping through a bucket of opaque bile, searching for a nugget of gold.

Step three – Choose differently.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake,” © Andy Spearing, Aug 2008. CC BY 2.0.

Ugh. This is the hard part. My co-workers are good people. They are not malicious. They are caring, thoughtful, loving, and compassionate. From the number of emails flooding my inbox, I can tell that they are very excited for this celebratory barbecue lunch. They are almost more excited to join together for a few hours of fast-food pulled pork than they were for their festive “Star Wars Christmas” scheme, which was, believe me, quite elaborate. They deserve this win. This party isn’t about me, and it isn’t about my eating disorder. It isn’t personal. I still take issue with the “food as reward” approach, but my perspective and background on that matter is unique.

What am I going to do? Well, I am going to need to be OK with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen or how I will react on the actual day of the lunch.

In the meantime, I dug deep (as Brené Brown might say), and instead of lashing out in bitterness and resentment, I called upon humor. Gratefully, it was accessible in my hour of need. My supervisor and I were joking about the terrible road conditions on the drive into work this morning (it was snowing pretty heavily during the AM commute), and I noticed that our banter was actually discharging some of my pent-up aggression. I felt the tension in my body slackening. Interesting, I thought. John knows about my history of an eating disorder, so without too much planning, I dove in. “Hey,” I started jovially, “I conscientiously object to using food as a reward. I vote that you guys throw your party on Tuesday so that I won’t be here and I won’t have to go.” Tuesday was one of the days initially proposed, and it also happened to be the afternoon of my weekly, standing appointment with my therapist. My words were light and my face was laughing, but my meaning was serious.

He smiled thoughtfully, gazing up and to the right in that honest, innocent way that people do when they are contemplating. “Oh yeah, I guess it is using food as a reward,” reflected the father of five. “Ok!” he agreed with a grin.

From the email traffic, it seems that everyone else is onboard with the plan for Tuesday, and some of my distress is alleviated. I am taking a (tiny) stand on an issue that is important to my values, without making too much of a fuss, and I am confident that I will navigate next Tuesday skillfully. In the meantime, I will keep trying to explore as I keep trying to cultivate ACCEPTANCE, WILLINGNESS, and COMPASSION, for myself and others.

Crater Lake OR
Crater Lake, OR” © Jonathan Miske, Aug 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Beginning Anywhere

Featured Image: “New Life a New Beginning,” © ♥Adriënne -for a better and peaceful world-, Mar 2010. CC BY 2.0.

Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity…

~ Gilda Radner

Well, it is the sixth of January, and my New Year’s resolutions are still fomenting. Perhaps, that isn’t such an awful thing for someone working to overcome an all-or-nothing outlook on the world. At my last E.D. group session my therapist reminded us, “Any moment can be the instant when you start over. You don’t need to wait until tomorrow, or the beginning of a new week. You don’t need to wait until your next meal. You can start over now. And now. And now.”

Begin anywhere. ~ John Cage

Even though I don’t need a New Year to set new goals, it is still a nice opportunity for a little personal reflection. I began that process well in advance of the New Year, but… one thing led to another, and you can read the rest of the story here.

There’s no arguing against the statement that I am impatient. And perfectionistic. Especially when it comes to my recovery, which at this point, is expanding to encompass this whole, messy metamorphosis of becoming. I’m a bit rigid, inflexible, and demanding when it comes to what I should be and when.

Nothing retards progress in a virtue so much as wanting to acquire it with too much haste!

~ St. Francis de Sales

These words of St. Francis de Sales sound so wise and sweet to my ears, but they just aren’t sinking into my stubborn, frustrated brain. Which is, itself, frustrating. How can I explain the dichotomy of my warring sides? I am partially stuck in the idea that there is an end-point to the process that I began when I entered recovery. I am operating under some notion that I am supposed to reach a stage of completion, or at least some state at which I am more complete, more balanced, more centered, more wholehearted, and living more authentically, genuinely, and vulnerably (i.e., more perfectly) than I am now. In direct opposition to this idea is the basic premise of my new value-system – there IS no final state. The authentic life is not static but is dynamic, because nothing ever stays the same. It is a life of continuous re-balancing, renewal, and re-centering. It requires ongoing becoming, and it won’t ever end until THE end. There is no such thing as perfect, and making myself vulnerable enough to be genuine and wholehearted means accepting all of my beautiful, eclectic, idiosyncratic, even dark and scary, imperfections.

Fresh Start
1/366 – Fresh Start,” © Ravi Shah, Jan 2016. CC BY 2.0.

Over the past few days, I am becoming alert to the pervasive and oppressive underlying monologue in my subconscious. On a continuously repeating loop, it broadcasts, “I am not good enough.” Sometimes, there are different iterations of this phrase. “I am not smart enough, tough enough, diligent enough, focused enough, hard-working enough. I don’t love enough. I’m not outgoing enough.” Underneath it all, though, the message is the same. “I am not enough.” Not yet. As in, the place I occupy right now, this person, this life, this self, this being, is not enough.

About a week before New Year’s Eve, I started compiling a list of the habits that would make me enough. My brainstorm mushroomed until it covered the surfaces of 11 (ELEVEN!) note sheets. Much of it was repetitive, but is it any wonder that I finally broke out in hives on December 31st?

So, I decided to take a break and let this whole resolution-making business settle down. After some kinder, gentler reflection, I was left with these goals for 2016:

ONE – Cultivate silence. Practice being comfortable with being quiet and still. I am a bit better at this than I used to be (although I think I was at my peak a year ago when I left Walden, and my skill eroded as the chaos of life gained momentum). These days, it remains exceedingly difficult for me to sit down and do nothing. No writing, no reading, no scheming or planning, no art, no talking, no television, phone, or computer, no chores… How am I supposed to find myself if I can’t even sit with myself? For me, meditation, contemplative prayer, and guided mindfulness practices are extremely beneficial, yet I never pause long enough to actual DO them! There is never enough time. There is always more that I “need” to accomplish. I am beginning to more consistently remind myself, “There will never be enough time to do everything that I want to do, and it always ends up working out anyway.” In 2016, I want to nurture a calm, peaceful, inner place where I am already enough, where there is nothing to prove, where I don’t need external validation, and where uncertainty and incompleteness are expected. From THAT place will blossom courage, love, empathy, and growth.

TWO – Practice bringing into my conscious awareness that nasty, undermining “I’m not enough” voice. If I can acknowledge and accept those thoughts when they occur, then I can eventually move toward changing the message and replacing the underlying core belief. As long as the tape is playing in my subconscious, however, or just beyond my active awareness, I think I may remain stuck.

THREE – While I’m chipping away at #2, continuing to wade through my emotions is probably in order. I am the queen of secondary and even tertiary emotions. I get mad about being anxious, and then I get even more mad and frustrated about the fact that I am mad over being anxious, because it means I’m not practicing acceptance. (Lost yet?) I also tend to use anger, self-righteousness/indignation, and defensiveness so that I don’t need to face uncertainty, admit that a situation is outside of my control and I must simply accept it, or block feelings of hurt/pain/injury/vulnerability. Becoming more self-aware of these patterns is not going to be easy. Why do I think that identifying my emotions and opening myself to experiencing them fully, without pushing them away, clinging to them, or judging them, may be a resolution that I make every year for the rest of my life?

FOUR – Try new things. New foods, new activities, new people, new experiences. Travel to new places. Do things that scare me, but that are going to help me become the person that I want to be. Stay connected to my old things. Invest in my relationships. Continue to write, to read, and to create. Allow that there will never be a perfect “balance.”

LAST AND ALWAYS – What am I to do when I fall short? What do I do when I’m not practicing self-awareness of my thoughts and emotions, when I am being mindless, when I am being critical of myself, when I am not spending time being quiet and still, when I am caving into the chaos around me and my extraordinary, self-imposed demands? What do I do when I am being reactive and when I am acting out of fear? A little mindfulness-based self-compassion may be in order. Accept myself as I am, accept the situation for what it is, and begin again.

Begin where you are. It would be unscientific to begin anywhere else.

~ Ernest Holmes

 

A new beginning
A new beginning…” © Venu Gopal, Nov 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

Becoming Through The Years

Featured Image: “Time,” © JD, Apr 2012. CC BY 2.0.

On January 1st, 2015, I sat at a little writing desk in the brilliantly sun-lit, second-floor landing of my dear friend, Veronica’s house outside of Boston, weeping tears of joy and gratitude. The large Victorian was built in the mid-ninteenth century. How many people before me awoke to a new year under the shelter of its mansard roof? “Welcome hope! Welcome health! Welcome change and courage!” I wrote. “Welcome confidence! Welcome flexibility! Welcome forgiveness! Welcome love!” I was a mere six days away from concluding my six weeks of partial hospitalization for my eating disorder at Walden. Soon, I would drive the 800 miles to Vanillasville to re-enter life circumstances that I once considered unbearable but came to appreciate as less than ideal during those weeks.

“So long self-loathing, adios shame and guilt, toodles fear without faith. From now on, each ‘mistake’ is just another opportunity to learn so that I can go right on progressing. I will experience setbacks, not failures,” I continued. “I’m ready to move on! I’m leaving all my old baggage behind!

The years before 2015 marked my progressive decline. My physical health finally failed in 2013, when I succumbed to an infection that my body simply could not fight off. I battled against it for nearly a year, and there were many times when I thought that I would never know wellness again. As I slipped deeper and deeper into despair, the most significant resolution that I made on New Year’s Day 2014 was to finally seek help from a mental health professional for my lifelong depression. I did not foresee that doing so would completely unravel what was left of my meticulous self-constructs. Before I could begin to rebuild, I needed to level the shoddy bastions and defilades that I lived within all my life, right down to their fractured and leaky foundations. Unpacking and disassembling the pieces of my past and present was the work of that year. It wasn’t a pretty process. It nearly killed me. I nearly killed myself. When the year began, my body was wracked and weakened by disease and malnutrition, and my mind and spirit were broken. By May, my doctor and I were finally desperate enough for a last ditch, relatively new procedure, which, miraculously, worked to treat my infection. At last, my body began to slowly heal. My mind was another matter. It took until November for me to hit my rock bottom psychologically. When that moment came, I found myself at Walden, terrified and on the brink of hopelessness. Then, bit by bit, I found myself at Walden, scared but struggling onward anyway, with growing hope and a glimmer of light glowing inside me.

In my writing from a year ago, there remained the underpinnings of my all-or-nothing thinking. (And it’s still present today). Obviously, I didn’t step out of 2014 and into 2015 as a radically altered person, with all of my “old baggage” in the past and only a future of self-compassion and wholeheartedness gleaming before me. Yet, I set very different resolutions for myself on that day. Upon reflection, I managed to live up to each one. I discovered it’s far easier to realize a goal when it is unmeasurable, non-specific, and flexible. I wanted to make recovery my #1 priority. Check. I wanted to socialize and to try group activities, such as an art class. My eating disorder kept me isolated for far too long. Check! It was extremely uncomfortable in the beginning. I felt anxiety bordering on panic during those initial painting classes, at my first few Bible study groups, and on many, many dinner occasions. Yet, I DID it anyway! “Work on growing even more mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy through reading, prayer, journaling, exercise, and ongoing group and individual therapy. Try to find a level of exercise that is comfortable for me and at which I can be consistent,” I wrote. Again, not easy. At times, downright horrifying. Yet, I DID it anyway!

It’s a work in progress.

As December 31st, 2015 approached, I looked forward to this New Year with eagerness and excitement. I spent several days journaling about how much I changed over the past year and contemplating my 2016 resolutions. One idea built upon another, and soon I was imagining what it would be like on New Year’s Eve. I pictured myself attending my usual Thursday evening eating disorder group, where I would complete perfect reflections, bringing the year to its full conclusion and opening the next with rounded balance. From there, I would join friends for dinner at a nearby restaurant. I envisioned myself in a shimmery dress, under twinkling lights, radiating beauty and effervescent with joy.

Happy New Year 2015!
Happy New Year 2015!” © Norbert Posselt, Dec 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

New Years’ Eve arrived at last. All was as anticipated. Then, at 5:15 pm, as I climbed the stairs to the bedroom to change clothes for the night, I broke out in hives.

I have an established history of stress urticaria and angioedema. It occurs much less frequently now than it once did, perhaps once or twice every few months, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. When it catches me off guard it is usually because I am deftly denying or negating that I am under any stress or anxiety until my body makes it impossible for me to ignore.

“Why am I putting so much pressure on myself?” I asked the face in the mirror. I didn’t want to wear an uncomfortable, constricting dress to dinner. It was 30 degrees out! The friend that I was meeting would probably be sporting a cardigan, and the restaurant where we booked reservations was far from elegant. I wanted to wear dark leggings and a sweater in which I could wrap myself up. I didn’t want to set a litany of resolutions. I wanted to keep the same simple resolutions that I made last year. I didn’t want the night to be special for its glamour and unique meaning. I wanted the night to be special for its simplicity. I abandoned the elaborate concoction of images that I created about what New Year’s Eve is supposed to be and popped some Benadryl. I pulled on a soft, new sweater with gold buttons on the shoulders that was a Christmas gift to myself and slid my feet into shearling-lined Birkenstocks. With my group, I sipped club soda and toasted New Year’s resolutions like, “To cultivating imperfection,” and “To loving-kindness for ourselves and others.” Afterward, I joined my friend for a late meal. I was back in my apartment and snuggled in bed long before any countdowns or fireworks.

This morning, I slept late and woke up feeling warm and rested. I laid under the covers, in the cocoon of my own heat, for a long while before I finally stirred. In the kitchen, I fixed a cup of tea and the same bowl of oatmeal that I eat on most mornings, and I jotted down in neat, block letters, “This is not a beginning. Nor is it an end. My life is fluid, ever shifting as I grow and become.” Here is to another year of becoming. Thank you for being with me on this journey.

Journey of a 1000 Miles
Journey of a 1000 miles,” © Fritz Crittle, Mar 2012. CC BY-NC 2.0.