With life seeming to break around unexpected, sharp turns fairly frequently of late, I apologize that my blogging is a bit erratic and infrequent. There are many words and ideas pinging around in my head, but I am making self-care my priority. I find myself short on free time these days, and to dedicate all of it to writing would mean sacrificing the other parts of myself that bring my mind and soul into balance – my relationships, my personal journal, exercise and yoga, drawing… Well, the result is that I’m a bit behind on my Kindness Challenge Reflections. As I prepare to publish this post, I am a bit dumbstruck by how long it took me to cobble it together, but I am also allowing myself to celebrate the other ways I am using my time – the backyard picnics that I attended with friends this weekend, Saturday’s massage, daily prayer, mindfulness practice, helping my parents around their house, wandering through the garden when the work was finished. With acceptance in mind, I’m continuing forward.
It so happened that the second anniversary of my 30th birthday fell during the second week of The Kindness Challenge, when the task was to “observe kindness around you.” Throughout my personal history, “kindness” and “my birthday” were contradictory terms. In fact, “kindness” was a word that I rarely, if ever used, and it was a concept that I certainly did not understand. You see, the sole function of my birthday was to annually substantiate, to myself and to the world, how little I mattered. It was a day for remembering that I was not only unloved but unlovable… not to mention forgotten, outcast, and worthless. It offered all the evidence that I required to remain irrefutably convicted in my mentally-ill heart that I was abnormal, defective, and irreparably damaged. I repeated the same story to myself year after year to prove why there was no hope for me. Life is not a fairy tale, and there are no such things as happy endings. I only needed to turn on CNN or look to the streets of the city where I lived for evidence of the overwhelming suffering in the world. Somehow, I was convinced that by bearing a disproportionate amount of pain, misery, loneliness, heartache, and despair, I served as a sort of reparation for the injustice and hurt experienced by others.
Underneath it all, I think that I was afraid. Of what, precisely, I’m not entirely certain. The unknown? Change? Allowing myself to be vulnerable? To be dependent on others for my emotional needs? I didn’t understand that human beings are made for each other. I couldn’t comprehend that one of the reasons I felt so lonely and unfulfilled was because no individual can satisfy all her own longings. Our souls demand connection in order to flourish. We are nourished by relationships, even the simple exchanges of a friendly smile between strangers on the subway or a kind greeting over a morning coffee transaction. I viewed my sadness as weakness. My depression was a flaw to be mercilessly vanquished through diligent work and application. Emotions were obstacles on my path to success, and other people could not be trusted. Every May, I broke my own heart. I asked for nothing, but I expected everything. In my romanticized world, I imagined that all of my friends and family would just know as my birthday approached. Though I admonished and scolded myself that life was no fairy tale, I fell for the fantasy of every chick flick, Disney movie, Hallmark Channel original, and jewelry advertisement I ever saw. I was endlessly disappointed, of course. A healthy person might recognize such disappointment as the result of an ideal founded on illusions and clever marketing, but I convinced myself that I didn’t matter. I would never matter. I was destined to be alone and to suffer forever, because it was what I was made for. I was confident that even God was ambivalent to my existence.
My 30th birthday was a murky transition between the darkness of my contorted thinking and the light. I barely dipped a toe into cognitive behavioral therapy beginning in March of that year, and I was not yet owning my “eating issues.” A year later, after six weeks of partial hospitalization for binge eating disorder, four weeks of an intensive outpatient program, and ongoing weekly therapy for my depression, anxiety, and orthorexia, I was ready for something different. Planning a party or organizing an event was still a bit beyond my coping skills. Thoughts of the food challenges, the crowd, and the expectation all provoked anxiety, resulting in my familiar chest tightness and one of my favorite fallbacks – avoidance. My biggest step forward was in acknowledging my birthday and allowing others to celebrate me. As the second anniversary of my 30th birthday approached, I felt a familiar tension rising within. Initially, I succumbed to the pressure of believing that, because I was now in recovery, I needed to honor myself by observing my birthday in a remarkable way. However, apprehension gave way to acceptance and then to a serene peacefulness as I released all of the remaining expectations to which I continued to cling. For perhaps the first time, I decided that a structured, choreographed, orchestrated bash was not requisite to prove my worth or my commitment to my self-love. Instead of assuming that I would be forgotten, I permitted myself to take for granted that the people closest to me would send me cards and that my officemates, who never, ever miss a birthday for anyone in our workplace, would at least hang up our “Happy Birthday!” sign over my desk. Vulnerability. Yet, regardless of what happened, who remembered and who didn’t, or how I celebrated, I knew that I was loved and appreciated, and on more than just a single day of 365.
When I released those expectations, it was as if my birthday transformed into the fairy tale I always imagined, but in an entirely unexpected way. There was no great pomp or flash, but I found magical delight in the simplest kindnesses. I flicked the light switch in my tiny office to illuminate a confetti-strewn scene bedazzled with sparkling, metallic streamers, balloons, and accented with a bouquet of bright flowers practically overflowing their vase. The absence of definitive plans allowed for an impromptu lunch at one of my favorite nearby restaurants with two of my closest colleagues, culminating in another favorite, a warm brownie sundae. I discovered that a brownie sundae is even better when it is shared with your friends on your birthday while the sun shines brilliantly outside, birds whistle springtime songs, and work stands still just long enough for a slow, deep breath that brings life all the way to your toes. I returned home at the end of my day to a stack of packages and cards piled so high that I borrowed a mail crate to carry them all from the front office of my apartment community to my little townhouse. Under a radiant, sunny sky, I rode my bike along the nearby trail, drinking in the colors, sounds, and smells all around me as I reflected on all the love poured into my heart that day.
There are always hard days when I feel myself drawing inward, when I close myself off in a self-protective cocoon. Fear, bitterness, resentment, pain… c’est la vie. If my past birthdays illustrate anything, it is that shutting myself off from the world only guarantees my suffering. Throughout this journey, I am learning the necessity of connection to the wholehearted life for which I long. It can be terrifying to allow myself to so raw and exposed, and it is pretty much guaranteed that I will both be hurt and hurt others along the way. Which leads me to this… don’t we all deserve a little kindness and compassion on this rough path we all must tread? When I open my senses to the kindness and connection all around me, I feel more alive. Today, I am grateful for all of my friends and family who showered me with smiles and thoughtfulness this May, and I am especially grateful for all of the people who loved me through all those hard, dark Mays before. Thank you.