The Perfection Deception

Featured Image: “WAITING,” © Kai Schaper (own work), May 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

At the moment, I am soaring over the North American continent, contentedly perched in the aisle seat of an exit row, directly over the wing. There is a hot cup of freshly-brewed, dark roast positioned on the floor. I wiggle my toes in my leather, Birkenstock thongs as I stretch out my petite legs, reach down to grab my coffee, and savor a long pull.

At this point in my life, I am an airline-traveling pro. My frequent visits home find me navigating the friendly skies at least once a month, and that doesn’t include my trips for work. Before I became very sick, I was even a semi-regular international traveler, though I have yet to overcome my lingering trepidation to venture abroad in recovery. There is a distinct separation, not only in time but in my being, between the traveling that I did before I began treatment for my eating disorder and my post-Walden adventures.

After leaving partial hospitalization and hesitantly, precariously, fearfully, re-entering the world beyond the structure of the program, I found that traveling was not easy for me. In fact, I found that traveling was never particularly easy for me. I always tended toward a more anxious, easily agitated temperament. Disruptions to my routine, removal from my comfortable and predictable surroundings, and the introduction of a host of unknown variables tipped my equilibrium, but I didn’t possess the self-awareness to recognize my emotions. Before I undertook treatment, I was unequipped to see the pattern that reproduced a similar reaction time and again. I lacked the mindfulness to cope with my circumstances or to tolerate the uncomfortable, automatic responses that were triggered. All I recognized was that I felt an unpleasant intensity that I did not want to experience, and I judged myself harshly on account of it. After so many bags packed, tickets purchased, and miles logged, security lines traversed, on-boardings, and off-boardings, I really would accept no excuses for less-than-perfection from myself. I was not allowed to be anxious, to not know the inside scoop on every traveling tip and trick, or to ever make a mistake. Finding myself stuck in an airport was certainly no reason to derail my fastidiously clean eating. I would walk miles across multiple terminals to find the healthiest salad. No dressing. Water only to drink. No peanuts, please. My rigidity and lack of compassion for myself only magnified the intensity of my negative emotions. (Go figure!) Cycles of escalating restricting would, in turn, amplify my anxiety and desperation, leading to narrower, meaner, more rigid thinking and even further restriction. Later in my eating disorder, I progressively spiraled into more frequent and severe binging episodes. After a time, I came to expect this outcome with any departure from the immediate vicinity of my work and apartment. I isolated more and more, and I traveled less and less.

Aerials
Aerials,” © Metaloxyd (own work), Sep 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

The very first obstacle that I tackled after leaving Walden was the 13-hour drive back to Vanillasville. I didn’t want to leave, but as the psychiatrist who was overseeing my medical care told me in a frank and honest way one afternoon, “Your life is not here.” Throughout the entire day that it took me to cross those roughly 850 miles, I drew on every coping and distress tolerance skill I learned over the preceding six weeks. Every few minutes, I found myself intentionally redirecting my thoughts, self-soothing, rationally responding to a cyclone of distorted fears, or silently and tearfully whispering desperate prayers as I repeated, “It IS ok. It will BE ok. No matter what happens around me, I am ok.”

The very next weekend, I boarded a plane back to Boston. I knew that I couldn’t isolate and avoid, as I did before treatment, and it was my goddaughter’s baptism. At first, my anxiety and apprehension swelled like a brewing tropical storm before every trip. Long before I ever pulled my suitcase out of the closet, I entered the fray of pitched battle against eating disorder impulses, which were fueled by triggering memories of past behaviors and by my panic over the surrender of control that traveling required. With my therapist and my nutritionist, Kelly, I spent several weeks in advance of each departure strategizing, planning, and coping-ahead. With every complicated connection, delay, rerouting, traffic jam resulting in an almost-missed flight, rude attendant, unpleasant seat mate, lost bag, missed snack, spilled drink, etc., my self-confidence, adaptability, resourcefulness, and resiliency grew. Eventually, I reached a point where I occasionally forgot to even mention to Kelly or to my therapist that I was leaving town. The topic might come up in an offhand way, such as the time I mentioned to Kelly, “I had a great time with Alice last weekend. We went to the playground with the kids and took them for a walk with their bicycles…” She tipped her head to one side, eyeing me quizzically. “Didn’t I tell you I was going to Massachusetts last weekend?” I asked, genuinely surprised at my forgetfulness, as smiles creased both of our faces.

No matter what perchance occurrence befell me, it always worked out in the end, one way or another, ultimately. I learned that if I was dashing out the door in dread of making it to the airport on time, I could leave dishes in the sink, laundry in the dryer, dirty sheets on the bed, and the world continued to turn. I discovered that the house wouldn’t crumble to its foundations if I didn’t clean it from top to bottom and take out all the trash every time I left for a weekend away. If I could manage to throw together a shirt or two, a pair of PJs, and a couple changes of underwear and socks, chances were good that I would be able to cope with just about anything. I didn’t need to bring ten outfits for two days, and I could survive for an entire week with what I could fit in my smallest roller-bag. I learned what foods were easily transportable in a carry-on, and it became my habit to fill up half my shoulder bag with snacks and emergency rations. If I ever found myself camped out overnight on a bench in Atlanta (again), there would be no need for worry – I flew with everything I needed to assemble a dinner on-the-go and breakfast the next morning.

Seats
Seats,” © Don Harder (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

My departure for the airport today went off without a hiccup. Not one single hiccup. Packing and prepping was even smoother than usual this time around, likely because I’ll only be away for two days, compared to the weeklong trips I was taking throughout the spring. I was even left with enough time for a leisurely breakfast with Pangur Ban, my cat, at my side. With my bags assembled by the door, I sat down on the living room floor to paint my toenails. Brushing on the bright, poppy color slowly and smoothly, I thought, “So PERFECT!”

Hang on…

There was something not… quite… right… Not perfect… Though it felt perfect… Deceptively so.

It couldn’t be true, could it? After all, one of the tenets of my newfound authentic life was, “Nothing in this life is perfect. Only God is perfect. Circumstances are not perfect, I am not expected to be perfect, and neither is anyone else.” I employed one of my methods for testing the validity of automatic thoughts by asking myself, a) Is it true? and, b) Is it helpful? “So perfect,” tripped both alarms.

It occurred to me that this impression of my trip’s perfect beginning was not only likely inaccurate, it was potentially dangerous. If I fell into the illusion of believing that my morning was progressing perfectly, what sort of expectation was I establishing for the rest of my day. Or for my next trip? Would I be disappointed when I was rushing out the door in a few weeks, dishes in the sink, toenails looking chipped and shabby? Would I doubt myself and lament that I wasn’t performing up to my full potential? In the back of my mind, I would remind myself, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” but that wouldn’t necessarily stop the thoughts from occurring.

So… I reflected a bit more deeply on the events of the preceding few hours, and I recollected the night before. I was sleep deprived, after choosing to stay up watching YouTube videos rather than engaging in more mindful, relaxing activities that might better calm my frazzled nervous system and very, very lively brain into quiescence. During the first half of that leisurely breakfast I mentioned, I was a bit distracted and not very present with the experience. Here, I was painting my toes, but I would not be able to devote any care to my fingers until I reached my destination. Able to see these few, tiny blemishes in my otherwise spotless experience, I stopped.

Not perfect, I told myself, reassured. But, I allowed, still wonderful and amazing. These little bumps, these little snags, they take nothing away from the joy of this moment. This morning is still good. It is VERY good. But it’s not perfect.

I realized that today was not the first time that I stumbled into this trap. Nostalgia and comparison trip me up not infrequently. Identifying both the positives and negatives in the truth of the situation seemed like a healthy way to reality check. AND, even as I brought my mindful attention to the few, dim clouds in an otherwise bright, blue sky, I reminded myself, This moment is no less incredible because it is imperfect. Maybe, it is even more incredible on account of its imperfection.

Whether it’s across the street or across the world, I wish you happy and imperfect travels. ❤

Big Sky (2)
Big Sky (2)” © spodzone (own work), July 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)
Advertisements

Compassion for Self and Kindness for Others

Featured Image: “Untitled,” © Jonas Witt (own work), Nov 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

When I first began the Kindness Challenge, I was feeling frayed, haggard, and on the cusp. I felt overpowered and threatened by circumstances that were beyond my control. My coping skills were always, almost, utterly depleted under the unceasing exigency. Like a raw nerve, I cringed and recoiled at the slightest prick, hypersensitive in my anticipation of the next deluge. Edgy and exhausted, my thinking slipped into rigid patterns, my self-compassion waned, and I stumbled along a circuitous course of self-perpetuating frustration over my “regression.” My intention at the outset of the challenge was to reconnect with a gentler version of myself. Through the first few weeks, I honestly noticed little change. When the fourth week of the challenge began, I was ready to begin again with renewed energy.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

The focus of week #4 was “Be Kind,” which sounded simple and direct enough. However, after practicing loving-kindness meditation for the past year while striving to bring a bit more good into the world as often as I could, I wasn’t sure how the week would be different from my routine. I was re-reading Niki’s wonderful list of suggested kind acts while thinking to myself, “I already make eye contact and chat with everyone I meet, both friends and strangers. I already hold open doors for people, I’m continually working on being a better listener, I often write encouraging notes to friends and family members, I donate money to the church every week and to my favorite charities every month, I try to go out of my way just a bit to help other people when I see they need a hand, and I endeavor to remain open to the smallest act that might add a little light to the world…”

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

As I mentally scrolled through this litany of kindnesses, trying to conceive of something novel (that also wouldn’t take up too much time in my zany, work-a-day life), I was struck by how difficult it was for me to acknowledge my ongoing efforts. (Even typing them out here feels boastful and wrong. “People will get the wrong idea about me,” the voice in my head is saying. “I’m not that good.”)

Oh, that little voice. It clings on. I am no longer feeling quite so fragmented. Time and space are a soothing balm, but so are prayer, meditation, and the gentle, consistent, understanding, and encouraging support of an expert therapist, a skilled dietician, and a host of patient friends and family. Whether my external circumstances are truly altered, or the shift is an internal one, or both (I suspect the combination), I am thinking and feeling better. I leave it up to those who know me well to judge if my subjective sense of improvement correlates at all with an exterior change in comportment, but I am telling myself that I am less reactive and volatile than I was a month ago. Of course, my mind and my moods ebb and flow, and I continue to struggle with difficult and distorted core beliefs, such as that I am a bad person, blameworthy and wicked. Yet, I accept that I am a work in progress, and this work is the enterprise of a lifetime.

tide
Tide,” © Supermariolxpt (own work), Nov 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

After toting about the book, “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” by Christopher Germer, for a couple of months, I finally started to earnestly read it again. I also found a few other, short articles by various authors about what I would call, for a lack of a better term, the wholehearted approach to building an enriching life. Perhaps I needed a little refresher. With a highlighter and a pencil, I plodded along, a little bit each day, allowing the words to percolate as I scribbled my reactions and ideas in the margins. When I noticed a troubling or repetitive thought or an unpleasant feeling, I jotted it down on a sheet of paper that I titled my “monologue diary.” In five, neat columns labeled situation, thoughts, emotions, rational responses, and outcomes, I attempted to identify my underlying self-talk and pinpoint the circumstances that prompted these automated messages, countering the distortions with compassionate but honest reframing.

“Unless this love is among us, we can kill ourselves with work and it will only be work, not love. Work without love is slavery.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

At the conclusion of each day, as I tucked myself into bed, I permitted a few moments to feel the crisp, cotton sheets against my skin, rub my tired feet, and reflect upon my day. I paused long enough to bring to mind the different conversations that I shared with friends and strangers, the smiles, laughter, and encouraging words that were exchanged, to remember the emails or text messages that I sent to my loved ones, the letters that I mailed, the prayers that I offered for others, and each small act of generosity, whether it be holding a door open or allowing someone to skip ahead of me in line. From a six-week course on positive psychology that I completed last summer through the free, online educational website, Coursera, I learned that meditating for even a short while on “micro-moments” of connection or positivity at the end of each day would affect not only my mood but my body chemistry and neurobiology. I brought to mind the experiences from the day that were not-so-great and reflected on the ways that I failed to live up to my values. Rather than blaming or castigating myself for all of my shortcomings, I offered myself the same kindness that I was trying to cultivate for others. “Nobody is perfect. Yes, I made mistakes, and it just proves that I am human. It just shows that I am still a work in progress. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to try again.” It was grounding and humbling. Silently whispering my prayers, asking for the help, the grace, and the strength to navigate the coming day with an open heart, I pressed my face into my squishy, soft pillow.

“I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

A week later, my heart feels fuller, and my mind is more at ease. I continue to hear the sharply judgmental and critical voices telling me that I’m worthless, that I need to work harder and earn my redemption, and fearfully casting others as potential threats to my own best interests, but I understand where those messages come from, and I don’t become angry or frustrated with myself when they occur. I recognize that they are just thoughts and emotions, and that everyone experiences unwanted and unhelpful thoughts and emotions from time to time, but they don’t dictate who I am or the choices that I make. I still need practice. It feels like a tiny, baby step. The result thus far, though, is liberating. When I am compassionate with myself, my heart feels gentle, and I treat others the same way. The kindness flows outward, but it starts with me. Wishing you all a kind, gentle, compassionate day!

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Gentle breeze
Gentle breeze,” © Bill Harrison (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Be Not Afraid

Featured Image: “Rosa Frau Karl Drushki Wien 2014,” © Anna reg (own work), June 2014. CC BY-SA 3.0. (license)

As I scroll through my newsfeed and my blogfeed this morning, a pattern is emerging. Confusion. Fear. Bewilderment. Anger. Frustration. Helplessness. There really is no point in enumerating the litany of reasons for these emotions. They are self-evident. Terrorism, domestic and foreign. The sickening current state of our nation’s politics. Refugee crises, economic crises, global health crises…
It’s easy to despair. I am particularly vulnerable to feelings of desperation given my very black-and-white way of seeing the world and my predisposition to depressive thinking. However, then I force myself to remember, that the victory over sin and death is already won. Don’t misunderstand me; we citizens of this planet have a real and pressing duty to work now to bring about peace in our day, but I know with my whole heart that we have a victor in Christ, and it is in Him that I am putting my faith.

I leave you with these three quotes, which I am contemplating today.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not bear with us.”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are an Easter people, and Hallelujah is our song.” 

“The future starts today, not tomorrow.”

~ Pope St. John Paul II


Dawning of an Early Light

Featured Image:  “Fireworks over the Mall,” © Tom Bridge (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Monday, the Fourth of July, was Independence Day in the United States. As I reflected on that occasion, I remembered where I was and what I was doing on the very same date last year. As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, July 4th, 2015 concluded with me staring down the barrel of a fully-loaded ice-cream-sundae buffet. I nearly succumbed to the pure panic that the accursed dessert provoked in me. Nearly. 

Here’s the scoop… Oh, goodness, I crack myself up! But though I jest, there is nothing amusing about this next bit…

At the end of my road, there is a small ice cream shop, which is part of a local chain. Their homemade ice cream is touted as some of the best in the world, and it even wins national awards. Unfortunately, this shop is also a place where I engaged in some of my worst self-harming binge behaviors. At the climax of my eating disorder, I was dropping in two or three times each week for a double-scoop sundae with all the fixings and an armful of chocolate bars, to-go. From all appearances, it was impossible to tell that I already consumed the equivalent of a Thanksgiving meal earlier in the afternoon, and I would continue to eat for another several hours once I returned home. My binges only ended when I was laying on the living room carpet, clutching my abdomen in pain, tears streaking my cheeks, unable to even squeeze a sip of water into my distended belly, afraid I would die in the middle of the night from a gastric rupture.

When I returned from partial hospitalization treatment at Walden, I never wanted to relive that agony again. I was almost militant in my avoidance of my most provoking triggers, among them being the ice cream shop at the corner of the street. At first, the mere sight of the building induced such anxiety that I needed to pull out every last one of my coping skills each time I drove past. Slowly, over time, I built new memories and healthy associations with my environment. My diseased, habitually patterned thoughts and activities were overwritten by my new life. The ice cream shop faded into the background.

After my Independence Day sundae buffet confrontation last summer, my straight-talking and amazing nutritionist, Kelly, challenged me to explore my authentic relationship with ice cream. “Do you even like ice cream?” she asked. No! I wanted to exclaim. I hate ice cream! It upsets my stomach! It is repugnant to me! Blech! My reaction was one of self-defense. At Kelly’s insistence, I revisited my favorite ice cream establishment, using my new knowledge of mindful eating to fully immerse myself in the experience and enjoyment of the cold, soft, smooth, melty, sweet, sticky, chocolatey-chippy goodness. Yet, I remained tense. It felt too familiar. Too close to old behaviors. At least, that was what I told myself, in my self-defensive, self-protective way. “What would happen if you actually liked the ice cream?” Kelly prodded. Danger! Danger! Danger! I would want it ALL the time! I would eat it ALL the time! I would get fat! It would RUIN my life!

In the fall, my friend, Amelia, and I began meeting for dinner at a different, local, independent restaurant every couple of weeks. These outings were a fun, social events for us both, and they were also my project from Kelly. Every two or three weeks there was a new chef, a new menu, a new challenge, but the same, supportive Amelia and wonderful conversation. On our very first night out, we came to the understanding that we would always order dessert. As I sampled my way across an assortment of artisanal treats, I discovered something surprising about my tastes. The first new revelation was that I actually had tastes. Real tastes. Rather than obeying the impulsive, anxious, preoccupying urges to eat certain foods, I discovered foods with a taste, texture, and aroma that delighted all of my senses. I came to realize that I actually didn’t like many of the foods that were once the object of my obsessions and the fuel of my binges. Soon, I happened upon a new favorite.  Hot pastry, with just the right consistency, preferably a slice of cake or brownie, but sometimes a bubbling fruit tart, with one scoop of ice cream (just one please), and maybe a dab of chocolate sauce. There’s a moment when the ice cream juuuuust begins to melt and all the flavors swirl together in a way that is both cool and warm at the same time. Mmmmmm…

…… we interrupt this blog for the author to make a quick jaunt down the road for a brownie and a scoop of ice cream with hot fudge…… Did I mention that they make their own whipped cream at the little shop on the corner?!

Yes, the brownie was warm
Yes, the brownie was warm…” © Wade Brooks (own work), Dec 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Ok, I’m back.

Eleven months after I almost hit the pavement on the Fourth of July 2015, I confidently walked the short, ten-minute stroll to that ice cream shop at the corner of my street. I perched on a bench, with my little, plastic dish and spoon in my hands, watching the mint-chocolate-chip dribble down in tiny rivulets and swirl around the thick fudge. Dipping my spoon, I raised that first taste to my mouth… So yummy! That was all. Just, “So yummy.” This thought was not followed by a crisis of conscious. There was no panicked catastrophizing, no racing heart, and no desperate eyes darting around for the exit. I sat on the little outdoor patio, feeling the hot summer sun on my very pale legs, listening to the gentle wooshing of cars rolling by, letting the chocolate chips and nibbles of brownie slide over my teeth and my tongue, and soaking in every bite, every drop of those delicious, mingling flavors.

This Fourth of July, I celebrated freedom in a different way. I celebrated my freedom from fear over food. Or, at least, this one food. Happy Independence Day!

Ice Cream Open
Ice cream open,” © Jeremey Brooks (own work), April 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)